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Reforming the Playboy
By Inara Scott, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Inara Scott
All rights reserved.
Kira Butler wasn't so naive that she thought wills actually got read in dark, book-filled libraries by ancient lawyers with white hair and drooping jowls. Still, she thought there would be a little more ceremony to the process. Not just her Great-Aunt Polly's lawyer, Bev — a sixty-year-old woman who was fond of wearing long silver earrings and flowered clogs — handing her a document in the middle of the afternoon in the sunny kitchen of the old Victorian house she used as an office.
With a slightly embarrassed air, Bev tapped the front of the document. "Why don't you sit down and let me explain before you start reading?"
Kira tensed. She didn't like the sound of that. She almost said, "Is it something bad?" but then remembered that Polly was gone, so really, the worst had already happened.
The polished surface of the table gleamed and smelled faintly of lemon. "Okay," she said slowly, as she set the papers on the table in front of her. The thought of hearing Polly's last words stirred up a well of tears that she thought had been exhausted in the week since her guardian's death.
"Oh dear," Bev clasped her hands in concern, apparently noticing the quiver in Kira's chin. "Let me make you a cup of tea. Polly would be furious with me if she knew I hadn't made you tea."
The words conjured an image of Polly, her mouth turned up in a gentle smile over her favorite mug, and a fresh wash of moisture bathed Kira's eyes.
"Maybe you should just tell me what's in the will," she said, dragging in a lungful of air to beat back the tears she was so tired of shedding.
Bev bustled around the kitchen, setting the kettle on the stove and pulling out two mugs. "Let's get settled first. Now, what kind of tea would you like? I've got mint, orange spice, Earl Grey, and this herbal blend." She held up a box adorned with a picture of a Buddha sitting in a lotus position. "It's supposed to promote inner peace."
Kira wasn't sure what to make of Bev's obvious discomfort with the subject at hand, and her unease kicked up a few notches. "I'll take the inner peace," Kira said. "Sounds like I might need it."
"Hmm. Are you sure?" Bev opened the box and peered inside, her mouth pursed. "If I recall, the inner peace tastes a little like drinking a cup of twigs."
Kira leaned back in her chair. "Then why do you have it?"
Bev raised her eyebrows. "Who am I to deny my clients inner peace?"
A reluctant smile teased the corners of Kira's mouth. "I guess I'll take the Earl Grey."
Bev nodded. "Good choice."
Earl Grey was Polly's favorite. She'd never liked coffee — didn't believe in lattes or any such nonsense. Strong black tea, that was it for her.
"Anyway, about the will?" Kira prompted.
"Right." Bev tucked a strand of hair into the loose bun on top of her head. "Here's the thing. You know Polly adored you. I don't know how many times she told me that the day your mother left you in Passion Creek was the best day of her life. The only thing she cared about when we were writing her will was finding a way to take care of you as best she could after she was gone."
Kira flashed to a memory of Polly handing her eight-year-old self a cup of fragrant, honey-soaked chamomile tea and telling her to sit down. Your mother wanted me to explain this to you, sweetheart. It's very complicated, but she had to leave this morning, and she probably won't be back for a while ...
She shook her head to clear the memory, forcing herself to focus on Bev's words.
"She worried about you," Bev continued. "She worried a lot. So did I. Those first few years after you came back from college were the worst. She felt terribly guilty that you'd had to come back to take care of her."
Bev dropped the tea bags into the cups. She sounded almost apologetic, which was strangely out of character. Bev believed in delivering tough news without a song and dance. She'd helped Kira negotiate her first contracts and take out her first loans when she was starting her paint-your-own pottery business, and had never been one to beat around the bush. But now, she seemed almost ... well ... nervous?
"It wasn't just for her," Kira said, as she had so many times to Polly over the past five years. "The East Coast made me nuts. Everyone out there drives too fast and talks too fast. They make everything a competition. It wasn't right for me. I never wanted to stay."
Not everyone talked too fast. But Kira wasn't thinking about a soft Southern drawl, or a tall, lean figure with dark eyes and long fingers.
No, she never did that.
"What's this all about, Bev?" She narrowed her gaze, focusing on the silver-haired woman pacing in front of the stove. "What is there to explain?"
"I just want you to keep in mind that she thought this was for your own good. I tried to talk her out of it, but she was determined." The kettle started to whistle, and Bev swung around to grab the pot from the burner. She poured hot water into the two cups and handed one to Kira.
"Bev, is this a money thing?" Kira interrupted. "Polly told me that she had a life insurance policy to take care of any funeral expenses, but if that's gone I can handle it. Seriously, how much do we owe?"
She spun through some quick math. Business was finally starting to pick up after being in the toilet for the first two years in operation. Now four years old, All Fired Up was starting to turn a reliable profit. Not a ton, mind you, but enough to pay the bills and let Kira squirrel away a little each month, especially right now, after the busy Christmas season.
Passion Creek, Colorado, had a lively tourist trade, thanks to an old legend that the town's waters could heal old wounds and bring star-crossed lovers together. Kira knew the stories were mostly the product of an active Chamber of Commerce, but she figured they didn't do anyone any harm. Especially since they brought people into the picturesque mountain town, looking for things to do while they waited for their happily ever after.
No, as long as Polly hadn't racked up some horrible debts, she should be able to take care of it.
"It's not about money, not exactly," Bev hedged.
"Well, what then? Is it something about my mother?" Kira tensed. "I already called and told her about Polly. She said she was terribly sad about it but she was headed to Mexico and couldn't possible come to the funeral."
Although she shouldn't have been surprised, Kira couldn't pretend Mandy's refusal to come home — even for the funeral of the aunt who had raised her only daughter — didn't hurt.
"It's not about Mandy." Bev sniffed in a manner that made it absolutely clear what she thought about Kira's absentee mother. "Polly was far too kind to ever say anything mean about her, but I would have traded in my bar license before I'd let her put anything in the will for Mandy."
"It's about ..." Bev paused again and bit her lip.
Kira gestured with one hand. "Spit it out, Bev, before you kill me."
Kira blinked. "Max?"
She took a deep breath. "I'm not sure I understand. Max who? What are you talking about?"
Bev sank into a chair and put her hand over Kira's. "You know who I'm talking about," she said, giving her a gentle squeeze. "Max Estin."
Kira forced a shallow laugh, though it felt as if a giant hand had squeezed all the breath from her lungs. "Oh, that Max." She sucked in as much air as her throat would allow and then forced a casual, "What about him?"
"Polly always thought the way you left him behind was wrong."
"I didn't leave him behind," Kira corrected. "We broke up. It would have happened eventually anyway. It was for the best."
Bev bit her lip. "Polly wasn't so sure."
A tingle of apprehension shivered down the length of her spine. "I know. We talked about it often enough. But what does that have to do with anything?"
Bev sighed. "Stay here for a minute. I've got to get something from my office."
She swirled away in a cloud of lavender and mint, leaving Kira staring at a document labeled, "Last Will and Testament of Pollyanna Kathleen Markeland."
As she tried to focus on the paper, a familiar face with pitch-dark eyes and a mouth tense with anger drowned out the tiny black letters.
I don't understand, he'd said, the low growl of his voice sending her heart racing even though he was two thousand miles away. You're gone? For good?
I'm sorry. I came home and realized this was where I needed to be. It's better that we don't see each other anymore.
That's bullshit. This whole thing is bullshit. You didn't even say good-bye. We spent a year together and you couldn't even bother to say good-bye?
I'm saying it now. Good-bye, Max.
Bev returned a moment later, holding a large manila envelope. "I swear I haven't opened it," she said. "Polly told me that she retrieved it from the garbage after you came back to Passion Creek."
Bev flipped over the envelope and held it out. Kira saw her name on the front, written in distinct, spidery black letters.
A tremor shook her body. She steadied her voice with an effort. "If that's what I think it is, she should have left it in the trash. It was there for a reason."
"You need to review these," Bev said gently, extending the package toward her.
"What?" Kira pushed the envelope away, choking on a wave of remembered pain. "Polly wanted me to do this? What the hell for?"
"You need to confirm that you intended to throw these drawings away."
Kira raised her gaze to meet Bev's. "You've got to be kidding me."
"I'm sorry, but this is important." Bev's voice dropped, infusing with the sternness that Kira remembered from their previous legal dealings.
"Fine, then I confirm it. I intended to throw those drawings away. I want nothing to do with that package." She crossed her arms over her chest, wishing she could erect a similar shield around her mind and heart.
"Kira, you've got to at least look at them. If you'd prefer to have privacy, I can leave the room."
With a snarl, Kira snatched the envelope and spilled the drawings onto the table. "Fine," she snapped. "You really want to do this? Here. We can do it together." She swept out an arm, seeing Bev's eyes widen as the drawings were exposed for the first time in years.
And then Kira was helpless, unable to stop herself from gazing down at the dusky images.
There were ten of them. He'd called the series Belle Femme, and they'd laughed because neither of them knew French but it sounded sexy and sophisticated. He'd drafted all ten over the course of a single night, but had worked on them for weeks after, making each one a piece of art. A couple of weeks after she left school, he had sent a text saying he'd mailed them to her, and he didn't care what she did with them.
Polly had brought the envelope home from the post office. She'd handed them over to Kira, clearly dying to know what was inside, but too polite to ask.
That night, some self-destructive force had taken over and Kira had opened the envelope in her room, gazing for hours at the beautiful, heartbreaking pieces. In the morning, she shoved the pictures back into the envelope and put them in the trash.
Polly never mentioned the package again.
The drawings were captured in charcoal pencil — Max's favorite medium, at least back then — and preserved in clear plastic sleeves.
Every damn one was of her.
The first drawing was simply her profile. She was gazing out a window, her hair long and loose around her shoulders. The second showed the tops of her naked shoulders. She was smiling, a blanket clasped loosely over her breasts. By the third drawing she was naked, and by the fourth, he was making love to her through the page, worshipping her body with his art. The poses varied from gorgeously explicit to shy and reserved. In the last picture, Max added his own face caught in a mirror, watching her as she showered, her body half-hidden by a cloud of steam.
They'd been drunk that night, but not with alcohol. They didn't need alcohol to become giddy with need and sex and love. The drawings were sensual feasts, breathtaking in their eroticism. Romance pulsed in the line of her breasts, the peaks of her nipples, and the soft triangle of hair at the juncture of her thighs.
"Jesus," Bev sucked in a breath.
"I know," Kira said flatly. "I'm naked."
"No, that's not ... Kira, these are incredible." The older woman's eyes were wide with amazement. "How could you possibly throw them away?"
"Because I had to." She scooped up the cool, slippery plastic sleeves and shoved them back into the envelope, which she dropped onto the table. "Here you go. You can take the trash and do whatever you want with it. Now, are we done? I really need to get back to the store."
Bev trailed a hand over the envelope, shaking her head in wonder.
"Bev?" Kira snapped. "Can I go?"
Bev jerked her gaze away from the package on the table back to Kira's face. "Well, no, actually. That was really just the intro." She tapped Polly's will. "There's more."
Kira leaned back in her chair, nausea rising in her chest. "Fine. Then tell me. And no more stalling. I want the whole story, in as few words as possible."
"Of course. I understand." Bev took a deep breath. "In her will, Polly left these pictures to Max. She instructed me to contact him directly after I'd explained the situation to you, and ask him to come to Passion Creek to get them. I am not allowed to mail them. If he wants the drawings, he's got to pick them up in person. If he chooses not to come, I am to contact the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and let them know I have a Max Estin original series. The museum is to display the drawings for a month, and then they must auction the pictures off to the highest bidder. The proceeds will go to whatever charity you choose, with ten percent to fund scholarships at RISD."
The words slid over her in a long, menacing trail. Pictures displayed in a public gallery? Auctioned off?
Max, here in Passion Creek?
"Bev, I ... I don't understand ... How could she? I'm naked, Bev. How could she possibly do this?"
"I know. It's a mess." Bev heaved a sigh. "I told you I tried to persuade her not to do it. But she was utterly determined to have her way, and in the end, I've got to represent my client's wishes."
Kira swayed in her seat, her palms breaking into a cold sweat. "But they're my pictures. He made them for me. How does she have the right to give them away?"
"They aren't your pictures," Bev said. "Remember? That's why I had to make sure you didn't have any ownership claim to them. Polly owned those pictures and now, she's bequeathing them to Max. It's totally within her rights."
Her back snapped straight, and she stared at Bev in horror. "You tricked me."
Bev winced. "I didn't trick you, Kira. I asked you if you owned the pictures. You answered honestly, didn't you?"
"I'll be humiliated," Kira said, giving the woman she had once called a friend her flattest, most punishing stare. "Max is internationally known. His paintings sell for millions of dollars. Collectors will be desperate to get a glimpse of his early works. They'll put it on the news, Bev. My naked body, on the news!"
"Well, I'm sure they can't show everything on TV," Bev said, though she sounded doubtful.
"Maybe not the TV but believe me, they'll be all over the Internet." Kira gritted her teeth. "It's only been five years since I left RISD, and Max stayed there for graduate school. There will be professors who remember us, other students who knew us. This isn't going to be the sort of thing you can keep quiet."
Bev spread her hands helplessly. "Again, all I can say is that I tried."
Kira ignored her, rising abruptly to pace the small kitchen. "I don't have to see him," she said, biting the tip of her thumb as she walked. "Even if he comes here, I don't have to see him."
"Well, actually ..." Bev cleared her throat.
Kira spun around, sending a cloud of thick, wavy hair spinning around her. "What?" she cried. "What else, Bev?"
"You've got to be there when he picks up the art," Bev whispered. "If you don't agree to see him, the pictures go to the museum. And there's nothing either of you can do to stop it."
Excerpted from Reforming the Playboy by Inara Scott, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2014 Inara Scott. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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