Wydawca: Kate Canterbary Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 2014

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Opis ebooka Underneath It All - Kate Canterbary

One hot architect. One naughty schoolteacher. One crazy night that changes everything.If I had known I'd have a hot architect balls deep inside of me before the end of the weekend, I'd have made time for a pedicure. Also, a little chat about not losing my shit at all the wrong moments.Hindsight was a bitch, and karma...well, I didn't know her story yet.Meet Lauren Halsted.It's all the little things--the action plans, the long-kept promises--that started falling apart when my life slipped into controlled chaos.After I fell ass-over-elbow into Matthew Walsh's arms.I couldn't decide whether I wanted to run screaming or rip his pants off, and most days I wanted a little of both. If I was being honest with myself, it was rip his pants off, ride him like a workhorse, and then run screaming.Meet Matthew Walsh.A rebellious streak ran through Lauren Halsted. It was fierce and unrelentingly beautiful, and woven through too many good girl layers to count, and she wasn't letting anyone tell her what to do.Unless, of course, she was naked.She wasn't looking for me and I sure as shit wasn't looking for her, but we found each other anyway and now we were locked in a battle of wills, waiting for the other to blink.Sometimes the universe conspires to bring people together. Other times, it throws them down a flight of stairs and leaves them in a bruised and bloodied heap. 

Opinie o ebooku Underneath It All - Kate Canterbary

Fragment ebooka Underneath It All - Kate Canterbary

Underneath It All

The Walsh Series, Book One

Kate Canterbary

Vesper Press

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used factiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Kate Canterbary

Third edition, 2017.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any forms, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author.

Trademarked names appear throughout this book. Rather than use a trademark symbol with every occurrence of a trademarked name, names are used in an editorial fashion, with no intention of infringement of the respective owner's trademark(s).

Editing provided by Julia Ganis of JuliaEdits. www.juliaedits.com

Cover design by Sarah Hansen of Okay Creations. www.okaycreations.com

Created with Vellum

For all the girls who know life never goes according to plan.

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Epilogue

Another Epilogue

Also By Kate Canterbary

New from Kate Canterbary

About Kate

Chapter One

Lauren

If I had known I'd have a hot architect balls deep inside of me before the end of the weekend, I'd have made time for a pedicure. Also, a little chat about not losing my shit at all the wrong moments.

Hindsight was a bitch, and karma…well, I didn't know her story yet.

But instead of prioritizing that pedi, I was sobbing in a stairwell. It probably owed something to stress or sleepless nights or hormones or the freaking lunar cycle, but there I was, mascara smudged and nose running, crying it all the way out. Reacting this way to a missed deadline was ridiculous and childish, but the number of things going wrong today was obscene, and it wasn't even noon.

And this happened most days. Not the crying—that wasn't a regular occurrence for me—but the dead ends, the brick walls, the square pegs and round holes, the things that wouldn't go as planned.

It started innocently enough—all the best situations did. I used to teach third grade, and while I loved everything about it, I wanted to lead my own school. Conquer the world beyond my classroom. Do something incredible and bold and innovative.

For longer than I could remember, I'd toyed with applying for an absurdly competitive two-year paid fellowship program to launch a new school, and one day I finally did it. No one was more shocked than I was when the acceptance letter arrived. At the time, it didn't seem like I was embarking on the world's greatest obstacle course.

Part of me knew that receiving an offer to join this fellowship was a tremendous accomplishment and a validation of my hard work in the classroom, but most days I felt like a fraud. Someone would soon notice I wasn't nearly as smart or talented or driven as I led them to believe. They'd realize I was sitting at my kitchen table at one a.m., trying to make sense of state guidelines for school lunch programs or wrestling with five-year operating budgets, and rip those generous start-up grants right out from underneath me.

Not so long ago, I was good at everything. Not just good—awesome. Parents lobbied to get their kids on my roster. My students outperformed their peers across the city and state. I was engaging and creative in the classroom, and managed every committee, event, and initiative at my school. Five golden apples lined my desk, one for each year I received the district's Teacher of the Year award. The cognitive research I conducted for my Master's thesis was mentioned in prominent journals and blogs. A girl could get used to that level of wonderful, and it made the present state of affairs even more dismal.

I expected the fellowship to be demanding, and I knew all about demanding. I was the chick who taught the largest, neediest classes while simultaneously running the book and science fairs, and coaching the middle school's cheer squad, all while finishing my Master of Education degree and prepping for my principal licensure exams. But I never expected it to be quite like this. Working straight through weekends and holidays. Chained to my email. A slave to my action plan. Spending zero time in classrooms. Clinging to my sanity's last threads upon finding a state office unexpectedly closed on the day of a filing deadline.

But as my father liked to say, there were three choices in life: giving in, giving up, or giving it all you've got.

I wasn't giving in and I sure as hell wasn't giving up.

This school was part dream, part reality, and all mine. So what if I couldn't find time to collect my clothes from the dry cleaner or sleep more than a few hours each night? I could sleep when I was dead, and when that day rolled around, I didn't want to think about all the opportunities I passed up over some miserable moments in a stairwell.

The right amount of stubborn resistance had me swiping raspberry red gloss over my lips and wiggling my shoulders back. The hours, the hurdles, the hoops—they weren't stopping me, not when I had four inches of clearance rack Jimmy Choo goodness to get me through it.

A genuine smile fixed on my face, I sweet-talked my way through a few clerks to get what I needed. Within fifteen minutes, my documents were filed before the critical deadline and this particular fiasco was behind me, and I marched out of the state offices beaming. The satisfaction of crossing that off my list bordered on orgasmic, which was a commentary on either my work ethic or my shortage of orgasms. Couldn't be sure.

The sweet talk was a double-edged sword in my world. Some blamed it on the California in me, others said it was the elementary teacher, and an odd few thought I was trying to be a psychic medium, but I think I'd always seen just beyond the masks people wore, to where they were real and vulnerable. I stared too closely, watched too long, but it never took much to see what was right there. People revealed themselves in glimpses and flashes, and I believed they usually wanted to be seen.

I was good at it—knowing what to say in awkward moments, interpreting body language and subtle cues, figuring out what people needed—and it was my undoing. My tendencies to put people at ease and draw them out occasionally made me the world's greatest dumping ground. Add to that my inclination to adopt every project and solve every problem I encountered, and I neglected myself in the process. As my friends Steph and Amanda liked to remind me, those problems and projects occasionally took over, took all of me.

That was why I swore off men. I couldn't worry about fixing all the boys in Boston anymore. There were schools to open and shoe sales to find, and I didn't have the time to deal with man-children who owned a singular set of sheets and still called their hometown pediatrician for every sore throat.

I had an incredible group of friends, and a number of vibrators powerful enough to chip a tooth if not handled with care. There was no room in my life for men right now, and no need to make room.

With the meltdown behind me and two hours until my next appointment, I required a treat, and my first instinct pointed to cupcakes and tequila. While it seemed like the appropriate reward for navigating another mindlessly bureaucratic channel, I usually reserved the cake-and-liquor doubleheader for blue moons and holidays. Bypassing my preferred cupcakeries, I went in search of my other indulgence: lingerie.

My happiness was pegged to neither my measurements nor the number of pounds I wanted to drop, but I played the trade-off game, keeping my treats and cheats in some semblance of balance.

Croissant for breakfast, no drinks that evening. Cheesy enchiladas for lunch, no nibbling chocolate at midnight.

Of course, it didn't always work that way.

My father was a Navy man, and after years of deployment, he transitioned out of the field and into training new SEALs. Each batch of sailors endured months of conditioning, "the good kind of torture," my father would say, and his dinner table stories never skimped on the gory details.

That is, the details the government allowed him to share.

I wasn't joining the SEALs anytime soon—my girl parts saw to that—but my father didn't see gender as a reason to exclude me from the mock training operations he planned for my older brothers. He taught me how to use my height and low center of gravity to my advantage, but more importantly, he taught me to rely on myself.

Over and over, he told me there was nothing anyone could do for me that I couldn't do for myself. He and my mother raised me on that ethos, and I believed it every time I dropped his SEALs on their asses. They weren't comfortable perpetrating crimes against the commanding officer's daughter, but they armed me with the knowledge and skills necessary to fight off attackers, escape kidnappers, fashion weapons from random items, and treat any number of injuries with salt water and a belt. But more than the badass technique, they instilled confidence, the internal faith that I was capable of anything.

I knew from countless survival exercise that sailors often went into battle with little more than their wits, and if they did have a weapon, it needed to serve many purposes. My father saw to it that I had a small bunker of equipment at my disposal, but my armor was softer than anything Commodore Halsted would have recommended.

The streets of Boston were no battlefield and opening a school was not a covert op, but my weapons of choice were devastating heels and lacy undies. It wasn't about the designer brands or lusting after this season's hottest styles, and it wasn't about being anyone's eye candy. No, it was about the strength I felt when that sumptuous lace skimmed up my thighs and how only I'd know about those big girl panties swishing against my skirt. It was stepping into a platform heel and seeing the world from an entirely new vantage point, one where nobody ever mistook me for a college kid or intern.

Though the fellowship program paid me well, it wasn't Agent Provocateur or Christian Louboutin well, and my habit required a certain amount of sale stalking. Forty-five minutes of salivating over unimaginably expensive lingerie later, I laid my hands upon some of the most beautiful mesh and dot lace panties.

I was one of the odd few for whom nude-colored underthings nearly matched my bare skin, and when I picked up the panties, I knew I'd look naked wearing them, and I loved that idea. I couldn't contain the jolt of excitement rippling through me at the thought, a giggle slipping from my lips and attracting the side eye of the shopgirl. When I spied the matching bra in my size—finding 36DDs in La Perla was like seeing the ghost of Paul Revere riding through downtown on a unicorn—I knew this treat was precisely proportional to today's victory.

Perhaps I wasn't on karma's shit list.

With my finery tissue-wrapped and stowed in my tote bag, I headed for my next appointment, and with any luck, an overdose of good news for my school.

Of all the issues I expected to encounter in my school-opening odyssey, finding a functional building or bare bit of land never cracked my short list. The fellowship established rigorous environmental and sustainability requirements, and the architects approved to handle that kind of work were few and far between—exactly seven in the state of Massachusetts with the mandated credentials. Two only touched multi-million dollar residential designs, two others weren't accepting new business, and the last three belonged to a single firm—Walsh Associates—specializing in historic preservation.

It sounded charming, really: a business focused exclusively on keeping Boston's old buildings looking new…ish. It was probably a New England thing; it seemed unlikely that a niche architect would find enough work in my hometown, San Diego, to stay in business.

They were located a few blocks from my apartment, and without knowing it, I had been walking past the Walsh Associates office every time I visited my favorite coffee shop.

It took several calls and a box of the best from Mike's Pastry to get on Matthew A. Walsh's calendar. His assistant had eyed the cream-filled sfogliatella, made me promise to "stop calling all damn day," and scribbled a date and time on the back of his business card.

Retrieving the card from my suit coat pocket, I studied the string of letters trailing after his name, denoting his credentials. He was an architect and engineer, he was an expert in sustainable design and preservation, and with any luck, he was the solution to all my problems.

If he wasn't, I'd research ways to operate a school from a quiet corner of my neighborhood Starbucks.

Chapter Two

Matthew

"Would you like to know what bullshit Angus is pulling now?" Shannon asked.

I rolled my eyes as her voice piped in through my phone's speaker. My older sister, Shannon, only referred to our father by first name. We all did. I couldn't tell you the last time I heard someone call him Dad, and all things considered, it was better than calling him Miserable Bastard.

Even if that was fitting.

After a shitty morning crammed with ornery inspectors and stop-work threats, Shannon's issues were par for the course.

"Go for it," I murmured. Peering over the steering wheel, I scanned Neponset Avenue for a shuttered church and my one o'clock appointment. "Can't be much worse than changing the designs on the Belmont project at the last minute. Again."

"Believe me, Matt, it is worse," she hissed. "He's picked up four rehab and restore properties around Bunker Hill. Apparently, he wanted to. You know. Just because."

I turned down a side street and brought the Range Rover to a stop. My fingers curled around the steering wheel. Tension seized every muscle in my hand, up my arm, along my neck, and into my jaw. I didn't need this shit and I didn't need four bullshit projects clogging my days.

"Who's going to run that? Does he realize how much we're managing right now? Sam, Patrick, and me, we're fully booked. I've backed out of three marathons in the past few months! I have no time for anything, ever, and now I have four properties that will definitely fall to me because Sam's busy agreeing to random shit without discussing it with us first, and Patrick works twenty-nine hours a day, and no one stops to say this is insane."

"Exactly! And me, right now, I'm saying this is insane." Sharp clicks punctuated her angry sigh, her stilettos reverberating against the hardwood as she paced her office. "He just wants us to know he's still holding some of the cards and plenty of chips."

"A lot less than you think, Shan."

In the nine years since we—me, with my brothers Patrick and Sam, and my sister Shannon—put our stake in the ground and edged Angus onto the sidelines of our ailing third generation architecture shop, he never failed to concoct obstacles to our success. He hated that we were doing more with the family business than he ever did. Us kicking up some dust in the sustainable design world didn't meet with his favor either, and he made his displeasure clear every time he interfered with projects or bought crumbling buildings to add to our overflowing slate.

Externally, it appeared that visionary architect Angus Walsh was simply staying engaged with the work in his retirement. What could be obnoxious about an old man who wanted nothing more than to preserve the city's forgotten architectural gems?

And he was brilliant when it came to keeping up appearances. Only a select few outside our family knew the truth of Angus's alcoholism, his vindictiveness, his violence. We went along with the rouse, even when that meant absorbing costly projects and covering up his public indiscretions.

I shook my head and drained the coffee from my afternoon stop at Dunkin's. I was always the intermediary, always stuck cleaning up Angus's messes. I didn't know when I earned that role but seeing as I never let him get to me it was mine to keep.

I felt a glimmer of wry relief Angus hadn't shown up at one of my properties to deliver the news of his acquisitions in person. Increasingly, his appearances were moving out of the office's controlled environment and into public venues. And after my face-off with the inspector, a visit from Angus would have gone down as smoothly as a shot of scotch and a handful of nails.

"Fuck," I sighed. "Just…fuck."

"You know there's nothing I enjoy more than Angus and his little visits. We need to hire a bouncer."

On most days, Shannon was a steamroller and that was putting it mildly, but when Angus was in the office, he usually raked her over the coals. He treated her with such derision and scorn I couldn't help but take those bullets for her. She shouldered more than her share of the work and family burdens.

"We probably should," I murmured. "Shan, I gotta go. I'm late for a client and I'm lost in Dorchester. I'll figure out how to deal with him later. Be a duck. Don't let him get to you. He's not worth it."

"I don't want to hear about your fucking ducks, Matt."

After fifteen minutes circling the streets of Dorchester and some help from Siri, I scaled the steps of Saint Cosmas while pulling on the fleece vest embroidered with our new Walsh Associates logo—another in an endless line of changes to make the firm our own.

Weeds stood tall around the perimeter and vines roped up one side, over the roofline, and down the other. Small trees grew out of the parking lot, the roots leaving behind eruptions of concrete. The earth was repossessing the structure. A quick inventory of the church and the attached hall told me the work involved the two E's: extensive and expensive.

"Oh, hi, over here." I turned my focus away from the sagging roofline and stone pillars toward a female voice. "Hi, I'm Lauren Halsted."

She came in about nine, maybe ten inches under my six-three, though the energy she projected made up for the small package. Tucked into a navy skirt and jacket with her rich blonde hair loose at her shoulders, she turned a slow smile toward me. The professional suit did nothing to disguise her curves, and for a moment, I stared at her, wondering what a pin-up girl was doing at a Dorchester church.

My expectations had run closer to a graying librarian or grandmotherly type. Who else would want to convert an aging church hall into an elementary school?

"Miss Halsted, hi, Matt Walsh. I apologize, I didn't mean to keep you waiting." I squeezed her hand, but it was the shimmers of gold in her green eyes catching my attention. I'd never seen anything like it before, and I couldn't look away.

"Oh please don't give it a second thought. And call me Lauren. Let's get inside, and I'll tell you what I'm thinking."

I held open the heavy, warped door for Miss Halsted and found myself gazing at something even more captivating than her eyes: her ass. It was round and firm, and the craving to squeeze it—hard—left my fingers itching. And then her legs. Deeply tanned, natural and without a hint of that strange spray-on shit.

She was talking, but between her butterscotch-washed voice and the dark freckles on her calves, my brain didn't have the bandwidth to listen. Angry creaks echoed from the floorboards and plumes of dust swirled around her ankles, and then I noticed the leopard-print Come Fuck Me heels.

Those looked good on her.

Finding myself admiring the lilt in Lauren's voice and her sultry features was a surprise. She wasn't my type. Not even a little bit.

I liked beasts—ass-kicking, whey protein-and-oatmeal-guzzling beasts who preferred compression sleeves and hydration belts to jewelry and flowers. I liked women who planned their lives around Color Runs, Tough Mudders, and the Ironman circuit. I liked women who could bench press my weight, and those within a few inches of my height, and even the ones who liked to remind me they could knock my ass into next Friday. I was about hard-core athletic women, usually ones from my marathon and triathlon circles, and always ones who wanted only fast, stringless sex.

Maybe I was irreversibly fucked-up, but beast mode worked for me.

Lauren was short and soft, with generous, real curves. Everything about her screamed sexy as fuck, yet innocent and warm. Not even within striking distance of beastly.

And this was an architectural consult, for Christ's sake. I wasn't here to think about her or types or freckles or sexy-ass shoes. And women like her married young. Anyone with sense would have snapped her up the minute it was legal. She had naughty schoolteacher written all over that sunny blonde smile, and I was willing to bet she was bent over someone's knee every night.

Client, client, client.

Fuck, I needed to stop thinking about spanking this chick and get my head in the game.

Blowing out a frustrated breath, I turned away and inventoried the hall's structure. Rays of daylight shone through the ceiling. Crisp autumn air wafted in through broken stained glass windows. Beams listed at precarious angles. Water damage and wood rot long ago destroyed everything worth preserving. It was a train wreck—my favorite kind of project.

"…so this area could be divided into four classrooms and five small offices over there. I know the plumbing needs updating. What would it take to add another set of bathrooms down here?"

My phone's structural engineering apps came to life under my fingers while I eyed the space. Perhaps train wreck was a gracious characterization.

I looked up from my phone to watch Lauren traversing decayed stairs to a small alcove—in the CFMs, no less. When she shot her left arm out to steady herself, there were exactly zero rings on those fingers.

Client, client, client.

Get through the consult, I thought. Plenty of time for thinking about fucking Little Miss Naughty Schoolteacher when she was out of sight.

I ran my hands along the pillars flanking the main room. The feel of an unstable load-bearing structure was unmistakable, and I stopped caring who Miss Halsted went home to at night. I jogged across the hall, slowing only when I reached her side. "Time to go."

Eyes narrowed, she studied my grip on her bicep. "Excuse me? What's going on?"

I yanked her outside and shook my head. "Miss Halsted. You need to stay away from this place. It's not stable. Go across the street. Now."

Lauren's lips fell into a tight line. Maybe she was the one doing the spanking. "I'm fine right here, thank you."

If this place wasn't a breath from caving in around us, my dick would have been standing at attention and waiting for marching orders, and I would've had only that sharp look and bossy tone to blame.

"The load on this structure"—I pointed to the roof—"is causing extensive stresses and deformations on the internal supports. The walls, the pillars. And I'd bet anything the foundation has deteriorated beyond repair. A strong gust and this place is coming down. I want you fifty feet away, Miss Halsted." I passed my fingers down the stone column for emphasis, a trail of sand and pebbles trickling to the ground.

"I'm only Miss Halsted inside the classroom. Call me Lauren." Her smile was serene, yet wholly impatient. "Are you sure?"

"I make a point of knowing safe structures." I wanted to drag her across the street, lock her in the car, and then…well, those interests weren't part of a standard consult. "But let me take a closer look at the foundation. Stay right here."

The property borders told the same story. The site needed a full rebuild, if not a straight teardown and that was no surprise after surveying the interior. I debated how we'd get a team in place to preserve the only thing worth saving: a round, eastern-facing stained glass window. The time and money would be huge, and wouldn't help her project in the least.

Rounding the perimeter, my chest lurched when I noticed her staring at the structure, her plump, red lip trapped between her teeth. She looked frustrated and determined, and so fucking desirable, and even if it was a giant pain in my ass, I wanted to find a solution and make this right for her.

"I could run some more calculations at the office, see to a few variables. But," I hedged as the sparkle returned to her eyes, "I can't promise anything."

"Thank you. I knew we'd find a way to make this work," Lauren said.

She started down the church steps toward me but a worn patch of granite caught her heel and she shrieked, pitching forward. Her chin was headed for the sidewalk when my hand seized her elbow, and I jerked her against me. The adrenaline was pumping too fast, and my brain couldn't focus on the slide of her silky hair against my chin, or her sweet scent engraving itself on my memory.

"I was going to stick that landing," she said. Her expression was dead serious, but it wasn't until a shy smirk pulled at her lips that I understood the humor.

"I bet you were," I murmured. I kept my arm around her lower back, my hand cradling her waist. "Are you okay?"

Her palms laid flat against my chest and I didn't want her pulling away yet. My fingers had plans of their own, and they flexed, kneading the flesh beneath her suit coat. There was strength under all that softness.

And those eyes, they couldn't decide if they were green or gold.

She released a shaky laugh and looked up. "Quick reflexes. I knew you were the man for my project."

I was close enough to kiss her. She was short, and I'd have to bend down to meet her, but then I'd determine whether she tasted as sweet as she looked.

"Oh yeah?" I didn't know much about the correlation between reflexes and decent architects, but it seemed like something I wanted to hear. And if she noticed me rubbing her back or staring at her mouth, it didn't show.

"You're all over it and one step ahead, even when I knock myself down some stairs, which is not a new occurrence for me. Sadly." She paused, realizing her hands were on my chest, and pulled them away to rake through her hair. "I need people who won't give up on this project. I'm not stopping until I get a yes from you."

I reminded myself we were still talking about this shithole property, and not the seventy-two other activities to which I'd eagerly agree. But that bossy tone was addictive. Mesmerizing. Sexy as fuck. "I'll do my best."

"I know you will." Her arms wrapped around my shoulders and she folded me into a fierce hug. "Thank you," she said, her breath whispering over my ear. It was gentle and light, and if she didn't step back in the next three seconds, my hand was going to introduce itself to her ass.

Client, client, client.

"Okay, well, that's wonderful," I murmured.

Retreat. Disengage. Fall back.

Thirty was too old for midday erections on the sidewalk. A stiff pat to her shoulder, a giant step backward, and a notebook over my crotch kept my dignity intact.

For the moment.

Hugging clients wasn't a standard part of my consults. Neither was caring. I was good at numbers, structures, and ratios. It was a pleasant coincidence that I usually liked my clients, and because I was good at getting shit done, and delivering on time and under budget, they liked me. Somehow, I managed to both hug Miss Halsted and care about her happiness inside an hour.

And let's not forget the waking wet dream.

"I'll run some numbers. Probably get back to you in a day or two." I tried ignoring her smile—I could feel it piercing my skin, stabbing me like little pins of sweet, sinful joy—and gestured to the stone steps. "Watch out for stairs."

Lauren nodded and accepted my card. "Thank you so much. For everything." Her gaze swiveled between the steps and me, and she laughed. "I sent all of my information to your assistant last week, but if you need anything else…"

There was more, something she wanted to say, but it melted on her tongue and she presented her card instead. I felt only the brush of her fingertips against my palm, but it was enough to send electricity charging through my veins.

I didn't know what the naughty schoolteacher was doing to me.

"Call me. Day or night. This project is my life. Really. Anytime."

But I didn't think I wanted it to stop.

I went a couple more rounds with the inspector on the Back Bay brownstone restorations that were giving me hell, but after six hours of fixing mistakes and chewing some general contractor ass, all I had to show for it was a pounding headache. Making tracks on at least ten miles of pavement was the only answer, but at the rate my day was going, I'd be running at midnight. Exhausted, I climbed the stairs to the Beacon Hill headquarters of Walsh Associates and waved to Shannon and Patrick when I passed her office. Inviting myself into their weekly budget-and-sushi meeting was the last thing any sane person needed.

Settling into my desk, I stared out the eyebrow dormer windows at the night sky. Why did I do this? Insane hours, impossible expectations, bitch-ass inspectors. Why did I put up with this?

There was always Lauren Halsted.

If pulling a bubbly blonde from an unstable building and subsequently preventing her from eating concrete were the highlights of my day, I was calling it a memorable day. The full-body embrace put an interesting spin on things. A scarf camouflaged the finer aspects of her chest, but the second she was up against me, her full breasts were unmistakable.

Something else unmistakable? The semi I got from those tits and the vision of my hands all over them while she rode me. I couldn't remember the last time my hands explored a body like Lauren's, if ever. She wasn't sculpted or race-hardened. She was real, all feminine, and completely foreign to me. And a client and not my type and I needed something else to occupy my mind.

Fast.

I demolished a Reuben sandwich while listening to voicemails, and sighed—and couldn't repress a smile—when her voice filled the room.

"Hi, Mr. Walsh, this is Lauren Halsted. From the Saint Cosmas property. Touching base to see if you have any updates for me. Looking forward to hearing from you."

I pulled up the specs of her project on my laptop.

"Mr. Walsh, this is Lauren Halsted again. Please feel free to reach out with updates. I'm free anytime. Looking forward to hearing from you. About the Saint Cosmas project."

I checked the timestamp on her calls. Thirty-five minutes apart. "She wasn't joking when she said it was her life," I murmured.

"Mr. Walsh, this is Lauren Halsted calling. Sorry to trouble you. I've emailed some information gathered from a feasibility study completed on the site a few years ago. Again, please call me. Anytime. Looking forward to hearing from you."

I crumpled the sandwich wrappings and turned my attention to the Saint Cosmas project. The calculations were quick, and confirmed everything I suspected: the site was completely unstable. The costs of rehab far exceeded Lauren's budget, and that was before we started talking about restoration or turning it green.

Annoyed, I rolled my eyes at the screen. I probably would have been prepared with that information before this afternoon's meeting if I wasn't managing a ridiculous project load and incapable of seeing more than four minutes ahead at any given time. Regardless, I wanted another visit with Miss Halsted, and I wanted to touch her again.

And I figured she'd want to go through the data in person, piece by piece. She seemed thorough like that. Flicking a glimpse at my watch, I decided it wasn't too late to call.

"Hi, this is Lauren."

Fuck, I wanted to know what she was wearing. In detail. The conservative suit made me think of cotton panties in safe, subtle colors, but those heels said red thong. And I wanted to get to the bottom of that controversy.

Client, client, client.

"Miss Halsted, Matt Walsh. How are you this evening?"

"We're not in my classroom, Matt. Lauren is fine," she laughed, but her tone was no nonsense. It went in my ear and straight down to my dick. "So great to hear from you so soon. Any news on the site?"

We were pushing and pulling against a strange layer of formality. Was she still Miss Halsted because I was imagining her underwear, and fighting like hell not to? Or because she was my only full-body contact since the triathlon chick in July? Or was it the naughty schoolteacher thing?

If anyone asked, I was totally down for exploring the naughty schoolteacher thing.

"Still running scenarios. Can you meet me tomorrow?" I toggled to my calendar. "Around five?"

"Of course. At Saint Cosmas?"

"No!" I cried, imagining the floor dissolving into splinters under our feet. "Can you make it to our Beacon Hill offices? Off Cambridge Street?"

"Definitely. Thank you again for everything, Matt."

A smile spread across my face as I sat back in my chair. "Goodnight, Lauren."

She paused and I thought I heard her smile. Was that possible? To hear a smile? "Goodnight, Matt."

I definitely heard a smile.

She was contagious. It was viral, her juju, her mojo, her sparkle, her hip-swiveling swagger. Whatever it was, it was on me.

I needed a little swagger for the deluge ahead.

Seventeen messages from sub-contractors, all requiring immediate attention.

Five budget updates from Shannon, plus a rundown on Angus's new Bunker Hill properties and the associated screaming match, but I knew those issues would keep for another day. He liked to disrupt our work with time intensive, expensive properties, but he usually managed a few drunken rounds of golf in between the surprise attacks.

Eleven designs requiring structural analysis from my brother Sam, the sustainable design specialist. If that runt continued accepting new work without getting the entire team's approval first, I was drop-kicking his skinny ass into the harbor.

Six frighteningly basic questions on restoration projects from my brother Riley, the youngest architect on the Walsh Associates team and Patrick's slave.

Twelve one-line messages from my older brother Patrick, the senior architect and de facto chief executive, all bitching about progress on my Back Bay brownstone restorations. Bitching suited him. He liked freaking out over minute details.

I spent two hours deep in calculations for Sam, and updated my partners on the brownstone issues.

And that left one message from my little sister, Erin, with a photo album from her research trip to São Jorge Island, off the coast of Portugal, and its trio of volcanic complexes on the Azorean archipelago. I saved her for last.

Me and Erin, we got each other. We were the youngest, in a way, and being at the bottom of our respective heaps always brought us together. Patrick, Shannon, and I were born one after another, inside three years. Sam came along about two years later, then Riley, and finally Erin.

From: Matthew Walsh

To: Erin Walsh

Date: September 23 at 22:43 EDT

Subject: RE: Back from the Azores

E -

Good to hear you're back on the mainland. The pictures of that lava flow are sick. How do you even get close enough to take those shots?

Crazy, crazy day here today. I just about dislocated a client's arm when she tried to take a header down some stone steps. I think I've seen you do the same.

Miss you. We need to Skype soon.

Find a way to get your ass back here for Thanksgiving or Christmas this year. Pick one and show up.

M

I reread the message before clicking Send. I didn't know why I mentioned Lauren; I just knew I wanted to tell someone about her and Erin was my most trusted someone.

Chapter Three

Lauren

I sat cross-legged on my antique velvet sofa, staring at the cover of my latest book club selection. Another meeting with Matthew A. Walsh. Matt. I was more than happy to give him an hour of my day, especially if it involved good news. I needed good news, and sharing his company was no hardship.

He was one of those guys you met and immediately thought, "Wow. Let me take off your pants. And yeah, the shirt too."

Or, in my case, "Let me throw myself down some stairs and rub up against your chest."

Given his kindness in keeping me from becoming a sidewalk stain, I was tempted to thank Matt with coffee after our meeting, but I'd hesitated, and the moment had slipped away.

I was curious about him. He wasn't the type of architect I had expected—no tweed jacket, no suede elbow patches, no tortoiseshell glasses, no ill-fitting pleated khakis. Instead, he was an architectural superhero, all muscles and dark hair and throbbing annoyance at the building for failing to meet his expectations. His smile was scorching, but his intense gaze hit me hardest. When those blue eyes landed on me, serious and heavy, it was as if he was sifting through my every thought.

My phone vibrated across the table, and my heart leapt just as quickly. I rolled my eyes, laughing at myself and shaking free from my daydream. Time to shut down all thoughts of Matt Walsh's chiseled chest.

I studied the readout and smiled. "If it isn't the road warriors!"

"Hi, honey! It's your Mom and me, we're on the speakerphone," my father announced. For a guy who trained Navy SEALs for over twenty years, he sounded quite impressed with the capabilities of his cell phone.

"Hi, Dad. Hi, Mom. Where are you today?"

"We're in the Anza-Borrego Desert, in the mountains outside Palm Springs. Amazing country up here. You'd love the hiking."

I snorted, imagining myself tumbling down the trail and landing in a bank of jumping cholla cactus. My brothers liked to say I tripped over dust. It wasn't that I was clumsy—ten years of gymnastics and competitive cheerleading proved I could control my body—it was that I managed to stumble at inopportune times, and those times were typically when I was nervous.

Or distracted by the dress shirt pulled tight across Matt's chest, and the thought of peeling it away and tasting him just beneath his collar.

"And the views for miles!" Mom added. "The natural landscape is gorgeous. I can't stop taking pictures."

"How long are you staying there?"

"Well…" Dad released a good-natured chuckle. "We've scrapped the itinerary for the moment. Your mother has persuaded me to follow the good weather."

"That sounds reasonable," I said.

"But we'll be spending some time in Palm Springs to visit with the Rosses. And then down to Mexico. I'd like to stop in Rosarito, and then Ensenada. Along Highway One. Probably ending in Cabo San Lucas around Thanksgiving. Maybe later. I want some sunny holidays this year."

"You're welcome to join us anytime, honey," Dad said. "Just say the word, and we'll have a ticket waiting for you. I hope you're not worrying about money."

He trusted me with firearms, yet doubted my ability to balance a checkbook. Was it a protective dad thing? An only daughter thing? Or was it that he truly doubted I had my shit together?

Not that my shit was remotely together, but still.

"I know, Dad," I sighed. "I'm doing fine. You don't need to worry about me—"

"I know you can handle yourself, but I've seen more than enough evil out there. You're still carrying that pepper spray, correct?"

It was always a matter of time until he went there. Commodore Halsted and his "the world is brimming with danger and therefore my daughter needs a thigh-holstered k-bar to walk around the corner" speech. He liked to spice it up with stories cherry-picked from his missions, although I was fairly certain he tossed in plotlines from spy novels and war movies.

I also believed at least half of what he said, although it was more than likely the spy novel half.

"Yes, Dad. Please remember I'm twenty-eight and I've lived in the city for—"

"None of that matters. Predators strike the moment you drop your guard," he said. "Think about a Krav Maga refresher course. You need to keep those skills sharp. You never know what's lurking when you least expect it."

"Bill, stop with the dramatics. What's new with you, sweetheart?" Mom asked.

"We're having a party for Steph and Amanda this weekend, before they leave town. I've been busy finding a building, and meeting with an architect to get it ready for kids. I have meetings lined up for tomorrow with donors interested in funding some of the classroom research we'll be conducting."

"Be yourself, Lolo. They'd be fools not to donate," Dad said.

"I know, Dad, but sometimes it's a little more complicated than being friendly."

"You tell me if you want me to make some calls," he continued. "I have a lot of buddies from the service who want to see kids off the streets and getting a decent education. We've seen plenty of sailors who coulda used a teacher like you to set them straight."

"Thanks, Dad. I don't want any favors, though—"

"Not a favor, Lauren. That's how it's done. It's all about who you know and calling in the right contacts at the right time."

"Bill, let me talk to my Lolo. Go play with your new binoculars," Mom said. The speakerphone connection clicked off. "He's outside now. Probably being a weirdo and spying on the other campers. Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, Mom, everything's fine."

"Are you sure? You sound a little ruffled, Lolo, a little off. It must be rough on you, with Stephanie and Amanda moving away."

My oldest friends, Amanda and Steph, were my home away from home. The sisters I never had. The bitches in my back pocket. We roomed together in college then moved to Boston over six years ago, where we shared the darkest, dampest subterranean apartment in town. It earned every ounce of its nickname, The Dungeon. Over the years, we celebrated successes big and small, and endured heartaches in careers and friendships and relationships. We grew up together—the growing up you did when it was time to figure out life.

And now we were growing apart.

Amanda was engaged, pregnant, and moving with her fiancé, Phil. We always knew Phil's job as lobbyist for a consortium of cutting-edge pharmaceutical firms took priority in their relationship, and that his work would eventually take him and Amanda to Washington, DC. Expecting it to happen didn't mean it wasn't leaving a cannonball-sized hole in me.

We also knew Steph and her husband Dan intended to return home to Chicago when they started a family, and I was surprised they stayed so long after Madison's birth. Steph's pregnancy was difficult, her labor was complicated, and baby Madison struggled with reflux and colic and ear infections right from the start. We pitched in to provide Steph with meals, help around the house, and babysitting, but Steph and Dan needed their big families back in Chicago, and I wanted them to have that.

But like I said: cannonballs.

And if I was being honest with myself, we'd been growing apart by feet and inches since moving out of The Dungeon. Marriage, careers, babies—these things changed us, and our relationships with each other were evolving, too. It wasn't bad; it was just different.

"No, it's not that," I said. "I mean, yes, it's going to be tough, but life is taking them on some new adventures. It's what they need to do and I shouldn't be sad about that."

"Sounds like a new project would be good for you. Something to mix up your routine. You need a man in your life. Men are great distractions."

I laughed at my mother's suggestive tone but couldn't ignore the image of Matt Walsh and his broad shoulders. Or that chest. Give me some dirty laundry and a shirtless Matt, and I'd happily spend my day testing out those washboard abs.

My mother would love his dark, wavy hair and blue eyes, and she'd make plenty of naughty comments about his lean body. He'd meet her criteria for beefcake status. I used to turn seven shades of red when she'd thumb through People magazine, telling my friends she thought Brad Pitt and George Clooney were hunky, and that she wouldn't mind a weekend alone with either. Or both.

I didn't understand the part about both until my twenties, and for everyone involved, that was probably best.

"I'll keep that in mind," I murmured. "I do have a bunch of travel for conferences over the next few weeks, so I'll be busy and finally spending some time in classrooms again."

"Enjoy it! When I was your age, I was pregnant with Wesley. All I knew was the base, and the other wives in the unit. Will was crawling, and your father was deployed on one of his missions. I had no idea when he'd be back. If he'd be back," she added, her voice turning somber. "You have so many options, so much freedom. Enjoy it."

"I do, Mom."

"Good. Now, if you do want to spend some time in Mexico, email us. Your father says we can't rely on cell service in Mexico, but what does he know?"

I laughed. "Have you heard from Will or Wes recently?"

"Yeah, your father spoke to them when we were leaving home. He has some theories about where they're stationed at the moment, but didn't mention specifics. Says they're both well, keeping their heads in the mission."

"Okay," I murmured. I couldn't understand how my mother accepted the dangers my brothers confronted on a daily basis. I didn't truly, deeply, fully understand the nature of my father's work until after his retirement, and was shocked when my parents wholeheartedly supported Will and Wes when they joined the SEALs after graduating from UC-San Diego. "Let me know if you hear anything new."

"Of course," Mom said. "I'll be updating our little website with photos from our journeys. I can't wait to hear what you think of my new posts!"

"I will, Mom," I laughed. My mother, the travel blogger. A few years ago, she kicked off their retirement road trip with a new camera, and hasn't stopped photographing since. What started as Wes's suggestion to post her shots to a blog rather than crashing our email accounts with a terabyte of attachments each week was now a thriving blog complete with voracious followers and advertisers.

"I'll let you go, it's late. Sleep tight, sweetheart. Love you. Daddy says he loves you, too."

"Love you both."

"Find a distraction, Lolo. Men are the best kind."

I leaned back and drummed my fingers against the book's cover, dismissing my mother's comments. No time for men. No time for distractions. Not even time to read this month's book.

The book club was a throwback to our days in The Dungeon, and grew over time to include Phil and Dan's friends' girlfriends and an assortment of colleagues and acquaintances. We came together each month but spent most of the time guzzling wine and catching up.

Was it crazy that I faithfully read the books—even if I hated them, even if I lurked in a few online forums to borrow insightful comments—or was it crazy that we didn't simply retitle the event?

Hanging out and drinking wine without the pretense of literature sounded superb, but I doubted I'd continue going without Steph and Amanda. It was our thing, and without them it didn't hold the same appeal.

And it wasn't as if I needed anyone else trying to fix me up.

The old 'always a bridesmaid' adage wasn't lost on me. I dated plenty but finding The One was the least of my worries. I was as single as single could be: not seeing anyone, no compatibility matches from dating portals, no singles mixer booze cruises on my calendar, and I liked it that way.

Regardless of sad-faced inquiries, the singleton life worked for me. It was my prerogative to shave—or not shave—my legs. I could go on last-minute trips to Martha's Vineyard or New York City or back home to San Diego without including anyone else in those decisions. Dinner often consisted of sliced cucumbers and carrots dipped in chipotle ranch dressing, and there was no one to complain about that.

I was free to watch Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries and every other slightly ridiculous show. I was under no obligation to share the bed, closets, or bathroom. I decided how to spend my money, á la three hundred dollars on one incredible pair of shoes. If I wanted to dedicate my entire Saturday to researching elementary math programs or trying on every pair of peep-toes in Boston, I wasn't cramping anyone's style. And most importantly, I had the freedom to whip off my bra and pull on yoga pants the second I walked through the door of my apartment.

There was the crux of it for me: I didn't like being told what to do or following anyone's rules, and it was that kind of rebelliousness that uniquely suited me for opening a radically new type of school. Without a healthy supply of oppositional defiance to challenge the status quo, I wouldn't be able to question long-held beliefs about teaching and learning, even if some of those questions were uncomfortable and disruptive.

Don't get me wrong, I was a good girl at heart—I had the Type A personality straight from my father to prove it. I waited at red lights, even if it was two in the morning and the roads were deserted. I paid all of my bills on time. I never had one-night stands. I always sent handwritten thank-you notes. I religiously kept annual appointments for teeth cleaning and Pap smears—though never on the same day.

I was a rule-follower…and a rebel.