Say No to Joe?
Book 1 in the Visitation, North Carolina Series
Irresistible Force, meet Immovable Object
Joe Winston has a routine with women: he exists; they swoon; roll credits. With his smoldering looks, macho style, and irrepressible charm, Joe can have any woman—except the one he really wants. Secretly, Luna Clark may lust after Joe, but she’s made it clear that she’s too smart to fall for him. He can just keep holding his breath, thank you very much. But now, Luna’s inherited two kids who need more than she alone can give in a small town that seems hell-bent on driving them away. She needs someone to help out… someone who can’t be intimidated… someone just like Joe. Becoming an instant family wasn’t exactly what Joe had in mind, but hey, it’s a start, and you can’t blame a guy for trying every angle.
After all, where there’s a Joe, there’s a way… straight into a woman’s heart.
Reviews of Say No to Joe?
Say No to Joe?
is Book 1 in the Visitation, North Carolina Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
- Book .5: Fantasy
- Book 1: Say No to Joe?
- Book 2: The Secret Life of Bryan
- Book 3: When Bruce Met Cyn
- Book 4: Just A Hint—Clint
- Book 5: Jamie
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Say No to Joe?
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Sprawled out flat on his stomach, his big body stretched end to end on the full sized bed. Two women loomed over him, touching him, quietly oohing and ahhing. They were so absorbed in their scrutiny, they didn’t even notice Luna’s entrance, hadn’t heard her knocks. She shook her head, but she understood, indeed she did.
After all, Joe was buck-naked.
And he had a… tattoo on his ass?
Huh. Luna squinted to read the ornate script wrapped around a three-dimensional heart. It looked like it said I Love Lou . She frowned. Now what was that about? She knew without a single doubt Joe Winston was into women, not men – as witnessed by the two Barbie dolls presently pampering him.
One of those women whispered with longing, “I do wish he’d wake up.”
The other sighed. “I’ve been trying for half an hour. No luck.”
Luna cleared her throat and when the women looked up, startled and somewhat guilty, she explained, “The front door wasn’t locked.”
Rather than question her sudden presence or order her out, as Luna expected, the women shared a glance and flushed. The breasty blond even dropped her hands from Joe’s back where she’d been petting him.
The redhead bit her lip in nervousness. “Ummm… who are you?”
Seeing that Joe hadn’t moved, was apparently, in fact, sound asleep just as they’d said, Luna seized her opportunity. She stared with contrived contempt at both women, raised her chin in disdain, and uttered with complete absurdity and unrivaled fiction, “I’m his wife. Get out.”
That they didn’t question her told Luna all she needed to know. These women weren’t important to Joe or they’d have already learned all about his aversion to marriage. She almost smiled as the women tripped past her – until she saw the bottle of pills on Joe’s nightstand.
Striding forward, Luna read the label and saw that they were rather powerful pain pills. She frowned and set them aside. No wonder he was out cold. But what had happened to him? Why was he medicated?
He didn’t move, but he did give a slight, snuffling snore and shifted the tiniest bit. His shoulders, as wide as a tank and just as sturdy, drew her hand. Luna touched him, felt the hot silk of his taut flesh – and realized she was trembling. Not that she was nervous about her mission. Nope. But hey, Joe was naked and if that wasn’t enough to make any red-blooded female shake then what could?
She hadn’t seen him in three long months. The last time he’d asked her out, he’d told her if she refused him, he wouldn’t ask again.
His thick blue-black hair lay in disarray, a sharp contrast to the rumpled, snowy white pillowcase. His heavily whiskered jaw appeared clenched and as Luna looked closer, she saw a purplish shadowing around his eye. A bruise?
Sitting on the side of the bed, Luna shook his shoulder. “Joe, wake up.”
At her nearness, his nose twitched then with a slight frown, he drew a slow, deep inhalation of breath. With exaggerated effort, he got one thickly lashed eye to open. The seconds ticked by while they stared at each other.
Abruptly his other eye snapped open and Luna got snared in his flinty, dark blue gaze. In a voice deep and rough from sleep, he said, “I thought I recognized that scent.”
Bemused, Luna pulled back. “Sorry champ, but I’m not wearing perfume – “
Her statement strangled in her throat when Joe rolled to his back with a rumbling groan of agony. His new position gave her a shocking display of his battered ribs along with a variety of bruises and scrapes on his chest, face and abdomen.
Someone had hurt him.
Outrage blossomed, but the outrage was tempered by awareness because he also gave her with a full frontal view of his gloriously naked body – and wow, what a view it was.
Joe Winston might be a bonified jerk, a sexist pig in fact, but Luna had no complaints with his physique. He was all bulky strength, long bones, dark hair and sinew. And sex appeal; the man had it in spades.
She was trying to convince herself to look away when Joe snagged her upper arms and dragged her over him.
“You don’t need perfume,” he purred in what could only be a tone of seduction.
Alarm shot up her spine. “Oh no, big boy. Hang on there…”
Even weak and apparently drugged, Joe had no problem overpowering her, big overgrown lug that he was. She ended up with her breasts crushed to his massive hairy chest, her legs caught between his. He grunted in pain, then growled in appreciation.
“Joe,” she started to object – and his mouth covered hers.
Luna recognized the danger of the moment even as she thrilled at the strength of his thick arms circling her, the press of his groin into her belly, the damp heat and gentle hunger of his mouth. The summer temperatures outside had nothing on Joe. The man was too hot. It had always been like this with him. He touched her, and common sense fled.
Without her conscious permission, Luna’s eyes drifted shut and for only a moment, a single moment, she gave in, kissing him back, taking his taste and giving him her own.
He made a sound of hunger as his big hard hand opened on her back, mostly bared by her halter-top. His fingertips were rough, warm and before she could assimilate that, they slid low to her bottom to enclose an entire cheek. He gently squeezed.
Like a shot, Luna sprang from the bed to glare down at him. She was breathless and annoyed and damn it, he still looked good enough to eat.
Deep blue eyes narrowed on her face, expressive and intent. “Come back here.”
He said that as if he really expected her to obey. She almost did. “You,” she accused, valiantly resisting temptation, “are drugged.”
Amazingly, his hand slid to his lap and he laid his fingers lightly against himself. Wearing a crooked smile, Joe murmured, “I’m still fully functional.”
Her jaw loosened, her mouth fell open. Oh Lord. It took a lot to knock her off kilter, and this qualified. Luna wanted to swoon, to fan her face. She wanted to touch him too, to feel the strength of him, the hot silk of his flesh, the crisp black hair.
Absurd. Men, even big muscular, over-confident hulks, did not affect her this way, to the point she had trouble breathing or forming a coherent thought. She swallowed hard and managed to keep her eyes on his face. “I didn’t come here for that, Joe.”
“I came to talk.”
“Let’s talk in bed.”
His purring tone sank into her bones, weakening her resolve. Trying for a little attitude, she summoned a teasing smile. “You’re the only man I know who gets aroused by pain medicine.”
His gaze slid over her breasts beneath the brightly colored halter edged in shiny beads. “I’ve been on pain meds for three days now, honey. Trust me, they don’t turn me on.”
Suspicion dawned. “You’re not as out of it as I thought, are you?”
He groaned, winced, and forced himself a little straighter in the bed. “Out of it, no. Not anymore. In pain, yes. Give a hand will you?”
Mouth flat, eyes watchful, Luna wrapped both hands around his thick upper arm. Muscles bunched and flexed against her palms, raising her awareness level even more. He braced against her, then shoved himself upward in the bed until his back rested on the pine headboard. He looked pale from the effort and so battered she almost softened toward him.
“Jesus,” he muttered, “my ribs are killing me and my knee hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.”
She could see that. He was tense with the pain, his forehead damp. But Joe wasn’t a man you coddled, especially not while he was in a bed and naked.
Once he was propped up, he let out a slow, cautious sigh.
Choosing discretion over titillation, Luna tossed the top sheet over his lap.
Joe blinked at her. “Getting to you, huh?”
Yes. “Not at all.” His long, hairy legs still showed, so she spread the sheet over his lower body and tucked it in around him, doing her best to ignore his knowing smile and the way the sheet tented with his semi-arousal.
“Thanks,” he murmured with a lot of irony, then he cautiously stretched, settling in a bit more. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Of course you are.” Luna put herself a safe distance from the bed and the reach of those long muscular arms. “You looked to be suffering greatly with two women fawning all over you.”
“Suffering? Yeah, that about sums it up. Why do you think I was playing possum?” He kicked the sheet loose until his right leg was again visible, clear up to the paler skin of his hip. “The insatiable tyrants don’t understand that I’m only human, and subject to injury.”
Refusing to give herself away, Luna kept her gaze glued to his face. “You’re telling me they were here for sex?”
“Did either of them look like Florence Nightingale to you? And I don’t have any money, so they couldn’t be after that. What else is there but sex?”
Luna rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe I came here.”
“Yeah, me either. Why are you here, by the way? Oh wait, you’re my wife, right?”
His expression was alight with devilish delight, enhanced by his slightly crooked nose and the small gold hoop in his ear. Joe would enjoy embarrassing her, making her ill at ease. But she had no time to be embarrassed, no time for second thoughts.
Drawing a fortifying breath and praying he wouldn’t give her a hard time about it, Luna said, “The truth is Joe… I need you.”
* * *
Joe did his best to hide his reaction to the thumping, grinding pain in every muscle, bone and joint. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was nearing eight o’clock. He’d been in bed forever it seemed, and God, he felt like something the cat had mauled, killed, and then dragged in. But he couldn’t afford to be distracted with the annoying pain right now.
Luna had sought him out, and by God, he’d take advantage of the moment if it killed him.
“As I recall,” he said around a wave of discomfort, “you told me to get lost. Sounded pretty sincere to me too.”
Seeing Luna Clark flush was a unique experience. Usually she was all brass balls and feminist pique. Not once had he ever witnessed any insecurity in her.
Her chin rose. “You know why, Joe.”
“Because you’re cold-hearted?” The second he said it, he held up a hand. “No, don’t abuse my already abused body. One more blow and I’m done for.”
She did look ready to clout him, not that he didn’t deserve it. Whenever he got near her, it seemed he had no control over his wayward tongue, his better sense, or his lust. But damn it, her continued rejection nettled him so much that more often than not he behaved like a complete ass.
Uncomfortable with that fact, Joe shifted and a groan slipped out without his permission.
She inched closer. “What happened to you anyway? Did you accost another woman and she took a ball bat to you?”
Joe hid his grin. “A little grab-ass is not accosting.” At the worst of times, Luna could amuse him. And now he finally had her where he wanted her.
His cousin Zane had called yesterday to explain that Luna would be visiting, that she had a situation – which was as much explanation as Zane would give – and that she could use his special skills. Naturally, Joe had agreed to help out. Hell, Luna was the best friend to his cousin’s wife, which made her practically family. And Joe would do anything for family.
Yeah. That sounded plausible enough to suit him.
She’d gotten here sooner than he’d expected though. He’d thought to have a few more days to recoup before he had to pit wits with her.
Her mesmerizing eyes shone with annoyance and disbelief. “I barely knew you, Joe. I brought you a sandwich and half a minute later you had your hands all over me.”
Despite his aches and pains, the memory warmed Joe. Locking onto her gaze, he said in his defense, “You have that kind of bottom, honey. All round and soft.”
Her color deepened. “Of all the stupid, sexist – “
“It’s irresistible,” Joe insisted, and meant it. “It begs for a man’s hands. It – ” There looked to be an explosion imminent, so Joe wisely let that go for now and instead distracted her. “And for your information, no, I didn’t get beat up by a woman.” He snorted. “How absurd is that?”
“I dunno.” Her body vibrated with tension. “I’m ready to beat you up.”
Oh, he’d love for her to get close enough to try. For that brief moment when he’d pulled her over him, touching body to body in all the right places, he’d felt alive. Aware. Hungry in a way that had eluded him since… well, the last time he’d touched her. Damn.
But she kept her distance. Smart girl. “If you want the gory details, some slimy bastard snuck up and blindsided me. I think it was a two-by-four though, not a ball bat.”
Finally, a dose of the sympathy he deserved. Joe grunted. “That’s right. The first blow was to my head and I still have the lump to prove it. Knocked me on my ass.” He gingerly touched the tender spot behind his left ear. “That’s all I remember until I came to.” And for good measure, he added, “I barely managed to make it home.”
Little enough exaggeration there. Getting up the steps to his second floor apartment had seemed a monumental feat, especially with his twice-cursed bum knee. Even with the help he’d had, it had proved damn difficult.
With a very satisfying, very womanly look of concern in her beautiful light brown eyes, Luna moved closer to the bed. “You’ve seen a doctor?”
“Yeah, and had a whole series of x-rays and pokes and prods. Nothing’s broken, though it feels like half my body is crushed. Final verdict was that I’d live, and with some well-placed ice packs, bed rest, and pain meds I should be good as new in a week or so.”
Her concerned gaze skimmed over him. “Are you able to move much?”
Now we’re talking. “The hips work just fine, honey. Course, it’d probably be easier if you did all the – hey, c’mon now, Luna, I was just teasing.” He barely managed to hold in his laugh. “Don’t storm away.”
She pivoted on her heel and stomped back toward him. Joe braced himself, waiting for the blast of her ire. She surprised him by drawing a deep breath, then another. And one more.
He sighed. She was such a volatile, passionate woman, which made tweaking her temper fun. He raised a brow. “Got control of yourself?”
She gave one sharp nod.
The little liar. She wanted to bludgeon him. “Good.” He patted the side of the bed next to his hip. “So tell me about this ‘needing me’ stuff. I’m all ears.”
“God, Joe, you’re exasperating.” She dragged a hand through her hair. Today it was soft brown, shoulder length, silky straight. But Luna was such a chameleon, constantly changing on him, Joe wouldn’t be surprised if it was red tomorrow, and blond the day after. To date, he’d seen her with just about every shade and style to her hair, to the point he had no clue what her natural coloring might be. First time he got her naked, he’d find out though. He could hardly wait.
In the meantime, he liked it that she kept him guessing. The novelty drew him. Yeah, that was it. The novelty.
From the very beginning, Luna had intrigued him. And he hadn’t lied – the woman had a killer ass. He’d picked up on that the moment she’d come sashaying into his cousin’s computer store where he’d been helping out during a difficult time. Because Joe had been doing Zane a huge favor by minding the register, Zane had asked Luna to bring him lunch.
At first, Luna had been more than pleasant, flirting in a way that Joe now realized was a natural part of her nature, not a come on for him personally. She’d looked at him with those slanted, golden eyes and he’d seen what he wanted to see: an invitation.
Under normal circumstances, Joe kept a clear head at all times. But with Luna, nothing felt normal. In so many ways, she shot his perspective all to hell. On that particular day, she’d turned to set the meal on the checkout counter, presenting Joe with a perfect view of that delectable rear view, and without even thinking about it or the possible consequences, he’d… touched her.
That is, if you could call a pat, followed by a full-palm squeeze, a mere touch. Soft, warm, resilient… he’d gotten one handful and immediately wanted more. A whole lot more.
But Luna had gone rigid and from one second to the next Joe found himself wearing his lunch instead of getting to eat it. She’d stormed out without giving him a chance to apologize or explain or coax her into a better mood.
It hadn’t been easy, but Luna had eventually forgiven him. After all, the chemistry was there, as undeniable to her as it was to him. At Zane’s wedding, Joe had finally managed to ease her into one long, wet, blistering kiss that had haunted his nights for three months now.
After that, he’d tried repeatedly to get her alone. Hell, he’d even tried being on his best behavior. Not that his best was all that good. At thirty-six, he’d had a lot of time doing just as he damn well pleased. And the jobs he’d had – bodyguard, bounty hunter, private dick – had only made him meaner, a little nastier. It came with the territory and in some cases was outright necessary.
But for Luna, he had tried and had been damn uncomfortable in the process.
And still she’d turned him down.
Joe mentally rubbed his hands together. Now, however, fate had thrown her for a loop and according to Zane, she needed someone exactly like him. Someone unscrupulous, someone hard, fearless. Someone who could kick ass when necessary.
He needed to recuperate before he undertook the ass-kicking part. But for Luna, for a chance to appease his overwhelming lust, he’d manage.
Luna looked very undecided, so Joe held himself still, even held his breath, and after half a minute, just when he thought he might suffocate waiting for her to make up her mind, she came to him.
She sat on the side of the bed, hip to hip. “You’ll behave, Joe.”
“Absolutely.” Joe waited, but she didn’t say anything more. “Yeah?”
She looked at him, scowled, looked away.
Oh now this was good. “Shyness?” he taunted in a low tone. “From Luna the loony? Luna the goddess of the moon? Luna the – “
“All right!” Brows drawn, expression stern, she said, “I have two kids.”
Joe choked. And damn it, given his injuries, choking hurt. He held his ribs and wheezed and tried to catch his breath. Surely, he’d misunderstood. Zane had claimed she had a problem that only he could handle, and Luna herself said she needed him. But Joe assumed they meant to deal with a threat of some kind, a pushy boyfriend, an impatient landlord, even something financial. He could handle any and all of those. But kids? What the hell did he know of kids, other than that he didn’t want any?
Finally, eyes watering, Joe sputtered, “The hell you say? Must’ve been one quick birth.”
“Are you going to be serious or not?”
Joe clutched his aching ribs. “Believe me, sweetheart, I’m as serious as a nun on Sunday.”
She drew a big breath. “I have a cousin who passed away two years ago. She left two kids. No one knows who their father is, so now they need a guardian.” She stared at her hands in her lap, and for a moment, it appeared she might actually cry.
Typically male, Joe felt himself melting. There was just something about a tearful woman that made a man feel more like a man, protective and strong, the conquering hero ready to comfort the vulnerable little lady. And when that little lady happened to be Luna… well, she was usually so brazen and self-assured it really threw him to see her like this. If he weren’t so beat up and sore, he’d pull her close and hold her, snuggle her into his chest, rub her back… That’d be real nice, for sure. But odds are if he got her that close, especially while she was being all soft and female, he’d do something to get himself slugged.
Better not try it.
But while he waited for her to compose herself, he could at least hold her hand. Her nails were painted fuchsia and she wore several silver rings. Small boned, her hand felt delicate in his.
Shit. He hadn’t wanted to think of Luna as delicate. He wanted to think of her only as sexy. Hot. Provoking.
He’d had a lot of fantasies about her needing him, but not like this. Not all the emotional stuff. This time the groan was silent, caused by a cramp in his brain, not his body.
“How did she die?” He kept his tone gentle, low.
“A stupid car wreck. She left one night for groceries and never came home again.” Luna sniffed. “They’ve been through the wringer, Joe.”
He tilted his head trying to see her averted face. Teasing her seemed his best recourse. “I swear, if you cry, I’ll fall apart too and then where will be?”
She snorted at that. In the next instant, she shed the vulnerability, once again as cool as the other side of the pillow. “They’ve been through several guardians, but no one permanent. I spoke with Willow, Chloe’s daughter, for about half an hour. She sounded almost… desperate. I don’t like that.”
“Chloe was your cousin?” Joe stroked her knuckles with his thumb, marveling at how soft she felt, distracting himself from the emotional issues trying to crowd his brain.
She nodded. “We met once or twice when we were younger, but I barely remember her at all. I didn’t even realize she’d passed away. No one notified me of the funeral.”
“So why are they contacting you now?”
“I’m all that’s left. Willow isn’t quite fifteen yet, but she sounds much older. She’s been trying to take care of her younger brother and deal with the constant changes. It’s too much. I have to go there.”
“Course you do.” Joe gave her hand a squeeze. He couldn’t imagine what Luna thought he might add to the equation. Hell, he wasn’t a family man but he also wasn’t a complete bastard. “So where do I fit into this?”
“Then you’re willing to help?”
He gave her a level look for that ridiculous question. “You mean you don’t know? And here I thought you were Luna, Goddess of the moon, all powerful, all seeing…”
Again, she looked ready to hit him.
Joe laughed. “Come off it, honey. You assumed before you came here that I’d help, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked.”
She acknowledged that with a shrug. “All things considered, I thought I could probably count on you.”
Ah ha. A cocky grin tilted his mouth. “You mean because of the sexual chemistry between us.”
Far too serious, Luna gazed at him. “No. I meant because deep down, you’re one of the best men I know.” Her gentle voice took him by surprise. “Zane certainly trusts you.”
Now damn it, that threw him completely off guard. He’d had all kinds of sexual banter ready to go and she had to hit him a low blow by complimenting his oft-maligned character.
While Joe mentally fumbled, Luna went on unfazed. “But before you agree, you should know that the kids are a handful. Willow hinted that they’d riled some of their neighbors with harmless pranks and now some people are… well, blaming them for all kinds of things and generally giving them a hard time.”
“A hard time, huh?” Joe smirked. It had to be more than that or Luna wouldn’t be trying to coerce him along. She wasn’t exactly helpless herself and in the normal course of things, he had no doubt she could handle a few annoying neighbors. She’d sure handled him and in the process, she’d made it more than plain that she wanted nothing to do with him. It said something about her present situation that she’d come to him now.
It also emphasized her faith in his abilities. You’re one of the best men I know. Now didn’t that beat all? She wasn’t here because she wanted him, but out of some misconstrued notions on his nobility. Joe clenched his teeth. She was sure to be pissed when she found out that he didn’t have a noble bone in his body, and it wouldn’t really be fair – to her or to the children – for him to get involved.
But how bad could a couple of kids be? They were little people, right? Limited in their destructive abilities. Neither he nor his sister had married yet, so they were a long way off from supplying any babies to the family, much to their mother’s annoyance. But between his four cousins, there was a gaggle of kids ranging in age from eighteen months to nearing fifteen. Joe enjoyed them whenever he visited. Kids could be charmers, as long as they weren’t his kids.
Having made up his mind, he pushed away his ever-present physical discomfort and faced Luna. “All right. Let’s hear it.”
“The scoop. What have the rugrats done? How much trouble are they in?”
“I don’t know that I’d really call it trouble,” she hedged. “There are just a few people hoping to run them off.”
“What kind of people?”
Luna looked him over, then said, “Big people.”
He grinned. “That right?”
“I am not mean.”
“I didn’t say you are. I said the people bothering the kids are mean.”
“Right. And you figure you’ll fight fire with fire by shoving me under their noses?”
It was her turn to grin. “However imposing and unscrupulous they are, you have to be more so, Joe. I’ve seen you in action when you were helping Zane, and I’ve heard all the stories your cousins have told. You can handle anything and anyone.”
“Probably.” Then with a frown: “But I am not mean.”
End of Excerpt
Say No to Joe?
is available in the following editions:
Out of Print Editions
August 1, 2003