By Tessa Bailey
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By day, Aaron Clarkson suits up, shakes hands, and acts the perfect gentleman. And at night, behind bedroom doors, the tie comes off and the real Aaron comes out to play. But he knows that if he wants to work for the country’s most powerful senator, he’ll have to keep his eye on the prize. That’s easier said than done, though, when he meets the senator’s daughter. She’s wild, gorgeous, and 100 percent trouble.
Grace Pendleton is the black sheep of her family. Yet while Aaron's presence reminds her of a past she’d rather forget, something in his eyes keeps drawing her in. Maybe it’s the way his voice turns her molten. Or maybe it’s because deep down inside, the ultra-smooth, polished Aaron Clarkson might be more than even Grace can handle.
Miriam Clarkson, January 9
Alrighty. I suppose I’ve talked enough about Rita. When you bump hips with someone in a kitchen often enough, you learn their habits. The little things they say beneath their breath when they think no one is listening. The way they handle victories, or more importantly, defeats. So my daughter slash apprentice was the nut I decided to crack first, here within the blank whiteness of my Rite-Aid-purchased notebook. Oh, and just in case anyone skipped the first twenty pages, let me catch you up to speed. My name is Miriam Clarkson, and I’m probably dead.
Now that we’re basting in the same sauce, I’d like to talk more about my children, also known as the four complicated mazes some lucky significant others will have the pleasure of winding through someday. It’s not their fault they can’t adequately express themselves. After all, look at their mother, hiding in a dark kitchen, finally putting her soul on paper like some ass-backward Martha Washington. But let me see what I can throw together.
In every recipe, there is an ingredient that brings the entire meal into focus. I call it the ringleader. Added via spoon or measuring cup, it filters through the scattered components, urging them to join the taste good club. It wants—it needs—those erstwhile ingredients to be successful. To be happy. And because I apply cooking logic to everything until it makes sense to me, I see my children as four groupings of haphazard ingredients. All their parts are vital and beautiful, but they each need someone or something to yank them into cohesion.
I might be older now. My boobs might be sagging beneath my apron. But I remember my ringleader. He was there once—he helped me pull my shit together—and then he was gone. I don’t blame him for anything, mind you. I celebrate him. The words, actions, and shared experiences that became my fork in the road were necessary to change me from a girl pointing in seven directions, to a woman with one goal. To cook. To have a family.
Cooking came before family too often, but someday they’ll find this notebook and understand, as adults, that all their parts are perfect. They just need to take their lids off and allow in a ringleader.
Welcome to hell,” Aaron muttered, maneuvering the Suburban to avoid a patch of ice on the narrow road. In the passenger seat, Old Man lifted his white, furry head—and if dogs could grimace, Aaron’s new, unexpected pet was nailing it. Their eyes met across the console, one fuzzy eyebrow twitching as if to say, This is where you bring me, human?
Aaron sighed and went back to scanning the street for the campsite. The term man’s best friend was apparently up for interpretation. He’d hardly achieved grudging respect from Old Man between New Mexico and Iowa. Still, the bare minimum of mutual appreciation was more than he could garner from the other occupants of the Suburban, wasn’t it? When it came to his siblings, he took what he could get. Although now only that only three Clarksons remained, as opposed to the four they’d started the journey with, there was even less for Aaron to take.
A cross-country journey with no discernible purpose.
Unless you counted fulfilling your mother’s dying wish as a purpose. In Aaron’s opinion, they were simply indulging a whim that might have been entirely different if Miriam had eaten something else for breakfast or gotten distracted by a new cassoulet recipe.
Rita, his oldest sister, had shaken them in New Mexico, making for greener pastures…or rumpled bed sheets, depending on if you were a realist or a romantic. Aaron still considered himself the former, even if he’d definitely felt a minor blip of something gooey over the whole inconvenient business. With Rita shacked up in the desert with her boyfriend, only Aaron, Belmont, and Peggy Clarkson remained. Sage, too, although the wedding planner wasn’t related by blood. Some people are just naturally lucky.
Aaron caught sight of the campsite turnoff up ahead and gave a loud cough to wake up the other travelers, before easing the rust bucket that passed for transportation to a stop outside a small redwood building marked Tall Timbers Rental Office.
Okay, it wasn’t the Ritz-Carlton, but with a series of preelection events set to begin the following morning, every fleabag motel from there to Des Moines had been booked out. Fortunately, they were only a short drive from some of the event sites, where his fellow politicians would begin holding rallies for the hometown hero and rising star senator, starting bright and early tomorrow morning.
Or they had been his fellow politicians at one time—his equals—before he’d gone and fucked his rapidly growing career to hell. Now he’d come to Iowa to fight his way back in, by fair means or foul. Yes, for the first time in his life, Aaron was desperate. Desperate enough to share a cabin with his brother in the back woods of Iowa in a place with a half-lit Vacancy sign.
Jesus Christ, don’t let this vacation in purgatory last forever.
“Are we there yet?” Peggy asked on a yawn, her stretching arms visible in the rearview mirror. “I’m starving. Is there a bathroom?”
“Yes. What’s new? And probably,” Aaron answered, pushing open the driver’s side door to climb out of the Suburban, followed closely by Old Man, who trotted off, presumably to take a leak, maybe chase a squirrel or two. This was how their arrangement worked. Aaron chauffeured the dog around, fed him, and didn’t meddle in his business. Old Man would show back up when he was good and ready.
Aaron stopped short when he saw that Belmont had somehow already beaten him out of the vehicle, all without making a sound. His brother stood still as a monument, hands tucked into his jean pockets, running cool eyes over the wooded campsite.
“Good enough for you?” Aaron asked, moving past his brother at a crisp pace, eager to drop off his luggage and hit the bricks. If he wanted to find a way into the first function tomorrow morning, his work began now. Would have started last week if Rita’s boyfriend hadn’t sabotaged their only ride out of New Mexico.
As expected, Belmont didn’t answer him, but Aaron hardened himself against giving a shit. Ever since Belmont had knocked his tooth out and cost him four hours of dental surgery, their relationship had gone from dwindling to nonexistent. In a barely conscious gesture, Aaron prodded the sore tooth with his tongue, watching as Belmont turned and helped Sage from the Suburban, in the same fashion a reality television baker might transport a wedding cake. Even Aaron found it impossible not to watch his brother and Sage orbit each other, like two slow-moving planets. They were simultaneously a frustration and a fascination. Frustrating because they refused to just admit the attraction and bang—at least that Aaron knew about—and fascinating because Sage seemed to be the only person capable of getting reactions out of Belmont. Hell, Aaron had busted his brother’s nose and barely gotten a middle finger for his trouble.
“Right.” Aaron tugged at the starched collar of his shirt. “These cabins are shit cheap, but after the extra nights in the motel back in Hurley, not to mention the car part, I think we should limit it to two rentals. Sage and Peggy in one. Me and Bel in the other.” He traded an uneasy look with his brother. “I don’t plan to be here much, so you can brood in the dark and write sonnets—or whatever it is you do—until the cows come home. Just don’t use my good aftershave.”
Being the plan man felt good. This was his role in the Clarksons tribe. The asshole with the directions. The one whose lack of a functioning heart gave him the ability to make hard decisions on everyone’s behalf. Aaron was more than fine with that job description. History didn’t remember the nice guys; it remembered the sons of bitches who got things done.
“Do you need help?” Peggy asked, a little breathlessly, setting down her oversized suitcase. “You can bring me along to charm people. I’m very charming.”
Beside Peggy, Sage nodded. “She can’t help it.”
Aaron wondered if Sage realized she was stunner herself—albeit on a far less flashy scale—but mentioning it would result in getting another tooth knocked out, courtesy of Belmont. And he didn’t have time for another sojourn in the dentist chair while being subjected to smooth jazz. “I’ll let you know if I need help,” Aaron said, knowing he would always fly solo if given the choice. “Let’s stick to the plan. Once I’ve secured a position with the senator, you three can keep driving to New York. I’ll meet you there for New Year’s.” He picked up his leather duffel. “For now, let’s go rent some cabins and hope they’re livable. As if the last time we camped together in California wasn’t traumatic enough.”
As he’d known she would, Peggy laughed, following his wake toward the office. His younger sister was desperate to bond them all on this trip, and while it would never happen, sometimes Aaron had a hard time turning off his greatest talent. Telling people what they wanted to hear.
“Aaron sprained his ankle in a gopher hole, carrying me back to camp after I was stung by a jellyfish,” Peggy explained to Sage. “Mom was too busy perfecting her s’mores technique to keep track of us. Rita staged a protest of the outdoors and wouldn’t come out of the tent. Belmont, where were you?”
Refusing to look curious, Aaron nonetheless paused with his hand on the wooden handle of the office’s front entrance. Belmont might have no qualms with ignoring everything out of Aaron’s mouth, but when it came to their sensitive baby sister, feigning deafness wasn’t an option. “I fell asleep on the beach.” His voice sounded like a creaking boat hull, lifting on the water. “When I woke up, you’d all gone to the hospital.”
Silence passed. “I don’t remember that,” Peggy said, a wrinkle appearing between her eyebrows. “How did you get hom—”
Belmont moved past them, pushing open the office door and ducking inside. Aaron stared after his brother a moment, weighing the impulse to tackle his hulking ass from behind and maybe divesting him of a tooth this time around, but managed to hold back. Instead, he nudged Peggy with his elbow. “It’s your fault for surpassing your one question per day maximum.”
This time, his sister’s laughter was forced. “Silly me,” she breathed, moving past him to join Belmont inside.
Aaron turned his head to find Sage looking like a deer caught in a pair of high beams. “What about you, Ms. Alexander. Are you the outdoorsy type?”
“I’ve planned some outdoor weddings,” she answered softly, still not giving Aaron her full attention. Pretty unusual, considering she was a woman with a pulse, but he’d had eighteen hundred miles to stop taking it personally. Aaron started to ask if she was planning on standing there motionless all day, but she hit him with a look. “He doesn’t mean it.”
Aaron braced a hand on the doorjamb. “Who doesn’t mean what?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.
“Belmont. He doesn’t mean to cause everyone frustration. This trip…being away from his boat…he’s trying. Really, he is.” From the way her breath caught, Aaron knew she’d locked eyes with the man in question, over Aaron’s shoulder and through the glass windowpane. But Aaron zeroed in on the curious hint of the South in Sage’s accent instead, which he’s never caught before. Even after all this time in the same vehicle, the wedding planner remained a mystery to him. Maybe to all of them, even Peggy and Belmont. “While we’re alone, I just wanted to say, thank you.” She spoke in a rush now, which probably had something to do with the footsteps that grew louder, pounding toward the exit. “For complimenting my dress yesterday. It was really nice. But if you do it again—or flirt with me to make Belmont angry anymore—I’ll break your nose.”
Sage delivered the final word of her promise just as the door swung open, Belmont’s shadow appearing on the staircase where Aaron stood with Sage, with what felt like a bemused expression on his face. It’s always the quiet ones.
“Come inside,” Belmont rumbled. “Please.”
With a final nod in Aaron’s direction, Sage pushed a handful of light brown hair over her shoulder and sailed past, somehow managing to keep a thin sliver of daylight between herself and Belmont as she moved through the doorway, joining him and Peggy inside the rental office.
Aaron dropped his head back, imploring the bright blue Iowa sky for patience, consoling himself with the fact that as soon as he got away from his complex family, there would be peace. Order. Serenity now. He would be back in a situation he could decipher and handle, rather than navigating the rocky terrain of Emotion Mountain, also known as the Clarkson clan.
A prickle at the back of his neck had Aaron pausing once again, one foot inside the door as he looked toward the woods, but he shrugged it off and continued into the office, holding up his credit card in a signal for his party to make way.
All hail the plan man.
* * *
What brought Aaron to the edge of the forest in the middle of the night? Not a damn clue. His excuse for pulling on rumpled dress pants—not his usual look—and crunching through the woods was to look for Old Man, but when the dog had found him first, their pity party, table of two, had kept on going. Now the mutt walked alongside him, throwing him an occasional what the fuck glance.
“You’re free to go back, you know. I don’t remember issuing an invitation.”
Sniff. Sniff sniff.
“What is that? Morse code?”
Okay, Aaron had some idea what had sent him on Nature Quest. He just had zero notion of what he hoped to achieve by walking to the site of tomorrow morning’s “Breakfast and Politics,” a nationally televised, invite-only event to which he was most definitely not on the guest list. Oh no, he was only on one list, and the word NAUGHTY was in permanent ink at the top. Presidential hopeful and Iowa Senator Glen Pendleton however, would be in attendance, and Aaron needed to get the man’s ear.
Before Aaron had flushed his career down the toilet back in California with one bad decision, his boss had confided that Aaron was in the narrowed-down running for an adviser position with Pendleton himself. A big-ass deal when the man already had one foot in the White House. What he’d needed was the youth vote—and that’s where Aaron would have come in, if he hadn’t neatly erased his chances, simply by behaving true to character. So little consequence went into being immoral in his world, he’d never stopped to consider he was doing something wrong. Or irredeemable. And that had been the final confirmation of something he and others had always suspected.
Aaron didn’t have an ounce of good inside him.
Regardless of that nifty facet of his personality, he needed face time with Pendleton tomorrow. The question was how.
As Aaron and Old Man reached the perimeter of the forest, a series of connected buildings came into view. The local high school, which would serve as the sight of Pancakes and Politics come morning, packing the big cafeteria in the center with egos instead of students. Already, news vans were parked outside. Police vehicles. What the hell was his goal here? To get arrested for trespassing? Hey, at the very least it would save him from the awkward morning tango around the coffeepot with Belmont.
Old Man seemed to be asking the same question with a silent look, so Aaron moved in the opposite direction of the congregated vans and prepared to head back toward the cabin and get some much-needed sleep. The kind that would allow him to bring his A-game in the morning. As if he ever brought anything else.
Just as he turned, Old Man stopped, ears pricked, nose twitching. A noise behind them. Aaron heard it, too. The long creak of a window sliding open. Better than the sound of a gun being cocked, but definitely not what he expected to hear in the pitch-black woods at midnight. Aaron stepped back behind a tree, giving himself a good view of the school’s closest building. He watched as a leg dropped over the southernmost windowsill, dangling a moment, before a head ducked under the frame. The figure jumped to the leaf-padded ground without a single crunch, arms stretching out at the sides for balance.
Girl. There was no question. In the dappled moonlight, he could make out curves beneath fitted clothing. Slight ones, but…nice ones. And even if his attention hadn’t been magnetized by the tight jut of her ass—fuck, he’d been a while without having a woman’s cheeks in his hands—the hair would have tipped him off. It was everywhere. Even the muted darkness couldn’t hide the wild, colorful nature of it. The mass of it fell to mid-back, interrupted every inch or so with a corkscrew curl or a braid or a ribbon. Her hair was schizophrenic. Looked like it hadn’t been brushed in a while, but maybe the lack of diligence had been on purpose.
Old Man chose that moment to make a sloff sound, which jolted the girl, sending her careening back against the building. She slid to the ground into the shadows before Aaron could get a good look at her face, and for some reason the delay made him anxious. What kind of a face went with hair like that?
“Hello?” she called, just above a whisper. “Please don’t be a bear. Again.”
Again? Aaron didn’t grab Old Man’s collar in time, the furry bastard slinking toward the girl, evading Aaron like some kind of stealthy ninja canine. He lay down a few feet from the shadows where the girl was hiding, laying his face on two paws. Showing her he isn’t a threat?
Just when you think you know a dog.
The girl entered the moonlight again, this time on her knees, hands reaching out—palms up—to Old Man. And so the first time Aaron saw her face, it was washed over with pleasure. “Hi,” she breathed. “Hi, pretty…boy? Boy, I think. Thank you for not being a bear. Again.”
Aaron felt a twinge in his fingers and realized he’d been gripping the bark of the tree too hard. That voice. He immediately wanted to hear it up against his ear. But no. Because then, he wouldn’t be able to see her face. Even in the lack of light, he knew that would be an inexcusable shame. Her expression never stopped shifting. Surprise, happiness, curiosity. Hiding nothing. Unlike him, who had nothing on the inside to hide. This is why I came into the woods. She’s why.
“That’s ridiculous,” he muttered, raking the sore hand down the side of his trousers. He was prowling around in the middle of the night on some misguided mission to get the lay of the land for tomorrow. Not to accidentally run into a girl with freak show hair and an unrealistic fear of Smokey.
“Are you alone?” she asked Old Man under her breath.
Aaron made a sound of disgust as the pooch turned his head, tongue lolling to the side like a drooling fool. He had no choice but to step out from behind the tree, but felt the need to put his hands up. So she would know he wasn’t a bear, for the love of God. “It’s just a human. You’re safe.”
The girl shot to her feet, her back coming up hard against the stucco building again. Her eyes were as turbulent as her braided mane of hair, but they seemed to calm when he halted his progress. Nothing inside him was calm whatsoever, though. Some whisper in the back of his mind tempted him to go forward, settle her down by coasting palms down her thighs, across her belly. What is wrong with me? “Humans are most dangerous of all,” she finally said. “Why aren’t you wearing a jacket?”
O-kay. He had to be back in his cabin dreaming, right? “Excuse me?”
“It’s freezing and you’re wearing a T-shirt.”
Aaron looked down, as if he wasn’t fully aware of his attire. Come to think of it, he was pretty goddamn cold, but he’d been too distracted to notice. “I’m from California. We have T-shirts and ski jackets. Nothing in between.”
She nodded gravely. “Are there bears in California?”
“We have a brown one on our state flag.” He chanced a couple steps closer, but Old Man actually growled at him, cutting off his progress. “Really?”
“Your dog doesn’t seem to like you very much,” the girl remarked.
“His name is Old Man. And yeah, thanks for noticing. The feeling is mutual.” Aaron tilted his head, irrationally vexed that her face was half shaded by shadows again. “Hey, do you mind coming out here into the light?”
A beat passed. “Yes, I think I mind.”
Not what he’d been expecting, at all. Had he completely lost his touch with women? “Are you just trying to be mysterious or is there another reason?”
“You saw me climbing out of the window.” He could hear her swallow across the distance separating them. “I didn’t do anything wrong—not really—but if someone were to disagree and claim I did do something wrong, you could identify me.”
Aaron snorted. “I could pick your hair out of a thousand-person lineup.”
“Thank you,” she murmured, her hand reaching out of the darkness to scratch behind Old Man’s ears. “Yours is nice, too.”
“Are you talking to me or the dog?”
She laughed and the sound twisted in the wind, as if she were one with nature. Something sprung up from the earth. His desperation to catalog her features shot into the stratosphere. They would provide some type of answer to the riddle of a carefree cat burglar…and honestly, why was he even confused? Even his confusion was confusing.
“What were you doing inside the school?” The question came out harsher than intended, and he watched as her hand stilled on Old Man’s head. A movement that increased his suspicion, even though he kind of wanted to go on ignoring the elephant in the forest.
“What do you think I was doing?”
Her throaty answer caught him below the belt, thickening the flesh inside his briefs. Ten seconds earlier, they were just two people crossing paths in the woods, but with the issuance of those two questions, they were challengers. It didn’t help that the girl was still on her knees, while Aaron stood at full height. The symbolic positions caused even more awareness to infiltrate. “You’re not a student inside that school, are you?” he asked, because it seemed relevant now that his cock had exhibited a hearty appreciation for her voice, her…presence. “You’re not a high school student.”
“No, I went to private school.” A pause. “And I graduated.”
Aaron cleared the relief from his throat. “In my experience, students sneak into their own high school at night to vandalize it, set up a senior prank, or make out.” She better not have been making out. The thought sped past out of nowhere. “So if you’re not a student, we can rule those out.” He waited for her slow nod and another punch of relief to pass. Then he held up his fingers and begun ticking them off. “Are you a journalist? Maybe setting up a hidden camera to catch politicians in some secret ritual where they drink the blood of middle-class Americans?”
“Yes. That’s what I was doing.”
“Ah,” Aaron said, shaking his head. “See, your agreement was too quick.”
A long sigh came from the shadows. “Are you a lawyer?”
Aaron reached for the knot of his tie to adjust it, before remembering he only wore a T-shirt. “I went to law school—”
“Of a sort,” Aaron hedged. “But you’re changing the subject.”
“If you’re a politician, you must know all about that.”
Old Man growled at Aaron again, but the girl reached over and placed a hand on the dog’s head, quieting him. Aaron curled his lip at his pet, wondering when the hell his famous loyalty was supposed to kick in. “Listen, I really don’t want to report you.”
“But you will?”
Would he? The high school cafeteria would be filled with politicians, voters, and media tomorrow. Despite his gut feeling to the contrary, she could very well have an agenda that included locking everyone inside, setting the place on fire, and dancing among the ashes. Stranger things had happened than someone using a political event to make a statement for their cause. Still, he couldn’t connect that particular psychopathic dot to this girl. Even without having gotten a decent look at her face. “I don’t know.”
She was silent for long moments. “Really?” Her tone was laced with surprise. “When was the last time you said those words?”
“I don’t know?” He searched his brain. “I don’t know.”
- "Bailey adeptly crafts a satisfying romance between two broken protagonists, allowing them to find completion and healing in each other. A dash of humor and a heavy dose of spicy action round out this tale, which manages to be both raw and playful without losing its balance. [T]his is an entertaining and worthy installment."—Publishers Weekly
- "4 Stars! Known for her intense love scenes and fully charged sexual tension, Bailey does not disappoint. Since neither the hero nor heroine are what they seem, their road to happily ever after is an utter delight."—RT Book Reviews
- "5 stars! Top Pick! It's filled with heated moments, sexy characters, and explosive scenes. The book starts off with a bang, so I would certainly recommend carving out some time to read this in one sitting, because once you start reading, you won't stop."—HarlequinJunkie.com on Too Hot to Handle
- "Bailey crafts an entertainingly spicy tale, with humor and palpable sexual tension."—Publishers Weekly on Too Hot to Handle
- "[F]or a quick romantic read with plenty of sizzle, Make Me delivers."—Dear Author
- "Fun, super-sexy... The love scenes in Need Me are practically incendiary"—Booklist
- "4 1/2 Stars! Top Pick! With super hot love scenes and a generous dose of humor, Chase Me is ... utterly irresistible."—RT Book Reviews
- "Chase Me is sure to appeal to romance fans of all ages as Bailey offers a little of everything from laughter to tears in her newest romantic adventure."—Smexy Books
- "I thought the book was a quick read and it was fun, silly, and emotional at all the right moments."—Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on Chase Me
- "The love scenes were delicious..."—Dear Author on Risking it All
- "4 1/2 Stars! [H]as the potential to make readers across the globe seriously swoon. ... [A]n unforgettable story that you will be talking about for a long time."—RT Book Reviews on Risking it All
- "[C]racky goodness!"—Smexy Books on Exposed by Fate
- "There is a good mix of humor and emotional drama. The dialogue is snappy and the pace is great."—Dear Author on Officer Off Limits
- "It totally worked for me, had me feeling all sorts of things throughout and had me grinning like mad in the end."—Maryse's Book Blog on Protecting What's His
- "It's breezy, fun, and sexy reading..."—Dear Author on Protecting What's His
- "The sexy banter between the couple is hot enough to singe the pages, but the emotions remain genuine and real."—RT Book Reviews on Protecting What's His
- On Sale
- Jan 31, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages