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Double The Thrill
By Susan Kearney
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMan, that sucker's huge.
Toni Maxwell's mouth went drier than the New Orleans summer drought. She'd never expected anything so big, so in-your-face. But then how could she think straight under this kind of pressure? The never-ending heat wave must have fried her brain. Obviously, she'd been working too hard on her spring collection, because this couldn't be happening. Not to her. Not now. She had always expected to hit the big time - but certainly not like this.
Big was one thing. This qualified as enormous. Toni's nerve endings danced with agitation and quickly repressed awe. She licked her bottom lip and told herself that she could not be intimidated. She would not say yes, no matter how enticing the offer.
Her inner voice egged her on. Go on. Try it on for size.
"I shouldn't." Oh, pull-ease! Indulge. Unable to resist the seductive temptation, carefully, Toni reached out, barely breathing, knowing it wouldn't fit.
It fit perfectly. As if custom-made for her. "Awesome ring." Her oldest sister, Bobby, wearing pink running shorts, a pink sports bra and pink athletic shoes, jogged into the foyer swinging a two-pound weight in each hand and bouncing up and down on her toes as if fearing that if she rested for a second, she'd regain one of the thirty poundsshe'd lost during the last year. "Hey, Mickey," Bobby yelled to their youngest sister in the kitchen. "You better come have a look."
"Did you break another nail?" Mickey yelled back, in her naturally sultry voice, the one that the brokenhearted men she'd refused to date often called just to hear on the answering machine. "We're out of pink nail polish."
"No, I didn't break a nail," Bobby replied, continuing to bounce and swing her arms. "Toni's getting married."
"I most certainly am not," Toni contradicted, her stomach clenching in protest. She should never have opened the damn box in the foyer. After signing for Senator Birdstrum's present, she should have run up the stairs to her room where she could have had a little privacy, but she'd never expected an engagement ring - especially not after she'd repeatedly refused Birdstrum's proposals. For attending a fund-raiser with him on short notice, she'd thought he might show his appreciation by sending over her favorite chocolate pralines. But a four-carat engagement ring?
Why didn't the senator understand that no meant no? She gulped, attempting to swallow the lump of welling panic in her throat. And now, before she'd even recovered from her shock at his determination and fixation on her, she had her sisters to contend with.
The four Maxwell sisters shared the two-story house in the French Quarter. Expenses in this part of the city were high, especially for Toni, who had tapped out her funds to purchase the swankiest high-tech fabrics for her spring collection. But her new creations were sure to put her fledgling designer-wear boutique on the map and in the black - especially since several of the evening gowns had been featured in Southern Design Magazine. Her reckless decision to open her own business might soon pay off. According to the article, Toni Maxwell was "on her way," although her bank account didn't yet reflect her recent success. But she didn't live with her sisters just to save money - they also liked one another, most of the time.
Their personalities varied, from conscientious but sometimes rash Mickey to workaholic Toni to bubbly Bobby to Jude, the perennial student. All single, they looked out for one another in their own Maxwell way, which meant everything from blunt advice to shared clothing, comfort hugs, ice-cream binges on dateless Friday nights and elegant potluck dinners.
Growing up, Toni had seemed to be her parents' favorite, but her sisters didn't mind since she always worked harder than the other three put together. She'd studied long hours to make A's and B's all through school while working two part-time jobs, one as a retail store clerk, the other sewing clothes for family and friends.
But Toni could only remain serious-minded for so long before she had to blow off steam. This long period of sexual withdrawal was abnormal for her. Back then, as busy as she'd been, she'd still had time to indulge her passion between her busy days of hard work. Recently, her contacts with the opposite sex had dwindled to zilch, but she fully intended to correct her current predicament. She'd simply been putting in too many hours designing and selling her creations. All that work meant no extra energy to hook up with a man for even so much as a weekend fling. Her unconscious had picked up on her body's shortage of satisfaction, her mind taunting her while she slept with erotic images of a dream man, which had her awakening damp and slick. Self-gratification had barely taken the edge off her need for a man. She suspected the book she'd just read about actress Lane Morrow's affair with Grey Masterson, a New Orleans publishing tycoon had triggered the dreams. Wild dreams. Fantasy dreams.
So, she was eager to meet someone male. Someone hot. Someone who would make love to her for hours and make up for her abstinence. Someone like sexy Grey Masterson. Senator Birdstrum, too old, too stodgy, too bland, didn't fit the bill.
Dependable, hardworking, the one her siblings relied on when the chips where down, Toni could always count on her sisters to rally around her when she needed them. Back in high school on her prom night, her sisters had covered for her until she'd sneaked in through the three-story window at four in the morning. And they'd covered for her again during college when, on a whim, she'd accepted her French professor's offer to fly her to Paris for spring break. Between her sexual libido begging to be fed and her too-long-contained reckless nature primed for action, Toni wanted her sisters' input.
While Bobby might pretend to be enthusiastic about the engagement ring, Toni wasn't sure of her sister's true feelings. Toni had always suspected that Bobby harbored a bit of an infatuation for the senator, which Bobby vehemently denied. Still, Toni wouldn't hurt her for the world. But even if Toni was wrong about Bobby's feelings, she'd still refuse the senator.
What she needed right now was Mickey's coolheaded thinking. Her younger sister wouldn't be swept away by the romantic proposal from an old family friend Toni had dated exactly twice and whom she barely knew. The first time Birdstrum had proposed, Toni had been flabbergasted. When he'd told her she was the perfect woman for him, she'd been flattered, yet stunned. He'd stated his reasons that they should marry as if he were presenting a bill for a vote. She was beautiful, smart and well connected. He saw her boutique, Feminine Touch, as hip, her choice of career as clothing designer-retailer as the perfect way for her to remain busy while he worked in Washington. He'd given her logic - but no passion, something she most definitely wanted back in her life.
Her self-imposed celibacy made her now eager to end her exile from the male species. If Birdstrum was as sexy as Grey Masterson or her dream man, she might have been tempted to enjoy a fling with him. But there was no chemistry. No zing. Not even the tiniest arc of lust between them.
And as much as her life had been lacking in the sexual department, even she couldn't create fire without matches. She didn't mind starting the fire, but she needed a man who could fan the flames. A man creative in the sack, who knew how to excite a woman. A man as innovative and attentive as Grey Masterson had been in that bestselling novel. No wonder Lane Morrow's book had infiltrated her dreams. She'd denied an essential part of herself for too long, imprisoned herself in her career, and her subconscious was screaming for freedom. Satisfaction. Pleasure.
Excerpted from Double The Thrill by Susan Kearney Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.