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Authors: Jacqueline Diamond

Punchline

BOOK: Punchline
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Belle Martens was used to waking
up on the wrong side of the bed.
But she wasn’t used to waking up in
the wrong bed entirely.

It was the type of room that Belle would expect someone like Darryl Horak to sleep in. That was the worst insult she could think of.

Heavens, her head hurt It wasn’t like her to drink too much. And who owned that massive, bare, totally hunky body lying in bed next to her? Belle had been trying to ignore the lug, but he didn’t seem likely to go away. She had a great view of his broad shoulders and straight back.

She wished she remembered last night. They must have done
something
in here. She hoped she’d enjoyed it

Maybe just the teensiest bit of a replay wouldn’t go amiss. Anonymous couplings weren’t Belle’s style, but there was no hurry to shut the barn door once the horse had escaped.

A smile creeping across her face, Belle leaned over him and blew gently onto his stomach. The man’s response was instantaneous, as he pulled her on top of him.

At that moment Belle got an unobstructed view of his face.

Darryl Horak!

Dear Reader,

A new year always brings lots of new friends and new opportunities into our lives. At LOVE & LAUGHTER we are especially proud of the number of new writers we have discovered. One of the greatest joys an editor can have is making “the call”—telling a hopeful, unpublished author, “We love your book and want to buy it.”

Tracy South is one of those new voices. She is also the winner of the LOVE & LAUGHTER contest. Her book is a real delight, both witty and romantic. Other new voices in the months ahead include Stephanie Bond, Bonnie Tucker, Trish Jensen and Colleen Collins. I’m sure you’ll enjoy their stories as much as we did and look for books by these fresh, new funny ladies.

Prolific and always popular Jacqueline Diamond delivers a knockout punch in the hilarious
Punchline.
This story about rival editors from competing magazines, who just
despise
each other yet keep ending up together, is terrific A classic battle of the sexes, set in the 1990s.

I hope the New Year brings you much love and laughter.

Malle Vallik

Associate Senior Editor

Punchline
 
Jacqueline Diamond

Like my heroine’s baby, my older son chose his own time to be born—in this case, ten weeks early. The mood in the delivery room was tense during the emergency Caesarean section. Out came my “huge” (4 Ibs., 14 oz.) son, wailing at the top of his lungs. “There’s nothing wrong with his lungs,” cheered one nurse as she took him. There’s nothing wrong with his bladder,” noted a second nurse, trying to diaper him. Then a third voice chimed in. There’s nothing wrong with his aim, either.”

—Jacqueline Diamond

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Special thanks to
Marcia Holman and Allison Joyce
for their help

1

B
ELLE
M
ARTENS WAS
used to waking upon the wrong side of the bed. But she wasn’t used to waking up in the wrong bed entirely, in a room she had never seen before.

Her eyes snapped open and, before she knew it, she was critiquing the decor. Making clever disparaging remarks about her surroundings had become second nature to the editor of
Just Us
magazine.

And there was plenty to belittle in this room. What kind of macho idiot went in for wood paneling these days?

Not to mention the beige curtains covered with images of black-and-green mallards. The owner of this room must fancy himself a woodsman, when the closest he’d probably ever come to a duck was eating the Peking version in Chinatown.

It was the type of room that Belle would expect Darryl Horak to sleep in. That was the worst insult she could think of.

The readers of
Just Us,
a magazine for the woman of the nineties, were defined on the masthead as “sexy, secure and definitively single.” They loathed the selfabsorbed arrogant male represented by Darryl Horak and his egocentric magazine,
About Town.

It was billed as being For the man who has everything, and flaunts it.” The owner of this room appeared to be a subscriber, as the magazine’s monthly Flaunt It Girl centerfold hung on the wall. August was represented
by an airbrushed brunette bursting the seams of her scarlet lingerie.

From outside came the murmur of surf and the scent of briny air. The owner of this house must be a beach bum. Belle felt grateful that, at least, her readers would never know she’d spent a night in such surroundings.

Heavens, her head hurt. She never drank to excess, so what could have happened? And who owned that massive, bare, totally hunky body lying in bed next to her?

Belle had been trying to ignore the lug, but he didn’t seem likely to go away. She had a great view of his broad shoulders and straight back, and a wealth of sleep-mussed dark hair.

The whole package looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place him. This morning she wasn’t sure she could place herself.

Maybe she could sneak out and not be noticed. There was a good chance that Mr. Hunk didn’t remember any more about last night than she did.

Yet Belle knew that, as a sophisticated lady of the turn of the century, she needed to get the guy’s vital statistics. Heck, she never did things like this, never, never.

She wished she remembered last night. They must have done
something
in here. She hoped she’d enjoyed it.

Maybe just the teensiest bit of a replay wouldn’t go amiss. Anonymous couplings weren’t Belle’s style, but there was no hurry to shut the barn door once the horse had escaped.

She ran her fingers lightly along the man’s back. He shifted and sighed.

The guy must spend hours at a gym. His muscles stood out, clearly defined, and his torso tapered to lean hips.

A glimmer of memory seeped into Belle’s consciousness. Last night she’d attended a publicity party for a new rock group called Bend Your Mind—loud music, high-cholesterol food, some kind of fizzy, fruity punch.

The ambience had been pseudo high-tech. She recalled skinny female models wandering around wrapped in red plastic, and their bulked-up male counterparts posing with silver Mylar shirts unbuttoned down to the forbidden zone.

She must have landed one of those models, the masculine version. Very masculine. Belle wondered if Mr. Broad Shoulders had singled her out in hopes of getting featured in her magazine. But why had
she
gone home with
him?

She remembered none of it. But why shouldn’t she enjoy herself, now that she was here?

Aroused by her featherlike strokes, the man uttered a low moan and tossed from his side to his back, one arm draped across his face to block the daylight.

Belle knew she ought to get up. Just march into the bathroom, throw a little water on her face and skedaddle. This whole situation could prove messy and embarrassing, and while her public image bordered on flamboyance, she liked to call the shots.

On the other hand, the two of them were lying here stark naked. Belle had kept her distance from men since her engagement had exploded more than a year ago. It annoyed her to think she’d broken her fast with a stud like this and couldn’t remember it.

Lying on his back, the guy provided a clear view of nature’s bountiful offerings. Dark fur matted his chest. His stomach was flat and lean, his legs long and sturdy. She guessed he stood more than six feet tall, a good seven inches above her own height. But in bed, who cared?

She wished her blood weren’t beginning to speed through her veins at the sight of him. She hated to think that she was attracted to the kind of guy who liked pictures of idealized, lingerie-clad women.

Not that there was anything wrong with Belle’s figure, but she knew a photographer would consider her too short
and round. And more than one critic had made snide remarks when, after her engagement bit the dust, Belle had dyed her brown hair a brassy red. She had meant it as a warning: Watch out for my temper.

She would never be deceived by a man again. So a brainless male model might be just what she needed to get back into the swing of dating. Horizontal dating, anyway.

A smile creeping across her face, Belle leaned over him and blew gently onto his stomach.

The man’s response was instantaneous and unpredictable. One arm caught her waist and pulled her on top of him. The other seized her shoulder while his mouth clamped onto her breast, and his tongue stirred her nipple erect.

At that moment Belle got an unobstructed view of his face and nearly died of shock.

This was no pliant male model. This was Darryl Horak himself.

Darryl Horak: the self-styled man’s man of the nineties, loud and relentless in his claim that women secretly wanted to be swept off their feet. The man was reputed to have dated every Flaunt It Girl featured in his magazine. He had also publicly termed Belle a frustrated lioness in need of taming.

This was the man whose mouth had claimed her other breast, and whose lips were now dashing from peak to peak, while his knee thrust between her legs and his arousal dug into her inner thigh.

She tried to protest, but Darryl had awakened in full heat. Effortlessly, he flipped her onto her back and his mouth closed over hers. Lower down, his hands spread her wide, ready to receive him.

Bucking hard against him, Belle realized her efforts were being taken for encouragement. There was no choice, none at all.

With an inward wince, she nipped his lower lip. When that failed to stop his determined thrusting toward the most vulnerable portion of her anatomy, she bit hard enough to draw blood.

A string of curses tore through the air. The man jerked away, hand pressed to his mouth in disbelief. “What the-?”

There was a sudden silence as their gazes entwined. Horror and shock registered on his high-boned face.

“Time to stop flaunting it—” Belle said, “—and put your pants on.”

F
OR A SERIES
of first-person adventure articles, Darryl had raced a dogsled, dived among great white sharks and helped track a killer grizzly.

But in his wildest fantasy, he’d never pictured himself waking up next to a pit viper.

All right, maybe that was an excessive way to describe Belle Martens. She’d never actually poisoned anyone as far as he knew, but she had slashed more than a few peo >ple with her sharp tongue. And she’d just bitten him.

What the hell was she doing in his bed?

“First of all,” he said, “I don’t need to put on my pants because I live here.”

“I’m glad you admit it,” snapped the most exasperating woman in Los Angeles. “Because I intend to hold you fully responsible for kidnapping me and using me for your >pleasure—completely against my will, I might add.”

“What?” Darryl glared at her. He had never forced himself on a woman. “You flatter yourself.”

“Deny it!” she challenged. How could the woman sit there in his bed, her breasts bare and her hair rioting around her face like a brushfire, without an ounce of selfconsciousness?

Maybe it was an act. Darryl had sometimes wondered if Belle didn’t exaggerate her toughness, just for effect.

“Deny what?”

“That you were panting all over me!”

He pressed one hand against his temple, which throbbed mercilessly. “I wake up passionate. Can I help it?”

“Are you trying to say you’d treat a pillow the same way?” she demanded.

His lips began to curl in an involuntary sneer, but were stopped by a tweak of pain where she’d bitten him. “Quit speaking as if you were addressing a jury, Belle. There’s nobody here but us.”

“And how exactly did that happen?” she snapped, loud enough to make his ears ache in counterpoint with his head.

“I don’t have a clue.” Not sure how to proceed, Darryl got up and went to the bathroom.

By the time he’d finished putting Neosporin on his lip, he had identified his final memory of the previous night: pouring himself some nonalcoholic punch at the press party and wondering why the stuff tasted so strange.

“We must have been done in by spiked punch,” he said as he returned.

Belle was sitting on his bed, the covers draped around her waist. In these masculine quarters, she appeared smaller and more vulnerable than when he’d run into her at various press functions. Even that ridiculous dyed hair looked a bit more humorous than harsh in the morning light.

He’d better watch himself, Darryl reflected. If he wasn’t careful, he might mistake Belle Martens for a human.

“If that’s true, why wasn’t anyone else affected?” she said.

“How do you know they weren’t?” His gaze fell on the photo featuring Miss August and he wondered, involuntarily, how Belle would look in that particular piece of scarlet lingerie.

He couldn’t imagine why he should care, not with all the women he had to choose from. Miss August had practically flung herself at Darryl after the photo session, but half an hour in her presence bored him half to death.

No one had ever called Belle Martens boring. That was one of the few pejoratives even Darryl wouldn’t aim her way.

“So you think the guests are lying around all over Los Angeles, in bed with people they detest?” she said.

“Maybe they don’t detest each other anymore,” he suggested.

“You certainly didn’t detest
me
this morning.”

“Not until you bit me,” he pointed out.

Belle flung back the covers and got out of bed. In all the years he and Belle had been trading insults, Darryl had never pictured how she would look naked. The scary part was that he liked it.

The breasts might be a bit oversize for her small frame. That was why, fully dressed, he’d considered her chunky. But her waist nipped inward in tantalizing fashion, and she had deliciously rounded buttocks. He could remember how she’d felt beneath him, soft and hot…

That was, of course, before she’d sunk her fangs into him. “Let’s make a deal,” he said.

Her eyebrow arched at him mistrustfully.

“We don’t mention this to anyone,” he proposed. “Assuming, of course, that there’s anything to mention.”

As he spoke, he remembered vaguely having a dream about Belle. A dream full of laughter, and tantalizing bosoms, and lots of sweaty wriggling between the sheets.

Oh, Lord. They’d definitely done it.

“There is nothing to mention.” She marched past him, snatching pieces of clothing off a chair on her way to the bathroom. “Make some coffee, will you? I can’t func-
tion until I have a cup. Sugar and milk, and none of that fake white powder, either.” Her voice trailed behind, lingering after her corporeal self had disappeared.

Darryl grimaced. The possibility of revenge entered his mind: an article about a new wildlife adventure, this one pitting him against none other than Belle Martens.

Oh, hell. He didn’t like to think about the descriptive passages with which she would skewer him in response. Besides, he prided himself on being something of a gentleman.

A truce, he thought. And, with any luck, a case of mutual amnesia.

Recognizing that sometimes it was best to yield to the inevitable, Darryl went to fix a pot of coffee.

T
HE GARGOYLE-OVERLAID
clock on Belle’s desk ticked relentlessly toward 11:00 a.m. It served to remind her that she’d accomplished precious little today.

Heck, she’d been working at a snail’s pace since her encounter with Darryl Horak last month. She wished the man wouldn’t keep intruding into her thoughts, with his big strong body and tight butt, and that wry way of regarding her that smacked of both arrogance and appreciation.

She grimaced and thrust him from her mind.

Articles and computer diskettes lay stacked on her broad desk, along with packets from models’ agents urging her to feature their clients in photo shoots. The almost-final copy of the November issue needed board corrections before the computer files could be transferred onto a huge disk to ship to the printer. And Belle didn’t feel like doing any of it.

She eyed a cake doughnut on her desk. Why was she so ravenous in the middle of the morning? The past few
days, her stomach had felt like a black hole that might suck her inside if she didn’t keep stuffing herself.

She took a bite and forced herself to chew slowly, hoping she would expend enough calories in the effort to forestall a weight gain. Even in September, Southern California weather remained summerlike, and she needed to keep in shape for a swimsuit.

Maybe it was the temptingly warm light filtering through her office window on the fifth floor of a building overlooking the Wilshire district, but she didn’t feel like working. She hoped something would happen to justify her dereliction of duty—and, surprisingly, it did.

Distraction presented itself in the person of fashion editor Janie Frakes, a willowy African-American knockout upon whose taste the magazine depended. It was Janie who’d foreseen the coming trend toward modesty, something Belle would never have suspected, and Janie who had declared the Death of Rayon.

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