An excerpt from

Book #3 of Holiday Hearts

Silhouette Special Edition
February 2006


Lab tests? Jacob’s eyes narrowed. He stepped forward. “Can I speak with you a moment?”

For the first time, they were eye to eye. Celie's gaze was speculative. She studied him, in fact, like he were a puzzle that interested her.

Jacob shifted and nodded at the box of literature. “I can get that for you.” Action always came more easily to him than standing around. Or speaking.

“Thanks.” Celie watched him climb onto the low stage and pick up the heavy box. “So what do you think?”

“Of the talk?” Or of her? There was something about her, he thought, something appealing, maybe irresistible.

But that wasn’t why he was here.

“You were in my trees yesterday,” he said abruptly, knowing no other way than to be direct. “Were you inspecting them?”

The glint of humor in her eyes disappeared. “Not officially, no. I thought I was on Institute property. Something just caught my eye and I wanted a better look.”

“At what?”

Her pause was too deliberate. It made him uneasy. “Something interesting about the trunk.”

He felt the flare of impatience. “Don’t dance around the question. You were bent over one of my trees with a field kit when I walked up. What was that about?”

“Maybe nothing. I noticed the tree as I was driving by. Some things that are characteristic of an infested tree,” she elaborated. “I just wanted to take a closer look, but I didn’t realize it was your land.”

“I don’t give a damn about trespassing. I want to know what you saw.”

“I’m not sure.” She looked at him, her eyes troubled. “The bore holes were the right size but the wrong shape. I thought the sample I got out of the hole contained fungus but the test I did showed up negative.”

“Negative?” Relief made him lightheaded. “So it’s clear?”

“I’ll do a more comprehensive test tomorrow, once I get my lab set up. Of course, your dog knocked my vial into the snow before I got the top on, so the results aren’t iron clad.”

“Murph can be a little overenthusiastic sometimes.”

“I’ll say. What is he, the love child of a lab and a Shetland pony?”

Jacob grinned. “Lab, great dane and a little bloodhound thrown in for good measure, or so the vet tells me.”

“An interesting background beats a pedigree any time.”

“We’re nothing if not interesting around here.”

“I bet you are.” Killer smile, Celie thought as they stepped off the stage. A mouth that begged to be nibbled on and she was just the nibbler to do it. But it was the smile that lightened up that sober face, that made him approachable. His nose looked like it had lost a battle once with something bigger or harder, but the resultant bump only made him look more interestingly rugged.

There was a strength to him, not just height and width of shoulder but some quality she couldn’t name. Certainty of self, perhaps. It was what had driven her to seek him out when she could have wandered to a seat by any of the men she’d been chatting with. They didn’t intrigue her.

Jacob Trask did.

They started up the aisle. “Speaking of interesting,” she said, “I’ve never seen a Feed n’ Read before.”

“I guess you’ve been by Ray’s. One of my favorite places.”

“So he was telling me.”

“He was telling you?” Jacob watched her walk ahead of him, the red trousers shifting in some very intriguing ways.

“He mentioned you.”

“If you got Ray talking, you’re good.” Then again, she’d somehow managed to get him talking, too.

“I got the impression he likes to do nothing but.”

“Not to strangers. Ray usually barks at strangers, if he talks to them at all.

“I guess I charmed him.”

Like she was charming him, Jacob thought. “I’m impressed.”

“Well then I must be doing well. From what I hear, impressing you isn’t easy.”

“Sounds like people have been doing way too much talking, all together.”

“Don’t worry,” she said as they neared the open doorway. “I’m a scientist. I prefer to collect data on my own.”

“Are you planning to collect data on me?” he asked, amused.

She glanced laughingly back over her shoulder at him. “I don’t know. Do you mind?” She started out the open door and then reached back in to shut off the lights.

Their hands landed on the switch at the same time.

It was just a touch, hand to hand, but the effects ricocheted crazily through his system. Vivid awareness of her fingers, cool and soft and tangled with his. For an instant, he felt her tense in reaction, then relax. It took him a moment longer than he should have to move his hand.

When he snapped the switch down, it enveloped them in a darkness broken only by the hallway light coming through the open door.

Her eyes were shadowed as she looked back in at him. He could see her profile, the quick tilt of nose, the generous mouth. “Time to go.”

It might, Jacob thought uneasily, be long past time.

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