Getting down to business… “Kiss the next man who falls into your lap.” When Mia Diaz agrees to the dare, she doesn’t expect it to happen so literally. But suddenly, there he is—stubble-dusted jaw, sexy half-smile, and lips that make her appreciate the benefits of acting on impulse. Her long-buried libido certainly thinks it’s the right move…as long as what comes next is strictly a one-night affair. Mia has dedicated the last few years to building her jewelry store. She’s not about to put her heart in a stranger’s hands, no matter how skillful they might be… Ethan has made his fortune by seizing opportunities. So when he finds himself tangled up in long legs, red hair, and satin bed sheets, he doesn’t complain—until he finds out the redhead in question is Mia Diaz. The same Mia who’s been dodging his emails and calls for weeks, ignoring all his offers to buy her out. Ethan is a master of the takeover. Mia refuses to give in. And what started out as a simple dare has become the ultimate challenge, where the only way to win may be to surrender…
Release date: April 3, 2018
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 276
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Melinda Di Lorenzo
With a wordless growl, I stepped back on the sidewalk and scanned the row of boutique-style shops, trying to discern which one might be Trinkets and Treasures.
It was an impossible endeavor. They all looked the same. BoHo trendy. Brick fronts with varying shades of trim, no names hanging above the shops. I was sure the last bit was a trick. A subtle marketing ploy. The lack of signage forced the casual passerby to stop and look inside in order to figure out what the hell each store specialized in.
Another damned good reason to do my job from behind my desk.
I liked my desk. It had a nice, comfortable leather chair. It was in my office, which had a view. A panoramic one of Toronto. Nice, reassuringly solid concrete buildings as far as the eye could see.
And very few bad omens.
Which seemed to be plaguing me in droves since leaving the comfort of my office this morning.
First came the accident on the freeway, which delayed me so badly that I had to run to make my flight. Literally run. Through a goddamned airport in a three-thousand-dollar suit. Next there was a mechanical issue that forced us to change planes in Winnipeg. The flight in question had zero seats available in business class, which resulted in me being trapped between an asthmatic octogenarian and a woman with a none-too-pleased infant. After that, there was a lengthy stop in Calgary to deice, and a fifty-minute delay at YVR after touchdown due to staffing issues. I’d finally stepped onto solid ground in Vancouver a mere six hours behind schedule. My car rental had been given away when I didn’t turn up to retrieve it on time. Some kind of job action had the limo drivers running a skeleton crew, which in turn meant the taxi drivers were run ragged, and the wait to get one had been an outrageous hour and a quarter. I’d had to pay the driver double his fare to get him to agree to come back, and even then, he’d refused to return any sooner than an hour later.
Like living in the fucking Dark Ages, I thought bitterly.
So why wasn’t I holed up in my five-star luxury suite at the Regent Inn? The answer was simple. Mia Diaz. The thorn in my side who’d forced me to leave Toronto in the first place. I fought a need to curse the woman aloud. After making initial contact three weeks ago—and receiving a flat-out rejection of my offer—I’d tried dozens of times to get in touch with her.
The phone was a total no-go. Her business line was screened by some kind of answering service, and after putting me through just once, they’d subsequently rejected every call after. So I’d switched to email. At first, I’d been triumphant. Ms. Diaz sent polite, personal answers. To start, anyway. Then came the automated out-of-office replies. On my last attempt to get through, my email had been bounced. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that she’d blocked my address somehow.
A less determined person—a less successful businessman—might’ve taken that as a sign to let it go. I saw it as a challenge. My own company, Burke Holdings, hadn’t become the third-largest distributor of unique, handmade products in Canada through a willingness to give up. Even if my focus group hadn’t told me that they’d be willing to pay three times as much for the personally designed items that Mia offered in her store, just the woman’s unwillingness to even consider my offer would’ve been enough to drive me harder to acquire it.
The last few hours, though, were a real test.
That’s what makes it worth it, I reminded myself.
It was true that some of the businesses I took over were parted with reluctantly. The owners knew their product had potential. They fully believed in it. The harder they fought, the more profitable it usually ended up being for me. In the end, the quick buck I offered—combined with the promise of improved distribution and potential popularity—always won out.
Except with Mia Diaz and Trinkets and Treasures.
The mental reminder made me grit my teeth and turn my attention back to the row of shops. I squinted against the dim sky and took a step closer to the buildings. Everything was dark. Which I supposed was to be expected at eight o’clock on a Sunday night. I’d assumed, though, that I’d be able to get a good look at the shop in question. Or at least enough of a glimpse to let me know what I was up against. Having an edge meant no surprises. So far, the edge seemed damned far out of reach.
Then, as if to drive home the pervasive futility of my efforts, a car—the only one I’d seen on this street other than the taxi that had dropped me off just a few minutes earlier—flew by and sent a spray of water in my direction.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I muttered.
My gaze turned down in disgust. The mess wasn’t just wet. It was dirty. My suit was officially a total write-off, and I hadn’t even made it to the hotel yet.
The hotel. My stuff.
“Shit.” The whip of a sudden gust of wind carried away my curse as I spun on my heel.
Sure enough, my small suitcase, which I’d yanked out of the taxi and unthinkingly set on the ground, was covered with the same garbage as my clothes. And the bag was wobbling. Hovering right over the edge of the sidewalk.
Sensing its imminent demise, I took a step forward. My reward was a soggy splash as my foot slammed into an ankle-deep puddle. The split second of ice-cold pant leg sucking against my calf was all the suitcase needed to complete its suicide attempt. It toppled over. It bounced. Then it sprung open. A crisp, white shirt tumbled out alongside a pair of dress socks.
I narrowed my eyes at the ruination. “What? That’s all you’ve got?”
The universe decided to respond with a metaphorical middle finger directed straight at me.
A second heavy gust of wind kicked up and sent the top of the suitcase flying all the way open. A stack of paperwork—everything I’d collected about Trinkets and Treasures and its elusive owner, and that I could swear I’d secured—was loose. It lifted into the air, and before I could react, it sailed past me, hit the stream of water that bounced against the sidewalk, and started on a path toward a storm drain a few feet away.
“Shit,” I said again.
With my feet sloshing unpleasantly through the water, I dived forward and bent my knees to grab the paperwork. I failed in an epic way. One foot caught on a rock. The other stretched out far enough that it made me close my eyes and groan in pain.
“C’mon, Burke, get your shit together,” I commanded.
Yanking as hard as I could, I pulled my foot out of my shoe and drew my sock-clad foot forward, stumbling a little as I did. Both hands hit the ground.
I drew in a shallow breath, and tried to get up again. My body protested heartily, and it took everything I had just to keep from letting my chin slam into the concrete. All I could do was lift my eyes and watch helplessly as the precious sheets of paper danced over the grate, then slipped inside.
This, I thought, dropping my lids closed again. This is why I like my desk. It’s why I leave the grunt work to the grunt men. It’s why I write persuasive emails and drink hot cappuccinos and—
The silent tirade cut itself short abruptly, choked off by the fact that I lifted my eyes and spied what I was sure had to be a mirage. Or whatever the soaking-wet, rain-induced equivalent was. I blinked, trying to clear my vision. Nope. The mirage stayed.
A perfectly curved, perfectly smooth, pink-covered ass, hanging from a window a few buildings down and a couple floors up.
“What the actual hell?”
I stared up, wondering what I was supposed do. If I was supposed to do anything at all. As I puzzled through my ass-hanging-from-window obligation, the curvy piece in question abruptly disappeared. I didn’t have time to consider whether I’d imagined the whole thing, though, because just a moment later, a pair of feet, clad in dangerously high heels, appeared instead.
I gave my head a scratch and watched as the feet inched out to reveal a pair of creamy ankles, then a pair of smooth-looking calves. The knees attached to the calves came next, and they hinged a little as the feet tried to find purchase on the ledge below.
“You’re not seriously climbing out there, are you?” I said into the rain.
As if the wearer of the heels had heard me, they retracted back into the building. Not ten seconds passed, though, before the feet came out again, this time bare. They moved faster this time, flattening against the ledge. It still didn’t seem like a safe maneuver.
I called out from my prone position. “Hey!”
Even if I’d been upright or closer, the wind would still have swept the word away. I moved again, this time to stand. I couldn’t right myself quickly enough to perform whatever heroic move I might’ve been thinking of performing. The woman attached to the shapely legs slid herself the rest of the way out the window, pressed her back to the building behind her, and rendered me momentarily speechless.
My gaze traveled the length of her body. She had lightly muscled legs that disappeared under the pink skirt, and full hips that pressed against it at the same time. Her slim waist was showcased nicely by the way her cream-colored blouse had been tucked into the wide waistband, and her full chest rose and fell temptingly.
Hell. She was once of the most beautiful women I’d ever laid eyes on, and I didn’t even have a clear view of her face.
I took an automatic step forward, trying to catch her features. Were they soft and delicate? Or classical and imperious? Did she have full, kissable lips? For no good reason—aside from lustful self-indulgence—I hoped to God the answer to last question was yes.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to find out. She straightened her shoulders, shook her head a little, then stepped sideways along the ledge on one of her bare feet. Apparently, she was unaware that, A, she was risking her life and that, B, I was standing there gaping at her. Weirdly, the second oversight seemed more important. I had a strange—and admittedly irrational—feeling that she was deliberately avoiding turning her head in my direction. Irritation niggled at me for second. Going unnoticed felt like a slight, especially considering how aware I was of her presence.
I took another step forward, watching as she disappeared around the side of the building.
What waited for her on the other side? Why the hell had she climbed out there in the first place? I felt compelled to know.
Without even being conscious that I was doing it, I moved to catch up so I could find out.
* * * *
There were three things that made me a terrible choice as a bridesmaid.
One. I hated weddings.
Two. I hated weddings.
Well. Yeah. That.
But somehow, that didn’t stop my dearest—my only—brother from asking me to become one at his wedding. Fluffy dress. Boxes of candied almonds. All my most dreaded things.
And it didn’t stop me from agreeing, either. And me being me, once I’d agreed, I wouldn’t back out.
But if I wanted proof that I was the wrong person for the job, all I had to do was take stock of my current situation. It was eight o’clock on a Sunday night. I was supposed to be at a pre-wedding, pre-rehearsal, pre-insanity dinner with my brother and his merry band of groomsman and bridesmaids. Instead, I was inching my way along the exterior of a building. In the rain. In a blouse that now felt like a second skin.
Part of it was karma. I had to admit that. After all, I’d created a phony disaster at work to avoid the dinner in question, telling my brother that a well-known fashion blogger had a can’t-wait complaint about one of my jewelry designs that just had to be remedied. He’d been understanding. My reputation as a designer was integral to my continued success, after all. Except my brother’s sympathy just made me feel even guiltier. But I’d planned on showing up late. Just to grab a quick drink, offer an apology, and smile like I was supposed to. Still. I was going to make an appearance.
But then came the iced coffee. Which didn’t mix well with my laptop at all, and which had kind of sizzled when it poured over the keyboard then hit the extension cord. Next came the zap of protest from the electrical outlet, the light overhead shattering. And the moment of panic, where I jumped up to save something—anything—and instead knocked my phone to the ground, cracking the screen and turning it a dismal shade of gray-black. I’d tried to make my way to the door, even if it was just to open it and let in some light from the hall. But when my hand got a hold of the metal knob, it’d succeeded only in twisting it straight off.
No computer. No phone. No light.
And no way out.
Except, of course, the window and the two-foot-wide ledge that spanned across my building then around it. On the other side—where I was headed now—grew a hundred-year-old oak tree.
“Perfect for shimmying down in business attire,” I grumbled, clutching my heels to my chest as I glared at the tree.
I stretched out a hand to the nearest branch, grasped it tightly, then tried to make my foot follow. It only took a second to realize that as short as my skirt might be, it was still going to get in the way of progress. And so were my shoes, which I still held clutched in my hand.
Sighing, I eased back on to the ledge again. I regretfully set down my Ferragamo heels. I gazed at them longingly. They weren’t my newest pair, or even my most expensive. In fact, I’d managed to pick them up for a steal. But they were the first pair of designer heels I’d ever bought, and it just plain felt wrong to abandon them.
“I’ll come back for you, I promise,” I said to the shoes.
Then—reminding myself that every shop along the block was closed and that the likelihood of being watched was slim to none—I grabbed the hem of my skirt and unceremoniously shoved it up to just below my panty line. I gave the shoes a final look, took a breath and reached out again. This time I was successful in getting both a hand and a foot in place. And with a grunt and a push, I moved the other half of my body over.
“Take that, karma,” I said as my toes curled triumphantly against the ridges of the tree’s bark.
But apparently karma wasn’t overly fond of being called out. Because I no sooner moved to start my descent than my feet skidded. As I threw my arms around the wide trunk to stabilize myself, my purse slid down off my shoulder and landed with a dull thump in the curve of a branch below my knees. It flopped open, and the contents—my keys, makeup, a gazillion receipts for God knew what—all flew out and tumbled to the ground below. Well. All for except one thing. My broken cell phone. It stayed right beside the purse, and from its gray-black screen, rose the disembodied voice of my fellow bridesmaid, Liv Holt.
“Lu?” she greeted, using my family’s nickname for me. “Are you there?”
I stifled a groan and answered in my cheeriest voice. “Hey, Liv!”
“What’s all that noise?”
“The, uh, rain?”
“Sounds like you’re standing in the middle of it.”
“Just an open window,” I lied. “What’s up?”
There was a pause. “You called me.”
“Oh.” Whoops. I winced. “Would you believe it was a butt dial?”
She let out a sigh so loud that I could hear it over the rain. “I’m guessing you’re not at work with an emergency.”
“Not exactly,” I answered.
“It’s regular work, isn’t it?” She made it sound like a particularly contagious disease. “You’re sitting up there in that office of yours, beading away, aren’t you?”
“Okay. One, I don’t ‘bead’. I design. And two, I’m definitely not sitting in my office.”
“You’re still working when you could be drinking and ogling the groomsmen,” she said.
Wondering how I’d been roped into this conversation while standing in a tree, I shook my head. “I have zero interest in ogling.”
“The whole purpose in being a bridesmaid is to ogle. And be ogled. In fact, it’s the perfect excuse to suck face with some hot guys. Maybe even go home with one.”
“I don’t do that.”
“Do what?” She sounded genuinely puzzled.
“Men!” The word burst out in an exasperated tone, and my face warmed even though she couldn’t see me.
“Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that—”
“That’s not what I meant. I don’t kiss—or go home with—men casually.”
“Well. That a given. You don’t do anything casually,” she pointed out.
“You know what? I’m about to do you a huge favor.”
“Great.” I infused the word with as much sarcasm as I could.
But she just laughed. “I’m issuing you a dare, Lumia Diaz.”
I groaned. “God. My brother told you, didn’t he?”
Her response was far too innocent. “Told me what?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Olivia Holt. Marcelo told you that he used to dare me to do stuff when we were kids and that I couldn’t say no.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he told Aysia and she told me.”
“Great,” I muttered again.
“Are you going to say yes?” she wanted to know.
“You don’t even know what it is.”
“I know that you came up with it, and that’s enough.”
“I’m daring you anyway,” she said.
“Fine,” I replied. “Give me your useless dare.”
“The next attractive man you see…kiss him.”
“What?” I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but not that.
“Drop whatever you’re doing, walk up, and kiss him.” Liv said it like it wasn’t an insane suggestion.
“I can’t do that.” But my never-back-down mind was already narrowed in on the logistics. “What if he turned out to be married?”
“Then he’d push you away pretty quickly, wouldn’t he?”
“Or his wife would punch me.”
“Check for a ring before you do it then.”
I rolled my eyes. “Who decides if he’s attractive?”
“You do, of course.” She paused, then added, “And that doesn’t mean you can just decide that no man is attractive from here on out.”
“And if I decided—hypothetically—to kiss this unknown but attractive man…what then?”
“Then at least you’ve kissed a man sometime in the last decade.”
She let out another laugh, and I swear to God it was a cackle. “Please, Lu. We both know you’ve basically got the Fort Knox of vaginas.”
“That is so not true.”
“When’s the last time you got laid?”
“I’m not answering that.”
“That gives you away right there.”
In spite of my best effort to keep it under control, my temper flared. “I don’t need to disclose the details of my sex life to you—or anyone else—just for the sake of proving that I have one. So, no. I won’t take your stupid dare.”
Liv didn’t seem to be fazed. “Whoa. I wasn’t trying to hit a nerve.”
“It’s not a nerve. It’s a choice.”
“I just thought you needed a push.”
“Yeah. Well. I don’t.”
She let out another of her noisy sighs. “I’m going to take a wild leap here and say that you’re not popping by for a drink?”
I surveyed the tree. And my abandoned shoes. And my hiked-up skirt.
“I’m a little…indisposed,” I told her.
“Okay,” she said, “but if a good-looking man happens to fall into your lap…”
“There won’t be any laps.” I looked down. “And no falling, either. I hope.”
“Just think about it.”
I stood there for a minute, staring down at the still-black phone. I had no way to tell if the call had actually ended, and I couldn’t stop myself from imagining Liv—and maybe everyone else too—being treated to the oh-so-pleasant sounds of me clambering down a tree.
“Not happening,” I muttered.
One slow knee at a time, I bent down. I kept one hand secured to the tree trunk and stretched the other toward the phone. My fingers tapped the edge of the purse, and I tried to pull it closer. I didn’t even bother celebrating. Which was a good thing. Because in keeping with the last half hour of my life, all the contact between my hand and the purse did was send the phone flying out of the tree.
My eyes started to close in frustration, but a thump and yell from beneath me—“Shit!”—made them jerk open again.
Startled, I flipped my gaze toward the source of the curse.
For a second, a pair of eyes so dark that they looked almost black and framed by thick lashes stared back. They were the kind of eyes that begged to be drown in. Faintly exotic. Almost enthralling. And just distracting enough that I forgot about the rain and the tree and the bare feet. But those three things didn’t forget about me. The moment my hand slipped from the tree trunk, a gust of wind sent a slap of. . .
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