Brooke Hastings almost won a Pulitzer Prize for her hard-hitting reportage. Now she’s sitting on the story of a lifetime and wants to prove she’s not a one-hit-wonder. But in order to get the world to take notice, she’ll need the help of the one person she loves to hate—Brian Dalton.
Brian Dalton stumbled into celebrity when he landed a show on the Earth Channel. But the hunky marine biologist never forgot the serious, studious boy who left Mobile a decade before. Now back in Alabama, he’s looking for the quiet life he always wanted and hoping for a chance with the girl he always loved. When Brooke asks him to help expose some of the lingering effects of the Gulf oil disaster, Brian jumps at the chance to help preserve the place both call home…
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By Maggie Wells
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Maggie Wells
All rights reserved.
"If I didn't have Harley Cade and his ten million ways of making a girl happy on the hook, I'd cling to that man's hull like a barnacle."
Brooke Hastings drowned a smirk in her martini glass. Twenty years of friendship did little to lessen the shock value of Laney's declarations. Brooke took a cautious sip. The cocktail was pinker than a My Little Pony, but the triple sec and vodka packed a punch that more than made up for the girly color.
Dragging her gaze from the former classmate-turned-television-hunk she was here to stalk, Brooke turned to face her best friend. "That man told Mrs. Wise you had your Spanish conjugation written on your thigh."
Laney refused to be put off by something as fickle as fact. "If I'd known he'd grow up to be rich, famous, and hot as Hades, I would have let him conjugate whatever he wanted on my thigh."
"You told your mother you'd drown yourself in the ocean if she made you invite him to your birthday party in third grade."
The feisty redhead at her side pursed her lips and made a great show of scanning the room. "She invited him anyway."
Revisionist history or no, Laney wasn't one who took being thwarted lightly. Nearly twenty years had passed since that birthday party, but the sour expression on her face said the sting of her mother's betrayal hadn't yet faded.
"Do you have Harley Cade on the hook?"
"I could," her friend said, eying the crowded room. "I'd only have to give that line a little old tug."
Brooke smiled. She admired Laney's confidence, but she wished they could be having this conversation anywhere but in the middle of one of Mobile's most popular social gatherings.
Glittering jewels and porcelain veneers shone in the light of the ancient chandeliers, adding sparkle to the mansion's faded glory. The first floor of Putnam House, one of the ruthlessly preserved mansions that graced Mobile's historic district, was crowded — every square inch packed with potential donors. Saints Preserve Us was the premier fundraising event for their alma mater, St. Patrick's Academy, and one of Brooke's mother's pet projects. Her mother and her merry band of fundraising fiends plied their victims with Guinness, Jameson's, and heaping helpings of flattery in hopes of getting them to write big, fat checks.
Thursday night television programming may not be what it used to be, but Brooke had a reason for being here. She wasn't in a position to donate the scraps of cash left over after she stretched her paycheck to the max. Frankly, she wasn't interested in whether the football team could afford new jock straps or if the Drama Club had to — insert shudder here — rent costumes for their spring production. She wasn't here because her mother insisted she come. No, she was trussed up in her Spanx for a reason. A motive she shared with 99.9 percent of the women in that room. She was there for Brian Dalton.
"Any Tucker sightings yet?"
The question jerked Brooke from her mini-sulk. The possibility of running into Jack Tucker was exactly what kept her miles away from the Gulf Shore's social whirl in the last few weeks. News of Jack's return to Mobile after his divorce had lit a spark of hope inside her. The possibility of rekindling their romance seemed to lighten the miasma of loneliness that covered her like a heavy blanket. Alone in her bed, she allowed herself to spin a fantasy of marriage and family that was not only attractive but convenient, as well. Then she ran into him at her parents' club and her thinking shifted from possibly-maybe to never-gonna-happen.
Unfortunately, her mother had hopped onto the Jack Tucker bandwagon the minute the man crossed the city limits. Emmaline Hastings wasn't a woman whose mind was easily changed. That meant Brooke's best course of action had been to avoid Jack altogether. Eventually her mother would find a project more promising than the daunting task of marrying off her almost-thirty-year-old daughter.
"No. Thank goodness."
"You used to get all twitterpated at the thought of seeing old Jack Tucker," Laney drawled.
"And you used to spend your entire study hall plotting ways to torment Brian Dalton."
Laney remained as impervious to criticism as she'd been in high school. It was one of her greatest charms. "He brought it on himself."
Hard to argue that logic. Back in those days, Brian did earn a good bit of his torment. His fall from social grace started the day he displayed a clock powered by a potato for second grade show and tell. His position as class pariah was written in the stars before Brooke scored the blue ribbon at the eighth grade science fair, but he cemented it in high school. Brian Dalton was worse than a nerd. He was a nerd who thought it was cool to be arrogant and condescending to anyone he considered his intellectual inferior. This meant practically everyone.
He might have redeemed himself if he'd stuck to delivering the world's shortest valedictory address. But then he planted a kiss on the salutatorian that shook the entire auditorium.
Brooke never forgot the way her kiss-swollen lips tingled as he whispered the Alabama fan's mantra of "Roll, Tide, roll" into her Auburn-bound ear. Nor would she forgive him for the scalding rush of humiliation he left in his wake as he walked away.
The hell of it was, nearly a decade later, she could still taste him. Salty and sweet. The brainy boy seemed to have ocean water in his veins and coconut-scented sunscreen embedded in his pores. She pressed her glass to her bottom lip, sternly reminding herself that a kiss could not linger for ten years. No matter how much pent up passion a guy put into it.
Laney broke into her thoughts. "I always thought your mama might be convinced to give up on her dream of you marrying Jack Tucker if a bigger fish came swimming along."
"If Brian's the fish you're referring to, I'll remind you that you used to want to see him flopping on the floor gasping for breath."
"We've grown up. Matured. Besides, nerds are hot these days. Didn't anyone tell you?"
That was where Laney's assessment went wrong. Brian's hotness wasn't simply a trend. It was a matter of perspective. As a teenager, he might have been quiet, bookish, but he'd always been good looking. If one could get past the annoying arrogance.
He stood in the center of the room like he'd ruled the school all along, and the sight of all the other Laney-come-latelys flocking the boy they once snubbed irked Brooke to the bone. The fact that she was the only one who saw it used to make her feel superior to the rest of the world. Now, she wondered if she'd missed out on something when she watched him walk away.
Miffed by the train of thought, Brooke turned and gave her friend the hairy eyeball. "I can't believe you're lusting after Brian Dalton. What's the world coming to?"
Her friend's chuckle was genuine. "I was talking about you, not me."
"The world we once knew came to a screeching halt the day that boy kissed you."
"It did not."
"You might sell that to someone else, sugar, but not me. You lost all interest in Jack Tucker the minute you locked lips with the delectable Mr. Limpet."
"Incredible," Brooke murmured into her glass. She took a quick sip, her eyes locked on her quarry. "The movie was The Incredible Mr. Limpet."
Laney huffed. "It could have been The Incredible Hulk for all I care."
"How about The Incredibles?"
"As long as you're not trying to deny he kissed you senseless and it was incredible."
"He kissed me, it was incredible, then he left," Brooke said flatly. "He left. Period. The end."
"And you still think he's incredible." Brooke started to shake her head but Laney raised a hand to ward off further protest. "Shelbrooke Hastings, are you trying to tell me that you have absolutely no interest in spawning with Aquaman?"
"I prefer Batman. Maybe Superman. Hell, I'd even take Captain America, though I suspect he's a prig in bed."
Her friend barked a short laugh. "I'm betting Superman has a stick up his ass, too."
"Yes, but he has that ice castle thingy. I always thought that looked awesome."
Laney nodded, the corners of her mouth pulling down as she gave the argument due consideration. "Beats the hell out of a damp, musty cave."
"Yes, but Batman has the black cape. And all the cool toys."
"Can you imagine the vibrator Wayne Enterprises could manufacture?" Laney clutched imaginary pearls. "A Bat-brator. Exactly what every single girl needs."
Brooke frowned and shook her head. Listening to her friend verbally fondle Brian was more than vaguely disturbing. Sure, Brian had the looks, the money, and his picture printed in People, US Magazine, and on the cover of the tabloids, but that shouldn't make him fair game for everyone. Especially not here. This was supposed to be his home. But a star was a star, even if he was a little burned out, and everyone in the room seemed to be caught in the man's gravitational pull.
Not many women would pass on a chance to de-pants Brian Dalton these days. If she felt like being scrupulously honest, Brooke would number herself among them. But she didn't want to hear it from Laney. Or anyone else, for that matter. Her relationship with Brian, whatever it might have been, was always separate from everyone else in her life. Their odd friendship had been as fascinating as exploring an uncharted island — intellectually stimulating, undeniably appealing, but treacherous as high tide.
Judging by the sardonic smirk on his face, this new and improved Brian would be equally challenging. And intriguing. He was undoubtedly mouthwatering.
The cut of his jacket showcased the broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped perfection of a body that spent hours in the water. Days working in the sun threaded his brown hair with hints of gold. A minimalist flash of white teeth evoked a visceral reaction in females from eighteen to eighty. The suit screamed matinee idol rather than marine biologist. It was no wonder a bevy of elegantly dressed women flocked to him like seagulls after a saltine. Grown-up Brian might still spend his days talking about plankton and marsh grass and amoebas, but the idea that he could spend his nights with his pick of women seemed more a given than a hypothesis.
Brooke held her breath when he scanned the room, torn between wanting to step forward and the urge to shrink away from his probing gaze. Oxygen seeped from her lungs when she spotted the familiar flash of arrogance in his eyes. Curious, she dragged her attention from the knot of backslappers that closed around him and surveyed the room, trying to see it all through his eyes.
Brian turned and bestowed a dazzling smile on the woman next to him. The kind that made normally sane women flibbertigibbety. That weapon wasn't even turned on her, and Brooke went weak in the knees. Darting a glance at Laney to see if she'd witnessed the same phenomenon, she found her friend's dreamy-eyed gaze turned in the opposite direction.
Pitching her voice low, she jabbed an elbow into Laney's ribs. "Don't you dare ditch me."
Laney had the good grace to grimace when she was caught ogling her millionaire. "I won't." She tore herself from whatever crazy eye sex mojo Harley was using on her and turned back to the task at hand. Clearing her throat, she gave the bodice of her dress a surreptitious tug. "Brian Dalton. Did I mention wanting to be his barnacle?"
It was Brooke's turn to grin. "Liar."
Cradling her drink in both hands, Laney darted one last wistful glance at the bar area. "Okay, fine. But I'm telling you, if Mr. Cade so much as blinks you'll be scraping me off Brian's ... hull."
"I'm starting to think you might be hooked on Harley." Raising her glass in a mocking toast, she smiled sweetly. "But if it makes you feel better, I still think you're a hussy."
Laney grinned. "Thank you."
At that moment, Brian turned his head and their gazes locked. Her breath snagged when he took a step in her direction, but she refused to show any sign of weakness. Taking a casual sip of her drink, she rolled her shoulders back, edged one foot in front of the other, and arched her back ever-so-slightly. A trick that her mother, like any former Miss Alabama worth her salt, passed along to her daughter the moment she left the cradle.
Brooke learned the power of the pose long before she'd had any assets to display. By the time she finished puberty, she'd honed it to sharp perfection. It never failed to rile Emmaline Hastings's that her daughter chose to wield the power of the written word rather than the ceremonial sash. Wearing a smile to cover the uncertainty that twanged her nerves, she surveyed the room with studied nonchalance.
It seemed she'd been doing this her whole life. Measuring, testing, and gauging. Checking herself against the competition. From her first Little Miss Mobile crown to the Pulitzer Prize nomination she'd garnered at the tender age of twenty-six. To her mother and the world outside the microcosm of print journalism, she was a wunderkind, a prodigy, a savant. But those on the inside knew the glow of that nomination faded the second someone used her story to line their parrot cage. And one of those people was her boss.
Despite the critical acclaim her series garnered in the aftermath of the Gulf Oil Spill crisis, The Courier, like many other print news outlets, was suffering an acute case of declining circulation. The sinking numbers put a lot of pressure on the paper's management and reporting staff. Her boss wasn't only the news editor, he was the publisher's son and heir apparent.
She needed a big story and she needed one bad. And to that end, she also needed Brian Dalton, but not in the way that Laney or Emmaline might hope.
Her pulse beat a frantic strobe when she saw her mother snare Brian's arm and pull him into the slipknot of people eddying at the edge of the dance floor. Blond and beautiful as the day she was crowned thirty-three years before, people naturally gravitated to her mama. Brooke's father liked to say Emmaline was a force of nature. One that left the people in her wake reeling and off-kilter. Like the hurricanes that battered the coast with disheartening regularity, Brooke had learned long ago that the best course of action when caught in her eye was to hunker down and wait it out.
Laney sighed as she watched Emmaline work her magic. "I swear she made a deal with the devil."
"Don't kid yourself. My mother is the devil."
Joking or not, it was a plausible explanation. Emmaline looked obscenely good for a woman who'd hit the half-century mark and barreled right past it. The dress she wore clung to curves disciplined by hours on the elliptical and skimmed the long, lean legs that nabbed first place in every swimsuit competition she'd ever entered. If Brooke didn't love her mother so damn much, she wouldn't have bothered hating her. She would have gone straight to putting glue in her shampoo bottle.
Lifting her glass, she tossed back the remainder of her drink then plopped the empty glass onto the tray of a passing waiter. She fought the urge to stomp her stiletto-clad foot as she watched her mother bathe Brian in the spotlight of her attentions. Then he blinked and gave his head a bewildered shake. Emmaline's eyes narrowed a millimeter, and the side-to-side wag morphed into a weak nod.
Her mother out-sparkled the chandelier above their heads. Familial pride rippled through Brooke. A woman wearing a blue and green plaid kilt pressed a glass of stout into Brian's limp hand. Emmaline patted his arm, marking the end of negotiations. The man's befuddled expression confirmed a direct hit.
"Damn, she's good," a deep voice drawled.
Blatant admiration dripped from each word. Brooke didn't need to glance over her shoulder to know her father was standing behind her. "The best."
Henry Hastings pressed a kiss to his daughter's cheek, an indulgent smile creasing his time-worn, but still handsome, face. Seizing the chance for escape, Laney murmured her excuses and headed straight for the bar and Harley Cade.
A speculative gleam lit her father's forest green eyes. "How much do you think she got him for?"
Excerpted from Going Deep by Maggie Wells. Copyright © 2015 Maggie Wells. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A super snarky, sexy and sweet book that kept me from sleeping all night. A quick read that I couldn't put down. Maggie is one of my favorite romance writers. She is always captivating, funny and her sexy scenes never leave me feeling awkward...or that I need to take a shower...or attend church!
This quick read is sexy, funny, and completely enjoyable. Nothing too deep to the story but enjoyable all the same. It's a second chance story set in Alabama. Both the H/h have achieved their share of fame and humiliation but now they are both back in Mobile and working together to expose the catastrophic effects the gulf oil spill had on the region. Working on the expose may not be all they are working on though..... I really did enjoy this one and I think you will too. I recommend it.