A Love You So Anthology (#2)Opposites really do attract in this collection of contemporary romance novellas
Love You So Special
Plumber Artie Haynes doesn’t seem like much on the surface—he’s just an average-looking blue-collar guy. But to world-famous classical pianist Francois Desmarais, Artie’s presence is as intriguing as it is inspiring. Only when Francois’s debilitating fear of crowds leads him into danger, Artie must step up and protect the music—and the man—he loves.
Love You So Sweetly
Remy Merced is fighting to save his wealthy family’s company when his meddling mama hires him an assistant he doesn’t want–and who is everything Remy isn’t. Cute Harper Treadwell from rural Arkansas is openly gay, and his wit and charm could confirm Remy’s suspicions about his own sexuality. But before he can forge a future with Harper, Remy will have to come to terms with his own past.
Available in Paperback
Published October 25, 2019
Paperback (ISBN 978-1-64405-569-4)
Cover Artist: Reese Dante
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Available in Paperback
Excerpt from Love You So Special
Francois pointed to a door farther down the hall, and Artie strode there feeling the heat of Madame’s stare between his shoulder blades. He opened the door for Francois, and they both stepped into the subdued lighting of the offstage area. The sounds of voices and feet moving around filtered through the heavy curtain that separated the stage from the audience as people moved back to their seats after the intermission. A huge black piano stood in the middle of the stage.
Artie totally got why this was scary. Giant numbers of eyes would be staring up at Francois as he tried to play, some of them admiring, some bored, maybe even some pissed-off. Francois said everyone knew he was gay. What if somebody in that mass of people hated gay men? Shit, what if they decided to make some statement?
Francois’s whole body trembled. Artie tightened his hand on that tense arm.
Shit, take a breath. Stop freaking yourself out. Remember why you’re here. “Have you ever considered asking for a white piano?”
Francois frowned. “What?”
“You know, like shiny white? We could get you a sequined suit.”
His expression went from outraged to amused. “Uh, you were thinking I should play ‘Pinball Wizard’?”
“Nah. ‘Bennie and the Jets.’”
His teeth were now showing. “I’ve got it. ‘The Bitch is Back.’”
Artie laughed. “There you go. That’s my boy. Give ’em hell.”
His smile faded, but he didn’t look scared. “I like being your boy.” He leaned forward, pecked Artie on the lips, then grinned. “That was for luck.” Chuckling, he turned and strode onto the big bare stage just as the curtains slid apart and the place burst into an ocean of yells, applause, and enthusiasm.
Francois never faced the audience or bowed. Maybe people wondered why he walked in from the back of the piano and crossed around to the keyboard, but he didn’t look awkward. He just slid onto the piano bench, looked up at Artie—and winked.
Before Artie even stopped vibrating, music poured from the piano, and Artie didn’t care if he never thought again. All he wanted to do was feel. He thrust out a hand until he felt a wall, staggered toward it, and leaned. Hold me up. The music flowed through him like a shot of bourbon with a beer chaser and a mouthful of Francois’s champagne. Wow, what would it be like to be able to create that? Francois’s brain must be full of music all the time.
The piano looped and soared, raising Artie’s heart into his throat, then dropping it to his belly. Francois’s eyes were mostly closed, but every now and then he’d open them and gaze at Artie. Then a hint of a smile would turn his lips as his eyelids drifted shut again.
No one but Francois could sound like that. He was sure of that. Artie might not be an expert, but he’d listened to a lot of other piano players on YouTube since he’d started working for Madame, and to his mind, Francois was the best.
He slowly let his breath slide out between his lips and lolled his head against the wall. Man, I’d settle for just hearing that music every day forever.
His head snapped up. Holy shit, do I really feel that way? He stared hard at Francois’s spectacular face framed by the impossible-to-control pale blond hair like a wacky halo. The guy was weird, temperamental, and about as obviously gay as anybody since Elton John. Just showing up somewhere with him could blow Artie’s whole fucking cover. But looking at that face made his cock do some kind of happy dance, just when he’d been thinking he wasn’t much of a dancer.
Maybe I’ve got to break down and tell him I’m gay.
Like he’d heard Artie’s thoughts, Francois’s eyes opened. For a moment he looked dreamy; then he cocked his head and broke out in the one full-wattage smile he’d shown the whole night.
Artie fell back a step as if he’d been hit with a laser beam, and his perfectly tailored trousers felt like his too-tight jeans.
The music built and soared. Francois’s stare barely left Artie’s face, and Artie wanted to run across the stage, slide over the piano, and kiss Francois—among other things. As Francois crashed to the end, he might have puckered his lips at Artie—or maybe Artie imagined it.
Their eyes clung as the audience went apeshit. Whereas they’d been enthusiastic when he walked in, clapping and cheering loudly, this time they practically rose to NFL proportions, cheering along with the applause.
Then the miracle happened. Francois rose from the piano, his chest expanded with what had to be a huge breath—and he turned to the audience and bowed.
Excerpt from Love You So Sweetly
“MR. MERCED. Remy. Wake up.”
Remy Merced blinked, gasped, snapped his head up, and slammed into something hard that yelled.
Remy clapped a hand against his head and looked up sideways at Eartha, his administrative assistant. Make that his long-suffering admin. She was rubbing her chin where he’d obviously smacked her.
He grinned. When in doubt, use the dimples. “I’m so sorry.”
She stepped back from his desk. “This is where I left you last night at seven thirty. I’m making the assumption that you haven’t moved.”
He ran a hand over his stubbly chin, then wiped at his eyes. “I’m sure I moved in there somewhere.” Although his bladder pretty much agreed with her evaluation. “What time’s my first appointment?”
She placed some papers on his desk. “Eight fifteen with the executive from Tesla.”
He stood. His back didn’t like being slouched over a desk all night, but he tried to look normal so he didn’t reinforce Eartha’s opinion of his idiocy. “I better get into the bathroom and clean up.”
“I’ll get you something to eat.”
He started toward his executive washroom.
Eartha turned. “Remy, I know your family’s famous for hard work, but aren’t there some benefits to being rich? Bring in a damned couch. You’re so busy being egalitarian, you forget you’re the boss. At least build a pillow into the edge of your desk.”
He snorted as she marched out, but he looked around his office, a biggish room with a utilitarian desk, a conference table, and a couple guest chairs surrounded by glass walls so he didn’t seem to be cutting himself off from his employees. Funny how it never seemed to be his office exactly. Not a single picture, flower, or memento.
But then, this never quite felt like his life.
Wiping sleep from his eyes, he headed toward the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, he’d showered, shaved, and changed his shirt. He slapped a little aftershave on his sensitive, under-rested skin and sighed. He might be twenty-six, but he felt fifty-six and was starting to look it. Deep shadows under the eyes and a worry crease between his brows didn’t complement what the press called his boyish looks. These days his blue-gray eyes looked purple from all the lack-of-sleep redness.
With a shrug, he slid his coat back on and ran fingers through his damp waves, which he kept longer than business protocol might dictate—mostly because he didn’t have time to get it cut.
The upcoming meeting was important since it might hold the key to their future transportation needs, but then every meeting these days was critical to some decision or other. And every decision might—or might not—save the corporate ass of Merced Enterprises.
He pushed open the door of his office to a side view of long, curvy legs in black, high-heeled boots. Remy grinned. “Hi, Mama.”
Anastasia Merced stood and widened her arms. “Hi, darlin’.”
He hugged her and got a kiss on the cheek. His mama was officially retired as the CEO of Merced Enterprises, having left the running of the retail division to Remy’s brother, John Jack, and the technology group, which Remy had founded four years before when he was twenty-two, totally in his hands. She remained chairperson of the board and all-around meddler. Of course, she was brilliant and inspired, so it was tough to take offense.
A tray sat on his desk with some soft-boiled eggs and toast, and the steaming cup of coffee drew him like a lasso.
His mama waved toward it. “Eat, eat.”
“Thanks, Mama. I’ve got a meeting in half an hour.” He sat, picked up the cup, inhaled deeply, then set it back down and poured in a stream of cream. By the time he was done, the cup was full of a hot, white, viscous liquid.
“No responsible person could still call that coffee, Remy.”
He took a sip and closed his eyes. “I know, Mama. But it keeps me going.” He sighed contentedly, took another sip, then set it down in favor of eating his eggs that Eartha had flavored with VegiSal just to his taste. Between bites, he said, “To what do I owe, etcetera?”
“First, remember you have dinner with the family tonight.” She sighed. “Including Felicity.”
His frown must have showed because she said, “You’re the one who tells me Felicity is the girl for you, not the other way around, darlin’.”
“I wouldn’t miss it, Mama.” He took another bite.
She smiled. “That’s my boy.”
“You said first was coming to dinner. What’s second?” He took another fortifying sip of white coffee.
“You know that assistant I keep telling you that you require?”
He released a long, exasperated breath. “Mama, I haven’t got time—”
She held up a hand. “I know, I know. Too overworked to hire the assistant that might help you be less overworked.”
“Exactly. Even interviewing the candidates the agency sends over’s time consuming. I’ll do it when things calm down.”
He ran a hand over his face.
She said, “Don’t worry about it, darlin’. I know you haven’t got time.”
He widened his eyes. Thank God.
She beamed at him, her bright lipstick showing a sharp contrast against her straight, white teeth—one of the first things she’d bought, she liked to tell people, when she and Remy’s dad started to make money. The few photos of Anastasia’s early life showed her with crooked teeth, neglected due to poverty.
Anastasia said, “I know you haven’t got time, so I hired him for you.”
“What?” Somewhere he’d lost the thread of this conversation.
She stood, tall, curvy, and perfectly dressed even if her slightly big hair and slightly over-bright makeup still reflected her Southern roots. “I hired your assistant. He starts tomorrow.”
Remy jumped up. “Wait. Just wait.” His sleep-deprived brain wasn’t quite up to the challenge. “I certainly didn’t neglect to hire an assistant because I wanted you to do it for me.”
“I’m aware. But I had this opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it by. My dear friend Nora Mae Treadwell called me to tell me her son has completed his schooling and is seeking a position in Southern California. I immediately thought of you and your desperate need for help. I offered the job on the spot.”
He shook his head. None of this was registering. “So you didn’t actually talk to her son?”
“No, but Nora Mae’s one of my oldest friends. An amazing woman. I’m sure her son is equally lovely.”
“Mama, I can’t hire someone I’ve never even met.”
“Of course you can. Family’s family, darlin’. I offered for him to stay with me, but she said he’s already fixed for lodging.”
“Where’s he coming from?” He was scared to hear the answer.
“Arkansas, of course.”
“Mama.” He flopped back in his seat. “I love you, and I want to help a friend of yours, but I haven’t got the bandwidth to babysit some misplaced—” He caught his breath and bit his tongue just in time before he inserted the word hillbilly or bumpkin. “—kid who’s away from home and out of his depth. Seriously.”
His mama narrowed her very intelligent eyes. “Remy, I didn’t raise you to become a West Coast snob. You’ll give this boy a chance to help you, and you’ll do it with a smile.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He might have lived in California since he was ten, but some traditions went way back to the Ozarks.
She gave him a pat on the cheek. “I know the pressure you’re under, Remy, and I know what it means if you fail. You need to accept help—from me and from this young man. It’ll be great. Wait and see.” She walked to the door and then suddenly turned. “By the way, his name’s Harper Treadwell.” She smiled. “See you tonight.”
She left as Remy tried to shake images of apple blossoms and cornbread out of his head.
ON AUTOPILOT, Remy turned his Prius into the seaside community where his mama’s home commanded as beautiful a location as crowded Southern California afforded, even to the very rich. His brain was crammed—with worry at seeing John Jack, his brother, and not having a clear solution to their online ordering problem, with exhaustion from plain lack of sleep, and with a strange thread of dread at seeing Felicity.
Shit, what’s wrong with this picture?
He wheeled up to the gate, pushed the remote, and drove onto the property. Waving at Federico, his mom’s chauffeur and all-around car guy, he parked on the circular drive in front of the three-story, traditional home, then slid out of the car, mounted the big porch, and let himself in with his key.
Nigel, his mama’s butler, met him at the door.
“Hey, Nigel.” Mama loved that little Annie Merced had a butler named Nigel. As with everyone, she treated him like a member of the family.
“Good evening, Remy. They’re in the great room.” He smiled. “I understand you’ve been working far too hard.”
Remy gave him a look. “Mama’s blabbing.”
“Well, when your mother talks about overwork, we know it’s serious, right?”
Nigel had a point. Nobody worked harder than Mama. “Message received.” He grinned, tried to let it reach his eyes, and walked toward the voices.
In the great room, John Jack hung out on the couch with Trudy, his beautiful wife who worked for ClearWater Foundation. Mama occupied her favorite chair.
Remy gave his mama a kiss on the cheek, then crossed to do the same with Trudy and shake hands with his brother. Remy smiled. “You two’re looking well. The second honeymoon must have been just the rest you needed.”
Trudy returned his smile with extra amperage. “We had a great time. You’ve got to visit Charleston, Remy. It’s wonderful.” She squeezed John Jack’s hand, and he returned it.
Remy made an effort to smile politely at the suggestion. “Thanks, dear, but Southern California’s about all the South I really need.”
His mama frowned slightly, and Remy winced. Should keep my opinions to myself. But it was good to see his brother and Trudy looking so happy. For a few years there, John Jack had been drinking too much and treating Trudy like a trophy he’d won playing golf. Then their mama had made a huge donation to the ClearWater Foundation and suggested Trudy as an employee to Ben Shane, the head of the charity. Trudy had thrived, and John Jack started seeing her with new eyes. As his appreciation rose, his alcohol consumption lowered. The “new” John Jack had been a serious improvement in both the marriage and the company.
Remy poured himself a glass of sauvignon blanc from the bar cart and looked up at the female voice coming from the entry. A minute later, Felicity Worksman walked in wearing her usual dark suit and high heels. “Hi, all, I’m so sorry I’m late. One of my clients started freaking out over a hedge-fund deal her late husband got them into.” She fanned a hand in front of her pretty but superserious face. “It was ugly.”
Remy walked over, kissed her cheek, and handed her the wine he’d just poured.
She smiled. “My hero.” Eyes closed, she took an appreciative gulp.
Remy chuckled and went to get himself another glass.
Trudy said, “Felicity, I don’t want to make you work, but before you settle in, I’d sure like some quick advice on the best short-term investments for some of our ClearWater donations.”
Mama said, “I’d like to hear that too.”
Felicity was a stockbroker and nearly as talented as she was driven. Everyone said she was Remy’s perfect girlfriend, and he had to agree it was a great match since she worked equally hard and always understood when he broke a date or got calls at dinner. Of course, that meant they didn’t see each other much. Occasionally, he wished he cared more.
Trudy and Mama led Felicity to the far end of the big room to talk, and John Jack waggled a finger at Remy. Remy swallowed his stress with a sip of wine and sat next to his brother on the couch.
John Jack said, “Any luck?”
Remy nodded, then shook his head. “Kind of. We can develop the technology to do the ordering and you’ve got the stores, so all the elements are there. But there’s something missing.” He blew out his breath, long and slow.
John Jack nodded. “Don’t beat yourself up. Nobody’s been able to really crack the grocery home-delivery nut. People like to see their food up close.”
Remy ran a hand through his hair. He’d heard that argument a bunch of times. “But we know that back in the forties and even fifties, people used to have groceries delivered from their local mom-and-pop store. It worked.”
“Different time. Everybody didn’t have two cars to get to one of four or five supermarkets in their town.”
The crease pressed in between Remy’s eyebrows. “You know better than me that those stores are struggling, and a lot of them are almost dead. Times are changing, and people need a better way.” He swallowed a too-big gulp of wine and coughed.
John Jack patted his back. “Hey, ease up. MercedMart’s losing some of its profitability, but Merced Technologies is thriving, right?”
“Yeah, but the main source of the company’s revenue is still the stores. We employ thousands of people who are out of work every time we close a location.” His voice rose with stress.
John Jack’s hand closed on Remy’s arm and his frown matched Remy’s. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. Every store I shut about gives me a heart attack, but we’ve got to face reality, Remy. Retail’s changed, and it may never change back.”
Remy closed his hand over John Jack’s. “I know. That’s why I believe there has to be a way to get people to buy groceries online. It’s the future. It must be.”
He stared into his brother’s eyes for another second. John Jack got it. He knew all the downside of closing their retail stores. He was great at running stuff, but he wasn’t a visionary. Remy’s dad had drilled that into Remy’s young head before he died. “Your brother’s smart but not the same way you are. You see the future, Remy.” God, those words had propelled Remy through college and drove him every day. If someone was going to come up with an idea to save MercedMart and the tens of thousands of hard-working people who depended on it, it was going to have to be Remy. That’s why he worked all night—and why he had a twenty-four-hour-a-day sick stomach.
His mama waved a hand from across the room. “We’re settin’ a bad example over here. You two quit working, and we’ll quit. Let’s eat.”
Felicity waited by the entrance to the dining room, and Remy gave her another quick kiss. “Tough day?”
She nodded. “You too?”
“Let’s get some dinner.”
They sat side by side and let his mama lead the conversation. Mama grinned. “I ordered a couple special things for us all tonight.”
Nigel and their cook, Florence, started serving the meal, and clearly Mama’d outdone herself in the ordering department.
Remy glanced at Felicity as rare roast beef, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, potato salad, corn nuggets, and purple-hull peas arrived on the table. With each dish, the crease between Felicity’s eyebrows got deeper. Risking a quick look at Mama, she whispered to Remy, “What is this?”
Trudy beamed. “Oh boy, some of that great potato salad.”
Felicity shot Remy another glare as she flashed a phony smile toward Trudy and John Jack, who were scooping food onto their plates. Trudy passed a platter of roast beef toward Felicity and froze. “Oh dear, you don’t eat red meat do you?”
“Uh, no.” Her small teeth gleamed as she stretched her smile overlarge.
Mama paused in the process of slathering her mashed potatoes with butter. “Right. I remembered. That’s why I asked Florence to make the chicken.” She returned to her buttering as Felicity’s lips became even tighter.
Remy whispered, “Take off the skin.” He held out the patter.
Felicity’s snort had a pugnacious quality, but she extracted a breast from the platter and placed it gingerly on her plate.
Remy crooked a finger at Nigel, who hurried over. Remy softly asked for some sliced tomatoes for Felicity. As for himself, he knew a rock and a hard place when he got squeezed by one. Every scoop of carbs would get a sneer from Felicity, but his mama would clearly watch to be sure he took a bit of each of her special dishes. Truthfully, it wasn’t a real decision. Felicity could be stern, but Mama was a Southern grand dame when she wanted to be, to say nothing of being his boss. She won.
He helped himself to potato salad and dug into his fried chicken. Most of his meals tended to be sandwiches at his desk or restaurant dinners carefully overseen by Felicity, the no-red-meat, keto fanatic. He might not love Southern cooking, but fried chicken was Mason Dixon neutral and it tasted good. He added some mashed potatoes, another universal food, to his meal and took a couple of the tomatoes that Nigel brought to Felicity. She flashed him disapproving glances, but he mostly ignored her and even ate some of the chocolate ice cream his mama served with her Arkansas Possum pie.
Finally, the meal was over, and he got to stop watching Felicity try to excise every millimeter of fried crust from the chicken and nibble tentatively on the resulting denuded meat.
They carried their coffee into the great room. Remy poured in his usual quart of cream. At least Felicity didn’t give him crap about that. He sat on the couch, and she settled beside him. Leaning in, she murmured, “Can we go soon?”
Trudy and John Jack both walked in then, so he didn’t reply. Instead, he examined his weird feelings. Felicity had come in her own car, so asking if they could go probably meant she expected to spend the night with him at his house—or maybe her house since she hated his—with good reason. He should be excited about that. Right? Sex with your girlfriend was something every red-blooded American boy wanted. Right?
But damn, he was so tired. If I’m going to stay awake, I’d rather work. If I’m going anywhere near a bed, it ought to be to catch a few hours of z’s.
But he and Felicity hadn’t had sex in weeks. Shouldn’t he have a set of horns that would put Dasher, Dancer, and Prancer to shame? Hell, he was in his twenties. Even if he was sleepwalking, shouldn’t he be ready to stick his cock in anything female that passed within five feet of him? Wasn’t that the way most guys felt? Shit, these questions haunted the back of his brain all the time while the front worried about the business. And it wasn’t like he didn’t know why it worried him.
He sipped coffee and glanced at John Jack, who was smiling at his wife with open lust. It’d be nice to have somebody he trusted to tell him straight if he was undersexed or asexual, or…. He sighed softly. But he and John Jack didn’t have that kind of relationship. John Jack was seven years older and was more a product of Arkansas than California. He put a lot of store in “being a man,” and Remy was scared of what John Jack would say if Remy tried to get personal. Remy worked all the time, so everyone he knew was associated with the company, and since Remy was the boss, who the hell was he going to tell his troubles to?
His mama’s voice came from the direction of the kitchen, telling Nigel she’d like some more ice cream.
Felicity turned to Remy and leaned in. “I’m going to make my excuses. I’m too tired.” She put a hand on his arm. “Sorry, dear.” She kissed his cheek, rose, said a fast goodbye to Trudy and John Jack, and was gone before Mama even made it into the room.
Remy had a pretty good idea he shouldn’t be smiling.
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