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Beautiful and shy Zoe Hoffman has hired Alex Nolan to remodel a lake house for
her, in spite of his rude behavior and his reputation as a bitter and hard-living man.
What Zoe doesn't know is that Alex is being haunted by ghost who accompanies him
everywhere. In this scene, Alex, the ghost, and Zoe are visiting the lake house, which
has been closed up for years. Zoe has just been startled by a huge spider that dropped
out of a dusty kitchen cabinet . . .
At the sound of Zoe's scream, Alex reached her in a few seconds. She had bolted
from the galley-style kitchen, her eyes huge in her ashen face. "What is it?" he demanded.
"S-spider," she said hoarsely.
"It's here," the ghost called out from the kitchen. "Damn thing just jumped from
one counter to the other."
Dashing into the narrow space, Alex grabbed the antique eggbeaters and killed the
spider with a few decisive thwacks.
Pausing to look more closely, Alex let out a low whistle. It was a wolf spider, a
species that tended to hide during the day and hunt for prey at night. This particular
specimen was bigger than anything he'd seen outside of a zoo. A touch of humor quirked
one corner of his mouth as he thought of how Sam would have reacted to the situation.
Sam would have found a way to capture the spider without harming it and safely
transport it outside, all the while lecturing about respect for nature. Alex's view on nature
was that any time it ventured inside, it was going to find itself confronting a big can of
His gaze swept across the kitchen. A loose collection of webbing was anchored at
the corner of the ceiling. Spiders spun webs near food sources, which meant there had to
be a big supply of insects attracted to the moisture from leaks in the wall.
"Alex," came the ghost's urgent voice from the other room, "Something's wrong
Frowning, Alex left the kitchen and found Zoe in the center of the main room, her
arms wrapped tightly around her middle. She was breathing in airless pants, as if her
lungs had collapsed. He reached her in two strides. "What is it?"
She didn't seem to hear him. Her eyes were wide and unfocused. She was shaking
in every limb.
"Did it bite you?" Alex asked, looking over her face, neck, arms, every exposed inch of skin.
Zoe shook her head, wheezing as she tried to talk. Alex found himself reaching
out for her and snatching his hands back.
"Panic attack," the ghost said. "Can you calm her down?"
Alex shook his head automatically. He was good at making women angry, but
calming them wasn't in his repertoire.
The ghost looked exasperated. "Just talk to her. Pat her back."
Alex gave him an appalled glance. There was no possible way to explain his
unwillingness to touch her. The sure knowledge that it would lead to disaster. But Zoe
swayed on her feet, looking like she was about to pass out, and there was no choice. He
reached for her, his hands closing lightly around her arms. The feel of her skin against his
palms, the texture of her flesh, sent a thrill of heat through him, which, in light of the
circumstances, was nothing less than depraved.
He had been with women in every imaginable sexual position, but he'd never
taken one into his arms with the sole intention of comforting her. "Zoe, look at me," he
To his relief, she obeyed. She was panting, gulping painfully as if she couldn't get
enough air, when the problem was that she was taking in too much.
"I want you to take a deep breath and let it out slowly," Alex said. "Can you do
Zoe looked at him without seeing him, her eyes desperate and tear-blurred. "My
He understood immediately. "You're not having a heart attack. You'll be fine. We
just need to slow your breathing down." She continued to stare at him, wetness leaking
from her eyes, mingling with the pearly mist of sweat on her cheeks. The sight caused
something to twist painfully inside his chest. "You're safe," he heard himself saying. "I
won't let anything happen to you. Easy . . ." His hand came to the side of her face. Her
cheek was cool and plush, like the sepals of a white orchid. Carefully he touched her
nose, pressing one nostril shut, holding it like that. "Keep your mouth closed. Breathe
through one side of your nose."
With the intake of air restricted, Zoe's breath began to regulate. But it wasn't easy.
She gasped and hiccupped, and kept fighting to breathe as if she were trying to insufflate
corn syrup through a straw. All Alex could do was hold her patiently, and let her body
work it out. "Good girl," he murmured, as he felt her begin to relax. "Just like that." A
few more constricted breaths. To his relief, she stopped struggling. He let his hand cradle
her face, while his thumb wiped at the stippling of tears on her cheek. "Take long breaths from deep down."
Looking exhausted, Zoe dropped her head to his shoulder, the pale golden curls
tickling his jaw. Alex went very still. "Sorry," he heard her whisper in between broken
Not as sorry as he was. Because the feel of her had sent a shock of pleasure
through him, so pure and searing that it was almost pain. He had known somehow that it
would be like this. He found himself gripping her closer, until her body molded to his as
if her bones had gone liquid. A few remaining tremors went across her back, and he
chased them slowly with his hands. He felt his senses opening to take her in, the
incredible lush delicacy of her. She smelled like crushed flowers, a dry and innocent
scent, and he wanted to open her shirt and breathe it directly from her skin. He wanted to
press his lips against the wild pulse in her throat and stroke it with his tongue.
Heat uncurled and rose through the stillness. The urge to touch her intimately,
slide his hands through her hair and inside her clothes, nearly drove him crazy. But it was
enough just to stand here with her, disoriented from the desire that flowed all through
Through heavy-lidded eyes, he saw a movement nearby. It was the ghost, only a
few yards away, regarding him with lifted brows.
Alex shot him an incinerating glare.
"I think I'll check out the other rooms," the ghost said tactfully, and vanished.
Zoe clung to Alex, who was the one solid thing in the world, the still center of the
merry-go-round. Dancing at the edge of her awareness was the mortified knowledge that,
after this, she would never be able to face him again. She had made a fool out of herself.
He would have nothing but contempt for her. Except . . . he was so gentle . . . so
concerned. His hand moved over her back in slow circles. It had been a long time since a
man had held her--she had forgotten how good it felt. The surprise was that Alex Nolan
was capable of such quiet, fluent tenderness. She would have expected anything from
him except this.
"Better?" he asked after a while.
She nodded against his shoulder. "I . . . I've always hated spiders. They're like . . .
hairy wads of death on eight legs."
"Usually they only bite humans to defend themselves."
"I don't care. I'm still scared of them."
Amusement rustled in his chest. "Most people are."
Zoe lifted her head to look up at him with wide eyes. "Including you?"
"No." He caressed the edge of her jaw with the backs of his fingers. His face was
austere, but his eyes were warm. "In my line of work, you see enough of them that you get used to it."
"I wouldn't," Zoe said vehemently. Remembering the one in the kitchen, she felt
her pulse skyrocket. "That one was huge. And the way it dropped out of the cabinet and
started hopping toward me--"
"It's dead," Alex interrupted, his hand returning to her back, resuming the calming
stroking. "Relax, or you'll start hyperventilating again."
"Was it a black widow?"
"No, just a wolf spider."
"They're not lethal," he said.
"There must be more. The house is probably full of them."
"I'll take care of it." He sounded so assured and matter-of-fact that she couldn't
help but believe him. His face was so close that she could see the shadow of whisker-
grain heralding a dark five o'clock shadow. "The only way spiders can get in," Alex continued, "is through cracks and places that aren't sealed. So I'm going to install door
sweeps and weather-stripping, caulk around all the windows and doors, and put wire
mesh over every vent. Trust me, this is going to be the most pest-proof house on the
A moment later, it occurred to Zoe that she was still glued to him as tightly as a
barnacle on a harbor piling. And her heart was still in overdrive. Standing as close as they
were, it was impossible not to notice that he was becoming aroused, the pressure of his
body hard and delicious. She couldn't seem to move, only leaned against him in a dry- mouthed paralysis of pleasure.
Alex eased her apart from him, and turned away with a wordless sound.
One or more characters in this book also appear in:
Here's another little peek!
Alex Nolan is struggling with his unwanted attraction to Zoe Hoffman, a woman who is too good for him, and he knows it . . .
Sliding his hand to the nape of her neck, Alex relished the texture of cool, soft skin, the fine muscles beneath. The kitchen seemed to breathe around them, stirring currents of toasted air that carried the bittersweet zest of lemon rind, the dank sweetness of scrubbed wooden cutting boards, the floating richness of cake, the crisp bite of cinnamon and the black tang of coffee. All of it whetted a deep thrill of hunger. It seemed as if Zoë were part of the feast all around him, made to be tasted and felt and sensually enjoyed. The only thing that held him back from her was a thread of honor that was stretched nearly to the breaking point. If he let himself do what he wanted, if Zoë didn't stop him, he would end up being the worst thing that ever happened to her. He had to make her understand that.
"In high school," he said, "I was the kind of asshole who would have teased and bullied you."
"I know." After a moment, Zoë said, "You would have called me a dumb blond."
At the very least. He had been angry at the world. He'd hated all the things he couldn't have. And he would have especially hated someone as gentle and beautiful as Zoë. She took a deep breath before asking, "Is that how you think of me now?"
Although she'd just handed him the perfect way to put some distance between them, Alex couldn't bring himself to use it. Instead he told her the truth. "No. I think you're smart. I think you're good at what you do."
"Do you think I'm . . . attractive?" she asked hesitantly.
He was nearly drowning in the desire to demonstrate exactly how attractive he found her. "You're sexy as hell. And if I thought you could handle my kind of trouble, we wouldn't be standing here talking. By now I'd have dragged you to the nearest dark corner I could find, and--" he broke off abruptly.
Zoë gave him a look that was difficult to interpret. Eventually she asked, "What makes you sure I couldn't handle you?"
She didn't know what she was asking for, from a man who couldn't remember what it was like to be innocent. Lightly gripping her hair, Alex forced her face close to his. The blonde curls danced around his fingers and tickled the backs of his hands. "I'm a bastard in bed, Zoë," he said quietly. "I'm selfish and mean as the devil. I have to have all the control. And I'm . . . not nice."
Her eyes widened. "What do you mean?"
He wasn't about to discuss his sexual preferences with her. "No, we're not going there. All you need to know is that I don't make love to women, I use them. To you, sex is about kindness, honesty, commitment . . . well, I don't bring any of that to bed. If you're as smart as I think you are, you'll believe that."
"I do," Zoë said promptly.
Drawing his head back an inch, Alex stared at her. "Really?"
"Yes." But after a long hesitation, Zoë's gaze dropped and the corners of her mouth quirked. "No," she admitted, "I really don't."
"Damn it, Zoë--" He broke off in frustration, all the more provoked because she was trying not to smile, as if she thought of him as some big pussycat trying to pose as a tiger. She was playing with fire. She wouldn't begin to understand the depravity that had passed for his love life. He knew who he was, and he knew how to hurt people--God knew he'd done it often enough.
The hint of amusement flitting across her lips drove him crazy. Before he knew what was doing, he crushed his mouth over hers, holding her head so she couldn't jerk back. He expected resistance. He wanted to scare her off. That was how the lesson would go. But after the first innocent start of surprise, she went soft and easy against him, her fingers lacing into his hair, curving around his skull. Alex was mortified by the force of his own response. He could have no more broken her hold on him than he could have snapped a steel beam in two.
She tasted like lavender sugar. Sweet, dark-flowering kisses, opening in a way that focused all his senses on this one moment, this one blinding perception of pleasure.
Too late, he realized that she wasn't the one playing with fire.
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