Keno did a double take at the flower beds flanking the porch of the pink bungalow. Each had three rows of perfectly spaced pink flowers, as if someone had measured out exactly how far apart to plant them. The artist in him found the arrangement aesthetically disturbing.
Gripping his portfolio tighter, he rang the bell. Footsteps clacked inside, then stopped. The door opened, and a curvy blonde in a white sundress stood there. Pretty face. Very pretty. Her smile faded.
Chilly air escaped from the house along with a floral scent. He waited for her to say something, but her green eyes looked wide with fear, as if she thought he'd attack her or something. She inched behind the door, poised to shut herself inside on a moment's notice, no doubt. “Yes?”
Not like he'd never seen that reaction before. “I'm Keno Jensen.” When she didn't respond, he continued. “We spoke last night. Remember?”
Understanding sparked in her eyes. She nodded and swallowed. “Right. Forgive me. Barbie Turner.” She cleared her throat and offered a stiff hand.
He shook her hand and drew in a whiff of her perfume--lilac. Her skin felt cool but soft. When she didn't invite him in, he glanced past her into the house. Wood floors, pale pink walls, white wicker furniture. Typical, unimaginative Miami. He shifted from foot to foot.
Finally she got the hint. “Oh, come in. Please forgive my manners.” She stepped aside and dropped her hands to her sides.
He could hardly deny her beauty, but she radiated about as much warmth as the salmon fillet in his freezer. No problem to keep their relationship purely professional. Still, his gaze fell to her full breasts. A ponytail of flaxen waves spilled over her shoulder.
“Come this way.” She turned and led him through the house. Her well-rounded derriere called to him. He nearly crashed into her when she stopped, but caught himself at the last second.
She gestured toward an overstuffed sofa. “Make yourself comfortable.” Only she looked anything but. He'd always assumed writers were loose and laid-back, much like so many of his artist friends. But this woman couldn't be more stiffly buttoned up, as if she had a granite stick up her ass.
He sat and laid his portfolio on the glass-top coffee table. “I understand this will be your fourth book. Congratulations.”
Nodding curtly, she reached into a bookcase and withdrew two books. “Thank you. Michael, my former illustrator, and I just finished work on Honey Bunny's New Best Friend
.” She set the books on the table in front of him. “Feel free to look through those so you get a feel for the illustrations.”
He picked up the top one, Honey Bunny's Adventure
. The cover depicted a white rabbit with big, floppy ears and a mischievous grin.
“You think you can do that?” She sat on the edge of a chair and folded her hands on her lap. If he wanted to draw her portrait now, he'd make her a buxom blonde Scarlett O'Hara, complete with white gloves and overpulled corset.
None of my business. I'm here to work.
Flipping through the pages, he took note of each character and their surroundings. Yeah, he could improve on it, but he'd have to be consistent with the previous drawings. “No problem. Have you finished writing the next one?”
“Not quite. But Michael and I worked like that. I'd give him ten pages or so, and he'd sketch out a couple pictures, see if I liked them, you know.” She crossed her legs.
“Okay. However you want to do it.” He couldn't help but stare at her thighs, creamy and smooth.
She yanked the hem of her dress lower. “Where are you from?”
Most women commented on his accent, said they found it sexy or exotic. Most women seemed a lot friendlier than this one, though. Had he lost his touch? “You noticed my accent, huh? You like it? I'm from Trinidad.”
She merely shrugged. “I figured something like that.” Standing, she stretched her arms in front of her. “Can I get you a drink or something?”
“Later, perhaps.” He opened his portfolio and took out his sketch pad and a box of pencils. “Mind if I make a couple practice drawings of your rabbit?”
“Bunny.” She walked to a computer desk in the corner and riffled through a leather box of papers. “I have the first section of the book here. We can discuss my vision for the illustrations.”
Keno couldn't tear his gaze from her sexy curves. His jaw clenched as he forced himself to concentrate on drawing. Did she dislike him? Perhaps she had someone in her life, a romantic interest who dominated all her sensual energy. Why did that notion disturb him? He'd just met her. And he didn't
want her. Absolutely not!
Jeff's words swirled in his head. I know you're a love-'em-and-leave-'em kind of guy. Wouldn't be smart to play this one that way.
Best that she didn't succumb to his God-given charm. Yet the notion prickled his skin. He worked on the rabbit's nose, pressed the pencil too hard, and broke the point.
Barbie stood over him. “Something wrong?”
He gripped the pencil tightly and glanced up at her. “Not a thing.”
Pointing to his tablet, she shook her head. “Honey Bunny's ears are longer. And his eyes should be wider, more childlike.”
He took in her scent and held his breath. His pulse quickened. Setting his pad on the table, he stood. “I'll take that drink now.”
She gave him a curt nod and dropped a folder onto the coffee table. “Sure. Come on into the kitchen.”
He trailed behind her, close enough to feel her heat yet still sense the barbed-wire perimeter she'd erected around herself.
She led him to the kitchen, then opened the fridge and swept her arm through the air. “What would you like?”
His mouth fell open when he looked into her refrigerator. Cartons of low-fat yogurt lined the door. Half a dozen clear plastic containers of assorted fruits and vegetables were stacked on one shelf. He saw a bottle of diet soda and another of sugar-free sport drink. The remaining items sat in size order on another shelf. He'd never seen anything so neurotically organized.
“Just water, please.”
When she opened the freezer for ice, he glimpsed at least a dozen identical frozen meal boxes. Big red lettering proclaimed them low calorie and fat-free.
“Anything wrong?” She filled a glass from a jug on the counter.
He shook his head, but a pang of empathy jabbed at his insides. “You're quite...neat.” And diet obsessed.
That elicited a smile. “I find order comforting.”
This level of organization made his skin itch. But why couldn't he stop the erotic thoughts and visions that invaded his head? Visions of her naked and hungry. Squirming because her pussy was so wet. For him.
Forcing the picture from his mind, he took the glass she held out for him. “Thank you.”
He followed her back to the other room, his gaze never straying from her ass. She sat on the couch and picked up her folder from the table.
Inwardly grinning, he took a seat beside her, close enough that his thigh brushed against hers. “You going to read me a bedtime story?” He lifted an eyebrow.
She merely squinted at him and inched away. “You have
done this sort of work before, Mr. Jensen, haven't you?”
He sipped his water, then set it on a coaster. She might ask for another illustrator if she knew the truth. And he'd be out of a job. He squared his shoulders. “Of course. And call me Keno.” He straightened in the seat and listened to her read her story to him.
Barbie finished the last page she'd been writing, then glanced at Keno. He no longer frightened her, but a different kind of fear settled in her belly. The attraction she wished would go away lingered.
Yet nothing about him ought to attract her. She needed a man suitable to marry, one her grandfather would approve of, not a bohemian artist with long hair and a pierced nose. But Keno's exotic accent and handsome face drew her dangerously toward him. And his scent--like fresh-cut grass and coconut, exotic as a tropical breeze. His honey-colored eyes held a warm glint like the ocean on a sunny afternoon.
He picked up his sketch pad and tapped a pencil on it. “How do you feel about making Honey Bunny a little more lifelike, less cartoonish?”
She crinkled her nose. “Cartoonish? I'd hardly characterize Michael's drawings that way.” Who did he think he was, marching in here and insulting Michael's artwork? She folded her arms over her chest, wishing his insensitive suggestion had doused the simmering heat between her legs. Only it hadn't.
“Look.” He flipped a page and started drawing. In seconds he'd created a new face for Honey Bunny. But the eyes now sparkled with life, and he'd elongated the other features, giving the character a more realistic look.
Shaking her head, she huffed. “My books are for children. The animals have to appear harmless and fun. Realism doesn't figure in.”
He shrugged and tore out the page. “Your decision. Although I don't agree. Kids want to be able to relate to characters as heroes. They need heroes when their home life sucks.” His forehead creased. “Never mind.”
Had he suffered a bad childhood? Her heart squeezed. But she had a job to do. “Look, Keno. I know a lot about kids. When I started writing, I worked as a kindergarten teacher.”
His chuckle brought out dimples. “Forgive me. I noticed your dollhouse in the living room. I suppose one who plays with dolls knows much about being a child.”
She narrowed her gaze, trying to discern if he'd meant that condescendingly. His eyes sparkled like cinnamon sugar. And they held a confidence she found alarming. But she detected no malice in his expression.
“Tell me, why does your character go to church on Sundays? He's a forest creature, yes?”
She drew her legs up and sat akimbo. “Well, he's a forest creature who lives in a world like the children who read about him. Get it?”
“I thought you said realism didn't figure in.” A grin played on his lips. He had one of those mouths made for kissing. Straight white teeth and soft-looking lips. And she thought she'd seen a metallic glint on his tongue. What would it feel like to have a man with a pierced tongue lick her...
“Who's to say rabbits and skunks and chipmunks are Christians?” he went on. “Maybe they're Buddhists or Druids or Satanists.”
“Satanists!” She tried to concentrate on the conversation. He'd twisted her words, yet she found their banter more challenging than irritating. “I
say. And I created them.”
“Ah. That makes you their god. So they must be Barbians. Or perhaps Barbarians.” He threw her a playful wink.
She laughed, but the heat blooming inside her gave her pause. How could she be attracted to a man like him? A man who possessed none of the top ten qualities on her list of must-haves. Yet she couldn't deny the chemistry. Her pulse quickened with arousal, and her nipples hardened to needy pebbles.
Their eyes met and held. Keno's pencil slipped out of his hand and rolled toward her on the couch. She reached for it the instant he did, and their fingers touched, entwined. She tried to scare up a sense of propriety. They ought to be working, not flirting. But all her thoughts about collaboration had nothing to do with creating a book. More like creating a raging fire of passion.
She'd never experienced such an instant infatuation for any man. Particularly not for someone so not her type. Her libido seemed to have a mind of its own. She parted her lips and drew a steadying breath. Desire quickened her blood.
Think about something else. Anything else!
She yanked her hand away from his. “Work,” she said aloud. “We should concentrate on working.”
“Isn't that what we're doing?” His brow knitted.
Had she misread his signals? Projected her own wanton thoughts onto him? Heat crawled up her face. “Of course it is.” Her chuckle sounded forced even to her own ears.
He smirked. “We were discussing your rabbit's religious affiliation.”
No, she hadn't imagined the chemistry between them, but now he was playing her. Waiting for her to make a move.
I am not attracted to him!
She fisted her hands and leveled an angry stare at him. “Honey Bunny has no particular religious affiliation. He's just...you know, normal.”
He rested his head on his chin. “Would that be normal like me? Or normal like you?”
She bristled. “You know what I mean. Like an average American.” Why was he giving her so much shit about this?
“I am American. For your information, my father is a native Floridian. I came to live with him as a teenager. My mother is from Trinidad.”
She noticed that wince again at the mention of his mother, the slightest crack in his arrogant facade.
“My father is an average American. A white man. Who goes to church. And has a son like me. So, normal or average is not always as it appears.” He started drawing.
Her head spun from their conversation. She pinched the bridge of her nose, warding off a headache.
Keno held a sketch toward her. He'd drawn Honey Bunny with a ring through his nose and long braids.
“Very funny.” She tried not to laugh, but when she saw the amusement on his face, she gave in to it.
His eyes sparkled with warmth. He set a hand casually on her knee, igniting a new flare of desire. She inhaled his enticing scent again and leaned toward him, powerless to resist. Her gaze settled on those lips, and she had to taste them.
His hand slid higher up her leg, and a quiver of excitement danced up her spine. He circled his other hand around her head and pulled her even closer. She drew in the breath he released. Her heart beat with a pounding intensity. Nothing existed but the two of them and their impending kiss.
The shrill ring of the phone shattered the moment. Alarm bucked through her. She reared back and shot off the couch.
What did I almost do?
Thank God for the interruption. Must have been divine intervention. She raced toward the desk, then cleared her throat before picking up. “Hello?”
She spun around so Keno wouldn't see her face. “Hi, Grandpa.”
Definitely divine intervention. She couldn't possibly get involved with someone like Keno when what she needed was a husband. “Is everything okay?”
“Fine, fine. Except...”
All the moisture disappeared from her mouth, and her chest tightened. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
“Nothing to worry about. My dermatologist wants to cut out a little growth on my ear. I think she's only doing it because she has the hots for me.”
Her stomach fluttered. “Maybe I ought to fly out there.”
“Nonsense. You'll do no such thing. I shouldn't even have told you, except I had to change my plans.”
She crossed her fingers. Postponing his trip meant she'd have more time to find Mr. Right. “Oh?”
“Yes. I'll be coming a week earlier. Darned doctor can't get me in until the twenty-eighth. Same day I was supposed to be on a plane headed to Miami.”
Her throat closed. She gasped for air. “A week earlier?” she choked out.
“Hope that's okay. I'll be there a week from Thursday.”
She glanced at the desk calendar beside the phone. That only gave her twelve days to find a fiance.
“You're not too busy then, are you?”
“Good, good. Because I've already changed my ticket. Shysters charged me fifty bucks to do it. And this ticket is nonrefundable.”
Her head pounded furiously. She glanced at Keno as he sketched. “That's fine, Grandpa. I'll talk to you in a few days.” She hung up and sucked in a steadying breath. She had to squash this attraction immediately. Time was running out. Facing Keno, she pasted a smile on her face. “Would you mind if we called it quits for today? I have a killer headache.” She rubbed her forehead, hoping he'd make a quick exit. She didn't trust herself to be near him another minute.
He hesitated a moment, then shrugged. “Anything you say, dear lady.”
She'd be stronger tomorrow. After a cool shower and some time on an Internet dating site, she'd surely be able to resist Keno's charms.
If not, she was in deep, deep trouble.