Close Up (Harlequin Blaze Series #817)

Close Up (Harlequin Blaze Series #817)

by Erin McCarthy

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback - Original)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780373798216
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 09/16/2014
Series: Harlequin Blaze Series , #817
Edition description: Original
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

USA Today and New York Times Bestselling author Erin McCarthy first published in 2002 and has since written almost fifty novels and novellas in teen fiction, new adult, and adult romance. Erin is a RITA finalist and the ALA Reluctant Young Reader award recipient. See www.erinmccarthy.net for latest releases or follow her on Twitter: @authorerin.

Read an Excerpt

"If the good Lord intended us to be naked, clothes wouldn't have been invented."

Kristine Zimmerman felt the urge to laugh, but restrained herself, shifting her phone from her right ear to her left as she surveyed the tables being set up for that Friday night's art exhibit at Collective, the gallery that had just hired her as their events coordinator. "Mom, there are plenty of valid occasions for human beings to be naked." She could think of at least three without even trying.

Her mother wasn't sold. "Even Adam and Eve wore fig leaves. Why don't they wear fig leaves in those pictures? Or better yet, those girls should have some boy shorts on. Boy shorts are cute."

Given that her mother couldn't see her, Kristine felt free to give a generous eye roll. It would be a bit counterproductive for the world-renowned mass nude photographer, Ian Bainbridge, to cover his volunteer models in undies. "The photographer is not doing an Adam and Eve exhibit. The nudity is intentional to make a statement about the lack of humanity in corporations."

"It's objectifying women," was her mother's firm opinion. "You need to quit this job."

Kristine was no longer amused. "No. I am not quitting this job." She nodded as the caterer, who was setting up the tables with three staff members, held up white tablecloths for her approval. Normally setup wouldn't occur three days in advance, but Kristine wanted everything perfect. She wanted the opportunity to see the gallery ready for the event, and make adjustments without the pressure of guests arriving in a matter of hours. This event was her probation period with this job. If it went well, her boss would know she had hired the right person, despite Kristine's less than remarkable résumé.

At twenty-nine years old, Kristine had virtually nothing to show for the past decade of her life. No money, no retirement fund, no significant other, no highly sought-after skills or talents, and a boatload of student loan debt for a degree she'd never finished. This job was her chance to settle down into a routine, to prove she was a grown-up, finally. Her days of wandering aimlessly from one bad choice to another were behind her, and she was determined to move forward with her life.

Which was why she had also finally shelled out her last bit of savings to draw up divorce papers for Sean, the man she had impulsively married at the age of nineteen and shared a passionate and volatile six months with, before their relationship had imploded. They had parted in anger, but had never filed for divorce. Initially, she had been too upset to deal with the paperwork, and then as the years slid by, it had always seemed that she had something better to spend her hard-earned money on. It had also just been easier to let cobwebs collect on those emotions than disturb them. Apparently, Sean had felt the same way, because he had never contacted her for a divorce, either, even though Kristine knew for a fact he was now a highly successful businessman and money was not an object.

It wasn't until a few months ago, when Kristine had started dating George, a guy she'd thought she could really grow to care for, only to be dumped unceremoniously when a month into seeing each other he had found out she was still legally married. He had considered it dishonest and revealing that she hadn't severed those ties, and he had washed his hands of her. Given that a divorce could be obtained on the internet for a few hundred bucks had made her consider the fact that George had a valid point or two.

She was still holding on to Sean, consciously or not. He had been the first stable force in her life, and the last, and somewhere in the back of her mind, she had been treating him as a safety net.

Which was ridiculous. Why would Sean want anything to do with her now, ten years down the road?

The realization that she needed to move forward with her life and truly stand on her own two feet had hit her full force. She had packed up and moved back to her hometown of Minneapolis from Las Vegas to deal with her past before she could proceed with her future.

That past unfortunately included her mother, Ebbe Zimmerman, who was, and always had been, an eccentric. Over the years, Ebbe had worked to save the whales, put warning labels on rap records, become vegetarian, then vegan, then carnivorous again, had tried her hand at raising alpacas and baking cakes—on the same farm—and had fought for a variety of worthy causes for women's rights. But whereas in her younger years her feminist lean had been toward equal pay for women, she was now hell-bent on shutting down every strip club, burlesque show and art exhibit featuring nudity she came across. Kristine figured her mother had a right to protest whatever she wanted, and most of the time she sympathized with her causes.

But not when it involved tasteful photography that in itself was a protest of corporate greed, something else her mother despised.

And especially not when her mother's actions potentially threatened her job, given that Ebbe was known for stating her opinions with a lot of pomp and circumstance. And spray paint.

"Well, I can't be silent about this," her mother said firmly. "I'm going to stage a protest this weekend at the opening."

Damn it. Kristine strode quickly in her heels to the back storeroom, where the caterers couldn't overhear her. "Mother, don't you dare. I am begging you, if you love me, do not make a scene. This is my place of employment!"

"So you would have me compromise my principles so you can rake in some greenbacks from porn distributors?"

That was a leap of epic proportions. Art with consenting adult models did not equate to porn. There was literally no reasoning with the woman, and Kristine did not have time for this. "I need this job or I will be forced to move in with you, and God knows, neither of us wants that. So save the protests for social media, okay? Because if you show up here Friday and destroy this opening night, I will lose my job and I will never speak to you ever again, even while I'm sharing your apartment."

Hardball was the only way to play the game with Ebbe. Otherwise, she would do exactly what she wanted, with no thought to the consequences for those around her.

"What kind of daughter threatens her own mother?" Ebbe sniffed on the other end of the phone.

"One whose mother threatens to get her fired. Now I will talk to you later. Love you." Despite knowing she would pay for it, Kristine ended the call without saying goodbye.

Tossing her phone onto the desk, she grabbed the sign, which was going to be placed on an easel at the front of the gallery, and pushed her way back into the main room. She was about to speak to the caterer when she realized there were people by the front door. Two men, in suits.

One looked familiar. Very familiar. Ten years hadn't eradicated the knowledge of his muscular body, his narrow face and dark hair, despite the power suit. She knew every single inch of this man, every expression, every gesture, the touch of his hands, his lips, his tongue. Among other things.

He strode toward her and her mouth heated. Her breath caught. Her knees wobbled.

It was Sean, the only man she had ever been in love with.

Her husband.

Sean Maddock hadn't been confronted with this many naked bodies at once since a tequila-fueled skinny-dipping party in college. Unlike then, he was stone-cold sober this time around, but fortunately, or unfortunately, however you chose to feel about it, these were not flesh and blood partygoers, but nude photographs. A lot of them. In enormous proportions. With dozens and dozens of people in each shot, so that everywhere Sean turned, he caught a breast or a backside or an eyeful of man junk.

Damn. It was a lot to take in at two in the afternoon.

His latest intern, Michigan, was an ambitious recent U of Chicago graduate, who had apparently broken his parents' hearts by choosing not to attend their alma mater, which had been his namesake. Instead, he'd worked his ass off at Chicago, and Sean suspected he'd never seen this much skin at any point during his undergrad years.

The poor kid made a strangled sound in the back of his throat as they stood in the lobby of the art gallery, Collective. "Interesting," Michigan managed.

"You could call it that." Sean shook his head. Maybe he wasn't deep enough to comprehend the bigger meaning, but having two hundred people naked together in one photograph, looking like a herd of sheared sheep, did not project any sort of message to him other than awkward. "But it's highly commercially successful, so the artist knows what he is doing. As does the gallery."

Under other circumstances, he might have found it amusing. There was nothing he loved more than seeing a quirky idea take off on the open market. Not to mention he had no objections to nudity, though he preferred his naked encounters to be one-on-one. But today he was distracted by the papers that had arrived unexpectedly in the morning, jarring him out of an ordinary day's work and straight backward to the previous decade.

Back to Kristine.

"How many people are attending this event?" Michigan asked.

"Two hundred." Sean glanced around the neat and upscale gallery, noting there were multiple exits, one presumably to a back storeroom, and two directly to the exterior. The front of the gallery was all glass, which was, of course, problematic for security, but generally speaking, he didn't think Maddock Security would have any issues securing the opening night of the Ian Bain-bridge exhibit and charity fund-raiser.

He didn't need to be here, frankly. His team had already done their research on the event and the facility, and had put a plan in place for the party Friday evening, but Sean hadn't been able to resist stopping in himself for a look when he saw the name of the event coordinator who had hired the firm. Kristine. His former wife, who wasn't technically his former wife, since they had never legally filed for divorce, despite it being ten years since their impetuous and short-lived marriage had ended. They had parted ways after a rip-roaring fight, two headstrong personalities barely out of their teens, and as far as he knew, Kristine had been living in Vegas since their split, heading west on impulse. That was Kristine—action first, thought second.

It was one of the things about her that had made him fall in love with her initially—that she was so much the opposite of him. He was methodical, pragmatic, a self-made millionaire who had been accused of being coldhearted a time or two. Though, back when they had been together, he had been broke, with nothing more than a vision and a determination to work hard. He hadn't been as cynical, as remote as he was now, and there had been nothing cold about him when it came to Kristine. She had made him hot with passion, and warm with the most intense emotion he'd ever known. He didn't fall in love easily. In fact, it was safe to say he had not been in love since, which was why he'd never bothered to pursue tracking her down and obtaining a legal divorce. The technicality didn't matter, because he hadn't been serious about another woman in the following years, maybe because, at the tender age of twenty-one, he had learned there was something to the adage about fools and love. He had fallen hard and gotten his heart ripped out of his chest and stomped on.

Not to mention, somewhere in the back of his mind, Sean had always assumed Kristine would come back and they would resume their relationship because he hadn't done anything wrong. She hadn't done anything wrong. They'd had essentially a juvenile fight that had exploded beyond all comprehension, and surely that couldn't be the end of their relationship.

Yet, ten years had managed to slide by, one day at a time while he had been building his business from the ground up and pretending he wasn't lonely. He had no idea what Kristine had been doing.

Sean hadn't known she was back in town until divorce papers had arrived at his office three hours ago, and it had given him a hell of a jolt. Most days, the past was relegated to the past, and he didn't give much thought to Kristine, so to have her suddenly thrust into his day had been very distracting. It surprised him that she had the callousness to serve him papers without at least a phone call. So much time had passed—she couldn't possibly think he was still angry over the way their relationship had ended. They had just been kids. Then again, maybe it was so long ago, she didn't think it was important enough to let him know she was finally requesting a divorce, which, frankly, should have happened years ago.

Maybe it was just something on her To Do list that she'd finally gotten around to. Divorce Sean Finally. Check.

While he had been mulling over all of that, and the fact her address listed on the divorce papers was one in Minneapolis, not that far from his own condo, he had seen her name on the contract for the gallery event as he'd gone through the paperwork with Michigan.

Those three pieces of information had created more awareness of Kristine than he'd had in years, and before he'd given much thought to it, he'd decided he wanted to—no, had to—see her.

So here he was, agitated and not entirely sure why, his tie feeling too tight, hand in his pocket to hide the way his thumb drummed on his thigh. He didn't like feeling out of control. At all. And the way he dealt with feeling out of control was to wrest it back by throwing other people off their guard. It was how he had built a successful business. It was what he was doing here now, watching catering professionals in the back of the gallery bustle about setting up tables, with crisp white linens and champagne flutes turned upside down on their rims.

But he was determined not to let Kristine see how unnerved he was. That was the rule in business. You kept your hand close to your chest and you charmed, with a casual attitude, as if the outcome of the deal didn't matter to you one bit.

He wasn't even sure why this outcome did matter. But before he signed those divorce papers, he wanted to look Kristine in the eye, see the woman she had become. Call him nostalgic. Call him a masochist. Call him simply curious.

Michigan was scrolling through his phone. "I'll go ask the staff where the event coordinator is so you can speak to her. What's her name again?"

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