Set largely in Manhattan, Strokes of Midnight starts on New Year's Eve with down-on-her luck romance novelist Becky Stone (AKA Rebecca St. Claire) learning that her latest book in her “Angelina Talbot mystery erotica" series has tanked. Faced with having her contract canceled -- and her character "killed" -- she must team with best-selling action adventure novelist, Adam Maxwell on a joint project to rejuvenate her career.
In the meantime, it is New Year's Eve in New York, and it would be a shame to waste that sexy little black dress and perfect pair of "Cinderella slipper" Manolos she just picked up on Fifth--especially when hot stranger hunk "Max" bumps into her -- literally and sends shopping bags – and sparks – flying.
"Super hot and wildly fun read."
He poured coffee into two mugs, fixed hers, and then his own. Watching him, she saw that he drank his black with a heaping spoonful of sugar. Their one night stand hadn’t extended to breakfast. She’d licked and sucked and tasted nearly every part of him, but until now she’d had no idea how he took his coffee—how crazy was that?
Sipping her coffee, she said, “I run, too.” Her apartment building backed up to Rock Creek Park. Running through the park and then cutting through the National Zoo was a major benefit of her Northwest Washington location. “I’m pretty much good to go until December. Once the really cold weather hits, I hibernate in aerobics class until the spring thaw.”
Scout finished his food and headed for the family room, stopping by Becky for another pet. Watching her stroke Scout’s ears, Max couldn’t help remembering how good those soft, small hands had felt stroking his back and all the rest of him. She had the gentlest touch of any woman he’d ever known. Remembering the magic those tapered fingers and clean scrubbed nails had wrought, he felt the heat spreading over his groin.
Whisking the lumps from the pancake batter, he said, “It looks like you two have made up since last night.”
Looking up from the dog’s head in her lap Becky nodded. “I’m a huge animal lover in case you can’t tell. I have a cat, Daisy Bud. She’s a tiger-striped tabby. I found her as a kitten in the alley behind my apartment building or actually she found me.”
Wearing an oversized tee shirt, baggy sweat pants, and with her pretty maple-colored curls tousled about her face, she looked soft and approachable, more like a teenager than a grown woman. Even with bed head and pillow face, she stuck him as alluringly perfect and completely adorable. If there was a flaw, he’d so far failed to find it—and he was pretty sure he’d explored every square inch of her back in New York. Remembering the look and feel of the tight, lithe and very womanly body lying beneath the shapeless clothes, he felt himself hardening.
It promised to be a long couple of months.
Once he’d gotten her settled in her room the night before, there’d been no way he was going to sleep right away if at all. Instead he’d cleaned up the kitchen, made a fire, and then settled in to read her book. By the end of the first chapter, he’d found himself really getting into the story. Although he still couldn’t say he was a romance fiction fan—make that mystery erotica, whatever the hell that was—he had to admit she was a damned good writer.
He’d cracked open the book expecting purple prose and cardboard characters. Instead, Becky’s prose was crisp and clean and stylish, her characters well-flushed out even if he did find her protagonist, Angelina, less than sympathetic. Like him, she kept to a basic twenty chapter structure, each chapter ending on a cliffhanger that propelled the plot forward and kept those pages turning. Who knew, but this collaboration of theirs just might work out. Who could have predicted the woman he’d run into in Midtown the other day, his sexy one night stand, would be sitting in his kitchen in her stocking feet, about to eat pancakes and petting his dog? Real life really was stranger than fiction.
He turned away from her and carried the bowl of batter over to the stove. Back to her, he dropped large spoon-sized globs onto the hot skillet. It had been a long time since he’d had someone other than his dog to talk to in the morning let alone to make breakfast for. He really should do a better job of keeping up the conversation.
Over the hissing of batter meeting scalding hot melted butter, he called back, “I’ve had Scout since he was a puppy. We…I got him from a breed rescue group. Apparently his hind legs are too short and his eyes are wide set to show him. He’s been a great companion, though. Now that he’s pushing eleven, the hip dysplasia is really starting to kick in. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep him going, but while he’s still happy and feeling pretty good, I don’t mind making my vet a rich man.”
He and Elaina had gone to look at the dogs together. Like Becky’s cat, Scout had picked them, not the other way around. Max remembered standing off the side watching the puppy trot up to Elaina without being called and settle onto her lap. It had been a happy day. Thinking of Scout’s gray-muzzled head resting in Becky’s lap a moment ago, Max felt a funny tightening in his throat.
The night before at dinner, he hadn’t been prepared for the gut-wrenching feeling her tears stirred in him. There was no denying he had a soft spot for the woman. Once she’d admitted her book contract had fallen through, turning her away was no longer an option. What the hell, maybe Harry was right. Maybe Drake could use a little softening and a lot of sex—and maybe he wasn’t the only one.
Whoa, Max. She’s you’re writing buddy, not your fuck buddy.
“I called my friend, Sharon this morning to arrange cat care and she told me her dog just passed away. She’s pretty broken up about it.”
He turned around to look at her, her big brown eyes suspiciously bright. “I’m sorry to hear that. I know from having Scout and other dogs before him you get really attached.”
He glanced over to Becky and it occurred to him he was the one in danger of getting attached. Assuming they could figure out a way to work together, she still wasn’t staying beyond the two months it took to finish the draft. If the collaboration was a bust, she’d be leaving in a week. From everything she’d said since he’d met her, she wasn’t looking for a relationship. Even if she had been, it was never a good idea to mix one’s professional and personal affairs. Someone always ended up getting hurt and in this case neither of them could afford to let the work suffer. The book had to come first and it had to be good. Better than good, it had better be a blockbuster for both their sakes. They couldn’t afford to walk around like hormone blitzed teenagers.
“Max?” Becky’s voice called him back to the moment. Wrinkling her nose, she asked, “Is something maybe...burning?”
Max wheeled around to the skillet and the blackened pancakes within. Damn, he’d zoned out and burned breakfast, or at least the first batch of cakes. That was a first—and a warning sign.
He carried the pan over to the trashcan and upended it, the blackened circles sliding off his nonstick skillet. Other than feeling foolish, burning breakfast was no big deal. He’d make another batch. There was plenty of batter.
Burned pancakes were no big deal. Getting burned by a woman, by Becky, now that would be a real problem.
Becky might not cook, but she was a crackerjack dishwasher and she insisted on cleaning up. After polishing off the pancakes—she had been hungrier than she’d realized—she hopped up from the stool and started washing dishes and wiping down counters. Stealing glances at Max sitting at the breakfast bar reading the paper, she was struck by how natural and nice it felt to hang out with him in his kitchen. She and Elliot had never shared such a cozy morning. He hadn’t been a breakfast person, either and they’d eaten their other meals out. Looking back, his visits had been so brief and last minute they’d never really spent much time just hanging out. She and Max had done more talking in the past forty-eight hours than she and Elliot had in their entire six months of seeing each other. That was certainly a statement.
They parted ways to shower and dress. Thirty minutes later, they met up in Max’s office, one of the rooms at the back of the house. Stepping inside, Becky was struck by how quiet it was. Her Northwest DC apartment looked out onto Connecticut Avenue, a busy thoroughfare. Writing without the backdrop of car alarms, ambulance sirens, and honking horns was going to take some getting used to.
Max was already at his computer when she entered. Looking over his shoulder, he said, “I’m emailing Pat to ask her to FedEx over copies of the joint contract.”
Becky nodded. “I’d like to look it over before you send it.”
“Of course.” He turned back to the monitor.
She hoped she hadn’t offended him. She didn’t think she had. He’d been in the business longer than she had. Publishing contracts were legally binding documents, just like signing on the dotted line to purchase a car or a house. In this case, she wanted to make sure he hadn’t missed any of the deal points they’d discussed over breakfast. The provision that either party—meaning Max or Becky—could break the contract and walk away at any time without being sued was a key caveat.
Until he finished, though, there was nothing for her to do. Restless, she roamed the room, focusing on getting her bearings—the location of office supplies, the flatbed scanner, the fax. Compared to the barebones setup she had at home, a laptop and flat screen monitor, Max’s office seemed opulent and a little daunting if kind of dark.
She rounded his desk and pushed aside the tab-topped window curtain to let in the light—and caught her breath. The French doors opened out onto a panorama of snow-covered mountains and blue-blue sky. A pond, obviously frozen, lay about a quarter mile from the house. Beyond a gazebo and ironwork bench, there were no other structure, no houses and certainly no skyscrapers, in sight.
Sensing eyes at her back, she turned around to find Max standing on the other side of the desk, an unreadable expression on his face. “What do you think?” He’d put on a soft blue pullover and stone-washed jeans, the sweater bringing out the vibrant blue of his eyes and making them seem bluer still.
Becky felt like she was on the brink of drowning yet again. To get her bearings, she turned away to look outside. “It’s beautiful. I can see why you love it here. The view must be even more amazing come spring.”
He crossed the desk and joined her at the window, his hip accidentally brushing against her—at least she assumed it was by accident. “Every season has its unique beauty, but autumn is the best. The mountains are this incredible panoply of color. I could show you photographs I’ve taken though no camera lens can quite capture what we see with the naked eye.”
The innocent reference to “naked” had her thoughts swirling back to their sexy time together in New York. She caught herself holding her breath and asked herself why she was still so skittish around him—and so incredibly turned-on. The stranger sex mojo should be wearing off by now if not burned out altogether. Instead the attraction felt stronger, and hotter, than ever before.
“I’d love to see them sometime.” Uncomfortable with him standing so close, she dropped the curtain and stepped away. She started over to the computer to read over the email when she spotted the woman’s tooled leather framed photograph sitting out on his desk.
Becky stopped in her tracks. A man didn’t keep a woman’s picture lying out in plain view on his desk unless he had strong feelings for her. She was sure Elliot hadn’t bothered to set out even a snapshot of her.
Her and Max’s amazing night in New York was less than forty-eight hours old, the memory still fresh and achingly tender. She knew she should move on, but she couldn’t resist picking up the picture for a closer look. “Your girlfriend’s very striking. She reminds me of my heroine, Angelina.”
It was true. The tall Mediterranean woman looking out from the picture would have made a good stand-in for Becky’s British born but half-Italian heroine. The biggest difference was her waist-length black hair looked wavy instead of straight.
He came up behind her, and Becky felt the heat of him penetrating all the way through her clothes. “Elaina was Greek-American. And she wasn’t my girlfriend, she was my wife.”
He hesitated and then nodded. “She died last year on New Year’s Day.” He reached around to take the picture from her.
So that explained his claim back in New York to having gone almost two years without sex. It also shed light on why he’d decided to kill off Drake’s wife, Isabel, in the first book. The latest release referenced Isabel as a tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed cryptologist who’d died helping her bounty hunting husband on his first mission. Becky more than suspected Isabel was based on the real-life Elaina.
Surrendering the photo, Becky lifted her gaze to his profiled face. “I’m so sorry.”
Setting the frame down, he avoided her eyes. “She was sick for a long time—cancer. Toward the end, the pain got pretty bad.”
“Is that why you checked out of the publishing scene and went underground, to take care of her?”
She’d meant it as a compliment, but Max didn’t seem to be taking it so. His sexy mouth flat lined and the light left his eyes, leaving them as vacant-looking as the windows of an emptied-out house on moving day. “I didn’t go underground as that damned reporter insisted on writing. I didn’t go anywhere at all. I stayed right here in this house, the house we built together, and Elaina and I did our thing. It wasn’t like I’m some saint or martyr. I did exactly what I wanted to do, what I’d wanted to do since the day I met her, and that was to be with her. Her being sick just meant we had to figure out a new way to do that and still be us.”
Becky looked at him, emotion thickening her throat. Adam Maxwell wasn’t just sexy and charming and talented and successful. He was all of those things in abundance but even more he was loyal and decent, trustworthy and true, a one-in-a-million good guy, the kind of guy her friend, Sharon, would call a “keeper.”
“Watching someone you love that much die must be so hard. I can’t imagine how hard that must be.”
“It was hard. It is hard. That year was the hardest one of my life, but it was also one of our best. We did a lot of crying but we did a lot of laughing, too—and remembering all the good times we were lucky enough to have shared. We spent just about every waking moment together and nothing got in the way of that, absolutely nothing, not even the book I was working on. I set my laptop up in our bedroom, and I wrote when I could and when it finally got too hard, when she needed me too much, I shut the fucking thing down and forgot about it for months.”
He’d sacrificed his career and put his life on hold for his wife and the best part was he hadn’t done it grudgingly but gladly. To be loved like that, to be wanted like that, Becky couldn’t even imagine it. It was horrible to admit, but she was almost envious of a dead woman.
Elliot had the hots for her in the beginning, but whatever he’d felt for her obviously hadn’t run very deep. Love and passion, was it really possible to have both with one person outside the pages of a romance novel?
“I’m sorry,” she said again and left it at that because really, what more was there to say?
She thought back to the interview he’d given The New Yorker. The issue must have come out around the time Max lost his wife or shortly afterward. He must have been raw with grief, devastated, perhaps even angry with the world. By the time she’d come to the housewife porn quote, Becky had been too pissed off to read the rest. Until now, it had never occurred to her to give him the benefit-of-the-doubt. She suspected there was a lesson in that.
He gestured to the computer. “Have a look at that email I drafted. If it looks okay to you, then go ahead and hit send. If not, we can talk about any changes you want when I get back.” He turned and started toward the door.
Thinking of the beautiful, barren landscape at her back, Becky wondered where he meant to go. There must not be another house for miles.
She followed him to the door. “If you want some company or—”
His adamant headshake cut her off. “I’m going into town for supplies. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”
He was obviously upset, and it was all her fault. If only she’d tamped down her writer’s curiosity and let the picture lie without comment. Mentally kicking herself, she said, “Oh, Max, I’m so—”
He turned and left the room before she could get the word “sorry” out.
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Connections: As writers, we find ourselves frequently fielding the tried-and-true question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Personally, I’ve always thought that when readers ask this, what you’re really after is the answer to, “Where do you get your characters?”
In the case of Strokes of Midnight, there are a number of shall we say… parallels between my heroine, Becky Stone AKA Rebecca St. Claire and I. To tick off the obvious, we’re both romance fiction novelists. Like me, Becky started out writing traditional Regency-set historical romances. And for those of you with “inquiring minds,” yes, like Becky, I too have lived through the character-fortifying experience of having one of my books go belly up—only in my case, the bomb-dropping former editor didn’t pick up the tab for lunch. Instead she sprang for a glass of the house chardonnay—and by the way, it was corked.
Like me, Becky is into astrology in a recreational yet obsessive sort of way. By obsessive, I mean that before I start my writing morning—better make that, afternoon—I check my daily horoscope on three sites as well as my monthly horoscope on Susan Miller’s astrologyzone.com. I love Susan Miller! Then again, I also examine my hair for split ends, scoop the litter boxes, make coffee, file my nails, vacuum, go for a run, trim my cuticles or at least inspect them, skim the news sound bytes on www.cbsnews.com, make lunch…Well, you get the picture.
But of course Becky is a heck of a lot hipper than I am, not to mention she has exquisite taste in shoes. Think Sarah Jessica Parker’s shoe shop-a-holic character, Carrie Bradshaw, in “Sex and the City.” Actually Becky and Sarah look quite a bit alike—both pocket-sized Venus fashionistas with quirky senses of humor and mops of unruly curls—only Becky’s eyes aren’t blue. They’re brown like um… mine.
Setting: Yet another thing Becky and I have in common is that we both love, adore, and positively inhale Manhattan in all its edgy splendor. Among the hot spots I feature in Strokes of Midnight—and yes, these are some of my personal favorite places—are:
Cafe Loup, 105 W 13th Street (corner of 13th and 6th Ave.), 212.255.4746
Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave.
Fifth Avenue shopping corridor and St. Patrick's Cathedral
The Serena Lounge, The Hotel Chelsea, 222 W 23rd Street, 212.243.3700
The Hotel Chelsea, 222 West 23rd Street, 212.243.3700
Rosie O'Grady's, 149 W. 46th Street 89 (Broadway and Sixth Ave., 212.869.0600
The Rainbow Room, 49 W. 49th Street, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, 65th Floor, 212.632.5000
Hero Worship: Okay, so far the focus has been on Becky, but that’s about to change. Action-adventure novelist Adam Maxwell—Max—is an alpha man with an ear, a man’s man who’s still sensitive enough to treasure the memory of his beloved deceased wife and his aging Golden Retriever, Scout. Like Becky, Max is skittish when it comes to the possibility of getting hurt again, and so he lives a lot in his head or in his case through his fictional protagonist, Aussie bounty hunter, Drake. And this is the really weird thing. When I was writing the book, no celebrity icon or even anonymous male magazine model popped into my head as the inspiration for Max. Instead of a person, my inspiration was a song—The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”—which is what Becky thinks of the first time she looks into Max’s handsome face—and feels herself falling in and drowning deep inside of… his soulful blue eyes. Check out this great band at www.thecure.com.
Okay, well, come to think of it, Max’s eyes at least are borrowed from actor, Jude Law. That cerulean blue would be hard to top. Fans of this diverse and yes, hot, actor, fetch up your drool buckets and head over to one of the many sites on the Net lauding his many charms, starting with his profile on good ole Wikipedia.
Coming Attractions: Did you know that Becky AKA Rebecca St. Claire is mentioned as one of ghost-obsessed Maggie Holliday’s best buds in The Haunting (April 2007)? Their mutual friend, Sharon who appears in both books, may soon be getting a book—and a hunk—of her very own. Stay tuned…
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Name: Daisy (Bud) AKA Pouncer Jr. (Gabby, feline heroine of Tempting, was Pouncer the First, among her many sobriquets)
But maybe best of all, Daisy is a wannabe masseuse. Yes, just like the cat in that commercial, she jumps on the back of Hope’s desk chair, stands on her hind legs, and kneads—actually kneads—Hope’s aching back with her forepaws. What a pal! If only she had thumbs… A dog may be man’s best friend but a cat who gives back massages—now, that’s a woman’s best friend, especially when said woman is a writer.
Queen of the Hill, Top of the Heap
Daisy Bud is sister to Willie Whiskers, Maggie’s feline sidekick in The Haunting. For those of you who’ve read Willie’s real life “Born on the Fourth of July” rescue story, ditto for Daisy. She was one of Tessa’s six rescued kittens, and she and her sister China Blue ran pretty much nose-to-nose in terms of snagging the dubious designation of “runt of the litter.”
Daisy wasn’t small in the cute, cuddly fur puff way. She had a sharply pointed face, eyes shaped like a Jack O’ Lantern’s, and back legs that brought to mind Kermit the Frog. (Don’t take my word for it but see her “baby picture” above). Daisy was no beauty queen, nor was she Miss Congeniality, either. She had a growl so fierce it was amazing to believe all that spirit could be housed in a scrawny, palm-sized body, and her sideways stance when she hissed brought to mind a witch’s cat. When I was deciding which of Tessa’s kittens I was going to keep along with the mother, Daisy wasn’t exactly topping my “keeper” list.
Funny thing, Daisy didn’t seem to know she was a runt. She was always instigating rough play with her siblings, especially her three bruiser brothers. One day, the inevitable happened. She got hurt, a scratched eye that required a two week stint of antibiotic ointment—twice daily. So twice a day for two weeks I captured this hissing, clawing, watery-eyed beast, all three pounds of her, and held her down while I squeezed ointment from the applicator tube tip into an eye roughly the size of that of a miniature parakeet’s.
That any of the medicine found its way into said scratched eye counts as a minor miracle, but it must have because after the two weeks, she was all better. (I on the other hand sported sundry scratches in various stages of healing). Even more miraculous, Daisy didn’t wind up hating me (or vice versa). By the end of those tough two weeks, we’d bonded big time. Instead of her running from me and me capturing her, she started coming to me and letting me hold her instead—on her terms, of course.
After two months of TLC and almost constant clean-up (baby animals are m-e-s-s-y), it was time to find homes for Tessa’s kittens. It was also time to pick who got to stay. Daisy didn’t just make it into the “keeper” pile. She was topping it.
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Awarded 4.5 Stars
"This perfect New Year's story about hope regained and future promises, Strokes of Midnight (4.5) by Hope Tarr, is a winner. Erotic mystery author Becky learns that her sales are down and her editor isn't interested in her next book -- unless she co-writes it with Adam, the author of a male adventure series. Becky refuses, remembering his derogatory comments about romance writers. But when the two unknowingly share a night of passion, the situation changes. Fun -- chapters start with excerpts from their novel - sparkling characters, well-developed emotion and first-rate writing make this a great story."
"Fans of Ms. Tarr won’t be disappointed with Strokes of Midnight. Another great, sexy read by this talented author."
"Interesting, compelling and sexily hot are all ways to describe Strokes of Midnight. The reader will not be able to put down this excellent tale by Hope Tarr."
"I will definitely look for more books by this author...I loved her humor."
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