LOVE ME TENDER
Zebra Bouquet
ISBN 0821763504
October 1999

The City Girl

It is with mixed emotions that Eden Karr has decided to leave her exciting career as a New York City fashion editor behind. Determined to raise her unborn twins alone in a wholesome community, she's moved to small-town Texas and opened a clothing boutique. Her new surroundings are a far cry from the glamorous life she misses, and she can'thelp but feel she's made a mistake. That is, until sexy carpenter Jace Morgan strides into her store.

The Country Boy

Jace's years as a big city architect had denied him the family and peace he'd always longed for. One look at beautiful Eden, and he knew he'd found the woman who could fulfill all of his dreams. The trouble is, she's still yearning for New York and his roots are now firmly planted in Texas Hill Country. Somehow, he's got to show Eden that life here with him could be rich and full, and that the growing love they share is strong enough to keep them living happily ever after ... wherever they are.

 

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BOOKLIST

The Comfort of Favorite Things - Bliss and the Art of Forever - The Sweetness of Honey - Beneath the Patchwork Moon - Boots Under Her Bed - A Blue Christmas/Jingle Bell Rock(Digital Edition) - Unforgettable - The Second Chance Café - Unbreakable - Undeniable - Holiday Kisses/This Time Next Year - Twenty-One Hours/SEAL of My Dreams - At His Mercy - Playing Love's Odds (Digital Edition) - Love Me Tender (Digital Edition) - Love In Bloom - (Digital Edition) - The Icing On The Cake - With Extreme Pleasure - One Good Man - No Limits - A Long, Hard Ride - Maximum Exposure - Kiss & Tell - Deep Trouble - In Danger - At Risk - Tex Appeal - The Perfect Stranger - Beyond A Shadow - Infatuation - The Complete Idiot's Guide To Writing Erotic Romance - Deep Breath - Goes Down Easy - Red Letter Nights - Totally Charmed - Kiss & Makeup - Undressed - Larger Than Life - Sara Smiles/Beach Blanket Bad Boys - The McKenzie Artifact - The Beach Alibi - The Samms Agenda - The Shaughnessey Accord - The Bane Affair - Mother, Please! - Indiscreet - Wicked Games - A Blue Christmas/Jingle Bell Rock - Striptease - The Sweetest Taboo - Bound To Happen - No Strings Attached - Roped Into Romance - All Tied Up - Love In Bloom - Four Men & A Lady - Love Me Tender - The Badge And The Baby - The Grinch Makes Good - The Heartbreak Kid - Call Me - Playing Love's Odds

Jace didn't come for chili that night, and though he arrived in a standoffish mood at daybreak, he didn't refuse Eden's offer of scrambled eggs and biscuits. Two nights later he stayed for a hurried meal of stuffed baked potatoes and picked up a dozen kolaches from Molly's the morning after.

The routine continued through the weekend. But Jace never looked at her again the way he'd looked at her in the doorway of his shed. After spending the past six days with the man, Eden felt they were more in tune than many married couples.

Still, nothing she'd learned went deeper than the surface. Since that one brief confrontation, Jace had deflected her every effort to pry. What she knew was to pass the cream for his coffee; he, never to butter her toast.

She knew more, as well. That he'd want a quart of iced tea by three, then nothing but beer with supper. And since lunch wasn't her best time of day, he managed to have an extra sandwich in his lunchbox, even when he didn't eat.

When she slipped her shoes off her swollen feet one afternoon, he teased her about her size eight Jumbo the Elephants. And her woman's intuition told her he wore an extra large--in everything.

Monday morning she woke late with a headache, a backache and a heartache that defied explanation. Broody and bloated from head to toe, she wanted to stay in bed and wallow in her misery. Even better, to soak in a tub of apricot-scented bubbles, eat a pan of butter brownies and reread her favorite romance novel.

Unfit company for man, beast or even herself, she slipped into a huge shapeless T-shirt dress and padded barefoot to the kitchen for a muffin and tea. Why had she thought relocating and changing careers had been a smart move?

And why in the world did she think she'd be a good mother? She couldn't even take care of herself. How was she supposed to take care of a business and a family when she couldn't get beyond the need for a good cry?

It was an eat-a-worm day all around.

So, when Jace knocked on her kitchen door at ten, she purposefully kept her outward reaction to one of surprise, even though deep inside she welcomed him home. The screen door creaked as she pulled it open. "I hate you, you know."

Two steps brought him up her stairs and into her kitchen. Three more took him the width of the room. Arms crossed over his chest, he leaned back against the refrigerator and gave her that sexy Jace Morgan grin. "Good morning to you, too."

Prying her gaze from the suede tunic sheathing his wide shoulders, Eden swallowed hard and pushed the door shut behind her. "What I mean is, do you never take a day off? No one who puts in the hours you do has a right to look so . . ." Gorgeous, her brain supplied, ". . . rested," she forced herself to say.

Jace shrugged, stretching the fabric even tighter. "I don't take many days off. Not scheduled anyway."

"What do you mean?" She stacked her hands on the door behind her and leaned back, her protruding stomach protruding even more.

Jace's gaze slid away. He ran one finger over the porcelain knob of the cabinet door beside him. "I work at my own pace. I don't punch a clock. When I'm tired, I stop. It's that simple."

"So, what are you doing here today? You're certainly not dressed for work."

"I have a delivery to make in Farmersville." He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "But I was hoping we could do some business first."

Eden pushed off the door, determined to finish her breakfast dishes, equally determined to ignore the way Jace Morgan filled her kitchen. And the way she felt less blue when he was around. "I don't know, Morgan. I can't afford to do much more business with you."

"It'll only cost you time."

She turned, soap suds clinging to her hands. "Time?"

"Yep. It's called bartering."

"What could I possibly have to barter with that would interest you?" she asked, then wished she hadn't. His heated look flared between them, wordlessly answering her question. Finally, he turned. The back seam of his shirt gaped open, revealing taut muscles and smooth skin.

Too much skin to Eden's way of thinking. With unsteady hands, she rinsed her tea cup and pulled the stopper from the drain. "Bartering, huh? Like, in exchange for my services as a seamstress, you'll knock a couple bucks off your estimate to redo my kitchen?"

Lifting the cheesecloth covering the basket on her stove, Jace helped himself to a cinnamon roll. "If that's what you want."

What she wanted right now was best not put into words. She watched the final swirl of bubbles vanish down the drain, wiped down the lip of the sink and dried her hands. "No. What I want is to ride into Farmersville with you. I've got an order to pick up at Calico Corners."

He looked up, half the roll in his mouth. "That's it?"

"C'mon, Jace. Ten minutes of my time isn't worth much more than a ride." She tossed the towel on the countertop.

"Sounds like a helluva deal to me."

"Then let's take a look at the damage."

Jace licked cinnamon glaze from his fingers, braced his palms on a chair back and bent at an angle that gave Eden a clear, close view of his back. Her fingers trembled for no good reason. At least none she allowed herself to consider.

Skimming the buckskin with a light touch, she tested the strength of the seam's worn edges. Heat from Jace's skin breathed over her hands, a seductive invitation to slip her fingers inside the shirt.

She closed her eyes. The scent of leather and man seeped into her loneliness. Then Benjamin kicked, reminding her not to be stupid again and she backed a step away. "Fabric looks tough enough. I think the thread just gave up the ghost."

Jace glanced back. "So, can you fix it?"

"Sure."

"Now?"

"Now?" she repeated.

He nodded. "The bed of my truck's loaded. I need to get over to Farmersville before it rains." The sunlight shining through her kitchen window dimmed on cue.

"I don't think I have time to drive home and change." When she only stared, he went on to say, "I can go like this if you don't have time."

Eden shook off her trance. How bad could it actually be to have Jace undress in her house? She'd seen him shirtless just last week. Then they'd been outdoors, with acres of breathing room. Now they were in her house. Alone. With gloomy skies increasing the intimacy.

"I have time," she assured him, then held out her hand and held her breath. He slipped out of the shirt and, before she allowed herself more than the briefest glimpse of male belly dusted with black hair, she headed for her workroom.

His moccasins whispered over the hardwood floor behind her, the sound a gentle coaxing of her senses, a sweet song to her ears. She felt his presence like a wildness inside her. His shirt grew warm in her hands.

Shoving back the curtained partition, she tossed the shirt on her sewing table, gestured for Jace to sit in the rattan side chair and headed for the cherry cupboard in the corner.

The top drawer held hundreds of spools of thread and, in her state of klutz and nerves and hormonal melancholy, she nearly toppled the contents to the floor.

Especially when she sensed Jace move to the window behind her. Eyes closed, she took a small backwards step his direction, close enough to indulge herself in the warmth of his bare skin, the scent of naked man and the subtle need to be near another human being.

It was crazy, this weakness shifting through her. Crazy. Insane. A gut awareness she hadn't counted on. She'd never expected to come up against a man who'd make her want this way again.

Be honest, Eden. A man who makes you want in a way you've never wanted before.

"How far away is the rain?" she asked, hating the way her voice shook.

"Storm's coming from the west. It won't hit for another hour."

His voice wrapped around her, safety and security rolled up into one. The intensity of her desire deepened. Oh God, she didn't need this. Taking a deep breath, she slammed the thread drawer in punctuation.

"Great. Give me ten minutes and you're on your way." Ten minutes was no time. Her mood would probably swing again in the next five. She grabbed her glasses from her sewing basket and settled in the chair.

"There's hot tea and more cinnamon rolls in the kitchen if you'd like to wait in there," she offered, hoping he'd accept.

"No, thanks." The window seat cushion rustled beneath his weight. "I like this room."

Rust-colored thread aimed through the eye of the needle, Eden adjusted the machine's tension and reached for her pin cushion. "It's my favorite room in the house." She aligned the edges of the shirt seam. "Well, besides the bathroom. The clawfoot tub upstairs is big enough to swim in."

"There was a room with a window seat like this in the house I grew up in. It was supposed to be a formal sort of living area, but nothing about my family was formal.

"My sister and I had a lot of friends and the room ended up being a hang-out." The latch clicked and Jace up pushed the window. The old wood frame creaked and groaned in protest.

"Problem was, my mother tossed so many pillow onto the window seat that no one could sit there. We ended up sprawled everywhere else, though. Sofa, chairs, floor, coffee table," he said with a laugh.

"Sounds like my kind of room. And my kind of family," Eden ventured, wondering more than she should have--and for no logical reason--about what Jace had been like as a child. If he saw his family often.

And why he'd traded a life teeming with friends for the one he lived alone. "Do you miss that? Having friends around all the time?"

Silence filled the room. Leaves whispered and swished against the window screen. Tires rolled over the joints in the road, a synchronized click to the tick of clock. The window seat groaned beneath Jace's shifting weight. And Eden waited.

"Yeah. I do," he finally said but said no more and his tone left no room for questions.

As curious as she was, Eden knew when to leave well enough alone. She'd pry again another time. Flipping off the machine, she stashed her glasses back in her sewing basket. "Let's see if this is going to hold," she said, then made the mistake of looking his way.

Jace lounged like a man who made a living at it. His moccasin clad feet, crossed at the ankles, extended a foot off the seat. His legs filled his jeans with symmetrical perfection. A braided belt of leather and turquoise circled his waist.

The thumbs he'd hooked through his beltloops tugged at his waistband, drawing her gaze to the whorl of hair growing low on his belly. And to his zipper, and the pure male magic outlined beneath.

She caught her breath.

He turned his head. His glance snagged hers and pulled.

A gust of breeze kicked the clouds across the sky and sunlight bathed the room. Jace rolled to his feet and Eden's gaze searched out what she couldn't get enough of. Corded muscle and skin kissed copper by the sun. The breadth of his chest amazed her, especially as his belly below was sleek and spare. His build was that of a hard-working man.

Soft spring breezes brought wisteria, jasmine and honeysuckle inside. Jace's hair ruffled at his neck. His scent reached her, too. She drowned in the smells and accepted the truth. The man in Jace beckoned the woman in her.

"Here." She handed him the shirt.

"Thanks." He took it from her and pulled it on.

She clenched her hands. The need to touch him sizzled in the tips of her fingers, screamed in the hollow of her heart. His hair caught in the neckline of the tunic. Desire won out over reason. She reached up to free the strands.

Black satin slid over her fingers. The stubble on his jaw grazed her wrist. She touched his cheek, ignoring the sirens in her mind. Wrong or right, this connection mattered more than her next breath.

Jace's eyes grew sleepy, seductive. He mirrored her action, his palm rough against her cheek. So easy. So natural. So simple to move the one short step into his arms.

Thunder rumbled low. The sky darkened, breaking the spell. As much as she longed to do otherwise, She moved back. "Sounds like your hour's been cut short."

Jace seemed indecisive, hesitant even, like what had just passed between them had confused him as much as it had her. Like he couldn't put a name to the thick tension in the room without calling it what neither of them wanted. Involvement, attraction, the beginning of attachment.

Lightning flashed. Jace blinked, stepped back. "We'd better get going. Water damaged furniture isn't likely to bring the price I have hanging on those pieces."

If they were going now, she needed to get dressed. She headed for the stairs. "What pieces are you delivering today?"

"I've got a shaker table and six chairs. Plus, the cradle."

Eden stopped on the first step. The cradle? He was selling the cradle? Of course he was selling the cradle. This was business, after all. Still she didn't think she could bear to see that particular piece sold. Why, she couldn't say. But since when did hormones think with logic?

Turning, she pressed her fists against the small of her back. "On second thought Jace, I don't think I'm up to the trip. Maybe you could stop by and pick up my order?"

He frowned. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah. Let me get the list." They walked into the shop. Eden grabbed the slip of paper and handed it to Jace. "Marian can double check the items, but she should have them ready. You don't have to stop by on your way back. Just bring them over tomorrow." She pulled open the front door but didn't step out.

"If you're sure."

She nodded.

"Okay. Thanks." Jace jogged to his truck, climbed into the cab and was off with a wave.

Eden gripped the door. She watched the Ford as it turned from Main onto Highway 37. Then she went back inside to spend the rest of her day feeling sorry for herself.

It was definitely an eat-a-worm day.