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Gambling On A Secret by Sara Walter Ellwood

Gambling On A Secret

Colton Gamblers, Book 1
by Sara Walter Ellwood

Lyrical Press

eBook ISBN: 9781616504434

When runaway-turned-heiress Charli Monroe asks Dylan Quinn, the town drunk and former Special Forces commander, to help her rebuild her Texas ranch, she finds her life and her heart in danger. Commitment-phobic, Dylan is attracted to Charli, but can he protect her long enough to ask her to build a future with him?

Note: Prologue omitted.

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Chapter One

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A Bitch Named Karma
Karma Collection, Book 1
by Stephanie Haefner

Lyrical Press

eBook ISBN: 9781616502331
Print ISBN: 9781616502386

Karma may be a bitch, but sometimes she knows what she’s doing.

When author Lexi Marshall’s perfectly fabulous life of designer clothes, nights on the town with her sexy boyfriend, and a successful writing career literally go up in flames, she must take on Karma and fight to gain control over her life.

Chapter One

“Finito!” I screamed, not caring if the entire building heard me.
I’d just typed The End on my latest manuscript and that meant another Lexi Marshall masterpiece was ready for the printers. Val would be ecstatic. As friend, confidante and editor extraordinaire, her job title usually included “nag” as well. But for once, I was two weeks ahead of my deadline.
Dressed in satin pajamas, I sprawled across my purple velvet duvet, marabou-covered slippers on my feet. My chocolaty rich curls were twisted on top of my head, held in place by a jewel-adorned clip. I stretched my arms above my head and pointed my toes, feeling a tingle throughout my body. The deep stretch loosened everything. Man, that felt great!
My laptop lay in front of me, glowing with accomplishment. She was my faithful friend who stuck by me through writer’s block and bad metaphors. Even when I’d threatened to pick her up and throw her across the room, she never gave me even a moment of spiteful malfunction. This was just as much her success as it was mine.
I clicked Save and copied the file to disc. This first installment, Marisol Takes Manhattan, was the beginning of a three book series. Book two would follow my heroine as she searched for Mr. Right. Of course it wouldn’t be easy. I’d throw all kinds of bumps in her road. And the final book, the piece de resistance, would be my first ever wedding-themed novel, a journey down the aisle complete with bridesmaids from hell and one wedding disaster after another. I’d been waiting forever for a three-book deal!
I closed the computer and hopped off the bed, pressing Play on my favorite 80’s CD. I did a happy dance around the room, belting out the lyrics at the top of my lungs. Not only was I delirious with joy, but the feeling of accomplishment put me in a horny mood. My boyfriend, Zak, and I had spent most of the previous month buried in our own workloads, rarely having the energy for a quick missionary, let alone any fun kinky stuff.
Finishing this book gave me a sense of uninhibited freedom and a delicious thought crossed my mind. I could dress in my black hooker boots—as Zak affectionately named them—and trench coat, absolutely nothing underneath. A little nookie in his office would be quite a surprising way to spend the afternoon. It sounded completely insane but also quite fun. I just had to do it. The sexy office tryst had to wait a bit, though. I shimmied into a black lace thong, classy pinstriped pants and said hooker boots, then finished the rest of my primping. Cha Cha, my Chihuahua, scurried after me as I headed toward the door. I gave her a little kiss on the nose before dashing out.
I found Val hidden behind a pile of manuscripts. She took one look at me and sighed.
“Please don’t tell me you need some coddling today. I’m drowning in alien love stories and super-spy dramas. And if I have to read one more teen vampire knock-off, I might just roll up the pages and fashion them into a noose!”
“Val, I know you thrive on drama, but isn’t this a little much?”
“If you had to read through as many of these as I did, you wouldn’t think so.”
“Well, I have great news! Marisol Takes Manhattan is finished.”
“You’re kidding. Please don’t joke with me, not today.” A pencil sat behind each ear and in her hand, another half-chewed one.
“No joke. Here she is.”
I handed her the disc, her eyes suddenly widening.
“I’ll leave you to your, uh, noose,” I said with a smile then turned to leave.
“Did I tell you I love you?”
“Not today!”
I headed to Accounting to pick up my latest royalty check. After being handed a perfectly plain number ten envelope—something I had become quite infatuated with over the years—I carefully placed it in my purse. As much as I wanted to tear it open and kiss its beautiful figures, I had other needs to attend to.
Inside the bathroom at Smith & Roland Publishing, I shed my pinstripe pants and silk cami. After stuffing them into my silver metallic Fendi bag, I wrapped my sleek black trench around me tightly. Every button had been slipped through its corresponding hole while the belt sat in a secure knot at my waist. My lips were painted with a shade of M.A.C. lipstick appropriately named Eager. The twenty-dollar pout screamed “kiss me now.” My body emanated Zak’s favorite perfume, its sweet yet sensual mix of aniseed, violets, vanilla and musk. The day we’d bought it, a tester bottle in a Martinique gift shop led to hours of love-making in a tropical paradise.
I walked the five blocks to Zak’s office, the satin lining of my coat rubbing on my thighs. Riding the elevator to the tenth floor among businessmen in suits and secretaries in conservative blouses and skirts, I felt quite naughty. If they only knew what lay under my simple black coat—barely a square foot of transparent fabric covering only my most intimate body parts. Thoughts of what I could do when I walked into Zak’s office swirled through my brain and brought a goofy smirk to my face. Just thinking of my finished manuscript made me a little wet. If I thought of all the Kama Sutra positions we could do in his desk chair, I’d be dripping by the time I actually made it to his office.
Zak’s secretary Ruth sat manning her post outside his office picking at an over micro-waved lasagna in a cardboard tray. Her graying hair and decades-old wardrobe made her a prime candidate for a makeover show, one where the victim is ambushed at work, their friends and family waiting in the wings.
After wiping a spot of sauce from the corner of her mouth, Ruth buzzed Zak on the intercom and alerted him of my presence.
“Well, um, go ahead and send her in,” he said over the speakerphone. Even with a McDonald’s drive-through quality, the sound of his voice had added to my arousal.
“Tough day, baby?” I asked in my most seductive manner as I strutted into his office.
“Oh, yeah…crazy,” he said without looking up, his fingers fast at work on the computer’s keyboard. I watched them peck at the keys with precision, yearning for them to be on me instead. Looking back to his face, I saw a bead of sweat roll down his forehead and noticed his tie was loosened too.
“Ooh, it’s hot in here, isn’t it?” I untied my belt and unbuttoned my coat, then inched it down my shoulders and onto the floor, a seductive move I’d learned during a strip-tease class. Zak looked up from the computer as I leaned on the desk, cleavage pouring from my tiny transparent bra. His bottom jaw fell to the keyboard. I felt something scratchy under my hand and looked down to find an emery board.
“What’s this for?” I asked, stepping out of my starring roll in this office porno flick.
“Uh, nothing. I guess Ruth left it there when she came in earlier.”
Not really caring about the answer, I flung the nail file aside and got back into character. I walked around Zak’s desk and straddled myself around my man, grinding on his already hard protrusion. Just the sight of my half naked body excited him and I loved that. My hands yanked the tie from his neck and began opening his shirt. I pressed my lips to his, forcing them apart as I pushed my tongue deep inside. He tasted like cinnamon Binaca, his breath refresher of choice.
“We can’t do this! What if someone walks in?” he asked in a semi-panicked tone.
“Zaky, you know no one comes in here without Ruth buzzing you first. Come on, let Georgie Boy come out and play!” I unhooked my bra.
Zak’s eyes fixated on my erect cotton candy colored nipples—he was always a breast man. My lips traced a path to his ear and whispered my most favorite dirty line, “Georgie Porgie, put it in my pie!”
* * * *
Once I’d gotten what I wanted from Zak, I kissed him one last time and told him I’d see him at home. His labored breathing continued even as I walked out the door. The sun shone over the city on a beautiful Indian summer day and the warmth penetrated my dark long-sleeve coat. I wished I could take it off and soak in some Vitamin D but as adventurous as I was, I wouldn’t dare walk down the street in lingerie.
My mind replayed the fantastic orgasm I’d experienced, bringing a goofy smirk to my face and a flutter throughout my body. It reminded me of the euphoria I’d felt after finishing my manuscript a couple hours earlier. And the royalty check that had been shoved to the bottom of my Fendi bag when I topped it with my discarded pants and shirt. It stood next in line for my love and devotion and maybe even a hot kiss or two. I caressed its body first, then like a giddy kid in a candy store, ripped open the envelope. Staring back at me was a check for a quarter of the amount I normally received.
A glitch in the system most likely. There had to be a zero or something missing. I got on my cell and called Val, but was sent directly to her voicemail.
“Val, babe. I just opened my check and there must have been a problem in Accounting. I think someone needs to be fired!” I said in my silly diva tone. “But anyway, call me after you straighten it out and I can stop by for the rest of my money. Ciao!”
* * * *
After a shower and wardrobe change I made my way to my favorite shoe boutique, regardless of the figures on my check. A computer glitch didn’t scare me one bit. I wouldn’t let it keep me from a well-deserved treat.
Tristan greeted me as I walked in, and air-kissed both my cheeks.
“Daaahling! Where on earth have you been?”
“Oh, busy with the latest masterpiece. You know how that goes!”
“Can’t wait to read it!” He grinned at me. “Have a seat and I’ll be right with you. Some new little peaches just arrived and I know you’ll love them!”
Tristan returned a few minutes later with eight boxes of shoes, each one in my dainty size six and a half. Each pair he unveiled became my favorite. Making the decision on which to adopt would be excruciating. Each adorable twosome stared up at me with puppy dog eyes and pleaded, “Pick me! Choose me! Love me!”
Buying a pair of shoes is much more than strapping some pieces of leather to your feet and taking home the first ones that fit right. It is a commitment, a long lasting relationship—usually longer than most boyfriends. These shoes had to be sturdy, dependable and able to support me through anything. They’d show me off and make me look spectacular. These amazing little ego boosts did so much more than protect my feet from the rigid Earth.
I narrowed my decision down to red kitten heel slides and a pair of cheetah print stilettos with an open toe. Decisions, decisions! After mulling it over and modeling them for Tristan one last time, I still couldn’t make up my mind.
“You know, there’s only one solution to this problem,” he said to me with twinkling eyes.
“Take them both!”
“I like the way you think!”
Pleased with my purchases, I turned to leave the boutique, spying something cute near the
door.
“Oh my God, those aren’t…” I turned back to Tristan.
“Yes, they are!”
Examining the minuscule hot pink doggie boots, I knew Cha Cha’s wardrobe couldn’t be complete without them. Leaving the shop with a couple treasures for myself and also something for my baby, I promised Tristan I’d visit again soon. I sent Zak a naughty text message, describing the newest additions to my shoe fetish collection and which sexual positions I’d be modeling them for him in.

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Soap Dreams
by Stephanie Haefner

Lyrical Press

eBook ISBN: 9781616502812

It’s never too late to start over.

Robyn Miller is perfectly happy in her immaculate home, playing stay-at-home mom and devoted wife. That is, until she’s channel surfing one day and sees her high school sweetheart Derek, acting in a lead role in her favorite old soap.

Chapter One

Robyn Miller jammed her hands knuckle-deep into a mound of raw ground beef and egg.
“Mommy, Mommy, come quick!” her daughter yelled from the living room.
“What’s going on?” She hoped her four-year-old hadn’t spilled her milk or gotten her head stuck between the railing spindles–again.
After a quick wash, Robyn dried her hands on her black velour lounge pants and trotted into the living room, nearly tripping over Malibu Barbie’s Super Cool Scooter. Paige’s favorite TV show now resembled a nasty blizzard. The little girl stood with the remote control in her hands, volume rising, as the roar of static thundered around them.
“Oh, honey, the station must be having trouble.” Robyn tightened the ponytail at the nape of her neck, then took the remote, immediately lowering the sound. “Let me check another channel.”
After an exciting morning of picking up the dry cleaning, mopping every surface of the thirty two-hundred square foot home, and prepping dinner for a husband who may or may not be home to eat it, she used this opportunity to rest, and plopped onto the leather couch. Ahhh, relaxation! She flipped through a few channels and saw they were in perfect working order. After surfing past her favorite soap opera, she instinctively clicked back, despite having been away from it for years. Even as a stay-at-home mom–or domestic goddess, as she preferred to be labeled–there wasn’t much time for lounging or eating bonbons. Robyn sank into the couch as the drama on the screen sucked her in and soothed her. The messy kitchen, a basket of unfolded laundry, the windows that needed washing–all her distractions disappeared as the TV beckoned her.
It was a quirky roommate her freshman year of college who had lured her in–the perfect way to spend an hour in between classes. And the next semester, when the two no longer had their afternoons free, she’d snagged an extra VCR from home and recorded the show each day. Missing even one episode had no longer been an option.
Once again, Robyn felt the familiar seduction from the screen and the faces of the never changing characters she remembered. But there were many new faces, too. A hair-pulling cat fight broke out between two divas she didn’t recognize, and once their perfectly manicured claws had retracted, the scene switched to a young couple inching their way toward a bed.
“Um, honey, why don’t you go clean up the toys in your room,” she said as the woman’s shirt dropped to the floor, her pink satin and black lace bra on display.
Paige sat on the floor, playing, oblivious to the sexuality displayed in front of her. “Mommy, do I have to?”
“Yes!”
The administrative assistant turned stay-at-home mom felt some guilt at shooing her daughter from the room to allow this steamy pleasure, but that feeling quickly faded. The TV couple caressed each other with a gentleness employed only by a man and woman in love. His hand brushed her cheek and pushed the stray hairs from her face. She smiled and took the hand in hers, pressing it to her heart as a sultry instrumental melody played in the background. He moved his hand and kissed the spot where it had been, inching his way toward his beloved’s mouth. The girl had starred on the soap for ages, but this tan muscled guy was new. He pulled apart the snaps of his shirt, one by one, revealing an admirable set of six-pack abs. And when the shirt cascaded to the floor it revealed a tattoo between his shoulder blades. The bold black ink gave him a bad-boy type of sexiness Robyn had never found attractive before, but a momentary tingle swept through her body. She studied his face and lips, his eyes, and realized they looked familiar. Could he have been on the show years ago and she hadn’t recognized him? Maybe she’d seen him on another show or ad?
The soap broke for commercial and she ran to the kitchen to finish her dinner preparations. Once her grandmother’s famous meatloaf recipe had been reproduced, she set the pan in the refrigerator and peeked in on her daughter. Seeing Paige was contently playing tea party in her bedroom with some of her most treasured guests, she inched the door closed and settled back on the couch with a handful of Oreos. When the show returned, the couple lay in post-orgasmic bliss, smiling at each other. The actor placed both hands on the sides of the woman’s face and kissed her. He pulled away as the camera panned in close.
“I love you.”
Robyn’s bottom jaw fell into her lap.
Those three little words, quite insignificant on their own, were some of the most powerful in the English language. Coming from some random actor’s mouth, they meant nothing to her. But these words had been spoken with a familiar voice, one she had heard before. Many times, actually. This tanned hottie on TV wasn’t some random actor.
She turned up the volume on the fifty-inch plasma and listened as the man professed his undying love for Cassandra Worthington, the spoiled brat heiress who everyone loved to hate. He told her he needed her and would move heaven and earth to be with her. His words floated from the top-of-the-line surround sound speakers and into Robyn’s ears. The familiarity made her shiver.
The scene switched and pulled her from a deep memory. She snapped back to reality. How and when had Derek Woodsen started acting? Last she’d known, he worked for a landscaping company in the same town she lived in–the same town where they’d both grown up. Her mother usually knew all the local gossip and passed it on to her whether she cared to know or not. How did her mother not know any of this? When had Derek left Springville? She could have sworn she’d seen him recently. Was this his first acting job?
And where did those washboard abs come from? He hadn’t had those in high school.
Robyn grabbed the phone and dialed Anna’s number. Before her best friend could even utter a simple “Hello,” she blurted, “Oh my God! You have to turn on channel seven!”
“Robyn, is that you?” Anna asked as a baby’s gurgles floated from the earpiece.
“Yes! Turn it on now!”
“Okay, okay.”
The TV clicked on, then the sound of channels flipping by.
“And? What’s so important about this?” Anna asked once her set rested on one channel.
“Now you have to wait. The scene is over.”
After a few minutes of casual chit-chat, Derek came back on the screen.
“Okay, this is it,” Robyn said.
“Yeah, and?” Anna asked sarcastically. “Half-naked guy, half-naked girl. I know you love this stuff, but what’s the big deal?”
“Look closer. Doesn’t that guy look familiar?”
The line went quiet, then a gasp.
“Oh my God! You’ve got to be kidding me! The bastard was never that hot in high school! When the hell’d this happen?”
“I don’t know. Usually my mother knows this stuff.”
“It’s kinda weird, huh?”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
“Your ex-boyfriend, well, no, that’s too nice. Your ex-shithead is on TV–practically naked.
“So how’s baby Amelia today?”
“Nice change in topic. She’s good–slept six hours last night.”
“Only two months old. That’s really great.”
“I’m hoping by three months she’ll double that.”
Anna’s baby girl began wailing.
“I better go. Smells like we have a problem here.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to you later.”
Robyn set the phone down and watched the last scene of the show–Derek’s character took a gold wedding band out of his pocket and threw it into the trash. She’d love to know what would happen next. Should she record it? Probably wasn’t a great idea to watch her ex half-naked on a regular basis. But it wasn’t really Derek she was watching. It was Cameron Calder, a random guy from Cedar Valley.
Before shutting off the TV, she set it to record each day indefinitely.
* * * *
“Robyn, dear?” her mother called to her while setting the table for their traditional Sunday dinner. She placed the last fork in its proper spot, then walked to the kitchen expecting to be handed a stack of plates. Instead, her mother gave her a full-color flyer. “I saw this tacked up on the community board at the market.”
In big bold letters it stated: Welcome home, Derek Woodsen!
Underneath was Derek’s head shot, complete with blinding white teeth and those piercing blue eyes that bore into her soul. She suddenly felt a little wobbly.
“Remember when you kids were boyfriend and girlfriend?” Robyn’s mother asked. “He practically lived here! But I didn’t mind. Such a little cutie he was! And so sweet. He was always sending you flowers and writing poems.” She reached for a stack of linen napkins and handed them to Robyn. “I was even smitten by him, but your father sure wasn’t as trusting.” She gave a hearty laugh. “Remember that one day–he’d dragged Derek over to his antique Civil War pistol collection, displayed on the living room wall. The poor boy shook in his sneakers when he asked if they still worked. I can still picture that devilish grin on your father’s face when he answered, ‘Yes!’”
Robyn finished setting the table and returned to the kitchen, hoping the Derek conversation had ended.
“Did you know he’s on that show?” No such luck. “The one you used to watch.” Her mother paused to stir a pot on the stovetop. “I just found out the other day. Gloria down at the Beauty Stop told me Derek’s mother has been coming in regularly and having her nails done and even having her whole face waxed. I can’t understand why anyone would pay someone to do that, but I suppose when your son’s an actor. I hear all she does now is brag about him being on TV and how much money he gives her.”
Robyn thought of Mrs. Woodsen and the devastation on her face the day of her husband’s funeral. She and Derek had been long broken up by that point. But as painful as it was to face him–the memory of their horrible breakup smacking her in the face–she’d pushed it aside and supported the woman who had treated her like a daughter. With her soon-to-be husband on her arm, she had given her condolences to Derek, but not another word after. He’d moved back to Springville after the funeral, giving up his big football scholarship. His mother needed her only boy to take care of her.
She had seen Derek on occasion, in the pharmacy or somewhere else around town, never speaking and usually avoiding eye contact.
“Did you read here?” Robyn’s mother poked her finger at the flyer, jolting her back to reality.
“There’s going to be a big party at the Legion celebrating Derek’s Soap Opera Award.”
“He won an award already?”
“Yeah. Best New Man or something like that.” She hurried back to the oven to check her roast chicken. While she basted the bird, she added, “You should go to that party.”
“No, I couldn’t. I haven’t talked to him in years.” And aside from a soft “I’m sorry” at his father’s funeral, her last words to him included, “I hate you!” and “You ruined my life!” As far as her parents knew, the teen lovebirds had simply grown apart after going away to separate colleges.
“So what! I’m sure he’d love to see you.”
“Who would love to see you?” Robyn’s husband, Grant, entered the room behind her, eyes fixed on his Blackberry.
“Oh, no one. It’s nothing,” she answered. His gaze still focused on the tiny screen. She handed him a beer, most likely the reason for his trip into the kitchen. Little else would pull him away from the football game on TV.
“Robyn’s boyfriend from high school is a big-time TV actor now. There’s going to be a party for him next weekend.”
Grant thumbed around on his phone, then looked up briefly. “You going?” Nothing kept him from his Blackberry.
“No. There’s no reason for me to go.” Robyn immediately left the room as her heart starting beating a bit erratically. She didn’t want to see Derek. She saw him each day on TV. That was enough. She didn’t need to see him in person.

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Paradise Cove
by Stephanie Haefner

Lyrical Press

eBook ISBN: 9781616502577

Paradise is nothing if you choose to enjoy it alone.

The Paradise Cove, a run-down Cancun resort, is in desperate need of TLC. Shelby can easily envision the resort as it was in its heyday and sees its potential. She vows to do everything in her power to return it to its former glory.

Chapter One

The crash of ocean waves echoed in Shelby Saunders’ ears while a soft steamy breeze blew the chocolate-colored strands of hair trailing from her twisted up-do. Her body tingled and her stomach flip-flopped in a good way as she placed a cashier’s check written for the entire balance of her savings account on the table.
Mr. and Mrs. Espinoza sat across from her with their lawyer grandson, Gabriel, who’d flown in from San Antonio to assist with the real estate sale.
“Here is the rest,” she said as she placed another cashier’s check on the table, half of the loan she’d taken out for the purchase of the resort. The rest of the loan–the biggest in her life–would hopefully be enough to refurbish the twenty-room resort, its kitchen, dining room, lobby, and the concrete patio the four of them sat on.
Gabriel shook his head. Every button of his crisp white dress shirt had been secured and his tie sat firmly in its place. Who would wear that suit in ninety-degree weather? The jacket looked like it weighed a hundred pounds and just the thought of it draped across her shoulders made Shelby sweat even more. Her body hadn’t acclimated itself to the Cancun heat yet and even in a spaghettistrap sundress, perspiration dripped from her pores.
“I don’t agree with this at all, Papi,” Gabriel said to his grandfather. “This place is your life, my life. You raised your family here–your grandchildren grew up here. How can you sell it? And so cheaply? There’s still time to back out.”
Shelby understood Gabriel’s hesitation in letting The Paradise Cove go. The emotions she’d quickly developed for this quaint piece of Mexican heaven surprised her. When she’d first arrived more than two months earlier, its overgrown shrubbery, sun-bleached upholstery and the missing letters on the resort sign almost made her run away without looking back. Never again would she let Chloe talk her into booking a bargain trip online. But something about the place tugged at Shelby’s heart. She easily imagined the resort in its heyday: tanned bodies lounging, laughing, sipping on cocktails rimmed with pineapple slices and colorful parasols poking out of the frosty concoctions.
Heaven in a tropical paradise.
Well, except for Chloe’s incessant complaining.
Shelby’s feelings for the Espinozas came as a surprise, too. She’d watched the sweet old couple and could see they loved their work. The Espinozas welcomed guests like old friends, even if it was their first meeting, and cared for them as if they had known them their entire lives.
“Gabriel, she loves it just as we do.” A man who showed no fear in expressing his emotions, Mr. Espinoza put a hand to his grandson’s shoulder, eyes staring intently. “Shelby is an amazing young woman. She will do right by us.”
Shelby’s seven days of bliss with the Espinozas had elapsed in the blink of an eye. This couple filled a spot in her soul that had been achingly empty and the thought of returning to a life of nothingness a world away felt like a stroll down death row. She had no man. No real family. A couple of friends and a depressing job were all that waited in New Jersey. While sitting outside the resort for her ride back to the airport, a crazy idea had floated into her brain. Instead of getting in the taxi, Shelby had sent Chloe on her way, alone, marched back inside, and made an offer to the Espinozas. They’d accepted without hesitation. Together they’d taken the first step in reclaiming the glory of The Paradise Cove, and Shelby began a whole new chapter in her life, something she desperately needed.
“But Grandfather, why such a small amount of money? How can you live the rest of your lives on this?” Gabriel pointed to the checks laying in front of them.
Mr. Espinoza stood, walked to the edge of the cracked and crumbling patio, and looked out at the beach. When he turned back, Shelby watched his eyes pan over the rotted wood of the bar and the torn awning above them. “So much work to be done. She’s probably giving us far too much.”
“The memories, Papi. How can you sell our memories for such a small price?”
“You can’t sell memories, Gabriel. They’re inside you. No one can buy them, even for double or triple the cost.”
Gabriel sighed and turned his attention to Shelby. “Are you happy? You’ve swindled an old couple out of thousands of dollars!”
“No,” Mrs. Espinoza said, adding her two cents to the conversation. “Shelby is a wonderful girl. She made our last moments in this haven pure joy. She is the right person. She will return it to what it once was.” Mrs. Espinoza smiled. Her continuous stream of faith reminded Shelby of her mother.
“Find your dream world!” she’d always said, and encouraged Shelby to search out happiness and follow it wherever it led her. Who would have known that path to happiness would cause her to leave the safety of a one-bedroom apartment and bank teller job to buy a Cancun resort?
With Mrs. Espinoza’s wide smile and a gentle pat of her hand, the “what have I gotten myself into?” thoughts disappeared from Shelby’s mind. She’d left everything she’d ever known, but this venture would pay off. It had to. After the sudden death of her mother and step-father, she’d battled with her only step-sibling for her share of the life insurance policy. This once-inseparable pair of stepsisters had duked it out for months and Shelby had never expected to lose someone so close to her over something as trivial as money. She cursed her parents for leaving them without a will and creating the situation. In the end, she’d gotten what she deserved and wasn’t about to waste the chance she’d been given. She would make this happen.
Gabriel sighed. “I can’t change your minds, can I?”
The elderly couple shook their heads.
After shuffling some papers around and getting Shelby’s signature on about a hundred of them, Gabriel stood and hugged both his grandparents. He walked off without a single glance in her direction.
* * * * *
What were his grandparents thinking? It made no sense at all. Why they would sell the resort to a stranger? This girl had no idea what she was doing. She barely looked old enough to be out of college and couldn’t possibly know anything about running a business. Sometimes his grandparents let their hearts make decisions, rather than their heads. Gabriel had seen it a million times over the years, giving far too many discounts and complimentary drinks.
A free piña colada was nothing compared to this. Yes, the resort needed some major work, but with a sponge and bucket and a few coats of paint, it was a goldmine. They could have easily sold it for double or triple what they’d gotten from this Shelby woman. What were they going to do when their minuscule nest egg ran out?
* * * * *
Shelby woke the next morning, and after her eyes adjusted to the blinding sun, her gaze moved to the sliding patio door of the resort room she’d taken up residence in. She’d left the glass open to allow in the soft breeze and the lullaby of crashing waves. Was this for real? The tattered linen curtain danced as the salty scent of the ocean drifted in and she knew she would always enjoy these simple moments.
With the Espinozas having moved to their new casita, being alone at The Paradise Cove felt quite surreal. It was no longer a resort she vacationed at–it was her resort. Shelby stretched and sat up, recalling the events of the night before. She’d lit candles and played soft tropical music.
After a dinner together on the patio of The Paradise Cove at sunset, Mr. and Mrs. Espinoza took one last stroll to the ocean’s edge. They’d held each other and kissed, as Shelby had sat by, watching them give a tear-filled goodbye to the home they’d known for nearly five decades. Shelby hoped they were happy with their decision and vowed to make them proud of her and what she did with the place they loved.
Now it was time to get to work. She had given herself a two-month deadline to fix up the main building housing the lobby, kitchen, dining room and patio, and then the two buildings on either side, each with four guest suites. Her goal was to re-open the resort while continuing to work on the rest of the suites. After a quick and not-so-hot shower, her first order of business was stripping the guest rooms. She tossed every piece of thread-bare bedding, along with ancient lamps, ice buckets, and alarm clock radios that probably hadn’t worked in a decade. After moving one of the beds and finding a rat and her babies, she screamed and ran from the room. No wonder she had been the only guest.
Several hours of labor and eighty jumbo-sized garbage bags later, she grabbed a bottle of water and relaxed on the only remaining fabric-covered beach chair without a gigantic hole in it. As she twisted the cap on her water, she debated dumping the entire contents on her sweat-spattered body. Instead, she downed half of it in one gulp. She watched the tourists walk by–lovers with hands intertwined, playfully pushing each other into the water as it lapped at the sand. Jet skis zoomed past, along with a boat pulling a parasailer. Faint sounds of a steel drum band drifted out from one of the neighboring resorts–a typical day of sun and fun in Cancun.
The Paradise Cove’s beach sprawled out in front of her, rough and unkempt, and surely most people barely gave it a glance when they walked by. If they did focus on it for more than two seconds, they’d scrunch their noses at its random pieces of driftwood, some half-buried and pointing in all directions, and clumps of wet seaweed with miniature clouds of hovering insects. It wouldn’t win any “Prettiest Beachfront” awards, but this small piece of earth held much potential.
She stood and trotted toward the water, and as a small wave tumbled over her feet, her toes sunk like she’d stepped in quick sand. Oh, that felt great! After bending and splashing herself with the cool water, refreshing her body, she turned and looked back at the resort. A fresh coat of paint was a must and the awning needed to be replaced. There was a ton of work–no surprises there–but now that her name was printed on the deed, the pages of the to-do list seemed to grow exponentially.
Luckily for her, lack of a life back in New Jersey had lent her obscene amounts of time to watch do-it-yourself decorating shows. This favorite pastime gave her tons of information that she’d stored in her head precisely for this sort of situation. Even though she had never done it, she knew she could spackle and paint like a pro. And doing it herself was a must. It wouldn’t be easy, but she had a positive attitude and a vat of elbow grease. Surely it would equal the assistance of at least two, maybe even three more bodies.
If she wanted to cross off any of the items on her extensive list, she needed to get back to work. She entered the second guest building and began filling more huge black plastic trash bags. They accumulated one by one onto the walkway and in no time, an Everest-sized mound had been formed. She grabbed two bags and dragged them straight to the garbage Dumpster, which looked to be filling quite quickly. After climbing up on a rusted metal lounge chair, she reached inside to rearrange the bags and squish them in as much as possible.
Standing on her toes, she still couldn’t reach one of the bags. After carefully placing a foot on each arm rest, she leaned over the edge once again. The chair began to tip and before she could right it, it toppled over, leaving her balancing on the edge of the metal box. The weakness of her over-worked arms couldn’t take the strain and she fell head-first into the garbage.
Sinking between the bags, Shelby scrambled to gain some kind of footing, but the poking and prodding of random pieces of wood and rubbish hindered any kind of progress she made.
“Let me help you,” a man said.
She finally steadied herself on top of an archaic air-conditioning unit and when she peered over the edge, she found Gabriel Espinoza standing there in a dark navy suit.
Great. Her rescuer had to be the one person who hated her.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and in what looked to be quite expensive leather shoes, he sprinted to the tool shed at the far end of the resort. He came back with a ladder, opened it and climbed up. Reaching for her hands without saying a word, he helped her onto the ladder.
The two climbed down as Shelby tried her best not to let on she had intense pain radiating through her right ankle.
When both of her feet were planted in the sand, Gabriel folded the ladder. “You should be more careful, you know. You’re lucky I was here.”
“Thank you for your help.” She avoided his eyes as she wiped her hands on her shorts, waiting for him to walk ahead. He couldn’t see her limp.
“Where do you want the ladder?” he asked.
“Anywhere is fine.”
He rolled his eyes and lifted the dull metal apparatus, then walked toward the main building. Suddenly he turned and looked at her.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing.”
“I can see you’re in pain.” His impatience came charging through. “Is it your ankle?”
Shelby sighed and continued to move forward. “Yes. I must have twisted it.”
Gabriel set the ladder down and stepped to her. “Come here.”
“I’m fine. I can do it.”
“No, you’re not fine.” He wrapped his arm under hers and supported her weight. A flock of butterflies and ice water surged through her body as his hand curled around her, every one of his fingers pressing into her side as he held her tightly.
They hobbled to the lobby, where he set her down on the rattan sofa, its floral patterned cushions devoid of fluff.
Gabriel retrieved a first aid kit from behind the front desk. First he surveyed the damage to her legs, which were riddled with cuts and scrapes. “I don’t think any of these are too bad.” He rummaged through the rusty metal box. “How is your head?”
“It’s fine.” Shelby ignored the throb at the back of her skull. “Um, thank you, again. For helping me out there. And for getting all this.” She motioned to the kit. “I didn’t even realize there was a first aid kit behind the counter.”
“Well, I’ve spent nearly my entire life at this resort. I know everything about The Paradise Cove.”
“I hope to learn.” She took the antibiotic wipe he’d offered and tore it open. He then handed her a few large bandages.
“You sure you know what you’ve gotten yourself into?” He took out a long stretchy bandage and wrapped her ankle with it.
“I think so. I’m putting everything I’ve got into this place.”
“You better. This resort is very special to my family and I’m not happy about it being owned by an outsider.”
Shelby sat quiet as she cleaned her wounds, Gabriel’s eyes burning her skin. If this place was so special to his family, why were Mr. and Mrs. Espinoza here all alone? Surely they’d needed help taking care of guests and doing repairs. Where was the family when the resort fell into despair? And if this place meant so much to Gabriel, why was he in San Antonio instead of Cancun? “Well, I care about this place enough to give it the attention it deserves, even if I’m not an Espinoza.”
“Are you implying that I don’t care?”
“If you did, why weren’t you here years ago, helping your grandparents take care of the place?”
His top lip curled and his voice rose a few decibels. “I was making a career for myself.”
Apparently she had nicked a nerve.
“If I had the sweetest grandparents on the planet, I would have dropped everything to be at their side when they needed me.”
“I was doing what I had to do. You have no idea what you’re talking about.” He slammed the first aid kit onto the table and the sweat beads on his forehead began streaming down. The constraints of a suit, dress shirt and snugly fitted tie had to be excruciating. “If you had minded your own business and left my grandparents alone, none of this would be happening right now. I’ll be shocked if you don’t run this place completely into the ground.” He stood up.
Shelby stood too, matching the fire in his ocean blue eyes, set off by his bronzed skin and onyx black hair. “You just wait. I’ll make your grandparents proud.”
He marched past her, got into his rental car and sped away.
* * * * *
Damn that woman! Gabriel punched the gas, probably a bit harder than he should have. Dust and rocks sputtered from the back tires of the rental. That woman infuriated every last cell in his body. The Paradise Cove was supposed to be his someday, not sold off to some city transplant who had no idea how to run a business, let alone one in a completely different country. Why did this have to happen now?
In another year or two, he would have been able to take over and make sure his grandparents’ legacy flourished. He’d been planning it for years. But now it was too late. The resort had a new owner and he was not in a position to change it. He’d have to sit back and watch his birthright sink into the sand with Shelby at the helm. It was inevitable. She would destroy The Paradise Cove.
And the fact that she looked amazingly beautiful while doing it made it a hundred times worse.

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Rock Bottom
by Cate Masters

Lyrical Press

eBook ISBN: 9781616502829

For Jet Trently, success means playing the same tired hits. When Billie Prescott is sent to cover Jet’s reality dating show, Rock Bottom, her life’s at Rock Bottom too, until she hears Jet’s new songs. When Jet touches her heart as well, will the reality show ruin the real thing?

Chapter One

The laptop screen cast a pale blue-white light across the keyboard, enough to navigate the web. Billie Prescott clicked through the pages. “How perfect.”
From the bedroom sounded a creak, then footsteps padded up. Strong arms encircled her waist, and a deep voice rumbled in her ear. “Porn surfing? Without me?”
Giggling, she leaned into him. “This is porn to me.”
“Tree houses?” He rested his chin on her shoulder and then nudged his shirt away from her neck to nuzzle.
“For adults. Aren’t they amazing?” Since reading Robinson Crusoe as a little girl, she’d harbored a dream to live in a life-sized house in the trees.
“Come back to bed. You’re wrinkling my shirt.”
His sexy growl trembled along her skin, made her yearn for what it promised. “But these are–”
He cupped her breast and squeezed.
Instinctively, she slid her hand up into his hair. “You’re right. I can look at them some other time.” Two years she’d waited for him. Two long years of flirting and innuendo, and a date here and there in various states of undress before finally landing him in her bed. As much as it had delighted her to awaken and see Everett sleeping beside her, she had difficulty imagining him in her dream house.
Still, she took his hand and let him lead her to the bedroom. He may or may not be her soul mate, but only a thorough investigation would reveal the truth. A long, deep, intensive investigation.
Everett excelled at intensive. For short intervals, at least.
* * * *
Billie bumped open the conference room door, dribbling coffee down her pant leg. “Ach.” One reason her wardrobe consisted of black and chocolate: stains didn’t show as well. Besides, her long dark hair and fair complexion never fit the summery light tones.
Around the small circular table, the staff of Strung Out, Philly’s struggling music magazine, halted conversations to send haughty glares in her direction. Billie liked to joke Strung Out wanted to be Rolling Stone when it grew up. In her five years there, they’d lost a few staffers to the better-known and respected national competitor. More would follow if they could, if only to escape these cramped quarters and this grimy city to trendier New York, Chicago or LA. Not Billie. She liked staying closer to home. And Everett. Especially now that things had begun to get interesting.
Sliding onto a seat, she dabbed at the coffee spot. When her gaze landed on Zinta, Billie smiled and said hello. “Hey, I want to hear about that Incubus concert later. Next time they play in town, they’re mine.”
“Yeah. Later.” Zinta’s shoulder-length blond hair glinted in the morning sun, and she arched a brow. Not a good sign. Others found her a hard read, probably because of her striking features–rosebud mouth in ever-present rose-red lipstick, dark brows framing green eyes rimmed with thick lashes. But Billie picked up her friend’s subtle cues: a lifted brow-flicked glance combo could spell real trouble.
Everett’s glare hardened. “As I was saying…”
Billie would have to be on her best behavior. “Sorry. What’d I miss?”
He pursed his lips. “The assignments.” His exaggerated diction left no doubt of his disapproval.
A knot formed in her stomach. Her editor had warned her about arriving late. Zinta had warned her about sleeping with her editor. She hadn’t paid attention to either. Zin claimed his pointed dark eyebrows, onyx eyes and black hair set off by an impeccably trimmed goatee gave him a devilish appearance deserving of his reputation. Billie thought he could pass for Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell in trendy business casual dress.
Rocking back in his chair, steepling his fingers to his lips, no one here would be able to guess those lips had explored every inch of her all weekend. She’d tell him later how brilliant he’d acted. Better yet, she’d demonstrate her awe. Lack of sleep may have diminished her looks, but not Everett’s.
“All of the assignments?” she ventured.
“All but one.” Sipping his coffee, he concentrated on his cup.
“Please tell me it’s half-decent. My fact-checking call kept me, or I swear I’d have been on time.” She grinned. “This time.” Hopefully she could sweet-talk her way out of trouble and back into his good graces.
He drummed his fingers against the entertainment magazines strewn near his portfolio.
The top cover caught her eye. “Oh, geez. Look at him. How pathetic.” She lifted it to study it.
Jet Trently, muscled arms crossed over his smooth, chiseled chest. A red bandanna wrapped across his unruly layers of sandy blond hair, the only clothing in view with the photo cropped at his hips. Scantily clad girls draped across his arms and shoulders, glistening pink lips parted as if panting.
Fifteen years ago, she’d have given anything to have been one of them. Then twenty, Jet had been one of the hottest guys on the planet. His rock ballads ruled the airwaves–and her CD player. The songs wound their way into her mind, her soul. She’d awakened singing them and fallen asleep humming them. But now, after hearing the same songs repeated ad nauseum on the radio, they grated her nerves. Though he continued to generate titillated energy among females wherever he went, Jet’s attempt at a musical comeback fell flat until he’d agreed to star in a reality show tracking his revived attempt–and his love life, of all things.
Tilting the magazine to get a better view, she gave a tsk. “Rock Bottom–such an appropriate title. He needs a catapult to help him back from the depths. So is this the latest round of fawning women?” How could such an obviously popular guy have trouble finding love? He must get offers everywhere he traveled, but something about his cocky stance suggested little interest in the women pawing him. Her reporter’s instincts went into overdrive as she wondered what sort of female might appeal to him, if not the contestants.
Zinta clicked her bloodred nails. A sign of nervousness. Possibly a warning sign. “They’re last season’s bevy of beauties.”
Something about Zin’s steadfast gaze unnerved Billie. She’d have to confer with her after the meeting to find out what was up. And to catch her up on the weekend. An entire weekend this time. A first for Everett. Things definitely had heated up between them. Well, until this morning.
Jet’s clear blue eyes captured her attention again. “Panting over him? Or the spotlight?” Sure he looked great, but had they no self-respect? Over the years, stories of his bad boy behavior had overshadowed his music. Trashing hotel rooms, showing up late for concerts, bitter arguments with his band.
Everett leaned back, his signature cool in deep play. Very convincing how he avoided her gaze and affected a stern boss persona. “They’re after both, probably.”
“Ugh. When will he give up? Or at least ditch the nineties persona.” The hair style, at minimum.
“When he finds true love, apparently.” Wide-eyed, Zinta glanced at Everett.
Something definitely must be up. “Yeah, right.” Her confidence waned.
Ryan Watts yawned. “Or another record deal. He’s already gone through two wives, hasn’t he?”
Francisco Perez sat forward. “One, actually, and two fiancées. And God knows how many supermodels.” A tabloid addict, Frank updated the gossip blog daily, though he tended to post on trendier people than Jet.
Billie could care less about gossip, or a musician’s celebrity. She lived for the music alone. “And he hasn’t found true love? Shock. But no hit record for what, five years?” She let the magazine fall to the tabletop. “So all the covers–market research?”
Standing, Everett touched his fingertips to the tabletop. “And your new assignment.”
“No.” Fresh bands. Exciting concerts. She lived to share those with readers. Not recycled rock.
Stacking the magazines, he set them atop her blank notepad. “Yes.” His emphasis lent sibilance to his response. A hiss of warning he’d stand firm in his decision.
A softer tactic seemed required. If only the others would leave, she could sway him. In more ways than one. “Please no. The guy’s music sounded passable at best then, but now it’s intolerable.” Listening to it nonstop would be akin to music hell.
The rest of the staff made excuses about the time, their workload, anything apparently, to vacate the room. Zinta’s look of pity as she exited did little to ease Billie’s impending sense of doom.
Everett held the portfolio to his charcoal cotton shirt. “Anyone can write compelling stories about great music. Only you can infuse some life into this story.”
Standing, she flipped the magazine over so she wouldn’t have to see Jet Trently’s smug smile. “I don’t think–”
“Look, Billie, I can’t give you every good assignment. Besides–” He turned, his voice softening. “–if you truly despise his songs that much, this will provide just the challenge you’ve needed.”
Challenge? “What do you mean?” She spoke slowly to convey the depth of her dismay. To dismiss her offhand posed one insult. Attacking her writing stretched the truth beyond believable.
Pausing, he tilted his head. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of the others, but your writing’s been a little stale lately.”
“Never.” Squaring her shoulders, her earlier sentimental feelings for him fell away. “I put my heart and soul into every article. Every paragraph and sentence.”
His mouth turned down, the warmth faded from his eyes. His expression read: bullshit. Okay, so occasionally she rushed through an article to finish. Only because the magazine wouldn’t hire any more staff, and Everett overloaded each reporter, trying to keep up with Rolling Stone.
Her mind raced. “But this is a TV series.”
“Correct.” He navigated past the chairs and made for the door.
Close on his heels, she followed. “Which means I can cover an episode and–”
Turning, he held open the door, all business now. “A few episodes. I want daily blog posts and a weekly article.”
“Don’t do this.” She clutched his shirt. “You’re sending me away. Why?” She spoke through rigid lips in case others watched. “Is it because of this weekend? We both had too much to drink. We can cool it for a while.” The hell she would. She’d hung on for two years waiting for him. Things had finally gotten to a good point. Almost.
“Billie. C’mon. We’re both professionals. This is about the magazine, not our personal lives.” His overly casual tone harkened to the same one he used while escorting unwanted salespeople to the door.
Sure. Okay. Facts dropped into her brain from obscurity. She’d never actually watched the show, but… “Isn’t this set on the West Coast?”
“Mmm hmm.” His mouth appeared a grim line. Nothing like the soft, sensual, full lips that had kissed her and had unleashed his oh-so-talented tongue. No tongue, whatever its level of skill, had a chance in hell of escaping those tight lips.
“In California?” The smog. The traffic. The general lack of cultural amenities, sequined shows aside.
“Yep.” He popped the p. It sounded so final.
Her throat thickened with dread. “You probably already bought my ticket, didn’t you?” Bastard.
“No. You can do that. But make it quick. They start shooting season two the day after tomorrow. I want you there the day before.”
Tomorrow, then. Mere hours to pack.
Damn. Damn damn damn. He intended to railroad her out of town. Or fly her. Inwardly cringing at the humiliation, she balled her fists and debated whether to pummel him.
Sidling closer, she played the siren card, walking her fingers up his button placket. “Are you sure–”
“Book the flight, Billie. And no five-star hotel. You’ll be staying on site. Oh, and stop in to see me before you leave today.” With a wink, he strode toward his office.
“Wonderful.” Her life was ruined. And he couldn’t be happier.
Life went from blissful to bleak in a blink.
* * * *
At her desk, she stared past the computer screen where the receipt was displayed for her flight. The one-way ticket to a hell occupied by Beautiful People. Tanned with absurdly white teeth and plastic smiles to go with their surgically enhanced bodies. Tomorrow, she’d arrive–and stand out like a crow among peacocks and cockatiels. That reminded her: she needed to check on The Black Crowes tour schedule. She seemed to recall them having an upcoming concert on the West Coast.
Zinta approached and perched on her desk. “What’s up with you and Everett?”
Despite her objection, she’d act professional. Cool. Calm. “Nothing. Things are…fine.” She’d reserve her bitter venom for later.
Zinta sucked air through her teeth. “Sorry.”
“No, we actually reached a milestone this weekend. And I mean all weekend.” She widened her eyes to punctuate.
“Really. But now he’s sending you away?”
Ignoring her friend’s incredulous look, she set her messenger bag atop her desk, wondering how much it would hold. How much her heart could hold. The situation called for positivity. “It’s been casual up to this point, but I really thought we broke new barriers this weekend. So in this new relationship zone, it’ll take a while to sort out the signals.” If one weekend in bed counted as new. Or counted for anything. Damn. She’d been so sure it had.
“That mixed?” Zinta cocked her head in a way suggesting she’d nailed the problem. “He failed the litmus test?”
After unplugging the laptop, she coiled the wires. “I don’t have a litmus test. Exactly.”
“You showed him the tree houses, didn’t you?”
Her flat tone suggested Billie didn’t need to answer. Zinta already knew.
Billie stuffed the mouse into a carrier pocket. “Too much junk to pack.” Evasive tactics might stall her friend.
Zinta craned down to peer her in the eye. “It’s way too soon.”
Billie slumped her shoulders. “I know. That should come much later. I rushed it. But he might come around.” Sure, he was sending her away, but that didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t want a relationship. Maybe just not right now.
Standing, Zinta sighed. “Honestly, you need to revise your list of Lust Haves. Cross Everett off.”
Lust Haves. Zin liked to quantify and qualify everything into lists, descriptions, categories, goals. Billie, on the other hand, accepted what came her way with gratitude. And much less organization.
“I have a feeling Everett just revised it for me.” He’d topped her Lust Have list. But such incredible sex couldn’t all come from lust, could it? He had to have thought about her, given her more consideration than his usual dates. Maybe even pined for her, a little.
“Aw, honey. Play it cool. Let him make the next move.”
He’d forced her to, temporarily. From Philadelphia to Malibu. Talk about culture shock.
“I have no choice. He’s actively avoiding me. Of course, now he won’t have to.” She sat and opened her desk drawer, removed her digital recorder and a few notepads and pens. Whatever she forgot, she’d buy on site and charge back to the magazine.
Zinta tapped her nails against her mug. “I can’t believe he gave you that assignment. He mentioned it earlier, but I didn’t think he was serious.”
Zipping her laptop case, Billie tried to keep anxiety from her voice. “Yes, on an extended story. He must really want me gone.” Maybe things hadn’t gone as well as she’d thought.
“No.” Zinta’s whine matched her pout. “I need you here.”
“You’re the only one, apparently.” Biting her lip, Billie realized the truth of the statement. Going away might provide a better perspective on her life. And what she needed to change.
* * * *
The desk appeared too neat. Freakishly so. As if she’d never again sit at it to dash off a review or interview an up-and-coming band. To remedy that, she crumpled a sheet of paper and tossed it onto the desktop. Too staged. When she removed it, her stomach clenched. Would she never occupy this place again?
After stopping by Zinta’s desk for a hug, she went to Everett’s office and stood in the doorway. “Guess I’m off.”
“Come in. Shut the door.”
Oh no. Here it came. The final kiss-off. She did as he said, and turned to face the music.
He pinned her against the door, his body all hard warmth, his tongue already probing hers. “God, you taste good.” His lips curled against hers in a smile.
Ignoring the alarm bells screaming in her head, her body melded to his. “Why–”
“It’ll be good for us. Both of us.”
She let her fingers wander south of his belt buckle, and made her voice breathy and low. “Are you sure?”
Releasing a pent-up sigh, he groaned. “Yes.”
Damn. So much for sexual persuasion. She could only imagine how ineffectual she’d be in California.
* * * *
Through the wispy clouds, Los Angeles sprawled below and the plane tilted into its descent. If lucky, she’d spend less than an hour in the airport, and another hour trekking south to Malibu, if the traffic gods smiled upon her. Then she could collapse on whatever cot in a closet they provided.
Now she could unequivocally state she knew how Jet Trently felt when his life began its downward trajectory. “Luck, be a lady and plummet my jet from the sky to save me from this torture.”
The plane touched down with not even a bump, and Frank Sinatra crooned endlessly in her head.
No such lady. Not in California.
All for the best. Everett wouldn’t have grieved at her memorial. More likely he’d have angled for solace in the arms of someone else. Someone younger. Less available. Despite his lust-filled goodbye, his eagerness for her departure shone through, leaving her more confused than ever.
After collecting her suitcase from the carousel, she wheeled it toward the exit. At least the promised heat had allowed her to pack light. A few basic black essentials she could dress up with accessories. Hope sprung eternal Everett would cut her stay short.
Outside, the sun sizzled up from the sidewalk. Even sunglasses couldn’t cut the glare. The dark suit jacket had to come off. Everywhere she looked, sun, sun and more sun. Could people go mad from too much sunlight? Might be a good angle. Would account for a lot, actually.
Hailing a cab, she gave the driver the address provided by Jet’s manager and spent the drive with closed eyes hidden by sunglasses. When he slowed, she cleared the haze from her brain to take in Malibu. Getting to the beachfront house required the driver to meander through a high-end neighborhood. They pulled up outside a mustard-colored plaster wall with a wrought-iron gate. The driver pressed the intercom button. A woman answered, asked them to wait while she checked for Billie’s name on the list. The gate swung open.
The immense house echoed the honey-colored wall, but its Spanish-Mediterranean architecture set it apart from the other homes. A mixture of funk and class, not at all the soulless sleek beach home she’d imagined.
The driver set her luggage from the taxi’s trunk on the sidewalk. “Will that be all?”
She caught the look as his gaze sidled up her thighs and rear. “Yes, definitely all.” A thought struck her. “Hold on. I do need something else.” Switching on the cell camera, she handed it to him. “Take a quick pic. Get as much of the house in there as possible.” She waved her middle finger.
He held it at eye level, clicked, surveyed his handiwork and gave it back. “Nice.”
“It’ll do.” All the proof she needed of her landing on the West Coast. Adding two words, I’m here, she forwarded it to Everett, though she still had trouble believing it herself.
Malibu. The Bu, to locals. Twenty-one miles of sand and surf and vacuous, self-absorbed celebrities like Jet Trently, looking for a Baywatch babe to even out the beauty quotient for photo ops.
On the upside, the stunning views would enhance her stay. The branches of the tall cypress trees behind the sprawling two-story house swayed in the breeze off the Pacific. The home’s architecture invited closer inspection, though its honey-mustard plaster she could live without. Still, it would be easy to spot coming back from long walks on the beach… Yes, she might get used to coastal life.
Maybe the L.A. Times needed a good reporter. Hey, she could do entertainment news as well as anyone. Isn’t that why you’re here? Silencing the snide voice in her head, she shouldered her carryon bag and wheeled the other. Everett would pay for this.
She hoped it wouldn’t take long to get situated. She needed to study her map and learn the lay of the land.
That brought a chuckle. She was about to meet him, wasn’t she?
Well, one of them, at least.
* * * *
The guitar strings vibrated, rich with the chord Jet Trently strummed. God, he loved playing. If George Harrison made his guitar gently weep, Jet could make it scream with pleasure, sigh or talk badass. Probably why his name frequently listed with Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen as the world’s best.
“Jet?” his manager called. “It’s time.”
Shit. Already? One of the dangers of playing. Music carried him to a beautiful place devoid of time where no stress existed. No reality.
And definitely no reality TV. Why the hell had he signed on for another season of torture? He was no actor. Yeah, so reality TV didn’t require him to be, but dealing with those crazy women they lined up definitely did. He didn’t know if he could muster the necessary enthusiasm for another few months. At the end of the last season, he’d been so relieved he could’ve gone on a real binge.
But no, he wasn’t going there again. Jeff had taught him that much. He owed his brother for saving him twice: once from the crappy New Jersey town they’d grown up in, and from becoming a total cliché, living the supposed rock star high life. At thirty-five, he wanted more than a quick lay. Was he expecting to find it in any of the season two beauties? Hell no. This gig gave him a steady paycheck and put his face out in front of the public. Reminded them who he was. How great his music had been.
Been. Yeah. Could be again. The few tunes he’d worked up this past year were crap. But workable crap. Each needed that elusive something. The indefinable quality that grabbed listeners and wouldn’t let go.
Every time he thought he almost had it, the melody eluded him again. He could practically hear his muse laughing. Like she’d taken off for Tijuana on a drunken binge and he couldn’t bribe her to come back.
“Jet.”
“Coming.” Reluctantly, he propped his guitar against the sofa, stretched up to a standing position and closed his eyes. You can do this. A few more months, then you’re home free.
Man, how good did that sound?
Descending the steps, he steeled himself. There’s no such thing.
* * * *
Wheeling her luggage up the flagstone walkway, Billie halted at the glass-enclosed foyer and pressed the doorbell.
The grapevine wreath on the leaded glass front door didn’t exactly scream rock star’s house. Odd, since the long drive and walled property would discourage drive-bys and paparazzi. Anyone wanting to spy would first need to clear the spike-topped iron fence.
A short, frumpish figure appeared through the thick glass, and the door opened. A woman, probably close to Billie’s age, peered through black-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, blond hair pulled back in a barrette. “Yes?” Her mouth puckered tight, the only indication of impatience on her otherwise blank face.
“Hi, I’m Billie Prescott from Strung Out. Here to see Stu Gilbert.” According to Everett, the manager’s goofball persona hid a shrewd businessman. Don’t anger Stu, he’d warned. He’ll cut you loose before you know what’s happened. She’d sworn she’d be on her best behavior. If Stu cut her loose, Everett might be tempted to do the same. If he hadn’t already.
“Right. He’s expecting you. Follow me.” Spinning on her heel, she glided noiselessly across the Spanish tile foyer. A feat, given the unevenness of the golden-red flooring, which continued into the hallway.
Hauling her case inside, she set it beside the golden wall, which had a mottled parchment-like finish. A faded gold chandelier hung regally over the wide space that opened to a spacious living room on the left and a large dining room to the right. In the center of the hall, a blond-wood staircase invited her gaze to the second floor landing, generously lit by the same floor-to-ceiling windows the first floor had. The embossed copper ceiling caught her eye as she walked. The house had character, if no one living in it did.
“I’ll have someone move your luggage when we know where they’re putting you. I’m Cindy, by the way. Stu’s assistant. Check with me if you need anything. Your timing’s good–Stu and Jet are meeting with the producer in the office. Go on in.” She nodded toward a closed door at the end of the hall opposite a narrow desk where she took a seat.
Maybe she’d needed to come west after all, if only to adjust her timing. “Thanks.”
The office–if it could be called one–continued the golden color scheme, highlighted by the same stunning copper ceiling. A white stone fireplace dominated the opposite wall, with a quilted English sofa to one side and a matching quilted daybed on the other, separated by twin coffee tables. Behind the daybed stood double French doors topped with arched windows to the ceiling and framed by billowing white floor-length curtains. The doors stood open to a view of the rocky bluff. Beyond, the endless Pacific Ocean glittered in the late-afternoon sun.
After slipping inside, she approached the cluster of men standing at its center.
Dressed in tight jeans and a snug black t-shirt, Jet Trently laughed as he spoke, his too-white teeth flashing. His presence injected an undeniable energy into the room. It sizzled along her nerve endings when he looked her way, electrified by his crystal blue eyes.
A man turned at her approach. “Miss, we’re having a meeting. Check in with my executive assistant.” Stu Gilbert. More like one of the Three Stooges with his wiry hair and bulbous nose. A disco version with two gold chains revealed by his half-unbuttoned shirt, heavy man-rings decorating his pudgy fingers.
Impatience had edged his tone. He thought her an intruder.
Billie affected a sharp business tone. “Already did. I’m Billie Prescott from Strung Out. My editor spoke with Mr. Gilbert about covering the show?”
Jet’s eyes widened. “You’re Billie Prescott?”
Billie had a feeling she’d just made Jet’s Lust Have list, though she had no doubt the list, if printed, would require reams of paper. If he licked his lips, she’d be out of there before he could retract his tongue. “You’re expecting me, aren’t you?”
“Billie Prescott, yes. You–no.” His appreciative gaze wandered the length of her.
The trio chuckled in unison.
Like she didn’t get that same response every freakin’ time. Biting back a snide reply, she forced out, “Do you have an information packet for me? Something that will help me catch up on where season one ended?”
Stu glanced at Jet. “Cindy can put something together.”
Jet tilted his head. “Not a fan, eh?”
If she didn’t know better, she’d think he appeared pleased.
Wrinkling her nose, she grinned. Let that be answer enough.
“Pity you weren’t a contestant.” He arched a brow and turned to the third man. “Now there’s an idea.”
Shaking his head, the man winced. “No.” He slid his hands in the back pockets of his khaki Dockers, wrinkled like his faded denim shirt. The producer, had to be.
“What?” She’d missed something.
“It’s perfect–an insider’s perspective.” Again Jet’s gaze meandered across her. “I could make it worth the magazine’s while.”
Ugh. Now she understood. “No. I’m a journalist, not a reality show contestant.”
He hunched his shoulders, not quite a shrug. “It’s a fresh angle.”
“Not if I can’t stay objective. Journalists can never allow ourselves to become part of the story. I’ll get a much better, um, perspective from staying neutral.”
Jet’s grin widened. “Neutral’s no fun.”
Time to move this conversation along to a new topic. “It gives me the big picture, which is what I’m after.” All I’m after, she stopped herself from adding. No way would she ever join a pack of feral females to compete for one guy. Especially a shallow has-been like Jet Trently. She had zero respect for an artist who let his talents go to waste.
Though he did have amazing eyes. She’d give him that. And an incendiary presence. He’d toned up since she’d last seen him in concert six years ago when he’d sported the beginnings of a paunch. It had gone along with the DUI charge or two, plus busting up a few hotel rooms. Had he checked into rehab after? She’d have to research it.
“So? What’d I miss?” The phrase would be her epitaph if she weren’t careful. At least she’d caught them during their meeting.
Stu reached for a folder on the table and thrust it in her direction. “Here’s a schedule. We start shooting tomorrow at one.”
Jet groaned. “Couldn’t we make it three? Or four?”
Adopting the condescending tone of a parent, Stu asked, “You don’t have a concert tonight, do you?”
Hugging his arms to his chest, Jet widened his stance. The stubborn child. “No but–”
The third man heaved a sigh. “Your contract states–”
“My contract states the show’s about me. And I’m not at my best at one.” Though Jet smiled, the tone of authority in his voice warned against trifling with him.
Hmm. Maybe the show should’ve been named Jet Trently: Center of the Universe.
Narrowing his eyes, Stu smiled. “All right. Two thirty. I don’t suppose it will hurt the girls to wait a while. Might make for some interesting onscreen tension. But you’d better be on set, ready to go, no later than that.”
“Oh, I’ll be ready. And I live ‘on set,’ remember?” Jet glared.
Speaking of tension… Fishing out a pen, she jotted some notes, hoping to appear inconspicuous, but feeling the group tense. As the outsider, she had to be careful not to alarm them, put them on guard. Or she’d miss all the good stuff.
She slid the notepad behind her. “So nothing going on tonight? No pre-show parties?”
Jet sidled near. “There’s always a party. I’m looking forward to you joining us.”
Shoving his hand between her and Jet, Stu effectively blocked him. “We haven’t been formally introduced. Stu Gilbert, Jet’s manager. No parties tonight. Tomorrow’s the first shooting day. We want to be fresh, don’t we, Jet?”
“We certainly do. Fresh as can be.” His gaze crawled across her to punctuate the double entendre.
Billie’s skin crawled, though not uncomfortably. She could almost imagine his hands caressing her instead of his gaze. Perhaps steroids had become part of his daily regimen. If only she weren’t the sole female in the room, she’d escape his intense attention. It brought out some animal instinct against her will. As if his testosterone piqued her pheromones to life.
Shifting to relieve her discomfort, she focused on Stu. “Can I connect with any of the girls before tomorrow?”
“Not likely. Half haven’t checked in yet. They’ll arrive as a group tomorrow. Makes for a dramatic entrance.” Rubbing his hands together, Stu’s enthusiasm contrasted Jet’s disinterest.
“How many–”
Pointedly, Stu glanced at the folder. “All in the packet.” Turning, he slung his arm around Jet’s shoulder and steered him toward the door, murmuring.
Smiling, Jet glanced back and winked.
She’d almost forgotten. “Wait–where can I bunk?”
Jet broke away from Stu. “With me, if you like.”
His manager steered him to the hall. “Cindy’ll take care of you.”
Shuddering, alarm bells went off in Billie’s head in realization of her instinct to take Jet up on the offer. She had enough problems without Jet Trently adding to them. And no matter how re-energized, his libido wouldn’t impress her into sparkling reviews of praise.
Oh no. She’d developed an immunity to rock stars years ago.

Buy Now:
Lyrical Press

Getting It Right This Time
by Rachel Brimble

Lyrical Press

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61650-225-6

Two years after her husband’s death, Kate Marshall wants stability for her daughter. But then she meets ‘the one who got away’. Mark Johnston is dangerously handsome, rich, irresistibly charming – one of the UK’s most eligible bachelors.

But can she cope with the media being around her daughter? Or accept that Mark is the family man he claims he wants to be?

Chapter One

“How are you feeling?”
Taking the glass of wine from her best friend’s hand, Kate Marshall smiled. “Good.” She paused. “No. Better than good. This is it, new beginnings.”
They clinked glasses.
“Glad to hear it,” Lucy said, taking a hefty gulp of Chardonnay. “Coming back home was the right thing to do. I just wish it hadn’t taken you over twelve months after James died to realize it.”
“I needed to come back when it felt right for me, Luce. I could’ve easily come straight back and let Mum and Dad take care of everything. But what would that have shown Jessica?”
“I know. I know. Showing Jessica her mum doesn’t need anyone to take care of her is a good lesson,” Lucy said, her words dripping with sarcasm. “What child wants their mother to be looked after and loved? The whole idea is nauseating.”
Kate frowned. “Luce?”
She grinned. “What?”
“Shut up.”
Laughing, the two friends walked across the plush carpeted bar area of The Theatre Royal to a corner less besieged with suited gents and ball-gowned ladies. Casting a surreptitious glance down at her simple black pencil skirt and wrap-over top, Kate felt as though she was gate crashing a wedding rather than waiting to watch a play.
“So,” she said, putting her drink down on a small table and flicking through the glossy program. “What’s the star’s name again?”
“Marcia Langton,” Lucy said. “You are going to be blown away by her. She’ll be an international superstar before long, mark my words.”
Shaking her head at her friend’s endless enthusiasm for all things and all people, Kate took another long drink as she gazed around the room at the multi-colored wonderment surrounding them. She was contemplating a particularly unusual fuchsia-pink chiffon on turquoise taffeta number, when her eyes were drawn to a man talking to a couple sitting at one of the many tables scattered around the room.
“It can’t be,” she whispered.
His face was in profile yet still unbelievably, undeniably familiar. Kate swallowed as heat flooded her face and rushed through her veins.
“Is that who I think it is?”
“What? Who?” Lucy thrust her head left and right like a disgruntled turkey, to see who Kate was looking at.
Kate gripped her friend’s arm so tightly Lucy’s pulse throbbed its indignation against her now clammy palm. “Over there,” she said, between clenched teeth. “Talking to that couple. Is that Mark Johnston?”
“Ow, will you let go of me?” Lucy yanked her arm from Kate’s grasp and followed the direction of her gaze. “Yes. That’s Mark. What’s the matter with you? Hey, where are you going?”
“I’m out of here.” Kate snatched up her purse.
“What? Why?”
“Because…because…” Kate tried to find the words to justify her need to escape the increasingly suffocating walls of the theatre and the risk of Mark seeing her. How could she face the man who was once everything to her? The man who happened to be her dead husband’s best friend. Her blood pumped faster and faster around her body.
Lucy put down her glass and fisted her hands on her hips. “Well?”
Kate continued to stare at him, her eyes narrowing as she swallowed. “Do you know he never once called James after we moved to Zante? Not once.”
“So? Maybe they had a fight or something. What’s the matter with you?”
“A fight?” She snapped her head around. “Don’t you think James would have mentioned it to me? And even if they did, why didn’t Mark call me? We were supposed to be friends too, remember?”
“Kate–”
“Mark bloody Johnston. Will you look at him? All flashing white teeth and carefree laughing and joking until the moment James and I starting dating and then nada.” She sliced her hand through the air. “Not a damn thing. And now James is dead and he’s…he’s strutting around looking like…like…”
“What’s gotten into you?” But then Lucy’s frown abruptly smoothed and her mouth stretched to a full-blown grin. “Oh, I see. Yes, you’re right. I couldn’t agree more.”
Kate looked at her. “What?”
“He looks like McSteamy on a plate, doesn’t he?”
Kate swallowed. “Ha, I don’t think so.”
“Here–” Lucy laughed, picking up Kate’s half finished drink and thrusting it at her. “Finish your wine. He hasn’t even noticed you’re here. Relax.”
Kate grabbed her glass from Lucy’s hand and took a huge gulp. “Yeah, and the chances are he’s too hung up in his own selfish world to bother with us if he did.”
Lucy shrugged. “Maybe you should cut him some slack. A lot can happen in five years.” She pressed a quick kiss to Kate’s cheek. “Unfortunately, you know that better than anyone.”
Blinking against the sudden burning in her eyes, Kate snapped her head away from Lucy’s concerned gaze but regrettably, her own gaze was automatically and frustratingly drawn back to Mark. He’d changed in the worst way possible way since she’d last seen him. Having lost the gangly look of puberty, Mark Johnston was now the epitome of masculine perfection. Dressed in a black tuxedo, he’d, no doubt strategically, left his crisp white shirt open at the neck, the silk bow tie hanging carelessly undone beneath the collar. His thick, dark hair gleamed beneath the lights and his illegally wide shoulders shook with laughter as he continued his seemingly hilarious conversation with a doe-eyed blond woman and her equally bewitched husband.
Kate took another mouthful of wine and slammed the glass down on the table beside her. “Who cares?”
Lucy jumped. “What now?”
“Who cares if he looks like that…I mean, you know, without a care in the world.” Kate gave an inelegant sniff. “If he talks to me, I’ll tell him what an idiot he is and how much he hurt James by ignoring his phone calls, emails and texts for all those months.” She paused, as a wave of unwelcome guilt shot through her chest. Not once had she picked up the phone to try to tell Mark about James’s death. And the reason? Fear. Fear of what emotions hearing his voice might evoke in her, especially after how rocky her marriage had been right before James died.
She exhaled through pursed lips. “Do you think he even knows James is dead?”
“I certainly didn’t tell him.”
Kate pulled back her shoulders as she watched Mark stroll toward the bar and take a microphone from the giggling, blushing barmaid who appeared to be having trouble even looking him straight in the eyes.
“Oh, save me,” she muttered. “What does he expect us to do? Stand to attention while the master of the entire universe speaks?”
Lucy giggled. “You’re great when you’re angry.”
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Theatre Royal,” Mark said, throwing his arms open wide. “I hope you are ready for the opening show starring my special client, Marcia Langton.” A nod to acknowledge the appreciative whoops and cheers. “If not…” A flash of white teeth and a wink. “There’s hip hop and warm beer available in the club down the road.”
Laughter erupted all around her. Kate grimaced.
Yet still a jolt slammed against her diaphragm and hitched against her uterus. His voice hadn’t changed at all. The deep, smooth and ludicrously confident tones swept over her skin and despite her distaste, she felt the undeniable spark of something waking up deep inside her. His easy smile and mischievous eyes were just as she remembered–and she hated him for it.
She leaned toward Lucy. “I’m out of here.”
Lucy turned. “Kate, come on…”
“Are you coming or not?”
“Stay. I dare you.”
“What?” Kate stared at her in disbelief.
“Stay.”
“That’s not fair.”
Lucy smiled and turned away, leaving Kate fighting the hopeless battle of not accepting her friend’s challenge. She looked at Mark again as he regaled the audience with his opinions of the good, the bad and the ugly in the theatre world–jokes and impressions of the latest acts, hints and teasers about the country’s “next big thing.” Everyone hung on his every word. Kate narrowed her eyes. Clearly his long held belief he would one day make it big as a hot-shot theatrical agent had come to fruition.
With a decisive nod of her head, Kate turned and snatched up her purse a second time. “Sorry, Luce. You’re on your own. It’s too soon for me to risk facing one of James’s closest friends. Even an ex-friend.”
“Look,” she said, grabbing Kate’s hand. “Anyone who knew James will want to tell you how sorry they are. This was bound to happen sooner or later.”
Kate turned away, tears blurring her vision. “But Mark Johnston is not anyone, he’s…”
And then, as though sensing her gaze on him, Mark looked directly at her. “Kate?”
She froze.
With the microphone forgotten in his hand, her name echoed around the room. The scraping of chairs and the shifting of bodies sounded harsh in the subdued atmosphere as all around her people turned and stared.
Her mind raced as Kate stood completely immobile. She didn’t move, even as she watched him put the microphone down on the bar and walk toward her. After a long moment, the onlookers hesitantly struck up conversation or picked up their drinks.
Finally, Kate’s paralysis lifted as panic threatened to engulf her. She looked at Lucy. “God, I’m not ready for this. Do something.”
“What can I do? I…”
Nausea rose in Kate’s throat and her stomach clenched tightly around her fear like a closing fist.
“Kate?”
She turned, her feet as heavy as lead. The laughter shining in his eyes when he’d been talking a moment before had been replaced with shock and confusion.
Kate swallowed. “Hello, Mark.”
He squeezed his eyes shut before opening them again. “What are you doing here?” He pressed his thumb and finger to his forehead. “I mean…how did you…when did you…” He stopped. “Are you back?”
His voice shook with what sounded like anger. How dare he be angry with her? Drawing on every ounce of strength, she tilted her chin. “Yes, Mark, I’m back.”
He opened his mouth but then closed it again, glaring at her accusingly instead. Forcing herself to stay strong, Kate nonchalantly turned her back on him and picked up her glass with a trembling hand. She drained the last of her wine, almost choking on the angry words cutting and burning her tongue.
She heard his muffled cough behind her. “I missed you,” he said, softly.
Those three words cut the first slit through her wavering composure like a sword through flesh. She struggled to find the words to respond–and found none. She concentrated her gaze on her watery reflection, faintly showing amongst the rivulets of rain zigzagging down the window in front of her.
The moment stretched.
“Where’s James?” The question was direct, painful and completely like Mark Johnston.
She stared straight ahead for another long moment, her reflection shining back at her in the glass. Her long red hair was pulled tightly back into a ponytail, and her green eyes glinted beneath the lights making her look downright deranged. The look was perfect.
She turned. “He’s dead.”
His clear, hazel eyes widened before he staggered back a step. “What?” He looked at Lucy. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Hey.” Kate grabbed his arm without thinking. “How is it Lucy’s fault you didn’t know your friend died over a year ago? If you would have kept in contact with him…or me…”
The way he stared at her abruptly cooled the rage on her lips. He looked shock to his core, terrified. Her hand slipped from his arm as shame tiptoed over the surface of her skin. “Look, maybe I shouldn’t have just blurted it out. I’m…”
His gaze raked over every inch of her face, lingering for the longest time at her lips, before he turned and walked away.
“Go after him,” Lucy said.
“No.”
“Go after him. He looked so…”
“Scared,” murmured Kate. “Why would he look scared?”
“He looked shocked. Not scared.”
Kate vehemently shook her head. “He looked scared. I know scared when I see it, Luce.”
Brushing past her friend, Kate strode purposefully toward the bar and once there, lifted her hand to get the barman’s attention. “Two Chardonnays, please.”
Lucy came up beside her. “What are you doing? If you’re not going after him, shouldn’t we leave? What if he comes back?”
Kate looked at her. “Wasn’t it you who said I should face people? If Mark comes back, I’ll deal with whatever he has to say.”
Their drinks were placed on coasters in front of them. Kate quickly picked up hers and took a hefty mouthful to ease her arid throat. If she was honest, the knowledge Mark could reappear at any moment veered the jangling in her nerves to fever pitch.
Lucy touched her forearm. “Are you okay?”
Kate laughed. “Of course I am. It will take more than the likes of Mark Johnston to upset me.”
A request came over the loud speaker asking the audience to be seated in anticipation of the performance starting in ten minutes. Grateful for the escape, Kate picked up her drink and the two of them walked toward the exit.
Lucy’s tut beside her made Kate turn sharply. “Now what?”
Lucy smiled. “Nothing. I was just thinking it didn’t take long for you and Mark to get back to normal, that’s all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, whenever the two of you were together, I always pitied anyone unfortunate enough to be within six feet of you. It was always fireworks of sexual tension or a ridiculous battle of wills.”
Kate felt an inexplicable flare of burning hot heat at her center. “How can you say that? I was with James, remember?”
Lucy waved a dismissive hand. “I’m talking about before James. Come on, you can’t deny it. You and Mark were an absolutely riot to watch.”
Kate glared at her. “Really? Well, there’s no need to worry about the sexual tension part anytime soon. He clearly can’t handle being in the same room as me, and that, my friend, is perfectly fine with me. I was married to one egomaniac, I don’t need another in my life.”
“Mark is not an egomaniac, Kate.”
“No? Then why is his name splashed across every paper in the country?”
Lucy smiled. “You’ve been reading up on him, huh?”
Heat scorched Kate’s cheeks. “Stop smiling at me like that. It’s pretty hard to ignore it when it’s shoved down your throat.”
“Sure it is.”
Glaring at her, Kate led the way as they searched for their seats in silence. They had just sat down and the lights lowered. Kate smiled with relief as it brought an end to further conversation. The truth was Mark’s notoriety was clearly paparazzi propaganda judging by the lack of frontal shots they’d managed to capture. Often it was only his profile or back the press published–whereas James’s coverage had always been strategic and more often than not, provoked.
The ruby red curtain rose, and Kate turned her attention to the stage. She was there to enjoy herself, and that’s exactly what she would do.
“Prepare to be blown away,” Lucy whispered excitedly.
Kate rolled her eyes. “You’d think Liza Minnelli was about to walk on stage the way you’re carrying on.”
And then she caught her first sight of the woman she knew made a serious contribution to Mark’s excessively wealthy status. Marcia Langton bore the effortless poise of a runway model. She looked like a living, breathing goddess in the sleek, silver dress falling to her ankles in folds of soft silk and four-inch strappy black sandals. Kate self-consciously touched her hair when she saw the way Marcia’s thick, ebony waves cascaded down her bare back, to her waist.
“Amazing, huh?” whispered Lucy.
“She’s beautiful,” Kate murmured, unable to pull her gaze from the stage.
“Wait until you see how well the woman can act.”
An unwelcome lurch shifted in Kate’s stomach. “I suppose I can safely assume Miss Sex-On-Legs shares Mark’s bed as well as his representation?”
Lucy shook her head, her eyes fixed straight ahead. “Nope. If they were an item, it would be all over the gossip magazines. Sort of makes you wonder who Mark Johnston’s waiting for, doesn’t it?”
* * * *
Mark tossed the last of his brandy to the back of his throat and put the glass down on the table in front of him. Leaning back in his chair, he closed his eyes. Kate was back. He’d repeated those three words over and over a million times since he’d left her standing in the bar, and they still hadn’t sunk in.
And she looked even more spectacular than he remembered.
Her huge, green eyes didn’t look at him in the same delighted, carefree way they had a few years before, but then again why would they after he cut her and James off the way he did? Now her gaze seemed wiser…and infinitely more guarded. Yet, their mesmerizing beauty, their way of drawing him in until he couldn’t look anywhere else hadn’t altered at all–even if he’d desperately wanted to when he’d been standing in front of her stammering and stuttering his way through their first conversation in five years.
Opening his eyes, he groaned into the silence of the backstage room. James dead? Kate’s delivery of the bombshell had been acute and sharp and without a doubt, purposely cutting.
“I am so sorry, James,” he whispered, as a knot wound itself tight in his stomach until he felt his lungs would explode. “So bloody sorry.”
Visions of the two of them as friends, the laughter and tomfoolery, drunken antics and late-night games formed a kaleidoscope of color and nostalgia in his mind. Years of laughter, tears and confessions at school and university. Even when Mark moved to Foxton and James stayed in Devon, they met up every few weeks or so.
And all the while Mark’s feelings for Kate grew. The months passed, the years passed, with Mark thinking he had all the time in the world to make her his–but then James followed him to Foxton and the day he’d set eyes on Kate, James refused to run such a stupid risk as Mark. Wooing her with gifts and flowers, time and attention, James proposed within eighteen months of Mark introducing them–and Kate accepted.
Wincing against the sudden rush of blood in his head, Mark reached into his inside pocket and pulled out his wallet. From behind the credit cards, he extracted a photograph so old a crease of age marred its center. Kate laughed into the camera with her hair tied back into its habitual ponytail, revealing her long, tapered neck. The thin strap of her dress fell enticingly from her shoulder as she provocatively peeped out from beneath lowered lashes. Mark loved her then, and he loved her now.
What was the use in denying it? Kate was “The One.”
And she would’ve have been his, if he’d been the person he was today, five years before. But what chance did Mark, the hesitant thinker, have against the charismatic risk-taker James, who’d burst into their lives like a grand matador amid a Spanish bullring? He’d completely swept Kate off her feet.
“Yet he never would have…” Mark paused as he felt the rare sting of tears. “He never would’ve taken her if he’d known I loved her. Never.”
Stuffing the photograph into his wallet, Mark put it back in his pocket and stood up.
“And now he’s dead and Kate’s downstairs.” He rubbed his hand over his eyes. And she was no doubt angry, confused and downright resentful that James’s best friend was oblivious to all the pain she’d been through over the last twelve months.
He tugged at the cuffs of his jacket, guilt stabbing at his chest. This was his chance to put things right. To look after the woman both he and James had fallen in love with. She wouldn’t be alone through her grief anymore. Mark would make her understand he was there for her from now on as he should have been from the start.
Striding purposefully from the room, he pulled the door firmly closed behind him. But just as he reached the bottom of the staircase, muted applause came from behind the auditorium doors. The curtain was being dropped for the intermission.
“Damn it.”
He always made sure he was there when his clients came backstage to their dressing rooms. Made himself as available as he could whenever possible. And Marcia would most certainly need him now–on the debut night of the most anticipated performance of her career. Cursing again, Mark knew he couldn’t abandon her–even if he desperately longed to look into Kate’s eyes again.
Heat flared in his face and more intimate places. He had to get a grip. She was a widow for crying out loud. The widow of his best friend.
He forced his focus onto Marcia and retraced his steps back to the dressing rooms. He walked into her room and double-checked that the bouquets of flowers he’d ordered were on display, and the champagne chilling on ice. Everything was as it should be. Shifting impatiently from one foot to the other, Mark looked at his watch. He really wanted to speak to Kate before the second half. What if he missed her after the show? He couldn’t let her leave the theatre without at least offering his condolences, and finding out how James had died–although she likely already had him down as a cold, heartless bastard and likely wouldn’t tell him a damn thing.
The door swung open, and Marcia marched in. Mark pulled back his shoulders and forced the biggest grin he could muster onto his face. He threw open his arms.
“Here she is. You were fantastic.”
Marcia’s dark blue eyes locked with his and her mouth drew into such a thin line, her lips completely disappeared.
He glanced over her shoulder toward the door. His entire body hummed with the need to get out of the room. To find Kate. To see her, speak to her. His smile wavered as he propelled himself forward and enclosed Marcia in an embrace.
“What’s the matter?” he asked with a laugh. “Can’t you hear them out there? You’re bringing the house down.”
She shot from his arms, her eyes burning with anger. “Who was the woman at the bar, Mark?”
“What?”
“The woman you were so busy with you didn’t have time to come and see me before I went onstage.”
“Marcia, I was in the bar promoting you. I can’t be everywhere at once.” Mark’s heart picked up speed. It took all of his self-control not to push past her and literally sprint out the door. And it didn’t go beyond his realization this was the first time he’d worried about someone else more than one of his clients.
She glared at him, but Mark kept his gaze steady. She looked away. “I assume she’s the absent Kate Marshall returned from the wilderness?” she huffed.
He tightened his jaw. “What makes you say that?”
She snapped her head up. “Because Mark, she’s the only woman anyone in Foxton can ever remember you spending any amount of time with. Plus the fact you practically panted her name over the microphone like an awe-struck groupie when you saw her.”
Guilty heat seared his cheeks. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’ve been told what happened. And then, after a few shared words, you fled backstage looking like she’d up and smacked you in the face.”
“I did not flee anywhere, Marcia,” he said, struggling to curb his growing temper. “And I don’t see what Kate has to do with your career and my job in managing it. She has nothing to do with your part in this play, the audience or critics reactions. So if I were you, I’d be more concerned with that.”
“Is that so? And what do you think the press will make of your lack of interest in my debut performance?”
“Nothing. They won’t have noticed whether or not I was there, it’s you they’ll be watching. Not me.”
“They’ll speculate, Mark,” she cried. “They’ll say you’re preparing to drop me!”
Her bosom heaved up and down above the neckline of her dress as an angry flash of red rose from her neck to her cheeks. He’d seen this side of Marcia half a dozen times in the two years they’d worked together, and those times were enough for Mark to know he didn’t like them. When she was like that, he felt as though he should prepare himself for a strike–brace himself against the unpredictable tongue of a viper.
Mark took her gently by the elbows, knowing if he wanted any chance of catching Kate before the next act, he must swallow his irritation. He looked directly into Marcia’s troubled eyes. “I am here for you every step of the way. I want you to succeed in your dreams as much as you do. I will always be here for you. Okay?”
A long moment passed until at last, her features softened and a smile broke through like a disconcerting, yet undeniably beautiful, ray of sunshine. “You’re right,” she said. “Of course you’re right.”
He smiled. “We’re in this together. To the end.”
Her smile stretched to a grin. “Let’s forget Kate Marshall and have a glass of champagne.”
She slipped from his grasp and pulled the chilled bottle from the ice bucket on her dressing table. Mark edged toward the door–and Kate.
“I can’t. Not right now.”
Her smile dissolved. “You’re going after her, aren’t you?”
He nodded. “Yes. But I won’t be long.”
“For crying out loud…”
Ignoring her, Mark left the room and ran through an endless sea of people as they spilled toward him on their way back from the bar to the auditorium. His frantic gaze darted over their heads, looking for one redhead in particular. He cursed inwardly when he caught no sight of her. He could only hope she and Lucy were lingering over their drinks in the bar. He sprinted back along the corridor and burst through the swinging double doors.
He almost laughed when he saw Kate sitting on a bar stool, casually talking to the barman. And then his smile abruptly dissolved. Did the guy seriously think he had a chance with her? Jeez, he looked as though all his Christmases had come at once.
With no idea what to say to her, much less how to approach her, Mark marched across the room and surprised himself by gripping the back of her swivel stool and spinning her around. She gasped and pressed her hands against his chest to steady herself.
“Hello again,” he said, arching a cocky eyebrow even though his heart beat out of control.
She snatched her hands from his chest and curled them around the edge of her stool. “Don’t you know any form of subtlety, Mark Johnston?” she snapped. “Or is every single thing you do carried out in the same rough, domineering manner?”
Something painful hitched in his chest. He leaned in close enough the soft, musky scent of her perfume wafted below his nostrils. “No, not everything I do,” he murmured. “Well, not unless I’m specifically asked for it that way.”
She crossed her arms. “Is that supposed to be funny?”
He stared at her for a moment longer before pulling back. The last thing he wanted was to frighten her off. Although it did occur to him “Kate” and “frightened” didn’t go together in the same sentence. He held up his hands in surrender.
“Look, work with me here, okay? I’m still getting my head around the fact you’re back…without James, and it’s hard, Kate. It’s hard just seeing you, let alone find out James is dead.”
She closed her eyes, and Mark hesitated, wondering if it was right to push her this way. But he had to know what happened–had to know how his best friend ended up dead. He took her hand and she opened her eyes.
Mark could not ignore the pain and doubt in her gaze. He rubbed his thumb over the silky soft skin of her wrist. “What happened, Kate?”
“He was killed in a snowboarding accident.”
He flinched. “But James was the best. How could he…”
“There was a more inexperienced boarder with him and he went off course. James went after him…and things went wrong. He was thrown up in the air and…” She stopped. “His neck was broken, Mark. He’s dead. What else do you need to know?”
Their eyes locked and Mark’s heart shifted–her gaze told him seeing and talking to him was more of a struggle than she wanted to deal with right then. He dropped her hand and pushed it through his hair.
“Are you back for good?”
Another moment…and then she nodded.
“Forever?” Mark pressed.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
A flash of color darkened her cheeks. “Who knows what forever is, Mark? James certainly didn’t.”
She jumped down from the stool and stormed toward the door. He stared after her, not noticing Lucy now stood beside him, her hand on his arm.
“She’s not going anywhere, Mark,” she said, quietly.
He turned, his face hot.
Lucy smiled sympathetically. “It’s taken her a long time to get to a place where she will even accept help from her family.” She glanced toward the door. “When James died, she withdrew from the outside world, and it has taken a year for her to take a risk and edge back out again.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t know.” Mark looked to the ceiling before glancing at her again. “She must hate me.”
Lucy gave a small smile. “She doesn’t hate you.”
“I’ve got to persuade her to at least talk to me, Luce. Kate is…she’s…” The words died on his lips.
Lucy picked up her bag and hitched it onto her shoulder. “Look, have you ever known Kate to stay angry with anyone? Take my advice, leave her alone for a while.”
He clenched his jaw. “I don’t think I can.”
She looked at him. “I know how you felt about her, but please, give her time.”
And then Lucy walked out after Kate, leaving Mark standing alone and knowing there was absolutely no chance of him adhering to her advice.

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