Desire by Starlight
Bestselling romance author Jenna Hardy, aka Cassandra Hart, sprints through life from one appearance to the next, always on deadline, always in demand, always on the arm of a different beautiful woman. She has no personal life because her entire existence is public, and part of her appeal. She loves the tempo, the power, the thrill until the pace catches up to her and she collapses at a book signing. Her doctor orders rest, her editor wants a three book series yesterday, and her attorney informs her she has just inherited a farm in the backcountry of Vermont. Divine intervention or Fate’s little joke? The only thing that might possibly save her from dying of boredom during a summer of forced R&R is a dalliance with Gardner Davis, the local vet. Unfortunately, everything about Jenna’s high-profile lifestyle is exactly what Gard wants to leave far, far behind, that and a dark secret that haunts the new life she’s made.
Women loved Cassandra Hart—even her press releases said so. Jenna’s quick peek at the seemingly endless line of fans snaking up to the signing table at the Barnes & Noble in Hoboken, New Jersey, indicated quite a few men loved her too. True, the jostling, eager readers had come to see Cassandra Hart, New York Times bestselling romance author, and not Jenna Hardy, but that was just fine with her. She loved being Cassandra Hart, especially on nights like this one. Tonight she’d wowed a sell-out crowd, and the satisfaction was nearly as good as sex.
No matter how many successes she had, she still suffered a few pangs of anxiety before every book launch, but this event had been standing room only. She’d chosen a steamy scene from her newest romance featuring sexy federal agents and renegade mercenaries, and the applause when she’d finished had vibrated through her with the electrifying charge of an orgasm. Riding high, her pulse racing and her body tingling, she’d let the question-and-answer period go overtime and now her signing was running late too. Her publicist, agent, and good friend Alice Smith signaled vigorously from the back of the room and the message was unmistakable. Stop signing! Time to wrap this up!
Pretending not to see Alice’s semaphore-like arm motions, Jenna accepted the next book, already opened to the page she usually signed, from the store assistant. She smiled up at a youngish blonde in blue jeans and a tight long-sleeved T-shirt that announced EMTs Do It Better.
“Hello,” Jenna said, meeting the woman’s gleaming blue eyes. “Thank you so much for coming. How are you tonight?”
“I’m wonderful! I just love your books, Ms. Hart.” The blonde’s dazzling smile widened. “And I really love Cyn Reynolds. She could arrest me any day.”
“I’m with you,” Jenna said, laughing at the frequent comment about one of her recurring characters. “I’m so glad you could come tonight.”
Jenna loved talking with her readers. Writing was such a solitary experience, something she did alone hour after hour in a silent room, and she often wondered if it really mattered to anyone what she was doing. But hearing the excitement in this woman’s voice, she was reminded of one of the most important reasons that she wrote. For a few brief moments her words connected her to other human beings, and she was no longer alone. “To whom would you like me to sign this?”
“Oh, could you sign it to me—oh, I’m Sally—and could you say—Happy birthday, from Cassandra. And”—the blonde hesitated, blushing—“could I get my picture with you?”
“Of course.” Jenna rose, ignoring Alice’s frown and pointed look at her wristwatch. Readers like Sally made her life possible, so she took her time with every one, asking their name, writing a personal message in their book, thanking them for their support. She waited until Sally came around the table to stand beside her, then lightly clasped her waist and smiled as the store assistant, using Sally’s camera, took their picture. Then she sat down, took the next hardback passed to her, and greeted another reader.
A faint cloud of Obsession accompanied the firm press of a hand against her shoulder.
“You need to pull the plug on this,” Alice murmured in her ear. “You have an early flight in the morning, double bookings in the afternoon and evening, and you look completely exhausted. I told you that signing last night was a bad idea.”
“I’m all right.” Jenna pressed a hand to her midsection, hunger pangs reminding her she hadn’t eaten after rushing from the airport to the hotel, hurriedly changing, and grabbing a cab over to the bookstore. Her flight from Washington, DC, where she had given a reading at a small bookstore in Dupont Circle, had been delayed, and she’d barely gotten any sleep. She was still glad she’d squeezed in the extra event, despite Alice’s protests. She hadn’t sold very many books, but the audience members—largely gay and lesbian—were among her staunchest supporters. She frequently reminded Alice that a great deal of her success lay in being accessible to those who bought her books. Unlike many bestselling authors, she still did small independent bookstore events even though Alice nagged her to conserve her time and energy for the national tours. Feeling Alice’s glare on the back of her neck like an angry wasp, she tried to stretch out the cramps in her lower back without Alice noticing. “How many more in line?”
“More than you can handle.”
“Just a little while longer.” Jenna tuned out Alice’s long-suffering sigh and focused on an elderly gentleman in a three-piece suit who looked only moderately uncomfortable surrounded by the primarily female crowd. “Hi, so nice to see you.”
He held out her newest title, whose cover featured two camo-clad women in a tight clinch against a backdrop of strafer tracings. “I’d like to get this for my wife. Her name is Joan.”
“Wonderful,” Jenna said. “Shall I say it’s from you?”
He looked momentarily abashed, then smiled broadly. “Yes please. Could you say, ‘Love from Martin’—and then your name, of course.”
Jenna wrote the message and signed Cassandra Hart with her trademark flourish. “Here you are.”
As she handed the book back, she caught sight of the glossy promotional photograph on the back cover of a woman standing on a bridge high above the Hudson, chestnut hair stylishly windblown and wide-set green eyes just the tiniest bit provocative. Like always, she experienced a moment of confusion. Was that really her? Cassandra Hart looked confident, sexy, and a little bit sinful. Jenna had worked hard to create that image, to become that woman, and if she had to get by on a couple hours’ sleep and airport food a few months a year to ensure she remained that woman, she would. Gladly.
“I’m sorry,” the store manager announced to the remaining fans in a pleasant voice, “but we’re going to have to end our event for the evening. We will have signed copies of Cassandra’s newest book at the registers for those of you in line who would like to purchase one, but they will not be personalized. We’re so sorry, but Ms. Hart is finished signing for the night.”
Jenna knew better than to argue. If she did, Alice was likely to drag her bodily from the store. She pushed back from the table and was about to stand when a willowy redhead in a beige linen suit and open-collared emerald green shirt the exact color of her eyes stopped in front of the table and leaned down, one hand braced on the tabletop in an unexpectedly intimate pose.
“I’m sure you’ve had a very long day,” the redhead said, “and I won’t keep you. I just wanted to tell you that my fifteen-year-old niece thinks you are the most astonishing author on the planet. It means a lot that she can feel good about herself because of what you write. So—thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Jenna settled back into her chair and grabbed a book from the box the assistant was refilling. She opened it to the title page. “What’s your niece’s name?”
The redhead’s voice was low and melodious and her emerald eyes so intense they might have been the actual gemstones.
“Have you read this one?” Jenna asked, her pen poised over the page.
The woman leaned closer, her expression so magnetic everyone else in the room faded to sepia. “I have a confession to make.”
“Really?” Jenna searched for a sign the redhead’s intent matched her seductive tone. Oh yes indeed, there was an invitation in that hot gaze, if she wanted to play. “And what deep dark secrets are you hiding?”
“I don’t really read romances. I prefer thrillers.”
“Somehow I don’t find that particularly surprising.” Jenna had the urge to lean away precisely because she wanted to move forward, deeper into the redhead’s space. She wasn’t used to being captivated by a woman. That was her role. In fact, her Number One Rule was to never go to bed with a woman she couldn’t control.
“I heard your reading tonight,” the woman went on, “and if the rest of the book is as good as the sex, I think I could be missing something.”
“Perhaps if you gave it a try,” Jenna said, “you might be converted.”
An arched brow winged upward. “Try what? The sex or the book?”
Jenna hesitated, considering. She was hungry, she was tired, and after three weeks on the road, she still had another four weeks ahead of her. She should grab a quick shower and a few hours’ sleep. But she loved the pace, she loved the excitement, and she loved the unexpected. This redhead was definitely unexpected, she was too charged to sleep, and she hadn’t had sex for months. She plucked a bookmark off the stack remaining on the table, turned it over, and wrote the name of her hotel along with her room number. She slid it into the book after writing on the title page: Dear Meg, Celebrate your life and all the wonderful things to come. Love, Cassandra Hart. Handing the closed book to the redhead, she said, “The evening’s activities are up to you. Keep the bookmark.”