Friday, March 16, 2012

Excerpt from CREATED IN FIRE

This is the excerpt from Book Two of the Art Of Love series. This is probably the most tense, tough book I've written to date. The hero and heroine have such a complicated past, and they have a lot to overcome to be together. It took a lot of humor to balance it out, but these two certainly deserved their HEA at the end.

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CHAPTER 1

It wasn’t the first time Michael Larson had awakened in a strange bed early on a Saturday morning, but it was the first time the strange bed was one in his own house.

He listened for a moment to a silence that was being broken periodically by the sound of the master bath toilet being flushed. It took only a few seconds of total consciousness to know the sounds meant that Carrie Addison, the mother of his future child, was sick again.

Jumping from the bed, Michael tugged sweat pants on to cover most of his nudity before bolting to check on her. Tapping lightly, he opened the bedroom door a crack and saw no one in the bed.

“Carrie?” he called softly.

Hearing no answer, Michael walked bare-footed quiet inside and across the length of the room to tap lightly on the mostly closed bathroom door. What he heard on the other side of it made his own stomach clench in sympathy.

Michael opened the door gently calling her name again just as she was flushing the toilet yet another time.

“I’m mostly okay,” Carrie told him sadly, not the least surprised to see Michael with all the noise she was making. “I think the worst is over now.”

Glancing up at his face and seeing pity there brought stinging hot tears of regret to her eyes. She rolled off a handful of toilet tissue and used it to wipe them away. “Being sick is not nearly as bad as feeling sorry for myself. I’m never this wimpy. I hate the constant crying as much as throwing up. I hope the crying stuff doesn’t last the whole pregnancy.”

Michael walked around where Carrie sat on the floor to get to the sink. Reaching over to a shelf to snag a washcloth, he quickly ran cold water until it was as frigid as possible before wetting the cloth and folding it. Bending over to Carrie, he wrapped the folded cloth around the back of Carrie’s neck.

“Hold this in place. It will calm the gag reflex,” he ordered softly.

Then Michael returned to the sink and wet another cold cloth, all the while thinking that for a month before now Carrie had been alone every time this happened. It made him really glad she had agreed to move in with him for the duration of the pregnancy, no matter the conditions.

Carrie snorted in disbelief, but pulled the cold cloth tighter around her neck. “Thank you, Dr. Larson,” she said sarcastically.

“No, the closest to a doctor in our family would be Shane who I wouldn’t let put so much as a band-aid on me or anyone I care about. Actually, Mom used to do this cold cloth trick for us when we were sick. It worked every time,” Michael told her.

He dropped to the floor to sit beside Carrie, wrapping his body around hers which was currently hugging the toilet. Reaching around the front of her body, Michael patted her forehead and flushed cheeks with the second cold wet cloth.

He was surprised when Carrie started crying long streams of really hot tears. “Hey now,” he said, his arms going around her to hug before he could censor the action.

“I’m sorry. I just hate this,” Carrie said, choking on the apology through the tears. “I can’t seem to stop crying. There’s nothing really wrong. ”

“Good to know. A little human kindness is no reason to dissolve into tears,” Michael joked trying not to frown at how vulnerable she seemed.

Crying and apologizing was so unlike Carrie’s usual take-no-prisoners approach to her life. Watching her this morning was like an instant replay of the night she’d come to tell him about the baby. Trying not to think about all she’d shared that night, he used the cloth to wipe the tears even though nothing he did seemed to be slowing them.

Her body was tense, and through the tears Michael saw her frustration. It was amazing how much he truly wanted to soothe her.  He wanted was to hold her and make sure she knew he was there for her. Scooting closer, Michael wrapped his body more tightly around hers, creating as much contact as possible.

“You’re the strongest woman I know and every time you cry it kills me. I’m truly sorry you’re so sick. No one should have to go through this without choosing to,” Michael said gently.

“I think we both know what I chose that got me into this situation,” Carrie said tearfully, tone full of honesty and self-pity. Michael’s very impressive, very hard erection was even now pressed against her hip as he held her. Her tears of self-pity dried up only to be replaced by mortification as she felt herself becoming aroused.

“You mean, this old thing,” Michael teased, grinning and pressing himself even closer. It was heaven to even imagine the possibility of being with her again, but he’d settle for making her laugh this morning. “No worries about that being a problem, honey. That’s just a morning thing for most guys.”

Carrie snorted and laid her head on the seat rim of the toilet. She could laugh only because she knew that not even the worst man would seduce a woman who was retching every couple of minutes. Michael was lecherous by her standards, but he wasn’t that horrible.

“I was married twice. I know what men are like. It was just the irony of throwing up while thinking about. . .never mind. I think the sickness is passing now. You can let me go,” Carrie told him, taking the washcloth from Michael’s hand and wiping off her entire face. “It would help if you got me a glass of ice water so I can take the nausea medicine.”

Michael ran a hand down the back of her short cap of brown hair and flipped the cloth on her neck over to a cooler side. “Sure. I don’t mind taking care of you. I want you to ask me to help when you need help.”

“So you keep saying,” Carrie retorted, sighing and nodding, keeping her face and expression hidden in the washcloth. “I’m going to start crying again if you don’t leave right now. Niceness seems to activate the water works.”

Michael slid away from her and used the sink to pull himself up. “Stay down there until I get back.”

Rolling her eyes, Carrie pulled the washcloth away from her face and watched Michael Larson’s very attractive back and rear disappear quickly through the now open bathroom door. His dark hair was loose from sleep and she marveled again that it hung longer than most women’s. What would have been effeminate on many men only enhanced the masculinity Michael seemed to exude without even trying.

Memories of her hands in his hair had arousal tugging at her even through the waves of nausea.

“And that feeling you stupid, hormonal woman is exactly how and why you got yourself knocked up again by the man. You will never learn, Carlene,” she lectured herself, her words echoing softly in the empty bathroom as she sniffed the next bout of fresh hot tears away.

Using the toilet for leverage, Carrie pushed to her feet and walked to lean limply against the sink. She wet both cloths with cold water again. The one behind her neck really was helping. The urge to throw up was lessening every second.

Carrie rinsed her mouth and gently brushed her teeth, having learned that too much toothpaste only made the nausea worse. She rinsed her mouth several times until the mint flavor was gone. Then she walked carefully back to the bedroom and crawled into the bed.

When a fully dressed Michael with hair restrained behind him came back with a glass of ice water, Carrie was propped up on pillows. She sighed in relief that she wasn’t going to be tortured with a nearly naked version of him again.

Day one of being alone with the man in his house was going just about as badly as she had envisioned, including having to confront the humiliation of still wanting him every bit as much as she ever had. The illusion of getting over him just kept crashing and burning every time she turned around and saw him.

“I would have helped you,” Michael chastised, handing Carrie the glass of ice water and watching as she sipped it gratefully.

“And you can still,” Carrie said, striving for a light tone despite how resentful she was of needing help—specifically, his help. “I left my nausea medicine in the bathroom.”

Michael walked into the bathroom and returned with the pill bottle, shaking out the recommended dosage into his hand before passing it to her.

Carrie tossed the pills in her mouth and chased them quickly with the ice water. “Twenty minutes until I feel better,” she said. “Thank you, Michael.”

Michael set the bottle on the nightstand and went to the foot of her bed to sit. “Can I try some reflexology? It’s supposed to help with the nausea and might make your relax.”

Carrie shrugged. “Sure. Just don’t jostle me too much.”

Michael picked up her left foot, and stroked her insole with his thumb.

“Oh God,” she groaned, leaning back and closing her eyes as the tension seeped out of her body one stroke at a time. “That’s amazing. Where did you learn that?”

Michael kept his head down and continued his task while trying to decide how best to answer her in the least incriminating way for him.

“I dated a massage therapist for a while,” he said finally. Having never lied to her, he saw no reason to start doing so.

Carrie opened her eyes to slits and promptly closed them again.

“Sure—of course,” she said flatly, letting the rest of what she was thinking remain unspoken. She’d already voiced her opinion of his dating habits. There was no reason to beat a dead horse as her grandmother would say.

Michael sighed resolutely, the sound very audible in the quiet. He accepted that Carrie was still upset about the women he’d dated where she worked, but he didn’t have to tolerate her thinking he was a total bad guy--because he wasn’t.

She had been married when he had been dating them, and he had barely caught her between husbands this time.

“Maybe I should just make a list of all the women I dated where you work so we can hash it all out once and move on,” he said, not able to keep the hurt out of his tone.

Michael swung both legs up into the bed and pulled Carrie’s left foot snug against his crotch as he turned his attention to stroking the right one.

“You were married and I dated,” Michael said. “I couldn’t chase a married woman.”

“No—I will admit that you never chased me when I was married,” Carrie said, not adding that the men she’d married hadn’t even left an impression. “But I would never have tolerated that from you anyway.”

After being used and dumped by a younger Michael in college, there hadn’t been enough of her heart left for any man to break. Dating the adult version of him when their paths had crossed again had been totally out of the question and made more unreasonable by the fact that he didn’t even remember her.

Yet for as long as Carrie had known him, Michael had dated and discarded women without showing any regret. She had watched him repeat the pattern with others that he had done with her, moving from woman to woman and bed to bed, never realizing they cried and hurt and bled over him.

Carrie hadn’t let herself care enough about what he did to be offended. At least, she hadn't until she had let herself be seduced two months ago and ended up pregnant by him.

Despite evidence to the contrary, she really wasn’t by nature a masochist. It just looked that way. She’d handled the crisis in college, and she would handle this one. It wasn't like she didn't have a history of bad judgement concerning him.

“Michael, it  honestly doesn’t matter what you did with other women. We've already determined that it doesn’t concern me long term,” Carrie said sadly, not wanting to have this conversation.

“I’ve told you this before, but I’ll say it again. You’re the only woman I want. Every other woman before you was at best practice and at worst a substitute. For the duration of our involvement, every other woman is also completely history, regardless of whether you exercise your full options to me or not. That’s as clear as I can make things. I only care about you right now. You don’t see me grilling you about your ex-husbands, do you?”

“Fair enough,” Carrie said stiffly, not surprised that Michael had no understanding of how she felt emotionally. Why would he? He was a guy who did what he wanted, a guy like most guys she had known.

“How many men do you think I’ve let into my bed, Michael?” she asked.

“The men in your past don’t matter anymore, but you can tell me if you want,” Michael said, unable to keep the defensiveness from his voice.

Hell no, he didn’t want to know about the other men. He might have to go break something to work off his jealousy.

“There have only been three men, and that includes you,” Carrie said, keeping her eyes closed. “I was raised to believe you married a man before you gave yourself to him physically. That was the reason I hadn’t slept with Tom even though we were technically engaged. You’re the only man I ever slept with that I wasn’t married to.”

Michael said nothing more about the third man that Carrie had intended to marry. That one hurt most because he hadn't even known about him the night he'd spent with her.

He kept his attention on his task of rubbing her feet so he wouldn't have to glare at her over Tom.

Plus, he was also a little ashamed of himself.

As sexist as it was, Carrie's lack of partners only made her more appealing to him. Knowing that she took sex so seriously told Michael that the connection between them was so strong that she had to be with him. He liked knowing he had at least that much power over her despite her ongoing refusal to date him over the years.

Michael believed Carrie’s story completely when she had insisted that he had been her first, even if he didn’t remember it. But he was definitely aware of how he felt about her now, he wanted to be Carrie’s only sexual partner for the rest of her life. He might not understand exactly why he felt that way or why it was her, but every time he looked at Carrie Addison he felt exactly the same.

“Your discrimination only makes me admire you more,” Michael said, raising his head to meet her gaze only to find Carrie had closed her eyes to shut him out.

“I accept that it’s not your fault I violated my family’s sexual programming to be with you in college or that I still feel guilty about it,” she said quietly, finally opening her eyes and meeting his gaze directly again. “But I can’t react with a shoulder shrug to your lack of discrimination when I had a front row seat to watch most of your cast-offs crying their eyes out over you. However, I will make an effort to refrain from sarcasm about it in the future. I'll try to keep my focus just on our situation.”

While the thought of not hashing out his past dating exploits appealed to him, the thought of Carrie keeping her true feelings inside and continuing to resent him held no appeal at all. Michael had never been afraid of fighting, nor of his emotions. He for damn sure wasn’t going to be afraid of the anger of the woman he intended to make his wife.

He also doubted any female had cried more than two minutes over him. With most women, Michael had been as casual about sex as Carrie accused him of being, but he had never pretended otherwise. There was nothing wrong with consenting relationships among adults. He did not feel ashamed.

“You can ask me anything you want. I’ll answer you honestly,” Michael told her. “Carrie, I want our pasts resolved and put behind us whatever it takes. I want you to believe me when I say you’re the one I was looking for and waiting to be with all this time. I wasn't maliciously using those women. Hell, I was just dating. I refuse to let you think I’m the worst man that ever walked.”

“I never said you were the worst man that ever walked. You’re just--you're just not the kind of man I want to settle down with for the rest of my life,” Carrie said firmly, laughing harshly, closing her eyes again. “Give me a break Michael. You know I can’t turn around at work without running into a woman you’ve slept with there. Hell, Belinda is the only exception so far and she’s interested in you. She asked me if I was dating you the day you brought me the engagement ring.”

Michael lifted both her feet, held them tightly against his body, and tried to show he loved her with every affectionate stroke of his hands. Carrie wouldn’t look directly at him or meet his gaze, and that hurt. Her tightly fisted hands in the bed covers were another sure sign of her ongoing distress with the subject matter.
Yet as bad as the situation was, he still refused to think of it as being irrevocable or all his fault. Carrie had married two other men, committed herself willingly to them. As far as he had known, she hadn’t even considered giving him a chance before two months ago.

And damn her, he’d for sure had no damn desire for any woman since. Why couldn’t she try to accept that? Michael tightened his jaw, but swallowed the urge to fight with her more.

“I have no intention of dating Belinda. I’m sorry about the others and that you have to deal with my ex-girlfriends where you work. Truthfully, I never thought about it being an issue,” he said tightly. “That’s not an apology—just an explanation. You were married when I was dating other women in your company. I never cared how any of the women I dated felt about each other, but I’m starting to see how it could be embarrassing to you in our current circumstances. If I had known our situation was going to ever be possible, I might have been more discriminating.”

Carrie opened her eyes and sighed herself. She could hear in his voice how mad Michael was becoming. Fighting was certainly not going to help them get along. The fighting only made her heart ache and her body crave peace with him.

God, what had she been thinking about when she had said yes? Was is it just another moment of stupidity for her where he was concerned?

Agreeing to stay with Michael for the duration of the pregnancy was turning out to be dumbest thing Carrie had ever done in her life outside of getting pregnant in the first place. Still, she had contractually agreed to create the illusion of a legal relationship and was so sick that she needed help during the first few months. So she simply had to find a way to live peacefully with him.

“The sickness and the medicine muddles my thinking. As I said before, who you dated doesn’t really matter, or at least it shouldn’t. Forget I mentioned it. I’m sure your old girlfriends will see our marriage as me winning you, rather than it just being a consolation prize for getting pregnant. I’ll survive the gossip. Maybe now they’ll at least stop bragging to me about how great you were in bed.”

Michael set her feet aside and stood. He couldn’t listen to any more without wanting to hurt her in return. As he’d told her before, it wasn’t his fault the women he had dated were indiscreet. It wasn’t like he went around bragging about them. Hell, he didn’t even remember them. Erin was the only one he’d even dated more than once.

But he could certainly describe in vivid detail every single thing he and Carrie had done together during the one night he’d spent with her two months ago. He’d post the damn description of all of it on her company bulletin board if he thought it would help their situation.

For three damn years, it had always been her that he wanted. Always.

“Just so our stories match, what did you tell Belinda about us?” he asked as quietly as he could, trying not to glare at her closed eyes.

“I told Belinda that you’d asked me to marry you and that I had said yes,” Carrie told him, sliding down into the bed and rolling to her side. “It’s none of her business about the baby.”

Michael clenched his jaw at her back turned to him, but kept his tone soft as he asked the rest of what he wanted to know. If Belinda accepted it, their engagement was going to be common knowledge at Carrie’s company soon. “What did Belinda say?”

“Congratulations and that the ring was beautiful,” Carrie said, her voice fading as her mind floated in the need to sleep again. “I’m sorry I’m fading. This medicine makes me so tired.”

“Yes, but you’ll wake up hungry in a hour. I’ll make you breakfast then,” Michael said softly, walking to the bed and tugging the covers up over her shoulders, anger giving way to feeling sorry for her again.

“Dad may be coming by to pick up some things to take to Jessica’s. He’s says he’s moving in with her. We’ll try not to wake you,” he whispered, smoothing the covers down her arm.

“Thank you, Michael. The foot rub really helped me. Even the muscles in my stomach have relaxed,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean snipe at you when you’re being nothing but kind. I’m sorry.”

Maybe she was, Michael thought, but it seemed like hell would still probably freeze over first before Carrie would change her opinion of him. His frown deepened as her breathing settled.

“I’m glad it helped. Rest now. I’ll see you when you wake up,” he said firmly.

Michael pulled the wet cloths from her as she slipped into sleep.
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