BEAU BRADEN GUIDED his rental truck around ruts and wild brush on the road that led to the Sterling House, a rustic inn located in the Colorado Mountains. He planned to spend the next four weeks shoring things up at the inn as a favor to his relatives Hal and Josh Braden. The umbrella of trees thickened, and sunlight splashed through in fits and spurts, eventually disappearing altogether, creating a tunnel-like expanse. It was like driving into a scene from Where the Wild Things Are. Beau had delayed his arrival for months, waiting to escape his hometown until the ghosts of his past came back to haunt, as they did every year at this time. It had been years since Sterling House had functioned as an inn, and the owner, Charlotte Sterling, didn’t seem to mind the delay, though she’d taken forever to respond to phone calls, texts, and emails.He didn’t know much about her, other than that she was a writer. Given the overgrown road, he was beginning to wonder if she actually lived there or if he’d have the place to himself.
He didn’t care if he had to live among grizzlies. The job had gotten him the hell out of Pleasant Hill, Maryland.
The tree-bound tunnel birthed him into a virtual paradise. Beau stepped on the brakes at the top of a long driveway, taking in acres of sprawling meadows and picturesque mountains. Trees dotted the landscape, so vibrant and full they looked painted in place. At the end of the driveway, three stunning stories of glass, stone, and cedar overlooked a heart-shaped lake, with breathtaking views in all directions. Grand terraces adorned the structure like open-ended invitations, filled with possibilities.
He coasted down the empty driveway, thinking he might actually have the luxurious inn to himself after all. Perfect. There was a time when he’d thought his small hometown was the perfect mix of city life and rural surroundings. That had gone to hell in a handbasket a long time ago. But this? This was nirvana. Plenty of work, no family around to suffocate him, no dodging the haunted looks in friends’ eyes. And four weeks from now he’d be on his way to Los Angeles for a job far away from the skeletons of his past.
As he stepped from the truck, he pulled out his phone and glanced at the waiting text messages from his family. He wasn’t surprised to see several from Jillian and Jax, his younger twin siblings, the most emotional of them all. Each of his five younger siblings were different, ranging from the meticulous and thorough Graham, to too-macho-for-his-own-good Nick and wildcat Zev. As the oldest, Beau had always been the one to take care of his siblings, but this time of year they hovered—or rather swarmed—with well-meaning words and offers of distraction. He loved them, but nothing could take away his guilt for causing Tory Raznick to lose her life.
He pulled up Charlotte’s text and read the cryptic instructions as he grabbed his bags. Come whenever. I’ll have a room ready for you. My wing is downstairs to the left. I’ll be in my office. Knock first. She’d added a winking emoji, making him wonder what kind of woman she was that she couldn’t arrange whatever was going on behind closed doors around his arrival. Not that he was a saint, but self-control was not an issue.
He rang the doorbell, and when it went unanswered, he tried the door. Surprised to find it unlocked, he pushed it open and then tried the doorbell again, listening for the chime. Answered with silence, he mentally added it to his list of repairs and stepped inside the spacious mansion. He noticed a stairwell leading downstairs just off to his right and set his bags on the floor, taking a moment to get his bearings. Expansive stone and glass walls, exposed-beam ceilings, iron and antler chandeliers, and a beautiful stone fireplace added a wealth of character. His footfalls broke the silence as he walked by a study and dining room, both adorned in rich, dark wood. He admired a redcarpeted staircase leading up to the second floor. The ornate balusters had lost their shine, and he made a mental note to bring them back to life. He crossed the room and gazed out the doors to the terrace, trying the knob. Unlocked. It was easy to imagine the inn bustling with activity, children playing in the wildflowers while their parents mingled nearby. He meandered into the enormous kitchen, which was definitely in need of some TLC. Another unlocked door led to a terrace overlooking the rear of the property. He stepped outside and shook the railing, which was already on the list of repairs his relatives had given him.
Alone in such a peaceful location with nothing to do but the work he loved most?
Oh yeah, this is nirvana all right.
He headed inside, locking the door behind him. He’d have to remember to speak with Charlotte about security. He went back to the main entrance and headed downstairs to see if she had left him a note. He was surprised to hear hushed noises coming from down the hall. He lifted his hand to knock on what he assumed was her office door, hesitating as the sounds grew louder, clearer. The sounds of passion slipped through the crack in the door. The kind of noises that made a man’s cock weep.
Beau cursed under his breath as he remembered her warning. Knock first.
He’d left his dog—and constant companion—Bandit, at home for this? This was not what he’d signed up for.
He rubbed the knot at the base of his neck and decided, Fuck it. He was doing this work for his relatives, and he wasn’t going to let them down. It was a big inn. He could probably get away with avoiding Charlotte the entire time. Hell, given her untimely replies to his messages, she might not even notice he was there for a while.
He headed back the way he’d come to unload his truck and get things in order.
The door flew open behind him. “Damn it, Chris!” A petite brunette stormed out wearing a man’s dress shirt rolled up at the cuffs. It hung so low, he had no idea if she had anything else on. Her tousled mane bounced over her shoulders as she stormed toward him in bare feet. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes a mesmerizing mix of greens and browns, brighter than he’d expected after the lustful sounds he’d heard coming from behind that door. She had a rosebud of a mouth, small and so sweetly bowed he had a hard time looking away from it.
Those perfect lips blossomed into a radiant smile as she said, “Beau?” as happily as she’d been angry when she’d first stormed into the hall.
He was staring at her mouth, but his brain was too focused on what she had—or didn’t have—on under that shirt to say anything more than,“Yeah.”
“I’m Charlotte. It’s nice to meet you.” She grabbed his arm, dragging him into another room. “Thanks for coming out.” She opened a closet and huffed out a breath like the empty closet had upset her.
He leaned out of the room and peered down the hall, expecting a guy to come looking for her. “Is everything okay?”
“Fine.” She grabbed his arm again and pulled him into the hall. “I’m looking for Chris. And by the way, they delivered your supplies. They’re in the workshop down through the woods. I’ll draw you a map later.”
She flung open another door, traipsed into the room, and threw open the closet. Several blow-up dolls tumbled out.
What the…? Beau tried to hide his surprise as Charlotte appraised each doll’s face and flung them on the bed.
“No. No. No.”
“I…um…” Fuck. This was a new experience. Could being alone too long in a rambling old place like this make a person crazy? Hal and Josh owed him big-time for this favor. He hiked his thumb toward the hall and said, “I’m just going to get my stuff from the truck. If you point me in the direction of my room, I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Your room!” She rolled her eyes. “Of course! That’s where I left him. Chris Pine is always getting left behind. At least this time I think he’s alone and not with the other guys. I hate when I leave those naughty boys alone for too long.”
Damn. She’s into some kinky shit. “Chris Pine? You can leave him there. There are plenty of other rooms I can stay in.” Or maybe he’d stay in his truck. What the hell type of place was she running here? And who knew Chris Pine was into guys?
She waved her hand dismissively and strutted down the hall to the next door. “Don’t be silly. I just need to find the key to the handcuffs.”
Beau stopped in his tracks. Visions of The Shining danced in his head.
“THIS IS IT.” Charlotte stood before the door to Beau’s room and realized he was no longer beside her. She looked down the hall and found him standing outside her toy room.
“Beau?” As she closed the distance between them, she noticed what she’d been too distracted to see before. Her new houseguest had sun-kissed olive skin, short brown hair, and perfectly manicured scruff, which conflicted with his rugged vibe and rivaled the fictional heroes she created. She knew the Bradens had cornered the market on hot male genes, but darkly handsome Beau must have gotten a double dose, with his milewide shoulders, tree-trunk legs, and arms that could probably crush a man.
His expression grew even more serious as she approached. Geez, what was wrong with him? She was the one going crazy from writer’s block for the first time in her life. She was behind on her deadline and everything she wrote about her characters fell flat. All he had to do was bang a few nails.
“Come on, Braden.” She grabbed his hand, noticing how rough and big it was as she led him down the hall. She quickly tried to memorize the feel of it swallowing hers so she could use the details in her writing. His hand was so strong it made her feel feminine and small. Submissive? she wondered, an idea percolating in her mind. She loved the way that word sounded soft as a feather, and she enjoyed writing about submissive women. Sometimes she wondered what it would be like to be someone’s submissive, which she was pretty sure she’d hate. But that was a thought for another day, because that required a living, breathing partner to hash out scenes with, and she had better things to do than worry about a man. Like finishing my manuscript.
There would be no finishing if she couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Each of the four books in her Wicked Boys After Dark series followed a different alpha brother with secret sexual penchants. The stories had flowed from her like water from a tap, attracting so many ravenous erotic romance readers, she’d had to hire a personal assistant to handle her emails and social media and a public relations manager to handle media inquiries. Thank goodness for Becca and Luce. Without them she’d spend endless hours handling everything other than writing. She had no idea what had changed to cause sludge instead of eloquent, sinful words to come from that tap, but she hadn’t even made a dent in the first book in her Nice Girls After Dark series, which followed four sisters who owned various businesses, including a sex club.
Oh! Maybe I should write about a woman who has no idea how to be a submissive!
“That’s a great idea,” she said absently.
“What is?” The muscles in his jaw bunched.
“Do you have a—” She snagged the pen sticking out of his shirt pocket and wrote submissive on her arm. Then she tucked the pen behind her ear and pushed open the door to his room. Her gaze fell to the mattress, where her blow-up doll lay handcuffed to the bed.
“There you are!” She climbed up and straddled the doll, searching the sheets around him for the key. “Poor Chris. I really need to stop forgetting where I leave him.”
“That’s Chris?” His dark brows slanted. “You handcuffed a blow-up doll to the bed?”
“Yes, Chris Pine. I can’t exactly call my research partners by dorky names, can I? I’d never get in the mood to write erotic romance without a little inspiration.” She had millions of fans to keep happy, and she felt pressure to make sure every book was better than the last and every character was unique. Inspiration was paramount. Especially now.
“I just need to find that key, and then the room’s all yours.” Her gaze flicked up, meeting his baffled expression as she crawled off the bed. “What’s wrong?”
He pointed to the hall. “Don’t you have a real guy in your office, or whatever room that is down the hall, who you can work those things out with?”
“Real guy? Ha! No.” She planted her hands on her hips and said, “I think I lost the key. I’ll make up another room for you.”
He cocked a brow like she was speaking another language.
“You know you can just let the air out of your…boyfriend, right?”
“He is not my boyfriend.” This guy was way too literal, but he was also super cute and ridiculously confused. Maybe she could get some emotions out of him to use in her writing. He was as big as her friend Cutter, who brought her groceries every few weeks and sometimes helped her work out scenes. Only Cutter was like a brother, which meant he was good for mechanics but not steamy emotions. She stepped closer and touched his chest, enjoying the feel of his muscles flexing against her fingers, and gauged his reaction.
Mm. That jaw clenching is hot.
“You need to lighten up, baffled and burly Beau,” she said.
“The dolls are for research purposes only. Fully dressed, mechanical research. Just like you might investigate how to build something, I need to explore positions for the stories I’m creating. I don’t use them for gratification purposes. Got it? I’m not that lame.” Unfortunately, she was even lamer. She wasn’t about to tell him that she had a drawer full of adult toys or that there had been a time when she’d used them seeking satisfaction. But like with men, they’d let her down every time, and she’d given up on anything other than fictional sex.
“What you heard in my office was me acting out a scene so I could nail it down.”
His lips quirked up in amusement. “Alone?”
“No, not alone. With Hugh Jackman.” She dropped to her knees and peeked under the bed for the key to the handcuffs.
“Christ,” he mumbled. He grabbed the back of her shirt, hauling her up to her knees.
“You don’t even know me and you stuck your ass up in the air like that? What if I was a creep?”
She folded her arms over her chest and smirked. “Hal and Josh Braden are the ones who asked you to come here, and they would never send a creep to my house.”
He took her by the arm, helping her to her feet. Then he climbed onto the bed and grabbed one handcuff. “That’s not the point.” He squeezed the doll’s hand and pushed it through the metal.
“Be careful,” she pleaded. “Those dolls are expensive.”
He slid her a be serious look. “Don’t worry. I’m good with my hands.”
“I bet you are,” she said under her breath, earning another look that made her feel like a twelve-year-old scolded for cursing. The guy needed to lighten up. She coughed to cover her amusement as he pushed the other hand through the cuffs.
“Done.” He climbed off the bed.
“But now you’ll have handcuffs attached to your bed.”
He clenched his jaw, and his serious eyes turned volcanic. A second later they morphed to restrained. It was freaking hot, and she wanted to remember every single detail for her book.
Maybe he would make the perfect research partner after all.
Hot, hard-bodied, and best of all, temporary.