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No strings. No tomorrow. Just here and now...
Luke ''Mac'' MacKenzie has no past. Orphaned at twelve, he doesn't remember his real name or why his parents were on the run. The name "Aileen Quinn" means nothing to him. Now Mac wanders through the country as a pilot, never settling down...until he finds something—or someone—who stops him in his tracks.
After all she's been through, Emma Bryant just wants a fling—a hot man for a passionate night she'll never forget. Preferably someone tall, dark and really, really hot. Like Mac. The problem is, there's nothing casual about the heat between them...or the bond that threatens them with something neither thought they could have: a future.
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Kate Hoffmann has written over 70 books for Harlequin, most of them for the Temptation and the Blaze lines. She spent time as a music teacher, a retail assistant buyer, and an advertising exec before she settled into a career as a full-time writer. She continues to pursue her interests in music, theatre and musical theatre, working with local schools in various productions. She lives in southeastern Wisconsin with her cat Chloe.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Who are you? Where's Buddy? I need to talk to Buddy. When will he be back?"
Luke MacKenzie grabbed a rag from the floor of the airplane hangar and wiped the grease from his hands. As he approached the counter, he studied the woman who had burst through the door just a few seconds before.
Her dark hair was windblown and the color was high on her cheeks. His gaze dropped to her lush lips and perfect white teeth. Her expression, though tense with anger, did nothing to diminish her natural beauty. In truth, he hadn't met anyone quite so beautiful in a very long time.
Mac grinned lazily and walked up to the counter. "Which one of those questions would you like me to answer first?" he asked, leaning closer to her.
Her scowl deepened. "Where's Buddy?"
"He's in the hospital having his hip replaced."
The news seemed to take her by surprise and he detected a slight blush creeping up her cheeks. "Oh," she murmured. "He did tell me that. When is he going to be back?"
"About three weeks," he said. "Maybe a month."
"And who are you?"
"Luke MacKenzie," he said. "They call me Mac." He wiped his hand on his jeans and held it out. To his surprise, she took and shook it firmly. Mac held on for a few moments longer, enjoying the feel of her slender fingers resting in his palm.
"Mr. MacKenzie, I—"
"Just Mac," he insisted, giving her hand another squeeze.
She straightened her spine and met his gaze, then slowly tugged her hand from his. "Well, Mr. Just Mac, let me give you the 411 because obviously Buddy didn't fill you in before he left. The next time Charlie Clem-mons shows up and wants you to haul that ridiculous Marry Me, Emma banner all over the sky, you're supposed to tell him no!"
"And your name is..."
"Emma," she murmured. "Emma Bryant."
"Well, Marry-Me Emma, Buddy might be able to turn down two hundred dollars for an airborne marriage proposal, but I don't have that luxury. As long as Charlie's money is green, I'm gonna take the job."
"But you don't understand. This has become an obsession with Charlie. And I'm not going to marry him. Not now. Not ever. So he can waste all the money he wants but I'm not going to change my mind."
"Maybe he's in love," Mac suggested.
"And maybe he's completely insane," she countered.
"Why don't you want to marry him?"
"Haven't you been listening? He's insane. He just won't let go. It's not healthy."
"Is there another reason you don't want to marry him? Maybe there's someone else?"
She gasped, then fixed him with a glare that could melt steel. "That is none of your business! And if I were you, I wouldn't listen to town gossip."
"There's gossip? I'm afraid I'm out of the loop. I've got a few minutes. Why don't you fill me in? Can I get you something cold to drink? I've got a Yoo-hoo back in the fridge."
She looked at him as if he'd just asked her to strip naked and join him in a round of "The Hokey Pokey."
"I'm sure you think you're charming, and I'm sure that charm works on a certain element of society, but it's not going to work on me."
"You didn't answer my question," he said.
"You didn't ask me a question," she said.
"Sure I did. I asked if there was someone else. A boyfriend or a fiance? I could see how a stray marriage proposal might be problematic in that situation."
She really was a beautiful woman, Mac mused. Her short dark hair curled gently around her pretty face, enhancing wide eyes and a lush mouth that had been made to be kissed. She also had thick lashes that ringed her brilliant green eyes—eyes that seemed to see right into his soul.
"Just don't fly any more of his banners," she warned. She spun on her heel and started for the door, but he called her name and she stopped and slowly faced him.
"You know, the fastest way to get rid of the old guy is to take up with a new guy."
"You think I don't know that? When you live in a small town like San Coronado, decent men are in short supply. Believe me, I've been looking."
"Maybe you haven't been looking hard enough," Mac suggested.
She strode toward the door, but before she had a chance to pull it open, he spoke.
"You could go out with me," Mac said. "I'm new in town, and I haven't met many people. It would be nice to have someone show me around." He'd issued the request more as an experiment than an actual invitation. And as an excuse to keep her in the shop just a little bit longer.
He found her quite fascinating, this stunningly beautiful girl who couldn't seem to find a man. But now that he'd made the invitation, he wanted her to accept. "Let me get you that Yoo-hoo and we can talk over the particulars. Give me a chance to apologize for the whole banner problem."
She stared at him for a long moment. "You're asking me out? On a date?"
"Yes," he said.
"We just met. And I don't think I like you."
"'Tis one thing to be tempted," he murmured. "Another to fall."
"Do you really believe a little Shakespeare is going to make me swoon for you?"
"Swoon? What does that mean?"
"Look it up," she said.
"I left my dictionary in my other toolbox," he teased. "Do you like Shakespeare?"
"He's only the greatest writer who ever lived."
"So where do you come down in the authorship issue? Are you a Stratfordian or an Oxfordian?" Clearly his question had taken her by surprise. He also noticed a bit of interest in her expression. "I just finished a new book on the subject."
"The Weight of the Words? " Emma asked. "I loved that book."
"We should get together and discuss it," he said.
Emma opened her mouth, then frowned, shaking her head. "Just don't do it again," she warned. With that, she walked out of the hangar and into the bright sunshine of the October day.
"Do what again?" Mac shouted. "Ask you out on a date? Or fly that banner?"
He strolled over to the door and stared out, hoping to catch one last glimpse of her. But she'd already hopped in her car and started to race the battered Volvo station wagon down the airstrip road, a cloud of dust trailing behind it.
J. J. Jones, Buddy's mechanic, strolled around the corner of the hangar wall and handed an old hydraulic pump to Mac. "Was that Emma Bryant?"
"Yeah," Mac said.
"I told you not to fly that banner," J.J. said.
"What do you know about her?" he asked.
"Know about her?" He grabbed the pump from Mac's hand. "We went to school together. She's the same age as I am. Twenty-seven. She's the town librarian. Her dad died when she was young and her mom passed away about three years ago after a long illness. Emma was devoted to her. Cared for her at home for almost four years."
"If she's such a saint, why do people gossip about her?" he asked.
J.J. gave him an uneasy look. "What do you mean?"
" She asked if I'd heard the gossip around town about her. What gossip?"
"Listen, I don't like tellin' tales. My mama said if I keep my mouth shut and my hands clean I'd go far in life. I always follow my mama's advice."
"Come on. If it's something everyone around town knows, why can't you spill?" Mac prodded. "Is she crazy? Like bunny-boiler crazy?"
J.J. shook his head. "She's real nice. She's one of the nicest people I've ever met. Always very generous with her time. Everyone loves her. Everyone."
"So she's perfect?"
He nodded. "As close to perfect as you're going to get," J.J. said. "You won't catch me saying anything bad about her."
Mac sighed. "You think she'd go out with me?" he asked.
"I doubt you'd be her type," J.J. said.
"She's picky, then," he said.
"She's careful," J.J. countered.
Mac frowned. What did that mean? Careful? She was a twenty-seven-year-old single woman. If she was looking for love, she'd have to take some risks to find it. "So she hangs out at the library?"
J.J. grabbed the pump. "I gotta get back to work. That pump on your plane is shot. We should probably replace both of them while we're at it. Want me to order two?"
"No, just get me one," Mac murmured. "And find me a decent price."
"I will," J.J. said.
Mac's gaze was drawn back to the road where Emma Bryant had disappeared. This was a strange feeling, Mac mused. It wasn't often that he found himself genuinely intrigued by a woman. His reactions to the female gender came in one of two varieties—she's hot and I'd like to take her to bed...or, no, thank you. But this was something very different.
"Emma Bryant," he murmured to himself as he walked back inside. Marry-Me Emma. If he took the proposal sign up again tomorrow morning, he could be assured that she'd stop by again and register her opinion.
"I think he asked me out." Emma paused, then shook her head. "Or maybe I just imagined it. Everything just happened so quickly. The conversation jumped around so much I could barely keep up. But I'm pretty sure there was an invitation in there."
"What did you say?"
"I can't remember." Emma turned to her best friend, Trisha Kelling, and shrugged. "I wish I could rewind the whole thing and listen to it again."
"Wait," Trisha said. "Pull over."
"Just pull over. We need your full concentration."
Emma did as she was instructed, steering the station wagon to the edge of the dusty road. She threw it into Park and faced her friend, taking a deep breath.
"What did he look like?" Trish asked.
"Cute. No, handsome. Really sexy. Dark hair, pale blue eyes. You know like blue denim that has been faded by the sun."
"Oh, God, I love that kind of blue," Trisha said. "What else?"
"Straight nose. Not too big. Just right. Nice teeth. And a really nice body, at least, what I was able to see of it."
"What about the goods?" she said. "Did you check that out?"
"No! Why would I check out his...crotch?"
"All right. Was he charming or just kind of full of himself?"
"A little bit of both. But I think he might have been teasing me. He was clever. He seemed really smart. He quoted Shakespeare at me."
"Really? What did he say?"
Trish was an English teacher at the high school and knew her Shakespeare. Emma searched her memory for the phrase, but she couldn't recall the exact words—a sign that Luke MacKenzie had really flustered her. "Something about being tempted and then falling."
"'Tis one thing to be tempted? Another thing to fall?"
"Yes! That's it. As You Like It?"
"I should remember where it comes from and don't you dare tell anyone that I don't." Trish pulled out her phone and punched in the quote. "Measure For Measure. What do you think he meant?"
"I'm not sure." Emma rubbed her face with her hands. "After that he started talking about the authorship controversy, the Oxfordians versus the Stratfordians. It was as if he knew I was fascinated with the subject and he was tempting me."
"'Tis one thing to be tempted." Trisha said.
Emma smiled. "This could be it. He could be the one. It makes sense, doesn't it?"
"He's handsome and sexy. He appears to have a brain. And an abundance of charm."
"And he's only going to be in town for a short time. Six weeks at the most. That's perfect," Emma said. "I can't believe I'm finally going to rid myself of this awful virginity. I'll have sex with this man and it will finally be done."
Emma drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. She'd never intended to remain a virgin for this long. It had just happened. Each year had passed without a potential lover in sight and before she knew it, she'd ended up here, more than halfway to thirty and still as chaste as a nun.
"I shouldn't have walked out," Emma said. "I should have flirted with him."
"You could always go back," Trish suggested.
"Under what pretense?"
"An apology for being such a bitch?"
"I was a bitch. I just couldn't believe he was serious. A guy like that...and me. Marian the Librarian."
"You could take him a book!" Trisha said. "You know he reads Shakespeare. If he likes Whitman, then he's the ultimate sex machine."
"Whitman? No, that would seem so...obvious. And a little desperate."
"But you are desperate," Trish said. "Maybe it would be best to just admit that right at the top. There is something sexy about a woman desperate to copulate."
"My mother always taught me to use the proper terms for sex."
"Alice Pettit told me to keep my knees together and my feet on the floor," Emma said. "Marliss Franks warned me that naughty girls burn in hell and Reverend Kopitsky said that my body is sacred and my virtue worth more than gold. It really didn't matter, though. Once I got that stupid brace, the boys stayed away."
Her teenage years had been lonely at best. She'd been diagnosed with scoliosis at age thirteen and had worn a back brace through most of high school. Burdened also with massive orthodontia and a bad case of acne, she hadn't been the most attractive option for a prom date. Just months after the brace came off, her mother had been diagnosed with cancer and Emma's attention had turned to nursing her. There'd never been time to date, and without dating—and living in a small town—sex had become an unreachable goal. Now, after all these years of chastity, she felt vulnerable, unprepared for a relationship. She had no idea how to talk to boys or flirt. She still felt like the girl with the back brace and the pimples.
She'd always taken solace in her studies, graduating at the top of her high school class. After high school came college and grad school. She'd lived at home, for both convenience and cost, and so she could watch over her mother's care.
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