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"Don't take this wrong, but seriously, a cat of your size needs to keep all four paws firmly on the ground."
Charlie Dixon continued up the ladder, aware that Daytona was watching her with serious contempt in his large, green eyes. The black-and-white cat was about twenty-six pounds of attitude. His climbing skills might be excellent, but his ability to get down a tree left much to be desired. At least once a month he got his big furry butt to the top of Mrs. Coverson's sycamore and yowled to be rescued. About an hour later, the old lady would panic and call the fire department. Daytona, named for Mrs. Coverson's love of all things NASCAR, glared and hissed and threatened, but in the end, he submitted to being safely carried to the ground.
"Come on, you," Charlie said, climbing the last two rungs of the ladder. "You know you're getting hungry and I'm your ride down to your food bowl."
On cue, the cat flattened his ears and gave an impressive growl.
"Cheap talk, big guy," Charlie said, then reached for the cat. Daytona took a swipe at the back of her hand, but the movement was halfhearted at best. He was already inching toward her, then allowed himself to be picked up and held against her.
"Don't worry," someone called from the sidewalk. "I've got your ladder."
Charlie sighed heavily. "Civilians," she muttered. "How do they always find me?"
Daytona didn't offer a response.
Charlie looked down and saw some guy hovering by the base of her ladder. "I'm fine," she yelled. "Step back."
"Someone needs to hold the ladder," the dark-haired man insisted.
Charlie tucked Daytona securely under one arm and started her descent. She went quickly, aware that Daytona's attention span was often shorter than the trip to safety. When he started squirming, they were both in danger of tumbling. This time she cut it a little too close.
Daytona pushed all four paws against her, then twisted in an attempt to climb down the rest of the way by himself. Charlie hung on. Not only didn't she want to fall herself, there was no way she was going to face old lady Coverson with a less-than-perfect Daytona beside her.
"Stop it!" she told the cat.
"Need me to come up?" the guy asked.
Charlie briefly wondered how much trouble she would be in for kicking him with her steel-toed boots and if it would be worth it. Some of her best friends were civilians, but honest to God, there were people who totally lacked common sense.
"Stay back," she yelled. "Step away from the ladder and don't interfere."
"I'm not interfering. I'm helping."
Before Charlie could respond, several things happened at once. Daytona gave one final push for freedom. Charlie leaned over to make sure she kept a grip on the squirming cat. The ladder lurched, the idiot below started up and everyone had a moment to rediscover the power of gravity.
Daytona fared the best. He used his claws to dig in to the side of the tree, then scurry down. Charlie came in second. She was maybe six or seven feet from the ground. It came up fast, but instead of hitting the sidewalk or even the grass at the base of the tree, she slammed into the guy who'd been trying to "help."
As she lay on top of the idiot and sucked in air, Charlie watched Daytona stroll over and give a last annoyed hiss. The cat stalked away, his tail high. Charlie rolled off the guy, aware that at five-ten and well-muscled, she weighed a whole lot more than was considered fashionable. No doubt he'd had the wind knocked out of him. With luck, only his pride was hurt and then she could lecture him on why it was never good to be stupid. At worst, she was about to have to call for an ambulance.
"You okay?" she asked, shifting into a kneeling position and glancing at the man for the first time. "Did you hit your head and"
Crap and double crap. This wasn't some random stupid person, she thought, taking in the perfectly shaped jaw, the firm full mouth and, when his lids slowly opened, the dark eyes fringed by long lashes. This was possibly the best-looking man on the planet.
Clay Stryker, model, movie butt double. His ass had been flashed in magazine ads, calendars and on the big screen. He had a killer body and his face was even better. He was the kind of man for whom, on the promise of a smile, the earth would change its rotation.
She'd met him a couple of times. At her friend Heidi's recent wedding to Clay's brother, for starters. Plus, Clay lived at the ranch where she boarded her horse. They'd nodded at each other over stalls and hay bales. But she'd never seen him up close before. Not in the flesh, at least. Had never been so near to a flawless human.
Reluctantly, she had to admit, it was a little unnerving. One corner of that perfect mouth turned up. "Hey," he said. "I saved you."
Charlie snorted. "Not likely. Did you hit your head? Because if you did, I'm hoping it knocked some sense into you."
The slight curve became a smile. "You're welcome." He sat up.
Charlie put a hand on his shoulder. "Hold on there, hotshot. Are you injured? You were at the bottom of our pileup. Make sure nothing's broken."
"My ego's a little bruised that you don't appreciate what I did for you."
"You knocked me off the ladder and nearly killed us both. No, you don't get a cookie." She stood, then held out her hand to help him up. "Can you stand?"
The smile turned into a grin. Damn, the man was pretty, she thought absently. Despite the fact that it had literally been a decade since she'd found any man attractive, there was something about his near godlike perfection that was appealing.
He ignored her hand and stood in one easy movement. "I'm good."
"Charlie, are you all right?"
"Fine, Mrs. Coverson," Charlie said, trying not to clench her teeth. Her dentist had warned her that she needed to stop grinding her jaw when she was annoyed. Which was much of the time.
Mrs. Coverson stood on the front porch, Daytona in her arms. Behind her, Michelle Banfield, who worked with Charlie, stood with a half-eaten brownie and a look of guilt in her eyes.
"I was coming back out to help," Michelle mumbled. "Um, but there were these brownies."
"That's okay," Clay told her. "I was here."
It was all Charlie could do not to smack him upside the head.
"Here is the one place you shouldn't be. It's illegal to interfere with a firefighter at work. You do it again and I'll have you arrested."
Instead of being appropriately intimidated, Clay grinned. "You're tough."
"You have no idea."
He stuck out his hand. "Glad I could help."
"You didn't" She shook her head. "Whatever. Fine. Thank you. Now go away."
She shook hands with him, conscious of his fingers engulfing hers. And he was taller, by at least four inches. Interesting facts, but of no earthly use.
First of all, she had yet to conquer her manphobia and if she decided she wanted to, it wouldn't be with anyone like him. She would look for safe. Nice. Normal. Second, even if she was silly enough to be attracted to him, which she wasn't, there was no way in a million billion years that a guy like him would be interested in a woman like her. Men like him fell for supermodels and
women like her mother. Well, back when her mother had been younger.
Charlie knew what she was. Strong and capable. She could wear the fifty pounds of gear her job required without breaking a sweat. She could haul hoses up ten stories of stairs, no problem. She was self-sufficient. She knew how to change a tire and fix a leaky faucet. She didn't need a man. Except maybe for one teeny, tiny thing.
"What?" she snapped.
Clay glanced at their still-joined hands. "Did you want me to leave? Because if you do, I'm going to need that back."
Damn. She released him instantly. "Sorry."
"No problem." He flashed a smile that would send a lesser woman to her knees. "I'll see you at the ranch."
The ranch, she thought blankly. Oh, right. He lived there; she boarded her horse there. They would run into each other. "Sure."
He waved at the two women on the porch. "Have a nice day, ladies."
They both nodded without speaking. As he strolled away, Charlie saw Michelle and Mrs. Coverson drop their gazes to his butt. Charlie allowed herself a quick look before heading toward the house and a freshly baked brownie.
Sugar was easy, she thought. Deliciousness followed by a blood-sugar spike. But mennot so much. And Clay was worse than most. Because for a split second, when he'd tossed her that last smile, she would have sworn she felt something deep down in her belly.
Not attraction. That was too strong a word. But a flicker. The faintest whisper. The good news was that part of her wasn't as dead as she'd thought. The bad news was she'd discovered that fact by being in the presence of a butt model with the face of an angel. A man who could have any woman he wanted, simply by asking. Or maybe hinting.
His world was ruled by those who were flawless. She was broken. Maybe not where anyone could see and she'd sure learned how to fake normal. But she knew the truth.
Still, progress had been made. A flicker today, a tingle tomorrow. Give her a millennium or two and she might find her way to being just like everyone else.