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By Samantha Hunter
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNORMALLY, RAINE COVINGTON would've enjoyed a stroll on a snowy evening. Though Salem was renown to tourists as "Witch City" for its gruesome persecution of women and men accused of witchcraft, the town had more than the history of its witch trials and occult legends to offer. It was a quaint New England coastal town, but in many ways it was also a developing metropolis.
She'd always felt comforted by the homey, narrow streets and historic Federal-style homes huddled up against each other. Right now, however, she couldn't enjoy any of it. She was too preoccupied figuring out some way to escape Jerry Donnelly who was by her side, nudging into her suggestively from time to time. She clenched her jaw, didn't say a word and walked a little faster.
Jerry was a freelance graphic artist she'd met at an office lunch given in appreciation of freelance workers. He'd seemed nice enough then. Yeah, nice - they were all "nice" until they were trying to slide their hand up your leg under the dinner table. He had beach-boy-blond hair and soft, brown eyes that gave him an innocent look that she'd found attractive. It hadn't taken much time alone with him to discover that he was anything but.
When he'd suggested dessert-to-go so they could enjoy it in moreinteresting ways, she officially called time and asked to go home. Who the heck suggested something like that two hours after meeting someone on a first date? Well, apparently Jerry did. And she had the feeling he didn't take rejection easily.
They were finally here. On the sidewalk in front of her house. The porch light warmed the step, and she gazed at the brick-red door wistfully - escape was so close at hand. Jerry moved closer, going for the kill, and Raine, trying to avoid a confrontation, did the only thing she could think of.
"Oh, God!" She doubled at the waist and held her stomach hard, contorting her face in what she hoped looked like a very painful expression. Startled, Jerry stepped back.
"Um ... uh ... what? What's the matter?"
She threw a little heavy breathing into the mix, and winced up at him, backing away slowly. He started to follow, but she held a hand out, motioning him to stay away as she inched toward the porch.
"Oh, Jerry, I'm so sorry, but I have to get inside quick. Something bad ... stomach cramps ... night!"
"But you seemed fine a moment ago...."
His voice trailed off behind her. Without a glance back, Raine closed the door behind her with a blustery sigh of relief, leaning back against it as if the devil himself were on the other side. It wasn't her most elegant escape, but at least it had worked.
Resting her head against the door, she let the emotions roll over her. Annoyance, relief - and ah, there it was - disappointment. Her familiar friend. All she wanted was some good company, a little romance, and, if she was lucky, half-way decent sex. When it came to men, those things were getting increasingly hard to find.
There was only one man whom she missed when she didn't get to see him after so much as a single day. Only one who popped up in her thoughts and made her smile, and who didn't disappoint.
Not even bothering to change, she grabbed her laptop and plopped down on the sofa, a soft shiver of anticipation taking the edge off an otherwise miserable night. The screen glowed, and she tapped at the keyboard, hoping she hadn't missed him.
She hadn't! He was there! He saw her logon immediately. She smiled wider, watching his words appear across the screen. He had been waiting. For her.
"Hey, beautiful, I thought you might not be by tonight. Working late?"
"No, was just out for a while."
"No. Boring, boring night."
She lied, not knowing exactly why she didn't want to tell him she had been out with someone.
"Nilla, maybe it's time to spice it up a little."
"I think we have been quite spicy enough lately."
Nilla - her pseudonym. She hadn't been able to think of anything else when she had registered on the site, and had been eating vanilla cookies at the time. So much for her creativity.
"Oh, I don't know. Depends on your taste. I like things a little on the hot side."
She grinned, her fingers racing over the keyboard.
"Hold on, tiger. Let me get a glass of wine and change into something more ... comfortable. I'll be right back."
Jumping up off the sofa, she headed into the bedroom to change. She had been talking with Rider - not his real name, of course - online for a little more than a month. They had met online at RomanceMUD, an interactive virtual world. She'd been researching Internet romances for her most recent column in Real Woman magazine, which was just hitting its stride as one of the leading women's magazines in the U.S.
Over the last decade, she had literally grown with the magazine, which had recently relocated to a bigger and more prestigious building overlooking Salem Harbor to house its ever-expanding staff, now topping two hundred. She'd started as a freelance writer right out of college. The job had really just fallen into her lap and she took it for some income while figuring out what to do next. Then as more and more magazine pieces came her way, she discovered a knack for writing; she loved the work. Eventually she was hired for a permanent position.
She was the head writer for the Lifestyles beat, which covered everything from raising children to fashion. She provided editorial input and was deeply involved in planning each issue's content. She hired freelancers for most of the articles, but the core element of the section was her relationships column. It had begun as an advice-type column and had blossomed into longer pieces of social commentary. She wrote about all kinds of relationship issues, including friends, siblings, marriage, sex, same-sex families, and working parents.
Pouring herself a glass of merlot she thought about how some things never changed: jealously, passion, misunderstanding, loneliness.
Excerpted from Virtually Perfect by Samantha Hunter Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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