COLOR ME WICKED

E-novella Reissue
January 2012

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Men At Work Anthology

December 2004
Berkley
ISBN: 0425198952

Read an Excerpt

Amanda Harcourt had one scorching night of incredible sex with Conleth Maguire on a Galveston, Texas beach ten years ago. Then she’d left Con for a career in New York City. She’s back in Galveston now as the interior designer for the weird and wacky Castle of Dark Dreams, a theme park attraction. Old memories surface when she finds out that Con has been hired to paint the castle. Because no matter what she tries to tell herself, she’s never forgotten him or the rose tattoo on his hip.

Con remembers everything about Mandy, including the blue butterfly tattoo on her round little behind. And now that she’s back, he’s determined to make her realize what she abandoned so many years ago. Namely, him.

He wants to paint the castle in darkly erotic colors. She’s into understated elegance. But they agree on one thing. Even grumpy wizards, telepathic cats, and voyeur plants won’t stop them from finishing what began on that beach.

 



 
READ AN EXCERPT

PROLOGUE

“Sensational sex with a wicked twist isn’t a slam-dunk, Deimos. Trust me, I know. You’re talking to a maven of sensual meddling here, and manipulation is my heart, my soul, my... Fine, so I’m not into hearts and souls, but you get the idea.” Sparkle Stardust crossed her legs and shifted her bottom into a more comfortable position as she perched on the stool behind her candy counter.

Deimos didn’t look impressed. “I’m a cosmic troublemaker just like you. What you can do, I can do, too.”

“But I can do it better, babe. You’re getting a chance to learn from the best. Specialization is where it’s at, and my unique talent lies in hooking up couples who’re, well, completely wrong for each other. If I’m lucky, they hate each other. I use my immense power to drag them, er...guide them gently toward sexual nirvana. I decided to mentor you because I sensed your deep well of untapped potential for creating sexual mayhem. So how does that work for you?”

Ignoring the hem of her black dress that slithered higher up her thigh with each wiggle, she frowned at her toenails exposed by fuchsia Jimmy Choo sandals with sex-inch heels. Her fave shoes. They made a statement: I’m hot, armed, and dangerous. Great shoes created a positive work environment. “Chipped polish alert. Remind me to do my toenails tonight. Perfect nail color feeds my emotional well-being.”

Deimos offered her a sulky glare. He crouched in all his feline splendor on the sill of the store’s front window. He’d chosen to take the form of an Ocicat, a domestic cat that looked like a miniature leopard. She applauded his visual impact and wild dramatic appearance. He looked like he’d just stepped out of the jungle.

“It doesn’t work at all. Cosmic troublemakers are supposed to spread chaos throughout the universe. Solar explosions that fry planets, Planet X collisions that pulverize unsuspecting worlds, ice ages that freeze whole continents—really big important stuff like that. And I don’t care about sex or your damn toes.” He lifted his lips in a silent snarl. “And why the hell do I have to be a cat?”

“Mmm. Such passionate aggression. I love it. Bad attitudes are sexy.” Sparkle laid both palms flat on the glass countertop and studied her nails. “When did you come into being, Deimos?” Maybe she’d try a different nail color, a deep sensual shade of red. “What do you think, should I change colors? Maybe I’ll try Dark Desire. It gives me yummy shivers just saying its name. I can almost feel the cool slide of it on my nails, see the intense rich shine of it—”

“Two thousand one, and I don’t give a damn about—”

Sparkle sighed. “I know, you don’t give a damn about my nails. You know, you need to seriously get in touch with your senses.” She studied him. His lithe cat body fairly thrummed with impatience. So young, so reckless, so stupid. “I’m going to lay everything out for you. First off, it doesn’t take any talent to destroy inanimate objects. They don’t argue or say no. Messing with human emotions is the real challenge. People never do what you expect them to do.”

“So what’s your point?” Deimos yawned to demonstrate his complete lack of interest in messing with human emotions. “You still haven’t told me why I have to be a cat. And why can’t I talk out loud?”

Now he was really starting to tick her off. “Look, I’ve been around for thousands of years, and I have power you can only dream about. So my point is, if I chose to mentor you, then you damn well better get with the program.”

She read the mutinous darkening of his amber eyes, the angry twitch of his tail. Her kick-butt approach wasn’t getting the job done. Maybe she needed to appeal to his ego. Males, whether human or nonhuman, were Silly Putty in the hands of a smart woman who knew how to stroke their egos.

Sparkle transformed her expression into her favorite persona: the sensual seductress. She’d practiced and perfected it over the centuries. Now she aimed it at the mini jungle-kitty glaring at her from across the store.

“Come here, cutie.” She crooked her finger at him.

He padded over to the counter.

“Sit here.” She indicated the chair next to him that she always kept ready for any male customer, usually elderly, who grew weak from exposure to all of her erotic intensity.

Deimos leaped for the chair, a soaring graceful arc that fell about three inches short of his target. He managed to hook his front paws onto the seat and hung there with back paws treading air. Sparkle leaned across the counter, grabbed the back of his neck, and lifted him onto the seat. “Your eye-paw coordination is still a little off, but it’ll get better.” A lie. He was a klutz.

Before he had a chance to whine, Sparkle scratched behind his ears and then slid her fingers the length of his back. She felt him relax beneath her touch. “I chose you out of all the newbie cosmic troublemakers because I saw the possibility for greatness in you, Deimos. And all of the most famous cosmic troublemakers have taken cat forms at one time or another. Cats are beautiful, intelligent, and deliciously sneaky. Perfect for spying. I bet you’ll make an incredible spy.”

Deimos blinked as the anger faded from his eyes. “Yeah?” If he wasn’t careful, his expanding pride would puff him up like a balloon, and he’d just float away. “I guess I’ll have to communicate mentally so no one catches on that I’m a spy.”

Sparkle smiled. “Yeah.” But then her smile wavered. “You’re lucky I let you choose your cat form. I was forced to be a white cat.” She allowed herself a delicate shudder. “White made my butt look huge. It scarred my psyche for months.”

She ignored Deimos’s blank look and continued to stroke him. “Only a special few have the talent to impact human lives on a personal level. As soon as I saw you, I knew you were one of the few. You’re immensely gifted and have this amazing sexual aura. It just blew me away.”

Deimos practically glowed. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to develop my natural abilities. What’s your plan?”

Gotcha. “Here’s the deal. For thousands of years I’ve served up sex and sin for dessert, so owning a candy store seemed a natural progression. I bought Sweet Indulgence, my little shop of chocolate creams and erotic dreams, because it was next to this Disney World wannabe. I figured that thousands of people would pour into Galveston to visit the theme park, and I’d have lots of potential victims to scope out.”

Deimos washed his face with one spotted paw. “Makes sense.”

“Uh uh. Didn’t work out. The only ones who walked through my door were young couples trailing their two point five sticky-fingered kiddies after them. They were so not the clientele I’d hoped for.” It hadn’t taken long for her to realize she’d either have to sell her store or get rid of the theme park.

“So I had my attorney buy the park. I’ve renamed it Live the Fantasy, and I envision a reality theme park where adults can role-play wild adventures. Always wanted to be the captain of a pirate ship? You’ve got it at Live the Fantasy. The park is G rated, so the city fathers expect everyone to have good clean fun.” Her smile was filled with wicked intent. “They’re kidding, right? How boring is that? The only good fantasy is a sexual fantasy. I get yummy shivers just thinking about the lust a few intense fantasies will generate.” Sparkle felt tingly all over, the reaction of a true sexual visionary. “I foresee thousands of people jump-starting their sputtering sex lives after a visit to Live the Fantasy.”

Deimos’s whiskers twitched with excitement. “Wow, sounds great. Hey, when you get bored with the whole theme park thing, can I level it with a tsunami?”

Sparkle didn’t have the heart to crush all that hopeful puppy dog eagerness. “We’ll see.”

She glanced down at the old Ball High yearbook she’d been studying before Deimos showed up. “I’m getting ready to transform the Happy Castle into the Castle of Dark Dreams. I was in the middle of choosing someone to do the exterior and interior painting, and then I have to pick an interior designer. I’ll have my lawyer do the actual hiring. I don’t want anyone to know I own the park.”

Deimos put his front paws on the counter so he could peer at the book. “Anyone special in mind?”

Sparkle slid the tip of her tongue across her lower lip. Oh, yessss. She got all shivery with anticipation at the sensual world of possibilities ahead. “I have two people who’ll be perfect for the jobs. I’m about to turn up the heat in our little fantasy park and see what burns.”

 

CHAPTER ONE

“What a wonderful blending of form and function. It projects an aura of towering strength with an intriguing touch of dark and dangerous.” Sparkle Stardust swept her arms wide to emphasize her opinion of the Castle of Dark Dreams. Her cat crouched beside her, his unblinking gaze proclaiming that he was bored, bored, bored.

“No kidding.” Amanda Harcourt was more focused on specifics than Sparkle. She stared across the moat. A man stood on a short ladder painting trim around the outer-wall gate. His back was to them.

Form and function. Mmm. A wonderful form. And said form was functioning very well as far as she could see. He’d stripped to the waist in the blazing June sun and his worn jeans hugged every line of his firm butt and long legs. Fascinated, she watched the flow of muscles beneath bronzed skin as he made smooth even strokes with his brush.

Dark and dangerous? Worked for her. The light breeze lifted his dark hair from his neck. Hair that was a little too long and a little too shaggy. Sexy elemental male vibes shimmered off him in waves.

During the ten years she’d spent in New York honing her interior designing skills, she’d had plenty of opportunities to hook up with a fair sampling of the city’s male population. Major disappointments. But maybe now that she was back home in Galveston for a while, she’d dip her toe into the hot and oh-so-alpha Texas male pool. She deserved some fun.

“He has a sensual quality that goes with the castle, doesn’t he?” Sparkle sounded amused.

Amanda blinked and looked at Sparkle. “What?”

“Your sexy painter.” Sparkle’s amber eyes gleamed with sly knowledge. “Hey, I understand.”

Okay, now Amanda was officially embarrassed. She’d spent ten years stomping the old Amanda Harcourt into submission and rebuilding her business and personal image into the one her wealthy clients loved—cool and in control. She was sophisticated-hip. No emotional artistic phoniness for her. And she paid attention to details. A calm casual elegance gave her clients confidence in her. She was wearing a cream sleeveless dress today because light neutrals were her favorite colors. That hadn’t always been true, but neutrals fed people’s perception of her, and perception was everything.

Cool, elegant, and in control didn’t ogle painters, at least not during working hours.

But something told her a lie wouldn’t fool Sparkle. “I’ve been away from Texas too long. I forgot how much heat Texas guys can generate.” She shrugged and smiled. “If I need to stare, I should walk across Sea Wall Boulevard and go down to the beach. I’ll find plenty of buff bods wearing a lot less.”

“I guess.” Sparkle looked doubtful. “But they won’t have his sizzle.” She studied the buff bod with the brush. “Look at him—yummy broad shoulders, and that muscular back gleaming with a light sheen of sweat. Doesn’t it make you feel all prickly to think about trailing your fingers over his warm bare skin?” She fixed Amanda with an unblinking stare that had the same feline intensity as her pet. “There’s nothing more arousing than watching a strong man working a well-toned body. It’s that primitive need every woman has to take the most physically powerful male into her bed and—”

“Oh, wow.” Amanda glanced at her watch. “I’ve taken up all of your lunch hour. I really appreciate you taking time to show me the park, but I guess you have to get back to your store now.” Please have to get back to your store.

Sparkle offered her an exaggerated sigh as she pushed her long red hair away from her face. “I suppose I should get back, but I’ll let Deimos tag along with you. He loves snooping around in the castle.” She glanced down at the spotted cat before raising her gaze once again to Amanda. “No one knows who owns the park. Everything goes through the lawyer. I’ve helped him out a few times, because I’m the neighborly type. But I’m curious about all the secrecy. Are you supposed to meet the owner here?”

Amanda frowned at the cat, and the cat stared intently back at her. Wasn’t Sparkle afraid her cat would run into the street? “No, but the attorney should be here any minute now. I’ve never spoken to the owner.” Didn’t the cat ever blink?

“Hmm, strange. Well, have fun, sister.” Sparkle’s smile said the fun she had in mind didn’t have anything to do with decorating. “And don’t worry, Deimos won’t go into the street.”

A cosmic coincidence. They’d both been thinking about the cat wandering into the street at the same time. Amanda watched Sparkle walk away, although “walk” didn’t say it at all. Her swing and sway said “man-catcher” loud and clear. Amanda spent a few seconds pondering the aesthetics of Sparkle’s black shorts and black clingy top. Sure they were sexy, but... Amanda did a few mental head-shakes to clear away the weirdness that had accumulated over the last few days.

Why had she dropped everything to take this job? Good grief, she’d left New York to decorate a castle. What did she know about decorating castles? And who really had a name like Sparkle Stardust? Amanda must’ve tripped and fallen headfirst into Alice’s rabbit hole.

Without permission, her gaze drifted back to the hunky painter. There were other people working on the castle, but none so visually stimulating. She strolled across the drawbridge. His front probably wouldn’t be able to live up to the promise of his back. Two halves didn’t usually add up to one awesome whole.

But hey, that was okay, because she needed to focus on her job and nothing else. Mentally plunking her professional glasses on her nose, she studied the castle. Pretty ordinary as castles went. From her brief research, it looked like it was a mixture of several different time periods—a keep with four square towers, and a curtain wall.

The lawyer had said the great hall and a few other areas would be used for role-playing, and all the remaining rooms would be for overnight guests. She’d never decorated the real deal, but there had to be a first time for everything. Before leaving New York, she’d done a mad research scramble, but had only skimmed the surface.

Uh-oh. Something was wrong with her professional glasses. As her gaze slid back to “The Painter,” her glasses morphed into sexy shades, perfect for fun in the sun and viewing bright celestial bodies. Bodies. Amanda sighed her defeat. Curiosity, the Harcourt curse, wouldn’t let her concentrate on the castle until she saw his front. So be it.

Amanda refused to sneak. If New York had taught her anything, it was that you boldly and aggressively pursued your goal. She strode to within a few feet of his ladder and gazed up. So big, so tanned, so authentically male. No research needed to figure that out.

She narrowed her gaze on his broad back. New York had also taught her how to be devious. “Umm, could you tell me where to find your boss? I need to discuss color schemes with—”

“I’m the boss.” His voice was a husky and darkly compelling promise that he indeed would always be the boss.

“Oh. Well, I...” Wait. She frowned. There was something familiar about that voice. A deeper and more sensual echo of a voice she’d once known. Dawning horror widened her eyes as the man stepped off the ladder and turned to face her.

She knew him. Knew that hard face with those light hazel eyes framed by thick dark lashes. Knew the sensual mouth that enhanced his bad-boy image. She hadn’t forgotten anything. Not the three-inch scar on his thigh he’d earned while playing running back for Ball High, nor the tattoo on his hip.
“Mandy?” His voice was erotic promise and unspoken lies.

Like lemmings, women always swam out way too far in his sea of sensual promises and then drowned in those lies. Not her, of course. Never her.

“Conleth Maguire.” Saying his whole name distanced her from him, and she needed all the distance she could get. A few hundred miles minimum.

“What dragged you back home, wicked woman?” His smile was slow, welcoming, and a sensual minefield for the unwary. And because she was not unwary, she realized she needed to say something quick to diffuse the power of that smile.

“Lots of money. The owner hired me to decorate the castle.” Home? Amanda had tried for years to reprogram her subconscious to believe New York was home. But standing here staring at Con tugged at something she thought she’d left behind ten years ago.

“Money. Figures.” His smile didn’t waver, but the warmth in those incredible eyes cooled just a little.

What was wrong with money? Money was good. It bought acceptance, love. Okay, maybe not love, but certainly a sincere level of caring. She took a deep breath to renew her brain’s oxygen supply. She’d better say something fast before mutually uncomfortable memories filled up the void.

“So what color scheme did the owner decide to go with for the exterior?” Why hadn’t she noticed the color of the trim he was painting? Because you were too busy wiping the drool off your chin, stupid. If she looked now, she’d have to take her eyes off Maguire. Not a good idea.

Con shrugged. “I get to choose my own colors.” He glanced at her dress, stripped her down to bare essentials with his heated stare, and proclaimed her wanting. “I don’t like neutrals.” Capturing her gaze, he slowly rubbed his hand across his chest. “I like colors that burn for me.”

He’d done that on purpose, the jerk. He thought he’d sidetrack her professional questions by drawing her attention to his chest. His broad muscular chest with dark male nipples and a light scattering of hair damp from his exertions. Of course, he’d failed, because she hadn’t noticed at all.

Colors that burn for me. What exactly did he mean by that? She’d ask, but any question with the word “burn” in it was bound to send her skipping merrily down the wicked path Con hoped she’d follow. Uh uh, she was smarter than that.

What to say? She’d try the time-honored Galveston icebreaker, “Do you think Hurricane Billy Bob will come into the Gulf?” but Con would manage to make something sexual out of the hurricane, too. She’d be safer sticking to a few professional statements. “I—”

“I bet you’re getting ready to ask if anything’s new with me. Not much. I still have the rose tattoo. No wife and kids. And I own a condo about a block away.” His smile widened, immediately taking her back to her teen years. “Do you still have the little blue butterfly on your behind?”

“My behind is none of your business, Maguire. It hasn’t been for a long time.” She stared at a point somewhere beyond his left shoulder. Did he remember the body decorations of all the women he’d had sex with? Nah. No human had that kind of memory storage capacity.

He lowered his gaze to her general butterfly area. “That butterfly brings back great memories.”

He was smoke, fire, and unresolved dreams. Always had been. She needed a firewall. Breaking eye contact, she rooted through the items thrown pell-mell into her Gucci purse. A purse with that brand name deserved better, but her purse was the one part of her life she’d never managed to organize.

“Hey, I’m glad that you and your rose are still together. Personally, I don’t remember it.” She didn’t look up as she continued to root.

All right, so she also had problems stuffing memories of Con and his tattoo into a neat compartment, but at least while she was in New York she didn’t have to face him in the flesh. In the flesh? Nope, wouldn’t go there. Ah, her sunglasses. She pulled them from the rubble and put them on. There. No windows to the soul showing. Now she could safely present her cool and in-control face.

He shook his head and offered her a fake frown. “Ouch. That hurt, sweet-heat. All these years I imagined you lusting after my tattoo.”

“I don’t lust, Con. Not now, not ever.” Well, maybe the not ever part wasn’t the absolute truth, but Amanda felt the moment called for sweeping statements of denial. “And don’t call me sweet-heat. I’m not that person anymore, haven’t been for ten years.” She wasn’t thrilled with being Mandy or wicked woman again either, but she’d choose her battles.

He nodded, his expression turning thoughtful. Reaching back to the ladder, he picked up a cloth and wiped a few spots of paint from his hands.
Amanda forced away thoughts of what wonders those strong hands could work. “Let’s get back to the castle. I think?”

“Whoa.” He held up his hand to stop her. “I want to discuss this not remembering the black rose thing. Your relation to my tattoo was a cornerstone of my youthful fantasies.”

His smile returned—warmer, more intimate. Reminding her of exactly where she’d been and what they’d been doing when she’d seen the tattoo for the first and only time.

Okay, time to take a stand. “I’m here for only one thing, to decorate this castle. I don’t want to talk about your tattoo or your fantasies.”

“Or your part in them?” He shoved the paint cloth into the back pocket of his jeans as he moved closer to her. “Amazing what we choose not to remember about another person’s body.”

What do you remember about my body? No, not a safe question. She was safer sticking to his body. Amanda had always appreciated fine artwork, in any form. And Con’s black rose was a great visual. Not the biggest or the best to be seen on the Body-Maguire, but still great.

Amanda sighed. He wasn’t going to leave the rose alone. The best she could do was to steer the discussion away from the personal. “Why a rose? Men don’t usually tattoo flowers on their bodies. Guess it threatens their masculinity.” He could’ve covered his body with flowers and never put a dent in his virility. It oozed from his pores.

He moved even closer, invading her personal space. “I never told you the story behind the rose, did I? But then we weren’t into lengthy explanations that night, were we, Mandy?” His gaze moved leisurely over her body and then lifted to lock with her eyes. “If I concentrate, I can still feel the slide of your tongue as you traced the rose.” He lowered his gaze, his lashes hiding his expression. “Lots of heat and tactile sensations. A man doesn’t forget that kind of experience.”

Amanda sucked in her breath. Whoa, losing control of the conversation here. What should she say...?

He laughed. Low, husky, and with the sensual warmth that had always been part of Conleth Maguire. “Relax. We won’t share any more tongue memories. I just wanted to see if you could still blush, or if New York had taken all of Galveston out of you. The blush is still there, but the big city sure changed a lot of other things.” He reached out and slid his fingers through her hair.

Her blond hair. She loved her hair. And if he didn’t get his fingers out of it soon, every precious strand would be as red as her face. Red was not who she wanted to be today or ever. “Too bad if you don’t like it.” She visualized the blush fading from her face leaving her cooly elegant and impervious to anything Conleth Maguire might do or say. Amanda hadn’t come home to be haunted by a ghost-of-lover-past.

He widened his eyes, a weak attempt to look innocent. Con didn’t do innocent well. “Did I say I didn’t like your hair? I love your hair.”

Hah! He hated her hair. Con lied with eyes wide open. Always had, and she didn’t think ten years had changed him. “Are you going to tell me why you chose this rose tattoo that I definitely don’t remember?” Once he got the rose explanation out of his system, she’d try to segue into talking about the job.

He nodded and motioned her into the shade of the castle’s wall. “Roisin Dubh means dark rose in Irish. Legend says that it was a Druid symbol. The Council of the Roisin Dubh wore the black rose on their robes.”

She nodded as she leaned one shoulder against the castle wall and blessed the small relief the shade gave her. “Got it. A bunch of Druids took the rose as their symbol. I never realized you were into mystic stuff.” Where was the attorney? She needed to extricate herself from this conversation before it dived deeper into the personal.

“There’re lots of things you never realized, sweet-heat.” Beneath the seeming sensual suggestion, anger lurked. “Too bad you didn’t stick around long enough to find out.”

He’d thrown down the gauntlet. This was not what she’d planned for her first day on the new job. She could turn and walk away from the confrontation, but experience had taught her that she who turns and leaves the room is often booted in the behind on the way out. Uh uh. He wanted reaction, and he’d get it. She moved away from the wall’s support.

“Fine. Let’s deal with this now and get it out of the way. We went out during my senior year. We planned to go to New York together. You’d go to art school, and I’d learn interior design. We had sex for the first time a week before I graduated. The next day you told me you’d changed your mind. You were staying in Galveston and going to work for your father. No other explanation. Did I miss anything?” She offered him a careless shrug that said it was a non-event to her now. “So what’s a girl to think?” She’d thought a lot. Maybe after making love with her, he’d lost interest. Had he found someone else? The list went on and on. The bottom line? He hadn’t cared.

It amazed Con that at five feet four inches, Mandy could stand so tall. Those wide blue eyes might say vulnerable, but they were dead wrong. They were a holdover from the girl she’d been when she left Galveston. The woman who faced him now would give as good as she got. He liked that. Con wondered what she’d do if he reached down and ruffled that smooth short hair. Probably haul off and sock him.

But hair-ruffling could wait. He needed to give her the explanation he hadn’t given her ten years ago. If they had to work together, he didn’t want the past getting in the way.

“I didn’t have the money to go to New York with you.” He winced. Even after all the years, it hurt to admit the truth.

“What?”

He’d shocked her. Good. Con didn’t know why, but he enjoyed taking her out of her comfort zone, her perception of the world according to Amanda Harcourt. “Dad had said he’d help with my tuition. When he found out I wanted to go to New York, he took back his offer. Said I didn’t have to go all the way to New York to learn how to scribble pictures.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Her eyes darkened. With hurt, anger? He wasn’t sure.

“What would you have done if I’d told you?” He knew the answer, but he wanted to hear her say it.

“I could’ve lent you the money. My parents...” She trailed off. “That’s why you didn’t tell me.”

Con nodded. She knew the eighteen-year old he’d been too well. But she didn’t know the man he’d become. “I always had too much pride.” He smiled.

“Still do. Back then, I thought your anger was preferable to your pity.”

“Would you still do the same thing today?” She sounded casual, but Con sensed his answer was a little more important than she wanted it to be.

“Probably.” He paused to give her time to think about it. “I’d tell a different lie this time around, though.”

She nodded as though it all made perfect sense. “Thanks for telling me. I was just a kid back then, and with hormone levels spiking, I spent a whole week either crying or thinking up painful ways to end your life.”

A week. And then she’d gone on with her life. But he’d gone on with his life, too. They were even. Then why did he still feel that unreasonable stab of anger when he thought about her ten years in New York?

“I’m glad we got that out of the way. Gee, I’m probably late for my meeting.” Her expression said she hoped he’d disappear in a puff of smoke.

He wouldn’t make it that easy for her. “I didn’t finish telling you about the family druids. Dad’s always been obsessed with his Irish roots. There’s no real proof, but he’s convinced our family has a few Druid connections.” Con could feel her need to escape him, but a part of him that stubbornly resisted maturity wanted to see her squirm. He’d make her wait out his explanation. “Back then, I thought it was pretty cool that I might be related to an ancient society with a dark and mysterious reputation.”

Con thought she’d offer him a polite smile. Instead, she gripped her bottom lip between small white teeth and studied him. His primitive part in charge of sexual awareness growled its pleasure. And when she released that lip... Just the sight of the full damp sheen of it upped the growl to a roar. His reactions were right on schedule. If he remembered the spectacular event they’d shared on a moonlit Galveston beach correctly, and he thought he did, every breath Amanda Harcourt took had been a turn-on to his testosterone-driven younger self. The scary part was that she was having the same affect now on his older experienced self.

“You never needed any Druid relatives, Con. Every girl at Ball High not only thought you were dark and mysterious, but the hottest hottie of them all.” She firmed her lips, a sure indication of a serious pronouncement, and proof positive that her lips were sexy in whatever shape she chose to bend them. “But that’s past history. We’re two different people now. Once I’ve made a final decision on the colors, I’ll consult with you about your painting schedule for the interior of the castle. We’ll consult about the castle, nothing else.

Strange. Why hire a New York designer when Houston had plenty of great ones? He nodded. “Sure. And wicked woman, maybe you consult in New York, but down here in Galveston we talk.” Why was he so steamed? She’d walked away from here ten years ago and never looked back. Amanda Harcourt didn’t matter anymore. Other than mutual lust, they’d never had anything in common.

“Can we lose the wicked woman?” Her semi-smile said she was a little conflicted about him and searching for something neutral to say. From her smooth cap of blond hair down to her cream dress and sandals, it looked like she’d cornered the market on neutral.


“I guess your dad’s happy you became a painter. I mean, he always wanted his children to be part of the construction business.” Translation: You caved and did what Daddy wanted you to do.

He thought about telling her he’d taken art courses in Houston but decided to keep quiet. She didn’t care what he’d done with his life.

Even though he couldn’t see her eyes, he sensed her gaze had slid away from him. “Maybe I’ll look inside just in case the attorney slipped into the castle through another entrance.”

Mandy started to walk past him and then froze. She whipped her glasses off and then stared at the trim he’d been painting. “Red?”


Con imagined the word “plague” would drip off her tongue with exactly the same tone. “It’s a little more than just red, but yeah, it’s red.” Something evil in him sensed the color was an abomination to her and reveled in her disgust. “I like red. I’m pretty sure I’ll paint almost everything in the castle red.”

“Inside?” She vibrated with outrage.

Obviously, she thought the park’s owner had just hired him to slap paint on the castle. Obviously, she thought she’d get to choose all the colors. Surprise, surprise. The evil in him rubbed its hands together and gleefully plunged onward. “Uh huh. I like lime green and neon orange, too. So don’t worry, I won’t paint everything red.”

“No.” The word was a breathy exhalation of defiance. “You will not use those colors. I’m the designer—”

She got no further. At that moment the cat must’ve decided to take a closer look at this paint that was causing such a brouhaha, and leaped for the ladder where the small can rested.

Con’s last coherent thought as he watched the cat scrabble for purchase with its front paws on the shelf holding the paint, was that he’d never seen such an uncoordinated animal in his life. Reflexively, he reached for the paint. Too late. Frantic to keep from falling to the ground, the cat hooked the can with one paw and brought it down on top him as he lost the battle with gravity.

“Ohmigod!” Mandy’s wail of disbelief was echoed by the cat’s yowl of surprise.

Red paint coated the cat from whiskers to tail. He was Dynamic-Red highlighted by gleaming yellow eyes. The cat expressed his general feelings with furious hisses and growls. He was one pissed kitty.

“Get this crap off me now! I don’t have a freakin’ public humiliation clause in my contract.”

Startled, Con glanced around. Someone talking in his head? Nah. He shrugged away the momentary weirdness and leaped into action.

Before the cat had a chance to race away, he scooped it up like a fumble recovery and ran with it. The cat fought him as Mandy shouted advice, but he kept running until he reached the edge of the moat. Maintaining a secure grip on the cat, he knelt and then dipped it into the water.

The cat screeched and clawed. Con was aware that Mandy had scrambled down beside him. He glanced at her. “I’ll hold him while you wash the paint off.”

“Me?” She sounded horrified.

Probably thought red hands didn’t make the right color statement for her. “Look, do you want to be the one to return him to Sparkle looking like a ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ survivor?”

Mandy widened those big blue eyes, and for just a moment he was back on the beach all those years ago. There’d been a full moon reflecting off the Gulf that night. He’d parked his pickup high on the beach, and then they’d walked hand in hand down to the water. They’d knelt on the sand facing each other, and she’d looked at him out of those same eyes. But back then her eyes had shone with sensual hunger, and he’d been generating enough lust to power all of Texas.

She broke the brief spell by glancing down at the struggling cat. “You’re right. I’ll rinse off the paint. Don’t let him go.”

Easier said than done. Hanging on to the damned cat was like holding onto a greased pig with claws. The cat was still twisting and yowling. Someone had probably already called 911 to report a murder in progress.

“Help! Cat drowner! Don’t even think about dunking my head. I can’t feel the bottom. I have to feel the bottom! I can’t swim, you jerk. Land. Put me on land before I turn you into a small ugly parasite.”

It had to be the heat. He’d been painting in the sun for too long today. Once the cat was taken care of, he’d go into the castle, cool off, and eat lunch. So why hadn’t he heard voices on other days when he worked in the heat? He didn’t want to think about that. He had to believe it was the heat, or accept that the cat was talking to him. And that would spell certifiable with a capital C.

Finally, between the two of them, the cat was clean. Con set it on the bank expecting it to race for home. Instead, it carefully shook each paw free of water and then glared at them.

Con frowned as he pulled a clean rag from his back pocket and handed it to her. “Dad’s a dog man, so we never had any cats at home, but I’d swear what we’re seeing here isn’t normal cat behavior. Look, it’s not running away. It’s just glaring at us.” He glanced at Mandy. Uh-oh. She was dabbing at red paint spots on her dress.

“It’s not glaring at us. It’s glaring at that red trim. Cats have more sophisticated tastes than dogs. A dog would like red trim. A cat knows better.”


Con didn’t try to hide his grin. She sounded ticked off, and ticked off could be a prelude to other emotions. Anything that got Mandy all passionate about something had to be an improvement over her Princess of Perfect persona. “I don’t know. Seems strange to me that he doesn’t act more frightened.”

Absently, Con rubbed some paint splatters from his arms and chest.

Mandy didn’t look any less furious, but her gaze never left his hand. He accommodated her by sliding the cloth over his skin more slowly, finding spots to touch low on his stomach. He would’ve found even more interesting places to rub if he felt she’d believe paint could’ve reached there.

“My family did have cats, so I’ll clue you in on a cat fact. Cats get even. Deimos won’t forget that you dunked him in the water, and when you least expect it he’ll... Well, just watch your back, Maguire.” There was a hint of gleeful satisfaction in her voice.

“Deimos?” He laughed as he turned toward her. “What kind of cat name is Deimos?”

The cat hissed at him, but he ignored Deimos as he looked at Mandy’s shoes. Great. Just great. Her shoes were spattered with Dynamic-Red, too. At least the color matched the temper he saw simmering in her eyes.

“I’m sorry about your dress. Make sure I get the cleaning bill.” He sensed she felt he hadn’t offered nearly enough compensation. Maybe he should offer his head. Not a good idea. She might take him up on it. “Let’s go into the castle. I can at least clean up your shoes.”

Her narrowed gaze said that Deimos wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t forget this. “Fine. But I don’t have time to change. How will I explain this to Mr. Holgarth?” She gestured at her paint-spattered dress.

A polite cough drew their attention to the drawbridge and the man standing there.

“You will simply explain that you always sweat blood for your employer. An admirable employee trait, I’m sure.” The man strode to them and offered his hand to an open-mouthed Mandy. “I’m Holgarth, and you are Ms. Harcourt, I assume.”

“Yes, I’m?”

“You’re late, Ms. Harcourt. I do insist on punctuality. So if you must play in the water, please refrain from doing it on company time. Now, if you’ll follow me, we’ll go inside where it’s cooler.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked toward the castle.

From where Con stood, it seemed like Mandy’s eyes took up half her face as she turned to look at him.

“Tell me he’s not dressed like a wizard.”

 

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