New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter returns with an irresistible Original Heartbreakers story about a woman who’s never felt desired and the man who wants her more than air to breathe…
Bullied in high school, Dorothea Mathis’s past is full of memories she’d rather forget. But there’s one she can’t seem to shake—her long-standing crush on former army ranger Daniel Porter. Now that the sexy bad boy has started using her inn as his personal playground, she should kick him out…but his every heated glance makes her want to join him instead.
Daniel returned to Strawberry Valley, Oklahoma, to care for his ailing father and burn off a little steam with no strings attached. Though he craves curvy Dorothea night and day, he’s as marred by his past as she is by hers. The more he desires her, the more he fears losing her.
But every sizzling encounter leaves him desperate for more, and soon Daniel must make a choice: take a chance on love or walk away forever.
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Can't Hardly Breathe
By Gena Showalter
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2017 Gena Showalter
All rights reserved.
Dorothea Mathis studied the last room on her cleanup schedule and groaned. The bed had been wrecked, the comforter and pillows tossed haphazardly on the floor. A pair of panties hung from a bedpost. The TV remote had been busted, the pieces scattered across the nightstand. Wet towels created a path to the bathroom door, and the trash can ...
Oh, gag me! The trash can contained used condoms.
The place needed to be decontaminated by people wearing hazmat suits.
Am I up to date on my vaccinations?
With a sigh, Dorothea anchored earbuds in place, keyed up her iPod and donned a pair of latex gloves. One — germs. Gross! Two — she was protective of the green nail polish she'd applied only that morning.
She selected color based on mood. Green = irritated.
Somehow she'd known today would suck balls.
Her mom must have checked in Mr. and Ms. Pigsty last night after Dorothea had gone to bed. Since she had a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call, she tended to hit the sack by 9:00 p.m. Granny hours, her sister Holly liked to tell her.
Dorothea picked up the dirty towels, removed the panties from the post, emptied the trash, changed the sheets on the bed, straightened the pillows and covers, and tossed the remote remains, planning to bill the Pigstys for a new one.
Time was limited this morning. She'd promised to drive her mother into the city in ... crap! Less than an hour. She rushed through dusting and began vacuuming. As the machine swallowed dirt and debris, she tried not to envy her mother. Carol would soon be enjoying her fourth "singles retreat" of the year. Her fourth, but certainly not her last. She stayed at the Michaelson, a five-star hotel owned by the richest guy in Strawberry Valley, Dane Michaelson. Dane was married to a local girl Dorothea had gone to school with, and he allowed Carol to stay free of charge. No doubt about it, she took full advantage, attending speed-dating sessions, mixers and a plethora of themed parties.
Her busy love life was just one of the many reasons she'd given the Strawberry Inn to Dorothea.
The wheels on her cart suddenly squeaked, the sound louder than her music. Yanking out the earbuds, she spun.
Surprise expelled the air from her lungs, leaving her gasping. This so wasn't happening right now.
It couldn't be happening.
Nightmares didn't really come to life. Nor did pornos. Not that she watched those ... very often. But dang it, this had to be one or the other.
The sexiest man on the planet had just strode into the room. He was shirtless, sweat glistening on his eight pack — and his name was Daniel Porter.
The Daniel. The childhood crush she'd never forgotten. The first boy to break her already fragile heart.
She gulped. What was he doing here?
Wait. Like she really needed to ponder this one. Welcome back, Mr. Pigsty.
Her hands trembled as she yanked the vacuum cord from the electrical socket, the room descending into silence as the engine died.
I think you're perfect just the way you are.
She smoothed her trembling hands down her "uniform," a pair of blue scrubs that could take a licking and keep on ticking. "Uh, hi. Hello." Oh, wow. Could she be any lamer? Definitely in a nightmare, not a porno. "Welcome back."
He pulled the earbuds from his ears and gifted her with a small smile that failed to hide the lines of strain around his mouth. "Sorry about the mess. I planned to clean up before I checked out." His gaze darted throughout the room, and he cringed. "I also plan to pay for the remote."
What kind of sexual acrobatics had placed the poor remote in harm's path, anyway?
Oh, my stars. A warm flush poured over Dorothea. In danger of overheating! She almost fanned her cheeks for relief, barely stopped herself.
Look away! She tried, she really did, but Daniel was just so freaking beautiful. He was even taller now, and stronger, with a rough, tough face. His cheekbones were sharp, and his nose boasted a small notch in the center. Been broken a time or two? Dark stubble dusted his angular jaw, though the shadows couldn't disguise the fine tracery of scars on his left cheek.
He was a modern day warrior — literally. After high school, he'd joined the army, defending the country he loved.
This wasn't the first time Dorothea had seen him since his return to town a few months ago, but her body reacted as if she'd never seen any man, heating and tingling in all the naughtiest places.
Act naturally. He's just a customer.
A customer who'd wrecked a room during his most recent stay. An-n-nd he was waiting for her to respond to his offer.
Let's do this. "Yes, thank you. Payment would be appreciated." She wound the vacuum cord around her arm, her motions clipped. "As for the room, I just need to tidy the bathroom, and I'll be done."
With his back to her, he stuffed his toiletries into an overnight bag. "I'll get out of your way, then."
During his senior year of high school, he hadn't just slept with Madison Clark; he'd slept with a string of beautiful, popular girls, as if banging-and-bailing had finally been dubbed a national sport.
Good thing Dorothea hadn't pursued him. He would have taken all her firsts and discarded her like garbage.
Instead, Jazz Connors had taken all her firsts and discarded her like garbage.
Anger boiled her blood until bitterness swept in, leaving a glaze of frost. Fire and ice. This wasn't the first time they'd battled it out, and this wouldn't be the last. The biggest downside? They ensured the wounds inside her hollowed-out chest never really had a chance to heal.
After graduation, she'd moved to the big, bad city, enrolled in the University of Oklahoma's meteorology program, met Jazz and gotten hitched, just as she'd always dreamed ... only to return home several years later with a divorce and no degree.
A washed up has-been by the age of twenty-four.
Daniel, having served multiple tours of duty, had come back a hero.
His life had meaning, hers didn't. He and two of his friends had started a security company right here in Strawberry Valley. He took care of his ailing father, and in his free time he dated a plethora of city girls.
Dorothea knew about the girls, because he'd stayed at the inn every time a date had ended ... successfully.
Her flush returned full force as she considered the other five rooms he'd wrecked since his return ... all the pleasure he'd been having ... all the pleasure she wished she could experience.
Not with him, of course. With someone she liked and respected. Someone who liked and respected her, too, despite the fact that she was still too round for society's unhealthy standards, a lot too freckled, and trapped in a dead-end job.
Daniel Porter would never qualify.
Dorothea found him attractive, yes, but to her, appearance would never outshine personality.
My man must be my equal. She had a lot of love to give. She'd even grown to like herself ... kind of. Maybe. Fine, she was trying to like herself.
Avoiding Daniel's gaze, she said, "No, you stay. I'll go." Words her mother had drilled into her shouted inside her head: the customer comes first. "I'll finish your room later." She rolled the vacuum toward her cart.
"You live here, right?" he asked. "You own the inn?"
"I ... yes." Technically she lived in the attic. The more rooms she had available for guests, the more money she would make. At least in theory.
Money was the number one reason she cleaned the pigsties herself, rather than hiring a maid. She was saving her pennies to turn every plain, ordinary room into a themed paradise. Then Strawberry Valley residents would happily pay to stay just for fun.
Again, in theory.
So far she'd decided on six themes. (1) Four seasons — the weather, not the hotel chain. (2) An enchanted forest. (3) A techno dance club. (4) The underwater world of Atlantis. (5) A royal palace. And (6) an inner sanctum, aka a superhero's wet dream.
Also up for consideration? A beach hut, an igloo, an insane asylum for her more daring patrons and a desert oasis.
With twenty-three rooms in total, she needed other ideas fast. And more money. A lot more money.
Maybe, when the transformations were completed, the feeling of accomplishment would finally chase away her anger and bitterness. Maybe she would feel alive. Happy.
"If any part of your stay was subpar," she said, "I will personally —"
"No, everything has been great." He looked over his shoulder and winked at her. "Just wanted to make sure you weren't going to get into trouble with the boss."
Every pulse point in her body leaped with excitement. He'd winked at her. Her!
I think you're perfect just the way you are.
Red alert! She would not read more into his words than he'd intended. Not this time. He was a flirt, plain and simple. Always had been, apparently always would be.
"Why would I get in trouble?" she asked.
"For not finishing the room."
Oh. Right. "Well, as long as you plan to come back to the inn, I won't fire myself. Not because I'm desperate to see you or anything," she added in a rush. "I'm not." Dang it! "I mean, I'm always glad to see you here. I mean, I just want your money." Okay. Enough!
He laughed, his amber eyes twinkling.
Air caught in her throat and sizzled. He had the sexiest laugh on the planet. His entire face softened. He pulsed with new life; fresh and vibrant, he was the epitome of spring.
Then he frowned, as if he couldn't believe he'd found humor in, well, anything.
Her brow furrowed with confusion. Why the doom and gloom?
"In that case," he said, his tone flat, "I think I'll stay another night."
"Really?" She licked her lips. "What about your girlfriend?"
He stiffened. "She isn't my —"
"No, don't tell me. I'm sorry I asked. Your love life isn't my business."
"I live in Strawberry Valley. My love life is everyone's business."
His wry tone made her chuckle, and he stiffened all over again. Great. What had she done wrong this time?
"I'll be alone tonight," he said, looking anywhere but at her. "Apparently I hover over my dad when I'm home, so he's asked for another night off. But I swear to you, this room will be clean in the morning."
She snorted. "I'll believe it when I see it."
The corners of his mouth twitched. "Doubting Dottie." A pause, then, "Would you like a cup of coffee before you go?"
"Oh, uh, no, thank you." While she no longer viewed Daniel through the wounded eyes of high school betrayal — he'd been a nice boy doing a nice thing for a vulnerable girl in desperate need of a white knight — she'd endured too much heartbreak over the years to risk getting to know him better and reigniting her crush.
Look at the way she'd reacted to him already.
He appeared ... disappointed? No, of course not. A trick of the light, surely. "Well. See you around, Daniel."
"Yeah. See you around, Dottie." He returned his attention to his toiletry bag, dismissing her.
Irritation had her snapping, "My name is Dorothea."
Before he could respond, she stepped into the hall and closed the door with a soft snick. Hands trembling, she hooked the vacuum to the cart and rolled the cargo to the supply room ... where her younger sister Holly was smoking a cigarette.
Coughing, Dorothea claimed the cigarette and stubbed the tip into an ashtray.
"Hey!" Eighteen-year-old Holly glared at her. "I wasn't done."
"You mean you weren't done giving our guests lung cancer and stinking up the inn?"
"Exactly." Ever the smart aleck, Holly tossed a piece of gum in her mouth and popped a bubble in Dorothea's face. "Besides, we don't really have guests, now, do we? Since you took over, only four people have stayed here. Mayor Trueman and his side slice, and Daniel Porter and whatever bimbo he happens to be banging."
Not true! A few months ago, Dorothea had hired Harlow Glass, and everyone in town had rented a room to witness the former bully's downfall.
Dorothea hadn't wanted to like Harlow, but dang it, something bad had happened to the girl in the years since high school, and she'd changed. More than that, Harlow had done everything in her power to make amends, and eventually Dorothea had warmed up to her.
Now the beautiful brunette was married to reformed playboy Beck Ockley. The happy couple expected their first child in a few months.
A razor-sharp pang cut through Dorothea. Won't think about my own —
Nope. Slam the breaks.
To ward off the oncoming pity party, she drew in a deep breath ... slowly released it ... Good, that was good.
She focused on her sister. Holly had pinned back the sides of her jet-black hair, the remaining locks tumbling all the way to metal links anchored around her biceps. She'd paired a crimson corset top — her first pop of color in months — with a ruffled black skirt, ripped fishnet stockings, and combat boots caked with mud Dorothea would have to clean from the floors.
In a town as small as Strawberry Valley, Oklahoma, Holly was a legend. Unique.
"My inn, my rules," Dorothea said. "No smoking. Ever." Besides, she suspected the teenager only ever lit up to aggravate her. Not once had Dorothea witnessed an actual puff.
"You're worse than a Mogwai that's been fed after midnight."
A Gremlins reference? Seriously?
"No wonder Jazz left you," her sister added.
Air hissed between her teeth. Holly might hate her guts, but the teenager loved to insult her, and this barb hit harder than most.
Rather than waiting for love, as Dorothea had dreamed, she'd settled for companionship, marrying the first guy to pay attention to her. Worse, she'd believed his words rather than his actions. I adore you and only want what's best for you ... for us.
Jazz Connors had been a master at manipulation. He'd cajoled and charmed ... and then he'd cheated.
Holly had no idea. To this day, she idolized him and blamed Dorothea for the split. And that was the way Dorothea preferred it. The girl distrusted too many men already. Starting with their snake of a dad!
When Joe Mathis divorced their mother to marry his side slice, as Holly liked to say, he'd cut all ties with his daughters. Dorothea had been hurt, but Holly ... she'd cried herself to sleep for weeks.
Carol had shut down so completely, Dorothea was ultimately forced to step up and act as both mother and father. A role she'd played until the day she moved to the city.
Biggest mistake of my life.
She'd promised to stay in constant contact, but every time she'd visited, every time she'd called, Holly had treated her like, well, this. Insults and rancor had abounded.
Eventually Dorothea stopped coming around, and even stopped calling, unwilling to deal with a new bombardment of vitriol ... not realizing until too late that young Holly had interpreted her move as yet another rejection.
Now Dorothea longed to repair their broken relationship without damaging her sister's perception of Jazz. The two were like siblings. Loving siblings.
Jazz called Dorothea at least once a week to report the things Holly texted him — and also to beg Dorothea to give their marriage another chance.
He missed her worship and adoration, nothing more.
After saying "I do," he'd somehow — and easily — convinced her to drop out of school, work two jobs and support him until he graduated. That way, he could get a job at a news station and one day become the state's premier meteorologist. Then Dorothea could return to school. And after she graduated, Jazz would do her a favor and recommend her to his boss.
I'm such a fool. He'd finished school and gotten a job, no problem. But before she could return to school, he'd also gotten his side slice.
"Jazz and I didn't love each other," she finally said, whisper-soft. "Love is the difference between success and failure."
"Love is a myth," Holly said, her tone as dry as the last two Oklahoma summers. She arched a brow, the silver hoop pierced at the edge glinting in the light. "Sex is what makes or breaks a relationship."
Excerpted from Can't Hardly Breathe by Gena Showalter. Copyright © 2017 Gena Showalter. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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