2012 READER'S CROWN AWARD FINALIST - BEST CONTEMPORARY
BEST BOOK OF 2011 NOMINEE -- LONG AND SHORT REVIEWS
BEST BOOK OF 2011 NOMINEE -- THE ROMANCE REVIEWS
“If you are in the market for an erotic romance that makes you feel
warm and fuzzy, hot and horny and sometimes a little teary, then
this book is one you definitely must read!”
THE ROMANCE REVIEWS - 5 Stars, Top Pick
“It’s one of the best romances I’ve read in a while. It will appeal to the
true romance lover, the sophisticated romance lover, the romance
lover who craves the emotional turmoil that comes with a love story.”
LONG AND SHORT REVIEWS - 5 Stars, Best Book
Half-naked men doing yard work should be illegal.
Lounging on her deck recliner, Kirstin did her best to stare straight ahead and play oblivious to the bare-chested man trimming hedges on the terrace less than a football field away. The sun glinted off sweat-slickened muscles that rippled each time the lanky man twisted to snip a belligerent bough. Her gaze followed the tapering contours of his back to a trim waist. Lower to the man’s simply amazing ass. His jeans fit over taut buttocks, hugging flesh her fingers yearned to squeeze. His skin would be warm to the touch. Rugged silk as it slipped against hers.
Too bad she’d spent the last three years living with that hard male body to know that the physical work of art came with a whole lot of damning faults.
Kirstin shifted, annoyed by the way her body reacted to the mere sight of Mason Montgomery. Even now, when she’d thrown in the towel on a future with him, he could still turn her insides into pudding.
Mason moved around the rose bush—the same rose bush they’d planted when they bought the house together—giving Kirstin a full frontal of well-defined pecs and six-pack abs she knew by heart. Not once did he look up. His hands never hesitated.
As if he didn’t damn well know she was sunbathing on their neighbor’s balcony.
As if he didn’t care one bit his indifference had forced her to take refuge next door.
As if he didn’t care at all that their lives had fallen apart.
Good thing she hadn’t married the insensitive jerk. Divorce would suck ten times more. She pulled in a deep breath and forced her eyes to close. If it weren’t for the fact he’d insisted he wanted her to work from home and enjoy the little bit of luxury his salary afforded them, she’d be across town in her own studio apartment, as indifferent to his absence as he was to hers. Damn it—why had she allowed her pride to reject his proposal that they split the bank accounts? If she had, she wouldn’t be stuck, without an office, without any recourse but to sit and hope a client would call and she could earn enough to really get away from Mason.
Muttering, she looked once more at the rose bush, half-hoping he’d still be snipping away and half-hoping he’d given up and gone inside.
The rose bush sat alone, the patio door wide open to their Tuscany kitchen.
Good. Right about now, on Fridays, Mason sat at the computer, where he remained until she finished cooking and called him to dinner.
Satisfied she could now concentrate on Cosmopolitan, she picked the magazine back up and flipped it open to the article on Caribbean vacations she’d been reading before Mason intruded on her solitude. As she searched for the paragraph she’d abandoned, the shrill ring of a telephone pulled her gaze back to the nearby patio.
It rang three times before abruptly terminating, telling her yes, Mason had been at his computer. A sigh worked its way out of her lungs, and she glanced back down at the ocean liner in the article.
“Hey!” Mason’s voice boomed over the short lawns between them.
She looked up to find him already halfway across the grass and cringed. This wouldn’t be pleasant. Not by any means. Standing, she hurried to meet him at the bottom of the stairs. “Yes?”
Mason thrust the cordless at her bare belly. “Phone’s for you.” His gaze dipped to her bikini-clad breasts, lower to where the back of his knuckles touched her skin. Then ice blue eyes locked with hers, hard and brittle.
“Oh.” It took an enormous amount of willpower to ignore the warmth that radiated off his fingers as she accepted the phone. She loved his hands even more than she loved the rest of his phenomenal body. They could be so gentle, the only part of him that ever conveyed true feeling.
Well, except for his eyes.
Lifting the receiver to her ear, she turned away before the hard glint to his stare could stir regret. “Kirstin Jones, speaking.”
“Kirstin! This is Lisa Bennet. Do you remember the spread you did for me last year?”
How could she forget? Lisa’s two-page skateboard ad had taken months of back and forth design layouts before Lisa accepted Kirstin’s graphics. The project had kept Kirstin up at night, made her lose five pounds, and it marked the beginning of the inevitable end with Mason. As far as she was concerned, she could go a lifetime without hearing from Lisa Bennet. However, if Lisa was calling, she needed something, and right now, Kirstin needed money more than she needed peace of mind.
“Yes, Lisa, it’s so good to hear from you. How can I help you?” Glancing over her shoulder, she looked at Mason.
He shook his head, pursed his lips, and turned back the way he’d come. Definitely not a happy camper. But hell, what did he expect? They’d only been apart a few weeks. Not all her former clients knew her new number. And she wasn’t about to antagonize the super-touchy Lisa by asking her to call back on the cell.
“We’re doing something new at Edge Skateboards this year. I need a graphics artist, and you’re the best I know.”
“Oh? What’s the campaign slant? New product? New style? Are we trying to instill a brand image, or focus on the company as a whole?” Mason temporarily forgotten, Kirstin wandered up the deck stairs and sat down on the foot of the recliner. She pulled the issue of Cosmopolitan onto her lap. Picking her pen off the table, she prepared to scribble notes in the margins.
“We’re trying to target the younger markets, and you know how technological they’ve become. Everything’s digital.”
Digital spread. Okay, not a problem. Everything started digitally anyway. “Right. Go on.”
“We want an interactive. An ad, or an app we can embed where our ads are, in digital media, that the teens can interact with.”
Oh. Shit. That was Mason’s ballgame. He did 3-D and game design. “Um, Lisa, as much as I’d like to help you, I think that’s beyond me.”
“No it’s not. The first thing you sent over last year, when you showed us the rotating skateboard, that’s exactly the type of thing we’re talking about.”
Which had all been Mason’s doing. Back when working together now and then had been fun. Before this project had them screaming at each other and opening her eyes to all of Mason’s faults. Kirstin held in a sigh. “Really, if that’s what you’re looking for—”
“I’ll send over the prototype of the new board. That should give you color schemes and tones. I have your email address here.” The sound of shuffling papers drifted through the receiver.
“Wait. Lisa, really, you need to talk to Ma—”
“Oh dang, I have to go. I’m late for a meeting. I’ll shoot that to you today, and we can touch base tomorrow afternoon.”
In typical Lisa Bennet fashion, she hung up, evidently having forgotten another appointment. Not that her poor memory or state of total disorganization should be a surprise. Her forgetfulness was half of the problem with the previous project. She couldn’t remember what she’d decided she wanted from one conversation to the next.
Kirstin stared at the cordless phone in her hand. Now what? She couldn’t do interactives. Digital Flash designs were the most complex of her talents, and Lisa wouldn’t take no for an answer. She already had her mind made up, the vision completed. Worse, Kirstin needed the money too badly. She was tired of living at their neighbor’s, feeling like a charity case, while her ex went on about his merry life right beneath her nose like nothing more had changed than the sheets in their bedroom.
Mason certainly wouldn’t help her.
Her gaze strayed to their manicured lawn and the neatly clipped rose bushes that framed the stone patio. The regret she’d been ignoring swamped through her, weighing down her shoulders. They’d been a good team once. Not just with work either. When they’d shared the little apartment down on Baker Street, where they’d been so cramped together they could hardly turn around, they never fought. Days didn’t pass with Mason locked in front of his computer, his mind trapped in some alternate reality he was creating for a major corporation.
When the wind howled in through the dilapidated windows, and the faulty heater refused to work for the second time in one week, they hadn’t gone to bed without the other.
She sighed heavily and blinked back rising tears. No, once they’d coexisted in perfect harmony. The house, his growing business, her need to have something for herself… Sometimes love wasn’t enough to glue everything tight.
No sense dwelling on it. That was then, this was now, and now she needed money so she could start over. Maybe if Mason realized he wouldn’t have her lurking in his backyard, he’d be inclined to help. He could have their neighbors back, and she could get that apartment across town.
Summoning her courage, she rose to her feet and descended the deck stairs. The grass was cool beneath her bare toes, despite the hot Atlanta sunshine. The wafting breeze carried the faint scent of pine from the dense trees that framed the lake across the street. She caught the sound of children laughing within their other neighbor’s enclosed privacy fence and glanced around this little copse that had offered so much promise. Maybe a child would have held them together.
Doubtful. And that would have meant marriage. Which would have made leaving Mason impossible.
She squared her shoulders and rapped on the open glass patio door. Footsteps echoed down the long hall off the side of their family room. Her pulse accelerated, her heart unable to understand that Mason and she were finished.
He appeared in the doorway, propped one shoulder against the rich dark wood. “You really need to send out a mass email with your new number.”
Kirstin forced out a light laugh as she entered the kitchen and set the cordless on its base. “So all the clients I don’t want to return know how to reach me? Don’t think so.”
She couldn’t look at him. Couldn’t stand the sight of his unmanageable dark waves or the softness of his lips. Nor could she tolerate the frostiness in his eyes. Instead, she went to the cupboard and pulled out a box of dried-out Twinkies. “You should go to the store. These are stale.”
“Twinkies were your thing, not mine.”
Right. And these weren’t her cupboards anymore. She shut the door gently and leaned her elbows on the countertop, managing to lift her gaze to his. Those blue eyes sank into her soul, filling her up with unwanted emotion. What she wouldn’t give to see his lopsided smile. To feel his thick arms around her, his mouth on hers.
Mason’s expression remained impassive. “Did you need something?”
Damn him. Didn’t he care at all? Wasn’t there some small part of him that missed her? She swallowed to curb the twisting of her belly. “Actually, yes.”
The first bit of emotion she’d witnessed in far too long crossed his face. Dark eyebrows lifted for a fraction of a second before his frown returned. “What?”
“That was Lisa Bennet. I need your help with—”
“No.” Mason turned to the hall, presenting her with his back.
As he took a step toward his office, Kirstin blurted out, “I need the money to move, Mason. Really move.”
Everything inside Mason’s body ground to a standstill, including his heart. This was real. Not some nightmare he’d wake up from and find Kirstin asleep at his side, her long black hair tickling his cheek. She didn’t want just distance, she wanted to leave.
Correction. She already had.
He slowly turned around. “Really move,” he echoed. To his ears, his voice rang flat. Her face, however, took on excitement, and the smile that had once lit him up from the inside flickered hesitantly across her face.
“Yeah. We can’t move forward if I’m parked in the Roberts’ house.”
Forward. He didn’t want to go forward. He wanted to go back. Back to where Kirstin laughed and they spent long nights sitting up talking about…nothing. But damned if he knew how. He didn’t even know what had happened. One minute they were arguing about what to have for dinner, and the next she’d packed a bag.
A day later, she’d informed him she wasn’t in love with him any more. He’d been too dumbfounded to beg, and he’d never been good with words anyway. When it all sank in, it became easier to convince himself this was just a phase. Something she’d change her mind about if he gave her space.
He ran a hand through his hair, unable to dislodge his frown. Work with Kirstin on a Lisa Bennet project? Hell, beyond all the reasons he couldn’t tolerate Lisa, he could hardly tolerate seeing Kirstin from fifty feet away. All he wanted to do was drag her back into their bedroom and remind her how good they were together. “I’m pretty busy with this deadline right now.”
Damn it. Where the hell did she get off? She’d walked out. Wasted five years of his life. Two where they might as well been living together, one in a hellhole barely worth their meager rent, and two in this house. Their dream house. Now she had the audacity to ask him to help her with a project? A project that belonged to Lilith reincarnate?
“I can’t do it alone, Mason. She wants an interactive for an app. And Lisa—pain that she is—pays well.”
Her problem. Not his. He’d offered to split their savings to humor her. She ought to have taken him up on it two weeks ago. He turned back toward his open office door. “I’m obligated, Kirstin.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me? You’re always too damn busy.”
Her words cut through him like a knife. True, he worked late hours and sometimes became obsessed with a project, but despite her claims, he’d never been too busy for her. She’d just stopped asking. Probably around the time she stopped loving him.
Ignoring the painful sting, he continued down the hall.
“She’s going to send the prototype to my email address. Would you at least print it off for me and bring it over?”
“Yeah.” Mason closed the door, blocking her out. He dropped into his leather chair and stared at the 2-D rendition of a dragon on his computer screen. It needed more shading on the belly, deeper reds across the spines. He picked up his electronic pen and tapped it on the grey color selector. A bit more green along the tail…
You’re always too damn busy.
He slammed the pen down, shoveled both hands through his hair, and squeezed his eyes shut. She’d said the same thing when she walked out their patio door. If words existed that could make someone feel love, he’d spew every one of them. But he couldn’t fix the fact Kirstin didn’t love him. He might have been able to undo whatever wrongs he’d committed, might have been able to change his schedule so they had more time together. Now, effort, words, and grandiose gestures were meaningless. He’d missed the train somewhere.
And that Lisa bitch had started it all. Edge Skateboards survived on her husband’s marketing skills, not any genius on Lisa’s part. Beyond all her numerous business failings, the woman’s morals echoed the tenants of Lucifer. Last summer, she’d propositioned Mason less than three feet away from her husband and Kirstin. Whatever else she’d done broke something beyond repair.
Mason reclined in his chair and stared out the window. What had happened? This simply couldn’t be real. Kirstin knew him better than he knew himself sometimes. How did five years of that kind of closeness just fall apart overnight?
The chime on his computer alerted him to new email, and he flipped over to their joint account. Sure as shooting, the letter Kirstin mentioned had arrived. Hating it more than he hated the sender, he opened the file and glanced at the attached color photo of a neon green and orange skateboard. Mumbling, he hit the print button.
No way in hell. All repulsion about Lisa aside, Kirstin wanted out—she was in this on her own. He would not give her the means to run away without a backward glance. If she wanted his aid, she’d have to pay him like every other client. He ought to charge her double for the headaches Lisa Bennet would bring.
Pulling his chair closer to the screen, Mason opened a new window and set the printout on his upright easel. He picked up his pen, dabbed it in a matching orange swathe. First things first—transpose the photo to a format he could manipulate.
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