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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded When We Met, you’re in for a real treat:
4.7 stars – 217 Reviews
Here’s the set-up:
New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery invites you back to Fool’s Gold, where a newcomer to town might finally meet the man she never knew she needed…
Angel Whittaker earned his scars the hard way, but the scars that can’t be seen are the ones that haunt him the most. Since he moved to Fool’s Gold, California, he’s cobbled together a life for himself as a bodyguard trainer. If he’s not exactly happy, at least his heart is safe.
Working with pro-football superstars taught tough-talking PR woman Taryn Crawford one thing—she can go toe-to-toe with any man. But then dark, dangerous former Special Ops Angel targets her for seduction…and challenges her to resist his tempting kisses.
Even in four-inch heels, Taryn never backs down. Unless, somehow, Angel can convince her that surrender might feel even better than victory.
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:
“We both know where this is going.”
Taryn Crawford glanced up at the man standing by her table and ignored the rush of anticipation when she saw who he was. He was tall, with broad shoulders and gray eyes. But the most compelling feature—the one she would guess people pretended didn’t exist—was the scar on his neck. As if someone had once tried to slit his throat. Taryn idly wondered what had happened when that person had failed.
She supposed there were plenty of women who would be intimidated by the man in front of her. The sheer volume of muscles might make one apprehensive. Not her, of course. When in doubt she put on a power suit and killer heels. If that didn’t work, she would simply work harder than anyone else. Whatever it took to win. Sure there was a price, but she was okay with that.
Which was why she was able to stare coolly back and ask, “Do we?”
One corner of his mouth curved slightly in a sort of pre-smile. “Sure, but if you’re more comfortable pretending we don’t, I can make that work, too.”
“A challenge. Intriguing. You don’t expect it to be enough to make me defensive so I start saying more than I had planned, do you?” She made sure she was plenty relaxed in her chair. She would guess the man was paying as much attention to her body language as her words. Maybe more. She hoped he wouldn’t make things easy. She was tired of easy.
“I would hate for you to be disappointed,” she murmured.
The smile turned genuine. “I’d hate that, too.” He pulled out the chair opposite hers. “May I?”
She nodded. He sat.
It was barely after ten on a Tuesday morning. Brew-haha, the local coffee place she’d escaped to for a few minutes of solitude before she returned to the current chaos at her office, was relatively quiet. She’d ordered a latte and had pulled out her tablet to catch up on the latest financial news. Until she’d been interrupted. Nice to know this was going to be a good day.
She studied the man across from her. He was older than the boys, she thought. The three men she worked with—Jack, Sam and Kenny—aka the boys, were all in their early to mid-thirties. Her guest was nearer to forty. Just old enough to have the experience to make things interesting, she thought.
“We’ve never been introduced,” she said.
“You know who I am.”
A statement, not a question. “Do I?”
One dark eyebrow rose. “Angel Whittaker. I work at CDS.”
Otherwise known as the bodyguard school, she reminded herself. For a small town, Fool’s Gold had its share of unusual businesses.
She waited, but he didn’t make a move.
“We’re not shaking hands?” she asked, then picked up her latte with both hers. Just to be difficult, because being difficult would make things more fun.
“I figured we’d save the touching for later. I find it’s more interesting when that sort of thing happens in private.”
Taryn had opened Score, her PR firm, eight years ago. She’d had to deal with unwelcome passes, assumptions she was an idiot, being asked who the boss was, pats on her butt, and people presuming that if she worked with three ex-football players that she must have gotten her job by sleeping with them. She was used to staying calm, keeping her opinions to herself and gaining victory through the unanticipated side run.
This time Angel had been the one to put the first points of the board. He was good, she thought, intrigued and only slightly miffed.
“Are you coming on to me, Mr. Whittaker? Because it’s still a little early in the morning for that sort of thing.”
“You’ll know when I’m making my move,” he informed her. “Right now I’m simply telling you how things are.”
“Which takes us back to your comment that we both know where this is going. I’ll admit to being confused. Perhaps you have me mixed up with someone else.”
She uncrossed, then recrossed her long legs. She wasn’t trying to be provocative, but if Angel got distracted, it was hardly her fault.
For a second she allowed herself to wonder how she would have been different if she’d been able to grow up in a more traditional home. One with the requisite 2.4 children and somewhat normal parents. She certainly wouldn’t be as driven. Or as tough. Sometimes she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
He leaned toward her. “I hadn’t taken you for the type to play games.”
“We all play games,” she told him.
“Fair enough. Then I’ll be blunt.”
She sipped her coffee, then swallowed. “Please.”
“I saw you last fall.”
“How nice,” she murmured.
When she’d been scouting locations. Moving a company required time and effort. They’d only truly settled in Fool’s Gold a couple of months ago. But she had been in town the previous fall, and yes, she’d seen Angel as well. Found out who he was and had wondered about…possibilities. Not that she was going to admit that to him.
“I watched you,” he continued.
“Should I be concerned you’re a stalker?”
“Not when you were watching me right back.”
He’d noticed? Damn. She’d tried to be subtle. She thought about lying, but decided to simply stay silent. After a second, he continued.
“So we’ve finished sizing each other up,” he said. “Now it’s time to move on to the next phase of a game.”
“There are phases?” Which was an actual question. No point in mentioning the game. She knew what they were doing. Still, it was entertaining to pretend she didn’t.
“Do you provide instructions or a scorecard?”
His cool gray eyes stayed focused on her face. “You don’t play that way.”
“An interesting assumption.”
“I’m not assuming.”
He had an appealing voice. Low with a hint of… Not the deep south, she thought. But there was a cadence. Virginia? West Virginia?
She put down her mug. “If I buy into your assertion—which I’m not admitting I do.”
“Of course not.”
She ignored the words and the amusement tugging at his lips. “Where do you see this going?”
He leaned back in his chair. “This is a mating game, Taryn. Or didn’t you know?”
Ah, his first mistake. She kept her eyes locked with his and didn’t let her triumph show. “You want to marry me?”
A muscle in his jaw twitched. “Not that kind of mating.”
“If you’re not precise, it’s difficult to be sure. So you want to sleep with me.”
“Yes, but it’s about more than that.”
She let her gaze drift down his chest, then moved to his arms. Despite the cool late April temperatures, he wore a T-shirt and no jacket. She could see a tattoo of a rose, along with several scars on his arms. His hands were strong and equally battered.
She returned her attention to the scar on his neck and decided to ask the obvious. “What happened to him?”
He touched the side of his throat, then shrugged. “He had a very bad day.”
Taryn lived in the world of business. She could talk finance and sales projections but her real gift was designing public relations campaigns that were innovative and successful. At Score the work was divided among the four partners. Kenny and Jack were the rainmakers. They found prospective clients and reeled them in. Sam handled the money. But Taryn was the creative engine that steered the ship.
She was used to executives, graphic artists, bankers and everything in between. In her sphere, she was a power player and no one crossed her. But that wasn’t Angel. His clout didn’t come from a boardroom or the right suit. He carried it in his body. It was part of who he was.
She knew a few odds and ends about him. People she respected and trusted liked him. But the details? They were still a mystery. One she would like to solve.
“What makes you think I’m the least bit interested?” she asked.
“You’re still here.”
A good point. She didn’t want another executive—he would be too much like her. As for sports heroes, she worked with three and they exhausted her. Angel was different. Right now, different sounded like exactly what she needed.
“Effort will be required ,” she told him.
She laughed at the unexpected statement.
“You didn’t think I’d be easy, did you?” he asked.
He stood. “Don’t worry. I’m good at planning the right op for the right mission and then seeing it through.” He crossed to the door, then turned back to her. “And I’m good at waiting.”
He walked out, leaving her with her rapidly cooling coffee and an article on consumer confidence that had just gotten a whole lot less interesting than her encounter with an intriguing man name Angel.
Smug felt good, Angel thought as he crossed the street and headed for City Hall. He’d been waiting for the right moment to talk to Taryn and when he’d seen her having coffee by herself, he’d decided to act. She was as good as he’d hoped—intelligent, confident and sexy as hell. A combination he would have trouble resisting under the best of circumstances. But in this town, with her always around…he’d wanted to make his move the first day.
Waiting had been better, he told himself as he jogged up the stairs to the front of the government building. Now he could put his plan into action. The one that led them down a road of temptation, with an ultimate objective that should satisfy them both.
He took more stairs to the second floor and followed the signs to the mayor’s office.
Mayor Marsha Tilson was California’s longest serving mayor. She served the town well and seemed to know everyone’s secrets. Angel had yet to figure out where she got her information, but from what he’d seen, she had a network that would put most governments to shame.
He entered her office exactly fifteen seconds before the time of his appointment.
Her assistant, an older woman in black blazer, looked up at him with red and puffy eyes. Angel immediately sensed bubbling emotion and glanced around to room to discover all available exits.
The woman, a full-figured brunette, sniffed. “You must be Mr. Whittaker. Go right in. She’s expecting you.”
Angel did as instructed, hoping to find a calmer atmosphere in the mayor’s office. His cautious optimism was rewarded. Mayor Marsha looked as she always did—perfectly put together. She wore a light green suit, pearls and had her white hair neatly swirled up in some old-lady bun. She smiled and stood when she saw him.
“Mr. Whittaker. You made it.”
“Angel, please.” He crossed the room and shook hands with her, then settled in the seat across from hers.
Her office was large with several windows. Behind her desk were the flags of the United States and the State of California, along with a large seal he would guess represented the city of Fool’s Gold.
“Your assistant’s upset,” he said.
“Marjorie’s worked with me for years. But her twin daughters have settled in Portland, Oregon. They’re both pregnant. Marjorie’s husband retired, so they’re going to move closer to family. While she’s excited about being nearer her daughters and future grandchildren, she’s sad about leaving all of us here.”
More than he wanted to know, he thought, keeping his expression polite.
Mayor Marsha smiled. “Now I’ll have to find someone new. Hiring staff is relatively easy, but an assistant is a different matter. There has to be chemistry and trust. One can’t let just anyone know the town’s secrets.” The smile widened. “Not why you came to see me today.” She leaned forward and picked up a file from the stack on her large desk.
“All right, Angel, let’s see what we have here.” She slipped on reading glasses. “You’re interested in a project that will involve you with the community.”
Angel had been to some of the most dangerous parts of the world in various capacities. He’d taken his sniper training into the private sector and now designed curriculum for people training to be professional bodyguards. Not much surprised him. But he would swear he hadn’t told anyone his reason for making his appointment with Mayor Marsha, which begged the question. : How did the old lady know?
She glanced at him over her glasses. “Did I have that correct?”
He decided he had little choice but to simply nod and say, “Yes, ma’am.”
The smile returned. “Good. You have a unique background and an unusual skill set. I’ve given the matter a lot of thought and I think you’d be a perfect grove keeper.”
Grove what? “Ma’am?”
“Are you familiar with the history of the town?” she asked, then closed the folder. “This is California, so there was the expected exploration by the Spanish in the 1700s, but long before that, Fool’s Gold was settled by the Máa-zib tribe.”
Angel had heard something about that. “A branch of Mayans,” he murmured. “Matriarchal.”
“Yes.” The smile returned. “I would guess you’d respect a group of women who only want to use a man for sex.”
Angel wasn’t sure if he should flinch or pat the old lady on the back. Instead he cleared his throat. “All right,” he said slowly. “Interesting.”
“It is. We have long celebrated our Máa-zib culture and that includes a youth group. Future Warriors of the Máa-zib. Young people start at the age of six with a two-month introduction to what it’s like to be in the FWM. That’s followed by four years of membership. We have Acorns, Sprouts, Saplings, Sky-Reachers and Mighty Oaks. Each group or troop is known as a grove and the person in charge is a grove keeper.”
She put down her glasses. “There is a new grove starting in a couple of weeks. I think you would make an excellent grove keeper.”
Kids, he thought with surprise. He liked kids. His goal had been to get involved with Fool’s Gold because he’d decided to stay here and he’d been raised to give back to the community. He’d thought maybe he could volunteer on some advisory committee or teach a continuing ed class—although his skill set didn’t exactly fit in the regular world. Still…kids.
He hesitated only a second, then realized it had been long enough since he’d lost Marcus. The pain was still there—would always be a part of him, like a scar, or his heart—but it had become manageable. He would be able to work with teenaged boys without wanting to argue with the heavens about how unfair it had all been.
“Sure,” he said easily. “I can run a grove.”
Amusement twinkled in Mayor Marsha’s blue eyes. “I’m glad to hear it. I think you’ll find the experience fulfilling on several levels. I’ll make sure you get your material in the next few days, then meet with the Grove Council.”
He grinned. “Seriously? There’s a Grove Council?”
She laughed. “Of course. These are Future Warriors of the Máa-zib. What else would there be?”
She rose and he did as well. “Thank you, Angel. Usually I have to go out and convince new residents to pitch in. I appreciate that you came to me.” She studied him. “I assume your interest in giving back is the result of your background. You grew up in a coal mining town, didn’t you? West Virginia?”
While the information wasn’t secret, it wasn’t something he shared very often. “You’re a spooky old lady,” he told her. “You know that, right?”
The smile broadened. “Not many people have the courage to say it to my face, but I do hope that’s what they’re saying behind my back.”
“They are,” he assured her.
They shook hands and he left. Marjorie was still in tears, so he hustled out and hit the stairs at a jog. Maybe he would spend the afternoon looking for campsites, he thought cheerfully. He had plenty of survival skills he could pass on to his FWM grove. Ways to help them grow up to be confident men. Yeah—this was going to be good.
“Jack, stop it,” Taryn said without looking up from the papers in front of her.
The shifting sound stilled, only to start up again five seconds later. She drew in a breath and glanced across the small conference table.
“Seriously,” she told him. “You’re worse than a five year-old.”
Jack, her business partner and ex-husband , rotated his shoulder. “When does Larissa get here?”
“I told you, tomorrow. In twenty-four hours you’ll have her back. Now can you please focus?”
“That would require half a brain,” Kenny said with a grin. “Jack doesn’t have that.”
She glared at Kenny. “Don’t you start.”
Sam, the only calm, rational partner, leaned back in his chair. “You can’t control them when they’re like this. You know that. Why are you trying so hard?”
Because it was her job to try hard. She kept “the boys” on a tight leash because if she didn’t, they would run all over her.
She’d known Jack the longest. After their quickie marriage and equally speedy divorce, he’d set her up in business. He’d provided the money, she’d brought the PR know-how and Score had been an instant success—helped by Jack throwing a lot of business her way. It had been a great arrangement.
Unfortunately four years later, Kenny had blown out his knee and ended his career. Sam had been thinking of getting out of the NFL and for reasons Taryn couldn’t figure out, Jack had joined them. Her ex had walked away from his starring role as a quarterback with the LA Stallions. He claimed he wanted to go out on top, but she suspected his departure had more to do with his friends than anything else. Not that Jack would admit it.
There they were—three ex-jocks—with plenty of cash and fame and no second act in the wings. Oh wait. Jack was half owner of a PR firm. Before she’d known what was happening, he’d brought Kenny and Sam on board and all four of them were partners.
At first she’d been sure they would crash and burn, but more quickly than she would have guessed possible, they’d become a team and then a family. Jack and Kenny were the sales guys. They brought in the clients and were the public face of the firm. Sam handled the finances, both company and private. Not only was he smart, he’d actually gone to his classes in college.
Taryn handled everything else. She ran the business, bossed around the boys and created the campaigns that had continued to add to their net worth. Theirs was an unconventional arrangement but it worked for them.
Jack shifted again, the muscle in his cheek tightening. She reminded herself he wasn’t trying to be difficult—he was in pain. No one could get through nearly a decade in the NFL and not have the battered body to prove it. Larissa, Jack’s personal assistant and the boys’ private masseuse, hadn’t been able to move to Fool’s Gold as quickly as the rest of them. After nearly a month without her healing touch, all three of the former players were suffering.
“Tomorrow,” she said again.
“Yes.” She paused. “You could take something.”
The statement was made in her most gentle voice, one her partners almost never heard. Because she knew that Jack was going to refuse. With permanent injuries and the discomfort that went with them, painkillers could be a slick road to hell. None of the guys wanted to go there.
“What’s next?” he asked, ignoring her words.
“We’re up,” Kenny told him, then opened the file in front of him. “Jack and I had a second meeting with the CEO and founder of Living Life at a Run.” He reached for the remote in the center of the table and hit a button. The screen at the far end of the room lit up and a logo came into focus.
Taryn studied the angular letters and the quirky acronym. LL@R. She wanted to point out that one of the a’s was missing , but knew there wasn’t any point. The company’s CEO had a reputation for being eccentric and difficult. But he offered them a shot at traditional retail—one area of the PR market where Score had never had much luck finding clients.
“They’re growing fast,” Kenny said. “They’re trendy and a lot of celebrities are wearing their clothes.”
“The clothing is a secondary market for them,” Jack added. “Their main focus is sports gear. If we could get them, we could move toward bigger companies. Like REI.”
Taryn would love to get her hands on a premium company like REI but the old cliché was true. They would have to learn to walk before they could learn to run.
“What’s next?” she asked.
“I have another meeting in a few days,” Kenny said.
Taryn waited and sure enough Jack stared at his friend. “I? I? Is that where we are? Each out for what we can get? What happened to the team? What happened to us being a family?”
Kenny, all six-feet four inches of blond brawn, groaned. “Give me a break. You know what I meant.”
“Do I? Sounds to me like this is all about you.”
“You need to be specific,” Sam said mildly, obviously content to join the mock argument. Taryn knew that any second now he would turn on Jack, because that’s what always happened when they were like this.
They were each successful, good-looking and worth close to ten figures. Yet there were times when they were as unruly and mischievous as a litter of puppies. Sam and Jack were both dark haired. Sam, the former kicker, was lean and just six feet tall. Jack had him by a couple of inches and at least thirty pounds of muscle. Jack’s classic quarterback physique—broad shoulders, narrow hips, long legs—had served him well, both on and off the field. Then there was Kenny, the gentle giant of the group.
Her boys, she thought as they bickered. They were responsible for her move to Fool’s Gold—something she wasn’t sure she was willing to forgive just yet. The town wasn’t as bad as she’d first thought, but it sure wasn’t L.A. She loved L.A.
“So I’ll be in charge?” Jack asked with a grin.
“Your mama,” Kenny told him.
“Don’t break anything,” Taryn said as she collected her papers and started for the door. Because whenever she heard “your mama,” body blows were sure to follow.
Sam went with her. “Not going to try to stop them?” he asked cheerfully as they stepped into the hallway.
“That would be your job.”
Something hit the wall with a thud. Sam kept walking. “No thanks.”
“The three of you are never going to grow up, are you?” she asked.
“I’m not the one fighting.”
She glanced at him. “Not this time.”
He gave her a wink, then sauntered away. Taryn continued to her office. In the distance, she heard a crash. Jude, her fifty-something assistant, entered the room.
“Kenny and Sam?” she asked, the inevitable notepad in hand.
“Jack and Kenny.”
Jude sighed as she wrote. “I’ll check later and see what’s been broken. You have a conference call at eleven and graphics needs to see you when you can spare a few minutes.”
“Thanks,” Taryn said, turning to her computer. “Just another day in paradise.”
“You love them.”
Taryn smiled at Jude. “Heaven help me, I do.”
The boys were her family and no matter how many chairs, tables, windows and hearts they broke , she would stand by them. Even if every now and then she fantasized about how much more serene her life would be if she’d gone into business with a couple of pacifist guys who believed in the power of meditation for conflict resolution.
Somewhere in the distance, glass shattered. Taryn continued to look at her computer screen as she kept on typing.
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