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 façade 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?
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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
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.”
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.
“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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