Former debutante Rachel Hansworth longs for the days when "alligator" was followed by "pumps" or "handbag." Broke, Rachel takes the only job she can find: removing nuisance animals from Florida homes. Unfortunately, fighting the attraction to her boss proves more difficult than wrestling a gator.
Army veteran Mark Winters needs help with his business, but he wants Rachel more. He must honor a promise to his dying mother and find a fiancée. A real girlfriend isn't part of the plan—he's been there, done that. There's only one problem: He can't stop kissing Rachel.
She refuses to be duped by love again, and he won't let a few hot make-out sessions tear down the walls he's erected. But she's all about the big bonus she'll receive if she helps Mark. They'll lower their defenses enough to trust each other when a wild animal is involved, but can they pull off the fake fiancée ruse and not be bitten by love?
About the Author
Blaire Edens lives in mountains of North Carolina. She grew up on a farm that's been in her family since 1790. Of Scottish descent, her most famous ancestor, John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and Guardian of Scotland, was murdered by Robert the Bruce on the altar of the Greyfriars Church at Dumfries.
She has a degree in Horticulture from Clemson University. She's held a myriad of jobs including television reporter, GPS map creator, and personal assistant to a fellow who was rich enough to pay someone to pick up the dry cleaning. When she's not plotting, she's busy knitting, running, or listening to the Blues.
Blaire loves iced tea with mint, hand-stitched quilts, and yarn stores. She refuses to eat anything that mixes chocolate and peanut butter or apple and cinnamon. She's generally nice to her mother, tries to remember not to smack her bubble gum, and only speeds when no one's looking.
Read an Excerpt
Wild About Rachel
By Blaire Edens, Candace Havens
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Blaire Edens
All rights reserved.
"You want me to wrestle what?" Rachel Hansworth Morrow wasn't sure she'd heard him right.
"Alligators," repeated Mark. "But it's so much more than alligators. They're just a small part of what Wild Things relocates. If squirrels or raccoons get into their attic, people call me."
"I'm sorry to have wasted your time with this interview." She stood up to leave, and extended her hand. "Thanks for seeing me anyway."
Mark stood as well, and took her hand in his warm one. His thumb caressed the back of her hand, and she saw him glance down and frown.
Embarrassed, she pulled her hand back and tucked it in the pocket of her borrowed suit. She hadn't been able to have manicures in months thanks to her no-good-cheating-almost-ex-husband.
"Rach, come on and sit back down."
She'd been mortified when she walked in and recognized the interviewer.
Ten years ago, he'd been the biggest nerd in Webster's Reef, maybe in all of Florida. She hadn't recognized his voice on the phone, and he hadn't mentioned his last name. But when she noticed the small scar lining the side of his left cheek that had earned him the unfortunate nickname of Frankenstein, there was no doubt he was the same guy she'd known since elementary school.
Mark Winters wasn't a nerd anymore. The skinny, awkward frame had transformed into a well-toned, delicious body. Dressed in a sharply pressed white button-down shirt and khaki shorts, every inch of his six foot two inch frame looked solid. With skin tanned to a sun-kissed bronze, he didn't have the look of a gym rat, but that of an outdoorsman. The blond hairs on his legs caught the sunlight beaming through the window, showing off his muscular calves to their best advantage.
But there was something else. Beyond the physical changes, he now had an edge, something hard and sharp, buried just below the surface. It wasn't something she could see or smell, but something she sensed on a deep level, subtle but unmistakable. Her mouth went Las Vegas dry.
She hesitated now, looking into his eyes. She saw sincerity. Do I really want to degrade myself any more looking for a job?
"I'm not very good with animals to begin with, not to mention I'm terrified of snakes and alligators."
"Let's go to lunch. We can finish the interview there."
She wavered. Lunch with this man? Or soggy fries at the diner she worked at. She bit her lip.
He moved closer to her, a smile on his face. "Come on. I haven't seen you in ten years. We can catch up."
No doubt he was cataloguing the pounds she'd gained since her days as the reigning Most Popular at Webster Reef High. She sucked her stomach in, hoping to trim at least five pounds.
"I think it's best if I leave."
"It's just lunch. Two classmates who've run into each other after a few years."
"I wish it were that simple. I'm not really interested in the position, anyway. I do a few things well, and none of them involve wild animals."
"Then let's forget the interview. Let me buy you lunch."
His eyes, which she'd never noticed behind the thick glasses he'd worn in high school, were green, with a hint of tawny amber near the pupils. There was something in his eyes, something drawing her closer to him.
Rachel said, "I am a little hungry."
"Let me just step back into the office and tell my receptionist, Adrian, where I'll be in case she needs me. Wait right here."
She should have never mentioned wrestling alligators yesterday while playing "I'd Rather" with Cherry. From this point forward, when they played that game to kill time at the Chat-N-Chew, she vowed never to mention reptiles. Ever.
She'd jinxed herself.
When Mark strode toward her moments later, she was as composed as anyone could be given the circumstances.
"Ready to go?" he asked.
"Pull your car around to the back lot. We can take the company truck. It's the one with zebra-stripes."
The truck was impossible to miss. The color-scheme was incredibly gaudy, there were several ladders strapped across the top, the bed was filled with cages and buckets of all shapes and sizes, and it was at least three feet higher than a normal truck. The chrome, of which there was plenty, gleamed in the sun.
"Pretty cool ride, huh?" Mark asked.
Cool wasn't exactly the word she would've used. Her stomach growled. Lunch time. It was either begging for scraps at the Chat-N-Chew or a ride in the zebra mobile.
She decided to go with the latter. Anything beat Ed's rubbery vegetables.
* * *
Mark breathed a sigh of relief.
There was no wedding ring on her finger and no tan-line where one had been.
He hoped like hell she was single. Otherwise, the plan he'd concocted when she walked into his office would be dead before he even decided if it was a good one.
He hadn't been sure he would be able to talk her into lunch, and without some face time, he might not be able to convince her to help him.
Help him become someone he wasn't for a little while just to please one woman, the only one in the world he was willing to change himself to please: his mother.
The one person who'd been there for him.
The one person who loved him unconditionally and always wanted the best.
She was dying.
As much as he loved her, admired her, he had disappointed her and he needed to make it right before she passed.
She only asked two things from him. After years spent working her fingers to the bone, penny-pinching, and sacrificing, she wanted him to get a college education. And she wanted him to marry up, marry someone far removed from trailer courts and TV dinners.
She wanted him to marry a Lady. With a capital L.
He'd planned on marrying a Lady. Once. But that was a long time ago.
Not that he was actually going to marry Rachel ... or anyone, for that matter. He wasn't the marrying kind. The years in the Army, full of heartbreaking loss, had convinced him he was better off alone.
He bet his whole heart twice and he'd lost both times. Those were terrible odds.
But if his mother believed he was involved with someone who might be The Lady she'd always dreamed he'd marry, if it gave her peace at the end, maybe it was the right thing to do.
He wrestled with lying to her. What kind of dirtbag lied to his own sweet mother? On the flipside, he didn't want her to die without believing in the possibility that someday he might not be such a disappointment. Opportunities like Rachel Hansworth Whatever didn't fall into his lap every day. He intended to make the most of it.
* * *
He drove them to a new eclectic restaurant several miles from the office, hoping she would be impressed. The walls were covered with the work of local artists — everything from traditional landscapes to very abstract pieces. Savory smells wafted from the kitchen filling the air with a delicious aroma. The hostess led them to a small booth near the back.
"Can I bring you something to drink?" she asked.
"Water for me, please," Rachel ordered.
"Just a Diet Coke."
When she left, he said, "Order anything you want. If you want a glass of wine, feel free."
Maybe a glass of wine would make the discussion go more smoothly.
"I'm not much of a wine drinker. Margaritas are my favorite." Rachel laughed.
For the first time since she'd come into the office, her smile was genuine. Her eyes sparkled, doing that incredibly sexy blue-green shift.
He shouldn't like anything about Rachel. She'd been spoiled in high school. He had no reason to believe she was any different now. If only his body would take a damn clue and quit reacting to her in exactly the same way it had back then.
Heat. Blinding heat.
Her scent wafted across the table. Lavender and honey and woman. It jammed his brain, made him imagine ways he could ease the itch building with every toss of her coppery curls.
He wondered if she still had that cheerleading outfit tucked away in her closet.
"You were so nice to stay after school and help me understand all those equations."
The word "equations" pulled him back to the present. Nothing like chemistry to kill chemistry.
Mark said, "You were a little lost."
"A little?" Rachel laughed. "I was hopeless."
"But you passed the class."
"Thanks to you." She winked.
His pulse ticked up again.
"What do you miss about high school?" she asked.
"Absolutely nothing. I wouldn't go back to those days for all the money even you could offer me."
Rachel took a deep breath and pushed her hair back from her face. "Any funds I might have once been able to offer you were spent long ago."
"The Hansworths out of money?" Something in the way she looked at him stopped the laughter forming in his throat. "You're kidding, right?"
"Nope. My parents are still doing well, but I'm very close to losing Baker House." She moved her glass from side to side. "My grandmother willed it to me free and clear. Then, my soon to be ex-husband talked me into taking out several loans using the house as collateral. When he decided to skip town with his high-school sweetheart, I got the bill." She ducked her head, but he caught a glimpse of reddened cheeks. "I don't know why I just told you all that."
The bastard must have been a real piece of work. Leaving a woman, his woman, to foot the bill? Not cool. Not cool at all.
"You live in Baker House?" A picture of the place popped into his head. He'd driven by it hundreds, if not thousands of times, usually on the way to a job, sometimes when he was bored and drove through the nicer neighborhoods in town just to dream. A three story brick home that looked like a Southern Living cover story. In its long history, it had weathered hurricanes, tornadoes, and the constant salt-laden wind blowing off the bay. It was a landmark in Webster's Reef. Everyone knew Baker House.
"As of this morning, yes. But who knows when the mortgage company will decide to send a cop with a foreclosure notice in hand to toss me out."
"Where would you go?" Why the hell did he care?
He was only asking because she was an old acquaintance and a woman in a terrible position. Not because he was interested. Interested in that cheerleader outfit, maybe, but definitely not in a relationship.
Relationships brought nothing but pain.
Only two women had ever mattered to him. His mom and Vicky. The former was dying and the latter never made it home from Iraq.
He tried not to think about her. It hurt too much. He kept his nose down, stayed busy. It was the only way to outfox the pain.
Even if he was interested in Rachel, which he wasn't, Mark didn't do married. Or separated. Or anything except 100% single.
She shrugged. "I have no idea where I would go. My relationship with my parents has been in the ditch since I started dating Pete. I could bunk a few nights with my best friend Shelley and her family, but I wouldn't want to impose."
"Have you been working?"
Rachel winced and swallowed hard before she answered. "I'm waiting tables at Ed's Chat-N-Chew. It's just until I find something better. But since I've never had a real job, it's been a challenge to find something that pays enough for me to dig out of the financial hole I've created."
If there was one door in Webster's Reef he would never darken, it was that place. He and Ed had a history.
"That's a real dump. My mom worked there for a while. Had to wear that hideous pink uniform."
In the two years his mom worked overnights at Ed's, she'd aged at least ten years. On top of hours and hours on her feet, Ed had wandering hands. Mark had nearly killed the son of a bitch one night when he'd caught him trying to put the moves on his mom in the alley behind the diner. Just remembering it made the blood in his veins boil.
"We still have to wear them and they still look just as crappy."
"What if you sold the house?"
"It's been in my father's family for generations. I couldn't bear to list it with a realtor and let potential buyers tromp through my home. Nope. I'd rather be thrown out than to just give up."
"What about your soon-to-be ex? Can't he help you out until you get on your feet?"
"He's broke, too. The divorce is almost final. Everything is decided and divided. I agreed to no alimony. We're just waiting on the judge to sign off on it."
"He was the one at fault, right?"
Rachel nodded. "Yes, the rotten sonufabitch."
He could hear the venom in her voice.
"Why didn't you demand alimony?"
The son of a bitch fleeced her and she took it on the chin? That didn't sound like the old Rachel.
She shrugged. "We were broke. Where would he get the money for alimony?"
"Who cares? He could get a second job, rob a bank. A man makes a way."
Mark fought the protective urges burning deep in his stomach, the need to shelter this woman from the man who left her high and dry.
It hit him right in the heart: single mother and duty in Iraq. Nothing moved him as deeply as a woman who needed him.
"Would working for me solve your problem?"
He spoke too soon, before he gave any thought to the offer he made.
He shouldn't hire her. It wasn't his responsibility to help her. He had enough on his plate already.
"Mark, I really appreciate lunch but there's no way I could capture wild animals for a living. I am terrified of snakes; I'm not very well-coordinated. Don't worry," she said, placing her small hand over his again. "Things will get better for me soon. I know they will. I'm just in a rough spot right now." There was no conviction in her voice. "I didn't mean to turn this into a pity party. I'm sorry. Tell me about your life now."
He shoved down the impulse to turn into the Knight in Shining Armor. Her problems, her business.
The waitress brought their lunch and the interruption lightened the mood. Rachel dove into her Portobello Mushroom sandwich.
After a few bites, she said, "What did you do after high school?"
"I enlisted in the Army and spent eight years in the military — most of it in Iraq."
"But you were the valedictorian of our class. How come you didn't go to college first?'
He didn't know where to begin. Maybe his stupid idea that the military — and war — might mold him into the man he wanted to be. The fact that after he'd spent all that time in a tent in the desert, he couldn't bear the idea of being stuck in a classroom.
"I wanted to see the world, carry a big gun. I sure as hell got a lot more than I bargained for," he said. He chuckled, trying to hide the bitterness.
"Were you wounded?"
He shook his head. "Missed it by inches. My partner died saving my life."
His partner hadn't been the only one who died in Iraq. He never talked about his greatest loss. Even after all this time, it was just too difficult.
"I'm so sorry, Mark. I can't imagine how much that must have hurt."
The familiar raw jab of pain nearly took his breath away. A slashing twinge of guilt followed close behind the hurt. "You cope."
"Do you have a relationship with his family?"
He'd forgotten to mention his partner had been a four-legged one.
"My partner, Firefly, was a dog. I was an MP. The two of us patrolled the streets of Baghdad together. She was killed in an IED explosion."
"If something happened to Frenchtoast, I'm not sure what I would do."
"She's my Cavalier King Charles. She has a really long name on her pedigree and the breeder would probably be mortified that's her nickname. But when she was a puppy she crept into the kitchen trash and ate so much French toast she got pancreatitis. The poor thing almost died. She's the only thing that's kept me sane recently."
"Dogs are the most perfect creature ever created," he said.
"Do you have a picture of her?" Her voice softened, filled with sympathy.
The last thing he wanted was her sympathy. Anyone's sympathy. Sure, it hurt like hell, but he had made his peace, if there was such a thing, a long time ago.
That's why he never talked about it. He was too busy trying to hide the pain from himself.
"I have some pictures at home, mostly ones other soldiers took while Firefly and I were training."
"I'm sure she was beautiful."
He nodded and steered the conversation to the present. "After I got out of the Army, I made a living by picking up odd jobs here and there, living off savings, until one day when a friend called. A family of raccoons had moved into her attic. I trapped them and took them to some woods and released them. On the way home, I wondered if I could make money doing it. I did some research, bought some equipment, spent nearly a thousand dollars to get the zebra stripes painted on my truck, and opened Wild Things."
Excerpted from Wild About Rachel by Blaire Edens, Candace Havens. Copyright © 2014 Blaire Edens. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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