“A carnival party. Is this a joke?” Henri Fortier hissed out. Even if he had screamed, he doubted anyone would hear him. Sounds from machinery grinding and spinning blended with guests laughing and yelling. And the smell of popcorn and hot dogs assaulted his senses.
Henri blinked at the flashy colors. Earlier that day, he’d been on his yacht in the French Riviera. Now he marched into the spacious gardens of the Californian mansion he once coveted. Well, still coveted. The one the she-devil Olivia Greystone didn’t want to sell, but would have to if her mountains of debt were anything to go by.
Merde. When he’d told her father on his deathbed he’d watch over Olivia, he had been a sentimental fool—two adjectives none of his close friends would use to describe him.
He passed the cotton candy stand, scanning the area. It must have cost a fortune to bring the jugglers who kept a small crowd hypnotized. People lined up to take a turn on the small Ferris Wheel. He’d seen Vegas Casinos less overwhelming. He kept skimming the area until his gaze found her.
He swallowed. Hard. His entire body halted, even his heart skipped a beat or two.
Smooth waves of blonde hair fell down her strapless red dress. She talked to someone, and he admired her curvy figure and kissable ass for one sinful second. Curling and uncurling his fingers, he sucked in a breath and erased the distance between them.
She laughed. He’d always hated how good her infectious chuckle made him feel. Then she held a glittery hammer and pounded it down the base. The red arrow shot on the sale, but it didn’t get close to the top. Olivia’s life was in shambles and she chose to play higher strike? Was she crazier than he imagined?
“Olivia,” he called her. “I’m glad you find this funny.”
She turned to him with a close-lipped smile. Her eyes still held the azure spark he remembered. “Henri.” She gave the hammer to the attendant, and smoothed her hands over her dress.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” he said. When was the last time he’d dealt with her in person? One, two years?
“No, I’m not.”
Henri nodded. Someone else grabbed the hammer and slammed the base, bringing a small group of friends into a frenzied cheer. He didn’t move, his eyes on hers, his spine locked into place. “What’s your angle this time, Olivia? Besides throwing this ridiculous party and having Jessica email me?” Besides wasting away the remaining dollars your father left. Mon Dieu I did a terrible job watching her like he asked. Instead, I avoided her. And let her destroy her fortune.
“I have a proposition for you.”
“What makes you think I’ll agree?”
She licked her lips. “Wanna bet?
“But I want that one, Aunt Alexis.” The tow-headed little girl ran up to the carnival booth next to the High Striker game, where teddy bears in every color of the rainbow lined the wooden shelves.
“Gabby, come back here,” Alex said, readjusting the popcorn and slushies Gabby had already conned her into buying. It wasn’t an easy task with her right arm in a cast.
Gabby had a thing for bunnies, so it wasn’t surprising she was staring, mesmerized, at a massive pink one, plump and plush, nearly as big as she was.
The employee behind the counter manning the game gave her a nod. He wore a red and white vertically striped shirt, black pants, and a straw hat and glasses. A bit nerdy, but he smiled kindly. Alex smiled back. “She loves bunnies,” she said apologetically, nudging Gabby by the shoulders and trying to steer her away.
There was no way she could play the High Striker game, no matter how much she might want to for Gabby, who just got out of the hospital last week after a month-long stay for heart surgery. She was okay, thank God, just underweight and weak. All the more reason for Alex to want to indulge and give her the time of her life at the annual Frugle employee picnic, where they’d set up an entire carnival for the employees and their families.
But right now, she had to get Gabby away from the striker game. Alex was only three weeks out from her wrist break. She’d gone jogging with a blind date. By the third mile, she was pretty winded, but keeping up appearances—until she tripped over a rock and went flying.
Yeah, she’ d broken her arm trying to impress Mr. Muscle, who didn’t even go into the ER with her. He’d dropped her off at the sliding doors.
That had been her dating luck lately.
Alex tugged gently at Gabby’s elbow, but the child suddenly seemed to grow roots. Being from a family of six, Alex was mostly unfazed. She knew the tricks of the trade. “Oh, look, Gabs, cotton candy next door! C’mon, let’s hurry before they sell out.”
“Step right up, gents,” Mr. High Striker Guy called out. “Try your hand at a game of strength for the lovely ladies.”
“Oh, no, please, it’s okay,” she said apologetically to the guy who was trying to attract customers, or trying to attract some guy who would help her out. But she didn’t want charity. “Really.”
“Please, please, please, Aunt Alex. Please.” Blue eyes the size of the local swimming pool pleaded. Alex sighed. It had been a mistake to allow Gabby to run over to the stuffed animals in the first place.
Distraction. Yes, that’s what she’d try. Gabby’s attention span was about the size of a dime anyway. Alex pointed across the way. “C’mon, let’s go play Go Fish. I hear they’re giving out real goldfish.” Yeah, her sister would certainly thank her if they brought one of those home. Or three. But still, if it took Gabby’s mind off the bunny…
The Striker guy was looking at her a little funny. He was looking at Gabby even more oddly. He pulled out his cell and made a call.
Okay, Striker Guy was giving her the creeps. “C’mon, Gabs. I’ll buy you some ice cream,” she bribed. She almost said Please she wanted out of there so badly. After all, she was running out of food bribes.
When Alex turned around, a man was standing in front of the game—her boss. Well, not exactly her boss, but the man she reported to every day, Colin Blakely. The VP of Frugle, a high-techie search-engine company that had hired her in the PR department a month ago. Except the CEO was a mystery—to just about everyone.
“Hey, Alex,” Colin said, glancing at the guy behind the counter and frowning.
“You know each other?” Striker Guy asked.
“Yeah,” Colin said. “Alex is the PR person we hired to give y—er, the CEO a new reputation. “
“Is that right?” Striker Guy said.
“Well, I’ve actually never met “The Boss,” Alex said, making little air quotes with her fingers.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll meet him soon,” Striker Guy said.
“I’m not so sure,” Alex said. “He’s very reclusive.”
“Maybe he’s just busy,” he said.
“There are a lot of rumors going around about him,” Alex said.
“Like what?” he asked.
“The three most talked about are agoraphobia, Asperger’s, and facial scarring.”
He laughed. “Well, I’ve heard he’s very social and quite handsome.”
She’d heard that too. And she actually knew the truth—Ryan Nichols’ wife and young daughter had died in a tragic car accident two years ago. The news had been magically extracted from all the major search engines, but she’d found it…in an plain old newspaper in the public library. The benefits of being a former librarian. He’d returned to work soon afterward but as a broken man. Someone who ran the company behind the scenes but never showed his face.
Striker Guy had a nice smile, even though his nerdy glasses obscured a lot of his face. “Colin, for God’s sakes, give it a try for the lady.”
He certainly was on familiar terms with the VP of the company.
“I twisted my shoulder playing baseball yesterday,” Colin said. “I think you’re going to have to come out here yourself.”
“Isn’t that against the rules?” Striker Guy asked.
“Funny, I thought you made the rules,” Colin said with a chuckle. More joking around.
What was going on here?
“Allow me to try.”
Striker Guy was suddenly standing next to her. Alex gasped despite herself because he was so…tall. She met his eyes—they were a warm brown behind the glasses, the awful nerdy glasses that he’d already pushed up with his nose twice. Plus he smelled good, like expensive cologne, woodsy and spicy.
She didn’t have time to say no; Gabby was squealing with delight, egging him on, begging for him to smack the puck into oblivion.
He picked up the mallet and brought it down hard on the metal lever. And at that moment, Alex saw that Clark Kent had a bod. A gorgeous bod. Muscles rippled though his athletic shirt. His thighs flexed below his shorts hem. And oh, his legs. Lean, muscular, tanned. Clark had been hiding some impressive assets behind the counter, hadn’t he?
The puck shot up, but didn’t hit the top. He readjusted his shirt and his glasses, which had gone askew. Actually, he tore the glasses completely off and handed them to Alex. “Will you hold these?”
Alex blinked. Because the man had amazing eyes! Brown, stunning eyes, with dark wavy hair and golden skin, like he was Greek or Italian or something. She lost all words. Somehow, she managed to hold out her hand to retrieve the horrible glasses.
For a moment, he stared at her. The corner of his full mouth tipped up in the slightest smile. “I’m going to try again,” he said.
“Here you go, boss,” Colin said, handing him the mallet.
Boss? Colin was calling him boss? Alex glanced at Colin but he was focused on his friend, who was winding up to strike like he meant business.
“Go, Mr. Ryan, go!” Gabby said, clapping her little hands.
He gripped the mallet again, but he turned his attention to her. “What else do they say about—Mr. Nichols?”
“That it’s difficult to get into his inner circle. And the employees fear that it’s just as difficult for their concerns to get heard as well.” She paused for a moment.
“I review employee comments every day.”
“Me too, but no one is sure if Mr. Nichols does. Since no one sees him, no one is certain what exactly he does. And that misconception tends to stick.”
She shrugged. “that he keeps to himself. That he’s a fanatical exerciser. That he’s fussy with his food and he doesn’t date. Oh, and that he really is a recluse.
“He’s not a recluse,” he said so low she almost didn’t hear. Clearly she’d hit a sore spot.
What a strange man. He focused that intense gaze on the striker surface, winding up and coming down hard on the metal thing with double his effort.
The puck shot up, the bell dinged.
“It rang! It rang!” Gabby shouted, throwing herself around the stranger’s knees.
Alex ran to peel her niece away, fearing that this he would be repelled by the impulsive display of affection. But he smiled. Reached down and patted Gabby’s head. Flashed her another one of those amazing smiles.
Colin went behind the counter and got the bunny, which Gabby immediately lunged for and held on to with all her might. It really was bigger than she was.
“Thank you for your kindness, Mr. Nichols,” Alex said. “I won’t forget it. Neither will Gabby.”
His brow raised at the mention of his name. “How did you know?”
She shrugged. “I used to be a librarian. I’m used to digging below the surface for things. But don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” She turned to collect Gabby and leave.
“Wait,” he said, touching her elbow. She swore she felt his touch into her shoulder, her chest, her stomach, everywhere.
“I’ve been hanging out here today, seeing if everyone was enjoying themselves. I didn’t mean to be deceptive. Forgive me.”
He was an odd one. But oh, those eyes were so soft and warm, so melted-chocolaty, and they were looking at her like she was ice cream. “Well, you did make one little girl really happy.”
“Let me make it up to you.”
“You don’t owe me anything.”
“No, I insist.”
“Okay, but I have…conditions.”
“Yes. I’d like to have a formal meeting with my employer.”
“Done. What else?”
“I need some help getting the rabbit in the car, considering I only have one arm.”
“And one last request.”
“Will you win me that little blue teddy bear on the top shelf?” She smiled a little, so he’d know she was kidding.
“I’ll make you a deal. If I hit the bell again, you get the stuffed animal and I get a date.”
The Adriatic Affair
Jessa raised the hammer high above her head. Other carnival goers laughed and screamed their excitement, oblivious to the fact that her life had become collateral damage.
She slammed the mallet on the plate. Thanks for destroying everything, Dad. The ringer on the High Striker game didn’t even go halfway up the scale.
“Sorry, miss,” the carnie said. “For two dollars more I’ll give you another shot.”
“Please aunty, I know I can hit it,” Tyson, her six-year-old nephew, pipped up before she could answer. “I was so close before.”
Jessa shoved her hand into her pocket, not sure she had another two dollars.
“Allow me,” a deep masculine voice said from behind her. Two words, spoken in an accent she couldn’t identify, and her ovaries went into hyper drive. Just what she needed on the day her life fell apart, to be attracted to some nut job at the fair. He reached around her and handed the game’s attendant a bill that sure as hell looked more like a hundred than a two.
She swiveled around but even with her high heels she had to look up, way up, into the face of their benefactor. His turquoise eyes returned her gaze with an intensity that made her want to take a step back. Except Jessa Carmichael never backed down from a challenge.
And what a challenge. In addition to his incredible eyes, his square jaw was covered in light stubble matching his jet-black hair. But his lips were the highlight of his face. They were currently quirked up in a sardonic smile but she was pretty sure there was a better use for them—like trailing kisses from her ear down her neck and into the valley between her breasts.
Sucking in a lungful of air to quell the rising heat, she was about to thank him when his gaze dropped to her chest. The lips she’d admired a second ago parted as if he were about to take up the invitation her eyes had undoubtedly broadcast.
“Thanks, mister,” Tyson said as he pulled the hammer from Jessa’s hands. Kids, right, probably not the best time to be mesmerized by a pair of lips and amazing eyes, not to mention a chest broad enough to hold a place setting for two that included a salad fork and butter knife.
“I…” Jessa began but Mr. Sexy Lips put his hand on her arm. Desire shot from where he touched her to pool between her thighs.
Get a grip, girl, he’s probably a Fed here to interrogate you. But no government worker she’d ever met wore an Ermenegildo Zegna shirt and sported a watch that cost more than a family car.
Tyson swung the hammer and the ringer shot up and struck the bell, setting off a winner’s alarm. Her nephew danced, whopped with joy, and then launched himself at her. Not to be left out of the celebration, his twin sister Emily hugged her as well. God, she’d do anything to protect these two from the shit storm about to ravage her family.
While Tyson chose his prize with Emily’s assistance, Jessa turned to the mystery man who had paid for the extra game to thank him. His gaze caressed her face and she forgot how to use her tongue.
“Aunty Jessa, look what I got for Mummy. Now she won’t be sad.” Tyson showed her a giant panda bear, almost as big as he was. It wasn’t likely that a stuffed toy would make up for Tyson’s father and grandfather being arrested and all the family’s assets frozen pending an investigation by the SEC.
“That’s great, sweetie. Why don’t we take it to her right now?” Jessa’s feet were killing her, she was out of money, and the man standing two feet away made her want to run—or throw herself in his arms—she wasn’t sure which.
Tyson seemed torn between wanting to stay longer at the carnival and going home to cheer up his mother. While he wrestled with the impossible decision, Jessa sneaked a peek at the tower of masculinity who stood with his arms across his chest. Strong arms, his muscles bulging under the shirt he wore, the sleeves of which he’d rolled up to reveal forearms dusted with dark hair. Against her will, her eyes checked for a ring on his left hand. Bare. At least she hadn’t been lusting after a married man.
“Thank you for paying…and whatever else you did…” The game hadn’t suddenly become easier to play by accident.
He uncrossed his arms, lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles. Who did that these days? Was she hallucinating from all the recent stress? No, the touch of his lips on her skin, the way his eyes caressed her fractured soul, were definitely real. And thrilling.
“You can thank me properly later,” he said. His voice vibrated against her skin, sending tingles up her arm, along her side, eventually rippling the pool of desire building with each second he stood close.
“Later? I don’t even know your name.”
“Milan Rakitić. But as of next week, you may call me ‘husband’ or ‘my love’, either works for me.”
Before she could respond, he turned and strode away.
You Can Ring My Bell
“Hey big guy. You wanna try to ring my bell for charity?”
Bear Holt paused, looking over his shoulder when the hot girl manning the High Striker game pointed her finger at him and crooked in the universal sign for “get your ass over here”. She couldn’t mean him. All week his MC club had been in this little town just west of nowhere Oklahoma and no one had given them the time of day.
They’d given them a wide berth but that was whole different story.
But right now, this little slip of girl dressed in the latest style from some catalog that catered to the “country club and G&T” crowd was looking right at him with a smile that was…wicked. Damn. He resisted the urge to reach down and adjust his dick, a move that would get the steely-eyed matrons manning the “guess my age” booth over here with shotguns and pitchforks.
“What’s the matter? You don’t think you can do it?” the young woman asked, her eyes traveling up and down his six foot five-inch frame. She knew he could do it, he was built like a tank. She was…flirting with him.
Never a big enough idiot to pass up an invitation when he saw it, Bear eased away from his friends and through the crowd to stand in front of her.
“Do I look like I can’t ring your bell?” He teased, liking the way her skin flushed a bit at his words. What he loved was the little catch in her breathing when he smiled down at her.
Damn. She was so pretty. Short and curvy with dark brown hair, green eyes and a few, delicious freckles scattered across her nose. He wanted to lean down and kiss her and see if she tasted as sweet as she looked.
“I know you can,” she laughed, running her tongue along her bottom lip. “I thought so when I saw you at the diner the other night.”
“Huh?” He took a step back, as if the action would clear up his confusion.
“In the diner. With your friends.” She cocked her head at him, squinting as she tried to think up something to trigger his memory. “I was wearing my scrubs from work.”
Oh yeah. He remembered her. He’d taken one look at her across the small restaurant and been unable to stop staring. His friends had given him all kinds of shit for it but he didn’t care. Not when she’d looked back. An ill-timed phone call and she’d been gone when he returned. He’d been left with nothing but a cup of lukewarm coffee and disappointment.
“You left without saying goodbye,” he said.
“I said hello now,” she answered.
“Yes. You did.” He looked up the tall game, gauging just how far up the bell was and how hard he’d have to hit it. He could do it. Nor problem. Bear returned his gaze to his little nurse. “You wanna tell me your name before I ring your bell?”
She smiled, really just a teasing twist of her lips as she pretended to think about his request. He liked that about her, she was fun. She probably laughed a lot and he needed more of that in his life. “It’s Leighanne. Leighanne Colson.”
He liked her name too.
“Okay Leighanne, how much?” He pulled out his wallet.
“A dollar per swing…” she paused when he handed over a ten-dollar bill. “You think you’re going to need ten swings?”
“Nope. I’ll get it in one, the rest is for a kiss,” Bear grabbed the handle of the large hammer, testing the weight as he rolled his shoulders in preparation.
“A kiss? The kissing booth is just beyond the cotton candy booth,” Leighanne said as she slid the money into a pocket.
He shrugged. “It’s all for the charity, right? Once I ring your bell, let’s just pretend we’re in the kissing booth.”
“That’s not how it works,” she said, her tone sounding more “yes, please” than “hell, no”.
“It does now.” He didn’t wait for her agreement, he could see it in her eyes. She’d called him over for a reason and he wasn’t going to waste this chance. Bear heaved up the hammer and positioned his body behind the game, rolling his shoulders to loosen up the muscles. Taking a couple of experimental swings, he took a deep breath and brought the hammer down on the pad and watched as the metal piece flew up into the air and made loud, clanging contact with the brass bell at the top.
It was loud. So loud that people in the area jumped a little and then clapped, light laughter filling the air and mingling with the sounds of crowds and piped in country music. He nodded to those who congratulated him, setting down the hammer on the grass next to the game.
“I rang your bell,” Bear stated the obvious, sliding in close that she had to look up to make eye contact. He ventured out one hand, hooking a finger in one of her belt loops and pulling her just shy of full-body contact with him. She sucked in a quick breath and let it out, her breasts pressing against his chest, the contact causing him to shiver.
“I want to claim my prize.”
Her lips curled in a hint of smile as her fingertips brushed against his forearm. “Are you asking?”
“No. I’m not.”
He leaned down and took her mouth, all plans to be gentle forgotten when she opened to him immediately and he sunk into her wet heat. She tasted sweet, of mint gum and lemonade and of something he couldn’t imagine living without. Her tongue played with his own, her teeth taking as many opportunities as he did to add a hint of sharp need to their first kiss.
The first…but he somehow knew it wouldn’t be the last.
“Oh, so close.” Violet Harrison made the appropriate aaw shucks noises as the guy in a black leather jacket, white T-shirt, dark blue, cuffed jeans, and Danny Zuko gelled pompadour handed her a wooden-handled mallet. “For two dollars, you can have three more tries.”
“Danny” glanced up at the High Striker with its blinking bulbs and bell sitting at the top of the sixteen foot tower. The bell he hadn’t managed to ring with six swings of the mallet. Much to the chagrin of the “Sandy” that hung by his side, who eyed the rack of stuffed animals beside Vi with avarice, her teased blonde hair practically quivering in irritation.
“No. I’ll pass.”
“Next time then.” Vi smiled. “If you change your mind, you know where to find us.”
He nodded, wrapped his arm around his girlfriend and strode off. Probably to try his luck—and prove his strength and manhood—at the ducks shooting gallery. Turning, she quickly deposited the four dollars in the chained, metal cash box.
Sue her, but she loved this time of year. Every June, the Andreas Corporation, the company she created marketing campaigns for, hosted its annual summer carnival fundraiser. Each year the theme changed; this time it was Grease. Which, Vi supposed, was an improvement over last summer’s Circus Freaks theme. The fairgrounds had been full of bearded ladies, conjoined twins, and half men-half beasts. The screams of terrified younger children still assaulted her ears. She grinned, twisting the lock on the cash box. Epic fail. Funny as hell, though.
Vi froze, one hand stuffed into the black apron around her waist that contained carnival tickets. Silently, she bit off a curse. She didn’t need to turn around to identify who stood behind her. And it wasn’t because he was the only person, besides her mother, who insisted on calling her by her full name. No, even if he’d called her “Vi” like everyone else, his voice would’ve been a dead giveaway.
That dark, honeyed, I-can-corrupt-you-and-make-you-like-it voice. That voice was gluttony, greed, and lust given syllables and sound. Satan assuredly possessed that silken, tempter’s voice.
Which was apropos given Leo Andreas was the devil incarnate.
Slowly, she turned around. And met the golden, hazel eyes that reminded her of the animal that shared his name. That lion’s stare studied her from the top of her curly, auburn beehive, down her throat and double strand of pearls, over her white shirt, grey jacket and straight A-line skirt, and lower to the sturdy black pumps.
“Nice outfit.” He arched a dark blond eyebrow, and she fought the urge to find out if the damn thing was detachable. But ripping off the facial hair of one’s employer was, at best, frowned upon. At worse, cause to be fired. Or have criminal charges filed against her.
But as her best friend’s older brother, Leo—with his hated eyebrow arch—had been tormenting her for years. Surely a jury of her peers would understand and sympathize with her.
What?” She shrugged. “Everyone can’t be Frenchy or Rizzo or bad girl Sandy. Besides, there wouldn’t have been a Rydell High without Principal McGee.”
Deliberately, she treated him to the same visual inspection. Loose, golden waves that framed his stark cheekbones, almost too lush mouth, and hard, uncompromising jaw. A white, short-sleeved, V-neck shirt and black pants clothed a wide set of shoulders, solid chest, lean waist, and long, muscled legs. A dull, insistent, inconvenient pulse of heat throbbed low in her belly. Just once it would be nice if she could look at him without her heart stuttering or that damn lust playing Twister with her insides.
Just once it would be nice if she could be as immune to him as he obviously was to her.
“So what’re you doing over here? Lost?” With exaggerated movements, she glanced from side to side and around him. “I don’t see one of your usual brainiac supermodels hanging around, so you can’t be here to flex and test your strength.”
He stepped forward. Then closer. And closer still. Until mere inches of air separated their chests and thighs. “How much?” he murmured, leaning over and effortlessly plucking the mallet off the stand.
“Three swings for two dollars.” Move back, damn it, her mind screamed. But shock and the intoxicating, woodsy scent of his aftershave glued her feet to the ground. “One hit gets you a prize.”
“Is that all?”
She snorted, thankful she could still sound unaffected when she was anything but…unaffected. “You have to do it first, sport. Men are always bragging about how they can ring the bell. Any bell for that matter. Yawn.”
That lion’s gaze dropped to her mouth. She sucked in a breath, that pulse of heat between her legs flickering into a dancing flame.
“This mouth is trouble. I’ve told you that often enough over the years,” he said, his low, sin-and-sex voice deepening. His thumb brushed across her bottom lip in a firm caress that had her fighting not to nip his finger. Not to finally have a taste of his skin on her tongue. “I’ve also imagined doing a lot of things to teach it a lesson.”
She blinked. A backdraft of lust swirled through her with the power of a windstorm, blowing away all conscious thought except for two words: Teach. Me.
“So that’s my prize when I win your game.” When, she noted. Not if. His hand dropped from her face, but his gaze lifted to hers, trapping her. Refusing to release her. “A lesson for every strike I make. Do you agree?”
Do I agree? Do I look crazy?
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