18 July 2015

Turn Up The Heat With A Sizzling Summer Read from Tara Mills

Accidents Make The Heart Grow Fonder

Proof positive Cupid has a sense of humor!

Sabrina Eckhart is losing it. Oasis, the restaurant she manages, is getting battered by a trendy newcomer and with everyone looking to her for ideas, you could say she's under a little pressure. But wait, that's not all. Her evil landlady has given her until the end of the month to vacate her crummy apartment. And her thirtieth birthday is looming, reminding her of the milestones she's missed. No wonder she’s so distracted by the jogger with the tight glutes she drives up the curb and down the sidewalk after him.

Jackson Murphy is an avid jogger, and the local television station’s scrumptious news director -- if he can keep the job. Unfortunately, he has one year to resuscitate their wheezing news department or the owners are going to pull the plug. His hands are already full even without Sabrina dropping into them. The last thing he needs is to be involved with a publicity stunt.

The road to love is bumpy. It’ll take all of Cupid's arrows, and a hard shove from interfering friends, for these two to win the Dating Game.

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Available at...
Amazon US | UK | AU
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Sneak Peak

The thing about low points, Sabrina Eckhart decided, is they’re bottomless. Forget the ratty pantyhose. She wasn’t all that concerned about the deep cut on her left hand, either. Her blouse—well, the blouse would never come clean, but even that didn’t upset her much. Her cheeks flamed when she thought about how she must have looked hanging upside down in the dishwasher. Or coming out of it with steam-wilted hair and raccoon eyes. Yet even that wasn’t the worst of it. No, it was the smell that was killing her. She reeked. The next time someone came running into her office to tell her the dishwasher was making a weird noise, she would call a plumber—screw the expense.

At least she was going home early, so things were improving, right? Catching a whiff of herself, she opened the car windows, hoping to diffuse the stink. It didn’t help. Giving up, she flicked a limp tendril out of her way and rolled her eyes…only her gaze kept right on going. Then landed.

“Whoa…nice buns,” she whispered, awestruck.

Sabrina blinked, but it did nothing whatsoever to break the sudden hypnotic spell those shiny black running shorts cast over her. They winked playfully, beckoning her to follow—tight, loose, tight, loose, stretching taut then relaxing, perfectly timed to each heel plant of the jogger’s shoes. Amazing. With every leg extension, a deep muscular dimple appeared in the corresponding buttock then smoothed out again. That ass was a thing of beauty.

Hmm. She frowned as the tilt of the dashboard finally registered. Then the reason for the angle hit her full force.


To her horror, both tires on the vehicle’s right side were on the sidewalk—in fact, the whole vehicle was half on the sidewalk, rolling after the poor man. With a grip so tight her knuckles glowed, Sabrina wrenched the wheel to the left and bounced back to the pavement, her violent correction making the car buck like a boat on rough seas.


Sabrina slouched down and hid behind her hand, blocking out the gaping stares coming from the next car over, which thankfully she had managed to avoid hitting. Cringing with mortification, she almost missed the jogger’s wild leap just before he tumbled backwards over the low hedge as it caught him behind the knees.

* * * *

Jackson Murphy blinked at the blue sky, a surprising backdrop for his running shoes, and fought for air.

Holy shit! Did that really just happen? His hand on his chest, he tried to calm his racing heart.

An unfamiliar face peered over the hedge at him. “You okaydown there?” it asked.

“I think so,” said Jackson.

“I saw what happened, but I couldn’t make out the license plate. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“Need help getting up?”

“Thanks, no, I’ve got it.” Jackson worked himself stiffly up from the grass.

“You sure you’re okay?” the man asked, watching him uncertainly.

“Just got the wind knocked out of me. I’ll be fine.”

The man nodded and jogged away. Jackson stepped over the low hedge, back onto the sidewalk, and brushed himself off.

This was Jackson’s favorite stretch on his daily run, with the beautiful rolling corporate park adjoining the television station on one side and the golf course on the other. Until today he’d assumed it was the safest place he could be. Fuming at that idiot driver, heturned his narrowed eyes eastward, knowing it was too late to track the miscreant down. Well, he might not have the license plate, but he’d recognize that car if he saw it again.This wasn’t over, that was for damned sure.

* * * *

The next morning, Sabrina was still shaken by what she’d done. She’d fled the area immediately, taking the next corner and followed a more circuitous route home. It added ten minutes to her drive, but she didn’t care. It was better than running the risk of someone recognizing her—the total dweeb who could drive up a curb without even noticing. What was wrong with her?

It’s all in the past, she reminded herself. Get over it. Shifting her focus to her more pressing anxiety, Sabrina darted furtively over to the bakery case in the Super Station. Snatching a bag from the box, she shoved her breakfast into it, then hastily rolled the top closed to hide her contraband. She didn’t linger. With the evidence of her caloric backslide out of sight, she felt free to rationalize her actions.

She needed to eat, right? It was just a donut, not a fifth of Jim Beam. Sheesh. People ate bakery in the morning; that’s why you could find it everywhere. Why get so defensive? The guilt melted away far more easily than the empty calories would. Sabrina sauntered casually over to the coffee machine and yanked a disposable cup from the holder. It felt good to relax again.

It was Sabrina’s humble opinion that all mornings sucked, and these depressing routines of hers merely emphasized the point. She fought her way over to the newspaper rack and grabbed one, tucking it under her arm. Well, okay, maybe this morning didn’t exactly compare to yesterday afternoon—that fiasco deserved a whole category of suckiness all to itself—but still, as far as she was concerned, there was room for improvement in her morning rituals.

She couldn’t figure out why she didn’t simply have the newspaper delivered to the house. Oh, sure, buying hot coffee and a quick fuss-free breakfast at the same time was convenient, but seriously, it would be a lot cheaper if she brewed a pot at home and popped a bagel into the toaster. She’d have better control over what she ate, too, less chance she’d pass up healthier options if she saw a cream-filled long john in the case. Sadly, she always looked for the long john first.

Disgusted with herself, she made a decision. This was it, the last time. She was stopping at the grocery store after work tonight and stocking up on healthy foods. This time she’d stick with it, too, and as a reward for keeping with the plan she was going to buy some of that specialty coffee. Might as well make it worthwhile.

Inspired by her unexpected resolve, Sabrina joined the disorganized line of customers waiting for the next available register. In her left hand was the bakery bag with the last (seriously this was going to be the last) long john and in her right a steaming cup of coffee.

Her eyes strayed wistfully to the home decorating magazines to her right. The colorful covers were a siren’s song suggesting worlds of beauty and escape beyond her budget. She told herself to hang tough and not think about those, either. Stepping out of line would be a mistake. Besides, she didn’t have a free hand to go flipping through those glossy pages.

What is taking so long? Sabrina leaned out to the side to see why they weren’t moving, and her eyes fused to something else entirely.

Mmm…nice buns.

Not the bakery bag variety, either, but rather the man two customers ahead. Nice size, excellent shape, the dark gray dress slacks cupping him beautifully. Well, her eyes were certainly leading her around lately. Did other women find themselves looking at men like this, or was it just her? She didn’t mean to do it, certainly didn’t want to do it, so why couldn’t she stop? Sabrina felt depraved. Could it be hormones? Was she ovulating? Or could it be simply that the sexes were hardwired to notice each other whether they wanted to or not? That would certainly explain guys and breasts. Hmm—this would be an interesting topic to bring up to the girls at work.

Lost in thought, Sabrina didn’t automatically register the turn of those scrumptious hips or notice that she was now staring quite frankly—if somewhat blankly—at the man’s crotch, instead. As her eyes slowly refocused on his fly, she clutched her bag a little tighter, and a wave of dread flowed through her. Trying not to be too obvious about it, Sabrina dragged her gaze upward and confirmed her worst fears.

Gulp—big freaking gulp—and not the kind that comes in an enormous cup, either.

It was distressingly apparent that Mr. Tasty Buns knew exactly where her eyes had been glued because he’d followed her deliberate crawling progress all the way up his body until their eyes locked. His eyebrows rose slowly, tugging the corners of his mouth along with them. Oh, god, she was so busted!

“Hi,” he said, his obvious amusement scraping over her nerves like a wire brush.

Then her discomfort got one hundred times worse because now she realized it was him--him! Didn’t it just figure?

“Hi,” she croaked. Just kill her now.

To Sabrina’s mounting alarm his eyebrows pinched together, and he studied her more closely. Here it comes.

“Have we met?” he asked, tipping his head curiously.

Sabrina shook her head. Her muscles, on the verge of pulling a disappearing act the second he placed her, were losing it. It took everything she had to hold herself together.

“I don’t think so,” she said feigning innocence. Yeah, sure, try to sell that one after the visual groping she’d just given him.

He frowned. “Huh.” Still unconvinced, he struggled to place her. “You look so familiar.” Finally giving up, he shrugged. “Sorry.”

“No problem.” Sabrina’s kneecaps were well into a rumba number now.

He flashed a quick though undeniably gorgeous smile, then turned toward the counter. Relieved, Sabrina drew a shaky breath.

The clerk picked up the man’s bottled water and scanned it. “Hey, Jackson. Any gasoline this morning?”

“Not today.” He reached into his wallet, but the routine question was enough to draw his attention outside for a lonely second—and that’s all it took. Plenty of time to spot her car and turn on her with bulging eyes.

“You!” he said, his breath gusting out in shock.

Sabrina and the woman between them both took a step back.

“You nearly killed me yesterday. What the hell was that?”

Now the woman turned and stared at Sabrina instead, her initial allegiance shifting as she moved away from her.

He went on before Sabrina could answer.“What, you couldn’t put down your goddamned phone?”

"I wasn’t on the phone,” she said indignantly.

“Screwing with your music then? Was it worth it, practically committing murder?”

“I was distracted, all right?” she shot back with a false sense of righteousness, furious at being publicly attacked.

His dreamy eyes narrowed. “You have some nerve—some nerve, lady!—trying to sound like the wounded party here!”

Now everyone was inching away from both of them.

“I could turn you in. I should turn you in. I’d be doing a public service. Who knows, maybe getting you off the road might save some kid waiting for the school bus, next.”

Sabrina found that grossly unfair. He didn’t even know her, and already he was making assumptions. Her voice shook with outrage. “I don’t have to explain what happened yesterday, but I guarantee it was an isolated incident. I don’t have a single ticket or accident on my record!”

That was technically true.

He leaned in, menacingly, his face so close the wispy hairs around her cheeks fluttered when he spoke. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? You nearly run me down with your car, but I should cut you some slack because,” he shrugged lightly, gaily, “hey, it’s never happened before?”

Sabrina cast out blindly for a good comeback but, surprise, surprise, not a chance. She sputtered, flushing deeply, and cursed her inability to deliver a zinger when her emotions were screaming like a tornado.

Her tormenter spun back to the clerk and tossed a few bills on the counter before grabbing his water and his power bar. “See you later, Bill.” He punched the door open with the flat of his hand and stormed out.

The next customer stepped up and said hastily, “Just twenty in gas.” She dropped the bill as if it stung her fingers, then took one last anxious glance at Sabrina and bolted out.

Was it too late to just go home and crawl back into bed? All Sabrina wanted to do now was pull the covers over her head and hide for a month, until whatever the hell just happened had a chance to blow over. Maybe asking him to forget the incident, and her, was asking too much.

Sabrina humbly paid for her things and walked out. She stopped short. That jerk was standing at her bumper taking down her license plate. His car was angled behind him, blocking hers.

She stormed over. “Get the hell away from my car!”

He held up the pad in his hand and glared back. “You keep it away from me and I won’t have to use this.” Giving her one last, hostile look, he slid smoothly onto his seat and slammed the door.

Sabrina ran after him, shaking her bag in the air. “Screw you!” As an afterthought she shouted even louder, “And your ass isn’t all that spectacular, either!”

Not prone to lying, per se, she felt this one was justified.

She climbed into her car with her head held high, ignoring the stares. Fine, so maybe it wasn’t her finest moment, but at least she got the last word, damn it!

Caution: Filling is Hot

Some men should come with a warning.

Here’s a recipe to share with friends. Take one prickly demonstration cook, handle carefully. Add one lonely widower, slightly beaten. Mix gently. Fold in two six-year-olds, one at a time to temper the batter and avoid scrambling. Then finally, add the mother with an agenda—but just a dash because she’s spicy. Whip into stiff peaks then spread over an ungreased sheet for best results. Method of cooking can vary, however--Caution: Filling is Hot.

Piper Frost is taking a break from men when contractor Chad Thomas crashes her cooking class and turns on the charm. His persistence annoys her but she’s already melting, even without his sneaky mother and conspiring twins in the mix. But just when things are really starting to sizzle, disaster strikes. Can Piper save her recipe for happily ever after or is it already ruined? Grab your oven mitts and find out.
Available at...
Amazon US | UK | AU

Sneak Peak

There are times when you can afford to amble. Sometimes jogging is prudent. This here was a haul ass situation. Chad Thomas checked his watch, cursed, and slammed the car door. He took off sprinting, his tie flapping in his face, the doors to Klein’s Supermarket looming large ahead of him. Leaping the curb, he veered away from the automatic doors—unwilling to spare even a single second waiting—and pushed inside the old-fashioned way. Skittering across the threshold on one foot, he executed a hard right and took off running again, shooting another impatient glance at his watch.


He was already seven minutes late and rush hour traffic wasn’t going to help him make up the time.

The reproduction station clock hanging directly above the liquor store entrance caught his eye. Feeling harassed by yet another reminder he scowled at that one too before dancing around a customer coming out.

“Sorry, excuse me,” Chad said as he raced by, already scanning the store for the nearest employee.

Bingo. He skidded to a breathless stop in front of the man and blurted out, “I’m in a hurry and need a hostess gift—fast.”

The clerk, no doubt accustomed to demanding suburbanites, snapped his fingers, pivoted on his toe, and with clasped hands pointing the way, led him down the wine aisle.

Halfway down the row, he came to a stop and turned three bottles to display their labels.

“Any of these will go over nicely. Price-wise they’re in the same range. They’re from the same region and each is a Select of their individual vineyards. All three are popular sellers right now. You can’t go wrong.”

The clerk stepped aside, allowing Chad to take a closer look. He picked up one of the bottles, turning it to read the back. After a moment, he nodded and handed it to the man.

“This one will be fine.”

The clerk gave him a self-satisfied smile and took the bottle. “Good. Let’s get you on your way.”

Not two minutes later, with his purchase in hand, Chad bolted back out to the main supermarket and came to a screeching halt, his perfect pirouette the only thing stopping his collision with a loaded shopping cart.

The sudden jolt of adrenaline left him shaken. The ambient sounds of the busy supermarket went mute, drowned out by the deafening echoes of the clog dance in his chest.

With his hand pressed to his pounding heart, he stared in disbelief at the back of the shopper ambling away, still chatting on her cellphone. Incredible. She was completely unaware of their near miss. How could anyone be so distracted and oblivious? Just the thought of her getting behind the steering wheel next was more than a little frightening.

He was struck instantly with the unfairness of his thought. Who was he to talk? Rushing recklessly to make up lost time? He was in no position to judge.

What he needed to do was calm down, slow down, or he wasn’t going to get there in one piece. The silent reminder sobered him.

Chad worked at the knot of his tie, wiggling it loose, and took a deep, calming breath. He was midway through his controlled exhalation when he glanced through the glass door of the store’s on-site Cook’s Classroom and his arms went slack, the wine, and the time, completely forgotten.

“Whoa,” he whispered, utterly captivated by the woman teaching the class.

It took a full minute before he remembered why he was in such a blasted hurry in the first place. When it came to him he pulled out his phone and scrolled for his friend’s number. The cell sent him straight to messages. Taking a deep breath, he grimaced as he tried their home phone instead. He heaved a sigh of relief when his friend answered.

“Brent! It’s Chad. Boy, am I glad you picked up!” Chad stepped out of the way of another approaching cart. “Listen, something’s come up. I’m not going to make dinner after all. Sorry, I realize the timing sucks. Could you try to smooth things over with Pam for me?” He paused while Brent protested and berated him for canceling at the last minute. “Hey, come on. You know I wouldn’t bail on you if it wasn’t important. I’m sorry. I really am, but this is something that needs my immediate attention.”

Chad’s eyebrows shot skyward in surprise when Brent confessed the real reason they asked him to dinner. “Well shit. And you knew about this? Pam could have asked.” He fell silent as his friend listed the reasons Pam thought an intervention was necessary. “I get it, but maybe I’d rather handle my own love life. All I’m saying is, it might have been nice to know ahead of time, that’s all. Tell Pam I don’t need her to scare up any more dates for me, okay?”

Hearing how that sounded, Chad groaned, angry with himself.

“No—that came out wrong. Don’t tell her like that. Ah, shit.” He tore his eyes away from the vision behind the glass and continued. “I appreciate how much you two have worried about me, but I’m okay. Honest. Let Pam know, all right? Oh, and give her a thank-you kiss from me.” Brent caved. Good man. “Thanks. I owe you. We’ll talk soon.” He chuckled at the colorful way his friend said goodbye and slipped his phone back into his pocket.

* * * *

Every head turned when the door swung open and an impeccably dressed man walked in. Piper didn’t know what unnerved her more, the way he looked directly at her or how, when their eyes met, they fused, stuck firm like a wet hand on ice cold metal.

She had no idea how long she stood frozen, staring back at him before her wits returned. It didn’t happen on its own. To her mortification, it took the thirty-odd heads rotating back and forth between them to finally break the spell. The snickers and whispers didn’t help. They left a sickening aftertaste of embarrassment behind.

Rattled and humiliated, Piper’s eyes narrowed. Her heated flush was so intense it made her scalp tingle. Digging deep for her dignity, she squared her shoulders and addressed the handsome newcomer.

“We’re just getting started. You can hang your jacket on one of the hooks behind you.”

Her tone was clipped, definitely frosty. It was the best she could manage under the circumstances. Anything more might have come out shaky. This guy was lucky she didn’t hurl a chef’s knife at him for making her look so foolish.

She turned away, deliberately dismissing him, and smiled at an older couple seated in the front, hoping like hell they’d help her refocus.

“As I was saying, my name is Piper Frost and tonight I’ll be demonstrating how easy it is to use spring form pans. As you know, we’ll be starting with a basic cheesecake and—” She glanced around the faces and, stupid, stupid, faltered on the man again.

His slow, knowing smile was both intimate and infuriating.

The arrogant ass! Shocked that he somehow managed to break her concentration again, Piper wanted him ejected from her classroom immediately. Unfortunately, even if there was someone she could call to deal with him, how could she justify her request? What would she say? He keeps looking at me? He’s distracting me? The very sight of him upsets me? If anyone said those things to her, she’d roll her eyes at them.

Frustrated, she sucked it up and continued. “Now, my cream cheese has been at room temperature—”

* * * *

As it turned out, Chad was the most attentive person in the class, though no doubt the worst student. Had she asked him even one relevant question, such as oven temperature, he couldn’t have answered. But he would have no trouble describing the color of Piper’s eyes, the cadence of her voice, and the grace of her movements perfectly. When she looked down at her mixing bowl and applied the beaters, he was lost in the incredible array of colors in her hair; the golds, browns, reds, and the purest flashes of light itself. Who knew a head of hair could be so complex?

It was obvious she was deliberately ignoring him, but that didn’t matter. Clearly something was happening between them. There would come a point when she forgot herself and dropped her guard. She’d seek him out again. When their eyes reconnected, they’d both reel from the punch. It was inevitable, indisputable. He could wait for it. He’d learned to be patient.

The oven timer went off and Piper spun to pull out a cake. Setting it on the cooling rack, she put the demonstration cake into the oven in its place and reset the timer.

Turning back to the class, and flashing a smile that could rival any professional game show hostess’s, she picked up the edge of the pan and showed the end result, pointing out the perfect color and the firm set of the filling.

“Of course we’ll need to let the cake cool before we remove the rim.”

She drew a platter of already cut samples from the refrigerator behind her and started passing them around. Murmurs of approval broke out around the room as people ate.

“You can find copies of this recipe, as well as all the rest covered in this series, in the display by the door. Feel free to take one on your way out. Our emergency hotline is printed on the bottom of every recipe, so if you have any problems or concerns, you can call and speak with one of our professionals.”

When Piper passed in front of his table with the platter, Chad found it highly entertaining to see how carefully she avoided meeting his eyes. Her focus was locked on his hand while he chose a sliver of cheesecake for himself. Taking a bite, he was smiling when she moved on to the couple at the next table. She had no trouble interacting with them.

No. It was just him. He understood.

Returning to the front counter, Piper faced the class. “For all of you parents here tonight, I’d like to mention the family sessions coming up. We’ll be focusing on how to make fruits and vegetables appealing to kids. We encourage you to bring your children along and discover fun in the kitchen together. Often, simply taking part in food preparation can make a finicky child more willing to try things they wouldn’t otherwise. I highly recommend it. Thank you for coming tonight to The Cook’s Classroom.”

* * * *

Piper smiled and waved off the last of her students, scattering store coupons among them like confetti. Expelling a sigh of relief, she closed the door and locked herself in, glad the cocky guy was out of her hair. She dreaded the end of class, assuming he would hang around until everyone else was gone. But thankfully, he left with the rest.

Turning on the faucet and filling the sink, Piper’s mind drifted backward.

What happened there tonight? How could he waltz in and totally dominate her without saying one word? She didn’t like it. Not at all. Even worse, he seemed to enjoy seeing her so rattled. Only a creepy wacko would get off on throwing a woman off her stride like that.

Once the last bowl was washed and dried, Piper was ready to call it a night. She shut off the lights and locked up behind her. With mere minutes left to closing, the store felt empty, though she spotted a couple of shoppers hurrying for the only checkout lane still open. Piper waved goodnight to the cashier and made her way to the employee exit.

Every step she took was painful, eliciting a soft groan. She looked down at her feet, both admiring and hating her cute shoes. Her suffering was so unnecessary. She knew better. Fashion meant diddly-squat when you were on your feet all day. If she was going to wear these shoes again, she needed to buy arch supports.

* * * *

What a night!

Chad relaxed against the fender of his car and basked in the afterglow of this sudden and unexpected attraction. Sighing deeply, he exhaled even more heat into the already balmy air. If tonight was any indicator, this summer was going to be a scorcher.

Weaving his fingers together, he stretched his arms up and over his head, bending backward with a pleasurable groan. Then, returning to ease, he rolled his sleeves up another turn, glad his tie and blazer were on his Audi’s passenger seat and not on him.

Captivated by the night sky, he felt an intrinsic connection to the universe. The last sliver of sunlight running along the horizon held him spellbound. As he watched, the colors deepened, intensified, then flared outward before beginning a slow fade, the glow eventually and inevitably smothered by night. The sense of loss it left behind was bittersweet and so acute it staggered him.

Shaking his head, he brushed aside his momentary sadness and refocused on the reason he lingered in this dark parking lot. He was still amazed at how the evening had shifted on him.

There was no question he needed to make it up to Brent and Pam. His culpability burned, yet he found it oddly poetic they were planning to set him up tonight and by simply stopping for a hostess gift, he ended up meeting a woman on his own. Okay, meeting wasn’t exactly the right word. Discovered? Found? The point was, if things went where he hoped they were headed, his friends would still get the credit for bringing him and the lovely Ms. Frost together.

Thinking back, Chad couldn’t help but chuckle at how he’d been swept out the door with the rest of the class only to return afterward and find the door locked. Oh well, this was better anyway. The setting was certainly more conducive to romance. Or it was if you were moved by a starry sky. He wondered at his chances of persuading her to join him for coffee or a drink tonight. Freed from his dinner engagement he was open, very open, to hanging out with her for a while.

Ten years. Could it really be ten years since he’d felt a spark like this? He thought back and saw Chelsea all over again. It was the same for them, their immediate attraction sizzling and mutual. Chad believed in love at first sight. He’d experienced it.

A heavy steel door slammed closed and he turned. The reverberations echoed across the dark parking lot and faded into the night. He straightened up, all of his senses, every muscle in his body, at attention. It was her. She crossed the parking lot, moving out of shadow, through spots of light, and back into shadow again. Every brief glimpse was as tantalizing as a striptease and set Chad’s heart racing. He was astounded at how just the sight of her thrilled him.

His excitement transformed into sympathy as her unmistakable fatigue reached out to him. Her face revealed pain with every step she took. The poor thing needed a foot massage far more than a cup of coffee. He wished he could offer one, but a suggestion like that was ridiculously premature.

* * * *

Piper walked gingerly across the employee lot, wincing every time her right heel landed. Muttering at her stupidity, she didn’t notice the silhouette of a man loitering around the parked cars until it was too late. She paused, alert and guarded, gripping her keys so tight they bit into her fingers. Peering into the shadows, she strained to identify who it was before she took another step.

Of course now the insanity of wearing these shoes really hit her. Damn. There was no way she could outrun a turtle if she had to. She scanned the area hoping to spot anyone, anyone at all, within easy shouting distance in case she needed help. There was no one. Her heart sank. Great, just great.

Fine, she’d taken a self-defense class—once. She ought to know what to do if it came to that—hopefully.

The man straightened and pushed off from the hood of his car. She assumed it was his car. He started walking toward her. The instant Piper recognized who it was her wary eyes narrowed. Of course! She should have known. Who else would lurk around out here? She wasn’t pleased to see him again.

“Stop right there,” she ordered. “I have mace and I’m not afraid to use it.”

He seemed genuinely surprised by her threat. Stopping, he held up his hands in calm surrender. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’ve been waiting.”

She cocked her head, even more suspicious now. “For what?”

“For you,” he said simply.

Piper’s temper spiked. “Why?”

Her anger must have registered because the guy’s confidence finally wavered. “I’m beginning to wonder that myself,” he admitted. “I was hoping we could go someplace and talk.”

“Talk? I don’t think so.” She took a step back from him. “This is my time, and I don’t mix socially with my students.”

He seemed genuinely amused by her explanation. Her glare stopped him from laughing outright.

Attempting to calm her with a placating smile, he said, “Look, I’m not a threat. We connected in there. All I wanted to do was invite you out so we could discuss it.”

“Not interested.” She turned to leave and he made the mistake of reaching for her arm. Her keys came up. “Remove your hand now or I’ll blast you.” She was deadly serious, her thumb already on the pump of the canister attached to the key ring.

He let go, heeding her warning. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. But I’m not wrong about that connection. You know it. I know it. Everyone knew it.”

She was too angry and unsettled to admit the truth. His passionate argument failed to soften her. “You’re mistaken. Now step back.”

Left with no other choice, he complied, but she felt his disappointment.

Getting into her car, she hit the door locks and fired up the engine. She avoided looking directly at him, though she knew he hadn’t moved. She could feel him watching her, even when she pulled out and gunned the engine, tearing out of the nearly empty parking lot and into traffic.

Piper slapped up the turn signal and cranked the wheel through the next intersection, still shaking her head in bewilderment. What the hell just happened back there? Where did all this hostility come from? Her behavior was...well, let’s face it, bizarre. She knew instinctively the guy didn’t pose a threat to her, at least not the physical kind, but mentally and emotionally? That was a different story altogether.

So what was really bothering her? That she found him attractive? No point denying it. She’d made it embarrassingly obvious to a good thirty people tonight, Hot Stuff included. Could it be his confidence? She wavered on this question. Normally she liked confident men, but there was a difference here. This time it was personal. Just remembering the bold and possessive look on his face, seeing how his smile seemed to say, ‘you’ll belong to me,’ absolutely galled her.

Fat chance now, bucko.

At this point, it didn’t matter in the slightest if she found him gorgeous because his cocky attitude was a huge turn off. Nothing chilled her down more these days than a charismatic swagger. She was smarter now and she wasn’t about to fall for another one. Thanks so very much, Mick, for the hard lesson!

Still, for all her internal bluster, she couldn’t sidestep the inescapable and unsettling truth. There wasan attraction, glaringly apparent to everyone. When Piper replayed the situation in her mind she imagined herself as a big screen television with all eyes trained on her until that man, whoever the hell he was, walked in holding her remote control. She could hardly fault the class for noticing whenever his thumb hit the pause button and she froze right in front of them. How did he manage to fluster her so badly?

Surely that was grounds enough to dislike him. Wasn’t it? If so, why did remembering how rude she was to him bother her so much?

* * * *

Chad didn’t move until the burn of Piper Frost’s angry tail lights were long gone, absorbed into the glow of traffic.

What the hell just happened? He scratched the back of his head and tried to figure out what he’d done to provoke her—anything that could account for such a violent reaction. It might have been fear, except fear didn’t exactly fit. She was more than capable of handling herself, from what he just saw. She didn’t back off like a scared rabbit. No, she stood her ground and warned him off. It impressed him.

He knew too, absolutely knew, the attraction was mutual. He wouldn’t have waited outside for thirty minutes for her otherwise. Of course there was the possibility she was involved with someone else. Chad brushed the idea aside. Forget it. A boyfriend was one of the first things she would have mentioned to discourage him. A husband? No. He’d zoomed in on her bare left hand before walking into her classroom.

Actually, he appreciated her honesty. A lot of women wouldn’t hesitate to lie about being in a relationship. By not using an easy out, she just told him more about herself than she probably realized.

She was an intriguing puzzle. Obviously he’d mishandled things tonight, but he could learn from it. He wasn’t an idiot. More importantly, he wasn’t easily run off when he wanted something—and he wanted Piper Frost. He absolutely wanted her.

It was late when Chad got home, but after looking at the clock and weighing the matter, he chose to make the call anyway.

“Mom, come shopping with me tomorrow.”

“Chad, you really need to take out women your own age,” she said in her dry, mocking way.

He faked a laugh as he tugged off his shoes and dropped them next to the bed. “I’m working on it.”

“Really? It’s about time.”

“Funny.” He didn’t need guff from her tonight too. “Just come with me, all right?”

“Why? Give me a reason.”

“Here’s the thing...I met a woman tonight, but somehow got off on the wrong foot with her. She threatened to mace me—” He pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a second. “You’re laughing, Mother?”

Her mirth was coming through loud and clear. “Mace?”

Chad sighed and began unbuttoning his shirt. “Yes. It’s a first. So I thought if I took you shopping—you know, played the dutiful son—she might not feel so threatened by me.”

There was a long pause on the other end. “Fine, but you’re driving.”

Forest Fires

Some sparks catch. Some consume.

Cocky Charley Jensen doesn't mince words. She knows how to handle herself, doesn't shy away from hard work, loves tinkering with her pickup, and is far more comfortable with a tool belt hanging off her hips than an apron. However, Charley's a failure at personal relationships, with more experience throwing punches and insults than her arms around someone. She's way out of her comfort zone when she strays across a clean cut babe, emphasis on babe, stranded in the woods. Her immediate cool and dismissive assessment of Drake Carver is entirely wrong - though correcting someone this opinionated isn't easy.

But don't let this biologist's Oxford shirt fool you. Drake's tough, used to roughing it, and not afraid to be tested. He's just never encountered a woman quite like Charley which, in his opinion, makes her ideal for his purposes. Unfortunately, she's not easy to win over. It will take an act of heroism to prove his mettle. However, time is running out and theirs aren't the only sparks flying in the woods.

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Sneak Peak

Drake Carver stumbled backwards away from his car and stared in disbelief at the split end of the tire iron in his hand. That single crack in the metal just transformed a simple flat tire into a very serious problem.

“Great. Just great.”

He looked around and as the gravity of his situation sank in, Drake lost it, his legendary self-control no match for sheer frustration.

“Fucking piece of shit!” he yelled, adding a muttered curse for low-grade steel as well.

He raised his arm, all set to batter the roof of his car when he froze. What was he doing? Lashing out in anger wasn’t going to solve anything. Still, admitting that didn’t exactly satisfy his need to dosomething. He spun away from his vehicle and sent the tire iron sailing into the thick weeds.

That felt better. Drake took a deep calming breath and turned, looking up, then down, the quiet gravel road flanked close by denuded birch and poplar trees and tight clusters of spruce. Even though it was mid-April, at this elevation there were still large patches of snow running along the ditches and spreading into the deep shadows of the forest.

He reached into the car for his phone and groaned when he confirmed his suspicion. No cell coverage in the wilderness.

The tiny town of Haven was forty-five minutes behind him and his isolated cabin was a good fifteen minutes ahead — by car. At this time of year, it was extremely unlikely he’d even get a chance to flag down help. Judging by the unspoiled patch of snow he plowed through a mile or two back, he was the first person to drive this road in weeks.

Thoroughly disgusted now, he chucked the phone through the open window and onto the passenger seat with a grim scowl on his face.

Sure, he had a tent in the back and he could set it up if he had to, but it had been hard enough shifting all his gear to get at the jack and spare tire. He didn’t even want to think about how much crap he’d have to unload just to unearth his camping gear.

The other alternative would be to strike out for the cabin on foot but a fifteen minute drive meant whatexactly when compared to an uphill hike? He couldn’t even say for sure how many miles he was dealing with. He’d be lucky to make it by sundown. Very lucky.

But what was the point? He couldn’t do anything from there. He’d be better off trying to rope a moose and ride that back down to Haven. Rope he had, but wheels? Not anymore.

He was screwed.

Drake bellowed at the sky in frustration. As the impotent sound wafted away he turned and kicked the tire as hard as he could.

“SHIT!” he yelled in pain and hopped around on one foot.

* * *

Charley liked to say that her twenty-five year old pickup wasn’t so much beat to hell as it had character, and from all the dents and damage, a lot of character. She loved it because it refused to give up and die, even when other people struggled every winter to start their frozen engines, her baby always purred to life without hesitation. Charley admired tenacity, she could relate.

Rounding a tight turn she started in surprise and stretched forward, peering through the pitted windshield. “What the hell? A rain dance?” Then she started to laugh.

There was a man jumping around in circles up ahead, flailing his arms and chanting at the sky. Only when she got closer did the scene begin to make sense. Charley eased her foot off the gas pedal and pulled alongside the stranded motorist.

Leaning across her bench seat she called through the passenger window. “Problems?”

The man limped over, his face a complicated blend of relief and annoyance.

Charley’s grin wavered then flickered out altogether when she got a better look at him. Woof. Talk about a sexy babe in the woods! He looked like he just stepped out of a Lands’ End catalogue. Not exactly her type but there was nothing wrong with admitting the obvious. Still, what was a clean-cut prep doing out here?

“I’ve had better days,” he said. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you.”

Charley laughed. “I’ll bet. Loggers aren’t even up here yet. How can I help?”

He shot a hot scowl at his disabled car. “You wouldn’t have a tire iron would you?”

“You don’t?” she asked derisively.

Damn, Charley sighed. Her newly hatched flight of dark stranger fantasies plummeted back to earth with a wail of disappointment. Venturing into her woods unprepared was bad enough but admitting his ignorance utterly emasculated him. There was no way to overlook that one.

His eyes narrowed and he pointed his finger at her. “Just wait.”

He stalked over to the ditch and pulled a broken lug wrench out of the tangled weeds. Limping back he held it up. “I don’t know if this ever qualified as a tire iron but I’d say its junk now.”

Even from a distance, she could see the large crack in the metal. The end that was supposed to fit snugly over the lug nuts looked like a flower opening into bloom. Charley dropped all charges, perfectly willing to cut him some slack - on this at least.

“You need to get yourself a cross lug wrench. There’s no way you could get any leverage with that thing anyway.”

* * *

Great, a know it all. Drake seethed at the unwelcome lecture on top of everything else.

“I’ll remember that,” he said tightly.

The young woman threw her door open and jumped to the ground. Her long hair flowed off the seat behind her like a royal train. She waited for it before closing the door.

Drake’s mouth dropped open and he found himself staring in astonishment. How he managed to miss all that hair he couldn’t say, but he was absolutely aware of it now. Mesmerized, he followed the glossy cascade all the way down to the backs of her knees.

Completely indifferent to his reaction, she gathered it at the back of her neck and twisted it into a skein which she tied into a single knot. Carelessly tossing the lengthy tail behind her, she sauntered around to the back of the pick-up. Grabbing hold of the tailgate, she used the bumper as a step to hoist herself into the bed.

Drake took a peek inside the bed and frowned. It was a mess, filled with tools and things he couldn’t even begin to identify. He watched in bemusement while she shifted her junk, tossing her knotted hair over her shoulder occasionally to keep from stepping on it. Regardless, it continued to sweep the dirty floor.

“Ah ha!” she cried, disentangling the lug wrench from a monster chain before holding it aloft like a victory cup.

She leaped over the side to the ground and strolled to his car as if they had all the time in the world.

In full light and up close Drake realized she was actually quite pretty, in a natural, neglected sort of way. Free of cosmetics, he got the full kick of her pale flawless skin and the sprinkle of freckles on the tip of her nose. Then he noticed her haunting eyes. They were the palette of nature itself and he could see how they could mimic the stormy gray of a lake, the volatility of a thundercloud, or like now, the misty deep green of the pines behind her. It was stunning. If that weren’t enough, those eyes were framed by killer lashes that would have given Max Factor palpitations. But she obviously didn’t bother with mascara either.

She crouched next to the car and her worn jeans tore a little more at the knees. “Yep, you picked up a rock,” she said, inspecting the tread. “Are you gonna be in the area long?”

Her question jerked Drake’s attention back from the hair pooling on the ground behind her.

“I’ll be here through the fall.”

She looked up at him and he refocused on her face.

“Then here’s what you do. You get to town and buy yourself a tire puncture kit and a portable air compressor. You’re going to need them on these roads. Consider this a wake-up call.”

“I’ve got good tires,” he argued.

She held up a hand. “I hear ya, but what you’ve got are passenger tires, meant for driving on nice flat, smooth pavement. We don’t have roads like that around here. What we have is sharp, hard gravel that can penetrate even the knobbiest treads when the conditions are right.” She reached for her cross bar and spun it in her hands to gauge the sizes before slipping one end over the first lug and cranking on the wrench.

An evolved guy, Drake was generally secure enough not to be bothered by the prospect of getting rescued by a woman but he was struggling with this one. It didn’t help that she was a swaggering goddess who didn’t seem to have a clue she was missing a ‘Y’ chromosome. Nor was it easy to ignore the niggling suspicion that she’d already made some rather unflattering and inaccurate assumptions about him. The urge to set her straight was warring with the compelling need to run his hands down that waterfall of hair and neither was making any headway.

As she fit the tool over the second lug and put some muscle into cracking it, he shifted from foot to foot, getting more agitated by the second.

Unable to stand it any longer, Drake crouched beside her and nudged her in the arm with his elbow. “I’ll do that. It’s my tire.”

She shrugged and stood, stepping back to let him in. Drake took hold of the wrench and continued, half expecting her to criticize the way he worked but apparently she found it satisfactory because she kept quiet. He wondered how often that happened.

Once the tire was changed and the flat put into the back of his car Drake pulled out his wallet. She was already getting into her pickup truck when he caught her arm and tried to press a twenty into her hand.

“What’s that for?” she asked, shying away from the money.

“It’s a thank you.”

“You could just say thank you.”

“But this is how it’s done.”

“Not here.”

“Take the money.”

“No. If I accept payment then my good deed is nothing more than a business transaction and I don’t get to enjoy the simple satisfaction of helping someone. You wouldn’t rob me of that pleasure would you?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes.” She spoke slowly, as if she was afraid he wouldn’t understand. “We help each other out here because it matters. Remember that when you come across someone in need of a hand or a ride.”

Drake stepped back from the pickup and she closed her door.

“Well, at least let me buy you a beer sometime.”

She shrugged again. “Sure, if you catch me in town. Otherwise you can work something out with Dink and he’ll slide one to me the next time I pop in.”

Was she kidding? “Dink?”

“He runs the Pine Tree Tavern. He’ll write it up on the board if we don’t reconnect in person.”

She moved to turn her key but Drake slapped his hand on her door and brought her attention back to him. “Then I’ll need your name.”

Her pretty smile wowed him to his socks. “Charley Jensen.”



“Drake. Drake Carver.”

The attractive crease running along the left side of her smile deepened. “I’ll see you around, Drake.” She pulled away, kicking up a bit of dust behind her.

Drake watched her tailgate disappear around the next curve. “Count on it Charley,” he murmured softly.

Friends and Lovers

Can the man of Lauren’s dreams save her from the man in her nightmares?

Wes Dunlop was a hot commodity in high school and the ruin of good reputations, so it was easy to criticize the guy when his sister did it too. Then Lauren McKay actually met her best friend’s brother, and she was intrigued. When he came to her rescue, she was doomed. Afraid to admit her change of heart, Lauren hid her secret from both of them.

Fifteen years later Wes is back. Now a dedicated cop, he’s determined to win Lauren—the girl he can’t forget and the only one his sister demanded he leave alone. But he finds that Lauren’s life is a lot more complicated than he imagined.

Personal tragedy made Lauren a fierce defender of battered women. However, when a dangerous gunman tracks his wife to Lauren’s shelter, the protector becomes the target. Her life suddenly in the balance, nothing will stop Wes from doing everything in his power to rescue her.

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Sneak Peak

The scent of spring entered Lauren McKay’s open office window. She couldn't get enough of the sweet perfume of a neighborhood in full bloom. To her amazement she was able to isolate the fragrance of apple blossom, lilac, plum, and the showy hyacinths she’d planted along the foundation out front. Even the sky was on display today, the blue so crisp it snapped like fresh sheets on a clothesline.

But her face fell when an unmarked dark blue sedan pulled into the driveway. Back to reality.

“They’re here,” she called to her assistant Jackie.

Lauren saved her work and stood, taking a moment to smooth her skirt as she watched through her office window. The corner of her mouth curled up on one side at the way the two men in the front seat popped out of their car and turned to open the back doors. Their movements were dead on, almost as if they’d been choreographed.

Then Lauren’s faint smile collapsed when she saw the woman getting out of the back. Her battered face was an arresting mixture of colors, the ages of the bruises as easy to read as the newspaper on Lauren’s desk. Even from here, Lauren could see the fresh stitches holding the woman’s lower lip together. Her nose was clearly broken.

The injured woman held out her arm and a young girl slid under it. They leaned together and the short, heavyset cop gave them an encouraging nod and motioned them forward. They set off toward the house.

Lauren turned to look at the younger cop. He was bent down and a second later she saw why. A pair of short little legs wrapped around his waist, and two hands and a small yellow truck suddenly appeared behind his neck. The man straightened and closed the car door then followed the others up the front steps.

Turning from the window, Lauren went to greet their guests. She circled her assistant’s desk, fluffing her hair before she stepped into the foyer. Seven warm bodies in that small space made it feel crowded but they’d had more. Counting on Jackie to distract the young girl, Lauren approached the mother with an extended hand.

“Hello, Patricia. I’m Lauren McKay. I’m so glad you found us.”

The young cop jerked slightly at the name, her voice, but just as his head tipped to the side to see around the boy in his arms, Lauren shifted her attention to the girl.

“And I’ll bet you’re Morgan, am I right?”

The girl nodded bashfully.

Lauren smiled. “What’s your brother’s name?”

Morgan pointed with her thumb. “He’s Josh.”

Lauren’s expression softened on the small boy. She reached out to touch his back, and froze, stunned to see a familiar face looking back at her over the boy’s shoulder.

Those warm eyes belonged to a man she never expected to see again. He’d haunted her for years, and now she felt desperate and weak, and yes, more than a little afraid. He’d always thrown her without even trying. His slow, intimate smile sent her heart rate galloping like a thoroughbred’s.

Flustered and shaken, Lauren turned back to the mother. “Why don’t you go with Jackie? She’ll show you to your room, and while the kids make themselves at home in the playroom, you can come back and we’ll go over a few things in my office, okay?”

The woman nodded and reached out to take her son from the officer. Relieved of his burden, the man lightly brushed the back of the boy’s head. He watched them walk downstairs before turning back with a more personal smile for the woman in front of him.

“Lauren.” His voice caressed her name, and she trembled.

“How are you, Wes?” Her warm response didn’t betray the inferno inside her.

“I’m good. Oh, this is my partner Chuck Townsend.”

Lauren blushed with embarrassment. She’d barely noticed the other man.

“Hi, Chuck,” she said with an apologetic smile.

“Nice to meet you, Lauren.” He chuckled and winked at Wes. “I’ll just wait outside. Take your time.” Chuck bolted for the door.

Wes turned with a laugh. “Well, that was smooth.”

Lauren’s blush deepened. “It’s nice to see you. I didn’t know you were back from Washington.”

“Six months now.”

“Oh? How’s your family?”

“Good. You know Sherry got married.”

“She did?”

“And they’re expecting a baby in a couple of months. You should see her,” he said with a smile. “Pregnancy agrees with her.”

“I haven’t talked to her in years.”

He shook his head sadly. “You should call her. I know she’d love to hear from you.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a card. Flipping it over, Wes drew a pen out of his breast pocket and gave it a click. She watched as he wrote out his sister’s telephone number.

He handed it over. “My number’s on the front.”

She blinked at it. “I see.”

When she looked up he was watching her in a way that would have given her life meaning back in high school. It wasn’t doing her any harm now either.

He moved in closer and dropped his voice discreetly. “Listen, I heard about Sarah. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, all too aware of his size, his heat mere inches from her.

“Is she the reason you got involved with the shelter?”


She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the shadow of his beard behind his clean shaven skin. His subtle aftershave was wreaking havoc on Lauren’s system. He was standing too close, putting her at a serious disadvantage. Just meeting his luscious eyes meant she had to tilt her head way back. It made her feel vulnerable on so many levels—her neck exposed, her eyelids heavy, and her lips parted. It felt as if they were poised for more than a painful discussion.

“Sarah was a good person,” Wes went on, his voice a low, soothing baritone. It should have calmed her. It didn’t.

“So are all the women I’ve helped here,” she informed him softly.

Wes scratched the back of his head awkwardly. “Do you offer self-defense?”

“Not here, but we have an arrangement with the gym on Lancaster and Eighth. It’s open to anyone, and the registration fees help support the shelter.” Lauren eased back, no longer comfortable sharing space with any man these days, especially Wes, though for very different reasons.

“You know, I used to teach self-defense back in Washington. I’d be happy to take on a few classes here in Durban if you need me.”

Surprised by the offer, Lauren gave Wes a big smile. “We’re always looking for volunteers.”

“Good.” He relaxed and smiled back. “I’ll be in touch. We’ll work something out.”

* * * *

Lauren struggled to stay focused during the fifteen minute orientation with Patricia. As they went over the shelter’s welcome packet together and Lauren explained the rules it took every ounce of strength she had not to drift off to her own concerns. Lauren had never been so relieved to send a resident back to her children. Tonight that family would meet the others under their protective roof, and the kids would make friends, and another woman would take those important first steps on a journey of rediscovery and healing.

Finally, grateful to be alone with her thoughts, Lauren stared out the window at the fluttering elm leaves and let the scene blur until she saw something else entirely.

For fifteen years, Lauren McKay had been hopelessly in love with Wes Dunlop. He wasn’t just an obstacle between her and a healthy relationship with someone else—Wes was an impossible standard no other man could hope to meet. He was the reason Lauren allowed her close friendship with his sister Sherry to crumble, but neither Dunlop knew it.

Lauren never doubted she loved him. Thoughts of Wes day after day, year after year, had impressed that fact on her. Had it been a mere crush, she could have overcome him long ago. But that never happened.

How many times had she wished to turn back the clock and bare her heart, her very soul to the object of her silent adoration? Too many. Her cowardice burned her, still burned her.

She’d met Sherry the first day of their sophomore year of high school. Lauren was miserable at being cut off from her friends by opposing schedules and lunch hours, and Sherry was coping with the same problem. But it wasn’t until gym class late in the day, their fourth period together, that Sherry approached Lauren in the locker room and a friendship was born. They hung back as they ran around the track, talking and laughing. Sherry was the living embodiment of a lifeline for Lauren, a floatation device thrown overboard to a girl floundering in rough waters. From that moment they were a team in the hostile world of high school. They told each other everything; sharing thoughts, feelings, and interests. Quiet and reserved by nature, Lauren loved how liberating it felt to open herself up so completely.

Wes changed all that.

At first he was merely a phantom, described in titillating, though disapproving detail by his sister. The stories Lauren heard were scandalous, his misdeeds many. When Sherry criticized Wes for being a degenerate panty hound, Lauren didn’t doubt her opinion for a second. She’d heard too many corroborating whispers by then.

One Friday afternoon, Wes caught the girls at the locker they shared. He gave Lauren a cursory glance then turned to his sister. “Find another ride home today. I’ve got plans.”

Sherry glared at his back when he walked away, absorbed into the flow of students. “He’s probably going to a party,” she said sourly.

Lauren was so dazzled she barely heard Sherry over the drumming of her heart. The guy made an ordinary pair of jeans unforgettable. That Friday marked the end of Lauren’s immunity to the male species and she had Wes to thank for it.

Now, with a face and body to put to the notorious name, Lauren found herself scanning the halls for him all the time. Wes was never alone. When he was with his friends he was laughing, joking, horsing around. When Wes was with a girl, there was touching and kissing, or the promise of it.

“Slut,” Sherry would mutter when they caught him in action. “Doesn’t she care that all he wants to do is get in her pants? Ten bucks says he gets what he wants by Friday.”

Lauren would nod, agreeing the girls were idiots to sacrifice their good names on the altar of his body—still, something inside her longed for initiation too. What would it be like to be kissed by him, to find herself in his experienced hands?

This longing for Wes was Lauren’s dirty little secret. It wasn’t something she could share. It would horrify her friend. Sherry would never understand.

Still, Lauren’s feelings for Wes didn’t shift to love until spring break. She and Sherry were already in the water at the community pool when Wes strode out of the men’s locker room and went directly to the diving board.

Sherry groaned when she saw him. “Why can’t he find something else to do?”

Lauren blinked the chlorinated water off her lashes, her eyes glued to his wide shoulders, sculpted back, and tapered waist.

Wes stood straight and tall at the end of the board. His arms went up and his trunks slipped down, catching on his slim hips. Lauren stared, transfixed by the dark line of hair running from his navel down the front of his low slung shorts. He was beautiful, magnificent. Wes reeked with raw sexuality and she responded to it.

Then he broke into an unexpectedly playful grin and bounced into the air. His cannonball sent waves radiating across the pool. Seconds later he breached the surface with a laugh and swam to the shallow end to join his friends who were tossing a Nerf football back and forth. Someone passed the ball to Wes and he sliced up out of the water to catch it.

Lauren trembled violently at the sight. Misinterpreting the cause, Sherry suggested they go warm up in the hot tub. However, minutes later the waterlogged Nerf sailed out of nowhere and hit Lauren square in the face. The tiled walls amplified her piercing scream and brought Wes running.

Clearly stunned to see blood streaming from her nose, he ran for a towel and pressed it on her as she sank onto a chair.

“Jesus, are you okay?” he asked, crouching beside her.

“Are you guys out of your fricking minds?” Sherry shrieked at him.

“It was an accident.” Wes turned back to Lauren with concern. “Let me see.”

Even though she wanted to run and hide, she pulled the towel away. Talk about lousy timing. It was mortifying that this was how he finally noticed her.

“Nope, still going.” Wes pushed the towel back in her face. “Put your head back. Way back, and squeeze your nose.”

Hot tears glittered in the corners of Lauren’s eyes as she followed his advice. When the first slid slowly down her cheek, Wes stood with a frown. Without a word, he spun around and stalked to the far end of the pool.

There was a heated exchange of words between Wes and one of the guys standing waist deep in the water. They both turned to look at her then the kid slapped his hand across the top of the water before making his way to the ladder. Wes was waiting when he climbed out, and he led the resentful kid back with him. They stopped in front of Lauren. The scowling boy didn’t speak until Wes gave him a sharp look.

“I’m sorry. I threw the ball. It was an accident,” he said tightly.

“I realize that. I’ll be fine.” Lauren wasn’t comfortable with all the attention they were drawing. “I’m just glad it didn’t hit any of the little kids.”

The guy looked at Wes impatiently, and when he nodded, the kid strode off to rejoin their friends.

Wes bent down, eye level with Lauren, and she felt the intoxicating pull of his gaze. It took his next question to snap her out of her trance.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.

She blushed. “I will be. It’s just a bloody nose. Accidents happen.”

Wes chuckled and slowly shook his head. “You’re all right, Lauren.”

Then he wandered off, leaving her staring after him in shock. Wes knew her name? He knew her, and he was the coolest thing on legs! Not only that, but he actually made his friend come over and apologize. That’s when Lauren knew Wes’s heart was in the right place. Maybe he just needed time to grow into it.

Wes graduated that June and left for college, but it was too late for Lauren. His visits home were few and brief but Lauren always tried to see him, even if only a glimpse. When she was lucky enough to talk to him he was always unfailingly nice. He’d tease her about her nose, and tell her he was glad it was still where it belonged. It was her in and she didn’t regret the embarrassment anymore.

Lauren brought her eyes back into focus and whispered at the window. “My God, Wes is back.”

Going Solo

Everything looks golden for the Velvet Bitches until lead singer and bassist, Shasta Kovich, damages her voice during their first major concert tour. After surgery, she’s forced to take vocal training from the most infuriating man she’s ever met or forfeit her recording contract.

Blake Adams doesn't expect much from the Goth waif, so he’s surprised by the depths of her untapped talent. As their personal and professional lives grow more intimately entwined, it becomes apparent the future she’s fighting so hard to hold onto may not be the right one for her.

Available at...
Amazon US | UK | AU

Sneak Peak

Shasta Kovich stood in the quiet hallway, eighteen floors up, glaring at the once elegant flocked and foiled wallpaper, growing more furious by the minute. For ten of those minutes she’d been alternately pressing the doorbell and knocking—without any answer. Now she was on the verge of blowing the top right off her pressure cooker.

She scowled at the art deco sconce on the wall and muttered, “Five more seconds and I’m out of here. This is bullshit.”

“One, two,” she counted. A door farther down the hallway opened and a man’s dark head poked out.


Then he frowned at her. “Shasta?”

Shit. Was she at the wrong door?


He scanned her from head to toe and his face twitched in unmistakable distaste. What the hell?Gorgeous did not mean he was automatically excused for something like that. She shifted on her spiked boots and glared back. It was blatantly apparent he didn’t like what he saw.

Who does he think he is, anyway?

Giving her a curt nod, he beckoned her over. “You’re late. And you’re at the wrong door. That’s my private apartment. This is the studio. I thought Sarah told you all this.”

Shasta would have stomped her way over if her feet didn’t hurt so damn bad. What a prick. Nobody lectures her. Simmering, she scowled back at him. “Must have been lost in translation.”

He stepped aside to let her in. The enclosed studio was dead ahead. Looking through the large window she saw an upright piano, music stand, and a couple of chairs. Acoustic tiles covered the walls and ceiling.

“You can hang your coat there.” He pointed to the small closet on her right then went into the studio and took a seat at the piano.

Shasta slipped out of her black leather jacket and hung it up. He swiveled on the bench when she walked in.

“Shut the door.”

“Nice to meet you, too.” Asshole. “Ever use the word please?”

This guy’s manners sucked.

Blake Adams ignored the scathing question. “Have you been practicing?

She shifted her shoulders, easily shoved off her confident footing once again. “A little.”

That earned an even deeper frown. “Let’s hope you haven’t ruined your recovery.”

Shasta’s jaw dropped. The gall! “What?”

“You heard me. You had vocal cord surgery. You were supposed to be on total voice rest until you came to see me. I don’t want you singing anywhere but here until I’m confident you know what you’re doing. And keep unnecessary chit-chat to a minimum, even whispers. If you have to gab with your friends, do it on-line or text them instead. Use your thumbs and give your voice a break.”

Shasta was roasting in her gravy now. “Listen up. I have a number one hit. I know what I’m doing.”

“Correction. You had a number one hit. It’s already dropped to fourteen, and your concert tour was cut short when you blew out your voice because—” The jerk drew out the word longer than necessary. “You…don’t…know…dick about singing.”

When all she could do was sputter, he bludgeoned on. “I listened to your CD and,” he grimaced, “it was painful, but here’s the thing—the music itself wasn’t bad. You have raw talent. Notice, I’m emphasizing raw for a reason. You might even have a future in music if you listen and apply yourself. Otherwise, you’ll just be another in the long line of one-hit-wonders.”

If she had laser beams for eyes and could burn him where he sat, he’d be charred and smoking right now. “I don’t like you very much.”

Nothing. Not even a raised eyebrow from him. “Your feelings for me are irrelevant. All I want to know is will you listen and follow my direction?”

She could feel the hostility sweating out of her pores and seriously wondered if she could buckle under for him at this point. After a lengthy stare down, she finally grumbled, “Do I have a choice?”

“Not if you want to hang onto your record contract.”

“Fine.” She was not happy about this. There had to be someone she could complain to. Her agent, Sarah, was definitely going to get an earful.

“Let’s get started. Why don’t you run through your typical warm-up for me? How do you prepare your voice?”

He’d stumped her. “What?”

“Show me your pre-flight check.” He threw up his hand, waiting. His instructions weren’t getting through. A foreign language would have been just as helpful.

“Oh no, you’ve gotta be kidding me.” The look of dawning horror on his face wasn’t reassuring.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She flapped her arms, beyond befuddled.

To her amazement, he gripped his forehead and groaned. His eyes tightly shut, he muttered under his breath, his body gently rocking on the piano bench.

“Hey!” Her hand went to her hip and she scowled at him, outwardly pissed though her heart was knocking like an oil-starved engine. “What the hell is your problem?”

He dropped his hand and looked at her as if she’d just ruined his life. “Have you ever had a voice lesson?”

She hesitated on the answer, though he obviously knew it. “No.”

It was a strange thing to watch a classy guy like this almost lose it. There was a heavy sigh. He dropped his head and bit his lower lip. The letter f was already on its way out of his mouth when he stopped short of saying the rest of the four letter word. Why not just say the fucking word?

Back in command of himself, Adams studied her for a quiet moment, no doubt formulating his plan of attack. Finally he asked, “Do you ever stretch beforehand? You know, loosen up your body, your shoulders, neck, anything?”

She frowned. Was he for real? “No.”

“How about deep breathing?” The smidgen of hope she saw in his face didn’t stand a chance.

“No,” she persisted, even more concerned about his quackery. What did all this have to do with singing?

“Do you know the difference between a head voice and a chest voice?”

“What the fuck?”

“Please don’t use that language here.”


“Take a minute to stretch up, hands in the air. Breathe in then slowly let it out.”

“Are you serious?”

“Shasta, this is important.”

Though she felt stupid and not entirely on-board with his approach to voice training, she did what he asked. She shifted her shoulders. She rolled her head and loosened her neck. She shook out her arms and opened her chest. Her yawn was accidental and spontaneous but it seemed to excite him. He had her yawn a few more times to open her throat and notice how it felt through her torso.

Then he had her hum. She was absolutely calling Sarah as soon as she got out of here. This guy was nuts.

“Are you relaxed?” he asked.

“As much as I can be.” The whole experience felt weird, and she wasn’t comfortable doing all this bullshit in front of a total stranger.

“Good.” He spun on the bench and faced the piano. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” He hit a key and held it. “Give me a C, closed lips, hum it.”

She mimicked the note and he looked up sharply. “You’re flat. Try again.”

She took another breath and repeated herself. His frown darkened.

“Don’t you have any ear at all? Listen to this.” He stabbed the key repeatedly, making her jerk with every irritating strike.

“Again!” He hit the key and finally she satisfied him—briefly. “Hold it as long as you can. Again.”

Shasta sang the single note, but it faded out before the piano went silent.

“That’s what I thought,” he muttered and spun to face her, straddling the bench. “You need to decide whether you want to be a rock star or a musician, because you can’t be both.”

“What do you mean?”

“Choose—performer or musician.”

“They’re the same.”

“No.” His head dropped slightly to one side as he peered at her. “A performer is an entertainer, conscious of their image. It’s about the dancing and theatrics as much as it is the music. They have no problem kicking over their equipment and trashing instruments during a show. A musician not only has a deep love of music itself, but a respect for the tools of the craft. So far you’ve been a performer, utterly abusing your instrument—your voice. A true musician wouldn’t lay their guitar down on its strings. That’s basically what you’ve been doing.”

His dark eyes bored into her and she looked away. “I want to be a musician,” she mumbled, aware of the distinctions.

“Good. Let’s see if we can turn you into one. First things first, open your pants.”

“I don’t fucking think so!” She backed away.

With a snort of derision, he stood and walked toward her. “Relax, you’re not my type and this isn’t remotely sexual.”

He moved behind her and stood there. Tense and paranoid, she looked over her shoulder at him. His patience was clearly wearing thin because he snapped, “Open those ridiculous leather pants you’ve poured yourself into or I will.”

Horrified at the thought, Shasta undid the fly and just about jumped out of her stiletto boots when his hand came around from behind and settled over her abdomen. She felt his jolt of surprise at her navel piercing under his palm. He surprised her right back by giving the tiny sterling silver eighth note a little flick. He stopped it from swinging a second later with the press of his hand.

Frozen with shock and wariness, she inhaled sharply when he leaned close to her ear and said, “Breathe.”

She’d never been so conscious of breathing…or of a man’s touch.

He heaved a sigh of displeasure. “Wrong.”

“How can I breathe wrong? I’ve been doing it my entire life.” She was just as exasperated as he sounded.

“You are. You’re paying too much attention to keeping your stomach flat. Put your hand where mine is.”

She placed her hand over her stomach and he covered it with his. A simple, unexpected touch and now her heart was racing. It pissed her off.

“Breathe,” he said softly. “In through the nose, out through the mouth.”

She inhaled, then exhaled, but didn’t notice anything unusual. “Yeah, so?”

“Wrong. All wrong. Inhale.” She drew in a breath and he said sharply. “I said inhale. Our hands aren’t moving, notice that?”

“My lungs are higher.”

“Your diaphragm is here and you’re only using a fraction of your lung capacity.” He pressed into her abdomen and literally shoved the air out of her. Thank god she didn’t fart, too.

“Stand up tall and bring the air down lower. Full complete breaths. Relax. Your shoulders shouldn’t move up and down.”

She tried again.

“Better. Keep going.” He stepped around her and quietly watched for a few minutes.

“Why am I doing this?” Shasta felt ridiculous, not to mention a little light headed.

“Because a person who doesn’t know how to breathe isn’t going to be able to sing. I want long, sustained, strong notes coming from you and that isn’t going to happen until you learn how to breathe properly. You have an assignment. Every night when you go to bed, I want you to hold your abdomen and focus on how you’re breathing until it becomes so natural you don’t have to think about it anymore. In the meantime, keep your hand on your diaphragm as a reminder.”

He sat down at the piano and hit the C again. “Sing.”

She sang, clear and strong and he turned and nodded. “Good, keep it going. Hold it as long as you can without straining.”

As the note faded away he finally smiled for the first time. She almost cried with gratitude.

“Much better.”

She hated how much his approval meant to her already.

“You can close your pants now,” he said a hint of amusement. “When are you coming again?”

“Thursday.” She turned away with a blush and zipped her fly.

“Wear something comfortable next time. Something you can actually breathe in—and that includes shoes.” He glanced at her sexy leather boots. “The last thing I want you thinking about here is your Goth image, got it?”

“Goth image?” She snorted then caught the hard look in his eye. He was serious. Wrong, but serious. “Fine.”

Shasta walked out of the sound room feeling ignorant and diminished. Glaring through the glass at the new bane of her existence, she saw him turn back to the keys. His long graceful fingers caressed a sultry jazz number out of the vibrating strings of his piano as she closed the outer door behind her.

* * *

Bose dipped her egg roll and flipped her wrist to catch a drip of sauce before it fell. After taking the bite, she licked the side of her hand. “Well that sucks. How were you supposed to know he lived there too?”

Shasta threw up her hand and grumbled, “I know, right?”

“So are you going to quit sulking and tell me how it went?”

Shasta gave her friend a noncommittal shrug while swirling her fork through the rice and vegetable dish in front of her. “Hard to say. All he did was lecture me and talk about breathing. I suppose the guy knows what he’s talking about. I mean, they wouldn’t force me to see him if he doesn’t. But he’s such a dick.”

Bose frowned and swept her wispy, brown bangs out of her eyes with the back of her hand. “Example?”

Shasta set her fork down and reached for her water. “For starters, he made that bad odor face when he saw me for the first time. You know the one. Like something nasty crawled up his nostrils and died. I gotta tell ya, I was a little insulted.”

“No shit! What an ass. I hope you told him off.”

“I was about to, but then he started dissing our music next.”

Now Bose was offended. “Hell no! Unbelievable.” She stabbed a baby carrot so hard the tines of her fork make an unpleasant screech on the plate.

“He’s just so unbelievably rude,” Shasta continued. “It’s his tone of voice, the way he talked to me--atme. The guy thinks he’s hot shit. I could totally tell. You wouldn’t believe how tempted I was to slam his fingers in the piano or pick up the music stand and bash him over the head with it.”

Bose sputtered on a laugh. “Well I heard he’s not the only one who thinks he’s pretty hot.”

“No way.” Shasta’s disbelief was an act. Blake Adams had set her radar pinging before the first sneer. Her attraction cooled dramatically after that.

“Way. Dee told me he’s gorgeous.” Bose watched her closely, waiting for a confirmation or denial.

Shasta set her water down and gave a grudging shrug. “She would. Dee likes those arrogant types. I suppose he qualifies.” Taking up her fork, she was about to poke a pea pod when she paused to ask a question. “How would Dee know anyway?”

“Remember when she was going out with that guy from Pyramid Records?”

“What was his name again?” asked Shasta.

“No idea. Doesn’t matter. Anyway he took her to one of those swanky functions, black tie and all that shit, and she actually met him there.”

“Him who?”

“Blake Adams, that’s who. And do you know who he was with?”

“Why would I care?” Damn it, now she was curious.

“Valerie Walters.”

“Shut up!” This time, Shasta’s disbelief was real.

Her reaction excited Bose. “I’m totally serious.”

It couldn’t be true. Could it?

“What would the darling of Broadway be doing with a virtual nobody?” asked Shasta.

Bose wagged her fork at Shasta. “I don’t think he’s as unknown as you think he is.”

“Huh.” Shasta sat back and pondered this little nugget of information.

* * *

Hours later, Blake escaped his bedroom, softly closing the door behind him. Only then did he reach for the switch on the wall. A brass lamp with jade accents at the far side of the living room blazed on, the glossy sheen of the dark cherry cabinet beneath it suffused with an amber glow. Going over to the recessed bar, he poured himself two fingers of brandy, turning the exquisite crystal in his hand to admire the rich color before raising it to his lips. An explosion of spiced fruit and fig filled his head, the heat coating his tongue and infiltrating his sinuses. He held it there, savoring the moment before swallowing. The warmth spread through him, from the inside out.

Crossing to one of the large windows, he looked out over the city. Lights glittered against the black velvet night. It was one a.m. and like so many other nights, he was up, driven to his piano to tinker with the notes that kept him from dropping off to sleep.

He turned and set the glass on top of the instrument then took a seat at the black baby grand and closed his eyes. His fingers found the keys and he brushed across them ever so lightly, already feeling the hum in his chest before he even drew a single note.

It would begin with an F. Eyes closed, head cocked to one side he pressed the key and smiled faintly when it answered the intoxicating note in his head.

He played for over an hour, alive to the need to create music out of thin air.

The bedroom door eventually opened and his beautiful overnight guest wandered out and leaned against the jamb wearing his discarded shirt, seductively unbuttoned. She was stunning without even trying, but she liked to play the game anyway, knowing exactly how to pose for maximum effect. The corner of his mouth twitched when she slowly tousled her fiery red hair and pouted at him.

“Come back to bed,” she beckoned softly.

“In a few minutes.” Closing his eyes once more, he continued to play, dismissing her from his mind as he gave himself up to the music flowing through him.

* * *

Upset, but not surprised, Valerie glared at the hulking black instrument, her only rival for Blake’s attention. Returning to his dark bedroom alone, she fumed, knowing how it would go. She’d wait until the wee hours of the morning, her hopes for one more round of lovemaking unfulfilled. When he was immersed in his own head like this, she doubted he even remembered she was there.

Why did she put up with it? She didn’t know.

No, that wasn’t true. She knew all right. When he focused on her with the same intensity as he did that damn piano, he made her body sing, sent her flying to the heavens, and held her there like a suspended note until she vibrated back to earth, weak and dizzy. Sometimes her radiant glow could last for an hour or more afterwards. She’d learned to schedule her photo shoots after spending the night with Blake because he was better than any cosmetic at bringing her cool beauty to life.

With a wiggle of her shoulders, she dropped his shirt to the floor where she’d found it and slid back into bed. Disappointed, yet resigned, she turned on her side and hugged his pillow to her face, inhaling the lingering scent of him and the cologne he favored.

Swaddled in irritation, Val cursed herself for her weakness. She cursed Blake for his indifference.

Grading on Curves 

One-on-one instruction never felt so right—or so wrong.

There’s nothing unusual about Mia Page’s attraction to the young science teacher at the middle school. After all, she’s not the only one who finds him enticing. But when he pulls her son aside to ask for her phone number, she knows she’s in serious trouble. Since her divorce four years earlier, she’s been out of circulation, choosing to focus on parenting instead, and she’s not entirely sure she can handle an entanglement with the sexy Mr. Walden.

There are also other reasons why getting involved with Curt would be a bad idea. He’s two years shy of thirty, and she’s on the downside of that unmentionable number. He’s adamant about never having kids, and she has a son. Even the guy’s romantic gifts are suspect. Energy saving light bulbs? He has to be kidding.

On the other hand, he’s fun, sweet, and smart. He stimulates her intellectually, emotionally, and Lord help her, physically, opening her eyes to life outside her comfortable world. Yet their differences quietly gnaw at Mia even while she succumbs to their undeniable chemistry.

As their romance deepens, so do Mia’s fears that Curt will eventually hurt her. On edge, all it takes is an innocent comment to provoke her into drawing first blood. Mia recklessly wounds Curt, learning only too late that this blade cuts both ways. Frantic to make amends, she fears it might be too late to admit the feelings she’s tried so hard to suppress.

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Sneak Peak

“Would you wait?” Mia hissed. She shrugged apologetically to the barista behind the counter. “Sorry about that. I’ll have an orange mango smoothie please.” She turned to her companion. “What’s so important that you had to stretch out my sleeve?”

“Nine o’clock,” said Sally in an excited hush. “Look, look.”

Mia glanced casually over her friend’s shoulder. “Ouch.”

“That body’s tighter than my daughter’s braces,” Sally agreed in awe. “Nice face too. Is it too late to trade in Larry for an upgrade?”

“You love Larry.”

“I think I love this guy more.”

“It’s lust.”

“You can build a lot on lust.”

Mia laughed and shook her head, still peeking at the man as her friend moved forward to place her order.

The dreamy customer glanced up from his laptop and caught Mia watching him. His left eyebrow arched, drawing the corner of his mouth up with it. He gave her an imperceptible nod.

Busted! Mia blushed and turned abruptly away. Shaken and embarrassed, she accepted her drink across the counter.

“Let’s take a table,” Sally proposed, picking up her iced tea.

“No, I want to get out of here—now.”

“What’s wrong?”


“Oh my God, that guy is watching us.” Sally peeked again. “No, he’s watching you.”

“Let’s just go.”

“No, let’s go talk to him.”


“But he’s so cute...and you’re so available.”

“He’s so young.”

“Even better.”

“I’m leaving,” said Mia emphatically. “Are you coming?”


To Mia’s dismay, their hasty departure did not go unnoticed—or evidently misunderstood by the young man. He smiled at her once more before returning to his screen.

* * * *

Six days later the midday sun radiated off the baking bricks of Wrigley Middle School. The deep blue sky and rampant spring fever drew the kids outside during their lunch break in droves. There was a group of boys playing a disorganized game of football on an island of grass out front.

“I’m open, I’m open,” Casey yelled, waving his arms wildly for the pass.

The football made a wobbly arc into his hands, and he spun but before he could take off running he was tackled, the weight of another boy crushing him into the ground. It wasn’t until the bruiser climbed off of him that he felt the sharp stabbing pain in his wrist. Then it started to radiate up his forearm and he rolled away from the ball and onto his back, groaning and stamping his heels as he cradled his arm.

“This was supposed to be tag football, you moron!” he said, glaring furiously at the white-faced boy looking down at him.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I got carried away.”

“Holy shit, Casey, do you think it’s broken?” another kid asked, moving in so close his mass of freckles seemed to melt together.

“Feels like it.” He had to grit his teeth to hold back tears. There was no way he wanted to bawl in front of the guys but the longer they stared at him from this ever tightening circle the more touch and go it felt.

“What happened?” a man asked, his voice parting the group of boys to admit him into their huddle.

“It was an accident, Mr. Walden,” said the tackler.

“I’m sure it was. It’s going to be all right. What’s your name?” he asked Casey as he went to his knee beside him.

Just answering was a struggle for him. “Casey.”

Mr. Walden put a comforting hand on Casey’s shoulder. “Okay, let’s get you to the nurse.”

Casey fought back the pain and nodded gratefully at the teacher.

The bell sounded as they entered the building, calling the rest of the students back to class.

* * * *

Some days just seemed to drag more than others, particularly Fridays. Once Mia’s lunch break was behind her and half the office had bailed for the weekend, it was pretty hard not to wallow in self-pity just a little.

The sound of crickets chirping wouldn’t be out of place in this mausoleum of empty cubicles as she walked to the break room. She needed a pick-me-up and a minute away from her desk or she was going to chew all her nails off in frustrated boredom. A Diet Coke and a candy bar were just the things to chase away the doldrums, and yes, she knew how stupid that sounded.

She took a meandering route back to her desk, not in any hurry to shackle her ankle again. Why did she have recurring visions of a slave barge and giant oars on Fridays? Feeling a little resentful perhaps? Nah, not her—right!

She wasn’t the only one holding down the fort. Every department had one or two employees keeping chairs warm, but it was such a gorgeous day and she was knee deep in spring fever right now. It wasn’t easy coming back from lunch when almost everyone else got to hit the road, but since she chose these hours because they worked best with the school’s schedule she couldn’t bitch. Well,shouldn’t bitch anyway.

Zoning out in front of the computer screen earlier, she’d dreamed of seed catalogues and all the eye catching plants on sale inside and outside every store she passed lately. She was so ready to get down and dirty in the garden.

A phone rang somewhere ahead, intruding on the peace and quiet. Mia knew right away it was coming from her desk. She took off running the last thirty feet then cut a sharp right into her cubicle. Grabbing the phone, she clapped it against her ear so hard it drove the back of her earring into her skin.

“Ow,” she gasped, biting back a curse. “Mia Page, can I help you?” She worked a finger behind her ear, trying to erase the pain. Unfortunately, it made her earring rattle loudly against the plastic handset, interfering with her hearing. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“Mrs. Page, this is Margaret Nixon at Wrigley Middle School. I’m calling about your son Casey.”

“What’s wrong? Is he okay?”

“The school nurse thinks he broke his wrist. There’s a lot of swelling and he’s in a good deal of pain. He needs to see a doctor.”

“Damn it!”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting this. I’ll leave right now, but it’s going to take me some time to get there. I’m forty-five minutes away on a good day. Being that it’s Friday afternoon, it’s going to take me longer. Is there anything you can do for him in the meantime?”

“The teacher who brought Casey to the nurse is still with him. You have the Sterling Clinic listed as your primary provider on Casey’s emergency card. It’s so close Mr. Walden offered to run him over there now if that’s what you want.”

“He’d do that?” Mia breathed a sigh of relief. “Yes, please. I’ll phone the clinic and let them know they’re coming, then head straight to Sterling myself. Thank you.”

As soon as she disconnected the call, Mia phoned the clinic, shutting down her computer and desk light as she spoke with the receptionist. Time to make tracks. Shoving in her chair, she grabbed her purse, completely forgetting the unopened can of diet soda sweating on her desk.

The door to her boss’s corner office was open, but she stopped outside and peeked in first to see whether he was actually alone or on the phone before knocking. He glanced up with his reading glasses perched precariously on the very tip of his nose.

“Bill, I have to go. The school called and told me Casey may have broken his wrist.”

He set down the paper in his hand and frowned with concern. “Go.”

She turned to leave but remembered something and swung back around. “Don’t forget, Jane already left for the day so you have to listen for the phones out here.”

He shoved his glasses back up. “I’ll manage. Go get your kid.”

They shared a quick parting smile then Mia sprinted down the corridor as fast as her high heels could carry her with her purse bouncing against her back. One phone call, all it took was one stinking phone call to obliterate Mia’s boredom and send her heart into a panicky flutter. Ten minutes ago she was a clock watcher, desperate for an end to this miserable week of inconvenient meetings and training sessions on a new computer system that, as of Monday, would send the office into a chaotic transition. Now she was scrambling to find out if her only child was okay.

Burning rubber out of the parking lot, it struck her as funny, though probably inappropriate, that on this occasion there was no way Casey could tease her for driving like an old lady.

Holy hell, it was stifling in the truck. She hit all four power window buttons at once and sighed with relief. Dumb move leaving the windows closed on a day like this. Their parking lot didn’t offer much shade and those spaces were claimed early. She really should have cracked a couple of windows for some air flow this morning.

It wasn’t until she blew through the second intersection that the temperature dropped into the bearable range.

Mia plucked at the front of her blouse, trying to get a little breeze down her shirt. Changing lanes, her thoughts shifted seamlessly back to Casey.

What had happened? Scenarios played across her mind in old-fashioned Technicolor. The hard concrete steps in the school—now those had always made her nervous. What if he was running to class and lost it down the stairs? Or what if he got nailed by one of those heavy classroom doors? Then her eyes narrowed as an unwelcome thought occurred to her. What if he was screwing around with his friends and got hurt doing something he shouldn’t have been doing? Or worse—was he fighting?

Mia snorted at the idea. No way, that wasn’t Casey’s style.

Still, the more she tried to find an explanation the worse she felt. Plagued by an imagination that was rarely a comfort to her, Mia was good at chilling her own blood. She supposed that it was simply the curse of parenthood. Just an inkling of an idea could take on a life of its own. Like a parched cactus, a modest watering would revive it, all thorny and bloated.

Turning into the clinic parking lot, Mia pulled into a space, stopping a mere inch away from the bumper in front of her. She killed the engine and left all the windows open this time as she sprinted for the entrance.

Her heart sank when she saw the elderly woman with a cane hobbling toward the door at the same time. The distance between them forced Mia to adjust her speed because barreling in first and dropping the door behind her would be unforgivably rude. It wasn’t an option.

Reaching the door first, Mia pulled it open and stood back like a doorman, allowing the woman to shuffle through ahead of her.

“Thank you,” the woman said with a sweet smile.

“You’re welcome.” Mia masked her impatience with a smile of her own.

A second set of doors was right inside and she hustled around the woman, yanking the next open too. Nodding politely at the grateful smile, Mia was beside herself. Her anxiety had grown from a tickle at the back of her throat into a full-blown virus.

Without another word, she dashed around the slower woman and reached the front desk well ahead of her only to be thwarted when the receptionist held up her hand for patience while she finished with a phone call. Mia sighed in frustration.

Completely focused on the receptionist, Mia was easily startled when Casey snuck up behind her.

“Where did you come from?” she asked, looking past him.

He nodded at the far door. “There.” Then he broke into a big grin. “What are you doing here?”

“The school called. Are you okay?” She felt the blood drain from her face at the sight of his sling. Catching the old woman’s eye, Mia gave her a pained smile and turned Casey by the shoulder, moving him out of line. “We’re in the way. Come on.”

They walked away from the front desk and stopped among the chairs in the waiting area.

“Check it out.” Casey held up his right arm, modeling his cast for her, a note of pride in his voice. “What do you think?”

Her hand hovered tentatively over it before she ventured to touch it. “So it is broken.” It was more of a statement than a question.

“Yep.” He shoved a sheet of paper at her. “Care and handling instructions. They could have put ice cream on there.”

Mia snorted at that, scanning the form. “Quit kidding around. How are you feeling?”

“A lot better. Maybe next time it’ll be an ankle—if I’m lucky.”

Mia shook her head in confusion. “Hang on. You actually wanted a broken arm?”

“Well, yeah. I’m like the only one of my friends who hasn’t broken something yet. I can’t believe my luck. Anyone who shows up at school with crutches is an instant celebrity. But no, I’m stuck with a cast that doesn’t even reach my elbow. Stupid wrist.”

No doubt about it—boys were weird creatures. “Stay right here. I’ll check at the desk and see if there’s anything I need to do before we leave.”

Only a few people remained in the waiting area, and no one else was at the desk when Mia proffered her health insurance card to the receptionist. “Quiet in here today,” she remarked.

“It was crazy this morning,” said the woman as she typed the numbers into the computer. “Your son lucked out. They took him back right away.”

“I didn’t expect him to be ready so soon.”

A nurse walking through set a file on top of a stack on the desk then glanced at Mia. “Oh, you’re Casey’s mom?”


“We were just back from lunch when he came in. No waiting for the x-ray. He’s probably going to find holding a pencil feels a little awkward at first, but that’s common. It shouldn’t stop him from doing his schoolwork.”

Mia laughed as she accepted the return of her card. “Thanks for telling me. I’ll be ready for excuses.”

Their business concluded, Mia turned back to Casey and reeled as a rush of effervescent energy shot through her bloodstream. Mr. Coffee Shop Guy was standing with him.

He looked just as startled to see her when he offered his hand. “Hi, Curt Walden. I’m a teacher at Wrigley Middle.”

Mia’s initial surprise was elbowed roughly aside by outright gawking. She was drowning in the most potent bedroom eyes she’d ever seen, a heady blend of perfection and depth. Heaven help her, here she thought he was incredible from a distance. Fool. She was horrified that she was staring but since she couldn’t help it, she decided to keep her expectations more realistic. Closing her mouth would be a good start.

Then they clasped hands and Mia’s body temperature shot from ninety-eight point six to boiling. That one touch plunged her into a mental abyss that jettisoned a good fifty IQ points in the process. His fantastic kissable mouth was moving but all she could hear was white noise. Then he stopped talking and looked at her expectantly.

Oh hell. What did he just say? Crap, crap, crap! She had absolutely no idea. How was she supposed to respond now?

With little choice, she ignored his question and blundered on in her own direction. “I’m Casey’s mom, Mia Page. Thank you for looking after him for me.” She felt weak with relief when her words came out sounding normal and not as incoherent gibberish.

“My pleasure.” He glanced down at their joined hands and a lengthy beat passed before he finally released hers.

Mia wanted to dry her sweaty palm on her skirt but she stopped herself in time. No need to make it any more obvious that she’d suddenly gone from complete indifference to men after her divorce to a full-body arousal. Who could predict when or where something like that would hit? Never in a million years would she imagine herself this close to a sexual swoon in a clinic of all places, standing right next to her kid. Yet there she was. Heat flared across her face, and her mouth hovered somewhere between a smile and an embarrassed grimace.

Curt’s smile deepened with her heated flush, and they simply stared at each other for a full minute, like two lunatics transported to a place all their own, where time was completely irrelevant—at least for them.

Looking back and forth between the two spellbound adults, Casey began to fidget. “Can we get out of here now?” he asked her impatiently.

Startled yet again, Mia pulled herself together. “Yes. We’re all set.” She risked a quick glance at Curt. She knew now it wasn’t smart to dwell on him. “I suppose you need to get back to school?”

Curt seemed to shake himself before saying, “I do. Oh…” He snapped his fingers. “The doctor said if his arm starts bothering him, ibuprofen should do the trick but he should avoid rough play for a while.”

On their way out, Casey finally told Mia how he got hurt. She was surprised. That was one scenario she hadn’t pictured.

Pausing on the sidewalk, Mia faced the teacher. “I just wanted to thank you again for staying until I could get here. I appreciate it.” She ruffled Casey’s hair affectionately and he squirmed out of reach. “I hope he didn’t completely foul up the rest of your afternoon.”

Curt shook his head, his easy laugh decidedly forgiving. “Actually we were watching the second half of a film we started yesterday with the other science class so it worked out okay. I should make it back in time to see the kids onto the buses.” He gave her a smile capable of charming the pantyhose right off of her. “See ya.”

Both males peeled away, going in opposite directions, leaving Mia alone on the sidewalk.

Struck by anxious desperation, Mia scrambled to find anything, anything at all, to prolong the moment. “Hey! Excuse me? Does Casey need to go back to school for any reason?”

Lame, lame, lame.

Curt stopped and turned. “No. I’ll square it with the office. Take him home and have a nice weekend.” He flashed another heart-melting smile then set off again.

Casey was almost to the Explorer, but Mia barely noticed. Her entire focus was centered on the sexy teacher instead.

She could feel the beads of perspiration popping out all over her at the way his lightweight shirt caught the breeze, billowing out of the back of his sexy-assed pants. Was that linen? It couldn’t be. It draped like rayon but without the wrinkles. Whatever it was, he wasn’t exactly dressed to roam school hallways or stand with his back to a class while he wrote on a chalkboard. She envied and pitied the poor adolescent girls who had to look at that supremely scrumptious derriere every day then suffer each night in a private torture all their own.

No, this guy belonged on a beach, seated at an umbrella shaded table with his long masculine fingers curled around a glass of wine.

Okay, putting Curt on a beach was probably a mistake. In a flash she had him bounding out of the surf in low slung swim trunks as water ran down his sun-kissed body. She moaned softly at the damp line of glittering hair bisecting his chest. It tapered away across his solid abs then picked up again at his navel as a solid arrow plunging inside his waistband. Mia’s fingers twitched as she did a virtual walkthrough, quite willing to follow that trail wherever it led. Exploration was highly underrated these days.

“Mom! Are you coming?”

Casey’s call jolted her back to reality. Well, one thing she could say for certain, this fantasy was galaxies better than the usual gloom and doom.

Hurrying to the SUV, Mia climbed in and drew her seatbelt across her lap. “Did I hear Mr. Walden say he teaches science?” Silence followed her question. Looking up, she caught Casey giving her a strange look. “What?”

“Don’t even think about asking me to pass him a note at school,” he said flatly.

Mia broke into a startled laugh. “Are you kidding?”

The boy shook his head slowly. “I know that look, Mom. I’ve seen it a hundred times this year, and I’m not doing it. Don’t even ask.”

* * * *

Curt threw his arm over the passenger seat as he turned to back out of his parking space. Jolting to a stop, he shook his head and shifted into drive, heading for the exit. He needed to calm down, get a grip. Shit.

What were the odds? He’d actually faltered at the sight of her, suddenly blown away by a gale of emotions—elation, gratitude, longing, and hope. Then he’d seen her ring and the wind abruptly died and sent him spiraling back to earth with a mighty crash. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t even want to calculate how many quiet, distracted hours he’d spent thinking about that woman recently, hoping to see her again. Now his heart sank with disappointment. Clearly the powerful yearning he felt at their brief yet innocent encounter in the coffee shop was nothing but a fantasy. He could easily see the resemblance between mother and son now. Maybe his subconscious recognized it too. Is that why he’d insisted on taking Casey to the clinic himself?

Curt groaned at how close he’d come to making a total ass of himself. He’d been one second—make that one nanosecond—away from asking her out without giving a rip about her marital status—and in the lobby of a health clinic too! Not to mention that her kid was standing right there. He gave himself a mental belt to the head, thoroughly disgusted. Luckily Casey inadvertently saved him from himself and for that Curt would be forever grateful.

But damn it, life had a cruel sense of humor. No matter how strong a temptation Mia Page was, Curt was not a home wrecker.

In Love and War

Sometimes love really is worth fighting for, but picking your battles isn't so easy—especially when lives are at stake.

Personal tragedy and the loss of both parents at a young age made Ariela Perrine cross self-sacrificing hero types off her datable list. But Ariela is literally swept off her feet when an accident brings her face to face with an unforgettable pair of blue eyes, a playful smile, and an overly affectionate dog.

Oh yes, journalist Dylan Bond makes her sizzle, but dare she risk it? After all, he's just returned from covering conflicts around the globe. With his assurance he'll be handling domestic stories from now on, Ariela's weak resistance crumbles and their relationship intensifies at a dizzying speed. Then an unexpected phone call lures Dylan back to Iraq and he falls off the radar. His disappearance will test them both in ways neither expected. Will it bring them closer or destroy their fragile peace forever?

Available at..
Amazon US | UK | AU

Sneak Peak


Daylight was fading fast when Dylan Bond sat down at his computer and shot the smuggled USB driver home. As he slowly peeled back layer upon layer of evidence, the room fell dark around him. The only illumination left came from the computer screen. The unnatural glow sharpened and defined his features, the planes of his face, the clean line of his nose. Dylan’s eyes, lost in shadow, flashed black, all pupil, the lapis blue of his irises obscured by the lack of light.

Glancing at the sleeping golden retriever sprawled next to him Dylan reached out with his stocking-covered foot and gave the animal’s belly an affectionate rub. “You wouldn’t believe what I’m reading. This scumbag started setting things up over three years ago.”

The dog’s eyes flickered and closed. His tail flopped on the floor a couple of times while his satisfied groan rose and fell with the tummy rub.

Smiling, Dylan turned back to the screen and opened the next document. He leaned in and continued to read, though he quickly sobered, his outrage growing with every new paragraph.

* * *

Ariela Perrine’s face fell when she saw the dark blue, checked necktie hanging from the doorknob. Pressing her ear to the wood, she could hear the unmistakable sounds of an action flick on the television inside. What was she supposed to do now? Were they actually watching the movie or was it just playing in the background? Her gaze dropped to the necktie once more and she bit her lip, undecided.

Screw it. She was home now. If those two wanted privacy, they could move things into Jean’s bedroom.

She knocked three times—hard, so they'd hear her over the movie and announced, “I’m home. Zip up.”

“Hang on!” Jean shot back.

Time seemed to drag while Ariela waited, though it was probably no more than two minutes. Feeling impatient to get inside and leave the memory of her latest failed date on this side of the door, she gave another hopeful rap. “Are you decent?”

“All clear.”

Ariela dropped the looped necktie over her head, accessorizing her smirk, and went in. Jean and Ron were still making wardrobe adjustments when she hung her purse on a hook behind the door and flopped into the easy chair with a dejected sigh.

Jean tucked her legs beneath her on the sofa and sank against Ron. He snuggled her even closer and she sighed even though she was frowning pointedly at Ariela.

“You’re back early. What happened? I thought you were going dancing tonight. Didn’t you like Randy either?”

Ariela sent her roommate a long look. “Where would I even start?” Withdrawing into the cushions, she turned to the television. “What are you watching?”

Ron glanced over. “Split Infinity.”

“Never heard of it.” She struggled to figure out what was going on for ten minutes, but having missed the beginning, she couldn’t catch up. What was the point? “I’m starving. I’m going to find something to eat.”

Jean stared at her. “You just came from dinner.”

“I couldn’t eat. The guy ruined my appetite. He never stopped talking, not even when his mouth was full. I swear, it was like watching a front-load washing machine, except with a washer you’re not in danger of getting hit by something flying out of it.”

Jean looked revolted. “Tell me you’re joking.”

“I wish. He was disgusting.”

“So, how much did you drink?” Jean knew her so well.

“Two glasses of wine. When Randy asked why I wasn’t eating, I told him I was coming down with something. Thank god I thought of it. It saved me from having to kiss him later. There was no way he was getting anywhere near me with that tongue of his.” Just the idea was enough to make her shudder.

Ron chuckled and broke in. “There’s pizza on the counter—help yourself.”

“Thanks.” Ariela popped up to go investigate. “Anything I have to pull off of it?”

“’Shrooms,” said Jean.

Damn. “Mushrooms?” She hated the ungrateful whine in her voice.

Jean arched an eyebrow at her. “Hey, we didn’t order pineapple because you bitched so much last time.”

“I did? Oh…I did. Sorry.” Ariela gave her friends a fake perky smile. “Mushroom pizza? Fantastic.”

Sputtering on another chuckle, Ron stood and stretched, letting out a deep groan with his full extension. “Well, I suppose I should clear out. I have an early morning.”

Ariela flipped up the top of the cardboard pizza box, though it didn’t block her view of Jean’s theatrical pout through the kitchen doorway. Amused by it, she reached in and tore a slice of pizza free and peeled back the cheese so she could pick off the mushrooms. She flicked every single one she found back into the box.

“See you later, Ron,” Ariela called as the couple kissed goodnight.

There was a pause before he answered. “Be good, Ariela.”

“I’m always good,” Ariela muttered under her breath. She was tired of being good. She wanted to be bad, to be a rabble rouser, to get into a little trouble for once in her life. Too bad it didn’t come naturally. She needed someone to corrupt her. Yes, a bad influence to shake up her boring routine would be great.

Jean wandered into the kitchen and took a glass down from the cabinet. Going into the fridge, she held up the carton. “Milk?”

“I’d rather have juice.”

Jean looked over the shelves. “Don’t see any.”

“Figures. Guess I’ll have milk too.”

She was off to a good, rebellious start. Well, at least she was getting her calcium. Tomorrow, she’d better get to the store to pick up more of her favorite cranberry blends.

Jean set Ariela’s glass down in front of her and took her usual chair at the table. Reaching into the pizza box she helped herself, playfully wiggling her eyebrows as she bit the mushroom at the very tip clean off.

Ariela quivered in distaste. “Do you mind? I'm eating here.”

“So am I.” Jean laughed and dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “You know, I think I like cold pizza best.”

“I get into moods.” Using her freshly polished fingernails, she picked off a tiny chunk of black olive and wiped it on the inside of the box.

“It’s not a booger, Ariela.” Jean kicked back in her chair and contemplated her roommate.

Wary, Ariela lowered her second slice of pizza. “What?”


Ariela slowly shook her head. “Oh no, no, no, no. Tell me.”

Jean breathed in and out first. “Fine. It’s just…well…I figured Randy was going to be a bust. And he was—just another dud in a pattern of duds for you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Face it. You go out with losers, knowing they’re losers and they’re going to disappoint. It’s like you set yourself up on purpose.”

Ariela gave a dismissive snort. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m just saying. You know what you want, and you refuse to go there.” Jean took another bite of her pizza.

“I go out with the guys who ask me.”

“You turn down any guy who might be interesting.”

“I haven’t met any of those.”

“You don’t want to.” Jean tossed her crust back into the empty box and wiped her hands on her napkin. “I think you’re afraid to fall in love.”

Ariela scoffed at the idea, unconvinced. “Is that right?”

“We’ve been friends a long time. I know you better than you think. You’re afraid to end up like your mom.”

Sitting up, her eyebrows raised, Ariela deflected the charge. “I don’t think this is how a psych session is supposed to work. I believe I’m supposed to be the one talking and you’re supposed to take notes and nod occasionally and say things like ‘hmm,’ and ‘I see. Very interesting.’”

“I’ve just made some observations over the years, that’s all. Maybe it’s time to admit you don’t go deep with men. You keep them shallow, where they can’t hurt you.”

Ariela laughed. “Okay then, point me in the right direction, because I’m obviously mucking things up on my own.”

“Be serious.” There was an understanding look in Jean’s eyes. “You can’t run away forever.”

* * *

It was well over six hours since Dylan gave any thought to his aching back. All sense of time and discomfort were lost in a flurry of mental activity. Armed with damning evidence, he was in his zone, a master of political commentary as his words flowed across the screen.

‘—and unfortunately for the American people, Senator Norton has never acted on any legislation before his financial terms have been worked out first. The Carpenter Bill is a prime example. It makes this jaded journalist pine for the days when money was passed discreetly under the table, instead of brazenly and unapologetically in the open.’

With a dramatic flourish, Dylan lifted his hands off the keyboard and kicked back in his chair with an exhilarated smile. “Take that you bastard. Hope it stings like a bitch.”

He dated his column and sent it in.

“Oh yeah.” Reaching for his long-neglected beer, he took a swig and his face contorted with a wicked grimace. “Warm and flat.” He shuddered and rolled back his chair, grunting stiffly to his feet. Only now did he notice the daylight streaming in the windows.

“Jesus. What time is it?” He scrubbed his tired eyes with the heels of his hands.

Max sat up and scratched himself, his attention centered on his human. When Dylan swept up the open bag of cheese puffs on the desk and shook the last two into his hand, the dog’s tail beat the floor in double-time. Chuckling at the animal, he popped one into his own mouth and tossed the second to him. Max snatched it out of the air and swallowed it whole.

“You could at least pretend to taste it for my sake,” he said dryly.

The dog followed him into the kitchen and parked himself directly behind Dylan when he threw open the refrigerator door.

The pickings were slim. Dylan pulled out a container of forgotten lunch meat and opened the lid. He took a cautious sniff, jerked his head back, and sent the bologna sailing across the room. It landed in the trash with a satisfying whump. Max stretched up and gave the garbage an interested look.

“Don’t even think about it,” he warned.

Shit, there was nothing to eat. He slammed the refrigerator door and stretched through his spine, finally attuned to the stiffness he’d managed to ignore while working. Rubbing his lower back in a distracted fashion, he looked at the dog.

“I’ve gotta get something in my stomach. How does a breakfast sandwich sound?” Max wriggled with excitement and pounded his tail on the floor. Laughing, Dylan patted his leg and invited the dog over. “Yeah, like you know what I said.” Max leaned his weight against his thigh while he rubbed his ears. “Come on boy.” He grabbed the leash off the counter and snapped off the kitchen light.

* * *

Two blocks away, Jean shuffled into the kitchen and found Ariela curled over a mug of coffee, a magazine open on the table in front of her. When Jean saw the headline, Are you getting enough Niacin? she gasped in alarm. “Oh my god. Put that away!”

Ariela glanced up with a frown. “Why? It’s just a health article.” She returned to her reading.

Jean snorted. “I know. That’s what worries me.” She got a bowl down and reached for the cereal.

“Ha ha. Very funny.”

But as Jean silently predicted, it wasn’t long before Ariela made another of her ridiculous suggestions.

“We should have green tea on hand. It’s supposed to be good for you.”

“You don’t like tea.”

Without looking up from the page, Ariela shrugged. “I could learn. I should.”

Jean groaned. “Not this again. Do me a favor, stick to the makeover tips. Stop reading those health updates. I don’t need you imagining you’ve got a wheat allergy next. And I’m through, I mean it, I’m through with all those stupid fad diets.”

“You make it sound like I’m a hypochondriac or something.”

Jean slowly turned and gave her roommate a significant look.

Ariela rolled her eyes. “I’m not that bad.”

“Debatable. So, what time is Mrs. Corley coming in?” Jean pulled out a chair and sat at the table.


Ariela’s listless reply made Jean smile. Sprinkling sugar on her flakes, she asked, “Are you going straight down after breakfast?”

“Actually, I'm going to run to the market first and pick up something for later.”

Jean’s spoon hovered in front of her, milk dripping back into the bowl. “But I have to bring some sample books over to Banks Brothers at eight.”

“I’ll be right back. Just go do what you have to do. I’ve got it covered.”

* * *

As Ariela dressed for work, she thought about her appointment that morning. Though it was their policy to fawn over their clients, Mrs. Corley was a woman who appreciated a bit more fuss than normal. Unfortunately, that didn't mean she made it any easier on them. Her habitual indecision was maddening, but the money on the line made it worth the trouble.

Their last appointment was particularly frustrating. The knotty-pine cabinets Mrs. Corley had chosen were suddenly out. Now she wanted a radical new look for her kitchen, something sleek and modern. Maybe in oak? Ariela had crossed off the tile countertops without blinking and listened patiently while the client asked about granite, but not necessarily granite, instead. Could she do that?

“That’s no problem,” Ariela assured her with a tight smile, then brought out examples for Mrs. Corley to look over.

Then they moved on to wallpaper samples. That alone took well over an hour, even with Ariela steering the woman in the right direction again and again.

If Mrs. Corley didn't commit to this kitchen plan today, there was no telling what Ariela would do. She could almost picture herself escorting the impossible woman out and giving her a boot in the ass as she waved her off. Ariela sighed. No way could she ever do anything of the sort. Still, it was an enjoyable fantasy—hours of pleasure without the blowback and guilt.

Being Friday, Ariela would be on her own for lunch. Jean had a standing date with Ron.

Her roommate and business partner was already gone when Ariela slipped out the front door, locking it behind her. Heading down the front steps, she turned left at the sidewalk.

Gorgeous, the day was simply gorgeous—warm sunshine, clear, deep blue sky, and the lazy hum of bumblebees on the old-fashioned roses growing along the neighbor’s fence. Ariela drew the fragrance deep and sighed at the unexpected subtle finish of freshly mown grass that followed. It was a perfect day to play hooky, or maybe enjoy a picnic.

Truth be told, she didn’t mind the Friday routine. She had an hour, one whole hour, all to herself and she liked to stroll over to the little market at the end of the block. They usually had something good in their deli case, and a nice selection of sparkling juices and waters to go with it.

* * *

Pushing his way out the doors of the Spiffy Mart, Dylan wolfed down the last bite of his breakfast sandwich. There were two newspapers caught tight under his left arm and a second unwrapped sandwich in his right hand. He felt a wave of relief to see Max still waiting exactly where he'd left him, tied to the bike rack.

“Good boy.”

Dylan tore the sandwich into thirds and fed it to the dog. He had to shove the excited animal back in order to untie the knot and free him. The instant Max felt slack in the leash he took off, nearly jerking Dylan’s arm out of its socket. He struggled frantically to keep his newspapers from raining down on the sidewalk one section at a time.

“Max, wait! I said, wait, damn it.”

If he lost anything, Max was going to pay. A newspaper was a treasure. Even though he could get all the information he needed off the internet, there was something deeply satisfying about holding a paper. The pleasure of having to wash the inky residue off his fingers after he finished reading could never be replaced by a screen. Another drawback to reading online was his habit of making notes in the margins would naturally end. Harsh. Then there was the daily crossword, of course. He’d missed those the most while he was overseas.

Dylan hauled the dog back at the corner to keep him from darting into traffic. Giving up the fight for the moment, Max waited, happily fanning the air with his tail. When the light changed, Dylan eased up on the leash and the golden retriever took the lead, this time striding as regally as a show dog. Anyone who saw them might be fooled into thinking Max was domesticated, but Dylan knew better. His dog was a disaster waiting to happen.

Crossing the intersection, Dylan looked up from his dog and his smile evaporated when he saw a bike messenger shoot out of a dental-office parking lot and barrel into a woman on the sidewalk. The large hedge growing next to the lot must have blocked her from view. The impact threw her backwards and Dylan winced when he heard her head strike the concrete.

He broke into a run and reached the accident scene as the stunned bicyclist fought his way back to his feet. Still straddling his bike, the man stared bug-eyed at the woman lying in front of his tire.

Max, always the friendliest of dogs, chose that inopportune moment to leap on the guy and nearly knocked him over again. Aghast, Dylan dragged Max back by his collar.

The stunned messenger clutched his helmet. “I didn’t see her. I swear. She was just there.” They both turned to look at her. “Is she okay? Please tell me she’s okay.”

The woman lifted her head, her confusion palpable, and mumbled something.

Dylan went to one knee next to her. “Hey there. Are you all right?”

Her hand went to her forehead. “I think so.” The sun caught her directly in the eyes when she squinted to look up at him. She grimaced and closed them again, turning her face away.

Despite his concern, Dylan couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was, how nice she smelled. Her delicate perfume invaded his head with his next breath. A little shaken by it, he rose and gave the bicyclist an uncertain shrug.

“She seems okay, but I’m not a doctor.”

One thing was certain—she was going to have one whopper of a goose egg on the back of her head.

The courier checked his wristwatch. “I’m so sorry, but I really have to fly. I’m on the clock here.”

Since the woman wasn’t asking for herself, Dylan spoke up. “Do you have a business card, just in case?”

“Yes.” Reaching down, he pulled one out of a ridiculously tight pocket and handed it to Dylan. He started to go into another apology.

Dylan raised his hand, stopping him. “It’s cool. I’ll stick around.”

“Thank you. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.” The messenger took off and rejoined the early traffic.

“Okay.” Dylan turned back to the woman and a sudden chill sliced through him. She was too quiet, too still. Why wasn’t she sitting up? He dropped to his knee to take a closer look. “Hey. Still with me?”

Nope. Or she was doing one hell of a Sleeping Beauty impersonation. The stray thought left him wondering if a kiss would actually wake her.

“Better not try it,” he said to Max. Dylan patted her soft cheek instead. “Miss, miss? Can you hear me?”

Max nudged his way in and licked the young woman from chin to hairline in long slobbery strokes.

“What the hell?” Dylan wrestled him back, banishing the dog to the nearby grass. If an animal could sulk, Max was certainly doing it now. “You stay there. I mean it.” Dylan pointed sternly at the dog.

The woman jerked awake with a gasp. “I’m bleeding!”

Dylan whipped around and saw her feeling her damp face, a look of outright panic in her eyes.

“You’re not bleeding,” he assured her. “That was just my dog. He licked you. Sorry about that.”

Who could blame the animal? Dylan was having similar thoughts himself.

“I feel wet,” she said weakly.

“I know, that’s because my dog—”

“What?” Then she began to fade.

“Hey! Can you focus on me?” Dylan took her head in his hands and stroked her cheeks with his thumbs.

Her lashes fluttered open and she locked onto his eyes.

“Wow,” she whispered before going limp.

About The Author

Though I've been extremely comfortable with words my entire life, I'm terrible at numbers. I can't do figures in my head. Fractions make me panic, and I will stare glassy-eyed when people try to give me numbers to memorize. It's a mental block kind of thing at this point - an absolute aversion to conversion. On the other hand, I'm the go-to person for definitions and spelling. I can live with that.

I was raised in the suburbs, but live in the middle of the woods now. I'm a lover of pearls and lace, power tools and my chainsaw. I hate getting dirty, but love mucking around outside. I throw like a girl and have no apparent coordination, yet my limp wrists and game show hostess foot positions don't seem to interfere with the way I swing an ax or a hammer. I used to love climbing trees . . . until I discovered there are spiders in them. Now I just wear gloves.

I'm still very much in love with the man I married two months after my high school graduation. He's the smartest person I know, my best friend, and incredibly good for my ego. We raised three awesome boys in a rather unorthodox way and I wouldn't change a thing. Our oldest is married now. He and his lovely wife just gave us our first grandchild. Our middle son is a professional musician. And our youngest is in his third year of college.

So where does that leave me? In a quieter, certainly cleaner house with time to pursue my love of words. That's not too shabby either.

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