Long Slow Burn

“Nice outfit…”

Way back in Kim's closet hung a blue satiny nightgown with matching robe. Kim had never worn it, but tonight she would. Because tonight was a night for lingerie.

The material felt slippery cool and wonderful against her still-heated skin. She pulled on the robe and checked her reflection. Mmm, perfect. The color matched her eyes and emphasized her slender figure in all the right places.

“Kim.” She heard a soft knock.

Before she could change her mind, she marched to the door and flung it open. He was wearing soft shorts that showed off his powerful thigh muscles and a T-shirt that did the same for his biceps. His hair was wet and tousled, his skin golden, his eyes vividly brown surrounded by dark lashes.

“What's the occasion?”

“Tonight.”

“Kim.” His voice was low, throaty, that tone that got her so worked up, undoubtedly perfected on dozens of women. She knew what was coming.

“Can I come in…?”

Dear Reader,

If you're like me, you grew up crushing on the bad boys. Not the really bad boys, not the ones likely to end up in jail, but the guys who were cool, funny and charming, a little—or maybe a lot—irresponsible, always dating someone new and always out of reach.

I've grown past wanting that fantasy in my life, but I haven't grown past wanting to explore it in my books.
Long Slow Burn
features Nathan, on the surface a charming, smooth guy with a few endearing faults that keep him approachable. Underneath he's a sweet kid with a decade-long passion for a shy older woman who thinks of him as a pesky little brother.

After she sees him half-naked, Kim is shocked to realize he's no longer sixteen, and it's not long before Nathan has turned not only her head, but her heart, as well.

Look for
Hot to the Touch,
the last book in my Checking E-Males miniseries, available in June 2010. And don't forget to visit my website at www.IsabelSharpe.com.

Cheers!

Isabel Sharpe

Isabel Sharpe
LONG SLOW BURN

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isabel Sharpe was not born pen in hand like so many of her fellow writers. After she quit work to stay home with her firstborn son and nearly went out of her mind, she started writing. After more than twenty novels for Harlequin—along with another son—Isabel is more than happy with her choice these days. She loves hearing from readers. Write to her at www.IsabelSharpe.com

Books by Isabel Sharpe

HARLEQUIN BLAZE

11—THE WILD SIDE

76—A TASTE OF FANTASY
*

126—TAKE ME TWICE
*

162—BEFORE I MELT AWAY

186—THRILL ME
**

221—ALL I WANT…
†

244—WHAT HAVE I DONE FOR ME LATELY?

292—SECRET SANTA

“The Nights Before Christmas”

376—MY WILDEST RIDE
††

393—INDULGE ME
‡

444—NO HOLDING BACK

533—WHILE SHE WAS SLEEPING…
‡‡

539—SURPRISE ME…
‡‡

595—TURN UP THE HEAT
§

To Adam Ziles, web designer
par excellence,
who gave me Kim's career, and to Jessie Gemmer, future brilliant architect, who gave me Nathan's. I could not have written this book without their considerable expertise and always-willing, cheerful assistance.

Prologue

M
ARIE
H
EWITT WIPED
toast crumbs off her fingers, thinking that plain toast with jelly was a depressing thing to have for breakfast at any time, but when there was a plate in the middle of the table loaded with doughnuts, Danish and a particularly appetizing raspberry cream-cheese coffee cake, plain toast with jelly was like time in prison. Sometimes Marie thought she should make friends with her hips, call them voluptuous, and be done with it.

She looked enviously around the table at her skinny companions chowing down on fatty pastry that would have absolutely no effect on their figures. Kim Charlotte Horton, Darcy Clark and Candy Graham had joined her table, as usual, in the seventh floor meeting room at Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel for the March gathering of Women in Power, an association of female business owners.

“So who has news this month?” She turned to her right, where Candy was biting reverently into a crumbly blueberry muffin. Candy's transformation had been astonishing over the past month. Gone was the long-suffering martyr, pining for her horrible ex-boyfriend. Finding true love had made her glow like she was radioactive. “How's the party-planning business going?”

“Ten to one it's been taken over by the wedding-planning
business.” Dark, beautiful Darcy smirked across the table, playing her familiar cynical-about-love role.

Candy didn't blink. By now they all knew Darcy's bark might sound nasty but there was no bite. “Justin and I are having a fall wedding, small and informal. We'd rather spend our money on a Paris honeymoon.”

“Oh, wow.” To Marie's left, Kim's tired blue eyes had turned starry at the mere mention.

“Paris. You lucky dog.” Even Darcy looked wistful.

Marie couldn't help feeling smug. She'd drag Kim and Darcy into true love, too—Darcy kicking and screaming until she admitted how much she wanted it. As the founder of Milwaukeedates.com, the city's premier—if she did say so herself—online dating service, Marie had made a New Year's resolution to match up her three closest friends from Women in Power. She'd been able to cross Candy off last month after she and Justin Case got engaged on Valentine's Day. Kim was up next; her thirtieth birthday was next month, April fifteenth, and Marie was determined she'd have something to celebrate. A surprise party, which she and Candy needed to get busy planning, and with any luck, a romance, too.

Then would come Darcy, the real matchmaker's challenge. “Darcy, how is Gladiolas doing?”

Darcy made a face that couldn't conceal her pride. “Milwaukee's restaurant scene is getting more crowded and competitive, but we're hanging in there.”

Candy snorted. “Justin and I tried to get in last weekend. Not only were there no reservations available, but a crowd was waiting. I'd say you're doing more than hanging in there.”

“I don't take anything for granted. Restaurants spring up and die like weeds. If I could stand doing anything else, I would.” Darcy shrugged and hoisted her coffee. “I'd rather hear about Kim and her proposal for the new Carter International website. How's that going, Kim?”

“Okay. Not great.” Kim smiled bravely. She'd been
working her butt off at her solo company, Charlotte's Web Design, for the past five years and hadn't yet gotten where she wanted to be. Kim was looking at this bid to design a new website for the crystal and china megacompany as her last chance before giving up her entrepreneurial dream. “I've had some ideas but nothing amazing yet. Carter is marketing this new line, Carter2, at a younger, more casual crowd, so I have to incorporate a funkier feel into their existing upscale image. So far it's not working.”

“You'll get this!” Candy smacked the table determinedly. “You are so talented. They have to hire you.”

“Thanks, Candy.” Kim reached for another doughnut; Marie chewed on a grape and forced herself not to do the same, though the coffee cake was still calling her name. She'd think skinny hips. She'd think toast.

“How's the new roommate working out?” Darcy asked.

“It's been…interesting.” Kim bit into the doughnut.

“In what way?”

“Well.” Kim washed her bite down with orange juice. “He's a guy.”

The table erupted into laughter.

“Say no more.” Darcy rolled her eyes, a smile still on her face. “Toilet seat up, toothpaste cap left off, dishes piling up in his bedroom.”

“Oh, you've lived with him, too?” Kim kept her gaze deliberately innocent while the rest of the table cracked up again. “Nathan is okay. He's my brother's age, three years younger than me, but it sure seems like more.”

“Men mature more slowly.” Darcy quirked a dark eyebrow. “They're generally not done until about age forty-five.”

Quinn's age.
Marie shook herself. She needed to stop thinking about her friend Quinn Peters, who looked like George Clooney and acted like Don Juan. Though at least he wasn't fattening.

“Is Nathan cute?” Candy cut off a small piece of Danish and put it on her plate.

“Yes, but…” Kim wrinkled her nose. “He's one of those
guys who had so much fun partying in college he never stopped. He and my brother still spend too much time drinking and trying to score.”

“Oh,
that
type.” Darcy grimaced. “Men with the depth of a toddler pool. Keep your distance.”

“Trust me, that won't be a problem.” Kim ate the last bite of doughnut with obvious enjoyment. Marie forced herself to look away, then found herself gazing at the cake again and had to turn away from that, too. Damn toast. How about
curvaceous
hips?

“What does Nathan do again?” Candy asked.

“He finished the course work for a master's in architecture at UW Milwaukee, but can't make himself finish his thesis project. He's surviving on odd jobs, barista in the morning at Alterra, bartender in the evening at the Hi Hat, delaying real life as long as possible is my guess.” She shrugged. “I put up with him as a favor to Kent. And his help with the rent.”

“I say we toast new beginnings for Kim.” Marie lifted her coffee, wishing she hadn't just said “toast.” “Here's to you getting the Carter job.”

“Hear, hear.” Darcy and the others raised their cups.

“And…” Marie smiled at Kim. “I've been thinking about another new beginning for you, not lucrative, but a lot more fun.”

Kim stopped wiping sugar off her fingers. “What do you mean?”

“Ha!” Candy started laughing. “I know that look, Marie. You turned it on me in January.”

“And look what happened to her. Trapped. Chained. Ruined.” Darcy shook her head in mock despair.

Marie winked at Candy. “Kim, you set your thirtieth birthday as your deadline for Charlotte's Web sinking or swimming. I'm thinking it's also a good milestone for finding a man.”

“Oh.” Kim straightened in her chair. “Well, actually I'm thinking—”

“I'd be thinking
run
if I were you,” Darcy said.

“She's not you.” Candy grasped Kim's forearm. “Go see Marie, she's amazing. Dating is just what you need to jazz up life. I had a blast, and of course, I found Justin.”

“And got your very own engagement ring stuck in a pizza.” Darcy snorted.

Candy's smile only got wider. “Right then pizza was as good as black velvet to me. You think you want everything a certain way, but when the guy is right, none of the showy stuff matters at all.”

“Very true.” Marie beamed proudly at Candy. “You have learned well, Grasshopper.”

The women burst into giggles. Even Darcy.

“So what do you think, Kim? Come see me?” Marie pulled out her iPhone and called up the calendar. “I even have someone in mind for you.”

Kim looked taken aback. “Oh, well, I'm—”

“Ooh, tell us about him.” Candy leaned forward eagerly.

“Troy Cahill. Sound familiar?”

“Oh! Yes! Perfect!” Candy all but bounced in her seat. “Oh gosh, this is so great. He's Justin's best friend and his coauthor on the interactive computer manual. We can go on double dates and—”

“Down, girl.” Darcy playfully restrained her. “The sparkles from that diamond have gone to your head.”

“No, seriously.” Candy shook her fingers as if they were burning. “And he is sooo
hot.

Kim laughed, her blush making her eyes brighter. Shyness might make Kim easy to overlook at first, but her smile or the occasional glint of mischief in her eyes gradually made the blond girl-next-door beauty more obvious, as well as her strength. “I was already thinking I'd—”

“Friday, Kim?” Marie smiled approvingly at the blush. The timing was right. “Morning?”

“Yes! Friday!” Kim threw up her hands. “I've been
trying
to tell you all that I have been thinking about dating. Because
of my birthday, and then after seeing Candy so happy. Nine-thirty?”

“Nine-thirty, Friday.” Marie chuckled, entering the appointment into her iPhone. She had picked out Troy for Kim initially, but another profile had also caught her eye, a recent sign-up, Dale Swallow. Unfortunate name, but an interesting guy. She could see him being good for Kim, helping challenge her with new experiences to grow her confidence. There was more to Kim under that reserve and shyness, and Marie had a feeling the right man could get at it. Besides, Marie wasn't sure Troy had made enough of an effort yet to get over his old girlfriend.

Either way, Kim was coming to see her without having put up a fight, and Marie could find her the happiness she deserved. This was going to be a piece of cake.

Piece of cake.
Mmm.

She gave in and lifted a slice of coffee cake onto her plate.

Goodbye toast. Hello
womanly
hips.

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