“Crotchless crimson lace panties?”
“Cinnamon-scented massage oil?”
“Video camera and extra cassettes?”
“Check and double check.”
“Plenty of condoms?”
Eden Montgomery clicked her tongue and shot her petite, purple-and-scarlet-haired assistant a chiding glance. “Ashley, I’m a professional. Of course I’ve included condoms.”
“Hey,” Ashley protested, waving a tattooed wrist. “I’m just trying to keep you out of trouble.”
“What do you mean?” Eden frowned. “Trouble?”
Ashley cleared her throat. “Well, I didn’t really want to say anything because this was a rush order, but you do realize that you created this exact same gift basket a couple of months ago? Back then, I think you called it Seduction in Scarlet.”
Eden stared at her assistant, and then shifted her gaze to the basket. A lump of dismay slid down her throat. Good grief, Ashley was right. The basket was identical to one she’d made for a famous Broadway actor’s thirty-fifth birthday. Right down to the vermilion pashmina she’d used to line the basket.
“Don’t look so stricken. Repeating yourself is no great tragedy, even if you do advertise your baskets as one-of-a-kind creations. Seriously, E., who’s gonna know?”
“I’ll know.” Immediately, Eden began dismantling the basket, tossing items out across the counter. Her reputation was based on her word. She would not be guilty of false advertising.
“Look, you don’t have time for a major overhaul. The customer is due to pick it up this afternoon.”
“I don’t care.”
“What are you going to do instead?”
“I don’t know.” Eden looked at the demolished basket, the urge to cry surprising her with its intensity.
“Admit it, you have been rather frazzled for the past month or so,” Ashley observed. “What you need is a good long vacation.”
Frazzled wasn’t the word for it. Lately, she had been well…stagnant.
As the proprietor of Wickedly Wonderful, a tiny boutique in a trendy slice of Manhattan that specialized in erotic gift baskets for those uniquely seductive occasions such as honeymoons and anniversaries, Eden’s business lived or died on the strength of her creativity. Unfortunately, her artistic fount had run dry.
She had slammed headlong into an invisible mental wall. She was blocked. Clogged. Bereft of an original concept.
The thrill was gone.
Think. Come on, Eden, you can do it. Come up with a fresh idea.
She couldn’t really pinpoint when she’d started to lose intimacy with her work, but about five weeks ago, almost two years to the day after the tragic fiery accident that had led her to specializing in erotica, she’d noticed her concentration slipping. Before the fire she had operated a normal gift store, producing baskets for all occasion from holidays to bar mitzvahs to baby showers, but she’d had difficulty keeping the business solvent.
And then two things had happened. One, a regular client had asked her to design an erotic gift basket for her sister’s honeymoon and, two, Eden’s apartment building had caught fire.
She’d helped her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Grant, escape, but she’d then gone back into the building to help others. A burning ceiling beam had fallen, pinning her pelvis to the floor. Two burly members of the FDNY had arrived just in time to save her from succumbing to smoke inhalation. They hadn’t, however, been able to stop her from receiving third-degree burns.
Eden briefly closed her eyes, sucked in her breath and grimaced at the remembered pain of the fateful night that had changed her life forever. Involuntarily, she splayed a palm across her lower abdomen.
“Is there something going on?” Ashley angled her head. The tiny hoop earring pierced through her left eyebrow caught the light and glinted gold. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” she denied. Usually people confided in her, not the other way around. She was more comfortable being the shoulder to cry on than the one revealing her feelings.
“Does it have anything to do with the fire?”
Eden shot her a look. Ashley was much more perceptive than most people gave her credit for. Her flibbertigibbet personality gave the impression of someone too mercurial for deep thoughts.
“Why would you suppose that?”
“Because every time you think about the fire you touch your scar.”
Immediately, Eden jerked her hand from her abdomen. She’d had reconstructive surgery last summer and the scars were much less noticeable now. She needed to stop focusing on her wounds. Not so easy to do when the burns were indirectly related to her current creative slump.
Following the fire, a prominent newspaper had done a feature piece on her, lauding her as a hero. She’d felt awkward with the title and uncomfortable with the attention. She’d only done what anyone else would have done in the same situation.
A reporter and her cameraman had come to the shop and spied the sexy basket Eden had started concocting for her client, but hadn’t completed before the fire put her out of commission. The reporter had honed in on that basket and enthusiastically touted Eden as the Renoir of erotic gift basket design.
After the article came out, Eden’s phone had rung off the hook with orders. Business mushroomed. She renamed the store, changing it from Hildy’s Hideaway to Wickedly Wonderful. Her financial woes vanished, but she had felt like a fraud. She knew next to nothing about the sexual adventures she created in her baskets beyond her own vivid imagination.
To counter her feelings of inadequacy, she’d studied every sex manual and erotic book she could lay her hands on. From the Kama Sutra to The Story of O. Her newly acquired but totally academic knowledge of sex, combined with her degree in art history from N.Y.U., had stimulated her efforts.
And for a while it had been great fun, living vicariously through her work. She loved mentally exploring the tempting fantasies she’d never gotten to experience in the flesh.
To date, she’d only had one lover. Harry Jackson, an old college friend she’d trusted but had never been particularly aroused by. She’d decided to lose her virginity at twenty calmly and rationally, unclouded by complicated passion.
She’d experienced enough chaos and drama in her upbringing and she’d been determined to keep her feet on the ground when it came to romantic encounters. She refused to end up like her flighty mother, bouncing from one lover to another always on the lookout for the heady high of a new relationship but never staying with any one of them long enough to learn the deeper pleasure of a meaningful commitment.
She and Harry had made a pact to deflower each other and poor Harry had been as inept as she. Their fumbling attempts at lovemaking were a clear-cut case of the virginal leading the virginal with neither one of them experiencing fireworks. But then again, neither one of them had gotten hurt, either, and that had been the entire point.
Now, she sort of regretted missing out on the crazy tumult of first lust—it might have kept her imagination fueled. But she was a consummate professional and very adept at hiding her lack of personal knowledge. Her limited sexual experience was a closely guarded secret. After all, who would buy erotic gift baskets from a woman with a nonexistent sex life?
Snap out of it, she scolded herself and furrowed her brow, probing the depths of her mind for even a whisper of a sensual fantasy, but she drew a complete blank.
She was officially tapped out. Empty. Drained.
Imagine a handsome, sexy guy.
Closing her eyes, she waited for a flash of insight.
Oh come on, visualize some sex-god movie star.
Eden could not dredge up a single person who popped her cork.
Panic ripped through her then and she rhythmically worried red cellophane wrapping paper between her fingers. Her fussbudget mind snatched up the fear and sprinted with it, spinning a hundred what-if situations.
What if she never felt sexy again? What if she couldn’t break this block? What if business dwindled? What if she had to let Ashley go? What if she lost the store her grandmother Hildy had owned for forty years before Eden had inherited it?
Worst-case scenario? She would end up a bag lady on the street, pushing a grocery cart of discarded rubbish she’d gleaned from trash Dumpsters and mumbling crazily to herself.
Her eyes flew open. What was she going to do? “Don’t start imagining some huge tragedy over this,” Ashley said. “Let’s just replace everything that’s red with black and call it Midnight Memories.”
“But the customer wanted red.”
“Then just change a few things. Instead of the pashmina, use a satin teddy. Replace the handcuffs with ropes. Instead of massage oil, go for body paints or edible panties.”
“That’s not part of the artistic vision.”
“Well, the artistic vision you came up with was a rerun. Either ditch the lofty standards or be happy with a duplicate.”
“You’re right. Let’s do it your way.”
They worked silently for a few minutes, exchanging and rearranging items and then Ashley ventured, “Are you sure you don’t want to talk?” Ashley was a sweetheart, but Eden couldn’t see unburdening herself to the free-spirited nineteen-year-old even though the young woman probably knew way more about sex than Eden did and she was six years younger. Ashley’s advice was bound to be something wild and crazy. Like have a red-hot fling with a handsome stranger.
Well, she’d tried that, hadn’t she? Her one miserable attempt at reconnecting with her femininity had ended in terrible failure when Josh Cameron—a guy she’d known only a couple of weeks before going to bed with him—had been so repulsed by her burns he’d fled her apartment without having sex with her. That kind of reaction didn’t do a hell of a lot for a girl’s self-esteem.
Eden clenched a red satin bow in her hand and sank her top front teeth into her bottom lip to eradicate the memory of her single pathetic attempt at having intercourse after she’d been burned. In the wake of Josh’s reaction she’d been too scared of rejection to try again.
“Do you wanna know why I think you’re so frazzled?” Ashley asked.
Please save me from the wisdom of teenagers.
“You need to get some juicy booty.”
“Don’t go all prude on me. If I’m not mistaken that’s a man-shaped vibrator you’re holding. Seriously, I think that’s why your baskets have been a bit blah lately. You need a little divine inspiration.”
“Thanks for your opinion. I’ll take it under consideration.”
“I know this hot-looking spray-paint artist who specializes in nudes. I think you two would really hit it off.”
“I can find my own dates, thank you.”
“Hmm. I’ve been working here almost ten months and as far as I know you haven’t hooked up with a guy even once. You spend all your time building fantasies and no time living them. Under those conditions anyone would burn out.”
“I appreciate your concern, but my love life is my private business. Could we talk about something else, please?”
Ashley shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
At that moment the wind chimes over the door whispered a resonant woodsy sound and a shapely older woman dressed in the latest designer fall fashions stepped over the threshold.
The woman was Jayne Lockerbee. Her favorite customer. Eden smiled.
Jayne was one red-hot granny who believed sex should be discussed freely and enjoyed often. She loved shocking her conservative friends and relatives by gifting them with Eden’s baskets.
“Yo, J. Lo!” Ashley greeted Jayne in the hip, breezy style Eden so often envied.
“Hey, Ash, what’s happenin’?” Mrs. Lockerbee grinned.
“Not much. How’s Mr. Lo?”
“Sexy as ever.” The woman winked. “In fact, that’s why I’m here. I need a very special gift basket for our thirtieth wedding anniversary.”
“No kidding? That’s so awesome. Married thirty years and you’re still having wild sex,” Ashley blurted.
“Better than ever. There’s nothing sexier than experience.” Mrs. Lockerbee turned her attention to Eden. “Now about that basket. I was thinking maybe a little Tarzan and Jane action. What can you create for me along those lines?”
“I’ll help her, if you wanna finish that.” Ashley nodded.
Normally Eden handled all gift consultations, but Ashley knew Jayne well and she was trying to help out in the face of Eden’s creative crash and burn.
“Sure. That’ll be fine.”
“Really?” Ashley’s eyes lit up at the honor Eden had bestowed upon her.
“Really. You don’t mind if Ashley waits on you this time, do you, Jayne?”
“Of course not. Maybe Ashley will even share some of her sexual escapades with me.” Jayne winked. “I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be young.”
Have I? Eden thought. The notion was an unsettling one. Old before her time. Washed-up before she’d ever really started living.
“We just got in these great new leopard-print loincloths,” Ashley said to Jayne.
“Hmm, sounds promising.”
“Here, let me show you.” Ashley escorted Jayne to the rear of the store.
Shaking the doubt from her head, Eden returned to the task at hand. What would it be like to have Jayne’s life? Married thirty years and still enjoying terrific sex. Would she ever have that?
With those scars? Not likely.
Eden sighed. Some people were lucky in love. Apparently, she was not. On that score, she was her mother’s daughter.
But it doesn’t mean you can’t be lucky in lust, nudged a naughty voice at the back of her mind. Come on, Eden, you know you want to have sex.
And expanding her sexual horizons would be good for both business and her creativity. It was the missing piece of the puzzle and in her heart she knew it.
Her cautious nature had held her back for too long. Lack of experience was what had her feeling like a fraud, and feeling like a fraud was responsible for her artistic block.
And just because Josh was a jerk didn’t mean all men would run away at the sight of her scars. She just had to take her time and find a kind, sensitive lover who intimately knew his way around a woman’s body. Simply entertaining thoughts of that mystery lover had her tingling with longing.
Okay, all right. She needed to get laid. But even if she was willing to take a huge risk, strip off her clothes in front of a stranger and reveal her secret vulnerability, she had absolutely no prospects in mind—Ashley’s hottie spray-paint artist aside.
She tied the big red bow around the basket and then stepped over to place it in the orders-waiting-to-be-picked-up glass display case. She set the basket down, and then slowly raised her head and peered out the front window that was open just a crack.
The air hung heavy with the rich scent of impending rain. Humidity-laden wind gusted, sending a swirl of fallen leaves gathering along the curb.
It was the sort of enigmatic, electrically charged afternoon that lingered between dwindling summer and impending autumn that stirred a woman’s blood and made her believe in the endless possibilities of titillating encounters with dark fantasy men.
That’s when she saw him. Standing rooted to the sidewalk, looking as if he owned the entire street while everyone else scurried around him.
Inexplicably, she sucked in her breath and a shiver of anticipation scampered down her spine.
God, he was gorgeous. Skyscraper tall and daredevil muscular, his lush dark hair curled to his collar giving him a wild, roguish appearance in spite of his tailored pinstriped business suit. His face was lean and chiseled, his mouth full and tempting. His eyes were the smoky-gray of a grass fire and fringed with black lashes dense as paintbrushes.
He was the sort of man who made even a reticent woman itch to get naked. Ambushed by this totally unexpected and intense attraction, Eden’s knees weakened as a dozen forbidden images tumbled through her brain.
What was happening here? Just minutes ago she’d been unable to dredge up a single sexual fantasy and now she couldn’t stop them.
She pictured herself rolling around on a heart-shaped bed in a woodsy cabin in the Catskills with the guy. She imagined their sweaty bodies pressed together as they made love on the floor of a grass hut in Bora Bora. She envisioned them grinding against each other on a bearskin rug before a roaring fireplace in Iceland.
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