Manhunting in mississipp.., p.1

Manhunting in Mississippi, page 1

 

Manhunting in Mississippi
 


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Manhunting in Mississippi


  “I’ve wanted you since I saw you lying in a puddle of water in the parking lot,” Ian murmured.

  Piper laughed softly, then pushed gently at his chest. “Speaking of puddles…my cake!” She stepped away from him and walked toward the refrigerator. “Do you want whipped cream?” At his nod, she added, “Cherries, too?”

  “Sure,” he said, swallowing. The woman was killing him. “Why not?”

  She carried the cake to the table. “Well, dig in.”

  Although he’d been craving something sweeter, Ian took a mouthful, then nodded appreciatively. “It’s great. Have a bite.” He held a spoonful to her lips, managing to drizzle sauce on her chin. She moved to wipe it away, but he stopped her hand. “Let me.” He leaned forward and licked the sauce from her chin, nipping along her jaw. Reaching past her, he dipped his finger in the chocolate, then stroked it down the side of her neck. “Oh, look,” he murmured, proceeding to lick it off, inch by delectable inch.

  The dessert abandoned, he stood and pulled her closer to him, burying his face in her cleavage. She moaned, swaying into him, and his body leaped in response. “Piper,” he whispered against her skin, “I need to make love to you.”

  Praise for these bestselling authors

  “Stephanie Bond delivers laugh-out-loud humor with this oftentimes bawdy comedy.”

  —Romantic Times

  “[A]n erotic fantasy…In a word…yum.”

  —All About Romance on Too Hot To Sleep

  “Two Sexy! was an exciting book. I couldn’t put the book down.”

  —The Romance Reader’s Connection

  “[Julie] Kenner has a way with dialogue; her one-liners are funny and fresh.”

  —All About Romance

  Stephanie Bond

  Manhunting in Mississippi

  BONUS: An original story by JULIE KENNER

  CONTENTS

  MANHUNTING IN MISSISSIPPI

  Stephanie Bond

  CHAPTER ONE

  CHAPTER TWO

  CHAPTER THREE

  CHAPTER FOUR

  CHAPTER FIVE

  CHAPTER SIX

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  CHAPTER NINE

  CHAPTER TEN

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  Mississippi Malted Mud Puddles Recipe

  WRAPPED AND READY

  Julie Kenner

  CHAPTER ONE

  CHAPTER TWO

  CHAPTER THREE

  CHAPTER FOUR

  CHAPTER FIVE

  CHAPTER SIX

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  Books by Stephanie Bond

  Harlequin Temptation

  Manhunting in Mississippi #685

  Club Cupid #718

  About Last Night…#751

  It Takes a Rebel #769

  Too Hot To Sleep #787

  Seeking Single Male #805

  Harlequin Blaze

  Two Sexy! #3

  Harlequin Love & Laughter

  Irresistible?

  Kids is a 4-Letter Word

  Wife is a 4-Letter Word

  Naughty or Nice?

  Harlequin Books

  Midnight Fantasies anthology—After Hours

  MANHUNTING IN MISSISSIPPI

  Stephanie Bond

  This book is dedicated to Brenda Chin,

  my adventurous editor,

  who trusts me to run with my stories.

  CHAPTER ONE

  ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID…and always broke. Fighting the phone cord, Piper Shepherd glanced in the mirror at the yellow satin dress she held draped over her torso. With her cropped, dark hair, the ruffled netting around the shoulders made her look like a molting bird in a nest, but it would do. “Personally, Justine, I think lemon yellow would be stunning for an August wedding.”

  Her friend sighed at the other end of the phone, obviously unconvinced. “Mother says yellow won’t stand out in the outdoor photos. Besides, didn’t Barb have yellow for her bridesmaids’ dresses?”

  Piper winced. “Did she?” She tossed the dress on her bed, then withdrew a long, off-the-shoulder lavender gown from the closet and held it under her chin. A sloshed usher had ripped off a ribbon rosette during someone’s reception, but the dress was serviceable. “How about lilac?”

  “Hmm,” Justine mused, tapping her fingernail against the phone. “Nah, I don’t think it would complement Stewart’s carrottop. Besides, didn’t Sarah use lilac?”

  Piper frowned. “Did she?” She tossed the dress on top of the other one and withdrew an emerald organza mini with a sequined cape. “Green would look great next to Stew’s red hair—maybe something short and snazzy to catch the sunlight?”

  “I don’t think so,” Justine said slowly. “Green makes me look sallow. Besides, didn’t Joann use green?”

  A low throbbing started in Piper’s temple. “Did she?” She discarded the dress, then pivoted back to her closet and flipped through the hangers. “Mauve?”

  “Carol.”

  “Fuchsia?”

  “Cindy.”

  “Sapphire?”

  “Hmm, wasn’t that your mom’s color?”

  Piper grunted. “For which wedding?”

  “To Roger, I think.”

  Biting back a disrespectful remark, Piper forced her fingers to travel on. “Ruby? Teal? Metallic gold?”

  “Jan, Tina and Jennifer.”

  Piper jammed her hand through her short hair. “My God, Justine, how on earth do you remember who used which color in what wedding?”

  “I just do,” Justine said, and Piper could picture her friend’s thin shoulders shrugging. “But then I’ve always loved weddings—unlike you, Piper. If you’d spent less time moaning about the high heels and more time checking out the groomsmen, you’d be getting married, too. Out of twenty-three of us, you’re the last one, you know.”

  Piper frowned. “Not true—Tillie is still single.” Not that being in the same company as their chubby, hypochondriac sorority sister was anything to boast about.

  “Uh-uh, she got engaged three weeks ago—haven’t you heard?”

  Piper yanked down the phone cord, unaware she had managed to wind it around her neck. “Who to?” she croaked, then unwound herself with an impatient twist.

  “She spent so much time at the clinic, she managed to snare a doctor—her diamond is a freaking boulder.”

  For an instant, Piper experienced a pang of panic. Even allergic, insomniac, headachy, PMS-ing Tillie had snagged a man—and a rich one, to boot. She sighed and glanced at her watch. She’d promised her grandmother she’d be over to help box up some things for her upcoming move.

  “Piper, are you there, or is your life passing before your eyes?”

  “I’m here,” she snapped. “And thirty-one doesn’t exactly make me eligible for a discount at the bingo parlor.”

  Justine sighed dramatically. “People are beginning to talk, Piper. You would tell me, wouldn’t you, if you were, um…you know.”

  “I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about.”

  “You know—gay.”

  Piper dropped the phone, then chased it across the floor as the spiral cord contracted to pull it home. “No, I’m not gay!” she yelled as she dived on the handset, juggled it and finally wrestled it to her ear. “How could you even think such a thing?” she barked into the phone.

  Her friend tapped her fingers against the receiver again. “Piper, I can’t remember you ever having a lasting relationship with a man. A few dates, yeah, but were you ever serious about anyone?”

  Piper pursed her lips and fidgeted with the cord. “I guess I’m picky.”

  “I’m telling you, Pi
per, you’d better start hunting for a man before all the good ones are gone.”

  “Justine, you’re two hundred miles away in Tupelo where the men are plentiful and passable. I’m in Mudville—when you visited, did you happen to see anyone who would put me in the manhunting mood?”

  “You’ve got a point.” Her friend hummed in sympathy. “You really should move to the city—any city.”

  “Except Blythe Industries can’t find cheap labor to run their plant in the city.”

  Justine scoffed. “Oh, and no other company in all of Mississippi could use a food scientist?”

  Piper pursed her lips. “Maybe—but then I’d be farther away from Gran, and you’ve got to admit, I have a terrific job.”

  “True—most women wouldn’t have to be paid to design desserts.”

  “Well, it’s not all fudge sauce and whipped cream, Justine. It’s harder than it sounds.”

  “Yeah, yeah…bottom line, Piper, you can’t let your career or your family get in the way of finding your soulmate, your dream man—your hero.”

  “The only hero I’ve seen in Mudville, Mississippi, is the sandwich special at Limbo’s Deli.”

  “Oh, come on. There has to be at least one eligible man in that podunk town. You’re going to have to extend yourself a little, you know. See and be seen.”

  “I’m not so sure I want to see and be seen at a tractor pull.”

  “You’re going to have to work for this one, Piper. You need a man plan.”

  Piper laughed. “Which comes first—the man or the plan?”

  “Do you have a good-looking co-worker? Boss?”

  Her assistant, Rich, was good-looking. But it was a well-guarded secret that he was gay, too. And her boss, Edmund, was a married man, besides being old enough to be her father. “No one remotely eligible.”

  “Neighbor?”

  “Nada.”

  “UPS man?”

  “He’s a woman.”

  “Well, you’ve got three whole months to come up with a dance partner for the wedding—all the men in the wedding party are taken.”

  Piper flopped down on top of the dress pile, sending the hangers clanging. “Oh, well, that should be a cinch. After all, ballroom dancing is such a popular pastime in Mudville.”

  “You’ll think of something. Cheer up—I’ll bet every happily married woman had a strategy to snag their man. Take Stew, for example. He dragged his feet for three years. Then, when I told him I had a job offer in Tennessee, he fell to his knees.”

  Piper frowned. Her bedroom ceiling needed to be painted. “I didn’t know you had a job offer in Tennessee.”

  “I didn’t.”

  “Oh.”

  “Piper, it’s our job to convince men they can’t live without us. Keep your eyes open for someone older—maybe a divorced man.”

  “I’m not so sure I want a retread.”

  Justine clucked. “Sophie says men are better husbands the second time around—you don’t have nearly as much training to do.”

  “This is starting to sound like a lot of work.”

  Justine sighed noisily. “Piper, do you want to grow old alone?”

  Shutting her eyes against the welling misery, Piper relented, puffing her heated cheeks. “No.”

  “Then you’d better start doing something about it.”

  “Okay, okay, I get the message. Can we please change the subject?”

  “Aha!” Justine whooped. “I just thought of the perfect color for my bridesmaids’ dresses—salmon!”

  Piper bit back a groan, bounced up from the bed and walked her fingers over the collection of gowns still hanging in the cramped wardrobe. Burgundy, tangerine, moss green, silver, baby blue, pink, coral, eggplant, peach and plum.

  But no salmon.

  IAN BENTLEY BLINKED at the thick gold band, topped with two rows of sparkling diamonds, then glanced across the table to Meredith. “M-marry you?”

  “Sure.” She shrugged her lovely shoulders, a dry smile curving her glazed red lips. “I won a trip to Europe for top sales, but I’m only allowed to have a spouse go with me—no ‘significant others.’”

  Ian pursed his lips and studied her classically beautiful face and mane of blond hair, which no doubt contributed to her sales success. Meredith was a walking billboard for the line of cosmetics she sold to department stores, more striking than most of the supermodels who endorsed the products. But was hers a face he could wake up to for the rest of his life? “Meredith, forgive me, but a trip doesn’t seem like a great reason to get married.”

  She laughed and waved off his concern. “Silly, I know that, but the trip started me thinking. Why the hell not get married? We spend most nights together anyway—when we’re both in town,” she added. “Getting married is the next logical step.” She leaned forward and touched his hand. “Come on, Ian, neither one of us is getting any younger.”

  The uneasiness that gurgled in Ian’s empty stomach ballooned into dread, then full-fledged terror. In the space of a few seconds, the innocent, quick lunch had morphed into a life-altering experience. Meredith was an elegant woman, an immaculate dresser and a skilled lover. He enjoyed her company very much. But did he love her?

  Ian skewered the elusive concept and turned it over in his mind like a rotisserie. Would he even recognize the emotion if it sneaked up on him? He always thought he’d be married, perhaps even have a child or two, before the age of forty. But forty was approaching more quickly than he’d expected, and he was still waiting for someone to capture his heart the way his mother had captured his father’s nearly five decades ago.

  Meredith’s flawless face lost some of its sparkle. “Gee, Ian, you look like you siphoned gas and swallowed a mouthful.”

  Straightening in his suddenly uncomfortable chair, he squeezed the gray ring box and grappled for the right words. “You caught me a little off guard, Meredith.”

  She angled her blond head at him. “That would be the idea behind a surprise, wouldn’t it?”

  A weak laugh erupted from his tight throat as moisture broke out along his hairline.

  “Try it on,” she urged, lifting her wineglass for a sip, then added, “your left hand.”

  His gaze dropped back to the ring. Ian extracted it carefully, marveling how an expensive bauble could come attached with so much emotional baggage. “It’s very nice,” he murmured, estimating that two carats’ worth of diamonds studded the gold band. Meredith’s taste ran a bit on the flashy side. With his heart pounding, he slid the ring onto his third finger, then gave her a tight smile. “Perfect fit.” Dammit.

  “You don’t have to answer right away,” she offered, withdrawing a black-cased lipstick and mirror for a quick touch-up. “Wear the ring for a few days, see how you like the idea of being a married man. If you say yes, we’ll simply buy me a band to match.”

  “I’m leaving tomorrow on business,” he blurted, changing the subject awkwardly, but suddenly anticipating the trip he’d been dreading only moments ago.

  Meredith’s eyes lit up. “Anywhere interesting?”

  Although she occasionally accompanied him from Chicago to Los Angeles or New York, Ian felt nearly giddy with relief that she wouldn’t be so eager to join him on this trip. He forced disappointment into his voice. “Afraid not—Mudville, Mississippi, population twelve hundred.”

  Her slender nose wrinkled. “What’s in Mudville, Mississippi?”

  “The plant that packages desserts for my Italian diners.”

  “Oooh, the butterscotch cheesecake?”

  He smiled and nodded. “Among others.”

  Wincing, she patted her flat tummy with a manicured hand. “That settles it—with bathing-suit season around the corner, I definitely can’t go.”

  Ian made a clicking sound with his cheek and tried to look disappointed. “Maybe next time.”

  “Why are you going?”

  “I’m planning to franchise the coffeehouses next year, and I think a designer dessert would improve their market
ability—you know, something catchy.”

  She narrowed her almond-shaped eyes. “I meant, why are you going? Don’t you have someone to take care of that kind of thing?”

  “Well…yes,” he admitted, not without a certain amount of guilt. His vice president of marketing had made the same point just last week when Ian had returned from a plant in Illinois. And his doctor had warned him only yesterday to delegate more work at the office. Frustration pushed at his chest, causing him to respond more vehemently than the situation warranted. “But I think the importance of this project justifies a firsthand consultation with the company’s food scientists.”

  Meredith’s eyes widened slightly, then she inclined her head. “When it comes to food, you seem to know what the public wants.” One eyebrow arched and she smirked. “How are the kiddie parlors selling?”

  Glad for the change in subject, he smiled wide. “Great so far. Pizza and trampolines seem to be a profitable mix.”

  “Go figure,” she said, her dry tone a clear indication of how she felt about having kids, hearing kids or just plain seeing kids—a fact which needled him slightly. She blotted her lipstick with her folded napkin. “How long will you be in…Mudville, is it?”

  “Oh, I don’t know…as long as it takes to get a good prototype. Maybe a week, maybe more. Sometimes these small-town plants are not as prepared as they should be for presentations.”

  Her frown quickly turned into a sweet smile as she reached forward to pat his left hand. “Well, at least I won’t have to worry about you finding someone else in a place called Mudville. If it’s as desolate and godforsaken as it sounds, you’ll have lots of peace and quiet to consider my proposal.”

 
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