No Flowers Required
a Love Required novel by Cari Quinn
Flower shop owner Alexa Conroy had it all before the recession hit and her customers fled to cheaper shopping grounds. Desperate to make ends meet, she sells her dream home and moves into the rundown apartments above her shop. When she spots six feet of sexy distraction—complete with muscles, piercings, and tattoos—ripping up flooring, Alexa knows the karmic windfall she’s due just landed on her doorstep.
And the attraction’s definitely not one-sided.
Dillon James, reluctant heir to the corporation about to foreclose on Alexa’s shop, is not about to jeopardize their scorching chemistry by admitting he’s not the building’s handyman. But with only weeks until her business goes under and his identity is revealed, Dillon must find a way to convince Alexa cooperation isn’t a dirty word, help her save the shop from his brother’s greed, and persuade her that he’s not the enemy…or risk losing the only woman who’s seen the real him.
Praise for No Flowers Required:
“A smoldering hero paired with dozens of laughs, sharp wit, and a budding love makes this a great centerpiece for any romance lover’s collection.”
- New York Times Bestselling Author Gina L. Maxwell
© 2012 Cari Quinn
This was officially the crappiest day of Alexa Conroy’s life.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Harvey Walton, her real estate agent, asked. He’d called to make sure she was happy with how the sale of her home had gone, and she’d yet to do little more than answer in short sentences.
She’d sold her dream house for a very good price in a depressed market. How could she complain? The discount-store violet Harvey had sent didn’t exactly thrill her, but she couldn’t fault the gesture. Nope, it was the obvious red-and-white sticker of her nemesis, Value Hardware, on the bottom of the pot she faulted, not Harvey.
The only good thing about her new apartment was that she wouldn’t have to see her nemesis down the block unless she pressed her forehead against the window. And since said window had enough grime to reduce the outward view significantly, she wasn’t going to touch the thing, especially with her face.
“No, thanks,” she said, setting the violet on the windowsill. Judging from its wilted state, it would probably be dead in a couple days. “Out of curiosity, why did you choose to buy the violet from Value Hardware? I assure you no one on their staff knows flowers like I do.”
At Harvey’s silence, she gusted out a sigh. She didn’t need to take out her frustration on him. It wasn’t his fault that if she saw one more of Value’s signature smiley-face balloons around town she’d probably go postal. Or was it floral, since she operated a floral shop?
“I’m sorry, Harvey,” she said, pressing her fingertips against her forehead. God, she needed a massage. Not in the budget, buttercup. “I appreciate all your help. You made the whole process painless.” As painless as it could be to sell the house she’d hoped to live in for the rest of her life. But she’d done it for the right reasons, and that made all the difference. No doom and gloom here. “So I should receive the check by next week?”
“By the end of next week, definitely.”
Her brain blinked out on his talk of administrative procedures as she noticed the large spider building a tapestry—screw calling it a web, this thing was big enough to occupy a wall of a museum—in the closet where she’d planned on putting her clothes. Her designer wardrobe just happened to be the last shred of her freewheeling, party-girl lifestyle. She didn’t even get to have the sex that went with it anymore, since she’d involuntarily taken up celibacy as a participant sport.
Despite her general malaise lately, she wasn’t going to balk about killing one of God’s creatures out of misplaced sympathy. There was a line that couldn’t be crossed by man or nature. Infringing on her woefully inadequate closet space was it.
“Alexa?” Harvey asked. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah, sorry. I have a situation to attend to. But thanks again, and I’ll be sure to call the next time I have a real estate—” She broke off. Uh-uh. No. The only real estate she had left was her shop, and that was rented. She had no intention of looking for new retail space, so she would have no use for Harvey. Ever. “Take care, Harvey,” she said with her brightest smile as she clicked off.
Time to do some bug excavation.
She sidestepped her marmalade cat, Trixie, who seemed intent on tripping her, and seized her damp sponge and bucket. The whole apartment needed a thorough scour before she settled in, if she even could. She certainly didn’t have many comforts of home yet. Her flat-screen TV, long leather couch, Tiffany-style floor lamp, and two end tables, plus her queen-size air mattress and the battered kitchen table left from the previous tenants, filled most of the space.
Oh, and she couldn’t forget the contents of her “bedroom.” She winced at the curtain of purple beads she’d jerry-rigged to section off the alcove that contained her air mattress. All she needed was a lava lamp and a black light and she’d be in her own sixties nightmare.
Narrowing her eyes, she studied the spider and its spindly legs. Already she could feel her resolve wavering. She glanced at the windows. Maybe she could dump the spider on the fire escape.
She glanced at her fat sponge. Or she could smash it and move on with her day.
Pretend it’s Value Hardware. That she could do.
All she had to do was visualize the hardware store’s sterile white walls and its annoyingly efficient robot-slash-droid-slash-checkout people, who were only too happy to load discount flower displays into the backs of minivans. After all, they had half an aisle of hastily assembled arrangements. Why visit Alexa’s store, Divine Flowers, when a person could make do with something that cost half as much?
Craftsmanship and exquisite blooms didn’t mean much in a crappy economy, and she got that. Hell, her own personal economy was currently in the shitter, so how could she quibble?
She needed to off the happy little spider—which really wasn’t that monstrous in the right light—and get cleaning the rest of her new dwellings.
Water. That would kill the spider more humanely. Right.
Determined, she marched into the bathroom to turn on the faucet, prepared to soak her sponge and kick spider ass. A gush of liquid fountained down her front. “Holy shit. Seriously?”
Grumbling, she knelt to study the pipes, sure she could figure this out on her own. Was a washer loose? Maybe if she dug her screwdriver out of her pink ladies’ toolbox she could tighten something. Or screw something. Or something something to stop the damn water now trickling on the floor.
She’d been a homeowner and she ran a business, solo. Surely she could—
At the sound of water burbling in the pipes, she squealed and overcompensated, falling back on her butt. Over went the bucket and sponges she’d dropped the first time she’d gotten sprayed. Her ass hit the cracked tile floor hard, jarring her bones and bruising her in unpleasant places.
Before she could be treated to any more impromptu baths, she crawled up on her knees and turned off the spigot. The chlorine-scented water had already made the place reek like a pool house. She rubbed her damp forehead and caught her breath. Or tried to.
First she’d discovered that the air-conditioning was undependable at best, and it was only mid-August. Now this. What if this was just the beginning? If there were water issues, how would she wash her dishes? How would she bathe?
“Oh my God. Breathe.” She rose and willed herself not to have a panic attack. She hadn’t had one in years, and now would not be a good day to start.
Everything was fine. First day in her new place and she had an extra from Arachnophobia chilling in her closet and a nonfunctional sink. No big deal.
“You forgot that tonight you’re sleeping on an air mattress shielded by a beaded curtain,” she muttered at her reflection, taking in her lopsided topknot and the streak of dirt on her cheek. She’d also developed a few more wrinkles since this morning, which probably wasn’t too surprising.
She smudged the lines on the mirror and noticed they came off on her fingertips. At this point, she almost preferred thinking her age-relief face cream had failed. Otherwise it meant she’d moved into a serious dump, and if so, whose fault was that?
The afternoon she’d signed the rental agreement—the day she’d put her gorgeous mountain hideaway on the market—came roaring back with sterling clarity. The only thing that had mattered was finding a cheap, affordable apartment close to work. Couldn’t get much closer than two flights above her store, right? The rest of the building looked snazzy enough—on the outside. On the inside, it was a big ol’ mess.
But she wasn’t going to stand for it. She’d be damned if she dealt with face-eating spiders and bathroom flooding in the same day.
She refastened her sloppily chic bun. Her makeup had worn off hours ago and her cute purple top no longer looked so fresh. Especially not with the giant water splotch over one breast. Too bad she didn’t have the time or energy to change. Besides, the odds were slim she’d encounter a hot guy on her way to speak to the scarily efficient-looking building manager.
Her long skirt clung to her legs, but it didn’t alter her single-minded march across her apartment. She had her game face on, and she was prepared to do battle. They wouldn’t railroad her into accepting deplorable conditions. She’d just demand that her sink be serviced immediately. Then she’d do a quick tidying job on the apartment, clean herself up, and go have dinner with her best friend, Nellie.
She headed down the hall, only wobbling a bit on her waterlogged Christian Louboutins. The audible squish really didn’t add anything to her mood, but she had more important things to worry about at the moment.
Abruptly, Alexa stopped in front of an open apartment door and widened her eyes. Who was that?
A man wearing tight jeans and a black T-shirt stretched tight over a taut back meant for fingernail marks knelt in the middle of an apartment with a floor plan just like hers, methodically ripping up strips of the laminate. He faced away from her, which gave her the perfect opportunity to study the bunch and flex of muscles in his sinewy forearms. He wore some sort of copper cuff around one wrist, and a tattoo flashed from under the sleeve on his other arm. She couldn’t make out what the tat was, but one thing she could discern with no trouble at all.
Beefcake boy had a hell of an ass.
Which brought her thoughts around full circle to her streak of celibacy. She couldn’t fix all the problems in her life in one go, but was a night of blow-the-roof-off spectacular sex too much to ask for?
No. It damn well wasn’t. Besides, there was more to life than work, and she was doing everything she could there. She’d started to import more specialty flowers from far-flung places. Delicate blooms rarely seen around the hills of Pennsylvania. She’d hired an amazing new floral designer at substantial cost. Soon, no one would doubt that Divine Flowers was a force to be reckoned with. With her new designer, she would be more equipped to handle splashier events. Eventually, when the budget allowed, she’d be able to hire a whole team of designers.
Divine would survive. Thrive, even. No matter what it took.
She knocked on the open door, then knocked again when he kept working. Diligent. She liked that. “Excuse me?”
That he didn’t turn to face her moderately grated, but hey, she still had his ass to observe. She didn’t mind talking to his backsi—err, back.
Better yet, perhaps she’d found someone to make her very happy to be alive for a few hours. Someone who would make her forget about huge spiders, possibly ruined boots, and impending financial collapse. Maybe, just maybe, this guy would fit the bill.
Though she should probably talk to him before she started plotting sexcapades.
“I’m assuming you’re the building handyman?” she prompted.
His lengthy hesitation earned him a frown he didn’t bother to shift around to see. “Need some service, ma’am?”
Her frown spread. She wasn’t used to being ignored, at least not when she’d almost made up her mind to rock his world. “I have a leak.”
He set down his stripping tool and swiveled on his knees toward her. Though he wasn’t smiling, he didn’t seem annoyed by the interruption either. A handy thing, that, since his face sucked the thoughts from her head. Yeah. He’ll do.
She was due a karmic windfall after all she’d gone through recently, wasn’t she? Maybe this—he—was it.
If not, there was always the purple wand with butterfly attachment in her suitcase.
She wouldn’t have called him traditionally handsome. His jaw was too square, his eyebrows too slashing. A copper ring highlighted one of them, stealing her attention from his large, long-lashed eyes, though from this distance she couldn’t tell their color. He wore his dark blond hair in a buzz cut, grown out enough to make her want to feel the prickle against her palm.
His mouth quirked when she continued to silently catalog his features as if he were the featured male model in an underwear advertisement. Slowly, he dragged his own gaze down her body, but she didn’t look down to see what he saw. He held her riveted, as did that intriguing fluttering thing happening in her belly. She hadn’t fluttered in regard to a man in way too long.
“You do look a little…wet.” He didn’t smile, but his amusement came through loud and clear.
Alexa looked down and gasped. Her flowing cream skirt with its miniature purple flowers had gone from sheer to transparent. It stuck to her legs from ankle to hip, highlighting everything—including her blush-pink panties. She might as well have not been wearing a slip at all.
“It’s the sink,” she managed, so mortified that her throat closed around the words. She could deal with moving out of her dream home. Could handle extreme business competition. What she couldn’t face were fashion faux pas that led to entertaining random handymen. “I was going to clean and the sink threw up all over me!”
“You were cleaning, princess?” He rose from the floor and rubbed his forearm over the sweat beading on his forehead. No wonder. This apartment was like an oven set on broil.
Her store had functional AC, something that was necessary for her flowers. She’d been told the units all had air-conditioning as well, but apparently that didn’t apply to this one.
She crossed her arms over her chest and thanked God her damp top was royal purple and therefore not see-through. “Who are you calling princess? And how do you know what I clean or don’t clean, plumber?”
“Who said I intended to help you with your plumbing problem?” He bent to pick up his toolbox and strode to the doorway, taking a moment to tower over her when she refused to give way. She didn’t doubt the move was intentional. “And didn’t anyone ever teach you it’s not nice to make fun of the help?”
He had to be six inches taller than her, at a minimum. Considering she was five-eight, she didn’t meet a lot of guys who could tower over her. Or even lean much. When combined with the raw, sexual pheromones he exuded along with the faint, clean scent of perspiration, she couldn’t quite breathe properly. The chlorine fumes must’ve screwed with her lung function.
“You called me princess. Plumber is hardly an insult, if that’s one of your job responsibilities,” she said, stepping aside. If she didn’t, he’d probably call her more names and drip sweat on her. Actually he’d probably produce more just to prove he wasn’t lacking in the testosterone department. He seemed like the type.
Again he swept his gaze up and down her body, but not in a sexual manner. More like he was appraising her as he might a particularly thick slab of drywall. “You wear the clothes of one, you get the title. So about that leak of yours…”
“In my apartment.” She balled her hands into fists. “My bathroom sink.”
“Ah. Glad you clarified.” He walked ahead of her down the hall, pushing open the door of number 33 without waiting for her direction. “You know, this doesn’t really strike me as your sort of place. How did a woman like you end up here? Though I’ve gotta say, nice furniture. Leather and Tiffany.” He winked at her over his gigundo shoulder. “Princess.”
She fought not to sniff. “There’s nothing wrong with this building.” It was one thing for her to think negative thoughts about her new home. He wasn’t allowed. “And how did you know which apartment was mine?”
Was he some sort of peeper? Had he crept along the fire escape outside her apartment and watched her blow up her air mattress? Maybe he knew her from her shop. People came in and out all the time. Not enough people, but still.
He didn’t respond, just set down his toolbox in the bathroom with a clatter. Without comment, he went to the kitchen and did something under that sink before reappearing in the bathroom doorway. “What seems to be the problem?”
How many times did she need to say the same thing? She pointed to the bathroom sink. “The sink leaks. This sink, not the kitchen one.”
“Got that. I had to turn off the main water valve or else you’re going to get wet all over again.” He stole another quick glance at her damp skirt, probably figuring she wouldn’t notice.
Oh, she noticed, all right.
She startled as Trixie—the only cat in the history of cats who actually liked water—emerged from behind the shower curtain and hightailed it into the kitchen. “Whatever. For the final time, I turned on this sink to get some water for my bucket—the water smells, by the way—and it shot out all over me.”
“The water smells?” He was smiling at her, obviously amused by her high jump when her cat slunk past her ankles.
“Yes. Like chlorine. Can’t you still smell it in here?”
He leaned closer and drew in a slow breath, his nostrils flaring. “Nope. All I smell are flowers. Lavender, I think. Is that your shampoo?”
“It’s a freesia blend, with a hint of lavender. Not shampoo. It’s a body cream.” For inexplicable reasons, her voice dipped embarrassingly on cream, and she cleared her throat.
“It’s nice.” He touched her skirt, so lightly she barely registered the gesture. “Flowers suit you. You’re delicate.”
She scoffed. “Delicate? Me? I drink Coors and watch football. I run my own business and I’ve even been known to dance on tables when properly motivated.”
“And that means you’re not delicate?”
“Delicate women need someone to take care of them.” She thought of her spider episode. Sure, it would’ve been nice to have a guy around to get rid of the thing, but she could do it herself. Though she hadn’t. Yet. “I don’t.”
He jutted his chin toward her sink. “So you could fix that, if you chose.”
“Sure.” She propped her hands on her hips as he moved slightly closer. “I can do anything I put my mind to.”
“Really.” More of the distance between them disappeared. Did he realize he was about to stomp on her boots? And her toes? But she had ten of them, so surely she could spare a few.
His eyes were blue, she noted a little dizzily. This close, they were the shade of the center of an anemone. The color fanned out from his pupils and got lighter at the edges, though that visual effect might’ve been a result of the fumes. They were probably also to blame for her sudden urge to plant her hands on his broad chest and haul him in for a kiss.
Alexa grimaced at her train of thoughts. Clearly she was now suffering from stress-based arousal transference.
A well-known sexual phenomenon, she was sure.
“I like a woman who doesn’t stand around and demand immediate service.”
She didn’t reply at first, because she kind of had. But this wasn’t her area of expertise, and she’d had a rough day, the cherry on top of a rough year. When it came to flowers, she had it all under control. Except lately, though she had a plan to handle that.
Plans helped make negotiating life easier. Even her currently nonexistent sex life could benefit.
“There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations,” she said, firming her voice against its insistent wobble. That wobble hadn’t been there before the last few months, and she hated it. “Just look around this place. The rates were decent and I own Divine Flowers, so I figured the building would be okay. And it’s not. There are bugs in the closet and the AC’s crappy and—”
He glanced past her. “I like your beaded curtain.”
She frowned. “It’s tacky as hell, but I didn’t have anything better to hang up.”
“The bed’s more important than the wall hangings anyway, don’t you think?”
He wasn’t looking at her, just studying the apartment. As if he were considering her space and what could be done with it. “I have an air mattress,” she said in a low voice, wondering if somehow he’d missed that aspect of her accommodations.
“Is it comfortable?” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Because I could probably come up with something better—”
Finally, a segue from her pity party for two into a possible sex fiesta. She wet her lips. “Are you offering me yours?”
A smile curved his insolent mouth. Clearly the question didn’t shock him. Maybe strange women propositioned him daily. A man who came with such sturdy tools couldn’t be that easy to find. She should know. “Would you accept if I did?”
Would she? It was one thing to consider doing something crazy. Something else to go for it.
“The air mattress is okay,” she muttered. So close and yet so far. Wuss. “Not that it matters. This is just temporary. Barely a pit stop.”
“Oh yeah? On your way to bigger and better places?”
Though it took effort, she held his gaze as she gave him a firm nod. She’d probably just imagined that quiver in her chin. He certainly couldn’t have seen it.
“You know, I think we might just get along, Alexa Conroy.” She had only a moment to panic at his knowledge of her full name—first which apartment was hers, now her name, what was next?—before he flashed a dazzling grin that bumped up his looks from intriguing to holy hell, Batman, too bad these panties aren’t flame-retardant.
When he knelt to open his toolbox, she smothered a sigh. What hands he had on him.
God, she was losing it. Now hands were turning her on. If the sex bus didn’t make a stop in her valley soon, she might just lower her standards to the level of a whiskey fix. As in, she wouldn’t remember the guy once the whiskey wore off. Not that she’d ever done that, but first time for everything.
As if he could hear her thoughts, his smile grew. “Now, about that leak of yours…”
Unless Dillon was mistaken, the princess wanted more worked on than her pipes.
He still hadn’t quite figured out why she was there. Why would someone wearing designer clothes and with a bunch of pricey furniture rent a rundown studio apartment? Apparently she planned to slum it while she drew her haughtiness around her like a cloak full of holes.
No wonder she seemed so tense.
Hell, if she was stressed now, wait until she found out the guy she’d been flirting with not only wasn’t the plumber, but actually owned this building and several other income properties in downtown Haven.
More accurately, his parents owned them, but that was virtually the same thing since he and his brother, Cory, were already in the process of taking over more of their family’s holdings while their parents prepared for early retirement. Those holdings included the aforementioned income properties and the chain of Value Hardware stores throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio his parents had grown from two stores to ten.
Not that Dillon wanted to take over anything. Not that he held one whit of interest in being some corporate whiz kid. That was his brother’s excuse for megalomania. Cory’s latest project to take over the world included a lifestyle magazine that would supposedly solidify Value Hardware’s position in the home beautification business. The guy probably wouldn’t stop until the letters VH were embroidered on every luxe bamboo doormat across America.
He took a perverse pleasure in offering his seeming compliance with most of his older brother’s plans, and then twisting them from the inside out. That included making whatever upgrades were needed to their rental properties—and not just the bare minimums either. The tenants would appreciate the new floors and improved air-conditioning, even if Cory suggested cutting corners. He had a role in the family, in the business, and he didn’t shirk his duty. Or skimp on putting his wallet where his mouth was.
“Is it fixed yet?” Alexa demanded, leaning forward so that her mile-long dark hair spilled over her shoulders. She’d taken it down a little while ago, and he’d caught himself fantasizing about dragging his fingers through the tumbled brown strands more than once. Preferably while sampling her pouty raspberry lips.
“Not yet. I’ll let you know.”
Her indignant huff of breath made him grin. She’d asked several times already. He should find her annoying. That he didn’t probably said something detrimental about his character. But along with the cute nose wrinkle she got, she had sad eyes. There was more to Alexa Conroy than what was on the surface, and already he wanted to peel back the layers.
“Are you in a hurry or something?” he asked, drawing his attention from her to the sink.
“I just don’t like leaving my store in other people’s care for too long.”
“Because you don’t trust them?”
“No, because it’s my responsibility, not theirs.” When he stole another glimpse of her, her expression had turned determined. She might’ve been willing to flirt before, but now that he hadn’t managed to work miracles in minutes, she was all business.
Except for those lingering looks she occasionally coasted down his body…
Maybe that was why he was enjoying playing the part Alexa had so neatly slotted him into. Something about being in her bathroom, fixing stuff while she watched, felt right. It was also the most enjoyment he’d had in too long to remember.
Dillon James, notorious ladies’ man, would have no trouble charming her into bed, and he probably wouldn’t have a whole lot of remorse, either. But that wasn’t who he was in Alexa’s eyes. Which was exactly the problem—she didn’t know the score.
He’d just fix her sink and get gone, no matter what naughty messages her now-bare, lilac-tipped toes wiggled his way as she bounced one long shapely leg over the other from her perch on the toilet. A thin chain encircled her narrow ankle, dangling charms. Purple, of course. That was her signature color. Just as that aromatic lotion she’d talked about was apparently her signature scent.
And holy shit, was it hot.
Not that it made one whit of difference. Despite her flashing blue eyes, stubborn backbone, and occasionally snide remarks, he wasn’t about to blur the lines. He knew she owned the store on the first floor—and he may or may not have spent time accidentally painting windowsills in her apartment while she’d been hanging a potted arrangement from the light post in front of the building—but she had to be struggling financially if she’d moved in to the Rison.
He wasn’t going to take advantage of her situation. Only a real creep would use her bad day as an opportunity to get laid.
Or a guy who hasn’t had sex in months.
“Are you a licensed plumber?”
“Are you a licensed florist?” He didn’t look her way, mainly because he didn’t need the distraction. Or the encouragement to do really bad things he shouldn’t be considering.
“Your evasiveness isn’t calming my concerns.”
“Neither is yours. What if I need flowers? How can I be sure you know your stuff?”
“Take a look at my shop,” she snapped.
He grinned and reached for another wrench. “Take a look at my tools.” When she gusted out a sigh, he relented. “Yes, I’ve taken classes. I have the appropriate certifications for all the work I do on this building. I also have good references.”
But she wouldn’t be getting them from him, unless she intended to meet his parents for reasons that extended beyond skilled plumbing work. And that wouldn’t be happening.
Mercifully she stayed quiet for several minutes. When she wasn’t talking, he didn’t have to block out the way his mind wanted to superimpose her husky voice saying inappropriate things, preferably while they were naked. “Almost done?”
“Not yet,” he said cheerfully, wiping his grimy hands on the rag he’d unearthed from his tool kit.
“Do you take this long with everything or just when you’re playing with pipes?”
Oh yeah, he couldn’t resist that one.
He leaned out from under the sink and cocked his head, letting his gaze roam her face as if he had all the time in the world to learn her with his eyes. “I take as much time as a project needs.” He let his voice drop. “Patience pays off in ways you probably can’t imagine.”
As he’d hoped, her lips parted. “Sometimes fast is good enough,” she said, her chest rising and falling with her breaths. Her nipples tightened, just enough to poke through her top.
Just enough to make him harder than the wrench he gripped in his fist.
“Depends what we’re talking about. I like to make sure I do a thorough job.” He lowered his gaze to her chest for barely an instant. “Though I can’t deny some are worthy of repeats.” At her hiss of breath, he flashed her a grin. “Ah well. Back to work.”
“Jerk,” she mumbled.
Her declaration garnered her a raised brow. “Problem?”
“No.” She shook her head so vehemently his grin grew. “None at all.”
Ah, he’d flustered her. Somehow he didn’t think that happened often. What would she do if he amped their play up a notch? “You’ve given me an idea. Since you’re so competent, I bet you could help me with this next part.”
“Me?” She straightened and the lust drained from her eyes. “Of course I could. What do you need?”
He pointed to the tool kit. “Grab that wrench there.” When she didn’t move, he smiled and pointed to the right tool. He fully expected her to roll her eyes, but she looked interested. Fascinated even.
Damn, her quick brain turned him on almost as much as her ankle bracelet. Maybe more.
“What do I do with it?”
“First I need to take off the knob on the faucet.” He removed it and set it aside, then wrapped the rag around the spout. “C’mere.”
She put up her hair in a quick knot, then stood next to him, her head bent, mouth pursed. “Now what?”
“We’re going to remove this valve, so that I can see if the washer’s in good shape.”
Barely blinking, she nodded. “Okay.”
“You can breathe. There are no lives at stake here, Alexa, I promise.”
She jerked her chin at him. “Just do your thing, wise guy.”
“Nope, you’re doing it.” With his free hand, he motioned to the wrench she’d picked up and grasped like a weapon. “I’m holding the spout steady, so you unscrew the washer. Okay?”
She leaned in and did as he asked, hesitantly turning it clockwise. A curl fell in her eyes and she blew it away, her focus so intent she didn’t realize at first she was making the washer tighter, not looser.
He shifted behind her and placed his arm next hers to guide her hand in the opposite direction. His stomach tightened at the first contact of their skin. She smelled like summer—flowers, and sunshine, and yes, even chlorine—and he wanted to tilt his hips forward and bury his face in her hair. Not bound tightly as it was now, but loosened around her shoulders so he could use it for leverage when he—
“Oops, sorry. I was doing it wrong. Like—” She glanced over her shoulder and broke off, her question ending in a hot exhale. Her eyes narrowed as he closed his fingers over hers on the wrench. “Like this?” she asked, her voice noticeably lower. Huskier.
“Just like that. Slow and easy.” He leaned in to adjust her grip and she stiffened, her curvaceous body going rigid between him and the sink.
That wasn’t all that was rigid right now. Not even close.
“How long do I do this?” she asked breathlessly, arching just enough to bring her bottom hard against his erection.
He barely muffled an oath and leaned in closer, just enough that she made a noise in her throat he almost thought he’d imagined. Then she did it again. A sigh. A gasp. Some mixture of the two. He shut his eyes and gritted out, “Until I say stop.”
“But I think—” She broke off and shifted restlessly against him. Bringing them flush together and wiping away the last of his good intentions.
When he flexed his hips, her hand spasmed and she whimpered as the loosened piece slipped off and fell into the bowl. He let go of the spout and stepped around her, thankfully breaking the contact of their bodies, then snatched up the part.
Damn, that had been close. Too close.
Not nearly close enough.
He moved to her side, breathing hard. Trying to remember he had ethics, somewhere down deep beneath the need churning in his gut. He cast a sideways glance at her, and they tipped toward each other like bowling pins pulled by magnets. Her lips were so close, a breath away. If he leaned in, if he just could taste her once—
At the last second, he jerked back. Christ. Her pupils were dilated, her lips parted. She’d been ready for that kiss. Hell, she’d wanted it too.
In another second, he would’ve been in the middle of the best mistake of his life.
“Now what?” she whispered.
Dumbly, he glanced down at the part he held. What was its purpose again? Sink. Water flowing. Release.
“Washer looks good,” he said, as he rushed to put everything to rights before his shaking fingers gave him away. “Turns out I just need a part from the hardware store. Everything else is fine. I’d be happy to go get it and take care of this for you.”
Operative word being “go.” He’d just come way too close to crossing the line. As much as he wanted to taste her, he couldn’t. Not until she knew he wasn’t just the plumber. Not when she’d knocked him so far off his game he couldn’t see straight and she didn’t even know his name.
“The store?” she echoed, shutting her eyes as if she needed a moment. He understood the feeling. She took a deep breath then opened her eyes. Their sheer power nailed him square in the chest. “What store would you get the part from?”
He fought to get his brain back in gear as he rubbed his scruffy chin. “Uh, Haven’s only hardware store. Val—”
She set aside the wrench and crossed her arms over her chest, a move she repeated with alarming frequency. It was probably a minor miracle she didn’t have a sign across her cleavage declaring No Trespassing.
Clearly, the moment they’d shared over the sink was already ancient history.
“Don’t say it.” She dropped back down on the toilet, her shoulders slumping. “You are not to speak that name within these walls.”
Now this was interesting. He cocked his head, waiting for her to explain herself. Had she gotten bad service at his parents’ store or something? Maybe gotten a batch of bad paint? Even so, why would that make her face redden and her eyes burn? “You going to elaborate?”
“Nothing to say.” Her crossed arms came up again. Naturally. “I’m just not fond of that store. At all. In fact, I think it sucks mule testicles.”
He coughed and thumped his fist on his chest to get the oxygen moving again. “Haven’t heard that expression before.”
“It fits.” She frowned and fingered the short silver chain around her neck. A long, milky stone hung from the center, drawing his gaze where it had no business going. He swiftly aimed his focus back on her face and wished he hadn’t. Her direct eyes were even more dangerous than the rest of her. “I’d prefer you drive to Renault to get the part. I realize that would take longer.”
Evidently his time was not her concern. Also evidently, he would not be revealing who he was anytime soon, because as soon as she realized his ties to the store that aroused so much of her ire, odd as that was, she’d likely knee him in the balls and slap him across the face. As she should. A decent, upstanding guy didn’t lie to a girl just so he could kiss her brainless.
He needed to get out of her apartment before he did something he couldn’t take back.
And damn sure wouldn’t want to.
“By the way, you never told me your name,” she said, her tone silky.
At least he could give her his name without letting the drill out of the bag. He dropped his rag into the toolbox and shut it. Then he glanced up at her sexy smile and his hand jerked on his kit. Jesus, would he ever learn not to look at what he couldn’t touch? “Dillon James.”
“Dillon James,” she repeated, her voice a purr as she rose with the grace of a dancer. Not ballet. She wasn’t that coolly antiseptic, though she tried to be. “How many tats do you have?”
“What is this, twenty questions?”
“Just curious.” She indicated his upper arm. “There’s one. Do you have more?”
“Yeah. A couple more. A skull, and a snake.”
Interest flared across her face as she darted her gaze over his body. “Where?”
Uh-uh. Tell invariably led to show, and that wasn’t happening. Even if he ached for it to. “Leave a guy some mystery, would you?”
Something dark and wicked burned in her blue eyes, riding shotgun with the pain she’d stuffed down so far she probably figured no one saw it.
But that didn’t mean he could do a damn thing about it, assuming he hadn’t imagined what lurked in her expression. He had no right to ask questions that weren’t the usual getting-to-know-you type of fare. Certainly had no cause to try to make her laugh again, just to hear that free, happy sound. To know he’d caused it, given her that moment of pleasure, egotistical bastard that he was. He cleared his throat. “I have to go.” Now.
“You’re coming back, though, right?” she asked, fingering her choker.
He hefted his toolbox. “Yeah. I’ll be back.” When he started to move past her, she stepped forward. His breath tripped as her hand came up to his chest. God, if she touched him right now he’d lose it.
“You forgot this.” She offered him his wrench. Their gazes collided and a slow, sly smile curved her mouth. She knew exactly what he’d been thinking. “See you later, Dillon.”
“Lock up after I go,” he said, then got the hell out of there.