Authors: Crystal Jordan
Tags: #contemporary romance;vacation romance;Colorado;artist retreat;outdoor
Creative sparks ignite where you least expect to find them.
Despite her dedication to her art, Laurel Patton feels her parents’ disappointment hanging over her like a cloud. Just the thought of being a lawyer like her father—or worse, a lawyer’s socialite wife—is enough to make her break out in hives.
Finally, a feather in her cap: an invitation to a prestigious summer artist-in-residence retreat in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Three whole months among a community of creative people? Bliss.
After his ex-wife’s death, bestselling horror novelist Neil Graves will move heaven and earth to make his grieving daughter, Violet, happy. Even if it means moving a mountain of deadlines to the heavenly enclave—the only thing Violet’s been excited about for a long time.
He never expected Laurel would be the breath of fresh air he didn’t realize he needed. But much as Laurel loves Neil and Violet, she’s terrified. Because Neil’s workaholic ways are too much like the life she never wanted…even if Neil is the one man she wants for all time.
Warning: A lighthearted artist and a too-serious single dad. A naughty, no-strings affair. Creative, multi-media use of sexual positions, including walls, counters, even trees.
For all my readers who read Tate and Karen’s romance, met Tate’s little sister, and loved Laurel enough to want to see her happily ever after.
Also for Melissa, Julia and Sharon—women who know the value of many knives, prayer mafias, and a well-timed, “You need Jesus!”
“Thanks for lending me a hand, Ben.” Laurel Patton stepped back, propped her fists on her hips, and surveyed their handiwork. She stood in the middle of her brother and sister-in-law’s living room, looking at a pair of paintings hanging over their couch. One had been there for years, the second was a gift for their eleventh anniversary.
“No problem.” Her sister-in-law’s younger brother grinned conspiratorially, dimples digging deep grooves into his cheeks.
Ben had helped her sneak into the house while Tate and Karen were out. The two collaborators had hauled the sizeable canvas in from Laurel’s car and positioned the pieces so they hung evenly on the wall.
Her original watercolor of Positano on the Amalfi Coast of Italy had captured the way the town’s pastel buildings layered up the side of a cliff like a fancy wedding cake. It was where Tate had first introduced the Patton family to Karen, and where he’d proposed to her. Beside it now hung a painting of the house the couple had bought and restored a few years back—a gingerbread-laden Victorian mansion perched on a bluff over the Pacific Ocean. Laurel had tried to evoke the same style and palette, so that the two canvases were obviously meant to be a pair. Since she didn’t work with watercolor very often anymore, it had been a nice challenge to her artistic skills.
She tilted her head and eyed her work critically. Not too bad. The first painting was done while she was taking a watercolor class as part of her Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. She’d loved her years at RISD, and trying to recapture that frame of mind for the new canvas had taken her back to those times.
Ben bumped his shoulder against hers. “They’re going to love it. It blows my gift to them out of the water.”
“Thanks.” She winked. “I like kicking everyone else’s ass with my awesomeness.”
He snorted. “Your modesty slays me.”
“You’re welcome.” She turned to walk into the kitchen, going to the fridge for a bottle of water. It was probably her last chance to get anything before the catering company took over for the anniversary party that night.
Ben followed and settled back against the enormous island, shoving his hands in his suit pockets. He looked every inch the ambitious young lawyer now, but he’d still been in his gawky teen years the first time they’d met.
All grown up now, he’d just passed his bar exam and joined her brother’s firm the month before, and she’d bet Ben would be stellar in the courtroom with his resonant bass voice that could rival James Earl Jones. Considering his voice had cracked on every other word when they’d been introduced, she’d been pleasantly surprised his tone had deepened so much. No one wanted a squeaky-voiced lawyer defending them.
She waved her bottle at him. “What did you get our siblings?”
He cocked his head. “It sounds a little incestuous when you say
siblings, even if it is technically correct.”
“What did you get my brother and sister-in-law, aka your sister and brother-in-law?” She rolled her eyes. “It was faster my way.”
“A date night while I babysit Nick. They get gift certificates for a movie and dinner at their favorite restaurant.”
Pursing her lips, she nodded. “That’s a pretty good gift. I think any couple with a rambunctious toddler would love that.”
“Yeah, but it’s not a piece of art from a famous painter.” He widened his eyes as if to indicate any idiot would agree with him.
“Pfft. Fame is relative. I’m not exactly Van Gogh.”
“Says the woman who got invited to be an artist-in-residence at The Creative Enclave.” He wagged a finger at her. “Don’t think Tate wasn’t bragging about you after you told him that.”
She felt a rush of heat hit her cheeks. Her, Laurel Patton, blushing. There was a novel experience. Of course, she blew any semblance of modesty by offering a cocky grin and throwing her hands up in victory. “I am a badass, what can I say?”
“Tate pulled up their website and read the list of names for artists who’ve been part of their program.” He gave a low whistle. “You’re in some august company there.”
“Some of my idols have been artist-in-residence for The Enclave. Okay…the idols who were around during the last century. I have some that have been dead since the Renaissance.” She took a swig of water. “It’ll be a whole summer of painting. Plus, I get to mentor an up-and-coming painter too. I’ve taught a few art classes over the years, but never individual mentoring. It should be fun. Unless they’re an asshole, in which case I will make their lives miserable for three months. Because: homework.”
“That’s the spirit.” He winked. “Always have a strategy for winning.”
“I like winning,” she agreed. Part of the fun of this trip was that she would get to spend time with other artists. Not just painters, but sculptors, potters, photographers, videographers, writers…you name it. She liked the idea of having that kind of community, at least for a while. Painting was a pretty solitary profession.
“When do you leave?”
“Tate’s driving me to SFO in the morning. I just have to survive this party.” She couldn’t hold in a deep sigh, some of her excitement fizzling away.
“Your parents are coming, huh?” Sympathy reflected in his gaze.
“Let’s be honest. It’ll be just my mother. Daddy Dearest isn’t taking the time to come to a party with no political gain. The guest list isn’t A-list enough.”
Ben winced, but didn’t deny it. They both knew Robert Patton had worked Tate like a dog for years, trying to remake his son in his image, and it had nearly cost Tate his marriage. Laurel was grateful her brother had seen the light of day before he’s lost the best thing that had ever happened to him. Karen was an absolute gem. Laurel had liked her on sight, somehow knowing this woman would be the only thing Tate loved more than the law. Well, now he had Karen, little Nick, and then the law. Which was how it should be.
Ben injected a note of cheer into his voice. “Well, my parents will both be here and they rock.”
“I know, you lucky bastard,” she groused.
He just laughed.
Dear God, she was going to have to deal with her mother. The two of them always brought out the absolute worst in each other. Francesca, the obnoxious socialite who insisted her daughter marry the right sort of man, and Laurel, whose inner rebellious teen came out with claws bared.
“I notice you got your hair dyed again.” Ben’s grin turned wicked. “I like the turquoise streaks—very fluorescent. Your mom’s going to love it.”
“Yep.” She fluffed her long tresses, not bothering to deny that needling her mother had been part of the decision-making process for refreshing her always colorful hair. She’d done green, blue, purple, fire engine red…pick a neon shade. It was her signature now. Sometimes she did streaks and sometimes she dyed only the tips. One time, she’d done just the left side of her head bright pink. Francesca’s eyeballs had nearly exploded out of their sockets when she’d seen the effect. Watching the apoplectic reaction had been awesome. Laurel grinned at the memory. “Let the games begin.”
Three hours later, Laurel wanted to kill herself. No, she wanted to kill Francesca. Slowly, and in painfully inventive ways.
Because her mother hadn’t come alone, as it turned out. No, she’d brought along every young, single male associate in Robert Patton’s law firm. They were all from very good families, naturally. Families that belonged to Robert and Francesca’s country club.
In other words, they were the right sort of men. An entire herd of them. She was stuck in a group of them making small talk, and they kept taking turns giving her once-overs—alternating between staring at either her hair or her breasts. Her chest wasn’t that impressive, but she now wished she’d worn a turtleneck rather than a slinky, low-cut top. She felt her eyelid begin to twitch and took a deep swig of her wine, longing for something a whole lot stronger. Tequila shots sounded good.
One of the lawyers gave her slightly condescending smile while he swirled and sniffed his vino. “So you’re an…artist?”
“Painter.” She forced a pleasant grin, calculating how she might make her next escape. She’d slipped away from this group four times now, but Francesca was on a mission. She had the tenacity of a pit bull with lockjaw. Laurel’s hand tightened on the stem of her glass. “I work primarily with oil, but I also do some mixed media.”
If anything, the man’s expression became even more patronizing. “Ah, that’s nice. My mother toys with ceramics a bit.”
How many times had Laurel been accused of being a dilettante? It was true she’d always had a trust fund to fall back on, and that fact hadn’t exactly endeared her to other artists who’d struggled and starved to make ends meet before they achieved success. Never mind that she’d worked her ass off to gain recognition for her work. No, her family had money, so this was just a hobby, a phase that she’d get over. Right.
Her teeth locked together and it took effort not to snarl. “Well, I’m not toying. This is how I make my living.”
The way Francesca patted Laurel’s shoulder reminded her of how one soothed an overexcited terrier. Great. Just great. Her mother’s laugh tinkled out. “But I’d love to see her more settled so she doesn’t have worry about making a living.”
Settled? That was rich. Francesca might have been married for forty years, but she’d fucked her way through every tennis instructor, golf pro and pool boy at the country club. Robert annually took his pick of the new first-year female law associates at his firm. The Patton parental units weren’t exactly a glowing example of a healthy relationship. It apparently worked for them, but it would not work for Laurel. She had no desire to be their kind of settled.
Another law-boy broke in, his tone warmer and friendlier than the wine sniffer’s. “I imagine you’d love more grandchildren too, Francesca. I see how you dote on young Nick.”
“Nicholas is such a dear.” The older woman’s expression softened with pure adoration.
Laurel had to admit Francesca was a far kinder and more involved grandmother than she had been a mother. She’d also surprised Laurel by supporting Tate when he’d left the Patton family firm and struck out on his own. Unfortunately, the leeway Francesca gave her son never quite translated to her daughter. Then again, Tate had been the golden boy who exceeded all familial expectations for a lot of years, whereas Laurel had been born the defiant black sheep. Her artistic bent meant she’d been the kid finger-painting the walls, the tween wearing wild jewelry, the teen coloring her hair and piercing various body parts. She just needed to experiment and live out loud. Proper Pattons didn’t do anything out loud. She just…could never be the daughter her parents wanted.
The only person who had always supported her, loved her, tried to understand her, had been her big brother. It was for him alone that Laurel held her tongue, played nice with Mama Matchmaker and the pack of lawyers, and didn’t cause a scene at Tate’s anniversary party.
But it was damn tempting, especially when the guys kept looking her over like she was an exotic game animal and they were ready for a safari hunt.
“Excuse me, everyone. I’m sorry to interrupt.” Ben’s deep voice sounded behind her. “Laurel, would you care to dance?”
“Yes, I’d love to.” Okay, maybe she’d agreed a little too fast because her mom’s eyes narrowed, but she’d just about exhausted her cocktail party chitchat repertoire.
She grabbed Ben’s hand and dragged him out the French doors which led to the huge deck that served as the dance floor. A string quartet sent lovely, lilting classical music floating through the night.
“My mom’s trying to marry me off to a lawyer, since she can’t make me be one.” She sucked in a breath of the fresh, early summer evening air and let it calm some of her tension. Tonight was a celebration—it was supposed to be fun.
Ben pulled her into a loose dance hold, and they moved easily across the floor. “I saw that. She’s persistent too.”
“Right? She’s never gonna give up the dream of me being a country club girl. The very thought makes me want to break out in hives.”
He considered that for a moment. “Hives might scare the guys away. Tell them it’s an STD.”
“I like you so much.” She chortled and offered him a sunny smile. “Anyway, thanks for the rescue.”
His broad shoulder dipped in a nonchalant shrug. “It would hurt my sister’s feelings if she spent the evening scrubbing blood out of the carpet.”
“It was a close call there.”
“I don’t blame you. Those guys look like a bunch of limp dick losers,” he observed with characteristic bluntness. “Seriously, they’d marry you to make your daddy like them.”
She sniffed. “I have no interest in looking at their dicks to see how limp they are or aren’t. And I have no desire to help anyone get into Dad’s good graces. I’m not in his good graces. By choice.”
He tilted his head. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
“It works for me.” She grinned as he swooped her into a quick turn.
“All right, then.”
It was nice to dance. She didn’t have to worry that she’d say or do the wrong thing and mess up the fete. She hadn’t needed to constrain herself so much since she was in high school. Just one more reason to stay away from her parents’ world. She didn’t fit there, and she didn’t want to.
But she didn’t want to talk about that anymore. Time for a topic change. “So, Ben…tell me about what’s going on between you and the redhead over there.”
He didn’t pretend not to know who she was talking about. “Nora Kirby.”
The woman in question danced by with one of Laurel’s husband candidates. She laughed at something the law-boy said, and Ben’s expression darkened, but the look he gave Nora was filled with such naked, tormented longing that Laurel felt a bit voyeuristic for witnessing it. Nora seemed to notice the attention and glanced over. The glare she gave Ben was baleful. He winked in return, which made the redhead’s face flush with enough fury to match her hair.
“Um…isn’t Anne Kirby one of Karen’s best friends?”
He dragged his gaze back to Laurel. “Nora’s her younger sister.”
“And you want to bone her. But she hates your ass.”
“That sums up the last decade of my life nicely, yeah.” His tone was pleasant, all of that yearning buried deep again.