He’s fiery, courageous...and he can’t resist a sexy challenge.
Survivalist Russ Donovan is known on TV as the “Wildest Man in the World.” The last thing this headstrong Aries guy needs is to be wrangled into a cross-promotional TV special with a popular homemaker—even a sexy little thing like Susannah Stone. Besides, the Adirondacks in the dead of winter are no place for amateurs...especially a stubborn homemaker who’s determined to show him up every chance she gets.
Susannah’s a working single mom who knows plenty about roughing it. She can take anything this mountain man dishes out. Now Russ and Susannah are taking their competitive rivalry to new levels, and not even the canned beef stew is safe. Then Russ and Susannah’s on-camera sparks turn into a sizzling off-camera romance, and their two conflicting worlds collide. Sure, major differences can turn chemistry red-hot...they can also make compromise nearly impossible.
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About the Author
Amanda Usen knows two things for certain: chocolate cheesecake is good for breakfast, and a hot chef can steal your heart. Her husband stole hers the first day of class at the Culinary Institute of America. They live in Western New York with their three children, one gerbil, four fish, a Russian tortoise, and a beagle. Amanda spends her days teaching pastry arts classes and her nights writing romance. If she isn't baking or writing, she can usually be found reading a book and trying to get out of cooking dinner.
Read an Excerpt
A Men of the Zodiac Series Novel
By Amanda Usen, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Amanda Usen
All rights reserved.
Susannah sighed as the elevator stopped, one more delay in a Friday morning full of them. Murphy's Law is killing me. The universe didn't want her to attend this meeting any more than she wanted to be there.
A man boarded the elevator, glanced at the control panel, and stepped to the back of the car with her. She ignored him but could feel his heavy gaze assessing her. Didn't he know it was impolite to stare? Facing forward and staying in your own personal bubble was the unwritten rule of elevator etiquette, especially in Manhattan at Media Life Networks, where every other person was famous. Did he recognize her? She turned her head, intending to give him a brief glance of acknowledgment and hoping to shame some manners into him.
He held her gaze with cool amusement. "You look like your underwear is just as twisted as mine about this whole friggin' idea."
She took in the sun-scorched blond hair that looked like it had been cut with a knife, the deep tan, the rock-hard body not softened in the least by the sleek lines of an elegant suit, and the unexpected derision in his pale blue eyes. Heat swept through her, and her nerves tightened in warning. Just her luck that her new nemesis would resemble her ex- husband with longer hair—impossibly gorgeous, emphasis on the impossible—and that he would inspire the same involuntary response. "Russ Donovan, Wildest Man in the World, I presume."
He lifted a brow. "Presume? You don't know? You haven't watched my show?"
"Have you watched mine?" She gave him her sweetest smile.
"Touché." His grin bared even, white teeth. "But I Googled you, so I'd know what you look like."
She stiffened as his gaze slid over her, missing nothing, she was sure. His ramrod- straight bearing and superior attitude screamed military, and she was being subjected to an inspection. The not-quite-invisible spit-up stain on the shoulder of her tailored jacket would probably earn her fifty push-ups. The hastily applied makeup? Another twenty. Would he notice her highlights were growing out, too? Her teeth clenched at the thought of what her former spouse, the wanna-be drill sergeant, would've had to say about her appearance today. He'd have insisted she change before she left the house, watched her do it, and probably confiscated her exceedingly comfortable all-cotton underwear and replaced them with a uniform itchy, lacy thong.
Relief buoyed her as she remembered she didn't have to care anymore. She didn't have to please Ethan, and she certainly didn't have to care about what this sunbaked thrill junkie thought of her, his air of entitlement and Emmy awards notwithstanding.
She forced her lips into a polite grin. "Forgive me, I was too busy to research you."
"Baking cookies? Scrubbing the windows with newspaper and vinegar? Making organic baby food?"
His scorn of the things she loved was palpable, and it took more effort than she would like to shrug it off. "You're research was thorough, wasn't it? I'm guessing from your tone, you're as eager to put the kibosh on the network's idea as I am. Perfect. Let's continue this conversation during the meeting."
The elevator door opened onto the top floor, and she swept out in front of him, glad she'd worn the punishing heels that gave her some much-needed height and confidence. Still, he loomed over her as they reached the reception desk, making her feel small. When he stepped up beside her, his arm brushed hers, and she caught a whiff of sunshine and pine, even though it was January and snowing, and an unwanted surge of desire tied her tongue.
He winked at Holly. "Mr. Bergman is expecting us."
"Right this way," Holly said, giving her a split-second loaded look. She had no doubt her best friend and roommate would be waxing eloquent on Donovan's über hotness at home later. Could she threaten to withhold the roasted sweet potato and black bean nachos unless Holly kept her mind out of the gutter? Maybe she'd hide the tequila, although she had a feeling she was going to be in desperate want of a drink by the time she got through this day. This was only the first unpleasant task on her to-do list, and Billy's erupting teeth were making him clingy. She'd round out her long day with a twenty-three pound boulder wrapped around her leg and another sleepless night, for sure.
Since her back was to Donovan, she made a face at Holly, who acknowledged her pained grimace with a slight curve of her perfectly glossed lips and stood. Even before motherhood had turned Susannah into a sleep-deprived, last-season-wearing, diaper-toting mess, she'd never been able to attain the glamour Holly wore so casually. She had to work for it. But that's why you have a career, silly. Women watched her because they didn't feel threatened by her. She was normal. Sort of. More of a has-been normal. A hysterical giggle rose in her throat.
She straightened her spine and swallowed her nerves as Holly opened the door to their boss's office. Donovan made a courtly "after you" gesture, and she stepped forward, conscious of a blast of heat at her back as he fell in behind her. She walked faster.
Mr. Bergman was just going to have to accept that At Home in the Wild was dead in the water. She could create a home just about anywhere and whip up a delicious dinner from next to nothing, but she wasn't going to do it with Russ Donovan. After what he'd said in the elevator, she was sure Donovan felt the same way. She flicked a glance over her shoulder and caught him looking, not at Holly as she expected, but at her; specifically, her butt. Every ounce of baby weight she hadn't shed got heavier, and she glared at him.
He shrugged, not looking the least bit apologetic, obviously another trait he shared with her ex-husband. Humiliation cranked her temper higher as she remembered catching Ethan not just looking at but touching another woman—in their bed, with their son sleeping in the room across the hall. She pushed the thought away. It was over. She'd found the strength to get out of her rotten marriage, and she was free to make her own decisions. Nothing on earth was going to put her in close contact with another man who enjoyed making her feel like she wasn't good enough.
* * *
Susannah Stone looked exactly like her Google images, but the pictures hadn't prepared him for the punch of those lovely, warm brown eyes skating over him with utter disdain. Apparently, Susie Homemaker didn't go for his type. That was a pity. She was a looker, if you liked uptight, perfectly pulled together, not-a-hair-out-of-place women, and he did. He enjoyed messing them up.
He checked her out from the back as he followed her into Bergman's office. Her brown hair was pulled into a neat knot, displaying the elegant curve of her neck. Her suit was cut precisely to the knee and a mouthwatering shade of strawberry-ice-cream pink. She glanced over her shoulder and busted him having a flash fantasy of running his tongue up her shapely calf. He shrugged, trying to play it off. The special series idea the network had planned was a nonstarter, but the host of At Home was totally doable. Goddamn, those shoes. If he didn't get a grip on himself, he was going to walk into Berman's office with a hard-on.
He shifted his mind back to work. Filming in the Adirondacks this weekend was going to be exhilarating, and he couldn't wait to get out into the woods. Snowshoeing, hunting, and pitting himself against frozen nature always restored his equilibrium. There was something about stripping it down to the basics needed for survival that put everything into perspective. It would also make for a good show. He liked winning, and ratings were an excellent way of keeping score.
But he sure as hell couldn't take it to the edge with little Susie Homemaker and her designer backpack tramping after him into subzero weather, although her curvy body would keep the tent warm at night. He stepped up beside her, watched her shake Bergman's hand, and then held out his own. "Good to see you, Rich."
"Likewise. How've you been? I had dinner with your parents the other night, and they asked about you."
"Can't complain. I'm keeping busy, and some parts of the world don't have cell coverage." But he didn't call home even when they did, and Bergman knew it. The skin on the back of his neck tightened. His instincts frequently saved his life, and right now they were screaming a warning.
Bergman sat at the planning table on one side of his office, creative command central, as he liked to call it. "Have a seat."
Russ waited for Susannah to sit and then debated between the seat beside her and one on the opposite side of the table. She glanced pointedly across the table, so he slid into the seat next to her, chuckling softly when she shot him a sideways death ray. Man, she was touchy, and it made him want to keep teasing her. With effort, he subdued the urge. This was neither the time nor the place, and he had a brand to defend. The star of Wild Man was not volunteering for domestication on television.
Bergman tossed a graph onto the screen behind him.
The other man's grin was pure satisfaction. "Susannah's ratings are through the roof, and I think she's got a shot at being the next Martha Stewart if we play our cards right. At Home is the most-watched show on the network, but we need a bump, something to get even more viewers to tune in. That's where you come in." He pointed at Russ. "This crossover idea is pure genius, and I know you won't say no because you owe me."
Russ sat back and eyed the man, noting his steady, hard gray gaze. Bergman didn't exhibit the zeal of a man riding the high of an exciting brainstorm; he looked like a leader about to lay out a course and make sure every soldier knew his and her job. Russ's stomach sank into his shoes. He wasn't under contract to Media Life anymore, but if Bergman was calling in favors, it didn't matter. He did owe the guy—big-time. Shit. "I have to be in Washington soon—"
"Not for a week. I spoke with your parents, remember? They haven't heard a peep from you in months, but they know you won't shirk your responsibilities to the family charity."
To your brother. Berman didn't say it, but Russ heard it, loud and clear. No, he wouldn't bail on Lance, not after he'd already failed his little brother in the most fundamental way possible. Lance might still be alive if it weren't for him. He forced a slow breath into his tight chest. The annual gala was their biggest fund-raiser, and no matter where he was in the world, he never missed it.
Bergman pulled up the next slide. "We're going to create a show—maybe even a series of shows—that will broaden Susannah's viewer base. We want to give people a fresh angle, something they aren't getting from the other cooking shows: a spirit of adventure. Russ, I know you've moved on, but In the Wild still has a cult following. It made you famous and gave you the money to go out on your own and get all those Emmy awards. I love your new show—Wild Man is amazing, and I'm even prouder of the documentaries you've made. I've never tried to make you feel guilty for leaving Media Life Networks, but Susannah is my shot at having an award-winning show. I need this favor." Russ felt the walls begin to close in. Bergman knew just how to get to him—he always had. That had been a good thing back when Russ was a defiant teenager chasing more trouble than he could handle, not such a good thing now that it was time for payback.
Panic squeezed the air out of his lungs. He forced it back in. One show—two shows tops—then he'd be free again.
Bergman kept talking, a low buzz in his ears. "Once we start filming, we'll expand our reach on social media with you two posting real-time pics and status updates that I hope will go viral within minutes. Since you're experts in your fields, you'll help us plan the shows for maximum impact, and I want a post-shoot wrap-up blog post from each of you to cover the his and hers perspectives. If necessary, I'll get you a ghost writer, but the posts don't have to be long."
"You've got to be kidding me," Russ said. It was one thing to do a few shows as a favor, another to tie himself to Susie Homemaker in the media. He was the Wild Man, not the whipped man.
A strangled sound from Susannah told him she was equally horrified. "I don't ... I can't ... there's no way—"
Bergman called up the next slide, and a promo pic appeared on the screen, a mix-up of him in Susannah's kitchen wearing full climbing gear and her in an apron and hanging on the side of a mountain. At Home in the Wild was splashed below the image in an eye-catching red font. He looked tough as hell, not in the least domesticated. A smile spread across his face.
Susannah gave him a venomous glare.
"What? You have to admit it's kind of awesome."
"It's horrid. I look ridiculous." Her ivory cheeks turned pink.
"You aren't the one standing in a kitchen."
The fire in her cheeks moved to her eyes, stirring him up. "Are you saying my kitchen is ridiculous?"
"I'm saying real food is cooked over an open flame and eaten outside," he said.
"Only by barbarians," she snapped back.
Bergman applauded. "America will enjoy watching you two debate that topic during your camping trip next weekend."
Caught up in goading her, he'd forgotten Bergman was listening. "No social media, Rich. Honestly, I don't even have time to do the shows."
"Bullshit. I know where you're filming, and the Adirondacks are perfect. Don't try to tell me you can't crunch your schedule, either. You own the production company. If I know you—and I do since you were in diapers, in fact—you've got extra episodes in the can for just this sort of emergency. Use them."
Russ didn't like feeling cornered, and if anybody knew that it was Bergman. "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine, old man."
Bergman settled back in his chair. "How much do you need?"
"Money. How much?"
"It's not a matter of money, and you know it," Russ growled.
Bergman shook his head. "I'm not talking about your salary. You'll be working for free, although the network will pick up the cost of filming, production, and incidentals, of course." He sat back and crossed his arms. "How much do you need to endow a chair for Lance's charity?"
Russ's stomach jumped. Was he serious? "Five million."
"I won't give you the money, but I bet donations will pour in when viewers find out you're working for free—and why. You may have all those Emmys, but I have a huge reach. You can do a lot with Media Life Networks backing you. Say yes, and I'll put trailers on every hour and take a film crew down to Washington with me for the gala." His smile was smug. "You know I wouldn't miss it."
Currently, his parents handled fund-raising, but they wouldn't live forever. An endowed chair would guarantee Lance's legacy and maybe even find a cure for the cancer that had killed him. Russ couldn't say no. Every extra penny he made went into the endowment fund, but it was slow going when he also needed to invest in the production company so he could keep making money. "Yes."
Susannah gasped and then lifted her chin. "Respectfully, sir, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen. I appreciate your faith in my show, but Mr. Donovan and I just met, and we haven't said a civil word to each other."
Sitting, she was just a little bit of a thing. All her height must have come from those sexy pink shoes. Did she own hiking boots? He hoped so, but he'd happily pack those pink heels into the mountains if she'd be willing to wear them in the tent at night. Adrenaline slid into his veins. He was ready to go right now.
Bergman shrugged, attention back on the tablet in front of him, and Russ felt sorry for her. She didn't seem to know she was fighting a losing battle. Bergman's mind was clearly made up, and he was very good at tightening screws. "Frankly, Susannah, the worse it goes, the better it will play on TV. Some of the most famous on-screen couples couldn't stand each other. You don't have to be friends to have great chemistry."
Excerpted from Impulse Control by Amanda Usen, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2015 Amanda Usen. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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