After being the quiet, shy girl her whole life, Elise Markham is ready for a mental makeover. She’s done keeping to herself and staying out of trouble—it’s time to break out of her shell and maybe meet someone intriguing in the process. So, on a photography trip to Bluebonnet, she has a whole lot more on her mind than snapping photos, especially when Rome walks into the picture.
Playing dirty is fun.
The newest instructor at Wilderness Survival Expeditions has a colorful past, to say the least. Having come from a family of notorious con artists that destroyed his credit and reputation, all before his eighteenth birthday, Rome just wants a decent job and a quiet life in a town where no one knows his name. He’s exactly the kind of bad boy that an innocent girl like Elise should stay far away from.
But Elise is tired of doing what’s right. She’s ready to throw caution to the wind—and let Rome show her just how exciting being bad can be…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There were days, Elise Markham decided, when the world seemed to be hideously unfair.
If the world was fair, she wouldn’t have been born with that awful port-wine stain on her entire left cheek. It didn’t matter that she’d had it lasered away in her teen years. When she looked in the mirror, she could swear she still saw traces of it there, discoloring her from jaw to brow. And if she saw it, so did everyone else. If the world was fair, karma wouldn’t have then turned around and slapped her with scoliosis during puberty that involved wearing a bulky back brace and made her even more of a social misfit.
If the world was fair, that would have been enough and she wouldn’t have had to go through the other awful things teenage girls did, like pudgy thighs and pimples and braces. But she had. She’d endured those things and then some.
All of which had told Elise by the age of thirteen that the world wasn’t fair, and she needed to stop wishing it was.
Because, if the world was fair? Her new friends would not be trying to set her up on a blind date.
“What about that really quiet, tall officer?” Miranda asked, raising her margarita glass and licking the salt from the rim. “The one who’s the sheriff’s son. He’s not bad looking. He gave me a ticket last month for speeding and I thought he was kind of cute. In a law-officer sort of way.”
Miranda and Brenna sat across from Elise in a cozy booth at Maya Loco, the only restaurant in tiny Bluebonnet. Beth Ann was at the bar, getting a refill on her drink and chatting with a friend. It was busy in the restaurant, the noisy hum of voices and clinking forks making it difficult to hold a quiet conversation.
Not that it stopped the women she was seated with. At her side in the booth, Brenna shook her head. She twirled her short red mixing straw in her drink as she spoke. “He hooked up with that weird blogger chick. Emily’s sister. You’re a few months too late.”
“Oh. Rats.” Miranda screwed up her face. “I know this is a small town, but Jesus. There have to be some hot, eligible men around here.”
“It’s really okay,” Elise said, but her voice was so quiet beneath the din of the restaurant happy hour that she wasn’t sure anyone heard her. “I don’t need to date.”
“I stole the last hottie,” Brenna said with a sly grin. She winked at Elise and adjusted her purple bangs on her forehead. “Lucky for me he’s into tattoos and kinky sex.”
Elise made a face at the same time Miranda did. “Um.”
“That’s her brother, you sicko,” Miranda said. “Gross.”
“Doesn’t matter. He’s hot. Those uptight clothes and frumpy glasses? Mmm.” Brenna fanned her face. “Great big cock—”
“Still her brother,” Miranda said.
Elise nodded. Brenna was weird. Sweet, but weird. No one could predict the things that came out of her mouth, so it was best for Elise to just sit back and let someone else correct Brenna when she spouted off. Not that Elise would ever say something to hurt Brenna’s feelings—her brother’s fiancée was strange, but Elise thought she was great. Brenna marched to the beat of her own drum—she wore old T-shirts and ill-fitting clothing more often than not. Actually, most of the time it was Grant’s clothing, which was odd to see. But her uptight, once-lonely workaholic brother worshipped Brenna, and for that, Elise adored her as well.
“There’s got to be someone,” Miranda muttered.
“Someone for what?” Beth Ann slid into the booth next to Elise.
Self-conscious at the appearance of the statuesque blonde, Elise straightened, careful to raise one shoulder above the other so it wouldn’t look like she was slumping. Adolescent scoliosis had made her incredibly aware of her posture, and she was constantly self-correcting and hoping no one else noticed. Of her three new friends, Beth Ann was the most intimidating. Miranda was pretty but scholarly. Brenna was cheery and strange, and dressed like a slob. But Beth Ann? Beth Ann was completely perfect, from her delicately manicured nails to her faint tan in November and her immaculate blond hair. She was also dressed in a dainty gingham dress topped with a matching cardigan and slingbacks.
She was intimidating, all right. But Beth Ann was also the sweetest person that Elise knew, and she was going to be her partner in a new business venture, provided Elise decided to stay in Bluebonnet. But . . . she hadn’t decided yet.
“A man for Elise to date,” Miranda offered, delicately licking a large grain of margarita salt off of one finger. “Since we’re all paired up, we thought it might be a good idea to find Elise a man, too.”
Elise shook her head and whispered, “I really don’t—”
Miranda snapped her fingers, cutting off Elise’s thoughts. “I know! What about one of Colt’s brothers?”
“Oh, honey, no,” Beth Ann said in her sweet drawl. “Berry’s the only one close to her age and he’s not right for her. At all.”
Brenna leaned across the table toward Elise and gave her a mock-conspiratorial whisper. “Colt’s brothers are all named after guns. Berry’s short for Beretta. It’s all very redneck.”
“Honey,” Beth Ann said again. “She knows that. She grew up here, remember?” Of the four women at the table, only Brenna wasn’t originally from Bluebonnet.
“Actually, I don’t know them all that well,” Elise said in a small voice. “I went to boarding school as soon as I was old enough.” And she’d never left the house much before that, too ashamed of the gigantic purple mark that had disfigured her cheek. Even now, she had to fight the urge to drag her long hair over that side of her face to hide it. “But it’s okay.” She did remember hearing Grant’s stories about Colt’s poor-as-dirt family while she was growing up. Not that she was a snob, but when even Colt didn’t want to associate with his family, it was bad.
Beth Ann patted Elise’s hand. “We’ll find you a good guy, honey. Don’t you worry. I have a few single clients. Let me think.”
God, she didn’t want anyone. Or rather, no one would want her. But her friends seemed determined to find her someone to date, which made her want to cringe and hide. She felt like a charity case, which only made things worse. Our poor ugly, shy friend can’t find a man? We’ll just have to find one for her.
The worst part was that she knew they meant well; but it still hurt. It hurt that she was ungainly and unattractive enough to have to resort to charity. Being single and alone was so much easier. No hopes to get up. “I don’t really want to date right now, Beth Ann,” Elise said in a low, soft voice. “I just don’t think—”
“Nonsense,” Brenna interrupted. “You just sit in your room every night over at the bed-and-breakfast unless we drag you out. That’s not healthy.”
“That’s not true,” Elise protested, then bit her lip. Okay, so it was a little true. “Sometimes I go out and take photos.” But only at times when she wouldn’t risk running into too many of the nosy, well-meaning people of Bluebonnet. People who would stop and try to have a conversation with her.
Elise wasn’t good with conversations. Actually, she wasn’t good with small talk, period.
“You don’t want to date?” Miranda looked crestfallen. “Really?”
It wasn’t that Elise didn’t, exactly. She wasn’t the type that guys dated. And she was getting up toward the age that it was starting to become weird. Never dated by twenty-four? You’re clearly a freak. She didn’t know how to date, how to make out, anything. It was easier to just eschew it entirely. “I’m concentrating on business right now,” she said. “And besides, like Beth Ann said, I grew up here. There’s no one in town who interests me. No one here is my type.”
“So what’s your type?” Brenna wanted to know.
Her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth. Should she lie? She was a terrible liar. Really, the only thing she was excellent at was taking photos and avoiding people. But admitting her type would make it pretty obvious who she liked. More than liked, really. She had a schoolgirl crush on a man who was sexy, covered in tattoos and piercings, and rode a motorcycle.
But only one man in Bluebonnet matched that description. So Elise said nothing, because speaking would have betrayed her thoughts, and she had no desire to be humiliated like that. She simply shrugged her shoulders.
“Do you like tall men?” Brenna prompted. “Short men with a coke-can dick?”
“Let it go,” Beth Ann said, coming to Elise’s defense with a laugh. “If Elise doesn’t want someone in town, I can’t say I blame her.”
“We could always get her an out-of-towner,” Miranda said with a sly glance in her direction. At her side, Brenna gave a chortle and elbowed her, then nodded in the distance.
Beth Ann and Elise turned.
Coming across the crowded restaurant, beer in hand, was none other than the object of Elise’s crush, Rome Lozada. Oh no. Elise immediately turned away, feeling her face turn a bright, beet red that would make the remains of the old stain darken on her face. Please, no.
Oblivious to Elise’s distress, Brenna waved a hand. “Rome! Hey! Come sit with us!”
Elise whimpered in her throat. Luckily, the restaurant was too noisy for it to be overheard. She stared down at her iced tea, unable to work up the courage to lift it to her mouth, lest someone notice her movements. Maybe Rome was meeting friends and wouldn’t be sitting with them.
To her dismay, he came and stood at the end of their table. “Ladies.” He gave them a gorgeous smile, and Elise felt her pulse flutter. No man should be that pretty. “Am I interrupting girls’ night out?” He glanced at their group, and his gaze seemed to linger on Elise. “Hey, Bo Peep.”
She averted her gaze, staring at her drink. With a quick shift of her chin, her hair fell forward. “Hi.” His nickname was so embarrassing. He called her that because he said she looked lost. She was pretty sure that was supposed to be an insult, wasn’t it?
“We’re just trying to find Elise a man,” Miranda said, a hint of slurring in her voice. Too many margaritas for her. “You know of any good pieces of man-meat?”
“Other than yourself,” Brenna said, and gave him a wicked, lascivious look. “You’re the best man-meat we have in town. Other than all the ones that are taken, of course.”
“Am I?” Rome laughed at Brenna’s outrageous comments. “Maybe I should volunteer to be Elise’s man-meat, then.”
Elise wanted to crawl under the table. She shrank down, just a little, and kept staring at her glass. Was he really volunteering to date her? Or just humoring a tipsy Brenna? Was this a suggestion born out of pity? That would be just awful. Elise’s throat felt knotted in embarrassment. No one as gorgeous as Rome Lozada would even look in her direction, except for the fact that her well-meaning friends were trying to coerce him into asking her out. Ugh.
“Brenna,” Beth Ann said in a chiding voice. “Be nice.” Elise felt Beth Ann shift in the booth, turning toward Rome. “What these two drunks aren’t telling you is that Elise isn’t interested in dating anyone in town. There’s no one who’s Elise’s type. She’s already said so, but these ladies won’t take no for an answer.”
Oh god! Now Beth Ann had just told Rome that he wasn’t her type and she didn’t like him. That was either a blessing or the worst thing ever.
“That so?” Rome gave a hard-sounding chuckle. “Guess Elise is too picky for the likes of me, then.”
She wanted to protest, or apologize, but the words wouldn’t form.
“Now, now,” Brenna called, and Elise glanced over at her long enough to see her reaching out and patting Rome’s tattooed arm. “Don’t be sad. I’m sure you’re other women’s type. Just not Elise’s.” She leaned in and whispered loudly, “You probably talk too much.”
Miranda snorted and drank again.
“You ladies sound like you’re enjoying your drinks,” Rome said, voice cool. “I take it you have a designated driver?”
That was her. Elise raised her hand, not looking up.
Rome made a noise of approval. “Well, I’ll leave you be, then. Enjoy your drinks. See you at work tomorrow, Brenna.”
“Bye, man-meat,” Brenna called after him. Miranda dissolved into giggles. Beth Ann only sighed at their antics.
Elise had been nursing a crush on Rome for a few weeks now. She’d stayed overnight at the Daughtry Ranch when she’d first come in to town, visiting her brother, Grant. Her brother and two of his friends from high school, Dane and Colt, had started a survival expedition business where they took businessmen and school groups out in the wild and showed them how to survive. They ran it all out of a big ranch on the outskirts of town, and there was a big lodge that doubled as a rec room and office for the business.
Elise had crashed on one of the couches one night and woken up to see Rome Lozada staring down at her. She’d immediately become flustered because the man was utterly, insanely delicious, and he’d simply laughed and called her Bo Peep. She’d been totally tongue-tied around him.
That hadn’t changed in the last two weeks, unfortunately. She was still tongue-tied around him.
Elise watched a droplet of condensation slide down the front of her glass, wishing she were back in her nice, safe room at the bed-and-breakfast. Rome Lozada, the hottest man that Elise had ever seen, thought she was a snob and too good for the men in Bluebonnet.
Yep. That clinched it. The world was definitely not fair.
• • •
Elise stared at the email rejection in her inbox, wondering if it was possible to have your heart broken through a message. If so, hers had just been pounded into smithereens.
While it’s a great idea, Crissy had written, I’m afraid that I’m not a big fan of the photographs. There’s something missing in them. There’s no life, no energy. I hate to say it, but they read like they were taken by a teenager, not a grown woman. I know you’ve been working hard at finding the right thing for the magazine, but this isn’t it, either. I keep coming back to the feeling that your pictures are a little too safe and unmemorable. It’s like . . . there’s not enough life experience and it shows in the photos. I’d love to have you take a year off, go out and live a little, and then come back with a fresh, bolder perspective.
Professionally, Elise knew it was great feedback and an encouraging response.
Personally . . . it hurt.
She’d been friends with Crissy since college, when they’d both taken journalism classes. Elise had steered toward photojournalism while Crissy had gone more toward the editorial side, but they’d remained friends even after graduation, and had vowed to work together on a future project. Crissy had been working for a popular women’s magazine for the last few years, and Elise had submitted a few concepts for photo spreads, but each time they were rejected with the same sort of commentary.
Not quite what we’re looking for.
Not enough life experience.
How the heck did something like that show in her photographs? Elise didn’t understand. Her photos were gorgeous—not that she was biased, of course. They were crisp, the colors were good, but when she looked at them again, she had to agree: something was missing.
She just didn’t know what that something was.
Frustrated, Elise opened up Photoshop and stared at the pictures she’d sent to Crissy, trying to determine what was wrong. They were photos she’d taken a week or so ago of Rome Lozada, he of the gorgeous body and even more gorgeous face. He looked delectable, of course. Nothing could make that man look bad. In the photo, he was covered in mud and his skin was gleaming with beaded droplets of water. He looked insanely good and her heart ached just gazing at him.
But like Crissy said, there was something off in the photo. It wasn’t Rome. It wasn’t the scene. It was just . . . Elise didn’t know. Heck, if she knew, she’d be able to fix the issue.
Unable to come to a conclusion, she flicked her mouse and Photoshopped a crayon-like smile on Rome Lozada’s face.
Considering the picture, she played with a couple of editing filters and ended up elongating his crotch to a ridiculous length, just because it made her laugh.The things we go through to feel better about our work, she mused to herself.
She set the modified picture as her computer desktop background just to amuse herself, and then sighed in frustration. She’d been hoping that photo shoot would lead to a layout, and that layout would be her big break. It would have also given her yet another chance to see Rome Lozada, shirtless and sexy.
More than anything, it would have been her chance to prove herself.
Unfortunately, Elise was getting nowhere fast. She had a backup business in mind with Beth Ann—pinup photography. But Beth Ann wouldn’t be back for several weeks, as she’d gone to Alaska on her honeymoon with Colt just yesterday. So while the pinup photography would be fun, it was on hold at the moment. She needed Beth Ann for hair and make-up and for dealing with people. She couldn’t do it on her own.
So Elise was more or less at odds and ends until she had a new project. She could return home with her parents, but the thought of doing that made her unhappy. She wanted to make something of herself.
She was tired of living at home. She was twenty-four years old. She’d been out of college for two years now, and she was still only freelancing for the occasional family photo.
Her parents wanted her to relax and take a break, since the photography was stressful. That was the problem with her parents. They sheltered her and thought she was fragile. Maybe she had been at one point, but she was an adult now, and she was tired of being protected from the world.
She needed to see things with new eyes.
How, she had no idea. Elise wasn’t good at jumping out of the box.
But . . . Brenna was. Elise considered this and then grabbed the keys to her rental car. Brenna would have ideas. Sure, they’d be insane ideas, but maybe she could sift through the crazy stuff and find a decent one that would be a start.
• • •
To Elise’s chagrin, the tiny parking lot at Wilderness Survival Expeditions was nearly full. She squeezed her rental into one of the back parking spaces in the gravel lot and then cautiously made her way toward the main cabin. Out on the front lawn, Dane Croft stood with a pack looped over one shoulder. Four men were lined up in front of him, all dressed in wilderness gear. They had no packs, and one had painted his face with camouflage and seemed to be devouring every word that Dane said.
They glanced over at her as she headed for the doorstep, and Elise self-consciously shrank back a bit.
Dane gave her a quick wave. “Hey there. We were just heading out.” He nodded at the men in front of him. “You guys ready?”
“Ready,” they chorused.
Dane nodded at her and then gestured for the men to follow him, and they took off across the grass in quick, eager footsteps.
Elise watched them leave, then headed into the main log cabin. Wilderness Survival Expeditions used to be a ranch, she had been told by her brother, Grant. An emu ranch, of all things. The main “house” of the business looked like an enormous log cabin, complete with rustic kitchen and enormous stone fireplace. Scattered around the parking lot were a handful of personal cabins where the instructors lived. They were all childhood friends of her brother . . . well, except for the newest one, Rome.
The hottest, most delicious, newest one, she thought. Elise sighed as she entered the cabin, biting her lip. Part of her wanted to open the door and see Rome, and part of her dreaded running into him.
But when she went in, only Brenna was seated at her desk, and Elise felt a pang of disappointment. No hot, vaguely scary guy to gawk at.
“Hey,” Brenna said, waving cheerily at Elise. She had her new puppy in her hands and forced the puppy to wave a paw. “What brings you here this morning? You come to hang out?”
Elise smiled at her brother’s fiancée and sat down in the chair across from her desk. “I was a little bored and thought I’d come and see about taking some photos. The light is great today.”
“Working? Barf.” Brenna nuzzled her puppy. “No one’s really working today. Isn’t that right, Gollum?”
Elise tactfully refrained from pointing out that Brenna was, in fact, at work, and seated at her work desk. “Where’s Grant?”
“Sleeping in. I wore him out.” She gave Elise a wickedly smug smile. “I wouldn’t ask questions if I were you.”
“Um. Okay. I don’t think I want to know more.”
“So how goes the man hunt?” Brenna looked excited. “It’s been a week. You score yet?”
“Man hunt?” Elise shook her head, feeling the hot flush creep up her cheeks. “I’m not looking for a man.” But even as she said it, a flurry of images flashed through her mind. Rome Lozada, shirtless and muddy. Crissy’s email. Not enough life in her pictures.
“What about those beefcakes that Dane just took into the woods? We could always call them back for a minor emergency and send you off with them.” Brenna gave her an encouraging look and wagged her eyebrows. “That’s how Miranda met Dane, remember?”
“Um, I don’t think any of them were my type,” Elise said in a soft voice. One had camo on his face and looked as if he’d want to skip the camping phase and go right to the skinning of animals.
“You’re so picky. No one’s your type, according to you.” Brenna kissed her puppy’s wrinkly forehead.
Elise gave her a faint smile. She wanted to ask Brenna how she could get more life experience—Brenna would know more than anyone.
But there was something that held her back. Maybe because Brenna was distracted this morning by the puppy? Maybe because she’d run into a few men on the way in and that had set her on edge?
She realized that anything she asked Brenna would be innocently blurted back out to her brother, Grant, and right now she didn’t want to have to deal with it. She could just imagine the pitying looks that Grant would send her way. His poor, fragile baby sister.
She was so tired of being the delicate flower everyone had to protect.
Mentally, she squashed her idea of asking Brenna about ways to get life experience. She’d simply have to think of something on her own.
“So whatcha working on?” Brenna asked. “More pinups?”
She shook her head. “Not until Beth Ann gets back. I have the keys to her salon, but no appointments set up. We still don’t even have a website.” And if she wanted to be honest, the pinups were fun if Beth Ann was there. By herself, she couldn’t really do hair and makeup. She didn’t have the skill. “I thought I’d see if you guys needed pictures for the paintball brochures.”
“Probably,” Brenna said, cuddling her puppy against her chest. “Sounds kind of boring to me.”
“I don’t mind it,” Elise said, watching Brenna play with the puppy’s ears. It was like trying to keep the attention of a two-year-old. How on earth did she not drive ever-so-proper, work-oriented Grant insane? “Is it okay if I go ahead and head out to look at the grounds?”
“Sure,” Brenna said. “I’ll stay here in case Grant wakes up and wants me to work. Or did you want company?”
“No, I’m fine. I know where it is. Thank you, though.”
Chickening out, Elise shouldered her camera bag and headed out of the lodge.
The day was a great one for photos. The skies were bright but overcast, ensuring that any photos she took wouldn’t be a mess of shadows. There was a hint of a chill in the air, but Elise tugged the sleeves of her old sweatshirt down over her bare hands to warm them. The breeze scattered the leaves, and she watched it for a minute, then decided that it would be good for the picture. She could always take new ones in the spring if she was still in Bluebonnet.
Not that she had a reason to be. She was just drifting, in between everything, at home nowhere.
She hated that. But if she set down roots in Bluebonnet, she’d need a reason to keep hanging around. The Wilderness Survival Expeditions business was too small to need a photographer on hand at all times. Beth Ann already had her hands full with her salon. Elise didn’t have a home here, or a car. Or anyone that she could say she was staying for.
There was Grant, but Grant had Brenna. The last thing he needed was his pathologically shy sister lurking around in shadowy corners, cringing at the thought of someone talking to her.
Elise headed up the trail to the area that had been fenced off for the paintball course. They’d set aside a few acres, enclosed it with a rail fence that was already getting covered with multiple colors of paint, and were working on adding obstacles and scenery for game scenarios. Rome and Colt’s pop had actually built a rather neat castle construct, and she wanted to get a photo of that for the brochure, since it would likely be the focus of a multitude of games.
She pulled her camera out and selected a lens, then did a few test shots, reviewing them on the screen on the back of the camera. As a hobbyist, she loved “real” film and developing her own photos in a darkroom, but practicality meant that digital won out almost every time. There was never an issue with too many chemicals, not enough chemicals, and underdeveloped photos when all you had to do was import your file.
Elise tucked her bag near the fence post, out of the way, and began to trek through the rolling hills and bushy growth of the paintball course. She snapped a few photos here and there, testing shots, playing with angles, and trying to mentally picture what would look good in the brochures. In several spots, mini barricades made of stacked logs had been set up at corner angles for defensible positions. Someone was putting a lot of work and thought into the paintball course, and Elise was impressed by it. Heck, she didn’t play paintball and it even looked like fun to her.
Over a ridge, she made out the edges of the castle. Constructed entirely of wood, the castle was about twenty feet tall at its highest, and had walls about ten feet high angling over to the side of a cliff. It was defensible, but the back end was open so no team could dig in and corner themselves. The tops of the castle walls were crenellated, and an orange flag was flapping at the top of the castle itself. The side of the wall facing her was painted gray with black lines denoting a brick pattern. It was rather cool, she admitted to herself, and snapped a photo of it from afar, then moved closer to get additional shots.
As soon as she stepped around the wall, she nearly ran into a shirtless Rome.
Elise gasped in shock and stumbled backward, only to have Rome reach out and grab her arm before she could topple over.
“Careful,” he told her. “Wet paint.”
Her eyes widened and she stiffened in surprise. She hadn’t been expecting anyone out here, and she hadn’t heard him working. The shock of seeing another person was bad enough; the fact that it was Rome, the object of her crush, had her speechless.
As always, Rome was mouth-wateringly beautiful. If she’d come up with a dream of what the ideal dangerous man would be, Rome fit the description to a tee. He was big and muscular, his torso thick and rock-hard, and his arms enormous, as if he worked out on a regular basis solely for the purpose of packing on muscle. In contrast to his dangerous body, he had a near-perfect face—beautiful blue eyes with thick, black lashes, a chiseled jaw, and a firm, unbroken nose. And he was pierced—through the nose, in both ears, in his lip. It only added to his wicked look.
Every time she saw him, she was struck by two things: how utterly pretty those blue, thickly lashed eyes were, and how completely covered in tattoos he was. Rome looked as if he’d never said no to someone wielding a needle, and his chest was covered from neck to navel with designs; both arms were colorful sleeves of tattoos. Tanned skin peeked out between the designs, along with the gleam of sweat on his body. He was shirtless despite the chill of the day, dressed only in a pair of sweatpants and combat boots.
Just the sight of him made her entire body lock up due to a mixture of longing and fear. Longing because he’d never want someone like her, and fear that he’d mock her or be cruel, as cocky men so often were when they came across a shy woman. His hand felt like a brand on her arm, scorching hot. She looked down at his tanned hand on her pale arm and noticed that even his long, strong fingers had tattoos.
Elise gulped and twisted her arm out of his.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.” He gestured with his other hand, which held a dripping paint roller. “I just didn’t want you to trip and ruin your clothes.”
She blinked at him, her mind racing. She should say something, she decided. She’d seen Rome about a half dozen times now, and she’d seen him without his shirt before. Every time he’d been nothing but polite. And it was just the two of them outside. This would be the perfect chance for her to smile and say something polite, like Beth Ann would, or crack a joke like Brenna.
But she wasn’t Beth Ann, and she wasn’t Brenna. She was Elise Markham, and she was tongue-tied. So her mind raced through a list of things to say, discarded each one, and ended up remaining mute.
“You taking pictures?” Rome asked her. “You want me to move out of the shot?”
She clutched her camera closer to her breast, letting her hair swing over her cheek to cover it. Oh god, she was outside in natural light. That was when the stain on her cheek was most visible. What if he noticed it? What if he saw that one of her shoulders slumped lower than the other? What if he asked about her posture? She’d be humiliated.
Hunching her shoulders, Elise skittered away a foot or two and popped on her lens cap. She stared at the ground. Say something, she chided herself.Anything! He’s going to think you hate him worse than he already thinks you do!
But she thought back to the other day, when she’d seen him at the restaurant.
Maybe I should volunteer to be Elise’s man-meat . . .
Oh god. What had he thought about their drunken suggestion? Had he been revolted? He probably was. He could get any girl he wanted—
“You okay?” Rome asked as she remained silent. She could feel his gaze on her.
She could tell him she was fine. That she wouldn’t have fallen over, and so it wasn’t necessary for him to grab her. She’d liked that grab, though. Even now, her skin throbbed where he’d touched her. She brushed her fingers over her arm, struggling to think of something to say that would sound strong. That would come out right.
But when nothing came to mind, she turned and bolted, hurrying away back to where she’d abandoned her camera bag.
She was such a coward.
Rome watched Elise Markham run away from him as if the hounds of hell were nipping at her feet and tried not to feel annoyed at the sight.
He’d never met a girl so completely wigged out at the sight of tattoos and a few piercings. He knew he wasn’t the most clean-cut guy, but hell. He wasn’t that grotesque, was he? Elise Markham had probably grown up with a silver spoon in her mouth and a Porsche in the driveway. She probably thought guys like him were just the help. That thought soured him on her, fast.
Sure, she was pretty. Damn pretty. Sweet and innocent-seeming, two things that cranked his chain. But she flinched and ran every time she saw him. It was either hate or fear. He couldn’t decide which one, and it was downright puzzling, considering that he was polite to her at all times.
But he remembered the words of her pretty friends in the restaurant. There’s no one in town who’s Elise’s type.
No one good enough for Little Miss Blueblood. That was the story of his life, Rome mused. Never good enough for the right kind of girls. He slapped the roller down into the gray paint and then ran it back over the wall, glad for the diversion of painting.
Work was always a good distraction, and this was clean, honest labor. He’d gladly do this until the sun went down. By then, he’d have pretty, snobby Elise Markham out of his head.
• • •
Six hours later, Rome had the base coat of the last castle wall painted, and he’d cut down some more logs to make another mini bunker to hide behind. He was rather pleased with how the paintball course was turning out. Pop was too old to help with the grunt work, and Dane was picking up all the training classes while Colt was on his honeymoon. Grant was doing whatever the boss did. Probably fucking his cute, crazy little secretary again, Rome figured.
That left Rome in charge of getting everything ready for the paintball course to open up next month. He didn’t mind. At this point, all it required was a little imagination and brute strength, and those were two things Rome had in spades. Plus, no one had fired him for lying about his credentials yet, so he still had a paycheck coming in and a roof over his head.
Things were looking up, really.
He put the paint and rollers away in the storage shed at the back of the main lodge and swiped at his brow again. He was sweating like a pig, and his muscles ached, but it was a good ache. The ache of a day spent in hard, honest labor. He liked that. It was, however, time for a shower and some food. Food first, he decided, and headed in to the main lodge through the back door.
Once he went inside, he heard voices in the kitchen. Old habits sprang up and he slowed his steps, pausing to listen.
“I don’t know that you should feed that thing Cheetos, Brenna.” That was Grant’s voice.
“Gollum likes Cheetos, doesn’t he?” Brenna made kissy noises at what Rome assumed was her puppy. “And you’re just being pissy and taking it out on us right now. Just spit it out already, baby.”
There was a long sigh from the kitchen. “You saw the way Elise ran out of here. Do you think he was harassing her?”
“He? I don’t seem to recall anyone that we hired who was named He.”
“You know who I mean. Rome. He’s a rough sort, Brenna. I still can’t believe you hired him. I— Hey. Don’t make that face at me. I’m just looking out for my sister.”
Rome tensed. Either this was perfect fucking timing or shit timing. Either way, it was good to know what his employer thought about him. He waited, listening in on the conversation.
“You’re being a snob,” Brenna said. “Just because he has some tattoos and piercings, it doesn’t mean that he’s a criminal.”
“It doesn’t mean that he’s not,” Grant countered. “I’m just worried about Elise and our clients. I don’t want him to give anyone the wrong impression, and I certainly don’t want him scaring my sister.”
“If your sister is scared of a few tattoos, she must be terrified of me. Just imagine what she’d think of my piercing.”
There was a long pause. “Please tell me you didn’t show my sister your piercing.”
“Of course not. That’s your property.” There was a sultry note in Brenna’s voice.
“Good. I was about to get a little bizarred out. And quit distracting me with thoughts of piercings.”
“But I like distracting you.” Brenna’s voice lowered to a purr. “In fact, if you’re good, I might just distract you as soon as dinner is ready.”
“I guess that’s my cue to go home and make it.”
“I do believe it is,” Brenna teased.
Things were quiet for a long moment, punctuated by a few pornographic groans and a puppy bark. Then it got quiet. Rome waited, body tense with anger.
“You can come out, now,” Brenna called to him. “Grant’s gone.”
Rome frowned to himself, then stepped out of the shadowy hallway and into the kitchen. Brenna stood near the counter, wearing a pair of jean cutoffs that were two sizes too big and a T-shirt that read TULANE. Her new puppy was on the counter, licking an orange Cheeto.
She gave him an appraising look, as if he’d been stripping purely for her pleasure. “Well, hello there.”
He ignored her playfulness. Brenna was obnoxious to everyone. It was harmless. “How’d you know I was there?”
“Gollum tried to go into the hall to greet you, and he’s normally a scaredy-cat, so I figured someone familiar was there. And Pop’s in town and Dane’s in the woods, so I thought it was you.” She wiggled her eyebrows at him. “So I distracted Grant. You’re welcome.”
He felt the sour burn of anger in his stomach. “Your fiancé hates me.”
“He does,” Brenna admitted, fishing another Cheeto out of the bag and offering it to her puppy. “But I wouldn’t take it personally. Grant doesn’t like anyone until he gets to know them. Just look at how long it took for us to get together despite him practically vibrating with sexual tension whenever he was around me.” She looked over at him and winked.
Rome went to the sink, washed his hands, then headed to the icebox and grabbed some lunch meat. He made himself a quick sandwich and took a bite out of it. Brenna didn’t seem to be leaving, so he asked, “Am I in danger of losing my job?”
She sighed and gave him an annoyed look. “Not you, too. Look, you’re fine. Grant doesn’t like you, but he didn’t like me, either, and I’m still working here. Just stay busy and low-key and he’ll relax. He’s got his panties in a bunch because his sister is here and his entire weird family seems to think that Elise is fragile and will break if someone looks at her wrong.”
He wasn’t sure he believed her. He’d let down his guard too many times and gotten dicked over in the past. He pulled a bit of meat off of his sandwich and offered it to her puppy. “I need this job, Brenna.”
“I know you do, Rome. And you’ve got me on your side. Don’t worry. Grant’s just a freak.” She patted his shoulder and then wrinkled her nose at her now sweat-and-grime-covered palm. “He’ll calm down once Elise is back home and he realizes you aren’t a serial killer or something.”
She sounded so confident that he couldn’t help but hope she was right. “I did see Elise today,” Rome admitted. “She came out to the paintball course while I was working on it. Saw me and turned and ran.”
“That girl’s kinda strange, no doubt about it. Nice kid, but strange.”
Rome took another bite of his sandwich, determined not to smirk at Brenna calling Elise a kid. He figured they were the same age, but there was a worldliness to Brenna that Elise was lacking. He swallowed, and then said, “Her brother doesn’t have to worry about her where I’m concerned. She’s scared shitless of me.”
“How is that weird? Her brother is convinced that I’m a convict just because I have a few tats.” He might not have been wrong about that, but Rome wasn’t going to bring that up unless absolutely necessary.
“Yeah, but Elise actually talks to me about stuff, and I wasn’t getting a fear vibe from her when it comes to you, if you know what I’m saying.” She wiggled her eyebrows at him.
Rome rolled his eyes. Brenna thought everyone was as horny as she was. There was no mistaking Elise’s terror when she’d fled earlier today, though. That wasn’t sexual tension. That was the opposite.
“Probably to be on the safe side, you should avoid her, though.” Brenna shrugged. “If she makes Grant all freaked out, you don’t want him coming down on you.”
“I have no intention of bothering her, trust me. I like this job and want to keep it.”
She winked at him and scooped her puppy up off of the counter. “I hear you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a fiancé to go molest.”
Brenna left and Rome finished his sandwich, made another, devoured it, and then headed off to his own cabin. His mood was black as he played through the day in his head over and over again. Elise’s fear of him. Grant’s perpetual dislike. Brenna’s careless words.
By the time he got back to his own cabin, he was fuming. He looked around at his place. It was threadbare but clean. The roof over his head didn’t leak, the bed had blankets on it, and he had his own bathroom. It was private, and best of all, it was his.
It had been a long time since he’d had a place of his own. He didn’t want to lose it because some rich bitch thought he was scary.
He calmed down a bit after a long, hot shower. Then he toweled off with his one threadbare towel—as soon as he got his next paycheck, he’d have to get himself some linens—and headed back into his room. He dressed and then lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
Rome didn’t have a TV in his small cabin. The main lodge had one, and it served as a rec room for the employees most nights. He’d spent several evenings having a beer with the guys and playing Xbox, but tonight he didn’t feel social. He was still pissed. Plus, Dane—who got along with everyone—was out in the woods, so his fiancée, Miranda, would be by herself. Seeing as how one female was scared of him, he didn’t need to alarm another. And since Colt and Beth Ann were in Alaska, that meant it’d be Pop, Grant, and Brenna.
Maybe he’d ride into town, have a beer at the bar. He picked up his phone to check the weather. It had started looking nasty earlier, and riding a Harley through a rainstorm wasn’t his favorite thing to do. Before he could check his weather app, though, a new text message flashed on the screen.
It’s J. You should know Dad’s out of prison and wants to catch up with us. I’m on the road but should be heading to Texas soon. Just a heads-up if you want to meet.
His brother, Jericho. Damn it. Rome deleted the message. The last thing he needed was his family hanging around and ruining what he had here.
• • •
That evening, Elise decided to stay in. It wasn’t that she couldn’t drive out to the main lodge and hang out. She’d be welcome.
It was that she was feeling a little weird about catching Rome shirtless and then running away like an idiot. Better to stay away for a few days until everyone forgot. Grant and Brenna wouldn’t miss her—they’d be too wrapped up in each other—and the sight of them flirting just made her feel even more like a third wheel.
Everyone she knew in Bluebonnet was paired off and living their own lives. It was Elise who was floating around, aimless. She couldn’t expect everyone to entertain her forever.
So tonight she’d be staying in at the Peppermint House.
The bed-and-breakfast was the only thing close to a hotel near tiny Bluebonnet, Texas. It was in the process of being renovated, but what was done so far was charming and adorably Victorian. Elise’s room was full of pinks and mauves, and the four-poster bed made her feel like a princess. The owner of the bed-and-breakfast, Emily Allard-Smith, was also as friendly and relaxed as they came, and Elise liked her a lot.
She headed downstairs and nearly ran into Emily, who was heading out the door, a food container and her keys in hand. She looked surprised to see Elise. “Oh. Are you staying in tonight?”
Elise gave her a sheepish smile and let her hair swing in front of her face. “I was considering it.”
“Oh! I thought you’d be going out.” Emily immediately turned around and headed toward the kitchen. “Let me whip you up some dinner.”
“It’s okay,” Elise said, trailing behind her. “Really. I can order a pizza or something.”
“Nonsense,” Emily fussed, putting her keys down on the counter and opening the fridge. “This is a bed-and-breakfast, and I feed my guests. Is a sandwich okay?”
“A sandwich is fine.” Elise sat on one of the barstools in the kitchen and admired the container of cookies Emily had placed on the fridge. “You heading to the police station?” It was no secret that Emily loved to cook, and when she didn’t have many guests, she ended up baking for the police station and the fire department. Elise was constantly being stuffed with delicious pastries every morning, thanks to Emily’s obsessive baking.
“No, heading over to visit Luanne.” She pulled a ton of ingredients onto the counter and began to construct an enormous sandwich for Elise, layering vegetables and condiments with all kinds of meat. “Hank’s working the late shift, so Luanne’s working on my webpage. She wants me to go over some of it with her, and I thought I’d bring some cookies as a thank-you to Hank.”
“That’s your sister who’s dating the police officer, right?” Elise hadn’t met her, but Emily mentioned her once or twice.
“That’s right. Hank has a real weakness for cookies. Actually, so does Luanne.” She topped the sandwich with a thick slice of freshly made bread and shoved two colorful toothpicks through it, then sawed it in half. “Voilà. How’s that for dinner?”
“Impressive,” Elise said with a shy smile. “Thank you so much.”
Emily waved a hand. “It’s nothing. You sure you want to stay in? I’m guessing you could hang out with me. Luanne wouldn’t mind. My sister’s a bit of a string bean and obnoxious at times, but she has a good heart.”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“You sure? You need to get out more often! You’re young and single.”
Elise tensed. She rather hoped that Emily wasn’t going to start trying to set her up with someone. “You’re young and single, too.”
“Actually I’m older than you, and I’m divorced.” She shrugged. “Old before my time, I guess. And I’m the one going out. You sure you don’t want to go?”
“I’m sure.” Elise took a big bite of her sandwich so she wouldn’t have to talk.
“Okay. If it storms, I might stay at Luanne’s a bit later. The weather looks kind of foul at the moment.” She gestured at one of the cabinets in the kitchen. “There’s candles in there if the power goes out.” Emily looked uncomfortable and hesitated. “You’re not scared of ghosts, are you?”
Elise nearly choked on the mouthful of sandwich. Coughing, she shook her head.
“Just making sure.” She bit her lip. “You sure you don’t want to come with me? I hate the thought of you sitting here in the dark if the power goes out. With, you know . . . my visitor.”
Elise swallowed, her throat burning as she gulped the food down. She placed a hand in front of her mouth as she spoke. “I . . . don’t really think this place is haunted, Emily.” She’d been warned by Em that there were rumors of a haunting, but no one ever seemed to hear anything but Emily herself. Elise had been here a few weeks now and hadn’t heard a peep. She wasn’t scared.
“Are you sure? You’re my only guest at the moment. I’d hate for you to leave.”
“I’m sure.” She picked up her sandwich again, indicating she would continue eating. “I’m just going to finish this and then work on my photos some more. It’s all very boring.”
“All right,” Emily said after a long moment. Then she picked up the cookies and her keys again. “There’s beer and wine in the fridge if you want anything. Help yourself. I’ll be home later.”
Elise waved her off.
• • •
The evening was quiet enough for several hours. Elise went back to her room, fired up her laptop, and poked around on Photoshop, cleaning up a few photos and adjusting the coloring. When it began to thunder, she shut down her computer and went downstairs to the living room to watch the weather on TV. She curled up on the couch with a beer and flipped between local channels.
Sure enough, there was a crack of lightning and the lights went out.
Elise sat in the dark for a moment, then headed to the kitchen to light some candles. While she was in the kitchen, her phone rang.
It was Emily. “Power dead over there?”
“Yep, all dead,” Elise told her. “I’m lighting candles.”
“Okay. I’m going to stay here for a bit. I think I saw some hail, so I’m going to wait for it to pass. Luanne says Hank doesn’t want anyone on the roads in this, so I’ll be home in a few hours.”
“No worries,” Elise said softly. “Thank you for checking on me.”
She got off the phone with Emily and took a few candles into the main living room. The big Victorian wasn’t that creepy with the lights off, not really. It was just great mood lighting. She wished she had something to do, though.
So much for getting more life experience. Even tonight, she was all alone and rather enjoying it. What did that say about her?
Candle in hand, she peered out the front window at the driving rain. A moment later, it began to hail.
When it began to rain, Rome cursed his luck and paid his tab, then headed out for his bike. There was nothing worse than riding a motorcycle in a downpour, but he didn’t have any other transportation. He put on his helmet and straddled his bike. It’d be a shitty ride home.
A moment later, he’d barely gone a block before it began to hail, and hard, pebble-sized pellets began to thump against his jacket, stinging with every connection. Okay, so there were worse things than driving home in a downpour.
Cursing to himself, he saw the sign for the bed-and-breakfast and pulled in there. The yard of the garish Peppermint House was thickly treed and would provide some safety for his bike, at least. He parked it under the nearest tree and pulled off his helmet. Waiting out the storm under a tree would be fine for his bike, but it would suck for him.
Rome glanced up at the house as hail poured down. The place was dark, but there was a candle in the window. Someone was there, at least. He tugged his jacket over his head to protect it, then jogged up to the front door of the bed-and-breakfast.
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