LOVE IN BLOOM
Zebra Bouquet
ISBN 0821766252
June 2000

From their very first kiss . . .

Seventeen years ago, America's premier young model, Eva Channing, ran from the glamourous world of New York fashion to small-town Texas, where she could forget her passionate, doomed affair with photographer Carson Brandt. Today, a single mom with a successful nursery business, Eva is content . . . until a magazine piece on former models brings the intensely sensual Carson tumbling back into her life.

. . . to a second chance at love

Carson has always been most comfortable expressing his emotions through a camera. The only person who ever broke through the armor around his heart was Eva. Now he's determined to uncover the reason she left without saying goodbye, and the secret behind the son who bears a strong resemblance to Carson. One look at Eva's beautiful face starts a fire deep within him that he hasn't felt in years.

 

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BOOKLIST

Bliss and the Art of Forever - The Sweetness of Honey - Beneath the Patchwork Moon - Boots Under Her Bed - A Blue Christmas/Jingle Bell Rock(Digital Edition) - Unforgettable - The Second Chance Café - Unbreakable - Undeniable - Holiday Kisses/This Time Next Year - Twenty-One Hours/SEAL of My Dreams - At His Mercy - Playing Love's Odds (Digital Edition) - Love Me Tender (Digital Edition) - Love In Bloom - (Digital Edition) - The Icing On The Cake - With Extreme Pleasure - One Good Man - No Limits - A Long, Hard Ride - Maximum Exposure - Kiss & Tell - Deep Trouble - In Danger - At Risk - Tex Appeal - The Perfect Stranger - Beyond A Shadow - Infatuation - The Complete Idiot's Guide To Writing Erotic Romance - Deep Breath - Goes Down Easy - Red Letter Nights - Totally Charmed - Kiss & Makeup - Undressed - Larger Than Life - Sara Smiles/Beach Blanket Bad Boys - The McKenzie Artifact - The Beach Alibi - The Samms Agenda - The Shaughnessey Accord - The Bane Affair - Mother, Please! - Indiscreet - Wicked Games - A Blue Christmas/Jingle Bell Rock - Striptease - The Sweetest Taboo - Bound To Happen - No Strings Attached - Roped Into Romance - All Tied Up - Love In Bloom - Four Men & A Lady - Love Me Tender - The Badge And The Baby - The Grinch Makes Good - The Heartbreak Kid - Call Me - Playing Love's Odds

Eva hurried to her office. Crap. She didn't need the aggravation of Carson Brandt, no matter how much he improved the scenery.

Shoving the door shut, she kicked off her heels and padded in her stocking feet to the window behind her desk. Lifting a mini-blind slat, she peered out into the garden area.

He stood there bare-chested, knee deep-cast deep-in rich black soil. Holding open a burlap sack, Zack hunkered down while Carson shoveled the humus mix into the bag. His shoulders bunched. His biceps flexed. And he was much too tan for early spring.

His skin glowed bright with the kiss of summer sun. She wondered where he'd been. An equatorial climate. Maybe Egypt or Ethiopia. Somewhere where he wouldn't mind the lack of provisions. Food had never mattered to him. So weight had never been a problem.

But what had once been a body gangly with youth was now the lean strength of prime man. His skin was smooth, seasoned; his chest dusted with sun-bleached fuzz. His hair had streaks of red gold over streaks of honey. He'd let it grow and she liked it.

The overall picture put her on edge. She could appreciate the hair and admire the skin. But the five percent body fat was too much for her latent hormones.

She couldn't help herself. Wetting her lips, she released her imagination, called up the past, and remembered the feel of his body. A familiar tingle crept through her limbs.

She clenched her thighs and forced her breathing to slow. Her eyes drifted shut. A lethargic weight rooted her to the floor. Seventeen years hadn't changed her physical response to the man who'd taught her the joys of physical love.

"Traitor," she grumbled down to her disloyal body before lifting her lashes to look outside once more.

Carson's pullover sports shirt hung carelessly over the cedar fence. So typical. The shirt was no doubt a designer label and cost a fortune, but money and the luxuries it could buy had never meant anything to Carson.

No matter how much he earned for each assignment, no matter how much he increased his retainer, the money didn't matter. Only the challenge of bettering himself, besting himself, beating himself time after time carried weight with Carson Brandt.

He was a paragon of perfection. Just like Zack.

The intruding realization returned Eva to the moment. She'd been determined to relegate these two men to their proper places in her life, places separate and apart from one another.

Now they stood working side by side . . . and looking mighty chummy, she noted with a grimace. Amazing, the number of similarities in them. The long, lanky build. Tawny hair and tanned skin. Different colored eyes, but similar expressions. The same intensity. The same inner fire.

Funny things, coincidences.

With a puff of breath, Eva dropped the mini blind in place and stripped off her suit, hanging it in her office closet. She pulled on a pair of faded jeans and a loose white T-shirt. After tying on a pair of scuffed leather work boots, she stood and took a deep breath. This wouldn't be so bad.

Wrong, she amended seconds after she stepped outside, because someone had forgotten to tell her body she was immune to Carson Brandt.

He was oh-so-cool, his stance indifferent, deceptively lazy, like he owned both the world and the time. His long-fingered hands were stacked casually on the shovel handle, his ocean blue gaze keen and alert-and trained on Zack.

Slowly, Eva approached, pushing away the last few minutes of fantastic lust to concentrate on the moment. And the fact that she had to get Zack away from Carson, before he twisted her son's passion for excellence into his own obsessive drive.

Tying up the full bag of soil, Zack slung the load to Miguel who hefted it onto his shoulder and carried it across to the waiting truck. As Miguel climbed in and drove away, Zack dusted his hands together, grabbed another bag from the pile by the fence and squatted beside Carson.

"Hey, Mom," he called, as Carson dropped the first shovel full of soil into the open bag. "What did Mr. Grant have to say about his star pupil?"

Acknowledging Carson with a tight smile, Eva relaxed her fists and glared down at her son. "Not as much as Katie did. She told me about the prom."

Zack thumped the bag against the ground to settle the soil. Eva felt the thud-thud in her empty stomach. She shouldn't have skipped lunch, she ruefully thought, knowing the lack of food had nothing to do with a burning sensation that would no doubt get worse before it got any better.

"I guess I should've told you yesterday. But it's something I wanted to think about for awhile."

Eva plowed her hands into her hair and sighed. "Zack, don't apologize. I'm just worried that you're taking on more than you can handle."

"I know. That's why I didn't give them an answer right away." He looked up with eyes too old to be on the verge of seventeen.

Eva's heart broke. "If you want to talk about it, we can make it an early evening."

Zack shook his head. "Not tonight. I've got a paper meeting in a couple of hours."

Eva opened her hands in offering. "That's why I'm here. Katie told me about the meeting. I thought I'd lend a hand so you can get out of here." She finally glanced at Carson. "Looks like you've got plenty of help already."

"Yeah, Mr. Brandt wouldn't take no for an answer even though I told him Miguel and I could manage."

Carson knocked the shovel head against the sole of his single boot. "How are you, Eva?"

Aggravated. Frustrated. Annoyed. Strangely disturbed. She looked up at the sky. "Fine. But we're all going to be wet if we don't get this order filled in the next thirty minutes."

"Hey, Mom," Zack said, twisting the bag mouth closed. "Why didn't you ever tell me that you knew Mr. Brandt?"

Bending down, Eva held the mouth of the bag closed while Zack secured it with a length of rope. She shrugged noncommittally. "It's never come up. You knew I modeled years ago, but Carson and I haven't kept in touch.

"Between you and Blooms," she said, tugging playfully on a lock of Zack's hair, "I don't have time to keep up with photographers and fashion any more." Straightening, she glanced at Carson, and heard yesterday's conversation verbatim.

I'm only a star if you know where to look for my name.

Okay. So I look.

His eyes were as fiery now as they'd been then, his expression condemning and righteous. She really had to quit lying to the man. She was a total failure at making it work.

"Sounds like Mr. Brandt helped make you famous." Zack fluidly rolled to his feet and nudged her shoulder with his.

She snagged her heel on a chunk of rock, but caught her balance before falling into Carson. She glowered at her son, wondering at Carson's version of the story. How much had he told Zack? "Thanks bunches, Zack. And I'm not famous."

"Then you've got this town fooled."

"Very funny," Eva grumbled, then took a deep breath. It was time to get her son out of here. "Listen. Why don't you go home and get cleaned up? Grab some money from the register and order a pizza to take to Katie's. Just leave me a note of the amount."

"What about the rest of Mrs. A's mud?"

"Soil, Zachary. Specially formulated to meet her garden's every need." Eva grinned as Zack rolled his eyes. "I imagine Mr. Brandt won't mind helping me finish up this last bag. That's all that's left-" Eva arched one brow Carson's direction "-and he looks like he's wearing most of it."

"Just adding my own special touch," Carson said with a too dazzling smile.

Pretending not to be dazzled, Eva crossed her arms. "I'm sure Mrs. Appleton's prize-winning begonias will wilt in abject horror."

Zack grabbed his shirt from the fence and shrugged it on. He pushed the long locks of hair from his face as his gaze cut from Eva to Carson and back. "Hey, I'm outta here. You two can fight this out alone. I'm gonna grab that pizza money and Katie. Just not necessarily in that order."

"Zachary!"

"Bye, Mom." He leaned down and bussed her on the cheek then extended his hand to Carson. "Mr. Brandt. Thanks for your help. I just hope you didn't screw up your leg."

"No problem, Zack. And the leg's more a nuisance than anything." Carson propped the shovel handle against his hip and took Zack's hand.

Eva glanced from her son to the bare-chested man who once was her lover. A streak of dark blond hair delineated the musculature of Carson's torso before disappearing behind the waistband of his low-slung khaki pants. She remembered the feel of his skin against her tongue.

She remembered his taste, his smell, the wiry brush of hair against her cheek. The thunder rumbled. And she moved her gaze to Zack. Breathlessly, she said, "I'll see you later tonight, okay? Have a good meeting."

Zack jogged off, then turned, gave her a thumbs up, and disappeared through the door. Eva whooshed out a long breath and turned back to Carson. She'd gotten rid of Zack. Now to get rid of Carson. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm working." He glanced at the shovel in his hand and back as if the answer were obvious.

"Not here, as in here in my garden, but here as in what are you doing in my hometown? I thought you had an assignment in Houston. And, now that you mention it, what are you doing in my garden?"

Using the shovel for leverage, Carson eased down to the ground. Leaning back on both elbows, he stretched out his casted foot and groaned. "I volunteered to help when I saw how your son was busting his butt out here."

"The Carson Brandt I knew wouldn't volunteer to help do anything." Eva frowned down at him. "But he'd have no qualms about ruining a perfectly good pair of pants. Or a cast. Are you supposed to be working in that thing?"

"You mean should I walk in my walking cast?"

"Smart mouth." She offered her hand. "Get up. Your getting filthy."

He shook his head, his gaze speculative, interested, and way too familiar. "I don't think so. I like the view from down here."

Why did he always make her think of sex? Ignoring what that look, those words, did to her already jittery stomach, Eva shrugged. "Suit yourself."

"I always do."

And didn't he, though. Stepping closer, she picked up the shovel and grabbed the last bag. "Thanks for helping Zack, but I can manage from here. You probably need to be getting back to Houston."

"Nope. I took myself off the assignment. I'm on vacation," he said, tugging the bag from her hands.

After that remark, she didn't have the strength to hold on. Dread seeping into her bones, she watched while he tossed the bag back on the pile. "A vacation. And you're spending it here?"

"Why not? Nice quiet town. Nice people. Nice place for secrets." Carson hoisted himself to his feet and dusted off his seat before grabbing the shovel from Eva's hands. "Tell me about your son, Eva."

The question didn't surprise her. In fact she'd expected it sooner. First there was the timing of her past shared with Carson. Then there was Zack's age, not to mention the uncanny similarities in looks between the two. And she couldn't forget Carson's arrogance and reluctance to admit he'd made a mistake. Of course he would think Zack was his son.

Eva glanced in the direction her son had disappeared but Carson's broad chest, muddy and inches away, blocked her view. Shoving agitated fingers through her hair, she stepped back.

"Look, Carson. I've really got to finish this order." She gestured toward the stack of burlap bags. "Do you mind?"

A raindrop pelted the end of her nose. Carson took a step forward. She backed into the fence. He leaned toward her, braced the shovel against the cedar picket, then straightened and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Tell me about Zack."

Fine. She knew a no-win situation when she saw one. Laying her palms against the fence, she rested her backside against her hands and met Carson's relentless gaze through the steady drizzle.

"Let's see. He plays shortstop for Lake City High. They're having a great season, so between games, practice and working as photographer on the school paper, he doesn't get in a lot of study time. That's where Katie comes in. You met her earlier?" she asked. When he nodded she went on.

"She's a shoe-in for valedictorian next year and is a big help tutoring Zack. His grades could be better, but I'm pleased. And right now he's still mulling over his college choices." There now. That wasn't so bad.

"He's a junior then?"

Eva nodded.

"That would make him how old?"

"His seventeenth birthday is next month." And seventeen years ago she'd run from New York. Showdown time.

Long quiet moments hung thick in the air, enveloping the rhythm of nature and the heartbeat of man. The pattering rain spawned a vaporous haze redolent with earth and new growth. The cool mist bathed Eva's skin, and blurred her view beyond this one small, intimate corner of the garden.

The darkening sky cast gray shadows over Carson's face, but the clarity of his gaze never wavered. The rain plastered his hair to his head, sluiced smoothly over his torso and washed away the accumulated sweat and dirt. His muscles flexed and slowly he advanced; his movements sleek, stealthy, with a jungle cat's grace. Eva held her breath.

He stopped. Inches separated their rain-soaked bodies. The air swirled close, the moisture thickened. The fog of Carson's body heat scented the air. Droplets caught in Eva's lashes and she raised determined eyes.

He meant nothing to her any more; he was no longer a part of her life. But her thighs quivered, and her breasts tightened. And she knew the lie had run its course.

Carson lifted a finger, hesitated, then flicked a raindrop from the end of her nose. A second kissed her lip, slipped down her chin, ran the length of her neck and soaked into the neckband of her T-shirt. Carson's gaze followed, then traveled lower. His eyelids grew heavy, his breathing sharp and ragged. And Eva pressed back against the fence.

The distance was no deterrent. Carson stepped into her space. He traced the path of the raindrop with the pad of his index finger. His rough skin pulled at the pillow of her lower lip. She opened, allowed him to dip inside and leave a tempting hint of his taste. A taste she remembered too clearly. A taste that made her hungry again.

She tilted her head against the rough cedar board, giving him access to the skin of her throat. She wanted him. Dark secrets from the past pulled them apart, yet this white-hot electricity arced between them, spanning the years as well as the lies of omission. Making a mockery of the life she'd built for herself and her son.

His touch drifted feather light, drawing a single line down her neck. Her breath caught in the back of her throat; her erratic pulse pounded beneath his touch. His finger slipped lower, grew bolder, tickling a line between the valley of her breasts.

She shivered from the cool touch of the rain, from the hot touch of his finger. In a minute she'd stop him. For just one more minute she'd soak up his touch and let the rain wash away the years. For one second longer she'd pretend this was real and dream all those fantasies one more time. Make believe their differences didn't matter. Fool herself into believing they had a chance.

"Eva." Her name escaped his lips in a grating whisper.

She opened her eyes to find his heated gaze on her chest. Her nipples tightened under his intense perusal with the same ease they once had for his mouth. Using his thumb, he traced the upper curve of one breast, then the other, and she whimpered. Shamelessly, she strained toward him.

"You're so incredibly beautiful. More so now than years ago. And your body . . ." He shook his head, his chest lifting and falling rapidly now. "I wish I'd seen you pregnant. It's so hard to believe of this body."

The words he spoke woke her from the fantasy and thrust her deep into the madness of the moment. Swirling and whirling and spinning out of control. She dropped her gaze to the ground, looking for stability, solidity, finding nothing but water that eddied in the mud around her feet.

Pulling in a stilted breath, she whispered her answer. An answer that was only a part of the truth. "Well, I have been pregnant, Carson."

She lifted her gaze enough to see the lean strength in his fingers as they flexed at his sides. She looked higher, at the indentation of his navel and the flat male nipples hidden in a whorl of blond chest hair. Water ran over and around the sculpted ridges of his torso like a river fighting formations of nature.

Finally, she braved his eyes. For a fraction of a second his need burned so sharply she wanted to claw her way through the fence behind her and run for shelter. Seventeen years later and the emotional threat of his sensuality hadn't diminished. Why? Why now? Oh God, why now?

She ground the back of her hand against her mouth to stifle a moan. "Damn you, Carson Brandt. He's not your son."

His eyes lost none of their brilliance, but his stance shifted imperceptibly. That telltale sign told her he'd been hit. That he wanted Zack to be his son and irrationally hated her because of that truth. Because he wanted to believe the lie he'd been living since he'd laid eyes on Zack four days ago.

Carson leaned closer and she sucked in a breath, sucking in with it the very taste of him, the sweat, the earthiness and the man. She waited. And waited. Wanting his touch and hating herself for the weakness.

He lifted his arm above her head and jerked his shirt from the fence. After struggling into the wet material, he turned on his heel without a word and limped through the gate. The motor of his Jeep roared to life. He spun his tires on the wet pavement and drove away.

When the world returned to the present, to the sweet smell of nature, pine bark and earthy soil, Eva dropped to her knees. Lifting her face to the spray of cleansing rain, she damned herself for once being young and foolish, and for ever loving Carson Brandt in the first place.