I sprint up the bluestone steps winding up the side of the enormous Atlanta property to the gate and twist the handle. The lock sticks. I rattle harder and shove my shoulder into the wood.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I’m so late. So damn late. So late I don’t have the nerve to use the front door.
I pant for breath. It’ll be fine. I’ll make it fine. He doesn’t even have to know. I’ve snuck in and out the side gate before he’s realized three times this week already. I stare up at the tall, picket gate that separates the open front of the property from the secluded back yard.
He must’ve locked it. Gah, why today? He never locks anything. He’s hopeless like that. As though he thinks no one will have the nerve to trespass on his watch.
I swipe my wrist over my sweaty nose then toss my backpack over the gate. My pulse kicks up speed. It’s possible his confidence isn’t unfounded. I mean, I’m half-shitting myself, and I’m meant to be here.
I climb up on a large rock, wedge my sneaker into a gap in the fence beside the gate, and hop twice before jumping. I grab hold of the top of the gate and haul up my body. The flat, wooden pickets press into my ribs, knocking air out of my chest.
I tilt forward, unbalanced, and let out a squeal. Something clamps around my hips, halting my face dive. A bark snaps behind me. My heart somersaults.
Someone draws me back, steadily lifting me down as though I weigh no more than a rascally, inept-at-fence-climbing kitten. For a moment, I hover in the air, secure in a strong grip—the kind of grip you can count on. The kind of grip that doesn’t let you down.
Then I’m up against someone else. Heat engulfs me. Heat from a body so much bigger than mine. My back slides down a hard chest, a hard body, then my feet touch the ground.
I close my eyes. I’d rather have taken the face plunge. I can’t move forward or backward, or closer or farther away. All I can do is stand here, every sense fixed on how close we are, how neatly he lifted me, how firm his hands are at my hips, how warm he is behind me. How the raw scent of him, so masculine that it feels like some strange, primeval déjà vu, makes my knees feel non-existent.
And how angry he must be.
There’s a very mean, very fucking sexy man standing right behind me, and he just found me ass-up, bent over a fence, trying to sneak in an hour late.
My face burns. My whole-self burns.
A warm, furry weight presses up against my calves. I breathe out, open my eyes, then sink down to pat Dixie. She leans her big, burly dog body against me. Her leash dangles from her collar.
My shoulders clench. Dammit. I’m in real trouble. My gaze goes to the sneakers beside me and then up over long, thick legs in running shorts, up farther over a mountain of a man to a fierce, scowling face.
I clear my throat and grasp Dixie’s leash. “Looks like Daddy already walked you, didn’t he, Dixie?”
If it’s possible for total-scowl to increase by fifty percent, his does. Increases from total-scowl to the wrinkled-nose, top-lip-curled, super-scowl he’s literally famous for.
Baseball legend, construction tycoon, all-round scowling asshole.
He squints. He always squints. Shame, since his buttery-hazel eyes would be nice to see occasionally.
“I have a meeting this morning.”
His voice is as rough and surly as his expression and makes my insides jolt.
Oh, god, and by that he means I’ve held him up? I lick my lips. I’m going to get fired. I should be fired. There’s one essential job requirement to dog walking, and it’s walking the dog.
And I did not walk the dog.
I press a palm to the gravel path to keep myself up. The exhaustion of the morning hits me all at once. I meet his gaze, though. He can fire me to my face. That’d be the cherry on top of this cluster-fuck of a morning.
He can be mean as he likes about it, too. Use that trademark, barking shout on me. Jab at me with that pointing finger that’s always on the front cover of the papers. Clay “The Grinch” Colson. At this point, there’s not much that’s going to upset me.
Upset was something I dabbled in four hours ago when I was elbow deep in a toddler shit explosion.
A twin toddler-shit explosion.
For the novice, which I’m not, that’s two toddler-shit explosions at the same time. Twin toddler-shit explosions. Story of my life. And this morning, because my life is epic, the twin toddler-shit explosions happened while I was fielding calls from my crying mother because a pipe is leaking in my brother’s room, above his bed, and can I fix it?
Sure. Just add plumbing to my resume. Why the heck not?
It’s only 9:25 a.m., and I’m done. So I stare at Clay “The Grinch” Colson. Let’s get this abomination of a day over with.
I wait, but he doesn’t remark on my lateness or on the fact he just lifted me off his gate, mid-fall. His gaze just does its daily flicker over me. That stern onceover I endure every morning that always makes me think that he maybe expects me to wear a skirt-suit dog walking.
“Dixie can’t come to work with me today. You can stay, and give her a bath.”
I fall back onto my backside. What is happening? Is it April first?
How the heck am I not ass-over-heels out on the pavement?
I clear my throat. “Okay.”
He nods, gives me another swipe of his gaze, and makes a sound—half snort, half hiss—then marches toward the house.
I glance down at myself and close my awkwardly sprawled legs. Maybe these shorts are a little short, but Dixie likes to run, so I need to dress for that if I don’t want to sweat myself into a puddle every day.
Dixie flops down by my hip, tongue hanging out of her mouth. I don’t blame her. If Clay “walked” her, she’s probably had a much more vigorous morning than she’s used to. I inspect myself again. I don’t look that bad, do I? I lift the edge of my t-shirt and sniff it. Nope, no unexpected toddler puke. And it’s pink. I thought the shirt was cute when I put it on. Especially cute with the white shorts, white sneakers, and pink laces.
If there’s one thing I love, it’s coordinating accessories. There’s a shoebox under my bed, full of colored laces I swap out every morning. Makes me feel like I have twenty pairs of sneakers instead of the one.
I drop my t-shirt and glance at the curve in the path where he’s still standing. Ah, crap. Was today designed specifically to mortify me?
“For Christ’s sake, use the goddamn front door next time.” He shakes his head and stalks toward the house.
I press my face into Dixie’s fur and can’t help laughing.
* * *
What the fuck did I do to deserve this?
I slam two cups onto the counter then shove two slices of bread into the toaster.
I go to church every Sunday. Pay my taxes fairly—and what a fuck-ton of taxes they are. I sign shit for kids at hospitals. Yesterday, I helped an old lady with her groceries. I don’t even punch people who clearly need punching.
I’m a decent fucking guy.
The toaster pops. I flip the lid off the butter and scrape the knife through it. The only thing, the one thing I won’t do is smile for the camera. Is that so bad?
Is that so bad that I should be cursed and saddled with the silliest, most unpunctual, ridiculous, little dogwalker?
The sound of the hairdryer ceases. I glance out the window. Fuck. I smear peanut butter over the two pieces of toast, toss one plate onto the counter, and slide one of the cups beside it.
The door opens, and when it does, I’m sure to have my back to it. I pick up my coffee and drink it black and bitter and all in one go. Dixie charges into my legs. I cut the other piece of toast and slip her one half.
The door shuts with a soft glide.
Is she still loitering in the doorway? I swear, the only time that girl isn’t going a mile a minute is when she’s loitering at my kitchen door.
A throat clears softly behind me.
I feed Dixie the other half of the toast. I don’t respond to throat noises.
“Sorry I was late. The twins weren’t well this morning.”
Twins? I shake my head. That’s right, she does some nanny job at night and does this in the morning.
That’s not my problem.
My problem is that she’s late, and now I’m now late, and I can’t fire her.
I glance behind me. She’s not at the counter eating like she’s supposed to be. “Well, sit down.”
She jumps. I notice that, her little jump, out of the corner of my eye. Even if I do know better than to look at her too much directly. I’m still recovering from finding her flipped over my side gate with her ass in the air.
Her sweet, little, peachy ass in those inappropriate, cut-off shorts.
I’m going to hell.
She makes her way over to the counter with these tentative steps, as though she’s surprised. Why would she be surprised? I’ve been making her toast every morning for the last three months. I grab the striped tie from beside my briefcase. Someone needs to make the girl toast. In the year she’s worked for me, she’s lost at least ten pounds.
Every ounce gone has cut sharpness into her frame that wasn’t there before. It’s a nasty sharpness. The kind that’s carved from fatigue and stress and no one caring.
And that’s the first reason I can’t fire her.
I flip up my collar. She’d be a lot better at her job if she weren’t always rushing. Rushing like a bunny who doesn’t know which way she’s supposed to be hopping. It gives me a damn headache. I loop one end of the tie over the other. Crunching sounds from the counter. My movements slow, and I shake my head. Dixie doesn’t crunch so loudly. How does Katie manage it with those small, neat white teeth of hers?
I tug down one end of the tie. The bottom half sticks out inches below the top. I huff and yank out the knot. Another throat noise rings out.
I stiffen. If she wants my response, she’ll have to do better than that. I measure the two ends of the tie and start again.
The ends come out uneven. Fuck. I don’t usually bother with a tie, but today’s meeting is important. I’ve got to push if I want to be a businessman who used to be an athlete, and not always, always be treated like an athlete who’s doing something else now.
A louder throat clearing rings through my kitchen.
I turn around and instantly regret it. Yep, I’m going to hell. My gaze eats up the pretty, little thing at my counter. It’s all I can do to be the man I was raised to be, and stay where I am.
Because this devil girl is soaking wet.
Dirty-blonde hair plastered around her face. Pink t-shirt, clinging to perky, far-too-young-for-me tits. I’m going to get sued. I’m going to get sued for all I’m worth. And I still can’t help looking.
They’re fucking nice tits.
And she must know it because she had the damn hairdryer and did not dry herself along with the dog. Reason two I can’t fire her.
I’ve been doing what I shouldn’t be doing. Looking where I shouldn’t be looking. Wanting what I shouldn’t be wanting.
She’s got to know it.
She cocks her finger at me. I blink. She actually just dared to summon me with a curl of her finger. Who does she think she is? Yet, there I find myself, striding over to her before deciding I will. She looks up at me and reaches for my tie, then stops and brings her thumb to her mouth.
The tension bubbling inside me boils white hot. I watch her finger slip between her sweet pink lips. All my blood goes to my pants. My hands fist. I can’t keep myself steady. Her wet tongue flickers over her thumb, and my cock gets so hard there’s no way I get to leave this room without her knowing right where she has me. I lean closer. I’m so hungry for that mouth, so desperate for those lips, I’m almost an animal for her. I’m almost ready to throw her to the floor and…
She wipes her hand on her t-shirt as though it were nothing. As though it were just a little peanut butter. My breath gets faster. She’s such a wicked, little tease. She takes the ends of my tie and leans in. I turn my face away, but it doesn’t stop me from taking in her cherry scent.
I wonder if she laughs at me?
Does she laugh at her thirty-six-year-old, was-someone-once boss, falling all over himself just because there’s a pretty girl in his house?
There’s been a lot of pretty girls on the outskirts of my life. But I can’t remember the last time one has been this close.
The last time I let one this close. Had one in my house.
“There you are.” She tightens the tie. Tightens it right at my throat like a noose.
I grab the knot and yank it, as though it isn’t right. As though she didn’t do it perfectly.
Her hands fall to her lap, and her distracting smile slips down. Hell, that’s where I’m going. Dixie nudges Katie’s lap. Her bright smile returns, and she scruffs behind the dog’s ears. I reach for my briefcase. There’s the third reason I can’t fire her. She’s brainwashed my best friend into complete devotion.
I head to the door.
“Say bye to Daddy, Dixie.” Katie’s sweet, throaty voice catches me halfway out.
I freeze and glance at her.
She waves and smiles to one side. “Bye, Daddy.”
I swallow and slam the door closed behind me.
Fourth reason I can’t fire her—this girl has my number. She has my damn number and knows exactly how to dial it.