Excerpt: Taming McGruff
Book 3: Once Upon A Romance Series
The bell over the salon door tinkled, breaking the silence. Someone in Priscilla King’s peripheral vision entered.
“Hey, you forget something, Rico?” she asked, walking to the front of King’s Department Store beauty salon. Shuffling through the file folder she carried, full of glossy pictures and detailed printouts for the upcoming remodel, her heart tugged. She longed to make her own unique stamp on the store. She realized even though she helped manage the salon now, this remodel wouldn’t be hers; it was a continuation of the recent Charmings theme in the store and wedding boutique.
If only she could find something she could soar at, prove she was worthy to work there. But, more importantly, she dreamed of proving she was worthy of the iconic King name her late stepfather had bestowed on her and her older sister when he adopted them years ago.
Shaking her head, Priscilla shut the file and glanced up. A tall, dark-haired, broad shouldered man stood beside the reception counter. Intensity rolled off him. His gaze penetrated. Sexy. She sucked in a sharp breath. Her steps faltered. “You’re not Rico.”
“Good deduction,” he drawled.
That voice, deep and low, shot a bolt of heat straight to her center. “We’re closed.” She drew within three feet of him. Up close, he was even more daunting. Strong solid features, lips that barely smiled, and eyes the color of smoke, she noted. A shiver sliced through her at the hot, bold interest lying there.
“I’m here for a meeting.” Still he refused to break eye contact.
Priscilla broke the unnerving stare, glancing at the rest of him. Expensive navy blue business suit, crisp white shirt, silk baby blue tie, top of the line shoes… She grinned. “Well, I don’t think you’re here to apply for the hairdresser position, or the nail tech, are you?”
Ah, the corner of his lip did move, slightly. He raised an eyebrow. “Do you think I’d get the job?”
She giggled, trying to imagine this super masculine man fluffing someone’s hair.
He drew in a swift breath.
“I doubt it.” Inside, her middle tumbled at his reaction to her.
Reaching out, he brushed his thumb along her cheekbone. Warmth trailed a blaze where he touched her flesh. The gentle gesture betrayed the man’s gruff demeanor. “Smudge.”
“Thanks,” she said softly.
“I’m here to see Charlotte King,” he said in a brisk, no-nonsense manner, pulling away. Clearly, he’d put up a wall, a very high one at that.
“Charlie?” What would he want to meet with her stepsister for? At nine o’clock and on a Friday night?
“If you can just point me in the right direction, I’ll be on my way.”
“I can do better than that. I’ll escort you there myself.”
“No need,” he said curtly.
Something made her tease him. “No problem. I’m going that way myself. Unless, of course, you’re afraid of me. I don’t bite.” She shrugged. “Much. But I did skip dinner, so you never know.”
His brows drew together in a frown, obviously trying to gauge her.
Prissy grabbed for her pink tote bag, stuffed the file inside, and then snatched up the keys she’d left on the desk. Leading him to the door, she said, “Come on, I promise I’ll behave.”
He seemed to relax a little, following her.
She reached around him and shut off the lights. Her arm brushed against his. Tingles raced along her nerve endings. His warm breath feathered across her cheek. “You call that behaving?”
His scent filled her senses: fresh, clean, and all male. “Wow,” she murmured, unable to meet his stare. “Me? You are lethal.” She didn’t censor her words, a serious issue that brought trouble on occasion.
He chuckled. It came out raw and ragged. “I’ve never been called that before.”
Darting out of the door and causing the bell to ring again, she waited for him to exit. “Always a first time for everything, right?” She swallowed hard, locked the door, and then dropped the keys in her tote bag. Was she flirting? Was he? “Follow me.”
“Gladly,” he murmured.
She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to stay upright on her new over-the-knee, high heel black suede boots as she guided him across the marble floor in the nearly empty store. His big commanding presence at her side made it difficult for her to focus on anything but him.
“Yo,” Bruno, the night guard, called out, rushing past nearly twenty feet away.
“Go. I got this. Trouble?” Priscilla asked.
“Somebody forgot to lock up somewhere. Usual Friday night,” he said. “Thanks for showing him upstairs. I owe you, baby girl.”
“Baby girl?” the man at her side inquired.
Warmth crawled up her neck. She shrugged. Bruno had adopted the nickname her stepfather had given her years ago. It made her feel cared for and a part of a family.
At the executive elevator now, she went to the panel. She shot him a look over her shoulder. “No peeking,” she teased, and then shielded the pad as she punched in the secret code. The doors opened. “Here you are. Your chariot awaits.”
He grunted and waited for her to precede him inside.
“Are you always this grumpy?” she asked, pushing the button for the fifth floor.
Uh oh, she’d offended him. “Yeah, shut down, buttoned up, scowl between your brows–you know, grumpy.” She couldn’t help herself. At least this kept her from admiring his powerful body just inches away. She had to distract herself somehow.
“You mistake being serious for a bad mood.”
She folded her arms across her chest, held her arms, and then shivered. “Brrrr! Did I mention cold, too?”
He moved swiftly, pinning her against the elevator wall. His hands landed on the wall inches from her body, enveloping her in his essence. Yet he didn’t touch her anywhere.
Instinctively, she shoved at his chest. She met solid, unyielding muscle. Heat burned her palms. Her heart thumped.
“And did I tell you, whatever your name is, with your short, tousled strawberry blonde hair, those incredible cat-green eyes that dance with mischief, and that smoking body of yours that you remind me of a very hot, very sexy fairy?”
The breath sailed out of her. Gazing up into his smoky gray eyes, she gulped hard; there sat desire, intense and raw. It shook her to her core.
Priscilla King, in her few short months of independence from her controlling mother, had never faced this before, never witnessed a man’s passion for her.
He eased away from her when the door dinged open. “After you,” he said, gazing at her long and hard.
She exited, still shaken by his intensity and, more so, by her response.
He reached around her to open one of the glass doors to the executive offices. His other hand landed on the small of her back, guiding her forward.
Heat seared her where he touched. She gasped.
Now standing in the empty reception area, she faced him. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” he countered.
“Why won’t you tell me?” She refused to reveal her family name; most people judged her unfavorably once they discovered who her mother was and tarnished her with the same calculating, cut-throat reputation.
“You first. Or should I just call you fairy, or pixie?”
“Funny,” she said, not meaning it. Pointing down the hall, she said, “Charlie’s office. Just keep going. It’s the last one, corner office.”
He bowed slightly. “Thank you.”
She watched him walk away, irritated at him. Why did he make her feel this way, hot and prickly all over? She did the only thing she could at the moment. Prissy put her hands on her hips and stuck out her tongue at his retreating back.
Swiftly, he turned, catching her. He chuckled. “You planning on using that?”
“Drat!” she cursed.
“Pixie,” he said with a smile in his voice.
Something low and deep tugged in her middle. Who was he and why did she melt into a puddle when he looked at her?
Griffin James strolled down the hallway, feeling the burn of her stare on his back and the imprint of her palms on his chest where she’d touched him in the elevator. Branded. Outwardly, he grinned at catching her sticking her tongue out at him. Inwardly, he wondered why that little pixie had gotten to him.
A buzz hummed through his body. No woman had ever had that effect on him. Ever.
From the moment she walked toward him in the salon, his attraction for her kicked him in the gut. She barely came up to his chin. The pink knit dress she wore fit her petite body like a glove, emphasizing her curves in all the right places. He recalled the feel of her soft porcelain skin when he brushed the smudge from her cheek. Her perfume, a subtle blend of floral and citrus, tickled his senses. He moaned now.
And the way she’d gotten under his skin, calling him grumpy and cold, stunned him. He didn’t allow anyone to breach the protective barrier he surrounded himself with, his line of defense.
“Focus,” he reminded himself under his breath. “You have a job to do.”
His momentary lapse of his mission concerned him. Distractions were costly. He couldn’t afford to lose. Not when he was so close. He waited nearly all his life for this. Griff wouldn’t cave now, wouldn’t stop until he got what he dreamed of all the long, lonely nights growing up in foster care.
Destroy King’s Department Store. Destroy Mrs. Agnes King, widow of the late Charles King. Just as she destroyed his father years ago.
Quiet greeted him as he stepped into the subdued waiting area at the end of the hallway. He glimpsed the open door to the inner office. A lone, dark-haired woman at a desk drew his attention, the phone receiver tucked between her chin and shoulder.
“I promise,” she said. “This will all be over soon.” She listened, and then said, “Can you believe it, Alex? I never imagined this.”
Something in Griff tugged at the smile that crossed her face. He must have made a noise or given himself away somehow; she jerked her head up and noticed him. She waved him in.
“Gotta go, my love. My appointment is here. Be home soon.” Hanging up, she shook her head. “Sorry. My husband is getting overprotective, I’m afraid.” She stood up and came around the desk. In stocking feet, she padded to him. “Charlotte King Royale. Please, call me Charlie.”
He shook her offered hand. “Griffin James. Griff will do.”
“Thank you for coming in at the last minute.” She directed him to one of the chairs across from the big oak desk as she took her seat again.
From the photos of her in the newspapers these last few months, he never imagined she’d seem so vulnerable in person. By all accounts, she looked thin and tired. Why did that thought nudge at his conscience? She beamed, though. Was that because of her husband?
“The reason I asked you to change your interview from Monday to tonight is I received news from the doctor late this afternoon that…well, it makes finding a permanent replacement to take over the running of King’s all the more urgent.”
He frowned. What could have changed? “Good news?”
Her smile widened. “I’m going to have twins.”
Griff let that surprise sink in. It threw him off for half a second. “That does speed things up.”
“I wanted to give you a chance before I made my final decision this weekend.”
His gut tightened. “I was under the impression you would need several interviews from the remaining candidates. You have someone in mind already?”
A stab of guilt chased across her features. Picking up the paper in front of her, she said, “Griff.” She tried out his name. “Your resume is impeccable. Military service. Four years. You don’t go into detail here.” She glanced up then. “Thank you for your service.”
Unable to speak, he nodded. How could she know serving his country meant a great deal to him? If it were up to him, he’d still be there, shoulder to shoulder with the men in his unit. But fate had intervened. He played the cards he’d been dealt in life.
“So,” she returned to reading the document, “you worked your way up from the mail room to the boardroom in just a few short years at your first store, you bought it, and then later sold it for a mighty sum, I may add, if my memory serves me. You went on to head three more major retail giants to astronomical sales. You’ve just left the last one to come to Dallas and, I’m assuming, looking to get back into the retail business. Everything checks out, even your references. Oh, I might add, my husband did say he’s worked with you before and has nothing but praise for you.”
“Alexander Royale.” From Royale Enterprises. He wondered at the irony of unknowingly working in the past with the man who married into the King family, the family that haunted Griff for ages. “He’s good at building upscale shopping malls on time and under budget without cutting corners.”
At the mention of her husband, her smile lit up her face again. Ah, so it wasn’t a marriage of convenience as first reported in the press. She was definitely in love with her spouse. “I’ll tell him you said that.”
Somehow, even though her words were kind, he sensed an underlying resistance. “Tell me what the problem is? You’ve just met me and you say Alex is pleased with my work, so I can only deduce it’s the resume or, as you hinted at, you’ve already chosen your replacement.” He found himself holding his breath. This was his dream, to infiltrate King’s, play on its weakness, and then ruin it all.
Her sigh echoed in the quiet room. Placing the resume on the desk and clasping her hands together, she said, “Frankly, you’re too good. You’re overqualified for the position.”
“That concerns you? As opposed to being under-qualified?”
“Ah, under-qualified would either turn to overwhelmed or rise to the occasion. And eager to learn, from my past experiences with people. But overqualified may overlook the smaller market vision, step on our loyal employees’ ideas and input, and rush the changes before this store can find its niche again and grow. Too much, too soon.”
“On top of being a know-it-all,” he said what she seemed too polite to say.
“There is that.” Her voice held a grin.
“It’s a fine balancing act.” He didn’t expect to admire her sound business opinions. But he did.
“So you understand?”
“Or select the right person to do the right job.” He leaned back. “Charlie, your store has languished for years. I believe there was reluctance to move forward–”
“That’s putting it nicely,” she inserted with a groan.
“Your stepmother, yes?” He even hated to bring up the woman at all, never mind name her. “You’ve done a nice job in the last six months. The store has flourished under your guidance. But you have a long way to go to make it stable. You still own it, don’t you?” He knew she did now, but he’d heard she planned to turn it over to the employees.
She got up and came around the desk. Angling the other chair toward him, she slipped into it. Charlie tucked her legs underneath her, tugging down the hem of her skirt over her knees. He shifted to face her. Unsure of what her next unexpected move would entail, he steeled himself.
“Yes.” She brushed her hand over her middle. “The employees are adamant a King remain as the owner. And I find that since I’ve been confined to bed rest for several weeks recently that I imagine keeping it to pass down to my children. They should know their grandfather, his love for this place, the values he taught, know all the people who loved him…” She trailed off, blinking back the gathering moisture in her eyes.
Why did it choke him up when she discussed her children and what she longed to leave them? “The King legacy?”
“No, the dream that their grandfather, Charles King, gave his children and his employees. A home. A place to belong. A family to belong to.”
Something stirred in him at her reverence for her late father. But more so when she spoke of belonging and family. Longing whispered over his heart. He brushed it away. Quiet settled between them.
“Are you a workaholic?” Her personal question took him by surprise.
“I focus on the job at hand until it gets done. So, yes, I am.”
“Do you have a life outside of work? Parents? Siblings? A significant other?” She held up her hands. “It’s not part of the interview and however you answer, it won’t be used for or against you. I’m curious.”
“No one.” His automatic response didn’t seem to faze her.
“Are you free tomorrow afternoon, Griff?”
He frowned. Why would she care or want to know? “Yes.” Even if he’d had plans, he’d change them.
“You’re invited to our house.” She waved a hand. “Casual family get-together. Can you make it?” She didn’t wait for him to answer before she leaned over and grabbed a pen to scribble something on a nearby piece of paper. She ripped it off the pad and handed it to him. “My address. Two, or earlier if you just want to drop by. We can finish our talk then. And you can meet Marcus Goode, the temporary head of King’s. His tenure finishes at the end of this month. I think you two should meet. Besides, Alex would love to talk shop with you.”
Shock rippled through him. This scenario never played out in his mind before. Would he finally come face to face with his sworn enemy? “Family? Will your stepmother be attending?”
Her smile faded and a sad, wounded look filled her dark eyes. “No, I’m afraid due to her recent outrageous behavior, she’s not welcome in the store or at my home. I don’t know if she ever will be again.”
Her regret stabbed at him. He cleared his throat. “It sounds like mostly family. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“Why?” His blunt question didn’t even make her twitch.
“Why, Griff, because I think you just may need a family.”
Priscilla tapped her foot as she flipped through another boring business magazine. Every few moments, she glanced down the hall, even leaning to her side to try to get a better view. Her stepsister was certainly taking awhile talking to the man who rattled her senses.
After quickly dropping off the file on Marcus’ desk, along with another file from her tote bag of her design visions for remodeling the other departments in the store, she’d scampered back to her perch on the reception chair to make sure she’d catch them as their meeting wound down.
She wanted to know who he was and why he was there. Waiting until the morning, or when Charlie was free, didn’t play into her options at the moment.
Thankfully, they didn’t make her wait much longer. Their muted voices floated to her as they walked down the hall. Soon she saw their shapes, his tall and wide shoulders and her stepsister’s tall, thin figure coming toward her. She ditched the magazine on the nearby table and shot to her feet, gathering her tote bag and slinging the strap onto her shoulder.
A wave of glee shot through her at the sight of Charlie. Earlier, her stepsister had stopped by the salon and told her the wonderful news. Twins! In only a few short months, Prissy would be an auntie.
The man noticed her first, slowing his steps. Charlie moved ahead as she became aware of Prissy. “Honey.” She gave her a quick hug, and then pulled back. “What are you still doing here?”
“Yes, I’d like to know the answer to that, too,” he challenged.
It was all she could do to not stick her tongue out at him again. “I showed,” she nodded to the brooding man, “him to your office since I had to drop off the salon remodel file on Marcus’ desk.”
“Oh, so you two have met already.” Charlie glanced at him, and then back at Prissy.
“Not officially,” Prissy said with a smile in her voice. Finally, she’d get her answer. “You can have the honors.”
“Griff, this is Priscilla King. Priscilla, this is Griffin James or Griff, for short.”
“Griffin James?” Where had she heard that name before? Why did it strike instant respect, too?
“King, did you say?” he asked Charlie while capturing Prissy’s stare. “Priscilla King?”
“Yes, my youngest stepsister,” Charlie acknowledged.
“And, you, Griff, is it?” Prissy shook her head, still not placing him.
“He’s the last candidate I’ve interviewed to take over King’s,” Charlie explained.
That’s where she’d heard the name. “Retail giant. Miracle worker.”
“Don’t believe everything you read,” he drawled.
“No, just what you see, right? McGruff, is it then?”
“Pixie,” he said under his breath.
They were nestled in the elevator, going down to the first floor. His looming body and wicked stare made Priscilla’s heartbeat trip over itself.
“Need a ride, Prissy? Edward’s here to pick me up. He can run you home on the way,” Charlie offered.
“Thanks a bunch,” she said, meaning it. She wasn’t fond of taking taxis late at night or, worse, the jostling bus ride to her loft apartment.
“And you, Griff?”
Priscilla held her breath, hoping he’d accept just so she could see where he lived.
“No, thank you, I drove.” He must have seen the let-down on her face; he raised his eyebrows at her.
She covered it up in a hurry. “You don’t know what you’re missing. Edward always carries some treats that Dolly, his girlfriend and Charlie’s friend and cook, whips up every day and tucks into the car for him and the rest of us to nibble on.”
Charlie chuckled. “Lately, it’s more saltine crackers and ginger ale for me. I can’t wait to try some real food soon.”
“Between Dolly and Marcus, we have the best two cooks in the city,” Prissy said to him, and then turned to her stepsister. “Don’t worry, Charlie, in no time you’ll have the pick of the menu and two willing chefs to cook anything you desire. Ah, don’t forget to request the chocolate ganache cake and invite me over for some.”
“You got it,” Charlie said as the elevator doors opened and she exited.
Griff signaled for Prissy to go first. “McGruff a gentleman? Who would have thought?” She smiled up at him.
He grunted. “And I thought pixies only flew.”
Prissy caught up to Charlie, and Griff trailed not far behind. She glanced over her shoulder to catch him staring at her. This time she did stick out her tongue.
She sucked in a sharp breath and turned away. Lord almighty, she thought he was dangerous before, but when he smiled his whole face changed, making him more handsome and more lethal. Her middle flip-flopped.
A few minutes later, after saying their goodnights to Bruno, Prissy found herself on the sidewalk in front of King’s, facing the man who made her feel things she never felt before. The light drizzle didn’t dampen her senses when she shook his hand. A blaze trailed along her palm and up her arm. “Mr. James.”
“Ms. King.” He held on for a moment longer until she met his stare.
Those smoky gray eyes made her knees knock. She pulled away and moved toward the car. She waved off Edward’s assistance as he held open the door and the umbrella to shield her. “Thanks, Edward. I’m good. You can see to Charlie.”
“Miss Priscilla, nice to see you again.”
The warmth of the car greeted her and she sank onto the backseat. But inside she quivered. “Drat!”
Charlie was there in an instant, settling in beside her. McGruff strode to the low, sleek black car parked in front of them. Priscilla leaned forward, peering out of the windshield. Edward entered and sat behind the steering wheel. She nudged him. “What kinda car is that?”
“Corvette. Latest model. Most people call them Vettes.”
He picked up the pad on the dashboard and showed her. The nearby streetlight revealed his writing. “His name and address. No priors. No tickets.”
She smacked him on his arm. “You ran his license plate!”
Grinning, he said, “Habit. Sometimes you can’t take the cop outta a person.”
“Can I have it?” She nodded to the sheet of paper.
“Sure, but you be careful. You need backup, call me.”
“I owe you,” she said as he handed her Griffin’s address. She folded it, sat back, and tucked it in her tote.
“What was that all about?” Charlie asked, buckling her seatbelt.
“Oh, I’ve just never seen a car like that before.” Or a man like that before either.
Priscilla’s tummy rumbled the moment she entered her loft, flicked on the light, and then dumped her tote bag on the nearby chair. “I’m starving,” she said aloud, just to break the silence.
When she and her sister, Francie, left their mother’s months ago, living in this loft felt stuffy and cramped. Now that Francie married Marcus and moved out, Prissy couldn’t get used to having the whole place to herself. A stab of loneliness shot through her.
Shaking it off, she marched to the tiny kitchenette, and then opened the fridge. “Nearly empty.” She groaned, realizing she’d forgotten to go grocery shopping again. The wilted lettuce and carrots did not look appealing in the least. The cupboards revealed the same sad condition. “I should have asked Edward for some snacks, but that dang McGruff made me forget everything but him.” She couldn’t shove aside the man or her unwanted and unexpected reaction to him.
“Takeout,” she muttered, trying to shut down her wayward thoughts. She yanked open the drawer and foraged through the piles of menus until she found the one that would make do tonight.
Grabbing the Chinese menu, she returned to the living area and snatched up her tote bag. Dropping onto the couch, she fished out her new cell phone and punched in the number. It rang half a dozen times, cut off, and then rang some more. She slipped out of her boots as the man on the other end finally answered.
“Derivery or pickup?”
“De–” She stopped herself as her gaze landed on the piece of paper sticking out of the top of her tote. Griffin James’ address. “Pickup,” she said, changing her mind. She ordered for two.