facebook ""Susan Andersen""


 

Jane thinks nothing can make her lose her cool.

But the princess of propriety blows a gasket the night she meets the contractor restoring the Wolcott mansion. Devlin Kavanagh’s rugged sex appeal may buckle her knees, but the man is out of control! Jane had to deal with theatrics growing up — she won’t tolerate them in someone hired to work on the house she and her best friends have just inherited.

Dev could renovate the mansion in his sleep. But ever since the prissy owner spotted him jet-lagged, exhausted and hit hard by a couple of welcome-home drinks, she’s been on his case. Yet there’s something about her. Jane hides behind conservative clothes and a frosty manner, but her seductive blue eyes and leopard-print heels hint at a woman dying to cut loose.

 

Cutting Loose
August 2008

Harlequin • ISBN: 0-373-7730-48

Book I in the Sisterhood Diaries

 

 

 

 

Cutting Loose
2008 Cover
Avon Books
Cutting Loose is Book One in a brand new series I’m calling the Sisterhood Diaries. It features three best friends (Jane, Poppy and Ava) who inherit an infamously ugly mansion. And I’ve brought the setting for these books back to my hometown! Woo-hoo! I am so excited about this. I haven’t set a book in Seattle since. . . I can’t remember exactly when, but I think it was in Obsessed, which came out in ’93.

Seattle is a city of neighborhoods and while all are a blend each has it own distinct flavor. I set the Wolcott mansion on the western slope of Queen Anne, which is one of the oldest Seattle districts. Its ‘hoods-within-the-‘hood run the gamut from knock-your-socks-off elegant to family-friendly to funky to mid-century modern. I’m betting you’ve seen at least one photo
taken from Kerry Park on Queen Anne as they’re among the most Seattle-centric.

Queen Anne
Belltown
View from Queen Anne
Belltown

Jane Kaplinski and Devlin Kavanagh (my hero and heroine) live in different portions of Belltown, which starts on the north-western edges of downtown. Belltown is the heart of urban living in Seattle and the district leans toward the edgier and hip.

I hope you enjoy Jane and Dev’s story—oh, did I have fun giving them issues!—as well as the peeks into two Seattle neighborhoods. Stay tuned for more.

~ Susan

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Available in Audio! Cutting Loose is now available as an audio book. (posted 2.23.09)

TOP PICK! Cutting Loose was named #2 on Amazon's Best of 2008 Top Ten books: Romance. (posted 11.04.08)

Cutting Loose spends a fifth week on the New York Times and USAToday lists! (posted 9.02.08)

NYT BESTSELLER! Cutting Loose debuted on the New York Times extended list at Number 26, then doubled its placement on the New York Times list for the week of August 17—Number 13, baby! It also debuted at Number 5 on the Borders Group list and spent two weeks on the Publishers Weekly list, debuting at Number 11 for the week of August 11! (posted 8.06.08)

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Cutting Loose

Prologue

Dear Diary,
Families suck. Why can’t I have a regular mom and dad?

 

May 12, 1990

“Jane, Jane, we’re here!”

Twelve-year-old Jane Kaplinski leaned out her bedroom window. Below, her friend’s chauffer driven car was parked at the curb in front of her middle-class house, her friends Ava and Poppy spilling out the vehicle’s back door.

“I’ll be right down,” she called, watching Poppy’s cloud of blonde curls swaying in the breeze, her filmy skirts plastered against her slender legs. She’d probably bought her outfit at Kmart, but as usual she looked stylish and pulled together, while Ava, who had developed a full year and a half ahead of everyone else in their grade level, looked sort of packed into her pale green dress, its expensive workmanship tugged akilter at bust and hips. But her sleek red hair, brighter than a four alarm fire, blazed beneath the spring sunshine’s sudden peek-a-boo appearance through the clouds and her dimples flashed as she grinned up at Jane.

Smoothing a hand down her own navy skirt, she flicked off her radio, aborting Madonna’s Vogue mid song. The front door banged open downstairs as she picked up her backpack and carefully closed her bedroom door behind her. She smiled as she headed for the staircase, imagining Ava usual insistence that they knock while Poppy countered they didn’t need an engraved invitation.

But it was her mother’s voice calling her name that froze Jane in place on the bottom step a moment later.

The suitcase in the foyer should have been her tip-off, but she’d been so focused on her outing with her best friends that she hadn’t even noticed it. Now here came her mother, ice clinking a familiar Parent rhythm in the highball glass clutched in her hand as she bore down with frenetic joy on her only child.

Crapdanghell.

“You’re back,” she said flatly as her mother gathered her to her bosom and choked when her nose sank into Obsession scented cleavage. She stood rigid until Dorrie loosened her grip, then edged toward the door.

“Of course I am, darling. You know I could never stay away from you. Besides”–she gave her hair a pat—“your father simply begged me to return.” Dorrie slung an arm around Jane’s shoulders and looked down at her, the aroma of Johnnie Walker Black wafting from her breath. “Look at you, all pressed and shiny! Are you going somewhere?”

Jane twisted away and took a giant step backward. “I’ve been invited to tea at Miss Wolcott’s.”

“Agnes Bell Wolcott?”

She nodded.

“My little girl is so highfalutin.” Dorrie gave her a swift once-over. “You couldn’t find something a little more colorful to wear?”

Casting a glance at her mom’s neon-hued top, she merely said, “I like this.”

“I have some nice red beads we could use to jazz it up.” She lifted a shiny brown hank of Jane’s stick-straight hair and rubbed it between her fingers. “Maybe fix up your ‘do a little? You know how important staging is—if you want to look the role, you need to pay attention to the costume!”

She managed not to shudder. “No, thanks. I’m going for tea, not starring in one of your and Dad’s productions. Besides, didn’t you hear Ava’s car pulling up out front?”

“Did I?” Dorrie dropped the tendril and took another sip of her Johnnie Walker. “Well, yes, I suppose I did, now that you mention it. I wasn’t paying attention.”

Big surprise. Mom was usually all about Mom. Well, that or focused on the drama du jour of the Dorrie and Mike Show.
The doorbell rang and with a sigh of relief, she eased around her mother. “Gotta go. Me and Ava are spending the night at Poppy’s, so I’ll see you tomorrow.”

And, boy, was she grateful to be spared tonight’s theatrics when her dad discovered Mom was back. It was guaranteed to be filled with passion and fireworks, and having lived with both too many times to count she was just as happy to miss the show.
Ava and Poppy let themselves in before she could reach the door. They immediately surrounded her and calling, “Hello, Mrs. Kaplinski, good-bye, Mrs. Kaplinski,” hustled her to the car.
Daniel, the Spencer’s chauffeur, opened the Lincoln’s back door. As Poppy dove into the backseat he tipped his neatly capped head at Jane. “Miss Kaplinski.”

She always wanted to giggle at his formality, but she gave him a grave nod in return. “Mr. Daniel.” She climbed in sedately after Poppy.

Ava plopped down next to her and Daniel closed the door.
The three friends looked at each other as the chauffeur walked around to the driver’s door, and clutching her hair, Poppy mimed a scream. “Can you believe this?” she stage whispered. “Tea at the Wolcott mansion!” She looked past Jane at Ava and asked in her normal register, “Why did Miss Wolcott invite us again?”

“I told you, I’m not sure.” Ava tugged on the hem of her dress to cover her pudgy thighs. “Maybe because we all talked to her at that dumb musicale thing my parents had. They were, like, so psyched that she accepted their invitation. I guess she turns down more than she accepts these days and everyone wants to have the party she comes to. But at the same time my mom says Miss Wolcott’s a genuine eccentric and she was a little nervous that she might say or do something Not Done By Our Kind.” She shrugged. “Dunno—she seemed pretty regular to me. Except maybe for her voice. My dad says it’s like a foghorn.”

“I thought she was interesting,” Jane said.

“Well, yeah,” Poppy said. “She’s been everywhere and done everything. Can you believe that she’s been to places like Paris and Africa and even flew her own plane until a couple of years ago? Plus, she’s got that great mansion.” She bounced in her seat. “It makes your place look like a shack, Ava, and I didn’t think there was any place prettier than your house. I’m dying to see Miss Wolcott’s on the inside.”

“Me, too,” Jane agreed. “It sounds like she collects all kinds of rad stuff.”

Ava pulled a candy bar from her backpack, ripped the wrapper from one end and offered Poppy and Jane a share. When they declined, she shrugged and chomped off a large bite. “I’m just glad to get out of Cotillion class. Any excuse to avoid Buttface Cade Gallari is a good one in my book.”

Cutting LooseUpon arriving at the three-storied mansion on the crowded western slope of Queen Anne hill they were ushered into a large parlor by an elderly woman wearing a severely styled black dress. She murmured assurances that Miss Wolcott would join them shortly and backed out of the room, rolling closed a long ornate pocket door.

The high-ceilinged parlor was dim and cool, the windows all mantled in velvet curtains. Eclectic groups of artifacts cluttered every surface, making a space that could easily contain the entire first floor of Jane’s house seem almost cozy.
“Wow.” She turned in a slow circle trying to take in everything at once. “Lookit all this stuff.” She edged over to a glass-fronted case and peered at the crowded display of antique beaded bags. “These are awesome!”

“How can you tell?” Ava asked. “There’s no light in here.”

“Yeah,” Poppy agreed. “Look at the size of those windows–I’d keep the curtains open all day long if I lived here. Maybe paint the walls a nice yellow to brighten things up.”

“Ladies,” a deep, distinctive voice said from behind them, and they all turned. “Thank you for coming.” In tailored camel slacks and fluid jacket, with a high-necked blouse as snowy as her carefully arranged hair, Agnes Bell Wolcott stood framed in the now partially open pocket door. A beautiful antique-looking cameo nestled in the cascading ruffle at her throat. She glanced at Poppy. “You may open the curtains if you wish.”

Without so much as a blush at being overheard, Poppy ran to do so and the high-cloud pearlescent glow of an overcast Seattle afternoon immediately brightened the southerly facing room.

“Well, now. Would you girls care to explore some of my collections or would you rather enjoy a light repast first?”

Before Jane could vote for option number one, Ava said, “Eat, please.”

Their hostess led them to another room that held an exquisitely set table in front of a marble fireplace. A three-tiered pastry stand, set squarely in its middle, held an array of beautifully presented desserts and crustless sandwiches. They sat themselves according to the little name cards at each place setting and Miss Wolcott rang for tea.

She then focused her undivided attention on them. “I imagine you’re wondering why I invited you here today.”

“We were just talking about that on the way over,” Poppy said frankly as Jane gave a polite nod and Ava murmured, “Yes, ma’am.”

“This is my way of saying thank you for your company at the Spencer musicale the other night. It’s not often young ladies will take the time to keep an old woman company, and I very much enjoyed talking to you.” She regarded them with bright-eyed interest. “You girls are very different from each other,” she observed. “I wonder if I might ask how you met?”

“We all go to Country Day,” Poppy said. Intercepting Miss Wolcott’s discreet inspection of her inexpensive clothing, she grinned. “My folks are all love, peace and joy types, but my Grandma Ingles is an alumni. She pays my tuition.”

“And I get financial aid,” Jane volunteered. Not that her parents had bothered to arranged it. If her second grade teacher hadn’t submitted the original scholarship application Jane would still be attending public school. Nowadays she filled in the annual paperwork herself, so all her folks had to do was sign it.

“I’m just a regular student,” Ava admitted. “I don’t do anything special for tuition and Jane and Poppy are better at school than I am.” She smiled, punching dimples deep in each cheek. “Especially Jane.”

Warmth flushed Jane’s cheeks, ran sweetly through her veins. “Ava’s special in other ways, though.”

“I find it lovely to see such a close friendship between girls,” Miss Wolcott said. “You’re almost like a sisterhood.”
Jane savored the word as the black clad woman entered the room, rolling a cart that bore an elegant tea service. Miss Wolcott indicated the rectangular packages lying across the girls’ plates as her servant settled the silver teapot in front of her. “I got you a small token of my appreciation. Please open them while I pour.”

Jane carefully untied silver ribbon and peeled gold and silver paper from her package while Poppy ripped hers off with abandon and Ava unwrapped hers with a just-right show of attention that she’d no doubt learned in one of the Miss Manners classes she was always attending.

Jane smiled to herself. Maybe it truly wasn’t easy being a rich girl. Heaven knew Av told them so often enough.

Nestled in the paper was a deep green leather-bound book with her name engraved in gold on the front cover. Poppy’s, she saw, was red, while Ava’s was a rich blue. Wondering how the older woman had known green was her favorite color, she opened hers, but the gilt edged pages within were blank. She glanced at Miss Wolcott.

“I’ve kept a diary since I was your age,” the white-haired woman said in her deep basso voice. “And finding you all such interesting young women I thought you might enjoy keeping one as well. I find it a great place to share my secrets.”

“Awesome,” said Poppy.

Ava’s face lit up. “What a great idea.”

Looking from Miss Wolcott to the friends she’d known since the fourth grade, Jane thought of all the impressions and feelings that were constantly crowding her mind. Things weren’t always great at home, but she didn’t really like to talk about it—not even to her two best friends. Sometimes especially to them. Poppy had great parents, so while she could and did sympathize with the way Jane’s folks were constantly slamming in and out of her house, she didn’t truly understand how shaky that could make the ground feel under a girl’s feet. And although Ava’s own home life was far from ideal, at least her parents weren’t a couple of actors who lived for the drama of constant exits and entrances.

But the idea of writing down how she felt really appealed to her, and she smiled.

“Maybe we could call them the Sisterhood Diaries.”

 

Cutting Loose


Chapter One 

I am so never wearing a thong again. Poppy swears they’re comfortable-- which probably should’ve been my first clue.

“Omigawd, Jane,” Ava screeched, “oh, my, gawd. It’s official!”

Jane pulled the phone away from her ear. Her friend’s voice had gone so high she was surprised the leashed dachshund sniffing the light standard down on First Avenue didn’t start barking. But she clapped the receiver back to her ear as excitement danced a fast jitterbug in her stomach. “Probate finally closed, then?”

“Yes, two minutes ago!” Ava laughed like an escapee from a lunatic asylum. “The Wolcott mansion is officially ours. Can you believe it? I sure miss Miss Agnes, but this is just too thrilling. Omigawd, I can barely breath, I’m so excited. I have to call Poppy and tell her the news, too.” She laughed again. “We’ve gotta celebrate! Do you mind coming to West Seattle?”

“Lemme see.” Stretching the telephone cord as far as it would reach, she stepped out of her cramped sixth floor office at The Seattle Metropolitan Museum to peer through the Director’s open door two doors down. The coveted corner office showcased a panoramic view from Magnolia Bluff to Mount Rainier with the Olympic mountains rising dramatically across Elliott Bay and Puget Sound. Not that she could see more than a fraction of it from her angle, but she wasn’t trying to scope out the scenery anyway. Traffic flow was her objective. “No, that oughtta work. The freeway looks pretty clear your way.”

“Good. Let’s meet at the Matador in an hour. Overpriced drinks are on me.”

She found herself grinning as she changed into her walking shoes and threw her heels into her tote in preparation to leaving. Swinging her butt to the happy dance song playing in her head, she freshened her lipstick, tossed the tube back in her purse and stuffed it into the tote as well.

“You look jazzed.”

Jane let out a scream. “Good God!” She slapped a hand to her racing heart and whirled to face the man in her doorway.

 “Sorry.” Her coworker Gordon Ives stepped into the room. “Didn’t mean to startle you. What was the little dance for?”
Ordinarily she wouldn’t consider telling him. Gordon was nice enough, but she really didn’t know him all that well.

She was beside herself with excitement, however, and before she thought it through she blurted, “I’m getting the Wolcott collections.”

He stared at her, his pale blue eyes incredulous. “As in Agnes Bell Wolcott’s collections? The Agnes Wolcott, who traveled the world wearing trousers when her generation’s women stayed at home to raise the kids and didn’t dream of stepping outside the house attired in less than dresses, gloves and hats?”

“Yeah. She didn’t wear only trousers, though. She wore her share of dresses and gowns, as well.”

“I’ve heard of her collections forever. But I thought she died.”

“She did, last March.” And grief stabbed deep for the second time today at the reminder. There was an unoccupied space in her soul that Miss Agnes used to fill and she had to draw a steadying breath. Then perhaps because she was still off-balance, she heard herself admitting, “She left them to me and two of my friends.” Along with the mansion, but Gordon didn’t need to know that as well.

“You’re kidding me! Why would she do that?”

“Because we were friends. More than that, actually-- Poppy and Ava and I were probably the closest thing Miss Wolcott had to family.” Their original tea eighteen years ago had led to monthly teas and a friendship that had deepened as the fascinating, wonderful old lady took a hands-on personal interest in their lives and accomplishments, treating the three of them as if they were somehow equally as fascinating. She’d always gone the extra mile for them, making a fuss of their accomplishments in a way no one else had never done—well, at least in her and Ava’s lives. Like the celebratory dinner she’d thrown at Canlis the evening Jane had landed her job here.

She rubbed a hand over her mouth to disguise its sudden tremble --then sternly pulled herself together again. This wasn’t the place or person in front of whom she wanted to indulge her emotions. “Anyhow,” she said briskly, “I’ll only be around in the mornings for the next two months. A couple of the collections are being donated to the museum and Marjorie’s letting me work afternoons at the Wolcott mansion to catalog them.”

“The Director knew about this?”

“Yes.”

“I surprised no one else here heard, then.”

She looked at him in surprise. “Why would they?”

“Well, it’s just--you know. Nothing ever seems to stay a secret in this place.”

“True. But this was a private inheritance that came as a complete surprise to me and my friends. Then there were months of probate before it was finalized. It’s been all we’ve been able to do ourselves to figure out how this all works, and I only told Marjorie because one of Miss Agnes’ behests directly affects the museum. I saw no reason to talk about it with people not involved in the matter.”

Cutting LooseSensing Gordon was about to ask what the behest was and perhaps even who else had received one, she looked at her utilitarian leather-banded, large-faced watch. “Oops, gotta go. I’ve got a bus to catch.” She grabbed up her tote and ushered him out of her office, closing the door behind her.

Emerging onto the street a few minutes later, she pulled on her little black cashmere sweater against the brisk wind and her sunglasses against the bright October sun. She’d only mentioned the bus to get Gordon out of her office, but after a quick mental debate she decided against going home for her car and hiked up to Marion Street to catch the 55 instead.

As the bus approached the Alaska Junction a short while later she changed back into her heels, smiling down at the leopard skin, open-toed construction. She loved these shoes and knew this would probably be one of the last times she’d get to wear them this season. According to the KIRO weatherman on the news this morning, their sunny days were numbered.

She beat Ava and Poppy to the restaurant, but even though it was a week night and early yet, the Matador’s tequila bar was starting to fill up. She bought herself a club soda at the stained-glass-backed bar and staked out one of the few free tables.

She’d never been here before and spent a few minutes admiring the open-concept flow of bar into restaurant and the intricate metalwork on display. She killed another minute perusing the menu, but people watching soon proved more compelling and she gave herself over to checking everyone out.

It was mostly a twenty-something crowd, but in the restaurant end of the room was a quartet of men who kept drawing her gaze. They ranged from late twenties to maybe forty and were holding what appeared to be an intense conversation across the room. Every now and then, however, they’d all shout with laughter, instigated for the most part it appeared by the redhead with the seam-threatening shoulders.

She’d never been particularly attracted to redheaded men, but this guy was something else. His hair was the dark, rich color of an Irish-setter, his eyebrows blacker than crow feathers, and his skin surprisingly golden instead of the creamy pale she associated with that coloring. Influenced, no doubt, from years of hanging around Ava.

Despite repeatedly redirecting her attention, it kept wandering back to him. He seemed very intent on the conversation with his friends, leaning into the table to speak, those dark brows pulled together in a frown one moment, then relaxing as he grinned and gestured animatedly the next. He talked with his hands a lot.

Big, tough, hard looking hands with long, blunt-tipped fingers that could probably—

Jane jerked as if someone had clapped hands right in front of her face. Good God. What on earth was she doing thinking --what she was thinking-- about some stranger’s hands? This was so not like her.

And wouldn’t you know he’d choose that exact minute to look across the room and catch her staring? She froze as he talked to the other guys at his table while his gaze skimmed her from the top of her head to the tips of her shoes, which he studied for a couple of heartbeats before beginning the return journey. When he reached her face once again, he tossed back a shot without taking his eyes off her, then pushed back from the table and climbed to his feet.

Was he coming over here? Ooh.

No! What was she, eighteen? She wasn’t here to troll for a date.

“Hey, Jane, sorry I’m late. Poppy’s not here yet, I take it.”

She looked up to see Ava approaching the table and noticed that damn near every male head in the bar turned to follow her friend’s progress. The redhead across the room was no exception. He checked Ava out for a moment before glancing at her again. For just a sec he stood there rubbing the back of his neck. Then he hitched a wide shoulder and headed in the direction of the men’s room.

His butt was as nice as the rest of him. But giving it a final lingering glance before turning her attention to Ava, who was pulling out a chair, she noticed the tell-tale hesitancy in his step of a man who’s had too much to drink.

“Well, shit.” Her disappointment was fierce, which was pretty dumb considering she’d never even talked to the guy.

“What?” Ava tossed her Kate Spade clutch on the table and slid gracefully into the chair.

“Nothing.” She waved it aside. “It’s not important.”

Ava just looked on her.
“Okay, okay. I was doing the eye flirt thing with this buff redhead over in the restaurant part of the room and—don’t turn around! For God’s sake, Ava. He went to the can anyhow.”

“Eye flirting is good. So why are you cursing?”

“He’s drunk. I didn’t realize it until I saw him walking away.”

“Aw, Janie. Not everyone who gets a little lit is a problem drinker. Sometimes it’s just a once-in-awhile kind of thing.”

“I know,” she said, partly because she did but mostly because she really didn’t want to argue tonight.

Ava knew her too well, however, and instead of letting it go, she leaned over the table, her bright hair swinging forward. Scooping it back, she tucked it behind her ear. “You’ve seen Poppy and me indulge a bit too much on occasion and you don’t hold it against us.”

“Yeah, because I know your history, and I know it’s a rare thing for either of you to drink to excess.” She gave an impatient shrug. “Look, I know I’m not completely rational on the subject and I don’t need to put some shrink’s kids through college to understand that Mom and Dad’s drinking is the reason why. By the same token Av, you know you’re not going to change my mind. So let’s just drop it, whataya say? We’re here to celebrate.”

Dimples punched deep in her friend’s cheeks. “Omigawd! Are we ever! Are you as excited as I am?”

“And then some. I’m so psyched at the thought of getting my hands on those collections I can hardly think straight. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Marjorie this afternoon, but unless something special comes up at the Met --and it’s been pretty quiet on the curator front for the past week or so—

 I’m hoping to dive right in and start sorting them on Monday.”

“Sorry I’m late.” Poppy arrived breathless at their table.

Ava made a rude noise. “Like we’d know how to act if you were ever on time. Where did you guys park, anyhow?” she asked as Poppy dumped her oversized handbag onto the floor and collapsed into the chair next to her. “Did you find a place on the street or park in the lot above the alley?”

“I’m in the lot,” Poppy said.

“I took the bus.”

Both her friends stared at her open mouthed, and she blinked. “What?”

“You’re crazy, you know that?” Poppy shook her head.

“Why, because I’m a public transportation kinda gal?”

“No, because bus service drops way down in the evening and it can’t be safe to hang around bus stops in the dark.”

Cutting Loose“Oh, as opposed to walking through a dark alley to get your car, you mean? Besides, I can always call a cab. I don’t see what the big deal is. Ava said meet in an hour and I didn’t think I could make it here in time if I went home first.“

“And like Poppy’s never on time, you’re never late,” Ava said.

She shrugged. “We all have our little idiosyncrasies. Shall we talk about yours?”

“We certainly could. . . if I had any. But I like to leave those to my lesser sisters.” Serenely she waved over the waitress and ordered one of the tequila specials.

Poppy ordered tequila as well, then turned to Jane. “How about you, Janie? Do you want your club soda freshened?”

“No, I think I’ll have a glass of wine—whatever the house white is,” she added to the waitress.

Her friends whooped and drummed the table and generally made a huge fuss over her unusual selection and Jane leveled a look at them when the waitress left with their order. “Contrary to popular opinion, you two, I do know how to make an exception on occasion.” Then she grinned. “And this is definitely the occasion.”

“Amen to that, sister,” Poppy agreed.

When their order arrived, Ava raised her glass. “To being new homeowners.”

Jane and Poppy clinked glasses with her. “To new homeowners!”

Jane took a sip of her wine, then raised her glass. “To Miss Agnes.”

They clinked again. “To Miss Agnes!”

“Man, I miss her,” Poppy said.

“Yeah, me too. She was like no adult I’ve ever known.”

Then Poppy raised her glass. “To you, Jane. May you speedily catalog Miss Agnes’s collections.”

“To me,” she said while Ava and Poppy exclaimed, “To Jane!” Then in a rare exhibition of uncertainty, she said, “What if I mess up the job?”

They stared at each other as the possibility of failure hovered in the air above them. Then Ava laughed, Poppy made a rude noise and Jane shook her head, her momentary nerves dissipating.

“Naah.” If there was one thing she was completely confident about it was her abilities in her chosen field.

“That reminds me.” Poppy twisted in her chair to glance around the bar. “I asked the head of Kavanagh Construction to drop by if he had the chance so you guys could meet him. And there he is!”

To Jane’s astonishment, Poppy hailed one of the men at the table she’d been watching earlier, then popped out of her chair and sashayed across the bar.

With her usual aplomb, she stooped down next to the bald guy Jane had thought was maybe forty and started talking with the confidence of a woman assured of her reception. After a brief conversation she rose to shake hands with the other three men at the table, then gestured in Jane and Poppy’s direction and said something.

To Jane’s horror, not only did the bald guy get up and follow her back across the room, so did the hot redhead. The latter stumbled over an unoccupied chair a couple tables away and lurched the remaining steps to theirs, where he had to slap his fists down in order to catch his balance. He swore a blue streak beneath his breath.

“Dev!” the bald man snapped. “Cool it!”
“’Scuse my language, ladies.” The redhead gave them all a loose, sheepish smile. “I’m seriously jet-lagged.”

“More like seriously drunk,” she said sotto voce.

“Jane, Ava, this is Bren Kavanagh and his brother Devlin,” Poppy raised her voice to say over her. “As I told you earlier, the Kavanaghs are going to do our construction. Bren was just telling me that Devlin here will be the project manager on our remodel. He’ll oversee—“

“No.” Pushing back from the table, Jane surged to her feet, her heart slamming in outrage. It was one thing to put up with an inebriated man in a bar for a single evening. She’d be damned if she’d put up with one while she was trying to catalog the most important collection of her life.

Devlin, who’d been staring owlishly down at his knuckles where they bore into the rich wood table top, raised his hazel-green-eyed gaze and blinked at her. Then apparently not liking what he saw in her expression, he narrowed his eyes, his devil-black brows snapping together over the thrust of his nose. “Say what?”

“No. It’s a pretty simple word, Mr. Kavanagh-- what part don’t you understand?”

“Hey, listen--”

“No, you listen! I will not have some damn drun—hey!“ She yelped as Poppy grabbed her by the wrist and nearly jerked her off her feet.

“Excuse us,” Poppy said as she turned and strode toward the back of the bar.

Cutting LooseLeaving Jane no choice but to follow in her wake or be dragged behind her friend like a toddler’s pull toy.

Dev watched the uptight brunette being hauled from the table. “Okay, then, I’m outta here,” he said, and knuckled himself erect. Whoa. He flattened his hand back against the wooden surface. Damn room was starting to sway.

Bren’s eyes narrowed as he studied him. “Man, you are wasted. You better go sit down before you fall down.”

Good plan. He started to pull out the chair next to the redhead with the great ti—

“At our table, bro.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sure.” He gave the redhead with the killer bod an acknowledging nod for her sympathetic smile, then made his unsteady way back to Finn and David.

What the hell was he doing here anyway? He should have fallen straight into bed to sleep for ten solid hours. He’d sure as hell known better than to let Bren guilt him into going out to discuss how he could take over for his brother while Bren went through treatment. Or, alternatively, having caved, he at least should have been bright enough to forgo the two shots of tequila he’d slammed back after downing a generous dram or two of Da’s treasured Redbreast. He was from good Irish stock; he could usually put away his fair share without showing the effects.

Tonight, however-- Well, he’d been up for more than thirty-five hours, nineteen of which had been spent traveling from Athens, Greece. He’d already been flattened with exhaustion when his brother Finn met him at the airport.

But there was no rest for the wicked as far as the Kavanaghs were concerned. And when a chick came home to roost, a celebration was not merely expected, it was a given. And a get-together wasn’t a get-together unless it included all six of his brothers and sisters, their respective spouses and kids, his folks, both grandmas and his grandpa, his two uncles, four aunts and their families. Fair enough—he knew the drill.

But he should have paid less attention to Da’s whiskey and a little more to Mom’s food.

“Way to go there, Dev,” his youngest brother said with a sly grin when Devlin made it to their table. “Back in town a few hours and already you’ve managed to get sent back to the kiddie table so Bren can talk to the grownups.”

“You’re a riot, David, you know that?” Hooking the crook of his elbow around his brother’s neck, he scrubbed his knuckles in David’s brown hair. “You oughtta take it down to Open Mic Night at the Comedy Underground.” He turned him loose and dropped into the chair Bren had sat in earlier. “I gotta admit, though, that’s kind of what it feels like. Apparently my drunkenness offended one of the potential clients.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Finn said dryly.

He smiled crookedly. “Yeah, me either. Shit.” He rubbed his fingers over lips that felt rubbery. “I didn’t realize how trashed I was until I stood up to accompany Bren to their table. Had to concentrate like a sonovabitch just to walk a straight line.”

Finn looked at him, deadpan. “How’d that work for you?”

“Not so great.” He glanced over his shoulder at his oldest brother, talking to the redhead across the room, then turned back to his brothers, abruptly feeling a whole lot soberer. “So how’s he doing, really?”

“He’s got his good days and his bad. I think he’d rather tell you about it himself.”

“Yeah, him being such a talkative sonovabitch so far.” He gave his brothers a hard look. “I’m still hacked that I didn’t even hear about it until three days ago.”

Finn gave him a bland look in return. “You’ve been a little removed from the family for the past decade, little brother. Maybe we thought you wouldn’t be interested.”

He came up out of his seat, ready to brawl.

Finn merely looked at him with calm, dark eyes, however, and Dev sat back down. Shifted his shoulders. And leveled a hard look on his brother. “I might be removed geographically, but the last time I checked I was still a Kavanagh. I’m still family.” Which, okay, conflicted the hell out of him every bit as much today as it had at nineteen. He loved the clan Kavanagh but couldn’t be around them long before he started going insane. Yet while he’d moved to get away from everyone always knowing his business, this was not the usual oh-did-you-hear-Dev’s-dating-the-O’Brien girl--I-wonder-how-May-would-work-for-the-wedding kind of crap--this was Bren, sick with cancer. It pinched like hell that nobody had bothered to pick up a phone to let him know about it. “I’m still family,” he repeated stonily.

“Yeah, yeah, Finn knows that,” David said peaceably. “But that’s something else you have to take up with Bren. It was his decision not to burden you with it when there wasn’t anything you could do to help. But now you can. If you didn’t blow it with the client, that is. So. . .what? She took a dislike to you because you didn’t hold your liquor tonight? Didn’t you explain you were jet-lagged?”

“’Course I did.”

“So what was that all about then?”

He thought about the brunette. She’d caught his eye from across the room. She wasn’t built like her redheaded friend or model pretty like the blonde, and in their company he imagined she got overlooked a lot. God knew she wasn’t his usual type, but she’d been alone and looking at him and he’d found himself abruptly interested.

It had been the contradictions, he thought. She wore a prim white blouse that showed such a meager hint of lace undergarments it might as well not have bothered and a straight mid-calf length black skirt whose center slit barely made it over her knees let alone into interesting territory. But her shoes were leopard-print high heels designed to make a man realize that the pale smooth legs they accentuated were pretty damn sleek. And while her shiny brown hair had been piled up on her head in an old lady bun, it had listed to one side and looked as if it were about ten seconds from coming undone and sliding down that long neck.

Cutting LooseBut it was her eyes that had been the real contradiction. He hadn’t been able to tell from across the room, but they were blue. And unlike her clothing, there wasn’t a damn thing prim about them. They’d looked at him, in fact, as if she wouldn’t mind giving him the hottest—

Shit. He shook aside the image that sprang to mind, because who the hell cared? She was obviously humorless and judgmental and he looked at David and shrugged. “Beats me, brother. I have no idea what her problem is.”

“You wanna know what my problem is?” Jane wrenched her wrist free from Poppy’s grasp and reached behind her to grasp the ladies’ room counter at her back to keep from bopping her friend on her elegant chin. She might have thrown caution to the wind and taken her best shot when she was ten, but she had learned control since then.

Hell, she lived and breathed control these days.

“My problem,” she said coolly, “is One: I don’t like being manhandled by you, and Two: --and this is the biggie, Callaway-- you’re looking to saddle me with a drunk while I’m trying to get together the most important collection I’ve ever been asked to head. You know damn well that I’m on a time crunch to get it done in time for the January exhibit and the last thing I need is to waste time babysitting some lush. That’s my problem.”

“You think you’re the only one with something on the line here?” Poppy thrust her nose right in Jane’s face. “This is not all about you and you damn well know it. None of us want to fall short when Miss Agnes put so much faith in us. At least you have the experience to handle your challenge. Ava has to sell the place without benefit of having any sort of real estate experience and I’m responsible for the remodel. And that’s not small spuds, Kaplinski, given that I make my living designing menu boards!”

“Oh, please.” Jane thrust her nose right back at her. “Like you don’t know Miss A requested you decorate because you’ve been trying to get her to redo the mansion since the first time we saw the place! How many suggestions have you given her over the years for improving the place? One million? Two? And I’m guessing she put Ava in charge of selling because she’s the one who has contacts up the wahzoo with the kind of people who will be able to afford it.”

“All right, maybe you’ve got a point. But I’ve busted my butt researching and interviewing contractors, and the Kavanaghs are highly respected in their field. Not to mention that they agreed to work at twenty percent below their usual rate in exchange for the publicity that being the Wolcott mansion contractors will bring them. So get over it! Your hard-on against drinkers is not going to screw this up for Ava and me. Or you either, when it comes to that.”

She could see that Poppy was genuinely angry, and that was a rare enough occurrence to make her swallow her ire and give a jerky nod. “Give me some damn breathing room,” she muttered and Poppy stepped back.

Jane smoothed her clothes, brushed back the strands of hair that had slid free of her bun. Then she met her friend’s eyes.

“Fine,” she said grudgingly, “he stays. But if he drinks on the job just once, I’m not accountable for my actions.”

“Fair enough.”

“I’m glad you think so. Because I’ll be expecting you to help me bury the body.”

“You wound me.” Poppy pressed a hand to her breast. “After all, what are friends for?”

End of Excerpt.
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