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Liam McCree's day never really started until Jenny Hunter walked into the Laundromat.
Today, as always, she spiked his male radar, and his blood raced a little faster as he instinctively glanced up from his computer, at which he'd been tapping away in his corner of the Suds Club. His pulse beat in his ears, making him feel like he was being tossed around in one of the dryers.
From the first time Liam had seen her, over a year ago, when he'd initially moved into the neighborhood, his fantasy machine had been set to play reel after reel of Jenny 24/7—during the night, during the day Nope, he never failed to fall asleep picturing how her short, smartly styled blond hair curled to a nape he'd love to nuzzle. How her blue eyes sparkled with the wit and dry humor that attracted so many friends and probably admirers. How her plump red lips shaped into something sweet and cherrylike, as if ready to be tasted. How her pale skin covered a figure blessed with ample womanly curves.
Normally those curves were decorated with chic clothing when Jenny appeared in the Club. In fact, she liked to dress as fashionably as a 1950s movie goddess who lounged in a swank living room while she posed for photos in a feature article about domestic bliss.
But today, there was a difference in Jenny.
In his corner, Liam leaned his chair back against a dryer on the wall, quietly assessing her.
As she made her way to the seats in front of the television, her expression seemed dazed. Her arms were folded on her chest, and her usually perfect hair was pulled back into a tiny ponytail, as if she hadn't taken any care with it. She also wasn't wearing makeup—she didn't really need it,Liam thought—and the lack of her usual pizzazz made her seem softer.
But most noticeably of all, she wore a drab, oversized, long-sleeved shirt over baggy khaki pants with sneakers.
Definitely not like Jenny at all.
Something was clearly up with her, but
Well, Liam wasn't sure why he should involve himself by asking about her mood, since he seemed to be the bane of her existence. So he went back to typing in HTML codes for a Web site he was designing for a nearby jewelry boutique. Today, Web sites. Tomorrow, full-on small-business consulting. That was Liam's plan.
But Jenny kept drawing his attention, and maybe that made sense, since he'd often teased her about teaming up with him to start a consulting firm. After all, Jenny Hunter had a reputation as a crackerjack businesswoman, and she would be a great asset. She always brushed off his jokes, however, even if he wasn't entirely kidding.
She hadn't taken a seat yet. In fact, she seemed to be shying away from all the other Sudsers. A few ladies discreetly traded questioning glances when she wasn't looking, and this told Liam that they also suspected something was happening with the usually confident businesswoman.
Come to think of it, Liam reflected, Jenny had been getting quieter and more pensive lately, hadn't she?
The final minutes of a game show that preceded Flamingo Beach—the main reason everyone gathered in the Suds Club at this hour—played out on the TV. One of the women, an Eastern Indian named Evina, tried to draw Jenny into conversation. Yet the object of Liam's attention merely held up a finger, told Evina she would be right back, and headed straight for the drinks machine, as if retreating.
Her path would lead her past him, and his belly tightened.
He righted his plastic seat, the movement sending a twinge to his right leg, where underneath his worn jeans, scars covered an ache that was throbbing more than usual today.
Maybe the reminder of his injury—and the habit of covering it with a smart-ass personality—urged him to stop Jenny as she passed. Or maybe it was because her sorrowful gaze somehow didn't sit right with him. Whatever it was, Liam closed the lid of his laptop, offering her a grin while folding his hands behind his head. "Halloween come a few weeks early this year?"
She slowed down, just now seeming to notice that he was in his usual corner. Then, as she came to a full stop, her eyes lost their haziness and seemed to focus.
In their blue depths, Liam detected the color of anxiety maybe even fear. He'd seen the same hue in the mirror years ago, after his accident.
Should he ask her what was wrong?
"Your clothes," he continued, nodding toward her blasé garb. "It's just a different look for a fashionista like you."
Okay, that was close to inquiring about her personal life. For him, anyway.
She frowned, glancing down at her outfit, then almost absently pulled her shirt away from her chest, as if trying to make her clothing even baggier. She was obviously not comfortable in them. Was not comfortable even being here today.
Liam knitted his brow, but he didn't venture another comment.
Could her attitude have something to do with how she'd missed her usual Wednesday-work-from-home lunch hour this week? She never failed to show up at the appointed time, but she'd been conspicuously absent yesterday.
He'd been all too cognizant of that.
"You had a lot of work going on yesterday?" he asked. Translation: What's with your change in schedule and appearance?
Jenny swallowed, hesitated. Then a change seemed to take her over, as if she were forcing herself to put on some act. She even tilted her chin a little higher, taking the argumentative stance she always assumed around him.
But there was something missing—heart. Spirit.
"Yeah," she said. "I was really swamped with a project, and I needed every hour available to me. Today's better."
"Must've been some project."
"It was." Her eyes got that faraway look again. "Huge."
Liam motioned to his corner of the Laundromat. "Just set up your office in here. There's plenty of room, and you'll never miss Flamingo Beach at the Suds Club again."
He'd hoped to see a sign of the old Jenny: maybe she'd plant her hands on her hips, as she often did while bantering with him.
McCree, she would say, squatting in a Laundromat instead of renting real office space might be the gypsy thing to do, but I need more organization. More room. More professionalism.
But now she only ran a glance over him, as if she were seeing him for the first time: a guy in a corner, with a slight goatee, shaggy brown hair, comfortable clothes and that gypsy attitude.
His temperature rose and she looked away, catching herself.
Hell, Liam almost thought she was interested.
"Things going okay at work?" he asked.
She was a hot dog at the Kendrick Corporation in San Francisco proper, where she dreamed up marketing plans for big accounts.
"McCree," she said, "if you're going to tease me about working for your hardly existent business today "
"Oh, I don't doubt it." She gripped the hem of her shirt. "Just not with me."
"Hey." He leaned forward. The change in position sent a thread of discomfort through his leg, but he ignored it. "Anytime you want to get away from all the corporate red tape at Kendrick, you just let me know."
The offer was genuine, and she seemed to realize that for the first time. Her hands dropped to her sides as she turned her face away; then she nodded, biting her bottom lip.
Her innocent gesture blasted him. He'd imagined the feel of those swollen lips so many times, wished to experience the cherry taste of them. A million shivers danced over his skin as he told himself it would never happen, not with a woman who had always seemed to think he was more of an irritant than a true possibility.
Besides, Liam doubted he had it in him to make any woman happy in the long run, after she saw beneath all his coverings and witnessed the injuries, the damage.
But when Jenny's gaze met his, a jolt of electricity seemed to zap between them.
Then she looked away again.
A few heartbeats thudded by, marking the seconds, the burning aftermath.
Had she felt it, too?
He shifted in his seat again, and his leg screamed— a sharp reminder of his imperfections.
Meanwhile, Jenny's hands still hung at her sides, and her eyes had gone back to that empty look that blocked any sparks he'd seen during these past few seconds.
Strangely moved by the change, Liam found himself overstepping his bounds. "Jenny, is everything really okay with you?"
As her eyes widened—what, did she think she could hide it from him?—she twisted the hem of her shirt and pulled it away from her body, camouflaging every natural, beautiful curve.
"I'm fine," she said, her voice sounding choked.
Before he could follow up, she rushed toward the soda machine, digging into her pants pockets for money.
It felt as if the oxygen had been shoved out of his lungs. He was used to Jenny's shrugging him off and then eventually wandering past him again to continue whatever argument they'd been having before. But this time? He doubted she'd be back. Not when they both knew she was lying about being okay.
While Jenny kept her back to Liam, one of the Suds Club's regulars turned up the TV. Flamingo Beach was on, and everyone in the Laundromat had deserted their washers, their folding, and gravitated toward the seats in front of the screen. Earlier, they'd been guessing what might happen at Trina and Dash's wedding, but now there was respectful silence as the bride got ready to walk down the aisle.
Liam flipped up the top of his computer and reim-mersed himself in his work.
By the time the bell on the Laundromat's door dinged, signaling the arrival of Mei Webb, Liam was already well into pretending to have no interest in the soap opera—or the people in the Suds Club—whatsoever.
Even though he was much too aware of Jenny, still standing with her back to him at the soda machine.
Jenny stared at the buttons on the vending machine.
Water. Orange soda. Apple juice.
As she tried to concentrate on each offering, she rubbed her arms, hoping to calm the tremor that was running over her skin.
It was cold—that was all. The air outside was getting autumny, the leaves were turning, and she should've brought a jacket.
These shivers had absolutely nothing to do with Liam McCree. First of all, he wasn't her type. At all. Light-brown-eyed scoundrels who slacked around in grungy clothes didn't cut it for her. Just look at him—
Jenny didn't, but she could recall every detail of what he was wearing anyway. She was a clotheshorse—well, she usually was—so she noticed those types of things, and a long-sleeved shirt carelessly covered by a T-shirt worn with weathered jeans and beaten work boots made McCree a definite candidate for any and all worst-dressed lists. Honestly, she liked the clean-cut, suit-and-tie type, the patently ambitious man who walked the San Francisco financial district as if he owned it. McCree was the anti-Jenny man.
Then again, who was she to critique anyone's wardrobe with the way she looked?
In spite of herself, she chanced a slow glance at McCree, only to find him working away at his computer. Quickly she faced the vending machine again.
Had she expected him to be watching her or something? Based on what had happened a few minutes ago
She concentrated on counting the quarters in her hand, telling herself that there hadn't been some explosive moment between them.
Please. McCree was just being his obnoxious self, baiting her, messing with her. Nothing more. There hadn't been a flash of awareness between them at all.
Because she couldn't be attractive to anyone now.
Taking a deep breath, Jenny heard her favorite soap in the background, but it sounded like a foreign language. Almost everything did.
And that was because of the mammogram results she'd gotten the day before yesterday.
Her throat lumped up, as if warping, just like her left breast had obviously done.
"There's an abnormal change," the radiologist had told her before advising a biopsy.
Then her doctor's voice took over in her mind. "But there's no reason to worry until we know for certain. Just relax in the meantime, Jennifer. That's the best thing you can do."
She listlessly dropped the quarters into the machine, not knowing which drink button she would push. Fear ate away at her, muddling her head and making every decision seem as difficult as solving a quantum physics equation.
Then, thank God, she heard a familiar voice next to her.
"Hi, there," Mei said, touching Jenny's arm. "It's great to see you out and about."
Without further greeting, Jenny fell into her friend's waiting hug, burying her face in Mei's long, shiny, straight black hair and telling herself not to cry. She'd done enough of that Tuesday, after she'd gotten the news. Mei had been the only one besides Jenny's parents who knew that her doctor had found a lump in her breast, and she had come to the city to drive Jenny the other day and offer support at her appointment.
Although Jenny hadn't actually cried until they'd gotten back to her apartment, she had stifled some sobs and made an utter fool of herself at the appointment anyway. Jennifer Hunter—thirty-year-old cosmopolitan woman, successful businessperson the one everybody thought was so self-sufficient and capable.
She was a major mess.
Luckily her schedule allowed her to work from home the day after the appointment, and she'd given herself permission to sit on the couch watching TV until she'd been up to attempting some work. And even though she'd taken a huge chance with her hard-case boss and called in sick today, she'd forced herself to stick to her routine and come to the Suds Club, even though she still felt like a zombie under the weight of all the terrifying worst-case scenarios her imagination was conjuring.
What if she needed radiation treatment? Or chemo? Or a mastectomy?