Worth the Risk_ A Contemporary - Megan Hart

Chapter 1

"Are you sure that's the one you want, dear?" Ms. Whitehead held out the heavy binder and frowned over her chic, gold-rimmed glasses at Laila Alster. "I have to say, he's not one of our more popular models."

Ms. Whitehead flipped a few pages toward the front of the thick sheaf of photos stored in plastic sleeves, then pointed to the picture of a man with blond, shoulder-length hair. His limpid eyes, chiseled jaw and bronzed skin, coupled with the hair and the muscular body, was not at all what she was looking for.

"No, thanks. He's not quite me."

Ms. Whitehead laughed. "Honey, are you sure? Rick is mostly anybody. Take another look."

Laila smiled politely, but opened the binder back to the page she'd first indicated. "My family would never believe me if I showed up with a man like that on my arm. No, I think--" She paused to read the name on the photograph. "Harold. I think he'll be perfect for my needs."

Ms. Whitehead sighed and slid the binder back over her desk, then heaved it onto a bookcase laden with similar binders. "All right, honey, if you say so. Hal doesn't get much work, poor thing."

"Why?" Laila asked wryly. "Because he wears glasses, looks like a normal guy and not a muscle bound god of love?"

"Er--well." Ms. Whitehead paused then patted her silver bouffant with one bejeweled hand. "Ahem. I'd say that's one reason."

Misgiving fluttered in Laila's already churning stomach. "And the other reasons?"

"Hal means well, Miss Alster. He means very well, in fact. He's one of the more enthusiastic models here at LoveMatch. But he doesn't get much repeat business, I have to be honest with you."

Laila swallowed hard, waiting for the bad news. He was a drug addict. He liked to rough up his customers. He had chronic halitosis. What could be so dire that Ms. Whitehead, the LoveMatch goddess herself, could barely bring herself to reveal it?"

"Hal's a bit clumsy," Ms. Whitehead said finally with a glance over her glasses that told Laila she wasn't exaggerating. "And his social skills are a little less developed than we usually prefer in our men. But he's enrolled in all our courses and is improving quite nicely. I only warn you because you told me how important it was for you to have date for this family party."

Not just a date, Laila thought. A fiancé. "Social skills. You mean like holding the door open for me and pulling out my chair? Stuff like that? Because that doesn't really matter. In fact, the less of that, the better."

Ms. Whitehead looked uncomfortable. She tapped her long crimson-lacquered nails lightly on top of her desk. At last she pulled open one of her file drawers and took out a thin folder. Opening it, she removed a sheet of paper, filled in a few blanks, and pushed it across the desk to Laila.

"Since you seem to have your heart set on Hal," Ms. Whitehead said, "I'll tell you what I'm going to do for you, honey. I'm going to give you a free night out with him, compliments of LoveMatch. You can see for yourself if he is the right man to escort you to your family shindig. If it doesn't work out, you can come back and choose one of our other models. Okay?"

A free night out sounded all right. Laila looked over the paper, which turned out to be a standard release form. She'd read the one included with her information packet already, and so now she signed the bottom with the pen Ms. Whitehead held out. The silver-haired woman then tucked the paper back in the folder, twirled her desk chair toward another set of filing cabinets, and pulled out another file.

"Here's some background information on Hal," she said, pushing a sheet of paper over the desk.

There wasn't much written on it. "Favorite music, "Weird" Al Yankovic?" Laila smiled. She liked "Weird" Al, too, but she wasn't sure she'd have listed him as her favorite. "Hobbies are reading, bike riding, and going for long, romantic walks along the beach in the moonlight."

Except for the last, which was so obviously added to spice up his file it was almost laughable, he didn't sound bad so far. She quickly read further. He'd gone to college, mastered in accounting. So he was good at math. He'd also marked he was currently attending school, but not what for.

"I'm sure he'll be fine," she said. "What's the next step?"

"For the initial date, I can make