Impulse Control ONLY
a Men of the Zodiac series novel by Amanda Usen
He’s fiery, courageous…and he can’t resist a sexy challenge.
Survivalist Russ Donovan is known on TV as the “Wildest Man In The World.” The last thing this headstrong Aries guy needs is to be wrangled into a cross-promotional TV special with a popular homemaker—even a sexy little thing like Susannah Stone. Besides, the Adirondacks in the dead of winter is no place for amateurs…especially a stubborn homemaker who’s determined to show him up every chance she gets.
Susannah’s a working single mom who knows plenty about roughing it. She can take anything this mountain man dishes out. Now Russ and Susannah are taking their competitive rivalry to new levels, and not even the canned beef stew is safe. Then Russ and Susannah’s on-camera sparks turn into a sizzling off-camera romance, and their two conflicting worlds collide.
Sure, major differences can turn chemistry red-hot…they also make compromise nearly impossible.
Title: Impulse Control – Aries
Series: Men of the Zodiac
Author: Amanda Usen
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 245 pages
Release Date: January 2015
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
The Men of the Zodiac series novels:
ARIES: Impulse Control
TAURUS: The Millionaire’s Deception
GEMINI: The Millionaire’s Forever
CANCER: Ten Days In Tuscany
LEO: The Millionaire Daddy Project
VIRGO: Revenge Best Served Hot
LIBRA: The Prince’s Runaway Lover
SCORPIO: The Colonel’s Daughter
SAGITTARIUS: One Night with the Billionaire
AQUARIUS: Blurring the Lines
PISCES: Her Sworn Enemy
An Excerpt from
by Amanda Usen
Copyright © 2015 by Amanda Usen. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Susannah sighed as the elevator stopped, one more delay in a Friday morning full of them. Murphy’s Law is killing me. The universe didn’t want her to attend this meeting any more than she wanted to be there.
A man boarded the elevator, glanced at the control panel, and stepped to the back of the car with her. She ignored him but could feel his heavy gaze assessing her. Didn’t he know it was impolite to stare? Facing forward and staying in your own personal bubble was the unwritten rule of elevator etiquette, especially in Manhattan at Media Life Networks, where every other person was famous. Did he recognize her? She turned her head, intending to give him a brief glance of acknowledgment and hoping to shame some manners into him.
He held her gaze with cool amusement. “You look like your underwear is just as twisted as mine about this whole friggin’ idea.”
She took in the sun-scorched blond hair that looked like it had been cut with a knife, the deep tan, the rock-hard body not softened in the least by the sleek lines of an elegant suit, and the unexpected derision in his pale blue eyes. Heat swept through her, and her nerves tightened in warning. Just her luck that her new nemesis would resemble her ex-husband with longer hair—impossibly gorgeous, emphasis on the impossible—and that he would inspire the same involuntary response. “Russ Donovan, Wildest Man in the World, I presume.”
He lifted a brow. “Presume? You don’t know? You haven’t watched my show?”
“Have you watched mine?” She gave him her sweetest smile.
“Touché.” His grin bared even, white teeth. “But I Googled you, so I’d know what you look like.”
She stiffened as his gaze slid over her, missing nothing, she was sure. His ramrod-straight bearing and superior attitude screamed military, and she was being subjected to an inspection. The not-quite-invisible spit-up stain on the shoulder of her tailored jacket would probably earn her fifty push-ups. The hastily applied makeup? Another twenty. Would he notice her highlights were growing out, too? Her teeth clenched at the thought of what her former spouse, the wanna-be drill sergeant, would’ve had to say about her appearance today. He’d have insisted she change before she left the house, watched her do it, and probably confiscated her exceedingly comfortable all-cotton underwear and replaced them with a uniform itchy, lacy thong.
Relief buoyed her as she remembered she didn’t have to care anymore. She didn’t have to please Ethan, and she certainly didn’t have to care about what this sunbaked thrill junkie thought of her, his air of entitlement and Emmy awards notwithstanding.
She forced her lips into a polite grin. “Forgive me, I was too busy to research you.”
“Baking cookies? Scrubbing the windows with newspaper and vinegar? Making organic baby food?”
His scorn of the things she loved was palpable, and it took more effort than she would like to shrug it off. “You’re research was thorough, wasn’t it? I’m guessing from your tone, you’re as eager to put the kibosh on the network’s idea as I am. Perfect. Let’s continue this conversation during the meeting.”
The elevator door opened onto the top floor, and she swept out in front of him, glad she’d worn the punishing heels that gave her some much-needed height and confidence. Still, he loomed over her as they reached the reception desk, making her feel small. When he stepped up beside her, his arm brushed hers, and she caught a whiff of sunshine and pine, even though it was January and snowing, and an unwanted surge of desire tied her tongue.
He winked at Holly. “Mr. Bergman is expecting us.”
“Right this way,” Holly said, giving her a split-second loaded look. She had no doubt her best friend and roommate would be waxing eloquent on Donovan’s über hotness at home later. Could she threaten to withhold the roasted sweet potato and black bean nachos unless Holly kept her mind out of the gutter? Maybe she’d hide the tequila, although she had a feeling she was going to be in desperate want of a drink by the time she got through this day. This was only the first unpleasant task on her to-do list, and Billy’s erupting teeth were making him clingy. She’d round out her long day with a twenty-three pound boulder wrapped around her leg and another sleepless night, for sure.
Since her back was to Donovan, she made a face at Holly, who acknowledged her pained grimace with a slight curve of her perfectly glossed lips and stood. Even before motherhood had turned Susannah into a sleep-deprived, last-season-wearing, diaper-toting mess, she’d never been able to attain the glamour Holly wore so casually. She had to work for it. But that’s why you have a career, silly. Women watched her because they didn’t feel threatened by her. She was normal. Sort of. More of a has-been normal. A hysterical giggle rose in her throat.
She straightened her spine and swallowed her nerves as Holly opened the door to their boss’s office. Donovan made a courtly “after you” gesture, and she stepped forward, conscious of a blast of heat at her back as he fell in behind her. She walked faster.
Mr. Bergman was just going to have to accept that At Home in the Wild was dead in the water. She could create a home just about anywhere and whip up a delicious dinner from next to nothing, but she wasn’t going to do it with Russ Donovan. After what he’d said in the elevator, she was sure Donovan felt the same way. She flicked a glance over her shoulder and caught him looking, not at Holly as she expected, but at her; specifically, her butt. Every ounce of baby weight she hadn’t shed got heavier, and she glared at him.
He shrugged, not looking the least bit apologetic, obviously another trait he shared with her ex-husband. Humiliation cranked her temper higher as she remembered catching Ethan not just looking at but touching another woman—in their bed, with their son sleeping in the room across the hall. She pushed the thought away. It was over. She’d found the strength to get out of her rotten marriage, and she was free to make her own decisions. Nothing on earth was going to put her in close contact with another man who enjoyed making her feel like she wasn’t good enough.
Susannah Stone looked exactly like her Google images, but the pictures hadn’t prepared him for the punch of those lovely, warm brown eyes skating over him with utter disdain. Apparently, Susie Homemaker didn’t go for his type. That was a pity. She was a looker, if you liked uptight, perfectly pulled together, not-a-hair-out-of-place women, and he did. He enjoyed messing them up.
He checked her out from the back as he followed her into Bergman’s office. Her brown hair was pulled into a neat knot, displaying the elegant curve of her neck. Her suit was cut precisely to the knee and a mouthwatering shade of strawberry-ice-cream pink. She glanced over her shoulder and busted him having a flash fantasy of running his tongue up her shapely calf. He shrugged, trying to play it off. The special series idea the network had planned was a nonstarter, but the host of At Home was totally doable. Goddamn, those shoes. If he didn’t get a grip on himself, he was going to walk into Berman’s office with a hard-on.
He shifted his mind back to work. Filming in the Adirondacks this weekend was going to be exhilarating, and he couldn’t wait to get out into the woods. Snowshoeing, hunting, and pitting himself against frozen nature always restored his equilibrium. There was something about stripping it down to the basics needed for survival that put everything into perspective. It would also make for a good show. He liked winning, and ratings were an excellent way of keeping score.
But he sure as hell couldn’t take it to the edge with little Susie Homemaker and her designer backpack tramping after him into subzero weather, although her curvy body would keep the tent warm at night. He stepped up beside her, watched her shake Bergman’s hand, and then held out his own. “Good to see you, Rich.”
“Likewise. How’ve you been? I had dinner with your parents the other night, and they asked about you.”
“Can’t complain. I’m keeping busy, and some parts of the world don’t have cell coverage.” But he didn’t call home even when they did, and Bergman knew it. The skin on the back of his neck tightened. His instincts frequently saved his life, and right now they were screaming a warning.
Bergman sat at the planning table on one side of his office, creative command central, as he liked to call it. “Have a seat.”
Russ waited for Susannah to sit and then debated between the seat beside her and one on the opposite side of the table. She glanced pointedly across the table, so he slid into the seat next to her, chuckling softly when she shot him a sideways death ray. Man, she was touchy, and it made him want to keep teasing her. With effort, he subdued the urge. This was neither the time nor the place, and he had a brand to defend. The star of Wild Man was not volunteering for domestication on television.
Bergman tossed a graph onto the screen behind him.
The other man’s grin was pure satisfaction. “Susannah’s ratings are through the roof, and I think she’s got a shot at being the next Martha Stewart if we play our cards right. At Home is the most-watched show on the network, but we need a bump, something to get even more viewers to tune in. That’s where you come in.” He pointed at Russ. “This crossover idea is pure genius, and I know you won’t say no because you owe me.”
Russ sat back and eyed the man, noting his steady, hard gray gaze. Bergman didn’t exhibit the zeal of a man riding the high of an exciting brainstorm; he looked like a leader about to lay out a course and make sure every soldier knew his and her job. Russ’s stomach sank into his shoes. He wasn’t under contract to Media Life anymore, but if Bergman was calling in favors, it didn’t matter. He did owe the guy—big-time. Shit. “I have to be in Washington soon—”
“Not for a week. I spoke with your parents, remember? They haven’t heard a peep from you in months, but they know you won’t shirk your responsibilities to the family charity.”
To your brother. Berman didn’t say it, but Russ heard it, loud and clear. No, he wouldn’t bail on Lance, not after he’d already failed his little brother in the most fundamental way possible. Lance might still be alive if it weren’t for him. He forced a slow breath into his tight chest. The annual gala was their biggest fund-raiser, and no matter where he was in the world, he never missed it.
Bergman pulled up the next slide. “We’re going to create a show—maybe even a series of shows—that will broaden Susannah’s viewer base. We want to give people a fresh angle, something they aren’t getting from the other cooking shows: a spirit of adventure. Russ, I know you’ve moved on, but In the Wild still has a cult following. It made you famous and gave you the money to go out on your own and get all those Emmy awards. I love your new show—Wild Man is amazing, and I’m even prouder of the documentaries you’ve made. I’ve never tried to make you feel guilty for leaving Media Life Networks, but Susannah is my shot at having an award-winning show. I need this favor.” Russ felt the walls begin to close in. Bergman knew just how to get to him—he always had. That had been a good thing back when Russ was a defiant teenager chasing more trouble than he could handle, not such a good thing now that it was time for payback.
Panic squeezed the air out of his lungs. He forced it back in. One show—two shows tops—then he’d be free again.
Bergman kept talking, a low buzz in his ears. “Once we start filming, we’ll expand our reach on social media with you two posting real-time pics and status updates that I hope will go viral within minutes. Since you’re experts in your fields, you’ll help us plan the shows for maximum impact, and I want a post-shoot wrap-up blog post from each of you to cover the his and hers perspectives. If necessary, I’ll get you a ghost writer, but the posts don’t have to be long.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Russ said. It was one thing to do a few shows as a favor, another to tie himself to Susie Homemaker in the media. He was the Wild Man, not the whipped man.
A strangled sound from Susannah told him she was equally horrified. “I don’t…I can’t…there’s no way—”
Bergman called up the next slide, and a promo pic appeared on the screen, a mix-up of him in Susannah’s kitchen wearing full climbing gear and her in an apron and hanging on the side of a mountain. At Home in the Wild was splashed below the image in an eye-catching red font. He looked tough as hell, not in the least domesticated. A smile spread across his face.
Susannah gave him a venomous glare.
“What? You have to admit it’s kind of awesome.”
“It’s horrid. I look ridiculous.” Her ivory cheeks turned pink.
“You aren’t the one standing in a kitchen.”
The fire in her cheeks moved to her eyes, stirring him up. “Are you saying my kitchen is ridiculous?”
“I’m saying real food is cooked over an open flame and eaten outside,” he said.
“Only by barbarians,” she snapped back.
Bergman applauded. “America will enjoy watching you two debate that topic during your camping trip next weekend.”
Caught up in goading her, he’d forgotten Bergman was listening. “No social media, Rich. Honestly, I don’t even have time to do the shows.”
“Bullshit. I know where you’re filming, and the Adirondacks are perfect. Don’t try to tell me you can’t crunch your schedule, either. You own the production company. If I know you—and I do since you were in diapers, in fact—you’ve got extra episodes in the can for just this sort of emergency. Use them.”
Russ didn’t like feeling cornered, and if anybody knew that it was Bergman. “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine, old man.”
Bergman settled back in his chair. “How much do you need?”
“Money. How much?”
“It’s not a matter of money, and you know it,” Russ growled.
Bergman shook his head. “I’m not talking about your salary. You’ll be working for free, although the network will pick up the cost of filming, production, and incidentals, of course.” He sat back and crossed his arms. “How much do you need to endow a chair for Lance’s charity?”
Russ’s stomach jumped. Was he serious? “Five million.”
“I won’t give you the money, but I bet donations will pour in when viewers find out you’re working for free—and why. You may have all those Emmys, but I have a huge reach. You can do a lot with Media Life Networks backing you. Say yes, and I’ll put trailers on every hour and take a film crew down to Washington with me for the gala.” His smile was smug. “You know I wouldn’t miss it.”
Currently, his parents handled fund-raising, but they wouldn’t live forever. An endowed chair would guarantee Lance’s legacy and maybe even find a cure for the cancer that had killed him. Russ couldn’t say no. Every extra penny he made went into the endowment fund, but it was slow going when he also needed to invest in the production company so he could keep making money. “Yes.”
Susannah gasped and then lifted her chin. “Respectfully, sir, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen. I appreciate your faith in my show, but Mr. Donovan and I just met, and we haven’t said a civil word to each other.”
Sitting, she was just a little bit of a thing. All her height must have come from those sexy pink shoes. Did she own hiking boots? He hoped so, but he’d happily pack those pink heels into the mountains if she’d be willing to wear them in the tent at night. Adrenaline slid into his veins. He was ready to go right now.
Bergman shrugged, attention back on the tablet in front of him, and Russ felt sorry for her. She didn’t seem to know she was fighting a losing battle. Bergman’s mind was clearly made up, and he was very good at tightening screws. “Frankly, Susannah, the worse it goes, the better it will play on TV. Some of the most famous on-screen couples couldn’t stand each other. You don’t have to be friends to have great chemistry.”
She looked appalled. “We don’t have chemistry.”
Russ draped an arm along the back of her chair. “Aw, gimme a chance, sweetheart.” Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad for his image. He looked twice as wild standing in her froufrou kitchen, and keeping her alive in the forest or wherever they wanted to film would make him look even tougher. Hello, ratings. Good-bye, leukemia. Double win.
She scooted to the edge of her seat, away from his arm. “Impossible. I have a family, and I can’t take off into the woods at a moment’s notice. That’s why my show is so popular. I stay at home.”
Bergman finally looked up from his tablet. Russ tensed at the steel in his eyes. Here it comes. “Ms. Stone, you have the top-rated show on this network, but you didn’t get there without help—my help. I suggest you get with the program. If you absolutely cannot work out a solution for your family so that you can go on a short camping trip next weekend, then I can’t guarantee your star will continue to rise at Media Life Networks. I need to back a winner. Are you my winner or not?”
Susannah’s gaze dropped and then flashed over to meet his. He had no idea what was going through her mind, but her shattered expression knocked the wind out of him. Bergman was taking this to the mat, but had chosen different techniques to pin them. He was dangling a carrot in front of Russ, and threatening Susannah with a stick. It wasn’t like Bergman to be such a dick, so there must be more at stake than he was letting on. Was the network in trouble?
Russ took her hand and squeezed it. If Bergman truly needed help, Russ couldn’t let her say no. “No worries, Rich. We’ve got our Wild Woman right here. Just leave her to me.” He tightened his fingers in warning. She squeezed back, harder, before her hand slid out of his. He was glad for his sturdy shoes when her spike heel ground into his instep.
She had her game face back on when she gave Bergman a tight smile. “When you put it that way, I’m feeling wilder by the minute. I assume turnabout’s fair play? Mr. Donovan looks wonderful in my kitchen. I’d love the chance to teach him some useful domestic skills, and my mind is spinning with ways to smooth his rough edges. I’m thinking we’ll start with a revitalizing cucumber-and-oatmeal facial for all that sun damage. His hair could use some TLC, too.”
He barely stifled a shudder.
Her smile filled with malice. “Perhaps we’ll prepare an elegant black-tie dinner for some celebrity guests to show off your new look. Oh, and my viewers are a sucker for a man who isn’t afraid to change a diaper. You’re not afraid, are you?”
Absolutely terrified, but he’d swim through Arctic water before he’d admit it. She wanted to play dirty? Fine with him. “Bring it on, Susie.” There was no way anything she threw at him could be rougher than what he could plan for her.
Susannah fumed all the way home. She’d planned to give Donovan a piece of her mind after they left Mr. Bergman’s office, but he’d stopped to flirt with Holly on the way out. Of course he had. Holly’s flaming red hair and killer curves attracted men like ants to a dropped potato chip.
Stamp, stamp, stamp…stop it! If she were a single man, she’d flirt with Holly, too.
It was better not to start more trouble, anyway. She had enough of her own waiting at home with a teething toddler, broken garbage disposal, custody fight papers under the fruit bowl on the dining room table, bathroom renovation in progress, and now she had to find someone to take care of Billy for three days while she went on a camping trip in winter. She shivered as the cold in her frozen toes seeped into her bones. Ethan was the most logical choice, but he’d never wanted a baby in the first place. The only reason he was appealing the custody decision was to punish her for leaving him. He didn’t want to take care of a baby, especially one with purpling gums that kept him up all night, drooling and feverish. She couldn’t imagine Ethan spending a night sleeping in a recliner with sweaty baby plastered to his chest, not that Billy would want his father anyway.
She pulled into the driveway, and the front door swung open. Was she late? No, right on time, but Kim was waiting in the doorway holding Billy. The college student had been a godsend, especially since the divorce. Susannah rushed out of the car and picked her way through the ice, glad she’d salted and shoveled before she left this morning or her stupid shoes would send her sprawling.
“Everything okay, Kim?”
“Yes, indeed, but this guy wants his momma.”
Susannah shucked her coat, hung it on the hook, and reached for him. As soon as his little hands settled around her neck and sank into her hair, her frustration eased, and she sighed. “His momma wanted him, too. Thanks for coming at the last minute.”
“No problem. The usual for Monday?”
“Yes, and I have a favor to ask. I got thrown a curveball at work. Are you available to stay with Billy next weekend?” Susannah could tell the answer was going to be no by the regret that clouded Kim’s blue eyes.
“I’ve got two soccer games and a hot date, but I’m free the weekend after that. Can you shift it?”
“Tragically, no.” There were a limited number of people she trusted with Billy. At fourteen months, he was a handful, into everything and full of mischief. “Don’t worry about it. You’re always my first choice, but I’ll figure out something. Have fun, kick ass, and use a condom. Otherwise you’ll end up with one of these…” She grabbed Billy’s hand and made him wave at Kim.
They both cracked up. Kim leaned in to hug both her and Billy at the same time. “He’s a walking advertisement for unsafe sex, and you know it.”
“Yeah, I can’t say I’m sad he’s my hot date tonight.”
“No Holly? I thought you two were happy hour-ing it.”
“Shiny new man caught her eye.” Any minute she expected to get a text canceling, which would be fine. Well, not really. Selfishly, she hoped Holly didn’t start something with Donovan. Susannah had a feeling she was going to need a sympathetic and completely biased friend during this At Home in the Wild fiasco. Camping? In late January? In the mountains? Kill me now. She saw Kim to the door and carried Billy upstairs so she could dive into a comfy pair of yoga pants, sports bra, long-sleeved T-shirt, and her favorite purple fleece. The underwire in her bra had been digging into her side all day, her feet were freezing in her shoes, and her suit felt like a full-body straitjacket.
She’d gotten spoiled doing At Home. Her viewers didn’t want to see a well-dressed woman whipping out five-course meals. They wanted to see a real one. Real she could do. New York City dog-eat-dog businesswoman? If today were any indication, she’d lost her ability to fake it—on every level.
Anxiety rose at the memory of this morning’s meeting. She’d frozen at the thought of losing her show, and Donovan had rescued her. If he hadn’t taken control, Mr. Bergman might have moved on to the next rising star on his list, and then what would she do? She counted her blessings every day that she’d been able to turn her homemaking skills into a career. Busy working parents were eager to learn how to keep the home fires burning while living their fast-paced lives and, regardless of Russ Donovan’s opinion, her job wasn’t easy.
Her gratitude toward him shriveled. The concern she’d seen in his gaze when he took her hand hadn’t been for her. He obviously didn’t want to lose the chance to endow his pet charity, and he’d been worried she was going to blow it. She wasn’t going to blow it, but also wasn’t going to make the mistake of thinking they were in this together. It was ridiculously easy to fall into her old patterns, and she needed to be vigilant. Her tendency to please combined with her attraction to egotistical jerks was a recipe for misery, a lesson she didn’t need to learn more than once.
She caught Billy just as he nudged the bedroom door open and made his move for the stairs. “Oh, no, you don’t.” She took his hand, and they inched their way down together, step by slow step. As they reached the bottom, the door opened, and Holly burst into the house. “Jesus Christ, it’s freezing out there.”
Despite the swirl of icy wind, warmth spread through Susannah. “What are you doing home? I thought you’d be out on the town with the Wild Man.”
Holly threw off layers and hung them on hooks. “The call of your nachos, a stiff drink, and a good snuggle with Billy is a whole lot stronger than the lure of the Wild Man’s wicked body. Let’s not forget I’m no sweet young thing anymore.”
Susannah rolled her eyes. “You’re thirty, not ninety, Hol.”
“I know.” She drew the last word out into a long sigh and then giggled. “Which is why it was a hard decision. I was itching to see his sexy tattoo up close and personal.”
“The one on his back. Haven’t you seen it on his show?”
Susannah shook her head. “I’ve never seen any of his shows.”
“I’ve got to get you out from under your rock, sister. Maybe we should have a Wild Man marathon after dinner. Or kick it old school with In the Wild. I could stare at that man all night.” She made a catlike growl and swiped the air in front of her with pretend claws.
“He was right there in front of your desk, Hol. You could have had him.”
“He didn’t want me,” Holly said cheerfully. “He was fishing for information about you.”
A frisson of something she refused to name shot through her. “No way.”
“Way.” Holly held out her arms, and Billy reached for her. She picked him up and kissed his cheek with a playful squeak, making him giggle. “Squeaky kiss! Squeaky! C’mon, let’s go in the kitchen, so your momma can make me a drink.”
“What did he want to know?” Susannah asked, trying to sound casual as she followed her friend into the kitchen.
“Subtlety is not his strong suit. I couldn’t decide whether to play dumb or tell him we’re BFFs. I wasn’t sure which approach would further my goal.”
Susannah paused with her hand on the cocktail shaker. “You have a goal?”
“Getting you laid properly, duh.”
A hot chill made her shudder. “Don’t even think about it. He’s not my type, and if you said anything to make him think he is, I’m going to kill you. I know where you sleep.” She put her hands on her hips. “You’re not getting a margarita until you tell me what you said.”
A grin tilted Holly’s full lips. “I told him he wasn’t your type.”
“Good.” A surge of disappointment startled her. She masked it with a firm nod and then hurried to the fridge to get her homemade sweet-and-sour mix and fill the ice bucket. Methodically, she rimmed glasses with salt, filled them with ice, measured liquor and sour mix into the shaker, shook, and poured. After garnishing each drink with a candied lime wedge, she placed them on coasters and slid one across the island to her friend. Holly was still grinning, and it made her nervous.
“Why do you look so happy with yourself?”
“Because reverse psychology was invented for men like him. I could almost see him trying to figure out which tools in his survival kit would get him into your pants.”
Susannah groaned. “He reminds me of Ethan.”
Holly shook her head emphatically. “Not every confident, successful, take-charge sex god is a cheating jerk.” Billy began to struggle, so Holly set him on his feet and stood to follow him around the kitchen, glass in hand. “Some of them genuinely like women and are fantastic in bed. The Wild Man would be good for you. You don’t have to keep him. Just let him boost your confidence so you’re ready to get back in the game.”
Holly followed Billy out into the hall, saving her from the need to respond. Russ Donovan might be a sex god, but she was the opposite of a goddess. Ethan had been very clear about her sexual inadequacies even before she’d caught him cheating, and the idea of anything like that happening between her and Russ made her feel sick. She didn’t brand every strong-willed man with her ex-husband’s flaws, but she knew her own defects intimately. She had lost herself trying to please Ethan, and Donovan tripped all her triggers. She wasn’t going to lose herself again.
Her heart raced at the thought of being alone with him for three days, and she took a deep breath to quell the panic. Holly didn’t understand what was going to happen next weekend. Donovan wasn’t interested in boosting her confidence; he was going to do his best to make her look like an idiot on television. She’d be lucky not to break an ankle or get frostbite. Where would they sleep? What would they eat? How on earth would they pass the time?
Holly carried Billy back into the kitchen and plunked him in his high chair. She secured the straps and grabbed a box of Cheerios from the cupboard. “Ethan made a better sperm donor than husband, I’ll give you that, but ever since you kicked him to the curb, you’ve locked yourself away in sweatpants and fleece and tried to pretend your life is over.”
“My life is not over, but I’m staying away from men until a nice, supportive, baby-loving banker knocks on my door. I don’t want a wild man hell-bent on humiliating me. Been there, done that, got the custody battle.”
Holly’s gaze jerked to hers. “Banker? Why banker? When did you set your heart on a banker?”
“Sounds safe, right? Reliable. Stable. Appreciative.”
Her friend pretended to yawn. “Before you settle down with Mr. Stable, I think you deserve some fun. How long were you married? Two years, right?”
Susannah eyed her. Holly knew how long she’d been married.
“And divorced for a year now…just out of curiosity, how many orgasms have you had? That didn’t involve batteries or your own hand?”
“Orgasms? Sex?” Susannah rolled her eyes. “That’s not my idea of fun. Working, being a mom, and proving I don’t need Ethan to take care of us is way more satisfying than an orgasm.”
Holly snored. “You’re sleeping through life. Look at you, all comfy in your pajamas before dinnertime. All that big talk about getting out of your rut and throwing off Ethan’s bullshit, but you still believe you’re a little brown wren to his big, fat, preening peacock, don’t you? It’s bullshit, Suz. You’re gorgeous. Russ Donovan couldn’t take his eyes off you—”
“Until he saw you at your desk—”
Holly held up her hand. “He stopped at my desk, but he didn’t look at me until the door shut behind you.”
Satisfaction rolled through her, which made her cringe. But even though she didn’t want or need a man in her life, she wondered if Holly might be right. She’d been wickedly uncomfortable in her pink suit today, but had her discomfort stemmed from the confining clothing or from feelings of inadequacy? Had Ethan convinced her she wasn’t going to measure up no matter what she wore? “I’m wearing comfortable clothes and dressing for me now. I don’t need a man’s admiration to make me feel worthy.”
Holly raised an eyebrow. “You might not need a man’s admiration, but if ever a woman needed to get laid, it’s you. Trust me on this. You need a man.”
Stung, she shot back. “Not everyone uses sex as a security blanket. Why don’t we dissect your self-esteem issues instead?”
Holly’s jaw dropped, and Susannah saw hurt flash in her gaze. “I’m sorry,” she said instantly. “It’s been a long week, and this new show has me terrified. I didn’t mean it. Thank you for not making me drink alone on a Friday night, even though I’m a lousy friend.”
Holly shook her head. “That was a shitty thing to say, but you’re not a lousy friend. You’re a great friend.” Her reassuring smile made Susannah sigh with relief. “Don’t be sorry for sticking up for yourself, although, unlike your asshole ex, I do have your best interests at heart. You’re amazing, and I’m so proud of you for taking your life back. But wearing sweatpants all the time is not your style. Don’t let Ethan win. Don’t be afraid to get back out there.”
Susannah suddenly felt the need for another warm layer of clothing. And a nap. “I’m not afraid. I’ll get back out there when I’m ready, but I’ve got a full-time job, a leaky house, and a small child. I’m exhausted.”
“I know you are—that’s why I’m going to take baby duty tonight, so you can get some sleep.”
Longing welled up hard enough to make her dizzy, but she shook her head. “That’s supersweet, but Billy will want me.”
Holly gave her a pitying look. “I hate to break it to you, but I’ve gotten up with him plenty of times, and he hasn’t complained once. We’re like this when you’re not around.” She crossed her fingers and grinned at Billy. He smiled back at her and promptly thudded onto his diapered butt. She scooped him up and twirled him around. “Momma needs to rest up for her big weekend with the Wild Man.”
Susannah sagged. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Kim can’t watch Billy, and I’d rather die than call Ethan. I don’t want to give the rat bastard the satisfaction of thinking I need his help.”
“I’ll watch Billy.”
“For three whole days? You don’t know what you’re getting into. I’d never ask you to do that.”
Holly’s perfectly shaped brows drew together. “Excuse me? I live here. I know the deal. Total vigilance, sleep deprivation, defrosted baby food cubes, poop, Goldfish crackers, naps, and educational television. Keep him alive in spite of his daredevil tendencies. I can do that, and you don’t even have to pay me. C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
Susannah blinked at her. “Who are you? And where is my party-girl, workaholic roommate? You’ve gone out every Friday and Saturday night since you moved in. Sometimes Sunday, too. And you work late Monday through Thursday. Billy cannot roll with your schedule.”
Holly made a goofy face at Billy. “Sounds like Mommy doesn’t trust me,” she crooned.
“Of course I trust you. We’ve been friends forever. You practically helped me push him into the world.” Because Ethan considered birth women’s work, and she’d needed somebody to hold her hand and scream obscenities before her emergency cesarean. “There isn’t anyone I trust more, but I don’t want to cramp your style. You have a life. A fun one. You didn’t sign on for this.”
An odd light entered Holly’s gaze. “But I wouldn’t mind trying it on for size, just for the weekend. Don’t make me beg.”
Susannah thought about it while she turned on the broiler and got the ingredients for their nachos out of the fridge. Billy adored Holly, and she was amazing with him. If Holly was willing, Susannah would be stupid to say no. “Then yes, and thank you. I really appreciate it.”
Susannah slumped onto a barstool and propped her head in her hands. “But now I have to go camping in the snow.”
“Look on the bright side. Your fleece wardrobe will be a plus.” Her grin was a mocking flash of perfect, white teeth. “And warmth will be of paramount importance. Gosh, I wonder how you two can keep warm in a tent in the snow. Hmm…” She tapped a finger on her chin.
“Goose-down sleeping bag. I’ve got one in the basement.”
“One sleeping bag. Two people. Naked.”
Susannah’s face flamed. “I’m not getting naked with the Wild Man. Sex is the last thing I need.”
“Honey, I know it isn’t PC.” Holly gave her a level look. “Women don’t need men to be happy…says no happily married woman anywhere. You’re a throwback, kid. I know my company is fabulous, but can you honestly say you don’t want a man rolling in the door at dinnertime? You love to take care of people, and that is a beautiful thing. I’m blessed to have you in my life, and if we were gay, I’d ask you to marry me in a heartbeat. But I don’t believe wearing a Polartec jumpsuit 24-7 truly makes you happy. If I did, I’d buy you a dozen fleece bra-and-panty sets to complete your fuzzy ensembles. You haven’t been happy for a very long time, maybe ever, and burying yourself in loungewear because Ethan made you feel unattractive isn’t going to do anything but make you more miserable.”
“I like being alone. I rock this fleece. I’m awesome.” But tears prickled her eyes, and she knew Holly wasn’t fooled.
Susannah opened a cabinet and pretended to search for a bag of chips. When her eyes stopped stinging, she plucked a bag from the top shelf and poured chips onto a parchment-lined sheet tray. She layered them with chipotle sour cream, black bean dip, roasted sweet potatoes, and four kinds of cheese and popped the tray into the oven. She pulled a Mexican chocolate cake out of the fridge to warm up for later. As she mixed two more drinks, she glanced over at Holly, who was smashing black beans one by one on Billy’s tray while he gobbled them up. Holly met her gaze and then looked pointedly at the oven, the cake, and the glasses in Susannah’s hands. The irony was not lost on Susannah.
“Russ Donovan was looking at your ass.”
Susannah thrust a fresh drink into her hand. “Russ Donovan is not the kind of man who will roll in the door at six for dinner.”
“Hell, no. I’m sure he’ll be on the other side of the world next month jumping out of a helicopter into a fire swamp filled with Megalodons. But Russ Donovan could get you over the hump. Literally.” Holly picked up the remote and pointed it at the television mounted on the wall. After a quick search, the opening credits for In the Wild rolled across the screen. “Might as well see what you’re in for this weekend.”
Susannah chugged her drink, and Holly laughed.
As a grinning, bare-chested Wild Man filled the screen, her mouth went dry. Her pulse beat a wild jungle tattoo, and her skin felt tight and hot. She blamed Holly for the image that flashed in her mind’s eye: two sweaty naked bodies twined together in a sleeping bag.