"Author Claire Ashgrove has created a heartwarming, yet sometimes
heartbreaking, story with compelling characters a reader
can’t help but fall in love with."
LONG AND SHORT REVIEWS - 4.5 Stars
“This is one of those “love finds a way” stories so enjoyable at
Valentine’s Day time.”
GOT ROMANCE REVIEWS - 4.5 Stars
Seventeen Years Later...
A car door slammed outside Olivia McDaniels’ open window, breaking her concentration. Letting out a harassed sigh, she set down her paintbrush and pallet of oils and went to the window. It wasn’t as if she needed to look. She already knew she’d find her roommate climbing out of his white pickup truck. He was the only person in the world that didn’t give a damn about her need for silence in the middle of the day.
He insisted on going to his new building site each morning, coming in for lunch, handling phone calls through Olivia’s most productive hours, and doing his best to distract her from her work. Compared to her brother and former roommate, Josh—who always gave her three hours to herself around lunchtime—Lucas Benning was a nightmare.
She’d known he would be too. Why, oh why, when Josh had proposed giving his house to Lucas in an effort to make up for disappointing him and helping launch his new development company, hadn’t she had the sense to move out? She should have. Foolishly, she’d believed she could navigate around living with her childhood tormentor. As usual, however, instinct proved wiser, and living with Lucas became an exercise in patience she didn’t possess.
As she pushed aside the sheer lace and looked out the window, a feminine laugh floated through the open panes.
“C’mon, Rachel, stop draggin’ your feet. As soon as you meet Olivia, you’ll understand there’s nothin’ but roommates between us,” Lucas’ voice drifted up.
Olivia scowled down at the pair. If that didn’t just beat all—now he expected her to entertain during her prime working hours. Worse, after the way Lucas had droned on and on about this girl he’d met at the bar several weeks ago, from what Olivia had learned, she absolutely didn’t want to meet her. Not in the middle of her work—not ever. Sweet and innocent only appealed when it came to her sister-in-law, Amanda.
At least Lucas had one thing right. There was certainly nothing between them other than roommates. While he was definitely a sight for Olivia’s starved eyes with his tall, powerful frame and laughing brown eyes, the past they shared made it impossible to consider him as anything other than Josh’s annoying best friend.
She drew away from the curtains with a muffled oath. Downstairs, the front door thudded shut. In the corner, her yellow Labrador puppy, Charley, opened his eyes, lifted his head and listened, his ears pricked in interest.
“Olivia?” Lucas called up the stairs.
Charley jumped to his feet, his nails scraping on the hardwood floor as he raced to the door. Pawing at the doorframe, the dog let out an excited whine. His tail moved with all the wicked ferocity of a gale wind, swinging his entire hind end side to side.
“You’re such a traitor,” Olivia mumbled. She opened her pocket door wide enough to let the dog out, and then firmly slid it back into place. Maybe Lucas would take the hint. She didn’t want to be disturbed. Especially not when she had a client waiting on this particular custom oil. And this customer was local concrete mogul, Arnold Tarnen’s, son. Rich beyond all means, he regularly purchased her artwork, and over time had become one of her most influential devotees. Satisfying him promised an open door to more influential customers.
Her gaze strayed back to her easel, surveying the rough strokes that would eventually become a fireplace mantelpiece depicting the couple’s wedding day. She had roughly a week to finish the piece. Ned Tarnen commissioned it as a Valentine’s present. But if Olivia didn’t get the necessary time to concentrate, it would be Easter before she completed the painting.
Picking up the narrow brush again, she dabbed the tip into a small smudge of emerald-green paint and lifted the bristles to the heavy canvas. The backdrop of summer trees would offset the embracing couple. If she could get her paints to match the photographer’s timeless immortalization of their first marital kiss.
“Olivia!” Louder now, Lucas’ voice took on more insistence. “Come down a minute, I want ya to meet Rachel.”
For the love of God, the man was absolutely clueless.
Olivia dropped her brush onto the table with another hiss of frustration. Gritting her teeth, she tamped down a sarcastic remark as she searched for a false smile. Slow, deliberate steps took her back to her bedroom door. She pushed it open, resisting the urge to shudder.
Meet Rachel. Pale-faced, doe-eyed, Rachel, who doted on Lucas. Rachel who was so sweet she made sugar look like health food. Rachel, who belonged in a kindergarten classroom, not on the arm of a man who exuded power, confidence, and had an ass that could rival Brad Pitt’s. Let alone a body Olivia felt confident he knew how to use. All that hard muscle, every bit of well-maintained, raw power couldn’t possibly be disappointing.
She blinked at the top of the stairs. Grimacing, she shoved the image of Lucas out of her mind. Attractive or not, he was Lucas. And while he might physically be something straight out of one of her fantasies, he was still every bit as annoying as he’d always been. This afternoon only drove that point home further.
Besides, he was so hooked on Miss Maple Syrup, it made Olivia’s stomach churn. “What?” she hollered down the stairwell.
“Come down, I want you to meet Rachel,” he repeated more slowly.
She shook her head. “I can’t right now. I’m working.” No way. She absolutely didn’t want that particular woman hanging around her house. That kind of sweetness made it impossible to produce. Made Olivia feel self-conscious about herself. She wasn’t sweet, hadn’t ever been, and didn’t intend to start now. Sweet weakened people. Left them open for disappointment. Besides, it wasn’t as if Miss Virginal and she had anything in common.
Lucas could navigate this one on his own.
Heavy boots echoed up the stairwell. A dusting of soft brown hair rounded the lower landing, proceeding broad shoulders and a strong back. At the foot of the stairs that led to Olivia’s landing, Lucas turned around. His chocolate-colored eyes settled on hers, his brows bunched into a frown. “May I come up?”
Olivia shrugged. Why not? He’d already shattered her concentration at this point—no sense in deluding herself that she might get it back.
He ascended the remaining stairs and leaned a hip against the banister. Folding thick arms over his chest, he frowned at her. “Rachel seems to think I can’t possibly share a house with you and not be sleepin’ with you. She’s seen your pictures in the galleries around town. Would ya come down and put her mind at ease?”
“No,” Olivia answered simply.
His frown deepened. “Why not?”
“Because I’ve told you time and again, this is the time I work. You ignore it every day. I’ve got a commissioned piece to finish before Valentine’s Day, and I’m not in the mood to socialize.”
Lucas pushed a hand through his hair, scattering the loose lengths. He let out a harassed sigh. “You work all hours of the night, Olivia. You keep me awake. Humor me. Do this for me so I can convince her to go out of town with me this weekend.”
Out of town with Miss Maple Sugar? Oh, that ought to be amusing. What Olivia would give to be a fly on the wall when Lucas realized just what he wouldn’t be receiving for Valentine’s. The brief glimpse of the petite blonde in the driveway came with prude written all over her. If Rachel had a color, it would be beige—dull and boring with just a touch of innocent white blended in.
Hiding an amused smirk, Olivia shook her head again. “I don’t want to know her, Lucas. I don’t intend to make nice with her. I don’t need more friends. Please, let me work.”
His eyes flashed with dark color. “You don’t change, do ya? As rude as you’ve ever been.”
With a sigh, Olivia set her hand on his forearm. “No, Lukey. I’m just honest. Go on—I’m sure you can convince her you aren’t sleeping with me. If she’s not self-confident enough to believe that, you don’t need her anyway.”
“Honest maybe,” he conceded. “Repressed and bitter’s more like how I see it. You’ve been bitchy ever since that guy hired you for the Valentine’s portrait.”
It was Olivia’s turn to frown. Had she really? She’d felt out of sorts since accepting the work, but hadn’t meant for it to come across in her behavior.
His mouth tightened. “Fine, you stay up here locked in your studio. I’ll give you your peace and quiet ‘till dinnertime. Then, you and I, roomie, are gonna have a little chat.”
She drew back, turning away. Ignoring the sudden warmth that tingled her fingers as Lucas caught her hand and stopped her retreat, she glanced over her shoulder. “I have things to do, Lukey.”
He cocked his head, studying her. His eyes roved across her face, searching for something Olivia couldn’t identify. With a slight shake of his head, he released her hand and turned to the stairwell. “I’m real sorry, Olivia, that your ex-husband cut out your heart. I didn’t realize ‘till now, he stripped you of decency as well.”
Before she could so much as gasp, he descended the stairs in double-time. A shudder rolled down Olivia’s spine as she let herself back inside her bedroom. She swallowed against the uncomfortable feeling that turned her stomach into a churning mass and followed the sound of voices to the window once more.
Peeking through the curtains, she watched Lucas open the door for Rachel, listened to his rich laughter hang in the chilly breeze. Had Robert done that to her—stripped her of decency? Lucas didn’t understand. No one—not even Josh—could imagine the kind of torture she’d been through. Robert didn’t cheat because he felt like he was missing something. He’d cheated, multiple times, for the sheer fun of it. The last straw had been with her best friend.
At the passenger’s side of his pickup, Lucas dipped his head and kissed Rachel.
Olivia’s stomach tumbled harder.
No, Lucas was wrong, all the way around. She still had decency. A hell of a lot of it. She was doing Rachel a favor by staying away.
What troubled her now was her present choice of colors for herself. If she had to paint her own picture today, it would be like the leaves on the portrait, full of a myriad of greens. Particularly pea-green—for envy.
The ringing phone crashed through Olivia’s haze like lightning. She jumped, her brush jerking sideways and slashing what was supposed to be a thin fringe of yellow across the canvas.
“Damn it,” she snapped. Dropping the brush on the table, she lunged across her bed to answer the jangling distraction. “Hello?”
“Hey, sis, it’s me,” her brother greeted her heartily.
“Josh. I should have known. You and Lucas share brainwaves.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Olivia rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling. “It means the both of you have terrible timing and always know when to interrupt me. What’s up? Are you bored with newlywed life already?”
Josh’s low chuckle rumbled in her ear. “Hardly. Amanda and I were talking about Valentine’s Day today.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know—you hate the holiday. Anyway, we want to do something nice for Mae, for keeping Emma while we were in Rome.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“Do you think you could do a charcoal of Lucas? I’ll pay you for it.”
Eyes wide, Olivia sat up. “You want me to draw him? Are you nuts? That’d mean I have to spend time with him.” Dangerous. Spending time with Lucas—rather studying him in depth—would make it even more difficult to ignore the way his smile made her insides all warm and fuzzy.
“It won’t kill you, sis. I know you two have this love-hate relationship, but surely, after almost two months together, you’ve figured out how to not kill each other?”
She answered with a grumble. “You realize I already have one commissioned work that’s due by this weekend? It’s an oil. There’s no way I can possibly get both done on time.”
Amanda’s voice drifted through the line, blending with Josh’s laughter. Though Olivia tried, however, she couldn’t make out her sister-in-law’s words. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” Josh answered on a chuckle.
“Yes it was, Josh. Tell me.”
“Amanda has this idea you avoid Lucas on purpose because you want to get him in bed.”
Spluttering, Olivia argued, “That’s absurd! I wouldn’t let that man within ten feet of me if he begged.” Maybe if he begged. Under no other circumstance, however, would she let Lucas touch her.
“You know Amanda—always a romantic at heart. Anyway, will you do the charcoal for Mae?”
When it came to Josh, Olivia had never been able to tell him no. From staying up all night on Christmas Eve helping him with his engagement present, to this absurd request, she couldn’t refuse anything he asked.
She heaved a sigh. “I guess a charcoal doesn’t take that long.”
“Okay, we’re going to bring Emma up to the city the day after Valentine’s—this Sunday. Amanda wants to do some shopping. We’ll swing by and drag you both out to dinner. They both miss Luc a lot.”
Olivia wrinkled her nose and plucked at the old quilt beneath her. “Lucas won’t be here. He’s taking that girl somewhere this weekend.”
A long moment of silence passed through the line before Josh mused, “Huh.”
Curious, Olivia couldn’t resist the opportunity to prod for more information. “Huh, what?”
“He must have it bad for her. When I talked to him last, I thought she was just entertainment.”
Exactly what Olivia had thought too. In fact, she’d been so convinced of it, she would have bet her entire collection of oils that his interest would have faded two weeks ago. Instead, Lucas spent more and more time with Miss Maple Syrup. “Guess things changed.”
“Guess so.” Josh let out another hearty burst of laughter. “Makes it easier for you, then. You don’t have to worry about him trying to hit on you.”
Letting out a silent sigh, Olivia stared at her easel. Like that would ever happen. Especially after today. She shook off the momentary melancholy and gave in to a frown. She had no reason to regret what she’d said. She’d done it on purpose. Warded him off with such blatant rudeness she couldn’t ever worry about what might happen if Lucas decided he was suddenly interested in her.
“You need anything else, little brother? I’ve got to get back to my painting.”
“No. Tell Luc we said hello.”
“I will. Give Amanda and Emma hugs for me. I’ll see you this weekend.”
“See ya, sis.”
Olivia dropped the receiver back into the cradle and flopped down on her stomach. This was nonsense. She’d been perfectly content to despise Lucas Benning since that awful day he cut off her hair. What was wrong with her now? So the man was handsome. So his body was sinful to look at. So he had a mouth that practically begged to be kissed. So what? He wasn’t the only beautiful man she’d ever met, and it wasn’t as if she couldn’t find anyone else to entertain her.
But why, when she considered what she’d said and how she’d acted, did regret turn her stomach upside down? Why did the idea that Lucas might really have fallen for that sugary-sweet creature make her feel sick?
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