Read an Excerpt
No Flowers Required
A Love Required Novel
By Cari Quinn, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Cari Quinn
All rights reserved.
This was officially the crappiest day of Alexa Conroy's life.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Harvey Walton, her real estate agent, asked. He'd called to make sure she was happy with how the sale of her home had gone, and she'd yet to do little more than answer in short sentences.
She'd sold her dream house for a very good price in a depressed market. How could she complain? The discount-store violet Harvey had sent didn't exactly thrill her, but she couldn't fault the gesture. Nope, it was the obvious red-and-white sticker of her nemesis, Value Hardware, on the bottom of the pot she faulted, not Harvey.
The only good thing about her new apartment was that she wouldn't have to see her nemesis down the block unless she pressed her forehead against the window. And since said window had enough grime to reduce the outward view significantly, she wasn't going to touch the thing, especially with her face.
"No, thanks," she said, setting the violet on the windowsill. Judging from its wilted state, it would probably be dead in a couple days. "Out of curiosity, why did you choose to buy the violet from Value Hardware? I assure you no one on their staff knows flowers like I do."
At Harvey's silence, she gusted out a sigh. She didn't need to take out her frustration on him. It wasn't his fault that if she saw one more of Value's signature smiley-face balloons around town she'd probably go postal. Or was it floral, since she operated a floral shop?
"I'm sorry, Harvey," she said, pressing her fingertips against her forehead. God, she needed a massage. Not in the budget, buttercup. "I appreciate all your help. You made the whole process painless." As painless as it could be to sell the house she'd hoped to live in for the rest of her life. But she'd done it for the right reasons, and that made all the difference. No doom and gloom here. "So I should receive the check by next week?"
"By the end of next week, definitely."
Her brain blinked out on his talk of administrative procedures as she noticed the large spider building a tapestry—screw calling it a web, this thing was big enough to occupy a wall of a museum—in the closet where she'd planned on putting her clothes. Her designer wardrobe just happened to be the last shred of her freewheeling, party-girl lifestyle. She didn't even get to have the sex that went with it anymore, since she'd involuntarily taken up celibacy as a participant sport.
Despite her general malaise lately, she wasn't going to balk about killing one of God's creatures out of misplaced sympathy. There was a line that couldn't be crossed by man or nature. Infringing on her woefully inadequate closet space was it.
"Alexa?" Harvey asked. "Are you still there?"
"Yeah, sorry. I have a situation to attend to. But thanks again, and I'll be sure to call the next time I have a real estate—" She broke off. Uh-uh. No. The only real estate she had left was her shop, and that was rented. She had no intention of looking for new retail space, so she would have no use for Harvey. Ever. "Take care, Harvey," she said with her brightest smile as she clicked off.
Time to do some bug excavation.
She sidestepped her marmalade cat, Trixie, who seemed intent on tripping her, and seized her damp sponge and bucket. The whole apartment needed a thorough scour before she settled in, if she even could. She certainly didn't have many comforts of home yet. Her flat-screen TV, long leather couch, Tiffany-style floor lamp, and two end tables, plus her queen-size air mattress and the battered kitchen table left from the previous tenants, filled most of the space.
Oh, and she couldn't forget the contents of her "bedroom." She winced at the curtain of purple beads she'd jerry-rigged to section off the alcove that contained her air mattress. All she needed was a lava lamp and a black light and she'd be in her own sixties nightmare.
Narrowing her eyes, she studied the spider and its spindly legs. Already she could feel her resolve wavering. She glanced at the windows. Maybe she could dump the spider on the fire escape.
She glanced at her fat sponge. Or she could smash it and move on with her day.
Pretend it's Value Hardware. That she could do.
All she had to do was visualize the hardware store's sterile white walls and its annoyingly efficient robot-slash-droid-slash-checkout people, who were only too happy to load discount flower displays into the backs of minivans. After all, they had half an aisle of hastily assembled arrangements. Why visit Alexa's store, Divine Flowers, when a person could make do with something that cost half as much?
Craftsmanship and exquisite blooms didn't mean much in a crappy economy, and she got that. Hell, her own personal economy was currently in the shitter, so how could she quibble?
She needed to off the happy little spider—which really wasn't that monstrous in the right light—and get cleaning the rest of her new dwellings.
Water. That would kill the spider more humanely. Right.
Determined, she marched into the bathroom to turn on the faucet, prepared to soak her sponge and kick spider ass. A gush of liquid fountained down her front. "Holy shit. Seriously?"
Grumbling, she knelt to study the pipes, sure she could figure this out on her own. Was a washer loose? Maybe if she dug her screwdriver out of her pink ladies' toolbox she could tighten something. Or screw something. Or something something to stop the damn water now trickling on the floor.
She'd been a homeowner and she ran a business, solo. Surely she could—
At the sound of water burbling in the pipes, she squealed and overcompensated, falling back on her butt. Over went the bucket and sponges she'd dropped the first time she'd gotten sprayed. Her ass hit the cracked tile floor hard, jarring her bones and bruising her in unpleasant places.
Before she could be treated to any more impromptu baths, she crawled up on her knees and turned off the spigot. The chlorine-scented water had already made the place reek like a pool house. She rubbed her damp forehead and caught her breath. Or tried to.
First she'd discovered that the air-conditioning was undependable at best, and it was only mid-August. Now this. What if this was just the beginning? If there were water issues, how would she wash her dishes? How would she bathe?
"Oh my God. Breathe." She rose and willed herself not to have a panic attack. She hadn't had one in years, and now would not be a good day to start.
Everything was fine. First day in her new place and she had an extra from Arachnophobia chilling in her closet and a nonfunctional sink. No big deal.
"You forgot that tonight you're sleeping on an air mattress shielded by a beaded curtain," she muttered at her reflection, taking in her lopsided topknot and the streak of dirt on her cheek. She'd also developed a few more wrinkles since this morning, which probably wasn't too surprising.
She smudged the lines on the mirror and noticed they came off on her fingertips. At this point, she almost preferred thinking her age-relief face cream had failed. Otherwise it meant she'd moved into a serious dump, and if so, whose fault was that?
The afternoon she'd signed the rental agreement—the day she'd put her gorgeous mountain hideaway on the market—came roaring back with sterling clarity. The only thing that had mattered was finding a cheap, affordable apartment close to work. Couldn't get much closer than two flights above her store, right? The rest of the building looked snazzy enough—on the outside. On the inside, it was a big ol' mess.
But she wasn't going to stand for it. She'd be damned if she dealt with face-eating spiders and bathroom flooding in the same day.
She refastened her sloppily chic bun. Her makeup had worn off hours ago and her cute purple top no longer looked so fresh. Especially not with the giant water splotch over one breast. Too bad she didn't have the time or energy to change. Besides, the odds were slim she'd encounter a hot guy on her way to speak to the scarily efficient-looking building manager.
Her long skirt clung to her legs, but it didn't alter her single-minded march across her apartment. She had her game face on, and she was prepared to do battle. They wouldn't railroad her into accepting deplorable conditions. She'd just demand that her sink be serviced immediately. Then she'd do a quick tidying job on the apartment, clean herself up, and go have dinner with her best friend, Nellie.
She headed down the hall, only wobbling a bit on her waterlogged Christian Louboutins. The audible squish really didn't add anything to her mood, but she had more important things to worry about at the moment.
Abruptly, Alexa stopped in front of an open apartment door and widened her eyes. Who was that?
A man wearing tight jeans and a black T-shirt stretched tight over a taut back meant for fingernail marks knelt in the middle of an apartment with a floor plan just like hers, methodically ripping up strips of the laminate. He faced away from her, which gave her the perfect opportunity to study the bunch and flex of muscles in his sinewy forearms. He wore some sort of copper cuff around one wrist, and a tattoo flashed from under the sleeve on his other arm. She couldn't make out what the tat was, but one thing she could discern with no trouble at all.
Beefcake boy had a hell of an ass.
Which brought her thoughts around full circle to her streak of celibacy. She couldn't fix all the problems in her life in one go, but was a night of blow-the-roof-off spectacular sex too much to ask for?
No. It damn well wasn't. Besides, there was more to life than work, and she was doing everything she could there. She'd started to import more specialty flowers from far-flung places. Delicate blooms rarely seen around the hills of Pennsylvania. She'd hired an amazing new floral designer at substantial cost. Soon, no one would doubt that Divine Flowers was a force to be reckoned with. With her new designer, she would be more equipped to handle splashier events. Eventually, when the budget allowed, she'd be able to hire a whole team of designers.
Divine would survive. Thrive, even. No matter what it took.
She knocked on the open door, then knocked again when he kept working. Diligent. She liked that. "Excuse me?"
That he didn't turn to face her moderately grated, but hey, she still had his ass to observe. She didn't mind talking to his backsi—err, back.
Better yet, perhaps she'd found someone to make her very happy to be alive for a few hours. Someone who would make her forget about huge spiders, possibly ruined boots, and impending financial collapse. Maybe, just maybe, this guy would fit the bill.
Though she should probably talk to him before she started plotting sex-capades.
"I'm assuming you're the building handyman?" she prompted.
His lengthy hesitation earned him a frown he didn't bother to shift around to see. "Need some service, ma'am?"
Her frown spread. She wasn't used to being ignored, at least not when she'd almost made up her mind to rock his world. "I have a leak."
He set down his stripping tool and swiveled on his knees toward her. Though he wasn't smiling, he didn't seem annoyed by the interruption either. A handy thing, that, since his face sucked the thoughts from her head. Yeah. He'll do.
She was due a karmic windfall after all she'd gone through recently, wasn't she? Maybe this—he—was it.
If not, there was always the purple wand with butterfly attachment in her suitcase.
She wouldn't have called him traditionally handsome. His jaw was too square, his eyebrows too slashing. A copper ring highlighted one of them, stealing her attention from his large, long-lashed eyes, though from this distance she couldn't tell their color. He wore his dark blond hair in a buzz cut, grown out enough to make her want to feel the prickle against her palm.
His mouth quirked when she continued to silently catalog his features as if he were the featured male model in an underwear advertisement. Slowly, he dragged his own gaze down her body, but she didn't look down to see what he saw. He held her riveted, as did that intriguing fluttering thing happening in her belly. She hadn't fluttered in regard to a man in way too long.
"You do look a little ... wet." He didn't smile, but his amusement came through loud and clear.
Alexa looked down and gasped. Her flowing cream skirt with its miniature purple flowers had gone from sheer to transparent. It stuck to her legs from ankle to hip, highlighting everything—including her blush-pink panties. She might as well have not been wearing a slip at all.
"It's the sink," she managed, so mortified that her throat closed around the words. She could deal with moving out of her dream home. Could handle extreme business competition. What she couldn't face were fashion faux pas that led to entertaining random handymen. "I was going to clean and the sink threw up all over me!"
"You were cleaning, princess?" He rose from the floor and rubbed his forearm over the sweat beading on his forehead. No wonder. This apartment was like an oven set on broil.
Her store had functional AC, something that was necessary for her flowers. She'd been told the units all had air-conditioning as well, but apparently that didn't apply to this one.
She crossed her arms over her chest and thanked God her damp top was royal purple and therefore not see-through. "Who are you calling princess? And how do you know what I clean or don't clean, plumber?"
"Who said I intended to help you with your plumbing problem?" He bent to pick up his toolbox and strode to the doorway, taking a moment to tower over her when she refused to give way. She didn't doubt the move was intentional. "And didn't anyone ever teach you it's not nice to make fun of the help?"
He had to be six inches taller than her, at a minimum. Considering she was five-eight, she didn't meet a lot of guys who could tower over her. Or even lean much. When combined with the raw, sexual pheromones he exuded along with the faint, clean scent of perspiration, she couldn't quite breathe properly. The chlorine fumes must've screwed with her lung function.
"You called me princess. Plumber is hardly an insult, if that's one of your job responsibilities," she said, stepping aside. If she didn't, he'd probably call her more names and drip sweat on her. Actually he'd probably produce more just to prove he wasn't lacking in the testosterone department. He seemed like the type.
Again he swept his gaze up and down her body, but not in a sexual manner. More like he was appraising her as he might a particularly thick slab of drywall. "You wear the clothes of one, you get the title. So about that leak of yours ..."
"In my apartment." She balled her hands into fists. "My bathroom sink."
"Ah. Glad you clarified." He walked ahead of her down the hall, pushing open the door of number 33 without waiting for her direction. "You know, this doesn't really strike me as your sort of place. How did a woman like you end up here? Though I've gotta say, nice furniture. Leather and Tiffany." He winked at her over his gigundo shoulder. "Princess."
She fought not to sniff. "There's nothing wrong with this building." It was one thing for her to think negative thoughts about her new home. He wasn't allowed. "And how did you know which apartment was mine?"
Was he some sort of peeper? Had he crept along the fire escape outside her apartment and watched her blow up her air mattress? Maybe he knew her from her shop. People came in and out all the time. Not enough people, but still.
He didn't respond, just set down his toolbox in the bathroom with a clatter. Without comment, he went to the kitchen and did something under that sink before reappearing in the bathroom doorway. "What seems to be the problem?"
How many times did she need to say the same thing? She pointed to the bathroom sink. "The sink leaks. This sink, not the kitchen one."
"Got that. I had to turn off the main water valve or else you're going to get wet all over again." He stole another quick glance at her damp skirt, probably figuring she wouldn't notice.
Excerpted from No Flowers Required by Cari Quinn, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2012 Cari Quinn. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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