Here it is folks, the last sneak peak of my latest release. Enjoy!
He wanted to fall in lo e again? Alessa’s sweaty palms squeaked against the marble desktop, and her forehead almost collided with the surface. How could he want to fall in love again after being jilted for the fourth time? If word got out, her plan to use him as a shield was ruined. Ruined.
“Alessa?” Diana Grimor rasped.
Alessa’s nails bent as they tried to gouge the marble. Gods, the councilwoman was in full-on seduction mode. Well, she wasn’t getting Sloan. He was too love-crazy, too vulner- able. He needed protection from himself.
Sucking in a shaky breath, she straightened her arms and squared her shoulders. Diana cocked a delicately arched eye- brow. Her lips glistened with the pink shellac she used to out- line her perfect pout. Interest and desire sparkled in her ocean- green eyes, complemented perfectly by her sea-foam stola. Of course, it was too much to ask the woman to wear a modest tunica underneath.
Alessa’s gaze slid down the councilwoman’s alabaster neck before halting on her chest. Had she rouged her nipples to make them stand out? Now what was she to do? Her attention darted to Sloan.
He was eyeing Diana’s bosom like a thirsty man would a tall drink of cold water.
Gods, if you’re listening, I could use a little help now. She gulped. Had she really just asked for assistance in love? No. Not love. Protection of her plan. She eyed the fresco.
Something fluttered in the palace window, but the bal- cony was empty. Of course, it was too much to ask the gods to help when she wanted something.
It was probably for the best. She pushed her ponytail be- hind her. With her luck in love, the gods would probably shoot him with a lead-tipped arrow, and he’d hate her. Still, she needed to think of something before Sloan squeezed all the creamy filling out of her plan’s cannoli.
“Diana, this is Sloan Dugan, the new professor. Sloan, this is Councilwoman Diana Grimor.”
“Signor Dugan.” Diana’s bovine hips swung as she closed the distance. Her green eyes lingered on the uniquely male bit as they traveled up and down his body. She stopped a foot away from him. “I had hoped to greet you when you arrived.”
Alessa grabbed the blunt-tipped arrow oð the desk. The willow shaft bent under her grip. Fear misted her skin. How was she to compete with that? She hadn’t even flirted in a dec- ade.
Sweat beaded Sloan’s upper lip. He blinked then shook his head. When he finished, he raised his chin and stared into Diana’s face.
That was something, at least. Alessa’s heart hiccoughed. Not that it meant much. He had still stared.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am.” He held out his hand in the narrow space between them.
“Call me Diana.” In one smooth motion, she pushed his arm aside and pressed against the front of his body. The long sleeves of her stola bared her pale arms when she wrapped them around his chest. Leaning back, she kissed both cheeks. “That’s the proper greeting here in Amores.”
In the brothels, maybe. Alessa gritted her teeth. She cer- tainly had never been taught to act like a human codpiece with complete strangers. Wood splintered under her fingers, and she slapped the ruined arrow onto the desk
“Yes, ma—er, Diana.” Red brushed his tanned skin. He stumbled back against the desk before bracing both hands against the edge. “Like the huntress, right?”
Alessa opened her mouth then snapped it closed. Was he one of those guys? The kind that liked to pursue, not be pur- sued? She swallowed the sour taste in her mouth as an idea gnawed on the dark recesses of her mind. Maybe she could use that to her advantage.
“Very.” Diana trailed her French-tipped fingernail down the buttons of his dress shirt. Her exploration stopped just short of his waistband.
Sloan sucked in his gut.
“Are you a teacher here, too?”
He definitely didn’t seem to like being pursued. Not at all.
A ball of heat zinged through her insides. She could use that to eliminate the competition—the much more experienced com- petition. She pulled air through her teeth. But that would mean she’d have to pretend to be interested in him, to be in love with him. Could she do it?
He was handsome and had treated her sister like a lady. How could she not?
“Why, no, I’m on the council.” Diana licked her lips, dull- ing the gloss, while tracing his waistband. “The one that hired you.”
The ball of heat exploded and flamed through Alessa’s body. Really, it was too much. She had to protect him from the coun- cilwoman. And if that meant flirting, so be it.
She raised her chin. Saving him was practically her civic duty.
“Actually, Diana is on the Consiglio Comunale, the city council, not the university board.”
Alessa jerked on the straps of her satchel, pulling it oð the desk. The slim book bag swung down and smacked Diana’s hip. The councilwoman staggered to the side.
Ha! Alessa raised her chin and matched the other woman’s glare. She hadn’t become a master of the Bow’s Arts without having an excellent grasp on trajectories.
“Diana didn’t have anything to do with you being hired by the university.”
Nor could the council fire her because she was single at thirty-one. However, they could and would make her life a living hades for the next three days. Three days. She could fall in love with Sloan before Valentine’s Day. She ignored the shimmer of excitement. Pretend to fall in love.
Inching a little closer to her, Sloan hitched up his jeans. “Good to know.”
Diana increased the voltage in her pout then shrugged one nearly bare shoulder. The gold pins holding the fabric together winked.
“Which means there won’t a conflict of interest in your hav- ing dinner with me.” She narrowed her eyes at Alessa. “And I do have some sway with the board.”
Your hips are the only sway you have, you fat bovine!
Alessa swung her satchel onto her shoulder, stirring the di- aphanous material of Diana’s gown.
“But not enough to fire anyone.”
Sloan’s attention darted back and forth. Alessa raised her chin. She had done nothing she’d regret. Well, except maybe that the first collision hadn’t knocked the councilwoman out of the classroom.
His brow furrowed as he squeezed between the two women then shifted to the side. He stopped just in front of Alessa’s right shoulder. Warm fingers brushed her neck before the weight of the bag lifted.
The area he’d touched erupted into pins and needles. If such a trifle caused a reaction, her emotions must be getting to her. Nails dug into her palm. But she wouldn’t get swept up in the love talk. She wouldn’t. Neither would she reach for her satchel. For once, the macho thing might actually work in her favor.
Diana’s smile curdled when he set the strap over his shoul- der.
“Nothing for you to worry about, I’m sure.” She waved her hand, and the look of distaste vanished. The neckline of her stola dropped, revealing a knife’s edge of cleavage. “Now, about dinner…”
“He’s having dinner with me.” Alessa plucked at the hem of her T-shirt. Gods! What had her mouth gotten her into?
Sloan had sidled around Diana, heading for the door. He paused before leaning down and picking up his duðel bag.
“Yes.” She balled up the cotton fabric before smoothing it flat. Her fingers crawled around her back before crossing. “For your first night in town, I prepared a special dinner.”
What! Had she just said she cooked? Maybe the gods had heard her and had taken possession of her mouth.
Sloan followed her hand’s motion. His lips twitched, and his left eyebrow cocked.
“You cooked for me?”
He knew she’d lied. Would he tattle? She tucked her crossed fingers into her back pockets and hid them beneath the worn denim. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she eyed the empty balcony over his shoulder.
But it wasn’t empty. Psyche reclined on a divan. Oh, no! The gods were helping her. Alessa swallowed the lump in her throat.
“Yes, of course. It’s an old family recipe.” She wanted to slap her hands over her mouth but didn’t dare. If the goddess had taken possession of her tongue, the only thing she could do was sit tight and ride it out.
Diana folded her arms over her belly and hiked up her voluptuous breasts.
“What recipe would that be?”
“The, er, Lombard specialty, of course.” She didn’t cook. She actually burned water. All the women in her family had, except her sister. But there had to be family recipes somewhere in her house—probably in the dusty pantry behind the cobwebs. Maybe Lia had taken pity on her again and stocked the freezer with things she could heat up and pretend to have cooked.
Diana frowned before glancing at her watch.
“Then I’ll just take Sloan to lunch. Airplane food is hor- rendous, and I imagine traveling up the hill in a cart was quite uncomfortable on top of it.”
“Actually, I didn’t—”
“I planned for lunch, too.”
Lurching sideways, Alessa grabbed his Stetson just as he reached for it. If he didn’t have his hat, he wouldn’t leave. And if he didn’t leave, he couldn’t tell Diana all about his plans to fall in love again.
Wait a minute. Had she just promised him another meal?
“Lunch, too?” Diana’s arms stopped propping up her melon- sized breasts when her hands dug into her hips. “Another Lom- bard family recipe? Funny, if memory serves me right, the Lombard women can’t cook. In fact, the Borgias sent selected victims to eat at the Lombard house when they couldn’t resort to their frequent addition of poison.”
“Um, perhaps…” Sloan whispered.
“Lia is cooking lunch,” Alessa forced out between her clenched teeth. Her sister always cooked lunch. She just hoped she had made enough for two extra people. “And no one actu- ally died at the dinner table when the Lombard women had cooked.” She forced her lips into a smile. They’d had the good manners to expire at home. “I’m sure you can understand that she and Dante want to meet Sloan. He is staying in my house, after all.”
“Other arrangements can be made.” Diana’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not exactly the best example of passion that Amores has to oðer. And, Mr. Dugan…” She turned toward the man, leaning forward so the fabric of her dress gaped. “May I call you Sloan?”
“Sure.” His smile crinkled the corners of his cobalt eyes, but his attention never strayed from her face.
Good man. She’d never fall for a lech. She shook her head. It didn’t matter if he looked or not. This was pretend. Just pretend. He was a means to an ends, nothing more.
Given her family’s history, he couldn’t be anything more.
“Sloan has come to our little town not just to teach but to learn about love.” Diana smoothed her hair. “Desire.” She fiddled with the gold clasp on her left shoulder.
Alessa gritted her teeth. If there was so much as a hint of a wardrobe malfunction, she’d spear the woman, city council member or not.
The sheer fabric shimmied but stayed in place.
“And passion. Isn’t that right, Sloan?”
He leaned toward the seductress before shaking himself and pulling away. “Absolutely.”
Oh, for pity’s sake! Why was he such a man? Alessa eyed the spears in the urn. Maybe she’d smack him upside the head with the flat of a point before skewering Diana. Her foot twitched with the need to cross the room. Was she the only sane one around here?
Diana’s gloating smile didn’t reach her glittering eyes.
“You’re hardly an expert in any of those fields, Alessa.” She dusted an imaginary speck oð her bodice. “You won’t even enter the love lottery.”
Sloan watched the motion before jerking his attention away. “The love lottery?”
Alessa squeezed her eyes closed for a moment. Damn Diana! She had to go and mention that.
At least now she knew outsiders weren’t any protection
against the nagging. She gritted her teeth. There was no choice. Her interest in Sloan would get the council off her back. Smooth- ing her shirt over her hips, she rallied her internal cheerlead- ers. She could do this. She would do this.
“The love lottery is a tradition in our village.” Leaving the safety of her desk, she trudged across the marble floor and stood next to Sloan. A hint of pine teased her senses. He smelled nice. Too nice for someone like Diana. From the corner of her eye, she spied the spears. And she was closer to the implements of plan B. “On Valentine’s Day, everyone in the village meets outside the temple of Cupid and Psyche. All the maidens who are looking for love drop their names in the gods’ urn. Then the bachelors line up for their chance to pick a name.”
“Sounds interesting.” Sloan adjusted the book bag’s strap on his shoulder.
Warmth unfurled deep inside her. Why was he staring at her? Did he think she was so desperate for love she’d enter something so unbelievably humiliating?
“Oh, it’s very exciting, I assure you.” Diana clasped her hands and fairly beamed at him. “Can you believe that Alessa has never entered the lottery? Not once in all the years she’s lived here.”
Throbbing spread from her clenched jaw and took up resi- dence in her temples.
“I was raising my sister. I wouldn’t be so selfish to put my own needs above hers.”
“I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your parents.” Sloan ran his knuckles along the back of her hand before squeezing her fingers; for a moment, warmth flowed through her arm. Then he released her, and a chill replaced it. She glanced at her hand. What had just happened?
“Her sister is a woman grown and married, and she still hasn’t entered the lottery.” Diana waved her manicured hand. “Why, it’s almost as if she doesn’t trust the gods to find her a husband.”
Alessa shook her hand and swallowed despite the fear stuð- ing her mouth with cotton.
“That’s not it at all.”
Sloan eased his hat from her fingers and pulled the brim to straighten the crumbled felt.
“Then what is it?” Diana tapped her foot, showing oð her pedicure. Silver hearts glistened against the crimson toenail polish. “You’ve never really given the Consiglio Comunale a reason for your stubbornness.”
She knew the gods would find her a love to last a lifetime. But that love would close around her like a trap and degener- ate into a prison because of the Lombard curse. She opened her mouth to say it, but no words came out. Her attention flew to Sloan. Gods, she was making a cannoli of herself.
Tossing his mangled hat on the desk, he smiled at her. A dimple flashed in his cheek.
“So, the gods have a hand in this love lottery, huh?”
Oh, no! She’d forgotten that he wanted to find love. What if he entered the lottery? Would she be expected to enter to prove her love for him? Her fake love for him?
“Yes, of course.” Diana cozied up to him until her breast rubbed his bicep. “If you’re interested, I could use my influ- ence to have you listed as one of the bachelors.”
Clearing his throat, he leaned away from her.
“What does it entail?”
No, no, no! This wouldn’t do at all. She would not allow
Diana and her large-breast mojo to steal him from her.
Alessa latched onto his arm, spinning him away from temptation. He stumbled forward, clipping her toes. Bracket- ing her, he braced his hands on the desk. His body blazed heat from thigh to chest.
Oh, my! Perhaps she’d overdone it.
The classroom dissolved in a fuzzy haze, but he remained crystal-clear. She stared at his Adam’s apple before her gaze glided over the clean lines of his jaw, the sculptured cheeks and into his cobalt eyes. Her heart beat a savage tattoo. He really had the most remarkable eyes.
His duffle thudded against the side of the desk before thumping to the floor.
She shook her head then nodded. Things would be okay. He’d help make them okay.
Diana’s voice shattered the spell. “All bachelors have to do is line up in Cupid’s piazza on Valentine’s Day.”
Alessa blinked away the remnants of whatever had just hit her. Cupid. Love lottery. Sloan wanted to fall in love. She should move.
Instead, her attention remained on him.
“You’ll be leaving in the summer. Unless the council issues a writ of divorce, the lottery is as binding as a marriage cere- mony. Are you willing to spend the rest of your life here in- stead of your Christmas village?”
“Holly.” His attention dipped to her mouth, and he leaned even closer.
Pain pricked her heart, but she raised her chin, angling her head to receive his kiss. Alessa. Her name was Alessa. His breath washed over her, smelling of peppermint. Her eyelids felt heavy, and they fluttered closed. Should she let him kiss her with another woman’s name on his lips? She brushed the tip of her nose across his. Yes, she’d make him forget about that other woman. When she’d finished with him, all he’d think about would be her.
“Is that the name of your village? Holly.” Diana’s voice buzzed in the background like a mosquito.
One Alessa wanted to swat.
“Yes. No. I…” Sloan eased back away from her, away from their kiss.
She resisted the urge to stamp her foot.
Avoiding her gaze, he lifted his bag and retreated to the first row of student desks.
“I’m sure you’re not looking for anything permanent. Af- ter your misfortune, you must want to have a little fun.” Diana skipped to his side and leaned against him. “No-strings-attached fun.”
Alessa’s hands curled into fists. Gods, how she wanted to smack the smug right oð the other woman’s face.
He picked a piece of lint from his shirtsleeve before study- ing his loafers.
“Does the urn yield love matches? Ones that last forever.”
Tightness squeezed her chest. Was she really so diðerent from Diana? Using him for her own less-than-honorable pur- poses. She raised her hand, wanting to brush the lock of hair off his forehead, get him to look at her.
“Yes. Or you can believe in it enough to find it on your own without the gods’ help.”
“Which is easy enough to do, if you look for it.” Diana nudged his shoulder. “The search is more than half the fun.”
He inhaled quickly and looked up. Not at her or Diana but the fresco. Psyche waggled her fingers at him.
What must it be like to want love so badly? She picked up his hat and pulled at the felt.
“You’re not technically a villager, but I’m sure if you asked and made an appropriate oðering, the gods would help you find love.”
Diana scooted a little away from him but set her hand on his thigh.
“You’re looking to fall in love?”
Alessa sucked on her bottom lip. Gods, she shouldn’t have said that aloud. But he’d looked so lost. Your plan. Remember your plan.
Exactly, her plan would give her respite until Valentine’s Day; then she’d help him find real love. Just because the peo- ple in her family were cursed to love too deeply didn’t mean he couldn’t live happily ever after with the woman of his choice.
She rubbed her sternum, hoping to ease the ache building there. She was just hungry, that’s all. Or maybe Diana’s hound- ing was starting to give her heartburn.
Crossing the five feet separating them, she set the hat on his head. Her fingers grazed his earlobe. Just to make sure the hat was on straight, not because she wanted to touch him.
“Oh, my, we need to get going if we’re going to eat lunch before dinnertime.”
“Yes, well.” Diana leaned over and planted a kiss on his lips. Sloan’s knees buckled, but he caught himself on the table. Of all the nerve! He could have been hurt. Alessa grabbed the remains of the blunt-tipped arrow and poked the council- woman’s fat butt cheek. Diana straightened and rubbed her behind.
“I’ll see you for dinner tomorrow night, and…” She trailed her finger down his chest before tracing his belt buckle. “And maybe for breakfast, too.”
“Out!” Alessa hissed, waving the arrow as she started for the other woman.
Grinning, Diana skipped out of reach and out the door. Her laughter bounced around the hallway.
Alessa slammed the door behind her, locked it then chucked the broken arrow in the trashcan. Setting his duðe and her satchel on the desk, Sloan sat on the student desk. He pushed back his hat, his blue eyes targeting her.
“So, are you going to tell me what’s really going on?”
She plucked at the neckband of her shirt before walking toward him, a moth to his flame. Her heart raced, and her tongue stuck to the roof of her dry mouth. After Diana’s per- formance, she’d have to do something drastic to convince him of her interest.
His lips quirked. “Alessa, I want an explanation.”
Sweet ambrosia, did he have to say her name like that? Fanning herself, she waited for an intelligent thought. She stopped between his spread legs; her thighs brushed the desk- top. His lips were almost as nice as his eyes. Don’t be silly. Lips can kiss and taste and…
“Are you feeling alright?”
“Um-hum.” Although a kiss might make her feel better. He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Alessa, why did you lie about making me lunch and dinner? Was it to stop me from having dinner with Diana?” Diana. The cow who wanted him. There’d be none of that. If her plan was to work, he had to be interested in her. Alessa grabbed his shirt and jerked him toward her.
“I don’t want you anywhere near that woman.”
“Because…Because…I’m interested in you.” Rising on tiptoe, she pressed her lips to his.