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Excerpt: The Devil You Know

Book 2: The Sexiest Bachelors

UNEDITED **not the final version**

Chapter 1

Once upon a time . . .

Violet Robinson was a rebel with a paintbrush.

Distractions weren’t needed—especially not in here. Her sanctuary. The place where Violet painted boldly and largely. She didn’t have a plan or set idea for this piece, but she never did.

She tried to follow a plan. She really did try, but everything in her rejected any kind of planning or forethought, which seemed to run counterintuitive as a Virgo. If she thought too much about a piece, the piece never came together. As soon as Violet tried to paint inside the lines, she found a way to break the rules, make it her own. She hated being boxed in, hated following a set idea. None of that worked for her. Throughout her high school art classes, she always dutifully completed the assignments, because to do otherwise was not in her. But her art never looked like her other classmates. Her art was singled out, admired, loved. Her art teachers talked of her talent, saw that she could be more.

Even in elementary school, her carousel horse had broken free from its pole to gallop away across cross-patched fields, its tail dancing merrily in the wind. An art teacher might have asked for students to get their hands dirty—to really get in there when lessons involved oils and charcoals and clay—and clean, pristine, never-a-hair-out-of-the-place-Violet was lost in a kaleidoscope of discovery.

No, that was wrong. She wasn’t lost.

She found herself.

She found where she belonged. Here. In oils and watercolors and charcoals and drop cloths and easels and blank canvases with stories yet to be drawn, of secrets to be told or kept hidden, of dreams wished quietly to the first star of the night, of truths and lies, of hope and love.

Perhaps, at first, art had been an escape after her parents’ death when she was eleven and the twins, Ruby and River, at three. That year had been an upheaval, to say the very least. Death, a move across the country from California to New York. From sunny San Diego to the bitter winter of Colonie. From a huge house to the comfy, cozy home of their paternal grandparents.

Their grandparents hadn’t seemed like typical grandparents. They didn’t have white hair—or even a strand of gray—and they hadn’t smothered them in pity or spoke in hushed voices that adults thought children couldn’t hear. They did have dogs. Big, fluffy dogs—one like a puff of cloud named Cookie, the other a plume of smoke named Wolf. Sugary sweets were always nearby, which had cemented the deal for Violet, Ruby, and River. Her grandfather’s coal-black hair was thick, just like her father’s had been, while her grandmother’s gold-and-red flecked brown was a muted version of Violet’s striking chestnut. Ruby had bold red hair while River’s ran a golden sunset; both had adventurous, devil-may-care personalities just like their parents. But it wasn’t thoughts of her family that distracted Violet.

It was him.

Keith O’Connell.

The boy next door.

One of the most popular boys—not only of her senior year but of the whole high school. Charming, friendly, and really, really hot. Bright blue eyes and sun-kissed blond hair. Tall and built in such a way that made her heart pitter-patter in triple time. And Keith was so out of her league that he might as well have been in a different galaxy.

They used to be friends, way before she became the odd girl paint perpetually marking her skin. Her introverted nature didn’t lend itself to make friends easily. Violet knew she guarded her heart after her parents’ death and never let anyone, including her own family, get too close, so she mostly blamed herself for her lack of friends, popularity, her inability to belong.

But Keith O’Connell had managed to sneak past all her defenses and taken her heart, even though he definitely didn’t know it and never, ever, ever would.

Ever since eighth grade—back when they were still friends—Violet had harbored this top-secret crush on Keith. She held onto a fine thread of hope that he would see her—really see her—and themoment would happen that happened in all those rom-coms she so loved. He would stride to her and kiss the heck out of her. Maybe under the stars. Oh, definitely under the stars by the great willow tree in the backyard, its branches that stretched far and wide, some of which extended into the O’Connell’s stretch of space. Way ago, in the past, one of them would climb onto one of the branches and make their way over.

Keep on dreaming. It would never happen. Not today. Not ever.

Tonight was graduation, and Violet looked forward to the exact moment when she was officially done with high school. By mid-August, she’d be done with Colonie and on her way to New York where she would go after her dreams. One day, she’d have showings. Her art in galleries, hopefully museums. She had such wild, fanciful dreams that it often felt like she was shooting for the stars.

She planned on getting to those stars.

Somehow, some way, she would do it.

Maybe she did have more in common with the twins that she thought. Ruby and River, now nine, were convinced they were adventurers and would discover a lost treasure. But they were kids and still believed in their parents’ endless quest for treasures that hadn’t resulted in untold riches but endless heartache.

She wouldn’t crush the twins’ dreams. They needed something to hold onto—something to keep their parents’ memory alive. Sometimes, Violet found it hard to recall their faces, couldn’t find the right colors to bring their likeness to the canvas. The sound of their voices was a far-distant murmur. The memories of her parents were fading away.

She didn’t want to think of this. Of them. It was too hard, too difficult that her parents wouldn’t be at her graduation tonight, that they would never be there for other life moments.

Violet sighed and ran a hand over her mop of hair pulled into a high messy bun. The only makeup on her face was splatters of paint that had escaped the bristles of the brush in her left hand. Her bright orange tank top and well-worn jean shorts, already stained from previous sessions, had accrued new colors. Her feet weren’t so bare now; they were spotted like a cheetah. She could care less. It was abnormal for her to come out of her studio without a drop of paint on her.

There were two doors to her workspace. One door opened to the interior and if you kitty-cornered to the right, a small staircase that led directly upstairs to her room; the other outside to the backyard. The room itself was not the usual standard shape—but had been built like a circle that led to the small turret at the back of the home. It always had amused Violet that her grandparents’ very normal-like split-level had boasted a turret, all because Violet’s grandmother had wanted one as a young bride.

Violet knew she was no princess stuck in a tower. Her hair wouldn’t untangle and unravel in a fluid stream. No prince upon his steed would slay a dragon. More importantly, she didn’t want any dragons murdered. Dragons were awesome. She’d seriously judge anyone who’d want to throw a spear at a dragon’s heart.

Speaking of dragons . . . one had just popped onto her canvas. A bright purple one, wings slightly spread from the body, head cocked toward the viewer, a definite twinkle in aquamarine eyes. A dragon in the middle of the park near her grandparents’ home. Huh. Why not.

Her stomach rumbled. Not for the first time, and one that protested at being ignored again. She’d already eaten the apple and a couple pieces of chocolate candy, so she’d have to leave if she wanted to something of substance.

But she was on a roll. In the zone. She didn’t want to take a break and lose precious momentum. Fifteen minutes. A half-hour tops. After that, she’d get something to eat. Pleased with the compromise, she returned to her dragon in the park.

Sometime later—surely, only fifteen minutes had gone by—Violet stopped, tired and excited and ravenous. She drained the rest of her water but craved something sugary and sweet with a bite. Hopefully, there was some of her grandfather’s well-loved homemade lemonade in the fridge.

She turned, surprised but not that surprised, to see that she’d spent longer than expected. Three hours. Even starving and thirsty, she didn’t regret her decision.

But she should have been smarter. Next time, she’d make sure to have more snacks and drinks stored in the mini-fridge. Violet hurriedly cleaned up and then washed her hands and glanced at her feet. She wasn’t going to shower just yet, but she shouldn’t go through the house as she was.

She decided to exit through the window, her fingers leaving multi-colored prints that joined previous ones. It was not the first time she left this way, nor would it be her last. New York was only three and a half hours away from Colonie. She wanted to make her way in the art world, but she also planned on visiting her family during the holidays.

Heading to the backyard, Violet hoped her grandmother was in the garden. Every time her grandmother worked outside, she kept a pitcher of some ice-cold drink and a snack.

Unfortunately, nobody was in the backway and the back door was closed, which usually meant nobody was near the kitchen area. Maybe someone was out front.

Violet headed there, but her steps slowed when she heard her grandmother and . . . Keith.

Why was Keith O’Connell talking to her grandma?

The low volume suggested that Keith wasn’t in his driveway but on the front porch. Why why why why whyyyyyy? Why when she looked like this?

Violet looked . . . Well, she looked how she always looked after a session. Messy, covered in paint, and barefoot.

Her family had seen her like this, and so had Keith when they were friends. Violet didn’t feel ashamed of how she looked, she just wished she was more . . . put together. But, no, of course, that wouldn’t have happened.

Keith was in shorts and a cobalt blue tee. The sun brightened his hair, making the blond bolder. His hair always looked so silky and soft, like she could just slide her fingers through his strands, and by doing so, it would launch a thousand goosebumps along her skin.

It felt as if her heart thumped a thousand beats right now. Underlying that, was this bittersweet ache, the knowledge that this particular romantic dream of hers was just that, a dream. It would never be. It would never happen.

Violet didn’t want to talk to Keith; she always said the wrong thing, stumbled over herself. She started to go back the way she came, find a place to hide until he left, but just then Keith glanced her way.

“Hey, Violet.”

There was no help for it now. She acted as if she hadn’t been lurking by the bushes and strolled out without a care in the world. “Hi.”

Her grandmother looked toward her, her smile widening. “How’s it coming along?”

“Good. Really good.”

“Wait here, and I’ll get you and Keith something,” her grandmother said.

Violet was thirsty and hungry, but she didn’t want to be left alone with Keith. “That’s okay. You don’t need to do that.”

The rest of her words died away as her grandmother hurried into the house, the screen door clapping shut. Violet bit back a curse, thinking how it was awful convenient how quickly her grandmother moved when she wanted to, and reluctantly turned her attention to Keith. For some odd reason, he was watching her, amusement dancing in those bright blue eyes, a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

She frowned. “What?”

His smile broke into a full-out grin, laughter clear in his voice. “You don’t want to be here.”

“I never said that.” Thought it, yes. Said it, definitely no. Where the heck was her grandmother? Violet looked toward the screen door, hoping her grandma would magically appear.

No such luck.

Keith seemed to drop the subject. “What are you painting?”

“Ummm, this and that.” For some reason, she always got uncomfortable when anyone asked her that question. She was proud of her art, but she didn’t know if people were interested or pretending to be by making small talk or indulging—in what they thought—was a silly fantasy.

Her grandmother appeared then, and Violet blew out a sigh of relief. Two tall glasses, full of iced lemonade, and two turkey sandwiches, one with mayo, one without. The plain sandwich had her favorite BBQ chips and the other had plain. She took the one without, just turkey on bread with a thin smear of mustard, while Keith took the one with the lettuce, mayo, tomato, slice of American cheese.

After they both thanked her grandmother, who disappeared yet again—seriously, what was with that?—Violet didn’t even wait to sit to start eating; she downed half of the lemonade and took a huge bite of the sandwich. Human shovel, thy name is Violet Robinson.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Keith said after he, too, took a huge bite. He hadn’t sat down either, she realized.

“Which one?”

Keith’s smile felt like a flash of lightning along her skin. “Both, I suppose.”

“I’ll tell you if you tell me this. Why are you here?”

 

***

 

Good question, Keith thought. Why was he here? He went with the convenient answer, one that was comfortable and true. “You weren’t at the graduation rehearsal this morning, and they handed out caps and gowns. I picked up yours and gave it to your grandmother. She insisted on fixing yours and took mine before I could say otherwise.”

“Did she take the caps?”

“No, they’re . . .” He looked around the front porch to see where her grandmother had stored them and pointed to the rocking chair. “There.”

“Oh good. I want to decorate mine.” Violet paused to drink some lemonade. “I won’t have to stop at the pick-up station tonight. Thank you for getting my cap and gown.”

He rolled his shoulders as if wasn’t a big deal. And it wasn’t a big deal. It was Violet. They used to be friends. He didn’t like that they weren’t friends anymore, but he didn’t know how to fix it. Any time, he was around her, he messed things up. Said the wrong thing, stumbled over himself.

“How are you going to decorate yours?” he asked.

She’d just taken another big bite of her sandwich and gave him a look as if to say, really, you had to ask me a question as I was eating.

He took a bite of his to join in the solidarity.

“I’m not sure yet,” she said. “I have to see what it says to me and go from there.”

He looked at her.

She looked at him.

He kept looking at her.

She kept looking at him. “What?”

“Your cap will speak to you?” Immediately Violet’s guard went up, her shackles raised, and Keith hastened to smooth it over, because he didn’t want her to be mad at him, or worse, leave. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m not making fun of you. It’s just . . .”

Violet still wore that guarded expression, her mouth pressed together. He hadn’t made it right. She didn’t believe him, didn’t believe that he wasn’t making a joke at her expense. He’d never do that. He’d never, ever do that. But some of his friends had, and he’d never done anything to stop it, so how was he any better? Why would she ever believe him?

He was never going to make things right by her, but he wanted to.

He really wanted to.

“It’s just . . .” Keith tried again, failed, and decided, screw it, time to tell the truth. “I like to cook. Bake things. And I don’t really know what I want to make until the food speaks to me. So . . . yeah.” He could feel the tips of his ears redden again, a flush of heat struck his cheeks, and he suddenly needed to finish that glass of lemonade. He set down plate and drink next to hers on the rocking chair.

“Oh.” That simple exhalation softened her whole demeanor, and he couldn’t say who was more surprised when she reached for his hand. “Follow me.”

He was no fool.

He followed her.

 

***

 

She led him around the side of the house, not once looking back to see if he followed. She thought, if she did, that Keith would be yanked away.

Violet didn’t know why she was doing this.

Except a part of her knew why she was doing this. Even if she didn’t want to admit it—not even to herself—somewhere, deep down, she knew.

She knew.

Keith would understand.

Keith would get it.

She led him to the place of her heart, where everything made sense. But to get there, they would have to climb inside.

The window wasn’t that high from the ground, but she still needed a boost to leverage her way in. Her grandfather had placed a cinder block that helped her to grab a hold of the sill and from there she’d push up, swing one leg over the sill, and then jump into the room.

Violet didn’t even get a chance to set a foot on the cinder block, because suddenly, Keith was there, next to her, his hands on her waist. He stood so close, so very, very close, where she could see his golden-tipped lashes, like the black had been gilded in molten liquid, and the very bright blue of his eyes. No variation of blue, just a solid splash, with a halo of light gold around his black irises. Golden hues could be found everywhere on him. His thick hair went from a pale blond to a burnished shade. His skin was sun-kissed, warm and radiant. His mouth was fuller than she remembered. No cleft was marked into his chin, just a firm squareness that tapered up in chiseled lines, prominent cheekbones, and a nose that was just right.

He smelled like impossible things. Sunshine that heated the air, summer that had been bottled up, a promise of dreams.

She felt hot. Her clothing seemed to cling to her skin, the grass under her feet no longer cool, and her throat went dry, her mouth dryer. Without a thought to it, the tip of her tongue darted out to her lips, and his eyes tracked the movement.

All at once, she realized it. He was looking at her. He had been looking at her the whole time she’d looked at him. Awareness slammed into her without warning or finesse, loud and noisy and demanding. Demanding to be heard. Noticed. Recognized. Her heart answered the call, pounding so strongly and loudly, that surely Keith could hear it. Sense it.

His hands flexed on her, his fingers hooking through the loops of her waistband. A tug. A gentle tug that propelled her toward him. Even closer. Impossibly closer. Violet never realized that she could get this close to another person, like she was stamping herself on him, like he was doing the same in permanent ink. With each indrawn breath, she could feel his muscles contract, and with every exhalation, slower at first that picking up in speed, his body whispered against hers.

His body stopped whispering. Stopped teasing. Stopped stamping in intermittent moments.

She was hauled against him, fully, completely. No space existed. Nothing else seemed to exist but him and her. His fingers unhooked from her shorts and slid to the small of her back. To her bared skin. Her breath hitched. Her tank must have slipped up at some point. His hands splayed wide, his warmth seeping into her in one fluid rush. She felt off-balance, desperately sought an anchor.

She found him.

Her hands landed on his forearms, warm, hot, delicious temptation. She felt the muscle there, the tendons, the strength, the wonder of him. She was touching him. He was touching her. She didn’t even believe this was happening, even though it was totally happening. Surely, she’d slipped into some dream-world and this was a figment of her imagination.

But this was real.

He was real.

Keith was before her, solid and alive, and looking at her in a way she’d only read about in romance books, in a way that she never thought could happen to her. She skated her hands up to his shoulders, never once breaking her gaze from his.

His head lowered, she leaned up, reaching, waiting . . .

Her eyes slid shut.

Her breath held, her whole world fractured into Before and After, at the exact moment his mouth touched hers.

Her first kiss.

For a moment, she wondered if Keith would pull away. Just leave it like this, a mere meeting of mouths. A glance, a skim, a thing that could be forgotten, but then . . .

He moved, his lips pressing against hers in a sweet, heady rush. His kiss was not just one kiss, but a multitude of kisses. One after another after another after another, as if he couldn’t stop giving her these morsels of unwrapped desire. His kisses laid him bare, dared her to do the same, and she reached for that fine, delicate thread of truth and held it as what she thought was vulnerability to be so open, a weakness, proved false. She could not hide from this, she couldn’t let him be the only one who showed his heart.

And that’s what this felt like, these kisses.

Their hearts recognizing each other in the sun.

Violet started when his tongue touched her lips, and then his right hand was at the side of her face, his thumb grazing her cheek. His kisses slowed to a maddeningly teasing pace that left her wanting, straining for more.

She still jumped when his tongue touched her lips once more, and she felt his mouth gentle, press tender touches along her mouth, her jaw, her ear.

“First time?” No mockery, no derision, only tenderness and a hint of wonder.

She wanted to duck her head but found she couldn’t. Her body refused to cower, her heart didn’t want to hide in the darkness. So she opened her eyes and braved the light. “Yes.”

No apologies in her tone, no excuses, no self-mockery. No flubbed reasons why she hadn’t been kissed before this. She hadn’t, that was that, but . . .

“I’m glad it’s you,” she whispered.

His eyes darkened, and he reached for her again. “So am I.”


Excerpt: The Devil You Know