Hammered – First 4 chapters free!

FREE in Kindle Unlimited!

Global Link:  mybook.to/hammered

Amazon US:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GNBFJNK

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07GNBFJNK

Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B07GNBFJNK

Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07GNBFJNK


Chapter One


“No problem getting through that fence.” I turn to my friend and partner in crime, Lem, and give her a bright smile. “Now we need to find the elusive Danton Carter.”

Across the construction site, a few men in hard hats turn to stare. When they don’t look away immediately, my heart rate accelerates.

Lem rolls her eyes and touches her skirt. “Not loving the dust, Talia.”

“I don’t want to get kicked out before we talk to their boss.” I scan the area. “Do you see him anywhere?” I push my hair out of my face. “It’s so humid.”

My eyes catch on a man by a stack of 2x4s. He’s tall and built, and has the beginnings of a scruffy beard on his chiseled face. Super hot. He meets my eyes and I look away quickly.

“Too bad we’re not looking for that guy.” Lem nods her head in his direction. “Right?”

“If it doesn’t have a beer gut, several rows of jowls, and a cowboy hat with a feather, it isn’t Danton Carter. Once you see his pic on the website, you can’t unsee it.”

“Hot guy is staring.” Lem steps closer to me.

“Act like we belong. Walk that way.” I point to a silver trailer. “Maybe Carter’s in there, eating pork rinds.”

Lem snorts.

“Actually, he’s not eating pork rinds. He’s devouring the small, delicate bodies of the Moorish Crane. The very ones we’re trying to save. The ones he’s killing with this expansion into the woods.” My voice rises.

The handsome man puts down his hammer, unwraps a flannel shirt from his waist, and wipes his face with it.

Jesus, this guy is ripped! In his mid-thirties, I’d guess, his tanned skin is muscled like a fitness model, with a six-pack, strong biceps and triceps, narrow hips, and broad shoulders. His blue jeans ride low on his hips, and those boots… I do have a thing for guys in boots and worn jeans.

He tosses his shirt onto the pile of wood and strides toward me and my bestie, adjusting his hard hat.

“Talia. Incoming.”

“I can see that,” I hiss back, adjusting my skirt, wishing my heels weren’t so high. If I had sneakers on, I’d already be banging on that trailer.

“Ladies.” His voice is low and rich, but not welcoming. “This is a construction site. Private property. I need you to leave.”

I stick out my hand. “Hi. I’m Talia Carlsson and this is my colleague, Lem Hayes. We’re both volunteers from the—”

He doesn’t take my hand. “I don’t care where you’re from; you need to exit the premises. You’re not authorized, and you don’t have hard hats and boots. Let’s go.”

He gestures to the fence and gate. “I assumed the Employees Only sign might keep random people out. And the lock.” He narrows his eyes.

I cough. “It was left open.”

The man smiles, but it seems sort of predatory. “I suppose if I watched the security footage, I’d see exactly how you got in.”

“Maybe there’s no need to do that.” Lem pulls at my sleeve. “We can leave right now.”

“Not until we speak to Danton Carter.” I cross my arms.

The man stills. “What do you want with Danton Carter?”

“We’re from Earth First Environmentals.” I reach into my case and pull out a card. “My contact info.”

He takes the card and slides it into his front pocket without reading it, an easy move that makes my stomach flip, as I look at his lean hips. “Let me guess.” His voice is flat. “You’re with the group that keeps pestering us.”

“If you give us a chance to talk to him, I would appreciate it.” I make eye contact to show my sincerity. His eyes are a gorgeous cerulean blue. Holy mother of everything, who has eyes like that? And those lashes?

“Ladies, we need to walk.” His hand hovers just above my shoulder. “If you are injured on this site, it’s my ass.”

I try not to think about how much I’d like his ass, and how nice it looks in those jeans. I feel the warmth from his hand, and even though he doesn’t touch me, a little shiver of arousal sparks in my core.

“We’re not going near the work zone. We just wanted to find Danton.” I look back. “Or someone who knows where he is. Can you tell me where to find him?”

“The dangers are not limited to being hit in the head with an I-beam. You could trip over your own feet, fall and break your neck, and then sue.” He blows out a breath.

“Does that happen super often?” Lem’s voice is innocent.

“When people wear shoes like that, you better damn well believe it,” he says, a note of disgust in his tone, pointing at my heels.

“Ooh, no, these shoes are very comfortable,” I disagree, glancing down. “I walk quite well in them.”

Then I trip over an air molecule and fall right into the man.

Strong chest. Abs of steel. Arms that encircle me with strength. And his scent – not sweaty, like you’d assume, but sort of clean. Like soap, faint aftershave. Then a hint of deodorant and musk.

It’s over fast, then I’m back on my feet, breathing a little hard.

“Exactly,” he says, condescension dripping from his voice, “what I was talking about.” He rolls his eyes at me and Lem, but mostly at me. “Are you alright?” It’s like those last words were pulled from him.

“Yes.” I take a breath. “I only did that”—I sniff—“to make you feel good about yourself, like you get things right sometimes. It was intentional.” I stick up my chin and cross my arms. “You’re welcome.” I uncross my arms and adjust my hair, and his eyes follow the movement.

He scowls at me, hands on his hips, and slowly a smile works its way to his lips. “Is that so.”

“It’s exactly so.” My mouth twitches. “Because now that you’re softened up, you’re going to take us to see Danton Carter. Who’s one elusive… guy.” Sonofabitch, is what I wanted to say, but probably it’s not the best idea to insult a man’s boss in front of him.

“If he’s elusive to you, Ms.”—he pulls the card from his pocket and glances at it—“Carlsson, it’s for a reason. Have you considered that?”

“What’s your name again?”

He quirks a brow. “Again? Don’t recall I told it to you, yet.”

“You didn’t. That was my way of asking.”

“Kind of a roundabout way, don’t you think?”

“So what is it?”

He smiles at me. “You can call me Dane. Dane… Troy.”

“And this”—he gestures at the fence through which we recently came—“is called the exit. And this”—he raises his hand in a little Miss America wave—“is goodbye.”

“But wait.”

“Nice chatting, ladies.” He fixes us with a steely stare, and I gulp, stepping back through the opening with Lem. He clicks the lock shut and crosses his arms over that impressive chest. “You two have a fantastic day.”

When we don’t make a move to walk away, he raises one brow. “I’d sure hate to have to call security, which I will do in half a heartbeat if I see either of you two around here again in those.” He waves a hand at my heels, then turns to go.

“So I can come back if I wear my combat boots?” I call, and he snorts, turns back as if he can’t resist one more look.

“Please,” I implore. “It’s important. We have a miniscule window of opportunity here, and we only need a few minutes of his time. I’ve tried all the more traditional means—”

“You mean legitimate—”

“He’s not responding to emails, phone calls, texts, tweets.”

“If he’s not responding, it means the answer to whatever you want is probably already a no. Thank him for saving you some time,” he says drily. “Bye.”

Lem and I stand shoulder to shoulder, watching as he strides back to his pile of boards. He picks up the shirt and puts it on without glancing in our direction, then heads over to the group of men nearby.

“Is he a foreman?” Lem rummages in her purse and grabs her keys.

“He’s a dick.” I scowl.

“I’m sorry.” Lem turns to me. “That did not go well.”

“Understatement. Did we look stupid?”

“Well, women and feminists everywhere are crying, so I’d have to go with a resounding yes.” Lem shakes her head.

I groan in frustration as we get into her Prius. “I just thought if we could see him, face to face. Once. But we can’t even get past his guard dog.”

“It’s not over,” she consoles me. “They’re not scheduled to break into the breeding grounds for a few weeks, right? So you have time to track him down. Make your case.”

“Yeah.” I stare at the plastic banner that sways in the desultory breeze. Danton Carter Construction Corp. It’s held up on either side by two rough pieces of wood, one of which has pink spray paint. I see more pink marks along the ground, a dashed line, probably tracing the path of a future gas line or electric wire. “They’ve already built this much. Why would they change it now just because we asked?”

Lem nods. “And since everything they’re doing is legal, they don’t need to.”

“Maybe Mark is right. I’m wasting my time on this crane project.”

“Well, the thing about your time is that only you get to decide. Although…” she trails off and glances at me.


“I mean, there are other breeding grounds for the cranes. And we do have other issues to handle. I hate to say bigger ones, but…” she pauses again. “I mean, you know I agree that Mark’s a douche ninety percent of the time. But he may be right, just this once.”

“Please. Ninety-five, Lem. Get it right.”

We both laugh, and she slows down to drive over a series of muddy bumps and a well of murky water in between.

“This is really far out. Weird place for corporate offices, don’t you think?” Lem looks out at the wild tangle of bushes that leads into the woods.

“That’s the thing. The zoning paperwork is so vague it could be anything.” I pull up the stack of printouts from my laptop case near my feet. “We’re assuming corporate offices. But maybe it’s a personal retreat for the big man himself. Funded with company money.”

“The legal team tried to untangle it and said it’s legit, though. Right?”

“Yup. And Mark said he needs them to work the sea lion issue in Carlsbad.” I sigh. “Wish I’d gone to law school sometimes.”

“Buy a box of Cracker Jack.” Lem snorts. “I hear they have some degrees in there.”

I smile, but then frown as we pass a meadow. “I bet he plans to develop all of this into urban blight. I can’t believe they sold him the land. Assholes, all of them. Our current city council sucks.”

“Don’t disagree there.”

When we make it to the main road, gravel pings the underside of the car as Lem pulls out. “Where to now?”

“Back to the volunteer office.” I scowl. “We have to figure out our next steps.”


Chapter Two


“You getting lucky with a threesome tonight?” My lead construction guy, Hector, swigs from a gallon bottle of water. He’s been distant lately, and I’m glad he’s joking with me today.

I laugh. “Yeah.”

“Not those two, of course. I’m talking about the viejas who work in the front office.”

“Your mom and your sister, cabrón.”

He snorts. We watch the two women pull away in some fucking little white Prius.

“Seriously, man, who were they?” He puts down the jug and wipes his mouth. His hand jerks and twitches and he turns away from me, as if he doesn’t want me to see.

I shrug. “No one important.”

“The one with the long brown hair, she had fucking nice legs.” He’s still facing away from me, massaging one hand with the other.

“You don’t say.” I raise my eyebrows.

“Why you gotta keep secrets, jefe?” He faces me again and rolls his eyes.

“They were just asking questions. Tourists.” I shrug.

“Okay, sure, sure.” He laughs but makes a strange expression.

I hesitate. “Everything’s good with you, right?”

“Fuck, yeah.” He says emphatically. “Better than okay. You going to fill in again?” He nods at the beams. “We’re one man short this morning.”

“For an hour at least. That good?”

“Yeah.” His expression of satisfaction lets me know that working alongside the crew is the right call for now as they get to know and trust me.

Hector’s an excellent manager. The men listen to him, and he has an uncanny ability to match talent to task. Since I promoted him, we’re at least ten percent more efficient. Meaning we get tasks done ten point four percent faster on average than when my uncle was running the show.

My gut twists, thinking of the mess Danton left me. This is not the time to have do-gooder environmentalist hippie dippie chicks prancing around. Those kinds of people piss me off, even if they’re not encroaching on my site. And there’s definitely no time for romance in my world these days—I can barely make time to sleep, let alone try to date.

I’m not into threesomes. But if I had time… They were both pretty, but I’d choose the one Hector mentioned, the one I tangled with—and keep her all to myself. Talia.

I smirk, thinking of how she tripped, and sassed me, all super rude, when she didn’t get her way. Her gorgeous brown eyes and the way they widened when she looked at me. Her lush lips. Curvy shape.

Fuck, if we hooked up, and if by some stray chance of the gods she was into what I like, I’d bend her over the hood of that little crappy white car and spank her ass good and hard for teasing me until she begged me to—


“Yeah.” I swallow and focus on my cousin, who’s picking his way across the site in a three-piece suit and tie. Because he knows I’m anal about it, he’s also wearing his hard hat and boots. “What’s up?”

“I need to review the financials with you.” Art sniffles and touches his nose. “Oh God, the pollen. I’m literally going to die.”

I refrain from saying, “Go ahead.”

“This minute?” I raise my brows and glance back, but Hector has the crew already going. “I asked for email, not hand-delivery.”

“I’d appreciate it.” He crosses his arms and gives me the pouty look I remember from when we were kids. Used to be he’d follow it up by tattling. “I do have a busy schedule.”

“God forbid you’re late to a meeting,” I agree, narrowing my eyes.

He frowns. “Let’s go to your trailer,” he says, wrinkling his mouth. “I could use the AC.” He lifts the hard hat and smooths his hair, which has about an entire container of gel mixed in.

“You bet.” I raise a hand and make eye contact with Hector, and he nods. “Talk as we walk. Give me the overview.”

Art sneezes. “So we’re behind schedule on the Chicago and Baltimore projects since we had to do your renovations. My father didn’t think it necessary at the time, and I still don’t—” His voice is stiff.

“I explained that to the board.” I keep my voice even. “The buildings were started with lower grade wiring. We needed to upgrade.”

Art sniffles again. “It was to code when the project was initiated, and we were grandfathered in. Okay? So you going in there and overriding it didn’t make the board very happy. I’ll just say that. Very expensive.”

“The board,” I snap, opening the door to the trailer and gesturing to him to enter first, “can kiss my ass. They’d be crying another story if we were buried in multiple lawsuits or news stories, I promise you that. We need to have impeccable safety as part of our image.”

Art nods. “My father ran this company for over forty years and made it a powerhouse. The decisions you’re making are slowing us down and adding expense.” He raises his eyebrows, which are as sculpted as that woman’s. Talia’s. Of course, on her, it was fucking hot. “And I’m here to ensure we stay strong.” For a second I think I see some emotion in his eyes, but he looks away.

“Spell it out for me.” I cross my arms.

“The bottom line?” He scratches his cheek. “This project needs to get done on time and on budget and open up just as planned, or we are going to be in a world of hurt.”

“Meaning what, Art?”

“Meaning that if we’re all out of a job, nobody will give a flying fuck what kind of wiring we use, Dane.” He narrows his eyes. “You know how important it is that we get the next bid here in Mapleton. And if we fuck this one up at all, that one’s going to our competitors.”

I put up my hands. “The work’s gotta get done the right way. That’s a hard boundary condition. And if things weren’t that way in the past…” I let my voice trail off.

“I hope you’re not insinuating that my father was anything other than exemplary in his attention to detail.” Art frowns.

“It’s not an insinuation.” Let him make of that what he will.

We stare each other down for a second, then he averts his eyes. “I’ll email you the updated financials, like you asked. But I came here in person to let you know the severity of the situation.” His voice cracks and for a second his eyes look watery.

“You okay?” I raise an eyebrow.

“It’s my allergies, Dane. No, I’m not fucking okay. I need to get my Claritin. And I need to get going.”

“Consider me fully apprised.” I nod to the door. “Careful out there, Art. It’s only getting hotter. Don’t melt.”

He mutters something under his breath, then says, “I’ll need daily updates on the progress for the board.” He makes it sound like a request and a threat at the same time.

“You know me. Love updates,” I grunt.

He doesn’t reply, but raises a hand, and walks back toward the gate, his slacks making swishing noises.

“Put your hat back on,” I call. “Safety first.”

He says something I can’t catch, but sticks the hard hat back on his head as he walks to the gate, only whipping it off when he reaches his car. Tosses it in the back seat. He honks the horn on his sleek BMW twice as he takes off, raising dust.

“Motherfucker.” I groan and head back out to the crew. As I approach, I call out to Hector. “Where do you need me, man?”

I see respect in the way some of the men eye me, and I stand tall. Working with them seems to be helping with motivation and morale, things we need now more than ever here at Danton Carter Construction.

I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge—and right now, this is the biggest one I’ve ever taken on. It will take all of my focus and skills, but I’m confident I can turn this project around and get us back in the black. That is, if I stay on task and don’t allow anything to get us off schedule: Not protestors, not pretty women, nothing.

It shouldn’t be a problem.


“It shouldn’t be a problem.” I force a smile at Mark, and rub my temples, trying to stave away the headache that whispers from behind my eyeballs.

“Because, Taaalia.” He drags out my name, and I’m mesmerized by the way his thin lips move. “When I get a call from the head of security at a well-known construction site, complaining that my minions were harassing the crew, and snuck on-site illegally and not even in the correct safety gear, do you know how that makes me feel?”

“I don’t, Mark. Why don’t you tell me how that makes you feel?” I keep my voice pleasant. Dear sweet Jesus, though, I’m thinking. Just kill me now. Right now. Why do I even do this?

“I’ll tell you what I feel.” He points at me, and the ends of his fingernails, bitten to the quick, repulse me. “I feel that it makes us look a little unhinged. A little too much like PETA for my liking. We are a small and growing environmental group and we are a completely legitimate one.”

Behind his back, Lem mouths along on ‘completely legitimate’, and I put a hand to my mouth to stifle my laughter.

I stare at the bulletin board which is littered with pictures of celebrities who are active in social justice campaigns; these are the people Mark is wooing on a constant basis. It’s like a People Magazine married a National Enquirer and the two of them vomited all of their contents into our office. So far Mark hasn’t succeeded in obtaining a single famous spokesperson for any of our campaigns, but that hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm one bit.

“We follow rules. We advocate for the helpless animals who need us, and we do it one hundred percent within the law of the country. Because otherwise we’re no better than the vicious creeps we protest against.”

“Absolutely.” I want to roll my eyes and smirk, but I can’t. How is this my life? At thirty-two, how did it happen that I spent my valuable free after-work time volunteering in a shitty little strip-mall office full of 70s style modular cubicles, getting lectured by a guy who resembles the naked mole rat he purports to love?

Then I glance over at the photos of the Moorish Crane—excellent photos, ones I took, not that I’m bragging—and it comes back to me: This is why. Because I give a shit about these animals, and because Mark—annoying though he is—also cares.

He frowns. “You know I more than appreciate all of the hours you’ve spent taking photos for us.”


“And the crane calendars you designed. And I’d hate to lose you.”

“Lose me?” I frown.

“As a valued volunteer. But if you persist in rogue activities, I’ll have no choice but…” He pierces me with his gray eyes.

“Mark, please. I hardly think it’s a rogue activity to seek out the owner of a construction company that’s threatening the habitat of a special local species.”

“We need to be squeaky clean, Talia. That’s how we’re going to set ourselves apart. We can’t grow as an organization and get the funding we need from important donors if we’re not spotless.” Mark coughs. “I’m this close to getting Manda Shine on board. She grew up not too far from this town. Do you know how amazing that would be for Earth First Environmentals? It would put us on the map. And I need all my volunteers to embrace that. Keep the right image.”

I want to tell Mark to fuck himself. And that no way is a big, world-famous star like Manda going to support our dinky efforts here. But I swallow my pride.

“Oh, I can embrace that.” I give him a big smile. Lem and I are going to go for a drink, and I will verbally eviscerate this little weasel as if I were paid to do it.

“Good.” He clears his throat and picks up a picture of a crane. “Because this little guy?” He waves the photo at me. “He’s counting on you.” I think I see tears in his eyes.

The horrible thing is that even though I want to mock him—and oh, I will—I understand the emotion, too. I care about animals and their habitats.

But then I see Mark slide his glance over to another picture; the one featuring the cast of The Walking Dead. And it’s not clear to me whether his tears are because he actually cares about the animals, or because he’s so eager to consort with celebrities.

“I mean, protests are one thing.” He clears his throat. “Protest events we plan as a group. Ahead of time. With my appropriate foresight. And attendees.” His eyes stray to the bulletin board again, and he sniffs. “And this whole incident should never have happened. Remember I told you that we’re focusing on sea lions now, Talia?”

I steeple my fingers and try not to look guilty. Of course I remember. “Well, the legal volunteers, yeah. But as far as I understood, we here in town were still going strong on the crane situation because they’re local, and we’re local, and it makes more sense for us to focus on local—”

“We in town are doing what I say, Talia. Because last time I checked, I manage the resources. We don’t want to mix messages and resources. And right now I might need to take a trip to Monterey Bay, which is going to, as luck would have it, have a film festival this coming weekend! And I can’t be distracted wondering if you’re going to get into trouble.” He coughs. “So I need you to stay away from that site.”

“I will not go back onto that property without an invitation or appropriate safety gear,” I promise Mark.

“Thank you.” His voice is stiff. “Have a wonderful weekend, Talia.”

“Oh, you too.” I grab my purse. “Lem?”

She gets her stuff. “I’ll walk out with you. Later, Mark.”

“Hmmm.” He’s got his laptop open and he’s typing furiously. Probably reaching out to the reps for every celebrity he can think of.

As the door closes behind us, I let out my breath. “I don’t know why I tolerate him, Lem. I swear—”

“I know. I know.” She pats my arm. “Let’s go for a drink at Corndog’s. It’s a new place I want to try.”

“That does not sound like a good name.” I give her a dubious look.

“It’s the best, according to Karla. Corndog Cemetery. It’s a new underground bar and it’s super cool.”

“And they’ll let us in?”

“How could they not?” She waves a hand up and down her body. “We are hotness personified. Also, it’s not like a bouncer situation place. Just, you know, hard to find.”

“Like a secret?”

“More like funky and unusual and sort of difficult to locate, but not actually secret.”

“Then count me in.”

“Consider yourself counted.”

“I do consider myself that.”

“Good, because you are.”


Chapter Three


“So we go into this Chinese restaurant,” Lem explains, “and through the kitchen. Then we’ll find a door marked ‘No Enter.’ We enter it, go down some stairs, and if we say ‘Corndogs are cool’ at the next door, we get ten percent off a drink. And we get to enter.”

“That sounds so James Bond. Are you sure?” I glance over at the pink neon sign that flashes ‘Happy Yum Noodle’ although the N is burned out. There’s trash on the sidewalk and the whole area has a desolate, run-down feel, although there’s a fair amount of street traffic and pedestrians. Across the street, a parking lot is full of high-end vehicles, but I have no idea where the patrons might be.

“Not entirely. Think of it as an adventure.”

“Why would the restaurant allow people to walk through their kitchen? Isn’t that against the health code?”

She shrugs. “I don’t know that places around here care too much about things like health and code.” She makes air quotes on the words. “They probably get paid a nice little sum from the bar.”

“Well, as a volunteer who just got her non-paying job threatened by a weasel for doing things against protocol, I personally want to say that I care about things like that.”

“Where’s the spitfire who tweaked that lock this morning?” She giggles. “Guess Mr. Hot Ass did review the security tape.”

“It wasn’t even really locked. And I’d like to tell him exactly what I think of him.” I scowl. “Let’s go.” I get out of her car and slam the door, and stand on the sidewalk, inhaling the scent of crispy beef grease. “Jesus, that smells good.”

“Air crack,” Lem agrees. “Even if we don’t find the bar, they probably make a delicious egg roll.”

“That’s the scam. There’s no bar. They suck you in and once you’re there, you’re all, fuck it. I’m already here. Might as well get seven orders of Lo Mein and some Orange Chicken.”

We open the door and push aside a waterfall of beaded strings. The place is dim, heavy on the red and gold and Buddhas. A few people—all Chinese—are eating in booths. Nobody looks up at us, but I feel out of place.

“So, the kitchen?” I raise my eyebrows.

“Yes,” whispers Lem. She takes my hand. “Give me bravery.”

I squeeze her fingers. “You lead the way. I’m tapped out of sass.”

We make our way over to the kitchen. A woman looks up at us from a booth where she’s folding napkins and raises her eyebrows.

I smile, sure that she’s going to stand up and tell us, “Stop.”

But she just nods and goes back to her task, and as we approach the swinging gray door with the round porthole window, my heart starts to hammer. “This is exciting,” I hiss. “We’re really doing this.”

“Ooh, back up.” Lem grabs me by the arm as the door opens, nearly hitting me. “Busy.”

A waiter comes out with a tray of steaming entrees; gives us a quick glance but doesn’t stop.

I peer through the window. “Are there any doors in there? And look how close we’d have to walk to the grease tanks. I don’t know—”

“Let’s just see. We came this far.” Lem pokes me in the back. “Go in.”

“Me? Why should I go first?” But I tentatively push the door. A wave of heat hits me as I step into the narrow galley. A man looks up from chopping onions and gives us a stare, and a row of headless ducks lie naked and pale on a metal slab. There’s no door marked ‘No Enter.’

“Oh, fuck,” I whisper to Lem. “This feels wrong.”

“Yeah.” She bites her lip. “Um, I just remembered. I’m not sure it’s Happy Yum Noodle. Maybe it’s Panda Empire.”

“Lem! Those aren’t even remotely similar.” I grab her hand.

“Can we help you?” A voice from behind us rings out—someone else has entered the kitchen after us.

At first I assume it’s the manager. Except the voice is familiar—and as I turn, the words “I’m sorry, we’re just leaving” on my lips, I recognize who it is.

It’s the guy from the site. Dane. Except right now he’s no longer in his jeans and bare chest. He’s wearing slacks and a dress shirt that hugs his body in all the right places, and holy fucking hell do my eyes pop.

“These are the same two who snuck into my construction site this morning. Not surprised to find them wandering around another place they don’t belong.”

He turns to the guy beside him, a tall man with dark hair, and says something in Chinese, and the two of them laugh loudly. My face burns as they stand in the doorway.

Dane eyes me. “Talia.” When our eyes meet, a spark flares, and I swear, the air between us gets hotter than it already is inside the kitchen.

“Dane. So lovely to see you.” I smile. “Tattling on me again?” I raise my eyebrows and cross my arms.

“Have you done something bad, again?” His voice, rich and low, rolls over me, and I withhold a shudder at the way he says the word bad. His eyes flash at me and he smirks, as if he’s reading the dirty thoughts in my mind.

“Depends on how you define bad,” I retort. Not my best reply ever, but I’m flustered by his eyes. The biceps filling out those sleeves. His narrow hips.

His smile is dangerous. “Why don’t you tell me how you define it.”

“Well, I don’t define it by trying to save a species of bird and its habitat from getting wiped out by a construction company.”

“Perhaps we can continue this conversation in the dining room.” The other man gestures. “Please, ladies. Dane.” His almond-shaped eyes, dark and alert, scan us both, but he gives Lem a second glance. I think he’s incredibly handsome—tall and lean, his suit fits him perfectly.

“Apologies, Bae.” Dane ducks his head. “I’ll take care of the miscreants for you. These intruders happen to be Talia Carlsson and her sidekick—”

“Lem,” adds my friend, sticking out her hand.

“Bae Xo.” He shakes my hand, then takes Lem’s hand, and I think I see her sparkle. He holds her hand for a long second before releasing it. “You know, the guided tour is only a few dollars extra. There’s no need to sneak around.”

“I’m sorry.” Lem steps in a little closer. “We thought there was a secret bar hidden in here.”

“A bar?” Bae raises his brows. “Really.”

“But I was mistaken.”

“So it would seem.” He smirks.

“But I have to say that I’m entirely fascinated by the onion chopping process. And ah, duck cooking.” Lem points to the kitchen.

“Then by all means. Please. Let me take you around.” He bows and takes her elbow. “Yes?”

Lem seems utterly charmed. “I’d love that.” Her voice is low and breathy, and I roll my eyes.

As the two of them disappear behind the swinging door, I look up at Dane. “So.”

“So.” He smiles. “Do you consider this fate?”

“She has off days. It’s possible.” I shrug, pretending that his broad shoulders aren’t doing things to my libido.

He laughs. “Come on, don’t hold a grudge.”

“You called my boss, Dane, at the environmental group where I volunteer. And complained about me.” I scowl at him.

“You were trespassing.” His smiles fades. “Being unsafe. Tampered with a lock, for which I could actually have called the police. Am I incorrect?”

I sigh. “No. It’s just… complicated.”

He tilts his head. “Want to tell me about it? With a formal apology?” There’s a glint in his eye that makes me weak. “Promise not to come back?”

I weigh my options. “If I do, will you help me get a meeting with Danton Carter?”

He hesitates and a strange look passes over his face. “I can’t make any promises.”

“But you’ll consider it?” My heart leaps, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting closer to my goal, or because I get to spend time with this man.

He doesn’t reply.

“How about you’ll answer…” I think wildly. “Three questions about him. Deal?”

Finally, he nods.

“Then yes. I would like to apologize.” I smile.

There’s a pause. He’s looking at me expectantly. “Anytime, then.” He pierces me with his stare.

“Oh, you wanted the apology immediately? I thought we’d chat first, work up to it.”

“Right away.” There’s a note to his voice that sets wild butterflies loose in my body, and turns my veins to fire. He’s so dominant right now, like the fantasy man of my dreams. “If it’s a genuine one, of course.” He raises a brow.

“I’m sorry I bypassed an inexpertly locked gate and came onto the site without appropriate gear.” I smile.

“And?” He crosses his arms.

“And… that’s it. What else did you want me to say?”

A little smirk plays on his lips and suddenly I think about all kinds of wicked, dirty things that have nothing to do with construction sites or Danton Carter. My face grows hot and I touch my cheek.

He laughs. “Just trying to find out if you needed to ‘fess up about anything else.”

I ignore the way my nipples want his fingers. “I think that’s the entire catalogue of today’s sins, thanks.” I narrow my eyes. “But I appreciate the opportunity to soul-cleanse. Not enough of that these days.”

“Indeed.” He grins.

“So now you have to answer my questions about Danton Carter.” I don’t even try to keep the note of triumph out of my voice.

“I suppose I do.” He smiles at me, but doesn’t say more.

“Okay. So first of all, where can I find—”

“How about down in the bar?”

What?” I blink, nonplussed.

“More comfortable. I’ll answer your questions in the bar, all three of them.”

“Which bar?”

“The one you were trying to find. It’s just downstairs.” He smirks at me.

“You are such a dick.” I shouldn’t say it, but it slips out. “The bar was there all along?”

He laughs. “You go through a door in the back, by the alley. Come on, I’ll show you.”

“Why are you even here? I don’t understand why you of all people would be in this restaurant slash embarrassing place slash bar.” I frown.

“My friend owns it and I’m doing some work on the building for him.” He regards me for a minute. “Expansion. You think a construction guy can’t speak Chinese and have friends in the restaurant business?”

I put up my hand. “Just curious.”

He nods. “Fair enough.”

I look for Lem.

He seems to know what I’m doing. “Don’t worry, Bae will bring her down in a minute. She’s safe.”

I think it over; mentally agree. Follow him back through the restaurant, where he waves and says something in Chinese to the woman folding napkins.

When we walk around back, he points to a door. It’s nondescript metal, a little battered. Yet it has a bright red chicken painted onto the door, and a speech bubble. The chicken is saying something I can’t read, as the words are written in Chinese.

“It says, Corndogs are better than chicken. We go in through here.”

“Oh my God. I can’t believe this was here all along.”


From his smirk, I can see he’s not sorry at all. “You are not.” I give him a look.

“You’re right. I’m not. I’m enjoying this.” He smiles at me, and when I see the dimple in his cheek, I can’t help a matching grin from spreading across my face. “Come on, then.”

He takes my hand, and I know I shouldn’t allow it, but it feels perfect. I love his strong fingers holding my delicate ones—warm, pressing just with the right amount of pressure. The feel of skin on skin makes me want him.


Chapter Four


The stairs are narrow, and he goes down first, still holding my hand. Nobody is waiting at the bottom to hear us say, “Corndogs are cool.” I roll my eyes, thinking I’m going to have to lecture Lem about her website browsing techniques.

A band is playing, and it’s so loud that you can’t talk. There’s no way I’ll be able to ask any questions or hear his answers.

I’m pissed, and then I forget all about that, because he puts his mouth right up to my ear and says, “What do you want to drink?” His breath on my skin practically makes me swoon.

I have to speak into his ear, too, and it’s the sexiest fucking thing I’ve done in a long time. I rest my hand on his shoulder and he bends down to accommodate me while I reach up on tiptoes. “Pinot Noir if they have it. If not, I’ll take whatever.”

His shirt is crisp under my hand, and I feel his muscles. Smell him—cologne, soap, his skin. I love it.

He puts his mouth back to my ear. “You want the menu, or do you trust me to choose?” His breath fans my hair and sends tingles down my spine. Into my toes, my nipples.

I tilt my head up again to talk into his ear, and he rests one hand lightly on my waist, as if to provide support. His fingers splay out, softly, not doing anything erotic. But the touch alone makes me catch my breath.

“You think you know what I want?” I half-whisper it, but my lips are so close to his face that he can hear me.

A muscle clenches in his jaw. “I think I’m a fast learner. Never had complaints.” His hand tightens ever so slightly.

“Is that so?” This time I leave my hand on his shoulder a second longer. My whole body aches for it and I sigh, like a druggie getting her high, when I feel his lips at my ear again, that tingly tickle of his voice.

“You taste what I give you and tell me what you think, alright?”

Fuck me, but I want to taste him. I want what he’ll give me.

A slow smiles spreads across my face.

He raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, Talia.” He runs a hand over my arm and steps away, pointing to the bar. When he leaves my side I feel surprisingly alone, and shudder, touching my neck. My ear. Where his lips just were.

I stand by the tall table and press my thighs together, already feeling a driving need in my core. What is it about this man that has me so worked up?

People are dancing in front of the band, in a small square that barely accommodates a few couples, but they’re not bothered by the tight quarters. Others stand together, swaying to the beat, and at the handful of small tables, people sit locked together in embraces, or talking like Dane and I did: intimate, right into each other’s ears.

Dane comes back with a glass of wine and something on the rocks. He hands me the wine and holds up his own glass; a toast. I clink, and as the band plays something wild and exotic, I taste the pinot, letting the flavor burst onto my tongue. He’s watching intently, eyes on my lips, and it feels like he’s tasting it, too. I want him to taste it from my lips.

He bends down. “First question. Fire.”

I lick my lips. It’s hard to bring up the face of florid Danton Carter in my mind, and even more difficult to focus on what I need to ask.

The band launches into a ballad, and it’s slightly less noisy. I put my mouth to his cheek next to his ear. “Where can I find Danton Carter, the CEO? I found his bio on the website, but I can’t locate the man.”

He looks up at the ceiling and sighs, then puts his mouth to my cheek, finding the same spot I touched on his face. It’s erotic, and it makes it difficult to listen when he says, “He’s out of the country.”

Fuck. I swallow. “Where?”

He shakes his head, then presses his lips to my ear. “He didn’t send out a memo to the staff about that.”

“When is he coming back?”

He shrugs, but follows it up with a low murmur into my ear. “He hasn’t said a thing about his return to the crew.”

“Well, he must have a second in command, right? Who’s that person, and can I talk to them instead?”

Instead of answering, he gives me a slow, lazy smile. “That was three, Talia.”

“Dane.” I pull back in irritation. “Those weren’t even useful. That’s not fair.”

“Is it my fault if you can’t come up with the right queries?” He raises a brow. “Maybe you need to enroll in a continuing ed class, Journalism 101. I held up my end of the bargain.”

“You did not.”

“I’m sorry, are we both using the same numerical system?” He gives me a smug little chuckle. “You know, the one invented by the Arabs and then imported to the Western world in the—”

“Oh my God. You are so frustrating right now.” I scowl.

“Oh, I am?” He gives me a look. “How about you try this on: A woman comes sneaking into the construction site where I’m leading a crew, almost hurts herself, harasses me—“

“I was not harassing—”

“Then tries pumping me for information about somebody who clearly doesn’t want to talk to her—”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand why he’s such a recluse. Why, is something wrong with him? Is he, like, in jail?” I narrow my eyes. “In rehab? Look, all I want is half an hour just to talk to him face to face and tell him about our environmental concerns.” I think of that red, florid face. “Is he getting an angio or something?”

At the look of steely disapproval on Dane’s face, I sense that I’ve gone too far. The disappointment that hits me has as much to do with the man himself as with my inability to access Danton Carter.

I sigh. “Are we done here then?”

“We’re done with that conversation.” His voice is flat.

“Will you at least give him my card? Put it on his desk and give him the chance to call me?” I’m desperate.

He seems to consider this. “I’ll put it on his desk.” He nods. “Now can we move on?”

I shrug, pissed I didn’t get more information.

He adds, “I just don’t have a lot to tell you. Sorry.” He grins, tilts his head.

“Well, I suppose if I’ve drained you.” I smile. I suppose a foreman wouldn’t have information on the CEO, necessarily. Shame. I thought this was going to be a good lead.

“Oh, now who’s talking dirty?” He trails a finger down my arm. “I wouldn’t mind if you did.”

“Oh, you’re going to have to earn that.” I give him a mock ferocious stare, but my whole body is alight with energy.

Across the room, Lem and Bae appear, and she’s glowing like a thousand marquee lights. When she sees me, she waves. Instead of coming over, she and Bae head to the dance floor, where he encircles her in his arms, looking down into her face.

“See, told you she’d make it.”

“I wasn’t worried, or I wouldn’t have left her.”

“Good friend.” He lifts his glass, and when I don’t lift mine, he leans in and clinks my goblet. “Truce. Yes?”

I bite my lip. The music changes again, back to the previously loud rhythm, a driving beat. Like sex. I toss caution aside. “Yes.”

“Good.” The smile that comes across his face, satisfied and teasing, makes my heart pound. “Answer me honestly. If we met somewhere else, and I asked you out on a date, would you have said yes?”


He laughs. “Then how about we consider this a date? Even if it started off a little rough?”

I tilt my head, a noncommittal gesture. “I don’t know if I’m ready for a date.” Then I put my lips back to his ear, feeling reckless. “But you can try to convince me, if you’d like.”

He smiles. “I do like. And I don’t think you’ll need much convincing.”

“Pretty sure of yourself.” I raise an eyebrow. “Cocky.”

“If you like, yes.”

“You are a bold, bad man.”

“I can be that and more. So why don’t you set the pace.” He puts down his drink. “You’ll tell me if we make it to a second date. Or anything.” He grins. “I’ll just sit back and be charming.”

“Oh, you will?” But I’m already charmed. I’ve already half-lost my heart, for reasons I can’t explain.

He taps my drink. “How do you like it? Are you… satisfied?”

The environment, one of wild abandon, makes me shed my inhibitions. I press my lips right to his earlobe, and put both hands on his chest, liking the way his body tenses under my touch. Leans in closer. “Not even close. But the wine is delicious. Thank you.”

He wraps one hand around my neck and bends down, laughs into the other side of my neck, into my skin. I can feel the vibrations of his chuckle in my nerve endings. In my fingertips. In my clit. “Tell me what will do it, then.”

“You think you could handle it?” For some reason we’re face to face now, and I’m speaking into his lips. So close. Just a millimeter apart.

“Why don’t you try me? I think you’d be surprised.” He smirks, and the confidence in his face, his stance, make me weak.

“I do like surprises.” I run my hand down his arm, and our fingers intertwine. He strokes my palm with his thumb.

“Tell me what kind of surprises you like best.” He nips my neck softly.

I moan and close my eyes, leaning into his strong chest. He dips his head down and bites my earlobe. “You like your surprises soft or rough, Talia?”

“Both. It depends.”

He puts one arm around me and holds me against his chest, runs his index finger over my upper lip, then my lower one. “I’m good at either.”

“Do tell.” My voice is low now, and our heads are so close that nothing can interfere; not the band, not the lights, not the other people. It’s just us and this beautiful, fucking delicious tension.

“Oh, I don’t think so.” His murmur is so soft I have to really lean in to hear it. “You’re setting the pace, remember? You need to be the one to tell me something. Either a stop, or a yes, more.”

“Oh, I do?” I just want any excuse to have my face near his. My lips by his skin, his mouth by mine. His body brushing mine, sending exquisite sparks of energy into me with each stray touch, each deliberate caress.

“Mmm hmm.”

“Tough decision.” I lean my head back and listen to the music, feeling it pulse in my chest, in my abdomen.

“You seem like a woman who knows what she wants.”

I smile. “I do know what I want.” And I press my lips to his for a second, pull back to say, “And I want this,” before kissing him again.

His hands go to my face, one on either side, and he kisses me back, his lips tasting of scotch. He uses his tongue to explore my mouth, teasing mine, and I press into him as closely as I can until my hips are against his thighs. His body is hard, flat, muscular—everywhere I touch, where I run my hands, is a pleasure.

He bites my lip, then bends down and kisses my neck, sucks the skin, and I moan in arousal.

When I lean forward for another kiss, he pulls away, and takes both of my hands in his. He looks at me for a long second, his eyes full of passion.

“Not here,” he says, a little smile on his face.

When I don’t reply, he leans in to whisper into my ear, “Unless you want to put on a show, and there are more appropriate places for that.”

I shake my head. “No show.”

His mouth twitches. “Would you like to leave?” He loosens his grip on my hands and steps back. Giving me space to think, maybe, but I don’t want it. “I’ll take you to my place.”

FREE in Kindle Unlimited!

Global Link:  mybook.to/hammered

Amazon US:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07GNBFJNK

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07GNBFJNK

Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B07GNBFJNK

Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07GNBFJNK


How To Give A Blow Job: Chapters 1-3 from Return

ad for return for twitter2Greetings! I’m Alexis Alvarez, a romance author. Today I’m sharing the first three chapters of my novel Return, in which my heroine and her BFF discuss the finer points of certain oral maneuvers, and how to find the best tutorials on Google regarding said maneuvers. Plenty of us can see the great techniques used when we watch sites like sexhdtuber.com but perhaps not many of us know how to replicate such kinky acts but these chapters are here to enlighten us on the situation. All for book research, of course…

Return is the story of Ava, an aspiring novelist, who bases the hero of her BDSM novel on sexy gym trainer Damian similar to what you might see on sites like https://www.fuckedtube.xxx/. When he finds out that he inspired a book, he demands payback — they’ll act out every kinky scene, with him as the dom and her as the sub. The passion is incredible, but the path to love is twisty and uncertain. There is an HEA, and some readers said it made them cry in a good way. Return has received 4 and 5-star reviews on Amazon. It reminded me of some super hot material from hdpornt! Enjoy!

If you’re interested to getting some video inspiration check out adult videos at https://www.tubev.sex a friend of mine says they have the best videos!

Excerpt from Return (First Three Chapters)

Chapter One

Ava Grimaldi twisted one of her long, brown curls around her finger and grinned at her best friend, Claire. Light streaming through the large plate-glass windows sparkled into the space, creating blinding white flares on her laptop screen as she folded down the lid and picked up her cup of coffee.

“So, how’s the writing going?” Claire asked, setting her steaming latte onto the table. She smiled at Ava and slung her purse over the back of a mismatched wooden chair. “I’m late, but you know I’d never miss our Saturday morning coffee here at MoonBeans.”

“I’m on a really sexy scene right now,” replied Ava, blinking back the solar glare and sipping her Americano. “Coincidentally, this particular short story starts in a coffee house very similar to ours.” The eclectic Chicago café enveloped them with the deep aroma of espresso and the sounds of low chatter, grinders and soft jazz, and Ava gestured as if inviting the atmosphere to join them.

Ava shot Claire a mischievous smile, crossed one lean, muscular leg over the other and continued, “About my novels-I’m nearly going crazy waiting for my first book to come out in stores. It will happen in the next two weeks for sure, Claire! And for the second book? I just sent the latest copy to my editor last night. I added in that scene she wanted. You know,” she lowered her voice and leaned forward, “that special one.”

She giggled and made a hand gesture near her mouth to let Claire know exactly what kind of “special” was on the menu.

Claire snorted. “I can’t believe you’re writing another kinky sex novel, Ava. Before you started your part-time author gig? I would never have guessed that you were the one with the dirty mind. You always came across as innocent and clean, the fresh-eyed computer programmer next door.”

“Hey,” Ava protested, and took a sip from her hand-painted green and blue mug, a modern-art ocean in her hands. “Coders are cool. I’m representing my kind, you know? Showing that numbers geeks have many talents. Who better than a math expert to capture the beauty of a sixty-nine in words?”

Claire rolled her eyes and tapped the side of her cup. “I’m curious. You must have given hundreds of specials to be able to write about them so well. Am I right?” She gazed at Ava with her Inspector Detective look, the one where she narrowed her pale blue eyes and pulled some of her brilliant red hair into a fake moustache.


Claire grinned. “In round numbers. Estimate it.”

“Well,” Ava shot back, “how many times have you specialized?”

“Me?” Claire paused and deliberated, releasing the fauxstache. “I mean, Ryan loves a good special. So, at least once or twice a week.”

“Really?” Ava was impressed. “Wow.”

“Well, sure. But he gives as good as he gets,” replied Claire with a wink. “Now you answer, Ms. Perverted Hemingway.”

Ava retorted, “You know I prefer to be called Emily Dick-inson.”

“e.e. cum-mings?”

“Francis Ford Coppola-feel.”

“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Haha.”

Woody Allen.”

There was a pause, then Claire interrupted. “And you totally changed the subject. Is it weird to ask? I’ve just been wondering.”

Ava fidgeted. “You’re funny. Honestly? Not often. Okay, once. Half of once.”

Claire popped upright in her chair. “Seriously?”

Ava shrugged. “I haven’t been with that many guys, Claire.”

Claire still appeared astounded. “I thought I was kidding about calling you innocent.”

Ava rolled her eyes. “I’ve had plenty of sex, okay? It’s just never been earth-shattering, I guess. And I never really wanted to try doing a blow job with any of them. It’s a mental thing.”

Claire had a strange look on her face. “How did you do half? You only licked one side of it?” She giggled.

“Shut up! It was with my ex, Matt, last year. He started pushing my head, and it tweaked my neck in this awkward way, and I got pissed. Then he told me I wasn’t doing it right, and I broke up with him. Not just because of that, but it was the final straw on our lukewarm romance.”

Claire slammed her cup down as hard as a cardboard container could go, causing coffee to slosh out of the plastic lid and onto her hand. She licked it off, commenting, “Never waste a good Java.” Then she continued her interrupted tirade. “What a jerk-off. A guy can’t just shove your head down there and be all, Blow me, baby. Maybe he was blaming you for his lack of sexability.”

Ava frowned. “He turned out to be pretty toolbox. But also? We didn’t have the right chemistry. Things between us were… tepid.”

Claire tilted her head and her freckles glowed in the sunlight. “Remind me why you dated him in the first place?”

Ava shrugged. “In the beginning, he was actually kind of sweet and funny. It was only later on that things fell apart.” Her eyes crinkled as the next thought came to her. “And if I’m being completely honest, I thought dating Matt would get my mind off of Damián. Not the best reason to start a relationship, apparently.” She gave Claire a wry grin and lifted her coffee cup. “Live and learn, or so they tell me.” She took a deep sip of the creamy drink and savored the hint of hazelnut.

Claire sighed. “Ava. You’ve been mooning over Damián for how long now? Half a year?”

Ava ran her finger along the table, mopping up a stray drop of coffee and using it like paint to make a swirl pattern. “It’s not a big deal. I date other people. It’s only a crush… it’ll burn out eventually, right?” A ray from the window made the droplets glow like tiny suns.

Claire pushed at her cup. “But you don’t really date other people, not more than one-time deals. I know you like working out at Damián’s gym. And you spend a lot of time with him since he hired you off-hours to design his website. And he is really handsome. But-“

Ava broke in, thinking of sexy Damián. “Right? He’s gorgeous. It’s frustrating, because he flirts with me a lot, and I almost think there’s something there. Like last time when we met about the web design. He asked a lot of personal questions, and we were teasing each other. He got so close, and looked right into my eyes-I thought he was going to kiss me.” Her voice lost some spark. “He didn’t, though, and the next time I saw him at the gym, he was distant. I was something useful and dull, like a folding chair.”

Claire tapped Ava’s hand. “Folding chairs can be fancy, Ava. Did you know that the Versailles Palace in France has folding stools made of hand-carved, gilded walnut wood, covered with silk and velvet cushions with tassels? Fit for a queen. Or should I say king? Because you want him to sit on you, right?”

Merci beaucoup, Claire,” said Ava, making a face. She did, in fact, want Damián’s hot, muscular body on top of hers, his dark eyes shooting her looks of passion, his warm brown skin hers to touch. She could almost feel her fingers running through his black hair, her mouth meeting his. And when it came to Damián, she’d be more than happy to lock her lips around the most intimate part of his anatomy. She’d do almost anything with him, including every wild escapade in her own romance novel.

While pondering this, she felt the small pang of concern that had been hitting her more often as the publication date of her first book loomed closer. Maybe? Maybe it wasn’t so cool that the fictional hero of her debut novel was kind of-well, nearly one hundred percent-modeled on real-life Damián Perez.

Tired of fantasizing about Damián, Ava had tried to exorcise him from her thoughts by writing her kinky sex novel with him as the hero. And when it came time to publish, she didn’t tell her editor that the protagonist was remarkably similar to a flesh-and-blood person. She probably shouldn’t have done it, but the truth was that she liked the character so similar to real-life Damián. This was a piece of her soul, now, this book; she didn’t want to change anything. This was her fantasy all written out, his face and body and traits mixed in with some imaginary, hot alpha-male sex.

Damián would never read a BDSM romance, so he’d never find out that his body and gym, his art and his love of rock climbing, his sexy accent and his Puerto Rican heritage had formed the inspiration for her hero. Who knew if anyone would buy it? Even if they did, what were the chances they’d even recognize him, especially since there was all the BDSM, something he surely wasn’t into? And she’d changed his name.

Still, though, she felt guilty, like she’d stolen something valuable, something irreplaceable.

She shook her head, as if dislodging the thoughts, and added, “Yes, but I don’t know if I’m his type. His ex-girlfriend? Mariana? She’s so pretty that I’d want to fuck her if I were a lesbian. She’s that hot. And she’s his ex. The one who didn’t make the cut.”

Claire shook her head back. “Didn’t you say Mariana was a raving bitch? See, personality matters to him, if he exxed her. Way to be a real man, Damián.” She raised her cup in a mock toast. “There’s hope for him yet.”

Ava waved her hand. “Of course personality matters. But you need the spark of attraction. And he can get any sparkplug he wants. He has infinite choices. I guess I’m not his, even if he’s flirty sometimes. Maybe I’m just not cute enough. No, I mean-something enough.”

She paused to think about it. Was she enough? At twenty-six, she was fit and toned, with a happy smile and sparkling green eyes and long curling hair (Claire often told her it was Pantene-worthy); her friends often complimented her witty attitude and her generous spirit. She was successful in her career as a programmer and worked hard to do her own private consulting jobs on the side. She had loyal friends and a happy life, a comfortable routine. She knew she was pretty, but she wasn’t the kind of woman who got constant catcalls, free drinks in bars, and so many phone numbers that her purse fluttered and bulged with hopeful scraps torn from the hearts of handsome men.

Damián was in his thirties and seemed successful at everything he tried, at least from what she knew of him-his art, his climbing, his sports. He had the full attention of every single woman at the gym, and even the happily married moms liked flirting with him. Although he didn’t seem like a vacuous player, his effortless ability to capture the attention of every female in the vicinity seemed unequal to her own, weaker pull on humanity. She didn’t like that.

Claire poked her back. “You’re perfectly cute as you are. Anyway, it’s not about cute. It’s just about chemistry. And moves. If he doesn’t make a move, and you’re too chicken to make one yourself? Stop obsessing. No more furniture or auto shop references. Move on.”

Ava grimaced. “Yes. I know. But sadly, the Good Decision Center of my brain didn’t get the message. Apparently the appropriate neurotransmitters are either on strike, or incredibly lazy.”

Claire laughed. Then she leaned forward, her head tilted, expression eager. “Ava, I need to know. How are you able to write about all this stuff if you haven’t actually done it? Your sex scenes are seriously hot. Not all stuff I’d do, like the bondage and spanking… but some of it’s wow. Like the blow job scenes-they really work. I tried one of your techniques with Ryan, the grapefruit thing? And let me just say, Oh. My. God. Happiest boyfriend in the world.”

Ava lowered her voice. “I research it. I have, like, eighty BDSM and graphic sex romances on my tablet. Don’t tell anyone,” she interjected. “I’d die if people at work knew.”

“You know I would never,” said Claire. “I take my HR confidentiality to heart. But seriously? Just reading gives you all of those ideas?”

Ava smiled with pride. “I have a good imagination. And I Googled dungeons and spanking and BDSM and blow jobs. I learned things, Claire.”

Claire bent over in her chair, laughing. “I can just see you watching blow job videos and taking notes!”

“It’s not that funny,” protested Ava, but she was laughing, too. “You’re right. I do take notes. It is kind of hilarious.” She leaned toward Claire and confided, “You know what? It’s harder than you’d think to find a good blow job tutorial on Google,” and giggled with pleasure at her friend’s surprise.

Claire regained her composure and scoffed. “Ava. I seriously can’t believe you looked that up. And I can’t believe it’s hard to find a BJ video.”

Ava raised her eyebrows. “Videos, yes. Tutorials, no. If you Google ‘how to give a blow job,’ you will not find any actual footage of a real blow job on a real penis. Sure, there are tons of articles. But the only teaching videos are porn stars demonstrating on a banana.”

Claire protested. “But, potassium. So good for you.”

“It’s okay to see it done on a banana, but you know, it’s even more helpful to see it done on a real person. By another real person.” Ava’s voice rose. “Turns out you have to search for ‘blow job video‘ and leave out the ‘”how to.’ Then you hit the mother lode, pun intended. But it’s surprisingly monotonous work, sorting through all the three-ways, disgusting stuff, and amateur hour. Most of it is repetitive and dull, made to appeal to a misogynistic asshole.” She shuddered, took a sip of coffee and added, “Also, I wanted to watch something that’s doable by two people who aren’t porn stars. So it was a big job. Pun. Anyway, I’ve watched, say, well over a hundred blow jobs.”

Claire acted impressed. “Sounds like you have a Bj.D by now.”

“Oh, you can just call me Doctor Blow. Hey, if you want any pointers, I can send you a list of my favorite clips. I mean, I’ve never done one, but I could probably teach a class by now. Isn’t that ironic?”

Claire snorted. “I… think I’m good. But thanks. And douche-ball Matt would kill himself if he knew what he missed,” she said with a raised eyebrow.

Ava warmed to her topic. “When I first started my research, I found a few websites reference this one movie, Caligula. There’s a blow job scene in the middle of this orgy? She starts with a graceful thing with both hands. It’s actually very pretty. Like a finger ballet.”

Claire was holding her stomach. “Ava. You’re killing me!”

Ava gestured, stacking her two hands as if gripping a cucumber, then rotating her wrists in opposite directions while moving both hands up and down and wiggling the fingers. “This is really the most popular technique in all of the videos, too, at least on the huge long dicks.” She demonstrated again. “Isn’t that elegant? It’s like I’m making pottery on one of those spinning wheels. Or doing an ethnic dance.”

Claire snorted, spewing coffee, trying not to laugh. “Ava, stop!”

Ava smiled and shrugged, a “who, me?” kind of guilty shrug. Then she continued her explanation. “I didn’t want to pay for any hardcore sites just to see some sex. Who wants to give their credit card information to a porn website? I wanted free research, Claire. Free.”

Claire was wheezing. “I can’t even breathe!”

Ava sighed. “So I ended up with some useful footage, but I did have to clean malware from my computer a few times.”

The two laughed together for a few more minutes, but suddenly Ava felt tears pricking at her eyes. She brushed at her lids.

“Why do you look sad?” Claire asked with sympathy.

“I don’t know,” said Ava, rubbing at a rough spot of glaze on the handle of her ceramic cup. “I guess it’s a little lonely, Claire. I write about these hot encounters and my first book is being published, but I still don’t have a special someone.” She blew out her breath. “Well, I’ll just keep on being myself and doing what I can. Karma will eventually lead me to my perfect match.”

Claire thought about it. “If Ms. Karma doesn’t produce, there are tons of dating websites. I’m sure someone out there is ready to appreciate your fountain of knowledge. Or to use your knowledge on their fountain. Ha! I’m so funny.”

Ava rolled her eyes at Claire. “Hilarious.”

Claire patted Ava’s arm and jingled her keys as she stood. “Ava? I have to go. Ryan and I are having lunch with his parents. But can I treat you to dinner this week? I need to thank you for spending so many hours teaching me that financial budgeting software last month, and how to deal with my stock options at work. Seriously, if it weren’t for you? I wouldn’t be so, what do they call it? Solvent.” She sliced a finger across her neck. “They’d be coming to repossess my freckles by now.”

“Oh, you know. That’s what friends are for,” said Ava, blushing. “No big deal.”

She had actually spent a significant amount of time helping fix Claire’s financial records, and had plans to do her friend’s taxes and help her start investing. “You’re my best friend,” she reminded Claire, “so it’s time well spent. But,” she added with a grin, “I won’t turn down a dinner at that sushi place with the moving conveyor belt.”

“Extra wasabi and sake if you get on top of it and act like a sexy cover girl while you ride around the bar,” encouraged Claire, wiggling her eyebrows and striking a pose.

The two women hugged, and then Claire left, waving her fingers in a small goodbye as she took a final sip of coffee and tossed the empty cup into the trash. Ava watched through the thick glass and saw her friend purse-fishing to extract a box of white Tic Tacs while she hurried to her car.

Alone at the table, Ava took a sip of her now lukewarm and no-longer-pleasurable coffee. Since she was not meeting anyone’s parents, or anyone at all, she didn’t need a mint. And for some reason, that thought made her want to cry hard. “Stop,” she told herself. “You’re twenty-six years old, not six.”

She didn’t usually go to a Saturday class at Damián’s gym since it was a longer, tougher workout. But today she needed to burn off this nervous anxiety and vague sadness, so she decided to head over. She was toned and strong, in good shape, but it was always important to stay on top of it, not to lose the routine. She wasn’t going specifically to see Damián, of course-only to work out.

And just for the hell of it, she ate three mints on the way.

Chapter Two

As Ava walked into Fitness Zone, the previous class was still finishing up, so she stood along the side of the immense floor to watch, inhaling the odor of sweat, newly installed wood, and fresh air from the open windows and the old loading dock door. The main workout space was as large as a regulation basketball court and held specialized equipment for Damián’s personal training and boot camp classes: metal bars, weights and clips along one wall, pull-up bars and rings in one section, stacks of sit-up mats and ab mats in a far corner, and racks of medicine balls next to them.

The walls were still a pristine white; since this was a new business, Damián often told his clients that they got to experience the growth and development of his gym along with him.

Damián Perez was standing with his hands on his hips, shouting out encouragement. His muscular legs and arms were damp with perspiration, and his thick black hair was mussed. Ava loved the color of his skin, a light tan, like coffee with a lot of cream, and his brown eyes framed with thick black lashes.

He smiled at her and nodded his head, and Ava’s stomach flipped as their eyes met and a sizzle of electricity zinged through her body. She swallowed and blushed as he held her gaze a second longer than necessary before turning back to his class.

“You made it through the kettlebell swings and four-hundred-meter runs,” he urged, “these push-ups are the last part. Finish strong.” He added, “Everyone-it’s important to do these moves correctly, to get the most out of the exercises and to avoid injuries. When I tell you to change something, I’m not just being picky, okay? I’m making sure that you don’t get hurt.” He stepped closer to a plump, middle-aged woman panting with exertion. “Kayla. Shift your hands to just underneath your shoulders and spread them out a bit more. Now flex your butt and quads hard as you do the push-up. Yes.”

Kayla’s form improved. “Do you feel the difference?” He watched and waited intently for her reply.

“Yes,” she said, in between breaths.

“Keep breathing the way I told you,” he added. “If your heart rate is getting too high, switch to knee push-ups. It’s more important to stay safe and maintain good form than to do a million of these, got it?”

Ava’s eyes tracked Damián’s form, and fantasies danced in her mind: Damián pulling her in for a rough kiss, his brown eyes flashing passion; her fingers spreading out across Damián’s hard chest, touching his shoulders; her hands running over his sexy ass, his quads clenching, her thighs too-

Kayla nodded, face red with exertion, and Damián moved to the next client.

“Michael. You’re not going down far enough at the bottom. Make sure that your chest brushes the floor before you come up. Keep your back straight. Got it?”

Michael grunted in reply, but his back straightened, and on his next rep, his chest brushed lower to the floor.

Ava’s mind filled with new images: Damián making a sexy sound as he brushed her breasts with his rough hands, bodies and mouths going up and down-

She drank some of her lemon-flavored water, then started at a touch on her shoulder as her friend Stace came up behind her.

“They’re just finishing up?” Stace asked. “Now we know how we’ll look in exactly one hour.”

Their friend Ben joined the group, his blond hair flopping forward into his face. “Looks like they’re beat up. It’s a tough one today. Get ready for the pain.” Ava always chatted with Ben and Stace during classes, and lately, it seemed as if the two of them were acting a little more interested in each other than usual.

“But it’s the good kind of pain,” Stace said, making a face. “The pain that lets you know that you’re already stronger and sexier. That your ass is on the way to magnificent.”

Ben glanced at Stace’s backside. “Don’t think you have much to worry about,” he told her with a grin.

“Sweet talker,” Stace said, and she wiggled said backside as she sashayed past to greet a handsome man with an impressive six-pack, shooting Ben a sidelong glance.

Ava stepped back into a beam of sun as Stace passed by, and reached with both hands to arrange her curls into a ponytail. As her Lycra shirt pulled tight with her motion, she noticed Damián looking at her, gaze intense. Her stomach lurched.

Ben reached out and touched a strand of hair, tugging it. “Wow, Ava. In the light, your hair has pieces of gold in it. Are you a secret princess?” He smiled at her, but Ava saw his eyes glance past her to land on Stace, who turned back, her gaze snagging on Ben’s hand. Ava knew Ben wasn’t flirting with her, not really-Ben was like a big brother. She figured he was using her as a prop to try to make Stace jealous.

“It’s no secret,” Ava said, trying to look at Damián without being obvious, wondering what he thought about her hair in Ben’s hands, and if he cared at all. “I got a certificate from a Cracker Jack box and everything, so it’s totally legit. I await my prince.”

“Who’re you waiting for?” Stace asked, coming closer and stepping up to Ben’s shoulder, a minuscule tinge of frost in her voice, and she crossed her slender brown arms across her chest.

Damián’s head turned sharply and his eyes moved over Ava, making her glow.

Ava smiled. “Well, I assume a handsome young royal is coming to pick me up and bring me back to his castle, where we will live happily ever after. Or possibly I’ll just drive myself home and stop at the grocery store for green beans, because that’s my donation this week for the soup kitchen. I always like to mix up my schedule, keep things fresh.”

Damián met Ava’s gaze, then averted his eyes, checking something on his clipboard.

“Although, at the soup kitchen,” Ava continued, “it’s not random princes who want to climb up my tresses, but insects. Last month we had a few guests with lice and all of us volunteers had to tie up our hair in bandanas and nets. We all avoided it, though. Whew, right?”

Ben dropped Ava’s hair and angled his body more toward Stace.

“I’m a different sort of Rapunzel,” Stace said theatrically, gesturing at her tight black cornrows with dozens of blue beads.

Ben’s smile was wide now. “Your hair is crazy perfection,” he said. “And remember, you have that ass.”

Stace’s grin was immediate. “Hey,” she complained, poking him in the chest. “Perv.”

Ben wiggled his eyebrows at Stace, then leaned in to continue the conversation with her alone. The two of them murmured in low voices, small shrieks of laughter and deep chuckles punctuating their space, Stace’s hand fluttering like a shy bird to land tentatively on Ben’s arm.

The timer buzzed, and Damián shouted, “Time. Great job, everyone.”

He walked among the athletes, stopping to talk to each person, give a high-five and ask how many push-ups they’d completed. He wrote the numbers onto his clipboard.

Ava couldn’t take her eyes off of his strong body, and when he glanced her way, she was still looking. His eyes met hers briefly and he shot her a smile. Butterflies awoke in her stomach and started a frantic dance as he came up to her.

“Ava, good to see you,” he said in a low voice, putting one hand on her arm. The touch alone sent a jolt up her spine and she tried not to suck in her breath.

“You too,” she said, unable to stop a smile from stretching her face. He was smiling back at her, and then he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. Ava was unable to mask a small squeak of surprise at the touch of his lips on her skin. Kiss me again, kiss me for real, she urged him in her mind.

He turned to the assembled athletes. “Everyone for the eleven a.m. class, five minutes until we start warm-up,” he called, striding to the center of the gym floor. Ava felt tingly from his attention and an extra bounce boosted her movements.

Stace looked at her with raised eyebrows, cleared her throat and hitched one shoulder in the direction of Damián. “What was that?” she whispered, sotto voce.

Ava took a deep breath. “What was what?” she answered, and bit her lip to hide her pleased smile. “A lot of Hispanic guys give their friends kisses on the cheek,” she informed Stace. “It’s a thing. A sort of, you know, respectful happy greeting.”

With narrowed eyes, her friend retorted, “Girl, he never kisses me on the cheek to say hello. Or Ben.”

“Ha.” Ava grabbed one ankle with her hand and stretched out her quad, just shrugging as Stace pursed her lips.

Ben was listening. “You saying you want a kiss?” His eyes were trained on Stace’s, and as the tension between her two friends ratcheted without warning into something more private, Ava took a step back, smiling.

While loosening her calves, Ava let her mind wander back to her first romance book, the one she’d discussed with Claire. It had taken nearly seven months, but soon it would actually be sold in real stores, to flesh-and-blood people! Too bad she couldn’t tell everyone about it, though.

What’s your novel about? she could imagine her mother asking. Or maybe her aunt Chelsea. Or her very conservative boss in the IT department at work.

“Oh, you know,” she might answer. “Just the standard romance book. Let me know your favorite chapter. Did you like the part where he spanks her with a paddle and fucks her from behind while she’s bound and wearing an anal plug? Maybe you really enjoyed the chapter where he teases her and denies her an orgasm for a while, makes her give him a blow job with her hands tied behind her back, whips her with his belt, and then gets her off with his mouth?”

Yeah… no. This was going to be the kind of book that was better shared with a small, selective audience. And hopefully millions of anonymous strangers.

After class, Ava was covered with sweat and her muscles were trembling with exertion. “The good kind of pain,” she murmured aloud. She couldn’t help but wonder about other good kinds of pain, like how it would feel to have Damián’s hard hand slapping her bare ass. She’d written her sexy hero with Damián in mind, hoping to banish him from her fantasies. Instead, she couldn’t stop thinking about what sex with Damián would be like. Would he be suave and gentle? Or rougher, harder? Or both, depending on his mood?

As she walked over to grab her water and gym bag, swiping her face with her towel, Damián called her name.

“Ava? A moment, please?”

Ava loved Damián’s voice: the depth of it, the rough timbre and the faint Puerto Rican accent that deepened when he was excited about something, like healthy eating or fitness.

“Of course!” she said, and then, feeling a bit too eager, she forced herself to take the time she needed to catch her breath. “What’s up?” she asked, taking a sip of her water, enjoying the tart bite of citrus.

“My website. I need to make some changes. Do you have time today to help?” His eyes flashed, and his muscles stood out with more definition now that he’d been demonstrating various exercises to her class. She could smell a hint of sweat and faded cologne, and it sent a wisp of desire spiraling through her body.

Was he standing closer to her than usual?

His eyes were large and brown, with flecks of gold and hints of green. Clear, gorgeous eyes. And those thick lashes.

Oh, he was talking.

“I need to change the scroll speed on a banner ad, and something’s wrong with the font sizing on a few of the dropdown menus.”

Ava paused. “I have some things to do. But if it’s just a few questions, we could do it this afternoon.” She kept her voice crisp and professional. Sure, she’d been hoping Damián would say, “I find you wildly attractive and I want to take you home and fuck you into Monday.” But she could handle website stuff, too.

“Would three p.m. work?” Damián asked. He was standing closer, Ava was sure of it. “If you don’t need to get ready for a hot date, or anything?” His smile held a question.

“Three is fine,” she told him, biting her lower lip without exactly meaning to. But while she was at it, she decided, she’d give the lip a little lick, too.

A muscle jumped in Damián’s cheek. “Three it is, then,” he said. Ava’s heartbeat sped up, and she steeled herself to be cool.

“Yes,” Ava agreed. “The usual coffee shop?”

“Sure,” said Damián. “I’ll bring my laptop. I really appreciate how much work you’re putting into this website. It’s a big success thanks to you!” He reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. The touch was electric.

Did he touch me longer than he touches other people?

She frantically tried to do some mental approximations, found it too confusing, gave up.

Her polite smile felt fake. “I enjoy helping businesses be as successful as possible,” she parroted. “It’s a pleasure for me to see how well the site is running and to know it’s helping you gain new members.” Although this was generally true for all of her clients, she did a mental gag at how trite she sounded.

Damián didn’t reply, though, as several other people hovered nearby, waiting to talk to him. He turned to Elsie, a blond bombshell wearing skintight leggings and a bra-style tank top.

Elsie twirled her braid. “Damián! I’m trying to get down to fourteen percent body fat and, ohmigod, I’m stuck at a plateau. Do you think I should add more kale to my green smoothies? Or do, like, a second workout daily?”

Damián leaned toward her, intent on his reply. Elsie smiled and licked her lips, flowing into his personal space like bubblegum lava, and Ava wanted to snap her in two.

“I guess I’ll see you later, then,” said Ava to Damián’s back.

Under her breath she added, “I need to get to five percent body fat so I can just slip under the door when I come home. The key is, like, too slow. Maybe I could get to zero percent and hire myself out as a shadow! Ohmigawd?”

“Did you say something?” Damián turned. “Ava?” His eyebrows were raised and Elsie frowned, cut off mid-sentence.

“No, I’m totally, like, good.” Ava spoke in a matter-of-fact, cheerful voice with only the tiniest tinge of Valley Girl. “See you.”

Ava showered and examined her closet with a frown, wanting to look good but not trying too hard good. It was a delicate balance that required the counsel of a BFF.

“I need some fashion advice,” she announced, sitting on the bed in her underwear with the phone propped at her ear. She held up a gold sandal to examine its worthiness for today’s meeting.

Claire was enthusiastic. “Lay it on me. I’m channeling my inner Claire-mani as we speak. I am now Dolce and Claire-bana.”

Ava laughed and continued, “What screams I’m hot without even trying as I meet you here in the coffee house to discuss website stuff?”

Claire was quiet for a moment. “Are you meeting Damián?”

Sandal in hand, Ava responded, “He asked me to make some quick changes to his site.”

Claire spoke in an even voice. “I’m worried that you’re letting him take advantage. Would you meet another client on Saturday at a coffee shop? Or would you require them to stick to a scheduled appointment?” She added-and this annoyed Ava, who knew her own hours better than anyone-“I know you do your personal web consulting after hours, when your regular IT day job is done. But you need to really protect your time so you don’t get overwhelmed with it all.”

“Claire! Don’t make this into a deal,” Ava said, putting down the gold sandal and picking up a white one for consideration. “No. Okay? I never meet my clients on the spur of the moment. But, well, Damián asked me, and it will only take a few minutes. Besides, the customer is always right… right?”

Claire sighed. “Or do you mean, the customer is right when you want to sex it up with him?”

“Whatever,” Ava answered. “But his website is nearly done, and I won’t be working with him directly much longer.” She put down the white sandal. “Why? Do you think I’m being a doormat or something?”

Claire said in a neutral voice, “I don’t think you should do extra work for free because you have a crush on him. If he isn’t into you, it’s not good to torture yourself, like you’re dangling an unobtainable carrot in front of your own nose.”

“Well,” said Ava with a flash of irritation. “I have to meet him today, because I promised. But what’s wrong with looking good?”

“Nothing,” Claire responded. “You are pissed.”

“I’m not pissed,” retorted Ava. “Forget I asked.”

“Now you’re sulking,” cajoled Claire. “Wear that shiny gold top you have. And here’s some real fashion advice: why don’t you just put on your big girl panties and tell him you’re interested?”

Chapter Three

Black jeans and the gold blouse ended up making the cut, along with the gold sandals. Ava applied her makeup to be subtle but pretty, with soft pink gloss on her lips. Her cheeks were still flushed from her workout and her smooth skin needed no powder or creams. A spritz of her favorite floral perfume and some dangling gold earrings completed the ensemble. Her reflection smiled back at her with eager eyes.

Claire’s undergarmentary advice floated through her mind. Writing a book about kinky sex had given her self-assurance, not only because it was being published, but because she’d embraced something new and found success. She could definitely say that she wore her BGPs while writing. Why did she need to put on granny waist-highs with guys?

This lingerial confidence lasted all the way to the coffee shop until she saw Damián. He was looking down at his laptop and his body radiated a quiet power that sparked a darting, nervous warmth in her stomach. He was wearing worn blue jeans and a trendy button-down shirt, and was easily the sexiest man in the place.

Damián stood to greet her, and Ava noticed that his hair was styled and he looked freshly shaved. She wondered how his smooth jaw would feel close to her own skin, and blushed.

“Ava. Thanks for meeting me,” he murmured, catching her eyes with his and leaning forward to kiss her cheek, just like he’d done at the gym. She could smell the citrus-sandalwood of his soap, and his own clean skin, and she liked it.

“You look lovely,” he added, his eyes perusing her with new intensity, one hand resting on her arm.

While Ava pulled up his website, she tried to ignore the tingle in her cheek, and the matching tingle in her lower abdomen. She also tried to ignore the two hot college girls who were looking at him and whispering.

Damián went to the counter to get coffees and Ava didn’t offer to pay him back. She knew he’d insist, especially since she was here doing him a favor. Although he’d paid her consulting fee upfront, she continued to meet with him as needed for follow-up support and didn’t charge him for it.

“Thanks,” she told him, accepting the cup, trying not to suck in her breath when their fingers touched.

“You’re welcome,” Damián smiled back, his gorgeous dimple-revealing smile.

The changes were easy and Ava showed him updates as she worked, but she was aware of his body and his proximity to hers, an undercurrent of heat. There was an invisible stretchy band between them, because when he got within a few inches of her, she felt warm and bubbly; when he leaned back, the bubbles faded.

An hour later, the changes were done; Damián grinned at her and said, “I know you’re probably busy. Thanks for doing this.”

Ava laughed. “I’m terribly busy,” she replied. “You are so lucky you got some of my time.”

“Well,” Damián answered, “right now I do consider myself a very fortunate man.”

A flush rose from her neck to her face as Ava’s eyes snapped to his; she bit her lip and ducked her head back to the screen.

Damián paused. “Like another coffee?” he asked in a neutral voice.

Ava’s heart beat faster. “Are you having more?” she asked.

“Yes, sure,” said Damián. “I’ll get you one, too?” His accent sounded thicker, his voice rougher.

“Okay,” said Ava, more casually than she felt, and bit back a smile, watching him walk to the counter. She took an even breath and glanced out the large windows at the sky. The light was muted and the air hung motionless, heavy with potential. She tried to remember if she had an umbrella somewhere in the trunk of her car.

“Two medium coffees, room for cream,” Damián told the barista, and Ava felt a sudden joy that he not only remembered how she liked her coffee, but also that he liked his the same way. The grinder whirred loudly behind the counter, sending spirals of new burst beans flowing into the air to overtake the undertones of latte and caramel.

When he returned and handed her a cup, she wasn’t sure what to talk about. But Damián asked easily, “So tell me, Ava, what is it that you work on in your spare time?”

“I’m writing my second novel,” Ava answered. “The first one is actually going to be sold in stores this week.”

“Congratulations,” said Damián, taking a sip of coffee and giving her a broad smile. Ava watched his neck as he swallowed. “What’s it about?”

“It’s a, ah, romance,” said Ava. And then, feeling bold, she added, “A very sexy romance novel,” and licked her lower lip. “Written under my nom de plume, Erin Rutherford.”

A muscle in Damián’s cheek twitched, but apart from that Ava couldn’t see any obvious reaction to her admission. “Very sexy, huh?” he queried.

“That’s right,” she returned. “You can only imagine how fun it was to research.”

Damián’s eyes flared with something more than she’d seen from him, and he was now regarding her in a frankly assessing way. She felt his eyes move over her breasts to her lips, back to her eyes.

“I’d like to read it sometime,” he said, maintaining eye contact.

Ava smiled. “When it hits the stores,” she suggested, “maybe I’ll offer private readings.” Then, feeling a little overwhelmed with her own words, she changed the subject. “So, Damián, tell me more about your art. You still paint, yes? And do photography?”

Damián nodded. “Yes, I painted some pieces on commission in the past. Right now, though, my big thing is that I sell photographic prints and lithographs of my most popular works online. I’ve actually become a pretty big name in the modern art scene in Puerto Rico.” He ducked his head and gave a slight grin. “But the gym is my full-time passion now and doesn’t leave me much time for painting and sketching. I’ll get back to it once I get the gym fully functional, but I do miss it.”

“Why?” Ava hesitated. “If your art is so important, and sort of your full-time career, I’m curious why you’re taking the time to start up a gym from scratch? It’s such a lot of work.”

He nodded seriously. “I’ve lost some family members to health issues that could have been avoided if they had exercised and eaten better. I really want to help people, in their memory.” His voice was somber. “This has been on my mind, starting a gym, ever since I lost my father to diabetes complications ten years ago. He was significantly overweight and smoked, and developed a heart condition. When he fell and broke his leg, his body didn’t heal right after the surgery. He got gangrene and had a leg amputated, then his kidneys shut down, and he died. It happened so fast, Ava. It was heartbreaking. The worst part was, he lived his life ignoring all advice on how to be healthier. It could have been different.”

“I’m so sorry.” Ava gave him a sympathetic smile and put her hand on his for a second. “That’s sad.”

“Yes.” His voice was solemn. “It is. None of us, nobody in the family, ever really lectured him or took him to task. We just let his health go… and go… until he went. It was hard to talk to him about it, so nobody ever did. Not that he’d listen, anyway. But I feel the need, now, to help people who want to be helped. So, I love my art, but it’s on hold for now while I make this happen. This is big to me, you know?” His voice was urgent.

“Maybe you could combine your two passions, and do portraits of people at the gym?” suggested Ava. “And use them as personalized artwork on the walls.”

Damián pursed his lips as he thought, then said, “That would be a great way to show my dedication to helping the clients, as well as highlighting the personal family feel I want to build at my gym.” He smiled.

Another idea occurred to Ava. “You could even do a huge mural,” she exclaimed. “You could paint pictures right onto the wall, of various gym members doing exercise, and include motivational quotes. It would be beautiful and inspiring at the same time, and so much better than plain old white.”

Damián nodded. “I can see it.” He looked into the distance over Ava’s shoulder, as if envisioning the gym wall. “I didn’t realize you put so much thought into the aesthetics.”

Ava shrugged, but her cheeks glowed. “It’s the same with web design,” she explained. “Content is king. But aesthetics can make or break the user experience, and make a difference in whether a person chooses to view your website. For you, people will come to the gym because of the classes and your training skills. But having a well-designed space that’s comfortable and motivating-that’s not really just fluff. The whole ambience helps create an uplifting mood, and that will help people want to come back again.”

Sipping his coffee, Damián nodded. “I’m only one year into this project. I’ve always planned that when my gym is complete, it will be designed with the right colors, flow, spacing and art to hit the right psychological high for clients. Now that I have all the equipment, and I have a good flow of clients, I can start to improve the décor and design.”

“You’ve read studies about how color affects mood, right?” Ava liked how his eyes were lit up, making them look more green than brown.

Damián agreed. “Yeah, in art classes in grad school. It’s been proven that color can affect mood. Green for calm, red for energy. Is that what you mean?”

“Yes. And space matters, too,” Ava continued. “I read a study about foot traffic in department stores. When people are faced with an obstacle in a main walkway, like a table of shoes, they choose to pass on the right seventy percent of the time. So smart storeowners put eye-catching, easy-to-sell merchandise on the right-hand side, and the more ordinary, bland things on the left.”

Damián was interested. “I don’t know how that could affect me,” he remarked, “but it’s a little creepy that marketers know so much about shopping habits.”

Ava grinned. “You need to put a table of women’s running shoes right inside the front door, and, to the right of that, a display case of gym shirts, protein powder, energy bars and stuff like that. Since people walk to the right most times, they’ll see the display case. And you know, protein powder practically sells itself. And to help them not go left? Maybe a pit of alligators. Something like that.”

His chuckle burst out so suddenly that Damián almost choked on a mouthful of coffee, and Ava found that so funny that she started laughing. She couldn’t help but notice with a flash of guilty pleasure: Those two girls? The ones who’d been staring? They were looking over with undisguised jealousy… and it was totally awesome.

After the laugh, though, they both fell into silence, and Ava perused multiple conversational forays. More about murals? Why are baby carrots just ground down big carrots and what do they do with the extra carrot pulp? Do they sell it for veggie burgers? To zoos? Or to carrot juice companies?

“What?” Ava was so engrossed in her discards that she missed what Damián was saying.

“So I guess I’m lucky you didn’t have a date this afternoon?” Damián said in an easy voice, but his eyes were intense.

Her voice rose on the reply. “Looks like you’re single today, too?”

Mariana’s fit of anger was a popular source of gossip in the gym; everyone knew how she’d yelled at Damián in front of a class and stalked out. Talk had been so fierce about it that the gym was packed for a week. Flagging members came out of the woodwork like nighttime roaches to gossip about the flame-out. But she wasn’t sure if he was already dating someone new.

Damián cleared his throat. “I am single,” he said, a hint of question in his eyebrows.

Ava smiled back, feeling her face get hotter. Make a move, she encouraged herself. Claire is right-either get onto the field or leave the stadium. But she wasn’t quite sure how to do it in a subtle yet obvious way. Classy yet sassy. And some part of her wanted him-if there was going to be a move made, here-to make it. To show that he had true interest and was not just taking lazy advantage of hers. She wanted a man who would take charge.

“Well,” she said. “The website should be good now, but let me know if you have more questions.”

They stood in a mutual agreement to leave. He laid a hand on the small of her back as they walked to the exit, and Ava felt a shiver of warmth run through her body.

Their cups landed into the trash at the same time and Ava spoke automatically: “Five points.”

“What?” Damián looked at her with an amused smile.

“It’s a thing,” Ava explained. “If I toss something into the trashcan and it makes it in without hitting the floor, then I get points.”

“Your hand,” remarked Damián, “was right over the can, Ava. Hate to be a spoilsport, but five points? For that? Two, tops.” His grin made her swoon. “And that’s factoring in extra points for being cute.”

Ava pretend-punched him in the arm as her pulse quickened. “Don’t be a sports snob,” she chastised. “Some of us are not NBA material.”

“NBA material? If you can’t make a trash shot at that distance, you are looking at bifocal material, Ava,” Damián clarified. He stepped back a few feet and balled up some napkins. “Now watch carefully and learn. This is worth points.” He made a show of stretching his arms and rolling his shoulders in their joints.

Ava crossed her arms and leaned against the door. She scoffed. “No way you make that shot. Too much air resistance. The napkins aren’t balled tightly enough. You need tighter balls.”

Damián chuckled as Ava realized what she’d said and burned red. He grinned at her and shook his head as he continued loosening up his arms.

Ava recovered her aplomb. “You are so not making the shot.”

“Bet you?” Damián raised one eyebrow at her.

“Sure,” said Ava. “Safe bet for me. Because you’re going to miss.”

“What do I get if I make the shot?” Damián asked, his voice lower, the teasing tone gone. His eyes were locked onto hers.

“What do you want?” murmured Ava, in as provocative a voice as she’d ever heard come out of her mouth. She raised her chin and kept his gaze, and smiled just a bit.

Damián smiled, too, then turned and tossed the napkins, which suddenly seemed to be very tight and balled up, directly into the trash. Ava swallowed and pushed open the door, letting outside air flow past her into the shop. She exited into the parking lot without a word, holding the door for Damián, who took it and then put his hand back on her, this time onto her shoulder, the touch possessive.

“I’ll walk you to your car,” he said.

Ava felt the heat of his hand through her shirt. He was walking so closely that their bodies brushed. She was one hundred percent sure now that he was flirting, and she was so filled with nervous energy that her body was nearly vibrating.

The parking lot was quiet, the coffee shop in a closing lull and, for the moment, they were alone on the blacktop, just the two of them and the pre-twilight air, a hint of a chill in the dusk and some tentative clouds assembling on the horizon. When they reached her spot, she managed, “Well, thanks for the walk. And the coffee.”

“No. Thank you, Ava.” Damián’s voice was husky and deep, his accent strong.

Ava dropped the laptop case by the passenger door and fumbled for her keys, which had unhelpfully disappeared into the inner depths of her purse. Damián took the purse and set it next to her feet.

“Leave that for now,” he murmured, and stepped closer, forcing Ava to back up against the driver’s side door. He leaned his hands onto the car on either side of her head, trapping her between his warm body and the cool metal. Ava gasped and her eyes widened, seeking his. “Ava,” he said, “there’s something here, something with us,” and it didn’t sound like a question.

Want more? Buy it on Amazon or read for Free with Kindle Unlimited.

Return on Amazon US

Return on Amazon UK

Blurb for Return

Ava Grimaldi models the hero of her kinky erotic novel on her crush, sexy gym owner and artist Damián Perez, without asking his permission. When Damián finds out, he’s furious, and Ava is worried he will sue her. Damián demands a different payment entirely, though, and soon the two are involved in an intense BDSM relationship of their own.

With each sexual encounter growing more passionate and personal, Ava falls hard for Damián, but is hurt when he continually insists that their relationship is only physical and temporary. He refuses to acknowledge their relationship in public, even though he spends time with his bitchy ex. Eventually Ava has enough of being second best and won’t settle for less than she deserves. Can they work through their misunderstandings and hurt to start again, this time with a basis of trust and love?

damian teaser 2siggie bar jen web 2