Shira Anthony takes us on a journey
Thursday, September 20th, 2012


I’ve been a romance reader for as long as I can remember.  I devoured hundreds of Harlequin romances in high school before branching out to look for something with a bit more depth in college.  That’s when I discovered Marion Zimmer Bradley’s sci fi/fantasy series, Darkover, and later Anne Rice’s amazing vampires, witches, and other supernatural beings, all with a romantic bent to them that I gobbled up.  And for all the years I’ve been reading, I’ve also been writing.  Only until five years ago, I’d never finished any of the stories I wrote!

My first book was a hetero erotic novella, “From the Depths.”  I wrote it more as a challenge to myself to see if I could write explicit sex scenes.  Yep.  I could.  And I found that I really loved writing them!  My second book was a gay romance and fantasy story that had been running around in my brain for months—a love story between a genie and a prince, “The Dream of a Thousand Nights.”  I hadn’t considered publishing either, really.  On a lark, I sent “Dream” to Dreamspinner Press.  I still remember my husband saying, “Don’t feel too bad if you get a rejection letter.”  I also remember how my jaw dropped when I saw the email from Elizabeth North that said, “Contract” on it!

I loved writing both “From the Depths” and “Dreams.”  But, as with my writing, I realized I wanted something more than just fantasy escapism to write about.  Don’t get me wrong—I still adore fantasy and fluffy/angsty stories like “Dream.”  I just wanted to explore what it was about romance that I loved so much.  And I decided I preferred doing that writing gay romance. That’s where the Blue Notes Series of novels comes in.


“Blue Notes
” (Blue Notes #1) and “The Melody Thief” (Blue Notes #2), like my book the similarities end.  The Blue Notes Series is about relationships.  Real relationships.  Sure, there’s romantic fun in the novels, as well, but at their heart the novels are about making relationships work and how relationship (good and bad) can help people grow and change.

“Blue Notes” is the story of violinist Jules Bardon and lawyer Jason Greene.  It’s set in Paris, my favorite city, and draws upon my own experiences living in France as a teenager.   Jason runs away from everything that’s supposed to be right in his life—a beautiful fiancé, a high-paying job—because he realizes that everything is really wrong.  He wants more, and he needs to come to terms with things in his life he’s avoided:  his sexuality, his relationship with his fiancé, his work.  Through Jules’s eyes, Jason begins to see himself differently. 

“The Melody Thief” is the story of world-renowned classical cellist Cary Redding.  Cary lives a dual life:  he plays with the best orchestras and is sought after by the best conductors, but he’s also addicted to anonymous sex and spends his free nights cruising the gay bars.  Cary’s two worlds collide when he is mugged on a deserted Milan street and rescued by lawyer Antonio Bianchi.  Antonio and his young son steal Cary’s heart, and Cary’s life is forever changed.

The same themes—classical music and personal growth—are also the hallmark of the upcoming Blue Notes novels, “Aria” (Blue Notes #3) and “Prelude” (Blue Notes #4), set for publication in December, 2012 and April, 2012, respectively.  And with each book, I too have grown as a writer, demanding more of myself and my characters, and exploring aspects of love and relationships through my writing.  I hope you’ll join me on my continuing journey!  -Shira

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In her last incarnation, Shira Anthony was a professional opera singer, performing roles in such operas as ToscaPagliacci, and La Traviata, among others. She’s given up TV for evenings spent with her laptop, and she never goes anywhere without a pile of unread M/M romance on her Kindle. 

Shira is married with two children and two insane dogs, and when she’s not writing, she is usually in a courtroom trying to make the world safer for children.  When she’s not working, she can be found aboard a 30’ catamaran at the Carolina coast with her favorite sexy captain at the wheel.

 Shira can be found on Facebook, Goodreads, or on her web site, http://www.shiraanthony.com. You can also contact her at shiraanthony@hotmail.com.

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Excerpt:  The Melody Thief (Blue Notes, #2), now available on Dreamspinner Press, Amazon and AllRomanceEbooks

Blurb:  A Blue Notes Novel  (Note:  Each Blue Notes Series novel is an independent story, set in the same classical music universe.  Books can be read in any order.)

Cary Redding is a walking contradiction. On the surface he’s a renowned cellist, sought after by conductors the world over. Underneath, he’s a troubled man flirting with addictions to alcohol and anonymous sex. The reason for the discord? Cary knows he’s a liar, a cheat. He’s the melody thief.

Cary manages his double life just fine until he gets mugged on a deserted Milan street. Things look grim until handsome lawyer Antonio Bianchi steps in and saves his life. When Antonio offers something foreign to Cary—romance—Cary doesn’t know what to do. But then things get even more complicated. For one thing, Antonio has a six-year-old son. For another, Cary has to confess about his alter ego and hope Antonio forgives him.

Just when Cary thinks he’s figured it all out, past and present collide and he is forced to choose between the family he wanted as a boy and the one he has come to love as a man.

18+ Excerpt

Chapter One: The Melody Thief

Tulsa, Oklahoma

He screwed up his face, trying to ignore the bright lights at the edge of the stage, which burned his eyes and left multicolored imprints on his retinas. Cary Redding was barely fifteen years old, but he sat straight-backed, schooling his expression to reveal only calm resolve. Unlike some of the well-known performers he had watched on video, he did not move his body in time to the music, nor did he bend and sway. The cello became a physical extension of his body, and he had no need to move anything more than his fingers on the fingerboard and his bow over the strings.

When he played, he was transported to a place where it didn’t matter that his face had begun to break out or that he seemed to grow out of his shoes every other month. When he played, he forgot his fear that he was different—that he was far more interested in Jerry Gabriel than in Jerry’s sister Martha. When he played, he felt the kind of warmth he had horsing around with his brother in the backyard, chasing after a football.

For the past three years, he had studied the Elgar Cello Concerto, a soulful, intensely passionate composition, and one he adored. His cello teacher had explained that it had been composed at the end of World War I, and the music reflected the composer’s grief and disillusionment. At the time, Cary hadn’t been really sure what that meant, but he felt the music deep within his soul, in a place he hid from everyone. In that music, he could express what he could not express any other way, and somehow nobody ever seemed to understand that although the music was Elgar’s, the sadness and the melancholy were his own.

At times he was terrified the audience would discover his secret: that he was unworthy of the music. But then his fingers would follow their well-worn path across the fingerboard, and his bow would move of its own accord. The music would rise and fall and engulf him entirely, and the audience would be on their feet to acknowledge the gangly, awkward teenager who had just moved them to tears.

Tonight was no exception. The Tulsa Performing Arts Center was packed with pillars of the community come to hear the young soloist The Chicago Sun-Times had proclaimed “one of the brightest new talents in classical music.” Cries of “bravo” punctuated the applause, and a shy little girl in a white dress with white tights and white shoes climbed the steps to the stage with her mother’s encouragement and handed him a single red rose.

He stood with his cello at his side and bowed as he had been taught not long after he learned to walk. The accompanist bowed as well, smiling at him with the same awed expression he had seen from pianists and conductors alike.

In that moment, he felt like a thief. A liar. The worst kind of cheat.

“Young man,” the woman in the red cocktail dress with the double strand of pearls said as she laid her hand on his shoulder, “you are truly a wonder. You must come back soon and play for us again.”

He knew how to respond; he’d been taught this, as well. “Thank you, ma’am.” His voice cracked, as it had on and off for the past six months. His face burned. He was embarrassed he could not control this as well as he could his performance.

“He’s booked through the next year,” his mother told the woman, “but if there’s an opening, we’ll be sure to let you know.” She would find an opening, no doubt, even if it meant sacrificing his one free weekend at home. His mother never passed up a chance to promote his career.

Back in the green room, his mother looked on as he wiped down the fingerboard of his instrument and gently replaced it in its fiberglass case, then carefully secured his bow in the lid. He’d barely looked at his mother since they’d left the small crowd of well-wishers who had gathered in the wings. He didn’t need to see her face to know she was displeased. He didn’t really want to know what he’d done wrong this time, so he started to hum a melody from a Mozart sonata he’d been studying. Humming helped take his mind off his guilt at letting her down again.

“You rushed through the pizzicato in the last movement,” she said. “We’ve been over that section so many times, Cary Taylor Redding. You let your mind wander again.”

He tried not to cringe; she only used his full name when she was very disappointed in him. “I’m sorry.” His voice cracked again, and he inwardly winced. He didn’t have to fight back the tears anymore. He’d stopped crying years ago.

“We’ll just have to practice it some more.”

He’d also long since stopped asking her why she always said “we” would practice something when he was the one doing the practicing. The one and only time he had pressed the issue, she had responded with a look of long-suffering patience. For days after, the guilt had pierced his gut and roiled around inside until he had apologized for several days running.

“Hurry up now,” she told him. “We have a long drive back home.”

“Did Justin call?” he asked with a hopeful expression.

“Why would your brother call?”

“He said he’d let me know if his team won tonight.” He pulled on his thick winter jacket, grabbed the handle of the cello case, and dragged it across the floor on its roller-skate wheels.

“He can tell you all about it tomorrow.”

He fell asleep in the front seat of the minivan as they headed back to Missouri. He did not dream, or at least, he didn’t remember what he had dreamed about. He never did.

Chapter Two: Best Laid Plans

Milan, Italy—Thirteen years later

“Oh fuck, yeah!” Cary shouted in English as he pushed back against the other man’s hips. The skinny Italian kid he’d picked up grunted and thrust harder, ratcheting up the pace, so Cary gripped the toilet to keep his balance. Sweat dripped down his neck. He never enjoyed kissing. He didn’t need it. He liked it like this: rough, fast, and anonymous.

Someone in the next stall laughed, but Cary didn’t give a shit. This was how it was supposed to be in a place like this, and someone else listening in only made it so much hotter. Here, he was just another nameless fuck, and that suited him just fine.

“That’s it. Oh God, yes!” he cried as the kid nailed his gland again. He stroked himself in rhythm with the young man’s thrusts, groaning as he came with a strangled gasp into his sweaty palm. The smell of come mingled with the faint scent of urine and toilet deodorizer. Years ago, the combination made him sick. Now, the seediness of it just made it more of a turn-on.

His partner grunted as he came hard, his body shuddering and his breaths coming in stutters. A minute later, the kid pulled out. Cary saw the used condom hit the water of the commode, and heard the sounds of a zipper and the latch being released on the stall door. He had already forgotten the kid’s face. It was better this way. He didn’t want anything but sex anyhow, and he didn’t want to be forced to make small talk. In Italian, no less.

He leaned against the grimy wall and wiped himself with the cheap toilet paper, then added it to the condom in the water and flushed it down. His stomach rumbled—a few more drinks and he wouldn’t remember he was hungry. He’d reheat something when he got back, or maybe he’d just sleep it off and grab something in the morning instead. It was usually better to nurse a hangover with an empty stomach. He knew from experience.

He walked back into the bar and sat at a table in the corner, making eye contact with the bartender. A minute or two later, he nursed a scotch and soda, his fourth that night, and leaned over to the man at the next table.

Sigaretta?” Cary asked.

The man grunted and handed him a cigarette, then lit it for Cary as they leaned toward each other to span the short gap between tables.

Cary hated cigarettes. He only smoked in bars, and only after sex. At least that was what he told himself. He preferred the unfiltered variety—it gave him a more immediate buzz. They were easier to find here than in the States.

His hand shook slightly as he brought the cigarette to his lips and inhaled the acrid smoke. It was better than the drugs, right? He’d tried those too, but he’d given them up because they interfered with his playing. He could always sleep off the booze and the nicotine.

One of the regulars walked through the entrance, and their eyes met. Silvio. Nice ass. Terrific bottom.

It was turning out to be a great night.

At nearly three in the morning, Cary stumbled out onto the empty Milan side street. His ass was sore and his thigh muscles were tight. He liked it that way. He needed to feel it in his bones the next morning or he hadn’t gotten enough.

A light fog hung over the city, the fall air cool and damp. Cary shivered, his thin T-shirt little help against the chilly breeze. His housekeeper was right—curse Roberta, she was always right—he should have worn his leather jacket. He looked around for a cab, but there were none in sight. He’d walk over to the main avenue, via Padova, to catch one.

Fuck, he thought, tripping over the uneven pavement as he turned the corner onto another small street. He didn’t notice the two men huddled in the doorway of a darkened building until one of them grabbed him by the neck. He caught the glint of a knife in his peripheral vision. Fucking hell.

Soldi,” hissed one of the thugs, the one standing in front of him smoking the remainder of a joint.

“I don’t understand,” Cary said in English. It was a lie. He was fluent in Italian. “I’m American.”

“Money,” the man repeated, in English this time. “Give.”

“Don’t have any.” He didn’t pull his wallet out and hand it over. Maybe it was the aftereffects of the alcohol. Or maybe it was the rough sex and the feeling of empowerment that still lingered at his frayed edges. Either way, he wasn’t going to let these assholes push him around.

The man’s response came in the form of a knee to his gut. Cary doubled over, coughing and spluttering. Shit. Was that blood he tasted on his tongue?

“Money. Now.”

“You’re fucking insistent, aren’t you?” he blustered. The man behind him wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him upright once more, pressing hard on his Adam’s apple and making his vision swim with tiny specks of silver.

The man standing in front of him nodded. A hand reached into Cary’s jeans pocket, pulled out the soft calfskin wallet, and held it up to the light. “Expensive,” he told his partner in Italian.

“You come with us.” The other thug’s expression was one of triumphant glee. He pulled Cary’s ATM card out of the wallet and waved it in his face. “Bank.”

“No fucking way,” Cary shouted. He wrenched himself free of the headlock and backed toward the curb.

The lights of via Padova were visible a scant block away. If he could just make it there, he might be able to get help or maybe scare them off. He turned to run, but something hard hit him in the kidneys, and he fell to his knees. He struggled back to his feet.

Before he could defend himself, one of the thugs’ fists connected with his chin, and he staggered backward. He tried to maintain his balance but failed miserably. He hit the concrete hands first, and something in his left wrist snapped. He vomited up what little food was left in his stomach as a wave of intense pain washed over him.

“Asshole,” he spat.

“Get away from him,” someone warned in Italian. The voice came from nearby, but the pain in Cary’s gut was still so bad he couldn’t look up at the newcomer’s face. He heard what sounded like a scuffle, a groan, and then footsteps running down the pavement.

“Are you all right?”

He pushed the hand on his shoulder away without thinking. The world spun and the pain in his wrist shot up his arm. “Oh shit,” he groaned, clutching the wrist.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” the man said, this time in lightly accented English. “You need help.” The voice was calm, reassuring. “You need a hospital.”

“No hospital,” Cary gasped and tried to stay alert. “Leave me alone.”

He got back to his feet, and the lights from the boulevard blurred at the edges. The last thing he remembered before he passed out was two strong arms as they caught him.

Yasmin Sabha
Wednesday, September 19th, 2012
Have you searched for THE SOUL WITHIN?
Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

The Soul Within
by Nancy Adams

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Got Nancy “Under My Hat” today with a hot new book.
BLURB:

Alex’s body is in a coma. His soul, however, is not. Desperate to become whole, he must first convince stubborn beauty Evening Sinclair that he is not dead.

For generations, the Sinclairs have been healers. Using a gentle touch to heal the body and a soothing word to heal the soul, Evening Sinclair is no different. Yet despite her secret abilities, Eve has a somewhat normal existence. She enjoys her small physiotherapy practice, dotes on her eight-year-old daughter and occasionally helps souls get back into their bodies-that is until Alex, with his brooding good looks and glowing eyes, appears in her kitchen.

Alex is desperate to get back into his body-two innocent lives depend on it. His only obstacle is Eve and her stubborn fear. Unfortunately for Eve, Alex is ruthless and just as stubborn. He will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. He will not ‘go away’ and no matter how much Eve tortures him with her lush body and perfect mouth, he will not change his mind. Eve will merge him, and if it takes him haunting her day and night, she will merge him back with a body-any body.

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EXCERPT  
 “I can feel you touch me.” Alex raised his head, a half smile on his face.

Her eyes met his. “You do?”

He nodded. “Again.”

This time, she started at his shoulders and ran her hands down the entire length of his arms to his hands, where she made an attempt to clasp them in her own.

 “How are you doing this?”

 “I don’t know? How can you feel me?”

He chuckled. “I don’t know?”

Staring down at their hands she asked. “What do you feel?”

 “It’s like when your foot falls asleep and you get that ‘pins and needles’ sensation, mixed with a warm tingling.”

Eve met Alex’s stare. “You’re really not dead.”

He studied her intently. “Is that why you won’t help me, because you think I’m dead?”

Embarrassed, she turned away. “I thought you might be and that you were having trouble…moving on.”

“Moving on?” he repeated. She heard him exhale in a huff but didn’t want to face him yet. “Eve?” He used her name to get her attention but she didn’t budge. “Evening.” This time her name was said with more force.

Her cheeks were warm when she faced him. She expected him to be annoyed but he only showed concern. “Do you see the dead too?”

 “No. Never, just medians. My mother did, I thought maybe it had started for me too. It was the only explanation I could come up with as to why you were still hanging around me.” Her throat felt like it was beginning to close up with the thought of it, but she asked him anyway. “Have you seen…them…out there?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

AUTHOR Bio and Links:

Nancy’s addiction for a good trash novel began in her late-teens when her grandmother gave her a bag of Harlequin Romance books. She was hooked and spent the next few years lurking in the dark corners of used bookstores searching for her next fix. Until, one marriage and two kids later, her own ideas had her jumping up at 3 am (much to her husband’s annoyance) and typing them into her laptop. Beside her husband and children, Nancy has three passions, rearranging furniture, buying bed linens and, of course, writing. Nancy lives in Eastern Ontario with her family and two over sized lap dogs. 

Website, blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc

Email address:  Fancy-nancy@hotmail.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/#!/NancyAdams.scribblingseduction

Website: to come – will let you know if it is up and running before tours start

And it’s only 99 cents!
Monday, September 17th, 2012

He’s discovered that his boss, international businessman Charles Bennett, is actually dealing in drugs and illegal arms. Killers are on his trail and Tate Buchanan needs a place to hide and use his hacking skills to get the evidence he needs. He finds it in tiny Connelly, Texas, where he also finds hotter than hot Casey McIntyre. After six years with the F.B.I. and four years in Afghanistan marked by a disastrous love affair, Casey is trying to put both her life and her shattered heart back together. Her instincts tell her that the stranger in the family restaurant has trouble on his back but her common sense tells her to stay as far away from him as possible. Of course, common sense never paid attention to combustible chemistry and it’s not long before Casey and T.J. (as he now calls himself) are spending every minute together day and night. Can he find the proof he needs before the killers track him down? And when they do, can Casey use all her skills to protect him and keep him safe?

A man-in-jeopardy story for a change, where a kickass woman uses all her skills to protect the man she’s come to love.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

Casey McIntyre fired the last three bullets in her Glock 17G thirteen-round clip, hitting dead in the middle. No center mass for her. All her shots went straight to the head of the silhouette with one hundred percent accuracy. She nodded her head in satisfaction.

Since she’d left the service and come home, she started most of her days the same way. She tried to tell herself it was to keep her skills sharp but in reality, anger drove her. She still had so much of it stored up inside her, along with a world of hurt.

She trudged to the backstop, nailed up another target and took a black Magic Marker from her jeans pocket. In big letters she wrote a P and an M on the head, making them as bold as possible. At the shooting table again, she reloaded her Glock and checked to verify her H&K P30 had a full clip. The two guns were her personal weapons, much like the ones she’d been issued when she’d been attached to the Special Ops unit in Afghanistan.

She adjusted her ball cap, yanking at the ponytail poking out through the opening in back. Putting on her ear protectors and safety glasses, she picked up the Glock and sighted.

Bam!

Again the first shot drilled a hole in the center of the head.

Die, Paul Marsden. You asshole. Rat bastard. User.

The next three shots, in rapid succession, stitched a straight line down the torso. With defiant satisfaction, she emptied the rest of the clip into the genital area, blowing a nice round hole in his package. The act gave her the first real sense of wiping away the past and taking control of her life since she’d come home. She had to suppress an urge to lift the gun and blow on the barrel the way old-time gunfighters did.

Reloading the clip, she fired again. By the time she’d finished, she’d gone through two more and the silhouette hung in shreds and tatters. Wiping her hands on her jeans, she tore the target down and replaced it with another. Again she marked it with initial­s—A.A.S.—and drew a circle around them with a vicious stroke. Then she picked up the Heckler & Koch, settling the familiar grip into the palm of her hand.

This time when she sighted, she aimed for center mass and unloaded the entire clip without pausing between shots. Reloading with rapid speed, she fired in the same pattern, over and over again, until she’d used all the .45mm ammo and left a hole in the silhouette big enough to drive a small car through. By then her arms were quivering, her body covered with sweat. Sitting on the bench at the loading table she forced herself to slow her breathing and her racing pulse before policing her brass and packing away her gear.

Shooting the ghost of her former lover had been cathartic but not half as satisfying as destroying the target marked A.S.S.—Col. Aaron Sherman Smart.

Good initials for him. They suited bastard that he turned out to be. A sanctimonious son of a bitch.

Collision Course is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords and All Romance ebooks for ONLY 99 Cents until October 15.

Visit me at www.desireeholt.com, www.desireeholttellsall.com, and follow me on Twitter @desireeholt and Facebook www.facebook.com/desireeholtauthor

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

What absolutely yummy heroes Cerise Deland writes. I want to be Coco in this story. She has all the fun.
Siren Bookstrand said:
Carried Away is a great suspense story with the right amount of romance and hot sexual tension and the suspense that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Cerise Deland has a hit on her hands with suspense filled story. It is one you will enjoy.
And gave it Five Siren Stones, the top rating.

Grant Warwick has never scoured luscious, funny Coco Dalton from his brain. She was heaven to hold, hot as hell in bed—and for four scintillating months, totally his. So why she left him one morning without the courtesy of a call is one damn big mystery he’s never solved.

When she reappears one day in Venice, he’s stunned she wants to apologize. Heartbroken she had to desert him years ago, Coco asks his help to find a terrorist who’s tracking her. Resisting her isn’t possible—Grant sweeps her up into his arms and savors her sweet body with kisses so torrid and lovemaking so mind-bending, she’ll never again want to leave him.

But Grant must also find time to track down the terrorist, before Coco is taken from him forever.

Chapter One

Grant Warwick took another sip of espresso and pushed his Ray-Bans up his nose. He leaned his elbows on the café table and narrowed his eyes. Yes. The woman in the tissue-thin white cotton dress was still yakking with the Venetian guy on the stalled vaporetto. Grant told himself it was the June sun’s refractions off the murky water of the Grand Canal that hurt his eyes. But he knew it was the sight of Coco Dalton that assaulted him.

Damn her.

You’d think after three years of searching for another woman to replace her in his bed, he’d have replaced her in his mind. Forgotten her. The fire in his belly. The instant concrete in his cock. The idiotic dreams in his head.

One look at that gamin body, the cap of platinum curls, the up-turned breasts that didn’t need a bra, the legs that went on forever right down into her latest ugly pair of shoe leather—yeah, and he’d been hooked. Like a fish. And after the way she’d dumped him long ago, he knew his heartache smelled like an oldfish.

Christ. What a waste you are, Warwick. A hulking Scots-Irish loner who never got hooked on any woman.

Except to graceful, reckless award-winning photojournalist, Coco Dalton.

What was she doing here? Though he could see she had her camera bag slung over her shoulder and one tiny piece of luggage, she never took a vacation. He scanned the hordes of tourists streaming past him toward St. Mark’s Square, noting that no wise person traveled here after May unless they wanted to be trampled to death by the crowds.

Coco suddenly frowned at whatever her companion was saying. Odd. You used to laugh. Often. With me. In bed. Out. On kitchen counters. Floors. His eyes drifted shut as he recalled how she felt like hot satin in his arms, sinuous and artless, the ballerina who gave up the quest for pro. The way her lush lips would spread over her teeth when she grinned. The way her plump nether lips would swell when she wanted Grant to lick her and fill her. The way she’d cream for him, coming just in anticipation of his cock sliding into her juicy little cunt.

He ran a hand over his cleanly shaven bald head. Time to go, Warwick. He downed his coffee, gave the high sign to his waiter and plunked twenty euro on the table for his lunch. Buttoning his suit coat, he stood and headed for the meeting for which he’d flown to Venice.

He worked his way from the Grand Canal back into the winding calle of the ancient city. Last night, after he arrived on his private jet at the small metro airport, he’d checked into his hotel and promptly gone out to find the building. Venice always confused the hell out of him but he got off on knowing all the details of any event and prepared. That research, that caution made him and his company one of the fastest growing and better known among international security firms. The reputation that gave him had guaranteed him this new contract with the government of Dubai for their new government historical museum.

Grant arrived within minutes at the pale buttery concrete building which housed the commercial offices of the Emirate. A palazzo built in the fourteenth century by one of the Electors of Venice, the structure reflected the intrigues of the city’s politics with an ornate door of rose and green inlaid tiles. Inside, the tiny hall spoke of age–old schemes and secrets. He took the hairpin stairway up to the first floor, bending low to avoid the ceiling that was unfit for an American of six foot four.

Buon giorno,” he greeted the receptionist, a lovely white-veiled Arab woman with a king’s ransom of gold dripping from her fingers, her wrists and hanging around her neck. “Grant Warwick to see Sheik Khalid Nasar.”

“Welcome, Mr. Warwick,” the lady responded with a crisp British accent and a blazing set of perfect white teeth. She rose from her chair and inclined her head in deference. “Please wait here a moment and I will announce you. May I offer you refreshment as you wait? Tea, perhaps, or coffee?”

Grant wanted neither but he knew from his years in the Middle East, it was an insult to refuse. “Tea, thank you.” He took a seat in one of the huge, sumptuously upholstered chairs which reminded him of those he’d seen in the Doge’s private residence. He’d heard the emir of Dubai was a very forward-looking man and favored modern furniture. This medieval look amused Grant. Ah, well. When in Venice, do as the Venetians.

The receptionist appeared with a tray with one thimble-sized cup of steaming liquid. The aroma of anise and fennel met his nostrils and he decided the brew might soothe his irritation at seeing Coco again. He took a sip—heard the door open, looked up—and promptly realized no relief was possible.

Struggling in the front door, Coco dragged her little red suitcase behind her and smiled tentatively at the receptionist. “Buon giorno, Signora. I am Coco Dalton,” she said as she parked her suitcase and let her camera bag slide to the floor. In the stilted movements of her body, Grant detected a change from the grace she normally possessed. “You are expecting me.”

The woman nodded, her lashes fluttering and descending with wide-eyed dismay to the thin, almost transparent dress Coco wore. “Yes, of course, Ms. Dalton. May I offer you tea or coffee?”

“Thank you,” Coco smiled, kneading her hands, whether out of numbness or nerves Grant couldn’t tell. Where are the remnants of the teenager who wanted to become a professional ballerina? “Tea. Yes, tea.” Her back was ramrod straight and she never turned to face him but chatted on.

Good thing, because his eyes drilled through the cotton to the curve of her hips and the straps of the white thong. His shaft twitched, taking note of the scrap of fabric that nestled between the two sweet cheeks of her ass.

Coco bent, fiddling with one of the zippers on her suitcase. “May I ask if you have a room free so that I might change my clothes?”

Grant’s cock didn’t want her to change a thing.

“My plane was late and I had no time to go to my hotel,” she told the woman.

Grant forced his gaze lower and winced at the sight of Coco’s latest outrage. Clunky neon pink running shoes.

“Forgive me,” she said, “but I do not want to meet the Sheik in my traveling attire.”

She’s here to meet the same man I am?

“Yes, Ms. Dalton.” The receptionist breathed a sigh of relief and smiled broadly at the scantily-dressed visitor. “Allow me to show you. Do you also have a scarf for your hair?” she asked Coco, as she turned and ushered Coco back through the hall.

What the hell did the sheik need with a war-zone photographer? Certainly not to open a private historical museum in Dubai.

And if he does…

Grant scrubbed his jaw in anger. Why hadn’t his VP of Research told him about this? Todd Cummings usually knew all. But if Coco Dalton was involved in this new job, Grant was pulling out now. He had no desire to meet her or talk with her. She’d made it plain to him three years ago when she’d failed to meet him at the airport for a romantic vacation that she was not and could never be devoted to him. And he had no intention of looking at her now and gnawing out his guts any more than he already had.

He stood.

The receptionist rounded the corner of the hall and paused, casting stunned eyes on him. “Sir? You are—”

“Leaving. Give my apologies to Sheik Nasar, will you please? I must—”

“Mr. Warwick,” came a baritone from the far end of the corridor. The petite, olive- skinned man in a hand-tailored dark gray Italian silk suit. “Please, sir, you cannot leave.”

“Your Highness,” Grant inclined his head in respect to the emir’s cousin, a noted businessman who had his own private collection of Middle Eastern artifacts. “I am most pleased to meet you. We should have done so years ago.” For Grant to make a hasty exit now was impossible. Hell, it hadn’t been possible before, but he was obviously brain dead! You can’t run from a planned meeting with a man who has agreed to sign a contract with you for two million dollars a year for ten years.

When Grant got hold of Todd again, he was going to put his feet to the fire for his failure here this afternoon. Now all Grant had to do was just keep away from the cute blonde trick in bad shoe leather.

“Come,” said Nasar. “We will discuss our matters at length. Naila?” He turned to his receptionist. “Please see we have privacy.”

“I will.” She averted her eyes, smiling at the floor in feminine courtesy to her superior.

Nasar led the way into a large office with a floor-to-ceiling view of the red and ochre rooftops of Venice. Inside, a blinding Carrara marble conference table stretched to a size capable of seating ten or more. Shown to the prince’s left hand side, Grant pulled out a rolling chair and waited for Nasar to sit first. He heard another door open in the hall outside, and then another. Odds were, from one of those came a woman he had never wanted to see again.

The first person to appear in the doorway was a man. Taller than the prince, darker than he and younger by a decade, this man strode forward, all grins. “Mr. Warwick! Jamal Husseini. How wonderful to welcome you here finally. We have written often! I am the curator of the new museum.”

Grant nodded, took his hand in the western way and shook. Husseini, too, had a British accent and Grant knew from what information Todd Cummings had gleaned on this job, that the curator’s mother was British and his father from Dubai. With degrees from Oxford and Harvard in ancient texts and archeology, the man was renowned for his doctoral thesis on the works of early Islamic poets. A distant cousin of Sheik Nasar, Husseini’s credentials and connections ensured that he had been appointed curator of Nasar’s lavish new private museum.

Grant and Jamal took their cue from Nasar when he sat down, then navigated the formalities of getting to know each other. As they spoke, Grant listened not to the man but for signs of the woman whom he knew was somewhere in this office.

Finally, he heard it. Clip, clop. Clip, clop. Clattering down the hall was a woman wearing high heels. Grant had sworn Coco owned only one pair, so the odds that it might be she who appeared in the doorway were few. But so was what he saw her wearing as she came into view. Here, in all her svelte glory, stood Coco Dalton, all five foot six inches of her in a sleek white linen suit that cupped her lush breasts and flowed down her hips like a fresh coat of paint. And, yes—Grant knew his brows rose in shock—on her feet were ivory stilettos, six inches high. He let the other two men greet her first. Grant rose to his feet last.

She put a smile on her face and gave it to them all, not pausing at him any longer than the others, but sliding like the diplomat’s daughter she was, back to her host. “Forgive me, for being late. My plane.” She flourished a hand in explanation. “One can never count on schedules these days.” She stepped forward to shake hands with Nasar and Jamal. Then she turned to him. “Hello, Grant,” she said in an impartial but friendly tone that held no fear he might reject her. What’s more, she was not at all surprised at his presence. Why not?

He shook her hand. Warm, elegant, her fingers withdrew from his with a jerk. So. You are nervous about seeing me again.

You should be.

She took the chair across from him. Without briefcase, computer or pen and paper, the four of them began the preliminaries of their first face-to-face meeting. The weather, their health, the adequacies of their hotel accommodations were each reviewed and found pleasant.

Nasar folded his meaty hands before him. “Ms. Dalton, Mr. Warwick, I am grateful to you both for meeting me here earlier than we planned. Thank you for altering your plans to go straight to Dubai, but I needed to see you here as my own plans were recently changed.”

Jamal leaned forward. “We have a problem we did not anticipate.”

Grant frowned. If some hitch meant they were now going to withdraw the contract for his firm to supply security to their buildings, he wouldn’t be happy, but he wouldn’t starve, either. “I assure you both it was no problem for me to come here.”

Coco agreed. “I am at your disposal. And knowing how well Mr. Warwick works, I know he maintains his supremacy in his business because he is always flexible.”

I’m flexible? He stared at her. Her violet gaze slid over his in a nanosecond. You’ve got some nerve, babe, to speak for me. And yeah, I’m flexible except when you ripped out my heart and left it in two goddamn pieces.

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