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Excerpt: Just In Time

Excerpt: Just In Time

Book 8: Escape to New Zealand

The Hurtin’ Kind

Will had surprised her. And excited her, which wasn’t going to do her any good at all. Standing next to all that bronzed flesh, all those delicious muscles and the amazing tattoo that covered the slab of one broad pectoral muscle, ran over the bulge of his shoulder and then all the way down to his forearm, the faint, deliciously spicy scent of him filling her head while she tried not to look at the narrow trail of hair leading down into his jeans…it had all been a little rough. The only other choice had been to look at his face, and that hadn’t helped matters one bit. A few minutes was all it had taken, and here she was with a hopeless, thoroughly embarrassing crush. Pathetic.   

It wasn’t getting one bit better, either, because she was sitting across from him now in the Turkish restaurant next to the UNLV campus, running through her list. Calvin had been impatient to keep looking at the girls that morning, and Will had said that he had to get on, that he had a workout to do. And while Faith had been distracted imagining Will working out, Calvin had muttered something caustic about models who came to auditions without being prepared to stay a while. Will had answered cheerfully that he hadn’t come there to audition and wasn’t going to sit around now, and Faith had delegated herself to handle the details. Because that was her job.

“So who’s the lucky girl chosen to be my victim?” Will asked now. He’d insisted on buying Faith’s lunch, too, which had been nice of him. It was almost like a…date. Stop it. It’s not a date.

“Oh, pardon,” he said when she looked up in surprise, “my partner in almost-nearly consensual yet decidedly dirty acts of love.”

“Darn it,” she said, fighting a smile. Did he have to be smart and funny, too? “Nobody’s even written anything yet, and you’ve already got the plot. And it’s Gretchen.”

“Ah. Gretchen.” She couldn’t tell if he was pleased or not. “I saw the list, remember? I’m guessing here that I’m meant to be the hard warrior. Got some dark tribal desires, maybe. I’m a wee bit…savage.” He leaned closer and whispered the word, those liquid brown eyes widening a little, and she very nearly choked before he sat back and continued in a normal tone of voice. “Of course, I’m painfully jaded by my past experience with women, too.”

“You are?” She took another bite of salad and tried not to laugh.

“Yeh.” He sighed pitifully. “They’ve hurt me, and now I take what I want­—which is a bit nasty, by the way—and don’t let them get close. So we start in on it, because she can’t resist me. I tend to have that effect. I’m all broody, like I’ve lost every game, and yet she melts whenever she sees me, because apparently she likes blokes like that. Must be an odd girl.”

“You’ve lost every game,” she repeated. “Huh? What game?”

“Sorry. Best metaphor I’ve got. I’m cranky, like, the way you are when you lose. But in a totally manly way. How am I doing so far?”

Faith had lost the battle not to laugh. “Don’t make me snort out my drink. You sound like you’re ready to enter the contest yourself. You got a secret reading habit?”

“Just an ordinary amount of attention to the popular culture. One of my sisters was reading one of those books at Christmas. Pretty shocking, I thought, when I had a wee look. In fact, I’m a pretty ordinary fella, sad to say, in that department. Don’t tell. I mostly just want to have fun, and to make sure she’s having fun, too. I’ll do my best to be Dark and Dangerous instead, though, especially if you keep me as narky as you did today.”

To make sure she’s having fun, too. She’d bet. All she’d have to do was to see him naked. That would be fun all by itself. And to touch all…that. To look into those eyes while he was over her, moving slowly at first, because he wouldn’t rush a woman. And then getting a little…decisive. A little commanding, even.

She couldn’t help it. Her mind went right there. She hadn’t had sex in way too long.

Focus. “Me?” she asked. “What did I do? And what’s narky?”

“Annoyed.”

“I am never annoying. I am helpful. I am kind.”

“Smiling at me, being all encouraging? Soothing my fragile male ego?”

“That’s my job, though.”

“Well, keep doing it. Because it’s bloody annoying. That worked.”

She was laughing again. “All right,” she said, attempting to compose herself, to get back to her normal efficient self. “Moving on. You signed the release. Next steps…we start shooting day after tomorrow, so please go get a really good wax.”

“Uh…exactly what am I meant to wax? Maybe I am going to be broody at that, if you make this hurt enough.”

“Well, chest, obviously.” She was still trying for businesslike, but he was making it much too difficult. “Belly, all the way down to…as low as you could go without actually getting into Happyville, I imagine. Beyond that, do what you want, and don’t tell me, because I don’t want to know. Except, of course, any extra trimming you may need. Think about that very tiny Speedo you’ll be wearing in the shower scene. Think no…no foliage.”

“Happyville?” Now he was the one laughing. “Foliage? Who knew this modeling business had so many uncomfortable rules? I thought the girl was the one meant to be doing the hurts-so-good business. Ouch.”

“Count yourself lucky,” she said, registering the fact that he really hadn’t done any modeling before. Which was interesting, wasn’t it, with a body like that? “Gretchen will be waxing a whole lot more.”

“That’ll surprise Gretchen, that she’s the one.”

“Why? She was the most angelic, no question about it, and that’s what we’re going for.”

“We’re not compatible,” Will told her, his expression serious. “She’s an Aries, and I’m a Virgo.”

“Tell me you did not just say that.”

“Well…” He forked up another bite of beef. “I wouldn’t say it had occurred to me as a stumbling block, but she seemed concerned about it. Apparently I’m likely to be too shy and modest. Repressed, you could say. Whereas she’ll be taking charge. So you see…” He paused and sighed. “Exactly wrong for the job, aren’t I. Why are you laughing?”

“I’m not sure what a Virgo is or isn’t. But let’s just say that I’m pretty sure somebody forged your birth certificate. And Gretchen seemed like she’d be able to fake it. I saw those pictures. I’d have sworn she was about to…”

“Yeh. Looked that way, didn’t it? I’m having a serious re-think of my actual effect on the opposite sex, because I don’t think she’s going to fall asleep dreaming about me tonight.”

Well, Gretchen might not be. “As long as the two of you can make other people dream, or at least daydream,” Faith said, deciding that the issue of his effect on the opposite sex was going to stay right off the table, “we’re all good. Anyway, we aren’t actually giving out a storyline. If somebody wants to make up a plot where she turns the tables on you, you being the shy, retiring Virgo you are, I guess they can. Not sure how well that’ll sell, but that’s not really my problem. But on that note, Calvin and I wanted to know…what are you? I mean, what ethnic background? And would anybody be able to tell? We thought we’d offer a little bio on each of you. Fictional, of course.”

“Maori. Some people would be able to tell, if it matters. And fictional would be good.”

She set that one aside to think about later. “Maori—that’s something New Zealandish? Because that’d be good. New Zealand is sexy.” And New Zealanders were sexier.

“It is, eh. Didn’t realize that. And, yeh, Maori’s about as New Zealandish as you can get.”

She got out her notebook. She’d do some research. “What would be a good Maori name for you? Something fierce. Something strong.”

“How about ‘Hemi?'” There was a smile trying to work its way onto his lips now, lighting up his eyes. Some mischief, clearly. She’d better double-check the name. “Means ‘James’ in Maori. Not too hard for Pakeha—white people—to pronounce, either.”

“Ooh!” She tried not to bounce with it. “Hemi…and Hope. Oh, yes.” She started scribbling again. “I’m so good.”

He laughed out loud. “Yes. I’m beginning to think you are.”

“And here’s the shooting schedule we’ve worked out.” She handed it over. Time to get things back on track, even though the frivolous part of her desperately wanted to keep—well, flirting. Indulging her ridiculous crush. “Six days, as advertised.”

“OK. I’ll be there. Waxed and all. And if we’ve got all that sorted, I’d better get out of here. I need to go look at a couple places to live, or I really am going to be dark and dangerous, because that hotel’s about to drive me mad.”

“I thought you were on vacation,” she said, her guard instantly up again. Had he been lying about just passing through? She didn’t like the paying-under-the-table thing, whatever Calvin said. She’d argued with him about it earlier, to no effect. But this guy could be anybody, however much he turned her on and made her laugh. Whatever he said about not being dangerous, he had “dangerous for her peace of mind” written right in the tattoo.

“I am,” he said. “I need a place to live while I’m here, that’s all. Those bloody ching-chinging machines in the lobby are getting on my nerves a bit. I’d like to have a cooker, too, make my own breakfast. Not rapt about my choices so far, but…” He shrugged. “It’s just a few weeks.”

“If you’re really looking…” she said slowly, then stopped.

“What? You know someplace?”

“I manage an apartment building. And I’ve got a place that’s open.”

“Has to be furnished. I don’t have anything. Nothing but a couple suitcases.”

“Oh,” she said, and couldn’t suppress her smile. “It’s furnished. And three weeks? That’d be perfect.”

Or incredibly stupid. One or the other.

* * *

“It’s…uh…” he said a half-hour later, groping for a word that wouldn’t insult her. “Comfortable, I guess.”

“It was Mrs. Ferguson’s apartment.” She moved briskly inside and set her ever-present laptop case down on the coffee table. “After she died last month, her son came and got a few things, and told me to get rid of the rest. Which isn’t ideal, because it means I have to sell everything, or dump it, before I can paint and rent it out again. I took care of her clothes and emptied the bathroom cabinets and the refrigerator and so forth, and it’s clean, but I haven’t had a chance to do the rest of it. I was actually thinking about seeing if it would work for a short-term rental, since I’ve got the furniture already. You could be my guinea pig.”

 “May work better for girls,” he said.

That was the understatement of the year, because if he’d ever seen an old-lady apartment, this was it. The couch was flowered. The chair was flowered—with different flowers. It was like a bloody garden in here, though a fairly musty-smelling one. There were cushions everywhere, most of them with little tufts or big, hard buttons, looking like nothing he’d want to lean his head against. Framed prints on the wall, the most loathsome one, over the couch, featuring a cottage in the middle of a garden, with brightly lit windows glowing cozily in the twilight. A painting he was already placing on his personal Most-Hated list, and he’d only been looking at it for a minute. Every little table, and there were heaps of little tables, was wearing a skirt, like God hated a naked table. And there were flowers on the skirted tables, because apparently you could never have too many flowers. He fingered a petal. Silk flowers, he guessed. And ceramic statues of cats. Even the dining-room table had a skirt, with a glass top over it. And fake flowers on it, with some cats posed around the vase in a circle. Crouching cats. Stretching cats. Cats curled in sleep. Cats with kittens. Many, many too many cats.

“Her son didn’t want the cats?” he asked. “Or the flowers?”

“Ah…no. But I’ll get rid of them,” she promised. “And anything else you don’t want around, if you decide to take the place. I should’ve donated them already. But let me show you the kitchen.”

She led the way into it, and as always, he enjoyed following her. There weren’t flowers in here, at least. Looked like a kitchen. Except for the canisters, which were in the shape of cats. He lifted the head off a Siamese and peered inside. Tea.

“Still some basic staples in here,” she said encouragingly. “So you wouldn’t have to do so much shopping. As long as you like, you know, tea and cookies.”

“I’m from New Zealand. I have to like tea and bikkies. It’s required.”

The bedroom was more of the same, and he eyed the pink-canopied bed with a jaundiced eye. Canopied? This lady had clearly been the last of the true romantics. But the worst was the bathroom. Painted pink. “Why is there a Barbie on the toilet?” he asked. “Case I get bored?”

“Not a Barbie.” Faith lifted the plastic doll, revealing what was under the flounced white crocheted skirt. “Look at this! Your new apartment comes equipped with an extra roll of toilet paper!”

“Brilliant. Well, it’s got a bathroom and a kitchen, anyway. Bigger than one of those extended-stay places by the airport, and the price is better, too. One thing you can say about this—it isn’t sterile.” He spent enough of his life in hotel rooms. He didn’t need to spend his holiday in another one. If he’d been in New Zealand, he’d have been in a bach, somebody’s holiday home, with all their bits and bobs about. It was comfier that way, even if you didn’t much care for their bits and bobs. And it was an excuse to get closer to Faith. That, most of all. “But if it’s all right with you, I’ll bung that doll into a drawer somewhere, along with a few other things. That thing is going to give me nightmares, staring at me while I’m on the loo.”

“I’ll take it.” No smile this time, and she tucked it into her arm a bit protectively.

“Sorry. No accounting for my bad taste, I guess.”

“No, it’s terrible, you’re right, and so are the cats. It’s just…I liked Mrs. Ferguson. I wouldn’t use this, but I’ll…I don’t know.” She fingered the doll’s flounced skirt. “She’d crocheted me an afghan for Christmas. I opened it after she was gone. Her arthritis was bad, but she still did it, just because she needed to do things for people. She was that sort of person.” Her voice wasn’t quite steady now. “I miss her.”

He waited for her to say more, but she didn’t. He knew about missing people, though. About the ache that settled low in your chest, the tears that would come up behind your eyelids, always at the most inconvenient time, when a snatch of song, a joke, even a truly hideous doll reminded you. When you thought of something you wanted to tell the person, and realized that he wasn’t there to tell anymore.

 It wasn’t that she liked the cats. She’d kept them, and the horrible doll, and the awful paintings, because she hadn’t been able to get rid of them yet. And since Will was wearing his grandfather’s watch right now, which didn’t even keep perfect time, he could understand that.

“I’m sorry,” he said gently, and she nodded once, quick and short. “Are all my neighbors old, then?” he asked, trying to help her move on.

“Well, depending what you think of me,” she said, clearly rallying her forces.

“You? You live here?” Better and better.

“Right next door. I told you, I manage the building. So what do you think? Cats, dolls, flowers, and all—which could all be gone, I promise, in fifteen minutes—do you want it?”

“Yeh. I want it. Especially if you’re living next door.”

She crossed her arms across the front of that T-shirt, which was a nice look for her, because she had some curves and no mistake. Unfortunately, it was also nowhere close to the body language of a woman who was saying, “Come and get it, boy.”

“I’m sure I don’t need to say this,” she said, and no, she didn’t. “Because I’m also sure that I’m nothing close to your type. But I’m not interested.”

“Not?” He made a joke of it, even as he felt a jolt of…surprise? Disappointment? Something. “Convenient as it would be to have your very own Maori warrior right next door? Bit of a winter fling? I’d never tell.”

“No. I don’t fling. And I’m very busy.”

“Ah. Very busy.”

“And,” she added hastily, “not interested.”

Well, that was a little too much protesting. “Not even if I promised to be dark and dangerous?”

She laughed out loud, and he grinned back, because he liked the way she laughed.  She had a little gap between her front teeth that was just…absolutely adorable. She really was the girl next door. She’d be hisgirl next door, and he needed…he needed something.

Looking at the shape of her, the warmth of her, he found himself filled with a yearning for that sweet oblivion he somehow knew she’d be.

He was close enough to taste it. That perfect moment when he’d slide inside her for the first time, would feel her opening to take him in. That instant when the world would shrink to only this woman, only this body. He looked at her leaning back like that, smiling at him, and he could feel the way her hands would grab for his shoulders. He could hear the way she would sigh, the way she would moan. He could very nearly taste her, warm and sweet and salty as the sea, and he wanted to. He needed to.

“Well, since you already revealed your dirty secret, that you’re not actually dangerous…” she said, not seeing it in him at all, “I’m afraid the magic is gone. I’ll have to hold out for the hurtin’ kind.”

“Right.” He kept the smile on his face, shoving the thoughts back where they belonged. He held out a hand instead. “Friends?”

She hesitated a moment longer, then took it, and her hand felt good in his. Warm, and firm, and just soft enough. Exactly like her.

“Sure,” she said. “Friends.”

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