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By LORI FOSTER LUCY MONROE DIANNE CASTELL
Copyright © 2005
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One Lunacy, that's what they'd call it. Pure, plain, lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key lunacy. And all because of a stupid moon-the second full moon in July. If anyone knew, they'd label him crazy for sure. Not that he planned to tell anyone. He'd tried that once as a kid, and everyone had had a freakin' shit fit, so no more.
But damn it, why now, when he had a full week of landscaping work, a book deadline, and a newspaper interview to get through?
As Stan Tucker walked down the clean sidewalk of Delicious, Ohio, enjoying the fresh air and bright sunshine of July, he did his best to block the voices. Not much of a problem there since most people's thoughts were boring as hell. Grocery lists, appointments, and work woes vied with guilt, jealousy, and self-pity. It amazed him that mankind didn't have more important things to think about.
He ran a hand through his hair, mussing it worse than half a day's work and uneasy breezes had already done. Dirt and noticeable sweat stains covered his shirt, and dried mud clung to his boots. But despite his occasional celebrity status, he still worked hard, and if the interviewer didn't like it, he could take a hike. His publicist would snarl and groan, but Stan just plain didn't care.
As he passed people on the sidewalk, more voices battered his already fractured senses. Stan narrowed his eyes, again tuning them out. It didn't take much effort to put their private thoughts, their personal conversations, on hold, but it bugged him that he had to bother. He'd hoped that moving to Delicious, away from the crowds and human congestion, would help. But thanks to the approach of the full moon, the second in this month, he'd become privy to the introspection of all who got close to him, and not a one of them had a thought worth hearing.
Disgusted, he shoved open the fancy, etched-glass double doors of the small bookstore, The Book Nook, owned by Jenna Rowan. The bookstore was across Jonathan Avenue and up one building from his garden center. Stan owned several acres that backed up to Golden Lake, with his home next door to the garden center. A short jaunt would take him to the town square and the fancy fountain erected by the citizens long before he'd moved in.
Thanks to the apple trees growing wild around the lake, the town's structures had some whimsical names, including the Garden of Eden Salon, Johnny Appleseed Museum, and Granny Smith's Apothecary. Old Orchard Inn, a charming but outdated B&B and restaurant, used the apple trees on their lot for daily fare offered to the guests. In the afternoon you could smell the scents of cooking applesauce, apple pie, and apple cider.
Stan appreciated the novelty of Delicious as much as the laid-back, easy pace.
The second he entered The Book Nook, chilled, conditioned air hit his heated face and the scent of fresh cinnamon got pulled deep into his lungs. Stan liked The Book Nook, every tidy shelf, polished tabletop, the scents, the colors ... and the proprietor. Yeah, he especially liked her.
As usual, his gaze sought out Jenna, and he found her toward the back aisle, stocking new books on a shelf. Today she wore her honey blond hair twisted into a sloppy loop, clipped at the back of her head with a large gold barrette.
He soaked in the sight of her, making note of her long floral dress and flat leather sandals. He'd known Jenna about six months now, ever since he'd moved to Delicious to escape the chaos of Chicago. Thanks to him, her bookstore had become a tourist attraction, not that she gave him any special attention for it.
Jenna treated everyone, young and old, male and female, with a sort of maternal consideration that never failed to frustrate him. He wanted her, but she saw him only as a friend.
In nature and appearance, Jenna was the sweetest thing he'd ever met, caring and protective of one and all. He liked the fact that she was near his age, close to forty. She'd been widowed about three years now, yet she never dated, never gave any guy-especially not him-more than a friendly smile and platonic attention. With just the smallest encouragement from her, he'd make a move.
But she never encouraged him.
When he released the door, the bell chimed, and Jenna glanced up. Dangly earrings moved against her cheek, drawing attention to a dimple that formed when her mouth kicked up on one side. "Hello, Stan. All ready for your interview?"
She straightened, and the dress pulled taut over her sumptuous behind and thighs. Unlike younger women he knew, Jenna had a full figure meant to attract men. Feeling strangely intense, Stan strode toward her and for a moment, only a single moment, he forgot to bar the thoughts bombarding his brain.
Like a clap of thunder, Jenna's nervousness struck him, but at the same time, giddy excitement rippled ... and clear as a bell, he saw what she saw: him naked, sweaty, fucking-
Staggered, Stan drew up short. Her thoughts were so incredibly vivid that his jaw clenched and his stomach bottomed out on a rage of sexual desire.
Watching him, Jenna licked her lips and smoothed her skirt with visible uneasiness. "Stan? Are you all right?"
Incredible. She looked innocently concerned when Stan knew good and well what she'd been thinking. About him.
Why had she never let on?
As he continued to stand there, staring hard, absorbing her wanton musings, she laughed. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Her thoughts were so evident to him, he saw them with the same color and clarity of a moving picture. Her stomach was quivering, deep inside her, down low ... Jesus. Out of self-preservation and to prevent a boner, Stan attempted to block her thoughts. Muscles tight, he took a step back, distancing himself physically as well as mentally.
It didn't help. Sensation continued to roll over him with the effect of a tactile stroke. "Nothing's wrong." Except that he was suddenly turned on and they were in a public place and he had an interview to do any second now.
Her smile faltered. Her gaze skimmed down his body, over his crotch, then jerked upward again. "It's probably the heat, then."
He hadn't suffered an unwanted erection since his teen years!
As casual and natural as ever, pretending she hadn't noticed the bulge in his jeans, she breezed out of the aisle and strode past him. Buttons marched up the front of her dress, from the hem to a scooped neck, and she'd left several undone all the way to her knees. With her long stride, the dress fanned out around her, showing smooth, shapely calves and a sexy ankle bracelet. "Would you like something to drink? I've just made lemonade. Or we have tea, of course."
Lemonade? No, he wanted her. Right now. Maybe on the counter or up against one of the book aisles. Watching the sensual sway of that sweet behind, he almost missed her panicked thought. Oh, God. Did he see me looking at him?
He soaked in her response to him-and knew that he'd have to have her. Soon. Tonight if he could manage it. Hell, if she'd shown even the slightest interest, they'd already be intimately involved. But she hadn't. She kept her attraction to him private, so private that if it weren't for the blue moon, the second full moon this hot July, he still wouldn't have a clue.
She glanced over her shoulder, innocence personified. "Stan?"
Oh, she was good. "Tea." He drew a calming breath and said belatedly, "Thanks."
How should he proceed? They weren't teenagers. Hell, at forty, it had been a long time since he'd done any serious flirting. Before leaving Chicago, he'd known several women who wanted no more than he did-a good time with someone safe, and no commitments.
When they wanted him, they let him know. Or vice versa. There was no mind reading, no guessing, no need to use his rather rusty skills at wooing.
But that was before he'd moved to Delicious. Before he'd met Jenna. Before he'd even really known what he wanted.
Now he knew.
Jenna was different from other women, certainly different from the women he'd been with in the past. She was the commitment type. She'd been married, and by what he'd heard from the gossiping denizens of Delicious, her marriage had been a very happy one.
Watching while she poured tea into a tall glass of ice, Stan cautiously approached. Jenna always kept fresh drinks and cookies for the neighbors who visited her store. Book shopping at The Nook was more like visiting a favored relative, one who pampered you and made you feel special.
Everyone spoke to her, spilling out ailments and troubles or sharing news good or bad. And when Jenna listened, you got the feeling she really cared. When she said, "How are you?" she meant it.
Did she care about him?
If he kept listening to her very sexual thoughts, he'd end up climbing over the counter to show her just how hot the reality would be. Knowing she wouldn't like that, he tried distracting himself. "Where's the reporter?"
Jenna drew a deep breath, and no way in hell could he not notice that. Even nearing the big Four-Oh, she still had one of the best racks he'd ever seen. Her breasts were heavy, but suited her sturdy frame. She wasn't a frail woman, but rather one with meat on her bones. Shapely in the extreme, sexy as hell.... His gaze zeroed in on her chest and got stuck there.
"He, ah, ran to the drugstore to buy new batteries. He should be here in just a few minutes."
Stan's gaze lifted and locked with hers. Sensation crackled between them. His awareness of her as a sexual woman ratcheted up another notch. Even without hearing her thoughts, what she wanted from him, with him, would be obvious to any red-blooded male. Heat blazed in her eyes and flushed her cheeks. A pulse fluttered in her pale throat. Her lips parted ...
Amazing. A mom of two, a quiet bookworm, a woman who remained circumspect in every aspect of her life-and she lusted after him with all this wanton creativity.
Not since the skill had first come to him when he was a kid of twelve, twenty-eight years ago, had Stan so appreciated the strange effect the blue moon had on him. It started with the waxing Gibbous, then expanded and increased as the moon became full, and began to abate with the waning Gibbous. But at midnight, when the moon was most full, the ability was so clean, so acute, that it used to scare him.
His parents didn't know. The one time he'd tried to tell them they'd freaked out, thinking he was mental or miserable or having some kind of psychosis. He'd retrenched and never mentioned it to them again.
When he was twenty and away at college, he signed up for a course on parapsychology. One classmate who specialized in the effects of the moon gave him an explanation that made sense. At least in part.
According to his friend, wavelengths of light came from a full moon and that affected his inner pathogens. With further studies, Stan had learned that different colors of lights caused varying emotional reactions in people. It made sense that the light of a full moon, twice in the same month, could cause effects.
In him, it heightened his sixth sense to the level that he could hear other people's tedious inner musings.
Now he could hear, feel, Jenna's most private yearnings, and for once he appreciated his gift. Nothing tedious in being wanted sexually. Especially when the level of want bordered on desperate.
She needed a good lay. She needed him.
He wanted to oblige her. Damn, did he want to oblige her.
Casually, Stan moved closer to her until he invaded her space, and her alarm thumped louder with every beat of her heart. He left himself wide open to her, relishing each tingle she felt, absorbing each small shiver of excitement-and letting it excite him in return. He no longer cared that he had a near-lethal erection.
Reaching out, he brushed the side of his thumb along her jawline, up and over her downy cheek, tickling the dangling earrings that suddenly seemed damn sexy. "Maybe you need the iced tea," he murmured, his attention dipping to her naked mouth. Jenna never wore lipstick, and he liked the look of her soft, full lips glistening from the glide of her tongue. Oh, yeah, he liked that a lot. "You feel ... warm, Jenna."
Her breaths came fast and uneven. "I've been ... working."
And fantasizing. About him.
Lazily, Stan continued to touch her. "Me, too. Out in the sun all day. It's so damn humid, I know I'm sweaty." His thumb stroked lower, near the corner of her mouth. "But I didn't have time to change."
Her eyelids got heavy, drooping over her green eyes. Shakily, she lifted a hand and closed it over his wrist-but she didn't push him away. "You look ... fine." Downright edible. She cleared her throat. "No reason to change."
Stan's slow smile alarmed her further. "You don't mind my jeans and clumpy boots?" He used both hands now to cup her face, relishing the velvet texture of her skin. "They're such a contrast to you, all soft and pretty and fresh."
Her eyes widened, dark with confusion and curbed excitement, searching his. He leaned forward, wanting her mouth, needing to know her taste-
The bell over the door chimed.
Jenna jerked away so quickly, she left Stan holding air. Face hot, she ducked to the back of the store and into the storage room, closing the door softly behind her.
Well, hell. He'd probably rushed things, Stan realized, aware of her exaggerated embarrassment. But holding back had been impossible. Especially with her desire so clear to him-giving permission to his desire, leaving the way wide open for some mutual satisfaction.
With her in another room and the reporter looming, Stan's focus on Jenna was diluted. He caught the garbled mental intrusion from the reporter and blocked it.
Teeming with frustration, he readjusted himself within the confines of his stiff jeans and then faced the reporter, who luckily had his attention on his recorder as he snapped in batteries. "Sorry I'm late," he called out without looking up. "Batteries died."
The sooner he got the interview over, the sooner he could get back to Jenna. Stan strode forward. "No problem, but let's make it quick, if you don't mind. I have a lot to do today."
From behind her counter, Jenna Rowan watched Stan on the pretense of listening to the interview. Stan might be a renowned landscaper, author of several best-selling gardening books, and an expert businessman now featured on the local radio station every Saturday morning, but it was his colorful past that made him a favorite among the media.
For years, Stan Tucker had wavered in and out of trouble. As a much younger man, he'd narrowly missed spending time in jail. He'd been married and divorced, a celebrated playboy, and now ... he planted flowers.
Jenna sighed softly. She had no doubt Stan could retire comfortably, but his extreme energy level forced him to always do something, to be active, in the sun, sweating, working his muscles ...
Oh, she knew what he could do with her-if only he were interested. How he'd use that energy in bed teased at her senses every time he got near. To call Stan handsome would be very misleading. He was far too raw, too rough, to be termed anything so pretty. He could appear cruel-wow. Like he did now, glancing at her with those fierce eyes as if he knew her thoughts and didn't like them one bit.
Hands shaking, Jenna pretended to straighten the paperwork behind her counter. In truth, she couldn't seem to keep him off her mind. Maybe the idea of turning forty next month had caused her hormones to go on a rampage. Or maybe three years of celibacy was three years too long. Whatever the cause, she wanted sex. Hot, gritty, sweaty sex.
She craved it, aching with the need at night in her lonely bed, unable to sleep. Whenever she daydreamed, which lately seemed to be all the time, it was Stan Tucker she saw. In his prime, he had thick but natural muscles and undeniable strength. His light brown eyes looked almost golden at times. Working in the harsh sunshine had streaked his brown hair that was usually unkempt and so sexy she wanted to touch it.
She wanted to touch him.
All over. Both of them buck naked ...
With a clatter, Stan suddenly shoved back his chair. Pulled out of her current fantasy, Jenna jumped.
Stan stared at her, all that severe attention startling her while the reporter simply waited in stunned silence.
Stalking toward her, Stan leaned in, close enough that she could feel his breath and smell the rich musky sweat of his skin. God, he was so male ...
Voice rough edged, almost desperate, he whispered, "Jenna, honey, do you think you could find something to do in the back? Or better yet, go take your lunch break."
He wanted rid of her?
Excerpted from STAR QUALITY by LORI FOSTER LUCY MONROE DIANNE CASTELL Copyright © 2005 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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