Craze by Anne Conley by Anne Conley - Read Online

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Craze - Anne Conley

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Even in the indie world, it truly does take a village to publish a book. I have so many people to thank, it’s impossible to remember them all, but I’m going to give it the old college try. I’ve never tried to thank everybody before, so bear with me …

First of all, my street team is amazing. I have collected a small but fiercely loyal group of men and women who are super quick to offer me words of encouragement, congratulations, and how-to whenever I need them. To Anne Conley’s Crew, thank you. You have become my friends, and I can never have too many of those.

My beta readers, who read this story in its infancy, especially Suzanne. Oh my God, Suzanne read this when I was first starting to write it and had no idea if it was reading right. Her words of encouragement and her suggestions to change the character’s name really took it in the right direction, I think (although I still like Gus, but whatevs). My beta team has been invaluable. I don’t think y’all realize how integral your part in my process is, and there are not enough words to thank you all sufficiently.

To my Badass Book Bitches, I wake up every morning and log in to read your words, jokes, bitching, and encouragement. I treasure all of it, even the silly memes. You’ve taught me so much about marketing and having the right skill set. Knowing you guys have my back all the time, and vice versa, has added another dimension to my career that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Tiffany, thank you for cleaning up my writing without changing the integrity of it. Thank you for helping me become a better writer instead of chopping my shit up. And thank you for becoming my friend in the process.

Deena, thank you for making my books pretty, making me laugh, and doing everything you do for me. You cannot believe how much I think about how lucky I was to meet you at the HAB, you wearing your little pink cowboy hat and peer pressuring me to take a picture with Jake Wilson (my husband still isn’t over that). I have never met a more badass woman with such a huge heart of gold, ever in my life. I’m pretty sure I never will. Beneath your rough exterior, you’re a huge, stuffed unicorn, spewing rainbows and fairy magic out of your butt. But don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I love you too much to tell anyone.

Vanessa, you’ve been with me longer than anyone, nearly since the beginning, and words can’t express my appreciation for your friendship. It truly is a gift that you’ve given me, and I thank you for letting me have your cell phone number so I can text you randomly. What started out as critiquing partners has morphed into something I hope lasts a lifetime. Can’t wait to actually meet you in NOLA.

To Chris, my Coast Guard inspiration, I appreciate all the questions you answered willingly, even eagerly. I’m sorry I lost my notebook and made you answer some of them twice, but you were a good sport. I think you only rolled your eyes at me once.

For Devon and Carlos, thanks so much for the awesome cover art, and to Samantha for branding it and making an amazing book cover.

To all the bloggers and reviewers who have spotlighted and reviewed my work, thank you. Without you guys working your butts off for the love of it, indie authors wouldn’t be a thing.

And finally, to the hub-meister, for making me a huge breakfast every morning, putting up with my mood swings, and basically being my everything. I love you so much it hurts sometimes, even when I don’t say it.

Chapter One

Click. Click.

So you’re going to shake your ta-tas like maracas tonight?

Ew … No. Krista was on her lunch break at the park near her office, talking to her sister, Karen, on the phone. Her sister, who had been married since she was fresh out of high school, thought Krista should be living large, enjoying her single status. In reality, Krista just worked. Like a dog. All. The. Time.

Oh, come on. I have to live vicariously through you. I’ve never been out dancing without Dan, Karen whined.

And that’s okay, Karen. You have a great family, why would you wish for something else? Honestly, Krista was a little envious of Karen’s situation. She lived in a beautiful house in San Antonio with her husband and son. They did all the things families were supposed to do: T-ball, photo Christmas cards, and church on Sundays. Of course, Krista thought Dan was perfect for Karen, but she would marry someone unlike Dan. The man Krista wanted wouldn’t be the straight-laced lawyer Dan was. She never had time to go out and meet people. Maybe tonight would be different.

Did I tell you I start a new class today? Cupcake decorating. Karen was always taking some kind of class to make herself a better person, whether it was scrapbooking, cooking, or Bible study. Krista forever found herself second-guessing her own choices in life when she talked to her sister. Karen had all the things Krista wanted for herself—a family, a nice house, and hobbies. Krista had a job which took all the time away from getting those things.

German Chocolate, please, Krista said with a laugh to hide her envy. Honestly, she’d wanted the career path, found a job she sort of liked, and was trying to make the best of her choices. That’s what she was attempting to convince herself, anyway.

Of course, Karen giggled back. Are you still coming in this weekend for Tate’s basketball game?

Yep. I should be there by noon. I’ll take everyone out for lunch before the game, if y’all want.

Mom and Dad are coming in Friday. Did I tell you they’re staying an entire month?

Lucky you, Krista said dryly.

Yeah, lucky me.

They commiserated together, but the truth was, they loved their parents, and again Krista was hit with a pang of jealousy. Her parents never, ever stayed that long with her, but she couldn’t blame them. Why would they want to stay with a single woman who worked sixty-hour work weeks and was never home?

Click. Click.

I gotta go. This sandwich isn’t going to eat itself, Krista said begrudgingly. I’ll see you Saturday?

Love you.

Love you, too.

After hanging up the phone, Krista took a bite out of her sandwich and watched the kids play on the playground. This was her sanctuary, of sorts. It was a reminder of what she wanted out of life someday. All the children were happily swarming playground equipment in their colorful clothes while being watched with one eagle-eye by moms whose other eye was on their cell phones.

Krista’s days spent in silence at her desk, going over numbers and columns, were broken up by her lunch hours of chaos where she watched the noisy kids play. It gave her warm fuzzies and reminded her there was more to life than work. Someday, I’ll have this, she told herself. Someday.

Usually, she enjoyed the order of number-crunching, but days like today she got a little melancholy, wanting more. More of what, she wasn’t sure. Just more. She wanted a family and a man who made her crazy. She wanted to feel the highs and lows of having a family to depend on, instead of just herself.

There was one dad out there, playing with his daughter, and Krista allowed herself the brief fantasy of ending up with a man like that—a man who would play with her kids, take them to the park, basketball practice, and Boy Scouts. One could only hope.

Chewing contentedly, her eyes rested on a bench across the park. A man sat there, looking completely out of place, messing around on his cell phone. She leaned back on the bench and settled in for some man watching.

Dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans with some sort of knit cap on his head, he didn’t fit in with the moms on the playground, nor the other business people stealing some chaos for their lunch break. Wide shoulders, slim hips, and rugged features were all put together to make an outstanding specimen of masculinity that would look more at home at a campfire than an inner city park.

She knew he had devastating blue eyes and dark-blond hair; he’d been here before on her lunch break. In fact, Krista had been watching him for nearly a month, on the days they shared the park. He’d even sort of flirted with her a couple of times, but she never knew what to do with the sly winks and cocky smiles he tossed at her on his way to the trash can.

She was staring at him when he looked up and caught her.

Snapping her gaze back to her lunch, Krista took another bite of sandwich and chewed hurriedly, realizing her lunch break was quickly disappearing.

Enjoying the weather before that cold snap comes in? a familiar voice interrupted her thoughts. Austin weather was usually warm this time of year, but September brought the beginning of autumn, and they were expecting cooler weather later in the week.

Her boss, Mr. Lowe, stood next to her. He sometimes spent lunch here, too, but they rarely acknowledged each other. She assumed he was here for the same thing she was. Maybe he missed his own kids because he worked so much and used the time to re-acquaint himself with the sound of children’s laughter. She didn’t even know if he had kids of his own. Maybe he wished for some of his own and that’s why he was here?

Yes, thanks, she shrugged. She didn’t really want to be rude, but chatting with her boss during the one hour a day out of the office wasn’t her idea of fun times.

Gesturing to the spot next to her, Mr. Lowe asked, Do you mind if I sit for a minute?

No, not at all. Krista scooted over a bit to make room for her boss, wondering what he wanted. Could she eat lunch without talking about work? He wasn’t a large man, but his belly was sizeable, probably due to the amount of takeout he ate.

You like kids? I see you here a lot.

Yeah, it’s just nice to get out of the quiet office and be around people a little bit each day. She regretted the words almost as soon as they left her mouth. They made her sound a little pathetic, like a loner. I mean, yes, I love kids, but I don’t have any yet. Not much better.

He smiled at her. I understand. I don’t see mine near enough. Well, that answered that question. He stretched out on the bench, and Krista ate more of her sandwich in awkward silence. You have a nephew, though, right? Do you get to see him much?

She nodded and chewed quickly to swallow her mouthful of food. Yes. In fact, I’m driving down to San Antonio to see him play in his first basketball game of the year this weekend.

What’s his name again?

Tate. He’s ten, and he’s an amazing little boy. I love him to death.

Well, I have a house on the river in San Marcos. You’re welcome to bring Tate out for a weekend sometime when he doesn’t have basketball. I’d love to have you two. Odd. He didn’t mention Tate’s parents coming, too, but she inferred it, whether he meant to or not. Come to think of it, he didn’t mention his own family, either.

That’s very nice of you. I’ll ask about it this weekend. She didn’t really want to spend a weekend with her boss and Tate, even though the house was probably really nice. All the houses on the river in San Marcos were show places, and Mr. Lowe had a shit-ton of money. But the invitation was weird—out of the blue like it was—and so personal. It creeped her out more than a little. She could understand a company retreat or something, but to just invite her and Tate? She stifled the shiver of unease creeping up her spine.

I’ll let you get back to your lunch. You’ll have those reports ready by Thursday? He stood to leave.

On your desk before I leave, she assured him. As he walked away, she let out a relieved breath. Mr. Lowe was a nice guy, but there was something odd about him. He was awkward during one-on-one conversations with her, and she never could really put her finger on why. His fascination with her nephew was odd, but it was probably just a socially awkward man’s attempt at making conversation. She preferred that idea to the other, less savory one.

Click. Click.

She went back to subtly watching the guy across the park and fantasizing about a camping trip with the rugged stranger. Maybe someday she would follow up his flirtations with a response of some kind.

Ryan sat on his bench, making a conscious effort to tame his dick. It wanted her. Bent over the park bench. Tits bouncing while she rode it. Pouty little mouth wrapped around it. It didn’t care how it got her, his dick needed her. But his head was vainly trying to tell his dick to chill the fuck out. She wasn’t his type. The lady he watched in the park was Classy. With a capital C.

He was relatively sure she wouldn’t respond well to his usual pick-up lines. Then again, she wasn’t his usual fare.

Dressed professionally in dress pants and a bright-green top, she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. A slim strand of pearls graced her neck, matched with a pair of pearl studs in her ears. Classy.

Out of his league. He could have her if he wanted, and he’d probably show her a side of herself she didn’t know existed. But in his experience, classy women like her were more trouble than they were worth. They expected phone calls and relationships. Hell, this woman probably deserved it. She looked like the type a man could fall for easily. She probably baked and shit.

She had a side to her that enjoyed the whimsy; he could tell by the brightly colored lunch bag she carried, which made him wonder if her day-to-day existence was as buttoned up as she looked. Her heels were sensible, but still a little flashy, with a rhinestone buckle on an ankle strap that fit her slim ankles beautifully. The heel wasn’t high, though, which spoke to a practical side of her.

He liked her in the skirts she wore, when she wore them. She had fantastic legs, and he caught himself mentally removing her dress pants, envisioning her stunning legs wearing the kitten heels with the ankle strap. It made him shift in his seat a little to alleviate the sudden semi he found himself sporting.

While she’d been on the phone, Ryan had watched her relaxed posture and her face when she laughed. It was positively beautiful. She had glossy brown hair, huge eyes, and when she laughed, her face broke open and spilled sunshine everywhere.

But when the suit had sat next to her, she’d stiffened up, offering tight-lipped, polite smiles and nothing else. She obviously knew him but didn’t feel as comfortable around him as she had on the phone. A protectiveness welled up in Ryan, and he almost laughed at himself. He didn’t know this woman, only knew he wouldn’t do anything with her. Besides, she was probably on the phone with a boyfriend. By the suit’s body language—turning himself toward her, opened up, eyebrows raised—he liked her. But it wasn’t a lusty like, if Ryan read his body language correctly. The suit didn’t want her in his bed, but he wanted her for something. That sent red flags waving for Ryan, and the protectiveness reared its head again.

The feelings were obviously not two-sided. She was uncomfortable around him, judging by her closed-off body language. She’d crossed her legs and hunched over a bit, as if cold, as soon as the man sat next to her. Ryan found himself leaning forward in his own seat across the park, studying them intently, waiting for the suit to do something, anything, that would warrant Ryan punching him in the face. But he didn’t. He eventually got up and left, relaxing the lady.

Ryan grumbled to himself, not really knowing if any of his extrapolations were true or not. He wouldn’t know unless he actually went over and talked to the woman, asked her if she was seeing someone, what she did for a living, all that. And that wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t have room for distractions in his life. Certainly not one like her. She was a classy lady, one who required attention, gifts, and love. Not like the easy women he typically saw, who only required sex, and lots of it. No phone calls. No relationships. Perfect for him, really. Ryan was too busy focusing on his new job.

His boss, Simon, was trying to make it work for him. After finding him working on pleasure boat engines at Lake Travis, Simon had offered him a partnership in a different sort of job, one Ryan had jumped at. He hated working with the rich people who boated on weekends and tourists who didn’t know how to use anything. And his boss had been a complete loon. He was of the opinion that structure was overrated. He made fun of Ryan for coming in at the same time every day, being organized, and lecturing boaters on safety. Ryan was about to quit when Simon came in, working a case for the police department, and offered him a job in his security and private investigation firm.

Ryan had quit the next day.

He’d had issues at first with finding things to do. The office manager, Miriam, helped him create a schedule for himself. Since then, he’d been better. In fact, she was the one who’d forced him to get out of the office at lunch time when he wasn’t on a job.

The man playing with his kid stole his attention for a while. Ryan wanted kids someday, and would like to think that’s the kind of dad he would be—the kind who got down and dirty with his kids at the park. Not like the parents who were checking email while their kids played.

He watched the lady pack up her thermos inside her insulated tote and used the opportunity to saunter over to the trash can next to her. Yeah, he had a trash can next to him, but he couldn’t resist the blush that rose to her cheeks when he winked at her.

Keep Classy Lady at a distance. Too bad his dick didn’t agree.

He didn’t have time for a woman like her, but that didn’t mean he was dead.

Chapter Two

Ryan’s heavy mix was blaring through the speakers, helping him tune out the ambient sounds of weights clanging and grunts in the air. The smell of sweat invaded his nose while he tried to clear his thoughts of last night’s failed attempts at getting some action. After watching the lady in the park, again, no one else sparked his interest. He had no idea what was going on. The women at the bar he’d been in had seriously banging bodies, but after buying a couple of them drinks, they opened their mouths, his interest had flagged, and he couldn’t bring himself to take them home. Had his interests changed that much?

The truth was, he’d paid for a lot of sex while he was in the Coast Guard. Prostitutes were cheap and easy in the tiny little islands he’d visited on his tours, and they certainly took the edge off. But he hadn’t paid for sex of any kind since coming home. He didn’t really need to. But did he want the relationship stuff? Did he no longer want cheap or easy? The thought didn’t sit well with him. He didn’t have time for more with his new job. They were all trying to get this business off the ground, and he didn’t have room for distractions.

A slamming noise jerked his attention to the door where Simon Pierce strode in, thunderclouds all over his face. He stormed over to the free weights, grabbed two, and headed over to the bench to start his bicep curls silently.

Good meeting, Sarge?

Ryan watched with satisfaction at the grimace marring his boss’s features. He knew Simon hated the moniker, but Ryan was ingrained to use it. Sometimes he called the man his preferred name, Pierce, but usually Sarge just slipped out.

We’re too expensive. Her words, not mine, his boss grunted out.

Shit. That came from Quinten Pierce in the corner at the bench press. Quinten was Simon’s brother, the tall, quiet one. Ryan had seen evidence he was freakishly smart, though. He had a penchant for fighting, too, entering underground fights occasionally. Ryan wanted to go watch one sometime.

Miriam came in quietly, arms full of fresh towels. Just bringing these in. Put your dirties in the hamper and I’ll take them home to wash tonight. I’m not picking them all up off the floor for you guys. You’re grown. Miriam, a.k.a. Mom, was their age—late twenties or early thirties. She kept quiet about her past, which was fine. Everybody in the room knew she was going through a nasty divorce, not that she ever talked about it, though. They all wanted to kick her ex’s ass for her. She was a sweetheart who took care of each and every one of them and deserved better than some asshole who didn’t appreciate her.

Ryan smirked at her as she made her way toward the door, Yes, ma’am.

I’ll go put on some fresh coffee for you guys. Then I’ll be dusting the copy machine. She winked as she left.

Evan, who spotted Quinten’s last set, whistled low, continuing on as if Miriam hadn’t walked in the door. "When are they going to realize we charge industry standard? They want to know if their beloved hubby is cheating? They have to pay for the knowledge. Especially if they want proof. And we’ve got to get some fucking work, give Miriam something to do besides dust shit and wash our damn clothes."

I hate to say I’m getting desperate. I almost told her to name her price. Simon’s voice was gravelly with anger. We’ve only got operating expenses for three more months. After that, we’re fucked if we don’t get a decent job.

Ryan looked around at the other men in the room. They’d set up the gym in the office for multiple purposes, but