Excerpt for Romance Boxed Set: Seven Book Set by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Romance Boxed Set

Alice Bello

Contains:

Hate Him Book 1: The Hate Him Trilogy

Hope Breaks: Book 1 of The Hope Trilogy

Hope Entangles: Book 2 of The Hope Trilogy

Better Off Dead: Book 1 of the Lucy Hart, Deathdealer Novels

Min’s Vampire: Book one of The Boccherini Sisters Duo

Claimed Bear: Book 1 of the Ferro Mountains Series

Girl Rush 1: The Girl Rush Series

Want Him: Prequel to the Hate Him Trilogy



Hate Him: Book 1

Alice Bello

Copyright 2014, 2016

Previously published as Slash & Burn

Edited by Stephanie T. Lott (aka Bibliophile)

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Chapter 1: Hate Him Book 1


I stared at the painting—the god-forsaken, horrifying painting.

It was the first of an installation that I’d hoped would not only reap critical praise, but would also sell like fucking crazy.

Or so my trusted protégé/roving talent scout, Jill, had told me.

I stared at the painting again.

I closed my eyes and shook my head.

I was in hell…

Lance, my trusty assistant and gay bestie, ambled up to me and cocked his head to the side.

“Zombie turkeys,” he said, sotto voce. “Interesting.”

Correction: I was in Zombie turkey Hell.

I wondered if there was an open bar in Zombie turkey Hell.

“Where is Jill?” I asked. I was going to strangle her with my bare hands.

Lance took a slow side-step away from me. “You know I hate it when you seethe like that.”

“I do not seethe!” I looked at him and he’d already taken another long side-step away from me.

“Jill’s in Portland this week,” he said, “and yes, you are seething.”

I opened my mouth to scream at him, but had to admit that yes, I was seething.

I wanted to yank the zombie turkey off the wall, drag it outside, and torch it.

“You’re right,” I said, turning back to the painting, folding my arms under my breasts—only the flat-chested could cross their arms over their chests, and I had been blessed with an ample bosom. “I’m sorry.”

Lance sighed, cracked his long, elegant neck, and then stepped back toward me.

“Our Miss Jill says this painter is the next hot thing… says they can’t keep his shit on the walls in Denver.”

I rolled my eyes and took another, closer look. The detail was good, if not nauseating. The image was strong and commanding.

Yeah, but the subject matter was ridiculous!

Even if I could sell this turkey, I’d be the joke of the Chicago art world, not to mention the east coast.

No, this couldn’t happen. I was going to have to dump this…

Some workmen toted in another painting, this one of a gaggle of zombie turkeys surrounding one normal, non-zombie turkey.

This was ridiculous.

“So,” I said, looking over at a beguilingly off-centered couple standing by a still wrapped eight by six feet painting leaning against the bank of front windows. “Which one is he?”

The couple consisted of a slightly punky, devil-may-care faced lothario with a goatee, distressed, practically painted on jeans, and some awesomely broad shoulders.

The other was about as interesting as dry toast: an almost handsome face that seemed just out of focus... hair too neat… clothes right out of a J.C. Penny catalogue and a rather impressive ability to blend right in with the potted plants.

Lance groaned. “The pathetically plain one? That’s Randy Crawford: the artist. The hot little slice beside him is his boyfriend, Darius.”

Of course, it had to be the boring one.

“God is a mean, hateful bitch if a sad sack like that can land himself such a gorgeous piece of ass!" Lance shook his head bitterly.

The aforementioned Darius tore the paper covering from the front of the third painting.

I gasped as the motley tableau before me assaulted my eyes: a grisly depiction of a flock of the zombie turkeys ripping apart a human corpse. The man, or should I say what was left of the man’s shredded and blood-splattered body, was holding a cornucopia in one hand, and a meat cleaver in the other.

The irony was not lost on me, and yet I could not imagine what kind of mental imbalance or chemical reaction could have caused any sane person to paint this travesty.

Was the boring painter a closet meth freak?

At least that would be something interesting I could tell people at the showing.

Oh god, there was going to be a show, wasn’t there?

I asked, “Do you think we could just tell people that the hot one is the artist?”

“Not a chance.” Lance stage whispered. “He’s already posted his mug all over Facebook and Pinterest. There’s even going to be a banner by the front door.”

“Fuck.” I put my hand to my forehead and tried to relax.

But…

But I was starving!

How could I deal with a zombie turkey apocalypse on an empty stomach?

But nothing sounded good.

“Lance, I think we should order…”

He waved me off with his perfectly manicured hand.

“Way ahead of you, boss-lady. I ordered you pasta fagioli from Roma’s, with those little crustinis you like so much.”

I sighed as I gazed lovingly at him. “Did you, maybe…”

He smiled devilishly, his perfectly symmetrical face a portrait of beauty, his warm green eyes sparkling.

“I ordered myself an Italian hoagie… you know I can never eat the whole thing!”

He sucked in his fabulously ripped six-pack and acted as if he needed to diet.

But if he ordered the hoagie, and I ate half of it, it didn’t count.

Girl logic: perfect and insane.

“Which reminds me, I’ve got to get the contracts for the Caron show out by noon!” He made a show of looking at his shell pink Rolex—a gift from a thankful and filthy rich art buyer that Lance wined and dined… and then did things to that I’m too young and pure of heart to know about.

The buyer, Churchill Walker, had been old and crusty, though truly charming. I’m sure Lance earned every spinning gear and crystal facing of that twenty thousand dollar plus wristwatch.

He eyed me. “So you’ll have to stay up front to tip Franco when he delivers the food.”

“Why didn’t you add the tip to the company card?” I whined. I hated handling cash. And though Roma’s delivery man, Franco, was super nice… he liked to talk far too much about the stupidest of things. He also looked a hell of a lot like every Italian uncle in every movie ever made: potbelly, a mustache, and a hooked nose.

“That’s why god created Visa and Master Card… not to mention American Express!”

He shot me a stern look. “If we tip using the credit card, he has to claim the whole thing on his taxes, whereas—”

“Whereas,” I cut him off, “cash leaves no paper trail. I get it.” I reached up and tucked a lock of his flaxen hair back behind his ear.

Lance twirled his Ralph Lauren jacket over his long, well muscled arms and kissed me on the head.

“I’ll be back before you can say cunnilingus.”

I smacked him on the ass as he sashayed toward the front door. “You’re really straight, I know it!”

He blew me a kiss, and then acted as if he were about to faint when he strode past the geek artist and his hottie boyfriend.

I saw two more very large paintings being hauled into the gallery.

Jesus… this was turning into a nightmare.


Chapter 2


I settled in behind the reception desk, sifting through the invitations that had stacked up over the week. If I actually went to all the parties to which I was invited I would do nothing else.

I usually picked one, maybe two parties to mingle at per weekend. If I was lucky, I could fit both parties in on one night, preferably Friday night. That way I’d have Saturday and Sunday all to myself to depressurize.

All to myself…

I felt a shuddering sense of dread—a familiar feeling that had sadly become the norm.

I dreaded weekends.

No, not the weekends, what they now meant.

For the last three months I’d… well, it was embarrassing as hell to say out loud.

I hadn’t had sex for three months.

Okay, I said it…

Sort of.

Some might think three months was just a little dry spell, but not for me. It was the equivalent of a hundred and fifty years in my years, and a decade accrued at the end of every night I spent by myself in my lonely little California king—

Watching the Cartoon Network.

I blame my best friend, Susan Jacobs—formerly Susan Rhodes—sexy, though love-life-deprived, architect extraordinaire.

She finally opened her eyes and saw her hot, though ultimately boring, male best friend for what he really was: husband material.

I don’t recommend it personally, but wedded bliss totally suited Susan… so much so that she and the hubby decided to procreate.

So Sara Marie Jacobs was born.

What does all that have to do with my sexual drought?

Well, I'm her best friend in the world—and since baby Sara decided to come into the world a full two weeks early, when Kevin was out of town on business, I was pulled into the whole birthing drama. I’m talking about driving Susan to the hospital, threatening the geeky ER clerk with rather imaginative bodily harm if he didn’t get her in to see a doctor immediately, fending off calls from Susan and Kevin’s parents, and then holding Susan’s hand while she went through the screaming, crying, sweating, nausea, grunting, and creative cursing.

I didn’t mind when I lost feeling in the hand she was gripping. What are friends for? I didn’t mind running out of the room and grabbing her socks for her—she was sweating like a whore in a church, but her feet were cold!

What I did find disturbing was when I re-entered Susan’s hospital room.

“She’s coming!” Susan cried out in the throes of the mother of all contractions, her hand outstretched for me to take. I started toward her and slipped on the tiled floor. It was a quick trip, I landed on my ass, clipping my shoulder on the floor but thankfully missing my head.

It was the scramble to my feet that set the sexual purgatory I’m currently in into motion.

The doctor and nurses were busy, so no one noticed my slip slide to the floor. I grabbed hold of the end of the bed to pull myself up from the floor, right beside the OBGYN stationed between my friend’s legs, and I got an eye full of what the good doctor was looking at.

Christ on a fucking crutch!

These kinds of sights are best left NEVER seen.

Baby Sara’s head was just crowning.

It was right out of that movie Aliens.

Susan screamed at me again and I tore my gaze from the gynecological front line and staggered to her side again, welcoming the pain her desperate, bone crushing grip caused when she took my hand again.

But that image was burned onto my mind like a cattle brand.

Since that day I have not felt even the least bit turned on.

No matter how many precautions I take—condoms, spermicidal lubes, vaginal foam, the pill—I just can’t stop thinking about the sight of my best friend’s girly parts bloodied and distended in excruciating pain.

Like the blaze of a strobe light flashing over and over and over again in my head.

No matter how hot the guy is, no matter how much I want to—and good god, how I want to—as soon as the kissing and the groping starts, I just go cold. My body switches off and my mind starts running a horrifying baby-birthing loop.

I looked up when the discreet chime of the front door tolled.

I blinked.

This was not Franco.

No… it was so not Franco.

This man had the Roma’s delivery heated bag, and a Roma’s t-shirt stretched across his broad, well-formed chest.

I smiled to myself as he came closer. Dark, penetrating eyes, long, lovely boy lashes, a pouty, kissable mouth, and the longish, lustrous hair that made a woman want to run her hands through it—

Or have it run over her breasts and down her body as he kissed his way down to her pussy…

Oh yeah, this man was just what the doctor ordered.

He strode over to me and winked. “Hey there… I’m Franco.”

I laughed. “No, you’re not.”

He blinked, confusion lighting in his eyes. Then he smiled, a wickedly sexy smile, showing off a killer set of pearly whites and sexy dimples.

“I’m Franco junior,” he explained. “I’m filling in for my dad for the week.”

“Are you?” I was already planning to have Roma’s delivered for the rest of the week.

“Yeah, he took my mom on a second honeymoon to Florida.” He blushed as he talked.

Okay, enough talk.

“So, Franco. You look… hot.” I left the word and the innuendo floating in the air.

He licked his full lips and leaned against the counter, showing off biceps and forearms that obviously took hours of pumping iron in a gym somewhere. “It is pretty damn hot out there. They say it’s ninety in the shade.”

I leaned forward, smooshing my boobs together to show them off to my prospective dry spell ender.

“I have a bucket of ice in the back.”

His eyes dropped to take in the sight of my décolletage—he sighed.

I stood and started walking back to my office.

The gallery was quiet, the delivery men gone, finished bringing in the horrific poultry paintings, and the offending artist and his boyfriend off to “see the city.”

I headed into my office and heard a gasp from behind me.

I turned and found Franco Jr. staring at the zombie turkeys tearing apart the man with the cornucopia. The look on his face was disgust and revulsion.

Not the mood I was looking for.

I clapped my hands together.

“Franco?”

Franco blinked and shook his head, his eyes slowly returning to me.

“Just keep your pretty eyes right here.” I made a show of patting my nicely curvaceous ass.

Franco’s eyes darkened as he honed his gaze in on my perky bottom.

That’s better.

I led my Italian stallion back into my office, and watched him sagely close and lock the door behind him. I took off my jacket, leaving on only my camisole, and then leaned back against my desk and felt my flesh start to warm as he walked closer to me.

He dumped the heated bag on a chair and prowled toward me. With a practiced move, he reached over his head and tugged his red Roma t-shirt off over his head, exposing one hell of a good body: rippling, bulging pecs; tight, six-pack abs; and chiseled, rock hard shoulders.

His skin was naturally tanned and there was a light dusting of black hair between his pecs, and a happy trail leading down into his tight black jeans.

Yum…

He pushed his long, black, achingly touchable hair back from his forehead with one hand, causing all the muscles in his torso to dance.

If I wasn’t mistaken, I thought my sex drive was making a comeback. My neglected vajayjay pulsed and I could feel all the heat that was coursing through me start to build down below.

Good… very good…

I reached out and touched his chest. His flesh was warm and soft, and as if by chemical reaction my body flared to life. I wanted him inside me, and now.

I pulled him to me, our lips crashing into each other, my chest pushed hard against his.

And oh boy… was Franco hard. I could feel the curve of his thick erection against my inner thigh.

Something flickered in the back of my mind, just a twinkle… but it made my fevered skin cool about ten degrees.

Don’t you dare! I screamed at the stupid bitch in my head. I NEED THIS!

I reached down and grabbed a handful of his young, perfectly hard ass and squeezed. Franco groaned into my mouth as his hips shot up against my still throbbing oonie.

His hips undulated as he pulled my hips tight against him.

I ran my free hand though his hair.

He reached down between us and started undoing his belt buckle.

Where are my condoms?

That thought flashed to all those hours I had spent clicking and googling contraception methods.

And that made the image of Susan’s wretched vagina light up like a sign in Times-fucking-Square.

And just like that, I was cold as an ice cube, all the need and heat and frenzy evaporating in less than ten seconds.

A tiny, sullen voice cried, They are in the top desk drawer!

She wept, sobbing and calling out plaintively.

We were sooooo close!

I pushed my hand against Franco’s chest. “This isn’t going to happen.”

He licked my collarbone and went head first into my cleavage.

I clamped my hand across his forehead and pulled his head up out of my boobies until his eyes defogged and he met my gaze.

I said, this isn’t going to happen. I need you to leave now.”

He groaned. “Are you kidding?”

I wished. “I just remembered I have to be downtown in twenty minutes.” That was at least a thirty-five minute cab ride this time of day.

I could see Franco doing the math in his head. Being a deliveryman made you an expert on transportation time.

I saw the moment resignation made his expression drop, so I threw him a bone… so to speak.

I reached over and pulled my purse to me, deftly finding my emergency stash of cash and handing him two fifty dollar bills.

“To make up for your lost time,” I said and tucked the bills into the waistband of his jeans.

Franco reluctantly pulled himself off me and started putting his t-shirt back on, shaking his head the whole time.

“Sorry about this.” I was more than sorry. This hot stud should have blown right through my little problem.

Hell, he should have been banging me up against the wall by now!

Franco pulled my order from the heated bag and gave me another long look. I pretended to brush the nonexistent wrinkles from my skirt.

“This is the first time a woman has paid me not to have sex with her.”

Jesus…

I grabbed my suit jacket and started pulling it on as he unlocked my office door and swung it open.

As if on cue, Lance was standing there, hand up as if he were about to knock. His eyes went wide, and an evil smile slid across his face.

Franco said, “Hey, dude,” and bumped his knuckles with Lance's as he walked past him.

Lance watched as Franco left, his gaze running over him like he was scanning him for weapons.

When he turned back to me I had myself pulled together and was reaching into the box with Lance’s Italian hoagie in it, going for my half.

“Where’s Franco?” he asked, his voice heavy with innuendo.

“That was Franco junior.” I took a huge bite of the hoagie.

Lance closed the door behind him, pulled up a seat and grabbed the rest of the sandwich.

“So?”

I looked at him with no expression on my face, simply chewing my sandwich.

“Don’t be a bitch!” he crooned, and took a dainty bite of his half of the hoagie. “Tell me everything. Did he end your curse?”

Curse? “That’s a hell of a way to say it.” God, I needed a cigarette!

But I quit six months ago.

I reached for my stash of Milk Duds.

I know, not the most appealing of names for candy… but damn, they were good.

Just not good for your figure, sweet cheeks…

Shut. Up.

“Well?” Lance scooted his chair closer, the look of excitement on his face was priceless.

I sighed and 'fessed up. “No, nothing was ended, slapped, or penetrated.”

Damn it…

His face fell like a house of cards, his lip sticking out in the most adorable pout.

“Stop that,” I scolded, throwing a Milk Dud at him. “It’s not like he didn’t have sex with you! I’m the one not getting laid here.”

Lance caught the Milk Dud and stared at it for a moment, lost in thought.

So unlike my mighty gay assistant.

“Lance?”

He blinked and then popped the sultry little chocolate morsel in his mouth, faking a smile. I know Lance, and he was giving me his best faux smile.

“Is there something wrong between you and Churchill?”

He shook his head, “No, everything is great.”

I gave him my Don’t bullshit me glare.

He sighed, reached across the desk and stole the box of Milk Duds out of my hand.

“I love him,” he said, shoving a handful of the gooey candy in his mouth. “Mut… mee affen ad ex et.”

I blinked. “I’ll wait for you to swallow that load before I ask you to repeat yourself.”

Lance gave me the finger, and kept chewing. When he finally swallowed he grimaced and then sighed again.

“We haven’t had sex yet.”

I laughed.

Lance shot me a scathing look.

I laughed some more.

“Oh come on.” I leaned over the desk and stole back my Milk Duds before he ate them all. “I thought sex on the first date was like the gay standard. Like a hand shake.”

“That’s stereotyping.” He reached for the Milk Duds but I clutched them protectively to my breasts. “I thought you were above such things.”

I threw a Milk Dud at his head and he deftly caught it in his mouth.

“I live for stereotypes.” I upended the box of Milk Duds—empty. “So how many sexual partners have you had?”

Lance’s eyes widened.

“Including blowjobs and hand-jobs.”

He pursed his lips and sat up straight. “How many have you had?”

He knew how to play dirty.

“Fine, we’re both born again virgins. So how is it you and Churchill haven’t done the deed? It’s been, what—six months?”

“Seven…”

Oh…

Lance took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling.

“Okay, but you have to promise not to let Churchill know you know!”

“I promise.” I placed one hand over my heart and one up in the air, as if swearing it.

Lance bit his lip, looking so young and naïve.

“Churchill can’t get it up.”

I shrugged.

“And he’s too ill to try… artificial means.”

“Oh…” I didn’t need to know that.

And yet you asked, didn’t you?

“His physician says that the surgery to put in an implant would surely kill him, if not the act of having… you know, having sex at all.”

I got the picture. If poor… well, if rich-as-sin yet old-as-the-hills Churchill wasn’t healthy enough to take the erection pills, or to undergo penile implant surgery, he certainly wouldn’t last long while having sex.

I gave Lance an appraising look.

Everything firm, if not bulging—and I knew he was a yoga devotee.

Yep, five minutes of Lance would certainly send old Churchill to the grave.

I nodded vigorously, trying to get the picture of the two of them out of my head.

“So,” I said, trying to hit the forward button on our little heart-to-heart, “Now you want to go out and… get some? Well, I can understand that, sweetie. Seven months at your age.”

Hell, I was only a few years older than him and I was ready to climb the walls after only half that long.

Lance sobbed.

Sobbed.

His eyes were brimming with tears as he slowly shook his head.

“I don’t want to be with anyone if I can’t be with Churchill.”

Dear god…

“I had no idea you felt like that. I’m so sorry.”

Lance tried to take in a breath, but kept on gasping. Just when he looked about to explode, he cried out, “He wants me to sleep with other men!”

He melted into tears, his pretty green eyes turning a watery bloodshot, his aquiline nose turning puffy and red. He sniffled, looking about to wipe his nose with his sleeve.

I couldn’t let my best gay ruin his fine fashion standards. I reached in my bottom drawer for the boxes of tissues I keep for clients—and Susan—and held one out to Lance.

He took three and swiped his eyes, ending in a very dainty, elegant blowing of his nose.

“So he wants you to go out and find someone to…”—How to word this?—“To satisfy your urges?”

“No…” Lance grimaced as if he’d bitten into rotten fruit. “He wants me to bring someone home so he can watch us fuck.”

Big oh…

“So, Churchill is a… voyeur?”

Lance crossed his arms over his chest, looking so beautifully lost.

“He feels I can’t keep this no sex thing up, and wants me to stop it. But he also wants to see me happy.” Lance gave me a beseeching glance. “Literally see me being happy.”

I walked over and sat on his side of the desk and took his hand in mine.

“And you can’t go through with it because you love him.”

He nodded, sniffling. “Plus, I’m afraid that he might get excited and have a heart attack just watching.”

I looked over at my window for a minute, gazing out on Hyde Park Boulevard.

“I’m not qualified to advise you here.” I looked back to him.

Lance sniffled. “No shit.”

We both started laughing. I dropped into his lap, entwining my arms around his neck, and then kissed his blotchy, beautiful face. He wrapped his arms around me and we sat there for a moment, just holding each other.

“Aren’t we a pair?” I said.

“I can fuck anyone, just not the one I want…” He kissed me on top of the head. “And you can’t get laid to save your life.”

I elbowed him in the ribs. “Asshole!”

He held me tighter. “Okay, I’m sure if it was the fate of the world in the balance, you would pull a Hail Mary orgasm out of your yoohoo.”

“You do remember I’m your boss, don’t you? I think a bit of respect is in order.”

Lance scoffed. “Do I hafta?”

I spied the lovely Howard Miller wall clock I’d bought the last time I was in San Francisco and saw I was indeed late. I had a meeting with a representative of the Chicago Arts Council, and he wanted to meet at his office across town.

“I have to run, so you watch the store while I try to get old musty pants to add us—finally—to the council’s charity ball invite list.”

Lance coughed. “That guy smells like rotten cabbage doused with Brut.”

“But he’s the only member of the council that’s even returned one of my phone calls.” It was my turn to sigh. I’d been a major art dealer in this town for four goddamn years, and yet I couldn’t get invited to their twice yearly charity ball.

The list was so select that almost no one on the outside of it knew who was on it.

Like freaking Fight Club.

I had to get on that invitation list! The contacts, the mingling… the future sales to filthy rich gajillionaires…

I hopped off Lance’s lap and grabbed my purse and cell phone. “Call me if there’s a problem. I’m going to go home right after, so lock up…” I thought of the collection of zombie turkey oils hanging on my gallery’s exquisitely designed walls, like road kill in a Rockwell canvas. “Or torch the place, your call.”

I walked toward the door to the now tainted gallery.

“Don’t forget about tonight,” Lance said.

I stopped in my tracks. “Tonight?”

I looked back and Lance was standing there with a miserably dejected look on his face.

“You know, dinner with me and Churchill at La Pampillon?”

Christ! Could this day get any worse?

Not that I wouldn’t enjoy myself—Lance and Churchill were two of my favorite people… even with my new personal knowledge of their sex life. Or was it their non-sex life?

Ah fuck it! I would probably need cheering up after meeting with old musty pants.

“Of course! We agreed on eight, right?”

“The reservation is for seven.” Lance had a wary look on his face.

“That’s it, seven. I’ll be there, dressed to the teeth.” As I went through my office door I saw the puppy dog look on Lance’s face.

“I promise!”

“Swear on your shoes.”

I stopped again. “What?”

“Swear on your shoes that you’ll be there.”

“That’s ridiculous.” I cocked my head at him, hands on my hips. “I like these shoes, but they’re hardly swear-worthy.”

Lance matched my pose exactly, and the pissy look on his face was fierce.

“Swear on all of them.”

All my shoes?

I could just see him “letting himself” into my apartment and kidnapping all my heels. There had to be close to a hundred thousand dollars worth of Italian leather in my walk-in closet. He’d need a U-Haul to transport them, but he was a well-trained assistant. I put nothing past his skill set.

“I’ll swear on my Prada mules and my Dolce and Gabbana pumps,” I countered.

“The lace and jewel bow ones?”

Damn, he did know my closet inside out.

“Yes, those pumps.”

He smiled. “Fine, I believe you. No get out of here and charm the pants off old musty pants.”


Chapter 3


Carson Gibson III (aka old Musty Pants) not only kept me waiting in his reception area for nearly an hour, but then had the nerve to tell me, once I was in his office, that he only had five minutes to spare for me because he had “an early tee time” at La Grange.

I siphoned every drop of energy I had into making my smile and voice as sunny as possible. I just kept thinking, I really, really want on this invitation list! I do, I do, I do!

Even when he decided to open his closet and pull out his golf clubs and practically take off my foot when he dropped them beside me—a none too subtle hint.

The man was as rude as he was smelly.

He kept picking something in his teeth, and interrupted me twice by placing phone calls to his golf cronies.

The third time he interrupted me he said, “What is it you’re getting at, Miss Hartford?”

My hands clenched into fists in my lap, well out of his line of sight.

You rude, disgusting asshat!

“It’s Hamilton. Liz Hamilton. And I own and operate New View Art Gallery on Hyde Park Boulevard. My gallery has been featured in the Sun Times, the Tribune, and Chicago magazine. I think I would be a valuable addition to the Arts Council—”

Old Musty Pants laughed: a rancid string of guffaws falling from his wrinkled, chapped lips.

“Miss Hamill.” He did it again! Was I an Olympic figure skater now? “I’m sure your little shop is… well, a quaint little venture. But here at the Chicago Arts Council we strive to include only those who have left an authentic mark on our beautiful city.”

“But Mr. Gibson, I’ve shown major artists for four years running.”—not including the upcoming zombie turkey showing—“And I’m sure that if you call around—”

“I don’t need to ‘call around’ Miss Hamill,” he cut across me. “I have never heard of you, other than your persistent, desperate attempts to get me to let you on the council’s charity ball invitation list.”

My face warmed, as if he’d slapped me.

He opened his mouth to continue but I stood up and stopped him with a raised hand.

“I won’t waste anymore of your time then, Carlton.”

His wrinkly mouth pursed in disdain.

“My name is Carson Gibson the third. And if I were you—”

I should have been nice. I should have been diplomatic and tactful.

Screw that!

“If I were you, maybe you’d remember my name. It’s is Liz Hamilton. Not Hartford, and certainly not Hamill. And I’d love to stay and listen to you pontificate on why I’m not Arts Council material, but I have a business to run, and actual work to do. So good day, Mr. Gibson.”

As I marched out of his office I received a thumbs up from his assistant.

Smart or not—well, it had been pretty damn stupid of me to have told the old goat off—at least I felt better.

And I’d feel better until later tonight when it sank in that I’d not only burnt my Arts Council bridge but ripped out the still smoldering support beams as well.

I walked about ten blocks to cool off, and then stopped at a Baskin Robbins for a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough double scoop. Calories be damned; I needed some comfort food.

I ate my cone as I took a cab to my apartment building.

Quincy, the doorman, greeted me with his usual mischievous smile. He was in his early fifties, over a foot taller than me, and was a native Chicagoan. He knew everything about the city and its sports teams. And he had lifted my spirits many times in the last six years I’d lived here.

He took one look at me and said, his smile only dimming a fraction of a degree, “You didn’t get it, did you?”

I shook my head. Misery dropped on me like a hunter's net, and I felt my heart sink.

He placed his huge hands on my shoulders and squeezed them in a fatherly way. My own father had always been too busy to do the fatherly things, so moments like this always made part of me swell with happiness.

“I know what will cheer you up,” he said.

“I already tried ice cream. Next will be vodka.”

He chuckled, shaking his head. “No, no, no. Nothing like that.”

He looked over his shoulder at the front desk area, and a shiny red wrapped box.

“You have a present, from Mr. Walker.”

A present from Churchill?

I followed him to the front desk and he handed me the package.

There was a hand written note: For tonight.

I pulled the black ribbon from the box and lifted off the lid. After some tissue paper I found what was in the box.

A dress.

It was no ordinary dress: Blood red silk, exquisite beading around the throat and bodice—vintage Dior most assuredly.

There was also a matching silk clutch bag, and a to-die-for pair of red velvet Chanel cork heel pumps.

Quincy was right. I felt better just thinking how wonderful I was going to look tonight.

“Can you do me a favor and call me a cab at six-thirty?”

It was official. I was going out tonight.

“Of course, Miss Hamilton… where to?”

“La Pampillon. I have a dinner date.”

Chapter 4

The cab pulled up to the Lincoln Park based restaurant. A valet opened my door—sighed as he watched me slip out of the cab—and ushered me into the restaurant.

I never feel out of place. Ever.

I’m always dressed to the nines and feel comfortable in any setting, whether it be at a biker bar or a five star culinary marvel like La Pampillon.

But tonight, in this dress, with these shoes on my feet, I felt like the queen.

When I walked into the lobby I heard a few gasps from the ladies seated on fainting couches, and a few coughs and low whistles from the male clientele.

That made me smile as I walked with a swing to my hips to the maitre d'.

I dropped Churchill’s name and was magically whisked into the restaurant proper and to the best table in the house. Churchill and Lance stood the instant they saw me coming, and I felt like a fairytale princess when Churchill kissed my hand.

“You look smashing my dear.”

I blushed—which is so not at all like me—and sat down.

They’d ordered a red wine that smelled delicious. I took a sip and… well, it was a divine experience.

“You really know your hooch, Churchill.” I winked at him.

“Liz!” Lance admonished with a glowing smile. He knew Churchill loved it when I talked like this.

Brazen hussy: that’s me.

Churchill was a man in his early seventies, tall and willowy, with long, hoary white hair that looked both silky and perfectly coifed at all times. He always wore Brooks Brothers' suits and lovely silk ties. Always with a broad smile on his face, he sometimes made me think of him as an exuberant teenager.

And he always wore Fahrenheit by Christian Dior: a rather sensuous cologne that always brought on a shiver in me.

Maybe that’s why he chose the Dior dress.

“So what shall we be dining on tonight?” I asked Churchill, leaning forward.

His face turned radiant.

“That’s a secret, my dear.”

“Oh, Churchill.” I wagged my finger at him as if he were a naughty schoolboy.

“He won’t even tell me!” Lance complained.

I reached over and patted his hand. “Poor baby.”

Being in their presence always made me think of The Age of Innocence. Churchill was so sweet and proper—and my campy, bawdy assistant seemed to change his spots to match him perfectly.

They were so right together.

Well…

Thoughts of Lance’s confession earlier snapped at that thought like an alligator in a Georgia swamp.

I shook the conflicting thoughts out of my head.

I wanted to enjoy this dinner, enjoy their company, and most of all, to enjoy looking this elegant and beautiful.

First on the menu was a cool, tart asparagus salad with brown tomatoes and artichoke hearts. That was followed by a crown of the freshest jumbo shrimp I have ever tasted, perched upon a small bed of savory orzo and snap peas.

The side dishes and matching glasses of dessert wines came at a dizzying pace, and I was starting to fear my full belly might rip out one of the seams in my dress. I knew a fancy restaurant like this would have a qualified restroom attendant handy with a needle and thread, but I wanted to keep this dress as pristine as I could.

Then came the entrée—as always, Churchill knew me so well. I liked to eat, which meant I spent odious hours at the gym trying to keep the fat off and everything firmly in its place—but without gaining any Hulk-like muscles.

The plate held a huge sirloin steak—broiled to a perfect well done, the edges crunchy with a special rub I knew only he had the recipe to—garlic whipped potatoes and green beans.

I know, I know… green beans.

But when you no longer have anyone to make them for you—like a mother—you start wanting them all the time. Trust me, they’re a kind of comfort food.

It was so sweet of Churchill to remember. But that was him in a nut shell. He never forgot what you liked. That’s probably how he took his family’s respectable fortune and through the decades drove it to gargantuan proportions.

His family owned a condiment empire: pickles, mayonnaise, ketchup, you name it. When Churchill took over as CEO in the fifties he made the family tighten their belts and diversify their “expendable income” in new directions. One was the burgeoning computer industry—IBM, and then later Apple and Microsoft, and lately Google.

Though the man keeps a ridiculously low profile, he’s loaded.

I blew him a kiss and then took up my knife and fork and cut into my steak. It was perfect, just the way I liked it, and the crunchy rub all over it just added to the taste.

Good god, I had no idea how I was going to walk out of this restaurant. They would have to ask for a wheel barrel to tote me out in.

From the corner of the restaurant I heard a laugh: male, hoarse, yet with a metallic ring. Touchable, as if it were caressing your skin.

And familiar…

The sound pulled my spine up straight as if by a steel chord.

Lance’s eyes went wide when he looked at me. “What’s wrong?”

I didn’t really know. My mind hadn’t caught up with the rest of my nervous system yet… but my heart had. It thumped painfully hard in my chest.

Just then a waiter appeared at my side and set a stemmed martini glass beside me.

I gulped looking at the chilled glass and the ring of salt on the rim.

A margarita in a martini glass—my flesh warmed as anger ignited in my chest, making my thudding heart burn.

“Compliments of the gentleman,” the waiter said, pointing to the corner of the dining room with an elegant gesture.

My gaze followed where he pointed and lit on a table of men in expensive suits. Dead in the center I caught sight of him, and my heart skipped a beat—the traitor…

Jackson Burk.

I turned back around and closed my eyes, feeling myself slipping into an emotional rollercoaster.

Anger spiked with joy, shame mingled with cold fear, and a long lost feeling of love coated in black, sticky hate.

I'd never wanted to see Jackson again…

Yet here he was, just when my career and personal life were on precarious ground, looking…

Well, I’d only stolen a glance before I turned back around and closed my eyes, but he looked…

Like a fucking wet dream?

Thank you, so very helpful.

I gritted my teeth and pushed the shit-storm inside me back to the dark little corner of my mind where I’d long ago banished it.

I would not melt into a puddle of sniffling, tear soaked hurt.

No, this wasn’t college, and I wasn’t the dewy eyed girl I had been.

The memory of his walking out of my dorm room flickered through my mind, and the scorching feelings of hurt, shame, and confusion that moment had caused.

And now, sitting there in that restaurant, I saw for the first time that that moment, that feeling, had been reverberating inside me all along.

I swear that when I opened my eyes again everything was red.

I blinked a few times and it went away.

I stood, grabbing my clutch purse and the martini glass clad margarita, and headed towards Jackson’s table.

Jackson’s eyes were blue-green, like arctic ice, and they bore into me as I walked toward him. I strutted around the table until I was standing right next to him. He didn’t stand up. Simply sat there, staring at me with those damned eyes of his, a slight grin on his handsome face.

Dirty blond hair, cut short, the build of a college football star, and the sun kissed skin of a native California boy—he was the very definition of masculine beauty.

I smiled at him and his expression faltered.

Worried about what I’ll do?

I looked down at the martini glass in my hand.

“Liz,” he said, and then he sighed and tilted his head as he looked at me. “You’re not really going to—”

I threw the drink in his face.

Jackson wiped the margarita from his eyes with one hand, and then looked at me with irritation.

I leaned down and he jerked back an inch or two. I leaned in further, my smiling face so very close to his, and then ran my index finger down the line of his square jaw.

He watched, his mouth slack, as I put my finger to my lips and gently tasted what I’d taken from his flesh.

I moaned as if tasting something delicious.

I looked back to him and he was biting his lip.

“I forgot how much I enjoy those. Thanks for the reminder.”

I turned and started walking toward the front doors. Lance and Churchill were still standing at our table and I waved goodbye.

I needed out of there. I needed away from Jackson Burk, as far away from him as possible.

“Liz!” Jackson called after me, but I was already at the front doors, pushing past the doorman.

Once outside I gulped the city’s air as if I hadn’t breathed in years: desperate, halting breaths.

I glance around. No cabs in sight.

I needed to get away, so I started to run.

I was in four inch heels, so I wasn’t setting any land speed records.

I heard his steps as he caught up with me, and I felt it when he grabbed hold of my arm.

His hand was on fire. That heat seeped through my skin and made my blood boil on contact. I had forgotten how his touch made me feel. It was some scary chemical reaction… or magic.

No… I won’t do this, not ever again!

I swung around in his grasp and slapped him as hard as I could.

He winced, but didn’t let me go.

I went to hit him again, but he reached up and caught my hand in mid-air.

He was so strong; I had forgotten.

I was trapped in his grasp.

“Let go of me!” My voice dripped venom.

“You need to listen to me.” His eyes bore into me, and my traitorous heart skipped a beat again.

“I’ll scream.”

“And I’ll break something.” I looked behind Jackson and found Lance standing behind him, his perfect face a blank mask.

Jackson glanced over his shoulder and then back to me. “This is a private conversation.”

Lance tsked as he sauntered nearer. “It stopped being private the moment you grabbed hold of her.”

I saw Jackson’s face falter—he was thinking about how it looked, and about how he was holding onto me.

He let me go and took a step back.

“I’m sorry for that, but we need to talk.”

Lance walked up and stood beside Jackson. “I’m Miss Hamilton’s assistant.” He handed Jackson a business card. “You can call me tomorrow and we can discuss your manners and any future contact you may be granted.”

I saw the pissed off spark in Jackson’s eyes. He turned on Lance, his nostrils flaring, and reached out to shove him.

Lance caught his hand and in a heartbeat had Jackson flat on his face on the sidewalk, his muscular arm wrenched painfully behind his back.

I had always thought that Lance was bragging on his résumé when he’d put that he’d won a national championship in Aikido when he was in high school, but seeing him lay a six foot two ex-football jock out in two seconds flat confirmed his credentials.

I gulped and stifled a laugh.

I wasn’t paying Lance nearly enough.

Jackson groaned as Lance manipulated his spine with his knee.

I winced just from how painful it looked.

But… as much as I wanted Jackson Burk in pain, I said, “Lance, I don’t like seeing him in pain like that. Would you let him up please?”

Lance looked up to me, his perfect mouth pursed in question. “Are you going soft on me?”

Good question.

“No, I’m still the bitch that hired you, but I don’t want you to end up in jail.”

Lance scoffed. “There are plenty of surveillance cameras on this street. They’ll all show he went to touch me first. I was just defending myself.”

Jackson groaned again as Lance rocked his weight a little more into the hold. I walked around the two until I could look into Jackson’s face. Even in pain, and pushed half into the pavement, the bastard was gorgeous.

I bent down and said, “I’m sure Lance here can be persuaded to let you loose if you promise not to touch me again.”

Jackson shook his head—quite a feat since his face was smooshed against the pavement.

“I can’t promise that. I have all kinds of plans for touching you… later on.”

I stood up and frowned. Even in pain and pressed against the sidewalk, he could still flirt.

That’s how he’d gotten me to go out with him.

Susan had manipulated me into volunteering on a blood mobile drive, handing out orange juice and cookies to the student athletes while they gave blood.

The woman taking Jackson’s blood was missing his vein repeatedly, and though he was a blotchy red, and sweating, and cursing, he asked me out the instant he saw me.

I crumpled that memory up in my head like a piece of paper.

“Well then,” I said, stepping past him. “Lance can just keep you there until I call him and tell him I’m safely at home.”

I took a few steps and he called, “Wait! Don’t leave.”

I didn’t look back. I wanted him to give up and leave—and to leave me alone forever.

“Just go to lunch with me tomorrow. We’ll meet at Chester’s.”

Chester’s…

I hadn’t thought of that place in years. The best cheddar cheese fries in the history of the world, and steak hoagies so mouthwatering you never left any on your plate, or took it home.

“Is there one in Chicago?” It had been a small new chain restaurant back when we were in college. We used to eat there like ravenous wolves, studying and kissing, and…

I was about to say no… but then he’d just keep this up until Lance hurt him, and as much as I wanted him to pay for…

I let my head fall back and sighed, looking up at the sky, not seeing a single star due to all the ambient light covering the sky like smog.

“Fine, if you promise to go away now, I’ll meet you at Chester’s at noon.”

“Okay.” Jackson looked over his shoulder where Lance knelt on top of him. “Will you get off me now?”

Lance smiled and gracefully stood up, letting go of Jackson in one elegant movement.

Jackson groaned again, this time in relief, and rolled gingerly onto his back.

Lance leaned down and offered him his hand.

After scrutinizing the offered help, Jackson grasped hold of Lance’s hand as he was heaved off the ground.

Lance was far stronger than I’d imagined.

“Radioactive spider bite?” I asked as my assistant circled around behind me.

He snorted. “I’m just glad he gave up so quick—would’ve hated messing up something so pretty.”

The look Jackson was giving me as he brushed off his suit was like a forest fire burning behind his eyes.

“You may still have to,” I said.

Lance blinked and then rolled his eyes at me. “Breeders. I just don’t get you people.”

I turned to walk away, but Jackson moved to follow me.

Lance cleared his throat and wagged a finger at him. Jackson stopped in his tracks.

He leaned into me and murmured, “Churchill probably has his car ready for us, if you wouldn’t mind bumming a ride from us.”

I looked behind him and saw Churchill looking dapper, waving us over to his…

“Is that a vintage Rolls Royce Phantom?”

I walked as if in a dream toward the car… no, not a car, an automobile of the highest order. All those curves and metal, all covered by a perfect paintjob at least six layers deep.

“No,” Lance said as we got closer. “That’s a 1955 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith.”

Jackson was suddenly standing right beside me, staring at the four wheeled wonder before us.

“It’s an Empress Touring Limousine,” he chanted. “Bruce Wayne’s butler drives him around in one of those.”

I had to smile. Geek much?

I looked over to Lance and saw my expression mirrored there.

I walked over to where Churchill stood and accepted his hand as I slid into the car. The Italian leather seats were so soft I wanted to strip out of my dress and roll around on them… but I didn’t, of course.

That would have been tacky, though I’m sure Lance would have recorded it on his iPhone and posted it on half a dozen social media sites before I even got home.

Churchill followed me into the car, and then came Lance.

I heard Jackson call out, “Remember, Tigger… Chester’s at noon. Don’t be late!”

Lance turned and said, “Tigger?”

I gave him my most deadly of glares. “Don’t ask. Now shut the door.”

Lance laughed one perfect Ha, and pulled the door shut. The Roll-Royce sped off into the night, slipping through traffic like it was made out of smoke and shadows.

As Chicago slid past in our wake, my assistant placed his hand atop mine and squeezed.

“You alright, boss lady?”

No, I wasn’t alright. I was so confused. I was numb. My mind was a word jumble from hell: hurt, hate, loved, abandoned…

I suppressed the tears vying to course down my face, and wreck my makeup, and took deep breaths instead.

“Would you gentlemen mind dropping me off somewhere?”


Chapter 5


I texted her on the way over, and called her from the lobby and the elevator, but Susan refused to answer.

I needed to talk to her. I needed my best friend to help me figure things out.

So I knocked on her door and rang her doorbell over and over and over again.

And then I heard a baby crying.

Shiiit!

I’d forgotten there was a baby now.

And I'd woken her up.

I considered sneaking away, and dashing down the fire exit stairs, but Susan opened the apartment door just as I was turning to run. She held little Sara in her arms as she cried and screamed—Susan’s eyes were blood shot and her expression pissed off.

I opened my mouth to talk, but she cut me off by slicing the air with her free hand.

“Get in, shut the door, and sit down,” she said, voice terse, and then turned to pad off to the living room.

I’d read that new mothers were not only sleep deprived but dangerous. Under normal circumstances I would never have come anywhere near this apartment or baby Sara. Too loud, too stressful, and far too many chances to walk away with a terrifying stain.

But I had been so turned around and shaken by seeing Jackson again, I hadn’t thought things out.

I did as I was told. I came in, shut the door, and followed Susan into her living room.

She pointed to a beige couch with a huge stuffed snowman on one end, and a duo of stuffed princesses on the other. Well, the one with the white hair was a princess for sure… the other might have been her maid.

Susan gestured for me to sit in the center of the couch, and I obeyed. She immediately slapped a pink and orange bath towel over my shoulder and set baby Sara in my arms, her wails and sobs like the raptor screeches from Jurassic Park.

She turned and grabbed two remotes from the coffee table I’d bought them for their wedding gift—I cringed as I saw the scratches and dings already inflicted on the Hooker Brookhaven wood topped table.

She pointed the dual remotes at the large flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, and then pocketed the remotes in her wrinkled and stained polka-dot robe.

The fifty-inch screen blazed to life, and I was suddenly bombarded by a dancing snowman singing about the joys of summer.

I looked at baby Sara—she had suddenly stopped crying, and was now smiling, cooing as the snowman danced.

I looked around and found myself alone in the room with the baby.

“Susan…” I called. “Are you there?”

No answer.

I looked to the baby and then to the snowman and sighed.

And now I was going to pay.

An eternity later—technically about ten minutes—Susan emerged from the back of the apartment with a baby bottle in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

Oh yes, that was what I needed.

Caffeine.

I reached out my hand… and Susan handed me the baby bottle.

I frowned and watched as my one time best friend sat in a chair off to the left and sipped at her probably delicious cup of coffee.

She sighed, closing her eyes, leaning back into the cushions of the chair—even curling her toes.

Then she smiled and opened her eyes to regard me.

“So why is my best friend pounding on my door in the middle of the night?”

I looked over to the clock on the wall. “It’s eight o’clock.”

“Not when you have a three month old.” She shot me a hard, level look. “Then it’s the middle of the night.”

“Maybe I should go.” I’d obviously wrecked her night, and now that I was thinking about it, the appearance of an ex-boyfriend might not seem all that important to a new mother.

Susan shook her head slowly, a cruel smile on her usually sweet face.

“You’re not going anywhere until you’ve fed Sara her bottle, and then rocked her to sleep again.” She took another sip of her coffee and sighed again, looking far too happy.

“What the hell’s in that coffee?”

“Nothing illegal or alcoholic,” Susan said, “but it’s nice to be able to drink it like a regular human being.”

“Regular human being?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Try drinking a cup of hot coffee when you’re juggling a baby. It’s harder than you’d think.”

I looked down at baby Sara and felt a pang of pity. As cute as she was, just holding her was precluding all other activities.

I dutifully brought the bottle to her mouth and she took hold of the nipple with a happy sound and started to feed.

“Now,” Susan said, “Tell me what’s the problem.”

“It’s nothing, really.”

She gave me the Don’t be stupid look.

I bit my lip, took a deep breath and told her.

“I saw Jackson Burk tonight.”

At first there was no reaction from her. And then her eyes widened and she sat up and put her coffee cup down.

“Jackson, as in the Jackson Burk that didn’t take your virginity?”


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