Pennington was becoming upwardly mobile today and several of her cousins had turned
out to lend their assistance getting her moved. They arrived with the dawn at
her old apartment above Aunt Babe and Uncle Mack's garage.
had packed her coffee maker the night before and much to everyone's disgust couldn't
remember into which box it had been stuffed. Yawning and bleary eyed, her helpers
stumbled up and down the exterior staircase in the early morning chill as they
emptied out her apartment, loading her possessions into Sam's truck, Terry's van
and Ivy's car. When the last swear word had faded, the last stray item had been
tucked into a free corner in one of the vehicles, they formed a convoy and pulled
out of Babe and Mack's driveway. Their only stop was at a drive-through window
at McDonald's for coffee, and by the time they reached her new apartment, everyone
had finally started to come alive.
Ivy, Sherry and Jaz unloaded
labeled boxes, the lighter pieces of furniture, arm-loads of hangered clothing,
and the one plant Ivy had managed not to kill. Sam, Davis, Terry, and
husband Ben handled the heavier furniture. They had to make several trips from
the vehicles to the apartment and high spirits rapidly began to replace the sleepiness
with which they'd begun the day. As was usual when they got together, their conversation
rapidly degenerated into a lot of noisy, good-natured squabbling and boisterous
Ivy's belongings were banged around with careless
abandon, bounced like so many bumper cars off walls and doorways. Her pride and
joy, however, her brand new, tapestry-upholstered hide-a-bed couch, they treated
with kid gloves. Everyone knew how long Ivyd had to save to buy it.
stroked its rich fabric affectionately and directed Davis and Terry in its placement,
making them move it three times in her search for the perfect spot to display
it to its best advantage. The men set it down in the third location with an air
of finality, and exchanging a glance, flopped down on its cushions. Ivy stood
back and eyed the couch's position critically, undecided if it looked better where
it was or against the wall where they'd tried it a moment ago. She opened her
mouth, but Terry correctly read her intention and forstalled her.
it, Ivy," he advised her with calm finality. "We aren't moving it again. Sucker
weighs a ton and it looks just fine right here."
gave him a look she had patented when she was about twelve years old. Terry all
but yawned, plainly unaffected, so she transferred it to Davis. He'd always been
an easier touch anyway.
He shifted uneasily. "Don't
look at me like that. I hate it when you do that."
grinned. "It's her I'm-the-cutest-puppy-in-the-pound-and-they're-gonna-gas-me-any-minute
look." He made his voice a high falsetto. "Save me, Davis. Save me!"
wanted to laugh, but she knew she had Davis on the ropes, so she intensified the
soulfulness of her expression instead.
Now if only she could
dredge up a tear or two...
"Knock it off, Ive," Davis
demanded. "I mean it. It's not gonna work; I quit fallin' for that big-eyed look
when I was about fourteen." He sounded, however, somewhat less than convinced.
strolled in from the kitchen clutching a pair of long-necked beer bottles in each
hand. Passing them around, he directed a smile of brotherly maliciousness at Davis.
"Wasn't that the year you decided you were gonna marry Ivy when you both grew
up?" He flopped onto the couch between his brother and cousin, and Ivy knew she
could kiss goodbye to any hope of having them move it for her again. There had
been a slim chance she might have swayed Davis, in which case Terry might have
agreed to go along with it, but Sam and Terry combined...? Not a prayer.
"Yes," Davis replied, giving his brother a sour look. "It
was; thanks for reminding me. You broke my heart that year when you told me first
cousins couldn't marry because their babies would all turn out to be drooling
"Sam, you didn't!" Ivy sank cross-legged to
the floor in front of them. She took a sip of her beer and gave her cousin a wry,
one-sided smile. A strange expression on Terry's face
caught her attention, but Sam's reply recaptured it before she could pin down
or interpret its meaning.
"Hey, I had it on the best
authority," he said with a shrug. "In-breeding weakens the genes. Besides, the
way I remember it, Davis, your heart didn't remain broken for long. You
consoled yourself within the week with little Judy What'shername."
Davis clarified. "Judy Helman."
"Hey, I remember her!"
Jaz exclaimed, walking into the room. She handed Ivy a pillow and tossed one down
on the hardwood floor for herself. Ivy rolled up on one hip and slid the pillow
beneath her buttocks while Jaz settled onto her own beside her. "She was the first
girl in the fifth grade to wear a bra. God, how I envied her."
my school that would have been Beth Johnson," Ivy said. "Big Boobs Beth, we called
her. At least the girls did. I think the boys called her for dates or whatever
the fifth grade equivalent is."
"Hey, what's going
on in here?" Sherry and Ben came out of the bedroom and walked down the short
hallway. "You lazy bums! Are Ben and me the only ones still working?" She stopped
in the living room entrance and stared down at her cousins, her hands propped
on her plumply rounded hips. "And you're drinking beer? Good God, you guys,
it's barely noon." Then she shrugged. "Oh, what the hell, gimme one too. We have
been working our tails off since daybreak."
on the door in the fridge," Sam informed her. "Grab one for Ben while you're at
"Get me one too," Jaz demanded.
and Ben set up your bed, Ivy," Sherry called from the kitchen. "I made it up with
the sheets and a blanket I found in one of the boxes." The beer bottles on the
refrigerator door rattled as she slammed it closed. "I couldn't find your comforter,
"Thanks, Sherry," Ivy replied and smiled up
at her cousin as she rejoined the group in the living room. "It's got to be around
here somewhere; it'll surface once I get everything unpacked."
handed a sweating bottle of beer to her husband and one to Jaz, then took a seat
in Ivy's overstuffed chair. "This is gettin' kinda shabby, babe," she informed
her cousin as she ran a hand over the worn fabric. "I never noticed that before."
She looked up from the thinning material and gave Ivy a crooked smile. "I suppose
it's the comparison to your brand new couch."
pretty ratty," Ivy agreed gloomily. "But for the time being it's just going to
have to do. It'll be six months at least before I can afford a new one."
"And you haven't rushed right out to charge one anyway?" Ben
marveled with ironic incredulousness. "Are you positive you and Sherry are related?"
His wife nudged him with her toe. "Funny, Ben. Extremely droll."
"I have student loans that will take me a good five years
yet to pay off," Ivy told Ben. "And payments for my new car, not to mention higher
insurance rates now that I'm no longer driving a thirteen-year-old rust bucket."
She waved her hand, indicating the apartment. "And malpractice insurance and higher rent. Just the thought of another debt makes me break out in
a cold sweat."
"Could you afford seven or eight yards
of material?" Terry inquired. "I could probably reupholster it for you. I did
a fairly decent job on the seats in my van."
"Oh, Terry, would you?" Ivy's smile was radiant. "That'd be so great. I love the lines
of the chair and I think the structure is sound enough; it's just the fabric that's
a mess. You'd really do that for me?"
it my housewarming present." He grinned. "After all, we can't have the family's
only doctor living in Early Shabby Squalor, can we?"
Davis snapped his fingers. "Hey, speaking of housewarming presents..." He hopped
up and left the room. Ben immediately crawled up off the floor to steal his seat.
Ivy's eyes lit up as she glanced around at her cousins. "You guys bought me a
Sam and Terry smirked. Sherry groaned theatrically.
"I swear to God, Ivy," she earnestly assured her cousin, "I tried my damndest
to talk them out of this."
Jaz grinned like a cat
in the creamery and butted her shoulder against Sherry's calves. "C'mon, Sher,
don't be such a prude," she said. "You know it's a great present."
Ivy murmured. Anyone familiar with Sherry knew she was far from prudish. It therefore
stood to reason that if whatever this gift was had given her second thoughts...
"No, really, Ive," Jaz assured her. "You're gonna
love it. Trust me." She stared at Ivy with large, guileless eyes. "It's exactly what you've been needing and I got that straight from the horse's mouth."
"Trust me, she says." Ivy eyed her cousin suspiciously. "Why
is it whenever I hear those words, trust is the very last thing I have the urge
Jaz merely grinned. "Beats me."
returned to the living room and extended a package to Ivy. "Here you go, Doc."
he said. "Happy Housewarming, from all of us."
thought for a moment they'd bought her a bowling ball, which would be odd, since
she'd only been bowling perhaps three times in her life. But as it turned out
the shape and size were misleading, for her gift was much lighter than it appeared.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Ivy rested the present between her spread thighs
and simply admired its wrappings for a moment. It was festively done up in irridescent
tissue, which had been
gathered at the top and secured by a
beribboned bow with flowing streamers. Glancing up at her cousins's attentive
faces, she smiled and then picked the bow apart. She set it aside and unfurled
the gathered tissue.
At first her eyes refused to believe
what they were seeing. Then a choked laugh escaped her. "Oh...my...gawwd."
She removed a round crystal vase from the wrappings. That
was where the conventionalness of the gift stopped and her cousins' sense of humor
took over. They had filled it to the brim with condoms of every conceivable brand,
color, and style. Looking up,
her eyes caught Jaz's. "Horse's
mouth, my ass. When I said I might finally have time for a relationship now, Jasmine,
I was thinking more along the lines of one man, not the entire fifth fleet."
She silently cursed the heated color she could feel climbing
her throat. She was more amused than embarrassed by her cousins' gift and God
knew that after everything she'd ever seen in med school and on the work lanes
at the trauma unit, one would reasonably expect she'd have lost the power to blush
by now. But no such luck, dammit she still turned color at the drop of a
hat, a hated legacy passed down by generations of thin-skinned ancestral redheads.
And naturally her cousins could be counted upon not to let the fact pass without
comment... not when pointing out each other's inadequacies was such a popular
No sooner had the thought crossed
her mind then Sam commented on her high color to the group at large. They heckled
Fanning her hot cheeks, she gave them
a lopsided smile.
"Trust you guys to pass on the toaster oven."
She held out the vase. "Party favor, anyone? Please. Help yourselves to a handful."
They were all laughing and talking at the same time when Davis
started tapping out a tempo on the hardwood floor. He looked up at Ivy. "I know
the real reason you picked this
apartment," he said. "And it
wasn't just for its good looks, was it? You rented it for the acoustics." He began
to sing an old fifties Motown tune and one by one everyone except Ben joined in,
immediately falling into their accustomed harmonies.
was content to lounge back on the couch and watch them with wry amusement as their
voices soared in the high-ceilinged, hardwood-floored room. Damn, this is a
strange family I've married into, he decided without regret. Then he smiled
to himself as he listened. Actually, this was fairly par for the course whenever
they got together and he shook his head in rueful admiration, knowing they were
just getting warmed up. Once they
broke out the harmonies,
it was hard stopping them. Sherry told him they'd been singing together, mostly
a cappella, for as long as she could remember and he had to admit they were damn
good at it. It was entertaining that was guaranteed.
it sure as hell could be disconcerting to have a roomful of people just spontaneously
burst into song around you.
Now they were singing? Vincent D'Ambruzzi tossed back his tangled bedcovers
and stormed to his feet. That did it.
For the past
two hours he'd been growing progressively tenser as he'd listened to the thumps
and thuds emanating from the apartment next door. More annoying still had been
the loud bursts of raucous laughter echoing both out in the hallway and through
the adjoining apartment walls. He'd put up with it, holding onto his temper, but
enough was enough. Just when he'd thought they were finally beginning to settle
down, they'd managed to come up with something to push him right past the threshold
of his tolerance. He'd had less than four stinking hours of sleep this morning
and was in no mood for this shit.
Pulling on the first
thing his hand encountered, a pair of skimpy red nylon running shorts, Vincent
winced as he bent over to tug them up his long legs. There was a pressure building
behind his eyes, which he knew from experience was the precurser to a royal pounder
of a headache. Sleep would make it go away, but sleep seemed to be the one remedy
the rowdy crew next door was determined to deny him.
he'd see about that.
It wasn't until he'd already pounded
with irrevocable, thunderous hostility on the neighbor's door that he was struck
with second thoughts. Oh, shit, why hadn't he simply pulled the pillow over his
ears? It probably wasn't even all that early he hadn't thought to consult
a clock. And the singing wasn't actually all that loud; it had merely been the
final straw to the increasingly annoying pandemonium preceding it, a racket which
had left him twisting and turning in a futile search for a few hours of undisturbed
rest. Vincent rammed his long fingers through his hair and started to turn away.
But it was too late; the door behind him opened.
He sucked in a deep breath and turned back, his fingers still
snarled in the thick hair above his nape, his elbow jutting ceilingward.
Ivy felt herself gaping and had to make a conscious effort
to close her mouth. When the pounding on the door had commenced, she had automatically
surged to her feet to answer its commanding summons. She had not thought to visualize
the caller in advance of opening the door, and as she stared at the man on her
doorstep she dazedly imagined that was probably just as well. For even if the
idea had occurred to her, her imagination certainly never could've conjured up
anything remotely resembling this hostile-eyed, dark-complexed, nearly naked man.
He was taller than she by three or four inches, something
of a rarity in itself as she was just shy of six feet tall and thus tended to
stand eyeball to eyeball with the majority of the men she met. And he was dark
very dark. It was his coloring, she thought, that most arrested her attention
putting aside, of course, the shock of being confronted at her own front door
by an obviously irate, scantily clad man.
She was momentarily
mesmerized by the sleek tangle of black hair in his armpit; the inky thickness
of the hair on his head; his thick black brows. His eyes, too, were black and
he had ebony eyelashes so dense they tangled in the outer corners. His jaw had
what appeared to be a permanent dark shadow beneath the skin, his arms were feathered
with black hair from elbows to wrists, and there was a thick cloud of hair on
his chest that started at his collarbones and ended at the bottom of his pectorals,
tapering to a silky stripe that bisected his abdomen and swirled around his navel
before it disappeared beneath the waistband of those tiny red shorts. And then
there was the swarthiness of his skin... all that exposed, dark skin.
gave herself a small mental shake. Good grief, Ivy, it's summertime deep
tans aren't exactly unheard of this time of year. But she instinctively felt this
man's coloring wasn't a product of hours spent at the beach. It might be slightly
enhanced at the moment by the summer sun, but she'd lay odds his natural skin
tones were a deep olive in origin. There was a rather Mediterranean look about
him overall, with that large, beaky nose, which was curiously flattened at the
bridge, those angular cheekbones, that full mouth.
possessed one of those bodies that probably looked on the skinny side when it
was clothed... but unclothed? Whew. There was certainly nothing weak or soft looking
about it now. God knew, the little red shorts didn't disguise a whole hell of
a lot and
in the few seconds that she stood there dumbstruck,
simply staring at him, Ivy got an eyeful. Of the flat, ridged stomach; the nice
chest and powerfully developed long thighs; of the solid mass of calf and bicep;
the wide shoulders. And every blessed inch of it looked as hard as aged madronna.
Ivy shook her head slightly as if to clear it of the man's
overpowering effect. All and all, he was quite a shock to the system, but he certainly
hadn't stopped by just so she could admire his coloring and his well-knit body.
He appeared to have some sort of a problem. Ivy, being a neighborly woman by nature,
gave him a warm, friendly smile. "May I help you?"
tried to smooth out the scowl he felt pulling his eyebrows together above the
bridge of his nose. He gripped the knotted muscles in his neck between his fingers
and thumb, massaged fiercely for a moment, and then dropped his hand to his side.
God Almighty. Why hadn't he stayed in bed? Somehow, she wasn't at all what he
had expected when he'd stormed from his apartment. "Uh, listen," he said. "I'm
your next door neighbor"
Ivy immediately swung
the door wide and her smile grew even warmer as she shifted the bowl she held
to her hip and stepped back in welcome. "Hello!" she exclaimed. "How nice of you
to stop by. Please. Come in."
Vincent took an involuntary
step forward in response to her cordiality before he caught himself and halted.
Oh, hell, nice, she says. He stared at her helplessly. It wasn't an emotion he
was accustomed to feeling and he didn't particularly appreciate experiencing it
now. On the other hand, he was at a bit of a loss how to proceed. The pressure
behind his eyes grew stronger.
Why the hell had he
acted so impulsively? It wasn't at all like him, and now that it was too late
he remembered why. Impulses tended to land him in a world of hurt; they always
had. He'd come storming over here to reacquaint his new neighbor with a few basic
courtesies she and her friends had apparently forgotten, and what had happened
instead? He'd been greeted at the door by big, green, friendly eyes, by a pretty,
smile, and now he hesitated to give offense.
This tall, amiable woman inviting him into her home projected
an impression of warmth overall, due perhaps to the warm tones of her coloring.
She had straight, swingy red hair that ended in a blunt cut at her collarbones;
rubicund color in her cheeks and lips; and a smattering of rosy freckles that
scattered across the bridge of her nose and her cheekbones and sprinkled the exposed
portion of her chest. Her eyes and smile made her seem very friendly, very approachable.
And standing this close, he couldn't help but notice that she also smelled extremely...
It came out of the blue and caught him off
guard the shaft of sexual craving that speared straight to his groin. He
was an abstentious man ordinarily; it had been a very long time since he'd last
been even remotely attracted to a woman in a carnal sense. He stiffened with automatic
defensiveness, unwilling to feel any sexual awareness now. Yet he was unable to
prevent his eyes from a swift, visual survey down her body. And he liked what
he saw; he liked it very much... right up until the moment his eyes stopped dead
at the crystal bowl brimming with condoms that she hugged against her hip in the
crook of her arm.
Oh, Christ. He stared at the jumble
of condoms and nearly choked on the ice-cold rage that exploded in his chest as
visions of The Bitch filled his mind. Get a grip, he fiercely demanded of himself,
blinking away the memories. This isn't LaDonna, Vince get that through your
head. Hell, you don't even know this woman, so what's it to you what a complete
stranger chooses to do with her private life? And it didn't matter. It didn't.
Only... what was wrong with him that the only women to physically attract him
always turned out to be sluts?
Every last vestige of
sexual desire departed as swiftly as it had appeared.
had drawn enough male attention in her life to be aware of her neighbor's interest
and of the thawing of hostility in those jet-black eyes. She experienced a reciprocal
awareness and the first small pulse of a sexual excitement
of her own. She even felt a little surge of gratitude toward him, for it was difficult
to remember the last time she'd been cognizant of her own sexuality. She couldn't
help but appreciate the person reminding her of it now. This was beginning to
appear most promising: a new home, and an attractive new neighbor.
It was therefore a shock when his eyes suddenly snapped up
to meet hers again. His dawning interest had disappeared as thoroughly as though
it had never existed outside the bounds of her own imagination. His eyes were
dark and cold again, containing even more animosity than they'd originally displayed.
He appeared to regard her, in fact, with the same distaste he might have shown
a none-too-cute pet who'd had a particularly disgusting accident at his feet.
Considering she hadn't slapped eyes on the man until two minutes ago, Ivy was
stunned by the depths of deflation she experienced. It seemed absurdly disproportionate
to the circumstances.
"I won't come in, thanks," he
said coolly. His eyes dropped to the round crystal container of condoms, briefly
flashed to Ivy's cousins in the living room, then returned to meet hers once again.
"I wouldn't want to interrupt the group activities."
glanced at her cousins herself and then down at the gift they had given her, wishing
she'd had the sense to set it down. It had still been in her lap when the pounding
on the door had commenced and she'd automatically carried it with her when she'd
arisen to answer it. She could scarcely believe she correctly understood what
he seemed to be implying, but when she looked back at her new neighbor her own
eyes had nevertheless lost their warmth.
"I beg your
pardon?" she said in tones of frosty civility. One eyebrow arched disdainfully.
"Perhaps you'd care to define what it is you assume those activities to be?"
"Listen, lady, I think your little bowl there says it all.
What you do in the privacy of your own apartment is your business"
"I'm thrilled you realize it."
just not interested in coming in and joining the games, okay?" Vincent stepped
back out into the hallway and Ivy, dropping all pretense of politeness, took an
incensed step after him.
"I think you've got things
a little backwards here, Slick," she snapped and then pointed out frigidly, "I'm
not the one who showed up on your doorstep wearing nothing but my underwear."
What a self-righteous, tight-assed, presumptuous prig! She could dispell his erroneous
assumption with a few brief words, of course, but she wasn't in the least inclined
she didn't owe this jerk any explanations. Who on earth was he, anyway, the moral
arbiter of the fourth floor? "Frankly, buster," she said with a spurious calm
she was far from feeling, "I find you delusional beyond belief. Nevertheless,
let me give you a little friendly advice." She looked him up and down pointedly.
"The next time you get the urge to preach to someone, put your clothes on first.
It will make the sermon much more effective." Vincent held onto his temper with
an effort, which was unaccountably much more difficult than it should have been.
"I came by to ask you to hold it down," he said with stiff formality. "I worked
late last night and you've made sleep all but impossible this morning with all
the racket you've been making."
Then he lost it. "And
if you don't like what I wear, don't roust me out of bed and you won't have to
see it!" He rubbed at the headache pounding in earnest now behind his eyebrows
and tried to get a grip on his anger. He'd been a cop long enough to know it was
the least productive emotion in a confrontation. It was also, he discovered when
he caught her looking him over as if he were a paticularly repellent slug, not
that easily dispelled. Thoroughly out of sorts, he snapped, "From now on, why
don't you and your little friends do everyone a favor. Go practice your damn singing
in whichever bar it is that pays your salary." Without awaiting a reply, Vincent
turned on his heel and walked away.
squeal of rage escaping through her teeth, Ivy slammed the door behind him. Breathing
as rapidly as if she'd just run an uphill 10K, she turned to find her cousins
had all fallen silent. They were staring at her with varying degrees of shock,
incredulousness, anger, or amusement, depending on their particular personalities.
"Do you believe that jerk?" she demanded
"Real friendly individual, wasn't
he?" murmured someone else.
Long after her cousins had left,
Ivy was still repeatedly re-living that bizarre confrontation with her neighbor.
Her undiminished indignation kept her moving full speed around her apartment,
unpacking box after box, finding new places for her possessions and arranging
the small pieces of furniture that had been carried in earlier and set in the
middle of whichever room it had been deemed they would most likely belong. An
unexpected bonus of all that leftover ire was that she set her new home to rights
in record time.
When she finally began to calm down,
she felt a little ridiculous for letting him get to her that way. She had her
share of temperament; it had been inherited right along with the red in her hair.
But years of med school, an internship, and a two year residency in the city's
busiest Level One trauma center had knocked most of her quick temper out of her.
She would have never made it past third year medical school if she hadn't learned
long ago to control most of her emotional reactions. And it had been years since
she'd allowed herself to care about the opinion of a total stranger. She didn't
know why her new neighbor's obnoxious presumption had rubbed her so raw. Ordinarily,
it simply would have made her laugh before she shrugged it off.
all right, she admitted as she organized the bathroom, she did know. She knew
perfectly well. That horse's ass had managed to awaken her long-slumbering sexuality
and now it was screaming for attention with no relief in sight. Damn him! He'd
started her libido humming only to turn around and figuratively speaking
slit its damn throat.
She'd had her sex-drive in mothballs
for a long time now, and this was the year shed planned to finally take
it out of storage. Naturally, she hadn't expected it to happen overnight, but
neither had she expected to be kicked in the teeth and accused of God knows what
perversions the first time she felt a spark of interest.
it had been ages since a man had caught her attention. And no one, she admitted
with resentful honesty, had ever sparked in her such immediate sexual chemistry
as that dark-skinned, dark-haired jerk had managed to do. She'd had a couple relationships
in college, but nothing in the long run that could compete with her ambition to
become a doctor. Once she'd begun med school, it had been even harder to sustain
a serious attachment, for sooner or later the men she saw expressed jealous displeasure
over the time and energy she poured into the development of her career. They expected
her to be equally or better yet, more devoted to their needs. As soon
as that particular argument reared its ugly head ("If you'd put as much effort
into us as you do to your damn medicine!") Ivy always knew it was the beginning
of the end. For she had wanted to be a doctor since she was fifteen years old,
and if the man with whom she was involved knew her so little as to suggest she
relinquish her long-held heart's desire simply to cater to his comfort and aspirations,
then he obviously wasn't right for her in the first place.
she'd repressed her sexuality, and if the truth were known for the past few years
it hadn't been all that difficult to do. Internship had been one long, sleep-deprived
stretch in which she'd managed maybe three casual dates in twelve months; and
her residency hadn't been appreciably better. Working twenty-four hours on and
twenty-four off, she'd generally considered herself lucky to squeeze in time for
an occasional lunch or dinner with one of her cousins before she stumbled home
to bed. The few nights that she'd both had off and could manage to keep her eyes
open, her social life had consisted primarily of joining various relatives at
Uncle Mack's bar for a beer and a sing-along.
deal, she was ripe for a relationship. That probably explained the uncharacteristic
lust shed experienced for the idiot next door. But it sure as hell didn't
give him leave to pique her sexuality with one hand, only to squash it with the
other. There was no excuse for the things he'd said; as far as she was concerned,
his attack on her had been unprovoked.
She would, however,
grant him one extenuating circumstance the innate mouthiness of her family.
She had grown up in the bosom of a close-knit extended family
in which there were precious few secrets. Nobody, with the possible exception
of Terry, seemed able to keep anything to themselves for any length of time. Most
of the time that wasn't a problem, for her family was warmly interested in the
happenings of others. Never were they malicious, and their inbred curiosity did
promote a sense of intimacy and belonging that was hard to deny. There were times,
however, when it could be a downright interfering curse.
for a moment did she doubt that it was the conversation she'd had with Jaz a few
weeks back that had given birth to her cousins' off-beat housewarming gift. She
had been rhapsodizing over finally being able to establish a work routine with
regular hours or as regular as it ever got when it came to trauma care.
She'd further ventured to express that, maybe, for the first time in what seemed
like forever, there was even an eventual chance as well of actually developing
a steady relationship with a man a relationship to which she'd finally have
time to devote a little effort. And that, she'd told Jaz, was bound to have better
odds for success than anything she'd managed so far.
she'd had any sense, she would have stopped right there. Instead, she'd set herself
up with her very next words. "And sex!" she'd said. "My God, Jaz, do you have
any idea how long it's been since I've participated in even the most innocent
of sexual activity?"
Jaz had probably mentioned it
to Sherry, who had probably mentioned it to her brother Terry, who probably hadn't mentioned it to anyone, but then Sherry wasn't known to keep things to herself
and was sure to have mentioned it to someone else, who had probably mentioned
it to... well, the list went on. And before you knew it, ergo: a lifetime supply
Much as she hated to concede anything, she would
admit that it might have been disconcerting for her neighbor to be greeted at
the door by a woman gripping a container filled with enough protection to render
the entire personnel of the USS Constitution safe. Had their roles been reversed,
she, too, probably would have been taken aback. She was even prepared to find
it understandable if he had concluded that she therefore must lead a
sex life than most.
What she didn't understand was
how he could have taken such a wild leap beyond that conclusion. How many people
would see a bowl of condoms, look into a room of fully clothed people, in an apartment
obviously just being moved into, and immediately assume they were gearing up for
an orgy? An orgy, for God's sake! If you asked her, his sex life must be
a hell of lot more interesting than hers, unfortunately, had ever been.
Somehow, though, she doubted it. Not that he wasn't loaded
with latent sexuality she didn't even attempt to fool herself into believing
otherwise, for she'd felt it too strongly. But
even if she
could set aside the prejudice he'd managed to instill with his oh-so-obvious disdain,
there was just something too disapproving and rigid about the man. As if he kept
himself on a very short leash.
And did the guy have
a problem with contemporary sexual mores, or what? She hadn't been mistaken about
his interest in her it might have been fleeting but it had been real. What
had killed it stone dead, without a doubt, was the implied promiscuity he'd read
into the sheer number of condoms in her possession. Well, perhaps, since he didn't
know her, he could be forgiven that assumption. But if he expected to find a thirty
year old virgin in this day and age, she was afraid he was doomed to disappointment.
And more to the point, even if she had been the worse sort of slut that he so
clearly assumed her to be, she'd been in her own apartment, with the doors closed,
minding her own business. So, really, what the hell business was it of his?
Vincent spent the next couple of weeks asking himself the
very same question. It took him that long to concede that maybe he had made an
ass of himself by jumping to all the wrong
his encounter with the woman next door the day she'd moved in.
continuing curiosity about his new neighbor irritated him no end. It was not at
all like him. He shouldn't, for example, give a damn what her name was, yet he'd
gone out of his way to discover from her mail slot that it was Pennington.
Okay, that was perhaps understandable.
was not was the extent to which he'd forsaken his professionalism when he'd run
that damn computer check on her the day after they'd ridden the elevator together.
He knew damn well she wasn't a prostitute. That hadn't stopped him from checking
for an arrest record.
To top it off as if that
hadn't been cretinous enough he'd gotten caught at it.
knew he was acting like an idiot even as he scanned the computer screen. He was
a detective in the Special Assaults Unit of the Seattle Police Department, and
this was not an acceptable use of his time or the department's resources. But
in his mind's eye he kept seeing that smile of hers in the elevator early this
morning, and it prodded him to continue the search he'd begun.
hadn't even noticed her when he'd first stepped onto the elevator. It had been
a long, frustrating night and he'd been exhausted, desiring nothing so much as
a solid eight hours of uninterrupted sleep and knowing there was no way in hell
he was going to get it. He'd entered the elevator and reached out to punch the
fourth floor button... only to notice it was already illuminated. Rubbing his
bleary eyes, he'd turned his head, and there she'd been. Leaning against the opposite
wall, wearing a short skirt and modest-heeled pumps, her long legs crossed at
the ankle. She'd stared at him with unblinking, green-eyed solemnity.
wanted to ignore her altogether, but his eyes had kept returning to her legs.
He couldn't seem to help it; they were exceptionally fine and in that short skirt
they'd been damn hard to ignore. She'd caught him dead to rights looking at them.
He had glanced at her face following a brief survey of the shapeliness of her
ankles, calves, knees, and thighs, only to find her steadily observing him.
That was when she'd given him that smile and just the memory
of it was enough to make his teeth clench. It had been so damned knowledgeable,
that smile, so carnal. As if she'd looked right inside of him and said, 'You may
think you're mighty righteous because you've been celibate for a few years, but
you don't fool me for a minute. I know exactly what you'd like.' She had then
looked him up and down with one brief sweep of her eyes; then her lashes had dropped
closed, and her lips still curled upward in that knowing smirk, she'd ignored
him until the elevator had come to a stop on their floor. She'd pushed herself
upright, swept past him without a word, and disappeared into her apartment.
Vincent's friend, Keith Graham, stopped behind him. He leaned down to read over
Vincent's shoulder. "What are you working on that involves hookers?"
An intrinsically honest man, Vincent didn't even consider lying. He pushed back
from the terminal and swiveled around to face his fellow detective. Feeling like
an ass, he told Keith what he'd been doing ...and why.
Vince," Keith muttered when he'd finished. Leaning against an adjacent desk, he
crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't know whether to congratulate your hormones
for finally clawing their way out of that cage you've had them in... or get realistic
here and start worrying that you've had them boxed up so long they're starting
to short-circuited your brain."
"She said I
"Well, Jesus, son, I don't wonder.
Put yourself in the woman's position for a moment. Sounds to me as if she had
some friends helping her move in and you jumped to some pretty hasty conclusions
just because she was cuddling a coupla condoms."
There must have been a gross of 'em!"
the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, eyeing his friend in
puzzlement. "People collect all sorts of weird shit, Vincent. You know it; I know
it. Even if she planned to use them all in an evening, it's still a considerable
leap from being an over-sexed amateur to a pro for hire."
okay, I know. She doesn't have a rap sheet, and I guess I didn't really expect
to find her in the files anyway." Vincent smiled up at the pretty blonde detective
who appeared at
his side to ask if he was finished with the
computer. He set the screen back to the main menu, pushed the chair back from
the terminal and arose, offering it to her. Moving over to his desk, he said in
a low voice, "I think I'd like her to be a hooker, though, Keith. Then I could
write her off. She has this way of looking at me that messes with all my
"Maybe that's not such a bad thing,"
Keith replied and considered his friend thoughtfully. "Not all women are like
The Bitch, Vincent."
"Oh, please." Vincent struggled to tamp
down his rising irritation. He did not want to talk about his ex-wife.
"I know that, okay? I see the victims just as often as you do."
know it intellectually, maybe."
Oh, great, now he had
to suffer through Keith's psychobabble? Vincent's black eyes were suddenly
cold and impenetrable as he stared at the man he considered his closest friend.
he demanded, sure he wasn't going to like this.
"Meaning," Keith stated bluntly, "LaDonna
Baxter D'Ambruzzi Whatever-the-hell-she's-calling-herself-these-days did a damn
fine job of stunting your emotional growth, son." He hesitated a moment, then
decided to say what was on his mind. "She didn't just sleep with half your friends,
Vincent. She fucked with your mind."
End of Excerpt.