HE TICKLED MY
FOOT: one big, strong hand holding onto the ball of my foot, the other hand’s
forefinger running languidly down the curve of my instep.
I squirmed and
tried to pull my foot free of his grip.He scowled at me and gave me one of those roguish, stunning smiles of
his.No wonder women—and quite a few
men—had been in love with him for the last two decades.It was more than the fact that he literally
got better looking every damn year.It
was more than the amazing shape he kept his body in.
It was even more
than the restless leviathan between his muscular legs that was now discreetly
covered by my Hello Kitty pink and white sheets.
Brad Pitt was
just the sexiest man to ever live…and—tabloid rumors aside—he was a great guy…
a humanitarian.Heck, he’d done more than
FEMA for New Orleans.
“I’m not done
yet,” he admonished, his voice deep with want.
“Well, stop with
the tickling, then, and get to it,” I said, pressing my free foot into his
hard, hairless chest.Good god, his
flesh was soft and warm… and he smelled delicious.
He raised an
eyebrow and smirked.“Yes, ma’am.”
As Brad reached
over to the bedside table, his thick fingers caught hold of the nail polish
applicator, and then he set to work once more on painting my toenails.A subtle pink called Unabashed.
I can only
imagine he does the same thing for Angelina…
And isn’t it
nice that she lets him come here too.Those two really love their fans…
Brad looked up
and frowned, and I realized a phone was ringing somewhere.
will get it,” I said, wiggling my toes at him.He smiled and dipped his head to resume my pedicure.
I heard the
machine click on, and then a beep.And
then my boss’s voice shrilled into the room, as if the damn machine was right
by my head—which was ridiculous, since I kept my answering machine on my desk
in the studio.
“Hope!I know you’re there… where else would you
be!” Janine groused.“You never leave
That made me
mad.I was not some hermit.I went out all the time: to Wal-Mart, to the
fruit and vegetable market, to…
Well, I wasn’t
much for painting the town red, but I was not some pathetic shut in… I just
“Hope…this is a
code red emergency!I haven’t gotten any
new cover shots from you, and Olivia is getting nervous.”
I groaned and
looked up at the ceiling.This was bad… very
“This is bad…
very bad!” Janine echoed.
Brad looked to
me confused, and I could only shrug my shoulders.Bye, bye Brad… hello reality.
I woke from my
daydream sitting at the desk in my studio, my mouth dry as cotton balls, my
body feeling hot and sweaty all over.
“Pick up, pick
up, pick up!” Janine brayed.
My heart leapt
and I lunged for the telephone.“I’m
here,” I said breathlessly.My daydreams
featuring Brad always took it out of me, even if we’d never gone any further
than a naked foot massage, or his washing my hair… also naked, in the shower…
Janine bellowed with relief.“You’ve got
to fix this.”
I had to fix
it.Me?Why didn’t that thought fill me with confidence?
“Hope… are you
still there?” Janine called from my
phone.She was the owner, CEO, and
Senior Editor of Branded Publishing, and she was the busiest woman I’d ever
met: organized like a general or an accountant… and quite possibly the most
annoying human being on the planet.
I covered the
phone’s receiver and took a deep breath, held it for a ten count, and reminded
myself—again—that it was the copious amount of work I was getting from Janine
and her ever expanding e-publishing house that insured I was caught up on my
mortgage and not working shifts at Wal-Mart or Denny’s.
“I’m here… just
had to load some images onto my laptop.”Which wasn’t exactly true.
I already had
all my recent photos loaded on my laptop… and as I clicked them open they were
coming up… lacking.Really lacking.
I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what
was wrong with them.
The young man
I’d shot was handsome and very well built, and the girl was what they’d call
rockin’ in the body department.
But the pictures
of them together just seemed so… flat… lifeless…
Maybe he was too
buff?Maybe the shine on her recently
capped teeth and spanking new breasts was causing havoc with the lighting?
Whatever it was,
none of my new batch of images was going to even make it to my next round of
cuts.And I needed a cover for the new
Olivia Lovelace novel by next week.
“You know we
need to get the advance copies out to the reviewers by next week, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I sighed,
clicking rapidly through my new collection of mediocre shots, hoping that speed
might make one of them look more appealing.“Believe me, I know.”
says cheap and rushed to romance bloggers more than sending out ARC copies with
“I know, I know…
and I promise I’ll have something gorgeous for you in plenty of time.”I just had no idea how.It was the middle of summer, and the bevy of
hot young men and pretty girls who usually signed up to model were away, back
home—wherever the hell that was—since college was over until fall.
hottest burning star, so we need to keep her happy. She’s only contracted for
one more novel and she’s already let it slip that Doubleday and Penguin have
it all made sense.The unprecedented
hype and publicity for the new Olivia Lovelace novel, and why Janine was so
hell bent on getting the cover done.
already rejected my first cover, saying it looked too much like some of the
other covers I’d done before.That’s why
I hadn’t even looked at my stock photos and had plunged right into securing new
images with fresh faces.
I stared at a
picture that was almost good, almost passionate…and absolutely gratingly
Maybe my ego was
bruised?I mean, after having my first
effort brushed aside with such a prickly rebuke, I could just be looking at my
new crop of stills with an injured ego.
I clicked on the
“almost right” picture and threw it to Photoshop and played around with colors
Still no good.
Janine.I’ve got it all under
Janine sighed on
the other end of the connection.“I know
you do, babe.I know you do.It’s just that Olivia’s ebooks account for
over half our sales this quarter.I
can’t afford to lose her to a… Legacy Publishing House.”She said those last words with real venom in
started out in the traditional publishing world, working for Harlequin and then
St. Martin’s.But then ebooks went
viral, and the print publishing industry started cutting authors and whole
Janine had been
one of those cut at the editorial level.It had devastated her, and she’d been teetering on the edge of becoming
a statistic in the Print/eBook war when she ran into a fellow “downsized”
editor named Greta from a rival publisher, and her stinking rich ex-boyfriend
who owned half of downtown Dallas and three sports teams.
In her usual
browbeating manner, she pulled both her ex and the other editor into her wake,
and pitched them an idea off the top of her head.A new kind of publishing house where only
ebooks were put out and the prices for them could rival even those of
right, of course.And she and her fellow
downsized editor put out no less than twelve top ten Amazon romance novels in
the first year.
But this year
she’d ratcheted up the tension with two a month publications.And two months ago she’d added two new lines:
Hot Branded and Night Branded.Erotica
and Paranormal romance lines.
about it made me exhausted.I couldn’t
imagine putting out so many books.Nevertheless, I was making the covers, and it was turning out to be more
and more hectic.
I had to.That or she’d find a new photographer.
And that would
“I’ve got it
under control,” I told Janine, and then told her I’d call her in a couple days.
When I hung up I
called Vincent Call, my contact at the modeling agency.
“Need a model,
call Vincent Call!” the man cooed into the phone.
I rolled my
eyes.Good god, he was tacky.
Jones.I need two more models, and I
need them quick.”
“Sorry, toots,” the
little shitweasel said, sounding anything but sorry.“But we don’t have anyone we can send you
until next month.”
I huffed out my
held breath and fumed. “How about one of your competitors?” I cringed the
second the words left my mouth.
I heard him hiss
out the breath he’d taken.“I don’t have
any competition down here.This is San
Antonio, Texas, for crying out loud, not Manhattan!”And he hung up.
Crap.Not only didn’t I have any models coming in
for my much needed shoot, but I’d inadvertently pissed off my supplier.I’d have to send him some booze, or a
First I needed
to find some models.
I checked the
phone book—zilch: turned out that Vincent the shitweasel really was the only
game in town.
modeling agencies in Houston, Dallas, and then for all of Texas.None, it turned out, were running any actual
models this time of year.
Models were out
I shook my head
and then rested it on my kitchen table.
Maybe if I
looked far enough back in my stock photos I’d find something I’d forgotten
about, something that was fresh and new looking.
Problem was that
before I started shooting racy covers for romance novels, I pretty much shot
weddings, birthdays, and graduation pictures…
I cringed just
remembering some of the dead eyed, pimply teenagers with too much eyeliner, too
much hairspray, and way too much cologne and perfume on.Thank god, you can’t smell that crap through
If I didn’t find
a way to keep my position at Branded Publishing, then I might end up doing
portraits at Wal-Mart, if not stocking the shelves there as well.
I lifted my head
and there it was… a headache from hell—pounding, throbbing, sharp pains around
my eyes, and a heavy weight squeezing my frontal lobe.
I staggered over
to the cabinet in my kitchen where I kept my mini-pharmacy: band-aids, salves,
balms, first aid kit, ice packs, and painkillers.
I picked up my
bottle of Tylenol and found it empty.When had I used the last ones?
I sighed deeply
and reached for my car keys.Prophetic
or not, I was going to have to go to Wal-Mart before I could go any further
with my model hunt.
Read more of Hope Breaks free here! or anywhere you get your ebooks.
That moment when the man who broke your heart and rejected your virginity suddenly shows up again.
The Hate Him Trilogy
From the corner
of the restaurant I heard a laugh: male, hoarse, yet with a metallic ring.Touchable, as if it were caressing your skin.
The sound pulled
my spine up straight as if by a steel chord.
went wide when he looked at me.“What’s
I didn’t really
know.My mind hadn’t caught up with the
rest of my nervous system yet… but my heart had.It thumped painfully hard in my chest.
Just then a
waiter appeared at my side and set a stemmed martini glass beside me.
I gulped looking
at the chilled glass and the ring of salt on the rim.
A margarita in a
martini glass—my flesh warmed as anger ignited in my chest, making my thudding
the gentleman,” the waiter said, pointing to the corner of the dining room with
an elegant gesture.
My gaze followed
where he pointed and lit on a table of men in expensive suits.Dead in the center I caught sight of him, and
my heart skipped a beat—the traitor…
I turned back
around and closed my eyes, feeling myself slipping into an emotional
with joy, shame mingled with cold fear, and a long lost feeling of love coated
in black, sticky hate.
I'd never wanted
to see Jackson again…
Yet here he was,
just when my career and personal life were on precarious ground, looking…
Well, I’d only
stolen a glance before I turned back around and closed my eyes, but he looked…
Like a fucking
Thank you, so
I gritted my
teeth and pushed the shit-storm inside me back to the dark little corner of my
mind where I’d long ago banished it.
I would not melt
into a puddle of sniffling, tear soaked hurt.
No, this wasn’t
college, and I wasn’t the dewy eyed girl I had been.
The memory of
his walking out of my dorm room flickered through my mind, and the scorching
feelings of hurt, shame, and confusion that moment had caused.
And now, sitting
there in that restaurant, I saw for the first time that that moment, that
feeling, had been reverberating inside me all along.
I swear that
when I opened my eyes again everything was red.
I blinked a few
times and it went away.
grabbing my clutch purse and the martini glass clad margarita, and headed
towards Jackson’s table.
were blue-green, like arctic ice, and they bore into me as I walked toward
him.I strutted around the table until I
was standing right next to him. He didn’t stand up.Simply sat there, staring at me with those
damned eyes of his, a slight grin on his handsome face.
hair, cut short, the build of a college football star, and the sun kissed skin
of a native California boy—he was the very definition of masculine beauty.
I smiled at him
and his expression faltered.
what I’ll do?
I looked down at
the martini glass in my hand.
“Liz,” he said,
and then he sighed and tilted his head as he looked at me.“You’re not really going to—”
I threw the
drink in his face.
the margarita from his eyes with one hand, and then looked at me with
I leaned down
and he jerked back an inch or two.I
leaned in further, my smiling face so very close to his, and then ran my index
finger down the line of his square jaw.
He watched, his
mouth slack, as I put my finger to my lips and gently tasted what I’d taken
from his flesh.
I moaned as if
tasting something delicious.
I looked back to
him and he was biting his lip.
“I forgot how
much I enjoy those.Thanks for the
I turned and
started walking toward the front doors.Lance and Churchill were still standing at our table and I waved
I needed out of
there.I needed away from Jackson Burk,
as far away from him as possible.
“Liz!”Jackson called after me, but I was already at
the front doors, pushing past the doorman.
Once outside I
gulped the city’s air as if I hadn’t breathed in years: desperate, halting
I glance around.No cabs in sight.
I needed to get
away, so I started to run.
I was in four
inch heels, so I wasn’t setting any land speed records.
I heard his
steps as he caught up with me, and I felt it when he grabbed hold of my arm.
His hand was on
fire.That heat seeped through my skin
and made my blood boil on contact.I had
forgotten how his touch made me feel.It
was some scary chemical reaction… or magic.
No… I won’t do
this, not ever again!
I swung around
in his grasp and slapped him as hard as I could.
He winced, but
didn’t let me go.
I went to hit
him again, but he reached up and caught my hand in mid-air.
He was so
strong; I had forgotten.
I was trapped in
“Let go of me!”
My voice dripped venom.
“You need to
listen to me.” His eyes bore into me, and my traitorous heart skipped a beat
and Lena clinked their wine glasses with mine.
took a deep drink.
just can’t believe he thought I wouldn’t find out!” Lena said.
laughed. “He should’ve made sure to erase his browser history.”
smiled. Lena had just found out her boyfriend, Brian, was having a cyber affair
with a data analyst in California. A data analyst he’d met on Facebook three
or emotional, cheating’s cheating.
Lena had kicked him to the curb in less than a day.
was my hero.
I knew a little of what Brian had been feeling.
love and longing for someone…
had moved from her spot on the couch and was leaning in to whisper in my ear.
for your thoughts…”
my thoughts were worth far more than that.
on, Alice…” Kim said, “You’ve been a million miles away all night.”
spill.” Lena cooed, pointing her finger at me accusingly.
looked at my two best friends in the world.
I tell them?
adored them both. I loved no others more than these two ladies.
slid to the edge of my seat, holding my wine glass tensely. I was so nervous.
brows shot up her forehead.
it really that shocking?
I am a romance author, and I spend my time typing away in worlds I want to live
living in the world I’m in.
my God!” Lena howled as Kim clapped her
hands, fell back into the couch and giggled.
pushed on, not wanting to lose my nerve.
met him at the book fair in Houston last month.”
I remember that moment, seeing him for the
first time from across the crowded room.
book-boyfriend gorgeous and so smart and kind… but he can be naughty too.”
Lord have mercy…
if they knew.
wanted to walk up to him that very moment and lay the kiss of all kisses on
an iBooks merchandiser,” I confessed.
felt so relieved to finally tell them. They were like sisters to me.
what’s his name?” Lena asked.
Name? “I don’t know
my friends said in chorus.
got up and headed toward the kitchen. My wine glass was empty.
Lena said, chasing after me. “You don’t know his name?”
opened my refrigerator and started refilling my glass.
I didn’t get close enough to talk to him.”
burst into the kitchen and stood beside Lena. “What do you mean you didn’t talk
he’s an iBooks merchandiser. He was surrounded by like a hundred authors trying
to… well, I don’t know what they were trying to do, but when our
eyes met, for that one, brilliant moment… I knew I’d found my soul mate.”
put the bottle of wine back in the fridge.
I turned back to Lena and Kim they were staring at me with twin expressions—as
if I’d grown a second head.
glanced at each other, and then Lena looked at me.
you talked to him later?”
frowned. “No. I had to see the Paranormal Romance Writers panel. It was
absolutely loaded with—”
got his email or something,” Kim asked, “And you’ve been texting?”
shook my head. “Not exactly.”
started to walk toward the living room again, but Lena got in my way. “Alice,
what’s going on?”
stood there, holding my wine, looking from Kim to Lena.
sends me emails… every day.”
you said you didn’t get his email?”
mouth was dry, so I took another drink of the Chablis. “He knew who I was.”
just stared at me.
my author profile picture.”
looked at each other again.
didn’t they get it? Why didn’t they understand?
loves books, maybe even more than I do… and he recognized me from my author
cut Kim off. “The iBooks merchandiser.”
looked at me opened mouthed for a moment. “So he… displayed in some way that he
I exclaimed. “Of course he did. It’s not like I’m crazy or something.”
stepped closer and touched my arm. “But you don’t know his name.”
don’t need to know his name… not yet.”
I walked past them and headed back into the living room. “He’ll tell me when it’s time.”
Lena said, trying to catch up. “What’s the name on the emails he sends you?”
had to smile. He had been so clever.
all from iBooks.”
emails are promotions from iBooks?” Kim
asked, looking from me to Lena.
did they look so nervous?
it had been a long time since I’d been on a date.
why my heroines are always… well, in some way like me.
Jones hasn’t been on a date in years. But then she finds her true love—that has
been in love with her for years—fixing cars at Walmart.
Hamilton lost her orgasm in the delivery room witnessing her best friend give birth
to her baby. But she finally got it back when Jackson Burk—the man who rejected
her virginity in college—showed up in her life again and just wouldn’t leave
Mmmm… That one’s
ending is going to be awesome.
can I say? Love can make you do the whacky.
and Kim were staring at me again.
not crazy,” I said.
eyes widened and their mouths fell open again.
works at iBooks, where he reads like EVERYTHING. So he’s read my books—there’s
on iBooks! So he knows me.”
could they have known me for all these years and not get this?
Kim took me by the arm and sat me down on the couch beside her. “What the
hell’s going on? You’re saying you’re having an imaginary affair with some guy
you never even talked to.”
still wasn’t getting it.
knows me.” I reached over and grabbed my iPhone from the coffee table. I pulled
up my emails and accessed the folder that held all his emails. “Look, he keeps
sending me recommendations for books he knows I’ll love.”
showed them the list so far. Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, JR Ward, Janet
Evanovich, Jennifer Crusie, Rachel Caine…
look at me.”
turned and looked at Lena.
are just computer generated recommendations based on the books you’ve already
bought from iBooks, and the books you’ve browsed on their app.”
shook my head. This didn’t make any sense at all.
pulled up yesterday’s email. “He recommended Wallbanger yesterday.”
book,” Lena said, “but what does that have to do with anything?”
scrolled to the bottom of the email to show them.
in small, plain type it read, <Tomorrow night, at eight.>
had been a little message at the bottom of every “iBooks” email I’d received
since that day in Houston.
one was written for you.>
do you like to eat for dessert?>
I had never signed up for an iBooks mailing list before. They just started
showing up in my inbox.
looked up at me.
laughed and looked up at me too.
all looked over to the lovely IKEA Cinderella wall clock hanging on my wall.
minutes till eight.
phone chimed, making Lena and Kim Flinch.
clicked back to my inbox and saw the familiar iBooks email. I clicked it and
read the message.
smiled, set my wine down and showed my friends the screen of my phone.
waiting at your door. Plain cheesecake with whipped cream, right?>
eyes bugged out as I stood and announced, “I’m sorry, ladies, but I’ll need the
place to myself tonight.” My smile was so wide. “So scram.”
and Kim both jumped to their feet, grabbing their purses and chugging the rest
of their Chablis—waste not, want not.
followed me to the door, whispering questions like, “What if he’s a serial
killer?” “What if he’s a Republican?” “What if he’s ugly?” “What if he’s a she?”
held up my hands to silence them.
love you both, but I’m opening that door to let him in, and to let you out. So
wish me luck.”
pulled out her cell phone. “I’m taking a picture of this guy, just in case he
kidnaps you and we need to identify him to the FBI.”
probably a nymphomaniac,” added Kim.
tell her that!” Lena scolded. “You’ve read her books. That’ll just make him more attractive to her!”
tell you all about it tomorrow…” I said. “Maybe.”
was a knock at the door.
Now or never…
ran my hands over my hair, stood up straight and took a deep, calming breath.
Open the fucking
knob was cool in my hand, the door opened without a sound.
there he stood—tall, dark haired, blue eyed, devastatingly handsome.
the wickedest dimples God ever gave to a
I’m Cal.” His voice was deep and a little raspy.
right,” Kim said, peering over my shoulder. “He’s Book-Boyfriend gorgeous.”
held out a box with Panari’s scrolled on
it. They made the BEST cheesecake. On top of that was a small bag of Dove milk
said he knew me.
know.” His eyes practically glowed. Was he a shifter? A vampire? A freaking
Norse god come to life?!?!
are your friends?” he asked, but his eyes remained homed on me.
heard Lena take a breath, but I cut her off.
leaving.” I slid a glance at each of them.
leaving,” They agreed in perfect unison, hustling around Cal and out
my door, their eyes practically undressing him as they did so.
girls,” I said, shutting the door in their amazed faces.
I turned around, Cal had set the box of goodies on my coffee table and was
walking back over to me.
like your name,” I said.
did my mama.” His Texas accent peeked through when he saidmama.
adverted his eyes when he said, “I hope you don’t think I’m just some perverted
stalker or something. It’s just… when I saw you at the book fair I knew I had
to meet you.”
had seen me there.
blue, blue eyes bored right into me, making me warm all over.
you disappeared before I could approach you.”
took a step closer, close enough I could smell the clean scent of Dial soap on
reached out and touched the crisp white cotton of his dress shirt.
read my books,” I said, staring up into his drowning deep eyes. “I like
perverts and stalkers.”
moved that one last step closer, closing in on me until I could feel the heat
rolling off his body.He dipped his head
until his lips were almost to mine. “You do?”
felt breathless for a moment.
kind of thing didn’t happen to me.
especially not with a handsome, sexy iBooks merchandiser.
I whispered, “I don’t like it.”
popped up on my toes. “I love it.” And I kissed him.