Main Far Reaching Consequences

Far Reaching Consequences

Phoebe needs a second chance at life. In the aftermath of the devastation from her failed marriage, Phoebe returns to her old stomping grounds to open her own bed and breakfast. Starting over is the bravest thing she’s ever done – or so she thinks. But opening her front door to find a blast from her past on her front porch changes all that. The teenager she’d once known has become a jaw-dropping, dominant man in his prime. He wasn’t looking for a relationship until she blazed back into his life. Graham runs his own construction business, remodeling homes, and building brand new ones. When his buddy gives him a lead on a new project, he never expects to run into Phoebe, the woman he shared a single kiss with eons ago. Nor is he prepared for the Dominant in him to stake his claim before the end of their first meeting. He wanted her in high school but there had been too wide a gulf separating them. Now, Graham will stop at nothing until he makes her his. But there are larger forces at work, attempting to tear them apart. When everything Phoebe holds dear becomes a target, Graham will risk it all for the one woman he knows he can never live without.

Year: 2020
Language: english
ISBN 13: 9781947132719
ISBN: B0831TD1V1
File: EPUB, 300 KB
Download (epub, 300 KB)
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
Far Reaching Consequences

Crescent City Kings Book Two

Anya Summers

Published by Blushing Books

An Imprint of

ABCD Graphics and Design, Inc.

A Virginia Corporation

977 Seminole Trail #233

Charlottesville, VA 22901


All rights reserved.

No part of the book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The trademark Blushing Books is pending in the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Anya Summers

Far Reaching Consequences

EBook ISBN: 978-1-947132-71-9

Print ISBN: 978-1-947132-72-6


Cover Art by ABCD Graphics & Design

This book contains fantasy themes appropriate for mature readers only. Nothing in this book should be interpreted as Blushing Books' or the author's advocating any non-consensual sexual activity.


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Anya Summers

Blushing Books

Blushing Books Newsletter

Chapter 1


The bold thudding knock upon the front door dispelled the silence. The sound echoed in the barren halls of the manor house like a sword piercing through flesh. Phoebe jerked in her seat; glanced around the ancient kitchen as if the boogeyman were going to jump out. She was sitting with a cup of coffee and her spiral-bound notebook chock full of her plans to turn Riverland into her dream. But her knee-jerk response to the knocking stripped away her confidence for a moment.


Phoebe cursed at her involuntary startled jump and the automatic lodging of her heart in her throat at the sou; nd. She pressed a hand over her stomach to quell the rioting madness.

I am safe. No one will ever harm me again. I’ve taken all the necessary precautions.

She exhaled a shaky breath and then another, trying to compose herself before answering the door. Every day, her ability to wrench herself from the edge of panic grew a little easier and more difficult at the same time. Every act of creation, of stepping forward and molding her life into what she wanted it to be, made the past that much more razor sharp. Just when she thought it was done, that she was making headway, she relapsed and startled like a rabbit caught in the garden.

She steeled her courage and inhaled a few calming breaths. All she needed to project was the confidence that came with being an independent business owner and professional. It was a persona she had worked damn hard to transform herself into over these last few years.

Phoebe hoped like hell that the contractor—Layton Construction, with Mister G.C. Layton at the helm—would be the proper fit for her renovation project. Out in her little house beyond the concrete patio and generous-sized pool at the rear of the mansion, she had freshly brewed coffee and flaky, buttery croissants with a homemade strawberry jam at the ready. Not that she had to feed the contractor or invite him into her home. For all she knew, he might take one look around the place she hoped was her future and try to overcharge her. Although she doubted Dante, her boss at Bayou Sin, would have steered toward her a company with a shady reputation.

Food was part and parcel of southern hospitality. Phoebe’s momma, rest her soul, had raised her that way. Phoebe hoped it might be a way to soften the contractor up a bit and, who knew, perhaps lower his bid on the project. It was probably wishful thinking on her part.

At the sound of the knock, Daisy, her two-year-old German Shephard, rose to her paws, her midnight lip curled with menace at the intruder to their morning.

“It’s all right, girl.” She patted her head, the soft, inky fur smooth as silk. “Let’s go meet the contractor, shall we?”

Daisy had been her constant companion since Phoebe had adopted her. She’d had Daisy trained as a guard dog when she was six months old. Living alone, with her nearest neighbor a good half mile away, Phoebe was overly cautious when it came to safety—as any self-respecting single woman should be.

She was on the cusp of turning Riverland Plantation into Riverland Bed and Breakfast, a dream she’d held in her heart for most of her life.

Riverland Plantation rested atop a crested abutment that overlooked the wide, rolling dark waters of the Mississippi River. The plantation had stood for close to a hundred and fifty years, and had been built during the reconstruction period of the South following the Civil War. On a clear day, a person could sit comfortably on the veranda and view the water as it meandered south on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of the few plantations along the river roads of the Louisiana delta that was not at risk of being flooded out. In the event of a flood, the hill the manor sat upon would be surrounded by a moat of water. The house would be cut off from civilization, but would live to see another day.

The rubber soles of Phoebe’s taupe-colored work boots squeaked against the golden cinnamon hardwood floor. Daisy’s paws clicked as she trotted beside her. Phoebe would have to trim Daisy’s nails again. The plantation itself was in sad disarray after decades of neglect. In some ways, the plantation was strangely like her life—or at least the way it had been, until she made the commitment to fix it. For the last thirty years, this place had stood vacant and unloved. The previous owners had been unable to sell the property and unable to invest in her upkeep. This grand old lady had become a dilapidated ruin of a bygone era.

Phoebe hoped to fix this place up, just like she had her life. She believed, with a bit of elbow grease, she would be able to turn the plantation back into a showpiece—one for which people would pay for the experience of staying there. New Orleans and the surrounding area was a pre-eminent tourist destination that Phoebe planned to capitalize on.

She eventually wanted her own airport shuttle for guests. But that was getting ahead of herself. The first step was a complete renovation.

It was only recently that Phoebe had been able to actualize her dream of owning Riverland to renovate it into a fully operational bed and breakfast. She’d used the inheritance her late grandpa, Ralph Mackenzie, had bequeathed her in his will a year ago. The tidy sum he’d left her had been enough to buy this place outright, along with the small acreage surrounding the old plantation, with money left over for the needed renovations.

Financially, it would be tight at first until she started having paying guests. That was why she waited tables at the strip joint Bayou Sin on Bourbon Street in the meantime. Not because she loved wearing skintight clothes with men trying to grope her, but it helped supplement her income.

This plantation was infused with all her hope for the future, one that belonged to her and her alone.

As she reached what had once been a grand entrance, with its heavy, double oak doors the same warm cinnamon as the floors, she drew the right-side door open, a greeting on her lips as she spread them in a fake smile like the one she wore serving drinks. Daisy’s whole body vibrated, her attention directed at the man on the opposite side of the door. The initial punch of fear disintegrated as she studied him and memories dulled by time and distance surfaced.

He was tall, a good six two, and built like a professional baseball player with broad shoulders and a head full of dark chestnut hair that was a few weeks past needing a trim. His button-down ivory dress shirt was rolled up to his elbows, leaving his tanned, brawny forearms bare. The shirt was tucked into a pair of well-worn blue jeans with a brown leather tool belt slung around his lean waist.

But it was the man’s eyes, arctic blue, making her think of frost and snow, in the tan, slightly weathered face that caused a bell of recognition to sound through her and made her lips curl into a genuine smile.

“Graham? Graham Layton, is that really you? You’re the contractor Dante recommended?” Joy filtered into her voice as she stared at the blast from her past. It had been almost nineteen years since the night of the winter formal in high school. The night she had always considered one of the best of her life.

Surprise filtered over his handsome features. A grin split his face wide and his thick, dark chestnut brows rose to nearly beneath his hairline, almost touching the Rayban sunglasses shoved on top of his head. There were tiny laugh lines around his eyes that crinkled.

“Phoebe, as I live and breathe. Well, aren’t you a sight?” Graham dismissed all formalities, stepped through the doorway, and surrounded her with an effusive hug. She stiffened at the impromptu embrace, but only for a moment, because the delight of seeing him overrode her internal panic button.

She caught a whiff of him, a sinful mixture of man with traces of his soap, a spicy, exotic fragrance that made her want to bury her face in his chest and just inhale him. The boy she’d known on the cusp of manhood in the intervening years had grown into a powerfully built man. A very hot man, with a killer smile and a body that made her dead hormones rise from their early grave and pay attention before he released her. It left her dumbstruck: the sudden onslaught of disappointment that rose in her chest when he released her.

Wasn’t that just the oddest thing?

“It’s great to see you. If I’d known it was you…”

Graham gave a manly half-shrug as he stepped back. “It is a surprise—a nice one, to boot.”

Then he knelt, resting his elbows on his knees so that he was at eye level with Daisy, and held his hand out for her to sniff. “And who is this?”

“Daisy, this is Graham. He’s a friend.” Daisy glanced up at her for the okay, her golden eyes searching Phoebe’s face. When Phoebe nodded in the affirmative, Daisy’s stance relaxed, and she turned into a normal, goofy dog. She snuffled Graham’s hand, and then lavished his face with a few swipes of her pink tongue against his cheek before falling at his rather large feet as he stroked her fur and gave her a belly rub. Euphoria emanated from Daisy. And, for a split second, Phoebe wondered what it would feel like to have Graham rub her belly—and further south.

“Beautiful dog.” Graham rose with Daisy following him up into a sitting position from which she stared at him with adoration. “I cannot believe you’re the one who bought Riverland Plantation. When Dante gave me your name, it didn’t ring any bells.”

“Same. I didn’t realize you were G.C. Layton of Layton Construction. For me, it’s the last name that’s different. Probably why my name didn’t sound familiar to you.” Quite a few other things had changed as well, like that she no longer believed in love or happily ever after, or that she could depend on anyone but herself. “Come on in and we can get started. I’ve had my eye on this place for a while.”

For the entire bulk of her life, Phoebe had yearned for Riverland. When things were at their darkest and she’d not known how she might carry on, she would think of the plantation—and, strangely, the man before her—and she would find the strength to carry on. Both were from back before her world went dark and scary, and her dreams had turned to ash. It was from those ashes that she had forged a new dream: a new life, where she was beholden to no one.

“I thought you moved away after high school,” Graham said as she shut the door behind them. This close to the river, even at their elevation, she still had to watch out for critters with the swamp and marshes nearby. The last thing she wanted was a gator or snake meandering inside to make themselves at home.

“I did. I moved back six months ago. You did, too, if I recall correctly. Yet here we are, near our old stomping grounds in Thibodaux,” she said.

His energy filled the foyer and beyond. Before he’d arrived, the entryway had been an empty hall but now, it was suffused to the brim with life because he was standing there, an injection of potent vitality. There were some people who had a magnetism they exuded, who commanded a room the moment they entered, whom people wanted to follow as they led. That was Graham. He’d been that way in high school, and age, wisdom, and experience had only solidified his presence. He exuded testosterone and confidence the way other men breathed.

“That we are,” he replied after giving her a similar head to toe assessment. Then he turned his enigmatic gaze from her to study the grand entryway, and whistled. She wondered whether he could see it: the possibility of what it could be once more, not just how it was in sore need of repair.

“It has a lot of potential. I will give you that.” Graham walked over to the wall and flicked on the switch for the grand chandelier—the one that had likely quit being grand twenty years ago. Half the crystals were cracked or askew, hanging in a pitiful fashion, while the rest had simply vanished altogether. The light flickered to life, but with some of the bulbs and crystals missing, it looked rather pathetic dangling above them. It was one of the many items on Phoebe’s list to replace or repair. Some of the antique shops along Royal in the French Quarter had a few chandeliers that might look good in its stead.

“But?” She knew this place needed a mountain of repairs to get it into working order.

“To do the renovations right will be an investment. I don’t want to frighten you over the sheer volume of repairs this place will need, but I took a walk around the perimeter already, and it’s going to take quite a bit to refashion this grand old lady back into dancing shape. The new roof that this place needs will set you back some.”

She winced. A new roof on this beast? He wasn’t kidding about the investment. It had passed the inspection, but she had a feeling the bank had just wanted to be rid of the property after taking it in a foreclosure settlement. “I had a feeling the inspectors let a few things slide for me to get this place so cheaply, and figured that was a possibility. I have the budget for it.” She would just have to squirrel away every extra penny she made at Bayou Sin until she opened the house. “Whatever can’t be done by you or anyone else, if it’s out of my budget, I will do myself.”

She wasn’t going to dip into the marketing or operations budgets she had set aside. She was going all in on making her bed and breakfast a success.

“You?” She’d startled a surprised laugh out of him.

“I can paint as well as the next man,” she affirmed with a nod toward the walls, which at one time might have been canary yellow in color but which age and grime had turned into a dark mustard. Phoebe had already done minor repairs on her little house out back. She’d painted the interior walls and cabinets, giving the aging place new life.

“Well, before we get to that stage, why don’t you show me around and give me your vision for the place? You mentioned in your email that you want to open by Christmas.”

“If it’s possible, yes. A soft launch for the people who like to travel in the sweet spot between Christmas and New Year’s would be a great time to work out any last-minute kinks. Let’s start on the second and third floors first. I think those are going to be the most intensive when it comes to the renovations.”

“Lead the way.” Graham gestured toward the staircase.

“Some of the boards are going to need to be replaced,” she said as they creaked their way up to the second floor.

“We will probably need to check the whole thing for rot. High humidity can play hell with wood, especially wood that’s left untreated. The last thing you want to do is have a guest take a spill on your staircase because a rotted board broke.”

Eek! She hadn’t thought of that. Thoughts of guests who didn’t like the food, or who became ill, or who ended up with a rash of mosquito or bedbug bites were what kept her up at night. But to have a guest fall and injure themselves over possible negligence? Phoebe could already envision the lawsuit and decided to add getting extra insurance coverage to her list. Her insurance rep had mentioned policies to cover injuries before, but she had brushed that idea aside in favor of what she needed to pay for today. Faulty thinking on her part—she would need to consider the ramifications of a guest being injured. “Yeah, if I can avoid any pitfalls like that, I would appreciate it. I also want to make sure that I have entrances and guest rooms that are up to code for handicapped visitors. I want to add a ramp to the front and back entrances, plus there is a room on the first floor I want converted into two handicapped bedrooms.”

“Excellent. We can certainly work that into the overall plans. And one of the things I will help with is getting all the proper permits submitted to the parish, and inspections set up once we are done.”

They proceeded through the third and second floors, room by room, with Graham taking rough measurements of each room. There was something inherently sexy about watching him work with his tape measure and jotting numbers down on his hand-sketched floorplans. It gave Phoebe time to study the man with his back turned, without his magnetic, penetrating stare on her. She appreciated the way his white linen dress shirt rippled with movement across his broad shoulders, and how his jeans drew taut across a rather delectable tight end. The man was a powerful beast in his prime, and sent pulse waves thumping through her veins.

After taking measurements of one of the rear bedrooms that overlooked the gardens, Graham stated, “Adding plumbing to each room shouldn’t be a problem. It’s the state of the current pipes that we need to worry about. I will check them over, see if there are any that need replacing, and develop a new grid for the piping. We might also want to check the status of the current water heater. For a place this size, with upwards of forty guests, my guess is that you will need an extra water heater, if not two or more to meet requirements.”

“I already have that included in the budget I’ve set aside for this place. I worked at a few hotels and understand the need for a constant stream of hot water.”

“Good. I have a guy I do subcontract work with, who installs water heaters at a very reasonable price and won’t gouge you. I’ve worked with him enough that I can include an estimate for the costs with my overall bid.”

“I would appreciate that.” She bit back the ensuing panic attempting to wriggle into her psyche. Phoebe had these moments where the enormity of what she was doing, the number of tasks before her to accomplish her goal, overwhelmed her.

They descended the smaller back stairwell. “If there’s a way to lighten this stairwell up—perhaps add some extra lighting—I’d like to use it for personnel, housekeeping, room service, and the like. Keep it off limits to guests except in the event of an emergency.”

“And what about the closet we passed by the stairs?” Graham gestured, pointing his thumb over his shoulder.

“Oh, that. I almost forgot. It’s not a closet but a tiny elevator that will fit maybe three people with a small suitcase apiece. I intend to keep it for handicapped guests, room service delivery, and housekeeping.”

“I’ll add it to my list to inspect for any wear and tear on parts that might need replacing.” Graham scribbled on his notepad when they stepped inside the next room on her agenda.

“Appreciate that. This is the room I would like to turn into two handicapped guestrooms with walk-in showers that also sport a ledge for those who need to sit.” The room had previously likely been used as either a small ballroom or an overly large dining room. To utilize the space to work for her, making it two rooms that would be available for guests with disabilities, just made sense. It needed as much work as the rest. The wooden panel walls would need to go. She wanted the rooms to have an open and airy feel to them, and the dark wood made even this large room seem cloying.

Graham toured the room in question. He withdrew his measuring tape from his toolbelt, ran his fingers over the wood paneling like he was testing its sturdiness and durability. He checked inside the fireplace and glanced out the windows. “Well, the space is large enough to make it maneuverable for two rooms and accommodate wheelchairs.”

“And they will have a nice view of the grounds overlooking the Mississippi too.”

“It’s doable. How do you feel about the paneling?” he asked and canted a dark brow.

“That it needs to go. I’m sure in its glory, it looked great, but it’s not the aesthetic I’m going for.”

Graham nodded with a smile. “That’s what I thought from everything you’ve told me about this place, but I wanted to be sure we were on the same page.”

They walked through the rest of the first floor. She showed Graham the library room where she wanted to redo the shelves, perhaps add some couches and comfy chairs, and fill those empty shelves with books for guests to check out and read. Then there was the sitting room she wanted to turn into a screen room with a large flat screen television, plenty of couches and places to sit. She planned to play family friendly movies for interested guests in the evenings. Then there was the ballroom that she wanted to convert into a grand dining room. They could use it for formal occasions like weddings and baby showers in addition to daily breakfasts. Just because she no longer believed in love didn’t mean other people were of the same opinion. And if she benefited from the wedding industry, hosted a few getaway weddings, it would be another feather in her cap.

They headed into the basement where Graham examined the heating unit, the water heater, and electrical boxes.

“I want to wall that section off and create a laundry room with multiple washers and dryers for the sheer volume of laundry we will do each day, and also create storage rooms for things like toilet paper, waste bags, toiletries, and the like.”

“Those are some easy additions. I don’t see that being an issue. I just need to know the number of washing machines you want installed, for the plumbing and electric. I’m sure they’re going to be the industrial sized ones.”

“Yeah, I was thinking eight of each, to start with, and then have fixtures available to add two more of each in the future.”

It would be a constant rotation. Phoebe would want to have additional multiple clean sheet sets for each room, along with duvets on the comforters. Which reminded her she still needed to find a local dry cleaner where she could possibly take soiled comforters to get cleaned. Plus, she wanted to find a local vendor for fancy soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and lotions. She intended to work with area vendors to display art for sale, and planned on having a small gift shop selling items displaying the logo she was designing for the bed and breakfast.

The last spot they went through was the kitchen. This room, much like the rest of them, needed a lot of work too.

“How much of the original do you want to keep in here?” Graham asked, noting measurements on the clipboard in his hand.

“Honestly, this room is going to need a lot of work. I need the kitchen to be top of the line. Especially if I want to host weddings, showers, family reunions, and the like, here. Professional grade refrigerators, stainless steel sinks, a prep area, and then the butler’s pantry for storage needs to be redone to make it more efficient.”

Graham nodded. “And what about the room next to this one in front?”

“That’s where I would like to put the reception desk, with a small, tasteful gift shop beside it, and then my office with an on-site safe.”

“You have a terrific vision for this place. Why don’t we have a seat on the porch, and we can go over numbers.” He cast her a friendly smile that melted her insides down to her toes.

“I’ve got one better, follow me,” she said and led him out through the kitchen side door around the back.

“The garden needs work as well. Do you have anyone in mind to help you with the landscaping?”

She sighed. “Don’t I know it. There’s always a catch with buying a deeply discounted, foreclosed property. I’ll get to it. I’ve already been scoping out the lawn and garden section at the hardware store. I have some experience with designing gardens. Not a lot, mind you, but I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.”

She opened the door to the small groundskeeper’s house, which was really nothing more than a glorified pool house. It was four hundred square feet, little more than a studio apartment in size. The only thing enclosed was the tiny bathroom. But she had spruced her home up as best she could, painting the walls a fresh, light powder blue and had put her bed near the window to catch the early morning sunlight.

There was room enough for her couch and a small television, plus the eat in kitchen with her small, pine dinette set. She’d painted the walnut cabinets an eggshell white, giving the place a farmhouse look. Daisy made a beeline toward her water bowl and dog bed up against the far wall.

“This is where you’re living?” Graham studied her place without judgement, his gaze assessing the space.

It might not be much, but it was home and, best of all, hers. “Yep. I don’t need a lot of space or things. Most days I will be over at the main house from sunup until sundown, at least until I can afford to hire help.”

If things worked the way she hoped, she would have a hostess and servers for the dining room. Phoebe already had her eye on a waitress at the nightclub to entice to come work for her. While she was confident in her abilities, it would be a juggling act to cook and serve meals in the dining room at the same time. At first, there was no way around it and she would be forced to manage it somehow. But she hoped this place would be successful enough that a few months after opening, she would have the available budget to hire help.

“Have a seat. Would you like a cup of coffee? And I have some croissants on the table there, just baked them fresh this morning,” she said, rather thrilled to be playing hostess. Phoebe enjoyed cooking and had found early in life that she had a knack for it. But this was a new croissant recipe she was testing out, and she was interested to see Graham’s reaction.

“It’s barely ten.” He smiled as he sat, facing her and the kitchen.

“I tend to be an early riser. Always have been.”

“I’m the same.”

Using one of her good mugs, she served him a steaming cup of coffee, then brought over all the accoutrements on a wooden tray: sugar, cream, and sugar substitute. She noted that he took his coffee black as night, but he slathered the croissant with her homemade jam.

“Mmm, oh my god.” He groaned, and the sound pinged low in her belly. “You made this?” Graham asked, looking at her and then back at the pastry as if he had died and gone to heaven.

“Yep.” She expelled a breath. The new recipe appeared to be a hit. Graham ate the croissant with relish. Pinpricks of satisfaction flowed through Phoebe. She slid into the seat across from him as he put a thumb covered in jam into his mouth and sucked it off.

Her girly bits throbbed at an unexpected blast of desire that struck her system like a thunder bolt. It had been an unconsciously sexy move on his part. It wasn’t like he was attempting to get into her pants. He was here to earn a potential payday, and work. Yet when he glanced her way with sublime satisfaction in his eyes, across the small expanse of her pine dinette table, her insides quivered—and not with fear.

She needed to shut the gate closed and seal it tight. Phoebe didn’t do relationships anymore. That wasn’t in her plans for her life any longer.

No matter how sinful the packaging happened to be.

Chapter 2

Of all the things Graham had expected today, running into a long-lost childhood friend had not been one of them. Last week his buddy, Dante, had passed her information along so Graham knew to expect to hear from her. But her name, Phoebe Mackenzie, hadn’t jostled his memory. The fact that they had done all their initial communication through email had left her identity rather inconspicuous.

He liked her small space, the studio sized house that served as her home. Phoebe had invested time into the aging groundskeeper’s house. The house had a good base structure, even if it was a mite run down. He noticed the fresh coat of paint on the walls and cabinetry. She rose in his esteem when he realized she didn’t mind getting her hands dirty. She’d decorated her place with feminine touches like the small vase on the table with a bouquet of wildflowers. The artwork that hung on the wall behind the couch was all bold, vibrant colors but there was a femininity and grace to the design. The blue and white checkered couch was well-worn but lovingly tended. She’d painted the walls a calm, soothing powder blue the color of sky, which made the designs and extra touches pop.

Graham reached for a second croissant and studied the woman across the table—more specifically, the rapid, jack-rabbit pulse in her neck and shock of desire in her eyes. Eyes that were like the fields in Ireland, a crisp, potent green so vibrant, they tended to pull a man in.

She was gorgeous with her willowy figure and sharp angled chin. He remembered her from high school, she’d been a baby-faced freshman his senior year, and on the cheerleading squad. He remembered her in the short skirt on the sidelines at his basketball games. Back then, she had starred in more than one of his teenage fantasies. In the years since, she had leaned out. Her being called to the Dom in him to draw out the shadows in her gaze and replace them with pleasure. His blood positively simmered from being near her again.

As a guy who preferred to keep women at arm’s length—unless he was scening with them at Club Underworld, his lifestyle BDSM club—the palpable adrenaline kick of attraction humming in his veins went straight to his groin, leaving him stunned at its potency.

With perfect clarity, he pictured her bound and spread out like an erotic feast before him on the pine table, his face buried between her thighs, with the sounds of her bliss echoing off the walls. Graham’s dick apparently thought that was the best idea he’d had all week—hell, all month.

Was she married? Because back then, she’d been Phoebe Marson, not Phoebe Mackenzie. He checked her hand and didn’t spy a ring—not that the lack of a ring meant anything. A few of the guys on his crew were married and none of them wore their wedding rings to work. In their line of work, there was too great a risk to have it get caught on something and have the finger damaged, or worse.

“Mackenzie? I didn’t realize you were married,” he said, slathering more of the delicious jam on the croissant that he was certain must be what heaven tasted like. He didn’t even need a second croissant but couldn’t help himself. The damn thing melted in his mouth with a mix of buttery, flaky crust, and sweet, sugary strawberries. If he couldn’t feed one hunger, the one that was focused on Phoebe, then he would feed the other. Because then perhaps his dick would get the message that it wasn’t getting pussy this morning and settle the hell down.

A shadow passed across her gaze at his question but was gone in a blink of her long, sultry lashes. “I was married… until a few years ago. However, Mackenzie is not my ex-husband’s last name, but my grandfather’s. He’s the reason I was able to purchase Riverland outright so that I don’t have a mortgage to worry about and just have the basics, property taxes and such.”

That was a rather cryptic non-answer. Most women who changed their names after a divorce reverted to their maiden names. Why had she assumed her grandfather’s surname? Not that Mackenzie didn’t suit her, with her coloring and the soft, golden auburn waves framing her face, because it did. But he was curious why she had chosen to make that change. But she wasn’t offering up that tidbit, her expression as guarded as security at a federal building.

Moreover, Graham was stunned at the pleasure that spread inside his chest when he heard she wasn’t married, and thrilled at the blatant desire she directed his way. He mulled over the possibility of pursuing her.

He offered her an olive branch in the hope that it would soothe the strain he noticed at the mention of her ex-husband. “Marriage didn’t work out well for me, either, but I kept my name.”

A light of compassion reflected in her eyes and some of the starch in her system relaxed by degrees. The woman was wound up tighter than a sub on total lockdown.

She cocked her head to the right; the warmth of congeniality re-entering her stare. “What did work for you? I thought you enlisted in the military when you graduated. Wasn’t it the Navy?”

“Close. The Army. I did a four-year stint piloting helicopters in Afghanistan.” And there were parts of his life from that time he’d made a choice to do his utmost to forget. That was where he’d met Ramsey. Once they were back stateside, Ramsey had introduced Graham to Michael and then Dante, and opened a whole new world, giving him a place to explore the BDSM lifestyle, study, and become a Master.

“That must not have been easy, four years in a war zone. What was it like?” She lifted her mug of coffee to her mouth and he watched her throat work as she took a sip. What would those plump lips look like wrapped around his cock? His dick twitched, straining against the confines of his jeans. He shifted in his seat, hiding his wince, and attempted to diffuse his raging hard-on. Graham had not been this worked up over a woman in years.

And the sweet way she leaned toward him, avid interest on her face, with no clue as to the dirty thoughts racing through his mind made him that much more aroused.

“At the time, no, it wasn’t a picnic. Being there was as close to the gates of hell as I would ever like to venture. But I made it back. Not everyone in my unit did. Once I kicked the desert dust off my boots, I attended Tulane on my GI Bill and graduated without any student loans, so my time spent serving was awash in my book.” For the most part, anyway. The scars on his soul he’d like to have done without, but he doubted anyone made it into their thirties without a few dings. At thirty-five, Graham could honestly say that he was in a good space mentally, emotionally, and everywhere else in between. It was his time in the Army that had led him down the path to become a Dominant and enter the BDSM lifestyle. And that was something he did not regret, regardless of the manner in which he’d had to enter.

“You went to Tulane? Really? And now you’re a contractor. How did that all come about?”

He shrugged. That was more than Graham wanted to get into with Phoebe, especially when he would rather focus on the potent sexual tension radiating between them. The gory details of his past life with his ex-wife and the fallout her infidelity had caused were stories for another time—if ever. It wasn’t information he divulged to other women. None of the submissives at Club Underworld knew his backstory. They just knew how much he enjoyed flogging a pretty bum until it reddened, that he loved a good blow job as well as the next Dom, and enjoyed a good, hard fuck after a scene that made the past dissipate.

He didn’t regret going into business for himself, far from it. He just disliked the path he’d taken to get there because he’d actually loved his ex-wife—until her infidelity became a knife driving into his sternum daily. “I have an architecture degree, worked for a prestigious firm right after graduation for a few years.”

“And you didn’t like it?” She cocked her head, the wheels obviously turning in her fascinating brain. It made him wonder what she would think and do if he told her to strip, lie on her back with her thighs spread, and be ready to receive him. Would she think he was fascinating then, or a depraved bastard?

“Something like that.” It was more he hadn’t liked his ex-wife’s father keeping tabs on him day and night at the company his father-in-law owned, while his ex-wife was out fucking any man she met.

“Now, about your plantation. I think what you want is doable. Let me work up a couple estimates for you tonight. It will give you a ballpark idea of what you are looking at on the renovation. So that there’s no sticker shock when you get my estimates, I think it will be around this amount. I’ll have a firmer number for you once I’ve looked up prices on a few of the things we discussed.” He wrote a number down and slid it her way across the table.

She winced, and then sighed with a slight shake of her head. “You’re in the range I was projecting. As long as there are no huge issues that we discover it should be financially doable on my end.”

If there were large problems that cropped up, he would handle it at cost. He wouldn’t let an old friend suffer or run into financial ruin. Plenty went wrong and happened on a restoration job like this. If that meant he had to skip a paycheck or two himself—but ensured his team received their paychecks and the suppliers were paid—then so be it. Graham had built himself a nice little nest egg and invested wisely thanks to Michael’s keen insights in the market. He wouldn’t miss the small loss of income from going without a week or two of pay. Whereas Phoebe would be crushed if the costs ballooned out of control. He saw the hope mingled with stress in her eyes, that she was flipping a coin and taking a chance that fate would work in her favor.

He would do what he was able to nudge the scale her way, for old time’s sake. Perhaps if he played his cards right, the fantasy of her bounty spread out before him would become a reality.

“Okay, I will work up three different estimates for you: a minimum, medium, and full enchilada, that way you can pick what works best for your budget. What about this place? Are you wanting to do anything here?” It was cramped, but she had filled her space with tasteful pieces and added touches that made it warm, from the herb plants on the kitchen windowsill to the pot rack above the stove. She had turned the space into her place, even if it was little more than a studio apartment.

“This will do me for the time being. It’s not large,” she glanced over past the couch to the window with the wrought iron bed beside it, “but it is home. I hope that works for you.”

There was a pride in her voice, an undercurrent of meaning that he wanted to understand better. It drew him in. She drew him in. Her strawberry auburn blonde hair was worn short, barely brushing her delicate shoulders. He normally liked a woman with miles of hair pulled high into a ponytail so he could wrap his hand around it as he fucked her.

But Phoebe’s shorter style made her look like a pixie with her angular face—a sexy pixie he would practically give his left nut to see stripped naked. Would she have a thatch of hair the same color between her thighs, or was she bare? Were the tousled waves as soft as they looked? His fingers itched to find out. She was trim and leanly toned with high firm breasts. Yet it was her wide, generous mouth that fascinated him. The lips were plump and a naturally shaded rose like a ripe berry. He remembered that one time, long ago, when he had tasted those lips… in another life. Did she still taste as sweet now as she had back then? Graham craved another taste, and not just of her lips. He wanted to taste her—everywhere.

“It does,” he said. “I won’t pressure you into anything you don’t want.” On more than one front. “Now don’t quote me on this, but I think you have enough ground behind this little house that, if you wanted to expand, perhaps add another room or two on to the original structure, possibly raise the roof and add on a second floor, that would give you a lot more personal space.” If she decided to do a second job, tack this one onto the back end of her remodel, it would extend their time together.

She cast a considering glance his way. “I will keep that in mind. A lot is going to depend on getting the main house up and running without any big surprises. I think once it’s open to guests and turning a profit, we can discuss a potential expansion on this place. It would be nice to have an actual bedroom.”

“Good. I will keep that in mind and I can be flexible with my schedule.”

Not wanting to overextend his welcome, he rose and grabbed his clipboard with his notes. “Thank you for the coffee and pastries. I will draw up the contract tonight with my estimates and email those over to you. We should be able to get started soon.”

Phoebe stood with him. Her dog rose into a sphinx pose on her dog bed in the corner, eyeing Graham. He flashed a smile at Phoebe with a slight nod. Then he strode the few feet to her front door and pulled it open. The bright midday sunlight made him squint. He adjusted his sunglasses to shield his eyes as he emerged into the glare.

She sputtered behind him, “I haven’t even said yes yet, and you’re acting like it’s a done deal.”

He turned back around, giving her a lop-sided grin. “You will.”

She was cute in her defiance as she jutted her chin out and canted a brow. “A little sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

His hand itched to touch her, to discover if she would welcome his touch, his dominance. She might have been put through the grinder, judging by the dark shadows in her gaze, but she was a fighter with a spine of steel who looked like an angel and cooked like a dream. It took guts to forge a place like this into a thriving business. Her determination, her drive were right there for him to see. It was an intoxicating mixture. She was an intoxicating mixture of strength and softness that called to him on an elemental level. His damn dick was rock solid to the point of pain in her presence. Was he sure they would work together? He would make sure of it. “Of you, yeah. You want this place and know me, know that I’m a good bet, and have seen the work I can do. Unless you want to interview other contractors? I can send you a few names, if you would like.”

He dangled the carrot, almost daring her to deny that she had already made up her mind about working together. With bated breath, he waited to see if she would bite.

Phoebe studied him from her perch in the doorframe, her dog standing sentinel at her side. Slowly and deliberately, she studied him, chewing on her bottom lip, and then finally replied, “No. You’re the one I want. When can you start?”

A punch of startling lust blasted through Graham. Her words were like an aphrodisiac. It wasn’t what she meant, but his inference of that statement—that she wanted him—which hit him squarely in the solar plexus. How had he gone from joy at the unexpected reunion with an old high school friend to wondering if he might seduce her into another type of partnership? A naked kind of partnership, with her bound to the iron rods of her bed as he slid between her thighs. Battling back the imagery and his straining erection, he said, “Three days. I have a job that my crew and I should be finished with by tomorrow. We’re just putting the finishing touches on a home in the Garden District and I have all the inspections Wednesday. Then my crew and I would be at your disposal on Thursday.”

“All right, Graham, I think you have a deal. I’ll look at the paperwork tonight and have the signed copy for you later this week.”

He resisted the urge to pump his fist in the air but didn’t stop his Cheshire grin from spreading though. Graham was pleased as punch that she’d agreed to partner with him on the remodel.

When he stepped in to her to give her a congenial hug, she retreated, and a slash of fear flashed in her eyes before she replaced it with a small smile. “It was really good to see you again, Graham. I look forward to working with you.”

He froze momentarily and then an ache blossomed in his chest. She had suffered something fierce by the look of it. The Dom and the man in him were in perfect agreement that he would like to bloody whoever had put that heartbreaking dread into her eyes.

Her cell phone rang, disturbing the awkward stillness.

“I’ll get out of your hair. See you Thursday, Phoebe,” Graham conceded—this time. He wanted to ask her more about those shadows. And he had an overwhelming need surging inside him to protect her, which wasn’t surprising. As a Dom, protecting a woman was as second nature to him as his desire to rain hellfire on whoever had put that look there.

She nodded with a small smile tugging at the corners of her lush mouth and shut the door as she answered her phone with a soft hello. Her husky alto rang along his spine like a caress. He strode away, surveying the breathtaking landscape of Riverland and wondering about the girl he once knew.

At fourteen to his seventeen, she had been carefree and sweet, with a softness that couldn’t be faked. Long gone was the carefree girl, with a softness that was there but buried deep. In her place was a formidable, capable woman with dark shadows in her lush green gaze.

It was those he was drawn to most: the shadows. He understood looking darkness in the face and giving it the finger, only to come out the other side of it and not be the same person you once were.

Back at his work truck, he glanced up at the plantation with its thick Greek revival columns, the white paint peeling in spots, and lush green vines wrapped about the base, as a puffy cloud floated in front of the sun and cast darkness over the ivory pillars. What would it take to remove the phantoms from Phoebe’s eyes?

Graham planned to find out and uncover the key to free her from them. Phoebe stirred every Dominant gene in his body. Enticed him in a way he hadn’t been in a great long while. It was as if he had been sleepwalking through his days and not even realized it until Phoebe’s bright light streaked across his horizon like a fireball in the sky.

And he had every intention of plumbing the depths of Phoebe Mackenzie. He might have been too old for her in high school but now there were no barriers except any that she erected. Graham looked forward to knocking down each and every one until he had her writhing in pleasure beneath him.

Chapter 3

Three days later

Shortly after the sun crested the horizon that morning, Graham parked his black work truck with the white Layton Construction logo on the doors in front of Riverland. Sunlight glinted through the greenery, the towering oaks, silverbell, and bald cypress trees mixed in. This close to the swamp and river, the trees were native. The cicadas were out with their humming buzz. He spotted a crane fly overhead and wiped at the sweat already forming on his forehead with his forearm. It was going to be another scorcher today.

He’d exchanged the dress shirt he had worn on their first meeting for a gray tee shirt with his jeans and work boots. Anticipation at seeing Phoebe again electrified him as he slung his tool belt around his hips and fastened it. He couldn’t drive with the damn thing on. The tools tended to gouge his flesh, and were pressed a little too close to the family jewels for comfort. He grabbed his clipboard with all his notes on it, and his Moleskine gridded notebook. The first part of the job was inspecting what would stay, what needed to go, what needed to be replaced, and planning for the unexpected.

Last night he had drawn from memory a rough sketch of each floor, labeling each room. But today, he needed to go room by room and take detailed, accurate measurements. Then there were the hallways, the stairs, the ballroom and the kitchen. He needed to get all the minute dimensions before they started ordering supplies.

His crew would arrive at ten. He had given them a morning to sleep in since the Ballard job had run late and into the morning yesterday before they’d had the final stamp on the place yesterday afternoon. It had been a decent paying job, with time constraints to fit the owner’s schedule.

With his clipboard in hand once more, he hefted a small toolkit that held his architecture tools out of the bed of his truck and headed toward the front door of the manor. He still used the skills he learned both in school and at the architecture firm to help create masterful renovations. But instead of being stuck in an office from sunup to sundown, he was out in the field, working with his hands. He loved it, and not because he was the one calling the shots—although that didn’t hurt, and certainly added to his enjoyment. He loved being in the thick of things, using his hands to create beauty. He never got over the satisfaction he experienced at the end of each job, looking at the finished product with pride.

He’d made it onto the top step when the front door opened.

In the doorframe, Phoebe looked as fresh as a light spring rain and twice as soft. Every instinct inside him demanded that he claim her. It was as if he’d been waiting for her to come back into his life—which he knew was ridiculous. He wasn’t a fanciful man, but one typically grounded in reality. They hardly knew one another. And a kiss from almost twenty years ago didn’t count.

She wore skinny jeans that were slicked on her slim legs, and scuffed brown leather work boots. Phoebe wasn’t the type to sit back while others worked but instead was in the thick of it. In deference to the heat, she wore a navy tank top that displayed her delicate shoulders and framed her ample cleavage. The woman nearly had Graham’s tongue hanging out.

She wore no artifice on her face, no makeup spackled on hiding the skin underneath. Just radiant skin brushed with a smattering of golden freckles and a hint of a tan from working outdoors.

She was a refreshing breath of fresh air. His body reacted, as if he had been sleepwalking through his days and was finally awake. Graham’s hands itched to touch her, to caress the sensitive flesh between her thighs, and bury himself in her warm heat.

Down, boy! He couldn’t walk around the reno job with a hard-on tenting his jeans nonstop.

“Morning,” he murmured with a gruff voice laced with lust.

Phoebe’s German Shephard, Daisy, quivered at her side in the doorway with effusive energy, awaiting her mistress’s command.

“Morning,” Phoebe replied and held out a mug full of steaming black coffee toward him.

“Bless you, sweetheart.” He shifted everything in his arms to one side and accepted the ivory mug with blue logo from her hand, then took a long, deep drink. He stared at her over the rim as he drank, giving himself that moment to get his raging hormones back under control.

“What do you say we get started? Or is keeping me on your porch a passive aggressive way of saying no thanks?” he teased with a gentle smile.

She laughed and shook her head. “Sorry, I still find it an unlikely coincidence that we are working together after all this time. Come on in. You’ve got a lot in your hands, let me take something.”

“I’ve got it, but thanks for offering,” he murmured. She stepped out of the way so he had the space to enter. Daisy moved by her side, shadowing Phoebe’s movements. “It is a bit of a head trip that we’ve reconnected. But I for one am glad that we have, and am looking forward to our project. Have you decided on the direction you want to proceed with the proposed estimates?”

She closed the door, brushing past him, and he caught a whiff of her: honey, lavender and woman. The beast inside him, the one he fought back daily that found an outlet as a Dominant, calmed at her heady aroma. When had that ever happened? Instead of needing an outlet to release the excess, his inner beast was like a large jungle cat rubbing against her scent and damn near purring in contentment.

What the hell?

Then she retreated, erecting a small distance between them. “Yeah, I’ve thought of little else since our meeting on Monday and the estimates you sent me Tuesday. After a lot of consideration, I think the full enchilada is the best way to proceed. I’d rather tackle it all at once, even with the hefty price tag. That way this place can be up and running at full force on day one. Plus, that way I don’t have to worry about guests interfering with more remodeling in the years to come. Not that repairs won’t be necessary in the intervening years, but if I can do the bulk of the investment up front, updates and minor repairs shouldn’t be a problem.”

Graham wanted to erase the few feet of space and wall she erected when she back-tracked. The Dominant in him tossed his head back, sniffing the air, and demanded he go after her, claim her and feel her writhe beneath him.

Instead, Graham wielded his control and shoved the beast back under lock and key. “Repairs on anything my team installs are included in the price for the next five years, so in my mind, it is the best bang for your buck. I had a feeling you would want the full package. You never were one to go half in on anything, if my memory serves.”

His comment drew a startled laugh out of her and seemed to settle the anxiety he sensed rippling off her in waves. “Your memory seems just fine.”

“Where would you like to start?” He wanted to start by stripping her down until she was bare and learning every square inch of her—with his tongue.

“I was thinking upstairs, that the bedrooms on the second and third floors were the most logical to begin with, and maybe the roof too. I don’t know how your team works yet. But I’d almost rather go with the roof first if you all work on one thing at a time. I would really like to make sure that thing is sound without any leaks or cave-ins before I plug a bunch of money into the rest of the manor.”

Phoebe had a good head on her shoulders, with an eye for the best place to start a project of this magnitude. Her brain fascinated him as much as her body did. When had that ever happened with a woman? Not since his ex-wife, and Meredith had stopped using her brain once they were married, focusing more on fucking every man at her gym or at every bar she patronized.

But Phoebe was nothing like the viper he’d married. In fact, Graham was coming to suspect that she was the opposite of every woman he’d entertained himself with the last few years. Perhaps that was why he’d been going through the motions, but not truly enjoying life. He nodded. “That’s where I would start too. I also want to do a thorough check of the plumbing upstairs, working out where the pipelines are presently so we can add new lines and plan the bathrooms in each unit. Then we’ll examine the pipes and sewage lines in the basement.”

“Well, let’s get to it,” she said, putting her empty coffee mug on a folding table she’d erected by the entrance.

“I can handle it,” Graham said, setting his empty cup beside hers and getting into her space, enjoying the way her breathing quickened and nipples hardened into points at his proximity. She was affected by him, by the lightning rod of energy that zapped between them.

Her face flushed, she replied, “I know, it’s just… this is the first place I’ve owned that belongs to just me. I want a hand in her resurrection.”

There was a gleam in her eyes: pride, wonder, and a smidgeon of fear with a dash of tenacity thrown in for good measure. Impressed with her drive, he found himself captivated. “I understand. You want your hands on the place.”

She slipped her free hand into her front pocket and nibbled on her bottom lip, like she was deciding how much to say before replying. “It’s more than that. I want to be able to look at the finished product and say: I did that, helped make it beautiful.”

“I know, and it’s an awesome feeling that I won’t deprive you of, so let’s head on up and get cracking,” Graham murmured, more intrigued by the minute.

“I’ve just been waiting for you.” She cast him a small grin that went straight to his groin.

If only that were true, because he felt like he’d been waiting for her all his life—which was just about the weirdest thought to pop into his head in a decade. Maybe he needed to have a therapy session with Ramsey to see if he’d finally cracked and lost his damn mind. Graham and Phoebe had done nothing more than exchange a few pleasantries as they got reacquainted with one another, and already he was building fantasies that he had no business having. Graham did not do relationships or commitment. They worked for some people, but he wasn’t one of them.

But Phoebe made him yearn for things he knew weren’t good for him.

Shit. He seriously needed to think about heading to the club this weekend and fucking this need for Phoebe out of his system.

The three of them, Daisy included, plodded up the stairs. The grandeur of the plantation seduced Graham. The graceful lines of the stairwell made him able to envision what this place had looked like at its zenith, with its sweeping grand staircase that rose to the second floor with scarring and dust on the bannister. At one time, it must have glistened with golden light from the chandelier refracting over the wooden surface, creating a myriad of hues on the wood, from dark mahogany to cinnamon to burnished copper.

By the time Graham and his crew finished, it would look that way once more, and be breathtaking.

They began in the first room, at the top of the stairs on the left. The two of them got on their hands and knees, measuring and checking the baseboards. This first room had an attached bathroom which would make it far easier to locate the pipes. Graham knew this bathroom would need to be completely redone because of what Phoebe wanted to do with the space, but the location of the bathroom was between this room and the next, making the need for additional plumbing lines promising.

“What size beds were you planning on installing in each room, so I can get an idea on size?” he said.

She sat back on her heels and glanced at the space, as if she was envisioning not what was there but what it would be. “California King. I have a dealer that distributed to a hotel I worked at for a few years. Chuck’s given me a fantastic deal on bed frames and mattresses. He’s already got my order on standby and is waiting for the go ahead to deliver. Each room will have a four poster, wooden bed that I can give you the exact specs on. I understand going with the largest bed possible won’t leave much room, but I want my guests comfortable.”

“They will fit, no problem. You can add a pair of nightstands, perhaps a small writing desk or chest of drawers, and still have enough room for a rollaway twin bed if needed. One thing that you might want to consider is that we put the commode and shower stall in an enclosed space and then the vanity with a mirror on the wall right outside of it. I’ve seen it done at other bed and breakfasts. The benefit of constructing it that way is that it would provide a spot to store small coffeemakers and cups. Granted, it does depend on the vanity you select. But if you went with one that had enough countertop space, it would work.”

She tapped a finger on her chin as she studied the room. “Could you draw a mockup for me? I admit, I hadn’t considered that angle, but I like it.”

“Absolutely, I can sketch something on my computer for you tonight so you can get a firm idea of what it might look like. And what do you want to do about the carpet?”

“It’s going to need to go. I’m thinking replacing it with new carpeting would be best.”

“Well, let’s see what we have to work with and if there will need to be repairs to the boards underneath.” Already on his knees, he removed a small folding utility knife from his tool belt.

Phoebe crawled up beside him as he cut through the edge of the carpet in the corner. Together, they pulled up the moldy carpet and padding beneath, exposing the floorboards. He whistled at what was underneath.

“Oh my god, is that what I think it is?” Phoebe breathed with excitement humming in her voice, her hands pressed against her chest.

“Yep. Some moron laid carpet over perfectly acceptable hardwood floors.” He shook his head. Idiots. He found this more often than not in his line of work.

“Do you think it was done on purpose? Covering up scarring or the like?” She glanced around the room like she had X-ray vision and could see through the carpet to the floor underneath.

“Let’s find out,” Graham said, moving along the edge with his blade and yanking at the moldy carpet that had once been a blue gray and now leaned toward mainly gray.

Together, they peeled back the carpet and pad underneath to reveal heavy, golden cinnamon oak wooden floors that had some age, yes, but that was part of the beauty. Phoebe sat back on her heels, her hands at her chest. “It’s lovely. I never thought someone would do something so tragic to a place like this.”

“Yes, it is.” Graham didn’t mean the flooring but the woman beside him with joy flowing out of her in addictive waves. “People are idiots. If I understand the direction we are heading, the verdict is to remove all the carpeting and expose the hardwood beneath.”

“One hundred percent, yes. But what if there are boards that are rotted or compromised?” she asked with a hint of uncertainty in her eyes.

Graham could drown in her green gaze and never come up for air. “Those we can replace, no problem. The entire floor will likely need some buffing, sanding, and sealing to restore it to its former glory. But I think the overall esthetic picture will be infinitely better than installing more carpet. This way, looking ahead, you won’t have to worry about mold on the new carpeting.”

“I like the way you think. I’m game.” Then she checked her watch. “Shoot, I need to get myself ready for a double shift at Bayou Sin. I wanted to give you this anyway so that you can let yourself in.”

She withdrew a key on a small chain from her back pocket. He almost laughed at the skull and bones logo for Bayou Sin on the key chain. As he reached out, his fingers brushed hers. A jolt of a thunderbolt clamored through his veins at the simple touch. Phoebe’s gaze widened as she absorbed the shockwave of energy.

Startled, she dropped the key and snatched her hand away, breaking the connection. Graham reached for her to calm the fear in her eyes, lifting his hand up, and she noticeably flinched, like she expected him to strike her.

Oh, baby.

Graham would sooner cut off both his hands than put one on her in anger. But somebody had done just that. The sudden fear turned her green gaze into a mottled angry sea with painful secrets tossing about the dark waves. Every instinct inside him demanded he gather her close and soothe the tempest inside her.

She gasped, retreating, shifting away from him. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to drop those. I need to go. I—”

“Phoebe,” he replied gently, “it’s not a big deal. The electrical current we created with the carpeting zapped through both of us. You weren’t the only one who was shocked by it.” It had nothing to do with the damn carpet but he needed to say something, because the fierce, enthusiastic woman now resembled a petrified rabbit caught unawares in the garden by a fox.

Yet she still backed away, tossing up walls and emotional distance as she did so. It was quite a feat of control to watch unfold and it made her just that much more fascinating. How much would it take for her to unravel and yield him her power, even for a night? To have her give him the reins and work on healing the dark marks upon her soul?

His desire did not outweigh the ache in his chest for the girl he had once known who must have endured unspeakable horrors over the last two decades. Could he pull the information out of her, get her to trust him with her story?

“Thanks, um, I hate to run, but if I’m late, Dante will give me grief.”

He shooed her off. “It’s not a problem. My crew is coming in a bit and we will go through the house, removing carpet and checking the roof for any damage I didn’t see from the ground. We’ll be back at seven o’clock on the dot tomorrow.”

“That’s good. I will see you then.” Then she and her German Shephard disappeared out the door like their feet had sprouted wings.

Graham grimaced as he heard the side door close downstairs. She’d apparently thought for a moment that he was going to back-hand her over dropping the keys by accident. Just what kind of asshole was her ex-husband? Or had it been some other asswipe who’d put the fear on her face and in her heart?

And what could he do to reassure her that he would flay himself open first before he ever hurt her, physically or otherwise? There was heat between them—bucket loads of it, judging by her reaction—and his—to a simple graze of fingers and palms touching.

Perhaps the best way was the most elemental way: seduce her into his bed, and even if she wasn’t submissive, he’d set aside his darker tendencies for a night or two and be what she needed. It was worth a thought.

His body was a hundred and fifty percent on board with that plan, more so than heading to Club Underworld to try and fuck the clawing need he had for her out of his system. Maybe he should visit Bayou Sin one night this week, to see what she was like in that setting and discover what she actually did there. Dante hadn’t told him, he’d just said that one of his employees needed a remodel job. Graham couldn’t see her stripping and dancing naked around a silver pole, but then again, stranger things had happened.

Chapter 4

Today was a job for coffee.

Phoebe yawned as she poured her fourth cup of the day, her exhaustion utterly eclipsed by mortification. It riddled every fiber of her being. After working a double waiting tables at Bayou Sin, she’d spent a fitful night tossing and turning. Normally, after a full shift like that, she was like, stick a fork in me I’m done and collapsed into bed. But not last night. When she’d glanced at her bedside clock at four that morning, still unable to fall asleep, she’d given up on it altogether. And why had she been unable to sleep? Because of that moment yesterday with Graham, when she’d reacted on pure instinct, the one she had learned through years of survival in an abusive marriage.

She saw it all clearly, like an omnipotent divinity viewing the scene. Graham’s fingers brushed over hers, sending shockwaves through her body. The intensity startled her into dropping the key. Then Graham reached for her and she jerked away. Her reaction had been visceral and instinctive. She had flinched and drawn back before her brain processed the act. His arctic gaze had shifted from compassion to concern laced with anger.

And then had come the pity. She loathed the pity. It made her feel small and defenseless, riddled with shame because she had allowed the abuse to happen, allowed it to change her into a shell of her former self.

Phoebe didn’t like to talk about the abuse she had suffered for eight years until she was twenty-seven. That the person who had promised to love and cherish her until death did they part had almost killed her. She rubbed a hand over her stomach and the scar that lay beneath her shirt and jeans.

Over the last five years, she had painstakingly, piece by piece, put herself back together again. There were pieces that had died in the breaking, ones that would never be resurrected. That was the part of Humpty Dumpty that the fable left out. When he was finally put back together again, he was refashioned into something different. Because with the breaking and reforging came a wisdom, an understanding that life as you once knew it was done and that there was no going back. There was only a before and an after what had become an event horizon.

Phoebe wrestled with how to move forward with Graham.

The entire episode had transpired because a simple touch had flash fried her system. She might have recovered quicker and been less prone to defense if not for the desire flooding her body and seeing it reflected in Graham’s eyes. That was what surprised her most, that he had been aroused by the connection. His hungry, predatory gaze rattled her something fierce.

Deep in her core, Phoebe believed there would never be another man in her life. Her ex-husband had destroyed her ability to feel anything for men—not desire, or anything deeper than friendship. Or so she’d thought, until Graham had proved her wrong yesterday. Dead wrong.

Phoebe hated being wrong.

The need for him, that she wanted him to touch her, wasn’t a feeling she liked. It made her vulnerable and left her shaken. Especially when she had vowed that she would never leave herself unprotected from the opposite sex again. But Graham mucked up all her preconceived notions. The sexy man was like a warm fuzzy blanket from her childhood that made her feel safe and comforted, and like her skin was three sizes too small.

The current of arousal was stronger than any riptide, tugging her under and pulling her out to sea until she was drowning in him.

It catapulted her emotions into a tumult, with her heart and head battling each other.

Phoebe had not been with a man since her husband. Not since that fateful night five years ago, when she’d been too tired and pregnant to want to bow and scrape to that bastard. Her defiance, her refusal, had cost her dearly. Her ex-husband had beaten her until she resembled the remnants of an exploded punching bag. When she lay broken and bleeding on the kitchen floor of their house, unable to fight back any longer through the haze of pain, he viciously raped her.

She’d surrendered to the helplessness, the hopelessness as she bled out, crawling into a safe space inside herself. A neighbor heard her screams and called the police. If not for her neighbor, Phoebe would be dead. It was one of those sad truths she lived with every day. She had married a man who tried to kill her—after doing his utmost to break her.

And her ex-husband, the monster, was locked away in a North Carolina state penitentiary, serving a ten-year sentence for domestic assault, rape, attempted murder and manslaughter.

Phoebe pressed a hand over her abdomen and the scar from the surgery that had removed the dead infant from her womb. She hated thinking about that time of her life, and kept it as impersonal as possible, otherwise she would drown in the death of her unborn daughter.

She hated that Graham had glimpsed the scars she bore on her soul, but it was the shocked spurt of lust darkening his gaze that had given her the sleepless night.

Phoebe never experienced the faintest whiff of arousal. She hadn’t for years, even before the worst night of her life. The last few years of her marriage, sex had become a task, something to do in order to try and waylay Rob’s fists. How many blow jobs had she given the man when he was in a foul mood to try and mellow him out? Way too many to count. It had become a nightly occurrence while he was watching television, just to keep the peace.

But Graham, kneeling beside her, large and imposing with heat radiating from his form tempted her, awoke every erogenous zone in her body with a single touch. The cotton material of his gray shirt stretched taut over his shoulders, his arms solid and flexing with each subtle movement… it had all gone to her head and her loins.

How could that be?

Was it because she felt safe with him? Or was it because he had been the first boy to ever kiss her?

She smiled at the memory of that night as she put in the last tray of scones to bake in the oven. Her kitchen was infused with the scent of fresh baked goods. The night of her first kiss had been the night of the winter formal dance, her freshman year of high school. Her date for the night had ended up dancing the night away with Sara Morgan, the most popular girl in their freshman class. Distressed and in tears, Phoebe had left the gym to start walking home alone in the dress her mother had scrimped and saved to buy her, only to be waylaid by a group of Junior guys smoking weed behind the dumpsters.

Graham had come to her rescue that night. He’d stepped in, protecting her from being assaulted and harassed. That night, Graham had been her knight in shining armor, riding to her rescue. Once he’d dealt with the group, intimidating them into apologizing for their actions, he drove her home in his 1970 Pontiac firebird. After he’d parked at the curb outside her house, before she got out, she kissed him. He’d been kind and gallant, and he’d dazed her with his calm confidence and care for her wellbeing. She had been drawn to him like a moth to a damn flame, had leaned across the console of his Pontiac, and planted one on him, smack dab on the lips.

She remembered his initial shock at her boldness, and then the flare of heat in his eyes illuminated by the dashboard lights. Graham had cupped her chin, rasped his thumb over her bottom lip, and smiled, not with mockery at her inept attempt, but with a gentle warmth—likely because she had blurted out in a rush that he had acted like a knight and that knights always received a kiss from the maiden they rescued.

And then he had taken command, shown her what a real kiss was like. It was the best five minutes of her young teenage life. He had even walked her to her front door after that. She doubted her feet had touched the ground for the rest of the week. As far as first kisses went, hers had been epic, because of Graham.

She had pined for him with a huge romantic crush for the rest of her freshman year. And he’d always been kind, even if he’d not shown any interest beyond that first kiss.

Maybe she’d reacted the way she had because she had always carried a torch for him. In her darkest hours, the memory of that kiss kept her believing that there were good men out there and that she had just ended up with a man rotten to his core.

But the real question that made her toss and turn: what was she going to do about the desire he ignited? Did she want to do something about it?

For all she knew, the man may well be in a committed relationship. A guy that sexy couldn’t possibly be single.

But then there was that little voice in her head that whispered: but what if he is single?

That thought caused equal parts rabid anxiety and excitement in her. Fear of being hurt again, of not measuring up and hearing her ex-husband’s voice telling her she was worthless. As well as excitement that maybe, just maybe, she might enjoy sex once more.

It all meant she’d had a rotten night’s sleep. Even Daisy had become exasperated with Phoebe’s tossing and turning and had gotten up off the bed to sleep on the floor beside it. On the bright side, her counters, kitchen table, and just about every square inch of space in her tiny place held baked goods fresh from the oven. Phoebe had been meaning to try out a few recipes she’d been kicking around in her brain.

She’d made croissants with a ribbon of dark chocolate through the center, cranberry orange muffins, cinnamon scones, and bacon, white cheddar, and egg muffins. She figured who better to test them out on than the guys working on the renovations? Men liked food. They appreciated it and usually didn’t turn it down.

And in her experience, if the food was sub-par, they tended to tell you. It was a win-win scenario for all parties involved.

Phoebe put each set into their own basket before carting each one over to the main house as she brewed coffee. She was going to load up a large coffee urn for the guys to drink from throughout the day. Plus, she was going to fill a water dispenser with fancy cucumber, lemon, and lime infused water. It was something she was considering adding near the reception desk.: an all-day refreshments station with coffee, hot tea, and fancy water.

Daisy followed Phoebe back and forth as she carted the food, then the coffee, and the water. She schlepped paper plates, napkins, and to go cups for the coffee and water, and erected an entire station in the kitchen where the crew could eat and drink, including trash cans for recyclables and refuse.

At ten after seven, the plantation’s front door creaked open. They were going to need to do something about those hinges and oil them up. The unmistakable heavy male stomp of work boots clomping over the hardwood floor made Daisy’s hackles rise.

“Easy, girl. It’s just the workers. You’re going to meet each one.”

Graham entered the kitchen first, looking sinful and imposing all in the same breath. He’d not shaved this morning and the dark stubble lining his square jaw caused tendrils of heat to wrap around Phoebe’s core. His hair was mussed, like he’d run his fingers through it, and made her wonder at the texture. His shirt was one of those muscle man ones, devoid of sleeves. Graham had the sexiest freaking arms. They were packed with muscle, sculpted and sinewy, power emanating from his broad shoulders to the tips of his roughhewn fingers. The white material complemented his tanned skin, and need pinged through her belly. His clear arctic gaze assessed her from head to foot, and she felt his look down to her toes. When he looked at her, he saw her more than anyone else ever had. And maybe he always had, even back in high school.

Those same eyes scanned the buffet she had erected behind her and a dark brow rose, his lips quirking at the corners. “What’s this?”

“I figured y’all might get hungry throughout the long day. These are recipes I’m toying with serving once the bed and breakfast is open for business. I would appreciate the input on the ones you like or not. There’s also fresh coffee and water as well.”

Graham ambled over until he was two feet from her. “That was very kind of you. I’m sure the boys will enjoy your cooking immensely. Phoebe, I would like to introduce my crew to you. These are Travis, Sean, Ronnie, and Dwight. Gentlemen, our newest hire has prepared us a virtual feast. And this here is Daisy,” he said, holding out a hand for Daisy to sniff.

Daisy had a razor-sharp intellect. Once she deemed Graham one of the people who were safe for her mistress, she licked his hand in friendship and earned a scratch behind her ears.

Daisy’s lip curled as the first man approached. He was a good six four and built like an oak tree, his mocha skin smooth and unlined. But it was his pale jade eyes and gregarious smile, like he was always laughing, that told Phoebe in two seconds flat he was one of the good ones. “I’m Travis, Miss Phoebe. It’s a pleasure to meet you and Daisy.”

She shook his outstretched hand and said to her pup, “Daisy, he’s a friend. They all are. If each of you would hold out your hand for her to sniff so she becomes familiar with your scent, then you are welcome to help yourselves before you get started.” Then, to Daisy, she murmured, “Don’t worry, girl, they’re friends.”

“I’m Sean, miss,” said a wiry man of indiscriminate age, with a shock of gray hair that stuck out at odd angles because he’d removed his battered navy ball cap in greeting.

She shook his hand. “Pleasure.”

The blond, bearded man introduced himself next. Ronnie had a bit of a beer belly just starting to show, creeping over his belt, but seemed nice enough. The last man in the entourage was Dwight. Tall, with a military grade buzz cut of his black hair, he seemed friendly and was the youngest in the bunch but carried himself with a stoicism that made him appear twice his age.

By the time they’d finished the introductions, Daisy relaxed her stance. After another swipe of her tongue over Graham’s hand, Daisy plodded over to the four men filling up paper plates with food, in search of a handout.

“You look tired,” Graham said at Phoebe’s side. He’d not left her to indulge in the feast but hovered over her throughout the introductions.

She sighed. Of course, he would be the one to notice the strain and lack of sleep on her face. There should be laws against it; that the person who gave you the sleepless night shouldn’t be allowed to detect it. Why couldn’t she hide from him? “I’m fine. I had a lot on my mind… the business and all.”

“Whatever help you need from me, you let me know,” Graham murmured.

“I’m fine,” she lied when she was anything but fine. Not when the help that she wanted from him that popped into her mind was of the naked variety.

Daisy plodded back to Phoebe’s side after she’d determined for herself that the men with Graham weren’t out to hurt her mistress, and weren’t going to toss any treats her way.

Graham’s crew mumbled groans of appreciation as they ate, with each of them going back for second helpings. After he’d plowed through the food on his plate, one of the workers tossed his empty plate in the recycle bin, ambled over and knelt at her feet. Sean was wiry, a good inch or two shorter than Phoebe, and his shirt hung off his bony shoulders making him seem even more diminutive.

He pulled his cap off his head and held it over his heart. “Miss, with cooking like that, I want to put my hat in the ring.”

Charmed despite herself, she asked, “The ring for what?”

“Why, to marry me of course! You cook like an angel and I would make sure you wanted for nothing.”

Her mouth dropped open. It took her a moment to recover from his unabashed question and the displeasure that rose up inside her at the thought of marriage. “While I’m flattered… um…”

“I understand, being as we don’t know one another. But it will be a standing offer. I would love to have someone cook for me like this every day,” Sean said with a wistful sigh as he rose and put his cap back on.

Phoebe appreciated the sentiment, even if it did make her uncomfortable.

“I’ll make you a deal, Sean. I might not be in the market for a husband, but I do need taste testers for all my recipes. While you are working on the remodel, I will provide you guys with breakfasts and lunches,” she offered as a compromise. Phoebe didn’t want to get married again. Ever. Not when it meant sacrificing her hard-fought independence.

“Boss, this is already the best job we’ve ever had. I second what Sean said and am only too happy to toss my hat in the ring for marriage,” Travis said with a deep smile full of satisfaction.

“And what would your wife say to that, Travis?” Graham commented with a sarcastic drawl.

“That I made a good choice, since my Lisa can burn water,” Travis said with a laugh and slap of his thigh at his own humor.

His facetious comment drew a round of raucous laughter. Phoebe relaxed her shoulders a bit. They were good men, much like their boss. Then again, Graham always had an eye for the hidden gems. And it was clear his crew were enjoying the impromptu meal she’d provided with relish and appreciation. It settled a portion of her anxiety about making a go of this place. She knew not everyone would like her cooking, but viewing their enjoyment was a thrilling feat.

“All right, knuckleheads, time to get to work. Ronnie and Dwight, you’re on roof duty. Sean and Travis, you’re to start on the third floor, ripping up and removing the last of the carpeting we didn’t get to yesterday. Once we’ve carted the remaining carpet out, I want to examine each board and test for rot or warping of any kind in every room. I’ll be up in a minute to help out,” Graham ordered in a firm, authoritative tone. It should be off-putting, his boss voice, but it had the opposite effect on Phoebe’s system. It made her weak-kneed and aroused.

Was it any wonder she was confused?

Her body said an emphatic yes, her head said hell no, and her heart whispered that maybe this time, her crush would like her back. Head case, party of one, ready to report to her padded cell for vacation.

The crew finished their coffee and last bite of whatever was left on their plates before filing out with murmured appreciation for the food.

When they were all out of earshot, Graham turned her way. “For feeding the crew and myself each day we are on the job, I will knock two hundred off my bill. Keep a tally and I’ll deduct the total amount off at the end.”

“That’s not necessary,” she blurted, then wanted to kick herself. Why was she turning down a discount? She calculated the math in her head. It would subtract thousands off her final bill. She was a moron for declining Graham’s offer.

“I say it is, and the costs will be subtracted. Not to worry, I will keep my own tally as well,” Graham said with the same domineering inflection, proving he was not just authoritative but stubborn as well.

She sputtered, her hackles rose, and she had her obstinate refusal on the tip of her tongue. She didn’t want handouts. But he leveled her protestations before they even left her mouth with a mere mulish glare.

“Phoebe, I won’t have you feeding five grown men twice a day, and not be paid at a minimum for your supplies.”

“But you’re helping me out, telling me which dishes you guys like and which ones not so much. I say it’s a fair trade,” she argued. Phoebe knew she was being a fool. She should just take the offer and not put up a fuss. It was generous on his part, and she was being a moron, she grasped that, but couldn’t seem to help herself—and found herself enjoying their verbal sparring. It spiked her blood and caused tingling awareness in her girly bits.

He obstinately crossed his arms over his wide chest. The muscles flexed and rippled against his shirt with the movement. His face resembled granite, except for the tick in his jaw. “Look, there’s not going to be an argument over this, at least not one you’re going to win. If you plan on feeding my crew twice a day, it’s coming off the cost of the remodel. That’s non-negotiable.”

She battled the urge to fight the edict. Over the past few years she had reclaimed her independence and her power. At times, she over compensated, like now, mainly because she never wanted to revert to owing someone for every morsel of food, every crumb of affection, every night that she was allowed to keep on living.

Graham did not budge from his stance, waiting her out with the patience of more than a mere saint. Stubbornness and testosterone oozed out his pores and filled the kitchen.

“Are we clear, Phoebe?”

She inhaled deeply, tamped down her fury and nodded sharply. “Yes. It’s not something you have to do, but I would be a fool to turn it down.”

A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. “Thought you would, so don’t. Besides, I won’t allow it.”

“You won’t allow…” She clenched her hands to keep herself from wringing his damn neck. “I don’t remember you being this stubborn in high school,” she muttered, not hiding her anger over his statement.

“And I don’t remember you being this ornery.” His eyes danced, making the crinkle lines at the corners prominent. She didn’t know why but those laugh lines were sexy as hell.

“Like you remember much about me. You virtually ignored me.” Phoebe rolled her eyes and grimaced internally. Why the hell had she said that? Did she want to discover he’d barely thought of her, let alone remembered their one kiss? Or have it confirmed that while she might have crushed hard on him all freshman year after their kiss, he’d never been interested?

It made her feel so inept, and like she had never left high school. Aargh!

“I remember more than you might think.” His gaze dropped to her lips. Air backed up in her lungs at the carnal glance. But then he pierced her with a stare, the truth naked in his eyes. “And it was nothing personal. There was a lot going on at the time and we were in friend groupings that were night and day. Plus, I was a senior and turned eighteen that winter.”

Did that mean he remembered the night of their one kiss? She wanted to ask him—needed to ask him, in fact, all but dying of curiosity. But the words, the question, stuck in her throat out of fear. The last thing Phoebe wanted was to have the most epic night of her young life ruined. Because what if that wasn’t what he remembered about her? What if he remembered her crippling shyness each time she tried to talk to him after that kiss, or that time she’d accidentally taken out the cheerleading pyramid during a basketball game?

She cleared her throat. “Be that as it may, high school was a long time ago.”

“It was, but that doesn’t diminish my memories of you. I’m going to grab some sample books out of my truck. I want you to look through them and start selecting your paint colors, fixtures, baseboards, and on down the list, including the plans for the room set up we discussed yesterday. With regards to moving the vanity out of the bathroom to free up more space, I have the mockup design for you to look at too.”

“That sounds like a plan. I have a folding table I can place in here with some chairs. I can sit in here and look through them. I have them in the storeroom. Let me grab those while you’re at your truck.”

“I can get that for you too,” Graham said.

She held up a hand, needing some space and to keep a measure of her independence. “I’m fine. I’m stronger than I look. Besides, once you are all gone, I will have to do most of this stuff on my own anyhow, until I can hire help.”

Plus, it was a good reminder for Phoebe that their interaction was temporary. In two months, by his estimates, the remodel would be done, and she doubted they would have any more reason to see each other.

He cast her an inscrutable look, studying her before nodding. “Fair enough. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Graham sauntered out of the kitchen without a backward glance. His long-legged stride carried him from the room, giving her a nice view of his taut backside. She sagged against the counter for support. A moment of weakness was all she would allow herself. The room was now barren without his presence, the overabundance of testosterone and the essence that was Graham suddenly gone.

What was it about Graham that fascinated her? Their shared past? His fantastic set of buns? She worried her bottom lip, thinking that their past was part of it, but not all. She wanted to touch his fire and see if it burned. The sucker punch of panic made her wish she had a paper bag to hyperventilate into.

Phoebe couldn’t want Graham. She couldn’t allow herself to open that door. It was like she was daring the universe for more heartache when she had experienced enough to last several lifetimes.

His imposing, powerful form was a force to be reckoned with, one that melted her internal engines. Her body yearned to erase the distance, feel that confidence and strength surrounding her.

With a muttered curse under her breath, she headed back beyond the butler’s pantry to the storage room and retrieved a white folding table. She carted the table into the kitchen and then made three more trips, hefting folding chairs. Giving in to her desire would be a disaster, and not just because she had to see him every day until the remodel was finished. Because he had not wanted her in high school. What would make her think anything had changed and he wanted her now?

Chapter 5

Graham stepped out into the sweltering heat and jogged down the porch steps to his truck. The boards creaked beneath his feet. They would need to check those too. He rubbed a hand over his stomach to quell his desire. Phoebe was such a fascinating mixture of brash independence and stark uncertainty, in a stunning package that tempted him beyond measure. He fought back the incessant need clawing at his gut while the hum of crickets and the flapping swoop of a cawing crow filled the air, and the humid breeze stirred nearby branches.

Riverland Plantation rested atop an abutment of lush river basin land that overlooked the mighty Mississippi River. Graham liked the quiet the plantation land provided. It was away from the tourist bustle of the city. It also made him worry about Phoebe. She was a single woman without anyone close by. The urge to protect her competed for dominance with his desire to see her naked.

He wished he understood what it was about her that called to him on such an elemental level. Then again, she had in high school too. But she’d been so young, and he’d turned eighteen that year, which had put her in the off-limits category as a minor. She was no longer a minor now, nor in the off-limits category. Mayhap that was it, that there were no longer restrictions and he might finally be able to satisfy his curiosity.

Deep down, he realized it was more than just simple curiosity. But he wasn’t ready to admit it, not even to himself.

Phoebe was being far too obstinate about him deducting the cost of feeding his crew regularly. There was no way he would allow her to feed five grown men twice a day and let the burden of the cost rest on her slim shoulders. His mom had raised him better than that—not to mention the Dom in him refused to allow a woman to be overburdened in caring for others.

It was sweet that Phoebe had offered. His crew certainly wouldn’t turn down the free meals, even if it was so that she could try out recipes. She doubted her abilities. He’d studied her as his crew lit into the impromptu breakfast buffet, watching the unexpected pleasure coloring her cheeks. The woman cooked like an absolute dream, and before the remodel job was finished, he would help her see that. When they’d entered the house, the mere scent of coffee wafting from the kitchen into the rest of the plantation had drawn him like he was attached by a cord.

He’d like to be bound to her, by a velvet cord, in a bed with no outside windows, and no interference from the outside world as they explored the depths of ecstasy.

It was peculiar. Phoebe was not the usual type which he leaned toward: busty sex kitten and ultra-submissive qualities. He liked his women bound, docile, with their thighs spread, mouth open, and ready to please.

Phoebe was the exact opposite. There wasn’t a docile bone in the woman’s killer body. Her smooth skin was untouched by makeup, her lean form was just shapely enough to outline the curves of her breasts and smooth lines of her hips. And her demeanor waffled between take no prisoners and a sweet desire to please.

Did that desire to please extend into the bedroom?

The thought of Phoebe kneeling before him in submission made him hard as a fucking rock. In his experience, a woman like Phoebe wouldn’t be able to handle his kink, which leaned toward highly erotic, and carnal. He wasn’t vanilla in the slightest. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t a closet submissive, and perhaps didn’t even realize it herself. There were hints of it in her demeanor; the desire to feed other people, sate their hunger, and the startled pleasure that had bloomed rosy in her cheeks when Sean had knelt and kiddingly proposed, followed by the flash of a sour grimace across her face at the marriage part.

Just how big an asshole was her ex-husband?

Her response had unearthed every Dom instinct inside him to protect her, and he’d just barely contained a snarl directed at Sean for even thinking he could encroach on what he already deemed was his. Which was beyond moronic.

Graham did not have fond memories of his ex-wife. Without a doubt, she had tainted the idea of marriage with her shenanigans. But she’d not left him fearful of intimacy, being with others, nor the institution itself. He knew plenty of happy couples. If anything, his marriage to Meredith had unleashed the last tethers restraining his Dominant tendencies. In many respects, he appreciated how she’d bungled their marriage with her infidelity because it had allowed him to become the Dom he was meant to be.

But with Phoebe, it broke his heart—the fear he spied in her when he’d introduced her to his crew. It had been there for a brief second in her emerald gaze before it was gone, but it had been there. Was it all men she feared? Or just new people?

He hadn’t missed that Daisy was her guard dog. It was in the way the pup waited for Phoebe to signal that it was okay to greet new people and Phoebe wasn’t being threatened. That settled the Dom in him, somewhat, that she had a measure of protection. But it didn’t provide him with full peace of mind. He hated that she was way out here all by herself. Far too much could happen without protection of some kind—more than what a German Shephard could possibly provide. A guard dog wouldn’t stop a bullet, or a group of gang members with mischief on their minds.

Nor was he settled regarding what actions he wanted to take concerning his attraction to Phoebe. Because he was attracted, much more than he was comfortable with, leaving him in the dark and searching for a light to guide him. For any submissive at his lifestyle club in downtown New Orleans—Club Underworld—he had a roadmap laid out. Granted, every submissive differed with their hard limits, and what rocketed them into sub space, but Graham knew how to draw even the most reluctant sub out from behind her shell.

But Phoebe? The woman was a mix of steel and softness. It left him floundering on the path forward. She was a challenge, and perhaps that was part of her allure. That, and his need as a Dom to heal the shadows in her eyes.

Graham hefted a stack of sample books. With those in hand, he headed back inside and discovered that Phoebe was not one for resting on her laurels. She’d already erected a long rectangular folding table and six chairs. He shook his head. She wanted to make sure his entire crew had a place to sit and eat their lunches. This project was going to spoil them rotten.

He laid the books on the table. “I want you to start going through these. Start with the paint samples, baseboards, and molding. Then you can move on to the vanities, sinks, shower stalls, and commodes.”

“Okay, I can do that. Have you eaten anything?”

He hadn’t indulged but had let his crew eat first. “Not yet.”

“Why don’t you sit. I can fix you a plate and cup of coffee.” She nodded toward one of the seats. But it was her act, her desire to serve him, that struck a chord. Perhaps she was submissive, and it would only take the right Dom to draw her out.

And damn it all but he wanted to be that Dom. Be the man who replaced the fear in her eyes with knee-buckling pleasure.

Desire unfurled in his chest, to be the one who showed her, tutored her in the art of submission, and be the first Dom she granted her submission to. Heady anticipation swirled inside him at the thought.

He had his answer. Seduction with a side of dominance, coming right up.

Graham studied her as she moved around the kitchen with its ramshackle army green cabinets that had seen better days and stove that was likely as old as he was, her movements graceful. She made two plates and brought them over: one for him and one for her. His was overflowing with mouthwatering options, while hers barely had enough on it to feed a bird.

Then she turned away and strode back over to the coffee urn. She had a delectable ass, perfectly formed. He wondered what it would look like with his handprint glowing red, or after a flogging, and shifted in his seat at his inconvenient erection. Fuck, he was like a damn teenager, thinking with his dick every two seconds in her presence.

He feared that even if he went to Club Underworld, none of the submissives would satisfy him. Phoebe filled two cups of coffee and carried them over.

Graham shifted his focus to the food before him—he had to, when all he wanted to do was shove everything off the table, lay her down before him, and feast on her cunt until she screamed his name. “This looks excellent. My crew and I are going to be spoiled by the time we finish the job here.”

A rosy flush entered her cheeks at the compliment. “I live to serve.”

They would see about that. He bit into one of the scones. Flavor exploded on his tongue and he moaned, the sound rattling deep in his chest. “It’s exceptional. Where did you learn how to cook? Did you go to school for it?”

“I’ve taken classes at local community colleges, and worked in kitchens in some form or another since high school. My mom was always big into baking. A lot of it comes from her, some of her recipes that she passed on to me that she got from her mom and so on. And I like watching cooking shows too. I find them soothing after a long day.”

“Ever think about doing one of those competition cooking shows?” If he was going to be eating like this regularly, he would have to add an extra fifteen minutes to his morning run.

She shook her head with a self-deprecating laugh. “No. I couldn’t handle the pressure. I like having my own kitchen and serving people based on my schedule. I plan on having breakfast ready from six until ten each day. That will give me time to prep and get all the baked goods made. I want to have a rotating menu every day. One morning, I will have eggs Florentine with roasted breakfast potatoes, fruit, and pastries. The next it will be scrambled eggs with sausage biscuits and gravy, fruit, and so on.”

“So there will be one thing they can have each morning?” That wasn’t unusual for a bed and breakfast. There had been one along the coast Graham and his family had stayed at for his sister’s wedding a few years back that had given guests only two options to choose from.

“To start with, until I can hire a waitress. Trying to cook and wait tables at the same time will be difficult. Same thing with lunches. Like today, I’m making roast beef sliders with horseradish, red potato salad, and a field green salad with what I hope will be the house dressing that perhaps one day I can sell.”

He swallowed a bite of fluffy egg muffin and wanted to whimper, it was so good. “You have a fascinating mind. It’s good that you’re looking to the future. If the rest of your meals are anything like this, I’d say you’re going to knock it out of the park.”

She looked at him over the rim of her coffee cup. “Thank you. I hope that’s the case. And which one of these are the paint samples, so I can get started?”

He moved a few around until he located the book he wanted and withdrew it from the pile. When he handed it over, his fingers brushed hers, on purpose this time, and he was rewarded with the familiar jolt of energy. Her gaze widened and she shivered, but she didn’t yank her hand away.