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  Dear Reader

  Special Excerpt from Animal Magnetism


  Kate Evans would’ve sold her soul for a stress-free morning, but either her soul wasn’t worth much or whoever was in charge of granting wishes was taking a nap. With her phone vibrating from incoming texts—which she was doing her best to ignore—she shoved her car into park and ran across the lot and into the convenience store. “Duct tape?” she called out to Meg, the clerk behind the counter.

  Meg had pink and purple tie-dyed hair, had enough piercings to ensure certain drowning if she ever went swimming, and was in the middle of a heated debate on the latest The Voice knock-out rounds with another customer. But she stabbed a finger in the direction of aisle three.

  Kate snatched a roll of duct tape, some twine, and then, because she was also weak, a rack of chocolate mini donuts for later. Halfway to the checkout, a bin of fruit tugged at her good sense so she grabbed an apple. Dumping everything on the counter, she fumbled through her pockets for cash.

  Meg rang her up and bagged her order. “You’re not going to murder someone, are you?”

  Kate choked out a laugh. “What?”

  “Well . . .” Meg took in Kate’s appearance. “Librarian outfit. Duct tape. Twine. I know you’re the math whiz around here, but it all adds up to a Criminal Minds episode to me.”

  Kate was wearing a cardigan, skirt, leggings, and—because she’d been in a hurry and they’d been by the front door—snow boots. She supposed with her glasses and hair piled up on her head she might resemble the second-grade teacher that she was, and okay, maybe the snow boots in May were a little suspect. “You watch too much TV,” Kate said. “It’s going to fry your brain.”

  “You know what fries your brain? Not enough sex.” Meg pointed to her phone. “Got that little tidbit right off the Internet on my last break.”

  “Well, then it must be true,” Kate said.

  Meg laughed. “That’s all I’m saying.”

  Kate laughed along with her, grabbed her change and her bag, and hurried to the door. She was late. As the grease that ran her family’s wheel, she needed to get to her dad’s house to help get her little brother, Tommy, ready for school and then to coax the Evil Teen into even going to school. The duct tape run wasn’t to facilitate that, or to kill anyone, but to make a camel, of all things, for an afterschool drama project Tommy had forgotten to mention was due today.

  Kate stepped outside and got slapped around by the wind. The month of May had burst onto the scene like a PMSing Mother Nature, leaving the beautiful, rugged Bitterroot Mountains, which loomied high overhead, dusted with last week’s surprise snow.

  Spring in Sunshine, Idaho, was MIA.

  Watching her step on the wet, slippery asphalt, she pulled out her once again vibrating phone just to make sure no one was dying. It was a text from her dad and read: Hurry, it’s awake.

  It being her sister. The other texts were from Ashley herself. She was upset because she couldn’t find her cheerleading top, and also, did Kate know that Tommy was talking to his invisible friend in the bathroom again?

  Kate sighed and closed her eyes for a brief second, which was all it took for her snow boots to slip. She went down like a sack of cement, her phone flying one way, her bag the other as she hit the ground butt first with teeth-jarring impact.

  “Dammit!” She took a second for inventory—no massive injuries. That this was in thanks to not having lost those five pounds of winter brownie blues didn’t make her feel any better. The cold seeped through her tights and the sidewalk abraded the bare skin of her palms. Rolling to her hands and knees, she reached for her keys just as a set of denim-clad legs came into her field of vision.

  The owner of the legs crouched down, easily balancing on the balls of his feet. A hand appeared, her keys centered in the big palm. Tilting her head up, she froze.

  Her polite stranger wore a baseball cap low over his eyes, shadowing most of his face and dark hair, but she’d know those gunmetal gray eyes anywhere. And then there was the rest of him. Six foot two and built for trouble in army camo cargoes, a black sweatshirt, and his usual badass attitude, the one that tended to have men backing off and women checking for drool; there was no mistaking Griffin Reid, the first guy she’d ever fallen for. Of course she’d been ten at the time . . .

  “That was a pretty spectacular fall,” he said, blocking her from standing up. “Make sure you’re okay.”

  Keep your cool, she told herself. Don’t speak, just nod. But her mouth didn’t get the memo. “No worries, a man’s forty-seven percent more likely to die from a fall than a woman.” The minute the words escaped, she bit her tongue, but of course it was too late. When she got nervous, she spouted inane science facts.

  And Griffin Reid made her very nervous.

  “I’m going to ask you again,” he said, moving his tall, linebacker body nary an inch as he pinned her in place with nothing more than his steady gaze. “Are you okay?”

  Actually, no, she wasn’t. Not even close. Her pride was cracked, and quite possibly her butt as well, but that wasn’t what had her kneeling there on the ground in stunned shock. “You’re . . . home.”

  He smiled grimly. “I was ordered back by threat of bodily harm if I was late to the wedding.”

  He was kidding. No one ordered the tough, stoic badass Griffin to do anything, except maybe Uncle Sam since he was some secret army demolitions expert who’d been in Afghanistan for three straight tours. But his sister, Holly, was getting married this weekend. And if there was anyone more bossy or determined than Griffin, it was his baby sister. Only Holly could get her reticent brother halfway around the world for her vows.

  Kate had told herself that as Holly’s best friend and maid of honor, she would absolutely not drool over Griffin if he showed up. And she would especially not make a fool of herself.

  Too late, on both counts.

  Again she attempted to get up, but Griffin put a big, tanned, work-roughened hand on her thigh, and she felt herself tingle.

  Well, damn. Meg was right—too little sex fried the brain.

  Clearly misunderstanding her body’s response, Griffin squeezed gently as if trying to soothe, which of course had the opposite effect, making things worse. Embarrassed, she tried to pull free, but still effortlessly holding her, Griffin’s steely gray eyes remained steady on hers.

  “Take stock first,” he said, voice low but commanding. “What hurts? Let me see.”

  Since the only thing that hurt besides her pride was a part of her anatomy that she considered No Man’s Land, hell would freeze over before she’d “let him see.” “I’m fine. Really,” she added.

  Griffin took her hand and easily hoisted her up, studying her in that assessing way of his. Then he started to turn her around, presumably to get a three-hundred-and-sixty degree view, but she stood firm. “Seriously,” she said, backing away, “I’m good.” And if she weren’t, if she’d actually broken her butt, she’d die before admitting it, so it didn’t matter. Bending to gather up her belongings, she carefully sucked in her grimace of pain.

  “I’ve got it,” Griffin said, and scooped up the duct tape and donuts. He looked like maybe he was going to say something about the donuts, but at the odd vibrating noise behind them, he turned. “Your phone’s having a seizure,” he said.

  Panicked siblings, no doubt. After all, there was a camel to create out of thin air and a cheerleading top to locate, and God only knew what disaster her father was coming up with for breakfast.

  Griffin offered the cell phone, and Kate stared down at it thinking how much easier her day would go if it had smashed to pieces when it hit the ground.

  “Want me to step on it a few times??
?? he asked, sounding amused. “Kick it around?”

  Startled that he’d read her so easily, she snatched the phone. When her fingers brushed his, an electric current sang up her arms and went straight to her happy spots without passing Go. Ignoring them, she turned to her fallen purse. Of course the contents had scattered. And of course the things that had fallen out were a tampon and condom.

  It was how her day was going.

  She began cramming things back into the purse, the phone, the donuts, the duct tape, the condom, and the tampon.

  The condom fell back out.

  “I’ve got it.” Griffin’s mouth twitched as he tossed it into her purse for her. “Duct tape and a Trojan,” he said. “Big plans for the day?”

  “The Trojans built protective walls around their city,” she said. “Like condoms. That’s where the name Trojan comes from.”

  His mouth twitched. “Gotta love those Trojans. Do you carry the condom around just to give people a history lesson?”

  “No. I—” He was laughing at her. Why was she acting like such an idiot? She was a teacher, a good one, who bossed around seven- and eight-year-olds all day long. She was in charge, and she ran her entire world with happy confidence.

  Except for this with Griffin. Except for anything with Griffin.

  “Look at you,” he said. “Little Katie Evans, all grown up and carrying condoms.”

  “One,” she said. “Only one condom.” It was her emergency, wishful-thinking condom. “And I go by Kate now.”

  He knew damn well she went by Kate and had ever since she’d hit her teens. He just enjoyed saying “Little Katie Evans” like it was all one word, as if she were still that silly girl who’d tattled on him for putting the frogs in the pond at one of his mom’s elegant luncheons, getting him grounded for a month.

  Or the girl who, along with his nosy sister, Holly, had found his porn stash under his bed at the ranch house and gotten him grounded for two months.

  “Kate,” he said as if testing it out on his tongue, and she had no business melting at his voice. None. Her only excuse was that she hadn’t seen him much in the past few years. There’d been a few short visits, a little Facebook interaction, and the occasional Skype conversation if she happened to be with Holly when he called home. Those had always been with him in uniform on Holly’s computer, looking big, bad, and distracted.

  He wasn’t in uniform now, but she could check off the big, bad, and distracted. The early gray dawn wasn’t doing her any favors, but he could look good under any circumstances. Even with his baseball hat, she could see that his dark hair was growing out, emphasizing his stone eyes and hard jaw covered with a five-o’clock shadow. To say that he looked good was like saying the sun might be a tad bit warm on its surface. How she’d forgotten the physical impact he exuded in person was beyond her. He was solid, sexy male to the core.

  His gaze took her in as well, her now windblown hair and mud-spattered leggings stuffed into snow boots—she wasn’t exactly at her best this morning. When he stepped back to go, embarrassment squeezed deep in her gut. “Yeah,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder in the vague direction of her car. “I’ve gotta go, too—”

  But Grif wasn’t leaving; he was bending over and picking up some change. “From your purse,” he said, and dropped it into her hand.

  She looked down at the two quarters and a dime, and then into his face. She’d dreamed of that face. Fantasized about it. “There are 293 ways to make change for a dollar,” she said before she could bite her tongue. Dammit. She collected bachelor of science degrees. She was smart. She was good at her job. She was happy.

  And ridiculously male challenged . . .

  Griffin gave a playful tug on an escaped strand of her hair. “You never disappoint,” he said. “Good to see you again.”

  And then he was gone.


  Five minutes later Kate pulled up to her dad’s place. One glance in the rearview mirror at her still flushed cheeks and bright eyes told her that she hadn’t gotten over her tumble in the parking lot.

  Or the run-in with Griffin.

  “You’re ridiculous,” she told her reflection. “You are not still crushing on him.”

  But she so was.

  With a sigh, she reached for the weekly stack of casserole dishes she’d made to get her family through the week without anyone having to actually be in charge. She got out of her car, leaving the keys in it for Ashley, who’d drive it to her private high school just outside of town.

  Tommy stood in the doorway waiting. He wore a green hoodie and had a fake bow and arrow set slung over his chest and shoulder.

  “Why are you all red in the face?” he asked. “Are you sick?”

  She touched her still burning cheeks. The Griffin Reid Effect, she supposed. “It’s cold out here this morning.”

  The seven-year-old accepted this without question. “Did you get the tape?”

  “I did,” she said. “Tommy—”

  “I’m not Tommy. I’m the Green Arrow.”

  She nodded. “Green Arrow. Yes, I got the tape, Green Arrow.”

  “I still don’t see how duct tape is going to help us make a camel,” he said, trailing her into the mudroom.

  She refrained from telling him the biggest aid in making a camel for the school play would’ve been to give her more warning than a panicked five A.M. phone call. Instead she set down the casserole dishes on the bench to shrug out of her sweater as she eyed him. She could tell he’d done as she’d asked and taken a shower, because his dark hair was wet and flattened to his head, emphasizing his huge brown eyes and pale face. “Did you use soap and shampoo?”

  He grimaced and turned to presumably rectify the situation, dragging his feet like she’d sent him to the guillotine.

  Kate caught him by the back of his sweatshirt. “Tonight’ll do,” she said, picking back up the casseroles and stepping into the living room.

  Evidence of the second-grade boy and the high school–junior girl living here was all over the place. Abandoned shoes were scattered on the floor; sweatshirts and books and various sporting equipment lay on furniture.

  Her dad was in the midst of the chaos, sitting on the couch squinting at his laptop. Eddie Evans was rumpled, his glasses perched on top of his head. His khakis were worn and frayed at the edges. His feet were bare. He looked like Harry Potter at age fifty. “Stock’s down again,” he said, and sighed.

  Since he said the same thing every morning, Kate moved into the kitchen. No breakfast. She went straight to the coffeemaker and got that going. Ten minutes later her dad wandered in. “You hid them again,” he said.

  She handed him a cup of coffee and a plate of scrambled egg whites and wheat toast before going back to wielding the duct tape to create the damn camel. “You know what the doctor said. You can’t have them.”

  His mouth tightened. “I need them.”

  “Dad, I know it’s hard,” she said softly, “but you’ve been so strong. And we need you around here for a long time to come yet.”

  He shoved his fingers through his hair, which only succeeded in making it stand up on end. “You’ve got that backward, don’t you?”

  “Aw. Now you’re just kissing up.” She hugged him. “You’re doing great, you know. The doc said your cholesterol’s coming down already, and you’ve only been off potato chips for a month.”

  He muttered something about where his cholesterol could shove it, but he sat down to eat his eggs. “What is that?” he asked, gesturing to the lump on the table in front of him.

  “A camel.” It had taken her two pillows, a brown faux pashmina and a couple of stuffed animals tied together with twine, but she actually had what she thought was a passable camel-shaped lump.

  Ashley burst into the kitchen wearing a way-too-short skirt, a skimpy camisole top, and enough makeup to qualify for pole dancing. In direct opposition to this image, she was sweetly carrying Channing Tatum, the bedraggled black-and-white stray kitty she’d recentl
y adopted from the animal center where she volunteered after school. Contradiction, meet thy queen.

  Channing took one look at the “camel” and hissed.

  “What the hell is that?” Ashley asked of the makeshift prop, looking horrified as she cuddled Channing.

  “Don’t swear,” Kate said. “And it’s a camel. And also, you’re going out in that outfit over my dead body.”

  Ashley looked down at herself. “What’s wrong with it?”

  “First of all, you’ll get hypothermia. And second of all, no way in hell.”

  Ashley narrowed her overdone eyes. “Why do you get to swear and I don’t?”

  “Because I earned the right with age and wisdom.”

  “You’re twenty-eight,” Ashley said, and shrugged. “Yeah, you’re right. You’re old. Did you find my cheerleading top?”