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By P.J. MELLOR MELISSA MACNEAL VALERIE MARTINEZ
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChris MacNeil smacked the steering wheel with the palm of his hand and let loose a string of expletives as he turned the corner of the town square.
Downshifting, he wheeled his truck into a vacant parking spot by the Roadkill Café and sat with his engine running while he willed the nausea away.
Directly in front of his Dodge Ram 4x4 was a sight that filled him with horror and revulsion: a new Christmas store.
Behind all the froufrou decorating practically obscuring the front window, several Christmas trees twinkled merrily. Combined with the other flashing lights, their manic movement and brilliance formed an electronic fist to punch him right between the eyes and bring on an instant headache.
It was not that he truly hated Christmas. At least, he didn't think he did. But nothing good, beginning with his birth twenty-seven years ago, had ever happened to him at Christmas.
Novelty stores had come and gone around the square in Flintlock, Texas, faster than the surrounding wildlife population. Chris tried to comfort himself with that thought, but there was something nagging about the store before him. Something different that scared the crap out of him.
Bilerose in his throat at the thought. Damn. The store was cute. More than cute. Classy and pretty. Successful looking.
Ignoring the sudden ringing in his ears, he hopped out of his truck and hit the alarm as he strode into the Roadkill.
Typical of a small rural town, all conversation ceased when the bell over the door of the café jingled.
"Hey, y'all," Chris said, hanging his straw Stetson on the hook by the door.
Several patrons greeted him on his way to a booth toward the back of the room.
He slid onto the worn red vinyl seat and nodded at the waitress when she tossed a menu on the table and set a small glass of water in front of him.
"Hey, Chris," Sheila, the waitress, cooed, "Whittbeck delivered my new big screen today. You wanna come over after closing and watch dirty movies on cable?" She licked her high-glossed lips and leaned a little closer, no doubt in case he'd failed to notice her cleavage. "Thought maybe we could see what comes up." She glanced meaningfully at his crotch and winked.
Maybe if he threw up on her she would leave him alone. Good grief. What had gotten into him lately? There was a time, not so long ago, when he'd have jumped at the invitation Sheila shot his way. Restless and edgy, he licked his suddenly dry lips. "Ah, not tonight, Sheila. I'm plumb tuckered out from hunting all day."
All around him, snickers sounded.
"Yeah, boy," Mr. Rogers called out, "I heard about your hunting today. What was it you shot again?"
"I heard it was Foster's scarecrow!" someone shouted. Laughter erupted as usual when Chris's hunting skills were discussed.
Chris chuckled and shrugged. He mustered what he hoped was a credible sexy wink for the waitress. "Right now, Sheila, I need a Coke. Please."
She nodded at the menu. "Decided yet?"
"Bacon cheeseburger, I guess." It was one of the few things he found he could gag down of late. If the Roadkill wasn't so familiar and handy, he'd look for another place to eat. No doubt about it, he was in a rut.
"Regular, curly or spicy fries? Bo made a fresh pot of chili, if you want 'em smothered."
His stomach clenched in response. "No, thanks. Sounds real tasty, though," he offered at her obvious disappointment.
She gave him a peculiar look and nodded as she picked up the menu and walked toward the kitchen pass-through.
"Hey, Deadeye!" His best friend since kindergarten, Ray, slid onto the seat across from Chris. "I hear you saved the town from another killer scarecrow and made the world safer for pheasants." Ray's teeth flashed white in his tanned face. "Good job."
"Shut up. I was thinking of giving up bird hunting, anyway. I tripped over Star, the ornery mutt. I thought I saw her running across the field, but she was locked on point right in front of me. I swear, sometimes I think she does stuff like that just to make me look bad." He ignored Ray's guffaws and shrugged. "'Course, the gun went off when I fell, and that's how the scarecrow met its end." Chris nodded at Sheila when she set his Coke on the scarred gray Formica table.
"Hey, sweet thing," Ray said, once he'd stopped laughing, eyeing Sheila's ample bust when the waitress leaned close to him. "How're my girls tonight?"
"Lonely," Sheila said, flashing a pouting look Chris's way. After taking Ray's order, she strode away.
"Lovers' spat?" Ray twirled the salt and pepper shakers around on the smooth tabletop.
In response, Chris grunted and took a long draw of his Coke. "You know better than that."
His friend raised an eyebrow. "I also know you've had a long dry spell. 'Course, living with your mother doesn't help that situation. What's it been? Three years now?"
"Two. Not that it's any of your business. Mom still needs me around."
"She has Sam. He really runs the place anyway."
"Well, maybe I need to stay there. For peace of mind."
Ray slouched back in the booth. "Still carrying a torch for Kari, huh?"
"Hell, no!" Chris forced the Coke down his suddenly constricted throat. Kari had actually done him a favor by leaving him at the altar two years ago on Christmas Eve. It brought him to his senses. He should have known any wedding planned for Christmas had disaster written all over it.
Ray leaned close, hunched over the table. "Then what's eating you, man? You get to be more of a loner by the day. When was the last time we hit Freddy's?"
The mention of the town's honky-tonk tightened the fist in Chris's belly. Last time he'd been there, the music was too strong and the beer too weak.
"The smoke gets to me lately." He leaned back to avoid contact with Sheila's assets when she placed his plate on the table.
"Bullshit." Ray nodded at the waitress as she slid a plate of onion rings, smothered in milk gravy, in front of him and walked away.
"That your supper?"
"Nah." Ray popped a huge ring in his mouth and chewed appreciatively and then swiped a dribble of gravy from his chin. "Mandy's cooking for me tonight. This," he said, holding up another onion ring dripping with gravy, "is just to hold me over."
Chris took a big bite of his cheeseburger. After swallowing, he said, "Things are looking pretty serious with you and Mandy. Best watch it, buddy."
Ray grinned and took a gulp of his cherry Coke. "Under control, my man, under control. Mandy feeds me my supper ... and I go by Sheila's for my dessert." He waggled his eyebrows. "If you get my drift."
"What if Mandy finds out?"
"We never said we wouldn't see other people."
Chris swallowed another bite. "I'm sure you didn't. Does Mandy know about your arrangement?"
Ray finished his Coke and belched loud enough to rattle the windows then grinned. "As long as I keep flipping her skirt up, she's got no complaints." He threw some bills on the table and stood. "See you around. I-hey, who's that by your truck?" Chris craned his neck and looked out the front window of the café. Ray was right; someone was fooling with his truck. A female someone.
That could only mean trouble.
Taking a fast gulp of his soda, he stood and yelled in Sheila's general direction. "I'll be right back, don't throw away my food," then closed the distance between the booth and the front door.
By the time he got to his truck, whoever had been there was gone. A glance up and down the street then across the square failed to detect anyone.
Turning to go back to his burger, something beneath his wiper blade snagged his attention. A paper fluttered in the cool night breeze. Damn, he hated it when people stuck things on his truck.
He grabbed at the offending paper. Another damn flyer. And ... a note of some kind. Trepidation growing, he unfolded the note. A faint scent of cinnamon and some kind of flower wafted to greet him. He leaned closer to the light from the café to read the flowery script, written on a thick piece of white stationery edged with what looked suspiciously like a row of holly leaves.
Dear Neighbor, it read, I'm sure you did not see the new sign stating this parking space is reserved, allocated for the customers of Happy Holidays Boutique. As a welcome to our store, I am attaching a twenty-percent-off coupon for your next visit. I look forward to meeting you and serving your holiday needs for many years to come.
Sincerely, Allison Conroe, owner, Happy Holidays Boutique
"I'll tell you what you can do with your coupon, Miss Allison Conroe." He ground the words through his teeth while he tore the note and coupon into tiny pieces as he stomped toward the door of the Christmas shop.
Blinking at all the blinding lights, he stepped through the door. Instead of a dinging bell or even a buzzer like any normal store, the Happy Holidays Boutique played a version of "White Christmas"-with bells.
It was enough to make his ears bleed. The strong scent of cinnamon burned his eyes.
It took a second to locate the petite woman decorating a tree toward the back of the selling floor. At the sound of the door, she turned, a welcoming smile on her lips.
Had she been in any other place and been any other woman, he might have taken a moment to assess the goods. As it was, he refused to notice her pretty mouth-not too big, not too small, with soft, kissable-looking lips. Blondes appealed to him much more than women with dark, lustrous curls like the one before him. He didn't care how tall she was. Too short for his taste, anyway, he was sure. And even if she had the body of a goddess, he didn't care. Besides, it was hard to tell what she looked like under that ugly-as-sin baggy jumper and long apron covered in an eye-popping collage of Christmas scenes. It was like Currier and Ives threw up on her.
"Happy holidays," she said in a husky little voice, smiling a little brighter, if that was possible. She placed the ornament she was holding back in its box. "You're my first customer! Would you like some wassail or a Christmas cookie? I baked them fresh this afternoon. I-oh!"
Jaw clamped, he showered the coupon and note confetti over her head. It was the only thing he could do. Danger signs flashed in bright neon just looking at her. He didn't want or need the stirrings he felt just from being around her. Maybe it was just hunger. He hoped.
Turning on his heel, his booted feet ate up the distance to the front door. Not taking a breath until the door closed behind him, he sucked in a great lungful of air and headed back to the Roadkill.
Christmas. It was enough to give a man indigestion.
Chapter TwoAllison Conroe gaped at the broad back of the man striding out of her newly opened store. A piece of paper fluttered on her eyelashes. She reached up to pull it away, not taking her eyes off the backside of her first customer.
Wow. Even a nun could appreciate the play of worn denim over the masculine buns of steel. Double wow.
The door clanged shut, breaking her stupor. Stepping over the box of imported ornaments, she ran after him. What she would say when she caught him, she didn't know. She just knew she had to find him. For some reason, she felt he needed her.
The air had cooled considerably since the sun set. She rubbed her arms with her hands and glanced up and down the street and then across the square of her new hometown. Empty.
His truck was still there. Since all the other businesses on the square were closed for the day except hers and the café next door, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where the angry stranger went. The question was, did she dare follow?
His scowl flashed through her mind; the subtle scent of him lingered in her nose. Even if she found him, what would she say? And given his attitude, why bother? The guy could use an attitude adjustment. She glanced at the mud-encrusted truck on her way back to her store and remembered his muddy boots tromping over her freshly refinished wood floor. A makeover wouldn't hurt him either.
The inviting scent of cinnamon wrapped around her, making her smile when she stepped through the door of her very own place of business. Hers. No one to tell her what she should and shouldn't do. No one to disapprove of her spontaneity.
The frowning face of her first guest-customer-floated through her mind again. The man was rude and definitely needed an in-your-face challenge to set him straight. Her smile widened. How fortunate for him. She loved a challenge.
Chris gagged down the rest of his burger in record time. Thanks to the woman next door, the burger was now tasteless.
Throwing a fistful of money down, he grabbed his hat on the way out the door.
But once he gained the solitude of his truck, instead of starting the engine and pointing the nose toward home, he sat and waited for a glimpse of the proprietress of the Happy Holidays Boutique. Stupid name for a store. How did she think she could possibly make any kind of living with it?
He squinted in an effort to detect movement in the store. Not that he was even remotely interested in someone like her. But she was new in town, and he'd been, admittedly, less than hospitable. He was brought up better. Maybe he'd just wait to make sure she hadn't fallen off a stool or ladder or something.
While he waited, he thought of the plump sheen of her glossy lips, the soft curve of them when she'd turned to him in surprise. It was just curiosity, nothing more. He was in his sexual prime. Any female would have tempted him. Ray was right: it had been a long, dry spell-other than a fast slap and tickle with Sheila a few times, which hardly counted. He did a mental calculation. No wonder the Christmas lady had gotten to him the way she did. He hadn't had good, mind-blowing sex since before Kari left him.
A movement in the store caught his eye. His breath hitched. The woman was taking off her Christmas apron, doing a slow striptease. Well, okay, she didn't know he was there, and she still wore the butt-ugly jumper. But, damn. What he'd give to know what she wore under that thing.
With a growl, he adjusted himself and jammed down the clutch while he turned the key. Tires squealed as he backed out of the parking space.
The sound of tires caught Allison's attention just in time to see her cranky customer peel out along the square. He turned by the pharmacy, and his taillights disappeared.
Tired and more disappointed than she cared to admit, she put away the ornaments and turned off the lights. Maybe a long hot soak in the big tub in her new house would take away the sudden bout of self-pity.
Allison sank lower in the bubbles and sighed in an attempt to clear her mind. The store was progressing nicely. Check. All of the inventory was accounted for and stored. Check. Everything sparkled in anticipation of her Grand Opening Celebration. Check.
Then why did she feel so restless, so edgy?
Unbidden, the Cranky Customer sprang to mind in breathtaking detail. Instant recall dredged up his scent, the masculinity he exuded, the swagger of his lean hips as he tromped out the door.
She needed to remember his bad manners, his animosity. So why, instead, was she remembering the way the twinkling light played on the soft shine of his sun-streaked hair, the faint lines at the edge of his eyes and bracketing his mouth, the slight red-gold stubble on his firm jaw. Not to mention the flicker of interest she'd seen in his deep blue eyes just before he'd turned to walk away.
She'd come to Flintlock to make a new start, not to repeat her mistakes. Granted, Cranky wasn't as polished, as metrosexual, as Bruce. Her ex-husband had exuded urbane suaveness. But the danger was the same because it brought with it the familiar tingle of awareness, the breathless anticipation. She didn't need the complication in her life right now. Maybe never again.
It was time to turn over a new leaf. She had a business to run, a new life to build. And that life did not, could not, include a sexy, cranky stranger who made her breathless and tingly in places that had no business tingling.
Decision made, she picked up the apple-scented soap and stroked it down her arm and over and under her right breast. The soap slipped over her skin like the caress of a lover. Eyes closed, she enjoyed the tactile pleasure. The thought of Cranky being the person holding the soap made her frown. Too late. The image was firmly in her mind.
Excerpted from Naughty, Naughty by P.J. MELLOR MELISSA MACNEAL VALERIE MARTINEZ Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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