Kiss Me, Kate

Madison Girls, Book 1

Mari Carr

Chapter 1

Mid-May

Yowza,” Kate muttered as the front door of the farmhouse opened. Recalling herself, she quickly said, “Hi there. I c-called earlier. I’m Jill’s sister. The, uh, house-sitter.” Kate stumbled over her words as a man who could pass for George Clooney’s identical twin brother answered the door. O brother, where art thou been all my life?

“Hello.” Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome spoke in a voice so hot and deep she was sure it could melt chocolate, not to mention what it was doing to her insides. “Ms. Summers?”

“Harper.” She silently remarked how strange it felt to be using her maiden name again and extended her hand. “Kate Harper.”

“Harper.” He shook the hand she offered, his grip strong yet curiously comforting. “Rick McAllister.”

Kate prayed he couldn’t feel her hand shaking. Damn, she was a fool. She needed this job, desperately. Now was not the time to act like a giggling teenager crushing on a movie star. Although with his dark brown hair and cocoa-colored eyes, he could certainly grace her silver screen anytime of the day or night. “You’re doing it again,” she muttered underneath her breath.

“Excuse me?” Rick had heard her and looked confused.

Mortified, Kate attempted to backtrack quickly. “Nothing, I was just, uh, saying…so you and Jill are friends?”

Rick grinned in a way that let Kate know he wasn’t fooled. “Yep and I don’t mind telling you that your sister makes a Dutch apple pie that can bring a grown man to his knees begging for a crumb of the crust.”

Kate laughed at his description. She constantly heard similar comments from most of the folks in town. Her sister owned and operated a diner on Main Street. It was typically packed for breakfast, lunch and dinner due to Jill’s amazing culinary skills and vivacious personality. Kate couldn’t think of one person in town who wasn’t drawn to Jill and her delicious food—which made it all the more painful to have to admit she was Jill’s baby sister. People expected Kate to be like her and were always disappointed.

“Jill’s cooking is one of the reasons I’ll never succeed in any diet.”

“Why on earth are you dieting?”

Rick looked so sincere in his question, Kate wasn’t sure how to respond. Flustered, she changed the subject. “I, uh, understand you’re leaving town immediately.”

“That’s right.” Rick stepped back from the doorway and gestured for her to enter. “Why don’t you come on in? Would you like something to drink? I’m not sure there’s much left in the fridge except for a couple beers and maybe some lemonade. Wes and I have been trying to clean it out so nothing would spoil. We weren’t sure we’d be able to find someone to stay here on such short notice.”

“Oh, I’m not thirsty. Thanks anyway.” Kate’s eyes took in the spacious foyer. “Wow.”

Rick chuckled behind her. “Is that an impressed ‘wow’ or a horrified one?”

“Impressed,” she answered without thinking. “This house is even better on the inside.” It was an old farmhouse, situated on twenty-five acres just outside the small town where she worked as the high school librarian. She’d driven by the house quite a few times in the past since it sat on the road that led to one of her favorite hiking trails. Every time she drove by, she slowed down to see all the improvements the new owners had made over the years.

Although she’d never actually met Wes Robson or Rick McAllister, she’d certainly heard all about them via the gossip grapevine, a.k.a. Jill. She had seen them in town on various occasions, but only from a distance. She had to say up-close was much, much better.

“Other than Wes and myself, I think you’re the only person to ever actually admit that. We still have quite a bit of work left to do, as you can see. Wes and I have put most of our efforts into maintaining the outside of the house and the outbuildings. I’m afraid neither one of us is much use when it comes to interior decorating. Add to that the fact that our housekeeper quit a couple months ago, we’re two hopeless bachelors when it comes to housework and voila—the mess you see before you.”

“Not a mess.” Kate studied the high ceilings and arched doorways that led to several different rooms. The house was clearly built at a time when people paid attention to detail. She was so sick of the carbon-copy cardboard boxes contractors liked to refer to as “dream homes” nowadays. “A work in progress—and one with a lot of potential.”

“I agree,” Rick added quietly. “We’ve just had a hard time making any progress on that work. Come on in the living room. Wes will be here in a while. He’s out mowing the yard.”

“I assume you have a riding mower?” Kate wondered if yard chores would be part of her duties if she could convince Rick and Wes to allow her to stay.

“Hell yeah. Pardon my language, but it would be a bit much to do with a push mower.” Then he seemed to realize the reason for her question. “You don’t have to worry about that, though. There’s a teenager who lives down the road. He’ll be taking over the yard work once school lets out in a couple weeks. Jill says you’re a teacher?”

“Librarian, but as it’s at the high school, chances are good I know your new gardener.”

“Scott Miller.”

“Oh yeah, Scott’s a great kid. He’ll do a terrific job.” Kate wondered if Rick knew how much the Miller family could use any money Scott would earn. His mother was a teacher at the same school as Kate and his father had recently been placed on disability. The family had four kids, ages eight to seventeen, and Kate knew money was tight.

“Jill says you’re going through a divorce,” Rick added and Kate felt the usual tightness in her chest that accompanied that statement. The pain of her slime-ball husband’s desertion still stung. She’d come home two months ago to find their house empty and their joint bank account cleaned out.

Madison was a small town and she was sure there was little chance Rick McAllister hadn’t heard all the gory details of how the town’s top lawyer had run out on his dumpy librarian wife and taken off with Madison’s one and only hairdresser. True to the cliché, Kate was the last one to find out about Zachary Summers’ cheating ways. In fact, until she came home to find everything in the house gone—except her books and clothes—Kate hadn’t had a clue Zack wasn’t faithful to her.

Having grown up in Madison, Kate wasn’t surprised by the townspeople’s reactions. Her husband’s exploits were apparently acceptable because they were so expected. She overheard one particularly nasty comment about how it had only been a matter of time before Zack Summers left to find a woman worthy of him. On top of that, Kate sensed most of the women in town were actually pissed off with her for not keeping her husband happy because they now had to travel thirty-five miles to Harrisburg to get their perms and color.

Kate cleared her throat and nodded. “That’s right. Unfortunately, divorce is a rather pricey investment and I decided to put my house on the market to help with the cost.” Not that Kate gave a damn about the house. Zack picked out the modern monstrosity, determined to rub his success as an ambulance chaser in the neighbors’ noses, and Kate had hated it since the day they’d moved in.

“I’ve been staying with Jill, but she and I are rather different people and her apartment is a bit small.” Kate didn’t bother to include the fact that, although she loved her sister dearly, Jill was driving her up the wall.

“Well, I have to say Wes and I were starting to give up hope of finding someone to take care of the place. Fact of the matter is we aren’t sure how long we’ll be out of town and we hate to leave the place empty for so long. There are lots of plants inside that need tending, and Rex.”

“Rex?”

“Jill did tell you we have a dog, didn’t she?” Rick asked, looking concerned.

“Uh, no.” And Kate knew exactly why Jill had omitted that fact. Kate was deathly afraid of dogs since being bitten by one in the sixth grade. “Is Rex an outdoor dog?” Silently she prayed he was one of those dogs kept in a pen in the back she only had to throw water and food at once a day.

Rick laughed. “Oh no, although he probably should be. Big old pain in the ass is what he is. He adopted us about a year ago.”

The word “big” reverberated in Kate’s head. “He adopted you?”

“Just walked up to the back door and started scratching. Wes is a softie when it comes to dogs. Started feeding him scraps every night. Next thing I know, there’s a horse of a dog sleeping with me in my bed, hogging the covers.”

“H-horse of a dog,” Kate mumbled as Rick studied her face.

“You’re afraid of dogs,” he said simply and, realizing she wouldn’t be able to deny it, she nodded.

“Hell,” Rick cursed.

Kate sank down on the plush chair behind her, indecision flooding her. A dog. Dammit, they would have a dog. Of everything she could have dealt with while house-sitting, she wasn’t sure about an enormous dog.

Then her mind drifted back to this morning when Jill’s current flavor of the month, Seth, came into the kitchen completely naked. Kate spent more than half the night listening to the man’s moans and groans and her sister’s headboard banging against her bedroom wall. That was when she decided sleeping on the street was preferable to spending one more night under Jill’s roof. There were dogs on the street, she supposed, so if she was willing to cuddle up to a trashcan rather than risk seeing the naked woman tattooed on Seth’s ass again, then perhaps she could handle this. “Dog or trashcan,” she muttered.

“Trashcan?” Rick asked, clearly confused.

“Uh, nothing.” Damned mumbling. A bad habit she couldn’t seem to kick. It was asshole Zack’s fault. He’d left her alone for so much of their marriage, she’d started talking to herself. She seriously had to get it under control. People were going to start thinking she was crazy. “I’m sure Rex and I will get along famously.”

“Really?” Rick asked, obviously unconvinced.

“Really.”

Rick looked at the quirky little librarian sitting across from him and wondered for the third time since she entered the house what the hell he was thinking. Kate Harper was an odd bird with her stammering and mumbling. Add to that the fact she was obviously terrified of dogs and he figured he was the biggest fool in the world for even considering letting her house-sit his precious home. However, he and Wes were desperate and Kate was the only person who’d expressed an interest in doing the job. Rick could sense she was anxious for a place to stay despite the problem of Rex. Wes would probably kill him, yet he knew he was going to leave timid Kate holding down their rather messy fort and overly affectionate dog.

Unfortunately, chances were good she would take one look at Rex and run for the hills. When he mentioned Rex’s size, her pale face had gone even whiter, the trembling in her hands seemed to escalate—and he hadn’t exaggerated about the mutt. Wes joked that Rex was half black lab, half mountain lion. Not that he acted it. Rick had never met a gentler dog. If he could get Kate past her initial fear, he had little doubt Rex would claim her heart just as he did everyone else’s he met.

He found himself a bit angry at the toll her husband’s cheating had obviously taken on Kate’s self-esteem. Madison was a small town and he knew all about Zack Summers’ seedy escapades. Poor girl was dressed fit to enter a convent, with no makeup and her long black hair pinned up in a tight ponytail. Her oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans shielded her figure from the world’s eyes and he suspected she may be using the big clothes to hide a few extra pounds. Her voice was soft, almost unsure of itself, and despite the fact she was holding up her end of the conversation just fine, Rick sensed her discomfort in his presence.

Of course, like Rex, he was used to women being intimidated by him and his size. In this case, he had to be nearly a half-foot taller than Kate and at least a hundred pounds heavier, so he assumed some of her apprehension was due to the situation and the rest due to him.

Trying to put her at ease, he flashed an easy smile, secretly wishing Wes had been the one to conduct this interview. Wes Robson, his best friend since middle school, was one of those men women flocked to. His charming smile and devil-may-care attitude never failed to leave a trail of horny women in his wake. Where Rick was big and broad and built like a linebacker, Wes was a couple inches shorter and more compact and muscular, like a soccer player.

“Well, Kate.” He sat in the chair across from her and leaned back. “Fact is this was not really an interview, but more an introduction. Jill’s word is certainly good enough for me and having met you, I have no doubts at all you’ll take good care of the house. Would you like to take a tour of the place?”

He watched as the breath Kate had apparently been holding since entering the house escaped and she gave him the first genuine smile he’d seen since meeting her. He was surprised to see how much it transformed her face from plain Jane to plain pretty.

“I don’t know how to thank you for letting me do this.” She rose from her chair so quickly he nearly got whiplash watching her move. “I was at my wit’s end, trying to figure out what to do next. I really couldn’t spend one more minute with Jill. Although God knows I love her dearly. How we managed to co-exist for the first eighteen years of our lives together is absolutely beyond me. Mind-boggling. Do you have any idea how long you’ll be gone?”

“Hard to say.” He stood up to join her and struggled to take in her rushed speech. As he could only recall the last question, he said, “Anywhere from six months to a year. I suppose Jill told you what Wes and I do?”

“All she said was you were in law enforcement.”

“Drug Enforcement,” he clarified.

“DEA agents. Must be an exciting job.”

“Sometimes,” Rick answered, “but lots of times it’s non-stop, painstakingly boring stake-outs.”

“How will I reach you if there is an emergency?”

“I’ll give you a number to a messaging system Wes and I check in with periodically and we’ll call or email whenever we can. You don’t mind staying out here all by yourself?” Rick kicked himself for asking the question. Fact was the house, despite its fairly close proximity to town, was basically in the country. Completely isolated. If Kate refused to take the job, he and Wes would have to put Rex in a kennel—which the dog would hate—in addition to worrying about vandals or the old pipes leaking or freezing.

However, the thought of Kate staying out here alone was starting to worry him more than the idea of vandals wrecking his belongings. Deep inside he knew Kate would be just fine. Madison was a small town with little to no crime. It was one of the main reasons they decided to settle here rather than remain in the city after nearly a decade with the agency. He and Wes decided it was time to put down some roots, invest in some property and start looking toward the future rather than merely living in the present. He sensed his time at the DEA was running out. More and more he resented the extended assignments away from this home he had come to love. Once he retired his badge, he was looking forward to doing a bit of farming and operating his own little fix-it shop from the garage out back. He’d stashed away a nice nest egg due to thrifty living and good investments and he was ready to start enjoying it.

“I’m used to being alone.”

Kate’s answer dragged him back from his thoughts before they headed to the foyer and upstairs. Rick wondered why a married woman would be used to being alone—before remembering Summers’ infamous infidelity. His exploits had been prime fodder for the town gossips since Rick’s move here four years ago.

Had Kate known about her husband’s cheating ways and merely turned her head? Rick couldn’t help but think not, for some reason. Yet, she didn’t seem to possess much self-assurance, if the way she carried herself was any indication. Perhaps she simply hadn’t had the confidence to confront Zack about his steady stream of girlfriends. Rick had encountered the arrogant, annoying lawyer several times and couldn’t picture someone as quiet as Kate married to such an asshole.

“Jill failed to tell me you were so pretty.” He wanted to draw her out of the protective shell she seemed to be encased in.

She snorted with disbelief. “I’m a sure thing, Rick. I need a place to stay—badly. You don’t have to butter me up.”

Rick was overcome by two emotions at once and they stopped him in his tracks. Her words “sure thing” sent all the blood surging to his surprisingly aroused cock. He certainly didn’t feel an attraction to the poor little mouse, did he?

However, the other emotion—anger—won out. “Don’t call me a liar, sweetheart. It’s the one thing you never want to do.”

Kate seemed taken aback by his harsh tone and she blushed. “I-I didn’t call you a liar.”

“You are very pretty.” He repeated the words, daring her to refute them again, yet unsure why he felt compelled to push her on the subject.

“No.” Her voice was showing its first real bit of strength and her back stiffened even more, inviting Rick’s cock to do the same. “I’m not. But thank you for the compliment.” Turning around, she started up the stairs without awaiting his invitation and Rick struggled to follow with his painful erection rasping against the zipper of his jeans. Nope, he thought, Kate definitely did not know about her husband’s cheating.

Once he caught up to her, he led her to the first room on the left. “This is the guest room where you’ll be staying.” As Rick opened the door, he watched Kate’s eyes widen.

“This is the guest room?”

Rick smiled at her awed response. He and Wes worked well into the night trying to make it enticing enough that Kate would agree to stay. When Jill called to suggest her sister as a house-sitter, they threw themselves into making the room presentable and inviting. Given her wide-eyed response, he would say they were successful.

“It’s lovely.” She stepped farther into the room, running her hand along his grandmother’s handmade quilt on the bed. Rick had opened the window earlier to air the room out and with the mid-morning sun shining through and a light breeze blowing in, he had to admit the room did look homey.

“A window seat.” She walked over and was going to sit on the light green cushion when she glanced out into the backyard. “Is that Wes?”

Moving behind her to look over her shoulder, Rick could see Wes hosing off the John Deere tractor. “Looks like he’s finished with the yard. He should be in soon.”

“Are you sure, um, I mean is he okay with the idea of a stranger staying in the house?” Kate was no doubt afraid she could still be denied.

“It was his idea, Kate,” he reassured her. “He’ll be thrilled to have someone here to look after Rex and the plants.”

Kate grinned. “Well, you don’t have to worry about a thing. I’ll take care of the house like it was my own, I promise. And, of course, R-Rex.”

Rick returned her smile, imagining Kate puttering around his house, walking the dog, cooking and cleaning, sitting on this seat to read a book, rocking on the porch swing in the evenings, sleeping in the room next to his.

The image of a naked Kate sleeping under a cotton sheet in the summer heat flashed through his mind. Christ, first thing he was going to do when he and Wes left town was find himself a willing woman. His libido was playing tricks on him. Kate Harper was definitely not his type. Women who attracted him did not blush or stammer and if Kate knew half the games he liked to play with his lovers, she would hop on Rex’s back and make a break for it.

“Come on,” he said, taking her hand, “let’s finish the tour and then you can join Wes and me for some lunch. Give Rex a chance to get to know you.”

At his words, he watched Kate struggle to stifle any qualms she had about meeting the dog and was impressed with her determination. “I can do this,” she mumbled in self-encouragement all the way down the stairs. Her ego may have taken a beating from her soon-to-be ex, but she was clearly a strong woman and Rick had a feeling she’d land on her feet in the long run. He also trusted she would take good care of his beloved farmhouse.

Smiling, he led her downstairs to the kitchen, pleased with the day’s events. If he felt a slight regret niggling at the back of his mind, he chalked it up to the fact he hated to leave Madison, not that he hated to leave this shy, intriguing young woman.

Chapter 2

Early June

Hey Kate!” Scott waved wildly from the tractor.

“Hiya Scott!” She smiled as the young boy turned the corner. She and Scott went way back since she and his mother belonged to the same book group, in addition to being colleagues. He clearly loved doing lawn work, although she was concerned about the speed at which he drove the John Deere tractor. She was sure Rick and Wes would have a fit if they knew, but she wasn’t about to tell on the sweet boy. Mainly because she was exceedingly glad not to have to mow acre after acre of land.

Kate kicked off her sandals at the front door and walked toward the kitchen with Rex literally dogging her heels. It had taken her only one short week to get over her fear of dogs. Well, actually just Rex, who in her opinion was more cat than dog anyway. The sweet mutt followed her everywhere and she found it hard to imagine staying at the farmhouse without him. Last night, he curled up at the foot of her bed and she was lulled to sleep by his deep, relaxed breathing. Any qualms she may have had about living out in the country alone were put to rest by Rex’s comforting, protective presence. He was a fierce guard dog and she suspected he could rip to shreds any bad guy who might come her way.

School was out for the summer. She survived yet another “last day” and was looking forward to long, lazy days in the sun with only herself to worry about. She started writing another story last night and ended up typing away on her laptop until nearly two a.m., when she finally forced herself to go to bed. Making up stories had been a salve to the wounds caused by her lonely marriage. When Zack abandoned her in the wee hours, supposedly working late, she would sit down and write out all the unfulfilled dreams buried deep in her heart.

Now as she struggled to come to grips with Zack’s departure, she found herself finding solace in her fictional world once again. Sighing heavily, she considered this mess she called a life. As much as it pained her to admit it, Zack’s infidelity hurt. She felt as though he’d dropkicked her heart all the way into the next state.

Walking by the mirror in the entryway, Kate paused to look at herself. For weeks after Zack’s exodus, she’d been unable to look at herself at all. Now as she studied her reflection, she saw that the years of depression and loneliness had taken their toll. She was carrying around at least twenty extra pounds. Her reddish-brown hair was so limp and lifeless she rarely did anything more than pull it back in a ponytail simply to keep it out of her face. Suppressing a shudder, she realized her outfit was one more suited to her mother’s taste than her own. “God,” she muttered. “I’m a mess.”

Unwilling to look at her reflection any longer, Kate went straight to the kitchen. Grabbing a beer out of the refrigerator, she headed back to Rick’s office. The cozy room with its dark wooden bookcases and plush leather chairs was her favorite in the house—after her bedroom. Her laptop was set up on his large oak desk and she crossed the room to turn it on. Waiting for the machine to boot up, she silently hoped for an email from Rick. He’d emailed her almost daily since he and Wes left and she hated to admit how much she looked forward to his brief, informative messages. They were mainly lists of things he forgot to mention to her in his hasty departure, but in the last couple he’d made small remarks about what he was doing and even asked her a couple questions about herself.

No sooner had she sat down than the phone started ringing.

“Hey Jill,” she answered after looking at the caller ID.

“Happy last day of school!” her sister sang out.

“Thanks,” Kate said with a laugh. “I was basically living for the arrival of this summer. One more day in that library and I thought I would spontaneously combust!”

“I know the last few months have been rough on you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m determined to close the chapter on Zack Summers and the last six years. It’s time for me to move on.”

“Amen to that, sister,” Jill joked. “You know, I’ve been doing some thinking Kate. I wonder if I was wrong to push you to do the house-sitting job. I mean, you’ve become a hermit these last few weeks and I hate to see you hiding out there in the country for an entire summer depressed all the time.”

“I’m not depressed, Jill,” Kate replied. “At least not much.”

“Zack doesn’t deserve a single, solitary minute of your thoughts, you know.”

“I know,” Kate agreed. “But I disagree with you about staying here at the farmhouse. This is the first time I’ve ever lived alone and I’m glad to have the time to think about where I went so wrong with my life.”

“Oh sweetie,” Jill said. “You got married so young. I wish Mama and I had tried to talk you into waiting a bit longer. Zack was your first serious boyfriend and he swept you off your feet. Problem is, you grew up and he didn’t.”

Kate laughed at Jill’s astute observation. “That’s an understatement,” Kate added. “The idiot still swaggers around town like the high school quarterback, hanging out with his equally immature friends. God. How could I have been such a fool for him? I’ve come to the conclusion marrying him was the single biggest mistake of my life.” Unfortunately, Kate thought to herself, she allowed herself to be carried along with the current of that mistake rather than turning the wheel and changing the course she’d sailed for six long years.

“Mistake or not, you need to get past it, Kate. Get out there and live a little. It’s not healthy the way you hide yourself away from the world,” Jill argued. “You aren’t the first young girl to be taken in by the attentions of a charming, handsome man and you won’t be the last. Zack Summers may have been the first man to really notice you, but Kate, he will not be the last. Trust me.”

“I know all that, Jill. I’m just not ready to show my face in town yet. Give me some more time.”

“How much more time?” Jill was tenacious and clearly not backing down from her argument.

“I don’t know how much more. Why are you pushing me on this?”

“Because I care about you,” her sister retorted.

“Right, you cared so much you didn’t bother to tell me about my husband screwing the hairdresser from hell.”

“What?” Jill asked, obviously shocked by the vehemence in Kate’s voice. Kate never raised her voice to Jill. She hated confrontation of any kind.

“Jill, you are Gossip Central in Madison. Do you honestly expect me to believe you didn’t know about Zack and his girlfriend?”

“Yes.” Jill’s voice was laced with fury. “I do expect that. I’m your sister, Kate, and if I had known for one second what that lying, cheating bastard was doing, I would have run over him with my truck!”

Kate sank down on the chair behind her at Jill’s words. For months, she’d worried Jill had kept Zack’s infidelity a secret along with the rest of the town. Finding out her worry was unfounded relieved her more that she could say.

Guilt over her accusation consumed her. “Oh Jill, I’m sorry. I was so afraid that you—” The rest of her words lodged in the lump in her throat.

“Never, Kate.” Jill’s voice was calmer though still hurt. “I would never do that to you.”

Tears began to flow as Kate tried to explain her cruel suspicions. “God, I’m such a wreck, Jill. I don’t know who to trust anymore.”

“I know that, Angel May.” Jill still called Kate by her childhood nickname and Kate found solace in the playful name. “Don’t think about it another minute. Just believe me when I say I will never lie to you.”

“I do,” Kate hiccupped. “Honestly, I do.”

“So take your time. Get your act together and if you need a shoulder to cry on, you better call me.”

“You’re on speed dial.” Kate was filled with relief mixed with the lingering sadness that never seemed to completely leave her.

“Good. I love you, Kate.”

“Love you too, Jilly.”

As she hung up the phone, Kate grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. For months she’d avoided Jill’s attempts to help her, so afraid her sister had known about Zack and kept the secret. Knowing her sister hadn’t betrayed her lifted a burden from her shoulders Kate hadn’t realized she was carrying and before she knew it, she was smiling. Perhaps she wasn’t as alone as she feared.

She knew Jill was worried about her, but for the most part Kate was relieved the marriage was over. She didn’t have to worry about dealing with Zack anymore—not that she ever had to deal with him much, given his long work hours and the time he spent hanging out with his friends.

“Long hours,” she mumbled. “Yeah, right.” The one thing Kate had truly not anticipated was Zack’s cheating, although God only knew why she hadn’t. She supposed it was because she was a trusting soul and when Zack said he was going golfing or hanging out at a friend’s house to watch the football game, she believed him—and deep inside, she was secretly glad not to have him at home.

Glancing at the desk, Kate saw the computer blinking at her and demanding a log-in. Leaning forward, she typed in her username and password. She started to open up the story she’d begun writing the previous evening, but decided to check her email first. Once she started writing, it would be hours before she came up for air. When her marriage started to go to hell, Kate had turned to writing stories to escape the misery of her real life and in a lot of ways it had helped. Jill was the only person who knew about her obsessive writing and her sister often accused her of using the hobby to hide from reality. Maybe there was some truth to that. But sometimes it felt more like therapy. There were a million feelings and ideas bottled up inside her and putting them out on the page relieved some of the intense pressure building up in her so she could make it through another day.

Now here she was, six years later, a bit smarter, a bit stronger and living alone in someone else’s house because she didn’t have two pennies to rub together. All of her paychecks, plus her secret book royalties, were going toward paying for her divorce, in addition to making the outrageous monthly payment on the damned empty mansion Zack saddled her with before disappearing to God only knew where. She couldn’t even live in the place because there wasn’t a stick of furniture left in it. If she could manage to sell it before it sank her, maybe she could scrape together enough money for a down payment on a small house after the divorce was final.

Of course, all of those points were moot until Zack the Rat slinked back into town with his mall-hair tramp of a girlfriend.

She watched as Rick’s name appeared in her inbox and felt instantly better. Anytime she was overwhelmed or depressed, she created a new sexual fantasy starring her own personal Clooney clone. The super-hot daydreams never failed to cheer her up.

Excitedly, she clicked on his message. She knew it was completely irrational to lust over a man who was so far out of her league, but heck, it was a free world and if there was one thing Kate had an abundance of, it was imagination. Since first laying eyes on Rick McAllister, her dream world had gotten hotter and hotter.

Kate,

The key to the back shed is in the kitchen drawer under the phone. You’ll find the garden tools in there. Should have told you that, but as I said, you don’t have to do any yard work. Guess you are celebrating the end of the school year. It’s damn hot and miserable here, but we’re getting ready to make a move tonight. You probably won’t hear from me for a while. I’ll check in when I can, but I won’t be writing every day any more. Is that motion light in the back working or not? If not, call Seth and have him come out and fix it. Have a good summer.

Take care,

Rick

Kate smiled at the message. So much for a spicy love note. Rick, oblivious to her growing crush, was the master of no-nonsense. She’d asked about the garden tools thinking it would be nice to plant a vegetable garden, and the motion light was becoming an obsession for Rick. She merely mentioned to him a few emails ago that she was amazed how dark it got at night and how she had a hard time seeing Rex when he went out for his nightly constitutional. Rick had a fit that the motion light wasn’t working. Now every message contained some comment about the damned thing and she was sorry she’d mentioned it at all.

Fact was she preferred to leave it broken. Her experience with the annoying things was that they came on if the wind blew a leaf across their path or a stray cat roamed into the yard. When the light flashed on, it scared the hell out of her and she spent half the night listening to every creak and groan, letting her overactive imagination run away from her. Zack actually got her one for Christmas one year, claiming he knew how much she hated being alone in the house at night when he worked late. Now there was an award-winning Christmas gift. A motion light. Is it any wonder her marriage failed? “Dumbass,” she muttered. As far as she was concerned, if someone was sneaking into the house to kill her, she’d just as soon be surprised.

She was strangely upset by the thought of Rick not emailing anymore and she didn’t like the idea of him doing such a dangerous job. She felt as if she’d come to know him in the past month by living in his house and talking back and forth through emails. He even called once, although the connection had been so bad they hadn’t had the chance to say more than a few words.

Hitting reply, she hoped he’d get her message before moving on.

Rick,

Don’t worry about the light. I’ll take care of it. Hopefully you’ll be back in time to eat some of the veggies I’m planting. I’m looking forward to weeks and weeks of complete idleness. Aren’t I lazy? Actually, I’ve vowed to do a bit of housecleaning as well. Do you mind if I touch up a few rough patches with paint? I’m taking a long weekend with Jill at the beach, but don’t worry about Rex. We got a hotel that allows pets. Figure he’ll love chasing the waves. Please be careful. Say hey to Wes.

Kate

Leaning back in the office chair, Kate sighed and made a decision. This was going to be the Summer of Kate. This was her time and she was bound and determined to make good use of it. “Call me Sandra Dee,” she said to Rex, recalling Olivia Newton John’s makeover in Grease. “A whole new me,” she vowed with a smile. “And who knows? Maybe by the time Rick comes back, I will be in his league. Stranger things have happened,” she added with a giggle. She hit send before silently toasting herself and taking a long sip of her cold beer.

Chapter 3

Late August

Rick dragged himself into the dreary motel room he’d been calling home off and on for the last two months. They had a break in the case late yesterday and he and Wes managed to squeak in a couple days off. Even though they couldn’t go home, they could relax for a bit.

Logging on to his laptop, he immediately checked his email. He knew it was silly to look forward to Kate’s little messages, but he found himself impatient to hear from her since she was his one connection to Madison, a place he now considered home. He and Wes had been Madisonites for four years and given the smallness of the town and the fact everyone in it seemed to operate as one big, happy, dysfunctional family, he felt as though he’d lived there forever.

It was too dangerous to call right now, so he was forced to limit his communication to the computer. He grinned like a fool when her name appeared on the screen.

Rick,

Back from the beach. Got a major sunburn. Rex had the time of his life. My tomato plants and green beans are producing more than I can eat. I’ve joined a gym with Jill and have lost eight pounds! We’re going shopping next weekend to celebrate. Zack the Rat slithered back into town with his slutfriend, Soozan. God, who spells Susan like that? What a dimwit! Guess what? The hated house sold! I’m not a pauper anymore and can actually afford my own place once you return. School starts back next week, so no more laziness for me. Be careful. Say hey to Wes for me.

Kate

Rick fought back a grin at her words. He knew for a fact Kate was the furthest thing from lazy you could find. She’d begun to do little odd repairs and renovations within the house. Rick and Wes had spent much of their four years fixing up the outside of the house, the numerous outbuildings and the massive yard. Neither one of them had the inclination or the desire to actually attempt to decorate the place. Mercifully, Kate took pity on them. Originally Rick sent her some money to fix up the dining room after she’d made some suggestions of things she wanted to do—stripping the old wallpaper, painting, recovering the chairs, as well as purchasing new curtains and a rug. Once he saw pictures of the finished room, he sent more cash and encouraged her to have a go at the living room as well.

Looking back, he couldn’t believe there was a time when he thought having Kate stay in the house was a mistake. He also couldn’t help but notice the Kate from these recent emails seemed different from the shy woman he’d met in May. He was pleased to see her emerging from her shell a bit. In each of her emails he sensed she was gaining some much-needed confidence. On top of that, the woman had a wicked sense of humor.

His musings were interrupted by Wes stumbling into the room, his arms full of boxes of Chinese takeout. “Damn, I’m sick of eating this crap.” He unloaded the food on the table. “I’d kill for some of the food Kate is growing at the house. Nothing like a tomato fresh from the vine.” Wes looked over and noticed the open laptop. “Get an email from Kate?”

Wes was also growing fond of Kate’s correspondence.

“Yeah,” Rick answered. “She says hey.”

Wes laughed at the comment—a standard in every email. “How’s Rex?”

“Great. Apparently he loved the beach.”

“Shit,” Wes muttered. “My dog’s having a better summer than I am. What else did she say?”

“Zack the Rat’s back in town with Soozan and Kate managed to sell the house.”

“Good for her!” Wes cheered. “Jill said the jerk was going to end up putting her in the poor house if he didn’t come back soon and face up to his responsibilities. You wouldn’t believe what the monthly payment on that monstrosity he called a house was.”

“I knew he’d come back. Man seems to think he’s the God of Madison.”

“Yeah well, like the King of Pop, I think that title is self-proclaimed.” Wes changed the subject while unloading the food. “The fair ladies of Madison will be happy to have the hairdresser from hell back.”

Rick chuckled at Wes’s use of Kate’s nickname for Soozan. “Yep, Farrah Fawcett do’s for the young ladies and beehives for the older set. We better make sure to get laid before we head home.”

Rather than laugh at his comment, Wes shook his head. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I’ve kinda got my eye on one of those girls back home.”

“You’re kidding.” Rick studied Wes’s face and was surprised to see that his friend was not. “Who?”

“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” Wes answered enigmatically.

Rick sat silent for a few moments, trying to think of a woman in Madison who could actually catch the discerning eye of his best friend. In twenty years of friendship, Rick could count on one hand the number of times Wes claimed a serious interest in a woman and even with that, he had several fingers left over. Most of the time, Wes was the sought-after party and all he had to decide was if he felt like getting caught for a little while.

Aware Wes wouldn’t say another word about the subject, Rick pointed back to the computer. “It sounds like Kate’s getting back on her feet. She’s lost weight too.”

Wes frowned. “She didn’t need to lose weight.”

“How the hell could you tell that?” Rick asked. “Only time we saw her, she was covered from head to toe in that huge t-shirt and baggy jeans.”

Wes shrugged. “I don’t like thin women. You know that. More cushion for pushin’, I say.”

Rick found himself uncharacteristically angry at Wes’s chauvinistic comment and had a sudden uneasy feeling the woman Wes was pining over was Kate.

Shaking himself, Rick knew it was irrational to be livid at the thought of Wes thinking about Kate in any way even remotely sexual, yet he was. Wes never seriously committed to any woman and he was uncomfortable with the idea of Wes possibly using and then hurting Kate just as she was getting back on track. Somewhere in the midst of all her emails, Rick had begun to think of Kate as someone he could become friends with. Maybe even more than friends.

He’d noticed over the past couple months Wes seemed to share a bit of Rick’s fascination with their house-sitter. Not that it mattered much. Neither one of them could do a damn thing about their interest in timid Kate, no matter how unlikely that attraction seemed. First of all, Kate was still basically a stranger—a married stranger—despite their long-distance correspondence. Secondly, she was definitely not the type of woman either one of them had ever given a second glance in the past. Rick couldn’t imagine Kate trying anything more adventurous in bed than the missionary position, let alone bondage or a sexy spanking. Finally, there didn’t seem to be an end in sight to this investigation and it could be winter before they made it back to Madison. At which point, Kate would move out and on with her life.

Rick wished that thought didn’t leave him feeling so strangely empty.

Wes interrupted his musing. “Look what I found at the convenience store across the street.” In his hands was the latest erotic thriller by Kay Knight. He and Wes discovered the author’s books a couple years earlier and had read every single one of them.

“Hot damn,” Rick said, relieved to have something other than the case and Kate to occupy his mind. “Hand it over.”

“Nope,” Wes replied. “I bought it so I get first dibs.”

“You take forever to read a book.”

“That’s bullshit,” Wes joked. “I simply prefer to savor the story. Unlike you, I don’t gobble it up in one sitting.”

“Which is why you should let me read it first. I’ll have the thing knocked out by morning.” Rick couldn’t help but wonder about his favorite author, the mysterious Ms. Knight. There was never a picture of her in the back of the books or even a biography. He tried to do a search for her once on the web, but apparently Kay Knight, a pen name, preferred her anonymity—and Rick could understand why. No doubt if her identity was ever revealed she’d have horny men lined up around the block to her house. Her bedroom scenes were some of the hottest he’d ever read.

“Fine.” Wes gave in so easily Rick knew he’d never intended to read the thing first anyway. “I need to do a bit of research on the Internet tonight and there’s no point in trying to read it when I know you’ll be hovering over me every minute telling me to hurry up.”

Wes tossed the book to Rick, who grabbed chopsticks and a carton of Kung Pao shrimp and settled in for a good, long read.

Only problem was, thanks to Wes and his damned comments about Kate’s attractive figure, he found himself picturing himself as the passionate master and his innocent house-sitter as the willing submissive…

* * * *

He walked into the house and Kate was waiting for him in a sheer nightgown that left very little to the imagination.

“Get down on your knees,” Rick demanded.

“Yes Master,” Kate answered, quickly kneeling before him, her head bowed.

Rick could sense her excitement in the soft tone of her lilting voice and see her desire as her luscious nipples became instantly hard beneath the flowing material.

“What do you want, Kate?”

“I want to suck your cock, Master. Please.”

“Then do it.”

Kate reached up to relieve him of his jeans, but Rick grabbed her wrists. “Oh no, my sweet slave. No hands this time. Put them behind your back and clasp your fingers.”

Kate looked up at him, her light blue eyes sparkling with desire as she followed his command. Slowly, she leaned forward and grasped the zipper of his jeans with her teeth. As she tugged it down, Rick took a steadying breath in an attempt to calm the racing of his heart at the image of her working to free him from the tight denim.

It took several minutes and plenty of frustrated curses before Kate was able to work the top button free. Rick, unable to prolong her torture—and ultimately his as well—grasped the waistband and pushed his jeans and boxers down together.

“Yes,” Kate hissed, leaning forward and greedily engulfing his length in one quick movement.

Lightly gripping her head, Rick guided Kate back and forth on his rock-hard cock, directing the speed and the depth at which she took him.

“Deeper, angel,” he whispered, suddenly desperate to feel the back of her throat. In only a few quick, hard thrusts, he was fighting back the impulse to climax. Too quick. The thought was soon washed away by the feeling of Kate’s tongue teasing the sensitive skin just below the head of his cock.

“Oh yeah, baby,” he cried. “Just like that.” Unable to hold back any longer, Rick gave up the battle and spilled into her mouth. Kate swallowed every drop as he struggled to remain upright, the aftershocks of the most incredible blowjob of his life rumbling through his body.

* * * *

Repressing a shudder, Rick opened his eyes, startled to find himself in the hotel room. A quick glance across the room confirmed Wes was hard at work on the laptop and didn’t notice his rampant erection tenting the sheets.

What the hell was that about?

Tossing the book aside, he grabbed up his laptop and hit reply.

Kate,

Beach trip sounds like fun. Wish I’d been there. Wish I’d been anywhere but this godforsaken place. Been doing stakeouts for two weeks straight and still don’t have any solid leads. Feels like I’ve been away a lifetime and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Sometimes I wonder why I do this damned job.

Ah hell, ignore me. I’m eating Chinese takeout for the fourth night in a row and watching Wes scratch his balls. It’s making me cranky. Have a great year at school and take it easy on the weight loss. You look just fine the way you are. Give Rex one of his favorite treats for me.

Rick

~

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