Read an Excerpt
West Of Bliss
By Suzann Ledbetter
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Chapter One"Will you marry me?"
The flickering candles and strings of tiny twinkle lights illuminating the banquet room pinwheeled and seemed to retreat. Three other couples sharing the parquet dance floor and the hundred-some guests seated at tables vanished into a perceptual black hole.
Hannah Garvey forgot to breathe. Mesmerized by the sensuous sway of waltzing in the arms of the man she loved, she couldn't comprehend the shift from what had sounded like small talk to him asking her to be his wife.
David Hendrickson's six-foot-three-inch, broadshouldered build was born to wear a sheriff's uniform and made for a jet-black, satin-lapelled tuxedo. Laugh lines fanned eyes aged well beyond his thirty-six years. Tonight the irises were a clear, off-duty blue, without a trace of gray.
A stunned, disbelieving Hannah gazed into them. She felt as though she were aboard a high-speed elevator, rocketing from parking-garage level to the penthouse suite. The music's last stanza faded con amore. "Marry you?" she said. "But we haven't even had sex yet."
David's head angled a fraction. Realizing that what she'd blurted and what he'd heard were one and the same, his mouth curved into a lazy grin. "Well, sugar. You can't say we haven't tried."
His tone implied a willingness to remedy numerous episodes of coitus interruptus right there and then, in front of God and everybody - namely, the guests attending Leo andRosemary Schnur's wedding reception, the bride, the groom, their families, the minister, the catering staff, the four-piece combo providing musical entertainment, and anyone else drawn to Valhalla Springs' community center by orgasmic moans on the wind.
The band swung into "Some Enchanted Evening." More dancers streamed onto the floor. David and Hannah stood motionless, vaguely aware of perfumes, after-shave lotions and the swish of spring-colored dresses and sports coats in orbit around them.
His lips brushed hers. "Do you love me?" A montage scrolled through her mind. David's body, slick and glistening, the morning they'd almost made love in a steamy, hot shower. The grief and guilt that contorted his face the night he was forced to take another man's life or lose his own. His head thrown back, laughing at the sky as he swung her around in a wildflowered meadow. His palm raised to deliver the Special Junior Deputy oath of office to an awestruck, six-year-old boy.
The only response Hannah could muster was a wobbly nod.
"I love you, David...." The hand at her waist glided upward. Fingertips skimmed her velvet gown, the nape of her neck, then parted the waves in her hair. His kiss was slow and sweet. His tongue caressed hers, daring her to believe in forever.
"Tell me again," he said. "This time, without any buts tagging along behind it."
Another I love you wasn't enough. He wanted an unqualified Yes, David. I'll marry you.
Hannah glanced at the bride and groom. Leo, a retired insurance executive, and Rosemary, a grandmother of six, bumped bellies as they danced. Their courtship had been whirlwind. Leo's proposal had been as swift and sure as Rosemary's acceptance.
At their engagement breakfast, she'd told Hannah how rare it was to find true, abiding love once in a lifetime, let alone twice. "When what you want is right in front of you, what's the sense in waiting to have it?"
If only it were that simple. Few things had been since the afternoon Hannah rolled her Blazer to a halt outside Valhalla Springs' brick-and-wrought-iron gates. From the dashboard speakers, Janis Joplin defined freedom as nothing left to lose. Hannah had squinted through the bugsplattered windshield and wondered whether the song was a rallying cry or a requiem.
At the drop of an inter-office memo, she'd downsized herself from a twenty-five-year career at Friedlich & Friedlich, a prestigious Chicago advertising agency. A future ripe with possibilities but devoid of income was beginning to sound Marxist, when Jack Clancy offered her a job managing his central Missouri Ozarks retirement community.
Jack, a longtime client and dear friend, was desperate to fill the position. Hannah told him she knew more about nuclear fission than she did about property management, had no desire to learn and wasn't about to waste a perfectly good midlife crisis playing bingo with a bunch of geezers.
What she'd wasted was her breath. Jack had leveraged his Saint Louis-based construction company into a premier, resort-development firm. Any entrepreneur who could transform worthless desert acreage into a tropical paradise could sell the sultan of Brunei a used Buick.
She'd expected the transition from corporate fast track to the Ozarks' famed, laid-back lifestyle to be a little disorienting, but a second chance to leave her past behind and start fresh in a new place was exciting. Invigorating. Lusciously self-indulgent.
And it had been, for approximately forty-eight hours. Then a retired schoolteacher was brutally murdered, Hannah and David's mutual distrust escalated to mutual lust, and Jack Clancy's mother got busted for distributing marijuana to her Every-Other-Tuesday Bridge Club.
The pace picked up a bit the second week. Hell and high water. That's how David described their emotional roller-coaster ride. It was apt and not all negative, although homicide, felonious assaults, and the willful destruction of private property had been as central to their relationship as resisting the urge to have one.
"I'm not an impulsive man," David said, bringing Hannah back to the present.
"No, you aren't."
"Leo and Rosemary's wedding was beautiful, but it didn't inspire anything."
Hannah smiled. "Bull."
David's eyebrows crooked into upside-down check marks. "Beg pardon?"
"I know a conspiracy when I'm in the middle of one." She struggled to look stern. "Me, Cinderella bridesmaid. You, the surprise Prince Charming groomsman in an ooh-baby-ooh tuxedo."
His grin reappeared at the compliment. "I can see where that might arouse your suspicions."
Everything David said or did aroused something. It was a gift. Hannah wrenched her train of thought from the depths of unrelieved horniness. "Then you escorted me to the only table for two in the place, twitched your nose and, allakazam, the band struck up 'Could I Have This Dance.'"
"I don't twitch, Miz Garvey."
"I don't believe in coincidence, Sheriff."
He chuckled low in his throat. "I may have taken advantage of an opportunity, but there were extenuating circumstances."
Excerpted from West Of Bliss by Suzann Ledbetter
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.