Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ignoring The Prime Directive

As as huge Star Trek fan growing up, the idea of the Federation of Planets issuing a "prime directive" fascinated me. For those of you who are not sci-fi geeks, and who don't really want to read Wikipedia's long and detailed description, the prime directive is a philosophy for space explorer conduct that states that advanced beings from advanced societies are not supposed to interfere in the lives of less advanced beings on their home planets. The purpose was to ensure that the less advanced beings retained the freedom to learn their own painful life lessons about the consequences of continuous bad actions towards each other, such as slavery, war, and killing each other for material gain. Now the definition of "advanced beings" wasn't just that they had developed the technological capacity to destroy others and themselves, but rather that in their enlightened state they would willfully choose not to do so if faced with the choice.

During those Star Trek watching years I spent hours and hours in front of the television, and while I watched the crew of the Enterprise wrestle with their consciences and the prime directive, the US was still in the Cold War with Russia. Growing up, I was always hearing about red phones to be used for ordering global annihilation and red buttons to be pushed to launch nuclear weapons. Such threats permeated the news and seeped their way into fictional stories as well. So as a ten year old, where do you think on the scale of advanced, enlightened beings I concluded my own civilization on Earth was a whole? Let's just say, I was secretly hoping that if there was a Starship Enterprise watching over Earth that some gutsy, irreverent Captain would have ignored the prime directive to help my planet if we started down a destructive path that would result in our complete demise.

I know I felt like that then because I still feel that way.

My editor is a Firefly fan and got me started watching the series. In fact, watching the 2 hour "Serenity" pilot episode was one of the first things I did on my Kindle Fire. My fiancee and I have watched Star Wars probably a gazillion times. Also, the recent Star Trek redo movie that showed the back story of the crew was very well done and I paid movie theater prices to see it on the big screen. The thing about stories like this that draws you in--and all well-done science fiction does--is that they make you think about what would happen if the terrible circumstances came true.

It makes sense to me that I had no problem at all creating my own spaceship and crew when I started the Forced To Serve series. Then after I created them, I fell in love with every flawed character who tries to overcome and do the right thing and/or tries to become the enlightened, advanced beings they appear to be.

I have grandchildren who will one day tell people they were born during the Iraq War. Fast forward their lives. How many more are in their future? I don't know and don't want to contemplate. But I want them to be able to say that their crazy, sci-fi geek grandmother wrote paranormal/space opera stories and played with the idea of what it meant to be an advanced thinking human. They will say that she hated war and didn't understand it. They will say that she never stopped believing that becoming more technologically and spiritually advanced would one day negate the urge that sets one Earth human being against another in deadly conflict.

I chose to have many different planetary beings in my story and only one Earth human--so far. My "Earthling", the emotional first mate on the ship, is Commander Gwen Jet. She is both the hero's and heroine's sidekick in Books One and Two, and the heroine herself in Book Three which will be out this summer. Gwen has in her character some of the best and worst of what I see in those humans whose warrior natures rule them. But my other-planet characters are no less flawed in their own ways. No matter how Mr. Spock-wise or Buddha-spiritual I make those other planetary beings for the sake of trying to show what "advanced" looks and acts like, they all still wrestle with their own personal prime directives. Just like we all do.

With at least half a century behind me, perhaps I've seen as much human progression as I'm going to see in my lifetime, but in this paranormal/sci-fi series I am shooting for hopeful Roddenberry or playful Lucas-esque happy endings. And because love stories are what I most love to write, it's been fun to let my other-world characters be partially redeemed with otherworldly romances.

I tell myself that writing the fight scenes and rescue missions are just a perk of stretching slightly beyond my norm. You don't really need to know how much fun I'm having taking even this short walk on the dark side of characters.

Here's a TED talk I found from a fellow sci-fi creative whose childhood curiosity led him to what he did later in life. He's only four years old than me. I'm guessing we watched the same shows on TV as children. While I'm certainly not in his production league, maybe I'm touching the hem of his robe just a little. Maybe.

Truthfully, it was just very interesting to hear the back story about the origin of this very famous sci-fi geek's creative urges. Listening to his story inspires the sci-fi geek in me to keep writing. It also makes me appreciative of taking my turn to write about space travel and alien worlds.

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Release: The Demon Master's Wife

The Demon Master's Wife, Book Two of the Forced To Serve series, is now available for purchase at Smashwords, Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Barnes and Noble. It is coming soon to Apple, Sony, and All Romance ebooks.
(At the time of this release, Book One was still not available at Apple. I have not been able to determine reason for delay, but am watching for the release.)

To read the Chapter 1 excerpt from the book, click here.

When I finally finished (or at least quit writing), this second book in the series ended up around 100K and being the largest book I've written. There was a lot to cover in it, but it moves fast through the action.

Here's another teaser excerpt from one of my favorite scenes between Ania and Liam (slightly altered to create a PG 13 version):

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Ania took several breaths and focused on aligning Synar’s life force better in his body. His energy was erratic. She chanted softly, the words bouncing off the walls and around the room as they quivered in the air.

“No—do it in English, not Pleiadian,” Synar whispered, arching and stretching beneath her hands.

“The calming chant is more effective in the ancient tongue,” Ania whispered, continuing to release the mystical words into the air around them as her hands moved across him seeking the vortex openings along the front of his body.

“Since your hands are exciting me rather than calming me, it doesn’t matter about their effectiveness,” Synar said softly. “I want to hear your voice speaking a language I can understand. I want your kind words to fall on me like Candoren rain. I want to know once again the joy of your willing touch.”

Ania lifted her hands from him only to have Synar grab her wrists and pull them back down to his body. He had dreamed of her intimate touch often and thought never to have it again on him. It was more restorative than a thousand cycles of sleep.

“This is not wise,” Ania said quietly, but she did not pull her hand away from Synar or try to ease his grip on her wrist, even when he pressed it more firmly against his body. “Synar—you’re probably being effected by the desire between Gwen and Dorian that I carry. This is for them. This is not for us.”

Synar sat up suddenly and met her blue gaze, the hold on her wrist tightening. “Do you really believe that? Search me for the truth and you will find this is what I have always felt for you. You are my mate, Ania Looren. I will regret the last two years away from you for the rest of my life no matter how long that is. I don’t want to further regret whatever time is left.”

Ania was shaking her head in denial, tugging her hand away in earnest now, but Synar’s grip was firm. He pulled it to his chest, trapped it there with the other he was still clutching in that same spot.

“I watched you fight Gwen in the training room. I know what you can do,” he admitted. “If you genuinely don’t want me, stop me from seducing you. I am ill from wanting and not having. It affects all that I am.”

“Synar—Liam, I meant only to comfort your spirit, not to tempt your body,” Ania said softly. “I wish you no harm, but do not seek what you will reject tomorrow.”

“Forgive me for what I have done to make you fear my reaction to your touch as strongly as I fear dealing with the demon you carry,” Synar pleaded, moving her hand once again until it was clutched in his lap. “Forgive me this once even if you go back to hating me tomorrow. I will suffer enough in the coming time. Be with me tonight, Ania. I need you more than I need to sleep.”

He moved his hand from hers and slid back down in the bed. Ania’s hand stayed on him, lightly stroking as he sighed beneath her touch. Synar felt the first sense of rightness he’d had in a long time. His mate was with him again. Whatever the future held, Synar would make himself live for the moments Ania gave him before she sought her end.

“Stay with me tonight,” Synar begged, knowing he would not stop her if she chose to leave, could not force her to stay. But he wanted to—by the creators of all, he wanted to—even knowing the damage a warrior with her training could cause him.

Ania rose quietly from her seat beside Synar, walked a short distance away to stand near the door.

“I desire you only because of Gwen and Dorian. You know it is uncommon for me to feel as I do. I could bond with you Liam, but to what end? In my mind we are no longer mates,” she said.

“Pick whatever reason suits your logic, but please stay with a male who has wanted you and only you since the first time he saw you,” Synar implored, holding out a hand. “I will make our bonding sacred or make it fast or make it whatever you wish. If all you wish is sleep, I can do that as well. Just let me hold you again. Being with you will restore me more than any amount of rest without you beside me.”

To test her resolve, Ania stepped to Synar’s door and put her hand on it to leave.

A profound feeling of wrongness rose up inside her. It wasn’t Malachi's effect because it was the same feeling she’d had the first time she’d spent the night with Liam Synar. 


For reasons Ania had never been able to fathom, she simply hadn’t been able to tell him no. Evidently that was still the case, even though Synar had firmly refused to come back to her when she had asked. She closed her eyes, seeking inside herself to find more resolve, but all she found was her own need to be with him. 

Sighing in rare defeat, she let go of the door.

*********************

Also included in Book Two is a short draft of chapter one from The Siren's Call which is Book Three of this series.

The excerpt is only available in the book for now. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Excerpt from COMMISSIONED IN WHITE

This excerpt is from Book Four of the Art of Love series. I wrote this book to get all the current characters to a good pausing place because I knew it was going to be many months before I could return to writing the next book for it. So this book is full of weddings and also contains the gallery opening. Along the way I managed to lay the groundwork for the next two books in the series. I hope you enjoy this short excerpt. It explains why I kept referring to this book as the "wedding book" in all my tweets and posts while I was writing it.

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CHAPTER 1

Despite his questionable friendship with Steve Lipton, Will sat on the groom’s side of the church, smiling at the picture Jessica made in her soft green dress standing next to a beaming Susan in her white bridal gown.

The view of the hot maid of honor was definitely better over here. Maybe that was reason enough to pretend alliance with the groom, Will thought, smiling again.

While he was sincerely happy for Steve and Susan, his mind couldn’t help daydreaming about him and Jessica. They were three weeks away from their own wedding, and Will was anxious for the time to pass.

He was ready to be married again and didn’t care who knew it. He was ready to make love to Jessica while the gold bands Michael was making for them gleamed in the soft lighting they preferred in the bedroom.

When he pulled his attention from the future back to the present, he saw Susan turning to hand Jessica her massive bouquet of gold roses. The roses suited her, he thought. Susan was just as bright and lovely as the flowers.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I now pronounce you husband and wife. Groom, you may now kiss your bride,” the minister said with smile.

Steve pulled Susan up to him, his fingers digging into her lace covered hips. He bent her backwards with the force of a kiss that went on so long the minister cleared his throat twice before Steve finally relented and let her go.

Susan stumbled back a little, and a laughing Jessica reached a hand out to steady the back of the smaller woman she cherished as friend.

The grinning groom gave the jaded maid of honor a wicked look over his new wife’s head. Jessica rolled her eyes at him, but grinned back, happier for Steve and Susan than she had words to express. She had followed her heart in introducing them and had never regretted it for a moment.

The recessional music started up and Steve took his wife’s hand, tucking it lovingly into the curve of his elbow.

Jessica allowed Steve’s best man to do the same for her, but she looked at a grinning Will and winked as she walked down the aisle trying not to trip on the long trail of her gown. She was walking a bit unsteadily in the three-inch spikes Susan had insisted she wear, despite the fact that she towered half a foot over both the best man and the groom.

It wasn’t quite the “hoot” Susan had planned on it being for the wedding, but wanting to be a good sport, Jessica thought about other instances where it might be fun to wear the shoes with Will. Those thoughts put a smile on her face as they all trailed out.

Later, Jessica was standing in the receiving line shaking hands when she felt familiar fingers trailing gently down her spine and across one satin covered hip. Turning her head, she found herself eyeball to eyeball with a smiling Will, totally caught off-guard when he leaned forward and touched his mouth hotly and possessively to hers.

“Wow—sexy kiss. And in public no less,” she whispered. “What was that for?”

“Because you look amazing and I don’t want other guys getting ideas about hitting on the maid of honor. I saw the way the best man was looking at you,” Will said.

Jessica laughed softly. “He’s married, doofus. So you got all demonstrative for nothing.”

“Are you taking me home with you?” Will asked dryly.

“I imagine,” Jessica said, her tone as ironic as his. “Since you’re sleeping in my bed every night.”

“Then it was not for nothing,” Will said, keeping his voice soft and low in her ear. “You can consider it foreplay, and I’ll make good on it later.”

“Well, you’re in rare mood,” Jessica said sweetly, turning reluctantly to the bride and groom as they stepped away from the line of well-wishers at last.

The very tired groom stepped up and kissed Jessica boldly on the mouth, hugging her close even as Will frowned at him.

Steve just smiled harder and counted more blessings.

“I will never in my life be grateful enough to you for introducing me to Susan. I am the happiest man you’ve ever seen today,” he said, picking up his bride’s hand when Susan stepped forward and leaned into both of them for a giant three-way hug.

Jessica held nothing back from the couple, sniffling as she embraced both of them. “Well, this is what it’s supposed to be like. Gold roses, shiny rings, beautiful clothes, and weeping, jealous friends. All weddings should be as great as this.”

Steve and Susan laughed, pulling away from Jessica as they all struggled to recover from the emotional outburst.

“Three more weeks, and then you’re next old man,” Steve said, joking to distract himself. He swung his gaze to Will who wasn’t frowning anymore, but still looked a bit concerned. “Think you’re going to feel less jealous when you have your woman branded at last?"

Will pursed his lips and looked at the younger man thoughtfully. “Not sure yet. I’m waiting to see how it works out for you. You don’t exactly inspire me with confidence, Lipton.”

Steve laughed at Will’s dry wit. The more he got to know the man, the more he liked him. “I’ve got it easy, Larson. You—on the other hand—need to brush up on your Shakespeare. Did you ever read Taming of the Shrew?”

“Don’t make me kill you both over this sexist conversation,” Jessica said, a warning note in her voice. “Steve, take my overwhelmed friend who is also your lovely bride to the champagne table and get her something to keep her from fainting. If she hits the floor, you are dead meat.”

“I’m fine,” Susan said, patting Jessica’s arm. “Can I have my flowers back, please?”

Jessica separated the huge bridal bouquet from her discreet triple strand of single roses, handing the fragrant mass to Susan who immediately pressed her face into them and inhaled. Since Steve looked like he was going to kiss her again, or even worse, so Jessica turned the love-struck bride toward the food table with a little push.

“Go—both of you. Get a little something to sustain you. I’ll be along in a minute. Your mushy love vibes are getting to me.”

The bride and groom wandered off, too bemused with each other to make rational decisions about much of anything.

Jessica sighed as they walked away. She sure hoped she held it together better when her time came.

“Am I in trouble?” Will asked. “Steve started the discussion.”

Jessica snorted. “Yes he did, but you are not innocent. Would you really brand me if you could?”

Will lifted Jessica’s hand and tucked it into his elbow, guiding her forward. “I’m in a church and don’t want to lie, so let’s just go have some champagne, too.”

“Will,” Jessica chastised, her fingertips stroking his firm bicep as they walked. “There is no one else that even interests me.”

He was fifty-three and the most masculine man she had ever known. Truth was he had already branded her. Maybe it didn’t show to the world, but she had hoped by now he knew.

Will turned a wicked smile to the woman he was never going to be one hundred percent sure of, but that he was going to spend the rest his life satisfying in every way he could.

“Reassure me all you want, but we’re still going through with the wedding. You insisted Ellen set up the whole dog and pony show, and we’re going through with it, no matter how sweet you talk.”

“You know you are the one who needs the ceremony, not me. And I am not trying to talk you out of getting married—or the wedding,” Jessica protested. “I can’t help that I had a small anxiety attack when I tried on the dress. You can’t assume I’m reluctant about getting married just because of that. Carrie had the same reaction, I heard.”

“Carrie was pregnant. What’s your excuse?” Will asked, holding her gaze.

“Bride nerves,” Jessica said firmly. “Plus I gave my retirement notice for January. I’m starting part-time at the gallery during Christmas. Should I go on? Since I’m turning my life upside down, I think I’m entitled to a few nerves about being a bride.”

“Don’t forget we’re also moving into the new house this week,” Will said, grinning at her resignation.
Jessica sighed. “I hadn’t forgotten. That’s why I’m letting the new art teacher sub my classes. He’ll take over full-time after Christmas. I hate moving, but I’ve already accepted that there’s no way around the work.”

“The kids are still going to help,” Will said, patting her hand. “And the new bed arrives tomorrow. Shane’s going to help me assemble it. You’re going to love diving into that monster every night with me.”

“Are you going to soundproof it like Shane did theirs?” Jessica asked dryly.

Will grinned widely and laughed at her amusement. “Why would I do that?” he asked, releasing Jessica’s hand to retrieve a couple glasses of champagne for them. 

He handed one to Jessica and waited until she had lifted it for a sip.

“Besides, who’s going to hear us making out? I like the noise. I find it inspiring. Not to mention, I’d love to brag to my son about moving the bed,” Will said.

Jessica choked on her champagne, bringing the bride’s and groom’s attention immediately to her. Her face flamed with embarrassment at their stares, but it was because of what Will had said. He had developed the annoying habit of trying to shock her, and she fell for it nearly every time.

“Larson, I can’t believe you managed to embarrass a woman who never loses her cool in public. What in the world did he say to you, Jessica?” Steve demanded, hearing his wife snickering at his side, the champagne already helping to steady her.

“Do I pry into your private conversations?” Will demanded in return. “No—I do not. Just go back to seducing your bride, Lipton. Leave my woman alone.”

Steve and Susan both laughed at Will’s pretense of consternation.

Jessica lifted an eyebrow. “Your woman?

Will lifted his chin and sipped his champagne as he held Jessica’s gaze over the rim of the glass. “Want me to tell Steve what I said?” he challenged.

Jessica hooked her arm through Will’s, no longer trusting that he wouldn’t call her bluff. “That’s me. I’m his woman,” she said cheerily, laughing at Susan who giggled at her caving in to Will.

Steve just looked at Jessica in shock. “So I just have to ask you this—you’ve dated so many men—why on earth did you click with Larson? He’s a good ten years older than your average guy, not to mention the man reeks of macho.”

“I assure you Will never reeks,” Jessica said off the cuff, shrugging and leaning her head against Will’s. “But he does make me laugh.”

Steve rolled his eyes and shook his head, not believing her statement at all.

“Jessica—I thought you said it was because Will was really, really good in bed,” Susan proclaimed with a wide blurry smile.

Will laughed softly, grinning like a fool while Jessica nabbed the second empty flute from the tipsy bride’s fingers.

Steve bit his lip but grinned back at Will, giving him a thumbs-up sign when the women weren’t looking.

“Okay—I think we’ve all had enough champagne for now. Let’s get some canap├ęs or something to soak up that buzz,” Jessica said, leading the bride to the next table.

“Hell of thing to hear about another man’s expertise on your wedding day,” Will said sadly, stepping close so only the groom could hear him. “Sorry about that, Lipton. Hope your ego isn’t too bruised. I wouldn’t want you to disappoint your bride tonight.”

“Are you kidding me? I am so attracted to the woman I married that every time I’m with her I just want to crawl inside and never come out,” Steve declared. “And now I can do it legally.”

Will reached out and took the still half-full champagne glass from Steve’s hand. “TMI, Lipton. You’re obviously as tipsy as your bride. Have you eaten?”

“Who needs food? I’m living on love, my friend,” Steve said, laughing at having embarrassed Will again.

“Well, I don’t want to hear anymore about your love life, so let’s go get some food for my sake,” Will ordered, grabbing Steve’s arm to steer him to the table.

“You know, I really like you, Larson. Because of you I don’t have to feel guilty anymore about being so freaking happy with Susan. You going to love Jessica forever?” he asked.

“Yes, Lipton. I love her. You can quit worrying that Jessica’s going to end up a shriveled-up old maid. She dated twenty guys between the two of us. Now man up and go be a groom,” Will said, laughing. “You’re as bad as my sons.”

“I’m forty-four, not that much younger than you,” Steve said, protesting.

“You handle your drink like a kid,” Will told him, picking up several crackers and pressing them into Steve’s hand. “Eat these and don’t talk until the alcohol wears off some.”

“Yes—Daddy,” Steve teased, popping the crackers into his mouth one at a time.

“Can we go home now?” Will whined the question to Jessica as she came back to his side, making the bride and groom both laugh.

Jessica patted his cheek and sighed. “No—they have to toss the bouquet and the garter, and then they have to cut the cake. Another hour, honey.”

Will sighed in resignation. “Oh, alright.”

“Man up, Larson. You have to do this in a few weeks yourself,” Steve told him, highly entertained by the big man’s irritation.

“Yes, but we’re doing the wedding-lite version,” Will said. “All the commitment ceremony, but with half the traditions that take forever. We’ll be in and out of the church in under an hour.”

Susan giggled and walked over to fiercely hug a surprised Will. “You are so funny. No wonder Jessica likes you so much.”

Susan pressed her woozy, happy face into Will’s chest, causing him to sigh heavily again. “Uh, Lipton. . .I think your bride needs a hug,” he said to Steve over Susan’s head.

When she leaned even more intimately into him, Will ended up holding Susan more firmly as he tried to restrain her champagne enthusiastic embrace.

Shaking his head and grinning, Steve popped a piece of cheese into his mouth and gently unwound a very tipsy Susan from Will. He pulled his wife into his own arms, kissing her temple and murmuring how much he loved her into her ear. Her hands rubbed his back, and slid to his backside to squeeze. When Steve could trust himself to speak over his giddiness, he raised his head and mock glared at a totally embarrassed Will.

“Go get your own wife,” Steve ordered harshly, fighting not to laugh at Will’s instant glare back.

Will rolled his eyes, and turned his glare on Jessica. “We need new friends. If I wanted this kind of grief, I’d hang out with my sons.”

Jessica smiled at the frustration on Will’s face, but also knew he wasn’t really mad.

“Sweetie, we are making new friends. That’s why we’re having dinner with Ellen and Luke tonight,” she said dryly, watching Will’s chin drop to his chest.

She bit her lip to keep from giving in to her amusement.

“You just had to remind me, didn’t you?” Will protested.

Jessica let herself laugh then, and held out a cracker to Will. “If you eat, you don’t have to talk to happy drunks.”

Will took the cracker and popped it into his mouth, not saying another word.

Jessica stepped into him and hugged hard. But standing there looking at the beaming bride and groom, Jessica ended up battling the now familiar butterflies she got every time she thought about committing herself forever to the man in her arms. When the guilt came, she chastised herself for being afraid.

On the plus side, she knew Will would always be there for her. The man would absolutely love her until the day she died—probably even after that. But on the negative side, she’d have to divorce Will to get rid of him. She couldn’t just get fed up with his macho nonsense and look for another man.

Not that Will would ever let her do such a thing. Just the thought that he had that much control over her future sent the butterflies into a mad dance as they tried to escape. Oh God, she thought, this whole marriage thing is getting way too real.

“I definitely need more champagne,” Jessica said firmly, looking for the fastest way to calm the butterflies before she passed out.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Excerpt from CAPTURED IN INK

This is an excerpt from Book Three of the Art of Love series and another "cougar" story--well, okay "puma".

You've probably heard that writers sometimes fall in love with their characters. That was certainly my situation with Shane Larson. It was actually very difficult for me to admit Reesa was the perfect heroine for him. But it's just as well, Shane is way too young for me anyway. At my current age, the "cub" age limit has moved to "over 35" now. This story made me laugh. I hope it makes you laugh too.

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CHAPTER 1

Riding shotgun in his best friend’s beat-up work truck, Shane was more depressed than he could ever remember being in his life. Instead of working on his novel like he should be doing, in a moment of weakness he had rashly promised to do manual labor for Joe just so he wouldn’t have to spend one more frustrated day alone.

Tomorrow would be two weeks. Two weeks since he had met the mysterious Ann who continued to haunt him.

For a man so close to getting a distinguished doctorate from a prestigious school in understanding the human mind, Shane Larson certainly wasn’t being much help to himself. He couldn’t even think of an adequate clinical term for his condition, but he had to admit he’d been a depressed mess since waking up alone without her.

“How is the novel coming along?” Joe asked, trying to bring Shane’s attention out of his head and into the pickup with him.

“Not fast enough,” Shane replied. “I’m probably going to miss my first deadline ever and it’s all her fault.”

“Her fault? You mean the mysterious Ann?” Joe asked, laughing in his disbelief.

“I still can’t believe she ran away,” Shane said sadly.

Joe laughed. “Well, it’s not like you haven’t done that plenty of times yourself.”

“I guess that’s true,” Shane admitted. Maybe part of his problem was that he was usually the one who snuck out and left his bed partner sleeping. It was easy to do when you weren’t interested in staying to get to know the person better, but he refused to believe that had been the case for her. She had responded too honestly to him and he had made her laugh.

They had connected--damn it.

“It was different with her,” Shane said, staring out the window again.

Joseph McEldowney had known Shane Larson since they were in middle school. Shane was the most level-headed person in the world—well he usually was. Nothing much ever twisted Shane’s shorts into a knot. Even the lovely Angela in college hadn’t caused this much soul-searching angst.

“Damn Larson—just how good in bed was she? And does she have a sister?” Joe asked, trying to get Shane riled up because any emotion was better than the funk.

“Yeah right—like I’m going to tell you how good she was,” Shane said, irritated with the lecherous question, even if it was just Joe being Joe. “It wasn’t just the sex. I liked her. Didn’t you ever just like a woman? Why is that so hard to get?”

And he had liked her, Shane thought fiercely, not that the sex hadn’t been life-changing as well. A few months ago his father had chastised him for his dating habits, asking if Shane had ever ached to be back inside a woman. His teasing reply to his Dad had been a resounding no, but he would be answering that question a hell of a lot differently if it ever came up again.

Now he ached for a woman all right, one specific woman, and worse than that, Shane wanted the whole package. He wanted to feel her under him, but he also wanted to feel her laughter when he amused her. He wanted to hear her telling him where to buy shoes and how important it was to follow his dreams. He wanted to hear her respectful, appreciative voice saying just about anything that made her green eyes hold his. And her hands—God, her tiny hands had been so strong and sure on him. He couldn’t imagine anyone touching him intimately now but her.

The way Shane saw it, she had totally hooked him and a woman wasn’t supposed to change a guy this much and then just leave without a word. Two weeks had passed since he’d been with her and Shane had been begging the universe for another chance with her ever since.

I’m not good at comforting people Larson, so snap out of it. You look scary enough without adding to it with that serial killer scowl of yours,” Joseph McEldowney said laughing. “My customer is a single mother with four kids. I’d just as soon not frighten them.”

“Get off my case, McEldowney. I’m doing you a favor even being here. I should be home working instead of playing with you,” Shane said, trying to make enough conversation to distract his brain from dwelling on her. “How long does it take to hang gutter anyway?”

“Not too long. This is a good size ranch house, but we’re just repairing the one side. A couple hours tops, I’m guessing. You got a hot date tonight or something?” Joe asked, trying to tease Shane into a good mood.

“Don’t start on me about hot dates,” Shane said harshly. “If you hadn’t abandoned me two weeks ago for your hot date I wouldn’t have met the woman and brought her home. The woman was like crack and I got addicted in one night.”

Joe’s laughter rang out in the truck cab. “I can’t believe you never got her to tell you who she was. Women bare their souls to you, Larson. All those months of abstaining must have made you lose your magic touch.”

Shane just shook his head. “I did not lose my magic touch. The woman was committed to keeping it to just one-night despite what happened between us.”

For months now, Joe had been watching in stunned disbelief as Shane sent all women away with a polite “no thanks”, no matter how beautiful, how leggy, or how willing. Maybe Shane really was in love, which was not in Joe’s opinion an admirable condition for a man under the age of thirty.

“The universe listens to you,” Joe told him with a shrug. “If I ever see someone fitting her description at the club again, I’ll let you know. I don’t get the urge you have, but I would let you know.”

“Thanks,” Shane said as they pulled up at the curb in front of Joe's client's house. “I don’t believe this. Like I needed more reminders.”

The universe was obviously having a laugh at his expense this morning because a mini-van with a sporty car parked next to it was in the driveway. Ann had said she drove a mini-van, though Shane couldn’t imagine the tiny woman he remembered driving something that large.

He told himself not to angst about it and almost succeeded in wiping the frown from his face when a tall teenage boy walked out of the house, carrying a pretty little girl in his arms.

“Hello,” the boy said. “Did you come to fix the gutter?”

“Sure did,” Joe replied, using his sunny business smile. “Your mother home?”

“You’ll want my Aunt Teresa,” the boy said to Joe, the welcome in his eyes fading slightly. “She’s at a neighbor’s, but will be home in a minute. I can show you what needs fixed.”

“Okay,” Joe said easily, not sure why the kid’s attitude had gone into shut down on him. He was a friendly guy and never had a client complain about his manners.

Shane studied the boy’s quiet demeanor as he climbed from the truck. The look on the kid’s face was sad, but he remained attentively polite to Joe. Something’s going on here, Shane surmised. He stood by the truck door and rolled up his t-shirt sleeves in concession to the unusual heat of the autumn day. He turned to the truck to get tools and heard the kid draw in a breath.

“Wow, Dude. I like your tattoo,” the boy said, coming closer. “Care if I look?”

Shane grinned and held out his arm. The little blonde he carried pulled a thumb from her mouth and reached out to touch it, too. The boy pulled her hand away before she made contact.

“It’s okay,” Shane said with a laugh. “I don’t mind if she wants to touch it.”

“That’s the coolest tat I’ve ever seen. Do you read the Winged Protector?” the boy asked with awe in his voice.

“I have to,” Shane explained, grinning at the boy’s genuine interest because he knew he was talking to a fan. “I’m the creator.”

Seriously? Wow,” the boy said, smiling at Shane. “My aunt and I are huge fans. We wait on every issue to come out.”

“You may be waiting longer than usual on the next one,” Shane admitted, smiling at the little girl the kid held who was smiling back. “I’m stuck on something in the storyline.”

“Wait until Aunt Teresa meets you. It’s nuts that you’re really here. So is this like your day job?” he asked, eyeing the truck.

“No,” Shane said with a laugh, seeing the kid’s disappointment in the unglamorous condition of the truck. “Joe’s a friend and I owed him a favor. He’s using me instead of a ladder today.”

The kid who was almost as tall as Shane looked at Joe and shrugged. “I could have helped with that.”

“Looks to me like you have your hands full,” Shane said, reaching out and pulling the blonde cherub’s thumb from her mouth. The girl laughed at Shane and the boy’s gaze went down the sidewalk.

“Here comes my aunt now,” he said.

Shane turned to look at the woman walking up the sidewalk. His heart stopped beating for one moment, and then picked up a panicked rhythm as he recognized her. The wicked laugh that erupted from Shane was joyous, and a little bit maniacal as he released the tension he’d been carrying around.

Shane looked up at the clouds and the blue between them, filled with gratitude for the mysteries of the world. “Thank you,” he said to the sky, hearing the boy laugh beside him.

“Dude—you okay?” the boy asked.

Joe walked to where they stood, his tool belt in his hand. He looked at the enormous smile on Shane’s face, wondering since when did his friend like kids so much.

“What’s your name?” Shane asked the boy.

“Zack Lansing,” the boy replied.

“Zack, I’ll give you a pre-production copy of the next Winged Protector novel before it releases if you will tell me the full name of the woman walking towards us now,” Shane said firmly.

“My Aunt Teresa? You want to know my aunt’s full name?” Zack asked, confused but thinking it was funny the Winged Protector guy was so interested.

Shane shook his head up and down slowly. “Yes I do. I definitely want to know who she is. So she’s your aunt? How about that.”

“Yes. Her name is Teresa Callahan,” Zack supplied. “Let me think, I think her middle name is—“

“—Ann,” Shane said firmly with a broad smile.

“Yeah, I think that’s right,” Zack said, his gaze narrowing as he assessed the man again. “You know Aunt Teresa?”

“A little,” Shane said easily, not thinking of his calm answer as lying. “But I would like to know her a lot better. Is that okay with you?”

“I guess. Isn’t that up to her?” Zack asked, laughing at the strangest conversation he’d had with an adult in a while.

“I don’t think so—not this time,” Shane said, feeling a bone deep gratitude for having found her. “Your aunt is my destiny, Zack.”

Destiny?” Zack repeated, laughing at Shane’s nod. “That’s pretty heavy, dude.”

Strapping on his carpenter’s belt, Joe’s gaze jumped between Shane and the kid, and then went up the street to the woman with shock.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding,” Joe said in disbelief. “You actually found her? My client is your mystery woman?”

Shane handed Joe the tools in his hands and walked determinedly towards the woman who had changed his life.

*** *** ***

Reesa Callahan’s mind had been on making carpooling arrangements with a neighbor so Zack could go to basketball practice or she would have noticed the giant blonde-haired man walking towards her sooner.

Looking like a conquering Viking, Shane Larson wasn’t exactly a man you could pretend not to see. He had to be every bit of six foot four, she thought. The eyebrow piercing and the tattoo were menacing. A more rational woman would have been put off by that alone. His shaggy hair and unshaven face marred the romantic picture he made, but his sexy, confident, very determined gaze would have set any woman’s heart racing.

Just like it did hers.

She told herself not to smile, but it was really hard not to.

He was definitely a giant, Reesa thought, tipping her head back and up when Shane stopped in front of her. She’d forgotten just how big the man was with those very wide shoulders of his.

“This is one of those weird life coincidences, isn’t it?” Reesa demanded, going on the offense before he could even open his mouth. “Look Shane, do us both a favor and just go away.”

Go away? Are you crazy? It’s taken me weeks to find you. God, I forgot how short you were,” Shane said, reaching down and stroking her cheek with his hand as he smiled into her face. “I can’t believe you didn’t come back to me. I’ve looked for you every day.”

Shane—stop the full court press here. There’s a reason they call it a one night stand,” Reesa said softly but firmly, stepping back and away from his caressing hand. “You know I never meant for you to find me.”

One night stand? Is that what you think happened between us?” Shane asked. “Boy, were you wrong. That was us falling in love which is why we’ve been thinking of each other so much since. Missing you has even been affecting my work.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We did not fall in love, Shane Larson. You don’t even know me,” Reesa said firmly, walking around Shane.

Shane caught up to her in one giant step. “Maybe not, but I want to know everything about you. Now I at least know your real name, Teresa. You can’t hide anymore.”

“That’s not my name,” Reesa hissed.

“Want me to call you Ann, instead?” Shane asked, starting to get annoyed with her. “Zack told me your real name.”

“I—no, we are not talking about this. Just please go away, Shane. I have enough things in my life to deal with,” Reesa said more softly, not wanting him to know how much his presence there unnerved her. “Go find one of those tall, leggy women who like you so much.”

“No woman could possibly follow you,” Shane stated firmly, ignoring the hurt her comment caused him. She had been all he’d thought about for two weeks, and it made Shane mad to think she would lie about returning his interest.

“Who’s the great kid?” Shane asked, changing tactics because the conversation was getting him nowhere.

“The great kid is my nephew, Zack. The little one he’s carrying is Sara. Chelsea and Brian are in the house. They’re my nephews and nieces, but I’m raising them. For all intents and purposes, I’m a single mother with four kids,” Reesa said, fighting the sinking sensation the words caused in her. “Now you know what I was hiding and can see for yourself why a night of casual sex now and again is all I have time for in my life. So go away, Shane.”

Reesa walked up the sidewalk passing by Zack and all the questions in his eyes about Shane. She walked by the mini-van, opened the screen door, and went into the house.

Inside her best friend in the world, Jillian Lansing, was sitting on the couch looking at fashion magazines with fourteen year old Chelsea. She wanted to tell Jillian about Shane showing up and ask her what to do, but there wasn’t opportunity. Three of the four kids were all within hearing distance.

When Jillian let out a quiet expletive, Reesa knew Shane Larson had followed her into the house. She had no choice but to turn around and deal with him which meant looking up almost a foot and half into a face that was remarkably familiar to her considering this was only the second time she’d seen him.

Okay--she could get used to that face, Reesa admitted, even as unshaven and menacing as it was at first glance. Shane Larson was appealing to her on many levels, which was too bad because Reesa had no time for appealing. Reesa had no time for anything.

His brown-eyed gaze was calm, but determined as it held hers.

Her own gaze raked his face looking for some clue as to why such a young man was pushing her to let him into her life when she’d made it more than obvious that she had no interest in pursuing anything more with him.

“Look Shane, I don’t know how you found me or what you think is going to happen, but I guarantee it’s not going to work out like anything you think,” Reesa told him.

Shane only smiled at her protest and looked over at Jillian. “You were the friend who waved at the club,” he said.

Jillian nodded. “I’m Jillian Lansing, also Aunt Jillian to these guys. This is Chelsea.”

Chelsea’s gaze swept Shane from his size fourteen feet to his glinting eyebrow ring.

“Hi,” Chelsea said, her eyes going wide at his appearance.

Shane smiled at the girl. “Hi Chelsea. My name is Shane Larson. I’m dating your Aunt Teresa.”

“Don’t be telling people that. We are not dating,” Reesa said firmly, practically growling the words.

“Maybe not yet,” Shane amended, “but we will be. I’m a great guy, Teresa.”

Zack came through the door with Sara still in his arms. The little girl tapped Shane on the shoulder and held out her arms. As Shane took her, he raised Sara until her head almost touched the nine foot ceiling of the entryway.

“Sara likes me,” Shane said to Reesa, his look daring her to deny it.

“Of course Sara likes you,” Reesa replied snidely, “she’s blonde and female. In twenty years, she’ll be your perfect woman. We’ve had this discussion before and I’ve seen your preferences in person.”

“Yes you have,” Shane said boldly, his narrowed gaze and tight voice the only indication that she was ruffling his composure. “You see my ideal female every time you look in the mirror, Teresa Ann Callahan.”

As lines went it wasn’t all that bad, Reesa thought, but if she rolled her eyes up any higher, she’d be looking at the inside of her brain. What was it going to take to get rid of this guy?

Zack walked up and put a hand on her arm, drawing her attention away from Shane. “Aunt Teresa, you’ll never believe this. Shane’s the artist who makes the Winged Protector novels. He’s the creator.”

Reesa’s swung a startled gaze to Shane. “Winged Protector? Is that what’s on the tattoo?” she asked in a squeaky voice, unable to stop the question or prevent her awe from peeking through her resolution not to be interested. Her gaze went to his arm.

Shane just smiled and nodded, enjoying her surprise and turning his arm around to show her. “See? I told you I was a good guy.”

“I purposely picked the worst guy I could find. I can’t believe he turned out to be you,” Reesa said, turning on her heel and heading to the back of the house.

Shane watched her run away and had to fight the urge to laugh at her cowardice. It was going to take more than just sharp words to discourage him. The ache for her had hit him full force while they had stood arguing in the street.

“Did you do something to make Aunt Teresa mad?” Zack asked tightly, his instinct to protect his aunt momentarily overriding his awe of Shane Larson.

“Maybe. I might have made your aunt fall in love with me when she didn’t want to,” Shane explained, wanting to laugh at the kid’s shock at his frank statement. “I fell pretty hard for her when we met. Maybe I messed it up telling her too soon. I’ve never been in love before.”

Zack laughed at the bold words, though he suspected the man wasn’t kidding, even if it sounded like a joke to walk in cold and announce you loved someone. Obviously, Aunt Teresa wasn’t buying it.

Love? That’s crazy dude. But if it works out, I guess you won’t be any worse than the last guy,” Zack said, following his pronouncement with a shrug.

Last guy? Shane wondered where the last guy was and why such a hot woman been trolling for sex at a club if there was a potential guy in her life.

Then he remembered that the “last guy” had to be gone at least five months. He and Teresa Callahan had ended their celibacies with each other. To Shane, it was one of the best things about that night. He now saw it as a sign that he and Teresa Callahan had been waiting to find each other.

Jillian rose from her seat on the couch and walked to where Shane Larson stood staring after Reesa obviously lost in his thoughts. The man was really tall, not like her brother Jackson had been, but still Jillian knew he would be scary tall for her petite best friend who tended to not date anyone over five nine or ten.

Not that Jillian believed Reesa was seriously worried about the man’s height at this point. She’d already spent the night with him, so height was just the handiest excuse. Jillian figured Reesa was more worried that the man wanted her in his life, something she knew Reesa wasn’t able to contemplate at all at the moment.

She'd like to string Brentwood Addison up by his man parts for that, Jillian thought viciously, sincerely hoping Reesa's former fiancee rotted in hell. Brentwood alone was reason enough to help this new guy as far as Jillian was concerned, but that still didn't make Larson right for Reesa.

“You seriously interested in her?” Jillian asked him.

“More than I can really go into in front of an mixed age audience,” Shane answered sincerely, holding Jillian’s dark, assessing gaze. “I definitely want to date her.”

“Don’t get your hopes up because your chances aren’t good, but at least call her Reesa, not Teresa,” Jillian advised. “She hates her real name.”

“Thanks for the heads up. Can I give you this cutie pie?” Shane asked.

Jillian nodded and he passed Sara to her. “Sara Girl, you are going to have to start walking. You are five and way too big to be carried around.”

“I am not five,” Sara denied, sticking her thumb back into her mouth.

“Sorry,” Jillian said to Shane. “We have some issues we’re working through here. Somebody thinks she’s a baby instead of a big girl.”

Looking around at Zack, Chelsea, Jillian and Sara, Shane made a swift assessment of the situation and an even swifter decision that he belonged in the picture.

“I’ve got to go help fix the gutter, but I’ll be back sometime soon,” Shane said to both Jillian and Zack. “Reesa Callahan. I like it. It suits her much better than Ann.”

Smiling genuinely for the first time in two weeks, Shane walked back out the door and went to find Joe.

Jillian and Zack exchanged looks, both of them shaking their heads.

“She could have dated a nice-looking man who smiled at her all night, but no—Larson was her choice. In my opinion, Reesa Callahan brought this whole mess on herself,” Jillian said on a laugh.

Zack chuckled in response. “He said Aunt Teresa was his destiny.”

Jillian rolled her eyes. “Destiny? Man, it’s getting deep in here now. Bring the shovel around in case Larson comes back and we have to dig our way out of the melodrama. Never date a artist, Zack. ”

Zack laughed at his aunt’s wicked humor and headed back outside to see if the two men needed his help.

Personally, he liked Shane Larson, and the man wrote the Winged Protector. He sort of hoped things worked out between Aunt Teresa and Shane. The man had talked to Zack like he was a real person, something many adults didn't do.

Not to mention, he and Brian would have the inside scoop on their favorite graphic novel for the rest of their lives.

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.

**************************************************************************
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.