|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.41(d)|
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Blurring the Lines
Men of the Zodiac
By Marisa Cleveland, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Marisa Cleveland
All rights reserved.
Blake Whitman approached The Fresh Bean, the oldest coffeehouse in Edgewater Bay, and inhaled. If any morning called for coffee, it was today.
"I'm so sorry!"
He heard the apology a split second before a tiny terrier buzzed by him, cutting to the right and forcing him to stop his momentum.
What the — Unfortunately, another dog followed the first, and when Blake stepped to the side, his ankle caught on the leash. His foot locking in place, his upper body crashed into something soft — a girl? He gripped her bare shoulders, and as his hands tightened on her impossibly smooth skin, he angled his body so when they tumbled to the pavement in a tangle of limbs and fur, it was his back that took the fall.
They landed nose to nose. Amid the earthy smell and the unmistakable pet scent, he inhaled her, all warm and fresh and womanly, making him forget the pain shooting down his spine. All his carefully crafted Monday morning plans disappeared under the weight of the woman blinking her dark eyes and regarding him with a mixture of laughter and concern.
Something sharp — a knee — landed in his thigh.
"Oh!" Her gasp came right before an open palm pressed his face, the side of his head, his chest, as she twisted out of his arms. "Are you okay?"
She scooted back and patted his stomach, his hip — But all movement froze when her hand brushed over the zipper on his pants. With her ponytail swinging to the side, she looked down to that area and grinned, her chest rising and falling with rapid succession.
Without waiting for his answer, the woman scrambled to her feet. He'd barely had time to register her shy smile or the tempting press of her limbs. She crouched and grabbed her fallen papers, shuffling them into a disorderly stack. When he tried to sit up, a large and very shaggy dog climbed over his face, perching both paws on his stomach, tail slapping across his face. Two more culprits jumped and barked by his ear. If he moved, the dogs might bolt, and he'd hate to have to help her chase down three escaped mutts this early in the morning. He wasn't sure he could, anyway, until his back stopped aching.
Pinned in place, he watched her brush down her sundress and mutter as she retrieved the leashes. Finally, mercifully, she noticed him still on the ground, immobilized by a Bearded Collie, a Scottish Terrier, and the chocolate Labrador.
"Muffin, no!" The brunette, stuffing the pile of papers under one arm and unwrapping the knotted leashes with the other, tugged the Scottish Terrier back, only to let the first two dogs descend on him and lick him like his face was bacon. "Oh!"
Her gaze landed on his, and Blake swore through the initial shock he saw a glint of mirth. Glad she found his predicament funny ... "Uh —?"
"Don't worry, dude. Their tongues haven't been anywhere suspicious in the last hour."
Had she really just called him dude? He was thirty, not thirteen, and this was southwest Florida, not California. All concern for his person disappeared from her expression, her smile betraying her amusement. She was pretty in a fresh-faced, passion-for-life way, and he let the nickname slide.
Once she managed to pull the two largest beasts from his body, he plucked up the first offender and stood. The terrier continued to stretch its tongue toward his mouth, even after he placed the dog back on the cement.
She grinned up at him. "I tried to warn you."
That split-second apology had been her warning?
They faced each other, and he found it adorable how she struggled to maintain her balance as the dogs tugged and moved in different directions. Blake had never been so instantly aware of someone. She must have felt it, too, because he saw the slightest hint of shock in her dark eyes.
He conceded, "I guess you did."
She opened her mouth at the same time Haley, the coffeehouse manager, flew from the shop. "Mr. Whitman! Are you okay? I saw the whole thing."
"Morning, Haley. We seem to be fine, I think." He glanced at the woman still struggling to put order to the three dogs and pile of papers. "Do you need help?"
"Kira, my God, you could have killed Mr. Whitman!" Haley made a tsking noise and then held out a paper cup to him. "Here. I brought you your usual triple espresso."
The brunette frowned. "All that caffeine isn't healthy."
Had she just chided him ... a stranger? For drinking coffee? Her audacity intrigued him. Although he was tempted to debate the merits of caffeine with her, he didn't have time to spare, even for a little innocent flirtation. His real estate investment firm wouldn't run itself, and he was already late.
"Kira!" Haley's shocked gasp clicked him back to reality.
The brunette's mouth opened into an "O" and then snapped shut. She glanced at him from beneath her bangs and gave him a small grin. "I didn't mean it like it sounded."
Damn, she had a sexy mouth. He didn't take his gaze off her lips as he said, "I'm sure you didn't." He took the cup from Haley. "Thank you."
Haley beamed. "Anything for you, Mr. Whitman." She turned to Kira.
"Mr. Whitman donated five Peter Maxx paintings to the animal rescue's silent auction last spring."
"Oh. What a generous donation."
He cringed, ready for the usual stream of compliments about his generosity. When it didn't come, and she merely gave him a friendly, easygoing smile, he grinned back. He liked that she didn't go on and on about it, even though she seemed to be a real animal lover. That kind of thing embarrassed the hell of out of him.
Haley laughed. "No. I don't think you get it. This is the Blake Whitman."
"It's such a pleasure to meet you, the Blake Whitman." The brunette stuck out her hand, the one that wasn't holding the leashes, but with the flyers tucked under her arm precariously, she quickly retracted it. "I'm even sorrier I didn't stop Muffin from tripping you."
Her words sounded sincere, but amusement still flickered in her eyes. Her seeming lack of interest fascinated him. If he didn't have a major development proposal to tackle that would change the face of the downtown Edgewater Bay area, he'd probably stick around to question whether apologizing for her dogs was genuine.
"The pleasure is mine, Kira." He said her name and liked the way it sounded. He removed the cup's lid and gulped back the espresso.
"Did the brew come out okay?" Haley chewed on her lower lip.
"It's perfect," he said to her, but he couldn't drag his attention from Kira. He kept his focus on her as he reached into his pocket, retrieved a ten, and handed it to Haley. "Thanks for personally delivering it."
She slipped the bill into her apron and winked. "Anything for you."
A group of teens entered The Fresh Bean, and Haley gave an apologetic wave. "Better get in there. Looks like the morning rush is starting."
Kira faced Blake. "I really am sorry about Muffin. I hope you're okay and not just saying that to be polite."
Okay, maybe he'd read her wrong. That had sounded earnest enough. He bent down to scrub a hand over Muffin's tiny head. When the dog jumped to attention, he scooped her up with one arm and scratched her behind the ear. "This little lady? I'm glad I didn't land on her."
Kira coughed. "Him." A smile twitched at the corners of her full lips.
"You named a boy dog Muffin?"
"You sound surprised."
He stroked the top of Muffin's head. "Poor fellow."
She handed him one of the flyers pressed to her chest. "And if you have an issue with that, we're having an adopt-a-thon this weekend. Feel free to adopt him and change his name to whatever suits you."
He took the flyer with the Edgewater Animal Rescue logo. Should he tell her he'd donated more than the Peter Maxx paintings to the organization? He'd also been one of ten donors — he'd donated anonymously — to fund the first dog park at the beach.
Ridiculous. Since when had he needed a female's stamp of approval for his actions? "Okay, well, thanks for the info."
Apparently bored with the human interaction, the dogs had fallen silent and lounged on the pavement. Kira wiggled their leashes. "I better get these guys their breakfast."
Blake lifted his empty cup in farewell. "Take care."
He was a little sad to see her go. She was the most interesting woman he'd met in a while. She probably wasn't available anyway because she had a boyfriend or husband. But he hadn't seen a ring, and she'd stiffened when she'd heard his last name. Then again, maybe he'd imagined the whole attraction thing.
So why was he regretting not asking for her number?
Blake Whitman. So that was the guy. The CEO of the company her father mentioned had wanted to buy the building. She looked at The Fresh Bean storefront and the floors above it.
What would happen to the not-for-profits using the second floor as their headquarters and the pro bono lawyers working out of the community room for special projects? Where would they go? What about Haley? Would she, and all the coffeehouse staff, lose their jobs?
The brick building had been a gift from her dad to her mom, which had reverted back to her father after her mom had died. If he sold it now, her mom's vision would never come true. Everything her mom had sacrificed would be for nothing.
According to her dad, the Whitman-Madison team led the drive for redevelopment into a shiny new downtown for Edgewater Bay, but their vision clashed with her mom's idea for preserving this tract as the historic section of town. With a population topping twenty thousand, the city had experienced growth over the past two decades, and with more and more tourists flocking to the sandy beaches, everyone agreed there was a need to revitalize the area — but not everyone agreed which direction to take. A quaint, but rambling, main street had developed along the bay, and last month the city council voted on a firm — Whitman-Madison — to redefine the area. She'd read articles and heard rumors of franchises replacing local, family-owned shops, and had wondered how to stop it from happening.
Kira's chest squeezed, and her anger at Blake's company for wanting to tear down the beautiful brick building resurfaced.
It would be a shame to give up such a large piece of her mom's legacy to a real estate development company. The Whitman-Madison reputation for dollars before heart filled the front page of the business section more often than not. She didn't understand how the firm — a family-founded company — could put aside small town values in favor of corporate greed.
Kira led the dogs around back to where a makeshift gated area had been designed for them. After she opened the fence, they ran down the strip of grass to the end and back again. She hadn't been kidding about getting them breakfast, and as was her morning tradition, she spoiled whichever dogs from the rescue she happened to be walking that day to gourmet, dog-friendly treats from The Fresh Bean.
Muffin licked her ankle and she picked up the terrier, cuddling him to her. She squinted up at the back of the building.
After filling the dogs' bowls with fresh water, she stepped through the back door and made her way through the oldest coffeehouse in town. The interior lacked the modern feel of other franchised cafes, but she found it comforting that not everything old had to be replaced. Sure, the wood floors had seen better days, but the building had been her mother's brainchild to create a central location for philanthropic endeavors, and while other shops had come and gone, The Fresh Bean had continued to thrive and lease the first floor, providing enough income to cover the basic utilities for the other floors to operate.
She had to do something.
Her roommate worked for Whitman-Madison. Perhaps she could meet with this guy. Tell him about the hard work, planning, and dedication that went into forming The Bromwell. The value of the location for the nonprofits. Maybe he'd hear her out. More likely he'd be too busy.
Seeing Blake up close, and not just from newspaper pictures of society functions with some woman on his arm, reminded her of all the reasons she'd left her first job. He seemed in a rush to get to the coffee shop, gulped his drink then dashed off, probably to hurry to the office and sift through mountains of paperwork.
Yet even with his harried demeanor, Blake looked hot in his suit — like the pressure-filled job fit him. And he'd smiled — several times — at her and picked up Muffin, despite all the fur the dog left on his jacket, so he might not be so cold-hearted after all. Unless she read him wrong, he'd been interested in her. Not enough to ask for her number, but he might listen to a concerned resident about saving the building.
After all, she was a smart, independent woman. Why couldn't she tempt him into changing his mind — and maybe getting him to ask for her number?CHAPTER 2
Blake arrived at the office with the intriguing Kira still on his mind.
His secretary Margie stood as he approached her desk. She fidgeted with the notepad in her hand and then handed him several phone messages that he scanned.
"Please put these on my calendar to call back this afternoon. I'm determined to get through at least a quarter of this contract" — he held up his briefcase — "before my eight thirty."
"This came by certified mail."
He tore open the package she indicated and pulled out a rather thick contract. After reading the cover and introduction, he swore and looked at the date and time stamp. Twenty minutes ago. When he'd been wrangling rescue mutts instead of reviewing properties.
"Sorry. This means another late night."
She rolled her eyes. "What's new?"
Blake thought he heard her mutter something under her breath, but he ignored it and gave her a curt nod. "Excellent. Tell Tyler I'll need him, too, please." It wouldn't hurt to have their CIO on hand to handle the technical terminology.
Margie gripped her coffee mug, reminding Blake of his morning encounter with Kira and her dogs. His secretary's lips moved slightly as she continued to stare blankly at him, and he thought he heard her counting to ten before she blinked and shot him her usual close-mouthed smile. "Whatever you say, boss."
Her tone caught his attention. "You won't be alone, Margie. I'll be here, too."
"You always are."
He had no response to his secretary's shockingly flippant answer, but he didn't dictate when the head of a major information systems manufacturing firm would spare time to listen to Whitman-Madison's most recent pitch for commercial expansion.
Masking his irritation, he said, "Thank you."
Margie nodded. "I'll let Tyler know. Also, I'll hold all calls and let you know when your eight thirty arrives."
"Excellent. Thank you." Blake entered his corner office, placed his briefcase on the floor, and sank into his chair. Then, he swiveled around and stared out the window. His office faced the south part of the bay. If he had his younger brother, Keith's, office, overlooking the city, he might be able to see The Fresh Bean building. He frowned. One more thing that needed his attention on his already overloaded plate. Kira's flyer crinkled in his pocket, and he tossed it into the wooden tray amid the stack of other important items.
Two pages into the second section of the contract from the city council, a commotion sounded outside his door, but he ignored it. If they needed him, Margie would know to interrupt. A couple more muffled sounds, a sharp clicking of heels on the hardwood floors, and then silence. It was too quiet. With a heavy sigh, he opened the door.
Darcy, his brother's secretary, stood with her hand raised to knock. "Blake, Keith would like to speak with you."
Regretting yet another disruption, he checked the clock then strode into Keith's office and shut the door.
Keith opened a drawer and removed a tie. "Your secretary quit. That's the tenth one this year."
Blake stared at his younger brother. He'd thought she was fine. Why did she go to Keith to quit and not tell him? He sighed. "So, Margie quit. Doesn't surprise me. I asked her to stay late tonight, and she seemed put out. She knows my schedule."
"This doesn't look good. We need to discuss our image."
"You're twenty-five, VP for a multi-million dollar real estate investment firm, and since you started three years ago, you've had the same secretary. Your image is fine."
Keith tossed a tabloid across the desk at Blake. New Doesn't Always Mean Better. The article expounded on the latest endeavor at Whitman-Madison, a shiny, new downtown for Edgewater Bay, and pulled no punches in calling CEO Blake a man concerned only with profit.
Excerpted from Blurring the Lines by Marisa Cleveland, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2015 Marisa Cleveland. 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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