From Breaking the Rules, a fast-paced, sexy, adventure-romance originally published by Intimate Moments. I love the escapist aspects of it, and love both Zeke and Mattie’s need to protect themselves, and hide their pasts, even as they are falling in love. And just for the record, if you want a brand-new first edition of the paperback, it will be a tiny bit pricy–lowest price is $152.
Luckily, it is free for the next five days on Kindle. Grab it while you can.
It was Zeke’s habit to rise early, one born in childhood when he’d awakened to help his mother weed the garden, knowing it would be the only time he could have her to himself in a day.
So even now, when his work was in the evenings and sometimes ran very late, he found himself wide-awake as dawn broke the night sky. Over the past months, he’d developed a habit of going to the canyon, knowing that if he got there early enough, as with his mother, he’d have it to himself.
Of all the flyspecks on the map he’d blown through the past eighteen months, Kismet would be the hardest for him to leave behind, a thought that bothered him this morning – just a little. He had a rule about getting attached to things. When you got attached, you got in trouble. People, animals, places – he didn’t let himself get too comfortable with any of them. Probably time to move on.
But this morning, he was here, and that was good. He stripped at the edge of the river, taking deep pleasure in the brush of cool morning air against his skin. Overhead, a tangle of larks and sparrows sang to the light, as if it were a unique event. He smiled at them, standing on the bank for a moment to brace himself . Taking a deep breath, he touched his stomach in preparation, and with a whoop, jumped into a deep pool.
The water was a biting, icy shock – exhilarating as it stabbed through his hair and needled his flesh. He touched bottom and pushed himself back up, then lazily paddled in the broad pool, admiring the colors around him.
Back in Mississippi, rivers were wide and muddy and slow, as if the heat sucked their energy from them. Their banks were covered with cattails and grass. This river was crystal clear and mountain-cold and ran fast through the canyon it had carved from red sandstone. There was no mud to speak of, because the streambed was the rock itself.
The beauty of it was that the water had played capricious games with the soft rock, creating slides and carving pools and ignoring little flats, with no rhyme or reason. Later in the day, it would be crowded with tourists, come from the campgrounds nearby to enjoy the miracle.
He kicked out and submerged himself again, now used to the invigorating cold. He looked at the sky, vividly blue above the red of the rocks, and wondered that such color could exist.
It was only then that he became aware of a prickling uneasiness. With a flush of embarrassment, he wondered if some campers had wandered over. He’d been coming here since summer started and had never been discovered. After a few weeks, he’d shed his cutoffs in favor of skinny-dipping just because it seemed natural to do so in such a place. Keeping himself covered to the shoulders, he spun around slowly, peering into the trees at one side of the water. Nothing moved but a squirrel, who chattered in some irritation at Zeke’s gall invading the quiet so early. He grinned to himself, relieved, and splashed backward to lean on a rock in the warming sunlight.
It was only then he caught sight of her, standing at the foot of a path that probably led straight back to her little cabin.
Mary. He wiped water from his face and straightened. “Well, well, well,” he said. “I’m just runnin” into you all over the place.”
She carried a small paper bag and a thermos. “I come here every morning to eat my breakfast,” she said, and pointed to a small outcropping of rocks on the other side of the stream. A natural staircase led to the perch. “I won’t bother you.”
“Maybe I’ll bother you.”
“I doubt it.” He saw that it took some effort, but she resolutely headed toward the perch, leaving her sandals at the edge of the stream to splash through the shallows to the stairs. When she reached the top, she settled herself primly with her bag in her lap. “You mind your business and I’ll mind mine.”
Zeke half smiled. She probably had no idea he’d left his clothes in a pile at the edge of the water, or she wouldn’t be quite so calm. The pool he stood in was deep enough to cloak his nakedness, but if he moved at all, the clear water wouldn’t hide much. “Nice sentiment,” he said, “but we’ve got a little problem.”
“Well, Miss Mary, all my clothes are over there on the bank.”
A flash of something crossed her face – satisfaction? She raised her eyebrows. “I guess you’ll have to wait until I’m finished with my breakfast
to finish your swim, then, won’t you?”
Zeke licked his bottom lip. It had been a mistake to underestimate this woman. She might look young and naive, but there was something hard as barbed wire running beneath it all. If he hadn’t been so rattled by that mouth yesterday, he would have realized it, too.
She shrugged, cracking open a peanut. Her composure was utterly unrattled this morning, and he wondered what had brought about the change.
“I think you’re pretty mad at me, aren’t you?”
“Why would I be mad? You deliberately tried to embarrass me at the restaurant, then you followed me home, dropped all these innuendos, then made it sound like I was the one who initiated things.” A blaze of color touched her cheeks. “Not to mention the fact you stuck your nose in where it didn’t belong.”
“All right, all right.” He raised a hand. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Sunlight angled through the high trees and over the canyon wall to strike her face. “I’ll turn around if you want to get out.”
She stood up, and Zeke frowned over her clothes – a dowdy pair of baggy shorts with an equally dowdy, baggy tank top. He winced at the waste of that body in those clothes as she turned around, putting her back to him.
For a moment, he paused, struck by the tenderness of her nape. He followed the path of her spine downward to the barely visible outline of her rear end, down farther over the taut thighs and strong calves, tanned to a deep golden hue.
“You’d better hurry up,” she warned. “I’m not going to stand here waiting forever.”
Zeke pushed out of the water and dashed for the bank, feeling a little tightening of his muscles as he scrambled into his briefs and cutoffs. Much as he hated to do it, he tugged his shirt on, too. Cover the scars.
He turned around and saw to his relief she was still standing with her back to him. “All right,” he called.
She settled once more on her perch. “Maybe you shouldn’t be out here skinny-dipping.”
He waded through the shallows toward her, even though he told himself he ought to be moving in the opposite direction. “You’re the first person who has ever come here.”
“There’s not really room for two up here,” she said as he began to climb up the slope.
“Sure there is. Move your fanny over.”
She scooted like a little brown mouse, her mirth and bravado shrinking as he sat down next her. He chuckled. “What’s wrong, Miss Mary? You scared of the giant?”
“I’m afraid of falling off here.”
“You could sit on my lap.”
“I think not.” To avoid his eyes, she dug in her bag and came up with a handful of peanuts in their shells.
“Some breakfast,” he commented and grabbed the bag to peer inside. Peanuts, another apple, a paper carton of orange juice and a small thermos. “Will you share?”
He held up the thermos. “Is this coffee?” She nodded. “But I’m afraid it has cream. I never did learn to like it black.”
“That’s okay, Miss Mary. I’ll drink it your way.”
She didn’t make a response, just cracked open a peanut and picked out the nuts from within. As he poured a cupful of the still-steaming brew, he caught her sidelong glance sweeping over his bare legs.
“So, what are you doing up so early?” he asked.
“I have to be to work at five-thirty. Even on my days off, I can’t sleep past four.” A shadow crossed her eyes, and she was suddenly not with him here on the sandstone table, but lost somewhere inside herself. He narrowed his eyes and wondered again what she was hiding. A violent husband? Maybe. It was plain she was scared to death.
He restrained himself from asking any more questions, however. Bad enough he’d crawled up here to sit with her. “I like early morning,” he said, admiring the sky. “Private, quiet, peaceful.”
“I never knew I did until—“ She broke off, bowing her head in consternation.
“I’m not gonna pry this morning,” he said quietly. “Promise.”
She raised wide brown eyes. “I never got up this early before I started working at the restaurant. I guess you do it all the time?”
“Pretty much.” He cracked a peanut and poured the nuts into his palm. “You ever wait tables before?”
A small, rueful smile touched her mouth. “No. It wasn’t a pleasant sight the first few days.”
He chuckled. “Roxanne train you?”
“Yes. She was so patient, too. She never yelled at me once.”
“She’s a good lady. Good waitress, too.”
Mattie looked at him, and he could see her weighing something in her mind. “She – um – rather likes you.” She pinched an earlobe. “That’s not really the right word, but you know what I mean.”
“It’s not mutual?”
“Are you matchmaking, Miss Mary?”
With a little shrug, she tossed the stem of an apple into the water. “Maybe.”
He inclined his head, wondering why she would take that role when he’d been getting pretty clear signals that she “liked” him, as she put it. He touched her bare arm with one finger, liking the silky pale flesh and the jolt it gave her. “Why don’t you match make me with you?” he drawled. “Might be more successful.”
She didn’t look at him. “You aren’t my type, and I’m not yours.”
Only yesterday, Zeke had told himself the same thing. Two different worlds, lifestyles, values, everything. But he found his gaze wandering over the smooth length of her long neck, down to the shadow he could glimpse between her breasts, over her smooth, pretty legs.
“How do you know until you try?” he said.
She turned her head, and now she was so close, Zeke could see the green and blue and yellow flecks in the brown irises. “I know,” she said, but the huskiness in her voice betrayed her.
Below their dangling feet, the water rushed merrily over the rocks. Birds twittered and cheeped. A soft breeze, smelling of all the best of the outdoors, swept a lock of her hair over her forehead. Zeke let his fingers trace her upper arm and fall into the hollow of her elbow, tracing the path his fingers took with his eyes. An abrupt and insistent heat spread through his groin.
It would be so easy to disarm her, he thought. She was ready to fall right now. All he had to do was lean forward and press his mouth someplace that would surprise her – the sensitive hollow below her ear, the edge of her shoulder, her palm.
She swayed just a little toward him, and the motion brought Zeke to his senses. Alarmed, he snatched his hand away and swore softly.
He’d done it again.
In one day, this soft little mouse of a woman had tempted him into all kinds of thoughts he didn’t let himself have. He shook his head. Just hungry, he guessed. A man couldn’t go without forever, after all. Obviously, he was getting to the end of his celibacy.
But it would be a mistake to let himself go with this woman. A big mistake.
“I gotta go.”
He turned and scrambled down the rock, skinning his heel in his haste to get away from her.
“Zeke?” She climbed down after him, running a little to catch up. “Wait a minute.”
He steeled himself and spun around, pasting an annoyed look on his face to discourage anything sweet coming from her.
It worked. A little bit, anyway. She stopped a foot away, her bare feet sunk to the ankles in silvery water. She was still too close. He could smell her shampoo and see a gleam of that innocent hunger in her big brown eyes as she stared up at him. Way, way up, because she wasn’t real tall and Zeke didn’t meet many men bigger than he was.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to imply you were—“ she shrugged. “I don’t mean that you’re not good enough or anything like that. I’m just not your type.”
He took a breath. “You’re right. And I’m not yours.” He stuck out a hand to shake. “Friends?”
She smiled, and the expression was dazzling, innocent and sweet and damnably delectable. She stuck out her hand. Zeke caught sight of her burns again. It triggered that odd sense of déjà vu and as he took her hand, he turned it over quizzically. “How’d you get these burns, honey?”
She sighed and lifted her hands in front of her. “A teddy bear,” she said. “My parents were killed in a house fire when I was six. I was there, too, but the firemen got me out in time, but they couldn’t get the bear away from me in time. It stuck to me.”
Ah, hell. Now if that wasn’t just about the saddest story he’d ever heard—
Irritated with himself, he frowned. “Why do I think I know you? It’s driving me crazy.”
Her face drained of expression and she backed away. “I don’t know. And I’m not going to talk about it again.” She whirled and splashed back toward her rock.
Good. That was that. He stalked through the trees without a second glance. Time to get out of town, all right. Trouble was brewing. He could smell it.