Falling for your boss—no matter how fast he makes your pulse race—is such a cliché. But it’s one Annabelle Shay can’t seem to avoid. Gallery owner Louis Dumont is stupid hot. Plus, he’s sweet, sensitive and a brilliant artist. But he’s also oblivious. Which is good because Annabelle loves her job too much to risk it.
Louis hasn’t been with a woman since he was wounded in Afghanistan, remaining guarded about his body and his heart. But Annabelle is different. She keeps him grounded. Which is why protecting her—first pretending to be her husband to ward off unwanted attention, then inviting her to move in after her landlord kicks her out—feels so natural, even if it invites rampant temptation.
Try as Annabelle might, there are some desires you simply can’t shake. Louis repeatedly joke-asking her to marry him isn’t helping, especially when their unbearable attraction upgrades them to roomies with benefits. But Louis is still keeping pieces of his past to himself, leaving Annabelle to wonder if he’ll ever truly be vulnerable with her—or if she stands to lose everything.
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This book is approximately 75,000 words
Carina Press acknowledges the editorial services of Deborah Nemeth
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Rolling her desk chair across her office, Annabelle stuck her head through the doorway. "Yes, Louis Dumont?"
He was juggling paint tubes again. "Come talk to me."
"You hate it when I talk to you while you're painting. That's one of the first things you said when you hired me, that you hate when people make noise while you're painting. Then, you proceeded to list those noises, which included talking, yelling, crying, snoring, coughing, hiccupping, chewing, and whistling. Why are you smiling at me like that?"
"I like it when you listen to what I say." He caught four of the five paint tubes, but the fifth — cadmium red — fell to the tile floor and skittered across the room, coming to rest against the wall. His gaze followed it, and his grin slipped away. Raising his eyes, he gave Annabelle his best hungry-puppy look. "Could you grab that for me?"
After working for Louis for six months, she knew better than to fall for his helpless act. He was more agile with his prosthetic leg than most people she knew. "No. You just want me to come into the studio in the hopes that I get distracted and forget I'm supposed to be working, rather than talking to you."
"Entertaining me is working." Despite his protest, he pushed off his stool and made his way over to the errant paint tube. "I'm your boss, remember?"
Holding on to the wall, he bent and retrieved it, and Annabelle dragged her attention off the play of his muscles during the maneuver. She'd quickly learned that she was a lot more efficient when she limited the amount of Louis-ogling time. It was too easy to get distracted by his bulging arms and defined pecs and hard-as-nails ass and ... Case in point.
Her silent pause must've convinced him that she was weakening, because the corners of his mouth started tipping up again. "As your boss, I demand that you stay in here and talk to me."
"As much as I want to cede to your demand," she said, layering on so much sarcasm that he flinched melodramatically, "I can't. Being the loyal, dedicated employee that I am, I have to prepare your quarterly taxes. If I don't, you'll be hauled off to the pokey and I'll be out of a job. Besides, you need to finish that." She tipped her head toward the in-progress painting on the worktable.
His groan sounded put-on, but she knew there was real frustration behind it. "I don't want to. How about we go to a movie?"
With an amused shake of her head, she started rolling her chair back to her desk. "Go ahead, but I have to do tax stuff."
"I hate going to the theater by myself!" She was tempted to ignore his last comment, but he'd just follow her into her office and continue the conversation. Sometimes, especially on days when his painting wasn't going well, he could be clingier than an orphaned koala. "Then work on your painting!"
Although he grumbled and huffed loud enough to make sure she heard, he stayed in his studio and didn't say anything else ... for a whole two minutes.
"I'll let you choose a chick flick!" he yelled, and she rolled her eyes but couldn't keep the smile off her face.
"Gross!" Her gaze was fixed on the payroll report on her laptop screen, but almost all of her attention was focused on the man in the other room. "No kissing movies! I'm all about the thrills and action."
"I know that." He walked through the doorway, and Annabelle gave up pretending to focus on her laptop, spinning her chair around to face him. Her office was small, and Louis's presence made it feel positively minuscule. He was tall and broad, plus his personality was huge, making it feel as if he took up more space than he actually did. "Because I pay attention to what you say."
Her eyebrows lifted as she eyed him wryly. "Except when I say that I need to get quarterly taxes done?"
"There's plenty of time for that." He waved a hand as if brushing away all of her business responsibilities, making her wish it was that easy. Louis was a stunningly good artist, but he tended to dismiss the practical necessities of his business — and of life. "When do we ever have a chance to go to the movie theater, though?"
"At least twice a month."
Turning on his puppy-dog eyes again, he begged, "Please, Annabelle Shay? Please go to the movies with me."
Already she could feel herself giving in, but she clung desperately to her stern expression. "Your next show is in less than a month. You've been staring at that unfinished piece in there for days. This one must be a real bear to stump you like this." She'd never seen him so agitated by a painting.
"It is." Once again, he hid behind a theatrical grimace, but she could tell it was really bothering him. "I've painted this beautiful spot — her eye and part of her nose — and now I'm stuck. What if I keep going on it and wreck it? What if the rest of it is garbage that just looks worse because of this tiny bit of goodness?"
"Do you want my advice?"
"Yes." He boosted himself onto the corner of her desk, making his short sleeves grip his perfectly rounded biceps.
Really, he's so hot it's almost pornographic. Ripping her mind away from Louis's perfect body for the one-zillionth time, she gave him a look. "Really, or are you just whining?" "I really would like your advice, but I never whine."
She choked on a laugh. "Right. Okay, then. You asked for it. Louis ..."
"Yes, Annabelle Shay?"
She didn't mind him calling her by her full name, as odd as it was. It actually warmed her a little that he had a nickname for her, even if it was her legal name and not a nickname at all. "Everything you create doesn't need to be perfect."
He frowned. "Yes, it does."
"No, it doesn't." When he opened his mouth, as if to argue, she continued, "If you don't like something, then toss it. Or burn it. Or flip it over and paint the other side. Or put it in a big folder marked Proof I Am Human. Do whatever you want with it, and then paint something else."
He stared at her as if she'd just told him to get on the roof and jump off. "What if the next one's bad, too?"
"Then you can add it to the folder so the first one will have a friend."
"A hideous friend."
She sighed. "It'll just be glad to have some company, since you hardly ever create something that's not so beautiful and emotional that it makes people want to cry."
Perking up at that, he leaned forward. "Do my paintings make you cry? In a good way, I mean, not in a 'My eyes! My eyes! They're burning!' sort of way."
"Off-topic is okay if it involves compliments."
"Back on topic ..." She gave him her best strict schoolteacher look, but he simply smirked. "Allow yourself to fail once or twice. You might learn something from it."
The corners of his mouth drooped, and he looked serious for a moment. "Okay, so I let myself make something shitty, and then maybe it happens again. What if it keeps happening? It's just ugly, ugly, stupid, ugly, and dumb, one right after another. What if I can't ever paint something good again?"
"You're an amazing painter-genius." Her voice softened. Every once in a while, his shell of confidence cracked and she got a glimpse of his vulnerable side. It never lasted long, but she didn't want to poke him painfully in a soft place. "If — if — you mess up on that painting, you'll learn from it and do even better on the next piece. I doubt you're going to wreck this one, though. I'll bet you a bag of Skittles that it'll be spectacular."
"Fun-size Skittles or big bag?"
"Regular flavors or tropical?"
"Winner's choice. Now go paint." She pointed toward the doorway. This happened every time he got stuck. It was way too easy for her to fall into their familiar banter, just as he hoped she would.
"Or we could go to a movie." He grinned at her, and she immediately went all mushy inside, although she fought to keep that hidden. If he knew that he'd completely destroyed all of her defenses when it came to him, then he'd be unbearable ... even more unbearable. "I'll buy. You can have popcorn."
Letting out a huge sigh, she gave up on pretending that she was going to get any more work done that day. "And an extra-large drink?"
With a triumphant whoop, he jumped off his perch on the desk, bobbling just a little as he caught his balance. Not for the first time, she marveled at how well he managed with his prosthesis. "Let's see the one with —"
She grabbed her purse out of the bottom drawer. "Nope, I pick."
"Fine." Although he obviously was trying to sound resigned, his delight that he'd convinced her to blow off work shone through.
She made an amused sound.
"What?" He was already starting to smile, as if he was positive that whatever had amused her would make him laugh, as well.
"I've never had a boss so excited about lowering my productivity."
"Guess the day I hired you was the luckiest day of your life, then," he said, tongue firmly in cheek.
Either the luckiest or the unluckiest, she thought with a pang as he grinned at her, his dark, heavily lashed eyes glinting with their usual mischief, his fear of possible failure temporarily forgotten. Worried that her feelings might be evident, she ducked her head, pretending to be looking for something in her purse. She loved working for Louis — each day was challenging and fun and exhilarating. There was only one problem: it wasn't just her job that she loved.
She had a ridiculously huge crush on her boss, too.
"That was terrible."
"Not completely terrible," she said, taking a final drink before tossing her cup into the recycling bin outside the theater. There weren't any handrails for the six descending steps and the ramp was way at the other end of the building, so she offered Louis her arm.
He accepted it, using it for support as they walked down the steps. As coordinated and athletic as he was, stairs were still a beast for him. "What was good about it?"
"The scene where they changed back from wolves to their guy-selves." She smiled at the memory and also because Louis hadn't immediately let go once they were on flat pavement again. Instead, he'd switched so that her hand was tucked into the bend of his elbow.
"What?" He stopped abruptly, yanking her to a stop. "That was a terrible scene. All that money meant for special effects must've been spent on blow and fancy men. I think The Shaggy Dog movie — the original from the fifties, not the remake — had better, more believable transformation scenes."
"Fancy men?" She started moving again, knowing that Louis was perfectly capable of walking and going on indignant rants at the same time.
"I was going to say blow and hookers, but that sounded cliché and a bit misogynistic." He lifted his free hand in a shrug as they stopped to wait for the crosswalk light to turn.
"I'm still waiting to hear what you found good about that painfully awful scene in that even more painfully awful movie."
She studied the traffic light as it moved to yellow and then red, trying to keep a straight face. "I like the part where they were all bare-assed naked in the woods. Those were some nice bottoms."
The crosswalk indicator changed to walk and chirped, so they started across. It was only a half-mile stroll back to the studio, which was convenient, although Annabelle figured that the proximity of the movie theater contributed to their work-productivity issue. She wasn't worried about the past useless few hours, though, knowing she'd just stay late to finish the tax paperwork, and Louis would be an unstoppable painting machine once he got over his freak-out over messing up his so-far-perfect work.
"That's all it takes for you? You see a nice ass or two in a sea of garbage, and you're happy?"
At the amused teasing in his voice, she shrugged. "Pretty much. I've learned that if I lower my standards enough, then I'm not disappointed. I went into the movie knowing it had been panned by pretty much everyone, so the nice scenery was an unexpected perk."
He stopped, almost causing a collision with the pair of tourists behind him. Giving the couple an apologetic smile, Annabelle grabbed her boss's hand and tugged until he started moving again. It was the first time she'd ever held his hand, and she felt an instant flash of heat at the contact of his palm against hers. He'd lost two fingers — his ring finger and pinkie — in the same blast that had injured his leg, but it barely took any time at all to adjust to the feel of having only his two fingers and thumb clasping her hand.
As she realized they were walking side by side, holding hands, all her blood rushed out of her head and into her belly ... and other parts that seemed to come alive when Louis was around. A quick upward glance showed that he was eyeing her with a curious quirk to his mouth, and she desperately hoped that her feelings weren't written all over her face for him to read. If he teased her — or worse, was sympathetic — about her sappy feelings about him, then she wouldn't be able to stand it. She'd have to quit and, most likely, move out of Bozeman — probably even Montana.
"Is that how you date, too?" he asked.
"What? Is what how I date?" She'd had so many thoughts flying around in her head that she was thrown by his question. Desperately trying to figure out what he was talking about, she pushed away the fact that he was asking about her dating life. As much as they talked to each other, they'd never had a conversation about dates or significant others or sex of any kind before.
"With the lowest of low expectations?" There was an odd tension in his voice, but it was so light that she was pretty sure she was imagining it. He dropped his hold on her to unlock and open the studio door, leaving her hand chilled in a way she couldn't blame on the slight bite of fall in the air.
As she stepped through the door he held open for her, she gathered all the self-possession she could find. She could have a dating conversation with Louis without acting like a babbling idiot. They talked about everything else, so why not dating? Despite her mental pep talk, she could feel nervous sweat prickle at her hairline. The truth was that she hadn't dated anyone since she'd moved from Denver to Bozeman to work for Louis, and her reason why was as dumb as it was embarrassing. If they started casually chatting about her lack of any kind of romantic life, many things could go terribly, horribly wrong. What if she slipped and said something fangirl-y and he found out that she had a huge crush on him and he was so uncomfortable that he fired her on the spot?
"Annabelle Shay?" He waved a hand in front of her face. "You in there?"
"Sorry. Thinking about work stuff. What was the question?" She wove her way around his worktable to her office. The solar shades over the windows allowed the late-afternoon light in, but blocked the view into the studio from any passersby. She'd ordered them after Louis had complained for the hundredth time that he felt like a zoo animal when the tourists stared at him while he was painting. As much as she liked her cozy office and the gallery, the bright, open studio — with its red-tiled floor and cream walls and sturdy, scarred worktable set close to the windows — was her favorite space. It even smelled better than any artist's studio she'd been in before, like lemon cleaner and freshly cut wood, since Louis matted and framed all his own paintings. Her last boss had liked oil paints, which meant that the space had smelled of mineral spirits and turpentine. Her nose wrinkled at the memory.
The sound of his slightly uneven footsteps behind her brought her out of her thoughts.
"Never mind," he said as he settled into a chair across from her desk. "Do you want to grab an early dinner before the thing at Max's gallery tonight?"
Pausing in returning her purse to her desk drawer, she turned her head to look at him. His simple question had raised so many questions that she didn't know which to address first. "You said that like I'm going to be attending Max's thing tonight."
"Because you are?" His voice went up hopefully at the end, and she closed the drawer with a little more force than necessary.
"I'll pay you."
"You already pay me." It was a generous salary, too, enough for Annabelle to cover the rent on her adorable little house, make her student loan payments, and feed herself, plus have some money left over for fun stuff. That made her less susceptible to Louis's occasional bribery attempts.
He was starting to look a little haunted. "You can have the rest of the week off."
"Today's Friday. There is no more rest of the week." She needed to put an end to this argument before he broke out the puppy-dog eyes — the ones that had just convinced her to blow off work and go to a movie. "Besides, my work has to get done. If I took a day off, I'd just have to do twice as much the next day."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Marriage Lessons"
Copyright © 2018 Katie Allen.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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