Coming soon in 2016! Want a release day email when this title is available? Sign up for my release day newsletter.
In the meantime, here’s a completely and totally unedited (in other words, please excuse any ugliness, editors are awesome) sneak peek of Connor and Anjali’s story, just for you:
A simple man, Connor Campbell figured, could get through life with three things: a respectable job, a steady supply of medium-rare cheeseburgers, and the occasional release of hard, sweaty, no-strings-attached, wall-banging sex with a like-minded woman.
Connor was a simple man. A healthy man. Simplicity didn’t bring him a vacation home or a high rise condo, but he’d traded those for his sanity and the modest apartment he shared with his brother years ago—exactly two years, ten months, and twelve days ago, to be exact. If he felt a pang for his old fast-paced life now and again, he suppressed it. Those pangs were as dangerous for him as a loaded gun in another man’s hands.
Yeah. Work, food, women—though the women had been scarce lately, but surely that part of his life would pick up again—that was good enough for a simple man.
As long as the work earned enough money to buy the food, of course. Damn money.
Connor adjusted the cuffs on his button-down dress shirt as he walked up the winding pathway to the pink house perched on a corner lot of the affluent cul-de-sac. Even without the suit jacket he’d tossed on the passenger seat of his truck, the fine gray trousers and shirt felt foreign to him. It wasn’t that he spent his days grubbing around in the dirt—his brother, Ben, handled almost all of the on-site stuff. However, their office consisted of him, some cheap furniture, and a newly hired young receptionist. No one cared what he wore, and a small landscaping company naturally tended to have a casual atmosphere.
He’d spent most of the afternoon wooing a contractor, however, which meant he had to look like he didn’t care whether the man chose their company to landscape thirty McMansions on the outskirts of San Francisco. Even though the contract could mean the difference between having to lay one person off this summer or giving everyone a holiday bonus next December.
Don’t worry about that. We’re not looking to build an empire here.
That’s what Ben would say. That’s what Ben had said weeks ago, when Connor had tentatively approached him to see if they could talk about going after clients more aggressively.
Connor rolled his neck on his shoulders, trying to relieve the tension gathering at the base of his skull. Yeah, he wasn’t capable of not worrying, as the past couple of sleepless nights had demonstrated.
Ironic, he mused. Once upon a time he’d pulled all-nighters to earn money. Now, he was pulling all-nighters because he couldn’t earn money.
Money was the reason he wasn’t at home, out of this suit and on his bed. Instead, he was at one of Pravin Singh’s properties. Singh was currently their best client, a wealthy man who owned multiple properties in the city and burbs. The man always paid promptly, but his usual hefty payment hadn’t arrived last week. They depended on that money. When Connor had called to gently inquire, Singh had apologized, boomed that he was out of town and to pick up the check from his daughter.
Like Connor had nothing better to do after work than to traipse out to someone’s house to pick up a check when he was teetering on exhaustion, stress eating a hole in his stomach.
Connor stepped on to the covered porch and took a deep breath. Five minutes. Ten tops. Connor would make some small-talk with the pampered coed living in her daddy’s multi-million dollar home, grab his check, flash her a big smile, and leave her starry-eyed. Everyone would be happy and he’d be home and hopefully crawling into bed before the sun even set.
Connor rang the bell and turned to critically examine the front garden below him. Like most of their clients in the city, the front garden was limited in size, but Ben had maximized the space, creating low-maintenance green beds with lush bushes and small trees and plenty of curb appeal.
He’d been the one to add the photos of the backyard to their website, so he knew that beyond the house lay a lush, fragrant paradise built on a large tract of sloping land. Conner’d lingered over those photos in a way he normally didn’t. His brother truly was a genius at design.
Connor frowned down at the garden bed directly below the stairs. The stones though…Connor made a mental note to tell his brother, for the thousandth time, to use a lighter hand. Ben would cheerfully nod and then do whatever the fuck he thought fit his artistic vision the best, but his brother wasn’t the one who had to do cartwheels every month to pay the bills for the suppliers—
The door opened behind him, and Connor snapped to attention and turned around, finding a trim middle-aged redhead on the other side. Based on her age and race, he could pretty much immediately rule her out as Pravin Singh’s daughter. Still, he forced a smile. “Hi. I’m here to see Ms. Singh, my name’s Connor Campbell. I think she’s expecting me.” He hoped she was, that Singh had told her he would be showing up.
The woman gave him a friendly smile, her words putting his fear to rest. “She did mention someone was coming by, though I thought it was later.”
Connor glanced at his watch. It was almost 6:45, and he had told Singh he would make it by around 7. “I guess I am early. Is she unavailable?”
“No, no. Come right in.” She stepped aside, and gestured for him to enter. “I’m Marjorie. I keep house for Ms. Singh.”
He stepped over the threshold. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You, too. Right this way, please.”
He’d expected to wait in the foyer—or even outside—so it took him second to realize she wanted him to follow her. Did Singh’s young daughter prefer people be shown to her, even if they were contractors?
Rich people. Connor shook his head. It had been a while since he’d dealt with them, but he well remembered how eccentric they could be.
He trailed after Marjorie, his curiosity compelling him to scope out the ground floor of the house on the way. The floor plan was open, each room flowing into the next, something that, combined with the huge windows, should have made the place feel airy and filled with light. Except all of the windows were covered with heavy drapes. Between the curtains and the huge valences and ugly wallpaper, the place looked like someone badly needed to come in and strip the 80’s out of it.
The narrow kitchen Marjorie led him past was all modern, though. The overhead halogen lights gleaming on polished stainless steel. His studio apartment in New York City had had a kitchen in similar finishes, the kind that were picked out by a contractor who knew a faceless young professional would be moving in and wanted to give them city chic.
The kitchen in the apartment he and Ben shared was tired linoleum and chipped formica.
It was cheap, he reminded himself. Cheap trumped granite, any day of the week. Cheap meant they could take the tiniest of salaries and put the rest back into the business.
Forever, a grumpy voice in his brain whispered. You’re gonna be drawing that tiny salary forever.
He couldn’t think of that, though. It only made him more tired.
Marjorie led him past a formal dining room filled with dark wood furniture and an imposing china hutch and stopped at the entrance to a living room. The only light that filled it came from a crackling fireplace on the hearth. “Ms. Singh? Your visitor is here.”
Connor eyed the housekeeper warily. Who was she talking to? At first glance, the large room appeared empty, but for the expensive furnishings.
Then a voice came from a shadowy corner. “I’m working.”
Connor peered into the gloom, nonplussed. Marjorie walked forward briskly and yanked the chain on a Tiffany lamp sitting on a side table. The dim, colored light chased some of the shadows away, so he could see the corner of the room where the voice had spoken was actually a small carved-out office, the french doors open wide. Three huge monitors facing away from him on a desk essentially barricaded the person behind them off. The darkness hid the rest.
“Would you like me to have him wait for you in the front room?”
Wait for her? How long did it take to give him a check?
A gusty, long-suffering sigh. “Here is fine. And you can leave.”
Marjorie frowned and looked at him. “Are you—”
“Tell my father I say hello.”
The woman’s lips turned down, but she took her dismissal, pausing to say to him. “Please have a seat on the couch. She’ll be with you soon.”
Maybe it was his imagination, but he was certain the older woman’s words were pitched louder on the last sentence. Gingerly, he sat on the expensive leather sofa and listened to the housekeeper’s soft shoes scuff on the hardwood floor as she walked away.
“I wish she wouldn’t do that,” he heard a soft mutter.
He looked around. Was the phantom girl talking to him? “I’m sorry?”
A small cough. “Nothing.”
“I have to finish this e-mail. Please hold.”
He edged forward on the couch and clasped his hands between his knees, eyes trained on that tiny room. Any minute now. Any minute, she would get up and open a drawer and write him a check, and he could get out of here.
The minutes ticked by on his watch with no movement from his hostess, except for the sound of typing. The quick lunch he’d grabbed hours ago was becoming a distant memory.
Sometimes people called him pretty, but he definitely wasn’t pretty when he was hungry. Connor cleared his throat. Perhaps she’d forgotten he was here.
He cleared his throat louder.
He tightened his lips. Yeah, okay. Charming was all well and good, but at a certain point a man had to prioritize his dinner and sleep above being polite to client’s daughters. “Ms. Singh, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m on a tight schedule.”
A pause, like she was startled he had spoken. “Oh?”
He spread his hands out when she didn’t say anything more. “What’s funny?”
“That you should mention schedules when you’re early.”
Connor straightened, his annoyance inching higher. He was normally a stickler for punctuality, but he’d only been a little bit early. And early. Who complained about someone being early?
The customer’s always right. Even when they’re unreasonable. They’d managed to woo as much business as they had by providing top notch customer service. He wasn’t about to tank that now. He swallowed his instinctive response. “Sorry about that. But I have a meeting with someone else after this”—possibly Phil, the delivery guy from Petes Pizza, if he managed to stay awake long enough—“so if we could sort this out quickly, I’d be happy to be on my way,” he said, as smoothly as possible.
The typing stopped. “You schedule more than one meeting a night?” She didn’t wait for his response. “How do you know how far apart to space them?”
“I’m really good at juggling that sort of thing,” he said, trying not to let his exasperation seep through.
“Apparently.” The typing commenced, slower this time. “Must be an acquired skill.”
Sure. Whatever. “I guess.”
“I, um…” More typing. “I have to finish one more e-mail. And then I’ll be right with you.”
He held in his sigh. He wasn’t a patient guy on the best of days. She’d caught him on not his best day.
He jiggled his leg, and when he got bored of looking around the dim, sparsely furnished room, he pulled out his phone. He didn’t want to check his email, which would probably be filled with work-related crap since he’d been out of the office all day. He was feeling too antisocial to text anyone. After scrolling mindlessly through his apps, he settled on a game.
The cheerful, jangling opening music pealed out into the silent room. “Sorry,” he muttered, mildly embarrassed, and silenced the phone, closing out the app.
“That’s okay.” Pause. “Was that a game?”
“No,” he lied.
Was that…disappointment? “I mean, it was,” he said, not really sure why he cared. “A stupid scrabble type thing.”
“Do you play a lot?”
“No.” His smile was tight. “I don’t usually have a lot of downtime.” This was the first time he’d sat down all day. If he wasn’t working, he was working out. Sleeping. Fucking. Unwinding in one of a million other relatively healthy ways that didn’t include his phone.
He wasn’t fond of the thing. For the better part of the past decade he’d had a smart phone glued to his hand. The devices would always be linked with work in his mind.
“I’m sure your profession keeps you busy. You seem to be very much in demand.”
Not in demand enough. That ever present worry over their finances loomed over him. He banished it with a conscious effort. “Sometimes.”
“I play some games.”
He looked up. Her voice had dropped an octave, and for the first time since he had entered the room, he was able to look past his irritation and tiredness and pay attention to it. It was quiet and low, but with a slight huskiness. “Do you?”
“Yes. Not on my phone, though. I lose it too much.”
“Yeah.” Connor shifted on the too-soft sofa. He was well aware that if there was one thing rich people considered gauche, it was talking about money, but if he was even remotely paying attention to the huskiness of this woman’s voice, he was clearly more tired than he’d anticipated and needed to beat feet. “Ms. Singh, I hate to be rude, but I’m really only here to collect my payment.” There. He’d managed gimme my money in the most polite way he could.
The typing ceased completely. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I heard you correctly.”
Connor winced, his bluntness clearly startling her. Still, he soldiered on. “I’m just here to pick up our check.”
“Huh. That’s very honest of you.”
Yeah. She had an interesting voice. Perfectly measured and spaced, like she was deliberating every word and giving them all equal weight. No nerves, no wavering.
Another man might have said she sounded cold, but it wasn’t cold. Cool, maybe. Like she was waiting for the right moment to turn hot.
Whoa. What the fuck are you doing?
“You said our. Our check.”
He shook his head in an attempt to clear it. “Yes.”
“Is that…is this a partnership? Because you’re not the man I was expecting.”
Who had she—ah. She’d most likely seen Ben working on her yard. “You were probably expecting my brother?”
“Your brother,” she repeated. “Do you two often fill-in for each other like this?”
If by filling in, she meant that they both could cash checks made out to their business. “Yes, we’re partners. Family business.”
A chair creaked. “A family…okay.”
He squinted into the darkness, wondering what she would say if he turned off the lamp next to him. Maybe if his eyes could adjust to the lack of light, he’d be able to make out some details of the woman behind the monitors. “You find that weird?”
“A little. Given the business.”
What did that mean? Landscaping was still very much done by small businesses.
“And especially,” she continued. “Since I dealt with him, not you. Men aren’t fungible. You can’t replace one with another.”
“Interchangeable. Like money is fungible.”
“I understand what fungible means.” What he didn’t understand was the context.
“Sorry. I don’t know what words are difficult for people sometimes.”
She wasn’t the first person to treat him like an idiot because of the manual nature of their company. Going to work with his brother after being a darling on Wall Street had been eye-opening. The same class of people who had once willingly handed him their millions considered him the hired help now.
Like his crappy kitchen, Connor considered it a more than fair trade-off. That didn’t mean it didn’t irritate him. So why wasn’t he annoyed right now? Why was he mildly amused? Maybe it was her…no, damn it. He couldn’t even pretend to come up with excuses. It was her sexy voice.
“I know a lot of big words.” He didn’t mean for his reply to sound suggestive, he wasn’t even sure how to make those words suggestive, and yet…they sounded suggestive.
Not the response he usually got when he half-heartedly flirted with someone. He blinked. “What?”
“You said you know a lot of big words.”
She was…testing him?
His lips twitched. Fine. This was just weird enough to be funny. “Spell it.”
His pinky barely brushed over his phone screen. “Use it in a sentence.”
“These paintings are the efflorescence of his brilliance.”
“Efflorescence.” He glanced down for a split-second, then back into the darkness. “Flowering.”
“Nice try. You looked it up.”
Damn it. He’d lost his touch. Once he’d been able to look a person in the eye while he’d replied to emails on his phone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I was watching you. You looked it up.” A pause. “You were sneaky, though.”
Giving up the gig, he shrugged. “I’ve had to field a text or two while I was in a meeting or driving.”
“Driving?” For the first time, he was able to ascertain emotion in her voice. Horror. “That’s incredibly dangerous!”
He’d done lots of self-destructive things. Texting while driving hardly seemed to rank up there. “I don’t do it often.” More often than not, he was in the office now anyway.
“Approximately eighteen percent of accidents are directly related to driver distraction,” she lectured him severely.
“I think you’re looking things up now.”
“No. I have a knack for random trivia. You could hurt yourself. Or someone else.”
He sobered immediately. “Yeah, you’re right.” He shoved the phone back into his pants pocket. “I’ll think twice next time.”
He heard something rustling. “Are you saying that so I’ll shut up?”
Silly woman. What man would want that voice to stop talking? Oh, right. Him, ten minutes ago. But that was before he acknowledged its inherent sexiness. “No. You’re right. I could hurt someone,” he said shortly.
His lip curled. He didn’t care so much about himself. But that was hard to explain to stranger. “Yeah. Right.”
Another rustle, like she was resettling paper. “You weren’t exactly correct, by the way. Efflorescence is actually the result of developing or growth.”
He shrugged. “Isn’t that what I said?”
“You said flowering.”
“Flowering is another word for developing.”
He imagined she was pursing her lips. What did her lips look like? What did she look like?
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll grant you that.”
Unable to help himself, he smiled at her grudging admission. This was a woman who didn’t like being wrong. Too bad. Neither did he. “Non sequitur.”
“Are you asking me what the word means or telling me that’s what I’m doing?”
He rested his arms on his thighs. “Both.”
“Something that doesn’t logically follow.” She paused. “Sorry.”
“That’s okay.” It was okay, he realized. Though that was strange. Ben often said that New York had only made Connor more of a blunt, direct asshole than he’d once been. Not the type of man who’d get sidetracked from his goal to sit here in a darkened, stuffy living room and banter vocabulary words with an anonymous woman.
“You don’t look like your brother,” she announced.
Connor shifted on the seat, a bit disturbed at the reminder that she could see him even when he couldn’t see her. He also wasn’t sure what to say to her, because it was the first time he had heard such a thing. Save for blond Kati, their half-sister, the Campbell siblings tended to look like each other, big and dark-haired. Since he and Ben were so close in age and appearance, sometimes people even mistook them for twins. “Most people tend to think we look a lot alike.”
“I’m not like most people.”
He deliberately waited a beat. “You missed it.”
“That was a great line, for your grand reveal. You missed your chance. You should have risen, walked out into the light, and said, I’m not like most people.”
She snorted, and he smiled. “You can laugh. I can be funny.” Some of his old colleagues had dubbed him Prince Charming, because of the uncanny way he’d been able to calculatedly kiss ass. Not something he was proud of anymore. But he was proud of amusing this strange, too-formal woman.
More proud than he should be. His smile faded. “Come out here.”
“Because it’s strange for me to sit here and talk to what looks like a three headed computer.”
“Maybe I am a computer. Maybe that’s the plot twist.”
“You’re no computer. Come out here.”
There was a furious burst of typing. “Let me finish one more e-mail.”
He raised an eyebrow. He wasn’t sure how he knew it, but he was dead certain she wasn’t writing any e-mail back there.
Still, politeness wouldn’t let him say that. So he sat back on the over-stuffed couch and tried to avoid straining his eyes staring at the darkness of her alcove.
He glanced at the mantel, and then came back to the framed photo perched on it. It was the type of old family portrait studio photos he imagined most people had in their homes.
The Campbell family didn’t have these. This would have required a parent’s coordination and his father had been far too busy doing everything else in the world.
He recognized a young Pravin Singh in the yellow-tinged photo, and he assumed the pretty dark-haired smiling woman at his side holding a chubby baby swaddled in pink was his wife.
Next to Singh was a small girl with fat cheeks, a solemn face, messy curly hair and the most hideous green patchwork sweater he’d seen outside of his favorite childhood sitcoms. While the others smiled into the camera—even the baby—the young girl looked off to the side.
Which one was she? The girl or the baby? “Cute kid. I like your sweater,” he guessed.
By the way her typing faltered, he figured he’d guessed right. He tried to suppress his smug smile. He loved being right.
That might have come off as too-flirtatious, though. He would have to watch himself. He covered his mouth with his palm to catch his sudden yawn. It was warm in here, but it felt good. He and Ben kept tight control on their apartment thermostat.
He rested his head on his palm and gazed into the fire, counting the bricks. In a second, he would poke at the strange woman again and get himself home. But for right now, he supposed sitting on this too-soft couch in the too-warm room wasn’t a terrible thing.
That was his last thought before he fell asleep.