Vintage VLT #1
May 2014

Ebook & Print Edition

Mingled Hearts

Psychologist Dr. Stephanie Collier’s dream to open her own clinic collapses when her friend Val backs out of their shared investment in a mingle, a two-bedroom apartment with a view of the Pacific. When their real estate agent comes up with another buyer, a Dr. Barclay who works at the nearby Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Stephanie’s desperate enough to consider living with a stranger. But the agent fails to mention that the buyer is male . . .an extremely attractive male.

After a nasty divorce, Dr. Liam Barclay has no intention of cohabiting with a woman, especially one he doesn’t know. However, buying the property would be a good financial move for both of them, and Liam finds Stephanie as tempting as the ocean view. Although logic dictates that they should keep their living arrangement strictly professional, the close quarters quickly place their plans, their good intentions, and their hearts, in jeopardy.

Originally published as Harlequin Temptation #9 in May 1984,
this Vintage VLT edition has been significantly re-edited and updated.

Excerpt

“You’re backing out on me?” Stephanie dropped the pile of books she was holding onto the floor next to the packing carton and scrambled to her feet. “You mean you’re sticking me with a double mortgage payment!”
“No! No, I’m not,” Valerie said quickly. “Please listen, Steph. There’s another prospect already. Marge lined her up this morning. You won’t be stuck, I promise.” Her dark gaze pleaded for understanding.
“You expect me to share this place with some stranger?” Stephanie felt the blood draining from her face. “Val, how could you?”
“Please don’t judge me too harshly, Stephanie.” Valerie looked worried, as well she should. “How would you react if someone you loved suddenly reappeared and wanted to marry you?”
“I’d tell him to go straight to hell!”
“Would you?”
For a moment Stephanie glared up at her friend. Arguments were harder to win when you were short. “No, I wouldn’t.” She sighed. “You’re right. I’d probably do just what you’re doing. But it’s a shock, after we’ve planned this so carefully.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Steph. But I think it can still work out. Marge said this person is very interested in buying into a mingle.”
“She’d better be. Not everyone in California loves the idea of owning half of an apartment.” She slid her hands into the back pockets of her cutoffs and surveyed the living room cluttered with cardboard boxes and crumpled newspaper. “Do you know anything about this person?”
“A little. Her last name is Barclay, but I didn’t get the first name. Marge just referred to her as Dr. Barclay. I think she’s a marine biologist at Scripps.” Valerie wandered to the large sliding doors that opened onto the fourth story balcony. “That should be a selling point, you know. The institute’s right over there.” She waved her hand toward the curved shoreline north of La Jolla Cove.
Stephanie joined her friend at the open door and drew in a deep breath of salty air. Her glance took in the half-moon beach and sculptured sandstone cliffs of the cove, then traveled down the line of surf to the buildings of Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Damn. Val’s decision to marry Jim was ruining everything.
“Maybe we should forget the whole thing, Val. I can’t see rushing into a contract with some woman I don’t know.”
“Oh, no! You’ve got to go through with this. What about your clinic? This mingle is your ticket, remember?” Val studied her earnestly.
“Sure I do, but part of the appeal was living here with you. I know what you’re like, and I figured we could put up with each other.” She grinned at the tall brunette next to her. “We’ve already adjusted to each other’s imperfections.”
“Hey, you’re a psychologist, for Pete’s sake. Are you telling me you’re not flexible enough to adapt to someone new?”
Stephanie took a moment to digest the question. “You really know how to get to me, don’t you? All right, so I’ll meet this Dr. Barclay. How do we accomplish that?”
“Uh...you can meet her this morning. I told Marge you’d be here unpacking, so they’ll be over any minute.”
“What?” Stephanie stared down in dismay at her sweat shirt with holes in the elbows, her ragged cutoffs and two newsprint-splotched knees. “Really, Val, this is too much. Can you call them, give me time to at least change clothes?”
Valerie shook her head. “I don’t think so. Marge planned to show Dr. Barclay a couple of other places before coming here. They’re on the road now, and Marge won’t answer her phone when she’s driving.”
“Other places? It doesn’t sound like Dr. Barclay is ‘lined up’ to buy this mingle at all.”
“Yes, she is,” Valerie said hastily. “You know Marge. She believes in clinching the sale by showing the client a couple of real dogs, then ending with the property she wants to sell.”
“Just remember that nothing happens unless I agree to it.” Stephanie felt control of her life slipping a notch.
“Of course.” Valerie returned her attention to the turquoise sweep of water. “It can still go the way you planned, Steph. Remember, it’s only for a year or two until the market’s right for you to turn a nice profit. With this view, you should be able to put up with all sorts of nasty habits from Dr. Barclay.”
“It is beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and it can still be yours.” Valerie’s voice dropped to a near whisper. “Forgive me?”
Stephanie glanced up in surprise and read the guilt in Valerie’s face. How could she stand in the way of her best friend’s happiness? “Of course I do.” She gave Val a hug.
“Thanks.” The strain eased from Valerie’s delicate face, but the sound of the doorbell brought it back. “I guess they’re here,” she said in a low tone.
Stephanie swallowed. “Might as well get this thing over with.” Pushing the sleeves of her sweat shirt higher on her arms to hide the holes, she took a deep breath, headed for the door and opened it.
“Oh, you’re not—” She looked into eyes the color of ripe wheat and felt an illogical tremor of recognition, even though she knew she’d never met the man whose broad shoulders filled the doorway. “Excuse me, I was expecting…” Her apology died on her lips as she glimpsed Marge bustling up behind the stranger. No. It wasn’t possible. There was some mistake.
“Hi, Stephanie!” Marge’s carefully painted lips held on to a smile, although her green eyes were wary. “Can we come in?”
With growing suspicion Stephanie stood aside and allowed the man to pass. The aroma of pine-scented aftershave wafted past her as he strode by and glanced quickly into the room, as if looking for someone. Seeing only Valerie standing in the middle of the box-strewn living room, he turned back to Stephanie, his mouth opening with a question.
Marge forestalled him with a rapid introduction. “Dr. Barclay, I’d like you to meet Dr. Collier.”
Silence stretched between them like a taut rubber band. “You’re—” they began in unison. Then stopped and stared at each other in disbelief.
Stephanie recovered first and spun to face Marge. “I’m not sure what you thought you were doing, Marge, but if this is Dr. Barclay we’ve got to find another buyer.”
“Don’t worry,” said the man. “If this is Dr. Collier, I’m not interested.”
“Okay, okay. Wait a minute.” Marge held up manicured hands. “All right, I admit I practiced a slight deception.”
“Slight deception?” The man raked a shock of dark hair from his forehead. “I’d call it a major misrepresentation. All you said was that the other buyer was a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego. I assumed—”
“You assumed the other buyer was a man,” Stephanie finished, watching him closely.
“Of course I did.” He squared his shoulders defensively. “Marge suggested buying into this—mingle, do you call it?—with someone else. It never occurred to me you’d be a woman.”
“And it never occurred to me you’d be a man.” Stephanie replied, working to keep her irritation in check.
Marge sighed. “And if either of you had known the truth you would have rejected the idea without meeting each other. So I took a chance.”
“You haven’t gained anything, Marge,” Stephanie said. “I still reject the idea.”
“That goes for me, too.” Dr. Barclay jammed his hands into the pockets of his sports coat and stared at the churning sea beyond the balcony.
“Won’t you at least look at it, Liam?” Marge begged.
Liam. So that was his name. Stephanie’s eyes slid past the wayward lock of dark hair, down the straight bridge of his nose, over the grim mouth and strong chin. The collar of a white dress shirt lay open against the tan sports coat, and a few dark hairs curled upward from the V above the shirt button.
Without warning Liam’s head swiveled and his eyes met hers, catching her in the act of staring. He lifted his eyebrows but said nothing. Heat warmed her cheeks.
His tawny eyes twinkled. Damn him, he was laughing at her!
Nervously Valerie cleared her throat. “As long as Liam’s here, it seems a shame not to show him around, Marge. You could start with the room which would have been mine.”
“For the life of me I can’t see any point to it, but okay.” Liam shrugged, turning to Marge. “Conduct the grand tour.”
The real-estate woman’s natural optimism bubbled forth. “Excellent! I know how you must feel, Liam, but wait until you see the view from the bedroom. As I told you in the office, there are two master suites, each with its own bath. Stephanie’s taken the one on the right and Valerie chose the one on the left…” Her voice trailed off as she walked into the left-hand bedroom. Liam followed, his expression stoic.
“Valerie, so help me, if you knew this before—” Stephanie whirled to face her friend.
“I didn’t! I swear I thought it was a woman. This was all Marge’s idea, to confuse both of you by using titles and last names.”
“What now?” Stephanie crossed her arms. “Any bright suggestions?”
“Well, there are two bedrooms, and you both work, so you probably would hardly see him, and—”
“Are you saying what I think you are?” Stephanie stared at her friend.
“He is kind of cute, Steph.”
“I don’t care if he looks like a movie star! He’s a man, and I’m not sharing this place with a man. Period.”
“Worried about what Jeremy will think?”
“Ha. No. He doesn’t have the right to an opinion on something like this.”
“Maybe not, but I doubt he’d be overjoyed that you’d be living with some guy when he’s been trying to get you into bed for more than a year.”
“You’re right. He probably wouldn’t like it.” Stephanie sighed. “I keep hoping he’ll find a girlfriend and ditch the idea that we can be more than just business partners, but he hasn’t. I guess I need to give up that fantasy.”
“And speaking of fantasies . . .” Valerie left the sentence unfinished but her meaning was obvious as Liam and Marge reentered the living room..
“And of course you get the same spectacular view of the cove from the living room, which also opens on the balcony through these sliding doors.” Marge pushed the door aside and gestured for Liam to step onto the balcony.
He walked through the opening and over to the wrought-iron railing, leaning his large hands against it as he scanned the expanse of sparkling water.
Marge tiptoed over to Stephanie. “He loves the view. I can see it in his eyes,” she murmured. “I think we’ve got him.”
“Marge, you can’t be serious.” Stephanie kept her voice low. “I want no part of all this. It’s out of the question.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to throw away your chance to live here, if I were you,” Marge warned. “The market’s tight, and I can’t guarantee someone else, much less a woman, will come along who’s willing to share with a stranger. Frankly, I think your choice is to live here with Liam Barclay or not live here at all. I know you can’t handle the payments alone, even for a few months.”
“That’s true.” Stephanie felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach, as if events were propelling her toward an inevitable conclusion. “But Marge, adjusting to a strange woman instead of Valerie was shock enough. I can’t see myself sharing this mingle with a man.”
“Why not? It’s done all the time.” Marge glanced around the room. “Don’t you ever watch television?”
“No. As you can see, I don’t even own a set.”
Valerie moved closer to Stephanie. “But you’re a psychologist, Steph. You of all people should be able to work out the logistics of this.”
“You made that point once before. But I don’t think they covered mingle living in graduate school.” In desperation, Stephanie appealed to the woman who appeared to hold her fate in her hands. “Isn’t there any other way, Marge?”
The real estate agent shook her perfectly coiffed head. “Not that I can see.”
“Well, damn.” Stephanie glanced furtively at the broad-shouldered figure on the balcony. She reviewed her original plan, the idea that had looked so promising. She and Valerie would have lived in the mingle for a year or two, then put it on the market when property values rose. Her share of the equity plus any profit would have allowed her to set up a private counseling agency. It was such a good plan. Why shouldn’t it still work?
Logically, it shouldn’t matter that her housemate would be a man instead of a woman. The mingle was not a permanent housing choice, only a step along the road to her dreams. But something about the set of the man’s shoulders as he leaned against the railing disturbed her. She’d always been able to handle the men in her life, to keep them in safe compartments where they didn’t interfere with her goals. Something told her Liam Barclay wouldn’t be easily compartmentalized.

Copyright 2001-2017 Vicki Lewis Thompson