A Cocky Hero Club Novel
Sexy Scoundrel is a standalone story inspired by Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward’s Cocky Bastard. It’s published as part of the Cocky Hero Club world, a series of original works, written by various authors, and inspired by Keeland and Ward’s New York Times bestselling series.
Carlina Pérez is in way over her head. Unexpectedly jobless and fostering an exotic pet with an insatiable appetite, this pastry chef needs a new gig faster than she can whip up a batch of scones. When she’s tapped to serve as the personal chef to a haughty tabloid regular, she only considers the job out of sheer desperation. After all, Giorgio Acardi may be filthy rich and intoxicatingly handsome, but he’s also a first class scoundrel.
Giorgio Acardi has it all: money, fame, an endless string of beautiful companions, and the respect of his colleagues and rivals. From the outside looking in, his life is perfect. So perfect, in fact, that he’s even got his eye on a new personal chef. She’s talented and gorgeous, and it shouldn’t make a difference whether she hates him or not as long as she does the job. But there’s something about Carlina that Giorgio just can’t resist, and he hasn’t enjoyed success by backing down from a challenge.
My phone rang before dawn, pulling me from a restless sleep. I’d been up all night putting my resume together and sending it off to every restaurant in Dutch Village and Temecula. Turning over sleepily, I looked at the number and rolled my eyes. Aubrey Bateman got up way too damned early.
Of course she did have a toddler with Chance, the hot Australian soccer player she married. Kids got up earlier than livestock. I couldn’t help but like her, though. Starting an animal rescue from scratch took lady balls.
We’d met at the local feed store, of all places, and she’d invited me to the grand opening of the Park Street Animal Shelter. The next thing I knew, I was agreeing to foster their large animal rescues until forever homes could be found for them. Funny, I still had all those critters, and I considered her one of my closest friends.
Every animal shelter needs people willing to foster livestock and large animals. Aside from that, I owed her for helping me mitigate the disastrous contract I’d signed with Mark. Although I hadn’t been able to get out of it, she taught me how to make sure he didn’t take advantage of me again. Being relatively innocent to the ways of inveterate douchebags, I hadn’t realized I didn’t have to give him anything that wasn’t specifically in the contract.
Reminding myself to consult her about making sure Mark couldn’t come after me. I tapped to answer and said, “Hey Aubrey, what can I do for you?”
“Good morning, Carli,” she said, her voice entirely too cheerful for the hour. “I have a favor to ask. Can you bring your stock trailer to the rescue?”
“When do you need it?” I asked. “More importantly, for what? We need to talk about this later, but Mark finally let me out of our contract last night. I can’t take any more animals until I find another job.”
“Oh, shit. What happened?”
“Mark threw a plate at me and told me I was fired.”
“Do you have witnesses?” she asked, her voice crisp and businesslike.
“Yes. Everyone in the kitchen saw it.”
“One more question and I’ll take care of it. Did he hit you?”
“No, he missed. I just got a bunch of broken china on my clothes.”
“That’s still attempted assault, Carli. You could press charges.” She let out an irritated sigh. “He’s such a douche. I’m sorry, but I’m glad you don’t work there anymore. La Panache sucks except for your dessert carts. I think I can even get your recipes back. I still have the list you gave me and those are considered intellectual property.”
“They’re student recipes, so I don’t care if he keeps them. As often as he’s used them, I can’t take them to another restaurant anyway.”
“Good point. Your new recipes are a lot better.”
I sat up in bed and pushed my hair out of my eyes. “Let’s get back to the stock trailer. I can’t afford to foster any more animals right now, but you’re welcome to borrow it.”
Aubrey paused a moment and I heard a faint baa in the background. I wasn’t sure if it came from her pet goat, Pixy, or her son, CJ. Sometimes, it was hard to tell.
The last time I went to Park Street Animal Shelter with a stock trailer, I came home with four elderly American bison cows. Their owner had kept them as pets and surrendered them when he moved to Arizona to be closer to his children.
She whispered something that I didn’t quite catch.
“Can you repeat that please? It sounded like you said six ostriches.”
“And a camel,” Aubrey replied. “Plus two potbellied pigs. We don’t have the facilities here to care for them.”
“Holy crap! Where did they come from? I have no idea how to handle ostriches!”
“That old petting zoo on the south edge of town was closed down for neglect. I also have…”
She went silent and I had the sudden feeling I didn’t want to know what she was about to say.
“Tell me,” I begged.
“Leonard the Lion.”
“What?” The rooster outside crowed in response to my scream. “You have the Leonard the Lion? What the fuck, Aubrey?”
“Well, one of them, and I just don’t have the heart to… It’s Chance’s favorite show!”
Leonard the Lion was a popular regional kid’s show about a lion who solved mysteries with the help of his zookeeper. I hadn’t thought CJ was old enough for it, but maybe Aubrey had been talking about Chance Senior. I decided I didn’t want to know.
“I cannot take a lion. I’m sorry, but I can’t afford to feed him. I’m not licensed to keep a big cat, I don’t have an enclosure, or any experience—”
“He’s losing his vision, has arthritis, is missing most of his teeth, and they declawed him. He’s mostly just a supersized housecat now, and I just can’t, Carli. I will not call in the vet for an otherwise healthy animal if I have a chance to give him a comfortable life for his golden years. I’ll even make a deal with you. Take Leonard, the pigs, and the camel, and I’ll find someone else for the ostriches.”
My phone beeped with an incoming text and I swiped to bring it up. It was a photo of a very thin male lion with a sparse mane, laying on his side with Pixy curled up between his front legs. Both were passed out asleep. It reminded me of the old biblical story of the lion lying down with the lamb, but with a goat instead. It was too damned cute for words.
“Coño.” I flopped backward on the bed and rubbed my face.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Aubrey gushed. “You won’t regret this and I promise I’ll find a sponsor to help with his food bill. I’ll pick up the cost until then and the shelter vet will cover his care. He’s so sweet and well-behaved. I’d keep him myself, but the neighbors are starting to complain.”
“Great,” I said weakly, scrounging for a pair of jeans that weren’t dirty enough to move under their own power. “I guess I better find something big enough to use as a litter pan, right?”
Did lions use litter pans?
“No need,” she chirped, the glee in her voice making my ears hurt. “Leonard is completely housebroken. I’ve been walking him with Pixy. He also insists on riding shotgun, so you don’t need a crate.”
Lovely. “All right, Miss Fancy Lawyerpants. You get me a permit for a big cat so I don’t get arrested, find Leonard a sponsor to help with the bills—”
“I already have the paperwork. All you need to do is sign it,” Aubrey replied.
Man, she had my number for sure. “Unfortunately, unemployment doesn’t pay the meat bill for a lion, or feed for two pigs—”
“And a camel,” Aubrey added, less than helpfully.
“Can’t forget the camel,” I said drily. “Plus all the other animals I already have. The chickens and goats earn their keep, but the rest are walking poop machines, so I still need to find a job. If you know anyone who’s looking for a chef, please let me know.”
“I’m going to get a sponsor for Leonard, so you don’t have to worry about him. And I think I might know someone who could use a personal chef. If we play our cards right, it might even be the same person.”
“Okay.” I found a shirt that didn’t stink too badly, put my bushy curls into a ponytail, and shoved my feet into worn boots. As long as whoever she found wasn’t Mark, I didn’t care. “I’ll be there in about an hour.”
After taking care of the assorted hangers on and freeloaders waiting impatiently around the feed bins, I hooked the stock trailer to my battered pickup and got on the freeway south into Temecula. Thankfully, traffic wasn’t too heavy and I’d be heading out of town by the time rush hour rolled along. Less traffic was a good thing when hauling livestock. If I had a nickel for every time some idiot slammed on his brakes in front of me or cut me off, I wouldn’t be driving a twenty-year-old Dodge with more dents than a golf ball.
Waving at Aubrey, I backed the trailer into the lot behind the shelter. She carried her son in her arms while Chance Senior held Pixy’s leash. Leaving the diesel running, I got out and went to meet them.
Leaning down, Chance kissed my cheek, surprising me. “What was that for?” I asked.
“For being such an awesome shelter supporter and giving Leonard a home.”
“Your wife is very persuasive. I think she should give me a kiss instead.”
Chance waggled his eyebrows and grinned. “Can I watch?”
Aubrey slapped his arm, rolling her eyes. “Filthy man.”
“What?” he asked, still smiling. “I just asked Carli if I could watch her make friends with Leonard.”
She laughed and took my hand, pulling me along as she speed-walked toward the split-rail holding pens behind the shelter. “I got the birds into an ostrich farm. It isn’t ideal, but they’ll be treated humanely.”
“You can’t exactly make pets out of them, you know,” I replied. Aubrey was my best friend and I loved her, but she didn’t understand the difference between livestock and pet. Case in point, Pixy. She refused to believe that goats weren’t house pets.
“Yeah, I know. It probably is best for them and they’re not exactly friendly,” Aubrey said. One hissed at her as we passed, its beak snapping closed on nothing but air.
I shuddered, thankful I wouldn’t be taking them.
“Okay, this is Camelot,” she said pointing at the dromedary leaning against the fence.
“Camelot? Really?” I asked.
“She tried to name our goat Esmerelda Snowflake at first,” Chance said. “I suggested Camel T—”
Aubrey laid her hands over CJ’s ears. “Chance!”
I turned away before they saw me laughing. Encouraging Aubrey’s husband wasn’t a good idea. “Camelot is just fine.” I choked, trying to stifle my giggles.
“You thought Mutton and Bugger were appropriate names for poor Pixy,” Aubrey said, still glaring at Chance. “You never get to name any of the animals here. Anyway, Cam is pretty old and great with kids. They used him for camel rides, so he shouldn’t give you much trouble.”
“And who is that?” I asked, pointing at the bald face of a weanling colt peering from between the camel’s back legs.
“Camelot’s best friend. I haven’t thought of a name for him, but it’s a two for one deal.”
“It’s just a little pony. He won’t be any trouble. In exchange, I found a place for the pigs while you were driving here. They’re going to another petting zoo in Sacramento.”
I loved Aubrey, but sometimes I wanted to wring her neck. I had facilities for horses, so it wasn’t that bad a deal, and it wasn’t worth the effort to explain the difference between a horse and a pony to her. “All right. One camel, one…”
I ducked through the fence, slowly making my way to the colt. Letting out a sigh, I shook my head. “One Shire colt who is definitely not a pony, and one lion. Have you scheduled the vet to have the colt gelded?”
“Um…” She glanced back, then at Chance. He grinned at me over the top of her head.
“Say it out loud, Aubrey.”
“One camel, one tiny little pony, and one lion. That’s all, I promise.”
“Okay. Schedule the vet as soon as possible, please. I want to get the colt taken care of.”
“All right. We also found you a sponsor, but he’ll only do it if you work for him and his brother as a personal chef. He’ll meet you at your farm in about an hour.”
“Who is it?” I couldn’t afford to be choosy, but there were a couple of people in town I wouldn’t enjoy working for.
“Giorgio Acardi.” Biting her lip, she squeezed my shoulder. “I promise he’s not as bad as the tabloids say and you’ll love his brother, Antonio.”
Nice. As entertaining as he was, Giorgio had been trying to buy my property for months and didn’t like taking no for an answer. Did I really want to work for him?
“He’s a decent guy. I’ve been to his parties,” Chance said. “The police only got called a few times.”
I sighed and wished for a large coffee and some aspirin, then loaded up Camelot and his Shire buddy, thankful Aubrey didn’t try to help. I wouldn’t put it past her to sneak something else on the trailer while my back was turned.
Although I didn’t have much experience with camels, Camelot was easygoing and didn’t fuss as long as the colt was around. Leaning on the trailer gate, I gave the colt a second look. People were using draft breeds for riding horses these days. If I could find a saddle to fit him, he might be able to go to another home, or even into an equine therapy program, depending on his temperament.
As I waited for Aubrey to return with the permit paperwork, Chance walked toward me with a pink leash in one hand. Leonard tottered at his side, his steps slow and deliberate. His large head swung around and he bumped into Chance several times. Visible ribs showed through his tattered coat and he looked worn to the bone.
When Aubrey returned carrying a file folder, I said, “I thought you said he was healthy.”
“He is,” she insisted, handing me the permit paperwork. “The vet said he’s malnourished, but should be fine with regular meals. He just needs some groceries and a good brushing.”
Chance handed me the leash, a sad expression on his face. He didn’t believe Aubrey any more than I did, but neither of us said a word when Leonard flopped to the ground and laid his head on my boots. Sighing heavily, I read over the documents before signing them. I didn’t have the strength to listen to another of Aubrey’s lectures about not reading contracts.
“I’ll get a piece of plywood to make a ramp. He can’t jump into a pickup,” Chance said.
I handed the folder back to Aubrey and my cold little heart melted when I crouched down to scratch behind Leonard’s furry ears. He chuffed a few times, then licked my hand, his rough tongue rasping against my skin like sandpaper.
Chance stood on the other side of the ramp while Leonard picked his way up into my truck and settled his hindquarters on the floorboards while the rest of him took up most of the bench seat. I couldn’t help thinking he probably wouldn’t live long enough to bother with a sponsor and it made me sad.
After getting kisses from both Chance and Aubrey, and a slobbery buss from CJ, I climbed into the driver’s seat. Leonard roused himself long enough to scoot over and lay his head in my lap, making me tilt the steering wheel up so he’d fit.
He stayed there the whole way home. Damned cats. Always know how to suck you into loving them.
My phone rang as I was straightening my tie. I had a long day filled with meetings and a site visit later in the afternoon. Glancing down, I saw Aubrey Bateman’s name. I was fond of both Aubrey and her husband, Chance. Acardi Development designed the animal shelter she’d started, and I made large personal donations as well. I admired her dedication to the project.
I swiped to answer. “Acardi here.”
“Good morning, Giorgio. I have a proposition for you.”
“Won’t Chance be upset?”
She snorted into the phone, making me smile. “You two. I swear, I can’t take either of you anywhere.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was remembering when we had supper at your house a few months back, and how you were complaining that Antonio wouldn’t eat anything but junk food.”
“Okay, go on.”
“I happen to know that one of the best chefs in California is looking for a job. How would you feel about having a personal chef who can make healthier alternatives that Antonio will eat?”
“I already have my eye on someone,” I replied. “Carlina Pérez from La Panache.”
Aubrey was silent for a moment and I waited patiently for her to speak. “Well… That’s… Interesting,” she finally said.
“May I be blunt, Giorgio?”
“Go right ahead.” I settled into the armchair next to the fireplace. If what she had to say involved my new chef, I wanted to hear it.
“Carli was who I had in mind, but she doesn’t like you. You’ve been trying to strongarm her into selling her farm for months and she isn’t a fan of all the tabloid stories about you.”
The name finally clicked and I remembered why it sounded so familiar. Sitting less than five miles from Diamond Valley Lake, her farm was perfect for a resort. I’d envisioned a golf course and an exclusive lodge complete with all the amenities anyone could want, but it would never happen. Honestly, Carlina was greedy to keep all that beautiful acreage to herself when it could be enjoyed by hundreds. I tightened my jaw and tried to console myself with the property next door to her farm, which had a somewhat less disagreeable owner.
“She doesn’t have to like me to cook for me,” I retorted. What was it with women these days? First, Sara dumped me, then Carlina deciding she didn’t like me without having met me first. “Besides, why are you recommending her if you know she doesn’t care for me?”
“Hush and let me finish. I have two things to offer you today. Carli’s services as personal chef for you and Antonio and something specifically for your brother. Right now, Carli is driving away with Leonard the Lion in the front seat of her truck. I know how much Antonio loves him and she’s agreed to foster him at her farm.”
“What’s the catch?”
“She has experience with clients like Antonio, but she’ll only work for you if you sponsor Leonard. You get your chef, and your brother’s undying admiration along with complete access to Leonard whenever he wants. Besides, I already told her you’d do it, so you need to get moving to meet her out there.”
“Shit.” I rubbed my face, knowing I’d say yes. I could hire a chef anywhere, but Carlina was the one my brother wanted. Her having that lion was a fucking nail in my coffin. “How much?”
Aubrey named a figure that made my eyes widen. I had no idea lions cost so much to feed. “Look, I know it’s a lot,” she said. “But at least he’ll be at her house instead of yours.”
“Yeah. Okay, I’ll let you go so Antonio and I can meet her.”
“Thank you. I promise, you won’t regret it.”
Sighing, I ended the call and finished getting dressed. Antonio was already up and eating breakfast in front of the television. I sat on the couch next to him, picking a piece of cereal off the upholstery.
“Hey buddy, I have a surprise for you.”
“What is it?” he asked, milk dribbling from the corners of his mouth.
Using my handkerchief, I wiped the milk away. “How would you like to meet Leonard the Lion?”
The bowl fell to the carpet, spilling milk and soggy cereal everywhere when he bounced to his feet. “Really? I get to meet Leonard?”
“Yes, but you…”
He disappeared into his room and I heard the sound of dresser drawers slamming.
“…have to get dressed.”
Rolling my eyes, I cleaned up the mess. Within seconds, Antonio was ready, still wearing that disreputable t-shirt. I really needed to get him another one of these days.
He bounced in his seat when Clyde turned off the two-lane road and onto the gravel drive leading to Carlina’s house. Sparse trees and low desert vegetation decorated the landscape, along with weathered split rail fence. A camel, followed by a young horse, wandered toward the driveway, watching my car with interest.
“Are you excited to see Leonard?” Antonio asked, his round face shining with happiness. “I can’t believe I get to visit Leonard the Lion. Do you think he’ll solve a mystery while we’re here?”
Maybe he’d solve the mystery of how one woman who could create such decadent chocolate was so damned stubborn.
Clyde pulled to a stop in front of a weathered Spanish colonial cottage with a sloped roof and flowerboxes in the windows. Instead of terra cotta tile, it was roofed with cheap asphalt shingle, making me grimace. The house was cute, but that roof didn’t do it any favors.
Carlina stood by a gray flatbed Dodge with a gooseneck trailer behind it. A piece of plywood formed a ramp leading from the passenger side door to the gravel driveway. She chirped softly, clicking her tongue to encourage the mangiest lion I’d ever seen from the cab. He leaned into her, nearly falling as she helped him down.
That was Leonard the Lion?
Antonio was out of the car before I could stop him, moving faster than I thought he could. I raced after him and we both skidded to a halt when she smiled and held up a dirty hand.
“Hey, you must be Antonio. I’m Carli, and this is Leonard. I need you to be slow and careful, okay? He’s in a new place and he might get scared. Kneel next to me and we’ll pet him together.”
I’m not sure what I expected. Although a few had tried to talk to him, several of my dates took one look at my brother and either ignored him or tried to convince me to have him institutionalized. I was okay with Antonio being ignored.
The women who insinuated anything about putting my brother into a home didn’t get a parting gift. He had Down Syndrome. That didn’t make him less a person, and I wouldn’t tolerate him being treated like a leper.
Carlina talked to him and touched him, holding his hand while she helped him pet a lion that probably wouldn’t last another year. She ignored me completely in favor of interacting with Antonio. No one had ever done that before and I couldn’t decide whether I should be jealous or delighted that she treated him so well.
“What’s wrong with him?” Antonio asked, stroking the cat’s ears. “I wanted to see him solve mysteries.”
“Well, I think Leonard needs his zookeeper’s help to do that,” Carlina replied. The lion chuffed at her, rolling to his back as she scratched his chest. “And he’s getting older, so maybe he’d like to relax and take some time off.”
“Are you going to give him chocolate cake? Gio brought me your cupcakes last night. I said I’d eat broccoli if you cooked for us.” He looked over her head toward her horse pasture and grinned, the lion forgotten. “Can I ride your horse?”
“Chocolate isn’t good for animals, but I’m glad you liked them. I’m sure Max would be happy to give you a ride, so let’s get Leonard settled in the shade and we’ll do that.”
“Can we have breakfast after that? I’m hungry.”
“Sure. Breakfast after a ride.”
Working together, they got Leonard to his feet and under the shade of her porch. Carlina filled a pan with water and set it down near his head before leading Antonio into her pasture. She snapped her fingers and whistled, bringing a tall black gelding running toward the fence.
“This is Max. We’ll saddle him if you want to go for a longer ride, but I think bareback will be okay for now. Hold on to his mane, and let me know if you feel like you’re slipping, okay?”
“I can do it,” Antonio replied.
When she boosted my brother up, I wanted to rush forward to protect him, but aside from a few wobbles he seemed fine. She walked next to his leg, patting her thigh while the horse matched his step to hers. My brother’s laughter filled the air and he rocked back and forth, clapping his hands together. I hadn’t seen him that happy since we were children.
As she led my brother in circles, I finally got a good look at her. She wasn’t my type. Instead of groomed perfection, Carlina wore jeans with streaks of dirt and battered cowboy boots. Her curly hair was piled into a messy pony tail, and the strands that had come loose were dark with sweat and stuck to the back of her neck.
Damn, those jeans. They fit her like they’d been painted on, revealing lush curves. Her shirt was snug, revealing pert, full breasts and the points of her nipples. I wondered if she realized she was giving everyone a show.
She stopped, but encouraged the horse to walk around her with a few gestures. “Antonio, sit up and let your legs hang down, please.”
“Will it make Max go faster? I want French toast for breakfast, but I don’t think I want to go faster.”
Without missing a beat, she said, “He won’t go faster. Yes, I’ll make you French toast if you try to sit up for me.”
“Okay.” Antonio put his shoulders back and dropped his legs.
“Good! You look awesome! We’ll go around a couple more times and I’ll make your breakfast.”
She let Antonio ride for a few more minutes, then snapped her fingers, stopping the gelding in his tracks. “You’re a born rider, Antonio, and Max really likes how you scratch his neck.”
My brother grinned at her, and she smiled back as she helped him off the horse. He hugged her, lifting her off her feet. “Thank you. Can I go play with the chickens? Do you have a dog?”
“You’re welcome. Yes, you can play with the chickens, and no, I don’t have a dog.”
Antonio turned away, staring at the bison across the pasture.
Carlina reached up to turn his face toward her. “We’ll play with the bison later, but I need you to visit the chickens while I talk to Giorgio, okay?”
“My brother should marry you,” Antonio said. “Then you’d be my sister and I could play here all day.”
The thought wasn’t unattractive. Carlina was cute, built like a brick shithouse, and Antonio liked her. I could do worse. It made me wonder about things I had no business considering with a woman I didn’t know. Like, how she’d look in stilettos with nothing but my rope and pink marks from a flogger covering her.
To her credit, Carlina didn’t laugh. Instead, she said, “Well, you can call me an honorary sister. How does that sound?”
Antonio hugged her again, then raced toward the chicken coop.
She smiled after him, then turned to me. “Your brother is very sweet. Has he had occupational therapy or physical therapy for his leg?”
“Some,” I replied grudgingly. It wasn’t any of her business. I wondered if she was trying to pump me for information to sell to a trash news outlet and the thought irritated me. Other women had asked questions in the same vein, trying to convince me to have him put in an institution.
“You should get Antonio into equine therapy. It will improve his balance and concentration. Max is actually a therapy horse and he helped my sister, Katie—”
“Are you suddenly the moron whisperer? Who the hell do you think you are?” I snapped, incensed that she’d dared to tell me how to manage my brother. She didn’t know us at all and I was infuriated she presumed she knew what was best for Antonio.
I wanted to take the words back the minute they came out of my mouth. Granted, I’d heard it and worse from my aunt Proserpina often enough to make me want to throttle her, but that wasn’t an excuse. What was wrong with me? Hearing that word from my own mouth made me sick. Even if Carlina had been pushing for information to sell, it didn’t give me the right to say something like that. It was inexcusable.
Her slap came out of nowhere, rocking my head to the side. “If you want to see a moron, go look in a mirror, asshole.”
My cheek burned. It was less painful than the weight of what I’d said. “I have no idea why I said that, but I’m sorry. I was out of line and I deserved that slap.”
I was old enough to know that when a woman said fine, things were light years away from being okay. “I really am sorry. That was an awful thing to say.”
“Good.” She chewed on her lip for a moment, then shot a glance at the lion on her porch. “Look, this isn’t going to work out. I like your brother, but I’m going to tell Aubrey to find Leonard another sponsor. I’m not going to cook for you.”
“Antonio loved your food. He’s going to be so disappointed.”
She crossed her arms over her beautiful tits and shook her head. “Sorry, no.”
I wasn’t about to let my thoughtless and cruel words ruin this for Antonio, and wracked my brain for something to say that might change her mind. “He promised to eat broccoli. He hates broccoli.”
She cut her eyes toward the chicken coop, a reluctant smile blossoming at the sight of Antonio sitting on the ground with a chicken in his lap. The expression faded when she turned back to me. “Still not selling me, Mr. Acardi.”
“I’ll triple what you were making at La Panache.” When she rolled her eyes, I added, “Please. You’re the one my brother wanted.”
She shook her head and turned away. “I said no. Come on inside and I’ll make breakfast for you and Antonio before you leave.”
“Name your price,” I replied. Everyone had a price. She might make me work for it, but I had no intention of leaving Carlina’s house without an agreement. I could offer her enough to make her forget she didn’t like me.
Instead of giving me a number, she snorted out a laugh. “You can’t afford me, honey. Give it up.”
“You have no idea what I can afford.”
She turned to me, her face set into a dark scowl. “You’re right. I don’t. I was trying not to be rude, but I’d sooner lose my home than work for you, and that won’t change no matter how much money you throw at me. Now, I’m going to make breakfast for your brother. He’s welcome to visit, but I’d be just as happy to never see you again.”
Carlina didn’t need rope. She needed metal shackles and a date with my single tail whip for not accepting my apology. Giving her a grudging nod, I followed her into the cottage, where I immediately smelled lemon and flowers. Instead of the minimalist decorating I’d used in the house I shared with Antonio, her place was cluttered, homey, and a little dusty. The aged wood floors creaked under my weight.
“Leonard, no. Not on the…” Hands on her hips, Carlina shook her head when Leonard climbed up on an ugly floral print sofa and went back to sleep. “Hell with it. I never liked that couch anyway,” she muttered, stomping toward a flight of stairs. “I’m going to clean up. Make yourself at home.”
I nodded and wandered to the door to keep an eye on Antonio. He hunched over, his bum leg dragging as he collected multicolored eggs. There were brown and white ones, but also pink, blue, and green, and I wondered what kind of chicken they came from.
I’d never seen Antonio work before and it astonished me that he’d done something productive without being asked. Hell, he didn’t pick up after himself unless he was prompted. He set each egg in a white plastic bucket, his face wrinkled with determination as he searched out the next. I let the door close behind me and joined him.
“You collected Carlina’s eggs, buddy. That was very nice of you.”
“I found more, but the chickens chased me away. Do you think they’ll make baby chickens?”
“I don’t know, but I bet Carlina will. You can ask her later.” We went inside and Antonio made a beeline for Leonard. I took the bucket of eggs and followed the sound of Nine Inch Nails into a surprisingly large kitchen. She stood at an old ceramic sink, peppers and bright tomatoes sitting in a bowl next to her. Her kitchen reminded me of my grandmother’s; old-fashioned and worn, but scrupulously clean.
The only real difference was the woman in front of the sink. She didn’t look a bit like my grandmother. Shit, her ass could stop traffic. She’d changed into a pair of cutoff jeans, the frayed hems teasing me with glimpses of the bottom curve of her backside. Her red tank turned her tawny skin golden and revealed toned arms and the upper slopes of those mouthwatering breasts.
Setting the bucket of eggs on the floor next to her, I said, “Antonio gathered eggs for you. I hope that’s all right.”
“I’ll have to thank him. That was very thoughtful and we’ll get to eat them for breakfast.” Glancing over her shoulder, she added, “Invite your driver in and make him move your car behind the barn. I don’t want my neighbors to see you here.”
Her chef’s knife blurred as she chopped the glistening vegetables, and I tried to come up with something to say. I’d never met a woman who was opposed to a little media attention.
“Why? Are you ashamed of having me on your property?”
“Yes. You’re tabloid bait and I don’t want reporters bothering me.”
“Antonio likes it here,” I replied, sending a quick text to Clyde with her instructions. I softened my steps, moving behind her as she poured chopped vegetables into a bowl. She wasn’t going to be happy when she figured out I’d bought the property next to hers. A small, childish part of me couldn’t wait to see the fireworks.
“Your brother is the only reason I haven’t gotten out my dad’s shotgun to run you off. I like him.”
“And you don’t like me,” I murmured, leaning close to take in her perfume. She smelled like sunshine.
“I thought I made that clear.” She set her knife down and spun to face me. “Do you have a purpose in my kitchen, or are you just trying to piss me off?”