No Dress Required
a Love Required novella by Cari Quinn
After years of ho-hum dating, Noelle Gregory is tired of fooling around. There’s only ever been one guy for her—Jake Conroy, her best friend’s older brother. Now that Jake’s back in town, she’s headed to his sister’s New Year’s Eve party to make her move. Purse full of condoms? Check. Sparkly dress guaranteed to show Jake the sexy woman she’s become? Check.
Carjacker that makes off with both two hours before the party? Check.
When Jake finds Noelle stranded on the side of the road—looking sexier than ever in her striped socks and silly holiday shirt, damn it—he’s glad for the snowstorm that cancels his sister’s party. His and Noelle’s friendship has tormented him for years, and now, Jake wonders if he should dare to sample what he’s always wanted…and if he’ll be able to walk away when it’s over.
© 2011 Cari Quinn
“Get out of the car, dammit!”
Noelle Gregory stared at the leather covered finger pointing at her through the open car window. Where had the day gone wrong? A sunny December afternoon in Ohio was something to be cherished and enjoyed. She’d been doing just that, until she’d stopped at a deserted intersection four flipping blocks from her apartment and looked up to see a scruffy guy glowering down at her with his so-not-a-gun pointed her way.
The sun had tricked her into pretending it was spring. Really tricked her since, now, it looked like it might snow at any second. Which probably wasn’t the most important consideration.
“I can’t give you my car. It’s practically brand new,” she said, realizing a second too late she’d said the wrong thing if she actually wanted to keep her car. The carjacker sure seemed surprised. She didn’t blame him. Most carjackees probably didn’t argue.
Then again, most carjackees weren’t on their way to the most important evening of their sexual lives.
Maybe she should try to reason with him. In her little podunk town, where everyone knew everyone else plus their little doggie, what were the chances this guy would actually hurt her? Very small. She hoped. “I know you really don’t want to steal from me. It’s almost the new year.”
“I don’t give a shit what holiday it is. Get out of the car!”
“Look, I can be flexible.” He didn’t have a gun, but he had awfully big hands. Maybe they could compromise. “How about money? I don’t have much, but I’ll give you what I have.” She reached for her wallet.
“I don’t want your money. I want your damn car!”
“Oh, but I have a twenty—“ Before she could finish, he yanked open the door of her Hyundai and dragged her out by the arm. She shouted and tried to smack him, but he moved fast. Before she knew what had happened, he’d gotten in her car, slammed the door, and roared away on squealing tires.
“Oh, fuck!” She slapped her hand over her mouth as her shiny red baby disappeared around the corner. Then the rest of what she’d lost sank in and she squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh, fuck.”
The jerk had stolen her car. A bad thing to be sure, especially since she felt partially responsible for leaving the door unlocked and the window half-open in the first place. But there was insurance for the car and police to track him down. Sanderson wasn’t exactly a sprawling metropolis.
The two things there weren’t insurance for? The sparkly party dress in her backseat, and the yellowed pictures of her Nana she kept in her purse.
Hot tears pricked behind her eyes. What a month. First, there had been gossip about Goldman’s closing. The department store had become more than just a temporary job while she finished up her interior design classes. Then, hot on the heels of Noelle’s parents’ decision to vacation in Hawaii to “spice up their marriage,” her little sister had announced she’d be visiting friends over the holidays. Just like that, Christmas went from a family holiday to a lonely day spent watching sappy movies.
But if things went her way tonight…
She whisked her fingers over her damp cheeks. Who was she kidding? Her chances of not spending New Year’s Eve alone were dismally low, dress or no dress.
“Miss, are you okay? Miss!”
She blinked at the elderly man who bustled over to her, concern written all over his craggy features. He’d left the door of his luxury SUV open across the street in his haste. A good Samaritan. Too bad he wasn’t a race car driver who could chase after her car. Alexa’s party was tonight and freaking New Year’s Eve meant the mall was closing in an hour. There was no way she’d be able to replace the dress in time.
“Miss? I called 9-1-1.”
“Thank you.” She brushed back her hair and bit her lip at the tightening in her throat. Her day had already gone to shit and the most important part of it hadn’t even arrived. How could she seduce her best friend’s brother in the state she was in?
Her shirt had bunnies on it, for God’s sake. Wearing New Year’s tiaras and shaking noisemakers. Two of them even had puffy tails that stuck out like white cotton balls. Most reasonably attractive twenty-four-year-old women wouldn’t be caught dead in such a getup, but no matter how many times Alexa declared her a fashion don’t, Noelle had no intention of giving her holiday shirts up. She had too many happy memories of her and her Nana searching for the most ridiculous ones. Buying them now, even years after Nana had passed on, grounded her in a way she desperately needed.
Oh, screw it. She liked the freaking things. It wasn’t like she stitched cotton balls on her underwear, for Pete’s sake. Hadn’t she bought something sinfully sexy for tonight? For Jake?
“Here, why don’t you come sit in my truck?” Her good Samaritan gestured toward her bare forearms. “I don’t want you to get a chill. Did you forget to wear a coat today?”
She blinked up at him, more dazed than she cared to admit. It was just a car. Just a dress. Just pictures she couldn’t possibly replace. Pictures she’d almost lost once before, and had been lucky enough to salvage. She probably couldn’t luck out twice.
At least she hadn’t gotten hurt. That was the important thing, right?
Except…she’d really been looking forward to getting Jake naked. Finally. Holding him close. And maybe pouring some fine bubbly all over his ripped abs and his—
“My coat is in my car,” she blurted, relieved her numb lips still worked. At least thinking about Jake nude had warmed the rest of her right up. Maybe if she took the scenario further in her mind, her knees would stop wobbling. “I went shopping and didn’t want to carry it with me because I knew I’d be trying on clothes.” Fine idea that had been.
The older gentleman smiled broadly. “I’m Steven Palladone. You might know my family business, Palladone Funeral Homes. We’re one of the founding families of Sanderson. My grandfather was actually—“
“Look, Steven, I appreciate you stopping to help and calling the police. But my head’s kind of messed up right now and I can’t really follow any conversations.” She gave him what she hoped was an apologetic smile. His take-charge attitude reminded her way too much of her father. The salt-and-pepper hair the wind dragged across his wide forehead did, too. “You understand.”
“I do.” He nodded somberly. “That awful man didn’t strike you?”
“No, he didn’t. He just stole my dress,” she muttered.
Among other things, but it was the perfect dress. Small, shimmery, and gold, it hugged her curves perfectly. She’d even bought a strapless bra that nudged the girls from merely perky to capable of making a guy’s eyes bug out of his head. There had only been one left in her size, reason enough to charge it to the card she’d nearly maxed out over the holidays. Clearly the universe wanted her to hook up with Jake. Or so she’d believed, since the dress had obviously been waiting for her.
Just like the carjacker.
So she wasn’t great at predicting the wants of the cosmos. No matter. Nothing would deter her now. Not feast or famine, not cotton tails or snow squalls.
Steven frowned. “Your dress? But what about your car?”
“That, too.” She sighed as he shrugged out of his long camel coat and wrapped it around her shoulders. Her suddenly shaking shoulders. Either the winter chill had finally settled in her bones or she was having a delayed stress reaction. “Thank you, but you really don’t have to stay.”
“It’s fine,” Steven soothed. “The cops will be here shortly.“
Tires squealed and a sleek silver coupe—or “shiny cock-substitute” as Alexa loved to call them—swung up to the curb. A second later the door opened and out stepped Noelle’s destiny.
“Nellie?” Jake Conroy pushed his sunglasses on top of his head. “Are you okay?”
Jake forced himself not to tap his fingers on the top of his car while he waited for Nellie to answer. Something she didn’t seem in any rush to do. Who the heck was the guy propping her up? Was he a friend, or had she suddenly developed a taste for men three times her age? The longer the silence dragged on, the more tense he became. Why wasn’t she answering him?
He swallowed the sudden rush of impatience. This so wasn’t his business. His baby sister’s best friend was a grown woman, fully capable of strolling up the middle of the street with an older man in a brown suit and ugly shoes. Just…she looked so small cuddled against the guy’s side. Her long blond hair waved every which way down her back, caught and tossed around by the cold breeze. God, how he’d love to tangle his hands in all those thick, silky waves.
Ease off, soldier, he admonished himself at the immediate constriction in his groin. She’s a kid. Hot as hell now, but still six years younger and practically family. That was the way it had always been. Alexa and Nellie had been friends since elementary school and had always insisted on tagging along after him, no matter how much he’d tried to dissuade them. By the time they got the message, the girls were in high school and he’d been reduced to trailing after them to make sure they didn’t get into trouble. He hadn’t fully noticed Nellie had turned into a woman until her high school graduation, two short months before she headed east for college. And he’d been with Maureen.
He grimaced at the thought of his ex.
“Jake? What are you doing here?”
No squealed “Jakey!” as she’d once done, followed by a tight hug that made him laugh and curse simultaneously. She felt entirely too good in his arms, her compact body made for holding and kissing.
And other things. Things he wouldn’t consider or fantasize about or wish could happen just once, so he could get them out of his head. A girl like Nellie wasn’t built for one-night-stands. If a man started something with her, he should finish it.
“I was heading past. Figured I’d find out what was going on.” He peered closer. “Are you okay? Where’s your car?”
Her head snapped toward the sound of advancing sirens. Shit, were they coming for her? What was going on?
“Carjacked,” her friend supplied, shaking his head. “Right in broad daylight. Well, it was,” he added, glancing up. This time of year, dark came early and the pink-hued sky warned the last of the sun’s rays would be gone soon.
“Carjacked?” Jake echoed, shutting his car door and striding forward to grip one of Nellie’s icy hands. “Honey, are you okay? Did he hurt you? Was there a weapon?“
“My day’s gone to shit, but I’m fine,” she said. “Don’t I look fine?”
Jake swallowed a retort and took his time looking her up and down. Her hazel eyes glowed fiery gold in the waning sunlight, and her small mouth had pursed into the mother of all scowls. But her pink cheeks, mile long eyelashes, and curvy body added up to one heck of a package.
A package he wanted to unwrap, one fuzzy sock at a time. He grinned at the striped knee socks slouching down her trim calves. She pulled the coat tighter but he still saw the fluffy bunnies and glittery noisemakers on her top. It was nice to see that even after months away, some things hadn’t changed. Thank God.
“You look great,” he said finally, hoping his slightly shaky voice didn’t give him away. He wasn’t the best at hiding his emotions around her. With other women, yeah, he could play the role of smooth cat looking to score. At least he’d been able to before Maureen had swept into his life, made a nest for, oh, five years or so, then swept back out again.
His gaze lasered in on the faint blue and purple splotches on Noelle’s forearm. “The fucker bruised you?”
She stared at her arm. “I guess he did.”
“He dragged her out of the car,“ the guy beside her said, again shaking his head. “Thank God, the cops are here. They’ll catch that turkey.”
Two cruisers pulled up to the curb, lights flashing. Because he’d immediately inserted himself into their questioning, the cops talked to the man in the brown suit first. Jake took the opportunity to pull Nellie aside.
“What the hell happened?”
“I was at a light when the guy came over and told me to get out.” She fiddled with the lapel of the coat. “I said no, but that I had money and—“
“You said what?” He nudged Brown Suit Guy’s coat off her shoulders and pushed it into her arms. “You told a carjacker no? An armed carjacker, I’m assuming?”
While Jake talked, he shed his own jacket and wrapped it around her. There. At least he’d restored some sense of order.
The sight of her looking so small and pale in his jacket broke something inside him. She could’ve been shot. Or worse. He dragged her close. “Christ, Nellie, don’t you have any sense?”