Authors: Joanne Rock
It's said that you have to lose yourself in order to find who you really areâ¦
Three intrepid Harlequin Blaze heroines are about to test that theoryâIn the sexiest way possible!
by Jo Leigh
The Real Deal
by Debbi Rawlin
by Joanne Rock
What you find might change your life!
One of the most exciting rewards of being an author is getting to know other writers whose work you've read and admired. I'm sure in every profession it's a treat to meet people who do your job with a skill and finesse you dream about acquiring, and in the writing world, there's also a bit of fan-girl enthusiasm attached to that admiration. So it's been a real privilege to work on the Lose Yourselfâ¦miniseries with the very talented Debbi Rawlins and Jo Leigh. I'm so glad we were able to develop this miniseries as a team.
In addition to the fun of great colleagues for this project, I had the added pleasure of writing my first full-length holiday Harlequin Blaze with
Although I'd tackled a holiday novella two years ago (
A Blazing Little Christmas,
an anthology with the fantastic Jacquie D'Alessandro and Kathleen O'Reilly), I was really excited to revisit a snowy Christmas setting for this story. There's something about being snowbound for the holidays that seems just right for a Harlequin Blaze!
I hope you enjoy
and please do visit me at http://joannerock.com for the scoop on my upcoming releases in the new year!
Award nominee Joanne Rock writes sexy contemporary romances and medieval historicals. A romance fan since forever, she enjoys teaching writing at a local university and sharing her love of literature and popular fiction. She is a Golden Heart winner and
RT Book Reviews
Career Achievement nominee. When she's not reading or writing, Joanne can be found at her local gridiron, ball field or basketball courtâdepending on the seasonâcheering on her three athletically inclined sons. Learn more about Joanne and her work by visiting her at http://www.joannerock.com.
182âHIS WICKED WAYS
240âUP ALL NIGHT
305âDON'T LOOK BACK
311âJUST ONE LOOK
363âA BLAZING LITTLE CHRISTMAS
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â “His for the Holidays”
395âUP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
450âSHE THINKS HER EX IS SEXYâ¦
486âSLIDING INTO HOME
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â “The Takedown”
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â “Highland Handfast”
758âMY LADY'S FAVOR
769âTHE LAIRD'S LADY
812âTHE KNIGHT'S COURTSHIP
890âA KNIGHT MOST WICKED
942âTHE KNIGHT'S RETURN
For the beautifully talented Winnie Griggs, who calls and checks in on me, who cheers me on, who always makes me feel like a success! Thank you for many years of friendship and wise advice.
ORMALLY, THE LAST PLACE
Jake Brennan would want to be the week before Christmas was sitting on a stakeout.
He'd promised his mom he'd come home for the holidays this year, a pledge which made him a liar three years running. Instead, he sat in his SUV across the street from a suspect's business in downtown Miami, where neon palmetto trees made a tropical substitute for white lights in the snow back in Illinois.
But when the stakeout involved Marnie Wainwright, there were perks involved. Enough perks that Jake didn't mind watching the storefront for her business, Lose Yourself, from inside his vehicle on a Friday night. It didn't matter that the rest of the world went to holiday parties right now. He had Marnie for entertainment, and two months of surveillance on the entrepreneur behind Lose Yourself had taught him that was more than enough.
His hand hovered over the screen of his BlackBerry where an internet connection allowed him access to the
camera he'd installed in her place eight weeks ago. Soft holiday music and Marnie's warm, sexy laugh greeted his ears even before the picture on the video feed came into focus.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, he could sit two car lengths up the street and still see exactly what went on inside her high-end adventure company that specialized in exotic fantasy escapes.
And as long as Marnie was there, he always got an eyeful.
“If you'll just give me your credit card, you can pay the balance on the trip and I'll mail you a detailed itinerary next week,” she was currently saying to an attractive middle-aged couple in front of her desk.
Marnie had a pen tucked in the swoop of cinnamon-colored hair piled at the back of her head. He knew from hours of watching her that she sometimes stuck as many as three pens back there at a time, occasionally losing all writing implements to her hairdo. His camera was hidden inside a bookcase he'd built for her two months back, when he'd posed as a carpenter and helped remodel the front office. The carpentry skills, a long-ago gift from his dad, had been fun to brush off after his years in the military and the Miami P.D., and they'd certainly come in handy for concealing the surveillance camera at Marnie's business.
At that time, she'd been a prime suspect in a white-collar crime at Premiere Properties, her former employer. Vincent Galway, the CEO of Premiere, had fired her right after discovering embezzlement that had cost the company $2.5 million.
Vincent only had very circumstantial evidence pointing to Marnie. The missing funds had been funneled through her department, and there had been a rise in client complaints about double billing. Coupled with her frequent overtime, easy access to the accounts and constant work outside the office, Vincent had let her go for superficial reasonsâeasy enough to do since Florida was an “at-will” state for employee termination. Then, with Marnie out of the company and none the wiser as to why, Vince had asked Jake to quietly investigate a few key remaining employees and to keep his eye on Marnie, too. While Jake hadn't found the missing money yet, he had leads.
Today, he had the distinct pleasure of taking Marnie off the list of primary suspects thanks to the ridiculously stripped-down lifestyle she'd led for the past two months. Marnie had demonstrated obvious financial hardship while funds continued to disappear from Premiere's accounts. But Jake couldn't even share with her since she'd never known she was a suspect. Still, Jake thought of today as a damn happy occasion because clearing Marnie meant he could do more than just watch her from afar.
His eyes locked on her luscious curves as she came out from behind the desk to shake hands with her clients. Yes, the time approached when he could return to her lifeâas the carpenter she hadn't seen in two monthsâand ask her out. He could remove the surveillance equipment easily enough if she left the front office for even a minute.
There'd been a definite attraction between them when
he'd first met her, an attraction he would have never acted on while she remained a suspect. But now, the path was clear to explore the fireworks he'd felt when he'd been in her office building that bookcase for her. If anything, he admired her all the more after watching her pull her life together in the wake of losing a job and getting dumped by the waste of space she'd been dating up until she'd been terminated. Marnie had defied the odds and opened her own business in a crap economy, using her travel smarts to her advantage in the new gig.
Smart. Sexy. And she'd be all alone inside in another minute once her customers left. Would he knock on the door as soon as they were gone? Or, knowing that she was prone to stripping off a few layers of clothes as soon as she flipped the Closed sign on her storefront, would he tune in to the BlackBerry a few minutes longer?
Heat crawled up his back at the thought. The need to be honorable warred with the urge to look his fill.
As she ushered her clients to the door, Jake figured he'd split the difference. He'd only watch for a minute and then he'd flip off the feed.
And this time, he wouldn't settle for just fantasizing about Marnie. He'd follow it up with a house call, because damn it, he wanted to see the show in person one of these days.
Yes, a very Merry Christmas to himâ¦.
A personality, Marnie Wainwright took all necessary precautions. So she checked and double-checked the lock on the street-level door to her business. She closed all the blinds. She flipped the sign on Lose Yourself from Open to Closed.
Only then, in the privacy of the small storefront where she'd converted the back offices into a living space, did she pump her fist in victory and break out her best Michael Jackson move.
“Yesss!” She shouted her triumph, letting down her hair with one hand and switching the satellite radio tuner to dance grooves with the other.
Two months of hard work at Lose Yourself had paid off with her biggest profit yet now that she'd booked an African safari followed up by a beach getaway to Seychelles for a wealthy local couple. Two months of nonstop trolling for clients. Sixty-one days of researching unique trip ideas to appeal to an increasingly competitive travel market full of selective buyers who could
easily book online. But her idea to pitch one-of-a-kind fantasy escapes was working.
“How do you like me now?” She sang a tune of her own making, rump-shaking her way into the back to retrieve a bottle of champagne she'd been saving from the days when her paycheck had been fat and the perks of working in promotions for a luxury global resort conglomerate, Premiere Properties, had been numerous.
She hadn't salvaged much financially from that time, thanks to the bad investments she'd foolishly let her financial adviser boyfriend oversee. Little did she know then that he'd been even more clueless than he'd been charming, losing her hard-earned money almost as soon as she'd entrusted it to him. She'd been royally ticked off about that, but that had only been the prelude to
On Facebook, no less. Apparently he hadn't been interested in her once she lost her cushy benefits at Premiere. At least she understood Alec's reasons. She never had figured out why Premiere had let her go or how her department had been losing as much money as her boss had claimed. But while getting laid off had hurt, it hadn't broken her.
Tonight's sale proved as much. She'd taken her travel smarts from all those years crisscrossing the globe for Premiere and used them to match up adventure seekers with just the right unique escape to suit them, whether that meant a spa trip to Bali or backpacking around the Indus Valley. The inspiration for Lose Yourself had come from her need to do just that. Since she hadn't been able to take a vacation from her own problems, she enjoyed helping other people to do so.
Ditching her suit in a celebratory striptease for the benefit of a life-size cutout of a Hawaiian guy offering a lei to her, she tugged on a long black silk robe for her private after-party. The Hawaiian dude had been a promotional item from a hotel and not quite in keeping with the upscale, personalized appeal of Lose Yourself. But he was cute company in the copier room that doubled as a galley kitchen until she got on her feet enough to afford a real house again.
“Cheers to me!” She raised the proverbial roof with one hand while she twisted off the wire restraint from the champagne cork with the other.
The happy sound of that cork flying across the room pleased her as much as the taste of the bubbly would. It had been so long since she'd had reason to celebrate anything. About the only other victory that came close was curing herself of the need to throw darts at the ex-boyfriend who'd helped her lose a job and her savings. She used to regularly wing a silver-tipped missile at a photograph taped to the dartboard she kept on an office wall, but she'd torched that picture a month ago in an effort to take ownership of her mistakes.
She'd almost taken a cute guy's head off with one of those darts a couple of months ago, she recalled. Handsome contractor Jake Brennan had been handcrafting a display case for her storefront and had unwittingly opened a door into one of her tiny arrows. It hadn't been her finest moment. Although Jake Brennan himself had been very fine indeed. Memories of his strong arms coated with a light sheen of sweat and sawdust as he'd
sculpted the wood into shape had returned to her often ever since.
Pouring the top-shelf champagne into substandard stemware, Marnie lifted one side of her robe like a chacha girl before testing out a high kick. A little champagne sloshed out of the cheap glass, but the bubbles felt like an electric kiss sliding down her arm as she lifted the glass in a toast.
No doubt it had been thoughts of Jake Brennan that had her thinking of electric kisses.
“To me!” she cheered, then took a drink.
A call on her cell phone interrupted her celebration and she scrambled to grab it just in case it was a potential client. Seeing her former colleague's name on caller ID didn't mean it was a casual call. She'd been pitching her fantasy adventures to all her overworked, overstressed friends these past two months.
“Hello, Sarah.” Marnie turned the music down just enough to hear her friend on the other end of the phone.
“Hi, Marnie.” Sarah Anders's voice was low, her tone oddly serious next to Marnie's good mood. “Have a minute?”
“Sure.” Marnie sashayed her way toward the display case the sexy contractor had built, still dancing as she savored the taste of her drink on her tongue. “I'm just having a little toast to rich world travelers who aren't afraid to take a chance on a new business.”
“You made another sale?” Sarah asked.
“An African safari. Not exactly the most original trip, but it's long and involved and will keep me in business
well into the New Year. Between that and a little holiday escape I booked for a couple who wanted to check out an ice hotel in Quebec City, I've had my best week yet.”
“That's great.” Sarah's voice didn't match the words.
“What's wrong?” Feeling the groove vibrate the floor through her bare feet, Marnie set her glass on one of the shelves of the bookcase.
“I just wondered if you'd heard any rumors about misappropriation of funds or big losses at Premiere Properties before you left.”
“Embezzlement?” Marnie told herself she shouldn't care what happened over at Premiere Properties after she'd been terminated six months ago for bogus reasons. Her boss, Vince Galway, had told her some b.s. about cutting back on promotions, but the company spent money hand over fist to promote its luxury resorts. Still, she had to admit she was curious. “What makes you think that?”
“Nothing concrete.” Sarah sighed, a world of stress in one eloquent huff of air over the mouthpiece. “But there's been a guy asking questions this week. He's been discreet enough, saying he's part of some forensic accounting team that Vince hired to double-check the books, but I think something's up.”
For the first time in six months, Marnie almost felt lucky to have lost the job she loved at Premiere. Her business was taking off, and she didn't have any worries about corporate scams or office politics.
“I'll keep an ear out since I still do business with a lot of Premiere's hotels.” In fact, Marnie had sent more
than one client to the properties she used to promote. Although she didn't think it had been fair that she'd been axed with no warning, she still recognized Premiere ran first-class resorts.
“Thanks, Marnie. I'd appreciate any word.”
Disconnecting the call, Marnie cranked the tunes back up, ready to get back into celebrating her successes. She'd dealt with enough crap these past six months to know that she damn well needed to toast the good stuff when it came along since life didn't give you happy days like this all that often.
Standing in front of the custom-made bookcase that displayed miniature buildings, crafts and other souvenirs from destinations all over the world, she placed her palms where Jake Brennan's broad hands had once been and ran her fingertips over a smooth edge. He'd done a beautiful job on the piece and he'd done it for a song, all things considered. She'd really needed that financial break since she'd been trying to get the doors open for her business on a budget.
Between the memories of the man, the champagne and the swish of silk around her bare legs, she experienced a rush of longing. Jake had been big-time attractive. Too bad she hadn't been in a better place emotionally when they'd met or she might have invited him to stick around after the job was done. Maybe asked him out for a drink.
Orâin her wilder fantasiesâsimply peeled off all her clothes and plastered herself to that gorgeous body of his.
Walking her fingers across a shelf, Marnie blew a
kiss to a model of the Egyptian sphinx on one side of the case and winked at a tiny replica of Michelangelo's David. She had to freshen her flirting skills sometime, didn't she? One day, she'd get back out in the dating world again.
Retrieving her champagne glass, she knocked over an iron Statue of Liberty nearby. As she moved to straighten it, she noticed a smear on the back of the caseâa dark spot that didn't belong. Unwilling to suffer a smudge in an otherwise perfect display, she reached past the travel guides and mementos meant to entice her clients.
But the spot felt smooth as glassâdifferent than the rest of the wooden cabinet.
“That's odd.” Shoving aside a few more famous buildings for a better look, Marnie peered into a small circle of smoky glass.
Her champagne flute fell from her fingers and shattered on the floor. The electric thrill pulsing through her over her good payday fizzled to nothing, even though the bass from an old club tune still pumped through the speakers.
Because at the center of that smoky glass rested a tiny camera lens. Someone had been watching her.
And given the way the gadgetry had been so perfectly incorporated into her custom-built cabinet, she only had one guess as to who that might be. After what she'd gone through with her ex-boyfriend, the next guy who crossed her would be wise to run for cover.
And right now, it looked like that man was none other than her sexy contractor.
USIC PULSED FROM INSIDE
the Lose Yourself storefront facade until it sounded more like a raucous bar than a ritzy travel agency specializing in exotic adventures. If Jake Brennan hadn't known Marnie so well, he might have turned around and come back another day, thinking she had company.
But weeks' worth of video surveillance on her fledgling business had not only taken her off his primary suspect list in a major white-collar crime. It had also taught Jake that Marnie liked to dance. And damn, but her shimmy-shake routine while stripping off her jacket and blouse hadn't disappointed.
He would have closed his eyes if she'd ditched more than that. Honestly, he would have. But he'd wanted to be sure she was alone before he went to the door. Could he help it if she had a habit of peeling off work clothes in favor of a silk lounging robe the second she shut her door for the day?
Rapping on the door through the hole in the middle of a fat green holiday wreath, he grinned at the memory of old surveillance footage and the brief, two-minute snippet he'd allowed himself back in the carâjust enough to see her whip off the clothes and grab the champagne. He'd made sure to only point the cameras toward her work space for legal reasons, even though she'd had plans to live in the back offices. That had eased his conscience somewhat since he hated the idea of spying on anyone who was innocentâespecially in their most private moments. But at the time he'd installed the camera he now sought to remove, Jake had very good reason to think she was anything but innocent.
Inside Lose Yourself, the volume of the music decreased. The quiet of the business district on a Friday night surrounded him and he couldn't help a rush of anticipation at seeing Marnie now that he'd all but cleared her.
“Who is it?” came her voice, sweetly familiar to him after scanning hours of video for evidence in his case.
Yes, he'd gotten to know Marnie Wainwright so damn well that just hearing her voice had him salivating like Pavlov's dog. And that happened even though he'd forced himself to shut off the video feed on those few occasions where she'd started to strip off a little more than a stranger had the right to see.
“It's Jake Brennan,” he called through the door. “I did some work on your office a couple of months ago and I think I might have left one of my tools behind.”
He knew she'd remember him from his brief stint working there. He'd given her a steal on his labor, mostly because his work was entirely self-serving.
Plus, she'd eyeballed him enough that day to make him think she hadn't been oblivious to his presence in her office. If it hadn't been for his suspicions of her back then, he would have asked her out.
Now that he was going to retrieve the surveillance equipment and declare this part of his case finished, Jake looked forward to seeing her again without his work as a barrier.
Inside, he could hear her slide a dead bolt and flip one other lock open. He could picture it perfectly since he knew the inside of that office like the back of his hand from watching Marnie run her business day in and day
out. Other than the brief view he'd allowed himself in the car, however, he hadn't reviewed any tapes in a while. Not since his case had led him in another direction.
Slowly, the door creaked open.
A whisper of black silk fluttered through the crack. She'd left the final latch on the doorâa long hook like the kind used on hotel roomsâso she could see into the street without leaving herself vulnerable.
Recognizing the black silk as the calf-length, sexy number she liked to wear around the place before bed, he swallowed hard, knowing damn well she wasn't wearing much else.
“Sorry to bother you so lateâ”
The expression on her face froze him in his shoes. Pursed lips, a clamped-tight jaw and gray eyes staring daggers at him all suggested he'd interrupted something. Had she been arguing with someone on the phone? Protective instincts flared to life.