Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sexy Office Romance coming your way! Excerpt!

After Office Hours is coming Feb 12, starting with Desire Actually, Book 1! I’m announcing a brand new Jennifer Skully series! As you all know, I love office romance, probably because I worked in an office for over 20 years. I love all that juicy office gossip!
I’ve got the first three covers for you to preview. Thanks to the fabulous Rae Monet!

Up first is Desire Actually. The idea came to me when a friend, Lisa Salvary, casually mentioned that it would be fun to read a book where the man is less experienced than the woman! And poof, the whole story blossomed in my mind. That’s how it works with writers, one little snippet, from a friend, an overhead conversation, something on the news, whatever, and away we go! I loved writing Grady and Jordana’s story. They made me laugh, and they made cry a bit, too. They’re journey was also inspired by a trip I took to Crater Lake and the Lava Beds National Monument. A very pivotal scene came to me as my husband and I were crawling through lava caves. I won’t say anymore, you’ll have to read to find out! But I will tell you how fabulous those caves were, so visit if you ever get a chance. But be sure to take hiking boots, a flashlight, a helmet, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants. Those caves can get a little hairy!
Here’s a blurb about Grady and Jordana’s story in Desire Actually. And I have to thank Lisa Salvary again for the fabulous title! 
What does a red-blooded, All-American male do when his wife asks for a divorce—by email, no less—claiming he's too vanilla in the bedroom?

He gets a sexy tutor for after-office-hours sessions, of course.

Enter Jordana Davis, a work colleague who offers to share the mysterious secrets of what women really want—Desire, Actually. Grady Masterson is more than willing to listen to every seductive suggestion.

He aces sexting and phone sex as the sparks start to fly between them. Then Jordana imagines that Grady could be the one she hadn't been looking for. If only he wasn't taking lessons from her to win back his wife.

How far would you go to win the one you love? 

Desire Actually
After Office Hours, Book 1
© 2016 Jennifer Skully
Chapter One
Grady Masterson stared at the email on his monitor. After eight at night, the office was as silent as a stadium once the fans of a losing team had all gone home. Empty and let down. The quiet gave him time to stare at the email longer than he might have if it had arrived in the middle of the day.
He simply couldn’t understand it.
He was forty-two years old, a college graduate and Vice President of Business Development for a Silicon Valley start-up that had the potential to make billions. He occupied a corner office on the second floor, with a window and a wood desk instead of plastic cubicle furniture. He owned his own home and came from a large San Francisco Bay Area family who’d never been scandalized by divorce in the ranks—of course, two of his brothers hadn’t married yet. He paid his taxes without fudging a single deduction, and he wasn’t stupid. At least he’d never thought so until now, when he simply could not comprehend what the email was telling him.
Dear Grady, she’d written. I’m divorcing you. We’re not compatible anymore. Since we don’t have kids to worry about, it should be a simple matter. I’ll have my lawyer call yours. She’d signed it as Your Wife.
Your wife. As if he was too stupid to recognize the email address. They’d been married fifteen years. Career-oriented, they’d never had children. Right from the beginning, when they were in college, Darlene had told him she wasn’t the mothering type. He didn’t mind, though his mother had never truly come to terms with the fact that she wouldn’t get grandchildren from her first born. He and Darlene had a good marriage. They didn’t fight, not about money, not about sex, not even about religion or politics or in-laws.
Then suddenly, without a single warning shot, they weren’t compatible and she wanted a divorce.
It defied explanation—or even logic. He understood each individual word. He grasped the overall meaning. What he couldn’t fathom was the context, the why.
Swiveling his desk chair, he stared out his window. It wasn’t quite dark yet, the late summer sun still streaking the western horizon with the last of the day’s rays.
He was more angry than hurt, though he was sure the hurt would come later, after he’d processed the whole thing.
Had she been distant lately? Busy at work, sure, since Darlene was an analyst at a brokerage house. She was always distant when the market was down, which it had been for the last few months. Maybe he’d been distant, too, without even realizing it. A start-up created a huge amount of work and stress, but he’d made time for her. He’d factored that in when he accepted the job eighteen months ago. He usually didn’t arrive home until after seven o’clock, or even later. Neither did Darlene. They were happy workaholics. They shared a good meal, usually take-out from one of the nicer restaurants along University Avenue in Palo Alto. They enjoyed a glass of wine together—a new vintage they’d found during a Sunday trip up to Napa in the spring—and tuned into an interesting show on PBS. Or a British mystery. Or… it hadn’t really mattered because they both went through email in front of the TV.
He couldn’t detect the chink in their marriage. They’d seemed comfortable and well-matched. Maybe they were a little routine, but he was satisfied with that.
The email had left him totally, freaking clueless.
And suddenly he was pissed as hell. It wasn’t mere anger. Emotion chewed up his gut like something bad he’d eaten for dinner. It threatened to spew up and out, burning his throat with acid.
He clicked his mouse to force-close his computer. He was done staring at his inbox.
What kind of woman divorces her husband over email? Not the woman he thought he knew, not the woman he’d loved.
Love. The word sent him over the edge, and he grabbed his cell phone off the desk. Jabbing in the pin number to unlock it, he found her name in his favorites and stabbed the icon of her smiling face.
It rang so long he thought she’d let him go to voicemail. Until she said, “Hello.” Politely. As if she hadn’t even looked at the caller ID.
“What the hell is going on, Darlene?” The sharpness of his voice sliced holes in the quiet office.
“Grady.” She paused long enough to communicate her annoyance. “I really don’t think we should discuss it over the phone.”
“Right. So you can divorce me by email, but we’re not allowed to actually talk about it.” His fist was so tight on the phone that his knuckles cracked.
“I knew you’d be like this. That’s why I sent the email.” Because she didn’t want to listen. He’d heard the subtext in her tone.
“You can’t just make up your mind without even talking about it.” He felt his back teeth grinding as he closed his mouth on the words. “Most people would at least try a little counseling. We don’t even have any problems.”
“That’s why we can’t do counseling, Grady. Because you won’t admit the truth. We’ve been off for months. Years, in fact. We’re little more than roommates. But you’re so complacent with the status quo that you don’t even notice.”
Complacent? He rose and began pacing the office because he couldn’t sit still as he listened to her. “Right. We’re roommates who have sex once a week. Like clockwork.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. It’s like clockwork. Routine. Complacent.” Her voice hissed on the word, like a snake slithering into his comfortable, complacent world beneath a rock.
Pulling the phone away from his ear, he stared at her icon a moment. Her snide voice didn’t match the smile. It was like she was some other woman. “So this is all about sex?”
“It’s not all about sex. But I could use a little more variety in the bedroom. It doesn’t always have to be Saturday night. It doesn’t always have to be step one, step two, step three, we’re done. We could be spontaneous. It’s all too vanilla.”
“So now I’m vanilla, too?” Where did she even come up with that word? “All right, fine. I’ll come home and we’ll have sex right now. We’ll do step three, then step two and step one.” He didn’t even know what the steps were. Their love life wasn’t clockwork. He only chose Saturday because on Friday they were both tired from a long workweek and Sunday night they had to get up early the following morning. And he mixed things up. She’d stopped wanting to kiss, jumping right into things, asking him to put his mouth on other parts of her body instead of on her lips. He’d happily obliged. More than happily for both of them.
She gave a long-suffering sigh, like the mother of a teenager who’d told him to clean up his room for the millionth time. “You really don’t get it. When I try to explain what a woman wants, you just don’t listen.”
“I’m listening now. Tell me what a woman wants.”
“It’s too late.” She snapped out each syllable.
He had to be the calm one. They’d never work things out if they were sniping. “We’ve been married for fifteen years. We should at least talk face-to-face before we bring in the lawyers. I’m coming home now.”
“I’m not at home.”
“You’ve already moved out?” This time his teeth ground so hard, he thought he heard one of them chip.
“I’ve got a hotel room.”
It was too freaking weird. “Just like that?”
“I told you’ve I’ve been thinking about it.”
The idiot lightbulb over his head finally flashed on. “There’s someone else, isn’t there?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Which translated to: Yes, there is.
“How long has it been going on, Darlene?”
“I told you there isn’t anyone else.” But the softness of a lie had slipped into her tone.
“Tell me.”
“I am telling you.”
“Someone from work?”
“A client?”
“Of course not.”
“Then who?”
“I told you there isn’t anyone.”
But he knew her. He might not have paid enough attention over the past few months, he might be complacent, but with his eyes suddenly wide open—actually, it was his ears—he recalled the subtle differences, clothes ever so slightly sexier, the loss of five pounds, a new tint in her hair.
“I assume he’s not vanilla in the bedroom like I supposedly am.” His voice snapped like a rubber band.
“Grady, I’m not—”
He knifed through the lie. “You are. But you should know there’s not going to be a divorce until we talk. Honestly and openly. Call when you’re ready.”
He didn’t hack at the phone. He simply ended the call with a push of his finger. Then he tossed his cell phone on the desk with a thunk.
She was having an affair. He’d claimed he wasn’t a stupid man. But he was. He’d missed all the signs. There’d been nights she hadn’t come home until ten, but he’d had those late nights himself, for business. Over the last few months, the Saturday night intimacy had been at his initiation, and now he wondered if she’d faked her climaxes, too.
He swore, slapped his hand on the back of his chair and rammed it into the desk. Then he grabbed his phone, shoving it into his suit pocket.
They needed to talk. He couldn’t leave this hanging. But he didn’t even know where she was.
He slammed his office door on the way out. It felt damn good. He relished the sensation as he turned, taking two long strides toward the door
And smacked into a wall that shouldn’t have been there. A supple, yielding wall that crumpled to the carpet with a woomph of breath and a soft shriek.

* * * * *

Jordana Davis fell on her butt.
“Sorry. Are you okay?” Grady Masterson stretched out a hand to her. With his executive-short dark hair and sexy five o’clock shadow—make that eight o’clock—the guy was totally hot. She’d always thought so. But he looked especially good from her vantage point down on the carpet. She adored big, tall men, and Grady was at least six-two compared to her five foot seven.
“I’m fine. It was my fault.” She let him pull her up, her fingers engulfed by his warm, oversize hand. It was most definitely her fault. If she hadn’t been eavesdropping on his entire phone conversation, she would have left before he figured out he wasn’t alone.
His cheeks turned ruddy, as if he suddenly realized that she’d probably heard everything, right down to the fact that his wife thought he was vanilla in bed.
A wave of heat blushed her face. He had to be wondering why she was here so late. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, pointing at her computer. “I was polishing Rhonda’s Power Point presentation.” The excuse was inane. It didn’t explain why she’d kept herself hidden. “For the quarterly company meeting tomorrow,” she added, which didn’t make anything better.
She was executive assistant to the Human Resources VP, whose office was straight across from Grady’s. A cubicle wall separated her desk area from Ivy, Grady’s assistant. They had identical cubicles, each with a short reception desk in front, desk tops all around, hanging file cabinets, and an opening that faced directly at their respective VP’s office. Beyond that was a warren of cubicles housing the Accounting department and a row of offices along the opposite wall while the copy room and conference room flanked the entrance to this upper quadrant of the building.
Grady blinked with eyelashes that were long and dark. “Sorry for startling you when I slammed the door.”
She waved away his apology, giggling like a silly schoolgirl. If she hadn’t jumped up, he probably would have rushed through like a mini tornado without ever seeing her and saving them both from the embarrassment.
But he’d ended the call, and she’d heard him swear. She’d thought she could slip away without being noticed. What an idiot.
So, was it best to acknowledge what she’d heard or pretend she’d been engrossed in Rhonda’s presentation? That might be a lie too hard to swallow.
He shifted feet. “I didn’t hear you out here on your computer.”
She had a very quiet keyboard. “I should have been louder.”
His dark coffee eyes seemed to glow with tiny slashes of green. Instead of dropping his gaze, he looked at her directly. She counted the long, long seconds of silence. “You heard it all, didn’t you.” His voice didn’t rise into a question but remained flat.
It was less embarrassing to simply nod her answer. She’d heard every dirty detail of his side of the conversation. It wasn’t hard to deduce that his wife had sent him a Dear Grady email because he was boring in bed and she was having an affair. Or maybe she was having an affair because he was boring in bed. Or… his wife made her affair his fault by saying he was a bad lover.
His jaw flexed, and he breathed deeply enough to flare his nostrils. She’d never seen Grady Masterson angry. He was big, he was toned—oh yeah, he was toned—but he wasn’t a pushy loudmouth. Tonight was the first time she’d heard him raise his voice, his speech clipped and harsh.
“So tell me,” he said, his gaze intense enough to create a wash of heat deep inside her. “What do women really want?”
She thought about tossing her purse strap over her shoulder and making a run for it. Or throwing him a bone, something like We want equal pay for equal work, or We want to be taken seriously. But that wasn’t what he needed to hear.
He’d asked sincerely. And since she’d blatantly eavesdropped on his very personal conversation—because of course it never occurred to her to leave—he deserved an honest answer.
“A woman wants to be desired.” Her words came out breathy, sexy. She bit her lip. It wasn’t how she’d meant to sound, but there was a change in the atmosphere swirling around them that brought out the huskiness in her voice.
His eyes got darker, the streaks of green receding into the deep cocoa, turning his gaze into something earthy and potent. “How does a man do that?”
“You can’t do it. You have to feel it.”
“But how?” He spread his hands, which she realized had been clenched. “Flowers? Chocolate? Fancy dinners?”
“You have to be desperate. You have to be intense.” She felt his intensity now, like heat shimmering off concrete.
He shook his head, a short, sharp jerk. “What does that mean?”
On a college essay, she’d once gotten the comment that her reasoning needed to be more compelling. What the heck did that mean? Same applied here. What did desperation and intensity mean in concrete terms, especially in regard to the subject matter?
Her breath felt rough in her throat. Then she went for it. “A woman wants to be shoved up against a wall and taken.” She swallowed her embarrassment, concentrated on the heat of his earthy gaze. “Tear her clothes off. Like you can’t wait one more second to get your hands on her. Just pull up her dress and make her scream with pleasure.”
His eyes were all pupil now. She could almost see her reflection in the blackness. “How?” he murmured.
“With your mouth,” she whispered. “It’s all about her, for her. You don’t even get off. You just need to taste her. Right this minute.”
There was a scent on the air, his male musk, hers, mingling, pulling them closer.
His lips moved. “That’s just lust.”
“You can’t have the love if you don’t have the lust first, because then you’re just friends with benefits.” That was her preferred modus operandi. Relationships were too fragile and potentially disastrous. She didn’t have time for disaster.
Grady stepped closer, invading her personal space. His heat arced into her, surrounded her, seduced her.
“And you’ve been desired liked that?” he asked so softly his voice was like a feather stroking her erogenous zones.
The question didn’t merely invade personal space, it assaulted personal everything. She could have told him her answer was theoretical. She could have lied. But in this moment, they were too intimate for lies.
“Yes.” She was a desire junkie. “It was the biggest high in the world.”

Desire Actually will be coming your way on Friday, Feb 12, just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Dead to the Max, Max Starr Series, Book 1 is still free!
And that’s not all! Two more freebies, one from Jennifer Skully and one from Jasmine Haynes!
Check out the fabulous new cover for She’s Gotta Be Mine. Thank you for a whole new series look, Rae Monet! Try Book 1 of the Cottonmouth Series for FREE!
Try Somebody’s Lover, the first book in the The Jackson Brothers Trilogy for FREE!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A truly sweet Christmas romance by Beth Barany!

You all know how much I love Beth Barany's books! I've read all of the stories, and they're simply wonderful. They're sweet, not filled with all the naughty stuff I put in my books. Which is really a refreshing change, don't you think? And I adore her Henrietta series. Henrietta is a dragon slayer, and the books are filled with adventure and angst and all that fabulous fantasy stuff. Beth does fantasy so well. And I consider the Touchstone series to be fantasy. Or maybe it's fairy tale. Anyway, with Beth you get dragons and gargoyles and Santa and Christmas elves!

So let's dig in to Beth's latest release in the Touchstone series, A Cupcake Christmas. Here's the review I've posted on Amazon and Goodreads. As you can tell, I loved the story! And where are my cupcakes!? This story really gave me a craving. Oh, and the other thing is that I love all the Bay Area references, San Francisco, Berkley. Since I live in the Bay Area, it was really cool to read about a place I love.

What could be better than Santa and his elves at Christmas! Well, a very sexy elf who wants to become a Master Baker mixed with a tenacious businesswoman and her brand new cupcake business is certainly up there! Florian and Kate’s story is another great addition to the Touchstone series. I’ve enjoyed every story, and A Cupcake Christmas is as delightful as the rest. Kate and Florian are wonderful and I was rooting for them the whole way. What a marvelous way to spend Christmas, reading with a cup of tea and a nice fire. Now I’m going to have to add cupcakes to that as well. In addition to the romance, I loved reading about Kate’s tenacity in building her business, especially all the different cupcakes, which were magical themselves. I’ve never thought of savory cupcakes before but this story was an inspiration! I look forward to the next in the series.
This short novel (or long novella!) is now available for (Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and B&N: $0.99)

What if you risked losing your baking legacy by cooking up a love truly special?
Florian MacMillian needs a final job to complete his baking resume—preferably a job where he’s unlikely to blow things up with his unruly magic—before returning to the North Pole and taking his rightful place as Master Baker to all the elves.

Kate Delore desperately needs help in her fast-growing cupcake business. Florian is a perfect fit, so she brings him on as baker. For a short time, Florian is happily up to his elbows in batter, and Kate’s business is booming.
But when things heat up between them, Florian wonders if he should risk his legacy to cook up something truly special.
Beth Barany, Award-winning Author
Author of YA Fantasy & Magical Contemporary Romance
"Magical Tales of Romance and Adventure to Worlds Where Anything is Possible"

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Do you dream of being Reckless in Love

I hope you’re all breathless for the next installment of the Maverick Billionaires! Bella and I had such a wonderful time writing Sebastian and Charlie’s story. And yes, there were a few times we brought tears to our eyes!

In Reckless in Love, you’ll meet a lovely woman named Francine Ballard, Charlie’s mother. Francine didn’t come entirely from our imaginations. She’s the embodiment of two amazing ladies we are so lucky to know personally. And I’ve had the honor of knowing one of them for my entire life. Meet Doris Beach (my mom) and Judy Moffett (my mother’s best friend). Unfortunately they both suffer from arthritis, and Judy’s arthritis is severely degenerative. They both have lost the ability to do many of the things they love because of the pain they live with. But they never give up. My mom does water exercises three times a week and walks a mile the other four days. And Judy walks a mile each day as well, despite the bolts holding her ankle together. Each and every day, they put one foot in front of the other and carry on. Because if they didn’t, they might not be able to walk at all. They might be confined to wheelchairs. I have never known more courageous ladies. They will both celebrate their ninetieth birthdays this year. I hope that at their age, I will have as much courage and as much joy as they have. They both have my love. Happy birthday, Mom! Happy Birthday, Judy! May we all strive to be like you!
And now let me tell you about Reckless in Love. You’ve already met Sebastian in Breathless in Love, and now he will find his true love, Charlie…
Sebastian Montgomery rose from nothing to become one of the most powerful media moguls in the world. Yet beneath the seemingly perfect fa├žade of his life, the past still haunts him. Because when he lost his parents in his teens, he also lost his faith in love. When he discovers Charlie Ballard and her incredible metal sculptures, he is awed, inspired—and he can’t help feeling things he swore never to let himself feel again. Soon, Sebastian wants not only Charlie’s art, he wants her as a woman, too. More than he’s ever wanted anything in his life. And what a Maverick wants, he always gets…
For Charlie, Sebastian offers the commission of a lifetime. Creating a magnificent sculpture for his new headquarters is a dream come true, but falling for the spellbinding billionaire isn’t part of the plan... until his luscious kisses entice her into total recklessness. He fascinates and captivates her, and as Charlie learns more about the dark depths of Sebastian’s past, all she wants is to heal him with her love. But can a man who has grown up thinking love is toxic ever believe that true love is real?
Available now, Breathless in Love, Book 1  Kindle  Kindle UK  Kindle CA  Kindle AU  Nook  iBooks  iBooks UK  iBooks CA  iBooks AU  Kobo  Google Play  Print  Audible
Preorder Fearless in Love, Book 3, coming Summer 2016  iBooks  iBooks UK  iBooks CA  iBooks AU  Kobo 
And now for a First Look excerpt! Enjoy! And after you're done reading, you'll discover all the freebie books I've got available for you now!

© 2015 Bella Andre & Jennifer Skully


Charlie Ballard had one hell of an imagination.
Sebastian Montgomery marveled at the garden of creatures fashioned from junkyard scrap glowing beneath the hot California sun. A magnificent lion roared, its flowing mane a fabrication of railroad spikes. An elephant trumpeted—literally, its trunk shaped from two trumpets fitted together, its body and legs forged from various old musical instruments. Two rams, their ginormous antlers constructed of rolled corrugated-tin roofing, were pitted against each other in a battle to the death. There were smaller works as well—lizards cut from what appeared to be rusted car doors, and some strange, scorpion-like insects built with nuts, bolts, screws, and claws formed from the blades of old pruning shears.
Ms. Ballard’s artwork spoke to something deep in Sebastian’s core that was as primal as the beasts she’d welded with the blaze of her torch. Her vision was so clear, so pure, that a sense of awe radiated through his chest. Awe at the way she put it all out there—her energy, her whole soul, and every ounce of passion, for everyone to see—and how in her brilliant hands, metal came to life. Inanimate objects became real. Became magical.
Her metal menagerie touched his soul, if for no other reason than the fact that she’d constructed something so momentous from everyday junk.
To most people, this acre lot in the Los Altos Hills area of the San Francisco Peninsula would look like a junkyard filled with car parts; tractor seats; saw blades; pitchforks; barrels of nuts, bolts, nails, and rivets; and metal scrap of everything from ancient barbecue grills to sewer grates. But Sebastian understood that they were her art supplies—and were far more important than a green lawn or fancy landscaping. The fact that her house and detached garage had seen better days in no way detracted from the genius of the artistry strewn across the property.
Sebastian removed his suit jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt as he headed toward the ramshackle single garage, through which he could hear the screech of welding equipment. His heartbeat was already well into overdrive from the incredibly beautiful sculptures—and his fingers were itching to sketch everything around him. He got his first sight of Charlie standing in beams of sunlight streaming down through two Plexiglas-covered holes in the roof, her protective face shield up now and her welding torch off. Sebastian’s heart stilled in his chest with renewed wonder.
Because he finally knew what true beauty was.
Charlie’s temples and forehead were dented from the welding mask while her glossy hair shone with hues of red and gold in the sunbeams cascading from above. She snapped a restraining hairband loose and ran her fingers through lusciously messy curls, letting them spill over her shoulders. Sebastian was instantly caught up in a vision of burying his hands, his face, his mouth in all that incredible red hair.
Removing a heavy smock that safeguarded her arms and body, she revealed a pair of stained and faded farmer-style overalls, beneath which she wore a tank top. Her arms flexed with a fine ripple of muscle, a gorgeous creation of bone, sinew, muscle, and smooth skin.
 Of all the works of art on Charlie Ballard’s land, the woman herself was by far the most stunning, more radiant and fierce than any sculpture could ever be. So stunning that only one thought remained.
He had to have her.
At last, she turned sparkling green eyes in his direction. “You’re here,” she said as if she’d been waiting for him all her life.
And when he answered, “Yes, I’m here,” for a moment he actually felt as if he’d discovered his destiny.
That thought was pure whimsy; he’d found his destiny the first time he stood on a stage and encouraged people to change their lives. But everything about Charlie Ballard and her creations made him feel as though he’d walked into a fantasy. One where the normal rules didn’t apply, and the only thing that mattered was passion—passion for both the art that surrounded him and the woman who’d created it.
Which was why he didn’t hold back, didn’t bother to act nonchalant. “You’re a genius.”
Her eyes went wide with surprise at his compliment for a split second, before she smiled at him. One perfect smile that rocked his world yet again. “Thank you.”
She didn’t ask him to tell her which was his favorite piece, didn’t press for more compliments, and he was struck by her quiet confidence. It was something he’d found to be extremely rare when most people were desperate for as many ego strokes as they could get.
“Let me introduce myself.” He held out his hand, dying to feel her skin against his. “Sebastian Montgomery.”
“Charlie Ballard.”
An electrical charge ran through him as she slid her hand into his. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so deeply affected. Her grip was firm, with a ridge of calluses along her palm. She wore no flowery scent, just the heady aroma of woman and the metals she worked with. His world was filled with women who glittered with jewels and smelled like designer perfume. But Charlie Ballard sparkled with life, and all her contrasts intrigued him. The gorgeous red hair and steel-toed work boots. The sexy tank top and old overalls. The slightly upturned nose and kiss-me lips that she’d hidden beneath a welding mask. Lips that were now curving into a ghost of a smile, as if she’d felt that same zap of electricity when they came skin to skin.
He nearly asked if he could kiss her. Instead, he forced himself to keep that question under wraps for the time being. “Is Charlie short for something?”
“My parents named me Charlotte. But as we all soon discovered—” She held the baggy overalls out to each side with a grin. “—I was more of a Charlie.”
No, even at first glance he could see she was both—the beauty and the tomboy. Beneath the drab fabric, he could easily guess at her curves, the indentation of her waist, the taut length of leg. Again, the urge to sketch her—and all her magnificent creations—was stronger than it had ever been for him before.
Sebastian’s art broker, Xander Smith, had set up the appointment for three o’clock. Xander would have attended, but a last-minute crisis demanded his attention. Now Sebastian was glad he’d had the chance to see the elephant and the fighting rams for the first time with no one else around. And he definitely didn’t want to share his time with Charlie.
He’d already told her she was a genius. Reminding himself that going on about her beauty at this stage in the game would definitely be pushing things too far, he said, “I’m a bit early, but I’m glad that gave me time to tour your garden.”
She laughed, and the sound was throaty, deeper than he’d expected from a woman who was almost a foot shorter than he. Granted, he was tall at six-three, and her work boots added a couple of inches to her height, but her head still didn’t reach higher than his shoulder.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it a garden,” she said in a smooth, soft tone that only served to stoke his attraction to her.
As they talked, he led her back out into her yard, wanting to see her beauty amid all the splendor she’d created. “How about a menagerie?”
She smiled again, and he simply couldn’t control his response to it, his body heating up several degrees just looking at her. Just standing so close. Her smile was as beautiful as everything else about her, even the lingering dents in her forehead from the face shield and the shimmer of perspiration on her cheeks and upper lip.
“Now that’s a diplomatic term.” Her smile was wry as well as beautiful. Intelligent too. She rested her hands on her hips, her boots planted apart in the dust and gravel. “Mr. Smith said you liked my dragon.”
“Please, he’s Xander and I’m Sebastian. And like most art brokers, he prefers to keep things understated. But I don’t. Which is why you need to know I think your dragon is magnificent.”
“Magnificent.” She repeated the word as though she was more than a little surprised by his reaction to her art. She tipped her chin at the collection in the yard. “Most people call it junk.”
Sebastian was impressed by how well she hid any sense of offense at the word junk. Still, he’d built his career on looking beneath the surface of people, and he could see that it did, in fact, hurt her. Maybe only a little, but he knew all too well how the small hurts could add up. Especially when it came to one’s art and creative dreams.
Forcefully pushing away the thought of the dreams he’d given up so long ago, he told her, “I’m not most people. And I appreciate beauty when I see it.”
“I’ll take genius,” she said with another smile. “I’ll even let you get away with magnificent. But beauty?” She shook her head. “That’s going a bit too far.”
“No, it isn’t. Take the elephant, for example. I’m amazed by the way the instruments fit the contours of the body, the legs, even the ears. How did you do it?”
“I used the bells from a couple of old sousaphones I found.”
She said it as though it had been the easiest thing in the world, but he knew better. Knew just how hard it was to bring your vision to life. Knew, in fact, that it could be impossible to see that vision work out just right. But she’d done it not only with the elephant, but also with every other creature in her garden. And with an effortlessness that blew his mind.
“I suspect you’re the only artist on the planet who can take the bell from a sousaphone and make it look as if an elephant’s ears are flapping.”
She tipped her head as if he’d just performed an astonishing feat. “Nobody’s ever seen the intended effect before. I had to beat them into submission, of course—bend the rims, manipulate, and add to them, but that’s exactly what I was going for. Flapping ears.” She caressed the tubes forming the basic structure of the animal’s haunches and he swore he could feel the heat of her touch all along his own muscles. “I used the tuning slides and the rest of the sousaphones back here. I’ve always thought musical instruments were like diamonds, that you should never throw them away.”
He turned to find her startlingly green eyes on him again. The marks of the mask were starting to fade, leaving a beauty so pure, so fresh, it stunned him all over again. Even if her art hadn’t blown his mind, Charlie herself was worth the price of admission to her backyard art museum.
“You found all this in junkyards?”
“And thrift shops. Parents make their kids join the school band, but after two years those kids hate it. And bye-bye trombone.” She threw out her arm, and again he saw the play of muscles in her shoulders and along her throat. “I saw the sousaphone first. It looked like an elephant’s ear—and suddenly I knew I needed to bring him to life.” She spread her hands to encompass the structure made up of saxophones and horns, tubas and flutes, even drums. “It took me five years to find all the instruments.”
“Five years?” She continued to surprise him. “For one project?”
“I worked on other pieces at the same time. And I also teach welding over at the junior college.”
“It still shows a great deal of dedication to one vision.” He understood that kind of dedication. At the age of eighteen, he and his four best friends, the Mavericks, had vowed to get out of the Chicago hellhole of a neighborhood they’d been born into and strike it big. They’d all made good on that pact. Clearly, Charlie Ballard had the same kind of single-minded vision.
“Five years of dedication to a piece of junk I can’t even give away,” she said with a smile. A smile content enough that he suddenly wondered if she’d ever really tried to find a buyer.
“Are you going to try selling it to me?”
“Do you want her?” Her eyes lit with humor as she nodded toward her small house on the other side of the acre. “I could use a new roof.”
This time, he was the one laughing out loud. “Maybe one day I’ll succumb to the need to take the elephant home with me, but today I’m not here for the elephant, the ram, the lion, the lizards, or the scorpions.”
“Scorpions?” She shook her head. “They’re Zanti Misfits from The Outer Limits.
“You mean that sci-fi TV show from the nineties?”
“Not the remake,” she said with obvious disgust. “The original.”
He was hard-pressed to fight back his grin at just how much fun it was to talk with her. He couldn’t remember the last time fun had factored into his relationship with a woman. Especially a lady he was senselessly attracted to. Not only was her art magnificent, but so was she. He wanted her with a sweet kick of desire low in his gut.
“Tell me more about these Misfits.” Lord knew he’d felt like one when he was a kid, living with two alcoholics who often forgot they even had a son.
“They used to do TV marathons of The Outer Limits when I was a little kid,” she explained. “They had the worst special effects, but the stories were great. ‘The Zanti Misfits’ was my favorite episode—all about expecting the unexpected. My dad had a big barrel of nuts, bolts, and screws in his workshop, and I was so inspired by the show I swear they seemed to build themselves. They were my very first sculptures, and every once in a while, even though I already have a zillion of them, I have to make another.”
Suddenly, Sebastian realized there were Misfits creeping around everywhere. Small compared to the rest of her work, they were still fierce little creatures, their pruning-shear claws ready to snip the toes off trespassers.
“Is that how you get your ideas?” He wanted to plumb her creative depths, her mind. Hell, he wanted to delve into every single part of her. “You see something that inspires you and you just start building?”
“Sometimes,” she mused, and he appreciated that all his questions didn’t seem to bother her. “Or sometimes it’s a place, like the church in San Francisco where you saw my dragon sculpture.” The sun created a rainbow of reds in her hair. “A dragon was meant to sweep its tail over the path, barely missing Sunday parishioners. So I walked inside and asked if there was any interest in my building one for them.”
Every day Sebastian put himself out there in a seminar or book or TV presentation. Through his company, Montgomery Media International, he strove to help other people fulfill their destinies, something he found extremely gratifying. But though it seemed he didn’t have any secrets, the truth was that he’d never offered strangers a piece of his heart and soul. And he sure as hell wasn’t willing to expose what he created to anyone, deliberately keeping his drawings locked away in his den at home. He was the exact opposite of Charlie, who was so easy about his visit to her studio, so relaxed in answering his questions, so carefree about the idea of asking a church if she could build them a sculpture of a dragon.
Then again, Charlie’s talent was in performing a miraculous metamorphosis of junk heaps into amazing creatures, whereas his talent was in helping people transform themselves. He’d wisely given up his dreams of being an artist a long time ago, had accepted as a teenager that he’d never see his work hung on a gallery wall.
He ran a hand through his hair, not sure why he kept spinning back to the past today. Especially when it was the future he was far more interested in—one that had Charlie Ballard playing a starring role.
“I’m glad the church was smart enough to be interested. And I hope they paid you well for the dragon. It’s unlike any sculpture I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s Chinatown and everyone loves the dragon at Chinese New Year, so I gave it to them. The dragon couldn’t have lived anywhere else.” She gestured to her crowded garden. “Not even here.”
He supported numerous charities, but he still frowned upon hearing that she hadn’t been paid for her work. “You don’t need to give your sculptures away for free.”
She raised an eyebrow at the slight scolding in his tone and answered him back just as firmly. “I do just fine, thanks.”
He liked that she had an independent streak, her spirit matching her strong, lithe body. He liked everything about her a great deal, in fact. And yet, she really did need that new roof, one she could easily afford if any other collectors discovered her talent. And if she were willing to charge for her art’s true worth.
What, he suddenly wondered, was holding her back from being the superstar that lurked inside her? With her talent, she brought out the majesty in mere junk, like revealing the swan hiding inside the ugly duckling. She had huge vision and saw shape and form in things that no one else could even begin to imagine. So why wasn’t her metal statuary displayed all over the world, in museums and buildings and parks?
Sebastian vowed to find out. But first he needed to convince her to work with him. “I’m opening a high-rise office in San Francisco at the end of September.” He’d taken over an existing structure and was rebuilding it to suit his needs, including a production studio. It would be his new headquarters and that of the Maverick Group as well. “There’s a fountain in the lobby center.” He let silence beat for three seconds. “It needs you.” I need you. The thought hit him hard, right in the solar plexus, where no other woman had ever gotten to him. “It needs one of your sculptures.”
“You want to commission me to design something?” She still sounded as though she couldn’t quite believe what he was saying.
Had no one ever let her know just how extraordinary she was before today?
“I’m planning a grand opening for the building, attended by friends, business associates, clients, customers, art enthusiasts. The fountain and its statue—the one you’re going to create for me—will be the centerpiece of the event.” Her work would be seen by everyone who was anyone in San Francisco and beyond. But it was more than her work that he wanted people to discover and appreciate. “We won’t just unveil your art, we’ll unveil you to the world too.”
She didn’t jump at his offer. Didn’t do anything for long enough that he actually began to worry she might say no. Though he couldn’t understand why she would possibly turn down his offer.
“Well,” she finally said, “I am off school for summer break. Classes don’t start again until the fall.”
He eased closer, catching the perfume of woman and sparks. He wanted her art—and her—more than he’d ever wanted anything or anyone before in his life. “Is there anything else standing in your way?”
She paused again, her expression shifting in ways he couldn’t quite understand. There was excitement there, but also wariness and continued confusion. At last she said, “No, I guess not.”
Now that her mind was made up, she looked at him directly, her eyes glittering like emeralds. In an instant, the spark of desire lit between them again.
“What exactly did you have in mind?” she asked.
You. In my bed. For a month straight. Longer than that. For as long as I can convince you to stay.
But what he said instead was, “A stallion.”
The sweet and sultry sound of her laughter made it nearly impossible not to reach for her, to drag her into his arms and find out if her mouth tasted as sweet as it looked.
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.” She gave him a slow blink, then a sexy arch of her eyebrows. “Although I was thinking more in terms of a T-Rex.”
“A killer dinosaur?” His own laugh rumbled up. Only his fellow Mavericks could make him laugh so easily. But despite her baggy overalls and vast skills with power tools, she was worlds away from being one of the guys.
She pointed at the garage. “Didn’t you see my masterpiece inside?” She said the word masterpiece far too mockingly.
He spoke the absolute truth. “I saw only you.”
She stilled, blinked, and the afternoon heat wrapped around them, tugging him another step closer. So close that he could practically feel the heat radiating from her skin to his.
“You really should see the T-Rex.” She murmured the words as if they were talking about moonlit nights rather than a vicious dinosaur made out of all manner of sharp castoffs. “I’m building it out of road signs riddled with bullet holes. Battle-scarred, but alive and kicking despite its hunters.”
“Isn’t the T-Rex the hunter?”
“They’re misunderstood,” she supplied simply. “But the truth is, even if you like him, I have to let your space speak to me first. And if you want me to build something for you—” She held his gaze, her finger just short of tapping his nose. “—you have to let the space choose what’s right.”
Charlie’s property clearly needed more than a new roof. But instead of rolling over like most artists who were desperate to sell their work, she wouldn’t be pushed. He was amazed that she appeared to be as open as her art—no artifice, nothing to hide. No smoke, no mirrors. Easygoing Charlie-not-Charlotte. And he found her more attractive than any glittering, cosmetically enhanced celebrity or society woman he’d ever dated. More intriguing.
More everything.
“Deal. The space chooses the sculpture.” He reached for his checkbook, then pulled a pen from the pocket over his heart. He wrote the numbers, signed his name, and handed her the check.
She read, gripping the paper tightly between her fingers as if a sudden gust of wind might whip it away. But when she raised her eyes, her beautifully lush mouth was a flat line. “This is a joke.”
“I never joke about a hundred thousand dollars. I know that whatever you fill my empty space with will end up being worth more than that, Charlie.” As he held her gaze and said, “A hell of a lot more,” he wondered if she understood that he was talking about far more than her work.
Because something told Sebastian that Charlie just might be his destiny after all.

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