Authors: Jenna McKnight
For Julie Beard, Eileen Dreyer,
Shirl Henke, Carol Monk,
and Karyn Witmer-Gow,
who have more good ideas
on how to steer a plot
than any other gals I know.
Thanks for Thursdays!
And for Charlotte Nations,
who eagerly answered my call for a reader
at the last minute.
Lilly Marquette couldn’t believe she was parked in front of…
Lilly thought she’d heard quiet before, until now.
Jake Murdoch didn’t mind the snowstorm. He’d grown up in…
Jake strode out the emergency room’s automatic door and across…
St. Matthew & Mark’s food kitchen was going to be a revelation…
Lilly was up again at 6:00 a.m. She’d chosen red…
The first thing Lilly did after breakfast was restore her…
Jake grew increasingly uneasy on his side of the car.
“Tell me again why I need thongs?” Lilly asked. Jake…
Jake selected a medium-priced red wine, then thought about where…
Lilly was a little dizzy from the speed with which…
“I cannot believe this!” Up in Transition, Elizabeth was fit…
Jake didn’t take Lilly’s advice; he skipped the wine. He…
It wasn’t the type of emergency Lilly had trained for…
What an incredible night.
Lilly sank to the kitchen floor, her back against the…
Just because Lilly’d had her eyes opened didn’t mean it…
“Betsy, if you’re there, pick up.”
While she waited for the Mercedes to be delivered, Lilly…
First thing in the morning, nothing to eat, nothing to…
Jake trotted up the broad, brick-edged steps of the Marquette…
It’s not possible!
Lilly wanted to tell whoever was moving her to stop…
illy Marquette couldn’t believe she was parked in front of Cloud Nine. Sure, she’d promised her best friend anything she wanted for her birthday, but she hadn’t figured on a shop with a red-lettered notice on the glass door that said:
ADULTS ONLY. MUST BE EIGHTEEN OR OLDER TO ENTER. NO EXCEPTIONS
She snuggled deeper—meaning
—into the limo’s heated leather seat and turned her fur collar up on her neck. If she scrunched low enough, she could disappear, safe from the eyes of anyone driving by. The only witness to this fiasco so far was her driver, and he’d forget anything for a pound of Godiva.
“I’ll wait here,” she said.
“You can’t,” Betsy argued.
“It’s okay, I like to watch it snow.”
“Then don’t hold the door open when you get out.”
Betsy put on the same persuasive little pout that had
gotten Lilly into lots of trouble over the years. Once they’d reached puberty, it usually revolved around the opposite sex.
“Go by yourself,” Lilly insisted. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in there.”
Still the pout. “But you said you’d buy me whatever I want for my birthday.”
“Yeah, a purse. Or a scarf. Not…” She trailed off, waving a hand toward the red
sign. “I’ll get it off the Internet.”
“But my birthday’s today. What’s your problem?”
“Gee, I don’t know. Maybe watching you sort through vibrators might be embarrassing.”
“Well it shouldn’t be. Brady’s been gone five months now. I’m sorry, sweetie, but it’s a fact. And here’s another one. If you ever expect to have those kids you want so bad?—you need to start getting out. You should come in and practice making doe eyes at the clerk.”
” Lilly snickered. “You’ve been buying your novels here, too, haven’t you?”
“Don’t knock it. Whatever you want to call it, it’s set more men drooling over you than I can count.”
“Flattery won’t work. But feel free to keep it up.”
Betsy grimaced. “Ooh, a word of caution. When you go in there, you might not want to say anything with the words ‘keep it up’ in it.”
“No problem, I’m not—”
“And it’s not flattery.” Betsy slumped against her door. “Shit, it’s not fair. Men
they want blue-eyed blondes until they see you. You know what Brian said you remind him of?”
“Probably nothing nice.” Because Brian was ancient
history, before Brady, a two-and-a-half-year marriage, and widowhood.
“Whiskey,” Betsy answered, as if Lilly were interested, which she definitely wasn’t. “Let’s see, how’d he put it? Something like you’re ‘a tall glass of prime liquor, with a golden spark in your eyes that sets a man on fire.’”
“There was more about burning a fire in his insides on the way down.”
Lilly hooted, prodding Betsy with her foot. “You want to step out in a dignified manner, or do I have to open that door and shove you out?”
“You have to come in to pay anyway.”
“I don’t have enough cash.”
“They take charges.”
“Oh yeah, I want my accountant to think I shop at Cloud Nine.”
“Come on, it’ll give you a chance to meet the clerk. I promise, the man oozes pure sex. Swear to God, he’s got enough charisma to jump-start a dead woman’s heart. Though,” she admitted, knowing it mattered, “I doubt he has a dime to his name.”
Lilly slid a meaningful glance at the storefront. “Hence where he works. I’d like to think I’m more discriminating.”
“Well, you should enjoy this then: I tried to pick him up last time I was here, and as much as it pains me to admit this”—she lowered her voice—“I failed.”
Betsy bobbed her head in silent confirmation.
“Well now I have to go in.” To see the man who’d turned Betsy down, Lilly’d brave both cold and embarrassment. “Hand me that hat, would you?”
The only other car in the lot was a yellow taxi, with two bright red, heart-shaped balloons dancing at the end of their tether, tied to the antenna. It also had an inch of snow covering the hood, so it’d been there a good long while which meant there’d be no other customers to get embarrassed in front of. Lilly followed Betsy inside, pulling up short as soon as the door swung shut behind them.
“You go ahead,” she said, suddenly wondering how she could make a graceful exit without appearing majorly intimidated by a few racks of wispy, next-to-nothing lingerie. She butted the door open, making excuses as she backed out. “I hear my phone. I think it’s my broker.”
Betsy hauled her back in. “Funny. You know that gadget in your purse you’re so connected to? It’s not ringing.”
“It’s on vibrate.” She winced as soon as she said it, her gaze darting around to make sure no one was paying them any undue attention. So far, so good.
“I won’t be long,” Betsy promised. “Stay.”
“Okay. I’ll, uh, just hang around here, you know, by the door.”
She felt conspicuous and stupid standing still, so she brushed snow off her hat, tucked a few stray dark wisps of hair back underneath, then stamped slush off her leather boots, all the while surreptitiously checking out the store to make sure there’d be no witnesses to their folly.
Surprisingly, once she allowed herself to really look, the inside of the store itself wasn’t too bad. Instead of the sleazy, dirty, dimly lit, smoke-filled area she’d imagined from the condition of the neighborhood in general and
the strip mall specifically, it looked like a place someone took pride in: well lit and tidy. Even the carpet was clean enough to pick up a wayward nickel and pocket it.
Betsy groaned, as if being with someone who’d pick up a stray coin was somehow ten times more embarrassing than being in a sex shop. “Tell me you didn’t.”
“What? It’s a nickel.”
“I swear, all your money and you’d still stop on a highway if you saw a dime. I’m moving now. I’ll be over there.”
The interior was nicely organized, with clothing to the left and shelves straight ahead. To the right were racks of gadgets, with—
Wouldn’t you know?
—three women standing in a loose group, discussing a package they passed back and forth, and they weren’t exactly whispering. Lilly looked away to give them their privacy; but shoot, this was the twenty-first century, and if they were in here buying vibrators together, secrecy sure as heck wasn’t an issue. They looked perfectly normal and average; they probably carpooled all week, got together on Friday nights to play Bunko, and took the kids to church on Sunday.
God, wouldn’t that be great?
Well, not the average part, but she’d give anything to be a mom. She wouldn’t shuffle her children off to nannies and boarding school, either, no way. She’d be what she’d never had: a loving mother who’d bandage her kids’ scrapes, read them stories, and hug them to pieces without notice.
A faint odor abruptly caught her attention, and she sniffed the air to place it. “I think I smell gas. Hey, Betsy—”
A big guy in a navy T-shirt popped into view for a split second, to her right, behind a counter piled high with stacks of inventory.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “I thought I had it all aired out.”
His voice was promising, a nice, deep timbre with a sexy rumble that made her think she’d be willing to forgive him anything, just as long as he kept talking.
“Furnace is on the blink,” he explained, ducking out from behind the boxes and passing behind a tall rack on his way to the door.
Lilly took her own inventory. Thick black hair—she could see that over the rack, so he was tall. Long legs, no holes in his jeans, leather boots instead of ratty tennis shoes. This was getting better by the second. He might be worth a couple dates down the road, when she was ready again. Large hands. Muscular arms that could have taken the door off its hinges without tools if it hadn’t cooperated. A quick check of his ring finger as he worked at propping the door open was inconclusive. What she really needed was for him to turn around.
Please, God, let nothing on his face be pierced.
The three women perked up and drifted in his direction. They all took off their hats, fluffed their hair, and unbuttoned their coats. One swiped on fresh lip gloss.
“The repairman’s working on it now. I hope it’s not too cold in here for you. Better move away from the door. Wander around, let me know if you need help.”
He was the kind of big that a man gets partly from genes, partly from working hard. Her gaze boldly roamed over impressively wide shoulders stretching his navy T-shirt to its limits, a trim waist, a nicely rounded butt, and well-muscled thighs. With that much virility to look
at, she didn’t care how cold it was. Maybe not even where she was.
He breezed behind the rack again, not lumbering like many big men, but exhibiting an easy grace as he headed straight back behind the counter and all those darned boxes. “See anything you like, let me know.”
Politely helpful—or had she been caught staring?
The boldest of the three zeroed in on him. “I need to pick up a video for my neighbor. Can you recommend something?”
“Sure, be right there.”
Lilly drifted away from the frigid air, staying to the left and center of the store, not lingering too long on any one thing. Was he single? Was he watching her thumb through crotchless panties, curious as to whom she’d wear them for?
Was he straight? She touched a pair of fuzzy handcuffs to see if they were as soft as they looked. Better move on; he’d think she was kinky.
Was he in a relationship? She picked up a key chain, thinking that looked safe enough to handle, until she noticed it was a miniature glow-in-the-dark penis.
Well, who could be without one of those?
She started to read the front of a box, but it was a game for lovers only.
Move on before he thinks I have one.
All the time thinking,
Come out, come out, wherever you are
, and wondering what was a safe question to ask that would bring him into full view. Try as she might, she couldn’t find one non-sex-related item to ask about.
“Hey, Lilly, I think I found what I want,” Betsy announced loud and clear.
started ringing up purchases for the three women, and politely said, “Well…thank you,” to the one who was writing her phone number across his hand as Lilly strolled by. She still hadn’t gotten a look at his face by the time she joined Betsy, her attention only half-there and half-listening to the rest of the conversation by the register, trying to pick up any personal information he offered. Something like
My wife likes this one
would be a real clue.
“What do you think of this?” Betsy thrust a package into Lilly’s hands.
It was wrapped in clear plastic so the consumer could check out what she was getting before she paid for it. No way Lilly could pretend she was holding some normal massage therapy gadget.
Now she had two.
Please, God, keep him way over there a little while longer.
“We’re having a buy-one-get-one-half-off special,” he announced across the store. She probably could see his face now if she turned, but geez, she could just imagine what he was thinking.
“Great idea!” Betsy said. “Why don’t you get one while you’re here, Lill? You know I’m going to love this, and then you’ll be jealous and just have to come back for your own. Then you’ll miss the sale, and you know how you get when something costs you extra.”
“Pick one,” Lilly gritted through clenched teeth, low and threatening.
“No wait, I know. You love to read in the limo. Let’s get you a book.”
The Kind of Sex Men Really Want
sounds good. And look, pictures.”
“All right, don’t get huffy. Geez, how long’s it been since you got naked with a man in the backseat anyway?”
“I don’t get naked in the—”
“Well what good’s having a limo if you don’t utilize it?”
Lilly caught the dangerous glimmer in Betsy’s eyes that said she knew exactly where Lilly’s mind was, how it worked, and how to tease her.
Betsy held up several packages and, loud enough to be heard three blocks away, asked, “What do you think? Red, blue, or green? Or there’s natural.”
Lilly’s pithy retort died a dry, lumpy death in her throat as Sexy Rumble strode toward them.
“There’s a sampler pack here,” he said, snagging it off a nearby rack on his way. “Different colors, different textures. Better price.”
“Oh,” Betsy purred. “A beginner’s set. Look, Lilly.”
She tried not to. She tried darting a glance up at him beneath lowered lashes whenever she thought he wouldn’t notice, but that just meant she still couldn’t see his face, and she so wanted to know whether it went with the rest of him. If nothing ridiculous was pierced, she wanted to chat him up a few minutes and see where that went, maybe ask for his number—strictly for future reference—but then how would she answer the question that inevitably would come up down the road: So, how did you two meet?
In a dildo shop. Now there was one to tell the grandchildren.
“Or there’s this one.” He handed Betsy another package. “My ex-girlfriend said this big boy can do anything a man can do
it doesn’t snore.”
He tipped his head just so, just enough to indicate that he knew he should be embarrassed to talk to women so frankly, but hell, he was so damned sexy, he could get away with it.
Geez, this guy could sell a sex toy to St. Peter.
It’d be better to drive by someday when he was locking up, then “bump” into him somewhere else like, say, the grocery store. Then she could talk to him a few minutes, see if there was mutual interest—Yeah, that was a plan. In the meantime, so he wouldn’t recognize her later, she pulled her hat down to her eyebrows.
Betsy grinned up at him, way up. “You say she left you for one of these?”
“That’s not exactly what—”
“Want a second opinion?”
“Oh-kay.” Desperate to stop this before they made out in front of her, Lilly made a show of pushing up her sleeve and checking her watch. “Say, did I mention I have a twelve o’clock appointment? It’s almost twelve now. We should go.”