A zany secret-identity romantic comedy. Casey Mackenzie literally runs into Jake Cutter while posing as a sixteen-year-old boy. Things really get interesting when she materializes the next night as Jake's fantasy woman come to life.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Ashley's first romance novel was Cooper's Last Stand, an awardnominated Harlequin Temptation. She's also the author of For Better or for Worse and Mr. Lucky, a New Concepts Publishing category duet, as well as The Man Who Came in from the Cold and The Substitute Daddy, two more NCP romances. She's proud to announce that Jake and the Great Imposter and Love Is Blind are her first books by Hardshell. Ashley loves happy endings and a strong hero with a soft heart. And a great sense of humor doesn't hurt. In addition to writing fiction, Ashley reviewed film and theater for many years for public radio and television and the Illinois Times. An incurable soap-opera fan, she's also written for Soap Opera Weekly and she does PR work for FOVI, All My Children's official fan organization for Vincent Irizarry (David). Ashley has a master's in communication (with a thesis on General Hospital) and English, and she's an adjunct, English instructor at a community college. Married, with one daughter in college, Ashley's a passionate animal lover. She showed and bred champion soft-coated wheaten terriers for years and years. She's currently dogless, living with two quirky cats who keep her young.
"Jake had a shaky past before he moved to Springfield, yet somehow, he feels he can tell anything to Mike, and Drew sets him on fire. The real Casey, has fallen, but can't let on anymore than she can allow when she is her true self. She's got herself caught up in a whirlwind of deceit, and can't seem to get out. I'm not going to tell you any more, except that this fast paced story will keep you wanting to know so much more about these players in that most ancient of games."Rhonda Drummond -- My Shelf Reviews
"Ashley Jamieson pens a comic tale of mishaps and calamities just waiting to happen. You want to shake Casey into confessing her deceptions before it's too late. At the same time, your heart goes out to Jake for the secrets and guilt he carries. As if Casey's multiple identities aren't enough, author Jamieson throws in a snaky ex-boyfriend, a no-nonsense grandfather, and a secretary reminiscent of Mildred Krebbs of Remington Steel. Get set for a fun-filled romp."Diane Burton -- Scribes World Reviews
CURTAINS UP. It was showtime.
Mike was ready. He hoped.
Eyeing the giggling group of teenage girls at the mall's food court, Mike swaggered by. It was exactly the way he'd seen two cool jocks do it five minutes earlier. He felt the girls' eyes on him.
Hitching a leg onto a step leading into the court, he angled a lazy smile their way. He sauntered forward. The voice, he told himself anxiously. You're walking the walk. Now talk the talk. Pasting on a grin, he pitched his voice as low as it would go. "Hi, ladies."
The cutest brunette smiled back. "Hi, yourself."
"Hey, I'm new in town," he said. "Whaddaya do for fun around here?"
Thirty minutes later Casey Drew Mackenzie sauntered out of White Oaks Mall with five phone numbers scribbled on the back of her hand. She settled behind the wheel of her red Grand Am and raised a fist in a victory salute. "Yes!"
Tonight was opening night. And she hoped to God she was ready. Jeepers, creepers. It might help a tiny bit if she was an actress. But Casey was just the Second City Players' all-purpose business manager. She was also devoted to the company.
Which meant she couldn't say no when the director had begged her to fill in for Angie, out for two months with a broken leg. Lights Out was making its Springfield, Illinois guest debut on a summer run. Casey, she gulped, was playing the dual role of Michelle/Mike. A leading role.
Casey glanced at her face in the rearview mirror for reassurance. Okay. The surfer-dude blond wig was perfect. Her own ebony hair was wrapped up tightly underneath. The bright blue contacts camouflaged flashing black eyes. Her lightened brows looked natural. She was an athletic, small-breasted five seven.
With Angie's help, the transformation hadn't been all that bad. Not with baggy jeans, a sweatshirt and binding for her breasts. She smiled nervously at herself. Twenty-five-year-old Casey Mackenzie was now sixteen-year-old Mike.
Whistling, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," Casey flipped on the ignition. She'd moved from Chicago to Springfield last week for rehearsals. Before that, she'd attended a few Springfield opening nights. She knew her way around the city.
Hooking onto Wabash, Casey swung toward Washington Park on the Illinois capital's west side. She had a skateboard in the trunk. It was one last trick she'd thought up for getting into Mike's skin. She just couldn't let the company down tonight. She was gonna give it her all.
After parking, Casey headed for the curving pathways by the duck pond. The warm July sun beat down on her. Balancing on the board, she beat the ground with her sneakered foot and picked up speed. A blur of sun-drenched flowers and shrubs sped by.
It was amazing, she thought. She was almost happy again. It looked like a summer in Springfield was just what she'd needed to make a clean break from Gardner Monroe, the Players' resident playwright. Angie's accident and the company losing its understudy had turned out be a godsend.
Finely balanced on the skateboard's edge, Casey maneuvered a tricky twist. She whipped around a grassy bend, accelerating. And, omigoood!
With a yelp, she barreled into a man crossing her path. The last thing she saw was the pedestrian flying backwards into the pond, legs and arms pinwheeling. And then she slid headfirst into a tree.
As Casey came to, she sensed someone bending over her. "Son," he was saying "are you okay?" He felt the pulse at her neck. The man thought she was a he! Casey bit her lip, mortified. Her eyes fluttered open. It was the pedestrian she'd struck. He was wearing a soaked sport coat and wet jeans. His hair dripped over his forehead.
"I-I'm okay." Go away. Please.
Gently, the man propped her up into a sitting position. He grinned. "You're a tough kid, huh? Just a bump on the head, I think."
This was so embarrassing. She didn't want to make it more embarrassing and tell him she was no boy. He'd think she was nuts. Casey coughed, roughening her tone. "Yeah. I'm okay."
"Can you stand up?" The man helped her to a park bench. He drizzled on her, his sneakers making squeegee sounds. "It's shady here. I want you to rest."
Just look at him puddling on the bench. Casey cringed at her handiwork. "Sorry I knocked you into the water," she said contritely. "You're soaked, man."
"I won't melt. Just learn to steer that thing. And I'll remember to look both ways."
It was time to disappear and leave the poor guy alone. Casey tried to get up. With a wave of dizziness, she sank back down on the bench. Darn.
"Relax, buddy. Hang on and get your second wind." He shoved a comma of wet hair out of his eyes.
My, my, my, but the man was dreamy. Look at those ice-blue eyes and that adorable little nose. His hair was drying in longish slabs, the edges a sun-streaked dark blond. The wet clothes outlined a lean, corded body.
Impulsively, Casey wondered if she should take advantage of the situation and wrangle an itty bitty more time with her rescuer. She'd been passing as Mike all day. She'd checked out kickboxer movies at the video store, ate at a fast-food hangout and cruised the mall. But if she could pass as a boy under close personal scrutiny, well. Then she'd finally know she had the role nailed. It would do wonders for her confidence.
"Um, thanks, mister," she rasped.
"Name's Jake," he said with a grin. "Jake Cutter. Want me to run you to Urgent Care?" The cool blue eyes darkened with worry.
Casey felt her heart flip-flop. And then she remembered the concern was for Mike, not her. Ironic. This was the first man she'd even looked at since Gardner. Something had gone dead in her during her time with the playwright. It was frightening. And here she was with a dreamboat. And she was a he.
Jake was looking at her, saying something. "Hey, kid," he repeated patiently, "I asked if you want me to take you to the doctor?"
"No. No doctor." My goodness. Jake Cutter seemed so genuinely nice. The kind of man who'd accidentally hit your car in a parking lot and leave his name and number on your windshield. She'd just like a few hours with him, Casey thought. For character development. How could that hurt?
The cupcake was worried about Mike. If he got just a little more worried, like maybe it turned out Mike was in some kind of trouble or something, she bet Jake would invite the kid home with him.
With a little prayer for courage, Casey said, "Really, I'm okay, Jake. But I'll catch hell if, um, the doc calls and my old man finds out I screwed up again. And anyway, he's still gonna..." She let her voice trail off suggestively. Professional actress or not, Casey had always been good at improvisation.
"What's he gonna, pal?"
"Uh, it's nothing."
"C'mon, kid. What aren't you telling me? And what's your name?"
"Casey. Um, Mike Casey." Casey stuck out her hand. Jake shook with a firm grip, man to man. Filled with one-half apprehension and one-half excitement, Casey spun out a good story. She'd seen something like it on a TV movie of the week.
"See, um, my old man only took me in in the first place cause my mom didn't want me around with her new boyfriend moving in. And now Dad says he's gonna make a man outta me, you know what I mean? And I'm not--" Casey glanced at her watch. "I gotta go or he's really gonna kill me!"
Gung-ho into her part now, Casey stumbled up and lurched to the side. Jake caught her. He was a big guy, she realized, looking way up. Maybe six three. Good shoulders.
"Hey, Mike, you're not zoning out on me again, are you? C'mon. I'm taking you home for some R & R and no argument. Have to change anyway. Can't exactly show up at the office looking like a wet towel."
At last. An invitation. "No, man," Casey protested weakly, "I gotta finish my lawns. See, Dad says if I miss one more job he's gonna whip my butt and take away the car."
"So that's the problem. Right now, you've got other things to worry about than mowing lawns, kid. C'mon."
Jake scooped up her skateboard. "I'll think of a way to make things right with your dad and drive you back to your car later." Casey let herself be helped down the pathway and into Jake's charcoal BMW. He fit the skateboard into the backseat. "Hey, cool," she said, running a hand over the plush leather and wood interior.
Jake slid behind the wheel. He grinned and flipped on the ignition. He pulled onto South Grand and headed west. "I've got it. You'll tell your dad you picked up a new client." He winked. "I happen to have a very big lawn."
Omigod. Casey gulped, sinking deep into her seat. Well, she'd gotten herself into this mess, she thought guiltily. Now she'd have to go with the story she'd created. "Hey, you mean it? This is, um, great. If I can bring in some steady money maybe he'll lighten up."
"You're starting school here in the fall?"
Casey improvised like crazy while they swung through the city's commercial west side. "So anyway, it's gotta be better than Chicago," she finished explaining five minutes later. "You know what I'm saying? Mom lives uptown. It's not so great there. One crazy dude in gym class used to keep a razor blade under his tongue."
They drove by rows of franchise restaurants and strip malls and into the countryside, patchworked with subdivisions, cornfields and soybeans. Casey kept Jake entertained with Mike's zany high-school exploits. She borrowed liberally from her own past, television shows and an inventive imagination.
Subtly, Casey sandwiched in questions about Jake's life. She learned he'd lived in Springfield for six years. He was single. Hometown was Santa Fe. He owned a PR and promotions firm, Cutter Comunications, Inc. She recognized the name as the agency representing Lights Out's Springfield theater. He'd been in the park checking out the gazebo for a lobbyist client's bash.
The road curved off into a plush subdivision, hilly land wrapped around huge shade trees. It had to be one of the few rolling areas in Springfield, Casey thought. The city was smack in the middle of flat central Illinois farmland.
At last, Jake turned onto a secluded street, sprawling homes set far back. He gestured. "Home sweet home." Casey blinked. His place looked like a huge rustic cottage. Its grounds backed up against a manicured private golf course.
"Wow," she said as he pulled into the driveway, forgetting the voice. Casey coughed, and deepened it. "You gotta cool place, Jake."
"Looks like I have it all, doesn't it?" He smiled tightly.
Not waiting for an answer, Jake helped her stumble into the cedar home. The inside was vast and airy, just a few dividing walls and lots of exposed beams, high ceilings and honey wood floors. A great room was decorated with Southwest rugs, wicker and twig chairs and burlap couches. A screened-in-porch was in front, a wrap-around deck in back.
Everything was in earthtones. Casey took in a bronze cowboy sculpture in the entryway and a kitchen island counter. A huge antler chandelier hung over the interior. "You shoot that?"
"No," Jake said flatly.
"Not a hunter, huh?"
"If you mean do I hunt living creatures down like fugitives, nope. The fixture came with the house." His eyes frosted over. Jake loped into the kitchen and checked out his mail, tossing it onto the counter.
Hmm. The guy might be a sweetheart but he had some strong convictions. "Hey, that's cool, man," Casey backpedaled. "I don't like guns either."
For more than one reason. It wasn't hard to remember the evening Casey was mugged at gunpoint and almost raped at a bus stop. It's the night she'd latched onto Gardner, Casey thought grimly. She and Gardner had been casually dating. After her frantic call, he'd taken care of the police and everything else. He'd moved her in with him, cocooning her. It had lasted for one year. It had been nice having a protector and mentor. At first.
Hastily, Casey reminded herself she was Mike. "You're not mad at me, are you? Am I fired?"
"I'm not mad." His lip twitched. "And you still have a job. I'll even give you an advance, if you think it'll make things okay with your dad."
He was too good to be true. Casey swallowed. How could she let her benefactor down now? "Naw, I don't need an advance. You got a riding mower?"
"Yeah. The pay's fifty bucks a week. If your work passes inspection," he teased. "Meet me here tomorrow at two. You okay with that?"
So. She'd mow the guy's lawn and do a darn good job. At least, for tomorrow. Casey grinned and gave Jake a high-five. Then Mike could get incurably ill. "I won't be taking away any other kid's job? I mean, someone has to be doing this now."
"Naw. Angel'll be happy not to have to worry about it."
Angel? A live-in girlfriend maybe? Jake disappeared into the bedroom to change clothes. Casey caught a glimpse of him in the hallway, shrugging off his sport coat and tugging his shirt out of his jeans. He had the cutest little behind.
She licked her lips and wandered into the family room. And just what do you think you're doing, a little voice whispered in her head. You were supposed to disappear after this afternoon, you idiot! Now you're promising to mow the guy's lawn. Incurably ill, my big toe. Casey sighed deep down. The man was intriguing. If only he could see her as Casey.
Ha. Ha. You're a dreamer. These days, she wasn't sure Casey Mackenzie was what you'd call a desirable woman, much less the kind of female who could tempt a man like Jake. Just out of curiosity though, what if she could find out what kind of woman really would tempt Jake...
Loping out of the bedroom, Jake grabbed something from the refrigerator before joining her in the family room. He'd changed into worn jeans and a sweatshirt. He radiated casual power and grace.
The ice-blue eyes regarded her kindly. Nonchalantly, Jake tossed Casey a can of root beer, which she barely managed to catch without dropping. Jake drank a beer from the bottle, tilting his head back, his adam's apple working. My goodness, he was so male.
Casey felt warm all over, her skin tingling. With an effort, she took a timeout for a reality check. You're on the rebound. You can't bring yourself to talk about it, except to Gramps a little. It's all bottled up inside. The way Gardner whittled your self-confidence down to zilch. The way he turned you into a little nothing. The way you allowed it to happen.
But the worst thing Gardner had done was make her feel like she wasn't much of a woman. According to Gardner, not only couldn't Casey cook or take care of the house or tend to his needs, she also wasn't much of a, Casey's cheeks burned, lover.
She'd worked on improving herself since, she really had, such as in learning how to cook. But knowing how to make a German chocolate cake from scratch didn't exactly count for too much except in the kitchen.
Jeepers, creepers. Casey bet a real man like Jake could teach a woman how to be, well, all those things Gardner had said she was not. Sensual. Passionate. Responsive. Nervously, Casey glanced Jake's way. He put the bottle down and grinned at her. "Hungry, kid?"
Oh, my goodness, I think yes.
Without waiting for an answer he loped into the kitchen, noisily rummaging through cabinets.
Casey swallowed. She wondered if Jake was involved with someone else. Just out of curiosity. What if Mike could find out? About that and about whether Jake was as decent a guy as he seemed. Especially in the area of women. And about what kind of woman turned Jake Cutter on.
Just out of curiosity.
"Catch," Jake said.
Grinning, Casey one-handedly grabbed the bag of pretzels Jake tossed her.
* * *
JAKE FLIPPED a hamburger on the deck's grill. He felt like he was playing hookey, not getting back to the office this afternoon. But his office manager Mimi had things well in hand, and Mike had needed him. The kid was good company. A mixture of waif and tough guy.
Mike had practically jumped at the invitation to stay for dinner. He'd said his old man didn't care, but he had to be home before dark to do chores. Jake had said he'd drive him back to his car after they ate.
The kid had looked scared, his big blue eyes wide when he'd added he'd better be home on time, or else. He had pretty eyes, for a boy. Long lashes. Probably had girls crawling all over him.
In fact, girls seemed to be a major concern of Mike's. After showing some curiosity about Jake's workaholic lifestyle and circumspect social life, Mike had rambled on about meeting "chicks" in the mall and a steady girlfriend back home.
Jake didn't know much about being a father, not that he hadn't tried, he thought bitterly. But if he could steer Mike in the right direction, he would. He sensed the kid wanted to ask him something personal, but he was having a hard time spitting it out. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure it had something to do with sex and/or women.
If there was anything Jake had learned in his two years in hell, it was that even in the worst of circumstances you could still be a human being. You could be a friend. He grimaced. Although women weren't exactly his specialty these days.
Setting the deck table at Jake's suggestion, Mike placed the plates and glasses just so, folding the napkins precisely. Jake's lip quirked. The kid's mother had apparently taught him manners. His hands were soft and white, a boy's hands. But he'd be a handsome man.
Strange, to be so aware of a sixteen-year-old boy's appearance. But maybe not so odd, Jake told himself. Maybe he was looking at Mike as an older version of the son he'd never know. At least, that's the way it was according to Tammy's last letter.
The hand-written lines were branded in Jake's mind. He'd pored over the letter at work and at home until it was dog-eared. Finally, he'd locked it in his file cabinet along with his photos. He'd offered Tammy everything he had in the world for a chance to know Brett. She'd flatly rejected it all. Again.
Better get off this topic. Jake swallowed. It went nowhere. Better to concentrate on Mike. Jake set a platter of hamburgers and buns on the table. He slid into his seat, slathered his burger with catsup and motioned Mike to join him.
"Mike, I, uh, I don't want to intrude," he said casually. "But I feel like we're pretty tight by now. You mentioned a girlfriend back in Chicago. A good-looking guy like yourself can get pretty, ah, active." Jake motioned with his chin. "Nice set of phone numbers on your hand. You do take precautions, don't you? Tell me if I'm out of line here."
The kid's face turned beet red. He might be sixteen, but he wasn't shaving yet. His fair complexion was as clear as a girl's. He choked on a potato chip.
"You okay, kid?"
"Yeah. I mean, I, uh, wanted to talk to you about stuff but I was too, you know, embarrassed. At school it's not cool to ask questions. Everyone thinks you're doing it."
Jake chuckled. "I remember what it's like, kid."
"Brandy and I haven't done it. I know you gotta wear a condom and everything." He leaned forward and whispered. "Do I gotta worry about sizes?"
Jake broke into laughter. "I don't know what you've heard, buddy, but size doesn't have a lot to do with satisfying a woman."
"It doesn't? My dad always says... Well." He cast his eyes down. "He's kinda crude if you know what I mean. Maybe you can give me some tips or something. If you could see Brandy, well, she's cool. I wanna make sure things are right when we do it. What kinda woman do you like, Jake?" Mike took a bite out of his burger, his eyes watching Jake intently.
"That's a good question, Mike." Jake leaned back, amused.
Mike leaned forward. "How about a babe with midnight black hair? You know, with blue lights. Really glossy and straight that kind of falls to the shoulders. And black eyes and really white skin."
Tammy had dark hair and dark brown eyes. They'd lit up for Jake once upon a time. And then they'd turned away, choosing to believe the cops. "I liked that combination once," Jake said slowly. "Doesn't do much for me anymore. But looks aren't everything, pal. In fact, looks aside, I've never met a woman who was close to what they sing about in the love songs."
Mike spit out a mouthful of root beer and wiped it up with a napkin. "You, ah, you like women though, don'tcha, Jake? I mean..."
Throwing back his head, Jake laughed. "Oh, I like women all right. That way." He leaned his chair back on two legs. "Let's just say as far as long-term relationships go, I've been... disillusioned."
"You mean, like women are losers?"
His first attempt as a role model and he was failing miserably. Jake felt terrible. He didn't want to teach the kid to hate women for cripe's sake.
"No, I don't mean that." He dropped his chair down with a bang. "Absolutely not. Maybe I've had my... problems with a woman, but there're a lot of good relationships. My parents, for example. Happy as clams until Mom died. And my brother and his wife. Twenty years. Once, I thought I was... Well. Just take my word for it. There're a lot of great ladies out there." He'd just put his faith in the wrong one, he told himself darkly.
Mike smiled as if he'd unwrapped a wonderful Christmas present. He finished off his hamburger.
"Want more?" asked Jake. He remembered the empty stomach of his teenage years. He flipped two more hamburgers onto Mike's plate and fit them into buns. "There."
Smearing on catsup, Jake motioned. "C'mon, kid, don't be shy. I know what it's like to be sixteen and starving. You are a normal male, aren't you?" he teased.
Mike shoveled down the second hamburger. He licked his fingers. "Sure. Sure, I'm normal." He started nibbling on the third, looking slightly pained.
"I thought so. As to your question about what I like in a woman, well." Jake remembered lying on a thin cot, breathing in the smell of too many bodies in close quarters. Only one thing had kept him sane during the nighttime. His imagination.
He'd been too bitter about Tammy to fantasize about women all the time, like some of the men had. But when he did... yeah, he'd concocted a woman all right. As different from Tammy as you could get. Jake hadn't thought of his fantasy woman in years. But he could visualize her instantly, like a long-lost friend. Jake smiled at Mike. "I guess my ideal woman would be a redhead, Mike. Green eyes."
"Tall or short?" Mike studied him, alert.
Tammy was petite and all rounded curves. "Oh, on the willowy side, over five five." Jake's lip twisted. "She's the sort of woman," he said thoughtfully, playing the old game of make-believe, "who's all proper and virginal on the outside, but with a certain look and talk. You know. A good girl with the heart of a temptress." Ah, yes. The things he'd imagined that good girl doing.
Clearing his throat, Jake added, "Definitely her own kind of woman. Unique." Unlike Tammy who was a model of propriety and appearance through and through. "And warm, forgiving and compassionate, that's important," Jake said, losing himself again in the black memories.
"You've thought about this a lot, haven't you, Jake?"
"Not really." Embarrassed, Jake laughed and stretched his legs out. "But years ago there was a time when I had too many hours to think." His lips tightened. "A dark time in my life."
The kid was studying him, his mouth open.
"Hey, it's in the past. But I created my fantasy woman then. She was a nice diversion. Funny, until now I haven't thought much about her." Jake paused. "You understand, Mike, fantasy's okay, but only up to a point. There's a real world out there. You've got to cope with it."
"I understand. This is just guy-to-guy BS. But it's the kinda thing that can take your mind off stuff when you want to maybe block out the real world."
The kid had more depth than he'd have expected. "Right, pal." Jake grinned sheepishly. "And as long as we're on the subject, there's one last thing about my fantasy woman. She's got a thing for desserts."
"Desserts?" Mike's eyes widened.
Jake remembered his erotic fantasies, especially the part with the whipped cream. He smiled. "Let's just say you can go far if the lady invites you in for home-baked brownies and coffee, kid. And then you can kind of take it from there. The main thing is you and a willing woman you work hard to please. You take it slow. You laugh together. You make her happy."
Mike's eyes glazed over. "You gotta please a woman, huh? She's not there just to please you, like some of the guys say."
"Without a doubt, kid. In fact, you don't even think of just satisfying yourself. Consideration and a little imagination can lead to... ah, an enriching experience for all concerned."
He winked. "Remember that, kid."
Mike winked back. "I will, Jake. I will."