Authors: Violet Sparks
Tags: #Christian Books & Bibles, #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Mystery & Suspense, #Military, #Religious & Inspirational Fiction, #Religion & Spirituality, #Christian Fiction, #Inspirational
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written consent of the copyright holder. This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Although some locations and businesses named may be real, any events involving them are fictional.
Violet Sparks pulls from her career in corporate America, her time at a major auction house, and her love of all things
when penning her romance novels. She won writing contests as a teen and always dreamed of becoming an author. A fan of the arts, Violet created one-of-a-kind gift items, sold in shops throughout Southern California, before raising a family. She met and married the man of her dreams and they now have two young children. Violet has a zeal for vintage costume jewelry, literature, museums, and travel. She writes a blog about her other passions under a pen name.
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Table of Contents
Ireland adjusted her borrowed dress, glancing at herself in the mirror. She'd never had more than hand-me-downs or thrift store bargains, and this garment didn't resemble anything she'd ever worn before. At first, she frowned, feeling she had no business in such elegant attire. Surely, people would realize she was an imposter and didn't belong at such an event. Her self-confidence plummeted, and she tried to come up with plausible excuses to avoid her commitments, all to no avail. She couldn't leave her employer hanging.
Her new boss, Katrina Crimshaw, had been more than generous. She and Katrina, or Kate as some called her, had become friends almost as soon as she started working as the blogger's assistant. Instead of an office, they worked out of Kate's apartment, and she enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. When Kate came to her in tears, Ireland readily agreed to step in at the last minute and replace a missing bridesmaid in her employer's wedding. She never dreamed the gesture would lead to her mandatory attendance at numerous other wedding-related celebrations, and she felt like a fish out of water. Her superior happily provided her with the appropriate clothing needed for the bridal shower and rehearsal.
Ireland ran her hand over the sleeve, admiring the fine, sheer fabric. The mint green netting covering her arms and neckline amplified the color of her eyes. A similar shaded lining, hitting straight across the bust and falling to the hemline, kept the piece of clothing modest. Except for a hint of tulle peeking from the bottom of the short gown and a set-in waist, the dress had no embellishments. Katrina allowed her to alter the garment, and now it fit like a glove, flattering Ireland's figure.
She ignored the red handkerchief that covered her hair—a leftover from the afternoon's housework. As a personal assistant, she did everything from helping to assemble photos for a blog to household chores. Answering phones, carting clothing to and from the dry cleaners, tracking correspondence, and banking also fell to her.
"Landi, while I'm out, try on the dress for the rehearsal dinner and choose a pair of shoes to wear. I'll be back late, so lock up when you leave—no need to wait around for me," her boss had said.
She pulled off her canvas tennis shoes and slipped on a pair of nude, high-heeled pumps, completing the outfit. She tottered in front of the mirror and couldn't decide if the discomfort of the shoes was worth the increase in height. A telephone ringing startled her, and she jumped. It sounded like the land line near the front door. A conscientious worker, she made a dash from the bedroom, concentrating on not falling in her three-inch heels. She trotted through the small galley kitchen and rounded the corner to the living room. A scream caught in her throat, as if she were being strangled, just as she smashed into an intruder.
Rick found me.
Landi hit the large man hard, at full speed, shattering the sense of security she'd found. She shut her eyes at the force of impact. It felt as though she'd slammed into a cement wall. As she'd always heard about the moment just before one's life ended, her entire existence flashed across her mind. She saw her first day of school near the desert town of Cadiz, one of her earliest memories, and Rick sitting next to her on the bus ride home, befriending her. She witnessed her foster dad, Bill, oxygen tank in tow, and Momma Hatti, as she insisted upon being called, conspiring in their mobile home. Then, she observed herself as a girl of twelve, dressed in clam diggers, tumbling down a rock pile, scraping her hands and bruising her knees. She glimpsed report cards, excellent grades, and the praises of her teachers. She caught sight of Rick, becoming possessive and demanding, his personality growing dark with disappointments, and her flight to Los Angeles in the middle of the night, catching a bus to freedom at Needles.
A twisting of bodies, entangling of limbs, and a hard landing on the floor followed, the breath knocked from her lungs. A rock hard weight pressed down on her torso, pinning her to the floor, and pain spread across the back of her head, like blood spilling into her skull. She felt as though she'd been hit with a sledge hammer. Still, she felt no fingers around her throat, no hand squeezing her windpipe shut.
Ireland opened her eyes and tried to suck oxygen into her empty lungs. At first, nothing happened, and she began to panic as if she were drowning. After several agonizing seconds, she gasped for breath, producing a wheezing sound. Relief swept over her as much-needed air filled her chest. The man on top of her had blonde hair and blue eyes. Had the dark-haired Rick sent someone to punish her?
He looked at her with an avid curiosity, even amazement, then scrunched his lids closed, shaking his head as if he couldn't believe what he saw. When he opened his eyes, his expression of bewilderment remained. Instinct told the girl this person, this man, had nothing to do with her old boyfriend.
She felt every muscle in her body relax as he propped himself on his elbows, relieving pressure from her chest and allowing her to breathe more freely. He pinned her wrists above her head with one of his large hands and pulled the handkerchief from her head with the other. Landi's chest heaved as she inhaled much-needed oxygen.
His jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide as a mass of red ringlets tumbled about her face. She watched the bluest eyes she'd ever seen return to their normal shape as the man regained his composure. Standing, he pulled her from the floor with a gentle tug. His warm smile began to put the girl at ease.
"Sorry. That's quite a way to meet, isn't it? My name is James, and you are?" he said, his voice filled with lightness and friendship as he held both her hands in one of his.
She shrank from him. Katrina had warned her about Jim Crimshaw. The corners of his mouth twitched downward, and his eyebrows knit together before he recovered himself and flashed her a brilliant smile.
"I believe my sister lives here. Where is Kate, anyway?" he said, cheerfully, glancing about the apartment. "Kate!" he yelled, heading toward the bedroom when the girl didn’t answer.
The tiny apartment was shaped like a shoe box and divided in half lengthwise between a living room and kitchen, with an eating area shared by both on the far end. The entrance to the bedroom and master bath came at the back of the galley kitchen. She watched as he grabbed the jamb and leaned forward, popping his head into his sister's bedroom. His frame filled the doorway, and she couldn't help but notice his powerful legs and the muscles that rippled across his back just beneath his tight T-shirt.
"Now, Landi, my brother is set to arrive any day. He's a wonderful sibling and all around nice guy, but he's on the rebound right now, and I don't want you to take anything he says or does too seriously. James is a bit of a ladies' man, so just keep that in mind. He's got a penchant for dating my friends and leaving broken hearts in his wake." Katrina's words echoed in Ireland's mind as she began to tremble.
She felt the nerves that went along with a close call and couldn't control her shaking—being trapped alone with an attractive ladies' man didn't help. James's presence seemed to fill the apartment, leaving little room for her own. Moments before, she believed her life was about to end. Now, she sank into a kitchen chair and covered her face with her palms, fighting back tears.
"Uhm, Uhm. Katrina doesn't seem to be here. May I ask who you are and how you came to be in my sister's apartment?" he inquired, his tone as gentle as if he were addressing a young child.
Ireland sniffled but didn't move or say a word. She could not control the emotional release she felt as her tears began to fall. She heard the metal legs of a kitchen chair scuff against the tile floor as James pulled out a seat and plopped down next to her. She'd have to scrub those black marks off the floor later. His knee brushed hers, and since she didn’t pull away, he allowed it to remain in contact with the girl. She felt a calloused hand lightly touch her own, then pry each finger from her face until he exposed half of her countenance. Her cheeks wet, she looked at his features with vision blurred by tears.
He had a kind face, but a hard mouth that could not be trusted. She guessed he grinned often, without meaning it. His true smile came from his blue eyes—those, you could trust. They held the clarity of a serious man, someone with a purpose to fulfill. Laugh lines spoke of his sense of humor and ability to enjoy life. A square, clean-shaven jaw clenched tight with a stress she did not understand. His broad chest and shoulders spoke of height, and his large biceps meant he stayed in good shape. The nostrils of his masculine nose flared as he scrutinized her features. Closely trimmed, thick, golden blonde hair crowned his head. He resembled a movie star except for the small scar above his right eye.
He wiped a tear from her cheek with the fleshy part of his thumb before pulling her remaining hand free of her face. Ireland felt like melting. James had no idea what effect his gentle touch had on the affection starved girl.
"I must have given you quite a fright. I'm terribly sorry. Let's start over," he said, taking one of her hands in his.
"I'm—I'm Landi," she volunteered between sniffles. "I work for your sister."
"Do you have a last name, Landi?" he asked in a soothing tone.
The girl nodded but said nothing. James prodded her on by raising his brows and dipping his chin. Her gaze locked on his cerulean eyes, and she found herself powerless to look away. She'd never seen a man this handsome, so close up.
"My full name is Ireland Lincoln. But people call me Landi. Your sister hired me as her personal assistant. I'm here most afternoons. She asked me to take Kelly's place in the wedding, so that's why I'm dressed like this." The words tumbled from her mouth at an amazing rate as she glanced down at her party dress.
His masculine presence and proximity unnerved her, and she feared he might think she'd been snooping, or worse, stealing his sister's clothes. Maybe he'd seen Katrina wearing the outfit on some previous occasion and wondered why she had it on now.
"Kelly's loss is my gain," he mumbled under his breath.
"Oh, nothing." He moved his head with quick, small jerks as if rousing himself from a daydream. "Do you know when Katrina will be back?"
"Late. She told me to lock up and go home when I finish my duties."
"Can I help with anything?" he asked, looking around.
She took the opportunity to catch a glimpse of his profile. The faintest frown line ran from one corner of his mouth to his large, square mandible. She'd hate to witness the grimace that caused that crease. A pulse throbbed prominently where his neck met the back of his jawline.
"No. All I had left to do was trying on this dress for the rehearsal next week."
"Well, I just drove all the way from Texas," he fibbed. "I’m hungry. How about I take you out to dinner, since Katrina's not around?"
Ireland bit her lip. She felt sure that having dinner with the boss's playboy brother would be the wrong thing to do. As she hesitated, his expression changed to that of a puppy dog. She took the bait.
"All right. Just give me a chance to change out of this dress, okay?"
"Of course," he said, flashing her a grin that sent electricity up and down her spine.
James stared after the girl as she walked to the bedroom. She had an unusual quality he'd never encountered. He intended to learn more about her.