by Jeffe Kennedy is releasing next week.
Read Chapter One here and then go pre-order, because this is yet another winner!
(Book 3 in the Falling Under series)
The kinkier the sex, the higher the price tag...
Ryan Black has admired Celestina Sala from afar for years, her lush body and sensual nature calling to the dominant in him. For just as many years, Celestina was off-limits—married, proud and self-sufficient. But all that has changed, and now Celestina is in debt and in need…and available. Ryan proposes a contract: he'll pay off her debt if she gives herself to him in bed, yielding control in exchange for the pain and pleasure he'll bring them both.
There are words for women who take money for sex, and none of them are nice ones. Celestina never thought she'd have to sink this low, but giving up control sounds more enticing than ever before. And suddenly it's not about having to give in to Ryan. It's about wanting to.
But when Ryan's dark past comes to light, they may both be in over their heads. The terms of his contract say her body is his…but her heart may be another story.
One thing is for sure—now that Ryan has Celestina, he can never let her go.
Available from Carina Press on July 13, 2015
“I’m sorry to tell you, Tina, but this is it.” Linda’s gaze skittered away.
Another ending. Not the worst blow, but the one that might finally drop her into the abyss. Tina tensed. She’d be panicking if she didn’t feel so numb.
“It’s obviously bad for all of us.” Linda put her cold Diet Coke against her forehead. “Losing this account is the final straw. I can eke out a few weeks’ severance for you, but not anything more. If I waited another week, I couldn’t get that much past the forensic accountants. I’m really sorry.”
“I could stay and keep working. Maybe—”
“You know I’d tell you if I thought there was a chance.” Linda set the Coke down without drinking. “We’re tanked. It’s just not common knowledge. I’m letting you and a few other people go now so you can at least start looking for other jobs. With your particular niche, I know it might take a while.”
Another understatement. Tina had chosen landscape design as a profession—and specialized in water-focused features—with all the idealism of the naïve. Back then she’d believed in studying what you loved. Follow your passion and the money will follow. That’s what all her guidance counselors said. What her parents, God rest their souls, had affectionately encouraged her to do. The perfect complement to Arabella’s degrees in civil engineering. They’d had such dreams, she and her twin sister, of working together, always in tandem.
So many endings.
“I’m really sorry,” Linda repeated. “I feel like I failed you. You know you have a tremendous reputation and I wrote you the most amazing reference letter I could dream up. It’s not enough, but…”
“It is what it is.” Nothing like having that tremendous reputation in a niche specialty like water design in a freaking desert during the worst drought in recorded history. The land had dried up, year by year, echoed by the devastation in Tina’s life.
“I know you’re like a third-generation Los Angeleno, but maybe you should consider moving? Take the girls, make a fresh start.”
Tina gave Linda a reassuring smile, at least the best one she could muster. Her boss had tried her best. She took the envelope Linda handed her. Three weeks’ severance wouldn’t last more than a few days against the mountain of debt threatening to crush her in a landslide of unopened bills and haranguing voice mails from creditors. “We might have to do that. Guess I’d better go start the job search.”
She knew there was nothing to find in the city, for sure. She’d been killing herself, tagging past clients, trying to drum up new business. The slow collapse of Delaney Landscape Design had followed the crash of the California construction industry, drawing ever closer to the edge, then falling into that ever-expanding crater. No one had thought the downturn would last so long, but with every year the firm had lost money and clients. Even with new xeriscaping jobs, they hadn’t held steady. No sense keeping their star water feature artist in the face of a city ban against fountains.
Now the ground had crumbled beneath her feet and, like a disaster-movie heroine who’d been too stupid to run, she was clinging to the edge of the abyss, screaming. Except no hero would suddenly appear to haul her to safety.
“You know what they say.” Linda produced a weak smile. “When a door closes, a window opens.”
So you could throw yourself out of it. A slow burn of anger began to penetrate the numbness.
It must have showed on her face because Linda’s smile faded. “Take the rest of the day off,” she suggested. “Carly and Josie don’t get home until after four, right?”
“Later today, with dance team after school. And then Carly has some science club meeting.”
“Take some time then.” Linda pulled two twenties out of her billfold. “Buy yourself lunch in some little place overlooking the ocean and rest your brain.”
“I don’t want your money.” Beneath the numbness, her pride stirred. She had that much still.
Her boss blinked rapidly and pressed her lips together. “I have Bill’s salary to fall back on. Let me do this for you. When was the last time you did something nice, just for you?”
She knew the exact date. Twice now she, Carly and Josie had taken sick days to light candles at the cathedral and toss the ashes of letters into the surf to commemorate the day that changed all their lives. How would she support them now? They had no idea how bad things were—Tina had managed to shelter them from that fear, at least—but there would be no hiding this. So she took the forty dollars, for her nieces. Not to squander on lunch, but to buy groceries.
Linda knew they had it bad. But she had no idea how bad. Even Tina didn’t really know, because she couldn’t bear to look.
“Thank you for everything. You know I loved this job.” Tina stood and Linda did likewise, coming around the desk to hug her.
“We loved having you here. You know how many projects came in because of your gift for fountains. I’ll be expecting a deluge of phone calls checking your references. And anything you need—just ask.”
“I will.” Tina choked the words out, acutely aware of the lie in them. She wouldn’t be asking for help because there was none to be had. When people offered that, they meant well, but they didn’t expect the kind of price tag hanging over her head. Tina had stopped keeping track of anything but the general number, so overwhelmingly huge it overshadowed everything else.
Only money—huge amounts of money—would help at this point. And, like the rain that vanished before it ever hit the ground, money didn’t fall from the sky.
Blindly, unable to muster motivation for anything, she cleared her desk, stowed her things in her crappy car and started walking down Figueroa. Rush hour had subsided in the Financial District, with everyone busily tucked into their offices, but traffic never stopped in LA. So many busy people with places to be. Maybe something would occur to her, some way out of the crater of debt and desert of unrelenting grief. Not for the first time, she vaguely contemplated suicide. Not the deliberate kind, but the sort where she might just trip and fall in front of a bus. Except that would solve only her own despair and leave her nieces even worse off without her.
Stopping at the Salmon Run sculpture by the Manulife Plaza, she let the fluid lines soothe her soul. The artist, Christopher Keene, had crafted the bronze to look like water. The scent, the sweet life-giving essence of it, almost wafted up from the sunbaked metal. The mother bear and her twin cubs feasting on the bounty of salmon. Both ferociously powerful and joyful, it reminded her of Ara, and how fiercely she’d loved and protected her precious daughters.
Tina couldn’t fail to do less than that.
Ryan checked his phone, noted he had plenty of time before his next meeting, and indulged in an extended appraisal of the woman studying the bear sculpture. Though the heels were low enough to qualify as dowdy, excellent legs rose up to a deliciously formed ass. She’d look amazing in stilettos. Perhaps four-, even five-inch heels with some training.
As he drew nearer, he caught the edge of her profile and recognized Celestina Sala with a start of surprise and an increased surge of lust. Odd to see her here and now, after all these years. He might not have recognized her out of context, if he hadn’t spent so much time surreptitiously studying her lush figure. She’d designed the garden pools at his offices three—no, four—years before, and she’d been married and therefore off-limits, even for someone of his questionable mores.
Hell, who was he kidding? Morals had nothing to do with it. He hated complications and she had never seemed like the type to cheerfully commit adultery. That had stopped him from suggesting anything, but not from enjoying her easy sensuality, the swing of her hips that made him think of salsa dancing, tequila, hot nights and hotter sex.
Or from the occasional fantasy of dragging her across the conference table, baring those mouthwatering breasts and taking her with brutal savagery while their colleagues watched in titillated horror.
He knew how to behave in polite society, how to cover his baser nature with the gloss he’d developed as painstakingly as his identity, and he’d made sure she never suspected his interest. They’d kept things strictly professional and he hadn’t laid eyes on her since the project ended. Barring the occasional starring role in his sexual fantasies.
She looked different. She’d cut her hair short—a pity, as he’d entertained himself with visions of releasing the gleaming black coil of it, seeing her naked framed by the glorious waves, of winding his fist in it to hold her still while he watched her suck him off. Now he’d never see that and he was not a man who graciously gave up what he wanted. Still…what if serendipity had handed him a new opportunity to make some of it come true? With her left side to him, hand wrapped around the strap of her bag, the telltale gold gleam of her wedding band should have been visible in the bright sunshine. Had fate put her back in his path, this time as a free woman?
Gifts from the universe such as this should never be taken lightly. People made their own luck. He’d made up for poor beginnings in life by courting serendipity as his favorite mistress, fickle though she might be. No one had ever accused him of bypassing an opportunity. It knocked, he answered—and dragged it inside before it could escape. If the lovely Celestina happened to be available, he owed it to himself—and to fate—to do his utmost to capture her as well.
All right then. If she was free, he’d talk her into lunch. And then into bed.
The decision firm in his mind, he tucked his smartphone into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and eased up beside her.
“Celestina Sala?” he purred, going for charming and sensual, beginning the seduction immediately. Women responded well to sound.
Celestina, however, nearly jumped out of her skin, shoulders spiking to her ears in a reflexive flinch. She spun, eyes hidden behind her sunglasses but dismay clear in her body language.
“Remember me—Ryan Black? I’m sorry I startled you.”
She relaxed, though not by much. Rather, she took on the studied demeanor of a woman who recognized a valued business client and pulled herself together. Assuming that careful poise she’d always carried, that regal bearing that begged to be stripped away. Giving him a smile, polite, not the warm, unconsciously sensual one he recalled, she held out a slim hand. “Mr. Black, of course! Forgive me—I was deep in thought. How has the pool series worked out for you?”
They hadn’t been happy thoughts, by the look of her. She’d changed more than her hair. She looked tired and tense. The shorter length could work for her, framing her high cheekbones and emphasizing the fullness of her lips, but the cut hadn’t been high quality and now looked a bit unkempt, grown out too far. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear as she spoke, a nervous gesture that revealed she no longer had the perfectly glossy manicure she’d always kept in the past but, more important than any of it—that she indeed no longer wore a wedding band.
His lust rose up like the beast it was and salivated at the prospect of having her. Lull her with small talk and shared business, yes.
“It was very well received and the plantings have grown up quite a bit. Of course, we’ve had to empty the pools, change out some of the more water-dependent shrubs and flowers for some xeriscaping. The drought continues to plague us all.”
Her mouth flattened unhappily—not the direction he’d meant to take with her—so he added, “But I think the design carries it well. You should come see it.”
“I’d like that. And maybe we could discuss other projects you might be interested in starting?”
He shook his head, then caught the keen edge of desperation from her. He could have strung her along with that bait, but business was business. Even if he could get any kind of new landscaping past his board—and good luck with that—the ban on water use meant he had nothing for Celestina’s signature water-focused designs. It would be true for all of her clientele and she couldn’t be a stranger to that disappointment. Better to deliver that sort of pain decisively.
It wasn’t personal, just business. As in, once they dispensed with business, they could move on to personal. Besides, he knew how desperation motivated people—used it ruthlessly to his advantage—and this could be the opening with her that he needed.
“Unfortunately, no. You’d be the first I’d call, but with the ban on new water installations we—”
“Yes.” She cut him off with a flash of impatient anger, the fire he recalled. Then she held up a hand and smiled in apology. A glint of her eyes from behind the polarized lenses showed she’d rolled them dramatically. “Again I apologize. The lack of work has been rough.”
Her voice had a ragged tone, one he knew well from negotiations. Not just desperation but the sound of a person on the edge. Hating himself for the impulse, as it went directly opposite his desires, he suggested, “You might do better to relocate. Pacific Northwest, perhaps. Or New England.”
She laughed, not the rich, sultry one he recalled, but slightly hysterical. That turned into a sob. Her lush mouth crumpled and she covered it with her hand, ducking her face but not before she hid the fat tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Celestina.” He took her by the shoulders, bracing her, keeping her from taking off. “What’s wrong? Can I help?” Perhaps his instincts had led him true after all, to the words that cracked her composure and made her vulnerable.
“No,” she gasped, clearly lying and trying to make up for it by shaking her head vigorously. “Just…having a bad day. I’m so sorry for this. So embarrassed. I should—”
“You should come sit down and catch your breath.” Firmly he steered her to the umbrella tables nearby, deserted at this time of day. “Tell me what’s going on.”
She dragged off her sunglasses and furiously swiped at her eyes. “Look, I appreciate your concern. Really I do, but I’m fine.”
Patently untrue. Giving her a moment to reassemble the shreds of her dignity—breaking down in front of a client you’d hoped to be pitching work to could hardly be a comfortable experience—he reevaluated the situation. And ruefully discarded his plans to immediately seduce her. Wooing a woman in a shattered emotional state never paid off. He steered clear of boggy emotional ground for good reasons, not only because he knew his limitations. Besides, he might be a determined businessman and a ruthless opportunist, but he wasn’t a monster. At least, not that sort.
Still, he’d made the decision to have her and he never went back, once he’d set his mind. Failure was one thing. Failing to persist despite obstacles another thing entirely. Solve her problem, then seduction.
“I can’t help you unless you tell me about it.” He tried to make the demand coaxing, but he wasn’t letting her get away this time. No matter what.
Read Voodoo Bride's reviews of the other books in this series:
Under His Touch
About Jeffe Kennedy:
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including Redbook.
Her most recent works include a number of fiction series: the fantasy romance novels of A Covenant of Thorns; the contemporary BDSM novellas of the Facets of Passion, and an erotic contemporary serial novel, Master of the Opera. A fourth series, the fantasy trilogy The Twelve Kingdoms, hit the shelves starting in May 2014 and book 1, The Mark of the Tala, received a starred Library Journal review and has been nominated for the RT Book of the Year while the sequel, The Tears of the Rose, has been nominated for best fantasy romance of the year. A fifth series, the highly anticipated erotic romance trilogy, Falling Under, released starting with Going Under, followed by Under His Touch and Under Contract.
She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.
Jeffe can be found online at her website: JeffeKennedy.com, every Sunday at the popular Word Whores blog, on Facebook, and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Connor Goldsmith of Fuse Literary.