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Kari Lee Harmon
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for you use only, then please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This book is available in print and at Amazon.com and many other online booksellers. For more information, please direct your correspondence to: The Story Vault c/o Marketing Department 8326 Moyer Carriage P.O. Box 11826 Cicero, NY 13039-8691 PROJECT PRODUCE All rights reserved. Copyright © 2011 by Kari Lee Harmon http://www.karileetownsend.com Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a
retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
Other Books By Kari Lee Townsend
Cozy Mysteries (Berkley Prime Crime) Tempest In The Tea Leaves (A Fortune Teller Mystery series) Corpse In The Crystal Ball (A Fortune Teller Mystery series) Romances (writing as Kari Lee Harmon) Destiny Wears Spurs Project Produce Humorous Women’s Fiction (writing as Kari Lee Harmon)
Sleeping In The Middle (The Comfort Club series) Middle Grade Talk To The Hand (Digital Diva series - Book 1) Rise of the Phenoteens (Digital Diva series Book 2) Let Freedom Ring (Digital Diva series - Book 3)
This book is dedicated to one of my closest friends and CP’s, Danielle LaBue. She’s been there for me from the start. Thank you, D, for your amazing brainstorming. You have a way of building a plot like none other, and your characters rock! I’m so glad you came into my life when you did, and I don’t plan to ever let you leave.
First and foremost I want to thank my husband and rock, Brian. And my children who have such great ideas. You’re my inspiration. Second, I want to thank Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary Agency, my one and only amazing agent. We’re still going strong, sister. And a special thanks to Kelly Ferrara. What can I say... your covers are awesome. Such a talented lady. Next, I want to thank my special peeps, Barbara
Witek, Lizbeth Lipperman, Dani LaBue and all the rest of the BC Babes. You guys rock. Last but never least I want to thank my extended family. Thanks to my parents, Chet and Marion Harmon, and my in-laws, Norm and Joan Townsend, for always being there for me. Thanks to the Russos, the Harmons, and the rest of the Townsends as well.
“Who in the world cares how big a man’s Mr. Winkie is, anyway?” I charged through the front door of Simpson’s Sanctuary, the dive of a motel in Queens where I worked, setting off the rusty bells above my head. Halting, I thought, Oh, Lord, please tell me I didn’t say that out loud . I glanced around and blew out a sigh of relief. The lobby was deserted, except for the front desk attendant, Gloria Martinez. I bit my bottom lip. Maybe she hadn’t heard. Gloria ceased twirling her long chestnut curls, her bangle bracelets falling silent, and gaped at me with a phone pressed to her ear. “A whaaaaa?”
Gloria. yeah. I’d lost something.’” She stared at me as though I’d lost a few brain cells between the campus and the motel. Winkie.” I stood there like a blathering.” “I heard you. six-foot idiot. but never mind that. but growing up in a small town as an only child of older. it had taken me twelve years. all right. I tucked my shoulder-length hair behind my ears and started to pace.Oh. I just can’t believe you call it a ‘winkie. The point is what does size have to do with personality? If you ask me. most men are not very nice. Irish Catholic parents left little room for discussion about “that. “A winkie. one heck of a scandal. she heard.” Since high school. honey. it’s a Mr. My nerve. A big ole w-i-n-k-i-e. . No way would I be able to complete this psychology project if I couldn’t even talk about it. “Actually.
” She waved her hand.” Gloria opened her mouth.” I said. Callie. making another loop around the lobby.and several pitchers of Bahama Mamas to figure out that most men couldn’t commit. “Hang on a sec and we’ll talk . but she was all I had. and you don’t look like a shitting chicken to me. fat chicken-shit. She hadn’t known me all that long. couldn’t be faithful. thoroughly freaking out now. “Calm down. I thought I’d find my answers about my disastrous love life in a book or a lecture. “God. I stopped pacing and looked at her. old. so she just shrugged. “I only signed up for this class because people where I come from don’t see shrinks. not through a ridiculous final project. Poor woman. couldn’t be trusted in general. I’m a big. but no words came out. you’re not old or fat.
“Oh. forget it.about this personality stuff. I halted halfway around my third lap and faced Gloria.” I shot her a pleading look. why you want your pe--” “Gloria. you’ve got issues.” “Holy cow. Except for Bob. He’d been .. the one guy I’d thought had been different. Though. Being crazy would be a blessing right now. clumps of January snow fell off my Snow Flurry boots and melted into the fading red carpet. oh. “Why you want your winkie to have a personality is beyond me. “Maybe I should check myself into a loony bin. if they ever take me off hold.” As I circled the room again.” Gloria said.” “I don’t want. for God’s sake..” She sighed. So I’d been told by every commitment-phobic man I’d ever dated. honey.
different. What could I say? I had run the produce department in my parents’ general store back in Cutesville. even though you’d think I would’ve moved beyond that now that I was thirty. “Issues? You don’t know the half of it. at least if I were crazy. all right. ruined my life. “I mean. I know. I wouldn’t look so silly doing what this teacher is making me do. Over time. it had become less embarrassing for me to refer to men’s anatomy as vegetables.” Gloria answered. A six month. squinting . but it had worked for me. Still did.” I muttered.. I guess. Crazy. In fact. I guess. right?” “Right. Note to self: Never trust a zucchini again. he was the reason I’d had to leave my hometown in northern New York.. wish-to-God-I’d-never-met kind of different.
I just can’t. You have to help me!” My voice went up an octave and cracked. I took a calming breath. I never had been able to stand up to them. I had no idea what I wanted to do in my new life. “I can’t fail again. Just like I did .at me. albeit curious. I just knew I wouldn’t be able to move forward until I resolved the issues of my past. I stomped my boots as I hung up my Eskimo parka. I could do this. feeling better. Gloria. Gloria held up a finger and gave me a sympathetic. It was time I found my backbone and faced my fears. so I’d accepted it. tell them what I really wanted. look then talked into the phone. My well-intentioned but toocontrolling parents had bought me the coat as a Christmas present last year. And I was through running.
I grimaced. the place looked like we took on clients by the hour. Hello.. but this was. Giving the lobby a closer scrutiny. Gloria pulled her gum out. But . I couldn’t afford to buy a new one. um. I hadn’t expected much after fleeing Cutesville. even if I did look goofy walking around dressed like a musher for an Alaskan sled dog team.. twirled it around her finger. Bet there were a few bizarre winkie personalities behind these walls. well. taking in the seventies shower curtain knockoff wallpaper. My smile faded. even though I couldn’t stand it. but I couldn’t help it.everything else. God love her. making me smile for the first time today. I snorted. After I’d emptied my savings to get here. Nobody. and talked at the same time. Nobody deserved to work in a place like this.
making me blink back tears. “Pull what off. “Oh.” She crossed her arms over her silicone double D-cups and leaned back as though she were settling in for a juicy story. I blew my nose and my eyes watered. Stale cigar smoke. don’t cry. somebody. “Aw. Musty curtains.” She patted my hand. exactly?” “My final project. I’m not crying. anybody. Winkie affects his personality. Wet dog. I have to research how the size of a man’s Mr.then I made the mistake of breathing. so I walked over to join her as I wiped my eyes. I promise. Gloria hung up the phone. sweetie. We’ll figure this out. I have to find a way to pull this off. gag me with anything that would put me out of my misery.” . I’m dying. Please.
I get it. You wanna know about its owner’s personality. anyway?” I hesitated. Your winkie doesn’t have a personality. because I knew what Gloria would say. “You’re kidding. lucky me.” Going to see a shrink would have been so much easier. I know. yet you signed up for some sex class?” She laughed long and hard. “You can’t even say the word. “Yeah. Wincing.Gloria blinked. I spoke through her chuckles. yeah. “Sex Therapy. What kind of class are you taking. Any ideas on how I do this?” “Oh. feeling a surge of heat flood my ears.” I said. You had me worried for a while.” I had her worried? .” “Yay. but there was no avoiding it. “Lucky you.
. with no strings attached.” “His shoes?” “Yeah.“Well.” She huffed out a breath. if you ask me--you could just check out his shoes. have a little fun in the name of science. “you could start by sleeping around. ribbed. just a few colorful. You know what they say. of course. glow-in-thedark condoms. But if you don’t wanna add a little spice to your life--which you look like you could use.. Ya know.” “Just a thought. I don’t. “Or not. “That the size of a man’s feet is a good indication about the size of his--” .” “Apparently.” The heat crept from my ears to the rest of my face.” she leaned forward. his shoes.
” “I could.” “Oh. or something? There has to be a ton of information on the Internet. And I have. “Can’t you just look it up. But in my case. . groomed her acrylic fingernails.” She took out a nail file. wound up a porn star. it never worked out that way.” She had a point. that’s a topic for another day. and then brightened. Been there. done that.I held up a hand. Using a man for a change instead of being the one used had its merits. and I don’t want to sleep with anyone. but turning the table on the opposite sex sounds like a good time to me. “Trust me. Except that’s just a myth. I can only deal with one problem at a time. chica. Not a pretty picture.” “Your choice. “I get it. honey. sex and I do not get along.
‘Gee.” “So if you don’t sleep with them. a cucumber. that means men of different sizes with different issues. For me. . or something?” “I wish. “Besides. is Mr. or a zucchini? And by the way.Have you seen the kind of websites a search on ‘you-know-what’ size brings up?” I shuddered. Winkie: a pickle. what size produce is your Mr. Winkie giving you any problems these days?’” I was a regular furnace right about now. probably hot enough to heat the entire motel. how are you gonna know who to interview? You got x-ray vision. my professor insists we interview live subjects for our projects. Then I have to write a paper on it and present it to the class. See why I have a problem? Can you imagine the reaction I’ll get if I start asking every man I meet.
“A pickle’s produce?” Gloria scrunched up her face. I fanned my face as I answered her, “Technically, no, but it starts out as a vegetable. And I couldn’t think of any other produce small enough, so a pickle it is.” “Works for me.” She shrugged. I blew out a breath and ran a hand through my pin-straight hair, but it fell right back into place. Darn genetics. I shook my head to focus. My hair was the least of my problems. “We all have different sex-related topics to cover, but I swear I got the worst one in the known universe.” “Why?” “Well, I sorta got off on the wrong foot with my professor when I told him I didn’t need to do the project, I just needed therapy. He accused me of not taking his course seriously, and then he
assigned me a project he thought I wouldn’t be able to pull off. He’s setting me up to fail, so now I have to prove him wrong.” “Ah, you’ll do fine. Just forget about Professor Butthead. He’s probably a teeny-weenie, anyway.” Propping her elbows on the desk, she looked up at me and asked, “So, whatcha gonna do?” I wasn’t going to quit, even if it killed me. I sighed, knowing I’d probably gain ten more pounds, because it was going to take a whole lot of macaroni and cheese to get me through this one. “The only thing I can,” I answered. “Put Project Produce into motion and try not to make a fool of myself as I shop for a pickle, a cucumber, and a zucchini.” “You need any help telling if one’s ripe, just ask.” She winked and then went to the coat
closet. After glancing outside, she faced me with a frown. “I gotta go, but I hate to leave you here alone, honey. Simpson makes me so mad I could spit.” She stomped her red stiletto and conducted an imaginary orchestra while she ranted. “I mean, hasn’t he seen the news lately, or what? We don’t have any stinkin’ security. No video camera. No nothin’. He should at least have two of us working, but he’s too damn cheap for that.” “Absolutely,” I agreed. Not that I’d had time to watch the news. And not that I’d cared to, after seeing my own face plastered on the local channel back home more times than I could count. Then there was the newspaper. There had been so many inaccuracies I’d lost faith in all journalists, so what was the point? Gloria looked me over. “Honey, your countryfresh face and blond hair are gonna land you in
trouble. I’m leavin’ my pepper spray under the counter in case any pervy types come in.” “Thanks, now stop worrying.” I tipped my lips up in a half-smile. Gloria in her black leather micro-mini was more in danger of landing in ‘trouble’ than I would ever be. I had always been the simple “Average Jane” type, taller than most of the men I’d met. It wasn’t like I thought I was the ugly duckling, but I sure as heck hadn’t blossomed into a swan. Men didn’t flock to me the way they flocked to women like Gloria. Or at least they hadn’t before the scandal. “They’ll love your song tonight,” I said, needing to get my mind off that. I secretly wished I had a good voice, but everyone had always told me I couldn’t sing to save my life. “You really think so?” Gloria squealed,
slipping on her black leather jacket and red silk scarf. At my nod, she snapped her spine straight and dived into another symphony. “You are so right. I’m good, dammit. Gonna be a big star someday.” She sailed out the door, a string of Spanish trailing in her wake as she swung her hips in a way that could make a man go crosseyed. I leaned against the window and watched through the dirty glass with a smile of amusement that faded fast. The neon sign of the Triple X video store across the street blinked against the harsh glare of the graffiti-laden streetlights, and I could hear the sound of an ambulance siren wailing in the distance. I felt so out of my element, but I needed a place like this: a place where nobody knew me, a place where gossip didn’t follow me every step I took.
A place where nobody had ever heard of “Callie Conquers Cutesville.” Working in this dump wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, but I’d spent my first night in town here, and that’s where I’d met Gloria. She’d gotten me a job and given me a place to stay. It was a start, so how could I complain? My temples began to throb from the poor lighting. I wandered behind the front desk, propped my chin on the palm of my hand, and then glanced at the clock on the wall. Midnight, and not a soul in sight. Good. I could use a nice, quiet evening. And maybe I would even come up with a plan to find my subjects for this absurd project. I pulled out a piece of water-stained hotel paper and started to jot down ideas when the broken bell over the front door clanged out a
half-hearted welcome. A man in a Trench coat burst into the lobby, and my pulse kicked into overdrive. So much for a quiet evening. A scruffy brown beard and weathered hat hid the man’s features, but judging from the look of him, he had to be here to see Simpson. Unsavory characters had been coming and going all week, and this guy had ‘unsavory’ written all over him. I sat up straight and tried to quiet my pounding heart by taking a deep breath and asking, “How may I help you, sir?” I felt around beneath the desk for the pepper spray. If this guy didn’t qualify as a “pervy type,” then no one did. The man spoke in a hushed voice. “Let me show you.” Whipping the can of pepper spray out in front of me, I said, “Back off.” The guy looked at the can and hitched a
shoulder as he took a step toward me. What on earth? I glanced at my shaking hand and... and nearly dropped Gloria’s flipping deodorant. “Really, I would back off. Way off. I smell bad. Horrible, in fact.” He just stared at me, his brows narrowing. Okay, if I couldn’t use the deodorant as a weapon, I had to stall him until I could think of something else. I gritted my teeth and proceeded to spray my non-smelly pits, then I slipped the useless can beneath the counter and tried not to freak out. “So, would you like a double bed or a queen?” I perused the ledger to see what was available, hoping the guy would just take a room and leave me alone. “I’m more the king-size kind of guy. Can’t you tell?”
I gawked at the little man. King-size? Maybe in his dreams. “Sorry, sir. We’re fresh out.” Men. I wanted to believe there were some good ones left, but time and again they proved me wrong. I had a feeling they were all the same. “I don’t need a room.” “Okay.” I watched his stubby tongue moisten his dry, cracked lips and tried not to vomit. This was so not what I needed right now. “Well, then, how else can I help you, sir?” His eyes were glazed, and the excitement emanating from them sent shivers up my spine. I stood and racked my brain for the best way to handle the situation. Just because I was a freshfaced blonde from a small town, people tended to think I was an airhead. That usually made me angry, but maybe it could work in my favor right now.
He didn’t answer but panted like a dog. Eew! Our eyes met and he tugged his gloves on tighter then slid his hands in his pockets. I didn’t want to, in fact, I tried like heck not to, but the devil in me made me look. My whole body jerked, and I gasped at the tent poking out the front of his Trench coat, his hands fiddling beneath the fabric. Either he had a bad case of jock itch, or there was some serious pocket pool being played. Judging by the sick smile on his face, I was betting on the latter. My skin crawled and fear shot through me, followed by a layer of anger. I’d gone through enough to escape my past and make a new life for myself, thank you very much. No way would I let some “flasher wannabe” ruin things for me. Flasher Freak took a step toward the desk, so
I put the small-town, dumb-blonde plan into action. “Listen, mister, we have very little cash in the till after dark. You aren’t going to get much for your trouble.” I emptied the cash register into a trash bag, stalling. I knew he wasn’t a robber, but I had to do something to take his mind off any other notions he might be entertaining. “Money?” he sputtered, then took another step toward me. “Let me show you what I really want.” Oh, I had a pretty good idea what he really wanted, but I had no desire to check out his cue stick. I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and told myself I could handle this. “Ahhh, you’re more into jewelry. I should’ve known with the king-size bed and all. Gotta go for the big guns, right? Sorry to tell you, but you hit up the wrong hotel if you wanted jewels.”
Using the element of surprise. I commandeered his elbow. Mister. He looked dazed as I maneuvered him around while I talked. you’ll get your bearings in a jiffy. But don’t you worry none. laying on a thick Ellie-May-takeson-New-York accent. I can be kind of unsettling. “Whoa there. my heart in my throat. but don’t ya come back now. but he recovered and reached for me. and he snapped out of it like he’d just now caught on to my game plan. and striving to keep my voice calm. then he started to round the desk. While his hands were occupied. I functioned solely on adrenaline as I tossed the bag at his chest. . I blocked his path. I know. towering over him. I had to hurry. “Have a nice day.” I reached for the door. stumbling back a step.His forehead wrinkled and he paused. He snatched it out of reflex. His eyebrows shot up.
ya know. Couldn’t help it. When I realized I was safe.. You’re liable to catch pneumonia.ya hear?” He narrowed his eyes and lunged for me. “Hey. Dumb blonde. You really should cover your legs this time of year. and it felt fantastic. What the hell just happened here?” I smiled through the window.” . “I’m confident you’ll figure it out soon enough. my heart hammering through my chest. I wilted in relief. wait a minute. I was supposed to. but I ducked then kicked him hard. my behind. And wear some socks. but you wouldn’t let me.. and a sense of accomplishment settled in.. He stumbled out the door and I turned the lock.. I had faced my fear and stood up for myself for the first time since I could remember.
His mouth dropped open. giving me a full view of his wiggling package.” I strode over to the desk. staring dumbstruck through the glass. “Go on. “Better yet. . I’ve got work to do. picked up the phone. His combat boots smacking the pavement and Trench coat flapping in the frigid winter breeze left me with one insane thought hammering through my tired. and he looked down at his bare. hairy legs then back up at me like I was from outer space. He wasn’t too far off. stay there. shoo.” Flasher Freak blasted me with an evil little smile then opened his coat and did a little dance. He stood still. I’m sure the police will appreciate you making their job easier. so I raised my voice. now. My hometown wasn’t even on the map. I watched him bolt down the street. and dialed the police.
I thought I was imagining things. then the gunman crouched down and crept toward the front door of the motel.overworked brain. there goes my pickle!” *** Note to self: Pickles are a strange breed. “Darn it. and he had a . I tried to put Flasher Freak’s little peep show out of my mind. listening to the hum of the fluorescent lights above. Back on my perch. A streak of silver flashed. I looked out the window. A shadow peeked around the corner through the window and swayed from side to side. until it hit me. but then I saw something move again from the edge of my vision. The outside light reflected off the barrel of a gun. Glancing up. Flasher Freak had come back. For a moment. I watched in fascination.
My stomach hit my throat and then plummeted to the floor. contemplating how to handle this latest development. This couldn’t happen twice. and a gun barrel appeared. After I’d hung up with the police. baby. Ho. I froze. . Okay. A man poked his head in the door and looked side-to-side as he scanned the room. Huge surprise there. I surged to my feet and grabbed the phone then tried to reach the door first. on him. I exhaled a huge puff of air. I’d unlocked the door in case any other psychos wanted to rent a room at this high-rise version of the Bates Motel. Trapped.gun. so I made a mistake.D. could it? My mind raced. Too late. The door creaked open. And I honestly hadn’t thought the flasher would be stupid enough to return when I had a positive I.
Although I couldn’t be sure how thick. yummy. which could only mean firm biceps to match. I didn’t even want to think about the muscled neck sporting a gold chain. why did I have to be such a sucker for bad boys? Bad boys equaled trouble. equaled trouble. But the slight curls flowing down his neck said soft and full. And the small gold hoop that shone in the light at his ear? In a word. since this guy had pulled it back in a sleek. “Dangerous” came to mind. Sunglasses? At night? I shook my head. Then I blinked at the pair of mirrored sunglasses shielding his eyes.. and a silky-looking goatee circled the sexiest set of lips I’d ever seen. Something I didn’t need any more of. in general.. God. . Men. black ponytail. Flasher Freak didn’t have thick dark hair.He sure as heck wasn’t Flasher Freak. Dangerous and.
I swallowed. terrified. I held my breath. “Detective Cabrizzi.delicious. “Cops are on their way. but he came up empty-handed and cursed. “Not anymore. Not that you could compare small-town USA to Queens.” I whispered back. Still. ma’am.” he whispered. hoping he’d look and then leave. He seemed to hesitate when he looked at me. Gloria was right. then he reached in his pocket. “he went that way. where was his badge? I needed proof. At least in the movies I’d . I had serious issues.” I added. Bad guys didn’t usually like hanging around good guys. “Is the suspect still here?” Detective? He didn’t look anything like the Detectives I’d met back home. but all I could think about was playing “pocket pool” with Hot Britches.” I pointed down the road.
“I’m gonna check the place out. That thought shot straight to my libido. had a gun pointed in my general direction. “Uh. “The suspect appears to be long gone. He looked like he’d poured his muscular body into a pair of faded Levi jeans with holes in . Two whole inches taller than me. hot or not. I clenched the phone in my hands. fumbling for the numbers. I’ll just stand here.” Hot Britches mused. but I couldn’t tell what was going on beneath those darn sunglasses. I guess.” He looked at me.seen. they didn’t. then continued to move around the room. okay. This guy.” He still had that darn gun raised as he scouted around the room. He frowned at me. opening doors and checking closets. his six-foot-two inch frame stopping right in front of me. “You do that.” he said.
and my mouth fell open. gawking at what had to be size twelve or thirteen boots. My gaze dropped lower. And by . and a black leather jacket set off the sexy ensemble. Hot Britches was no pickle. I really had gone crazy. Yeah. corner pocket. I stood there like an imbecile. Stop that. my mouth going dry. and my eyes nearly crossed.the knees. I yanked my eyes back up. “Long gone.” Good Lord. Holy Mother of God. Time to figure out a plan to get rid of the bad boy. Fine black hairs curled enticingly in the deep V of his light blue T-shirt. I risked another peek at the impressive bulge cradled by his revealing jeans. you wacko. Eight ball. I had never seen a man that gorgeous in my life. I’d bet the last of my savings on it. fast. I had no idea they made them that big. That’s what I thought.
but I couldn’t be sure. My brain said he had to be a cop. making easy pickings for this guy.” Hot Britches slid his gun into the shoulder holster under his jacket.’ I meant his feet.. He must’ve dropped it outside. I moaned.. “I’ll need to ask you a few questions. I couldn’t trust my judgment when it came to men. ma’am?” “Wrong? What could possibly be wrong?” A shiver raced down my spine. He acted like a cop. so why come inside? Unless he wanted a little something more.‘them. and that was the same trash bag I’d thrown at Flasher Freak. The man snapped his head in my direction. I’d lost my . ma’am. “Something wrong. He set a trash bag on the floor by his boots and pulled off his gloves. I was stunned and a little disturbed to realize it wasn’t entirely generated from fear. That settled it. not his.
I didn’t hesitate. I saw a man outside the window.mind completely. only to invite craziness into my new one.” I flopped onto the floor. I sped to the door like my life depended on it--my sanity sure as . He shoved me behind him. “Y-Yes. This was my chance to act. “What is it? Do you see something?” He spun around on the balls of his massive snakeskin boots and drew his weapon at a lightning-quick speed. “Get down while I check it out. I snorted in disgust at myself and started choking. I’d left scandal behind with my old life. until Hot Britches stepped out on the sidewalk and searched the street. Springing to my feet. Trust me.” “You’re sure?” I nodded so fast my head hurt.
but I had to stay calm. Any second now.heck did--then I turned the lock. lady. “What are you doing?” “I called the cops. I am the police.” I said with a shaky breath.” He just stared at me. anything. a person. Losing my head would probably get me killed. Click! He whirled around. and he hesitated a beat before he responded. “They’re on their way. “Look-it. What crazy person left that there? It was a wonder no-one had stolen it yet.” I looked out. hoping to see a patrol car.” . His mouth fell open. Nothing but a vintage car. they’ll be barreling through this door. My knees knocked and I prayed the glass was bulletproof. “I know.
. But I still couldn’t be sure. “Yeah. My gut told me he wouldn’t hurt me. “You really expect me to believe you’re the police without proof?” I surveyed every inch of him and sighed in regret. making it clear he did not want to be caught in this predicament. “Of course you are. but please. Forgot my badge at the office. do us both a favor and open up.” I could hear police sirens off in the distance. Maybe. then where’s your badge?” “These are my street clothes. No way would I let this guy in.I folded my arms and arched a brow. my gut stunk when it came to men. and obviously. His mouth formed a hard line. Now. so could he. You can be anything you want to be. I’ve been undercover and came straight here when I heard the call. but then again.
I frowned. probably trying to figure me out. “Shoo. I squirmed.” The funny thing was I meant it. I’d hate to see you get into trouble. Then his smile faded and he stared at me. I’d always hated being the center of attention.be it somewhere else. probably at the ridiculousness of the whole situation. Hurry up and shoo. Good luck. His shoulders shook as though he were trying to hold back a laugh. shoo. His sunglasses made it impossible to know what he was looking at.” I swept my hand at him. I’ve been trying to figure me out for thirty years. pal. and I’m still not there yet. yet here I was trying to help him get away. I’d just narrowly escaped being assaulted. now. The only reason I’d worked in my parents’ general store . then repeated.
instead of going to college was because I’d thought they needed me. I cleared my throat and pulled my shirt away from my neck.” I ignored him and dialed the police as I watched him pinch the bridge of his nose and blow out a breath. Twelve years wasted for being wrong. but they only needed me when everything went according to “their” plan. Don’t do that. “Well. Why don’t I call the police again? I’m sure they can clear this up. suddenly warm. It still hurt to admit it. let me in. you can’t say I didn’t give you a chance to escape. C’mon. He walked to the street and kicked a big whitewall tire. and I’ll explain. “No.” He seemed to shake himself back into consciousness. then leaned against the hood of the classic red Mustang. So he was .
When I described you. too.” “Great. “Come on in.” I led . I poked my head out the door.” “Sure. and he said he wanted to speak with you first thing in the morning.the crazy person with the vintage car. Maybe he moonlighted as a car thief. The patrol officer arrived on the scene and joined Hot Britches while I verified with the man on the phone that Detective Dylan Cabrizzi was the real deal. Can we get on with this? I need to ask you a few questions. I have some questions.” The patrol officer coughed into his fist.” I jerked my chin in the Detective’s direction. Something about standard procedure. After I hung up. “Oh. Kind of a noticeable car for a crook. “your captain assured me you’re not a criminal.
it had been one very long day. “maybe you should get your badge. indeed. “Peterson. We wouldn’t want the poor victim forgetting you’re not a hoodlum.” “Good. Yes. but it wasn’t over yet.” Dylan returned the slap to Peterson’s back. Peterson. and Peterson’s smile slipped a little. But. Cabrizzi. I glanced over my shoulder and watched him grin wide. “No problem.” “Okay.” when Peterson paused. In fact. “And maybe you should can it. We wouldn’t want you forgetting I outrank you.” He slapped Dylan on the shoulder. stand watch.the way into the lobby. um. Detective Hot Britches wasn’t a loser . things were starting to look up.” Dylan entered the lobby and closed the door.
. No man was.after all. that was just as bad. He was a man. he wasn’t the perfect guy for me. But he just might be my perfect zucchini. Nope. not that I had any intention of getting involved with him. and in my experience.
” I couldn’t really blame him. “I’ll stand. but the adrenaline rush had left me exhausted. Folding my hands in my lap. I didn’t want to sit in those chairs. pulling out a notepad . trying not to think about what might be wiggling beneath my derriere. I’d watched T. so I breezed by him and sat.” He sat. I’ll sit. I stared at him.V. “Okay. He glanced at the ugly excuse for a chair and said. I wasn’t about to strain my neck just to answer his questions. then motioned for Detective Cabrizzi to sit. thanks. The icky stuff the CSI guys dug up in dirty motels turned my stomach. either.CHAPTER TWO I put a pot of coffee on.
“Come on.” I exhaled on a whoosh. but he didn’t need to know that.. You have to be wearing contacts.” I didn’t say a word. Forgot I had them on. “Look. just kept staring at him. I can’t help you if you don’t answer my questions. “What?” “N-Nothing..and pen from his leather jacket. “Why don’t we start with your full name.” He removed his mirrored sunglasses. aren’t they?” “Come again?” He blinked at me. “They’re fake. period. Your eyes.” “And I can’t help you if you don’t take off your glasses.” I didn’t trust men. I don’t trust a man whose eyes I can’t see. For the record. They’re just. “Sorry.” I smiled. There’s no way that sparkling sapphire . “Sweet Jesus. fess up.
and I wanted to smack myself silly.” I huffed.” My eyes dropped to his crotch.blue is natural. where were we?” The corner of his lip crept up ever so slightly. “I assure you. Yanking my gaze back up to his sizzling eyes. “You were about to tell me your name before you got lost in my eyes.” “I did not get lost in your eyes. Callie MacDonald. they’re long. Um. “Sorry. ma’am.” “I wasn’t staring. I was just surprised. aren’t you full of yourself?” . there’s not a thing on me that’s fake. “And my name is MacDonald.” He cocked a brow.” “You were staring. and he replied. And your lashes. Good Lord.” “As in ‘supersized’?” “Well. I gave him a sheepish grin.
His assumption made me angry. He let it go.” Had I said this day was looking up? I wanted to hit the rewind button and not stop until I heard the sound of my alarm clock. Just because I didn’t have a ring on didn’t mean I wasn’t married. It still stung .His brows formed a V. so I could throw the useless thing out the window and stay in bed all day. He had to have seen me blush yet again. Detective. “I meant ‘supersized’ as in McDonald’s. with an ‘a. Is your name spelled like that?” “Oh.” And there probably never would be. after that awful video footage had been published on the Internet. There is no Mister in my life. “No. glancing at my bare ring finger.’ Next question?” Darned Irish skin. it’s MacDonald. “Um. thank God. “No Mister in your life?” he asked. the restaurant. even if it was true.
“I don’t see how that’s relevant to the investigation. if you’re sure my age will help you catch the flasher. but I saw his grin.that men only wanted me for one thing these days.’ It’s simply a formality. How old are you?” I blinked. MacDonald with an ‘a.” he paused. I’m thirty. I wouldn’t dream of standing in the way of justice being served. I could tell he enjoyed making me squirm. “for the record. and marriage wasn’t it. He grinned.” .” I slipped my right hand over my left. now would we?” “Not with my captain. He ran his thumb and forefinger over his goatee. He’s a stickler for details. Ms.” “And we wouldn’t want to leave any holes in the record. “Well. “Not a problem at all.
The corner of his mouth twitched like he wanted to smile. “Excuse me. “It’s the baby face. I’ll take it. Thirty’s not old. I mean.“Thirty?” His brows shot up. trying hard not to shake my butt. but now that I’m older. Is it? I can’t really tell anymore. “No. Everyone always thinks I’m younger. and I shivered as a tingle ran up my spine. but I didn’t care. It was better than letting him see me . I hated it when I rambled.” God. Not that I’m old. because sometimes I feel ancient. thirty isn’t old. It used to drive me crazy.” I stood to my full height and strolled over to the pot. ma’am. I tended to do that when I was flustered. and right about now I was ranking pretty high on the fluster scale. the coffee’s ready. It probably looked like I had a pole stuck up my rear end.” His gaze ran over me with renewed interest.
I knew he was staring at my huge insecurity! Well. Dylan whipped his eyes up to mine with guilt shining bright. did. that was it to a tee. that prickly feeling on the back of your neck you get when you can sense someone is staring at you? Well. Must be jelly cuz jam don’t shake like that. I poured the coffee. Darn it.jiggle. and something more. thinking the ten pounds I’d put on since the scandal didn’t help. Chuckie Turner would always say. Guilt. I risked a peek over my shoulder. Poles didn’t jiggle. when the strangest sensation hit me. Big time. You know. The same feeling I’d had in tenth grade Biology every time I made the long walk from the back of the classroom to the chalkboard. on the other hand. I sure as heck wasn’t in tenth . My fanny.
When he cleared his throat. Only big feet had brought me heartache. I picked up the tray and returned.” was all I said. Taking a sip. he raised his cup in salute. He picked up his steaming mug and watched me over the rim. looking like anything but a smart-alec. “It’s good. I couldn’t go through that again. Not sure how I felt about that.grade anymore. because I couldn’t deny I liked big feet. Note to self: Hot Britches likes jelly. I’d let him have it. “Cream or sugar?” “Neither.” . Donning a neutral expression. He smiled at me kindly. I frowned.” “Hmmm. Black as sin for me. That made us even. If he made one smart-alec comment. I turned back around and finished making the coffee. setting it on the table between us.
. and then picked up his notepad and pen . He set his cup down.“Thank you.” Hello.” I added.” “You’re welcome.” You’re welcome? For what. “That’s my age. Next question?” “Thirty-five. I thought it only fair you knew. “All right.. He arched a brow. insulting him? “It was a compliment. Meet Foot.” Thank God. so I blurted. your age. you look.” “Thanks. Mouth. you goof. you know. on with the investigation.” “Wow. “But it’s a good look. I think. rubbed his hands together.” “Excuse me?” I stared at him.” He looked at his notes. “Got it. really. my cup halting halfway to my lips.
You’d be surprised at how many minor details turn out to be the leads we need. I like to think so. “Pretty gutsy lady. I would’ve loved to have .” I filled him in on everything that had happened from the moment I’d arrived at work.” “Not too smart putting yourself at risk like that. And try to remember everything. “But I have to say. He remained passive. “Tell me what happened from the beginning. I knew he was just doing his job. intent on listening and taking notes throughout my account.again. even if you don’t think it’s important. “Thanks. but it felt really good having a man actually “listen” to what I was saying.” He sat back and studied me.” I frowned. though.
” Dylan scanned his notes.” “I’m sure he’s forgotten all about it by now.” He grunted. stroking his goatee. and heat decided to take up . now. Simpson’s an operator.seen that one go down. all right.” He made a note. “Well. Your boss runs one hell of an operation. Why would a robber leave the goods behind when the coast was clear to escape?” “Because he wasn’t a robber. “So tell me.” “Why’d you do it?” Dylan asked quietly. no secret alarm.” he continued. “No surveillance camera.” “I doubt it. I peered at him. “The perp probably still wonders what the hell happened. staring at me with that something more I’d caught in his eyes when he’d checked out my insecurity. then chewed his bottom lip. only one employee working at a time. that’s an understatement.
ya know. Stupid nerves. and I shouldn’t. “Because I’m not a cop. “Then you show up with a gun. repeating everything I’d already told him. For all I knew. and I was scared senseless when the pervert played pocket pool under his Trench coat. wanting to shout. I swallowed. But I said.residence in every cell throughout my body. So I continued to ramble. he had a gun in there somewhere. Because you’re a freaking zucchini. darn it. Because something about you makes me feel safe. I thought you were his .” He blinked at me. which is crazy. There was a lot going on under that coat. Because I have the hots for you. “DDo what?” “Why’d you let me go free?” He stared me down.
. “And we both know he wasn’t here to rob me. He didn’t need your help for that. you certainly do have something in your pants. Good Lord.” My gaze dropped to his groin. I closed my eyes.” “So what do you think he was here to do?” “He wore a Trench coat with no pants on. quite a lot in fact. but you didn’t have anything going on in your pants. heck.” Heck. but I. “I mean. a flipping fire had ignited. I get it.. Oh. I know the city’s a little different than .” He chuckled. he barely had enough for his own hand. burning up my insides with his every word. there I went again.” Forget heat in my cells... I plead the fifth. Now. “How exactly did you think I could help this pervert? Flashing is kind of a solitary act.accomplice. I. “Okay.
for crying out loud. He was half my size. “The perp came to molest you. then cleared my voice.where I come from.” “Size doesn’t matter. “You know what I mean. MacDonald. I knew he wasn’t talking . “I’m sure you’re exaggerating. but even I could tell he’s a warthog who gets his jollies by flashing women.” “M-Molest me?” I squeaked. “You’ve got the ‘warthog’ part right. Ms.” The Detective leaned forward and looked me in the eye. I must have amused the heck out of him. wait a minute.” “Warthog?” Hot Britches’ lips twitched again. but flashing is only the beginning of what he wanted to do to you. striving for calm.” I looked away and then smoothed my non-designer jeans and tugged at my secondhand sweater.” Hey.
Smaller than a gherkin. I wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. “Hang on a sec.” He shook his head. but I took a deep breath and ran over to the desk to grab my own pen and paper.” The only thing he had in there was the smallest pickle I’d ever seen. Just because the perp is small doesn’t mean he isn’t strong. “Doesn’t matter to whom. “Excuse me?” “Just curious. he wasn’t packin’. Or packin’. in this case. “Oh. as we cops call it.” Dylan smiled wide. for Pete’s .” My heart still raced. writing the words on my notepad. Trust me. you or the woman?” He blinked at me.about winkie size. but a door had just opened for me to question him about my project.” I said. “It doesn’t matter to anyone. then I looked up at him. “Size doesn’t matter.
“Of course I do. The fire burning up my insides had died down. but he was making it impossible for me to conduct my own interview.” I lied. How dangerous can he be?” .sake. don’t you?” he asked. “Midnight Molester? I suspected Flasher Freak was a little perverted. I sighed and put my notebook down. but come on. “Where have you been the past week? Haven’t you seen the news? You do watch the news.” “Ahhh.” I felt my eyes go round. hearing the door of opportunity slam shut. and my lips part. I was tired of answering his questions. then. “I’ve just been too busy lately. so you haven’t heard of the Midnight Molester. but the lingering embers managed to paint my cheeks once again.
you could say that. “Sorry.” “Young women at midnight. but he’s still a man. A man with a very sick and twisted mind who preys on young women around midnight. because the grin vanished.” “Pocket pool?” The Detective lost the battle once again. Flasher Freak?” I shrugged. then he ran his hand over his mouth. laughing harder this time. “The Midnight Molester may be small.Dylan barked out a laugh. “I haven’t heard that expression in a while. but yeah. He didn’t bother to fight his grin anymore. can’t help it.” . but he must have realized he wasn’t supposed to be having fun. huh? Guess he wanted more than a little pocket pool. He looked like he hadn’t had this much fun in a long time.
That killed his smile in an instant.” I felt the blood drain from my face. and I’ll give you a ride home.” He slipped on his gloves and grabbed the bag. MacDonald.” I looked up at . then stood and took me by the elbow to draw me to my unsteady feet. You must have really surprised him to have manipulated him out the door so easily. “The last thing I want to do is scare you. Ms. ma’am. Let me call your boss.“Wow.” I took a shaky breath. You’re one lucky lady. His brow puckered. “What are you talking about? I have to cover this shift until morning. but you need to know the situation is serious. “You really shouldn’t work here anymore. feeling slightly less calm. cool and collected. You don’t want to know what that sicko did to his other victims.
not an easy thing to do with . They’re just waiting to take advantage of someone like you. Detective Cabrizzi. I dug in my heels. “Let your boss worry about that. Find a better job on a safer street. It’s too dangerous for someone like you. What’s wrong with me?” “Look.” “Whoa there. “Listen.” He steered me all the way to the door. back up. chief. I came out of my stupor. I’m a big girl. but the chances of you getting lucky again are slim to none.” “You may think you can. I can handle myself and anything this city has to throw at me.” He gave me a no-nonsense look and then opened the door. feeling dazed.him. You’re an irresistible invitation to all the scum of this city.
I closed the door.” He’d had a bad day? Bet he didn’t have Trench coat wearing weirdos flashing their pickles at him. “May I get my coat. He cleared his throat. and his breathing grew faster.rubber-soled Snow Flurry boots. But didn’t my nipples harden in response? Darn traitors. Ms. “Sorry. I’ll just wait out here. When he turned around and told Peterson he could take off. but make it quick. His eyes dropped lower. MacDonald. Click! . men are all the same. Oh. yeah. “My coat. I’ll be cold. I’ve had a hell of a day. Detective?” He looked up. and I quirked a brow then stared him down with steel in my eyes.” He glanced over his shoulder and stared at my neck and chest.
I told you.I saw Dylan stiffen before he swiveled around with clenched jaw. Ms. MacDonald. pal.” “Not a chance. I was perfectly capable of making my own decisions.” “You’re serious? You’re going to stay after everything that’s happened?” “Look. I waved to him from the other side of the locked door. It isn’t safe here. ma’am.” He glared. “C’mon. ever again. “But I’m not about to leave you here alone. Last time I checked. and I need the hours.” . have it your way. plastering a brilliant smile across my face. Open up. Flasher Freak’s long gone.” “Fine. I’m not quitting. Too late. Detective. and I’ll drive you home.” “Suit yourself. No way would I let any man tell me what to do.
yet she’d offered to let me stay with her. . It made me feel like I wasn’t alone for a change. pullout bed.” I mumbled. looking anything but pleased.He strolled around his car and climbed inside. I hadn’t asked him to stay. slapping the horrendous screeching torture device beside me the next evening. The incessant buzzing ceased. It wasn’t my fault. Gloria barely knew me. appearing to settle in for the night. even if he was only doing his job. Queens was a heck of a lot cheaper than the city. but I had to admit it felt kind of nice having my zucchini watch over me. *** “Shut up. At least I could pretend that someone cared. I shouldn’t be complaining. and the alarm clock fell off the end table by my lumpy.
She lived in a section of town even the roaches avoided. Working the graveyard shift and attending class in the morning was hard enough. As the bathroom filled with steam. But cramming in homework in the afternoon until I passed out for five hours each evening before starting all over again was killing me. I’d discovered that Gloria didn’t live anywhere near the charm. . rumbling subway ran all night long. Friday. I padded on bare feet past Gloria’s bedroom into the tiny bathroom and then cranked the shower on hot. and I’d heard it had charm. listening to the pipes moan and rumble. and the loud. thank God. Sleep deprivation was not a fun experience. I turned on Gloria’s boom box and pressed play. As I rolled to a sitting position.yet close by. I rubbed my eyes with my fists and yawned. Too late.
I conceded. I’d given up hope that decent men even existed. feeling a whole lot better. what little sleep I’d had. Shedding my cotton T-shirt and panties. and I smiled. so what was the point? Then why couldn’t I stop thinking about him? Because I needed him for my project. but I wasn’t ready to get involved with any man.Salsa music poured out of the speakers. That didn’t stop me from wanting him. Way-Too-Dangerous-To-Be-Around. The same eyes that had haunted my sleep. I rationalized. My new obsession. He was far too confident for his own good and more handsome than a man had a right to be. Until a pair of blue eyes flashed in my mind. I stepped into the shower and shook my big ole insecurity to the beat. At least I’d gained some . that was all. Eyes that belonged to one Mr.
valuable information. Score one for me. swooning over his every word and drooling over those incredible eyes of his. Until last night. but swooning you will never see. I wilted against the shower wall and then jerked my back ramrod straight. frustrating me in a . “Ha! I’m no swooner. He was too darn used to getting his own way. but it insisted on sticking around. I may drool a bit. Most women probably fell at his feet. Note to self: Men with large winkies have swelled egos. One thing was clear. but my body sure as heck wasn’t listening. Detective.” My mind knew I had to steer clear of men. I grinned. Probably because his image insisted on sticking around. I plunged my head under the pelting spray of water and tried to shake off my frustration.
There isn’t a darn thing you can do about it. “What do you mean? What happened?” I sat down in the creaky chair. facing her. “This short.” “Hold that thought.different way. She opened a bottle of Tequila. We don’t have a job to go to. Cal. I admitted.” I got dressed and joined Gloria in the kitchen fifteen minutes later. and then fixed herself a margarita before answering. downed a shot. “Hey. bald health inspector guy .” I reached out a hand and flicked off the boom box. “Cal? Who are you talking to?” Gloria? What was she doing home? “Uh.” I shut off the pipes and snatched my towel. I’ll be right out. shouldn’t you be at work? I was just getting ready to relieve you.” “Don’t bother. “Get over it. no one.
wiping it up without missing a beat. Simple as that.” She tossed her long curls over her shoulder. Clean. “Anyway. that’s what happened. hmmm. or somethin’. but she beat me to it. don’t think so. but I needed that job. Mmmm. Yeah. I reached for a napkin. he starts spoutin’ off all the things that ain’t up to code. right. honey. “Can’t say Simpson didn’t deserve it.” .” Gloria jerked her hand.comes marchin’ in with white gloves and a clipboard like he’s Mr. “He was way too fat to pull that one off. “You shoulda seen him. “So what happened?” “He screwed everything up. and her margarita sloshed out of her glass. Clean.” I laughed. He started to pick a fight with Mr. I thought Simpson’s face was gonna explode.” She giggled.” She sighed and took another sip. so Cleanie shut us down.
It couldn’t be. Simpson’s place has always been a dump. trying to figure out what I was going to do now. Someone put pressure on the health department. They didn’t even know where I’d run to. My savings had run out. but at least they no longer had to be embarrassed or ashamed to be seen with me. Why close it down now?” “Honey. would he? “Was anyone else there. . wake up and smell the latte. “I don’t get it.” I blinked. making me feel like Quasimodo. They’d been horrified and tried to keep me from going out in public until the scandal talk died down. So I took matters into my own hands and left.” I drummed my fingers on the white Formica table. that’s all there is to it.“We needed that job. He wouldn’t go that far. and there was no way I would go to my parents for help.
Calliente. “Classic car?” “Oooh.” Gloria sighed. Wish I had a ride like that. Clean?” “Mr. there was this one hot tamale standing outside all day next to a classic car. “Too bad. especially if you’re planning on any hands-on research. “Wait. a real muscle car.or just Mr. as sleek and fine as him.” She winked . I was just about to talk to him. Could’ve been a great subject for your project. He had the biggest damn feet I’ve ever seen. and I don’t mean the wheels. but he folded that gorgeous body into his ride and drove away before I had a chance. Hell. Clean came all by his stumpy little self and then stayed until we left. I would’ve volunteered to be your assistant for that job.” I choked. chica.” I relaxed. yeah.
. There are some nasty scumbuckets out there. Right now I didn’t have the time or the patience.” “Be careful. “No thanks.” I pulled on my Eskimo parka.” “I will. and mittens and then grabbed my cokebottle-thick glasses. You going to be around when I get back?” “Nah. I thought better of it.and took another sip. I’m going out for some air. shelving the glass. Gotta head into the city and hit the club scene if I’m ever gonna make the bigtime as a singer.” “Good luck. but when a cloudy stream trickled out of the spout. “Want some?” I stood up and went over to the sink for a glass of water. “I’m suddenly not feeling well.” I said. but the frustrating things still took way too long to get in. I had new contacts. hat.
feeling creeped-out by the shadows around every . The dirty slush on the sidewalk glowed in the moonlight. I shoved them in my pocket and then tightened my coat. and a soft mist started to fall. Blind as a bat.so I headed outside and a blast of cold air hit me in the face. I knew exactly what scumbucket had put pressure on Mr. I stepped off the subway. and walked along the dark street toward the motel. Clean. I took my glasses off to wipe away the water spots when they slipped out of my hands. Struggling to find the glasses. Maybe it would cool off the boiling rage burning up my insides. I welcomed the icy numbness. My worst nightmare had come true. and I had a pretty good idea where to find him. Shoot. Picking up the broken remains. jogged up the stairs. Before I knew it. I heard a crunch.
I tugged at the hood. The hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention.” I yanked harder. and I couldn’t afford a cab. and my breathing turned choppy. trying to free it. I took this route to work every night. but my hood finally gave way and the branch snapped back into place. “Oh. But tonight the streets were nearly empty. It wasn’t like I had a car. so I hopped the subway as far as I could and walked the rest. Oh. then my puffy hood got caught on the branch of a bush. I glanced over my shoulder. but the branch held fast. I am so not in the mood for this. and I swore I heard a rustling behind the bush. God. The rustling increased. but .corner. I walked faster and the wind picked up.
“Thank God. “You’ve got to be kidding. so I turned around and jogged back in the direction I’d just come from. but then it grew quiet again. I listened. Booking it down the street. but I didn’t hear anything. Stay calm. I ordered myself. then searched the inside for my keys. so I kept walking. and looked around for a weapon.” I hated the thought of going back by that bush. I didn’t stop until I . Still nothing. then headed back toward the hotel as quick as I could. The rustling started up again like an animal scurrying around. Shoving my hands in my pocket. I frowned. Then I looked down. I leaned forward and squinted.” I bent over and snatched up my dropped keys.didn’t see anything. but Gloria would kill me if I lost her extra set of keys.
why did men feel like they had to take charge and control everything? I balled my fists. “Why you little--” “Looks like you need my assistance after all.” said a familiar voice from behind me. I leaned forward until my nose hovered two inches away as I struggled to make out the words. Fat chance. trying not to pee my pants.reached Simpson’s Sanctuary. why. Why. . and the scumbucket had made sure that wouldn’t happen. but I’d hoped Simpson would find a loophole somehow. Simpson wasn’t smart enough. A piece of paper taped to the front door of the motel caught my attention. And I hadn’t even had any kids yet. I already knew what it said.
so I probably looked more like I was constipated than trying to defend myself. I scrunched up my face in determination. Mary. “Darn you. and then nodded with a smirk. looked me over.” I dropped my keys yet once again. “Ma’am. I relaxed my fists and took a deep breath to slow the bongos hammering against my chest. Whipping my hands in front of me in a selfdefense position like I’d seen on TV. then spun around.” Okay. made the sign of the cross. Detective Cabrizzi stepped out of the shadows behind me. “Do you . but at least I had done something. and Joseph!” I jumped a foot.CHAPTER THREE “Jesus.
“And that’s another thing. I frowned.” His smirk faded. Her name was Ms. are quite a sight. but his eyes still smiled.” He shrugged.” “Believe me. “You. on the other hand.” “That was a compliment. Of course he’d have sexy crow’s feet. ma’am. ma’am is better than being compared to my fifth grade teacher. please. find another name.” He grinned. MacDonald. “How ‘bout Mac?” . or something.always sneak up on unsuspecting women like that?” “Well.” His gaze roamed over me. “Not a pretty picture. “Well. ma’am. I hate ma’am.” “Gee thanks. It makes me feel like your grandmother.” He grimaced. no. too.
” His gaze roamed over every inch of me. I might not be hot. I wore the musher look well. and his eyes heated. and I’m not a man. I. definitely not hot. darn it.” A cockeyed grin hooked the corner of his full. But Hot Britches was. It’s either Mac or Supersized.” Not. I tugged my knit hat down over my ears and then smoothed my bulky mittens down the front of my Eskimo parka. was positive I did not. on the other hand. “Mickey D’s is already taken. and MD makes me think of a doctor. but apparently. Even without my glasses.” “Cute. Then . I could see he still looked hot.” My stomach flipped. “Except Mac sounds like a man’s name. Nope. blurry lips. “I can see that. “Something tells me you’d prefer Mac.“Mac?” He had to be kidding.
but I had a sinking feeling my pale green gaze looked more like a flashlight low on batteries than a laser. So I hoisted my chin for good measure. I just about had an asthma attack. No. I started to step back but caught myself.” When he inched closer to me. Gymnastics team decided to hold practice beneath my ribcage. I swayed.S.Dylan locked those sapphire-blue laser beams onto my eyes.” “I thought you were a big girl. I thought. “I knew you’d be here. but I smell good. and the U. “Yeah. but I didn’t expect you to scare me half to death.” I tried for a glare. with what? I bet you don’t even have pepper spray.” he said. looking away. remembering . “I can. And I didn’t even have asthma. You said you could handle yourself.
” I poked him with my mitten. feeling like a complete fool. Zuc. Where do you get your clothes.” “Zuc?” He arched a black brow. even if you did have pepper spray. “I don’t need any pepper spray.. Dukeypoo.” He slanted those cute blurry lips into that irritating. Duke.” “Huh?” “Just my little nickname for you. “Don’t need it. I have these. I meant. “Hell. Mac?” “From parents who haven’t got a clue. so I pulled my mittens on a little tighter and then held my hands out in front of me as I took a detour on the conversation path.Gloria’s deodorant. Detective Cabrizzi. and the strongest . over-confident smile.. Shoot. “Uh. it’d take you a year to find it in that getup.” Dylan eyed my thick mittens and puffy coat. His brow hit his hairline this time.
“Care to go a round?” “Ouch. stinging my cheeks. you surprise me. I thought you knew we hillbillies don’t box. “Why. Cold. “What are those supposed to be? Let me guess.” I looked him up and down. Detective. I threw him a stiff smile. Smart-alec. I stabbed the sign taped to the front door of the motel. But it don’t take much to wrassle a city boy. “Is this your way of . We wrassle.” He slapped his hand over his heart. tired. seein’ as how they don’t have much in the way of brains and all.urge to reach out and pull his goatee swept over me.” “Touché. The small-town version of boxing gloves?” he asked.” The icy wind blew crystals into my face. “You deserved that. and in no mood to play games.
making me lose my job?” “Hey. I kept walking. Closing this place down was a given.” he . Who did he think he was? “Looks like you got your way after all.” Prostitution? Figured. wait a minute. all I did was pass along your tip that your boss operates under questionable practices. He fell into step beside me and matched his long strides with mine. “Hey. I couldn’t believe Hot Britches had interfered with my life. We suspect the motel might be a front for prostitution. “At least let me give you a ride home. It had nothing to do with getting my own way. but the usual procedure would take too long.” Ignoring him. Calling the health department was quicker. But that was neither here nor there. How do you expect me to eat?” I turned around and marched back toward the subway.
too mad to talk. “Dammit. I was getting too old for these games.said. but I kept trucking along. Five minutes later. I didn’t have to turn around to know who followed. the deep rumble of an engine purred along the streets behind me. Hmmm. then stopped walking. He hadn’t put up much of a fight. Looked like Hot Britches was a fighter. Callie. glancing around at . I conceded. God. How was I supposed to live without a job? He slowed his pace and fell behind. Rounding the hood of his car. I reminded myself. hear me out. A twinge of disappointment trickled through me. I found the door handle and climbed in. after all. Score one for him. I picked up the pace.” My steps faltered over the sound of my name on his lips. Not that I wanted him to.
Cal. she’s a beauty. Typical guy. do it with someone else. anyway. I rolled my eyes. “Nice car.” He looked at me. It’s what I do. please.” Duh. We didn’t speak again until he pulled into the driveway of. Try to beat her in a race. holy cow.” “Yup. my apartment complex..the refurbished interior. and that ... “Well.” He revved up the engine and peeled away from the curb. well. “How do you know where I live?” “I’m a Detective. you get the picture. What I could see of it.” “She?” “Big Betty.. and she’ll whoop your. “You’re a witness.
I knew you’d be upset about losing your job. “Listen. so I called in a few favors. “No. And I wanted to make a fresh start on my own.freak is still on the loose.” He was right. Favors seem to fall in my lap. I don’t know how it is. is all. I just didn’t want him looking into my background. and what these favors have to do with me?” “I’ve lived in the neighborhood forever.” He flashed his straight white teeth. terrified he’d find out about the scandal and judge me like everyone else had. Thought I’d pass one on to you.” What was going on behind those blasted mirrored sunglasses of his? “Why don’t you tell me how it is. You know how it is.” I narrowed my eyes. It’s my job. and I knew it. Mac. .
but I was afraid to let my guard down. Mortified. and me mortified beyond belief. and completely alone. depressed. get me a job? Why? You barely know me.” “Well. You sounded like you needed this job. . but I told you I can take care of myself. I don’t know why. that’s all. then said.” I’d let Bob call the shots in our relationship. With him arrested. Call it a moment of guilt. I happened to know of a better one in a nicer hotel. Afraid to trust he would do something nice for me without an ulterior motive. “What did you do. Another flasher. and look where it had ended. I’d come to learn if something seemed too good to be true. “Hell.” My resolve softened. I appreciate the offer.Great. He stared at me for a long moment. then it probably was.
Mac. Don’t be stubborn. looking like a fuzzy star in a toothpaste commercial. Any way you can get my friend. “Your shift will be in the afternoon right after your class. And how do you know when my class is?” “I went to college. Gloria. and you can sleep at night. and I really couldn’t take keeping Dracula’s hours anymore.” He flashed his pearly whites again. so your evenings will be free to study. Just assumed it was during the day. There’s no shame in accepting help.” “Shame has nothing to do with it.Note to self: Rock bottom is not a pretty place to be. He was right. a job? . “I’ll take it. thank you. I swallowed. I couldn’t afford to turn down a perfect opportunity out of stubborn pride. Dylan ignored me.
“You said you had to eat.She has to pay rent. Detective.” He glanced at me. Do you have a problem with that. “That’s not what I had in mind. too.” “Dinner sounds like a good payback to me. you’re the one who said you owed me. I don’t want to be indebted to anyone. Callie?” My name sounded so sexy on those sculptured lips. Besides.” I squinted at the job listing. my heart pinged like I’d hit the .” He handed me a piece of paper with the job details. He shrugged. but I couldn’t think of a word to say. “You start tomorrow. “Okay. But I will pay back the favor. My lips parted. This is how I choose to collect.” “I’ll see what I can do.” I hedged.
so I had a reason to say yes. Or so I kept telling myself. all right. I did have a project to finish and some questions that needed answering. “Dinner will be fine. even if said scandal was positively gorgeous. Oh. agreed?” “Whatever you say. The last thing I needed was to fall under his spell and wind up in another scandal.jackpot in a pinball game.” He smiled wide. and I have a few questions you can answer for me. but I got the impression answering my questions was the last thing on his mind. “So. “I’ll call . “This date will take place as soon as I check my schedule.” he replied. when will this. um. not sure what to call it. yeah. payment take place?” I asked. Then we’re even. I had a problem. Although.
let me. wearing an odd smile. “Ow. “Here.you to work out the details. Dukeypoo. “Something wrong?” “New contacts.” Then he reached across my lap to open the door at the same time I leaned forward. Didn’t have the time or patience to try to put them in. and we bumped heads. thanks for the ride home. Detective. The thick layer of my coat did nothing to prevent his touch from radiating up my arm and streaking down my spine to pool in the pit of my . and my glasses broke. “You okay?” He touched my arm. Can’t see worth diddly.” “Okay.” I fumbled around for the door handle.” He shook his head. Well.” I lifted my mitten to my forehead.
I liked it way too much. capable fingers slid up my sleeve and under the band of my mitten to draw slow. Triple flip into a double layout. and his five-alarm gaze sizzled as it bore into mine. I. Lord. only to see their blurry reflection in those annoying heat shields he wore. “Mac?” “Yeah?” “Oh. sensual circles on the center of my palm. Then his long.stomach... That alone should have been reason enough. hell. “I. He was a man. I wanted nothing more than to jump on him.. wins the gold..S. but I could think of a million reasons why that wasn’t a smart idea. . for one. My tongue slipped out to moisten lips gone desertdry. and the U.” He pulled off his shades.” I lifted my eyes to his. Could this be called mitten pool? Whatever it was.
I blinked rapidly. and a groan rumbled deep in his chest. so . I-CanHave-Any-Woman-I-Want-And-ProbablyHave. I couldn’t stop from tracking them. I felt completely out of my league with Mr.He shot a look at my mouth. didn’t have a clue how to pick the right kind of man. almost causing me to hyperventilate. And men like Hot Britches never hit on women like me. I didn’t need a man. Dylan had nice hands. Those expert fingers crept higher. Long and lean. Masculine. Tossing his glasses on the dash. he eased his hand down to rest on my thigh. while his other fingers worked magic on my palm. He squeezed and kneaded the muscle of my thigh. from noticing his olive skin tone. trying like heck to stay in control. I had to stop him now before I lost control.
I lifted my face to talk and then gasped. I wanted to make a new life for myself. My heart beat like a trip hammer. He rattled me big time. He scooted closer. not fall back into the bad patterns of my old life. He searched my eyes. I twisted until my back pressed up against the door. and alarm bells . His mouth hovered only centimeters from my own. My heart thumped. When had he moved? Needing to put some distance between us. then licked his lips and leaned in. but I didn’t know how to tell him. then his warm breath caressed my face. apparently seeing the invitation I couldn’t hide. smelling like coffee and spice. and my breathing quickened. I felt like a doe mesmerized by the headlights of an oncoming car: not quite sure what to make of it but too paralyzed to move.
my stomach stuck in my throat. move iiit!” Jerking away. backing away toward my apartment.rang in my ears like a drill sergeant shouting. “Move it. and his brow buckled. . Just fine. Pay off debt. I pulled the door handle and tumbled in a backward somersault out of the car to land in a snow-bank.” I scrambled to my feet and fought to catch my breath.” I raced into my apartment. “What the hell? Are you alright?” Hot Britches leaned across my seat and stuck his head out the door. Hand on door. Forgot. then I slammed the door and locked it behind me. “Fine. “Call me when free. Gotta go now. my Snow Flurries slipping on the ice. His lips dipped down at the corners. fine. Do it all the time. I gave him a brilliant but too-stiff smile. move it. Leaning against it.
as I said to no one in particular. Too close.I panted. Then I slid down the door and landed hard on my huge insecurity with one thought keeping time with the bongos in my chest. allowing me to blow out a shaky puff of air. Okay. Way too flipping close. watching the skyscrapers pass by.” “Big Betty” started up with a loud rumble and idled for a few minutes. What on earth did you get yourself into. After what seemed like forever. so I held my breath. more like heaved for air. he finally drove away. but I turned to stare out the window. I sat in Big Betty. as far from Detective Cabrizzi as possible. He looked away from the highway to smile at me. “Close. Callie Anne? *** A couple days later. Rush hour traffic had eased .
we were making good time. for Pete’s sake. He had caressed my palm and thigh. I couldn’t stop thinking about that stupid “almost” kiss and what it all meant. And I’d only agreed to dinner so we’d be even. Me! Little Miss SmallTown. after . Probably because I hadn’t said a word since he’d picked me up. Liar. yet it seemed like an eternity. All in all. or rather. He’d asked me out. my payment of this debt. It wasn’t like I wanted to spend time with him. but I had to admit the new job was a huge improvement over Roach Central. I hated owing anyone. He’d waited a couple days before calling me about our dinner date. plus I still had to question him about what it was like to be a zucchini.up. and the snowplows had cleared away yesterday’s snow. Maybe he’d seen the tape.
that’s awful. “The Midnight Molester struck again. any news on the case?” I asked when I couldn’t stand it anymore. that much was clear. or rolled. I hadn’t been.all. When did it happen?” “The night the health department shut the motel down.” “Oh. “So. Right after you showed up. he probably would have done a whole lot more.” I looked at him. right?” . “What’s that supposed to mean?” He glanced at me and then back at the road. And if I hadn’t fallen. “Yeah. or whatever that was. Once again. right out of his car door.” “You’re kidding. no. I wondered what on earth I’d been thinking by saying yes tonight. unfortunately.
he didn’t get me.” I muttered. that could have been me. “It’s not your fault. my foot.” Dylan squeezed my shoulder. close by the motel. so he must have attacked some other poor woman after you gave me a ride home. Don’t beat yourself up about it.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” He glanced at me. Then after you stepped out of the shadows. I feel awful. He struck earlier than usual.” Good Lord. I looked out the window again. It . “What?” “I heard a sound in the bushes before I ran into you that night around ten. I thought it had been you. feeling stupid. “Animal.“Wish I was. Callie. I thought it was an animal. around eleven. “I didn’t think it was important. My God.
may not have even been him. “How come they call him the Midnight Molester if he doesn’t always strike at midnight?” “Because up until now. come on. that’s odd.” “Oh.” I looked back at him. “The victim looked a hell of a lot like you.” “Huh. do you?” His eyes met mine again. you don’t really think this has something to do with me.O. until now.” I squeaked. “Well. He’s been following the same M. I’m sure it’s a .” “Oh. he’s only struck at midnight. all along.” “Not really. “made him snap. but cocky.” he shot me a pointed look. which might make him easier to catch. This makes him more dangerous. Something. But take this as a lesson and be more careful. or someone.
“Or can’t you handle being alone with me. We were having dinner at his apartment? Not a good idea. zoomed into a parking lot.” “Not likely. thanks for your concern. and then cut the engine. Make-MyPulse-Beat-In-Places-It-Has-No-BusinessBeating. “Don’t worry.” “Well. Mac. He hugged a corner. I blinked. “You coming?” Dylan asked. not a night alone with Mr. Somehow. I’d envisioned a noisy restaurant with loads of people. I clamped my lips closed before I said something stupid.” I pulled my hand from under his. I’m not gonna let anything bad happen to you. .coincidence. grinning wide. but I’m sure I’ll be just fine.” He reached out and patted my hand.
Honestly. or Victorian. no. “Anything wrong?” “Uh. .” I smiled big.” “I’m fine. either. it was the handling him that worried me. Then I skidded to a stop and gaped like a flounder. He grabbed my hand and pulled me through his apartment door before I could say anything further.” I said. I’d never seen anything like this. darn it. interesting décor. trying to hide my surprise. His taste wasn’t modern. Being alone with him didn’t bother me. I knew a bit about interior design. climbing out of Big Betty. And now I couldn’t get the image of him biting me out of my mind. I might not know much about make-up and fashion.Mac? I don’t bite. or even rustic. or country. but after remodeling the general store back home. Course not. Um.
and garlic permeated the air.” Hot Britches could cook? The enticing aromas of basil. Wandering into the living room. and a punching bag hung ready in one corner. “I’m gonna check on dinner. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. A basketball hoop dangled from the wall. but you’d be surprised what you can do with a little imagination and a whole lot of improvising.” He hung up our coats on a hockey man coat rack and headed into the kitchen.” he called back. “Cool. In the other corner stood a widescreen TV. “Make yourself at home. “A cop’s salary isn’t much. oregano. giving a vague wave in the direction of the adjacent room.It was sheer madness. giving me hope that he cooked better than he decorated. huh?” He beamed. Obviously exercise and entertainment were important to .
him. anyway. Dylan’s back faced me as he stirred some pots. And this so-called bag was in desperate need of more beans. I picked up a few scattered shirts to get to that chair and then tossed them into a corner and dropped down into the beanbag. Note to self: Zucchinis have seriously . Where was I supposed to sit? The nearest chair was a tie-dyed beanbag that looked like it had seen better days. Entertaining women. I grunted. Good. I wiggled my way out of the thing as I sneaked a glance through the kitchen door. whistling to a classic rock station. judging by this room. My long legs folded in half. and my knees slammed into my chin. Beanbags were not made for tall people. but entertaining? Entertaining ranked last on his list. he hadn’t seen me.
“Would you like a drink?” “Got any Bahama Mamas?” “Uh.strange taste. Beanless Bag. “Everything all right out there?” He peeked out the doorway. then.” “Wine it is. Sitting wasn’t an option. At least not after the episode with Mr. no. He walked over . but with the way he made me all shaky and goofy-acting whenever he got too close.” I wasn’t much of a wine drinker. Dylan walked into the room and gave me an odd smile. holding onto it for support. I had a feeling I would need the whole bottle before the evening was through. “Fine. Just looking around.” I smoothed my hair and leaned back against the life-sized marble statue of Michelangelo’s David behind me. But I have some wine.
“I’m so sorry.. I hadn’t even heard him approach. A tingle of awareness shot up my spine. portable bar that sat against the other wall. inhaling deeply. “I didn’t mean to break his. causing the circular end pieces to split in two and roll in opposite directions across the room. “Trade you. holy mother of Mary.to a small. what is that?” I yanked my hand back as if I’d been burned. breaking the finger off the statue. I had to get my hormones under control. glancing at it while I spoke. and I closed my eyes.” He handed me a glass of merlot.” I held out the broken appendage. The man was downright deadly.” he whispered in my ear a moment later. My eyes flew open and I jumped. “I have to say David won’t be quite the same .. “Here you go. dropping the appendage on the floor.
“Don’t worry about it. I didn’t quite meet his eyes as I thrust out my hand. adding under my breath. I shoved my glass of wine back at him and ran after the rolling ball.ever again. trying like the devil not to blush. Mac. I ignored him. Feeling terrible for breaking his art. maybe not straight up.” Flasher Freak had David beat by half a gherkin. snatching it just before it fell down the register. and I hadn’t thought that possible. “Got it! Now where’d that other little sucker go?” I scrambled to the other side of the room. Well. It’s only a statue. I mean. “A little glue should fix him straight up.” “I’ll keep that in mind.” Dylan commented.” Dylan said.” His voice sounded . As I grabbed the other ball. The picture. but you get the point. “And I do mean little.
I eyed a large wicker chair. thank you very much. “Have a seat. “Humph. as if he were struggling not to laugh. What else could possibly go wrong this evening? I took a large gulp. He took the broken pieces and handed me the glass of wine again and then headed back into the kitchen. it looked as though you sat on the palm and the fingers .” Dylan called out from the kitchen. I’d had enough of marble. Besides. Mr. Easier said than done. Next to that was a black marble chair in the shape of a hand.” I mumbled. Limp Winkie.strained. Dinner will be ready in a minute. the roomtemperature liquid warming my insides. and took another sip of my merlot. It looked hard and uncomfortable. Beanless Bag would have been a whole lot less embarrassing than Mr.
I overcorrected by surging to . The man had the most amazing set of buns I’d ever seen. flopped on my back. The only other place to sit was a hammock. What had he been thinking when he picked these things out? I tipped back my glass and finished my drink. This should be a piece of cake. My gaze darted to the kitchen just as Dylan bent over to check the oven. Don’t go there. I’d used a hammock plenty of times back home. Must be the wine. I sat on the edge. Cal . I sighed. No way was I going to sit with someone’s hand cradling my insecurity. Wow. what that man did to a pair of Levi’s was sinful. then set it on an end table in the shape of a barrel.supported your back. but the hammock tilted sharply to the left. I shook my head. Glancing around once more. then whipped my feet up.
Then the hammock decided to pitch and roll three times. turn.. right. grunt. twist. wrestle. wrapping me tightly in its net.the right. Care to join me in. “Comfy?” he croaked.. “Callie? Everything’s ready. . since I lay face down about a foot off the floor. wrestle. wrestling a steer.” Dylan’s voice trailed off. and he came to a stop at my head. groan. All I could see were his snakeskin boots. I felt like I was competing in Cutesville’s annual rodeo. wrestle. “Dinner’s ready.” Hot Britches called from the dining room. Of course it was. Left. Or in this case a crazed hammock. racing against the clock. And the race was on.
“If you’we done waughing. and he fell off his haunches onto his hind end. He returned and slid beneath me..” He knelt down and dipped his head to the side so he could see my face. but this is too priceless to pass up. he whipped out a camera and snapped off a shot ..” “I didn’t quite catch that. puckering his own lips. “Wewy. Mac. Elmer.” He gave me a devilish grin and bit the insides of his cheeks. I can’t resist. get me out of hewe!” “Sure thing. wunny. “Sorry. sorry. Elmer Fudd. it’s just. A loud laugh burst out of him.My lips poked out of one of the hammock’s holes. When my eyes sprang wide. Where was he going? I didn’t have to wonder long.” He sprang to his feet and ran away. then pressed them briefly to mine.
” He grinned. stomped my feet.quick as lightning. When my boots hit the floor. Fish kiss? If I could feel my lips. I shook my hands. and then proceeded to untangle me from the hammock’s relentless hold. I’d have bitten his pucker off. “Follow me. “One of the supports is loose.” “Dinner had better be worth it after all this. seeing white spots from the flash.” “Ya think?” I smirked. “Sorry. and I haven’t had a chance to fix it yet. rolled to his feet.” He winked at me.” “No one’s complained about my cooking . mistew. What a rotten sneaky trick to pull. It can be a bit tricky. “Kissing a fish was worth that expression. and twisted my lips until the circulation returned.” I blinked. “You’we dead meat.
” I muttered and followed him to the dining room. maybe. Something told me even the whole bottle wouldn’t be enough to get me through this evening. but my cooking.before.” “Better bring the bottle. no way. Come on. . My furniture. I’ll get you another glass of wine.
He laughed.” “Why would she do that?” It seemed like an odd gift from a sister. “So. heading to the kitchen and returning with the whole bottle of wine. I cleared my throat and tried to stay focused. needing to start up a conversation. This guy was way too cute for his own good. “My sister gave it to me. Winkie affected his personality. This could be one way to find out how his Mr. anyway?” I asked. bless the man. “Isn’t it obvious?” He winked. what’s up with that statue.CHAPTER FOUR Detective Cabrizzi pulled out my chair and then scooted it in as I sat. “Obvious how?” .
if that’s what you mean. all right.” He poured us both a glass of merlot. I studied the statue. When he looked back at me with an arched brow. “Really?” Glancing in the other room.” “She’s something. He couldn’t have handed me a more perfect introduction into my paper if he tried.“Supposedly.” He shook his head. head first. “I haven’t been castrated. I . Vain. I took a sip.” “Your sister sounds interesting. you’re saying you’re not lacking in certain areas?” His eyes followed mine. My heart started beating furiously as I plunged in. “So.” Good God! I fell into a coughing fit. I’m the perfect male specimen. and in love with my own body. so my sister says. That statue doesn’t look anything like me. “And I just can’t help it if women throw themselves at me.
“A Mr. there’s a thought.” He gaped at me. “Now. Let’s do that..” I snapped my fingers. “Do what?” Watch me stumble my way through this insane conversation. Continue. What exactly would it do to your ego if you. I took a sip of my wine for courage and said.croaked.” Dylan blinked at me. let’s say had a pickle for a Mr. Who-ie?” Poor Dylan looked like a cartoon character. Imagine what that would do to his ego if he were real. Darn my parents for having made this so hard . “Let’s pretend you’re him before his little accident. I hope you didn’t enjoy that. Winkie.. oh. “I’m fine. his eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. I don’t know. trying to keep the ball rolling.” “I was just saying poor guy.
. sinking lower in my seat. “Hey. jarring me from my thoughts. Winkie.” “Okay. don’t all you guys name your Mr.” He went back to the kitchen and returned with a big bowl of homemade sauce and meatballs. who talks like that?” he asked. No one calls ‘it’ a winkie. Since there was no chance of escape. but got an eyeful of his massive feet. “Um. Besides. just everyone in my flipping family. A Mr.” I said.to talk about. Oh. “Let me ask you a question. Talk about intimidating. Wonder if he’d notice if I slipped all the way under the table to hide? I discreetly pushed the tablecloth aside and peeked under. you’re the one who started with the nicknames. I sat up straight and said.” I answered. “Jesus. Winkie?” “Believe me. a Winkie.
and my ears felt like they were on fire. unable to speak.“You mentioned a pickle. so I’m assuming you mean how would my ego be affected if I had a small Mr.” I nodded. I just couldn’t spit them out. Winkie. my face flamed probably three shades of red. and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. The words that formed in my brain sounded so idiotic.” he continued. “at its . swallowing hard. let alone be so open about it. “Then my question is would my Mr. I hadn’t expected him to be willing to talk about this stuff with me. I opened my mouth and then closed it three flipping times. Winkie be a pickle when relaxed or standing at attention?” Instantly. “Because you know.
relaxed state.” Okay. could they? Dylan grinned as he added. the conversation had just escalated from walking around with your skirt tucked in the back of your underwear the one and only time you decide to wear a thong kind of embarrassing. Winkie does have a tendency to turn into Pinocchio when provoked. All my worst nightmares about this stupid project were coming true. Things couldn’t possibly get any more embarrassing. Darn Professor Butthead for assigning me this topic. I actually squeaked out loud. No words. “But Mr. .” I squeaked. And yes. Needless to say. looks can be deceiving. I’m speaking from experience. The wonderful experience of disaster dating. to period leaking mortification. just a high-pitched sound like an overexcited piglet.
I’d have to learn to have these conversations with anyone.I hadn’t received a second invitation for a date from those men. . deciding if I were going to face my fears and succeed at this project. “Um. so I guess if I had a pickle. My biggest disaster to date. Even I wasn’t that desperate. “Okay. this date with Hot Britches wasn’t looking too good. Though maybe I should have been. it’s a pickle. I took a deep breath. leaving me with no one but the geriatrics to choose from.” I blurted. they left town soon after. In fact. including men like Dylan. then I wouldn’t have fallen for Bob when he’d rolled into town and swept me off my feet. Although.” “How so?” I folded my napkin in my lap. I’d probably have some serious issues. standing at attention.
My idea of an evening with a hot guy having potential consisted of talking about his . This night had potential after all. well. he could be suffering from Short Man Syndrome.wishing I could whip out my notebook and start writing without looking strange. And his pickle could be what made him that way. this entire conversation went beyond strange. Who was I kidding. “Besides.” “What’s that?” I plopped my elbows on the table. I snorted. and the scents of garlic. “That didn’t seem to bother Flasher Freak. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get naked.” “Yeah. Flasher Freak’s a freak. and oregano filled the room. basil. this time returning with a large bowl of cooked pasta.” Dylan disappeared again. I tried not to frown. “Put it this way.” he answered.
” “A zucchini?” I supplied. then arched a brow at me. Gotta love that Irish Catholic upbringing.” His brow arched higher. I can’t believe I’m telling you this--who’s a pickle.. In a word-pathetic. “I have a fondness for produce. I sighed. “Some people say that a short man is so cocky because his Mr. and he’s so damned cocky you’d swear he was packin’ a.winkie. Too many years of working in the produce department of my parents’ store. well.. instead of using it.. but the corner of his .” Dylan paused. let’s put it this way. Winkie is. a. I have a buddy who’s--God. “Exactly. And it doesn’t help that they never used the anatomically correct names for private parts. I guess....
he must think I’m a freaking nympho. I’ve got it covered. too.” He wandered back into the kitchen. “Nope.” I called out from the dining room. I’ve kind of noticed you’re rather. I’ll bet. “Speaking of zucchinis. “Does that mean you have Tall Man Syndrome?” Lord. Have big hands. but I’ll leave the rest to your . No insecurity there. “Can I help with anything?” He chuckled. I am tall. giving me a great view of his buns. “Well. just sit tight. that explains a lot. His perfect buns. um. I took a gulp of wine this time. tall. Note to self: Produce conversations get easier with alcohol. “Well.” I glanced away.lips hitched up a notch. He returned with a loaf of steaming Italian bread and a devil of a grin.
There’s a difference. .” My gaze dipped between his legs. This had just gotten really weird. even for me. And I thought it was Dukeypoo?” I glanced at the loaf. I don’t know. chief. “Hmmm. Maybe you’re hiding a pickle. He grinned. He wasn’t that well-endowed. “Big difference.” That darn crooked grin spread even wider across his face. “Yeah. and that’s just a sock.” He set the huge loaf right in front of me. In your dreams. and the only socks I have on me are the ones on my feet. giving me the sudden urge to fall off the face of the earth. melting me like the hot butter spread across the massive loaf. The word you’re looking for is ‘confident’. cocky equals small. well. You seem rather cocky to me. Zuc.imagination. “My pants aren’t that tight. And according to you.
” God. “Hey. Looks to me like he’s been castrated.Dukeypoo. buddy. That hadn’t come out the way I meant. Ooops. It basically sucked. this project bit the big one. Does your Mr. I couldn’t even think without getting myself into trouble. the rat. Like that was any better. then disappeared and came back carrying a bowl of tossed salad. “Well.” He winked. Good Lord. Winkie give you any problems?” I managed to choke out. the nice lady wants to know if you’re having any problems?” . and he gave me a level stare. yes. too. I wouldn’t be comparing myself to that loaf of bread. Winkie. “Anything else?” “Actually. “Hey.” Dylan laughed. you asked. that’s a question for Mr. “Why don’t we ask him?” He set the salad on the table and looked down at himself.
. “You asked. I’d say he’s responding just fine. I.” How did I tell him without him thinking I was using him? I was using him. Guess I’m . “And then some.’ I just haven’t had very good experiences when it comes to men.Darned if I didn’t join him.” He pulled out his seat and sat. “Why? Are you afraid of it?” “Well. yanking my mortified gaze up to meet his twinkling one. but that didn’t mean I wanted him to know it. “Oh. um. I. or that you might hurt your partner?” His eyes narrowed.. does having a zucchini ever worry you that it won’t fit. “So. I had taken Gloria’s suggestion--turn the tables on the opposite gender--but I was still a woman... which meant I had a conscience.” I fanned my cheeks. “I’m not afraid of ‘it. to tell you the truth. I answered.” I croaked.
you just want to know what makes me .” At least I hadn’t lied. Okay. playful tone of the conversation had just taken a nosedive to the serious side. He shifted in his chair and eyed me suspiciously.” “So. Could he be different from all the other men I’d met and actually like me for me? I mentally shook myself. The chances that he had heard of the scandal were slim. pal. “You have no idea. and I wondered if he’d heard about the scandal.trying to figure out what makes them tick. but I wasn’t willing to gamble with my fresh start. How would he have heard of the scandal? Paranoia had set in. “You? I can’t imagine you having problems with men.” The sincerity in his eyes threw me. so the light. Don’t worry. I’m not going to burden you with my problems.
anyway. until I met this shrink. keeping me out of work much longer than I had to be. that’s all?” “Yeah. It’s like dealing with an alien. but I had a feeling he wouldn’t help me if he knew the information I was gathering was . you know. all because she had an ulterior motive. I don’t understand the male species at all.tick.” “Man.” He met my gaze head-on. at least a female one. I don’t think I’ll ever trust a shrink again. What kinds of things guys think about. I had no intention of becoming a shrink. I know the feeling. “She gave me the runaround.” He shook his head. I thought I understood the female population. that killed any ideas I might have been entertaining. “So what do you want to know?” Well. and a pained expression briefly flashed across his face.
My willpower had dwindled.” He smiled. Detective. The food smells delicious. It’s my specialty. “Nice sweater. he cleared his throat.going to put be in a psychology project.” I crossed my arms over my chest. Guess I got distracted by the unique dinner conversation. by the way. Frowning. “I want to know when we’re going to eat.” He scooped a moderate portion of thin . Guilt crept down my spine. It matches your eyes. “Better dig in before the food gets cold. his sparkling sapphires roaming over my face and then dropping lower to skim over the pale-green sweater molding my bumps with nipples. sending him mixed signals. big time.” “Me. But I had to. too. and I’m starved. I was sure. I couldn’t tell him about my project now.” “How would you know? My eyes are up here.
peppered with just the right seasonings. As I slowly sucked the noodle until it disappeared. and slathered it with an additional layer. It wasn’t macaroni and cheese. but paused. which already had butter on it. Couldn’t help it. I dug into my meal with gusto. but it was pasta. adding a helping of homemade sauce with meatballs.spaghetti onto his plate. Dishing up some tossed salad. I felt pink roses blossom . with a long noodle dangling from my mouth. Then I’d loaded ranch dressing onto my salad and had taken my bread. I stared at him. I’d served myself a heaping portion of spaghetti and had drenched it with a mound of sauce. He opened his mouth as though to eat. his jaw unhinged as he gaped at my plate. he poured on a dollop of dressing and snagged a slice of toasted Italian garlic bread. Close enough.
If you’re hungry.across my skin. “right here. “Nothing.” I said on a whoosh of air. but he reached out and grabbed my . cleaning my plate in record time. I continued my meal in silence. I wanted to entertain those ideas I’d had earlier in a big way.. It’s certainly been. “What?” I gave him an uncertain half-smile. Picking up my fork. “That was amazing..” he reached out and ran his thumb across the corner of my mouth.” then lifted his thumb to his own mouth and licked it off. you eat. You’re a woman who doesn’t put up pretenses. God. then I snatched my napkin and scrubbed my face. “Except you have sauce. Thanks for everything. It’s refreshing. A veeeery big way.” I stood. interesting. So not smart. “Th-Thank you.” He licked his sexy lips.
try some. “You made dessert?” Chuckling. however. because if I did. my brain hammered against my skull. “Here.” He set the slices on the table. is not one of my strengths. Not a good idea. “How about dessert?” he asked. I sensed that he knew he unsettled me. I stared down at our hands. “Cooking. mine small and pale. “The corner bakery makes one hell of a dessert called Death By Chocolate. then lifted it. but it didn’t stop him. a monstrous--bigger than his feet--mistake of an idea. a bad idea.hand. I’d be . His fingers threaded between mine. picked up my fork and cut off a generous bite.” He returned carrying two large slices of cake. I can do. Baking. Helplessly.” I couldn’t do this. His were large and dark. he released my hand and headed into the kitchen.
opening the door to my biggest disaster yet. I worked my mouth slowly and then swallowed. “How can you make something as simple as eating cake look erotic?” I opened my eyes and struggled to maintain control. Callie Anne. He slipped the fork inside. Moaning deep in my throat. I licked the remaining crumbs. and I closed my mouth around it. Not again . “Did I mention I love chocolate? A-Almost as much as pasta. His glossed-over gaze locked with mine. just looked as . Sticking my tongue out. He opened his mouth.” I stuttered. My eyes rolled back and my lids fluttered shut. and the undeniable desire sizzled between us. but didn’t say a word.” he muttered. “Damn. You can’t do this. My lips ignored my brain and parted of their own accord. not about to miss a single morsel.
I mentally made the sign of the . Dessert hadn’t nearly satisfied me. Sweet Jesus. Magic. then leaned forward and pressed my mouth to his. and a powerful longing zipped through me. electric-blue eyes and started to pull back. I wanted him. If he didn’t kiss me soon. Bad idea. I wanted more.dazed as I felt. I would implode. Pure magic. I couldn’t let this happen. My eyes slipped closed. So much for control. could I? I broke the kiss. The wine had weakened my resistance to the point where I was ready to ignore all the warning sirens screeching through my brain. then he licked my mouth with his tongue. I stared into Hot Britches’ surprised. but his lips began to move over mine. I sighed. and that fish kiss sure as heck hadn’t. yet heavy-lidded.
Kissing him was pure heaven. looking at me in question. I pulled his head down to mine. but one of us had to at least try to stop this madness. “I’ve wanted to do this all evening.” he whispered. it fit.cross. He slid his hand up my back and plunged it into my hair. “B-But I’m not ready.” I gave one last ditch . He stared into my eyes. My heart skipped a beat. but on Dylan. caressing my cheeks and chin. I couldn’t speak. I wanted him to kiss me again. Grabbing his face again. bad idea or not. His nearness overwhelmed me. I never thought I’d like a man with facial hair. then laid another one on him. His goatee felt like silk. then he traced my lips with his tongue. His voice sounded husky. and I saw a desire as powerful as my own.
He tasted like sinful spices and decadent chocolate all rolled into one intoxicating package. It’s just a kiss. rippled down my back. beat in places it had no business beating again. “No pressure. thrusting his tongue inside to circle my own. Just a kiss.” His mouth swooped down over mine this time. Shock waves coursed through my mouth. Maybe never.effort. and I felt cherished and special. No pressure. I never wanted him to stop. didn’t want to be in another relationship anytime soon. I didn’t want to get involved. and he deepened the kiss. My arms wound around his neck all by their little lonesome. Spice came to mind. I could handle that. I moaned. then . He cradled my face in his masculine hands. then turned my legs to rubber and curled my toes.
The zucchini I felt pressed up against me was further proof that he in no way resembled little David. Thank God.my hands slipped under his short ponytail. but I ceased to think when his palms slid down my back and cupped my big ole insecurity. Size mattered. I didn’t care what anyone said. I tore myself away from him. backed me down the hall toward what could only be his bedroom. And right now. I should have stopped him. Good Lord. I had a problem. I felt thankful for being tall. that problem was fondling my backside. I noted how well we fit together. pulling me to his cue stick. Are we moving? I thought as he slowly. Wait a minute. shot through my brain. As my body bumped into his. my chest heaving as fast . For the first time ever. but surely. Rack’em.
I couldn’t do this. I know.as his. “What happened to no pressure? Just a kiss?” “That’s all we did was kiss. He was different.” Even if his kiss had rocked me right down to my core. Not again. I didn’t think I could handle being used by him. “Riiiight. “About that kiss--” “Bad idea. but .” He tried for a smile but couldn’t quite pull one off. I didn’t know what to say. and we stood on opposite sides of the wall. somehow. so I tore my gaze away from his and tried to clear my head. Can I use your bathroom?” He looked like he wanted to say more. things were moving way too fast. And not with him. staring at each other in the middle of his hallway. I stepped back. He spoke first.
Men could not be trusted. I gritted my teeth and stared at a copy of a girlie magazine in the bathroom trash. He was a cop. Once inside. he’d been a gentleman. I had to admit. I closed the door and leaned my head against it. not a loser. Every time I dared to have hope. Could I blame him for responding after I talked about winkie sizes and then kissed him? Maybe he was different. I turned around to wash my hands and froze. fighting to catch my breath. reinforcing what I’d already discovered too many times to count. the frustrating species let me down. up until this point. I stepped out of the bathroom and his open . Or maybe he was a scumbucket like all the other men I’d dated. And he’d seemed sincere when he’d said he wanted to help me figure men out.he pointed down the hall by his bedroom.
I might have been overreacting. There was a desk pushed up against a wall with a computer on it. so I walked over to the desk and picked up a piece of paper. Feeling like I’d been suckerpunched.bedroom door caught my eye. I looked down the hall. but after Bob the sex addict. Oh. My hand shook. not again. God. I was through giving men the benefit of the doubt. with a list of websites below. I didn’t see any sign of Dylan. No wonder he’d been so willing to take part in that conversation. and an issue of another girlie magazine along with a couple of nudie pictures lying beside it. INTERNET PORNOGRAPHY was scrawled across the top in capital letters. Disappointed and totally disillusioned. At least this time it had only taken me a week . I fled his bedroom and made a beeline for the living room.
hardening his jaw.instead of six months to discover his true nature. “What I wanted to know is if you’d like to--” “I’d like to go home. pal. he kept talking.” “Oh. I’d like to--” “I’m sure you would. I don’t want to go to bed with a pervert like you. I know exactly who you are. “Callie.” He blinked. I don’t think so. Detective Cabrizzi.” “Neither am I.” “Pervert?” He stiffened. Sorry. because you’ve got me all wrong.” His laser beams had cooled to icicles.” “Huh?” When I didn’t answer. I’m not that desperate. “But I thought--” “You thought wrong. “You really do have problems figuring men out. not interested. .
I marched to the door and yanked my coat off the silly hockey man. Didn’t you learn anything last week?” “I didn’t say I’d walk. Dylan’s warm hand curled over mine before I could open it.” His hot breath tickled my ear when he spoke.” .” Spinning on my heel. When I grabbed the knob. stepping away from him.” He glared at me like he had the night Flasher Freak had shown up. Consider my debt paid. Anger shot through me that my body betrayed me by reacting to the sound of his voice and the touch of his hand. then we’re on the same page.“Good. “I said I’ll drive you home. “I’ll drive you home. I’m grateful for the job you got me. I’ll call a cab. but dinner is over.” I snapped. “It’s foolish to walk alone at night. “Don’t bother.
when it came to men? Hot Britches wasn’t only hot. I opened my door before he could do it for me. shutting it--and him--firmly behind me. he stormed around to his side and slid behind the wheel. just once. and funny. he was sweet. and charming. and then led me to Big Betty. took my arm.He ignored me. then slammed it shut. Cutting the engine. he sighed and turned to me. Neither of us talked during the ride to my apartment. I locked it. wilting back and thumping my head against the solid steel as I tried not to cry. then stormed over to my apartment door.” I pushed my door open and stepped out. Callie--” “Thanks for dinner. Once inside. Glaring. He made me feel like a . Why couldn’t I be wrong. “Look.
not a piece of meat. He was a sex addict. I had to start fresh. Only one seat left.. I had to find another zucchini to interview. I meandered into the college cafeteria with my usual--turkey sub and iced tea loaded with sugar--and peered over my tray at the crowded room. *** Monday afternoon. that’s all there was to it. he was a fake. I groaned. I swallowed the lump in my throat and reminded myself he was a phony..woman. That meant I’d have to sit at a table full of teenage girls. get involved with one of those ever again. Not that I had anything against teenage girls. . so I only had one choice. he was a fraud. I could not. Get the sexy Detective out of my heart and my head for good. would not.
” He flashed a grin but kept steamrolling his way across the worn-out linoleum floor. “Hey. Then I jerked back just before an attractive boy would have plowed me over. I shook my head. So I took a deep breath. But I had to do this. girl. On the other side of the room. Face another fear and stand up for myself. he caught up with an equally attractive girl and threw his arm around her waist. and made my way toward the giggles. “Sorry. even back when I was a teenager. putting one foot in front of the other.” . gripping my tray. Note to self: Being beautiful and under the age of twenty must be prerequisites to fitting in here.” I said. “Oh.I’d just never had anything in common with them. did you see that? That guy’s hot.
then it ain’t worth the effort.” “Oh. you are so right about that.the redhead at the table in front of me said to the brunette beside her. “My point exactly.” She sighed. If you can’t see even a hint of a bulge. You ladies only date guys who have a big Mr. let me get this straight. . he made up for it in other ways. girlfriend. A woman’s point of view was just what I needed to compliment this project. “Best sex I ever had.” I said with a smile and sat down in the empty seat. Then she stared after the man. But did you see ‘it’?” The brunette leaned back in her chair to get a better look.” Ooooh.” Red responded. “No. perfect. I once dated a guy who wasn’t good looking at all. “So. “I hear you. but let me tell you. Winkie.
“I meant guys with big.“Mr. “Yeah. meaningful relationship? Doesn’t that matter?” I asked. sorry. .” I frowned and glanced down just to be sure I hadn’t.” “The point of dating is to have sex. Nope. “Whoops. granny. I shrugged and tried again. then looked me over and her grin vanished.” You walked right into that one. and you’re getting old. “No. no third boob. well. so who wouldn’t go for the big guns. if your eggs are rotting.” Red chuckled. thingies. right?” Brownie replied. “What about dating to be in a caring. Just the two bumps I’d barely grown since puberty. Winkie? Is he a professor here?” A blonde eyeballed me as though I’d grown a third boob.
” My smile slipped. unless you give them all a chance?” Three pairs of eyes widened. Maybe that was my way of rebelling. but what had I expected? These weren’t women. but a zucchini can be a real jerk. Never had the chance.” This was getting me nowhere. I’m not looking to be in a relationship. “Yeah. Part of me was jealous. Maybe a cucumber’s the best bet when it comes to guys. without actually having . Maybe that’s why I’d made so many bad choices. looking me over until Blondie spoke. growing up an only child with parents like mine. I just mean a pickle might turn out to be weird. then narrowed. that’s me. Into produce. rotting eggs or not. if you get my meaning. I’d never been a giggling puddle of anything. These were giggling puddles of estrogen. but how will you know.“Trust me. “I think she’s ‘into’ produce.
“From Mr. “Mr.” Red looked at me with sympathy. then get with the program. if you wanna get a man. I suspect. Brownie eyed my Eskimo parka and Snow Flurries and then leaned in close. “I’ll keep that in mind. Dump Ster. It went perfectly with my rotten eggs. “Where on earth did you get that coat from. Dump Ster? Who’s . ma’am. “Forget the produce.” There was that darn ma’am again. interrupting my thoughts. anyway?” Lord only knew. I think you could use it. And guys love an older woman who’s willing to show them a thing or two. go buy yourself a good vibrator. How fitting.to stand up to them. The Jackrabbit 2000 has all kinds of neat attachments. I forced a smile.” Blondie frowned.” “Look lady.
Then she said. That’s the best way to score big.that?” Good God. they wanna get a good look at our racks just as much as we wanna check out their packages. “Look. You can get cheap knock-offs just about anywhere. even though I’d pretty much . I had to be talking to Paris Hilton’s twin.” Brownie added. short top. “Do yourself a favor and throw it away. Go buy a pair of low-rise jeans and a tight. It’s all just one big game. and I tried not to laugh.” What was the matter with everyone these days? Was I the only one who believed relationships should be about so much more than that? I wish there was a way to prove that not all men were like that. Red smacked a clueless Blondie.
I’m sure Callie’s Angels--my new nickname for the giggling puddles of estrogen--could. and I could gain some much needed help with this project.lost hope. “Good luck. and Blondie left the table in a giggling fit. Angels. Brownie. Would any of you be up for a little challenge?” All three stared at me with renewed interest. If anyone could find some answers. . “So. thinking about what the girls had said.” I waved as Red. you girls like games. then they eagerly agreed to be my research assistants. So I finished my lunch alone. I smiled as an idea hit me. Maybe these girls could go on the journey with me in learning the truth about men. and I filled them in on Project Produce. listening to the steady hum of conversation and the clattering of dishes.
Not that I wanted to. he’d need a microscope. but I blended in with Queens just fine. then grabbed my backpack and headed outside to hail a cab. I came here to hide. . Guess I wouldn’t score big anytime soon. I shook my head. Having any size produce I wanted. I might not exactly fit in with the majority of the population here on campus. I chuckled. Besides. That Jackrabbit 2000 was sounding better and better. Now there was a thought. fitting in wasn’t what I came here to do. tight shirt or not. without getting into trouble.That’d be the day I’d put my big insecurity on display by squeezing it into a pair of low-rise jeans. And if a guy wanted to see what I had for breasts.
As I checked out the people behind me. I rounded a corner and picked up the pace. Thanks to Dylan’s phone call Saturday morning. then bent to pick up his books scattered about the shoveled sidewalk.CHAPTER FIVE Once outside of the college cafeteria. watch it. every man under five-foot-six gave me .” a pimple-faced kid snapped. “Ooof! Hey.” I muttered as I adjusted my backpack high on my shoulder and peered one more time behind me. Chills zipped down my spine. I plowed right into someone. lady. “Sorry. staring at me. Another freaky little geek sat on a bench by the bus stop.
Hang out and see if the Midnight Molester would show up. Dylan had mentioned he wanted to come check things out again. In fact. two just this morning.the willies. so he’d backed off. I was sure they had better things to do with their time. I’d seen plenty of cop shows. but I wasn’t falling for any man’s line again. The NYPD didn’t have the manpower or the tax dollars to hang out with one of many victims in a city with a ton of criminals. right. . I told him as much. but he hadn’t called again. I was pretty sure he had something else on his mind. I’d seen his car drive by all weekend. Cop sirens went off every day. Yeah. but I passed it off as heartburn and reminded myself this was what I wanted. since it seemed strange this flasher freak had started targeting tall blondes. My heart squeezed.
I thought I was a little nuts. Safe for the moment. I waved my arm until a cab pulled up by the curb. I laughed. and the cab driver glanced in his rearview-mirror with a buckled brow. but I was sure someone had followed . I hopped in and rattled off my address. but I was too freaked-out to care. The cab pulled to a stop in front of my apartment. then hauled my rear end down the street. I paid the driver and slipped off my backpack to search for my keys. jammed it at his chest. Couldn’t blame him.“Here. Glancing around. A few minutes later. “Safe from what? Freaky little geeks?” I muttered. I didn’t see anything. too. As I let out a shrill whistle. collapsing against the seat in relief.” I bent and grabbed one of Pimple Face’s books. the hairs on the back of my neck prickled with awareness. I couldn’t afford a cab.
and I jumped. and punched in the number for the police. nothing. It wasn’t midnight. so anything was possible. I pulled out the new cell phone Gloria insisted I buy.me. Guess it would’ve helped if I’d actually charged the thing. As fast as my trembling body would . What would Hot Britches do? He sure wouldn’t stand around out in the open like live bait. God. no dial tone. I cursed. I chewed my lip and decided to call for help. I grabbed my keys with shaking fingers and let myself inside the apartment then slammed the door. What if Dylan was right? My throat went dry. Oh. but he’d said the molester had changed things a bit. The key hook beside it rattled. No ringing. even though I couldn’t afford it.
Although. No way. I couldn’t call the police. I locked the door and let out a huge sigh. or how much I missed him. He’d think I had changed my mind. What would I say? Some shadow had spooked me? I had no proof.allow. So I dialed the police and then hung up. I hadn’t even seen my stalker. Watching. As I snatched up the wall phone. or how great that kiss had been. . Not that I’d ever intended to start an actual relationship with him. Zuc. Fine time to disappear. I glanced out the window but still didn’t see anything. Not gonna happen. no matter how sweet he was. I wouldn’t mind catching a glimpse of Big Betty right about now. The only person I could call was Dylan. Waiting. but I knew in my gut someone was out there.
may I . searching the top shelf for the binoculars. I had begun to think I’d imagined the whole thing. I’m not crazy. I’d seen Gloria use them to spy on the hottie across the street in apartment 3B. I dialed the police and stretched the cord until I could see out the living room window. I crouched low and held the phone to my cheek with my chin while I peeked through the blinds and stared at the bush. but then the bush across the street rustled beyond the frozen sidewalk. Grabbing the phone from the kitchen. “I knew it.I dropped into a chair at the table and propped my head in my hand. staring out the window. “New York City Police Department. A half hour later.” I jumped up and raced to the coat closet. the sun shone brighter on the people milling about the street.
Are you sure they weren’t just headed in the same direction?” “No. I rolled my eyes. I want to report a crime. ma’am? And speak up.” She snapped her gum. Right .help you?” asked a female voice with a Long Island accent. yes. phones ringing. “Oh. Yes. I mean. I’m not sure. and keyboards clicking. well.” “What type of crime. I could feel it. “Um. “And what exactly did you feel.” “You could feel it. I’m sure they were following me. Uh-huh. “Their presence.” she said above the hum of people talking. I could feel their presence. this is a city of more than ten million people. Ma’am. But someone followed me. I can barely hear you over all this racket. ma’am?” Pretty darn stupid.” “Someone followed you.
Not until I came inside and peeked out my window with my binoculars. You didn’t see anyone. And now you’re staring out your window with a pair of binoculars like a. ma’am. I mean no. “The person who followed me is hiding in the .” Snap. “Let me get this straight. So now you think a bush followed you?” “Of course not.” “Uh-huh. if you don’t mind me saying. snap. I’m staring at a bush..” “Uh-huh..” The officer paused. You’re calling to report that someone followed you. “Well. Did you see anyone.” “Yes. I’m not staring in anyone’s window. Look.” “A bush. no. but you could feel them. ma’am?” Papers rustled in the background.behind me. a Peeping Tom. chew.
crystal ball. “since she’s dressed all in black. I saw it move. dancing around on the balls of her black boots. Just the steady hum of background noise filled the line. what does this person look like?” “Look.” I focused my binoculars on a gap in the bush. or whatever the heck you’re using. “Holy cow. chewing. Note to self: Shut up! “Cat Woman?” The snapping. when you look through your magic glasses. karate chopping the . I see Cat Woman. “Obviously.bush. I mean that would be silly.” I squinted. I’ll tell you what I see.” I pressed my lips together and smacked myself in the forehead. The woman just resembles her. and well. and um. and paper rustling stopped. she’s not Cat Woman. I’m not crazy.” “Sure you did. So tell me.
Papers rustled again. now. But you be sure and call if The Penguin or The Joker show up.branches. Oh.” Clunk. Dial tone. you do have ESP. What if I get mugged. “You’re not going to send someone. pop.. I’ll send out a Bat signal straight away. have you?” The officer sighed.. or worse? You haven’t caught the Midnight Molester yet. are you?” “Now.” I sighed. You have a nice day. At least it wasn’t Flasher Freak. and then whack went what had to be a stapler. “A car is in the area. Flasher . God..” Snap.” “Wait! I’m serious. don’t I?” “Uh-huh. He’ll be notified of the Cat Attack. I sound stupid. you see. “You don’t have to say it.” I hung up the phone. “That went well.
Maybe the woman needed help. the bush stopped moving. I went to the kitchen and slipped on my coat. Filled with at least four books. When I walked out the apartment door. but even I couldn’t sit back and watch some innocent woman get attacked. .Freak. Maybe he had pulled her into the bush. I didn’t think they would make a ‘Cat Attack’ a priority. My heart thundered in my chest. spurring me on. Who knew when the patrol car would swing by? Somehow. He had her. didn’t I? I might be a coward when it came to standing up to my parents. and adrenaline surged through my veins. Picking up the pace. I had to do something. God. grabbing my backpack for good measure. it weighed enough to be used as a weapon if I needed it. I crossed the street. please don’t let me need it.
“Man.” I glanced into the empty bush. “I was looking for my cat. “Hey. then parted the bush and poked my head inside at the same time Cat Woman started to climb out.” Frowning. wait a minute. “What were you doing in there.“Hold on. “Saving you. you aren’t the one who’s been following . I asked. “Okay. “nothing... Well.” “From what?” “From. did you see anyone suspicious? Someone’s been following me. apparently.” I touched my forehead. and stars danced in front of my eyes. “Ow. Our heads thunked together. What are you doing?” Cat Woman rubbed the top of her head. anyway?” The woman straightened to her full height.” I looked her over.. I’m coming.” “Your cat?” I tried not to laugh.” I said.
that’s one heck of a grip you got there. pulling my hand away.me. okay?” Cat Woman flipped her long brown braid over her shoulder. She assessed me and shook my hand until my fingers lost all feeling. I didn’t see that too often. Then I noticed Cat Woman stood taller than me. Cat Woman eyed it warily. are you?” I gripped my backpack tighter and held it up.” Cat Woman answered. Not at all like I had expected. and shaking feeling back into my fingers. Deciding she looked safe enough in spite of her black-on-black attire.” I croaked. I lowered my backpack and held out my hand. “Sorry. “Whatever you say. then handed . “Wow. minus its mitten. “Get real.” What a strange place. I just wanted to find my cat.
She jammed her hand inside and muffled the sound. And hey. Shaking my head. Busty. I seem to be a bit paranoid lately.the mitten to me with a sheepish smile. I hope you find your cat.” “Don’t sweat it.” “Well. “Nickname. I set my backpack on the table and picked . nice meeting you. uh. Busty. okay?” Busty. “I’m Callie. Sorry about your head. did a few stretches. acting like it hadn’t happened. “Brat. be careful. and you are?” “Busted. and the kitchen phone rang. I let it go but could’ve sworn I heard. and then sprinted around the corner without another word about her cat.” The woman gave me a goofy smile and added. who really was busty--lucky woman-gave me a quick wave. I let myself into my apartment once again.” Her pocket started talking.
I’m pretty sure I’ve got it covered. wrong number. “Who else would it be?” “Uh. And I’ve been tucking myself in for thirty years. really. “Hello?” “How’d it go? Did the chicken fly the coop?” said a male voice. Detective. My mistake. how are you? Need any help getting tucked in for the night?” “I’m fine. I’m not a chicken and I can handle Queens just fine. Is there something you wanted?” “Mac?” he sputtered. “Look. But since I have you on the line.” “That’s right. You made that perfectly clear the other night.up the receiver.” “Can you blame me?” .
Take care. “I’m just glad we’re still on the same page. anyway.” “All right. Sex-addicted Detectives. I should be happy. Pickle-flashing molesters. I hadn’t pictured any of this when I’d decided to start a new life. No matter how nice he seemed.” I didn’t have the energy to get into it. “Dylan?” Still dial tone. then. and I had dried up since the scandal. My no. Maybe my eggs really were rotting. . “Unbelievable.“What are you talking about?” “Nothing. I wasn’t prepared to get involved with anyone.” Clunk. Dial tone. but it had me thinking maybe there was something wrong with me.” Hot Britches had taken ‘no’ pretty easily.
make a fresh start. The same reaction I always got every time I walked through these doors hit me hard. I trailed my hand along the back of several pieces of overstuffed furniture arranged around plush .Karate-chopping Amazon cat women. Walking across the fancy ceramic tile floor. The place reeked of money. I vowed to stay put and figure my life out. unsuspecting tenant of the freaking Twilight Zone. *** That afternoon. My surroundings sure were improving. Welcome to the life of Callie MacDonald. I stepped into the ritzy hotel where I now worked and nodded to the manager. No more running for me. I stared in appreciation at the oversized paintings and gleaming surfaces of the lobby counters. Twilight Zone or not. taking my breath away.
sending rainbowcolored rays dancing about the room. thank God. Bet the people who stayed here hadn’t even heard of Norman Bates. I . I admired the way the crystal teardrops caught the sunlight.throw rugs. Somehow. The walls were painted in a swirling pattern of browns. Liven things up a bit. Check-in didn’t begin until three. And no pickle-flashing psychos in sight. wishing I could slip a little salsa music on. and I found myself bored. Staring up at the lobby’s enormous. rotating chandelier. Glancing outside. I wandered behind the front desk and waited for my shift to start. Classical music filtered through the speaker system. so things were slow at the moment. After storing my things in the coatroom. I didn’t think that would go over too well. I’d never seen anything so gorgeous.
and snakeskin boots. Cal. He climbed out of Big Betty. but she’s as feisty as ever. you know Grandma Cabrizzi. As he tossed his keys to Eduardo the valet. “I’ll tell her you said hello.” “You do that. Franz the doorman shook Dylan’s hand. faded jeans. Can’t hear worth a damn.” Dylan pulled off his shades and slipped them into his coat pocket. he jogged up to the door. Never say never.” “Nah. wearing his trademark ponytail. chuckling. “How’s your grandmother? Heard she was ill.” Franz smiled and closed the . Hot Britches had pulled up in front of the hotel.blinked. and the darn bongos started up in my chest again. letting him into the lobby as he asked. his thigh muscles flexing all the way. black leather jacket.
I didn’t want to be in a relationship. I’d forgotten just how good. “What are you doing here?” I strolled around the front of the counter and crossed my arms over my chest. So why did I have to keep reminding myself? “Mac. I hadn’t expected to see him again so soon. “I came to see how the job was working . locking onto mine.door. “Detective?” I managed.” He gave nothing away. God. I thought about that amazing kiss and wondered if it had crossed his mind at all. and my breath caught in my throat. His electric gaze swiveled around. It didn’t matter anyway. couldn’t afford to until I had some answers. he looked good. But then I remembered how easily he’d accepted my no. In only three days.
I cleared my throat and sat. Check-in starts soon. Some of us have . “I could have.out and to update you on the case. but you could have told me this over the phone.” Dylan looked down at his notes. but we still haven’t caught the Midnight Molester yet.” “I appreciate the update. After a moment. “I wanted to let you know we’re getting close. “Only a minute. Our eyes met. Do you have a minute?” I glanced at my watch. and he placed his hand on the small of my back to guide me. but I was in the area. and he lowered his gaze to my lips. He dropped his hand and sat across from me as he said. The heat from his palm seared my skin and I flinched.” I led the way to the sitting area. so he grabbed my elbow to steady me.
” Dylan peered over his shoulder in the direction I’d been looking and then returned his attention back to me and frowned. Callie. Probably paranoia again. but I don’t need a man. I can take care of myself.” . He’s tracking you.” I stared beyond Dylan out the lobby windows and could’ve sworn I saw another Trench coat. and I’m afraid he won’t stop until he finds you. I looked back at Dylan. “I realize Flasher Freak is dangerous.been busy trying to keep this city safe from creeps like him. Being around Hot Britches tended to do that to me. “Unfortunately for you. this creep isn’t attacking just any single girl. You’re the only one who’s managed to outwit him. That makes you special. He attacked another tall blonde. you know. He might come back. same as any other single girl in the city. only this time a lot closer to the campus.
I’d seen the proof with my own eyes. You think he’ll come by today.It suddenly hit me why Dylan had shown up instead of calling. Like it or not. I promise to be more aware of my surroundings. I’ve worked my ass off to catch this creep. I’d like to be the cop who gets the bust. I knew exactly what he cared about. and you’re using me to do it.” Blue fire blazed from his eyes. but no way would he get it.” “Sure. Besides. Are we done now?” “Is something bothering you?” . You want to be the one who arrests him when that happens. “Thanks for letting me know. “But not at the expense of someone else getting hurt. but I just couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. “Unbelievable. don’t you? That’s why you’re here.” Part of me wanted to believe him. I care about what happens to you.
his frustration evident. “Look. Flasher Freak hadn’t been there. “Has .” “I won’t have you hovering over me like a bodyguard. It had only been my paranoia. you need to tell me.” I started to glance at the door again but caught myself. and then he’d never back off. Besides. “Then stop worrying about me and find the creep.” “I’m working on it. I’m fine. if something’s up.“No.” he ground out. He’d think I was nuts if I told him about Cat Woman. I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong. just as I’d suspected all along.” He stared into my eyes. Just as it probably was today.” “It’s my job to put this guy behind bars and keep this city safe.
no one.anything unusual happened to you since Friday? Anything out of the ordinary?” “Nope. Everything’s just peachy. “The darnedest thing .” “Really?” The corner of his lip tipped up a bit. “That’s a nasty bruise for someone who’s fine. He glanced at my forehead. I forced my gaze back to his.” I’d forgotten about the bruise from bumping heads with Cat Woman.” I could feel the heat flood my face straight up to my hairline. I fidgeted with the material of my navy blue trousers and couldn’t stop my eyes from shifting left and right. and his eyes narrowed. “Have you suspected anyone of following you lately?” “Nope. Nothing at all. Darned fair complexion.
“Thin.happened. He grinned.” “Oh.” I glared at him.” He glanced over my lengthy torso and down my long legs.” “Right.” He sighed.” “You don’t say. “Do you at least know how to fight?” “I could hold my own if I had to.” Why did he have to be just like Bob? Maybe it was because they both had zucchinis. I got up to use the bathroom in the dark last night and bumped smack into a wall. Note to self: Having a zucchini is obviously . “Not exactly petite describes you perfectly. I guess. Still not used to living in someone else’s apartment. I’m not exactly petite. but a whole lot of woman.
The Angels hadn’t had any luck in finding a zucchini to interview. I blew out a breath.too much for any man to handle. At least come to my gym.” he suggested.” “Tomorrow it is. “Anyway.” Man. Maybe being obsessed with sex was a part of a zucchini’s personality. “I don’t know. do you?” He hesitated. “I guess I could meet you during my lunch break tomorrow. Only one way to find out.” He wrote down the address . he was good. “Not on something I really want. no. staring into my eyes. I really don’t have time--” “Make time. being tall may not be enough. show you how to throw a punch in the ring. so that left Hot Britches.” “You don’t give up. I’ll show you a few moves.
Oh.” I turned around and slipped behind the counter without another word.” I waved to the doorman at the end of my shift. I stood up and stuffed the piece of paper in my pocket. Maybe the gym wasn’t a bad idea. then a couple entered the lobby. “That’s my cue. I marveled at . *** “See you tomorrow. “Will do. See you tomorrow. Franz. As I stepped out into the hustle and bustle of the city sidewalk during rush hour. that was for sure. and tell Gloria I’ll call her later. There was nothing petite about that body part. after all.to the gym and handed it to me. but I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder to catch him checking out my big ole insecurity.” He tilted his head in acknowledgment and closed the door.
but I had to admit this new schedule worked so much better than the other one. so I’d pretty much thrown myself into running the store. I realized what I’d been missing. Except I didn’t get to see Gloria as much. Well. darn it. but now that I had a real friend again. but they’d long since gotten married and moved away. And now I barely got to see Gloria.the crowd. I’d never seen so many people. Gloria was my only friend. since she worked during a different shift and went clubbing all night as she tried to land a record deal. I’d talked to the locals every day and had convinced myself that was enough. Didn’t need . I didn’t need him. but he wasn’t exactly a friend. Oh. No one had time for a third wheel. here or back home. None of my friends had ever kissed me like he had. I’d had a few friends during high school. I still had Dylan.
I had to admit the city held a certain beauty of its own. I had to keep reminding myself of that. It would be a heck of a lot easier if he wasn’t so nice and so irresistible. I nodded to another stranger and this time sparked a smile. and I’d be fine. And at night. Figured. The stranger was a man. I sighed. amazing architecture. I walked a few more blocks to the subway and took a moment to enjoy the way the sun sparkled off the freshfallen snow.any man. I smiled at a stranger who walked by. God. the city lit up like it celebrated Christmas . with its talented street performers. but the woman didn’t smile back. Soon the pearly white would turn a dingy gray from all the foot traffic. Still. and impressive skyscrapers. I missed my hometown’s wide-open spaces and pretty countryside. I missed having someone to talk to.
Don’t even think about inspecting me. I stepped onto the packed subway. He wore an overcoat and a hat. I focused on breathing and tried to think. he looked a lot like Inspector Gadget.every day. grabbed a pole for support. and then scanned the car. In fact. I’d become a lot more aware of my surroundings after Flasher Freak. so I’d thought it odd at the time when this guy kept wandering in and out of the hotel as though casing the joint. My heart raced. creep. I froze when I saw the man in the back. I had to stop letting men push me around and start standing up for myself. . Him! The strange man I’d seen skulking about during my shift at the hotel this afternoon. but at least he had pants on.
I decided to get off at the next stop. I didn’t think the officer manning the desk at the police department would appreciate a second phone call claiming Inspector Gadget was following me. With no intention of letting this weirdo know where I lived. I swallowed. and the subway car’s brakes squealed as it came to a body-wrenching halt. hoping to lose the Inspector. There might be a gun in there. biting my bottom lip. Somehow. I stayed still until the last possible minute and then bolted out the door seconds before it closed.Grabbing my newly-charged phone. With long . I pulled the cord. I couldn’t take any more gum snapping. He shoved something in the inside pocket of his bulging coat and then pulled the edges closed. Besides. I flipped it open and then hung up. I peeked over my shoulder.
two can play at this game. and then rummaged inside for something. I put some distance between the subway and me. unzipped the bag. I headed onto a less busy street and then slipped into a deserted doorway. This guy really was following me. I checked behind me again and couldn’t believe it. a brush. Most women carried their lipstick. not me. Rounding a corner.” I pretended not to see him but slowed my pace to avoid losing him. A few minutes later.strides.. pal. anything.. I pulled off my heavy mittens and slid my backpack off my shoulder. If I couldn’t lose him. “Okay. Gadget ducked under an awning and pretended to window shop. some perfume. then I had to outwit him. that could be used as a weapon. I never understood why .
some ibuprofen. How on earth would a tube of lipstick help me if I got into trouble? Since I didn’t even have Gloria’s deodorant-let alone pepper spray--and I didn’t think a tampon would help me in this crisis. All I needed was an extra tampon. Gloria. Now those were useful items. and maybe a real can of pepper spray. But I couldn’t find anything useful in the contents of the main zipper. I didn’t know whether to kill her or kiss her for leaving me this little surprise. I unzipped the pocket and gasped. reminding me of why I . I’d have to make do. After searching all the other compartments with no success. Some people walked by the entrance. Frowning. my hand bumped against something hard in a side pocket I never used.women fussed so much over themselves.
.was hiding in a deserted doorway as dusk settled around me. I’d deal with Gloria later. so I stuffed my shaking hand in my pocket and waited with my weapon.
The guy following me who looked like Inspector Gadget would be turning the corner at any second. . And calling Dylan? Well. But I couldn’t call the cops. Whew. someone needed to tell Ms. and I planned to be ready. I snorted. that was out of the question.CHAPTER SIX Forget the bongos. so maybe I was a little nuts. ISmell-Expensive that less was more. Covering my face with my free hand. a blast of overpowering perfume assaulted my nose. Like they’d believe me after the “cat attack” complaint. a whole flipping drum line banged against my chest as I hid in the doorway. I held back a sneeze. Okay. As I studied the few people who walked by.
Shoot. Gadget appeared and the drum line hit their finale. pulled him into the doorway. “Take it easy. I grabbed his arm.Who was I kidding? I couldn’t do this.” . To heck with this. lady. and Joseph. No time to run. Don’t do anything crazy.” I took a deep breath. I wasn’t even particularly good at saving myself. Mary. “Oomph!” He jerked. I got ready to bolt when I spotted Gadget’s hat. I needed all the help I could get. I wasn’t a cop. I couldn’t save anyone. and then jammed my weapon into his back. Everything would be fine if I just stayed calm. Adjusting my backpack. Jesus. I made the sign of the cross. “Don’t move.
“Me do something crazy? That’s rich.” He cursed under his breath. You’re the one who’s been stalking me.” he scoffed. He grunted but held still. “Cover? Cover for what?” Hesitating. he answered. “Hotel security. “Really. wouldn’t you?” He glanced at me over his shoulder. I’d say that makes you a tad suspicious. “Well. Then explain why you passed through the hotel doors at least a dozen times today and never once asked about a room. Undercover hotel security.” “Does your job description include following employees after their shifts have .” I pushed my weapon even harder into his back. there goes my cover. “Stalking you? I’m not stalking you. registering surprise.
I’d laughed myself silly. a hysterical giggle slipped out at the absurdity of my predicament. He seemed harmless enough. if a bit eccentric. People thought I was demented. especially my parents. Stressful situations tended to do that to me.” “Uh-huh. Like when I’d found out Bob had videotaped us having sex and then published the footage on an Internet pornography website. I jammed my weapon harder into his spine.” Not about to put my ‘gun’ down. lady. My shift is over. and this is my stop.ended?” He grunted. but I wasn’t taking any chances. I’m not going to hurt you. and then I’d . shaking his head.” I checked him out again. watch it. ma’am. “You give yourself too much credit. Please put the gun down. “Yo.
“Jesus. another giggle slipped out. “Ma’am? You’re not going psycho on me.” I barked out a laugh this time.” he repeated. Things could turn ugly real quick. what the hell is that?” He jerked forward and spun around to stare at my vibrating . Trust me.cried. He’d not only used me. are you? Your hand’s shaking quite a bit. it--” Bzzzzzzz! “Oh. yet all I could do was crack up. Time to call the funny farm. You’re completely safe even if this thing does go off. because my faculties had officially vacated my brain. “It’s gonna go off. my God.” “Oh. “Please put the gun down. don’t worry. he’d also cheated on me with at least six other women.” I yelped. Not about to lose it in front of the Inspector.
“You have to help me.. “Damn thing doesn’t even look real.” “Really. Well. Too big? Too small? How does it compare to you?” .” “Holy Christ. it is.” He held it far away from him.” He jumped back. There’s no button. and I sure as hell don’t need it..” I thrust my hand in front of his face. or peach-colored rubber. but I didn’t buy it.” I shoved the vibrator into his hands. I don’t know what to do. take your pick. “The Jackrabbit 2000 in the flesh. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. trying to find the switch. “I don’t want it. “It’s not mine.pocket.” I pulled the flesh-colored rubber vibrator out of my pocket and fumbled with the monstrosity. “Help me turn this sucker off.” I mumbled. filling the gap between us.
fumbled. I grabbed on for good measure. and the . “Fine. see. Can you imagine that conversation? I forced down another giggle. It twists at the base. grabbed at the air.“What the hell kind of question is that?” He gaped at me. “Never mind. and he said. and he didn’t even have to phone a friend. Stupid project. Gadget’s hand jerked and he nearly dropped it. “Aha.” He gave the vibrator a good twist.” He cursed. Just help me turn it off. I can’t get on the subway like this. then finally caught the wiggly sucker with a horrified look on his face. Bzzzz-rrrrrrrrr! Good ole Jack surged into full speed. The wrong way.” Then he examined it closer and grinned like he’d just figured out the answer to the winning question on Millionaire. his golden brown eyes as big as pancakes.
Attack of the Killer Vibrator..” I yanked it from Gadget’s hands and twisted it the opposite way until. blessedly. and stopped.. and stared.” I blurted. They gave me an appalled look.head began to rotate like a convulsing snake just as a group of pedestrians walked by. “It was either that.. then hurried along. “Give me that thing. since Gadget still had the blasted thing pointed in my direction.. “Must be poisonous. everywhere. “Attack of the Killer Vibrator?” he sputtered. or Inspector Gadget Has . But mostly on me. “Uh.” I forced a laugh. it shut off. and the ungodly contraption chose that moment to spit what looked like whipped cream. just practicing for a new movie.
” As he adjusted his coat. “You are?” I prompted again.” He shook my hand in a daze. um.” “Inspector who?” His brow puckered. considering the bulk of his coat. remember?” “Right. “Maybe you should dress a little less conspicuous.” I stuffed Jack into my backpack and held out my hand. “Oh. slipped on my backpack. “A word of advice?” I tugged on my mittens. still staring at my backpack. My cover. “Never mind. my lips are sealed. “I’m Callie. “Sure. and headed into the street. and I stole a quick glance.” He matched his strides to mine with difficulty. . schmover.a Sex Change.” Cover. his pockets gaped open. and you are?” “Dumbfounded.
What on earth was going on? Note to self: This is weird. He had the entire police force arsenal in there. Why?” “No reason. “Damn. . What next? “It’s the overcoat. but you can never be too careful. he even had a pair of binoculars and a magnifying glass.” I started walking again. Why. then caught myself. Peering closer. No reason except he was the second person today to talk about being careful.Holy cow. you know. I choked. he really did have a gun in there.” “What did you say?” I stumbled. This guy really was Inspector Gadget. “I said you never can be too careful. I was afraid it would be overkill. even for me. isn’t it?” When I nodded. A gun? Sweet Jesus. he stared at his feet.
he added.” I said. Wait just a freaking minute. “I won’t have a job for long if I can’t keep my cover.” .” “Hopefully not. My new pal Jack had been surprise enough. Gloria. she was dead meat. “I think I’d find a ‘less conspicuous’ weapon if I were you. If she was playing a trick on me.” “Funny. reminding me of Gloria.” My backpack chose that moment to start buzzing. nice meeting you.“Well.” I started down the stairs to the subway but stopped when I heard the words.” he muttered. she knew a lot of strange people. “Brat two. I was talking six-feet-under dead meat. Well. “Maybe I’ll see you around. bye then. Gadget eyed my jiggling pack and shook his head. When I frowned.
one-bedroom apartment. *** Later that evening. my radio.“Excuse me?” He looked over his shoulder. Six-Feet-Under-Dead-Meat-- . I rubbed my stomach. I was ready to burst. As I sipped my third Bahama Mama. After having eaten an entire box of macaroni and cheese.” I snapped and continued down the stairs. my big ole behind. while listening to one of Gloria’s salsa CD’s. Jack. he disappeared. Then I glanced at the clock on the wall just as Gloria--Ms. I leaned back in my chair at the kitchen table in the small. shut up. “Right.” Work. Gotta go. Probably work. “Uh. praying no one would notice. Bzzzzzzzz! “Oh.” And with a whoosh of camel-tan coattail.
that’s what you get sitting cross-legged on a hard chair for hours. can you believe it? Finally. I actually got a gig. comfort drink. and comfort music had been a relief. and then spit in the sink.” I straightened and shook out the tingles. “Well. You’re gonna fry your brain with all that work. “Don’t know about frying my brain. comfort food. gargled. honey. “Come out with me tonight.” . I couldn’t work on my project anymore.strolled in. I got a gig. no how. I needed to get up and move around. no way. No more open mic for me. but I’m positive my legs will never be the same.” After the day I’d had. “It’s nine o’clock. Time to take a break. someone’s gonna pay to hear me sing.” Gloria poured a glass of water. but Gloria was right.
Well. because.“That’s great. honey. maybe. “Then you won’t mind if I call him. chica. except my zucchini. “I have way too much work to do.” I jerked. you’re not.” She picked up the phone. “Aha. and that’s only if my Angels can’t find another one.” “Sure. “Guess you won’t need to use my little .” “Don’t try to play a player.” Gloria hung up and grinned.” I glanced at the phone and then looked away. he is oh so right up my alley. but I can’t go.” Gloria set her glass in the sink. “Hey.” “He’s not my anything. And I’m not waiting for him to call. Gloria. I’m happy for you. You do mind. and the legs of my chair hit the floor with a bang. You already worked for three hours. You’re just waiting for your hot Detective to call.
I probed further.surprise after all. girl. but I didn’t think you’d actually go through with it. “Never mind. “How’d you like it?” I rolled my eyes. which left me wondering who on earth these people were.” Gloria gave me a thumb’s-up. Gloria didn’t know what I was talking about. I used it. You go.” “Oh. Your man. “I used it on a man. “How about Cat Woman. now that you have your zucchini back. all right. then?” “Honey.” “Say what?” “Inspector Gadget ring any bells?” I asked. but when Gloria frowned.” “No shit? I couldn’t resist after you told me what your Angels had said. are you on something?” Clearly.” .
I groaned.” I scowled at her. “Gee. but then he turned on again all by his own little self. Until Jack decided to go off.” She folded her silk-clad arms. “Let’s just say I met some interesting people. what goes where.” “A weapon? Honey. You don’t start with something like that and not give details. and what we do or don’t do with certain . Spill it. I can’t imagine why. Made quite a scene on the subway. then leaned back against the counter as though she had all the time in the world. and your little surprise made a pretty decent weapon. bangle bracelets clanging. I had no trouble grabbing a seat.“Oh. No one wanted to come near me. hell no. you and I need to have a serious talk about the facts of life. let me tell you. Made a complete fool of myself figuring out how to shut him up.
I know where to get backups. Then you’ll be begging me for another special friend.devices no normal hot-blooded woman can live without. Sweetie. Don’t worry. it sure as heck wouldn’t be with some humongous vibrating piece of rubber I didn’t even know how to shut off.” I hollered after her. . If “it” happened again. Not your weapon.” She shook her head. “I just don’t know what I’m gonna do with you. Jack was meant to be your special friend.” “I know one thing you’re not gonna do is replace the batteries. “Don’t count on it.” Gloria winked. “Uh-huh. then grabbed her coat and sailed out the door. And when your Detective doesn’t call.” I glanced at the phone again. I’m gonna make you eat your words.
Someone could look in. I started to close the blinds. That thought sobered me. I danced into the living room to get my circulation back. Back home. but here in Queens. then stood. fluffy pieces like a shaken snow globe. Once I was certain Gloria was gone. Nothing unusual. maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. I bee-bopped my way to the window for a distraction. The snow fell in big. Pretty scary. my hips slowing to a stop. but a flash came from . but anyone who saw my moves would understand why. Someone like Flasher Freak. I rubbed the cramp in my side and scanned the street below. gyrating to the beat as I looked out.Hey. and a full moon illuminated the ground below. I shuddered. I was a closet salsa dancer. I’d seen Jack at high speed. I kept everything open.
the apartment building across the street. and grabbed Gloria’s binoculars. A real Peeping Tom? No one would ever believe me. When I returned to the living room. . “No way. The streetlight flashed off something sticking out of the closed blinds in the apartment directly across from mine. Waiting a beat. I convinced myself I must be imagining things. I thrust the binoculars through the blinds and blinked. I’d just watched someone move out of that apartment over the weekend. I closed the blinds. Do. I made certain I was out of sight and then counted to three. Dropping to my knees. though I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. but I hadn’t seen anyone move in. turned off the music.” I stared at another pair of binoculars looking right back at me. As casually as I could. but then it happened again. then ran to the kitchen.
do. . I had a hard time believing any man would be concerned about me or do something nice for me without having an ulterior motive. Dylan’s job was pretty important to him. do. I didn’t know what to think anymore. Or maybe the Peeping Tom really was Flasher Freak. If Gloria didn’t have anything to do with this. I was getting good at being more assertive and standing up for myself. But how could I complain. now a Peeping Tom. do. then maybe Dylan did. When the other binoculars slipped out of the window. Important enough to use me to get the bust. then Inspector Gadget.do. do. Something was definitely up. Lord. do. since I was using him for my project. I frowned. First Cat Woman. The music from the Twilight Zone floated through my brain. Do. I decided not to over-think the situation and just go for it.
I didn’t have time to find my coat. I jumped to my feet and grabbed my cell phone.” I bet he was. I figured I’d find out if he was behind this Peeping Tom. “You’re not getting away that easily.Tossing my binoculars to the floor. I pulled up the blinds. more food?” He chuckled. remember our date?” . you sicko. I was just thinking about you. By calling Dylan. Praying my instincts were right.” Then I dialed Dylan’s cell.” “Of what. yanked open the window. I’m a little surprised you called. or the Peeping Tom would get away. “Excuse me?” “I’ve seen the way you eat. “I’m in hot pursuit. “Mac. and climbed out onto the fire escape. then it wouldn’t hurt to have a little backup. I have to admit. If he wasn’t.
” “Callie. not funny. long sleeve T-shirt. I forgot to bring a weapon. “Shoot.” Dylan cursed. God.. shivering all the way in my sweats. What the hell are you talking about?” “I’m chasing down a Peeping Tom. I hope he didn’t see me. “Oh. literally. “Dylan? Are you there?” “Yeah. Though my last weapon had backfired. And it wasn’t a date. and a pair of slippers. I dropped the phone. wait.” I ducked behind a parked car on the side of the road.. “Huh?” “The binoculars are back in his window.” “Oh.” I shimmied down the ladder.“Funny. They’re gone again.” I heard a thud. get your small-town ass back in .” “Okay.
” Snort. I’ll be right there.” I heard a clatter across the street and peeked over the car’s hood but didn’t see anything. I mean it.your apartment. “No.” My slippers were . “You picked a heck of a time to go for a run. then he started breathing heavy. he won’t. I’ll be over in a minute. but the apartment across the street had a row of bushes. “No.” I crouched lower and stayed out of sight while I formulated a plan.” My apartment didn’t have anything beneath the fire escape ladder.” “I can’t. Trust me. “I have to do something. He’ll get away. “What are you doing?” “Jogging. I can’t wait anymore. “Look.” he snapped.” I heard a door close.
“What the?” “Look out. and my fingers numb.” I yelled. Just hurry up and get here before I die. we don’t have time for this. now. I’d be able to reach the ladder from the other side. I sprinted across the street as fast as I could and then vaulted over the bushes. I’m going to stall him.” Dylan said. and I’d run track in high school. “Holy sh-uuuuuugh. . “Why are you whispering?” “Because I’m right--” “Look. A head popped up. “Callie.” Taking a deep breath. Lying on top of the man with my phone pressed to my ear. Maybe if I hurdled over them. I said get inside.soaked. The bushes didn’t look that high. I stepped away from the car and looked across the street.” Wham! I flattened someone good.
” I sighed. it felt good touching him again.” he wheezed. What are you. Callie. “Just a little Bahama Mama.I looked down into his face and blinked. “Dammit. As much as I hated to admit it. on drugs?” “No. Why didn’t you listen to me?” He looked me over and shook his head. I’d missed him. “Sorry. “DDylan?” He pulled his phone away from his ear and clicked it shut. God. “Told you I was in the area. I was only trying to protect myself. for Christ’s sake. pretending you’re a member of the SWAT team.” The heat of his body pressed snugly to the length of mine warmed me to my toes.” I snapped. Seeing him this afternoon had seared his image in my brain . “You have no business being out in the snow without a coat or shoes. A pair of shocked blue eyes sparkled up at me.
dusting the snow off his Levi’s. I did not need him in my life right now. I shivered. but darn it.for the rest of the day. welcoming the cold air as it cooled my heated blood. since the Peeping Tom had the gall to peep through my window. you know. He mistook the meaning and pulled the sides of his coat closed over my back. At least not in the way he kept hinting at. I struggled to think and then pushed away and scrambled to my feet. “Can’t you ever do things the normal way and let the police handle it? It’s okay to accept help.” .” Dylan rolled to his feet. but not from the cold. then left his arms around me. Note to self: My body doesn’t give a rat’s hiney. To trust someone. “I couldn’t let him get away. squeezing me tighter to his chest.
it wasn’t even the porn aspect that bothered me so much. Men simply were not .“I tried that once. I had trusted Bob. lonely small-town women like myself. I gave up on my hometown and on men. Didn’t work out so well. just cared about making me one of his many porn stars. only to have it abused. when the reality was I’d been the biggest sucker of all. I’d known all those months he’d been going out of town on business.” Everyone believed I had deceived them and sullied the reputation of Cutesville. Funny. He hadn’t cared about me at all. It was the fact that no man had ever loved me for just being me. After that. but I’d had no idea his business involved duping other desperate. had cared enough about him to actually believe we had a future together. I refused to put my heart on the line again.
and I. Good Lord. pulling me behind him as he started across the street. What was he. I called you. and I lost my train of thought completely. I think the cold has frozen your tongue. We need to get you back to your apartment. how could he do that to me? He grinned.” His gaze landed on my mouth. .” I said. What was the question?” “Come on.. “But y-you took too long.. and I was afraid I was starting to care. a mind reader now? His grin widened and he took my hand. Dylan especially.. Dylan’s blue laser beams sizzled into me.. uh. only nicer. Mac. Every ounce of my being wanted him to defrost me. um.trustworthy. Mission accomplished. “I did call for help. He reminded me too much of Bob. desperately trying to divert my thoughts.
“I’m not leaving until you check this sicko out. then clicked his phone closed.I dug my slipper-clad heels into the snow and tried not to slip. but he flipped open his phone and punched in a number. he read off the address. “A Peeping Tom.” His smile looked stiff.” He paused. I’m gonna need backup. “And what about backup? Won’t your captain be mad about you not following protocol again?” “You don’t miss a thing. He sighed.” “You’re bringing me with you?” I narrowed my eyes. .” Glancing at the street sign. Not sure if he’s armed and dangerous. “Come on. “Detective Cabrizzi here.” “He’s probably long gone.” I stared at him and crossed my arms over my bumps. “They’re on their way.
“Wait out here while I check the place out. I only saw him looking into my window. thinking. Dylan slipped off his coat and wrapped it around my shoulders.” My teeth began to chatter. he finally released his hold on me and took a step back. I’m sure he’s gone with all the noise you made. did he really have the right to go check out this guy? I mean. for a cop. Staring into my eyes for a full minute. “Open up. This is the police. he wasn’t acting too concerned that a bad guy could be inside.” .Let’s go. rapping his knuckles on the door. I followed. I was beginning to think my hunch about Dylan having something to do with these crazy characters was right. Not to mention. waiting to harm us.” He led the way to the door. pulling the collar together.
It opened. I’d show him I could take care of myself. my small-town derriere. After a few minutes. and so did I. “Stay put. I was going in. I watched him draw his gun from his shoulder holster and try the door. . If he wasn’t back in five. Mac. so he slipped inside.” Who did he think he was? I opened my mouth.” I barged my way past him into the apartment. On drugs.No one answered.” “Not before I see what this pervert has been up to. He knew exactly who he was. “He’s gone. He looked at me. Big surprise there. he stuck his head out the door. Shoot. maybe I’d even save his sorry neck while I was at it. We can go now. but his arched brow made me shut it and nod.
“I really don’t have probable cause. I shouldn’t have even gone in.” Backing away. this isn’t your place. “Can’t you do anything if you have cause?” I eyed the room.” Dylan tried to grab my arm. he could say you were peeping right back. “Would you look at this place? The slime bucket’s a total slob. willing to say just about anything to peek inside. let’s get you out of here before he comes home and you’re the one in trouble.” I peered into an empty Chinese food container on a card table in the living room and then glanced at several other .” I pointed out. You can’t just trespass.” “He committed a crime.” He reached for me again. “Dammit. and you’re not a cop. I put the table between us. Besides. Callie.“Wait. Now. but I sidestepped. “In a minute. and you’re a cop.
D.” “Just like a million other people in this city. “Don’t touch anything. “Yeah.containers scattered about the carpet. and my niggling suspicion grew. He spilled food all over the floor.” Dylan dragged me away from the table. Dukeypoo. If he calls because he thinks someone broke in. Let’s go.” He wouldn’t arrest me.” . your fingerprints. “Huh. they might I. I’m serious. same as you. Must be he likes his coffee black as sin. “Gross.” I stared down at a nearly empty jumbo coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Mac. I could arrest you for this. right. and the place smells. Break out the handcuffs. now that I have probable cause for you since I saw you break in.” “Maybe he was in a hurry to get out of here when you spotted him.
no decorations.” He snagged my hand and pulled me toward the door. I mean. Detective? “Sorry. I could get suspended. This isn’t following protocol. Backup will be here. Can’t help being curious about someone who was spying on me. would he. okay. we need to get out of here. “Who knows what he saw me .” “Look.” I stared daggers at Dylan’s back as he dragged me out to the front of the building. He was looking in my window. and they’ll handle it. no furniture. “Don’t worry about this guy. In the meantime.” “His car isn’t parked in my living room. it doesn’t even look like the creep lives here. People check on their cars all the time.But he wouldn’t be calling. I called it in. There are no pictures on the wall. He’s a slob who happened to be looking out his window with binoculars.
never once dropping his gaze below my collarbones. My suspicion regarding his involvement blossomed fully. “Why. Dylan turned around.” “No kidding. No one saw you get undressed.” Dylan stared into my eyes.” I glanced down at my shirt. and I felt my cheeks burn. “How’d you know I changed?” . “Excuse me?” I covered my bumps.” His gaze dropped lower to stare at the twin peaks pushing out the front of my shirt.doing?” I yanked my hand free. and I felt my eyes widen. “I don’t even have a bra on. He groaned and looked at my face. “I doubt he stood in his window and watched just you all evening. My fingers flew to my chest.
Guess the Angels were right. even if there wasn’t much beneath. puckered nipples. You look cold. “Let’s get you home.” He moved my hands out of the way . His gaze dropped to my braless.” “Right.” He flashed me a ridiculous grin.” “I’d better be. “That’s not the outfit you had on earlier.He checked me out yet once again. I drew his coat together in front of me. Your blinds are wide open. blatantly visible through my form-fitting T-shirt. Guys did like tight T-shirts.” Dylan added. “Home sounds like a good idea. “It’s my job to notice these things. but I would hope you got dressed in the bathroom. He stared at me and smoldered. or I won’t have a job for long.” Hmmm.” I narrowed my eyes. “You’re pretty good. Detective. Pretty much what Gadget had said.
” “Okay.and zipped the coat clear up to the collar. “I said hop on. You’re almost as tall as I am. his boot sinking deep into frigid slush. “Whoa. Nellie. then up to my red fingers. his hands grabbing my thighs as he struggled to keep his balance. I didn’t say vault on. pulled back.” I fisted my hands in his shirt. You’ll be lucky if you don’t end up with frostbite after all this. Then he grabbed my hand and stepped into the street. I’m not a goddamn horse. And you’re going to break my back if you don’t stop all that yanking. I landed on his back and sent him stumbling forward. “Here.” Leaping off the curb. He glanced at my wet socks. you . “You can’t walk in this slop. and then wrapped my arms and legs around him and held on tight. hop on.” He turned his back to me. and finally to my questioning eyes. for Christ’s sake.
mumbling something about a pain in his ass. I liked the sound of that. so I hoisted myself up on him. There’s a difference. I forget how big I am sometimes. “Sorry. my God.. so I wrapped my arms further around him and. Believe me. even if it wasn’t true. My hands cupped his hard pecs.know. .” He moved his hands under my knees--safer territory--and headed across the street. You’re nicely proportioned.. “Oh.” He hooked his hands further under the back of my thighs and picked his way through the slush. Mac. I said you were tall. They twitched. so I squeezed. My teeth chattered and his body heat radiated through my clothes. Oh.” “I didn’t say you were big. Call it a reflex. then I felt my bottom slipping. Nicely proportioned.” was all I said.
” He grunted.” He kept sloshing across the street. Not the kind of help I needed right now. so even I knew I was full of crap. Okay. His amazing pecs weren’t helping me stay put. My body hummed. “Sorry. but I have to have something to hold onto. but they sure were helping me in other ways. Especially when I didn’t trust Dylan as far as I could throw him. or I’m going to fall. watch it.“Hey. And I trusted myself even less. .
I was warming up.CHAPTER SEVEN Oh.” I relaxed my legs but had to reach around his chest to keep myself from sliding down his back. He glanced back at me with a raised brow. “Are you trying to squeeze me to death?” “Sorry. yeah. Winkie. I thought about locking my ankles around his waist. I had some serious issues. I held onto his shoulder and tightened my legs. Dylan’s hands slid closer to my behind as he hoisted me higher on his back. When he reached the other side of the . my feet dangling by his thighs. Trying hard not to feel him up again. Lordy. but then my heels would be a little too close to Mr. all right.
” Glancing up. “No shoes and no keys.street. but maybe I didn’t lock my door. “Keys?” “I don’t have my keys.” He turned the door handle. “We could climb up the fire escape and go through the window. Mac.” “Hey. I said. “Got a hidden set somewhere?” “Like that would be safe.” What was his problem? “Look.” “I was in hot pursuit. huh. Just great.” He shook his head. he held his hand up in the air. Nothing.” “Not very safe. remember? Keys never crossed my mind. these weren’t your most brilliant .” “I guess safety and stupidity go hand and hand with you.
You really have to think about your safety in this city. Why the heck hadn’t I worn a thong? Because you don’t own a thong.” “Here. God. it’s cold. I hopped down and my ankles sank deep. then I caught a whiff of his musky aftershave. I missed a step and swayed backward with a yelp. “Man. I took a . Right at my big ole behind. Not to mention your health. knowing he was looking up. see every nook and cranny. Oh. He could probably see my underwear lines.” He trudged through the snow to my window. My sweats weren’t that loose. Whew. moron. see every--gulp-dimple. making me shiver. looking up. too.” He lifted me up to the ladder.moments. but he caught me. I climbed a few steps and felt the metal beneath my hands and feet rattle. I scurried faster.
flashing that darned crooked grin.second to slow my breathing. “Yeah. “Can we get on with this?” I grumbled. but my head is nice and toasty. Rolling over the railing.” He nudged me with something. I tumbled to the iron-grated floor. halting my attempt at fleeing a . and he crawled over right behind me. My butt hit the window frame. I faltered. we really need to get you inside. My ‘nicely proportioned’ insecurity rested on top of his head like a hat with earflaps. I glanced down at him and gasped.” Scrambling to my feet. “I’m freezing. I clambered through the window. bumping his head one last time.” His grin broadened.” “Hilarious. and then climbed as quickly as my frozen limbs would allow. “Much as I hate to protest.
giving him an even better view of my dimples.” He shoved. What the heck? “Push me through.. would ya? It’s cutting off my circulation.” I stuttered. Not happening. Mac?” He.humiliating situation.” Well. not to mention the blood is rushing to my head.” he said.” “Ya think?” . but the window hardly budged. “V-Very funny. he patted my fanny. “Problems.” “Say when. Stuck like a pear that hadn’t ripened yet. I tried to squeeze all the way through. Great. “The window must have slipped. Nicely proportioned? I think not.. mother of pearl. he’d already touched it once. “It’s stuck. shoot. his voice sounding strained. “Now! I’m about to pass out.
” “Oh. but made no effort to move. grabbing my hips. I’m not the one who ate an entire box of macaroni and cheese.” he said. Note to self: This stupid project has my brain working like a man’s--unable to think . wheelbarrowstyle. and I went flying forward. That something had hands? “Whoops. Something hard slammed into my backside. “Interesting position.“Don’t get short with me. God. “Ahhh!” I hooked my ankles over the window and braced my hands on the floor.” “How did you--” He shoved harder. did I?” “More like my shoulders. Guess I didn’t hook the window. wishing I hadn’t just spoken out loud. so I wouldn’t land on my head. is that?” I blinked. Mac.
Detective. Mac. “Ow. but I didn’t budge.” “Um. It’s you who needs to let go of me. “Um. adding more pressure to my backside. He grunted. mortified that his flipping cue stick had found my center pocket.” I whipped my legs wide apart and landed on my head after all.” He stepped inside and did a quick sweep of my apartment while I stood. I closed my eyes. I sat up and rubbed my scalp.about anything but “my” winkie. leaving .” he mimicked. “I already did five minutes ago. then coughed.” Rolling forward.” “Sorry. “How did you know I ate macaroni and cheese for dinner?” “You left the box on the table. I don’t think Pinocchio can take much more.” I choked out. “You can let go of me now. not quite meeting his eyes. “That wasn’t too smart.
no.” I peeked over his shoulder.your window open after you climbed out.” I shivered. especially in such a small apartment. My jacket’s as wet as you . I feel like I’m in a tomb with everything so closed up. Wouldn’t want anyone staring at anything they shouldn’t be.” “The guy I saw wasn’t wearing a uniform. let me see. but--” Dylan dropped the blinds.” He shut the window and then started to lower the blinds. still not completely buying his story. “I don’t see your backup.” “He just went in the building.” “Ugh. “Wait. “Well. “It might be a wise idea to keep these closed from now on.” “Do I?” “Well. no wonder.
” “We do?” I felt tingly. staring into his eyes. imagining all sorts of ways he could warm me up. creaks. “I’ll run the tub. feeling like a contestant in a wet T-shirt contest. My gaze ran over his rippling muscles and flat stomach. especially for a zucchini.are. “We need to warm you up. but no way was I spoiling my record. and groans. thank God. and you get what you need to change into. It had been a long time for me. he slipped his jacket off me and draped it over a chair to dry.” Stepping forward. His eyes locked on my face. . I couldn’t help crossing my arms in front of what little I had. Though a pair of Band-Aids would have done the trick.” He strode into the bathroom and turned on the pipes. The small apartment came to life with rattles.
I needed help. “Sure you don’t need any help?” Oh.“Uh. I could barely move my fingers to crank up the heat. Sauntering out. But if you want me to wash your back. yeah. I can take my own bath. just let me know. but not the kind he was offering. He was just like Bob. Matter of fact. I don’t know how I managed to pull some clothes from my dresser. but I can manage. Dylan leveled me with his sizzling blue laser beams.” . Forcing myself into motion. My teeth chattered so hard. I couldn’t even feel my toes. “I’m just handling the pipes. “Thanks. That didn’t seem like a good sign. thanks. and my feet stung as though I’d stepped on a beehive.” “Who said I was giving you a bath?” he hollered back.” Handling the pipes? Oh.
” I squeezed by him. do you want--Whoa!” The door . shut the door. I sighed with relief. So not gonna happen. Super Cop always seemed to know just what to do. letting the warm water seep into my very bones. But no matter how hard I tried. “Okay. I couldn’t get the image of him warming me up out of my mind. I slipped on my headphones and closed my eyes. It wasn’t as hot as I liked. Mac. then.” He folded his arms. Sinking into the lukewarm tub with a hiss. but made no move to step out of the way. that was probably a good thing. and then struggled out of my clothes. Like I would ever take a bath with Hot Britches. Darn him. *** “Hey.“Okay. but with the way my fingers and toes stung.
and reached out to stop him from landing on me. His right leg bounced off the toilet. to no avail. His body plunged down into the tub with a loud splash. I was ready to strangle him for disturbing my pleasant dream of locking lips with Ryan Reynolds.crashed open. the dark brown brew spilling over the rim. and Dylan stumbled into the bathroom carrying a cup of hot cocoa. Hot Britches’ boots slid across the wet linoleum. Ditto. and his arms wind-milled. . I gasped. I thought. gagging on soapy water. Water flew everywhere as I tried to cover up. The steaming brew splashed on his hand as the cup sailed across the room to crash against the wall and fall to the floor in a million ceramic pieces.” he muttered. sloshing around in the tub. “Shit.
You need to get that latch fixed.dunking me. don’t be nice. . And in his arms.” Wrenching my trapped hands from beneath Dylan’s stomach. and realized I was naked. my throat suddenly dry. Coughing. I snagged the headphones and chucked them to the floor. “I can’t afford for these new contacts to get ruined any more than I can afford a new CD player. drown me?” “No. I shrieked. “Wh-What are you trying to do. my nose bumping his chin hard. I swallowed.” I blinked again.” I blinked the water out of my eyes. “It’s at the top of my list. Next time. In a tub full of soapy water. I popped up out of the water and sputtered. I was trying to be nice. my hair hanging in my eyes. and my headphones dangling off one ear. but I made the mistake of leaning against the door.
his thigh between mine. then leaned in to kiss me. “Dylan.” No way would I let him check out my bumps with nipples or my huge insecurity unclothed! “Now. Winkie pulse against me as Dylan lay sprawled out on top of me in the way-too-small tub.“My fault. and felt his Mr. “And you’re not listening. “Don’t move. What I meant was if you move. I’ll buy you new ones. no. I snaked my arms around him and held on for dear life. I’m not. “I’ll clean up the mess in a minute. I slipped my hand between the inch that separated our mouths and covered his lips. and even an iPod.” He started to get up. belly to belly. his gaze roaming over my wet features. you’re talking.” He grinned. you’ll see me. Oh.” I wiggled beneath him. Chest to chest.” .” he managed.
then started to stand. and couldn’t believe he had the nerve to check out my backside in the mirror behind me. I felt my eyes go wide. and I tightened my hold on him. He winked. hello. shoot.” Easier said than done. ignoring the tingles. I glanced up.” I said in a firmer voice. Because I didn’t believe for a minute he’d accidentally barged into my bathroom and fell in my tub just to be nice. “Oh. kissing my palm. When he paused. “Dylan. But I wrapped my arms around his neck anyway as he lifted me from the tub. “Trust me. “Uh. Oh.“And that’s a problem because?” he mumbled from behind my fingers. What happened to ‘trust me?’” .” He sighed. chief. all right. making me tingle all over.
reaching behind me for a towel. He took another unsteady step back and said. That was more reason than ever for me to keep my distance. At least until I figured all this out. and he took a step back. When he reached forward and brushed a strand of hair off my bare shoulder. and then wrapped it around me. thank God. and I trembled. I couldn’t. tightening the towel. I inhaled sharply at the contact.” He spun us around.“Sorry. He kept doing nice things that had me doubting everything I thought I knew about men.” He should talk. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. “You’d better get dressed. “As pale as moonbeams.” His touch lingered on my skin. His clothes were soaked. As much as I wanted to dislike him.” I said. . “Thanks.
” “Thanks. splattered with white lambs robe.“Here you go. I’ll change in Gloria’s room. I emerged from Gloria’s room.” I snickered. “Sorry. Served him right for barging in on me. pink terrycloth. Someone pounded on my front door. “Let me in.” I handed him a spare towel and my robe.” He took the girly garment and grimaced. “There’s a dryer in the laundry room next door when you’re finished. Mac. My rather small. feeling human again in an oversized T-shirt and sweats. Ten minutes later. Callie Had a Little Lamb. I left him alone in the bathroom and tried to imagine him wearing the robe.” . It’s all I have. but all I could picture was a cross-dresser in a Broadway musical called.
Forgot my quarters in my wallet. lock himself out? I went to the door. I almost felt sorry for him. but he had left his drag queen digs slightly open. . A few of my neighbors chose that moment to walk by. and Dylan flattened his back against the wall as if doing so would make him magically invisible. Hot Britches stood naked-except for my way-too-small. Ha.” I grinned. make-him-looklike-a-transvestite robe and his snakeskin boots. My neighbors’ eyes bugged and they gave Dylan a wide berth. The coat I let you wear. staring at him as if he’d sprouted a pair of breasts. “Ha.Dylan? What on earth did he do. assuring myself that he hadn’t. which happens to be in my coat. I glanced down. then burst out laughing. opened it wide. Almost. Payback was sooo much fun.
And there was the proof that he hadn’t had a sex change.” “Peek-a-boo?” He arched a black brow. all right. The big guy had no idea playtime was over. anyway. God. see you?” I chewed my bottom lip and pointed down. Winkie would quit . with me. then clamped his legs together and tried like heck to pull my robe tighter. peek-a-boo. Callie had a little lamb. and he wanted to come out and play. how did I let him know his zucchini was showing without embarrassing us both? “Um. Maybe if Mr. he cursed. by the looks of it. not working there for you. Yeah. When his gaze followed suit. buddy. uh. “I. poking its big ole one-eyed winkie head out. Bet he regretted ever trying to be nice to me now.
but hey. Sorry. “This isn’t going to work. I look like a damn pansy. clutching the robe in strategic places. I had no intention of sleeping with Dylan. It made sense. Apparently. Joining him. it would help. nothing rubber about it. I still had a project to do. He charged past me into my apartment and headed straight for my dresser.standing at attention. Dylan cursed again. Jack. bobbing and weaving every time Dylan moved. since they put a great deal of value on the size of their winkies. Got any baggy shorts?” Interesting. Now that was impressive. And that was a genuine zucchini in the flesh. external appearances were important for a zucchini to feel like a man. Dylan wins. but Mr. Winkie insisted on being seen. All that embarrassment still hadn’t killed his erection. I kept .
just give me the damn things.” he grumbled and headed into the bathroom to change.” I glanced at the part of the robe he strangled to death. and swallowed a snort. never-gonnasee-the-light-of-day. I hadn’t done laundry yet. “Try these. trying to keep a straight face.my gaze locked on my dresser and rummaged through my drawers. “I think. I started the . They might stretch to fit you. “Or you could just wrap a towel around yourself.” “I think I’ve played enough peek-a-boo for one day.” He eyed the shorts warily. so the only shorts I had clean were my wishful thinking. Running to the laundry room. purple spandex biker shorts.” “Don’t think.
He had a zucchini. And they said women took forever to get ready. I thought about my project. So maybe pickles made men desperate. Flasher Freak had a pickle and he went around molesting people. Then there was Dylan. then booked it back to my apartment. Maybe the answer to normalcy was a cucumber. That had certainly been the case with Bob. I glanced at the bathroom door. probably because no woman would willingly give it to him. How long could it possibly take a man to throw on a pair of shorts? . Maybe it was so good that he couldn’t get enough. not about to miss his grand entrance. Pacing around my living room. and probably had sex all the time.dryer. So maybe zucchinis made men obsessed.
The man made bullriders look like stick figures--bronzed sculpted chest. My gaze dropped helplessly lower.Finally. and a washboard set of abs to die for. Note to self: Zucchinis take a very long . the door creaked open. then sighed in what could only be resignation and pushed the door the rest of the way open. and Dylan stuck his head out like a reluctant groundhog. Sweet Jesus! He might as well be naked. broad shoulders. I stared in amazement. Mr. giving me more than just a peek. How bad can the shorts be?” He hesitated. tapered waist. Dukeypoo. Winkie was fully outlined. No wonder he’d taken forever in the bathroom. Still standing somewhat at attention. and my jaw unhinged. “Come on.
I couldn’t help it. So I threw his back at him. right. “Your clothes shouldn’t take too much longer to dry. “Cute.” Hey. He’d certainly seen enough of me for one evening. remember?” “H-Huh? Oh. turnabout was fair play. I’m sorry. Dylan cleared his throat. “Yoohoo. I’m not the one who decided to take a swan dive into my bathtub.” “Ya think?” He threw my words back at me.” I headed into the kitchen.time to deflate.” . now you know how women feel when guys stare at their breasts. I’m up here. Callie. “Well. I stared. fascinated.. It’s just. and felt mine flood with heat. Bet you could use a drink. wow.. “Don’t get short with me.” I shot a look at his face.
watching the muscles play in his biceps as he moved his arms. so that left only one solution. and I bit back a grin as I carried the drinks. but all I have are Bahama Mamas. I tried to decide where to sit.” I fixed two drinks. It’s been a hell of an evening. He arched a brow.” I laughed. I couldn’t sit across from him and keep my eyes from wandering lower. Eyeing the chair and the couch.“I thought so. “Make mine something strong.” “That’s putting it mildly. That was just asking too much now that I knew what he looked like. I plopped down on the couch beside him and . watching him drop down on the sofa and rub his palms over his cheeks then stroke his goatee. sticking little umbrellas in each. then halted. thinking they’d go perfectly with his outfit.
bad idea. then he slammed his empty glass on the table and stared at me. Staring at him. out of mind. I swallowed. No matter how hard I fought it. We all had issues. Bad. His thigh bumped mine. Cozying up together on a couch under a blanket screamed intimacy. He downed his drink in four gulps and I matched him in five. and I wasn’t ready to be in another relationship. I knew he was all wrong for me. but I felt myself slipping under his spell.handed him a tall glass and then snatched the fleece throw off the back and draped it over us both. waiting. Sort of. Desire radiated between us until I couldn’t take it any longer. . Out of sight. He glanced at the blanket and then back up to me. To heck with it. Problem solved.
grenadine. and he plunged his tongue deep. It was somehow more intimate than anything else he’d done. mixed with a . A scary thought that he obliterated by running his hands over my face. I wanted him like I’d never wanted anyone. and I gasped. No one had ever kissed me with their eyes open. It felt like heaven. Dylan’s mouth swooped down to cover mine as he leaned back and pulled me on his lap. He was huge. my God. The yummy flavors of coconut rum. His laser beams locked onto mine. jolting over the contact. Oh. He swept my hair back behind my ears and then slid his palms down to cup my jaw. orange juice and pineapple juice.We reached for each other simultaneously and embraced. I straddled him. Desire ripped through me.
What he did to me scared the heck out of me. He pulled me more intimately into his erection. I couldn’t think clearly. Thrusting my fingers into the thick. dark-chocolate strands. I’d never seen so much passion. In one smooth move. but then he groaned and squeezed me. and my hands smoothed over his hair then tugged his ponytail free. and my breath hitched. He drove me wild.spice that was purely Dylan. he flipped me onto my back and I opened my eyes to lock with his. wanting more. He made a growling noise in his throat and dropped his hands to my butt. I shivered. My God. My heart slammed against my ribs as I battled his tongue with my own. because I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t just like the rest . God. My hips started to move of their own accord. burst over my taste buds. I stiffened.
Not into me. I struggled to focus. may as well check the clothes. Clumsy me. would we?” I glanced at his Mr. But since I’m up. “What the hell did you do that for?” He stared up at me from flat on his back as though I’d lost my mind. “They’ll never fit. Only into the sex. “Sorry. When he started to slide my T-shirt up.of the guys from my past. He dropped his head lower and kissed my nipple through my T-shirt until my eyes crossed.” I didn’t wait for an answer but bounced out of my apartment as fast . Double wow. I hooked my leg over his hip and rolled him off the couch. We wouldn’t want your pants to shrink.” I sprang to my feet. for Pete’s sake. now at full attention once again. It was too much. um. “I. Winkie. too fast. I couldn’t breathe.
Ten minutes later. All he needed was an eye patch. I returned slightly more composed. He leaned against the wall. so the thin. Until I locked eyes on Hot Britches again. he could be a modern day pirate. that is. I’d let him pillage just about anything. An eye patch and something other than purple Spandex biker shorts. chain-like tattoos circling his bulging biceps were pure contemporary. Stay strong. and he’d be the pirate hero on the cover of a romance novel. And. and my hands itched to touch those same pecs that had warmed my fingers earlier.as my rubber-band legs would carry me. bare-chested with his hair hanging loose. And at this moment. I stared at his chest. but hey. smoothing his goatee and staring at me with hooded eyes. only to wind up in the biggest . Cal. I’d been down this road before. okay.
“H-Here. bad pillage. I needed lots and lots of space from this man.” I threw his things at his chest and then ran into the kitchen. It’s late. and for the record.” . Swallowing hard.” He narrowed his eyes. that’s what they all say. “Callie.” “This never should have started. Your c-clothes.” “Yeah. I could barely breathe when I was around him. “This isn’t over. Space. No pillage. “Why not? We’re both adults.” He hardened his jaw. I--” “You should go. let alone think. He pushed away from the wall. Change in bathroom. pillage wrong.mess of my life. and took a step toward me. I tried to slow my breathing. I’m not looking for a one-night-stand. I happen to like you.
“Forget it. They thought I was some porn queen who’d give them an experience of a lifetime. Relief flooded me. One minute you want me.” “I’ve got issues?” I glared at him. just like I want you. men only wanted to get close to me because of the scandal.He stared at me like he was trying to figure out his next move. Wanting to use someone’s body for self-gratification was a problem.” He had the nerve to chuckle. “The next. and I know all about it. “You’ve got issues.” he muttered. . and from my experience.” I looked away. he left the room. “The only problem I have right now is the mixed messages you keep sending me. “You’re the one with the problem. and a moment later. you’re tossing me off the couch and telling me I’ve got problems.” He narrowed his eyes.
” He faced me. He was obsessed with it. “I doubt you’ll have a problem with that Peeping Tom again. he stepped out of the bathroom. Friends?” . “Looks like my buddy’s done over there. Not a good combination for getting my life back on track. Five minutes later. I just can’t deal with this right now. “Sorry. “Figuring out what I want to do with my life is too important to me. He slipped his still damp coat on and then peeked out my blinds. I crossed the line.” I gave him a shaky smile. his were distant.” When he raised his eyes to mine.” “You didn’t do it alone.Dylan might not know about the scandal. I’m too old to keep screwing up. and I was convenient. looking just as delicious fully dressed as he had in almost nothing. and honestly. but I knew he only wanted sex.
Don’t forget the gym tomorrow. It was what I wanted. not having a clue what to do next. I locked the door behind him and just stood there. He shook once and then pulled his free. Big time. And remember to lock the door behind me.” he agreed. what I needed. But I hated to see him go. “Friends. . glad we’d come to an understanding. My head might say this was for the best.” I responded.” “Always.” He stuck out his hand. “I’ll let myself out. but my body sang the blues.” I slipped mine in his. feeling the magnetic pull clear to my soul.“Sure. “Good.
“Good job.CHAPTER EIGHT The next morning. well done. Professor Butthead smiled wide at our class. condoms. I’ll-Brownnose-For-A-Good-Grade. Ms. So far. How hard was it for a teenager to go around and ask other teenagers about sex. gave her progress report on how AIDS affects today’s teenagers and their decision to have sex.” Well. Mindy. Keep going in that direction and you’ll have an excellent project. Well done. no fooling. getting a man to tell you the truth about how the size of his winkie affects his sex life. I tried to listen as his star pupil. and AIDS? Try being a woman my age. the men I’d been able to talk .
” a familiar voice echoed in my ears. nonetheless. I stared out the window and tried not to fall asleep. MacDonald. but it’s rude not to pay attention. MacDonald. If I ticked this guy off any more. and then I’d never get my answers. Well. Besides. “I realize you must think Mindy’s project doesn’t affect you since you’re hardly a teenager. I forced a smile and said. I was through failing at everything. I looked and felt like an idiot. “Ms.” He glowered. I’d fail for sure. Professor Butthead stood inches from me. “Ms. “I think . his breath reeking of leftover egg salad. Either way. “Huh?” I turned. I wasn’t stupid. and the teenagers thought I was desperate.to thought I was a nympho.” He arched a brow as though daring me to say something.
” He crossed his arms. God. “You might want to step it up a notch. let’s hear it. then kept my mouth shut before I said something I’d regret. You’re a jerk with a pickle. I felt like I was back in high school. however. I’ll bet. and the room full of bubbling girls and way-too-young-for-me boys tried not to laugh. you’re not.she’s off to a good start. but I only shook my head. if I were her-” “Well. “I thought not. Or aren’t you prepared?” I was prepared to shout.” He gave me a smug smile. “So. This projects counts for fifty percent of your grade. I suggest you worry about your own project. “Okay.” I ground out. I’d like you all to get into groups of . You’re the only one in class who hasn’t given a progress report on how you’re coming along.” “Sorry. Heat flooded my face.
shook it.” He looked right at me. clothes. A thermometer? No way. . dying to know what it was. and makeup. I tried to talk about interview questions.four and discuss interview strategies to help those of you who are falling behind. then she pulled the object out. then stuck it back in her mouth. A strange woman paced around outside with something hanging out of her mouth. When I couldn’t take it anymore. Like that would help me. but they rambled on and on about shoes. I tried forcing myself to focus on the group activity but couldn’t get my mind off the woman taking her temperature in the middle of a snowstorm. I turned to look out the window and blinked. I squinted. The woman glanced at it. Three giggling teenyboppers formed a group with me.
I’d like to set up a private meeting. if Thermometer Woman was there when class ended. unless you want points taken off for your progress report being late. I’d learned my lesson. giving her funny glances and a wide berth.” . After our meaningless activity ended. Well. I shook my head. Maybe the woman was mentally ill. Big. or delirious. with all the unique people in New York.Another wacko. I guess I shouldn’t have thought her strange. People hustled right by her. “Ms. but no one stopped to question her. Trust me. Professor Butthead went over a short recap on the format for our presentations and then dismissed the class with a final smirk in my direction. fat snowflakes fluttered to the ground. I intended to avoid her as well. MacDonald. but this was the third one this week.
There wasn’t much I wouldn’t do . that was. He didn’t come out and say it.” I nodded. His gaze ran over me in distain. but he didn’t have a clue how stubborn I could be. Callie. I have a busy schedule. Note to self: Pickles and buttheads are one and the same. “I’ll come in during your office hours as soon as I have it prepared. look out. “Make it soon. not daring to speak. And now that I was coming out of my shell. pressing my lips together. then he left the classroom. well.Great. He probably thought I’d quit. he was gonna fail me for sure. He knew this topic was difficult for me because I’d told him so. yet he kept pushing me. but he was setting me up to fail.” As soon as I checked in with my Angels.
” So much for steering clear of wackos. I opened the door. clenching my hands tight. “It’s your dime. “Great. . I hailed the cab flying by me. It screeched to a sudden halt. With a shrill whistle. I shoved my notebook into my backpack and headed outside.to succeed this time. “Don’t go anywhere. I gasped. making me a bit leery about riding with a driver like that. lady. Glancing over my shoulder. running late again. I tossed my backpack into the cab.” I ignored the cab driver and wrapped my arms around the woman. but I needed a lift.” I told the cabbie. I’ll be right back. choking on her ridiculous thermometer. and then a gagging noise caught my attention. Thermometer Woman stood four feet behind me.
.then yanking them in. Scrambling to her feet. She gasped for breath and then dove after it as though it were made of gold. in and up.” Whoosh! The thermometer sailed from the woman’s mouth and landed in a snow-bank.” “Attacking you?” I gaped at her. Without me. “M-Me?” The woman had to be joking. “I was just trying to help. in and. “Come on.” “Really? I should sue you for attacking me like that. she was downright insane. you wouldn’t--” . “I was saving you. In and up. “What’s your problem?” she demanded. Forget mentally ill and delirious. work with me. lifting her nose and dusting the snow off her expensive-looking suit.. she marched back and glared at me.
” She glanced at the thermometer and frowned.. I reached for her purse.” I stared until the woman jumped into the cab and tossed my backpack into the snow. now my thermometer is broken. “You really should be . How am I supposed to know when my temperature is perfect?” “Uh. just punched a number into her pager. Her purse buzzed and then said. watch it. “Brat three. I don’t know.” Thermometer Woman didn’t say anything.” She stuck her hand in the large bag and muffled a beep as she slammed the door. I ought to.” She tucked it under her arm. “My purse didn’t say anything. “Hey.. that’s my cab.“I wouldn’t be late for my meeting.” “What did your purse just say?” I couldn’t believe my ears. lady. “Hey. “Great. wait. Why.
” Seeing another cab pull around the corner. wondering what had just happened. there are brats everywhere. “A conspiracy of loony nutcases. “There’s a bizarre conspiracy going on. The woman had said careful. and there was that word brat again. completely paranoid about being careful.” I grumbled to myself. not paying a bit of attention to his surroundings. but the music blaring from his radio drowned me out. And apparently.” She rolled up the window and the cab sped away from the curb.careful who you try to help. but I couldn’t afford to waste any more time. I stared after them. I whistled again. He couldn’t possibly make much money driving a cab like that. I lunged into the . The cabbie’s head beebopped to the beat like an out-of-control bobblehead. I could have been some sicko.
Nikko . “What the hell?” He didn’t even look my way.” “You say your shoes need shine?” the cabbie asked as I climbed in. I need--” “You need shine. you’re losing your mind. screeching to a stop right in front of me. I was supposed to meet him at the gym for a boxing lesson during my lunch break. Maybe it hadn’t been him. No worries. Besides. The cabbie slammed on his brakes. his eyes bugging out of their sockets. The only reason I had agreed was to find out what made him tick. what drove him.road and waved my arms. I grabbed the door handle and did a doubletake as Dylan’s car cruised by. And it wouldn’t hurt to learn to protect myself a little better. I shrugged and shook my head. “No. Cal. “Face it. we were supposed to be friends. lady.
But I sure as heck wasn’t paying him for taking me to the wrong place. “But I don’t--” “You don’t know the way. I gripped the back of his seat for dear life and gave up on trying to talk to him. as if the near-accident wasn’t his fault.” He pulled away from the curb. heading.. I take you. Nikko no mind. We get there fast. the wrong flipping way! “But I have to--” “You have to hurry.” He merged into traffic.” The cab roared down the street. narrowly missing a bus. Nikko leaned out the window and spewed a stream of angry-sounding Greek. *** ..know perfect place. and the bus driver blared the horn.
breathing loud and heavy. just having a near-death experience with the country’s biggest NASCAR wannabe. The people . Dylan lifted his shoulders. I spotted Dylan by the boxing ring. he looked really good doing it. Whatever he was doing. Forget the Twilight Zone. Nothing new or fancy about it. Zuc.I stumbled through the gym doors. jabbing his fists at the air. I was on the verge of collapse and our workout hadn’t even begun. Getting to the gym had turned out to be Mission Impossible. I liked what I saw. And sweat. He looked at the clock on the wall. tipped his head from side to side. probably wondering where I was. No problem. and bounced from foot to foot. Glancing around the old gym. Good grief. Pausing to catch my breath. just a whole lot of heart and soul.
I stuck out my gleaming Snow Flurry. “You’re too nice. “Let’s just say these boots are no longer made for walking. since Nikko’s cousin. Dylan caught my eye and smiled. shoot. Mac. Marco.” Dylan’s brows knitted. Or maybe it was pomade. that’s why you need my help. then he shook his head. Well. not putting on a show just to hit on the opposite sex. judging by his slicked-back hair. That meant I had to move. I wove my way through the mostly-male population until I reached the ring. In either case. I fell three times just trying to walk through the gym door. got done plastering a pint of grease on them. “What happened?” he asked.” .who came here obviously did so because they loved the sport.
” “Honey.“Some help you are. You didn’t even offer me a ride back there. “Let’s get this straight. From where I was laying last night. from When . remember?” I shook my head. And don’t deny you drove right past me.” “Really. There’s only one of those beasts in this town. If my memory hasn’t failed. “Looks like Harry. you tossed my ass curbside.” “I knocked you off the couch. I saw Big Betty. Friends don’t ride each other. friend or no friend. “You know what? Even if you had offered me a ride--in Big Betty--I wouldn’t have taken it.” “What makes you think I’d want to offer again?” He arched a brow. you wanted that ride. I offered you a ride yesterday.” I glared.
“And we only have the ring for another thirty minutes.” He grinned.” “Does that mean you fake your orgasms. .” “I’m here. then smacked him.” I tried to mimic his bob and weave move. Rubbing his arm. aren’t I? Bring it on.Harry Met Sally. then.” “Not funny. too?” He smirked. “Well. all right. was right when he said men and women can never be friends because the sex thing always gets in the way. I gasped. We’re not dog sledding.” He pointed to the locker room.” I stormed off to the locker room. he chuckled. “Get on in there and change out of your Eskimo gear. Dukeypoo. “You’re gonna have to do better than that if you want to defend yourself against someone like the Midnight Molester.
” “Th-Those’ll do. “And I haven’t owned gym clothes in years. “Still haven’t done laundry. you put these on. “Now. because we’re not going to spar for real.” He cleared his throat. After I slipped them on. Maybe I didn’t look too bad after all.” I said. and if he didn’t like it. standing before him in my purple Spandex biker shorts. Five minutes later. “So what now?” I asked and stepped into the ring. I’m just going to show you some moves to .” He handed me a pair of boxing gloves. he could lump it. “We don’t need mouth guards or helmets. feeling completely vulnerable. and I didn’t even care.my huge insecurity wiggling all the way. I marched back through the doors with my head high. and his grin died. he tied the laces. I had a few moves of my own that I didn’t plan to change one bit.
“I can hold my own if I have to. and you’ll leave yourself wide open. because I wouldn’t want to hurt you. I shoved his glove away and threw my left arm.” I grinned.protect yourself.” I swung my right arm. Mac. “Drop your left arm like that.” I raised my fists. “You don’t stock shelves all your life and not gain a certain amount of strength and agility. but he blocked it.” “Well. “Yeah?” He smiled back. that’s good. The verbal sparring was even more fun than the prospect of clobbering him in the ring. “Let’s see what you got.” He tapped my cheek with his glove and winked. “Watch the right arm.” He kept the weight on the balls of his feet and circled me with his fists up.” He tapped my right .
” “Yeah. getting into it. left.” I smiled as I swung my fists. “This is fun. Find your rhythm. Confuse your opponent. “Got it?” “I think so. now move your feet. “Good. right. “This isn’t as easy as it looks.” He demonstrated with his own hands.” Narrowing my eyes. left. so?” “Focus your power on that. Left. I . Jab twice with your left to throw your opponent off.” I danced around the ring. right.cheek this time. Left. left. “Darn it.” I grunted. right. and do what comes natural. and then swing hard with your right. Never stay in the same place. Left. left. Left. I see you’re righthanded. throwing punches and laughing. right.” “You’re doing fine.
and I wished for an insane second that he didn’t have a pair of two-inch thick gloves on. “Of you? Never. scared?” I bounced from side to side. even if my thoughts weren’t. and his breathing picking up. “Watch it.” I spun around.” He bobbed and weaved around the ring. “Hey. I don’t want to hurt you. but I felt alive. scared?” He winked.danced in his direction and sent him a devilish grin. “What’s the matter.” He jabbed my gloves. Dukeypoo. . and my chest heaved from exertion. then danced around behind me and tapped my bottom. “What’s the matter. watch it. perspiration soaking his T-shirt. trying to at least sound decent. More alive than I had in years.” He fended off several of my punches. Blood surged through my veins. “Let’s see what you got.
if I could just get these damn lambs to stop circling my head. untying my gloves with my teeth.” The gym . no. He’s had worse. You okay?” I flew to him and dropped by his side. Dylan looked up. Right across his left eye. Lord. “I’ll live. it’s a scratch.” I threw a few jabs with my left hand. Crack! --and there came my right. “Oh. you’re bleeding. knocking him flat on his back. and-“Yo. Oh.” I touched his eyebrow. “Ah. time’s up. I cradled his cheeks with my palms and inspected every inch of his face. Cabrizzi.” Yanking off my gloves.” the gym manager shouted.“Of you? You wish. “Oh. I’m so sorry. my God.
“I scarred you?” “Boy’s too dang pretty. “Hold this while I get my kit. Zuc. confident implies a zucchini.” “Stitches?” I paled. looking closer.” “Confident.” the manager shook his head. “if he’d been payin’ attention to his fight instead of gawkin’ at you. Yeah. “Damn. you old geezer. yeah. He needs a few marks to keep him from gettin’ cocky. .manager leaned over my shoulder and stared at Dylan. I think that might need a stitch. “‘Sides. if you hadn’t opened your big mouth in the middle of a match.” He pulled Dylan to his feet and pressed a rag over the cut.” Then he waddled off. He squinted.” “Yeah. I wouldn’t need stitches. well.” Dylan winked at me. he’d be fine. we both know cocky implies a pickle. and there’s nothing small about you.
God. I liked the feel of all those hard muscles pressed close to my side. Been sewing up his patrons for nearly forty years now.“He’s going to sew you up?” I grabbed onto Dylan when he swayed and he leaned on me. I was getting way too comfortable with this guy. “Told ya I could hold my own. I couldn’t believe I just said that.” I tossed him a saucy wink.” “Explain what?” “How I got my ass whooped by a small-town girl.” Good Lord. “Aren’t you worried?” “Gus is the best there is. his arm looped over my shoulder. I’m more worried about how I’m going to explain this one to the guys.” “Just tell them I’m a knockout. We stayed arm-in-arm as I helped him into the manager’s office. Note to self: That’s your cue! .
Ding. all right. “Ding. “Bring it on.” “Name the time and place.” We stopped walking.” I shot Dylan a last smug smile. Mac. Why couldn’t I make myself let go and leave? He shook his head. I demand a rematch. Detective. I’d like to get this over with.” “If you two are done verbally fornicatin’. “You let me know when you’re ready for round two. but that was a lucky punch. smirking like an imbecile. I’ve got a business to run. pressing the rag tighter to his forehead.” I rolled my eyes and walked off to the locker . ya know. Saved by the bell. And I’ve got to get to work. “You’re a knockout.” He squeezed my side. still arm-in-arm.I just kept my arm around him.
Why oh why did I say I wanted to be just friends? *** That afternoon. but they still hadn’t . I sat in my apartment. so he’d told me to head home and crack open the books. He’d said things were slow. feeling totally creeped out. After asking my boss what had happened to the undercover security guy. So who in the world was Inspector Gadget? Then my boss gave me an unexpected afternoon off. I hadn’t argued because I needed the extra time to prepare my progress report. I’d found out he didn’t exist. The Angels had done an awesome job gathering research for me.room to change. giving him another glimpse of my jiggling insecurity that somehow didn’t feel so huge anymore.
interviewed a zucchini. I had all the academic skills of an amoeba. I knew exactly why. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to sleep with him. I blew out a breath. Now I just had to put it all together. So not gonna happen. but I had enough of a start for a progress report. but I couldn’t seem to concentrate anymore. I glanced out the window to take my mind off of that. What a change from this morning’s snowstorm. The weather had turned bright and sunny. and the temperature had risen to forty degrees. Go figure. I felt stir-crazy sitting there in the apartment. I didn’t need a man in my life right now. I shivered. Didn’t trust men. After a lunch break of sparring with Hot Britches. So that meant I still had to. even though I was supposed to be . Why had I ever suggested we just be friends? I asked myself once again.
I’d fallen into a depression right before I’d met Bob. Not even one in the big city. That would sure as heck cure me of winter blahs. the answer to my depression. Who was I fooling? I’d once thought . If they knew I’d gone as far as Queens. they’d be worried sick. but my parents didn’t want the scandal of me going to see a shrink. lime-green warm-up suit. Syracuse had been the big city to them. but he’d made my life far worse. I sighed. so I’d stopped at Wal-Mart and spent the last of my mad money on a new. Back home. Maybe I just needed to clear my head. Ever since lunch. a need to feel alive that only exercise could bring. something had clicked inside me. I couldn’t afford to join a gym.working on my project. my life had been drab and boring. We’d all thought Bob was a dream come true.
Shortly thereafter. I changed my clothes. I’d never felt good enough for them. but I had thought they would love me no matter how much I screwed up my life. Too constricting for jogging. green grass. I decided to put the past out of my mind. I stretched out and started my run. That was what parents were supposed to do. As pretty as Central Park was in winter. It took them forever to have me. Staring out my apartment window. in fact. fragrant flowers. I could only imagine what it must look like in the summer--trees in full bloom. They were forty-seven. adding my hat and mittens but leaving my Eskimo parka behind. And they worried constantly.they were so stifling because they cared about me. or anyone. Then I hopped on the subway and headed for Central Park. But even the weather now . ponds.
I peeked over my shoulder. hoping they wouldn’t notice me. The air was crisp and bright. they didn’t exactly look like me. with hunched shoulders and shifty eyes. and jogging just like I was. then peeked back over my shoulder. and the snowy trees looked postcard-perfect. baby steps. The last thing I wanted was more attention. and a man lurked a few paces behind me. I turned back around. Okay. my heart now in my throat. and picked up the pace a little. pushing strollers. He averted his gaze and walked along the edge of the path. It probably looked more like a bouncy walk. sitting around the fountain. but hey. but at least I was attempting to jog.brightened my mood as I jogged along a footpath. . walking dogs. right? I glanced around at the people. Several people milled about visiting the zoo.
At the next fork.” “About what?” “How to handle a power-walking stalker. Even I knew people didn’t exercise in pressed khakis. Mac. and a suede jacket. My life has become a circus. Again. “Not quite.” “Not again. believe me. At the fork in the path.He was power walking now. I pulled off my mitten and flipped open my cell to call Dylan.” I kept a . For God’s sake. loafers. or I’ve got a follow me sign stuck to my behind. the man did the same. still looking into the trees. “Ready for round two?” Dylan answered his phone. I veered to the left. but I could use your expertise. not another stalker. I veered to the right.” “I know. Either I smell like money. I checked behind me and saw the man do the same.
” “I did?” I was pretty sure I didn’t. a group of joggers merged in between us. I’m just trying to lose him. “Wait. I think I lost him.” I ducked off the path into a group of trees and waited. When the man ran right by. do not try to nab this guy on your own. I . and prayed that he’d go away. wait. and I’ll meet you there. hopefully blocking Khaki Man’s view of me. but at the next fork in the path.” “Callie. how do you know where I am?” “You just told me.close eye on Khaki Man.” Dylan said. “Oh.” “Trust me. bobbing his head left and right. “Go to the main entrance of the park. Just because you knocked me down doesn’t mean you’re a pro at protecting yourself. I have no plans to nab anyone.
This is pathetic. Khaki Man saw me. bouncy walking slightly faster.” I stepped out of the trees.” “Khaki who?” “Hang on he’s headed back this way. jogging faster. and the man glanced over his shoulder and then did a double-take. looking like it was a piece of cake. “Not likely. No more healthy portions for you. “Uh-oh.” I tucked the phone in my pocket. Okay. . or he’d catch me.breathed a sigh of relief. I had to do something. pulled my mitten back on. I’m gonna haul my butt out of here. Cal. and pumped both arms. and he was gaining on me. He power-walked quicker. You should see this guy. “Do you think it’s the Midnight Molester?” Dylan asked. Big surprise there.
For a moment. my insecurity slapping the saddle like a moron on a pogo stick.” I yelled. I snatched the reins. I thought I’d lost Khaki Man. “Yaaaaaaiiiiiipe!” I screamed. and I swear I intended to stop. With adrenaline surging through my veins. or something like that. it registered that a man in a uniform. or freeze. who appeared to be helping a lost child. and he bolted faster. but I was too busy trying not to die to concentrate on getting the horse to whoa.Spying a horse just standing there at the edge of the footpath. “Oh. no. I didn’t stop to consider who he belonged to. I stepped on a tree stump and vaulted onto his back. My fanny would never be the same. scaring him even more. . Somewhere in the back of my mind. His head whipped up. yelled for me to halt. his hindquarters dropped. and he shot forward like a bullet.
boring life flashed . The horse led me on a series of hairpin turns. I flopped around in the saddle and tried to get a better hold on Hi-Ho Silver. Fresh out of Lone Ranger moves. I clutched the edge of the saddle. struggling to see through the wind whipping my hair in my face.then I spotted him through the trees. Blood rushed through my veins and hoof beats thundered in my ears. ducking low under branches and shrieking as the horse jumped rocks and fallen tree limbs. I blinked rapidly. I couldn’t get the crazy horse to respond to any of my movements. I had ridden a couple of times as a kid. so I just held on tight and let Silver run off his fear. and my pathetic. I risked a look over my shoulder and saw Khaki Man ditch the path. I was going to die. when he detoured into the woods. same as the horse had. but nothing was working.
I didn’t mean check out his produce. Digging in his hooves. now that I was on top of him. and just kept charging straight for him. Sometimes being six foot came in handy. his head hanging low. Well. Khaki Man’s head popped up just as I yanked on the reins for the millionth time. and the crazy horse chose that moment to finally listen. Right in Khaki Man’s direction! The man came to a stop and held his side. “Move out of the way. And by something. until he finally doubled back the way we’d just come. I had to do something. Silver didn’t seem to notice.before my eyes. I knocked the wind out of Khaki Man in a fullfrontal tackle. breathing heavy.” I screamed. I rolled him over . and I went sailing over his head straight for my stalker. he stopped short. or care.
“Hey. then glanced at Silver. When he finds you. I’m not buying your bull. You are so busted. and I wrenched his arm up behind his back as I sat on his butt. No way. I’m going to find that police officer and have him haul your sorry butt off to jail. Aw. stupid. Ow. pal. yeah right. babe. You’re gonna break my arm. ow.onto his belly. Is it a crime to get a little exercise?” “Exercise.” I ground out. let up. c’mon. He perked his ears and snorted as if to say. lady.” “Haul my sorry ass off to jail? I’m not the one who stole his goddamn horse. lady. stupid. he’s going to throw the book at you. Stupid.” “I’m not your babe. How had I missed the . He wheezed as though trying to catch his breath.
the Angry Red Beast. but I had to get out of there before the officer caught me. I jumped behind a shrub but couldn’t miss the dark . I wanted to question him further and get to the bottom of what was going on. it means his partner’s close by. Khaki Man said. Khaki Man didn’t waste any time jumping to his feet and sprinting into the trees. I considered giving chase. He’d throw me in the slammer for sure. laughing as though he’d won. Besides. but then the officer in question came barreling through the trees like the Jolly Green Giant. who else but a cop would have a horse in the city? When the horse started to trot away. Annie Oakley. Or in this case. “Better get lost. For that alone. no less.NYPD logo on the side of the saddle? And with my contacts in.” I hated that he was right. If he’s running.
boy. so I made a mad dash for the trees in the opposite direction before he saw me. My cue to get lost. and he checked the animal for injuries. That didn’t bode well for me. .look stamped across his face. So much for blending in and hiding out. His horse came to a stop right in front of him. Oh.
Then I proceeded to run smack into a tree. hands on my knees. thank God. I am not. Note to self: Twenty. Exercise? What the heck had I been thinking? Jogging on the shoveled path had been doable. I hunched over. I glanced over my shoulder but didn’t see anyone following me.CHAPTER NINE Once I was deep in the woods. Feeling safe for the moment. and sucked in a few quick breaths. but I wasn’t foolish enough to think the cops weren’t still looking for me. I’d lost the Angry Red Beast. throwing my arms around it to keep from falling. . exiting in a billowy white cloud of steam. The cold air stung my lungs.
Wet snow had slipped into my sneakers. squishing between my frozen toes. I didn’t dare linger any longer. Paranoia strikes again. I shook my head and tried to catch my breath but started walking. that officer was still looking for me. . Even I knew this section of the park wasn’t safe. I tugged my mittens on tighter and my hat down lower as I looked up. Crunch! I whipped around and surveyed the bare trees swaying in the breeze. ever. the February days growing dark so early. and the rumble in my stomach told me it had to be around dinner.but detouring into the woods might as well have been a ten-mile hike up a vertical glacier. Having my face all over the news was not something I wanted to relive. Besides. The sun had started to set.
Maybe it was an animal. really . honing in all my available senses. and now I was the freaking star in my own version. I wanted to believe that noise had been a brittle twig breaking off its branch. and a creepy feeling washed over me. My skin prickled. any day. I really. I started to walk faster this time. I started to hyperventilate. But the sound grew closer. struggling to keep my cool. Why had I gone into the woods like an idiot? Being arrested topped being murdered. I must have lost it. My heart pounded harder than it had when I’d attempted to run.Snap! I froze. I reached for my cell but came up emptyhanded. Zuc? You were so right. Where are you. I couldn’t even make it through the entire showing of the Blair Witch Project . really.
God. I started pumping my arms and legs. he was gaining on me. Maybe it was Gadget. The footsteps behind me pounded the frozen ground. Oh. growing closer. and saw something tan dart behind a tree. Closer. Just before I reached the opening. Holding my breath. but my numb feet wouldn’t move faster than a ridiculous. I had to know. I whipped my head around. I didn’t get a good enough look. Afraid to look behind me. Closer. Sweet Jesus. but after our last disastrous encounter with Jack--my special friend that wouldn’t die--I sure as heck wasn’t sticking around to find out. bouncy walk-jog. I focused on the clearing up ahead. Something about him seemed .need you right now. could that be Flasher Freak? I gasped. I peeked over my shoulder.
I came barreling out of the woods onto the footpath and into the street.different. not so puny anymore. Something gently squeezed my arms and legs and then pressed my ribs. “Nothing feels broken. and my ears rang something fierce. “Callie. “Huh?” I turned back around and. full-throttle. “Look out!” a familiar voice yelled. Way to read minds. What I would have given to see Dylan right about now. Zuc. “Ahhhh!” flipped over the hood of Big Betty. Callie.” When I didn’t speak. Giving one last surge of everything I had. landing hard on my back and bumping my head on the icy pavement. more menacing. “Jesus. but no words came out. Say . are you all right?” I made a garbled sound. he said. talk to me. Stars danced behind my eyelids.
I’m taking you home.” “What are you talking about?” He ran his hands over the back of my head and checked my pupils. struggling to uncross my eyes and catch my breath. I was going to be one sore cookie tomorrow.something. “Come on. Copper mad.” He lifted me into his arms. but I can’t be sure. . “Almost there. “Dylan here?” I blinked up at his double image and tried to form coherent words.” He carried me to the passenger side of Big Betty and helped me into the seat and then buckled me in.” “O-Okay.” He glanced around.” I pried my eyelids open. “Well. it doesn’t look like you have a concussion. “Khaki Man chase. and I bit my lip on a groan. Horsie crazy. a crowd’s gathering. Mac.
I’m taking you to the hospital. But I have to tell you--” A blip of static came from Dylan’s walkie talkie. then I winced when he slammed the door.” he said as Big Betty roared to life and began to move. you copy? The hounds are on the lookout for Annie Oakley. I sounded normal again. “It’s okay. even if I felt like I was going to die. I just need to go home and take some aspirin. I’ll live. I really don’t want to go.” “You sure? Because I really think--” “I’m sure. feeling the car rock.” . “Big Daddy. “Sorry. I touched the back of my head.I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. Over. “If my skull stays in one piece.” “That’s it.” “No.” Good. that is. followed by.
I stared at him with my head still pounding and ears still ringing. Care to tell me what you were thinking.” “But I still have to tell you--” “Hang on a sec. Annie Oakley?” He shot a glance over to me. “I just saved your hide from being thrown in the slammer. Big Daddy bagged Oakley himself. Khaki Man was chasing me. How was I . “It wasn’t my fault. Over and out. wondering why he had a walkie talkie when his car was equipped with a CB. Cover for me. Gotta hit the road before the cruisers arrive.“Annie Oakley?” I asked. really. I felt my cheeks flame. I need to concentrate. B4.” He glanced in the rear-view mirror as we exited the park. stealing an officer’s horse. Dylan ignored me. “Copy that. waiting for him to answer.
” “I know.” I stared at Dylan until he turned to look at me. “I had a friend smooth things over. Deal?” “Deal. you know. I clarified. “I mean. The police radio started buzzing like crazy about Annie . there won’t be a next time. but no more borrowing any horses. You don’t always have to go it alone. I only borrowed him. because I’ll be more careful. then your phone went dead.” I wilted with relief.supposed to know Hi-Ho Silver belonged to the Angry Red Beast? And I didn’t steal him.” When he raised a brow. I’ll ask for help next time. “Am I in trouble?” “Not anymore. “And I promise.” “How’d you know I was Annie Oakley?” “You called me about a stalker named Khaki Man.” I said quietly.
thanks.Oakley stealing a police horse. “Dammit. “Flasher Freak was in the woods chasing me.” “I tried. I’d never witnessed eyes so filled with hate. You’re lucky I found you first.” And I was thankful. Callie. Twice!” . If Tank had caught up with you. “I took a wild guess. He’d looked like he wanted to murder me. He didn’t look like he had molesting on the brain today.” “Well. I swallowed hard. I’d seen Flasher Freak’s face just before I flipped over Big Betty. why didn’t you tell me before now? He’s probably long gone.” He shot me a pointed look. I held onto my head and the Holy-cow-I’m-gonna-die bar at the same time.” Dylan stomped on the brakes. and Big Betty’s tires screeched as she skidded to a stop on the side of the road. he wouldn’t have let you off so easy.
” I stared at him. “Yes. “Starved. You’re safe. fuzzy feeling swept over me. “You mean you’re not angry that you missed your chance to catch Flasher Freak?” He studied me for a long minute. That’s all I care about right now. A guy who thought about me before himself. . “You hungry?” I smiled back. “It’s okay. and I swear I saw a flash of real worry in his eyes.He cursed as he picked up his CB radio and called the station to let them know he had reason to believe MM was in the park. but not at your expense. That was a first for me. more confused than ever.” He looked at me. I want to be the one to catch the bastard. “I’m really sorry.” He smiled. but all he said was.” A warm.
no less. I knew he had an ulterior motive. embarrassing me to death. Not one of my best moments. Winkie. “You want to go park?” The last time I’d gone parking with a guy. Not exactly restaurant attire. a man I hadn’t even known was married. Until the cops had knocked on the window. “I’m a mess. soaked clothes. Dylan glanced at my dirty. we’d broken in the back seat. I cringed.” “You look great even in slush. Mac. wet warm-up suit. To the officer’s sister. He hadn’t thought about me first. . Twenty-nine years old caught necking in a car with Marc Hillerman.Looking down at my dirty.” He wanted to go parking? I stiffened. We’ll order take-out and go park. He’d thought about his Mr. steaming up the windows good.
” “My place. do you?” I didn’t answer. even if it kills me. Riiiight. But I was relieved that he had agreed to being just friends. I won’t lie.” The last time he’d come over. I still want you just as much as I did the other night. “You really don’t think much of me.“Bad idea. It wasn’t him so much. I liked Dylan. So we’ll take it back to your place.” Softening a bit. Or you do. He shook his head. we’d attacked each other on the couch. “Deal. looking sincere. I . but I agreed to be friends. I didn’t trust myself to be alone with him. “Deal?” I laughed.” He smiled. “Look. I’m going to give it my best shot. I had to admit it felt good that he still wanted me. Annie. and with Gloria so busy.
Super Cop had come to my rescue. but the most bizarre people kept coming into my life. like everyone had warned me to be. Every time I got into trouble. Not only for my project. What the hell was up with that? I didn’t get it. too. It was uncanny how he knew exactly when I needed him and where I was. but still. I know I had called him. *** Ten minutes later. I sat in Big Betty while Dylan ran in and ordered us some food to go. I didn’t feel so alone.needed Dylan. For the first time in a long time. As crazy . I was being so careful. Once again. but for someone to talk to. he miraculously appeared to save the day. given the fact that Khaki Man had called me Annie Oakley. Uncanny and a bit suspicious.
but otherwise.as my life was. it had never quite resembled such a three-ring circus before. I couldn’t help wonder why Dylan was being so kind to me. buddy. Note to self: Zucchinis think with their winkies above all else. “Thanks. He slid behind the wheel and set the cartons on the seat between us with a killer smile.” His striking blue eyes flashed once. I opened the driver’s side door and pushed it wide. “Let’s . I decided to play along to see if my theory was right. Leaning over. Could it be because he truly cared about me? Or maybe he was just trying to worm his way into my bed through friendship. Dylan exited the restaurant. Mac. balancing several cartons of Chinese food as he rounded the hood of his car.” “No problem. his expression didn’t change.
it’s gonna get cold. “I’ve seen you eat. That look had definitely come from his winkie. “Wow.” I said in awe. Mmmm. Turning to him. hmmm. he was staring straight at me. their fog horns honking in greeting. He wasn’t looking at the stunning view. looking at the food cartons.” He drove by the harbor. I could even make out the Statue of Liberty’s silhouette. Mac. “This is breathtaking. and the full moon reflected its pale image off the sparkling water. I blinked. “Why’d you get so much?” He barked out a laugh and headed away from the harbor in the direction of Queens. I’m starved. Boats were docking. “Better hurry up. not his brain.” “It sure is.” he responded in a raspy voice.” .” I said. And if I looked far enough.go eat.
I hadn’t noticed. my life was one big puddle of stress.” He grinned. Not that this is a date.” “Of course not.” he said gently. hypothetically. I felt the heat climb up.“Oh. and flicked my chin with his fingertip. . up my face. up. “Trust me. Did I mention I’m highly competitive?” “Gee. “But let’s just say. I think I’ve out-eaten every date I’ve ever been on. “I like women who aren’t afraid to eat more than a salad.” “Re-he-heaaaaally. it’s a good thing. you wouldn’t stand a chance. and let’s face it. if we were on a date.” He touched the stitches above his black eye.” “Then you’re gonna love me. I had always been an emotional eater.” Dipping my head.
” . “You didn’t tell me you could eat like that.” His eyes filled with determination. *** An hour later. and untucked his own T-shirt.” I moaned as I untucked my nice. “In that case. I’d call that a tie. but didn’t let that stop me. “You’re on. we both leaned back in our chairs at my kitchen table in utter and complete agony.” My gaze met his. “Man.” He groaned. dry T-shirt from my comfy sweats.I winced. “Hypothetically. and he hit the gas. you can eat more than most men I know.” “I didn’t know I could. I would have to challenge you to eat more than me. picking up speed. hypothetically. and I arched a brow.
I smirked. “And then .I shot him a half-hearted glare. Mac. I think. here it comes. You gonna answer my question?” “Well.” “So what do you normally do next on your other dates?” I asked. “Thanks. I’d thank her for a great evening. “Hey. how could you not. I’m just curious. and I’d ask if I could call her sometime.” Aha. “Absolutely. What would be your next move if you were on a real date?” “Still trying to figure men out?” His eyes narrowed. “Something like that. “Thought this wasn’t a date?” “It’s not.” He smiled at me.” “You’re cool. right?” I grinned. I like you.
then you’d blow her off. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.” He chuckled. I hated to see the evening end. stood.you’d blow her off. right?” “No. I should confront him about the suspicious people that had been following me and the evidence I’d found in his apartment. but I didn’t want to ruin . and they were somewhat normal. “But after you finally got some action. “Callie speechless.” I frowned but couldn’t think of anything to say. I knew other men who came into the store back home and bought girly mags. right?” He stared at me for a full minute and then finally said. That’s a first. I’d call her like I said I would. “Not all guys are like the bastard who obviously did one hell of a number on you. and then excused himself to use the bathroom.” My smirk faded.
I stared at him for a long moment and then decided what the heck? “Why not?” Nodding. but all he said was. And a part of me didn’t want to know the truth. his jaw working overtime as though he wanted to say something. Thanks for a great evening.” Then he let himself out. “Thanks for dinner and for taking care of me.” He studied me. he walked to the door and looked me square in the eye. I’m going to take some more aspirin and go to bed. Maybe I can call you sometime?” He tried for a smile without much success. but I’ve still got a headache. I said. “Well. When he reappeared. Maybe this friend thing could . I hate to call it a night. “I will call you. I’d actually found myself enjoying Dylan’s company.” I stood.the evening. “You’re welcome. Maybe a bit too much.
“And I had a ball . and a few goofy smiles floated my way. “Got it. I’d become quite popular around campus. Several eyes fixed on me. known mostly as Produce Lady. One girl I didn’t even know had stopped me earlier today and asked if I could give her any advice on how to improve her relationship with her boyfriend since his produce was definitely affecting his personality and their sex life.” Red answered.work after all. *** “Did you get it?” I asked the Angels as I glanced around the cafeteria during lunch on Thursday. I hated standing out. And I had to admit it felt good helping other women even if I really didn’t know what I was doing. but I’d take being known as Produce Lady over Porn Queen any day.
cuz your date was a cool cucumber. “Yeah.” Red cringed. He was so desperate he irritated the crap out of me with compliments and gifts. “Who wouldn’t like a zucchini who looked like Ashton Kutcher? But I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. I took the file of research from Red and flipped through the pages. He was sooooo cute.doing it. Crappy ones.” Blondie giggled. like he could have picked them up last-minute at a gas station. too. “How could you ever trust a guy like that or believe his answers to your questions?” . Weirdest guy I ever went out with.” “I liked my guy.” I’ll bet she did.” Brownie shook her head. “I got stuck with a shriveled-up pickle. He’s probably been with half the campus.
I told you so. Because when he strayed. He made a great friend. “Yeah. “You’re not staying to eat?” asked Blondie. “Thanks. I’d never been part of the popular crowd in school because my parents never let me go anywhere. ladies. but that was all I could let him be. I’d settle for just about any guy. Trust me.I looked up and heard a voice in the back of my head say. after a pickle. well I’d date him.” I stood. See. It felt good knowing they wanted me . I hadn’t forgotten about Dylan’s issues. Except another pickle. it would hurt way too much. I appreciate your help more than you know. Besides.” Brownie shuddered. which I knew he would just like Bob had. I had to remember that men--zucchinis in particular-could not be trusted.
Knock! Knock! “Who’s there?” Professor Butthead asked from inside his office. He chomped on a dripping sandwich with his shiny balding head bent over a stack of papers. still sore from getting hit by Big Betty and in no mood to do what had to be done.” I answered. Heading to the lecture center. wondering how the students would feel when they got their graded quizzes back stinking . Got a date with a pickle. “Can’t.” Brownie reached out and squeezed my hand. “Callie.” “You poor thing. “You don’t know the half of it. It was open. then I sighed. I didn’t stop until I reached the last door on the right. I smiled at her. standing in his open doorway.to stay.” I hobbled out of the cafeteria.
of rotten eggs. He raised his head, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and gave me a cocky smile, goopy yellow egg salad pooling in the corners. “Callie who?” Callie Not-Gonna-Let-You-Win, that’s who, you pickle. “Callie MacDonald. I’m here to update you on my project if you have a minute.” He glanced beyond me. “Come in and shut the door, please.” I entered, and once I sat in the chair across from him, he continued, “I don’t know. Maybe this topic is too difficult for you.” He paused. “Maybe you should try a different course. I’m sure I could get you transferred if you’d like.” He licked the egg salad away from the corners of his fat lips, and I tried not to gag. I would never eat egg salad again. In fact, I’d lost my appetite completely.
“I don’t want to take a different course. I’ve invested too much time in this project, and I think I deserve a chance at pulling it off.” He sat back and rubbed his protruding belly. “Really. So the research is going well then?” “The research is going great.” “You found all your subjects to interview? Because if you need a--” “A pickle? No I’ve got it covered, but thanks for the offer.” A look of confusion puckered his face. God, would I love to explain it to Baby Dill, but I wasn’t so sure he could wrap his gleaming noggin around the subject. “A pickle? I wasn’t offering lunch, I was offering--” he started to say. “To help?” I cut him off. “That’s sweet, but no
thanks. I want to show you I deserve a good grade even though you don’t like me.” I blinked at him, feigning innocence. His eyes narrowed. “I would never fail you just because I don’t like you.” He frowned. “Not that I don’t like you.” Yeah, right. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t trying to imply that you would do something like that. I mean, that would be wrong.” He scowled. “Maybe I should--” “Congratulate me? Why, there’s no need for that, Professor. Dr. McCreedy already did. She thought it a bit unorthodox when I interviewed her to gain a woman’s perspective, since she’s the head of this department, but she was impressed with the way I’m handling this topic.” His eyes widened. “You didn’t--” “Give her a copy yet? No, I promised her I’d
give her a copy of the final report with my grade on it.” I smiled wide. “She’s interested in seeing the finished product. In fact, she mentioned conducting a real study and possibly publishing my findings. Isn’t that great?” “Yeah, great. You’re a real--” “Hard worker, I know. But thanks for noticing, and thank you so much for assigning me this topic. Well, I gotta run.” I dropped a folder full of research on his desk and thought, Try failing me now, Pickle Boy. “Wait just a minute. We’re not done with this conversa--” “Oh, take your time, Professor. I’ve got copies at home. I can see that you’re busy--” Knock! Knock! “Who’s there?” Butthead snapped. “Minnnn-dyyyy,” a sing-song voice called
out. “Mindy whoooo-oooo?” I sang back, receiving a glare for my efforts and a pause from the other side of the door. “Looks like your next appointment is here.” I jumped up and opened the door before Butthead could get his hands on me. He looked ready to strangle me or explode, his face was so red. As I slipped out the door, I waved at Ms. Brownnose. “Hi, Mindy.” Her eyelashes fluttered rapidly, her cheeks a bright pink as her gaze darted back and forth between Butthead and me. “Don’t worry, he’s all yours. I’m on my way out.” I looked back at Butthead. “I’ll just leave my progress report with you to go over at your leisure. Thanks for your time, Professor. See ya, Mindy.” I turned around and marched out of the
room with my head held high. Man, that felt good. *** Sitting at the kitchen table in my apartment and sharpening my pencil for the fifth time, I glanced at the phone. This was stupid. Friends didn’t have to see or talk to each other every day, but I hadn’t heard from Dylan in a few days, and it was Friday night. With Gloria’s crazy new schedule, I hardly talked to her anymore. I was tired of being alone, and her matchboxsized apartment was starting to get to me. Shoot, I hadn’t even had any more bizarre situations happen lately, either. Never thought I’d miss those. I should be ecstatic that people were finally leaving me alone, but I’d come to the conclusion that being alone was downright lonesome. I needed to get out and do something.
Grabbing my list of things to do and my purse, I headed out the door. Twenty minutes later, I cruised the aisles of the produce market with my shopping basket in hand, determined to vary my diet. I came to a stop beside a bin of zucchinis. Okay, so I was a bit curious. What harm was there in that? Glancing around, I set my basket down and picked one up. God, these things were huge. Holding it in my hands, I pictured the other zucchini I’d gotten a glimpse of and was mortified when my body responded. “Make sure you squeeze it all over. You don’t want to get one that’s a little soft. Trust me, they’re no good,” said a male voice beside me. “I’ll keep that in mind.” I turned to look at the young man stocking the cucumber bin next to me, and his eyes sprang wide.
“Hey, you’re Produce Lady.” He looked at the cucumber in his own hand and blurted, “Not that I know all about produce.” Is this town full of my classmates, or do the Angels just love to gossip? I looked at his apron, and pressed my lips together. “Okay, so I work in the produce department, but I don’t know about... you know... produce.” He tossed the cucumber into the bin and puffed out his chest. “And I’m not a cucumber, either.” He stared at the zucchini I held. “I’m bigger.” His face flushed slightly. “Anyway, I was just stocking the shelves. You need any help, ask Ben over there.” I glanced over and watched a man with purple hair and multiple piercings stock a special display of--oh, could it get any better--pickles. “He knows all about produce.” The stock boy
beside me shuddered. “Gotta go get, you know.” His face flamed bright pink this time, and he made a hasty retreat through the stockroom doors. I laughed. Note to self: Cucumbers aren’t as normal as I thought. Still holding the zucchini in my hand, I picked up my basket and rounded the corner of the fruit section and then came to a jarring stop. There stood Dylan, looking oh-so-sexy in his trademark faded Levi’s, T-shirt, and black leather jacket, as he bent over a produce bin. I approached him, knowing darn well something was up, but I couldn’t seem to keep from eyeing his scrumptious tush to the very last second. “Hey, you. Isn’t this market a little out of the way from your place?”
Whirling around, he blinked, his bruise barely visible and stitches gone, then he flashed a grin. “Hey, yourself. This market has the best fresh fruit.” He held up the pair of twin peaches he cradled at chest level. “Feel these. They’re perfect.” “Can’t. My hands are full.” His eyes dropped to my breasts and then shifted to the zucchini I still had a death grip on, and I dropped it. He winced. “That’s gonna leave a bruise.” I snatched it up off the floor. “It’s fine. I like mine soft.” His eyebrow shot up, and I cleared my throat. “And I don’t need any peaches, I already have a couple.” Oh, God, tell me I didn’t just say that. “I can see that,” he croaked. “I was talking about the ones in my fridge at
home.” “Oh,” he said. “Well, it was good running into you, but I gotta run. See you around, Mac.” “Bye,” I called to his retreating back, relieved that he’d left. I always made a fool of myself whenever he was around. Still, what a strange conversation that had been. A short time later, I left the market and scanned my list. Gloria had a birthday coming up this month. They had some good sales going on, with Valentine’s Day only a week away. Entering Macy’s, I headed to the ladies’ department. It didn’t take me long to find the perfect outfit for her. A hot and spicy red silk dress I couldn’t afford even at the discounted price, but Gloria was worth it. It would be perfect for her singing gigs.
looking more like a long T-shirt than a nightgown. it would fall over my fanny to the tops of my thighs. but the lingerie department caught my eye. but I couldn’t stop staring at it. I cringed at the thought of what such a work of art must cost. I marched over. My best asset. but showcase my legs. biting my bottom lip all the way. that was easy.Well. then checked the tag. What the heck. I twisted left and right to get a good view of all the angles. With my long legs. and-oh. Hide my insecurity. I couldn’t resist holding it up in front of me and pulling it snug over my bumps. joy of joys--thirty percent off! I really didn’t have a need for this. I was drawn to a pure silk spaghetti-strap nightgown in the same pale-green shade as my eyes. Still. as far as I was . I made my way to the register. Perfect.
“Dylan? Is that you?” “Afraid so.” came the muffled reply from beneath. “What?” he asked. reached down. I pulled the Miracle Bra off his head and held it in front of his face. Reaching forward. I draped the nightgown across another rack. He grimaced and struggled to his feet. Crash! What in the world? I whipped around and stared in disbelief at the pair of snakeskin boots sticking out from beneath a rack of bras that had toppled to the floor beside me. “Are you trying to tell me my peaches are lacking?” God. I couldn’t hold back my laugh. one corner of his lips tipping up in response to my laughter. . and lifted the rack of bras off him.concerned.
she won’t be able to see the floor. “Think your friend Gloria would like this for her birthday?” I had told him about Gloria over Chinese food the other night and couldn’t believe he remembered. My parents would be horrified. “I hardly think she needs a Miracle Bra.” he said. even if his idea was completely inappropriate. but his grin broadened. If I give her that. “I’ve been busy. He shrugged. “What are you doing hiding behind the bra rack in the ladies’ department?” “Following you.” I couldn’t help laughing. She can barely see her feet as it is.” . and seeing you in the market made me realize I’ve missed you. It meant he’d actually listened to me.the things that came out of my mouth.
Mac. What man would willingly stand there surrounded by a bunch of bras?” “Not you. I was buying it .” He picked up the pale-green nightie I’d been holding in front of me and fingered the material with obvious approval. I felt my ears grow warm but made no move to put it back as I headed to the register.” I snorted. but you threw me for a loop when you headed into all these girly things. but he placed his finger over them. “Can I help it you distracted me when you held this little number up in front of you?” Snatching the nightgown from him. Apparently you’re the sort who likes to dive right into the middle of them. A friend. stilling my words.I parted my lips to protest. “As a friend. “I was trying to catch up with you to see if you wanted to hang out tonight.
Mac?” He fell into step beside me as we exited the store. She seems happy. what? Where are we going. dancing.” “Yeah? Dinner.” Then I marched back and grabbed his hand. “Toys-R-Us. Really. but when I tried to let .” He stopped. since you keep running into me anyway.” “What for?” “I need some toys. She’s so busy these days with her gig. but I’m glad to help. “Come on. not because he did. You’re welcome to join me. I told Gloria I’d pick out a gift for her soon-to-be niece or nephew.” He let me pull him along. “I have one more stop.because I liked it. I don’t have kids. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” I turned around and laughed at his puckeredup expression. a movie. “No.
he kept his firmly closed around mine. Being friends was turning out to be a whole lot more fun than I’d thought it would be. but his smile reached all the way to his electric-blue eyes.go of his hand. He glanced at me and then looked straight ahead. I bit my lip. but went with it and tightened my grip around his. . It sure as heck beat spending another Friday night alone.
that’s huge. I don’t know a thing about . you meant the store. I never know.” “What did you think I was talking about?” He held up his hands. “Hey.CHAPTER TEN “Wow. huh?” Dylan asked.” I stared in awe. “I try. “This has to be the biggest Toys-R-Us I’ve ever seen.” “You’re telling me. “Bigger than you thought. We’ve got a lot of territory to cover.” Then he grabbed my hand. “C’mon. with you.” I smirked.” “You’re a regular riot. He grinned.” “Oh.
Once I learned when to shut my trap and . “What do you mean?” “I mean. “Don’t worry. I didn’t have any nieces or nephews to buy for.” With his looks. giving him a little more attention than the average Joe. We’ll be fine. I bet his sister’s friends had paraded around in front of him. And I only had a few distant cousins that I didn’t keep in touch with.” As an only child. Between that and his zucchini. you have a way with the opposite sex.” “Six sisters? Well. that explains a lot. the guy was destined to be addicted to sex. Especially in an Italian family.” “You can’t grow up like I did and not learn a few things about women. I have six older sisters and a ton of nieces and nephews.babies.
It would never occur to them that they could be wrong about something once in a while. Evidence didn’t lie. “Let’s go.” He blew out a breath and shook his head. But I still couldn’t bring myself to confront him about it. and even took a . “Seriously. “We’d better get going. then. circled the Ferris wheel. and I’d seen the evidence first hand. I got along just fine. and his eyes softened.” I wandered up and down every aisle on both levels. “Kind of like someone else I know.” My heart gave a little lurch.” He winked. The store will close soon. my sisters are great. Could I be wrong about him? I swallowed hard and reminded myself I’d been burned one too many times. Just stubborn and always right.” He stared at me.that I’d never win anyway.
I tried to fight the tender feelings flooding me. My arm jerked and I fell back. on the other hand. Scanning the signs. not quite the same. I couldn’t wipe the silly grin from my face. It’s getting late. I once again tried to figure out what to get for the baby. Mario. “Whoa there.spin on the Lego ride to no avail. We have to get . or something. and we’re not getting anywhere. What’s the hurry? You’d think this was a race. but close. Okay. Dylan. Same as I had with Gloria after spending time with her. bouncing off his chest. “It is a race. I faced him. I was totally clueless when it came to kids. dragging Dylan along with me at a quick pace. reasoning I was simply growing closer to him. He stopped down one aisle to tie a little boy’s shoe then ruffled the boy’s hair and sent him scurrying after his mother. was amazing.” he said.
taking off running around the corner and down another aisle. “Where’d you get that from?” Looking around. but you didn’t say we couldn’t play. A rubber dart stuck out from the middle of my forehead. smacking the center of my forehead with a rubber dart.serious and shop. My parents had been so serious. “Where’d it go?” He threw his head back and laughed. I narrowed my eyes in suspicion as I lifted my hand to confirm it. I glanced at the floor. Yup. but a little thrill ran through me. I’d spent a lot of time playing alone in my room. I gasped. and with no siblings to play with. “You said we had to shop. making me look like an ugly unicorn. Sure enough. .” He whipped out a toy dart gun and fired off a round.” His eyes twinkled and he took several steps back.
I felt like a little kid. “Whoops.” The man next to me frowned. and I had to admit. I strapped it to my wrist and pretended to sling from aisle to aisle with my arms. Rounding the corner. you sneaky. but I ignored him. I kept walking and searching for my enemy. I was having more fun than I’d had in a very long time. it felt great. I deserved to. I called out.” I grimaced. . and darn it. not giving a hoot. looking for a weapon of any kind. pansy-butt coward!” A mother standing a few feet away from me gasped and covered her son’s ears.Feeling defiant. “You can’t hide forever. I left the dart in place and yelled. God. “Sorry. Spotting Spider Man’s web thingy.” But it didn’t stop me from tearing down the aisle. “Two can play at this game.
My heart skipped a beat. Dylan barked out a laugh and took off at a run. “I’m so sorry.” I aimed the web .” I seemed to be saying that a lot today. and the web showered a woman sporting the biggest hair I’d ever seen. feet pounded in the aisle ahead of me. Evil Villain.” I thrust out my hand and squeezed the trigger. only to find him standing arrogantly with his hands behind his back. “Take that. I backed out of the aisle and charged after Dylan. spraying a sticky net of spider web at Dylan’s face. and I felt a huge grin burst across my face as I reversed directions and cut him off at the other end. He ducked. “Ha! I’ve got you now. The woman shrieked and began to rake her inch-long nails through her perfectly coiffed mane.Just then.
” “I’m gonna enjoy this. He let out a slow. evil chuckle. I think we’ve established there’s a big difference. but nothing happened. “You wouldn’t dare. I squeezed again. what’s the difference?” “Oh. I looked at him.” I squeezed the trigger with pleasure. Still nothing. “Cocky.” . my jaw hit the floor. confident. Prepare to lose. and when he pulled his hands from behind his back.sprayer right at his head again.” “Take your best shot. “And I’m going to wipe that smug smile right off your cocky face. “What-ever.” “Confident. Out of web spray. remember?” He smiled his crooked smile and looked way too pleased with himself. villain.” I rolled my eyes. Mac.
I snatched a doll off the shelf.” he mocked me. The doll aisle? Good going. I dropped my web sprayer. Slapping my hands on my soggy rear end.“Wanna bet?” His grin grew enormous. nitwit. Oh. then raced over to the water fountain and filled her up full. The sneaky devil must’ve filled it from the water fountain. and I grinned. “Eeeek!” I screamed as a blast of water nailed my insecurity. . spun around. I veered off out of the line of fire then skidded to a halt and took note of where I was. and bolted. I’d spent countless hours playing alone in my room. What on earth was I supposed to do with these? An idea popped into my mind. Like I said. but what I hadn’t mentioned was I’d had the biggest doll collection in town. “I’m gonna enjoy this. then squeezed the trigger of the biggest water gun I’d ever seen.
One more step. I leaned back so he wouldn’t see me and waited for the perfect moment. aiming the stream of water shooting out its bottom straight at the zipper of Diaper Boy’s fly. I peeked around the corner. When I lowered the doll. my smile vanished and the breath whooshed right out of my lungs. “Gotcha. not a pair of long-legged Levi’s. closer. stocky Dockers. Diaper Boy!” I slid out of the aisle on my knees and squeezed the doll’s tummy as hard as I could.yeah. Footsteps sounded closer. This one will do just fine. closer. And . and he’d be mine. Dylan walked slowly toward the aisle where I hid. Note to self: Always check the produce first. Sure enough. The zipper belonged to a pair of short.
He helped me to my feet and marched me to the front of the store.” I squeaked. “Y-You’re not Dylan. “If it helps. and manager’s nametag with a loud gulp. I took in the Oxford shirt. tie. “And you’re outta here. What was I supposed to do now. unable to think of anything else to say. “It doesn’t.” He slammed the door in my face. Don’t come back. right through the doors onto the shoveled sidewalk.” I said in a tiny voice.” the manager ground out. snatching the dart off my forehead. . Playing like a child at thirty. I’m sorry. I bit my lip and looked up the rest of the way to encounter eyes filled with what could only be called outrage. and where the heck was Dylan? It was all his fault that I was in this predicament. ever.that was not a zucchini. Peering higher.
It was a doll. “You. I can’t believe you did that to me. ready to kill him. You.” he said.” “I did not go wee-wee on anyone. A perfect reminder why I had to steer clear of men in general.. not even trying to hide his grin. you know darn well what it was. Ten minutes later. And last I checked. I zipped up my Eskimo parka and stood shivering on the sidewalk.. and it was water. you were ahead . Oh. “Did what? You’re the one who went wee-wee on the store manager.. He took my arm and steered me toward the parking lot. he strolled out. “I can’t believe you got us kicked out of Toys-R-Us.” I sputtered..What had I been thinking? I made such stupid choices when I was around a guy I was attracted to. his arms filled with packages.
He calls our precinct at least once a day with complaints. You must have jumped into the next aisle on purpose.” .” A strangled laugh escaped through Dylan’s nose. “Anyone who didn’t see you blast his balls with that doll must really think he wet his pants. until I laughed as hard as he did. that guy deserves to have someone annoy him.” I groaned. Wait until I tell the guys downtown.” I couldn’t help it. “I can’t believe I did that. A giggle bubbled up from some naughty child within. Why couldn’t my aim have been off that time?” “Trust me. I leaned against Big Betty to catch my breath. that was a very bad thing to do. Wiping the tears from my eyes. until he finally let loose and doubled over. knowing I would think he was you. “Seriously.of him. bugging the crap out of everyone. though.
” His eyes filled with mischief. “We never did buy a baby gift. and one very wet Wee-Wee Diana. because you’re never going to win. and I hope you’ve learned your lesson. “One Torpedo Dart Gun--minus a dart. still smiling.” .” I said. but he ducked inside the car and unlocked my door. Finding myself grinning despite his outrageous comments. We bought several. one half-loaded Giant Millennium Super Soaker.” “Gloria’s going to kill us.” he answered with a chuckle.” I pointed out. “Let’s just hope Wee-Wee Diana’s all tapped out.“That’s right.” I opened my mouth to argue. pointing to the back seat. I slid into my seat and shut the door. “Don’t mess with the best. “You’re right. one empty Spider Man Web Blaster.
who had a wonderful rapport with children. I wore my standard T-shirt and panties sleepwear. Tonight. I couldn’t bring myself to wear the green silk nightie I’d bought. Gloria? You know what I went through back home. I don’t need this right now. because it reminded me too much of Hot Britches. yet could be a child himself with his easy-going humor and playfulness. A guy I’d never known existed. A guy I had no idea what to do with.We both laughed and remained smiling for the rest of the ride back to my apartment. the rich aroma filling my senses. .” I curled my bare legs up under me on the worn-out couch and sipped my Saturday morning coffee. A guy who was compassionate and sensitive. Super Cop had seemed like a regular guy. *** “What am I going to do.
really. saying he was interested in talking to her about representation. But we’d talked for the last hour about her. I was thrilled for her. And failed. “I tried. then bam. I was. There’d been an agent in the audience who’d given her his card.Gloria usually slept in on Saturday mornings.” She poured herself another cup and joined me on the couch. simple as that. it was my turn. I meet Hot .” I sighed. Then snatched the afghan off the back cushion and tossed it over her legs. Now. so I pulled a corner of her blanket over my lap and continued. “I was completely content in giving up on the male species. “So forget about him. shivering. An early morning chill had settled around us. her silk pajamas whispering all the way. I needed help. but she was too keyed up from the success of her gig last night.
or maybe I have. I can’t remember. “Well. Heck.” she swiped her hand through the air. but--” “Listen. “for someone who’s supposedly an addict.” I frowned. “He’s not lame. should know that. of all people. I’m totally confused. You. I have to keep reminding myself that he’s obsessed with sex. or possibly pressured you ‘till you caved. none.Britches. Now. chica.” “My point exactly. how many times have you had sex with Dylan?” She arched a brow. An addict probably would’ve given up a long time ago. Maybe you’re wrong about this one. Everything’s black and white with you. He seems so perfect.” . he sounds a bit lame to me. He’s made moves.” “Excuse me.
” She reached out and squeezed my hand. “What if he’s just being nice to me because he thinks I’m easy?” She laughed. if you were easy. I just don’t buy it. trust me. I . except for Flasher Freak.” I stared down into the creamy swirls of brown in my cup. I saw--” “The evidence. “Honey. I think he would’ve figured that one out and given up on you. doesn’t mean he’s addicted to sex. I get it. “I guess part of me is afraid he may have seen that stupid porn video of me.“I’m not. he would’ve gotten some by now. It just means he’s a guy. “Just because he’s into girly mags and Internet porn. I just don’t think I could stomach that. “Ever think maybe he just likes you for you?” “I might think that.” My eyes met hers.” She grew serious.
well hell. so what’s the point?” She stood up and carried her cup to the sink.” She headed . Great basis for a relationship.” I snorted. “Just don’t go losing your heart. he won’t have a reason to hang out with me. You seem happier since he came into your life. And if it does.know how much Dylan wants to be the one to catch him. It doesn’t have to go any further than that. enjoy that too. “Once he finds out he’s part of a psychology project. he’s going to hate me anyway. Once that happens. and you’ll be fine. Just enjoy his friendship while it lasts. rinsing it out as she spoke. He’s just using me to further his career.” She winked. “Yeah. “You’re way overthinking this. if you don’t want it to.” “Kinda like you’re using him to find your answers?” She arched a winged brow.
determined to have a good time on my date.into her room to change for work. calling out behind her. I shouldn’t have anything to worry about. plopped down with a wince. would ya? Go have fun.” My skates slipped out from under me. and I landed hard on the ice for the millionth time today. that is. I stared outside at the bright sunshine and clear blue sky. and . and everything would be all right. I just had to keep reminding myself of that. So. Especially if I was on guard against it. *** “I can’t do this. Hypothetical date. “Loosen up. Just because I was the type to fall fast and hard in the past didn’t mean I would do so now. really.” Gloria was right. Who knew my insecurity could be an asset? I painstakingly made my way to a bench.
and it’ll come. “Sure you can. it was his turn today.” Dylan gave me an encouraging smile. Like I could cancel then. I admitted. Since I chose where we went last night. He hadn’t even told me until he picked me up and we were on our way. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was competitive. Besides. I once ate ten pounds of Grandma Brown’s baked beans all by myself because Shawn . And because I never could turn down a challenge. Why did he have to be so nice? Or so cute? And why in the world had I ever agreed to ice skating at Rockefeller Center when I didn’t have a clue how to skate? Because I’d had such an amazing time in the toy store last night.crossed my arms over the bulk of my Eskimo parka. Just have a little patience.
To Dylan’s credit. I just hadn’t anticipated the entire west wing of Cutesville High would pay as well. so I wasn’t tooting like a choo-choo train stuck in high gear. I could . Today wasn’t any different. but I’d been too stubborn to allow it. he’d been trying to help me all afternoon. but there was no way I would quit until I skated on my own at least once. How could he not be? His feet were so big. the whole school would have gone up. I didn’t even like beans. Okay. Even if I hadn’t been the most popular kid in school. If someone had lit a match. he looked like he wore skis instead of skates. Heck. I’d won. But I didn’t regret it one bit. but I was determined to make him pay. No wonder he was good at skating.Sheritan claimed to have done so and made the arrogant mistake of saying I couldn’t.
be Nancy Kerrigan with those. squeezing the breath out of him.” he wheezed. but my feet began to zig then zag. I thrust out my hand. “I like you. and a tender smile curved his lips. That was hard for me to do. and he knew it. I huffed out a breath and peeked up at him from under the hood of my humongous coat. I hated that I couldn’t do this on my own. you’ll have to loosen your hold. He took my hand and tugged me to my feet.” “Sorry. but maybe it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing to accept just a little bit of help.” I started to let go. too. Grabbing back onto him because . “Whaaaaaaaa!” I fell into his chest and threw my arms around his waist. “but if you want me to show you how to skate.
Grinning that cute crooked grin. Most guys might have been bored or tired of me by now. Detective. confusing me even more. No way. in front of me. I shook my head firmly. “Relax.” I smiled. I think I’m getting the hang of it.” And he didn’t. You’re not leaving me on my own out here.” He chuckled and wrenched my arms loose. never once losing patience. until I gradually gained confidence. he urged me on. this isn’t so bad. and wearing those heat shields that had become less annoying and more a part of who he was. Mac. feeling the excitement surge . Or rather. “Uh-uh. No can do. I’m not going anywhere.my life depended on it. skating backward and holding my hands for the next hour. “Hey. He stayed by my side. but he truly seemed to be enjoying himself. but he kept hold of my hands.
making me feel like a really bad breakdancer. get back here this instant.through me.” . And that terrified me.” I kept grabbing at him but missing. And while you’re at it. With the afternoon sun shining and the air mild. What did it all mean? “Ready to go solo?” he said. Look at all the people whizzing by. my arms and legs jerking. I felt happy. “W-Wait! I can’t. Really happy for a change. When I gained my balance. I wobbled to and fro. I took short little glides across the ice and nailed him with a murderous glare.” “Bring it on. It’s too crowded. breaking into my thoughts as he released my hands. He shook his head and stayed just beyond my reach. “Just wait until I catch you. I’m waiting. Hey. take a look at what you’re doing.
” My voice trailed off. And when I do. he was gorgeous. right here. I’m doing it!” I shrieked. making me lose my concentration. right now. Skating circles around me. I’m ice skating all by myself. What I wouldn’t give to have him hold me in his arms. . He swung around behind me as though he’d read my mind and wrapped his arms around my waist. “Holy cow..“I’m coming to get you is what I’m doing. his olive-toned skin glowing in the sunlight. he kept encouraging my every move. A few strands of black hair slipped from his ponytail. snagging in his goatee. grinning from ear to ear over my obvious elation.. What are you doing?” One of my nervous giggles slipped free. chief. there. “Whoa. God. I’ll. He shook it free and flashed those pearly whites. “I’m really doing it.” He laughed.
” I gradually got the rhythm. “Jesus. Hold on tight.. then I felt him stagger his skates between mine and pick up the pace. you mean. and he chuckled softly. “I have to say you are refreshingly unique from any of the city women I’ve dated. God. he whispered. “Oh. I don’t think I’m ready for this. Pulling me in closer. . Oh.” I wrapped my arms tightly over his and held on for dear life. This is incredible. “Is there any other kind of date?” He laughed. We glided around the rink. “You’re incredible. mentally making the sign of the cross.” My skate slipped.” he said. You’ll be fine.“Shhh. and Joseph.” I loosened my death grip on his forearms just a little.” I shot back. my feet finally falling in sync with his.” “Hypothetically dated. wow. Mary.. Oh. but I’d be darned if I’d let go completely. failing to keep the smile out of my voice. “W-Wait.
grinning.” We rounded a corner. mother of God.“Not that I can think of. either. fresh air. I didn’t care. Maybe more. and children laughing. Perfect until I looked back. ignoring the odd stares directed my way. “Woohoo. that ridiculous silly grin hadn’t left his face all afternoon.” I yelled. The day was perfect--sunshine. I was having too much fun to worry about making a fool of myself. and he shook his head. In fact. and he was okay with that.” a hoarse voice . no matter how much he’d tried to cover it. This was as much fun as the toy store. I could be myself around him. He’d taken off his sunglasses. and I couldn’t help getting lost in his eyes. I peeked over my shoulder. He couldn’t seem to look away. because it made me feel less self-conscious. I was glad I’d seen it. “Holy Mary. adults chatting.
I melted inside. I couldn’t believe he’d done that. until I noticed . doing some spin-off thingy I’d seen the football players back in high school do. There was no way around it. missing the old man by a mere inch. A jolt of awareness zipped through me. then grabbed me. We were going to fall. The breath whooshed from his lungs.croaked out. directly in our path. I was almost as big as he was. and I whipped my head around. Dylan cursed. but I felt fine. A little old man with big owl eyes stood frozen. yet he made sure I wouldn’t get hurt. Watching a football player do a spin-off on cleats was a whole lot different than participating in one with a padless Detective wearing hockey skates. Dylan turned his back to the ice and pulled me on top of him. landing hard on his back.
“Please be okay. “I think I’ve died and gone to.” “I am now. he gasped for breath. “Tell me you’re okay. looking dazed. The same spark shot through me that had happened the last time he kissed me.” he finished. my lips a breath away from his. I yanked off my mittens and cradled his face. and I had a .. then reached up and pulled my head down until my lips connected with his.heaven. “Dylan?” “. a nice pink returning to his stubbled cheeks.he’d started to turn blue. he said. looking floored..” his voice trailed off as he stared into my eyes. still staring into my eyes. When he breathed normally again. As I scrambled off him..” he responded.. searching his eyes with concern.” I whispered.
I couldn’t be feeling this way about a guy like him. And he couldn’t be feeling everything that kiss said he was feeling. he deepened the kiss. I’d been hurt too many times to believe any guy could feel that way about me. angling his head to the side and slipping his fingers into my hair. Note to self: Get out now! . get a room. as though he was dying of thirst and I was the sweetest nectar. When I didn’t pull away. I jerked. “You two kids all right?” the old man asked.feeling it always would. His lips moved slowly over mine. then pulled away and stared at Dylan in total confusion and disbelief over everything I’d felt in that kiss. and his tongue swept every angle inside my mouth. “Hey.” someone yelled. The need and urgency I felt stunned me to my very core.
then took my hand and pulled us both to our feet. then sat back. “I’m fine. feeling overcome. I’ve been around for a long time.” he said when it was apparent I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t do this. . trying to clear it.” “You. Dylan rolled to his knees. don’t worry about me.“Is he breathing. too. “We’re fine. You kids take care. He kept my hand in his own. I hope you’re okay. and I don’t plan to meet my maker on a silly old pair of skates. I pulled my hand out of his and turned away to face the man. I think I was in shock.” I zigged and zagged my way to the bench where I’d left my shiny Snow Flurries. miss? Do I need to call an ambulance?” I shook my head. She was just giving me mouth-to-mouth.” “Oh.
“Nothing happened out there. We got swept up in the moment. his jaw muscles popping. “Don’t you think we should talk about what happened out there?” he asked. I looked down and continued to unlace my skates. coming to a stop by spraying the ice directly in front of me. He stormed over. He looked like he was fuming over the distance I’d purposely put between us.” Dropping down beside me. I finally found the nerve to peek up at Dylan. then he stood . He didn’t speak until he finished changing into his boots. It was just too much to take in right now. It’s not like we haven’t kissed before. I couldn’t help it. and I had no idea how to handle it. he hesitated. that’s all.not once looking over my shoulder.
He turned to face me. yes. leading the way to Big Betty. it was a hell of a lot more than the moment. buddy. I was concerned. it was only the moment. and you damn well know it. “Fine.and grabbed our skates. buddy?” I walked past him and slid into the passenger side of his car. if that’s the way you want to play it. But I’m telling you. okay.” he said loudly from outside. praying I could do just that.” he added as he slipped into the driver’s side of his car. Let’s just forget about it. “Unbelievable. “We’ve kissed before. but don’t you think it was different this time?” “You were hurt. But that didn’t . I’m telling you. Revving the engine. he tore away from the curb and took me home in silence.
We were supposed to be friends. don’t look back! I blinked. what on earth was I going to do about it? . That was not a friendly kiss. or even a lustful kiss. Run. scared to death that I’d just landed myself in a relationship.stop my brain from screaming. How had this happened? I tried not to hyperventilate. and I had no idea how to handle it. my God. Oh. that was a I’m-falling-head-over-heels-for-you kiss. that was all. hide. Why did he have to go and change the stakes on me? More importantly.
She yawned.CHAPTER ELEVEN Early Sunday morning. I’d already cleaned the bathroom. The scents of lemon and pine filled the air. I paced Gloria’s small living room. “Now that . swept the kitchen. Anything to avoid Dylan. and dusted the knickknacks. I peeked outside at the blue sky. A walk sounded good right now. and rays of sunshine sparkled off just about everything. but I wouldn’t risk running into him. “Any coffee left?” “Half a pot. since he seemed to be everywhere.” I headed to the closet. Gloria shuffled into the kitchen wearing a short satin kimono wrapped tightly around her. I’d been up for hours.
at least one of us had . “I see someone had a good time last night. honey.you’re up. snickering. I can vacuum. Not gherkin small.” “Too good. chica. “Let’s just say Eduardo has more stamina than any man I’ve ever been with. Anyway. “Well. Besides. “And his feet aren’t that small.” She winked. more like a big dill.” I gasped. I don’t want someone more impressive than me. I rolled my eyes.” She smiled. my head can’t take the noise right now.” “Sit. then took a sip of coffee and sighed.” She shook her melons. Besides. size has nothing to do with it.” I headed back to the kitchen and sat. “Eduardo? As in the small-footed valet?” “That would be the one. it’s how he moves that sucker that counts. I vacuumed yesterday.
“What did he do?” My finger stilled. Now he’s mad. “He kissed me. I had a blast ice skating.” she suggested in a suspicious tone. but he has issues. “He’s not like the losers from my past.” I muttered. Gloria frowned. and I don’t know what to do. and I’m still not ready. “Dylan’s perfect. I know he’s kissed me before. if you can believe that.a good time. I sorta freaked out and pushed him away.” I ran my hands through my hair and shook my head. “Why? What happened?” “Nothing. and I looked her in the eye.” I stared down at the table and traced an imaginary letter D with my finger. What should I do?” “Maybe it’s time you confronted him about . He pays attention to what I say and makes me laugh. but this time it felt different.” “Maybe too perfect. really.
you should definitely talk to him. “Thought you said he didn’t have a problem.” “Yeah. you were his biggest fan. Just a day ago.” Gloria grew serious. “Oh. Yeah. That he was just being a man.” I narrowed my eyes and crossed my arms over my bumps. “What do you know that you’re not telling me?” Gloria’s face flushed a coppery red. telling me to loosen up and have some fun. “Nothing.” “Well.his issues. all right. Maybe he has a few problems. Promise?” . but you can’t say where you heard this from. So what gives?” She huffed out a breath and rubbed her temples. something new for her. maybe I was wrong. right. nothing.
” She winked.” “Eduardo’s gonna kill me. God. tell me she didn’t.” He liked to talk? Snort. A mischievous smile played at the corners of her lips. “If I wanted to salvage the evening. I thought Eduardo’s face was gonna explode. Now start talking.“I won’t say a word. “Hotel staff aren’t supposed to gossip.. please. you know. but let me tell you. I swear. But when I started laughing. “Things got kinky real fast between us and one of my favorite toys..” Oh. whose mouth moved faster than a whippoorwill’s behind. my Eduardo likes to talk. I couldn’t let him think I was laughing at him.” She took another sip of coffee. Funny coming from Gloria. Not the kind of explosion I was looking for. .
. Jack.. “There had better be a point to this.” I glared at her. but didn’t look anything of the sort as she got up and refilled her coffee cup. “Sorry.” Jesus.so I had to explain about the joke I played on you with your special friend..” I’d never be able to face Eduardo again.” Gloria swirled the coffee in her cup. honey. . trust me. She sat back down and continued.“.. and the heavenly scent of Arabica beans floated to my nose. hanging around with your Hot Britches at Antonio’s Deli. Eduardo knows our doorman Franz. she did. “Anyway. “Oh there is. After Eduardo got done laughing his ass off. and Franz told him he’s seen all those wackos who’ve been stalking you. Says they call themselves the Brat Pack.” she said. Gloria. and Joseph. Mary.
“I know this is New York. But if he did have something to do with them. I’m sure he’s got a good reason. my mouth hanging open.” “Yeah.Until her words sank in. Cat Women. Thermometer Women. but I hadn’t wanted to believe it because that would make him underhanded and deceitful. he lied to me. then so much of the puzzle surrounding my Twilight Zone encounters would fall into place. honey. and Khaki Men can there actually be? He’s a cop. I shook my head. Just like Bob. well. I’d suspected Dylan was involved with those people somehow. but how many Inspector Gadgets. And I don’t need a babysitter.” I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if my pin-straight hair started to curl from all the heat . He’s probably just worried about you. Gloria added.
yet he’d sat back and said nothing. the only crazy things that had happened to me had been Dylan’s doing all along. “I take it you’re the big case he’s been working on. He was trying to take charge of my life just like Bob had. but when I said I didn’t need a babysitter. He couldn’t be trusted. He let me go on thinking I had lost my mind because he didn’t trust me enough to call for help if I truly needed it or to get myself out of a bad situation. He’d already shown me how to defend myself. for crying out loud. And if Brats One through Four are . Disappointment swamped me. Lesson learned.steaming out of my head. For a moment I’d actually let down my guard and believed in him. I’d knocked him off his feet. All that talk about being careful? With the exception of Flasher Freak. in fact. he got me one anyway. Four.
” Gloria said as she got up and set her cup in the sink. “Thanks. I’m here for you.” I ground out. .” Gloria looked up Antonio’s in the phone book then wrote down the address and handed it to me. Any idea where this deli is?” “No. “Dylan’s a big something. but I can find out.” I got up and grabbed my coat from the closet and then headed out the door. “What are you going to do?” She looked at me over her shoulder. then Dylan must be Big Daddy.” “I think you’re making a mistake. “Get even.” “Thanks. that’s what he is.the Brat Pack. but whatever you do. but this is something I have to do on my own.
Two could play at this game.Note to self: When produce turns rotten. it’s time to throw the junk out. Someone might recognize me. Ignoring my hunger. I peeked around the edge . and coffee assaulting my senses. Guess he had more patience than I did. How Dylan hung out in limbo just waiting and watching for a living was beyond me. I pretended to read as I hunched down in a corner booth in Antonio’s Deli. but I couldn’t afford to get up and order something. seasonings. *** With a newspaper in front of me. making it impossible to pick out any familiar voices. The clanking of silverware and the steady hum of conversation drifted throughout the room. salads. My mouth watered over the aroma of lunch meats.
And the Oscar went to Gloria Martinez for her amazing performance in “Pull the Wool Over Hot Britches’ Blue Laser Beams. said something to the Brat Pack. “Hey. and convince him to come to her rescue immediately. become hysterical.” Wasting no time. I’d taken Gloria up on her offer to help. Did I mention Gloria is almost as good an actress as she is a singer? Dylan snapped his phone closed. then bolted outside. his cell phone rang. remember me? The naïve. I lowered the newspaper and strode to the table then dropped into his seat. brats. there.of my paper and seethed with anger as I watched Dylan and the infamous Brat Pack eat their lunch. After what seemed like forever. small-town girl who needs to be more careful?” . She’d agreed to call Dylan on his cell at exactly noon.
who the heck are you people?” They all looked to Thermometer Woman who . her eyes narrowing in a calculated. “Speechless. but strove to control myself. but I held up my hand and said. forks and cups halting halfway to their lips. sister. I know all about Big Daddy. gang. thoughtful way.All of them stared at me.” Thermometer Woman took a sip of her tea. “What are you talking about? I’m just here--” “Looking for your cat? I’m not buying it. Cat Woman set down her tuna sandwich and spoke first. are we? Gee. I wonder why. I have plenty to say. What I want to know is. then she started to add her two cents. mouths agape. Don’t worry. “Gig’s up. ready to rip into all of them.” I snapped.
This is Jo and she’s a cadet. It’s that simple. so we gave it. “We’re Dylan’s cousins. I looked at Gadget who scowled at me.hesitated. You’ve been trying to get pregnant for months. And Mike is a CSI agent. “Hey. then said. “I never know what I might need at a crime scene.” “And the karate chopping?” I raised a brow at Cat Woman. I gotta fit practice time in wherever I can or I’m never gonna graduate from the academy.” “What’s with the Thermometer?” I asked. and I hate carrying around a box with all my . Nick over here is a patrol officer.” Khaki Man said and received a swat from Thermometer Woman. it’s true.” She shrugged. “Her clock’s ticking. Dylan asked for our help. I’m Meghan and I’m a lawyer. “Well.
yeah.supplies. “Weird.” He grinned wide. I glanced from a pair of designer heels. are just flat out weird.” I rolled my eyes when the bells rang over the door. As I ducked under the table. but cute. to a pair of running shoes. to a pair of black dress shoes. Oh. to what looked to be about a size nine set of tan loafers and stifled a snort. Man. “You. I squeezed my insecurity in the middle of four sets of shoes. I plugged my nose and held my . Those were the guilty culprits.” I bit back a laugh. someone’s feet stunk.” “Whatever you say. This coat works perfectly. then glanced at Khaki Man and shook my head. and Dylan marched back in. I think. and hugged my knees to my chest. Khaki Man must not have worn socks when he’d done all that jogging in Central Park the other day. Gagging.
what’s up?” Cat Woman asked.breath when a humongous pair of snakeskin boots came to a stop about six inches from my Snow Flurries. cuz. Anyone in his right mind would look under the table. “Hey. Anyone seen them?” Dylan asked. A big ole Ford key ring. but what other choice did I have? Dylan’s knees started to bend as he began to . I glanced up as everyone shuffled about above my head. loaded with keys. “Got all the way to Big Betty and realized I forgot my keys. Shoot. then I looked in front of my feet and my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. Who was I kidding? Keys didn’t have legs. shoot! How did I get myself in such ridiculous situations? What should I do? I could kick them out from under the table. shoot.
oh. then it oughta do wonders for . I bit my lip. tap Mr. Make-Me-Go-Cross-eyed Smelly Loafer. “Here.” Khaki Man poked his head under the table and winked. and.. let me. I dropped my hand and shot him a sheepish grin. lifted my toe. Hey. until he saw me plugging my nose. pulled out a small vial of El Smello Muchbettero breath freshener and pointed it at the small stinkbombs. then he started to.kneel. for the love of God. They were all talking above me. squeezing the trigger tight.. His eyes filled with pure mischief as he scooped up the keys and disappeared. So I reached in my purse. if it could kill Professor Butthead’s egg salad breath.. and I lost the thread of conversation as my stomach pitched. but a fresh wave of El Reeko Feeto nailed me in the face..
I get it. “Cold chill. but there’s a new boss in . You can come up now. I’m fine now. It’s an emergency.” Thermometer Woman said. “You okay. but at least his foot stopped tapping. but the rascal just laughed.” “Sorry. “He’s gone. “Ah-haaa!” Khaki Man yelped. Gotta go.Khaki Man’s raunchy feet. guys. But I’ll catch up with you later about your instructions for next week. And I know why Dylan asked for your help. man?” Gadget asked. I crawled out from under the table and took a deep breath then glared at Khaki Man. “So you’re cousins.” I heard Dylan scrape the keys off the table then disappear as quickly as he had arrived. So I focused my attention on the rest of them as I sat back down and said.
” “Mean Mama?” Khaki Man grinned then shoveled a forkful of. and I wanted to smack that smug smile right off his face.” He just chuckled. that’s right. There was a definite ..” My molars locked. Oh. Dylan was right.town. “Yeah.. Mean Mama has a few plans of her own. “Bet it’s not too hard to get rid of them once they smell your feet. you were flat on your back after someone knocked you on your smart-alec behind. and it’s payback time. I swallowed hard and tore my eyes away as he finished with.” “Can I help it that women throw themselves at me?” He smirked. and I began to grind my teeth. last time I saw you. God in heaven. Mac and Cheese. that someone was me. oh. well. “Thought it was Annie Oakley.
“Spare me.” “Well. “His job includes catching the guy before he strikes again. stirring cream into his coffee. Poor little guy. I know exactly what he was trying to do.” Cat Woman said. Use me to catch the Midnight Molester.difference between confident and cocky. and he just didn’t want it to be you. I rolled my eyes. That kind of ‘help’ I can do without. which made it pretty obvious where Khaki Man fell on the produce chain. Not something I wanted to do ever again. please.” Gadget interrupted. Besides. no kidding. I’d had a close-up visual of those small size nines. Could I have been wrong about him all along? But then I . but you wouldn’t let him help you. Detective Hammond was only trying to keep you safe.” Doubt started to creep into my brain. “For the record.
” I trailed off as the word ‘files’ ..remembered the nudie mags and porn file I’d seen in his room. “What personal stuff?” Gadget asked. “I saw it with my own eyes.. people who are addicted to porn can be helped. Not a pretty picture.” I said. He’s got all sorts of files on it at his apartment. “You know.” “Personal jollies?” Khaki Man said as he eyed Gadget. did you?” “Yeah. right. “It’s pretty low to use a victim for your own personal jollies. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation with these people. “I didn’t know Dylan did the personal jolly thing..” “What makes you think Dylan’s addicted to porn?” Cat Woman asked. I saw the personal stuff with my own eyes.
“No way in hell would I want to be the Detective in charge of sex crimes.” Thermometer woman said. A burning knot began to form in the pit of my stomach over that thought. I took a deep breath and forced my pulse to . and I just wasn’t ready to take a chance.” Khaki Man shook his head. and my hands started to sweat. decent guy who seemed to be genuinely interested in me. Hot Britches wasn’t a sex addict after all.” Well. Clearly marked files.registered. that explained a lot. “You must mean the files he’s been keeping on the Midnight Molester and other creeps like him. “Poor son-of-a-bitch. “Other creeps?” I blinked. struggling to digest those words. so why wasn’t I relieved? He was a normal. I still didn’t have all my answers.
“Dylan’s been after the Midnight Molester since the beginning. but he doesn’t care who gets . and over the years.” I said.” Thermometer woman said. we’ve all learned to not ask questions and follow his lead. He was still trying to control my life because he didn’t trust me to take care of myself. and he was only spending time with me in hopes of catching the bad guy. “Why not just have his captain assign someone else to look out for me if he thought I was in that much danger?” “Because there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant around-the-clock police protection. Dylan just went with his gut.return to normal. but he still had an agenda. “I think he’s just driven enough that he won’t risk missing an opportunity to catch the creep. Dylan might not be a sex addict.
He just doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt.” Our dinner conversation at his place came back to me. and I remembered him commenting . “Psychology. then you are. “Dylan’s not crazy about shrinks. that’s all.” Thermometer Woman replied. So can I count on your cooperation?” “What kind of project?” Cat Woman asked. You owe me. why?” They all gave each other funny looks. I’ll go along with this charade for now. If he thinks you’re in danger. but I want a little harmless payback. All of you. My stomach started to churn again. “I need Dylan for a project I’m researching.” I looked each of them in the eye. “It doesn’t matter. so I held up my hand. then Cat Woman said.the credit.
Why?” “It’s not something he usually talks about.” Gadget answered. I remember now.” “He told you?” Gadget asked. This conversation had grown increasingly uncomfortable.” I wanted to ask why they thought he’d opened up to me. but he was still going to be angry when he found out he was part of a psychology project. “You tell us about this project of yours first. “That’s right. his eyebrows shooting up under the rim of his hat.that some female shrink had given him the runaround and kept him out of work much longer than he had to be. I wasn’t a shrink. “Oh. and I suddenly wanted out.” . all because she had some ulterior motive. but the darn burning had moved up to my throat this time. “Some of it.
“Believe me. but he’s still our cousin. I didn’t have a choice if I wanted their help. and she eyed me suspiciously. Cat Woman and Thermometer woman . Whaties?” Gadget asked. produce affects their personalities. I’m just trying to figure out what makes men tick by interviewing them to determine how the size of their. Then I lifted my head and started talking. Winkies. er. “You mean if I like apples instead of watermelons I have a small brain.” “Produce?” Khaki Man asked.” “Mr.Cat Woman’s words brought my gaze back to hers. or something?” “More like pickles versus zucchinis and small Mr. “We may pick on Dylan.” I dropped my face into my hands for a moment and sighed. Apparently. I’m not a shrink.
” Khaki Man added. For example. My topic is to research how the size of a man’s private parts affects his personality. but I’ve got the pickles covered. Or does size have nothing at all to do with the way a man behaves. “Thanks. and Khaki Man laughed his ass off. “My project doesn’t really have anything to do with food. it’s just easier for me to discuss in terms of produce. Figured.eyed each other and rolled their eyes. does a certain size make a man cocky or comfortable or confident.” I . only the men wouldn’t get it. Stuff like that. I cleared my throat and tried again.” “Who the hell gets assigned a topic like that?” Gadget turned three shades of red.” “You need any more subjects. “Unlucky saps like me. just let me know.
and the table grew quiet. we’re just friends.” I cleared my throat. “So what do you say?” . but after what you all put me through.” “Oh. he doesn’t need me. and I tried not to squirm. “We’ve watched you for weeks now and heard how Dylan talks about you. I think you might be exactly what Dylan needs in his life right now. “I just want to have a little fun and get him back. Everyone studied me as though I was under a microscope. but the devil just grinned wider.” Thermometer Woman stared at me for a full minute.said. you’ll see. I’m not out to make your lives miserable or to hurt Dylan. Trust me. Then Thermometer Woman finally said.” I looked each of them in the eye. it wouldn’t hurt you to help me out. no. What I have in mind is harmless. “Look guys.
” “The shrink was a woman. Now. and had to be evaluated by the department shrink. “Well. so it’s only fair you tell me about Dylan’s issues with shrinks.” “Oh. then Khaki Man grinned.” Khaki Man added. I’m all about having some fun. what exactly do you want us to do?” I gave them their instructions. You got a deal. Dylan shot a man once. hell. and they had a thing for a while. then I said. There’s more to Dylan’s story than that. I told you about my project. you don’t. “Who could blame him for breaking his engagement after what that bitch did?” Cat . Now he doesn’t like shrinks. “Nothing much to tell.They put their heads together and whispered for a minute. “My turn.” Gadget said. so someone spill it. Annie. no.
It was somehow comforting to know we had at . But things had to be different now that he’d been hurt. loose lips.” Khaki Man ground out. and they all glared at Cat Woman. My heart went out to him because I knew what it felt like. and he hasn’t really trusted women since. Guess she didn’t want to be married to a cop. now that I know. “Nice going. So at least at one point in his life.” Gadget sighed.” Hot Britches had been engaged? My heart flipped.Woman scoffed. you may as well tell me the rest. he hadn’t been afraid of commitment. “Engagement?” My mouth fell open. “Well. “Dylan called off the engagement because he found out she was trying to get him fired behind his back.
and we’ll get along just fine.” I said. He deserved a little harmless payback.” They left. “Don’t hurt Dylan.least one thing in common. Only then could we work on being friends again. and then we’re even. But that didn’t mean he’d get off Scot free. maybe two. and I headed home to put on some salsa music and make myself a huge plate of macaroni and cheese with a side of one extralarge Bahama Mama. No problem. Exhausted. “Got it. and focused my energy on payback. I deserved a little comfort food after that rollercoaster ride. Maybe we could still be friends after all. I shoved my feelings aside. Hey. even if it was only heartache. not yet ready to examine anything. Okay. A little well-deserved payback. . because this is all in fun.
What had Dylan said that night in the toy store? ‘Don’t mess with the best. because you’re never going to win. produce included both vegetables and fruit.My anger diminished as absolute determination took up residence in its place.’ I’d show him who the best was. . all right. And then I’d make him eat those words. because I had no intention of losing. Last time I checked. Note to self: Peaches can turn rotten just as quickly as Zucchinis.
Besides.! Who got up at two A.M. I shifted the grocery bag onto my hip. well. Two freaking A. I’d make him work every minute of his shift. locked . He wanted to baby-sit me. anything? I had to be out of my mind. so turnabout was fair play.M. Time to make him think he was losing his own mind.M. he’d made me think I was losing my mind. well. but what I had in store for payback included messing with Dylan’s sleep. but my competitive streak refused to let him one up me. Who cared that it messed with my own? Payback might be petty. to do.CHAPTER TWELVE Two A.
No lights on. Good. Ten minutes later. and then glanced across the street. Peeping Tom my big ole behind! I trudged down to the street. I’d bet my job that wasn’t all he’d been involved with. But my suspicions of him having something to do with the Brat Pack had been dead on. But this time I knew that I was safe. The snow had stopped.my apartment door. but that didn’t mean Dylan wasn’t watching. remembering the night Flasher Freak had spied on me from the bushes near the Bates Motel. Dylan was a good guy. I glanced around and shivered. My trek to the street where the Brat Pack had directed me to would go much easier. and someone had been kind enough to shovel the sidewalk. I knew that. The Brat Pack had assured me that someone in .
Refusing to dwell on my feelings. The Chronicles of . I peeked over my shoulder and didn’t see anything. Good. I frowned. but there’d been too many secrets for me to trust him completely. they got on board full force. Maybe he was following me because he really did care.disguise would follow me at all times. Hot Britches. What a fun bunch of cousins Dylan had. I grinned. he’d followed me just as I’d planned. I took a deep breath and forged ahead. I’d really come to like them all. I had a game to win and planned to do so by starring in a new series called. but I had a feeling the Brat Pack’s phony cronies weren’t the only ones following me. Once they had warmed up to the idea of pulling some pranks on him. I wanted to believe that. No one else made me feel the way he did.
I felt like a heel. and I blinked at the sight before me. huddled up together as they slept. Four crazy episodes that would keep Dylan up all night as payback for my lunatic adventures in the Twilight Zone. It wasn’t the street the Brat Pack had told me about. I hadn’t considered that. As I rounded a corner. I’d only thought about keeping Dylan up. I kept checking the street signs but had no idea where I was. God. My Snow Flurries slid across a patch of ice.Mean Mama’s Insomnia. I came upon an abandoned warehouse. what had I been thinking? The homeless were human. and children were scattered about. They had to sleep sometime. Various groups of men. women. I decided to turn around and come back . but it would do.M. Episode One: Mean Mama feeds the homeless at 2 A.
These poor people needed help much . The Brat Pack had agreed to help me. we didn’t have homeless people. Little kids probably had a harder time sleeping when they were hungry. they got it. she fed him two.tomorrow when a movement caught my eye. Back in Cutesville. I swallowed the lump in my throat. I’d never witnessed actual families with children who were homeless. If someone needed a hand. For every bite she took. A little girl crouched by what had to be her brother as they shared a half-eaten hot dog that looked like it had come straight out of a trash can. but only if something good came out of my payback episodes. Anything. Suddenly my life didn’t seem quite so bad. but now I just wanted to do something. At the time I’d thought it would be a pain.
Which ones were homeless and which ones were the phony cronies the Brat Pack had put in place for my protection? I couldn’t tell. Good going. even scurried away into the shadows of the warehouse. “I’m not here to hurt anyone. undoubtedly flearidden coat. An old man. thank God. Cal. I took a deep breath and shuffled over to the children. A shred of innocence lingered in her young eyes.more than I needed to retaliate. I’d managed to wake just about everyone. and soon. so I addressed them all. I just want to help.” I said as I looked into the wide eyes of the dirty faces scrutinizing me. “Y-You want to help us?” asked the browneyed little girl. God. why hadn’t I thought to bring some blankets? People began to stir. carrying a bottle of wine in a paper bag and wearing a moth-eaten. Maybe she still had a .
I included lots of produce.chance of making it. I really do. The real kind of produce. I knelt beside her. My heart went out to her. “For all of you. I didn’t have a child to think about. Yes. She didn’t look as though she had felt anything for a very long time. I doubted I could be that strong for anyone. But this child probably hadn’t had a cookie since before her baby teeth started to fall out.” I looked around. and a few more bodies stepped out of the shadows. drawing closer. so glad I’d gone back for that pack of cookies. “I have something for you.” I set my sack of groceries on the ground. and a woman about my age with dead eyes pulled her close. “Yes.” “What do we have to do to get it?” asked a . the woman showed no emotion. Then again. Other than that. sweetie.
but when I looked at the woman and repeated. Take it. until the measly flame grew to a pathetic flicker once again. please. stepping back. Several pairs of hands shot out and hovered over the trash can.” I answered. “Go ahead. “Absolutely nothing. . At one time she might have been pretty. The fire snapped. He stood closer to the woman and child as he added a small piece of rotting wood to the fire.” a spark of hope ignited in her lifeless blue eyes. The man’s face remained rigid. Her fingers clenched and unclenched as her gaze darted between the grocery bag and me.” I nodded.hard-looking man with a beard that didn’t quite cover his gaunt cheeks. and a stream of black smoke trickled into the air. but hard times had obviously taken a toll on her. “Nothing.
“Can I. as though I’d just given her the most valuable present in the world. Mama?” The little girl. I guess I had. In a way. letting others go . but still she stood back. hat. then she stepped back and softly called to the others.” She didn’t take a single item for herself. and gloves. and I swallowed another lump. engulfed in what had to be her mother’s coat. threadbare clothes hung from her haggard frame. stared up at the woman with the biggest brown saucers I’d ever seen. She had to be hungry and cold. “It’s okay. The woman stared at all the food for a long moment. The little girl carefully opened the paper bag and pulled out the cookies then gasped so loud it echoed off the warehouse behind her. Come get your share. The mother nodded. even though her tattered. her brow buckling.
first. Whatever had happened to her had to be so much worse than being used by a man and embarrassed by naked pictures of herself on the Internet, yet she hadn’t grown mean or selfish. She’d kept her family together and found a way to survive. My troubles were insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I pulled off my hat and mittens and handed them to the little boy, who snatched them out of my hands and ran away as though he thought I would change my mind. Then I slipped off my Eskimo parka and wrapped it around the woman’s shoulders. She hopped nearly a foot and then blinked furiously but not enough to stop a single tear from rolling down her cheek. “Th-Thank you,” she said in barely more than a whisper. My own eyes filled, and I gave her a wobbly
smile as I hugged my middle, shivering slightly in the February night air. “Y-You’re welcome. Now if I had a pitcher of Bahama Mamas and some mac and cheese, I could really show you a good time.” I chuckled, but my laugh sounded forced to my own ears. “Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no Labamba Ramas, but I’ll take that bag of dried fruit,” a bag lady said, scratching her head under a tattered cap as she snagged the fruit. “Need some meat on my bones for my man over there.” She jerked her head in the direction of a cardboard tent housing the wino in the moth-eaten coat. “Gotta keep warm, ya know.” She shot me a toothless grin and then shuffled off to crawl under the tent and snuggle up to ‘her man.’ I couldn’t help grinning back. Hey, whatever works, I thought, amazed that even someone in
this bad a situation could find someone to snuggle up to. The hard man added another piece of wood to the fire. I started to walk away, almost forgetting why I was there in the first place, when the brief flame illuminated something shiny over by the warehouse. I changed directions, edging closer to the entrance, when a paper bag with a wine bottle sticking out caught my attention. Only the hand holding the bottle had brown spots and wrinkles, and black leather encased the arm attached to the hand. Dylan’s black leather. But that wasn’t Dylan. I blinked. So he had seen me leave my apartment and followed me just as I’d suspected. Then another thought hit me. If Dylan gave his coat to Mr. Wino, then what was he wearing, and who in God’s name was Ms. Toothless Bag
Lady snuggling with? I blinked again. No way. I spun around and studied the tent closer. The pointy tip of one monstrous snakeskin boot poked out from beneath the end of one smelly, flea-ridden coat. Snort! Priceless. Absolutely priceless. Lack of sleep and flea bites. Things had turned out better than I’d expected. Now that I’d done some good, I felt perfectly justified over the turn of events. “I’d say that’s enough payback for one night, wouldn’t you?” whispered a male voice beside me. I jumped and then looked into the face of a dirty bum. Not Dylan, but a face way too full and healthy to be a real bum. The phony crony winked, and I grinned wide, feeling a whole lot better now.
“It’s a start,” I said. “Just a start.” *** Riiiiiing! “What, who?” I pried one eye open. Riiiiiing! “Who, what?” I pried the other eye open. Riiiiiing! I uncrossed my eyes and focused on the clock. Six A.M.! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, who called at six A.M.? Riiiiiing! “Oh, shut up, already, I’m coming.” I struggled out of bed, checked the caller ID, then snatched the phone off the counter in the kitchen. “What.” “Good morning to you, too,” came a sexy male voice over the phone, followed by a scratching noise. “Get up on the wrong side of the bed?”
“Dukeypoo, what are you doing, calling me this early?” I collapsed onto a chair and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. If you could call two measly hours sleep. “Just a friend checking in to see how you’re doing before you head off to class.” Scratch. Scratch. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t dare assume we’re anything more.” He sounded cool, obviously still ticked over the distance I’d put between us after that kiss on the ice. Well, that made us even, because I was still miffed over his siccing the Brat Pack on me. “At six A.M.?” I croaked in my not-used-totalking-this-freaking-early voice. “Figured you were getting ready for class.” Scratch. Scratch. “And I have an early doctor’s appointment.” “Anything serious?” I asked. “And what’s that
scratching noise? Did you get a cat?” “No.” He grunted. “Got into a little scuffle while working and then woke up this morning with a rash on my... anyway, I’m having it checked out.” He cleared his throat. “So, is everything okay? Any more crazy things happen I should know about?” Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. I tried hard to stifle my laughter, but a little snicker slipped out as I pictured him scratching at flea bites while fighting off gummy, toothless kisses last night. “Nope. Everything’s fine, other than a sudden case of insomnia.” “They’ve got pills for that, you know.” “I don’t like taking pills, and I’ve never been one to just lie around when I can’t sleep. Gotta do something to tire myself out.”
“Try reading and drinking a glass of warm milk like most normal people,” he mumbled. “What was that? I didn’t quite catch the last part?” I grinned, enjoying this. And that was the only reason I was grinning. It had absolutely nothing to do with hearing his voice again. Nothing at all. “I said, try reading a book and drinking a glass of warm milk.” Scratch. “Hmmm, fresh out of books.” “Just try the warm milk next time, okay? Or call me. I can’t sleep lately, either.” “Why’s that?” This ought to be good. “Just a pain-in-the-ass case I’m working on.” “Really. Then why bother?” He hesitated, then sighed. “Because there’s something strangely appealing about this case.
I’m hoping it will be worth it in the end, if I survive.” “Oh, well....” What could I say to that? Scratch. Scratch. “Christ, I gotta go.” Snort. “Good luck with your case and the doctor.” “Thanks. I’m beginning to think I’ll need all the luck I can get. Stay out of trouble, would ya?” “I can’t promise anything. Trouble seems to follow me around lately. Don’t know why.” I stifled a giggle. “Just try.” Scratch. Scratch. Curse. Dial tone. I hung up the phone, sang the lyrics to Cat Scratch Fever, then burst out laughing, suddenly wide awake and exhilarated. Who said payback was a bitch? I was having the time of my life, even if Dylan wasn’t. Note to self: Always wash produce
thoroughly. God only knows where it’s been. *** Episode Two: Mean Mama cleans up Fisherman’s Wharf at three A.M. I stabbed another piece of trash with a metal poker and put it in the nearly-full trash bag I carried. Still no sign of Dylan. “If you don’t show, I’ll give you more than Cat Scratch Fever, Zuc,” I grumbled, then yawned, nowhere near awake, even after I’d consumed a whole pot of coffee. These episodes were killing me. A cold sea breeze blew into the harbor, carrying with it the smell of dead fish, and I shivered. I couldn’t afford a new coat. Wouldn’t need one soon, with spring right around the corner, so I’d opted for layers. Only now, I wish I’d added another fleece.
I walked down the dock a bit further, searching for more trash. This had to be one of my worst ideas to date. What if the Brat Pack forgot to set the stage with their phony cronies? I looked left, then right, but didn’t see anyone. Then again, that was the point. Still, what if the mob hung out here? I took a step back, my heart imitating a bass drum. What if Professor Butthead had connections and had hired a hit man to off me because he’d found out I’d called him a pickle? Cement shoes, here I come. A boat’s horn wailed right beside me. “Ahhhhhh!” I jumped a foot, dropping the trash bag and poker. Jeesh, I had to stop watching the Sopranos. I turned around and ran smack dab into a smelly sailor, and the stench of whiskey blasted
“Ye-haw!” The drunk swayed at just the right moment. left. looking more like I was making the sign of the cross. then I threw a right hook.” “Uh. Stupid. and I missed. “Where I come from we say ye-haw. “Back off. right. The bass drum in my chest turned into a whole percussion section as I raised my fists and danced on the balls of my feet. “But you’re boxing. My insecurity bounced right along with me as I jabbed left. stupid.” He stared at me with heavy-lidded eyes and slurred. I know ka-ra-tay. Callie.” My mind raced for a plausible explanation. buster. right at the air. “Don’t you mean hi-yah?” A goofy grin spread over his face.me in the face.” I sliced the air furiously. It’s the country version of karate . “It’s kinda like kick boxing. only it’s called karate boxing.
” He opened his half-closed eyes. “Just trying to do my part in serving the community.” “Got it. though. “Well. honey. Not sure it’s working. pretty lady?” Another phony crony. He had me worried.” He tipped his head slightly in the direction behind him. I’m part of the community. “Laying . I freed my arm and took a step back. thank God.” I stared around the docks. “Whatcha doin’.boxing. and winked then slurred in a loud voice. So that’s where Hot Britches was hiding. it’s working. then I raised my voice to match his. for just a moment. He nodded. “Oh. Maybe he’d seen Dylan. I relaxed and dropped my fists. Why don’t you come serve me?” He reached out three times before he snagged my arm and pretended to try to pull me over to a dinghy by a big dumpster.
” I answered.” I said nice and loud. “Sorry. “The dumpster full of fishguts. but then I decided even I wasn’t that bad. “Just trying to get a rise out of Detective Cabrizzi.it on a little thick.” I gasped.” I snagged my trash bag and poker then turned around and headed in the opposite direction. Keeping Dylan up all hours of the night was enough. “I finished what I set out to do. but kept walking. “You sure?” “I’m sure. It sounded . mister. “Because it wouldn’t take much to--” Smack! I came to an abrupt stop and whirled around but could only see shadows scuffling. seriously considering pushing Hot Britches to dive right in. aren’t you pal?” I whispered. He moved over by the dumpster. there.” he whispered back.
The fishgut dumpster. more rustling came from the dinghy. “Hello? Anybody there?” I held up my poker. my stomach in my throat.” I called out in a singsong voice. “Oh. As I drew close.like fists smacking skin. What if it wasn’t Dylan? “It’s Miss Community Serrrr-viiice. I’d just wanted to get even with him.” . out cold. yeah. No answer. That’s gonna leave a mark. Uh-oh. Dylan! Oh. and then a shadow darted by and a whoosh came from the dumpster. Swallowing hard. God. I dragged my loaded trash bag and poker as I jogged back to the dinghy. I peeked inside the dinghy only to see the phony crony lying flat on his back. and then something went thud. but I didn’t want him getting hurt because of me.
I felt myself soften. I squinted and looked closer then pressed my lips together. but a . Rotten or not. Big. I reminded myself. and I jerked my head up. I peered over the edge and blinked. A patch of black hair lay barely visible beneath a mound of garbage. Payback had gone a bit far tonight. Nothing there. he’d come to my rescue. then I pulled away. I waited until I saw him move a fraction. Note to self: Fishguts at three A. A muffled grunt came from somewhere inside the dumpster. but since the damage had already been done. Gripping my poker tighter. make a perfect late-night snack for rotten produce. Snort.And I was gonna be in big trouble when he came to.M. Probably because he still hadn’t caught Flasher Freak. might as well roll with it. big trouble.
I couldn’t resist. threw a punch. he couldn’t blame me for being leery of our sham of a friendship . *** At the end of the week. the country karate boxing champ of the evening. Ding. and tossed my trash bag into the dumpster. “Ye-haw!” Ding. Dylan had called a few times after the first two episodes. I had to admit that community service felt darn good. asking if I wanted to get together.part of me didn’t really believe it. I sliced the air for good measure. trying not to inhale. Still. then yelled. Round two went to Callie MacDonald. I stood grinning in my bathroom mirror as I got ready for my date. but I’d made one excuse after another. my work for the evening complete. I plugged my nose. until he’d finally stopped calling. Well.
thinking maybe he’d finally had enough. because I hadn’t given the Brat Pack a single problem. I’d chosen Grand Central Station at one in the morning and Chinatown at midnight for Episodes Three and Four. He must have been questioning his own abilities as a Detective.after that kiss. He’d even called Gloria. but part of me didn’t want to stop. even if I was getting over it. irresponsible. I’d turned myself into a careless. I snickered. Just him. and he deserved the silent treatment after siccing the Brat Pack on me. We’d get back to using each other soon enough. completely helpless damsel in distress. I had to be close after this past week. I was having too much fun. Just as soon as I had him convinced this naïve little small-town girl had finally gone loco on him. asking if something had .
hypothetically. it was . I wasn’t. tonight wasn’t about jealousy. So I’d found out where he was taking her. Something had happened. According to the Brat Pack. If he could move on. but darn it. Penelope was a red-hot masseuse he’d been casually dating before I had invaded his life. Bet he wouldn’t be her friend tonight.happened to me because I was acting strange. After all. and he’d apparently moved on. Besides. Dylan had a date. all right. I’d successfully put him in his place. we never were “really” dating. But since I hadn’t agreed to “hang out with him. It shouldn’t have irritated me.” he’d decided Penelope would do as a Valentine’s date. and I asked the Brat Pack to fix me up with my own date. then so could I. I frowned. I should have been glad he’d moved on in the dating department.
about my final stand in the payback department. Sigh. either. That was it. One final stand. . I didn’t believe me. Really.
I guess that was all a hypothetical date warranted. He might have been attractive and packing some good-sized produce.CHAPTER THIRTEEN Figured. No need to impress me before moving on to dessert. which was all I had been to begin with. my hot-beefcake-with-no-taste date. Dylan would take Penelope to Dominic’s. not that Beefcake would think to help me. Preppy Khaki Man must have . bypassed the valet and parked his pickup in a handicapped spot at the expensive restaurant. He only took me to his place. but he couldn’t have had more than a peanut for a brain. Bart. I had to slam my shoulder into the truck’s rusted door three times before it opened.
I only . The neckline plunged well below my non-existent cleavage. I’d had to go without a bra and tape the red shimmery material to my nipples.” I walked into the restaurant. then Bart sailed through the door and let it close in my face. “Sorry. “Thank you.” He pulled the door open wide. I sighed.” I smiled at the doorman. The one that made her look like a goddess and me a twobit hussy. it barely covered my insecurity but showed off my legs perfectly. Gloria’s breasts were so much bigger than mine. Given my height.chosen Crude Bart as his form of payback for the whole smelly-feet incident. problemo. Only. smoothing my hands down the front of the little red dress I’d borrowed from Gloria. “No. Bart tossed his key to the doorman who just blinked at him.
wanting to knock him upside the head. putting Beefcake’s manner’s--or lack thereof--out of my mind as I searched the restaurant for Dylan. See a man about a one-eyed snake.” “I know. “Huh?” I asked. man. I wanted him to suffer. waiting to be seated. Beefcake shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he stood in the lobby. “I had a little problem with the door. “Be right back. half listening.” I looked up at him.hoped the overall effect would work on Dylan. “They have a pool?” “You know. still scanning the interior.” Beefcake said. “What are . I gotta go fill the pool. What took you so long?” I stared at him. that sucker was heavy.” “Ya think?” I took a deep breath. “There you are.
Dylan came in. Khaki Man. followed by some blonde .. Just go do your business.” I shook my head.. I’d call that more than even. period? “Couldn’t you have just said you needed to use the facilities?” He stared at me blankly.” He walked away. the.” I mumbled to myself as the restaurant door opened. while I stepped out of line and waited for him on a bench in a cozy corner. The heels I wore were killing my feet... “Fixing me up with Bart was a good one. vein. “I get it. main. “The bathroom? The john? Never mind. slow voice...you talking about?” He gaped at me as though I were the one with the low IQ and spoke in a loud. who talked like that on a first date? Who talked like that.” My eyes sprang wide. “Drain. Good Lord.
I winced. I snatched up the menu beside me and sank low as I hid behind it. Close enough for me to hear her high-pitched. I’d be . I lowered my menu just enough to see over the top and peek through the tree. If I were him. And if I hid over by that fake tree. still pretending to study the menu. nasal voice. I could probably hear what they were saying. “Fun bags? Why on earth fun bags?” “Cuz they’re fun. would you look at the fun bags on her?” Beefcake said from behind me.” I whispered. “Whoa. I stood and casually made my way over. “Shhhh. I jumped and then looked over my shoulder. I peeked around the edge and watched the maitre d’ sit them at a table close by.bombshell. They’ll hear you.
Dylan grunted.” “Ooh. stop talking so I can hear what they’re saying. Look at all these choices.playing all night.” I had to ask. yummy. don’t you think?” Penelope batted her lashes at Dylan. She rambled on about the shapes and sizes of the menu choices. looking like he wasn’t paying the least .” So his type consisted of a life-size Barbie with big implants. Right. “So. is that the guy?” “Yes.” “Right. but he yawned as he stared at his own menu. Wonder how long it took Bombshell in front of the mirror to perfect that little number. professionally-bleached blond hair. curving her ruby red lips into a coy smile. And they use such pretty colors to describe them. pretty colors. and colored-contact-enhanced indigo eyes. “Uh. Now.
stuck his nose in the air. “Right this way. I was just studying the menu. “Great.” “But I thought we were--” I elbowed Beefcake in the ribs and pasted on a brilliant smile.” Beefcake started barreling off without me again. no. your table’s ready. He ducked down in his seat and held the menu up in front of his face. Oh.” the maitre d’ said from behind us. and the food looks delicious. but I pretended not to see. The maitre d’ pursed his lips. but I snagged his arm and attempted to strut my stuff.bit of attention. I spun around and stared into narrowed eyes. “Sir. Dylan looked right at me as we approached. and said. You’re not getting off that easy .
I made eye contact with Bombshell and gave her the biggest smile I had in me. “Don’t be silly.” Bombshell gushed. could you bring two more place settings? My . you just have to join us.” His gaze flicked to Beefcake and hardened. “Dylan? Is that you?” He lowered his menu and looked at me. “There’s not really enough room. “Mac. but I didn’t care. I know I hadn’t returned his phone calls.” Dylan glared at her. You two know each other? Well. Mr. Right now. “Oh. I admitted it. my God. then I pretended to notice Dylan for the first time. anger and jealousy battled within me.after asking another woman out. Yoohoo. There. I’d be rational later. Maitre d’ man.
she’s a regular riot. “I’m Penelope.” I said with a stiff smile and frost lacing my voice. flattening my collagen-free lips into a thin hard line. his eyes narrowing to icy blue slits. Dylan. “I’m dying to meet Mac’s date. I like her. Penelope giggled.” “Yeah. his stare boring into mine.” . snuggle bunny?” She giggled. and I call him snuggle bunny.” “Well. snuggle bunny. Dylan met my direct stare. Isn’t that funny? She’s funny. I’d love to introduce you to Bart. “And I thought it was Dukeypoo. too. I looked from Penelope to him and then arched my naturallyblond brow high. “Why not?” he answered.date would like to invite his friend and her date to join us. wouldn’t you.” he responded.
Christ. barely acknowledging Dylan as he plopped down across from Penelope.” I forced a smile as I sat across from Dylan and dug my heel into Bart’s foot. It’s so sweet. “Oh. As in past tense. “He calls everyone babe.” “Hey.” . I wouldn’t have aimed for your foot. what the hell did you do that for?” Dylan leaned over and rubbed the top of his black dress shoe. babe. this is Detective Cabrizzi.” “By accident or on purpose?” “If I’d meant to do it.” “We gonna order or what? I’m starved.” Bart nodded. “Hey. Whoops. God.“It was. “Ow. My foot slipped. I’m sorry. Bart.” He’d need a flipping bib if he didn’t stop drooling. man.
but Beefcake simply stared at me. well. he looked good in a suit. “Yes. “So this is how you’ve been spending your time?” Dylan asked me as he jerked his head in Beefcake’s direction and arched his sleek. I cleared my throat. and after a moment. oblivious to us.Bart asked. but I refused to let that distract me.” I bestowed a flirty smile on the stud muffin sitting next to me. he finally got the hint and draped his arm around my . too. I was a bit busy this week with my new friend. and they dove into another pointless conversation. and all. helping me get over my insomnia. He’s been such a doll. black brow. Heck. he’d probably look good in a trash bag. “You like to eat? That’s so funny. God. I finally found a safe way to tire myself out.” Penelope answered. I like to eat.
man. “Let’s order. Guess the overall effect of Gloria’s hot tamale dress worked well enough. .” He picked up the menu. I sat up straighter. Beefcake shrugged and dropped his arm. Then I glanced at Dylan and caught him glaring at Beefcake’s hand as it hovered an inch above my bumps. his fingertips touched the swell of one bump. He set his jaw. Duhhhhhh! I smiled the sexiest smile I knew how and stared into his eyes as though he were a god. I snatched it and read it for him. nearly giving him a handful.shoulders. judging by the look on Hot Britches’ face. When I could no longer stand his struggle with the entrée terms. Forget an eyeful. giving Beefcake an eyeful. I slid lower and heard Dylan grinding his teeth clear across the table.
The waiter showed up with our food just in time. “Don’t they make a cute couple?” Bombshell asked Dylan. “Yeah. completely ignoring Bombshell’s caresses.” I gave him a sultry look and offered up my neck.” He smirked at me as he clenched and unclenched his fists. until he finally blinked. I ordered pasta and my . I fumed. cute. “I’m hungry. then leaned over to nuzzle my skin.After we placed our orders. feeling like a twit. even though his hot breath smelled of cigarette smoke and turned my stomach. snuggling up to him. and the aroma of steak and buttered baked potatoes filled the air. he leaned over to whisper loudly in my ear. I giggled. When he sat there like a knot on a log.
chewing longer than necessary.mouth watered. though I hadn’t even taken a bite. sawing furiously as Beefcake caressed my hand and kissed my cheek. and finally gasped. I repeat--duhhhhhh! She dropped her hand and ate her salad with a pathetic pout plastered across her plastic face.. her mouth falling open wide.. back to me.. studying him closer. Bombshell looked from Dylan to me. back to Dylan. already tasting the red sauce full of spices. God. what if Dylan recognized him? I eyed my .. His hand halted halfway. back to Dylan. He narrowed his eyes. a piece of steak dangling from his fork as he stared hard at Beefcake’s face. back to me. Dylan jammed another bite of steak into his mouth. Dylan cut into his steak.
and flew around the table in record time. it’s been fun. knocking my chair over. but he caught my wrist mid-swing. probing my eyes as he released my arm. it was my pleasure. “Well.” he said. I jumped up.nearly-full plate with regret. don’t we. I lifted my hand for a second blow. We’ve got plans. I marched around to my side of the table and hooked my arm through Beefcake’s to pull him to his feet. and said. “I’m sure it was. “I’m fine now. since he . downed the rest of my Bahama Mama.” He smirked. “Thanks. lover?” Dylan choked. but we should be going.” Lifting my chin a notch. Trust me. “Anytime. then whacked him a good one between the shoulder blades.” I shrugged.
I whispered in his ear. “R-Right. The Bump and Grind. uh. Penelope? You love to dance. that’s right. I’m not finished. Where is it we’re going again?” Rolling my eyes. I’m not finished. counting on Hot Britches not letting me go it alone with good ole Bart. I elbowed him in the side.” Beefcake seconded. we’ll join you. “Yeah. I’d chosen a hot new night club. “So get a doggie bag. Won’t we. lover. snuggle bunny.” A leer of Cro-Magnon delight spread across Beefcake’s face.seemed more interested in his dinner than me. “Great.” Dylan grabbed her .” Dylan said. not disappointing me.” she whined. “But. either. “Yeah.
then met my eyes with a challenge. I strolled along behind him through the crowded night club. Dylan grinned back. I grinned. Ding. Let round three begin. He wasn’t cocky like a pickle. my eyes never leaving Dylan’s. They’re clueless.arm and pulled her to her feet. comfortable like a cucumber. trying not to have my arm yanked out of its socket. He was a beast of a man and absolutely clueless. but Bart had to be an eggplant. I didn’t know anything bigger than a zucchini existed. Ding. The music blared so . “Yeah. get a doggie bag. *** Note to self: Never date an eggplant.” I echoed to my date. or confident like a zucchini.
You go. cool. That’s it. then tossed me about in his attempt to dance. “Oomph!” “Yeah. that’s why. Not an easy task. knowing Dylan followed close on my heels. I half expected to be clubbed later and dragged off to his cave.loud.” He dragged me behind him. girl. Let’s dance. “Ugh!” I tried to catch my breath. I bounced off his back. since Beefcake galloped onto the dance floor through the multitude of colorful flashing lights. Why had I worn two-inch heels? Because I’d wanted to be on equal footing with Hot Britches. When Beefcake came to a jarring stop. I gripped his hand and tried to swing my hips. “Come on. ruining my hip swagger. baby. knocking me into the guy behind me. the bass boomed in my feet like the pulse of a heart. .” He bounced me back.
I squeezed my way through the crowd to the D. bonking.” then bounced me in another direction. When salsa music poured .The spaced-out loser echoed.’s booth and made a request. and be-bopping around the dance floor. As I reached the center of the dance floor. man. but even I knew who Tigger was. then shrugged and complied with my request. stared at me as though I were the one on drugs. The D. These people were insane if they called this dancing.” I called out. What happened to playing “real” music and dancing like normal people. “Cool. not mosh pit burnouts. feeling like Tigger in the middle of a Winnie the Pooh pinball game. and a hush fell over the crowd. “Who-whoo-whoo-whooooo. I might not have kids. the music came to a screeching stop.J.J. When I could no longer take boinking.
wiggling my fanny. An arm snaked around my waist. having no idea what I was doing. jerked back to stare as if I were from Mars. and my eyes popped open. Now this was dancing. I hated being the center of attention. the crowd cleared the floor like someone had let a skunk loose amongst them.through the speakers. closed my eyes. moving my hips. Clapping my hands. and let my body take over. so I started tapping my foot to the rhythm. Dylan stared down at . Those who’d started to turn away. I began to perspire. Great. I twisted and turned. then shaking my insecurity to the beat. I gasped. I let the music fill my soul. and stomping my feet. but I looked more ridiculous just standing there.
then flattered. and finally confused. Hot Britches knew how to salsa? My breathing quickened.” The music changed to another song with a livelier Latin beat. “If you’re going to make a display out of yourself. Where was Bart? All I saw were several angry men.me with an angry expression and a hard smile on his handsome face. I blinked. You nearly caused a riot over there. chomping at the bit to dance with me. at least be smart about it. I skimmed over the crowd. Make Dylan sweat a little. At the time. I’d only meant to have a little fun. then embarrassed. and he moved me in a series of expert steps. it had seemed like a better idea . Me! First I felt surprised. but then his words registered. Choose a partner first.
and his hard. um. and that crooked grin of his hooked the corner of his full lips. his leg between mine.” he said in a throaty whisper next to my ear. Now. I realized he didn’t just know how to salsa. good at Dirty. sinewy muscles relaxed against mine. He pulled me in close. “The Dirty Salsa. “Wh-What are we doing?” I wheezed. hip to hip. You’re not too . doing a series of sexy steps. Suddenly. then dipping me low. I wasn’t so sure. Focusing on Dylan. His lashes lowered. he was amazing at it.” He chuckled. “Thanks. nothing else mattered as I stared into the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.than getting bruised in the Tigger Bounce. “You’re very.
and his breathing became as heavy as mine. Bonk. Oh.” We both laughed. The music changed to a slow song.” I said breathlessly. then cleared my throat. it beat the Tigger Boink. mama. Mac.” “You amaze me. “Hey. it felt good to be in his arms again. this was much better than my teenage fantasy of dirty .” I smiled back. Lord. moving me in ways I hadn’t known were possible. realizing how much I’d missed this rapport between us.bad yourself at whatever all that hip-gyrating. It’s called the Closet Salsa. My lips parted. Be-bop. and he pulled me closer. fanny-wiggling dancing you were doing earlier was called. “Thanks. He looked down at me with smoldering eyes.” “Ditto.
and my stomach bucked. But. Wanting. I was about to say so when Hot Britches turned into Super Cop once again.” Khaki Man was supposed to set up another phony crony to hit on me. “My turn. I opened my eyes and watched a giant of a man yank him back.dancing with Patrick Swayze. .” Dylan took a step in my direction. Licking his lips. Dylan leaned in. I wasn’t ready for the crony to interfere just yet. I only had myself to blame. one final episode so I could show Dylan once and for all that I could take care of myself. waiting. “Give it up. pal. “What the?” Dylan yelled. Wilting. The Lady isn’t doing anything with you. I closed my eyes and puckered my lips. darn it. but I was so over the payback episodes and ready to move on.
this goes beyond getting even with me.“The lady will do whatever I tell her to do. then rammed his shoulder into the giant’s gut. briefly wondering what produce he could possibly be. then whipping off my spiked heel and circling the giant.” I flew into action. but the crowd blocked his path. while the crowd cheered us on wildly. Khaki Man. but they held him back. what the hell are you doing? Get out of there. Dylan tried to push his way back in. Oh.” Dylan tried to intervene again. pushing Dylan out of the way. Summer squash? “Mac. Time to get this over with. The giant tipped his head back and roared.” The giant took a swing at Dylan. probably wanting to see what the crazy-dancing . “The lady can speak for herself. but Dylan ducked just in time.
I snapped my gaze to Dylan’s and smiled. If I didn’t know better. Figured. I kept a steady eye on his face. I had to give Khaki Man credit. but I ducked low and jammed my spike into his knee. He’d picked a good actor tonight. Callie. I’d be scared senseless. but . The giant lunged for me. “Good job. but angry as the devil. the sweetie.” Dylan hollered from the sidelines. then quickly focused my attention back on the giant. sending him howling to the floor.woman in the painted-on red dress would do. I could see Dylan’s blinding white teeth from the corner of my eye. he glared at me. Watch his eyes. The giant was big. all right. Rolling to his feet. gauging his character and guessing at his next move. with pure evil blazing from his eyes. no longer amused. No sign of Beefcake.
clutching his balls and gasping for breath. When he lay still. And this guy was only acting. and completely at ease. he was a phony. and when the giant fell for it. A man was a man. then strolled over to Dylan like I hadn’t a care in the world. let’s get out of here before the crowd decides to line up other contestants to face the crazy-dancing small-town girl with the . after all. After all. Man. The giant fell to the floor. but I was smart. I surged to the right with a hard knee to the groin and a karate chop to the windpipe. I shook my head. He could probably crush me with one good shot. no matter how big. he was good. I faked left. They still had the same parts. Wiping my hands. I bowed at the waist to the stunned crowd. Gotta love country karate boxing.he was also slow. “Come on. agile.
I wrinkled my nose and then chewed my lip. giving me five seconds flat to slide in and buckle up before he screeched away from the parking lot. and the tension thickened. “But what about Bombshell and Beefcake?” I scanned the crowd. So much for my protection. *** The silence in the car became a deafening hum.” Dylan didn’t stop until he reached his car. “You mean Penelope and Bart? They left an hour ago.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me after him. He didn’t speak. Good thing I had the giant as backup. just drove. wondering what . I’m sure. A match made in heaven. Tension filled the air. then unlocked the doors. and wouldn’t even look at me. Something was wrong.deadly set of knees.
I hadn’t thought this far ahead and certainly hadn’t figured on him giving me a ride home on Valentine’s Day. he picked me. of all days. “What were you trying to prove in there?” he finally asked. “but I was never in any real danger. then admitted grudgingly. “I get the picture.” I huffed. You can take care of yourself just fine. “I didn’t pick him. .was going on in Dylan’s head.” He shook his head.” “Are you kidding? Did you see the size of his fists? If even one of his blows had landed. but did you have to pick the biggest guy in the joint to prove your point?” The muscles in his jaw bulged. staring straight ahead at the road. you’d never be the same again. “What do you mean?” I tried not to sound too guilty.
. because. . he was jealous. “That bozo was just another one of Nick’s. and if that guy was a friend. because he was interested in me.” Dylan’s eyes narrowed. Bart..” Whoops.working his jaw. and this is a friend of his. That’s right. “Another one of Nick’s what? Who’s Nick?” “Nick is just a guy I know from work. “Why didn’t I see it? I should have seen it. “Um..” I smiled. and after a lengthy pause. I knew I recognized your date.” “You’ve never mentioned a Nick before. his mouth fell open.. “Something doesn’t add up. why the hell would he want to fight me?” He glanced at me. feeling triumphant.
Nick Cabrizzi.” “Excuse me?” I turned my full attention on him.” I said with pride. “Last weekend when Gloria called you in the diner.Benny Bartholemule.” He shook his head. “I just figured out who he is. So tell me. When did you figure it out?” He wasn’t going to make me feel guilty over turning the tables on his own game. “No more than you played me for a fool the . I can’t believe I didn’t make the connection until now. “So you’ve been playing me for a fool the whole week. Bart is now one of Nick’s sources. Former hit man for the mob. better known as the Bartman. You meant my cousin. as though putting it all together. “And Nick is not a guy you know from work. I stiffened. Mac.” he said quietly.
“Friends don’t do the Dirty Salsa.” I turned toward him and saw his face.” “You don’t understand. Were we friends? Could we possibly be friends.week before. But for the record. “Touché. “You’re right. had we actually formed a bond? Maybe I hadn’t given him a fair shot. but because you won’t let anyone in. We could never be friends.” I laughed. I thought we were friends. Not because I don’t want to. He was serious. all I ever wanted was for you to be safe. I don’t. . as well as something more? In the middle of all this craziness.” I sighed deeply. Can’t anyone be concerned about you or want to help without you getting all bent out of shape? Not everyone has an ulterior motive. Friends? That was a joke.” I snapped back.
“Your giant was not one of Nick’s bozos. “It doesn’t really matter. let alone four.” “Yeah. because I’ve got better things to do . but clamped my knees together to keep them from shaking. You made your point.” His eyes met mine. “That’s right. The point is I handled the situation.” I felt the blood drain from my face. wasn’t it? “Good. including me. I don’t. he picked me.“And let me give you a head’s-up. sweetheart. “I told you I didn’t pick him. You picked the real deal when you picked him. and he stared for an intense moment.” I pressed my lips into a firm line.” So why did my heart feel like a vise had tightened around it? This is what I wanted.” he ground out in a voice laced with steel. You don’t need anyone. you handled yourself fine. I don’t need a baby-sitter.
You’re the one who decided to play Super Cop and protect the innocent hillbilly from the big bad city. “Well. I didn’t want that to happen. wondering where we stood now or what to do next.” I choked.” He opened his mouth as though he wanted to say something. I won’t be bothering to help you anymore. His expression turned to granite.than waste any more of my time on you. thank you very much. “You’re free. either.” . Callie.” His eyes met mine and looked empty. remaining silent until he pulled into the parking lot of my apartment. You can count on that. then seemed to change his mind. “I never asked you to spend time with me. ignoring the quick flash of hurt that zipped through me. nothing. impossible to read. Could this be the end of our relationship? Somehow. “Well?” I asked.
and I had an uneasy feeling I’d made a huge mistake. And in a way. some way. Dylan had kept his word. I sat in the Russian Tea Room waiting for Gloria to meet me. I’d even .I got out of the car and slowly closed the door. Question was what. he’d succeeded in becoming my friend. Leaning down. I looked in through the window but didn’t know what to say. could I do about it now? *** Two miserable weeks later. I turned and let myself into my apartment. if anything. Somehow. “Dylan--” He threw Big Betty into drive and roared away from the curb. cutting off any reply I might have made. I had. feeling as though I’d lost my best friend. With a heavy heart. and I hadn’t seen or heard from him in two whole weeks.
and all he’d wanted was to see me safe. I would’ve shut him out completely from the start. “Whoa. but he was right about one thing. I groped for a napkin. but they were mum about Dylan. I was a mess. hey. I took a deep breath. or to feel the incredible response my body had to his. sister. but my hot tea slithered down the wrong pipe. Struggling for my independence for so long. Granted. I had a hard time letting anyone help me now. God. I’d made a huge mistake.tried to contact the Brats. If he’d been up front with me. he’d gone overboard. More than I thought I ever could. intending to sigh. I missed him. I’m here. or to see his playful side.” Gloria emerged . dismissing him from my life so carelessly. As I gagged and coughed. Then I would never have gotten to know him.
patting me on the back and then raising my arms as if I were a newborn baby trying to catch my breath. . smiling at the other diners in embarrassment. curly hair over her shoulder and flagged down a waiter to order a vanilla chai tea and finger sandwiches. “So what’s up? Why the urgency in your message?” She flipped her long. “Oh. “Just swallowed wrong.” I took a gulp of water. trying to regain my voice. Causing a scene.” I tugged my arms from Gloria’s grip and glanced around. “Sit down. honey. who cares what anyone thinks?” Gloria waved her hands furiously in the air while she talked.” “I’m fine now. You’ll be fine in a minute.” I croaked. “Easy does it.through the restaurant entrance and jogged over to me.
not letting go. are you sure? Maybe it’s just infatuation. honey. chica?” Gloria stood.” “Are you hurt? Should I call 911. I grabbed her hand and pulled her back down. She tugged on the collar of her shirt and finally met my eyes. I don’t know. and a cotton candy pink flooded her face. “I’m a mess. But I can’t take feeling this way.” Gloria blinked. “I’ve fallen for someone. “Oh. then right. but I didn’t fall the way you think I did.” “Maybe.I ordered finger sandwiches as well.” I released her hand and shook my head. “Yes. then looked her square in the eye when I answered. Her eyes shifted left. “I’ve fallen hard.” I squeezed her hand even tighter. Any thoughts on what I should do about it?” . it hurts.
I could--” “Dylan? Well. but if you can’t give me any advice on how to seduce Dylan. rattling the china cups and causing quite a few outraged gasps and disapproving glares. “What’s the matter? I guess I could go to someone else if you’re not interested. go eat your lunch and never mind. lips parted. that was a first. why the hell didn’t you say so?” Gloria slapped her hands on the table. I’d stumped Gloria? Well. jaw working to form the words. but no sound emerged. I feel more comfortable talking to you about this. She glared right back. “Oh. busybodies.” She turned back to me.A squirming Gloria gaped at me. a downright devilish smile spread across her face and scary mischief blazed within her cocoa-brown eyes. “It’s about .
Note to self: Peaches are to zucchinis what melons are to pickles: opposites. she grabbed my arm and yanked me to my feet. Your reward for making my day. Oh.. suddenly scared of what I’d gotten myself into.” She laughed with pure delight and then downed the last of her tea.” I followed. Hallefreaking-lujah. sister..damn time you two got together. Just wait until he gets a load of what we have in store for him. jogging after her to keep up. “Lunch is on me. After she slapped money on the table. all right. opposites attract! . Come on. and I have advice. we’ve got a lot of work to do.
then the engine died. A car door slammed. all right. and he would find. Dylan would know instantly that he wasn’t alone. Please make me invisible.CHAPTER FOURTEEN Opposites attract. Dear. what in God’s name possessed me to ask a melon for advice on how to seduce a zucchini? The unmistakable sound of Big Betty’s engine came from outside Dylan’s apartment.. so if melons were into pickles. Crap! I’d forgotten to lock the door. and then the dreaded sound of keys jingled. God.. feet pounded the pavement. That meant he would be searching his apartment this very second. I heard Dylan move around the living room. .
As I shifted on the bed. Why had I let Gloria talk me into this? The floor in the hallway creaked. I pushed the hair out of my face.” my voice trilled out on a rush of air. “Freeze. Please.. asshole!” I screamed and my red wig flopped over my eyes like a bad toupee. I wiggled the other hand still handcuffed to the headboard of his bed. “Uh. Holding the end of my whip in my free hand. I yanked at my wrist to no avail. then Dylan slammed his monstrous boot into the wood. He pointed his gun at me and yelled. I’ve been a very naughty girl. crashing the door against the wall. my chains rattling and leather squeaking every time I moved. sounding foreign to my own ears. Detective. This was it: the moment of truth. The door cracked open an inch. I’ll say ten Hail Marys a day for the rest of my .. God. Come and get me.
Haul your behind out of here while I’m still in a decent mood. given the celibacy thing and all. Maybe I could bargain for a lower sentence .” He cleared his throat and spoke in a loud. I mean. I disguised my voice and said.” Okay. I was gonna burn in hell for that one. “You’ve got to be kidding me. “A prostitute?” Dylan muttered. God.life if you find a way to get me out of here right now. hadn’t meant to say that out loud.. not a priest or anything. but. He didn’t recognize me? Thank you.” I blinked through a few frizzy red strands. “You picked the wrong guy to proposition. commanding voice. “Got a few clergy customers.” No doubt about it. babe. “Hail Mary.. full of grace--” Dylan’s brows had virtually disappeared into his hairline. never mind. “I’m going to kill them.
It had been what Bob had wanted. throaty voice. “Anyway.” I wiggled my cuffed hand. Probably looked it.” I said in a deep. all guys wanted to live out their fantasies. Gloria’s idea had been to seduce Dylan by coming across as a sexy temptress who was willing to play out one of his fantasies. too. sugar. In my experience. I’m in a bind. “Looks like I’m stuck. sounding more like a drag queen than a prostitute. I would leave if I could. “Bind. She’d found out from Gadget that Dylan had a thing for redheads and dominatrix.” Double crap. . If Dylan came any closer.with an Act of Contrition or two. but I’m in a bit of a pickle. given my size. But I’d been a fool to think I could pull off a fantasy. so I’d reluctantly agreed to this tactic because I was desperate. he was sure to recognize me. since I can’t reach the key to these blasted things.
No other woman I know snorts. Lying spread-eagled across black satin sheets would normally conjure up a sexy image. I tried to move my legs together for modesty’s sake. crooked grin hooked the corner of his mouth. “Mac.let alone a temptress. and his gorgeous blue laser beams crinkled at the corners. but my fishnet stockings and two-inch spikes were all twisted up in the whip. After a tense moment. Not today. It would take a whole lot more than ten Hail Marys a day and unlocking these stupid handcuffs to get me out of this predicament. yet all I could do was laugh. I felt completely mortified. “Mac?” That adorable. Snort! I pressed my lips together. he sheathed his weapon. I know it’s you. . Oh. and his lips parted. yeah. Hot Britches narrowed his eyes. Darn nerves.
I looked away. As he lifted the wig from my face. Walking to his bed. just making a fool of myself. I couldn’t if I tried. he smiled and stroked my cheek. and I wouldn’t blame him if he never believed me again. “Talk to me. Heat seared my skin clear up to my hair follicles. Zuc. especially me. After a full minute of unbearable silence.” . “Last I saw you. he sat on the edge and untangled my legs from the whip and then slid my feet together. but said nothing. you said you didn’t need anyone. My face had to be the same fire-engine shade of red as my stupid wig. I felt like an idiot. he sighed. He chuckled but then grew sober. What are you doing here?” Oh.though I haven’t seen pointy metal cones for a bra since an old Madonna video. I thought. Callie.
And I know how you feel. either. I’ve never had good luck when it comes to men. I really care. “You were right when you said someone did a number on me. That shrink I told you about. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” I closed my eyes. I wasn’t the only one. but he never loved me. I’ve never been the same since. and I lied a couple weeks ago when I said I didn’t need you. and. so I don’t trust easily. I thought this guy. was the one. “I would have married him had he asked.“I’m sorry.” I opened my eyes.” Dylan stared at me for a full minute. but I’m not that guy. All he wanted was to make money off us having sex. “Payback was petty. He actually videotaped us having sex without my knowing it and published the porn video on the Internet. well. then said.” I peeked up at him. well. her name . Bob.
and I did what I had to. too. I’d die if anything happened to you. No more Brat Pack. okay?” . But I should have trusted you to be smart and call if you needed help.was Tina. to protect you. I never understood how she could exploit something so private between us? Guess she didn’t love me. We were engaged. I trusted her. I know my ways are unorthodox. The threat of the Midnight Molester is serious. opened up myself to her about intimate things. “Me. I care about you so much more than just a friend. I hope you know how much you mean to me. and she used it against me by putting it all in her evaluation report. She lied to me.” “That’s horrible. either.” He leaned closer. but that’s why I’m usually successful. too.
“But I gotta know. “I must look like the biggest moron to you.” He gently pulled my wig off and smiled. I . and his Adam’s apple bobbed.” “You could never look like a moron.” I bit my lip. What are you doing chained to my bed dressed like that?” “Why did I let Gloria talk me into this?” I wailed. “You want to seduce me?” I didn’t answer. “I’m no good at seduction. Your cousin Gadget--I mean Mike--said you were into redheads and dominatrix. “This outfit was not my idea. but yes.” Chuckling. “Please tell me I heard you right?” he whispered.” “Gloria talked you into this? I should’ve known by the outfit. he shook his head. I met his eyes. Then his smile faded.“Okay.
I did come with a backup .” He smiled back. Only. “I want you so damn much. Mike was confused. If I’d had any doubts about sleeping with him before. I flubbed it up. “Trust me. being the imbecile that I am. then added. how would you have chosen to seduce me?” I sucked in a sharp breath. I prefer natural blondes. now. sweetheart.” He tossed my whip to the floor. The Brat Pack let me in. they were long gone now. “Thank God.wanted to seduce you. It’s Nick--Khaki Man to you--who’s into redheads and dominatrix. “Tell me. “But all this isn’t you. you didn’t flub anything up. yeah.” I smiled.” He took my hand in his. Are you positive this is what you want?” “Heck. “Well.” Dylan’s eyes heated.” “Hey. and Gloria supplied the props. and his smile faded.
plan.” “Oh. I could show you. “Yeah?” “Would you mind unlocking these? The key’s on the dresser.” He stood and started to turn away. We’ll talk later. he whispered. It could be fun.” Kissing my fingers. I don’t know. “Ditto. I think I’ve had enough of Gloria’s toys. two weeks ago. A little . I can’t wait. “Shhh. Last we talked. Dylan?” He turned back. yeah. Holler when you’re ready. you said--” I pulled my hand from his and covered his mouth. And I don’t think I’ll ever wear leather again.” “Oh. I want. “Um. I just don’t want you to regret this later. if you want. I’ve missed you terribly. I’ll just hang up my coat and go through my mail. Right now.
then shifted. Dylan winced. then said. *** I stared at my reflection in the mirror above Dylan’s dresser as I smoothed my hands down the pale-green nightie in the same shade as my . roaming over the length of me. “Hurry. Winkie sprang to attention.” as he headed out to the living room. Clearing his throat. “The pleasure I’ll take.” “Two hours? You’ve been half-naked. he quickly undid my handcuffs. waiting for me all that time?” I nodded as I licked my lips. thank you very much. but the joke was on him as Mr.” he teased. but lying here locked in this contraption for the past two hours has been pain enough for me. sprawled across my satin sheets. double-time.pain and pleasure.
so my bottle of champagne .eyes. so now the scent of lilacs permeated the air. I’d dreamt about being with Dylan since that first night in the sleazy dive when I’d thought he was a criminal. The same one Dylan had convinced me to buy that night in the lingerie shop. I smiled. The same one he’d landed in a pile of Miracle Bras over. I made sure everything was perfect. Candles flickered on the dresser. then tucked my short bob behind my ears. feeling so much better in this outfit than that leather-clad nightmare. their warm glow bathing the room in amber. Nerves battled excitement within my stomach. Scanning the room. I’d wanted him just as much even then. and their vanilla scent mingling with the lilac. God. It hadn’t mattered one bit. I’d asked Dylan for some ice and a bucket. I’d sprayed the sheets.
pleading for someone to nibble them. And a bowl of fresh strawberries sat next to the champagne. and the top button on his jeans undone. when the door swung open. “Oh.” .” and my voice cracked. feeling more than a little foolish. Taking a heartening breath. His gaze ran over me. “Wow. His lips parted and face took on a mask of wonder and awe as he looked around the room. shirt untucked. begging to be uncorked. and then focused on me. Note to self: Corrr-nyyy! I giggled. Dylan stood there. I called out. Hopefully. your goddess of love awaits you. they wouldn’t be the only things to get nibbled. “You look beautiful.” he said in a hoarse whisper.stood chilling. and his eyes burned with heat and passion. Zeus.
I held out my hand and tried to calm my racing heart. grabbing the hem of his T-shirt and sweeping it over his head. I never knew it could be like this. He walked toward me. He licked his full lips. he pulled his ponytail out of its band and shook his head. his nostrils flaring once as his gaze focused on my puckered nipples. He lifted his hands and ran them over my hair then down my shoulders and arms until he linked . The dark-chocolate strands fell to his shoulders.My embarrassment vanished. he looked wild and savage. Reaching up. and the amber candlelight rippled off his hard muscles. unable to peel my gaze away from his fabulous bronze pecs and washboard abs. I swallowed hard. God. and I tingled all the way to my toes. then letting it fall to the floor along the way.
well. then flicked my lobe with his tongue.” His blue eyes sizzled. Skimming his teeth down my neck. I couldn’t think when he touched me. “Okay. Have it your way. he bit my shoulder. “Seduce me. but I grew warm as melted cheese poured over noodles. Goosebumps zipped over my skin. “Callie. confident. I bumped into the bed. needing some room to breathe. “If I get any more seduced. “H-Hey. He made me forget my own name whenever he drew close. Can’t you tell?” Dylan whispered in my ear with hot air. we’ll be done before we get started. whatever.” He nailed me with that adorable crooked grin I’d once thought of as cocky. I am seduced.his fingers with mine.” I managed. I’m the one who’s supposed to be seducing you.” “Oh.” I backed up a step. sweetheart.” . “Whoops.
“Well. I jerked. I would have undressed you. I . Staring at the fine black hair. as though he needed to touch me. mama.” he whispered. he let his chest graze my nipples through my nightgown. “Do you want to finish for me?” Leaning forward. since I’m here and all. Oh.” The moment of truth.” “I’m not done. um. He caught my hands in his.“Oh. then lost my balance and sat on the bed. “Well. “I mean. I tracked its path with my eyes until it disappeared under his opened jeans. I can--” “No!” I pushed his hands aside.” I lifted my shaking hands up to his zipper and began to unfasten it. you don’t have to. let’s see. A breath hissed in his throat over the contact. “Honey. Eye-level with his belly-button. but you’ve already started.
Gaining some semblance of control. God. not wanting to think about anything but . I shook those thoughts away. When I sat back up. Mr.” I said with a catch in my throat. “Wow. Dylan kicked off his boots. then stepped out of his Levi’s. I undid his zipper and shoved his jeans down to his ankles. “Relax. Good God.” Chuckling. and I didn’t think anything could outdo him. that might be scarier than Jack. little David had nothing on him.” “Oh?” I asked in a daze.” he teased. Not even a quarter. “My turn. Winkie doesn’t bite. I inhaled sharply. honey. then lifted me to my feet and said in a deep growl. “Sweet Jesus.want to. not wanting to think about my project.” I’d been right. I wanted him so badly I wasn’t sure I could finish before I lost it myself. shaking the bizarre image of a biting zucchini from my mind. did I want to.
” He leaned in to kiss my nose. His eyes flashed as he pulled my nightgown over my head. Right now. As though reading my mind. and then my lips. driving me mad. but he pulled back and worked his way down to my collarbone. I tried to deepen the kiss. When he wrapped his arms around . I could only think about how much I wanted him to touch me. then my cheeks. I needed him more than I’d ever needed anyone. then stared at my bumps for a full minute. Tingles shimmied over my skin and flooded my system. My gaze locked onto his heated one. he placed his hands on my hips and I lifted my arms. “Perfectly plump peaches. My favorite.Dylan. and my mouth went bone dry. I wondered over how he could make me feel this way from a simple touch or kiss.
Leaning over him. What was he doing to me? This wasn’t supposed to happen. I kissed .” I cried. emotion flooded me and tears welled up in my eyes. He was worth it. I didn’t care. I pulled him down on top of me. I never imagined a man could consume every part of my being. He chuckled as he laid me on the bed and rubbed my stomach.me and took my nipple into his mouth. Bending over. I’d take it and not feel one ounce of remorse. but I wasn’t sure if it would be enough. “Good God. he kissed my belly so tenderly. then rolled him over to his back. even if this night was all I could have of him or give to him. I wanted to give him everything I had. his goatee caressed my breast and his tongue circled my nipple. right down to my soul.
and I smiled. Glancing lower. he slipped on protection. My eyes fluttered closed. He kissed me again as his magical . He seemed to recognize what I wanted. I needed more than just his kisses and caresses. he plunged his tongue deep. I’ll lose it for sure. Rolling me over. then skimmed my teeth and tongue lower to his belly and circled his navel. The tension built so tight. He moaned deep. my lips parted and I licked him. Cradling my face. Dylan stared at me with such intense heat.his chest like he had mine. I bit my bottom lip. and I welcomed his kiss. then eased his weight on top of me. If you do that now. His jaw hardened as if he were grinding his teeth.” he croaked a second before his lips claimed mine. “Next time. then he pulled me up the length of his body. sweetheart. Did I dare? I peeked up at him.
Please. He fit. Then ever so slowly. I want you so damn much. baby.” As I placed my palms on his cheeks. I want this. Dylan. too. filling me completely. but I couldn’t stand it.fingers touched and stroked me. it’s okay. he slid into me. trying to show him I could handle .” “I want you. Don’t stop. we fit. I pulled his face down to mine and thrust my tongue in his mouth. forcing him deeper. I sobbed once. until I was panting as hard as him.” I clamped my legs around him and lifted my hips higher. He moved his hips slowly at first. like we were made just for each other. How could I have ever thought he was like Bob? “Callie?” “Shhh. “Not a chance. I’m fine. I rolled him onto his back and straddled him.
Maybe that was why I’d rebelled so hard. I didn’t want to be sheltered now. Dropping his hands back to my hips.” His eyes snapped open and locked onto mine.it fast. “Please don’t! Look at me. then reached up and caressed my breasts. I wanted. I wanted to be wild and free. encouraging me. that I wanted him. That sent me soaring even higher. that I wanted it fast. I picked up the tempo. He mumbled soft words. . I wanted to feel everything. he urged me on at an incredible pace and squeezed his eyes shut as though trying to hold onto his control. and he seemed to sense that. All my life I’d been sheltered. and my Hot Britches matched me stroke for stroke. no needed for it to be this way the first time with him. He placed his hands on my hips and guided me. Dylan.
I was sure of it. Shock waves rocketed through me as though the earth had opened up and swallowed me whole. I didn’t say a word. Whipping my head from side to side. For a single moment in time.” his husky voice growled. Was he afraid to ruin the moment. either. I fell to his chest. sending delicious shivers down my spine. too? He kept our bodies joined as he pulled the covers up . I screamed his name at the same time that he yelled mine. I couldn’t. Dylan didn’t.Blue fire blazed within them. and I arched my back. It would never be like this with anyone else. “Fly with me. we’d been as one. and I lost control. baby. He stiffened and squeezed my hips. and my body quaked in the aftermath. Tears leaked out of the corners of my eyes for all I felt.
feeling a whole lot less insecure. Last night had been amazing. He had been incredible. then slid his hands down my back and patted my insecurity. He was with me. He squeezed once more. but we seemed to have a silent pact--no talking about what was between . When he left his hand and cradled one cheek. then wrapped his arms around me and held me tight. just me. That was enough for now. I smiled. highlighting Dylan’s hair. and that was all that mattered.over us. *** Rays of sunshine streamed in through the bedroom window. In between. we drank champagne and fed each other strawberries. We’d made love one more time. slow and tender. It had been just as mind-blowing as the wild and frantic lovemaking had been. My heart melted as I watched him sleep.
or to accept the reality that he would move on when he grew bored. but I knew he’d never understand. I watched him as I got dressed. I pushed that thought to the back of my mind. Nature called. They always did. He patted the mattress. When I returned from the bathroom. I’d told him about Bob. so I eased out from under his arm and slipped off the bed. And he would. Fine by me.us. but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about my project. but he was still a man. then reached out his arm with his eyes still closed. . but I wasn’t ready to let him go. Dylan stirred. Last night had nothing to do with research. He wasn’t anything like Bob. Just because I got up at the crack of dawn didn’t mean he had to. I wasn’t ready for the fantasy to end. Call me selfish.
“Hungry?” “Starved. “Pancakes?” I slipped my shirt off and .” His gaze ran over my body and heated. then frowned. “Morning. his heavy-lidded eyes roaming over me.” He pushed the covers below his belly button.” So the fantasy would go on a bit longer. He cracked one eye open and a slow grin hooked the corner of his mouth when he spotted me. I smiled wide.sweeping his hand across it. then folded his hands beneath his head. “No. “Eggs?” I licked my lips as I stepped out of my pants. I could live with that.” “Disappointed?” “Never.
I wiggled out of my underwear and unhooked my bra. best breakfast I ever had.. goose bumps prickling over my skin. “Nope. and the covers began to rise as a tent formed over his groin.” He tossed the covers aside and held out his arms.” He slipped one leg out. Note to self: Steamed zucchini and peach soufflé. “Peaches?” “Perfect.stood in just my underwear and bra. letting it fall to the floor. ..
locking hands with her . “I never thought it would take this long.” She grunted. “You bet your ass.CHAPTER FIFTEEN “A record contract. I deserve it. I laughed and joined in. you know?” She looked at me. Honey. and her chocolate curls fell in front of her shoulders as she filled the box. You so deserve it. “I’m gonna make an album. An actual album.” I said as I stood in the living room of our apartment and helped Gloria pack her last box.” She grinned wide. jumping up and down. I’ve only been doing this since forever. her hand falling still.” she squealed. “Yet I still can’t believe it happened. shaking her head. That is really awesome.
but I’ll take Eduardo and call it a day. “You’ll probably forget all about me. We fell back on the couch. baby. breathing heavy.” She squeezed my hand. I could never forget you. now that you’re going to be famous. I’m not gonna miss this dump. I said.” I turned my head to the side to look at her. Staring up at the water stains on the ceiling. Mmm. Her eyes met mine. I was born for luxury. mmm. then got up and wrapped another one of her belongings in . No more cold showers and freezing my ass off from those drafty windows. “I can’t believe I’m actually going to miss Roach Central. no way.and spinning in a circle until we both were dizzy. How will I sleep without the subway roaring and fire engine sirens wailing all night?” “Well. “Honey.” She giggled.
newspaper and added it to the box. It’s not like I’m moving to Timbuktu. we’ll still see each other. “He’s crazy about you. “But we girls gotta stick together. You’ll be spending all your time with Eduardo. which I’m so proud of you. and when you’re not doing that.” I grabbed the roll of packing tape and slapped a piece across the top of the box and met her gaze.” She winked. Eduardo’s apartment is easy to get to in the city. but you’ll be busy recording.” She arched a brow. chica.” . “I know. “Besides. you know. “Your Hot Britches is a goner when it comes to you. her bangle bracelets clanking away.” A dreamy smile crossed her face. Eduardo’s not the only one who’s got it bad.” She labeled the box with permanent marker.” “Yeah. by the way. “Besides.
I had no choice but to take him up on his offer. and mixed up a batch of Bahama Mamas. “Oh.” I handed her a glass of the fruity drink.” I headed to the kitchen. so he offered up his apartment. “The end of the semester is only a little over two months away. I’m sure I’ll have better luck when students head home for the summer. you know. I tried to find another place. My track record stinks. who’s to say I won’t. I’m not naive enough to think what we have is permanent. I’m not saying that I’m not having fun with Dylan. but everything reasonable is already taken with school still in session. pulled out a pitcher. but I still don’t want to be in a relationship. They always do. Trust me.” . please. For that matter.My heart did a funny little lurch. He’ll grow bored. but I ignored it. “He knew I couldn’t afford this place on my own.
” She clunked her glass against mine.” Her big brown eyes grew misty.” She shook her head. you’ll see that I’m right. “I’ll let you off the hook for now. so am I. taking the glass and holding it up.” I took my own sip. a realist. but when school’s out. My past has taught me that relationships don’t last. Gloria. “To new beginnings and being happy. I plan on enjoying every minute I have with Dylan. “Not a cynic. care to help me load up mine?” She stared at me long and hard then sighed. but one day. Enough about that. then took a sip. “Believe me. even if you’re too blind to see what’s right in front of you.“Such a cynic.” . Now that we’re done packing up your stuff. “I’m gonna miss you. I’m simply not setting myself up for heartache this time. letting the rum linger on my tongue before I swallowed.
that’s something to drink to. Don’t be scared and just go for it. I gotta be at the studio in two hours.” I held up my glass. I love saying that. “The studio. yeah. chica.” “Now.” She grinned from ear to ear. ignoring her previous comment. “Hell. babe.” I laughed. baby. I followed suit. To the future. “You’re gonna make an awesome record. could she? Relationships and I were such a bad . She couldn’t be right.” I hugged her tight.” She clunked her glass against mine once again and then downed the rest of her drink. but my mind wouldn’t stop repeating Gloria’s words that Dylan had it bad for me. “So let’s get busy.” “Damn right I am.“Me too.
Only time would tell. just enjoying being with each other. We’d been living together for a while now. everything had worked out fine. The sex was phenomenal. Nothing heavy. then lifted his heavy-lidded gaze to mine. We meshed as though we’d been living together for years. and so far. No strings attached. “What’s . no possibility for heartache. “I saw an apartment in the newspaper that I think I might be able to afford. I had no clue how to handle a “real” relationship. He ran his finger down my bare arm.” I rolled over in bed and faced Dylan. *** Gloria was so wrong.combination. I sure as heck hoped she wasn’t right or this could be my biggest disaster yet. and we had so much fun just hanging out together.
you know what I mean?” His finger stilled. and I suppose I’ve sort of gotten to know what you like. I like your taste just fine. you said you decorated your parents’ store.” I rolled . so why not you?” “Well.” He grinned. never mind. But what if you don’t like my taste?” He stared at my lips. “I liked the things you pointed out in the store the other day.” “Okay. “Cute. I’m serious.” He grinned... right? I was thinking about hiring someone anyway. “So redecorate.” “Dylan. I’m not tied to anything but that hammock. it’s just a total bachelor’s pad. then puckered up and gave me a fish kiss. I do have a bit of experience. oh. “Oh. It’s a stupid idea.wrong with this place?” “Nothing. Besides. so you have some experience.
“I mean. you didn’t have to sit on the floor with me. You probably know me better than anyone. His arms snaked around me. “It’s not a stupid idea. not the part about knowing you better than anyone.the other way and got out of bed.” I said with my eyes still closed. “And you can start by getting us a couch. Decorating his apartment somehow didn’t feel temporary. enjoying the feel of his arms around me. cutting off my speech. I’m tired of watching TV on the floor. feeling his . then leaned my head back and closed my eyes. then headed for the closet.” “Yes to both.” “Really?” I paused for a minute.” “Hey. I pulled on my jeans and sweater with my back to him. Mac.” He chuckled against the top of my head. and he kissed the side of my neck. but about the redecorating.
Then he stepped away and gathered some clothes out of the closet. This felt really weird. “But I’m sure as heck not sitting my big ole butt in that excuse for a hammock again. did just about everything together except share a checking account and a last name. We already lived together. I’ll tell you that. “Why don’t you start today? I should be home by dinner. slept together.” “Your butt’s not big. And now he was letting me use his credit card. speaking as he pulled them on. like “married” weird. ate together. “Get whatever you need.” He swatted me on the fanny. and my eyes popped open. . shopped together.” He grabbed his wallet off of his dresser and pulled out a credit card.heart beat against my back and letting the musky scent that was pure Dylan engulf my senses.” I paused again. it’s perfect. bathed together.
He’d lied to me. he was going to hate me. I’ll thank you in other ways. maybe he wouldn’t have to find out about my project. “I trust you.” So why did I feel guilty? I took a deep breath. though I doubted he’d see it that way. Whereas. But I wasn’t just using him for research. And I was only using his credit card to buy his furniture. Nothing for me. The semester was almost over. but he’d done so for my own good. I truly cared about him.” He . just add it to my bill. for his apartment.” God. But you don’t have to pay me. “If you see anything you want for yourself. Then again. I’d lied for purely selfish reasons. okay?” “Okay. It wasn’t like he’d said. He was going to think I was just like his ex-fiancée Tina. “Okay. I’ll do it.“You’re serious?” “Why not?” He shrugged.
” He turned and headed for the living room. by the way. so I’d gone a little wild. leaving me gaping like a flounder. Oh. feel free to put it on my card. I sat on Dylan’s brand-new. then kissed me on the nose. and then some. and I followed. so to go for it.” He smiled. and splashes of color in modern art all week. but he’d said he had a bit put away. but . Well. Okay. plush black leather couch.winked. “Gotta run. and studied the ultra-modern room. I did. yeah. I’d been buying black and white furniture. He was gonna hate me. If you see anything you want. “Oh. feeling slightly less guilty. situated beside an overstuffed matching black leather recliner. then he walked out the door. *** At the end of the week. funky glass and marble tables. a few cool lamps.
Now that he was due home at any minute. And to top it off. and jalapeño. What if he didn’t like it? Any of it? The food. and then today moving the furniture in since he’d been gone on a twenty-four-hour stakeout. a pitcher of Bahama Mamas sat chilling in the fridge. the furniture. I’d made a big crock of homemade spicy mac and cheese with fancy noodles and imported mozzarella. I was scared senseless. this . God. I’d spent all yesterday painting the walls and putting up a mural. and salsa music poured out of his brand new sound system in the background.storing the items amongst the Brat Pack. I didn’t want Dylan to see the room until I finished. my taste in music? Oh. cheddar. Accompanied by a tossed salad with Mediterranean feta and a loaf of soft French bread.
” His voice trailed off and he came to a stop in the middle of the room. then I could get his cousins to help me put everything back the way it was. “Mac. I hung up the phone and swallowed hard. I’m home. and something smells awesome. I jumped up off the couch and picked up the phone to dial his cell. If I could stall him. I swear. and then the door swung open. I can change it all back. Too late. taking it all in with his full lips slightly parted.” . I didn’t. He had to live here permanently. “I’m so sorry. The door rattled as the key turned in the lock.had been such a bad idea. He’d probably move so he wouldn’t have to be reminded of me and what a mess I’d made of his life.
so me. I’ve always loved playing around with colors and fabrics. too.” “Thank you. “Are you kidding? This is so cool. You really have a talent for this. You should seriously consider being an Interior Designer. “Thanks.” “Well. It’s like you crawled inside my head and took a picture.” I bit my bottom lip. “I have a surprise for you. Ever.” “Maybe I will.” He wrapped his arms around me and kissed me squarely on the lips. No one had ever made me feel this good. You’re amazing.” . and he blinked as though just noticing me.His eyes met mine. “So you like it?” “I love it. I just never gave much thought to doing anything with it.” A warm feeling swept through me. you should.
then handed it to me. A brand new spring coat. they were usually bad.” First his credit card. My sigh turned to a groan. because in my case. Only this had not come from Mr. What did it all mean? “Sure you can. He went back to the door and picked up a bag he’d dropped when he first came in. “This is too much.” “Dylan. It’s not nearly enough to make .” “I wanted to. It had “expensive” written all over it. and now gifts. you didn’t have to. I didn’t like surprises. of that I was sure. Dump Ster. then gasped. I pulled on the heavenly brown leather and sighed. yet nothing bulky about it. I can’t accept it. “Open it.” I pulled out a big box and opened it. So soft and lightweight.“You do?” I cleared my throat.
thank you.” “Just a little something I whipped up.” “Mac and cheese. and something smells fantastic. *** I printed off the last page of my paper and . bringing it to his lips and kissing it. right?” “How’d you guess?” “Let’s just say I’ve gotten to know you pretty well.” “You’re welcome. I’m starved.up for all you’ve done for me.” Note to self: You are thoroughly screwed! And NOT in a good way. Then he came back and took my hand. And I’m not just talking about the decorating.” He slipped off my coat and hung it up. “Well. his goatee tickling my skin. too. "Let’s eat.” He kissed my hand again.
black brow. “Anything I can do to help?” “Oh. I clutched the sheets to my chest. but . but I knew he would be angry. you’ve helped more than you know. He would think I’d only been using him all this time. please. “What’s that?” he asked as he tied his hair back in his usual ponytail and tucked his Tshirt into his Levi’s. “Nothing important.” He arched a sleek. so I said. I just wasn’t ready to deal with that right now. what’s it about?” I wanted to tell him. “Just a paper for the class I’m taking. My heart sped into overdrive. I really did.” Please.stapled it together just as Dylan walked into the bedroom. when that wasn’t the case at all. please don’t ask to read it. “Really.
but my heart ached just the same. and I breathed a sigh of relief that he didn’t press the issue. He leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. then turned away. I grabbed . “Okay. and I clutched my papers even tighter. I couldn’t believe our time together was nearly over. I really did hate surprises. I have a surprise planned. I’ve ordered something special. Part of me was glad that I wouldn’t have to skulk around him much longer carrying this secret. Don’t cook. My last day of class.” I smiled. but I’ll be back by dinner. I didn’t want my time with him to end. As soon as he was gone. He shrugged. either. I have to run some errands.” “Great. He just chuckled and shook his head as he walked out the door. great .thanks. then. But I didn’t want to get hurt.” Yeah.
At least when he remembered me. and Dylan hadn’t found out about my secret. His smirk soon faded as Professor McCreedy. I sighed.my new coat and headed for school. the head of the department. Flowers blooming. I’d made it through this stupid project. a warm breeze blowing. MacDonald. A time for new beginnings. May. A beautiful time of year. it’s your turn. Today was a good day. “Ms. Professor Butthead called students up one at a time to present their projects. Are you prepared?” He folded his arms and wore a slight smirk like he didn’t believe I stood a chance of pulling this off. walked in and took a seat in the . Once we were all seated. I got off the subway and walked the rest of the way to class. it would be with fondness. A time to move on. sun shining.
And after thorough research and help from some special friends. I truly believed that size mattered. I’ve concluded that we’re human beings. But I didn’t have to look down and read it to know what I was going to say.” Several heads nodded and the snickers subsided as I won them over. but I smiled indulgently and kept filling them in on what I’d learned.” The class snickered. “The truth is. We can only draw conclusions. surprising all of us. “When I first started this project. and set my report on the podium. we can’t prove one way or the other whether size matters or not. .back. “Absolutely. receiving an encouraging smile from McCreedy along the way.” I took a deep breath and walked to the front of the room.
” I looked around the room. but just remember there are exceptions to every rule.“We all have issues based on the experiences we’ve had in life. I no longer minded being in the spotlight. not necessarily on the size of our produce. all eyes were riveted on me. “That’s not to say there aren’t a few generalizations that might hold true on how the size of a man’s produce could potentially affect his personality. I thought pickles were downright cocky because they felt they had to overcompensate for what they lacked. based on my observations and interview questions. In fact. it felt darn good for a change. I’d captured the attention of nearly everyone in the room. and a newfound confidence I didn’t even realize I had filled me to the core.” A few more snickers rang out. “At first. and cucumbers seemed comfortable . but overall.
then he sputtered. and we’ll all be better off. Professor McCreedy clapping the hardest. But then I dug a little deeper and discovered this: everyone’s self-conscious about some aspect of their bodies. Professor Butthead’s face had puckered up like a prune.” The whole class broke out into applause. while zucchinis seemed overconfident women-magnets whose only thoughts were their next conquest. Just because one zucchini’s a jerk doesn’t mean they all are. I treated myself to .” I smiled. “Well done. get to know the person within. You can take your seat now. as I ended with. no matter if they’re born gorgeous or wishing to be that way.” When class was over.with who they were. “So don’t judge a man by his produce. His mouth opened and shut a few times. MacDonald. Ms.
” I got up and gave .” “We thought you’d like that. “You guys did that for me?” “Yeah.lunch in the cafeteria and ran into Callie’s Angels. Jeepers. I blinked. “Great. how’d it go?” Red took a seat beside me. isn’t it great? We ran into her just before your class. “So.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I thought it was some coincidence when she walked in right before my presentation. I wish I could have been there. It was priceless.” Brownie grinned. “You guys are the best. No way. You should have seen Butthead’s face when Professor McCreedy walked in. and she was all too happy to check out your presentation.” Blondie clapped.
and now I’d made friends. Thank you all so much. how could we say no after we said your eggs were rotting?” Red grinned from ear to ear. . no big deal. Maybe I’ll see you next semester. “I’ve got to get to work. you know where to look. “I could not have done this without you. “That makes us even since I first thought of you all as giggling puddles of estrogen. but a smile tugged at her lips.” “Hey.” We all laughed.” “Count on it. First Dylan loved my redecorating.” Red said with a smile.each of them a hug. “Thanks. “We had fun.” Brownie shrugged. Blondie giggled.” I waved as I left the cafeteria on cloud nine. And if you need any more help. Angels. and then I’d succeeded in pulling off the insane project.” “Besides.
falling off my cloud and landing in a puddle of reality. Things were suddenly going right in my life. and he hadn’t asked me to live with him permanently.. I’d stopped running from my problems.Real friends. I had to end it tonight. So why did the thought of entering a serious relationship terrify me? I guess I still wasn’t ready to trust men completely. Dylan hadn’t said he loved me. learned how to stand up for myself. My life was about to hit the fan. that only meant one thing when it came to me.. and I knew I wanted to be an Interior Designer. If things were going this well. *** . but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be easy. I frowned. so I refused to get in any deeper.
but the orange chicken and egg rolls had been to die for. putting his arm around me and pulling me closer to his side.” Dylan answered. “Several times.“Did I thank you for my new coat?” I asked Dylan as I tucked my legs beneath me and snuggled deeper into the black leather sofa. you’re beating yourselves.” he said as though the baseball players could hear him. “Come on. “Dylan?” “Hmmm. guys. God. He picked up the remote and turned the TV to the sports channel. then crossing his sock-clad feet on the coffee table in front of us. I wished I could take . My stomach hurt from stuffing myself with take-out.” “Are you sure you like this room?” I leaned my head back to rest my cheek on his shoulder and looked up at him.
if that was possible. “Just tying up all the loose ends before I have to go. wanting to be closer to him.a picture so I’d never forget his profile. trying to ingrain his musky scent in my brain forever.” He still stared at the TV.” There. “Why all the questions?” I sighed. I . I inhaled deeply. Get some new glasses. He laid his other hand on my thigh and squeezed. then gave me a quick kiss and went back to watching the game. ump. I said it before him. No matter how hard I’d tried to guard myself against it. “Positive. I unfolded my legs and plopped them across his lap. “Bad call. But I had to. yet my heart still thumped painfully. the thought of leaving him still hurt.” He shook his head and ran his hand up and down my arm as though it were the most natural thing in the world for him.
already cared more than I should.” He stared deep into my eyes.” My heart started hammering. My breath hitched. It’s time. and his filled with an emotion I was . “Go? Go where?” He gave me his full attention now. and then we’ll come back here together. “Why would you do that? And where would I live if I stayed here?” He couldn’t be suggesting what I thought he was.” He turned off the game-his favorite team.” He frowned. I thought I’d go back to Cutesville to confront my parents. and his brows formed a deep V. could he? “You’d live here with me. Since I couldn’t find a place here. “I’ll go with you. the semester is over. and I have to live somewhere. Why did he sound so surprised? “Well. “Okay. no less--and slowly set down the control.
Men c-can’t be trusted.” He took my hands in his and ran his thumbs over the backs of mine. even though deep in my heart I knew it to be true. and I think you know that. I don’t know that. I couldn’t believe what he was trying to tell me. “Because I knew you’d never move in if I said anything else.” I pulled my hands from his. slipped my legs off his lap. “B-But this is only temporary.afraid to name. Callie. “No. then right. Men don’t commit. and crossed my arms in front of me. Dylan was everything I’d ever wanted but thought I couldn’t . because then everything I’d ever thought about men had been a lie.” My eyes darted left. Anywhere but on his face. No. I wasn’t ready to believe there were still good guys left out there. This doesn’t have to be temporary. You said so. This could be a whole lot more.
” “Sweetheart.” I ran into the bathroom and locked the door. I just knew I couldn’t. My palms began to sweat. I had no clue why. “Don’t come any closer. his voice . I couldn’t let it happen. until I was helpless to do otherwise. and I want us to be together.” He stood up and stepped toward me. I know you’ve been hurt.” I jumped up off the couch and backed away from him. Please say you’ll move in with me for good. You can’t. “I love you. come on out. So why was I freaking out? “Callie.have.” His voice rumbled soft and low. This couldn’t be happening.” he said. “Callie. you don’t love me. I have for a while now. “No. I couldn’t breathe. but I’m not that guy. look at me.
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore tonight. “I just can’t. but that’s all I can promise.filtering through the door. Just give me some space. okay? We’ll talk it over in the morning. I didn’t know what I wanted. Mac. Maybe I deserved to be happy for a change. “You don’t have to decide anything right now.” He opened his mouth. okay?” “I can live with that. just sleep on it. “Okay. Don’t stress. but I will. There are things I need to tell you. Maybe I could let this happen. This was all too much too soon. it’s . I’ll think about it. I opened the bathroom door.” I took a deep breath.” I sat on the edge of the tub for ten minutes until I’d finally calmed down. Gathering courage I had no idea I possessed. things I’m not ready to say yet.
But first. I’d thought it over and decided being with him was worth the risk. but maybe it was time to trust a man again. Where was Dylan? I walked into the kitchen and found him . *** The next morning.” “Whatever you say.” I followed him back to the living room. I still wasn’t sure about anything. He might not want anything to do with me once he found out. Everything was quiet. but my past had taught me things were never fine when it came to me. Maybe things could work between us. Too quiet. I doubted everything would be ‘fine. I got up and headed to the living room. and he’d been good to me. I had to tell him everything. Maybe Dylan was right. but somehow.’ Dylan was a really nice guy.going to be fine. You’ll see.
absently tossing the coffee grounds and filter in its place.standing there.” I stepped forward to touch his arm. The bottom of my stomach dropped out. still holding the wet filter and coffee grounds he’d obviously intended to throw out. my throat tightened and I could feel my cheeks flame. as he stared down--Oh. . I opened my mouth and was about to explain. “Is this why you asked me all those crazy questions about size and personality? I was your project?” “It wasn’t like that. and Joseph--at the crumpled research paper I’d thrown in the trash. Why had I waited to tell him? He reached in and picked up my paper. but he flinched away. but I wasn’t prepared for the look of stunned surprise that had washed over his face as he looked up at me. Mary. Jesus.
“You just wanted to figure men out because you’d been hurt? What a crock.He shoved the paper in my face. He faced me again. did you sleep with all your subjects?” I stood there in stunned silence.” reminding me of what . you’re no better than Tina. staring at his back. you just used me for research.” His blue laser beams bore into me as he ground out. She didn’t love me. nearly blinding me with the bright red “A” on it. and pain sliced through me over the word “slut. like he couldn’t bear to look at me. You never loved me. She knew all along she didn’t want to be married to a cop. “My God.” I sucked in a breath. either. You both make me sick. “Tell me. unable to speak. his brows puckered in disbelief. she was just in it for the sex like some slut. “Like you.” He turned away.
that we might stand a chance. Everything would be fine. Nothing was fine. I was just using you.” as he walked right on by and out the door. Dylan had said. Sorry. “I never meant for things to go this far. I fought back against the pain the only way I knew how. .” His shock turned to a mask of pain. He clenched his fists as he stared at me with disgust.” “Sorry? That’s all you can say?” His pain vanished. “I hope it was worth it. Then he threw my paper at me and said. My guilt faded as pure agony set in. I’d been a fool to think for even a second that he might be different. right.every guy had thought of me after the scandal. I don’t love you. but I couldn’t seem to stop the words from pouring out. “That’s right. and the angles of his face turned rigid in anger. Yeah. slamming it behind him.
He hated me. I’d ruined everything. But one thing was certain. My throat filled to the point where I couldn’t swallow. my heart shattering into a million pieces. then why did it hurt so badly? My mind was a blur. His smell was everywhere. and staring at the door he’d closed in my face. before I changed my mind. just enough to get me by. I had to get out of there. and I could no longer think clearly. . I could never face him again. I couldn’t breathe between my sobs. I began to sob.” I whispered. then fell to my knees.I stood there with fisted hands. Why? Why had I pushed him away like that? If it was what I wanted. body rigid. breathing heavy. “What have I done. and I could no longer see through the tears hovering on my eyelids. I got up and threw my clothes in a suitcase. then left as quickly as I could.
Stepping outside, I hailed a cab. “Grand Central Station, please,” I stammered. The driver left me alone on the way there, thank God. After I paid my fare, I hit the ATM and withdrew all the money I had left, just enough for a ticket to Cutesville. Ten minutes later, I was waiting in the train station, alone. A reunited couple embraced right in front of me, twisting the knife in my heart further. So I sat in the far corner, striving for some privacy, and stared out the window at nothing. I felt empty. Empty. I didn’t get it. Dylan wasn’t a loser. He’d said and done all the right things, and had even asked me to stay. He’d said he loved me. What was my problem? I blinked. My problem. I blinked again. That was it. I was the one with the problem. “Oh, my God,” I said on a whoosh of air.
I sat in stunned silence, my mouth hanging open, as that thought sank in. How could I have been so stupid? How could I not have seen this? I’d come here searching for answers about why men were such losers, when all along I should have been looking within. I dropped my face in my hands. All these years, I’d blamed everyone else for the things that had gone wrong in my life, but I was the cause. I might not have wanted to be a porn star, but I’d purposely chosen losers, so there would be no chance of commitment. No chance of getting stuck in that small town like my parents for the rest of my life. I swiped the tears away from my eyes. My God, I was an idiot. I’d gotten everything so wrong. I was an only child. My parents hadn’t wanted to let me go, and I hadn’t been able to
stand up to them. So I’d used the scandal as an excuse to leave, blaming them for not wanting me. When in reality, they’d never actually told me to go. My breath hitched in my throat, and my stomach turned sour as another thought struck me. Oh, God. I’d just done the same thing with Dylan. Now that I thought about it, I’d purposely left my paper in the full trash, right on top, knowing darn well he’d find it. Then I’d pushed him away and left before he’d had the chance to tell me to go. I sobbed again, harder this time. He’d never forgive me after what I’d done. I’d never forgive myself. Note to self: You’re the biggest loser of all.
Okay, enough wallowing in self-pity. I brushed my tears away and decided I had to do something. But what? I glanced around Grand Central Station, receiving a few odd stares, but no one said a word. People moved about, chatting, drinking coffee, reading the morning paper, and waiting for their train to depart. I’d come so far, made so much progress in getting my life back on track. Running was not the answer. I couldn’t go to Cutesville. I had to talk to Dylan, explain why I pushed him away, and get him to listen to me about my project. Out of all the people I’d known, Dylan had been the first one to hold a mirror up in front of me and
force me to look at my own flaws and failures and to deal with them head-on. I loved him. Maybe I always had, I just didn’t want to face it, didn’t want to deal with it. I still wasn’t sure what the future had in store for me, for us, but I did know I wanted him in it. He was worth fighting for. That was what I needed to do. Fight. I blew my nose, then grabbed my suitcase off the floor and headed for the door to hail a cab. As I stepped outside into the bright sunshine, I closed my eyes and let the rays warm my face. Hope. I had hope for the first time in a long time. I could do this. I had to believe I could fix things, make things right between us. I couldn’t lose Dylan, not after all we’d been through. And darn it, I deserved to be happy. I pulled my money out and realized I’d spent
most of it on my ticket. I didn’t have enough for a cab. How was I going to get all the way to Dylan’s place? I couldn’t call him. He’d probably hang up on me, if he answered at all. No, this was something I had to do in person. I opened my phone to call Gloria, but remembered she was at the recording studio. Hmmm, maybe I could call the Brat Pack. “Hello, Ms. MacDonald. Leaving town?” Professor Butthead asked, coming to a stop beside me. Wouldn’t he just love that? Just my luck running into him. I hadn’t expected to see Butthead again anytime soon. “Hi, Mr.--” “Professor.” “Right. Professor Turner, what are you doing here?”
“Dropping my mother off.” “You have a mother?” “Funny.” He looked up at me with squinted eyes. “I have to say, you impressed me.” I arched a brow. “Was that a compliment?” “I know we got off on the wrong foot, but I have to fight to keep this course in the curriculum every year. People who don’t take my class seriously tend to get under my skin. You can’t tell me you signed up for the right reasons.” “Fair enough, but I didn’t quit, either.” “No, you didn’t.” He sighed. “If you decide to come back next semester, I could probably get you a position as a T.A.” That was the closest I’d get to an apology, but there was no way I would work as a teacher’s assistant for him. “Thanks, but I’ve decided to major in Interior Design. I think that will be a
much better fit for me.” “You’re probably right.” He glanced around. “You look stranded. At least let me offer you a ride.” Riding in a car with Butthead was not my idea of a good time, truce or not, but I was desperate. “Thanks. That would be great. I’m a little short.” He narrowed his eyes. “On cash,” I blurted. “Short on cash. No cab fare.” “Hmmm,” was all he said as he led the way to his car. “If you open the trunk, I’ll put my suitcase in the back,” I said. “No!” I blinked. Okay. “Why not?” “It’s full.” He snatched my bag from me and put it in the back seat, then climbed in the
driver’s side without another word. What an odd little man. I wanted to sit in the back with my bag, but I didn’t think he’d appreciate being my chauffeur, so I slipped into the passenger seat in the front. The door locks clicked, loud as a gunshot in the silence. He pulled away from the curb and drove without a word. “Um, don’t you need the directions?” I asked. “Yeah, sure.” He looked straight ahead. I told him the way, but I couldn’t tell if he’d heard or not. He seemed to be in his own little world. So I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, thinking about what I would say to Dylan. How I would convince him to give me another chance. He meant so much more to me than a stupid project. I’d only said those things because
the thought that he might actually love me just for who I am scared the crap out of me. It still did, but since I loved him more than I ever thought possible, the risk was insignificant. Besides, what fun would life be without a little fear? “How’d you do it?” “Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy,” I said with my eyes still closed. “But I found some fantastic research assistants to--” “No one else has ever gotten the best of me.” I opened my eyes and looked at him, but he stared forward with a faraway look on what I could see of his profile. “I got the best of you because I earned a good grade? I know you wanted me to fail, but I thought you were over that.” “You think you’re so clever, but you’re
not.” His voice took on a hard edge. “You’re just a whore, like all the others.” I gasped. “Excuse me?” “Don’t deny it, Callie. I know you slept with that Detective. Did you sleep with all your subjects?” Butthead never called me by my first name. My skin prickled, but annoyance overrode my fear. “School’s out, Professor. Who I sleep with is none of your business. And how did you know Detective Cabrizzi was one of my subjects?” He looked me in the eye, and I flinched over the blatant hatred I saw burning within him. “I know a lot of things about you, Callie.” My stomach churned. As I glanced around, it suddenly dawned on me I didn’t have a clue where we were. Sweat slicked my palms. “Thanks for the ride, but you can let me out right
God. I reached for the door handle. I had to do something. Biting my lip. Plans I never got to finish. He picked up speed and said.” “I don’t think so. “Let me show you what I really want.” he . and my hands were dripping with sweat now.” “Finish?” I studied him closer. His eyes. Why was this happening to me? My heart pounded beneath my ribs. “Oh. I have plans for the two of us.” Buildings flashed by and the sidewalk lines became blurred. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Oh.here. There was something so familiar about them. anything. “W-Why? What are you going to do to me?” He chuckled.
“Where are you taking me?” “My place. my foolish girl. my God.” . “You’re smarter than you look. it’s you. “Oh. God. and I froze. Y-You’re Flasher Freak. but the eyes were exactly the same. are finally mine.” How had I missed that? “Not so much of a joke anymore. the other location.said as he looked straight at me. Never let them take you to the other location. The beard and wig were gone. You’re him. Something inside my brain clicked. You’ll never get away with this. is there? You. There’s no one baby-sitting you anymore. I’ve been waiting a long time for you to slip up. am I?” He smiled a sinister smile.” Oh. but not smart enough. I’m afraid.” Something Oprah once said on her show hit me at that moment. “It’s broad daylight.
but I could get no other response from him during the rest of the drive. but true.” “I know what you look like. It’s clichéd. and I tried hard not to squirm. It’s a small price to pay for revenge. I tried to talk him out of this craziness. I still had no idea where we . “Are you going to kill me?” He didn’t answer.“Callie. Callie.” “M-My body?” It felt like bugs were slithering under my skin.” “What about the whole midnight thing?” “I’ve had to change a lot of things because of you. You’ll go to jail after you let me go. most crimes happen in broad daylight. You really are naive.” “Who says I’m letting you go? I’ll be long gone by the time they find your body. You know what they say. Callie.
I could do this. God. He was half my size. for crying out loud. I could find a way to save myself. determined to use my newfound confidence and stand up for myself. wishing I still had good ole Jack in there. I eased my hand into the side zipper of my backpack. but I doubted it. why had I closed my eyes when he first started driving? More important. We were driving through some rundown neighborhood with really old homes. Stupid tinted windows. but even if I tried to get their attention. He might be armed. they wouldn’t be able to see me.were or what borough we were even in. Although that would probably just tick Pickle Boy off with the sheer size of it by reminding him . just what did Flasher Freak plan to do to me? I took a deep breath. A few people shuffled along the sidewalk.
“It’s your kind. “What did I ever do to you that was so bad?” He lowered his gun but kept it aimed in my general direction. Now. Click. He smiled the worst.” I pulled my hand out of my backpack. then said. and I stared at the hole in the end with real fear.. My hand bumped into my phone. I’d be. if I could just get it open and dial the police. My hand stilled. scariest smile I ever saw. and I can end this right now. and I slowly looked in Flasher Freak’s direction. This is a silencer.he didn’t exactly measure up in the produce department. Sunlight flashed off the barrel of a gun. You just .. “Call anyone. thank God. in case you’re wondering.
but the second they discover you’re not up to their standards. Well. “Women are lying. You all say finding love is about loving the person from the inside out. that’s bullshit. I can’t have a woman getting the best of me ever again. and no one has caught you yet?” I had to keep him talking. Until I decided I’d had . and well. phony bitches who deserve every bad thing that happens to them. just the philosophy I’ve lived with for five years now. “You’ve been doing this for five years. they lose interest. I lived with it through high school.” “Five years?” I cringed. then college. Nothing personal.happened to be the only one who got away. They say they like you. maybe make him realize how much trouble he would be in if he took the next step. I’m living proof that size does matter. and even grad school.
” “You don’t have to do this. Maybe you just need some counseling and--” “Get out!” His eyes flicked to the gun and flashed with what looked like uncertainty. If I could get it away from him. I had to believe that he was a molester.” He opened the trunk and pulled out a rope. “Where should I go? Maybe you should lead. but then he pointed the barrel at my head. the lessons I teach after hours feed other needs. he didn’t know how to use that gun. So maybe. But not before I saw an alltoo-familiar fake beard. battered hat. wig. The lessons I teach in class put food on the table. then closed it. just maybe.enough. I’m sure you’ll find someone who likes you for you. then I could probably take him. I didn’t say I wasn’t. not a murderer.” “I said you weren’t smart. and you all needed to be taught a lesson. and .
” Not good. I opened the door and stepped into a tiny.” he said from close behind me. somehow making this situation even more real. grubby kitchen. in fact. “You won’t need it.” Close behind me. Oh . Close enough for me to make a move. get inside. You won’t need any clothes. his breathing heavy now. He was very close behind me. I searched the counter for any kind of weapon. “Really. his voice growing husky.tan Trench coat. “Leave it. “Now. keep moving. So not good. Leading the way.” he added. What exactly do you have planned?” “That’s right. so I kept walking. but I didn’t see anything except useless clutter.” he said. “I’ll show you just as soon as we hit the bedroom. I climbed out the passenger door and reached inside for my backpack.
” He panted like a dog. causing him to bump into my back. I jabbed my elbow into his gut. I dug in my heels and came to a jarring stop in the middle of his bedroom.. “Oof.G.” I murmured. “Solar Plexus. and I finished with. turning his howl into a groan. “S. which jerked the gun in his hand to the side.” I stomped my heel down on his instep. “Groin.I.N.” I whipped my fist back and smashed him in his nose.N.” He grunted. S. I knew exactly what I had to do. so long as you sing your way to my bedroom.” “Whatever. that was it.G. What the hell?” he wheezed.my God. “I have to sing. “Instep.” as I promptly swung my fist down and . and he howled.I. “Nose. “What?” I cleared my throat and said louder.
smashed his wee little boys. “Gracie Hart’s S. then pointing the gun at him as I called the police. Then I karate chopped the air as I turned around. giving me a flabbergasted look that might have been funny in any other situation as his nose spurted blood and he crumpled to the floor.N. I didn’t waste any time in grabbing the rope. Note to Self: And they said I couldn’t sing to save my life. Ha! *** . and he passed out. mixed with a little ka-ra-te boxing. threw in a bob and weave. He staggered and dropped the gun. jabbing twice left.G.” He gave one final groan as his eyes rolled to the back of his head.I. method of self-defense. tying him up. and then nailing him with my newly perfected right hook. Miss Congeniality 101.
’ Can’t you think of something else to call me?” I tried again. but my stupid nerves had me babbling as usual. I opened the door. He looked so good in his trademark jeans. sounding all businesslike. . I kept the gun in my shaking hands and ran to the door. and mirrored sunglasses. And I hate ‘ma’am. new leather jacket. “Who’s there?” “Detective Cabrizzi. slicked-back ponytail. Flasher Freak was still out cold. Dukeypoo?” “Funny. Where’s your badge. nearly wilting with relief. I tried to put on a brave face since I had no idea what to say to him. ma’am. “You don’t look like any Detective I know.A knock on the door had me jumping out of my skin.” Dylan’s voice came from the other side.” Only he wasn’t smiling in the least. “I thought so.
“Mind giving me the gun?” He pulled off his glasses and slipped them in his pocket.” I handed him the gun and stepped aside. or rather. but then his face went back to being an emotionless mask.” “That’s what you think I wanted?” Dylan’s eyes flashed once. Now you can finally get that bust you wanted so much. trussed like a pig on a spit. Dylan led the way to the bedroom. and I followed close on his heels. . monstrous boots. sure. “Never mind. but somehow I didn’t think he’d care to hear that. You okay?” I crossed my arms over my chest. I was afraid he didn’t care at all anymore.” I wanted to add Now that you’re here. “Oh. He stopped short when he saw Flasher Freak still out cold. “I’m fine. “Flasher Freak’s in the bedroom.
so there. Detective?” My voice hitched. “Oh. “I need you. “Just sang. and then threw in that right hook you taught me. I get it. and the reinforcements arrived.” My lip wobbled. okay. but it’s too late. I shrugged. “Is that what you want to hear. I get it. To hurt me like I hurt you. okay? I said it.“Jesus. or I’ll fall to pieces. And you got exactly what you wanted. and I do need you. I get it all!” I ran out of the room. I didn’t want any of this.” He shook his head. And I didn’t want to. but you hate me. dammit. “You still don’t think you need anyone. saving me from . “I’m not strong. I love you. what’d you do to him?” He turned to gape at me. No biggie. do you? Do you realize the amount of danger you were in?” I started to shake.” The tears began to fall. I just can’t dwell on it.
I know. watching the sun sink lower in the sky as the cops filed in and out. I deserved that.” I peeked over at him.any further humiliation. Probably deserved a lot more. stretching his long legs out in front of him. He sat down. So if you don’t hate me. until Flasher Freak had been hauled away and the last cop finally left. “You really don’t get it. “Then why the cold shoulder?” He arched a brow and gave me a pointed look. I sat on the curb for what seemed like forever. then . and sighed. I felt his presence before I actually saw his boots come to a stop beside me. or me. then what do you want?” I hiccupped. making it impossible to read him. “Yeah. but he stared at his boots. if you think I wanted to hurt you.
then added. and I didn’t even use your name in my report. so I pushed you away first. “I’m so sorry. I was just scared of getting hurt. and his face grew blurry through my tears. I saw your report.” “E-Even after everything I did. I was just . It was damn good. “You.” He paused for a minute. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. “Even after all that. I knew that.” His lips formed that crooked smile I’d come to love. and he stared at me for an endless moment before he said. His eyes met mine. “You’re nothing like Tina. “I know. I didn’t mean anything I said.” I hiccupped again. everything I said?” The lump in my throat was almost too much to bear.pressed my lips together to keep from crying again.
but you were gone. “You don’t know what you’re getting into by loving me. then pressed his lips to mine. Didn’t work. that I’d overreacted. I looked up at him. I came back to say I was sorry. I thought I’d lost you. Can’t do it. I don’t know what I would have done if anything had happened to you. Even tried living without you. too.” He opened his arms.” He hugged me closer. “God.” he whispered back. At least my life won’t be boring. I love you so much.angry. running his hand up and down my spine. and whispered. Are you sure?” I asked. “Come here. lending truth to his . Then I heard the call come over the police radio. He chuckled. I tried not loving you. “I don’t have a choice.” I threw myself against him and sobbed as he held me tight. God.” “I love you.
“To the train station. then let him pull me to my feet.. “Come on. “But I.” “It’s time. I.” “I don’t think I can do this by myself. he said..words as all the love he felt seeped into me through that single kiss.” He cupped my cheek. “Where are we going?” I dried my eyes.” “Anything. When we finally broke apart for air. and my mouth fell open.” I would have promised him the .” “Who said you’re going alone?” “You would do that for me?” “I would do anything for you.” I blinked.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Only do me a favor. Believe me when I say you don’t ever have to be alone again.
One zucchini is enough for any woman. feeling lighter than I had in years. “Trust me. then placed a quick kiss on his lips.” I laughed. “No more shopping for produce.world at that moment and meant it.” The End .
About the Author .
and her little Darling Diva. her three strapping boys. • loves romantic comedies. • loves country music. Fun Facts • Kari is a closet karaoke wannabe singer.Kari Lee Harmon lives in central NY with her own hero of a husband. but hates scary . for it takes someone pretty heroic to handle her wild crew. she's playing the role herself. • her favorite food is Mexican. • prefers Diet Pepsi to Diet Coke. • is deathly afraid of rodents of any kind. When Kari's not writing about heroes.
• and secretly loves to sneak and read Scottish medievals.movies. but can't write'em! .
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