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Sitting on the sofa in front the television with his brother, his best friend, his cat and his neighbor's dog, Evan Carlisle stared at the screenbut his thoughts were well away from sporting events, and smack dab on the neighbor.
Cinder Bratt. Mid-twenties blonde bombshell. Friendly and familiar. Cuddly but sexually elusive.
Hot, with a capital Hnot that Cinder seemed to realize it.
Idly he stroked her dog, Doug, while his calico cat, Cate, purred beside him. Yeah, he and Cinder had come up with the names together after a trip to the shelter almost a year agoonly a few months after meeting each other and hitting it off.
She'd wanted a dog, so he'd gone along, but Cinder wasn't the only one to come home with a pet that day.
She and Doug had bonded, just as he and Cate had.
And Cate and Doug had already been best friends, so it had all worked out.
He'd once teased Cinder, saying they should get a house together and adopt a horse that they'd name Horace.
She'd laughed, swatted at himand totally missed the implied interest in his suggestion. Cinder missed all his clues, and never gave any of her own.
She was a pal, and it drove him nuts, a little more so every day.
Suddenly Doug's ears perked up and his head lifted, alerting Evan to Cinder's early arrival. Her big German shepherd never missed a thing, especially where it concerned Cinder. He was the most vigilant dog Evan had ever known, but also gentle and loving.
Even to his cat, Cate.
The animals got along great, hung together like best friends and had created an unbreakable bond between Evan and Cinder.
Cinder didn't acknowledge that bond. Yet.
But he was working on it.
Doug's ears twitched, then went flat, and he whined. His reaction also alerted Cate, and both animals leaped from the sofa to race for the door.
Evan checked his watch. She was more than two hours early. Because the televised sporting event would go late, he'd planned to use it as an excuse to wait up for her.
Doug barked at the door, more fretful than usual.
Before Cinder had a chance to come in, he joined the animals and opened the door for her.
"Hey." Despite the dark of evening, she wore sunglasses with her requisite nurse's uniform. Head down, posture tired, she trudged in, her bouncy blond hair a little wind whipped from the recent storm.
As comfortable in his apartment as she was in her own, she kicked off muddy shoes on the entry mat and, face averted, tugged off her windbreaker.
"You're off early." Cinder's hair wasn't the only bouncy thing. Evan watched her breasts as she shed the jacket. She had a body that no guy could dismiss. Big breasts, full hips, round thighs.
And thinking that brought his gaze around to his older brother, Brick, and Brick's best friend, Jesse. Wearing small smiles and looks of masculine awareness, the men stared at her.
When Brick noticed Evan glaring at him, he grinned. Like big brothers everywhere, Brick took great pleasure in being annoying, especially when it concerned Cinder.
"Women in uniform are so sexy."
Jesse nodded. "Cinder in uniform, more so than most."
"Yeah," Cinder said, "rubber-soled white shoes and blousy smocks are such a turn-on." On her they were.
Cinder hung her jacket on the coat tree and knelt to the animals.
Still in her sunglasses.
Suspicion sparked. "Cinder?"
"Hello, kiddos," she said to the animals. Ears still flat, Doug nuzzled her neck and chewed on a curl. He was the funniest dog ever, doing things Evan had never before seen a dog do.
Right now he looked far too fretful.
Cinder hugged him. "You learned that from Cate, didn't you, big boy?" On her other side, the cat crawled up to poke her little pink nose into Cinder's hair, making her grin. "You're both so silly."
Feeling very on edge for reasons he didn't yet understand, Evan suggested, "Maybe it's your shampoo." He took her arm, hauled her upright and did his own nuzzling. "Mmm. Smells good."
Predictably, Cinder froze. "It's unscented."
"Huh." Because he already knew that, he just shrugged.
She ducked her face more.
Brick sat forward in his own show of suspicion. Making a play off her last name, he asked, "What's up, Bratt?"
"Baloney," Jesse said. He looked her over, too. "We know you too well, so fess up."
They did. For over a year now, they'd all hung out together during their free time, mostly at Evan's apartment. They were a group, and that was all well and good.
Except that he also wanted to see Cinder alone. On a date. Or better still, in a bed. His or hers, he didn't care. Hell, the couch would work. Or even the floor.
Maybe the kitchen counter.
Pushing those thoughts aside for the moment, Evan said, "Jesse's right. What are you hiding?"
She stuck her tongue out at Jesse, and he laughed, saying, "Suggestions like that will get you in trouble."
For them, she didn't blush, or falter, or care even a little when they dropped sexual innuendos. She took them as jokes, and reacted in kind. "You wish." She gave her dog another pat. "Did you bums leave any dinner? I'm starved."
And just like that, she tried to sidle into the kitchen. Still in those ridiculous sunglasses.
Oh, hell no. "Cinder." Evan gently clasped her arm to draw her around. She reluctantly let him.
Staring at his feet, she muttered, "It is not a big deal."
Alarm started a slow crawl up his spine. "What isn't?"
With an exaggerated sigh, a heartbeat of hesitation, she took off the sunglasses.
What she revealed hit him as an emotional sucker-punch to the gut. "Son of a bitch," he whispered.
"Evan " she complained at his reaction.
"Shhh." Her left eye was badly bruised, swollen, her cheekbone cut and abraded. By morning, she'd have one hell of a black eye.
Something hot and lethal settled like lead in his chest.
Both Brick and Jesse slowly approached, the paused sports show now forgotten.
"It's nothing," she insisted, giving them each a quick but fractious glance.
It was something, all right. "What happened?"
"An idiot patient who got out of control, that's all."
Evan cupped her chin and lifted her face. Her hair fell back, exposing a cut on her forehead, too. A neat row of tiny stitches marred her fair skin near her hairline.
His stomach clenched and his shoulders stiffened.
She rolled her eyes. Or rather, she tried to, but with her left eye so swollen and discolored, she didn't get much effect. "I don't remember his name. He was waiting to be seen, but then he flipped out"
"On everyone, really, but yeah, I was closest at hand." She wrapped her arms around herself and tried to look impervious. "He was high on something, I guess. He decided it took us too long to get to him, and then he sort of blew, raging on everyone." She let out a breath and forced a smile that wouldn't fool anyone. "When the guards showed up, he ran off without doing too much damage."
"Looks to me like he did plenty of damage." Evan could barely speak around the commingling emotions of rage, concern, protectiveness .
"Superficial stuff, that's all." She patted himas if to comfort him! "You know how easily I bruise."
From playing, sure. Not from violence.
Brick lifted her wrist to examine another mark. "He grabbed you?"
"My arm, yes." She eased away from his hold. "It all happened really fast, but now it's over, and I'd as soon not talk it into the ground, so let's move on."
Everyone ignored that request.
Jesse asked, "Did the police get him?"
"They have the name he used when he signed in at the hospital, and we all saw the snake tattoo on his neck." She shrugged. "Last I heard, they were still looking."
"Snake tattoo?" Evan asked.
"It sort of wrapped around his neck and went down somewhere on his chest." She cleared her throat. "Very colorful."
Doug whined, so she began stroking him again. Brick looked her over. "Did you get hurt anywhere else?"
"Are you sure?"
She glared at him for doubting her. "I'm a nurse, remember? I'd know if I was hurt." Focusing on Evan again, she said, "Can't the rest of the inquisition wait?
I'm starved, I need caffeine and I desperately want to change clothes."
He moved closer to her, speaking softly, drawing her in. "You promise you're okay?"
She nodded too fast. "Cross my heart."
Hands on his hips, Jesse searched her face. "You don't have to be stoic with us, you know."
That wrought a genuine laugh. "So I should do what? Look pathetic? Maybe shed some tears? That'd make you guys feel better?"
Both Brick and Jesse blanched, saying together,
Evan shook his head. "She's not going to cry." At least, he hoped not. "Are you?"
He watched her shoulders go back, her mouth firm, and he wanted to kiss her. All over. Every place that she might have been hurt, and in all the places where she hadn't been.
"Good. If you did, those two would fall apart."
Brick grinned around his remaining concern. "I seriously can't handle crying women."
"It's devastating," Jesse agreed. "Turns me to mush."
Relief took the tension out of her shoulders. "Well, we can't have that, now, can we?" She sniffed the air. "I hope you guys have something good left over from dinner."
This time when she walked off, Evan let her go. Doug loped along beside her, and Cate followed behind the dog like a feline caboose.
After watching her retreat, Brick whispered, "Despite the bravado, she shouldn't be alone."
Evan agreed. "I got it." He knew Brick and Jesse cared about her, but not in the same way. Tamping down the automatic rage at seeing her hurt, Evan went into the kitchen and found her in front of the sink, staring out the apartment window at the parking lot. Security lights reflected off wet pavement, and wind whistled by.
She looked a little lost, but rallied when he joined her. "I think it's going to rain again."
Evan wanted to pull her into his arms, hold her close. But she had Don't Touch signs all over her. "We grilled before the storm hit, and we saved you a piece of chicken and a baked potato. I can heat that up for you if you want."
"Sounds heavenly. Thank you."
"No problem." Tenderness put a stranglehold on him. God, he wanted so many things, all of them oddly amplified by seeing her this way. "If you want something to drink, help yourself."
"Okay." She opened his fridge and found a Coke. After popping the tab, she leaned back on the counter and upended the can for a long swallow. "Honest to God, I'm dead on my feet."
Working twelve-hour shifts was rough enough without brutality thrown in. "Should you maybe get checked?"
She held the can to her bruised cheekbone, sighing at the touch of the cold aluminum. "I work at a hospital, Evan. Believe me, I've been checked and rechecked."
He winced for her. "Right."
Her smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "If you want the truth, that was the worst part of it allbeing seen like that by the people I work with."
She hadn't wanted to talk to the others, but with him, she volunteered her feelings. He appreciated the significance of that. "When did this all happen?"
"A few hours ago. But there was a little blood."
"Damn." He cupped the back of her neck to encourage her to talk, to comfort her. To connect with her.
"Head wounds, you know? They can be messy. After we got that under control, I had to talk to the cops and see the doctor and all that." She stared off at nothing in particular. "One of the other nurses helped me to clean up. There was blood in my hair, on my shirt ."
Unable to stop himself, Evan touched a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Go sit down. Put your feet up. I'll have the food ready in a few minutes."
"If it's okay, I'll run next door to change first." She held out the hem of her smock. "Like I said, I got blood on the top I wore to work. This is a spare I leave in my locker, but it's pretty old and not all that comfortable."
Usually he couldn't stop thinking how damned cute she looked in her colorful uniforms. Brick hadn't lied; with her curves, she gave the shapeless cotton nursing scrubs a fetish edge.
But tonight, after what she'd been through, he could only think about protecting her.
"You want company?"
Her eyebrows lifted. "To change my clothes?"
"No." Yes. What the hell was he thinking? He shook his head. "Just to be there with you, I mean."
She watched him with big, dark eyes.
Jesus. "C'mon, Cinder. Give over. You have to be a little nervous. No one would blame you if you didn't want to be alone right now."
Dark lashes swept down to hide her eyes. "I'm not that fragile, Evan. Seriously. I'll be fine."
He didn't want to let her out of his sight, but he didn't know what to do about it. "All right, then, if you're sure."
She set down the half-empty Coke and walked off in haste. He heard her say to the others, "Be right back," and then, as if she was the Pied Piper, both the dog and the cat followed her out his door and across the hall to her own apartment.
Glad that she'd taken Doug along, but still with thoughts churning, Evan turned to microwave her food.
Jesse and Brick abandoned the TV and joined him in the kitchen. Jesse pulled out a chair, turned it around and straddled the seat. "She's shook up."
"I know." Evan scrubbed a hand over his face, wondering how many more bruises she had on her body, bruises hidden by her clothes. "But she'll be okay." Cinder was one of the strongest women he knew.
Brick, aptly named for his hardheaded attitude, cursed low. "Who could ever hurt a sweetheart like her?"
She was a sweetheart. Gentle, loving, happy and giving. He tensed even more.
Jesse eyed him. "Tonight might be the perfect time to make a move."
Rather than pretend he didn't understand, Evan gave him a killing glare. "She's hurt, you ass."
"I didn't say to molest her. Just let her know how you feel."
As long as they both accepted that she was off-limits, Evan could tolerate the ribbing. "I don't know."
Brick shook his head in mock pity. "He's usually not so chicken shit with women."
"He's just been timing things," Jesse said in Evan's defense. "Waiting for his opportunity to strike."
Bull. He'd "struck" several times, but Cinder wasn't reciprocating. The last thing he wanted to do was run her off by overstepping the boundaries she'd set, especially now that she was hurt and in need of a friend. "She's not exactly giving off signals, ya know."
Jesse looked taken aback, then said in an aside to Brick, "Yeah, maybe you're right. Total chicken shit."
Ignoring the continued insults, Evan checked the clock. How long before she returned? "If she ever seems willing, I'll be all over it."
"And by then," Brick said, "some other dude might've swept in and stolen the opportunity."
That idea got him pacing the tiny kitchen. What was taking so long?
"She is surrounded by doctors," Jesse pointed out. "You know, guys with pedigreed backgrounds and plenty of money to spend."
And he was an elementary math and gym teacherbut he knew Cinder didn't care about that. He checked the time again. "She doesn't even date, damn it."
"No," Jesse said, "she just hangs out herewith you."
"With all of us."
"For you" Brick stressed.
"Because Doug likes me. You know we pet sit for each other."
"Damn, brother, you're being so obtuse, it's embarrassing." Brick gave him a shove. "Pet sitting isn't the only thing on her mind."
Were they right? And if so, then why didn't Cinder show some interest?