Uniformly Hot!

Subject: Max St. James, U.S. Army Sergeant First Class

Current Status:On leave after a year in Afghanistan.

Mission: Take some R & R. Check up on a buddy’s little sister.

Obstacle: Sophia Castillo. Independent, stubborn–and hot enough to make him forget she’s anybody’s “little sister!”

Max may be off duty, but he still has one last job to do. He’s promised To look in on–but not fool around with–his best friend’s kid sister. Only once he meets Sophia, all thought of keeping his hands to himself go out the window.

Sophia, however, has different ideas. A recent widow, the last thing she needs is another man telling her what to do. Even if that gorgeous man leaves her drooling in a puddle of lust….

It’s a battle of wills. Who will end up on top?

Max breaks every rule in the book to keep Sophia in his bed. After all, all’s fair in love and war. And Max is counting on life with Sophia being a little bit of both.

ISBN-10: 0373795963 ¦ ISBN-13: 978-0-373-79596-3

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Red Hot Readers can check out the entire first chapter here!  

Chapter One

 

Sis.  It’s crazy here.  Hot, ugly, intense.  My kinda place.  Still, I miss home.  The pictures you sent of the seal pups in Yerba Buena made me smile.  But who was that chick with the pink hair?  Did her tee-shirt really say Blow Me?  What kind of people are you running with?  You’d better be careful.  You know there are jerks out there who’d take advantage of your money, right?  Don’t trust people unless one of mis hermanos checks them out first, okay?  Speaking of, I’ve got a buddy stopping by.  He’s a good guy and helped me out of a tight spot.  He promised to check up on you.  Treat him nice.  He’s the kind of guy you should be thinking about, okay?  A standup guy with full pockets and real integrity.  Think about it.  Love ya, Rico.’

Holy cow, Rico was matchmaking from a battle zone.  Her brother was certifiable.  Sophia Castillo didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  A typical reaction when dealing with her family.

She wasn’t sure which was worse, though.  That he thought he could check up on her?  Or the idea that he’d found some guy who had… how’d he put it?  Full pockets?  As if she’d have the slightest interest in dating at this point in her life, let alone care what was in some guy’s pants.  So typical, given that none of the men in her family thought she was capable of taking care of herself.

Sophia smiled anyway, though.  Even if he was an overprotective, meddling busybody, she was proud of her brother.  Bad boy, Rico Santiago had finally found his path in life.  A member of EOD, the U.S. Army’s bomb disposal unit, he was halfway through his 365 day tour in Afghanistan.  Risking his life, defending his country.  And still bossing his little sister around.

Trying to boss her around, Sophia corrected as the phone rang.

“Esprit De L’Art,” she answered, as always loving the sound of the art gallery’s name rolling off her tongue.

“Sophia?”

Recognizing her lawyer’s voice, Sophia closed her eyes and said a little prayer, then said, “Olivia, hello.  I hope you have some good news for me?”

“Is no news good news?” the other woman asked.

Sophia winced.  If Olivia was trying to make jokes, the morning’s settlement negotiation hadn’t gone well.

“She wouldn’t budge?”  Even though she’d known it was a longshot, Sophia’s stomach still sank into the toes of her sassy red heels.  She’d have dropped her head on her desk and let it bounce a few times, but she figured with her luck she’d damage the desk.  And she couldn’t afford to replace it.

“I’m sorry.  Ms. Castillo’s lawyer stood firm on their demands.  They want you to release all claim to your late husband’s estate.  They’re not willing to negotiate.”

It’d been eight months since Sophia’s husband of four years had died of a heart attack.  The abrupt loss had been a shock.  But the reality was, she’d spent the year before he’d died mourning the loss of the man she’d loved after she’d finally realized the charming hero she’d idealistically married only existed in her imagination.

Nineteen years her senior, Joseph Castillo had swept her off her feet.  He’d been wealthy, intellectual and polished.  Everything Sophia had dreamed about as a poor little girl growing up in a huge family of bossy brothers and a father too busy supporting all of them to pay much notice to his youngest child.

The first year of her marriage had been a fairy tale.  Joseph had been wonderful.  He’d even bought the gallery she’d loved since childhood for her as a wedding gift.  Indulgent and sweet, he’d treated her like a princess.  And she’d done everything she could to be worthy of her charming prince.  It’d been in their second year of marriage that things had gotten rocky.

To this day, she didn’t know if it was because she’d started feeling comfortable enough to start asserting her normal independence, something she’d sidelined in the uniqueness of being taken care of.  Or if it was Joseph’s waning attention as the novelty of his new bride faded.  Probably a combination of the two.  But things subtly changed.  So subtly it’d taken Sophia three years to see the deliberate erosion of her confidence.  A master of passive-aggressive power plays, Joseph had wanted her to remain the naïvely devoted worshiper he’d married and he’d done everything he could to keep her there.       In the end, Sophia had barely recognized herself under the layers of silk, diamonds and obedience.

And she definitely hadn’t recognized the man she’d married.

“So what next?” she asked her lawyer, dreading the answer but needing to know.  Never again was she going to hide away and hope things would just get better.  She’d learned the hard way that sitting with her eyes scrunched closed and her fingers crossed was only good for wrinkles and hand cramps.

“You want it all, she wants it all.  So next, we go to trial,” Olivia said briskly, as if Sophia publically smearing the intimate details of her life wasn’t anything to stress about.  “We have an excellent chance of walking away with everything.  Joseph’s will clearly states that eighty-percent of his estate was to go to you.  Despite your step-daughter’s claim that you were going to file for divorce and in so filing, would void the prenup, you didn’t actually take any legal steps.  Intention isn’t fact.”

As usual, the thought of divorce sent a feeling of failure washing over Sophia.  She’d been brought up to believe that marriage was forever.  Despite her family’s oh-so-vocal doubts—or maybe because of them—she’d been determined, even when things started to fall apart, to have that idyllic forever.

A part of her had even hoped that the shock of suggesting they end their marriage would somehow push them into fixing things.

Apparently, she’d still been a little naive.  But not any longer.  Now she had priorities.  And priority number one was her gallery.

“What about the money?  Can’t I access any of my bank accounts?  Any of them?  I’ve been living on what the Esprit brings in for the last six months.  And given the mess Joseph had created last year, it’s not bringing in much.”

“The joint accounts are all frozen.  I’ve requested an audience with Judge Langley to negotiate.  Ms. Castillo refused arbitration, so I might be able to use that as a leverage to get at least a portion of the money released.”

Sophia wasn’t surprised that her stepdaughter had refused arbitration.  Lynn was bitter.  Younger than Sophia by only a couple years, she’d been raised by her mother and taught young to hate everything her father stood for.  Except, apparently, his money.

“I need access to my funds if I’m going to keep this business going, Olivia.  We have to figure something out.  The gallery has a show scheduled next week.  It has to be a success.”

For oh, so many reasons.  Her ego, for one.  Years of subtle put-downs and slow shredding of her confidence, for another.  The process had been methodical and clever.  Before she’d realized it, she was distanced from her family, cut off from her friends.  Her entire world revolved around Joseph.

His opinions.  His approval.  His guidance.

Her dress was too short.  Her lipstick to bright.  Her opinions too loud.

And the gallery he’d given her as a wedding gift?  She looked around her office, letting the warmth of the space ward away the chills this conversation and her memories were bringing.  He’d never let her actually run the gallery.  Yes, it was in her name.  But he’d thought she should take management classes.  Then he’d figured she needed to travel more, see other galleries.  He’d explained that she’d learn through watching.  So even though she’d technically owned the gallery for four years, until last summer the sum total of her contribution had been choosing hor d’euvres for shows and looking pretty.

And she’d sat quietly by while he slowly and surely undermined the gallery, too.  She had to turn the business back around.  Her and the gallery—they were both going to regain their former glory.

She glanced at the pile of bills mocking her from her inbox and sighed.  Somehow.

“Olivia, this show’s success is vital,” Sophia insisted.  Actually, she insisted pretty loudly.  Not quite at the top of her lungs, but you couldn’t say she wasn’t passionate about how much she needed this show to work out.  Sophia clenched the phone in her fist and took a deep breath, then modulated her voice.  “You have to push harder.  I don’t understand how she can control everything like this.  The will clearly stated what was mine and what was Lynn’s.  How come the judge is giving her this much power?”

Olivia’s sigh was so loud, Sophia was surprised it didn’t ruffle her hair through the phone.

“Sophia, I’m sorry.  Between Ms. Castillo’s witness list and documentation, she was able to present a strong enough case that the judge has to consider it.”

“In other words, Judge Langley is listening to gossip and rumors.”

The rumors that Sophia was a promiscuous money-hungry tramp had started four months ago.  If they were to be believed, it was her fault for everything from the gallery’s shift in focus from classy photography to erotic art to the resulting financial challenges to Joseph’s receding hairline.

“You realize Lynn’s probably the one who started those stupid rumors, right?” Sophia pointed out, her fingers tapping in irritation on her spotless desk blotter.  “Who else would care what the gallery is showing or how I run it?”

“Regardless of who started the rumors, you need to be aware of the talk and make sure you rise above it.  Prove it false.  Continue with your plan to restore the gallery to its former focus on photography instead of the erotic art your husband preferred to show.  Behave, keep your nose clean, all that stuff.  If you do, we’ll be fine.  Just stay focused and keep a positive attitude.”

At this point, Sophia did let her head drop to her desk as she continued to listen to Olivia reiterate again all the ways she should behave before saying goodbye.

It was all she could do not to slam the phone down.  God, she was sick of people telling her how to behave.  What to do and how to do it.  And always, every freaking time, it was supposedly for her own good.

Because, what?  She only did things for her own bad?

When did she get to lead her own life?  Call her own shots?

“Now, dammit,” she said aloud.  “It’s my life and I have a plan.  I’m the one in charge now.”

Maybe talking to herself wasn’t a part of that plan, but she was considering it a work in progress.

She clicked her mouse, opening a brightly colored goal board on her computer screen.  She’d spent the last year reading every self-help book she could find.  She searched her soul, delved into her psyche, tiptoed around her inner-shadow.  And she’d decided that the true path to happiness was through control.  Her, taking control of her own life, that is.

And now her brother was trying to get her to go out with one of his buddies?  Sophia pursed her lips, and even though she knew she was only torturing herself, she clicked open her picture file.

Her mouse went unerringly to the photo Rico had sent her about six months ago.  She’d looked at it so often, it was a good thing it was on the computer screen instead of paper, or she’d have worn out the edges.  With a click, a group of men filled her screen.  Rico’s bomb disposal squad.  There was her brother in the center, his arms draped over two other guys while another stood just off to the side.

He was dressed the same as the others, a tan tee-shirt and fatigues.  But he stood out like he was wearing a tux.  Maybe it was his position, a part of the group yet distanced.  Or a sign of authority, since he seemed to be in command.

Some men were pure fantasy material.  And this guy, Sophia decided with a deep sigh, was a prime example of a U.S. armed forces soldier at its finest.  A testosterone loaded weapon in human form.  This guy exuded an air of confident sexuality that was so strong in a photograph, Sophia was pretty sure it’d melt her into a puddle of lust if she ever saw him in the flesh.  From the curling tips of his damp, dark hair, over the sculpted muscles lovingly covered in a soft tan tee shirt to the hard thighs in khaki fatigues, he was all male.

All sexy, intense, controlled male.

He looked like the kind of guy who knew how to take sex and make it amazing.  The kind who not only put a woman’s needs first, but realized them before she did.  A man who’d make her feel incredibly wanted.

Desirable, powerful and feminine.  Sophia’s breath quickened as she imagined his hands.  They’d be strong.  Hard, yet gentle as he caressed her.  He’d explore her body, sending her into a mind-numbing spiral of sexual delight she’d only dreamt of.

Just like she was dreaming now.  Sophia’s breath shortened, her body tight and taut at the images dancing through her mind.

Realizing she’d done it again, brought herself to the edge of an orgasm fantasizing about a guy she’d probably never meet, who for all she knew was happily married with five kids, she gave a breathless laugh.

He was definitely not the kind of guy Rico would send with instructions to check up on his little sister.

“Yo, Soph,” called a voice from down the hall.

Sophia’s fingers fumbled, sending the mouse sliding across her desk before she caught it.  A quick click closed the file, and its hunky contents.

Her cheeks burning, Sophia lifted her chin and quickly pushed away from the desk and hurried from her office so Gina wouldn’t come in.  Her little fantasy had been so hot, she was sure there was a cloud of sexual energy floating above her computer.

“Yo, Gina,” she answered, smoothing her skirt as she headed toward the back of the storage room.  “Did that shipment of frames come in?”

“Yep.  That and a few other things.”

That tone, with its underlayer of naughty glee, made Sophie frown.  “What things?”

“Oh, some this, some that and a really huge…”

Reaching the far side of the storeroom where they kept shipping supplies and the deliveries were made, Sophia’s jaw dropped.

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“The shippers thought they were doing us a favor by uncrating it since it’s so heavy.  I was watching the floor, so I didn’t have a chance to stop them before they took off.”  Delighted horror filled Gina Mayes’ voice.  “Isn’t it great?”

Sophia couldn’t tear her eyes off the mind-bogglingly huge spectacle to spare her assistant a look.

“I’ve never seen a penis that big.  It’s insane.  What am I supposed to do with it?” she mused with a frown, wandering a circle around the statue for a better look.  “I mean, sure, it’s pretty.  Long, hard and smooth.  But really… isn’t it proof positive that you can have at least four-feet too much of a good thing?”

Tilting her head to one side, her dark hair sweeping across her cheek as she tried to figure out why someone would want to create, let alone buy, such phallic glory.  She had no clue.

“Men and chocolate, you can’t ever have too much when they’re good.”  Gina grinned from the other side of the erect member, her eyes sparkling behind rhinestone encrusted cat-eye glasses and a thick brush of magenta bangs.  “And this sucker is definitely bigger than the one I got up close and personal with last night.”

“Haven’t you heard?  It’s not the size that counts,” Sophia quipped, tongue in cheek.  “It’s how you use it.”

“You just know a man made that up,” Gina dismissed with a flick of her pink feather duster.  “Women know size definitely matters.  Even in art.”

She might have been married four years, hold a masters in fine art and own a gallery that, up until two months ago, specialized in the erotic.  But Sophia didn’t have enough experience with men to offer more than a weak smile.

There was no arguing that size was a factor with this phallic fantasy.  Standing at a solid four-and-a-half feet, fully erect, the polished white-veined marble gleamed in the pale morning light shining through the window.  It was going to be a total pain in the ass to return.

“Why do people send their work without checking first?  I sent out a notice three months ago that we wouldn’t be accepting any more erotic pieces.  I made it clear we were shifting focus to photography.  Not…” she waved her hand again at the huge penis, “this kind of thing.  Erotic art is all well and good but we’re not showing it anymore.”

Which was a shame, really.  Yes, her plan was to return the gallery’s focus to photography, as it had been from inception until Joseph had decided to stir things up a few years back.  But damn, that erotic stuff made a lot of money.  It’d be worth polishing a four and a half foot penis for a few months if it’d pay some bills.

Behave, Olivia’s reminder rang in her head.

“We’ll re-crate it and call the shippers,” Sophia decided with a sigh, scanning the artist’s shipping manifest for an email address.  “I’ll contact this Mita Andress and let her know we’re returning her…  Penis.”

“Andress?  She called last week, wanting to be included in the upcoming show but I said her work wouldn’t fit this exhibit.  Pretty ballsy of her to ignore that.  Maybe she thought you’d be so wowed, you’d overlook the topic, so to speak,” Gina stated, tucking her feather duster into the back of her wide studded leather belt and wrapping her arms around the marble member to tests its weight.

“I might need a little help,” she grunted, stepping back to glare at the large piece like it’d suddenly made a dirty joke and personally offended her.  “Maybe Mita didn’t ignore you.  Maybe this is another one of Lynn’s rotten pranks.”

Sophia’s pursed her lips.  The other woman had definitely made it her mission since her father’s death to create as much trouble in Sophia’s life as possible.

But sending a marble penis?

“Maybe,” she acknowledged.  “But it’s just as likely a mistake.”

Unable to help herself, Sophia grabbed her ever-present SLR camera out of the loose pocket of her skirt and stepped back to frame the shot.  As always, the viewfinder was magic for her.  Her objectivity filter.  Through it, she saw what was, instead of what she wanted to see.

She let her mind clear, letting the image fill her head instead.  White marble against the pitted paneling of the storage room walls.  Gina’s face grinning under the pink fringe of her bangs, her torn tee-shirt and leather a sharp contrast against the smooth, elegant curves of the sculpture.

All she needed was five seconds to frame and snap the shot for her to put Gina’s suggestion to rest.  There was too much pride, even love, carved into the marble for it to be a prank.

“I’m sure the artist thought we’d love the sculpture and want to include her in the show next week,” she decided as she lowered the camera.

“You just like to think the best of people,” Gina accused, like that was a bad thing.

“Not the best,” Sophia demurred.  She glanced at the photos lining the back hall, studies of light and dark.  “I just see the reality.”

“Well obviously some people don’t like the new reality,” Gina said with a shrug as she gathered the wood, a can of nails and a hammer to start building a new crate.  “I wonder how many more people will send us random body art without a contract, wanting to be included in next week’s show.”

“I guess I should be grateful someone wants to be included,” Sophia muttered, holding the long wooden plank so Gina could hammer the l-bracket in place.

Sophia was sure her decision was right, but the lack of enthusiasm from the public, the artists and the photographers was disheartening.  It was almost enough to make her doubt her ability to regain Esprit’s previous glory.

Not for the first time, she cursed her late husband.  He’d taken one of the top photographic art galleries in the San Francisco Bay Area and changed its specialty to erotica.

To this day, Sophia didn’t know if Joseph’s obsession with sexually-focused art was homage to the genre, or if it was a crutch for his own lack of talent in that arena.

“What about that von Shilling guy who wanted to show here?” Gina asked as she started building the next crate wall.

Sophia looked past the crate at the photos, barely visible in the showroom.  She’d love to have an artist of von Shilling’s caliber showing here.  But…

“No.  He’s amazing, a legend, really.  But he specializes in nudes.  If I show him, it keeps me stuck in the same rut Joseph created.” And would lend more weight to Lynn’s accusations that Sophia was some kind of sex-obsessed pervert who would run first the gallery, then the rest of the Castillo estate, into the ground.  “He’d be incredible, but I need someone else.  A totally different direction.”

Seeing that Gina had a handle on the construction of the rest of the crate, Sophia stepped away.

“You could do the show,” Gina muttered between swings of her hammer.

Pretending she hadn’t heard the words over the hammering, Sophia wandered over to the door.  Her gaze skimmed the short hallway, focusing instead on the main showroom with its glossy wide planked floors and beveled glass windows.  Prisms of light danced softly, the damaging rays weaving a pattern on the floor but not touching the photographs displayed on the walls.

Her photos, in a show.

It’d be the most amazing thing in the world.  Her stomach jittered at the idea, a thrill of excitement shivering down her spine at the idea of being in one.

But she knew what she saw when she looked through the viewfinder at herself.  The truth.  She was a lover of art, but not brave enough to be an artist.  She didn’t have the guts to bare her soul through her work.

What she did have, though, was the gallery.  Esprit could be her expression of art.  She’d spent years apprenticing, so to speak, at Joseph’s side.  He’d insisted on classes, training, extensive travel to learn the ins and outs of the business.  Mostly, he’d insisted on dangling the gallery like a gold-plated carrot, his last means of controlling his wife once she’d grown a spine.

Right up until he’d had a heart attack on the ninth hole.  A familiar mix of sorrow, guilt and a few dregs of anger roiled together in Sophia’s stomach.

She started when Gina patted her arm.  She’d been so lost in thought, she hadn’t noticed the hammer’s silence.

“Soph,” Gina said, the look on her face making it clear she had a clue where Sophia’s mind had wandered.  “You okay?”

“I feel fine,” Sophia lied.  “I just have to get through this month.  Get the show set up, start selling art again.  That’s my priority.”

“My priority is sending this magnificent member back to its maker.  But I need your help,” Gina wiggled her brows, the light glinting off the stainless hoop on the left one.  “I’ll seal the last wall of the crate after we shove this sucker inside.”

“Pushing penises,” Sophia snickered with a shake of her head.  “Pathetic.”

“Admit it,” Gina said, her words barely discernable through her giggles.  “You’ll miss this kind of thing once the gallery is on the straight and narrow.”

“Hmm, let me think.  A chance to reclaim prestige, acclaim and world-wide admiration?  Or the notoriety of being the proud displayer of the world’s largest hard-on?  Such a choice.”

She didn’t add that the constant focus on sex was like nails on a chalkboard to her since she wasn’t getting any.  Torture akin to sending a dieter to work at the Hershey factory.

She joined Gina next to the statue, watching the tiny woman wrap her arms around the marble.  She couldn’t even reach one hand to the other, the thing was so wide.

“Yum,” Gina said, her face pressed against the penis.  “On three?”

Sophia kicked off her twice re-heeled red patent pumps and hitched up her pencil skirt so she could bend at the knees.  Wrapping her arms around the slick, cool stone, she sucked in a breath and, when Gina said now, lifted.

Holy crap, the thing weighed a ton.  They couldn’t budge it.

“God,” she grunted, releasing one arm from the penis to rub her tailbone.  “I think I broke my ass.”

“This sucker gives new meaning to the term rock hard.  Who knew an erection could weigh more than a horse?”  No longer amused, Gina scowled at the monstrosity.

“Can I help you ladies?”  The voice was male, it was laughing and it was coming from directly behind her.

Stiffening, Sophia felt the blood drain from her face.

Did anything say professional like two women wrapped around a preposterously proportioned penis?

Could this get any more humiliating?  With a quick wince, Sophia pushed her dark hair off her face and, hoping for the best, straightened the collar of her ruffled poet’s blouse before turning around.

It only took two seconds for her blood to heat.  For her heart to race.  Breath catching in her chest, she stared.

It was him.  Her fantasy guy.  The sexy soldier from Rico’s picture.  And he was even better live and in person.  Cut military-short, his mahogany hair glinted with hints of red.  Laughter danced in his deeply, intense melt-her-heart brown eyes as they met hers.

Sophia wet her suddenly parched lips and tried to catch her breath.  His gaze shifted from amusement to masculine appreciation, the look making her stomach jitter.  The man was pure, three-dimensional nirvana.  The long sleeves of his blue pinstriped button up shirt couldn’t disguise his wide shoulders, his muscled biceps.

He was like a dream come to life.  And maybe, she pressed her hand against her stomach, just maybe she wasn’t ready to try and handle dreams in real life.  They were so much safer in pictures.

It was like getting hit with a sexual force-field.  Towering a good four inches over her five-foot-ten in heels self, he exuded power.  Charisma.  Pure sexual energy.

“Can I have you—I mean, help you?”