Hey all! I know, I know, it’s been FOREVER since I’ve been here and i’m terribly sorry for that. I had a cold that turned into a sinus infection that just would not leave me alone for months. STILL have a nagging headache, but hey, I’m breathing so there’s that! 🙂 I’m sorry if it seemed like i deserted you! Thanks for all the emails and posts wondering if I was okay! I adore you all!!
And before I post the excerpt, I thought you might like to see what my yard looks like. The North Pole!
Gorgeous though, right?
Okay, back to what we all are here for. The books!!! PLAYING FOR KEEPS is only two weeks away. Here’s the deets: Two people who are oil and water come together to rescue an abandoned dog in a storm. When they both want to adopt the dog, they agree to joint custody. Little did they know it would change everything. PLAYING FOR KEEPS! Read the 1st chapter HERE!
And then come back here for chapter two, which is below:
Caleb Parker sat on the ground getting wetter by the second as the woman stared at him, her thoughts hooded. Rain had soaked through her gray sweater with the strategic cutouts, one across the top of her breasts and two others baring her shoulders, giving peekaboo hints of skin. Her jeans were jet-black and formfitting, hugged to her curves and tucked into a pair of high-heeled boots that gave a man ideas. Sexy-as-hell ideas. Her hair was half up and half down, the drenched strands teasing her cheeks, jaw, and shoulders. She wore enough earrings and bracelets to set off a metal detector.
Her name was Sadie Lane and she was spirited and maybe also a little wild, but man. He never could take his eyes off of her.
Tonight though, he was distracted with the dog hugged up so close to his face that he was breathing in wet matted fur with each inhale. “My EpiPen’s in my car,” he said. “In the computer case on the passenger seat. Come on, you know you’ve been waiting for the opportunity to legally stab me.”
Sadie shifted a little closer, every bit as wary as the dog. “You’re making fun at a time like this?”
“What’s the alternative?”
She shook her head. “If this is some sort of stupid come-on or something—”
“If this was a come-on, you’d know it.”
She seemed massively unimpressed by this fact, her eyes deep and unreadable as always. And hey, maybe he’d only have an asthma attack. Maybe he wouldn’t go into complete anaphylactic shock, in which case he’d only need his inhaler—currently also residing in his computer case. Which reminded him, he wasn’t supposed to carry it in his case, it was supposed to be on his person. But it’d been years since he’d had any sort of serious asthma attack, even if the last one had landed him in the hospital practically on his deathbed. “I’m parked right out front,” he said.
“You need more than an EpiPen if you think I’m going to reach into your pants pocket.”
Rolling his eyes, he shifted the dog and pulled out the keys for her.
“If I do this, where am I supposed to jab you?”
“Upper thigh,” he said.
“Not your ass?”
“Definitely not my ass.”
She lifted her face to his. Raindrops were clinging to her long, dark lashes and glinting off the myriad of pretty little mismatched sparkling earrings she had running up the shell of her ear.
“Are you going to drop trou?” she asked.
He couldn’t tell if she was asking with horror or fascination, and he let out a low laugh. “Not unless you take me to dinner first.”
“Dream on, Suits.”
And there it was, the reminder that she saw him as a know-it-all, a buttoned-up suit—literally—which he supposed was completely unappealing to the tattoo artist with the dark eyes, dark hair, and dark life. And he got it. They were polar opposites, not well suited, no pun intended.
And to be honest, he wished it was anyone out here in this storm with him tonight rather than the cynical smartass who seemed to take personal pleasure in driving him nuts.
They had some friends in common, so they ran into each other occasionally, and every time it was the same—an odd instant wariness he couldn’t explain. There was also a healthy dose of irritation, at least on her end.
On his, it was mostly bafflement.
She stood there, hands on hips, probably waiting for him to stroke out. “You do realize that Lollipop’s rubbing up against you and you’re not sneezing or wheezing or anything, right?” she said.
“It’s the last thing I ate a very long time ago, and she seems as sweet as one,” she said, still watching him carefully. “It fits. Are you or are you not dying?”
“You’re hoping you get to use the EpiPen, aren’t you?”
“Little bit,” she said lightly, but her expression was still assessing, and actually, something else as well.
“You’re worried about me,” he said, surprised enough to smile. “Cute.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I’m not worried, I just don’t need you keeling over. I’d have to call Emergency Services and I’m not a fan of hospitals.”
Well, they were in sync there. “I’m fine,” he said, a little shocked that it was true. Other than being drenched through and unable to feel his own frozen ass, he wasn’t exhibiting any of the allergic reactions he’d been told all his life by his mom and four sisters he’d get if he allowed a dog to get too close.
Lollipop shivered and stared up at him with an expression that said she was maybe counting on him, which got him right in the feels. Interesting since he’d been utterly devoid of feels for longer than he could remember.
The thing was, he’d spent way too many of his own formative years as undersized, scared, weak, and vulnerable as Lollipop. Plus, of all the things he hated, including but not limited to tailgate drivers, loud chewers, and spam mail, people who abused animals were at the top of his list. He stood, still holding on to the dog. She was big enough to weigh at least fifty pounds, but skin and bones, she couldn’t have been more than thirty. “Maybe I’m wearing too many clothes to get an allergic reaction.”
“Your bare hands are on her and you have some fur stuck to your stubble,” Sadie said. “Here, let me take her.”
“No, I’ve got her. I’m feeling fine.” For some reason, Sadie was the only woman on the planet who could set his head spinning without even trying. Some of it was a good spin, but most of it was a different sort of spin altogether, one that left him baffled and confused—two things he’d worked hard at never feeling. He pulled out his phone and snapped a pic of Lollipop that he could send to his contacts to see if anyone had any knowledge of her.
“I can’t believe she just let you pick her up,” Sadie said. “My boss, Rocco, said he’d seen a stray around, so I’ve been leaving out a bowl of water and food, but she must be waiting until we’re gone to get to it. She doesn’t trust humans.” She cocked her head. “This would be a good time to tell me you’re Batman or something.”
She rolled her eyes. “My point is that you seem to have the touch.” She sounded insultingly shocked at this.
“Hey,” he said. “I have the touch in spades.”
“Wow, you’re judgy. I didn’t see that coming.”
“Excuse me?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m the most un-judgy person on this entire planet.”
He snorted and she looked taken aback for a quick beat, holding his gaze. Tendrils of her long, dark hair had slipped from her ponytail to cling to her face and throat. She had some blue streaks in it that matched her striking dark blue eyes. Yesterday, the streaks had been purple. The month before they’d been red. Her sparkling earrings caught the light and softened her edginess slightly—a fact he was sure she wouldn’t appreciate. He knew this because all his life he’d soaked up the details of everything around him, categorizing the tidbits into his brain’s filing system. Most people thought this trait defined him as a nerd at best, a weirdo at worst. He’d never cared much what people thought, although if he was being honest, he wouldn’t mind his early childhood tormentors and bullies seeing his current placement on the Forbes Top 100.
But whatever Sadie thought of him, he knew she had to be drawn to him on some level because she always seemed to run into him.
Although that might’ve been wishful thinking on his part.
“Look, it seems like Lollipop’s claimed you. I’m just surprised by that since . . .”
“Since . . . ?”
“Since you don’t seem the maternal type. Or the kind of man who’d get emotionally attached.” Her words hung in the suddenly tension-filled air.
“You think I don’t have emotions or the ability to attach?” he asked.
“Maybe it takes one to know one.”
His phone had been having a seizure in his pocket as the dog huddled up against his chest, eyes revealing a haunted hollowness that said she’d been through hell. And then there was the woman standing in front of him with . . . damn . . . the same haunted hollowness.
Uncomfortable with both, he rose to his feet, hoping he wasn’t risking certain death. “I’ve got to go.” Soon as he figured out how to bring the dog to a business dinner with his attorney and not croak at the table.
Sadie held out her hands. “I’ll take her.”
Here was the thing. Caleb was more allergic to accepting help than he was to dogs and that went way back, deeply ingrained from a time he hated to revisit. The women in his life considered this a huge flaw in his system. He considered it just good sense. When he hesitated to let go, Sadie gave him a long look.
“You’ve gotta go,” she said. “Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of her, dry her off, check for injuries, feed her, keep her warm. And anyway, if you’re ‘allergic’”—she put the word in air quotes—“you don’t need the hassle. Have you ever even had a pet?”
“Not even a family pet?”
He shook his head, and he’d have sworn she actually felt sorry for him at that. He looked down at the dog, still staring up at him with those sweet amber eyes as if she totally trusted him, and again something pinched inside his chest.
“She’ll be fine with me for the night,” Sadie said. “You have stuff to do, like world domination or something.”
He opened his mouth to protest, which made no sense at all, but she took Lollipop, and with a look he wasn’t equipped to read, she vanished inside the day spa.
Sadie walked through the darkened spa, holding Lollipop as close as the thing would allow. “That was a close call,” she murmured softly. “You almost had to go home with a boy.”
Lollipop licked her chin.
“Aw, thank you. I bet you’re chilly. It’s a cold night already.” Sadie grabbed her discarded scarf from the employee room and wrapped it around the too-skinny dog, holding her to her chest for extra warmth. “There, how’s that?”
Lollipop blinked slow as an owl, remaining a little stiff in Sadie’s arms, and she had to laugh. “You wanted to stay with Suits, didn’t you?” She shook her head. “Trust me on this, a hot-looking package like that who’s too smart for his own good and who’s never had a single taste of failure . . .” She shook her head. “He’s pedigree. A purebred. And you and me, we’re mutts.”
Lollipop sighed and Sadie could hear the disappointment. “Fine. You liked him better than me. I get it.” There’d definitely been something about the way his arms had so carefully and gently held the dog that had opened Sadie up to him for a moment. But only for a moment.
She startled at the sound of a knock on the front door. Peering out into the stormy night, she saw the tall, dark, and drenched Caleb Parker and reluctantly opened up. “What?”
He smiled, and this disconcerted her until she realized he was smiling at Lollipop.
And Lollipop was bicycling her three paws like crazy, trying to ride the air over to him.
“Can I?” he asked, but then reached out and took Lollipop without waiting for a response.
The dog immediately set her head on Caleb’s shoulder and Sadie saw something she had never seen before.
Caleb Parker softening.
She was shocked. She’d never seen any sign of softness from him, ever. Amusement, yes. Cynicism, yes. Charm, yes. And on top of all of that, there was also always a sense of impenetrable . . . maleness. He was at the top of the food chain and he knew it. Since she had no idea what that was like, it put her at a disadvantage, which in turn made her feel on edge. “Maybe she’s drawn to your perfume,” she said.
“I don’t wear perfume.”
“You sure?” She sniffed. “Because you definitely smell like . . .”
A very sexy guy, dammit. No matter what she told herself, she was not indifferent to him, not even close. In fact, she was hugely attracted and didn’t know what to do with the unexpected rush of heat he always caused.
He gave her a look, silently daring her to speak her thoughts. As if she would. “Expensive,” she finally said.
He laughed. Laughed. “Don’t judge me by my clothes,” he said mildly and snuggled the dog close.
Snuggled. The dog. Close.
A phone buzzed. Hers this time. Thinking it was just her mom, she pulled the phone from her pocket to hit ignore but it wasn’t her mom. It was a text from her first tattoo client of the night. She was letting Sadie know she was nearly at the Canvas Shop. She shrugged. “Having a job’s great until you actually have to go,” she quipped, tucking her phone back into her pocket.
Caleb kissed the top of Lollipop’s bedraggled head. “You’re going to be okay.”
She licked his nose. “Ruining your breed’s badass image,” he teased. “Remember to guard the pretty lady for me, okay?”
“The pretty lady guards herself,” Sadie said.
Caleb, still looking into Lollipop’s eyes, smiled. “Yeah, she’s as badass as you are and I’ve got no doubt she can take care of herself, but have her six anyway, alright?” He ruffled Lollipop’s fur. “I’m counting on you.”
“Hand her over,” she said. “We both have to go.” When he hesitated, she leaned in. “Is that a rash on your neck?” She pretended to take a closer look, when instead she was trying to inhale that unique scent that might as well be orgasm in a damn bottle. “Yeah,” she murmured, “it is. Is your tongue getting thick? Are you breathing funny? You are, right? Gimme your keys.”
Caleb gave her an impressive eye roll and handed her Lollipop.
“Why did you come back anyway?” she asked.
He pulled money from one of his pockets and handed it over to her.
“Whoa,” she said, taking a step back. “What the actual hell?”
“For Lollipop. Food, bed, whatever.”
“I don’t need your money.”
Taking advantage of her full hands, he stuffed the money into one of her front jeans pockets. The sensation of his fingers sliding in made her go utterly still as their gazes met.
And then, with a self-mocking half smile, as if he was in on a joke that she’d missed, he turned and vanished into the night.
Several hours later, Sadie had finished with her clients and was curled up with Lollipop in the Canvas Shop with a bag of popcorn she’d nuked in the back room. Nothing said self-care more than absurd amounts of ranch-flavored popcorn with extra butter. She was happily munching through it when she got a text from a number that wasn’t recognized by her phone. It said:
Proof of life pic?
Suits. Wanting to finish her How I Met Your Mother episode on her laptop first, she ignored him. The problem was that TV shows like this often made her feel as if everyone could come clean with their real feelings, but in reality people swallowed their feelings and let them rot them from the inside out.
So she switched it up to a murder documentary. “Nothing better than cuddling with your dog and watching stories about people getting their heads cut off with a steak knife,” she told Lollipop.
Ten minutes later she got another text.
When someone doesn’t text me back within five minutes, I assume they’re dead and will send out the proper authorities.
Sadie snorted, snapped a pic of a freshly bathed and fed and sleeping Lollipop, and texted it back to him. She then entered him into her contacts as Do Not Even Think About Falling For This Guy.
Not thirty minutes later she was scrolling through Instagram when she saw a pic that Ivy had liked. It’d been posted by one Caleb Parker. It was the one he’d taken of Lollipop in the courtyard earlier with the caption: Was mugged tonight by this vicious killer and fell for her hard. Not sure what I’ve gotten myself into . . .
Sadie found herself smiling and ordered herself to stop it. Because the truth was, she wasn’t sure what she’d gotten herself into either.