With a reserve of energy she didn’t feel, Chloe bounded up from the bed. Not the best idea, considering her brain’s penchant for rattling around in her skull the minute she moved because of her hangover. Maybe she could get Noah to make a Bloody Mary to take the edge off before she left? Chloe climbed the plush carpeted stairs back up into the living room.
“Since it looks like we’ll be spending a bit of time together, care to enlighten me on why you took a reservation when it’s off season and your sister wasn’t even here to run it?”
Chloe sat back across from him and took a slow drink of her juice, using the added time to get a closer look at his slightly freckled face. Cute. Whatever attraction rose up tightening her throat she quickly squashed it down. A man had gotten her here in the first place. If it wasn’t for her mother’s penchant for psychological healing, without the aid of television and a quart of ice cream—she would be surrounded by piles of good books, take-out, and new workout DVD’s she wouldn’t attempt to use for a solid month.
When Noah caught her watching him, she deflected her stare to the bookcase behind his head, cringing at the A to Z self-help tomes. When she came out of rehab she might have more of a complex than when she went in last night.
“Didn’t feel like turning down company. Plus I could use the extra hands around the house getting the place weatherproofed for hurricane season.”
Chloe had to cover her mouth to keep from shooting citrus out of her nose.
“Nice plan, right?” He waggled his dark brows and took another bite of bacon.
“You purposely let me come here because you were looking for a playmate while you babysat the house?”
“You’re much more fun than building model cars and searching for the meaning of life.”
“Plus, I won the genetic jackpot. You’re quite the looker,” he said it offhand, meeting her eyes, and winking with darkness in his gaze that left nothing to imagination.
“What are you, sixty years old?”
“That was a compliment, in case you’ve never heard one.”
“Yeah, great going, complimenting a woman who probably just got out of a debilitating relationship, is emotionally vulnerable, and ready to kick some ass. What a charmer you are, Noah.”
He cleared his throat, picked up his plate, and headed toward the kitchen. Despite her resolve to let his comment slide off her back, she’d opened her big mouth. But more than anything she wished she could close her eyes to get the image of his fine ass out of her mind as the swinging door closed behind him. Pathetic didn’t cover it. She needed another dictionary definition. What were the odds of finding a dictionary in this house?
Was she even thinking about staying? The idea was idiotic at best. In a house with a total stranger in the middle of nowhere for any span of time—when did that choice go from you’re crazy, to eh, it’s workable? The fact that she managed to miss kind of a big decision when she was the one making the choice in the first place made her feel like she’d come to the right place for her discombobulated mental state. Yet…she trusted her gut. There was something to women’s intuition and Noah didn’t scream psycho killer. Of course, she didn’t think they made a t-shirt for that type of thing. But either way her first layer of apprehension peeled back with the knowledge that she had basic knowledge of self-defense and there were plenty of knick-knacks around the house to double as weapons should the need crop up.
It would be an adventure, right? He wasn’t keeping her here. She could leave and walk away—literally—at any time.
“Oh, by the way—”
Noah stuck half his body through the swinging door, large fingers splayed across the pastel green paint. He licked his lips, mouth shaping into a wolfish grin that left her fingers twisting together in her lap. Noah raised one of his hands in the air.
“One, I’ve been told I’m not relationship material. Two, I’m great rebound sex in case there isn’t anything else in this boarded up hole to occupy your mind. And last, but not least, if you want to kick my ass on behalf of my species that’s all well and good—I’m a gentleman, I’ll let you—but you bet your sweet ass you’ll be playing nursemaid afterward. And that’s with the kinky outfit, or no deal.”
There were no words. Chloe sat there without a single retort even close to her mouth. Was he kidding? Before she could regain her senses he’d popped his head back into the kitchen, and water ran in a loud rush. Almost, but not quite, blocking out the joy in his gruff laughter as it echoed through the door. Gentleman, yeah that was a joke. He was a gentleman like Rhett Butler wasn’t a cad—and Rhett was the best bad boy of ‘em all.
She should know, she’d only watched that movie over a hundred times growing up because it had the prettiest cover in her mother’s old movie collection. No matter what, Rhett was a cad. And, though she tried not to be flustered, Noah gave off the same swarthy I-know-what-you-look-like-without-your-clothes-on vibe.
So what if she’d tried a relationship with the solid, wet-blanket, Ashley type and that hadn’t exactly worked out? That didn’t mean a damn thing.
“Plan on throwing me any other fastballs? Or are we not speaking because I dared to mention how beautiful your smile is and hurt your girl power pride?”
His voice shook her out of her reverie.
“You haven’t even seen me fully smile.”
“I’ve seen the ghost of one. Maybe if we keep playing this “getting to know each other” game I’ll get to see more. What do you think?”
He wiped his damp hands on his jeans leaving dark smudges that led Chloe’s eye elsewhere. She crossed her arms, determined to pay attention to the hideous, metal deep sea fish sculpture on the wall.
“I think that you haven’t given me jack squat to go off of in terms of getting to know you. I also think, Noah, that it’s probably in your best interest to start chatting, otherwise these hands might not feel like working.”
“Please tell me those hands will be doing other, more delightful things,” he practically purred, clutching his heart. “Oh, also, unless you’re a shrink, there isn’t much else to do around here. No radios or TV. Consider yourself promoted to first foreman. Better than reading the self-help crap, right?”
“Oh will you can it? Jesus, I’m not sleeping with you!”
He shrugged, making the move mean far more than it should have, while also showing off the hard muscles in his chest.
“I never really asked, did I?”
She couldn’t help it—she made a pure noise of frustration and glared sharp, lethal icepicks his way. What did he do? Only the second most infuriating thing ever after all his cheesy come-on’s. Noah threw up his hands in front of his body making a mocking face filled with fake terror. Eyes wide, mouth an “o,” he sprinted to the corner folding his large frame until he cowered hiding his face in between his knees. Heaven help her, a bubble of laughter floated out through her mouth and broke into pieces.
Noah peeked his head out from his lap with a goofy grin.
“That impressed you, huh? Didn’t know your host took several unwanted years of drama in high school in order to make up for failing math grades. Pretty genius performance, wasn’t it? Might have won me an Oscar.”
Well, there was her first tidbit into the brain of her new hot—er, host. When Noah stood up from his crouch he quickly stretched his arms up above his head, leaving a delectable piece of pale flesh with a smattering of dark, treasure trail hair leading beneath his jeans. Chloe snapped her eyes away and thinned her lips pretending to adjust on the coach and folding her legs up under her.
“You’re getting better.”
“Nothing. You ready for your lesson on how we’re going to work together to keep this place in tip-top shape?”
“Do I get to say no?”
He made an obnoxious beeping noise in the back of his throat that sounded like a game show buzzer.
“Wrong answer. But you do get handy demonstrations, your own tool belt, and dinner tonight if you do a good job.”
“Do I get a gold star, too?”
“I can probably figure something out for you.”
Noah snatched her hand, a shock to her system tightening all the muscles in her upper arm. His warm palm engulfed her whole hand. Was this what it had been like when he’d carried her inside last night? Had she folded up in his arms like she fit? She swallowed and met his serious look.
“Come on, I’ve got a whiteboard downstairs.”
Chloe couldn’t deny his excitement. When he pulled her up and raced them down the stairs she followed—telling herself it was only because he would have dragged her anyway. But when he pulled her into a spare bedroom, it had been converted into an office with a white board that took up three of the four walls, her mind was boggled. Not one inch of board was free.
“You’ve been busy.”
Chloe took in the myriad of checklists, bullet points, and definitions scrawled in a neat sloping hand. One of the notations caught her eye. The roof needed fixing? He wanted her up on a slope a million feet in the air? Oh, that was priceless. With a careful eye she tried to stuff the overload of information into her brain.
“You need to be trained.”
Noah took a seat in the office chair, swiveling his body around a few times before he came to a full stop with his long legs stretched out. His hands were laced together in the middle of his chest, while he regarded her with an expression she couldn’t quite place—and probably didn’t want to think too hard. She went back to studying the notations.
“This is almost everything you need to know about construction and what we’ll be doing as early as tonight. Think you can handle it all?”
At least he’d given her a head start—with his help a day of intense study might be enough to keep her safe. Besides, the busywork could keep her mind in the right place and off of any thoughts of the ex. She could admit—begrudgingly—that she kind of couldn’t wait to see Noah in a tool belt, shirtless, and a little dewy with sweat. His verbal banter wouldn’t hurt as a distraction either. With a long exhale, she shoved the thought into a little box, readying herself for the oncoming storm.
“Hello? Mothership to Chloe? You there or is there a break in transmission? Because I don’t have any experience in bringing back patients from a catatonia. That’s Phil’s job and he’s not coming back until the fall.”
“I was asking which you’d rather start with, the pipe work, or weatherproofing the three decks out back.”
“The second one.”
“Thought that would be your pick. Stand up, please.”
She shrugged and did what he asked, but didn’t move an inch from the chair.
“Hey, so, thanks for taking care of me last night. You didn’t have to do that and I appreciate it.”
His one word answer exuded gentleness. Maybe it was the soft-spoken respect behind it, like he wouldn’t have dared do anything else. Two large steps and he was in front of her, so close she sharply inhaled and her fists clenched tight behind her back. She actively avoided looking at him. Too close for comfort. Her focus scattered as she tried to ignore him, looking everywhere in the room. Tension threaded and wound tight through every muscle and she wanted more than anything to step away from him—but she sure as shit didn’t want Noah to know exactly how vulnerable one little movement had made her.
“It really wasn’t a problem.”
“Mmmhm,” she replied, weighing her options, trying not to look weak in the face of so much male muscle.
His hand cradled her chin and she jerked back, almost tripping before his arms cinched around her waist anchoring her against his firm chest. With a yelp she planted her hands on his shoulders, unable to do anything else. She scrambled to stay upright, their gazes locked.
Why hadn’t he let her go the minute he sensed she’d gained her balance? She fumbled for words. But there was nothing as his thumb slid along her lower back in small, smooth strokes as if he were trying to calm her down. But it only served to set her whole body on fire while time stood still and she weighed the merits of pulling away. Whether he would let her go at all.
A smile barely brushed his lips. His hands tightened on her waist, fingers twisting in her cardigan. Without too much thought, her fingers mirrored his tension resting on his shoulders. Beneath her palms he was warmer than she thought possible. He must have been burning up in his sweater. Which begged the question—what would he look like without it?
“That could ha-ha-ha-have been bad,” he stuttered and she watched his Adam’s apple work as he swallowed hard.
That was all that came out of her mouth. She processed his cocky swagger crumble to an endearing affect that made her pulse slide into overdrive. His face lit up, beet red, as he blinked behind his glasses. Her fingertips traced the foreign lines of his collarbone. She couldn’t bring herself to break their sensual embrace.
They’d never been close enough for her to notice his scent—like ink and citrus. The odd mixture suited him. His nostrils flared as she continued tracing him with her thumbs. But he hadn’t drawn away. Flat against him, Noah wasn’t tense, only watchful with his strong, unbreakable grip above her hips. How much longer would they stray into this land of intimacy? One of them had to have the willpower to pull away, before this went way too far. Chloe hadn’t been dragged to the beach house to have rebound sex with a stranger for three days. An hour ago she wanted nothing to do with men, but she couldn’t bring herself to pull away when she was chomping at the bit for any kind of touch.
Yet, Chloe couldn’t check her urge to go on tiptoe, inviting his kiss with a firm squeeze to his shoulders. That’s when he broke away like he’d been burned. Noah must have cleared three feet away from her and she was left with a stone weighing down her stomach. Okay, so that went badly. Think.
“Uh…” he said.
Think. Think. Think, damn it!
Chloe bit back a noise of hurt. Yeah, that’s the last thing he needed—a mental case chick who couldn’t check her own impulses while she was in rehab for being a relationship ditz. Although, he’d started all the flirty-flirty.
“So, don’t I need some kind of safety gear or something?”
Voice only a little bit like Minnie Mouse—she could work with that.
Noah nodded and spun marching out the door.
She’d made no comment. Not a single joke, laugh, or snide remark. He moved blindly through the house feeling as if his head was going to float off his body. His body still bristled from his expectations—the inevitable end result of his stutter and he ran a hand through his hair. A low breath later he rested against the banister on the top floor living room.
“Why the hell did you move out of the way, you dingbat?” He said under his breath while his fingers tightened on the banister behind him.
When she’d moved in, all but inviting him to kiss her, he’d wimped out. Practically hightailed it out of there as if even touching Chloe would give him frostbite or something. He squeezed the banister trying to shake his trembling, but there was no other way to react to her hinting when he was still coming to grips with her reaction to his deformity. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her, come on, that was obvious. He just had to look the gift horse in the mouth first.
Noah groaned and cracked his neck. What the hell was wrong with him?
Which was worse acknowledging his stutter and getting it out in the open or glazing over it altogether, as if it wasn’t a glaring black mark? His face heated and he paced the cheap carpet uncaring if he wore holes in it. Did he want to kiss Chloe? Stupid question. Next. Hell, if he had kissed her well enough he was pretty sure he could erase all memory of his screwup and give him enough time to play with that he’d make a better impression. Until he did it again. She just made him so…so…nervous. Even admitting that made his gut twist until he licked his lips and took a restless seat on the couch.
“Get. Yourself. Together.”
It was his fault that it had been an embarrassingly long time since…yeah…since that had happened. Even admitting it in his own head was pathetic. There was no way to salvage the moment. No way to storm back in there, clasp her to him, and plant one on her until she was trembling and breathless. Noah didn’t have it in him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. God, it wasn’t for lack of trying—the image was seared into the back of his brain. He could almost feel her soft lips pressing against his own in surprise before she gave in and took his mouth completely and with no mercy.
But then he lost himself too. Until she plunged her tongue into his mouth and he gave himself up to her petite body as he wrapped around her body like a vine to a tree. The vivid imagery nearly knocked him flat out. One second they were locked in an embrace that made her thick and hard thinking about it, and the next she was shoving him down on his knees with one pale, petite hand. Her face was unreadable, a twinkle in her eye that made his mouth dry up as he tried to keep his breathing steady, but breathing in her light floral scent with every second.
Noah groaned, fisting his hands in his hair. This was absolutely absurd, what the hell was wrong with him? He forced his eyes open and blinked away from the images playing across his eyelids like dirty movies only for his enjoyment. Every guy fantasized about women, but this, this was different. He shook his head. Blinked. Tried to get a grip on reality while stalwartly ignoring the aching hard on in his jeans. Even reaching into his jeans to adjust through his boxers made him bite back a low moan that sizzled up his spine.
There was something about Chloe. Something. He yanked his hand out of his pants and glanced down the stairs, as if she’d come up them any second and see him. The idea of going back down there made him bristle. Would she see everything he’d laid out in his skull despite the fact that he was locking it down? Noah bit his lip and grumbled an inarticulate stream of frustrated nonsense. Sure, it had been awhile in the bedroom department…but, Christ, that imagery kicking up in his head! He could still sense her fingers running through his hair, prickling his scalp—before she yanked his gaze upward to rest on her simpering smile.
Noah shivered, every muscle in his body tight with confusion.
He’d had fantasies…but never like these.
What the hell did he get himself into?
Warning: This book contains a geeky, secretly insecure but overly cocky handy-man with a penchant for pleasing, a dominatrix in training who’s on the rebound, and enough smut to strip a couple layers off your soul. Plus there’s mac n’ cheese with a smattering of self-actualization for good measure.
After Chloe Barrons’ fiancé cheats on her via webcam, she begrudgingly accepts her Type-A mother’s offer of a spur of the moment luxury spa weekend. But things don’t play out quite from point A to point B when she arrives drunk and disoriented on the front porch of a deserted North Carolina beach house. From the very start she’s caught off guard by Noah Knightly, a sinfully sexy, self-proclaimed commitment-phobe who’s a handyman for his sister’s relationship rehabilitation center—a rehab where Chloe is the sole guest during off-season.
But faced with temptation, to stay guarded she’ll have to call the shots.
Noah shouldn’t have taken Chloe’s reservation. But in need of a second pair of hands to fix up the beach house, he throws all his sister’s rules out the window. Soon he worries that maybe he’s bitten off more than he can chew: each day Chloe cracks more of his cocky façade bringing down his guards to reveal a stuttering geek who has a hidden will to please her in any way possible.
With no way to ignore her pain, Noah sets himself up as a guniea pig to prove to Chloe that not all men are created equal—in or out of the bedroom. As Chloe comes into her own through every sexual session, Noah needs to decide if he’s man enough to accept the one thing he never thought he wanted—love.
Bio: Elise Hepner lives with two spastic cats and a very supportive, slightly crazy husband. There is never a dull moment in the house, unless the caffeine runs out, which it never does. She's a multi-published erotica author with Cleis Press, Ellora's Cave, Xcite, and Secret Cravings Publishing.
She's driven by her tea addiction and a tiny stuffed turtle her husband picked up from Disney World that sits on her desk and "supervises" her work.
When not writing (which is rare), she's watching countless hours of reality television, playing the Sims or shopping online. Plus there's that odd obsession with the color purple. Everything is purple. Visit Elise at her website www.elisehepner.com to keep up with her naughty ramblings, random tidbits and future work.
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