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Whoa, thought Eric Warner. Who was that?
Whoever she was, he wanted her. Bad.
He froze, his hand poised to ring the bell of his friend Isabella Stevens's apartment in an old baby-blue gingerbread Victorian, and tried to decide what to do about the sexy woman walking up the sidewalk toward him.
Now was not the time for a hook-up with some random passing woman. He knew that. He'd just arrived here, in Cincinnati, to pick up Isabella, spend the night and take her to the Florida wedding of some of their college classmates in the morning. That was the only thing on his agenda for the weekend.
But damn. Look at her.
She was carrying a couple of plastic bags of groceries and walking a small dog on a leash. Short and lush, with healthy brown thighs and shapely calves rippling her fluttery flowered skirt, she wore one of those strappy tank tops that hugged every ample curve. Dark glasses covered a pretty face and sheets of sleek black hair skimmed her shoulders.
Bottom line: she was a knockout. World-class.
She worked it, too. There was a little extra strut in her step that was probably caused by whatever she was listening to on her iPod, and, seeing the sway of her hips, he thanked God for portable music. Her lips moved and she sang under her breath, in her own world and oblivious to Eric and his X-rated fascination with her mouth. Watching that supple body flow, he felt the curl of an electrifying knot deep in his belly.
Maybe she was a neighbor of Izzy's Maybe Izzy could introduce them No, he couldn't wait that long He should go ahead and introduce himself now No guts, no glory
Putting his overnight bag down, he moved to the edge of the porch, ready to charm, bribe or beg, whatever he had to do to get inside this delicious woman's panties at the earliest possible moment.
And that was when she saw him.
Her face broke into a wide, incredible, thrilled grin and something within the obviously malfunctioning gears of his brain lurched into place. Right before his disbelieving eyes the woman shape-shifted or morphed or something and became No, it couldn't be Yesyes it was Isabella.
Izzy. His best friend. The free spirit who'd been like a sister to him since the day he met her in college seventeen years ago. The woman he'd never ever lusted after.
Izzy, for God's sake.
With a sickening twist in his gut, all his erotic fantasies burned red-hot and incinerated in a pretty good impression of a satellite reentering the Earth's atmosphere, but the mistake wasn't entirely his fault. She'd lost weight. That was it. And her hair was different. Longer and straighter or something. And he hadn't seen her in almost a year. He wasn't a complete lunatic.
"Eric!" Izzy ripped the buds from her ears and ran the last several steps up the walk to him. "You're early."
That one lame syllable was all he could manage because this whole scene was way too freaky. His mouth flapped open and closed like a door on a well-oiled hinge, but words continued to fail him. Think, man, THINK. He tried again, but this second attempt at coherent speech produced only a strange gurgle from somewhere in his throat.
Luckily Izzy didn't seem to notice. With a squeal of excitement, she dropped her bags and launched herself at him in a blur of thrilled dimples and white teeth.
It was the wrong time to touch her, but that didn't stop Eric from opening his eager arms, catching her and pulling her as close as humanly possible without snapping her ribs like toothpicks. Her chin hooked over his shoulder, and suddenly she was everything wonderful and familiarthe friend he knew and loved, same as always.
And yet that alarming new sexual awareness was still there, too. He shoved it aside, hard, and tried to ignore it.
God, she felt good.
A shudder rippled through him, and he wallowed in the rightnessso strong it bordered on perfectionof holding Isabella. It was only now, at this moment of touching her again, that he realized how much he'd missed her since he last saw her. His work travel had tripled, but that was no excuse. Almost a year was way too long to go without seeing her, and he swore to himself he wouldn't let so much time pass between visits in the future.
Her wonderful light smellshe always reminded him of water, sunshine and airwashed over him, and the craziest thought ran through his mind:
It's good to be home.
He clung, sinking his restless fingers deep into her gleaming hair and reveling in the feel of her lush breasts against his chest. Never in seventeen years had he noticed Izzy's breasts, but whoa, boythere was no ignoring them now.
His conscience, which was slow but still functional, finally intruded.
This was wrong. Touching Izzy while thinking sexy thoughts about her was wrong, wrong, WRONG, and he was going to stop. Right now.
Well, not right now, obviously, but soon Pretty soon. Eventually.
But he didn't stop. Against all standards of decency and common sense, he tightened his hold on that supple body and wanted more. Wanted her with a ferocity that bordered on physical pain.
At last she pulled back. Eric, feeling bereft, peeled himself away and slowly slid his hands down the warm silk of her bare arms. Afraid to say anything at this strange new moment and give away his insanity, which he devoutly hoped was only temporary, he watched as she rummaged in her purse for her keys.
A hard knot lodged in his throat and he tried to swallow it down.
He would not lust after, long for Isabella and ruin the single most important friendship he'd ever had.
Distraction came in the form of the Yorkie, who yapped and bounced around Eric's legs, apparently of the opinion that he could leap into his arms if he jumped high enough.
Eric's dry mouth finally worked. "Hey, Zeus. Look at you, buddy."
The fur around his little black face had been trimmed since he saw him last, and he looked like a soulful-eyed teddy bear with brown muzzle and eyebrows. Flustered and grateful to have something to do with his hands other than grope his best friend, Eric stooped to catch the dog, who was wearing a tiny Cincinnati Reds tee with the number 00 on it, hooked him under his arm like a football, and rubbed his soft little head. Zeus squirmed and smiled his tongue-dangling smile at him.
Eric scratched behind Zeus's ears and grinned at Izzy. "He's a monster. Have you been feeding him raw steak?"
Isabella beamed with motherly pride. "He's six pounds now. You didn't think he'd stay a puppy forever, did you?"
"I should've kept him for myself." Eric lowered Zeus to the porch, where the dog danced on his tiny brown paws, his entire body wriggling with excitement.
"Don't even try it." Izzy continued to root through her enormous purse. "You gave him to me. Best birthday present I ever got."
"I know. So did they kick you out of the office?"
The reminder of the place made Eric snort as he picked up his bag. His elegant office was beginning to take on the rough outline of a prison every time he thought about it. "Nah. It was time to call it a day."
"What's up with the suit?" Smiling, she gave him a pointed once over. "Who drives for an hour and a half in the car wearing a suit?"
Staring down at his starched-but-rumpled white shirt, Eric felt a little sheepish now that she pointed out the obvious. Since he didn't want to tell her he'd been so anxious to see her he hadn't even thought of taking the time to change before he left Columbus, he decided to ignore the question altogether.
"What's up with you?" he asked instead. "You can't return phone calls anymore? What's with the silent treatment?"
This was a sore spot with him, one he intended to address immediately. Her phone calls and text messages had tapered off to next to nothing in the last month or so, and the few messages she did send had gotten a little cryptic. The upshot was that he was now officially worried.
His protective gene, which was dormant when it came to other women, kicked into hyperdrive with Izzy. Always had.
What was bothering her? School was out for the summer, so he knew it couldn't be one of her little kindergartners giving her a hard time learning his or her ABCs. Money, on the other hand, was always a potential issue. She didn't make much and wasn't exactly Alan Greenspan when it came to managing it. Or it could behe swallowed hardboyfriend trouble.
This last idea, for some reason, made him feel like smashing something to smithereens, running over it a time or two with a steamroller, and then incinerating it with a flamethrower.
"Well?" he demanded.
"Sorry," she muttered. "It's been a busy month."
Busy? This was her explanation for not keeping in touch with him? Was she for real? She'd have to do a hell of a lot better than that if she wanted to get back in his good graces.
"How's that?" he snapped.
His tone must have been rougher than he intended, because her head jerked up and she gave him an exaggerated pout. "Uh-oh. Someone's being a grouchy puss today."
He flashed her a dark look because his equilibrium still hadn't quite returned to normal, and he was in no mood for teasing. But she scrunched her face up into a purse-lipped glower, and he had to laugh.
"I don't look like that," he told her.
"Yes, you do. Is this about the Hong Kong deal? Did it close?"
"That's wonderful. Congratulations. Another triumph for the CEO of WarnerBrands, eh?"
Eric grunted, feeling unaccountably surly. "Yeah, well, I've been trained for this since birth, haven't I?"
Izzy's genuine delight for his accomplishments big and small had always been one of the best things about her. But now it sort of pissed him off.
Opening a Hong Kong branch of his family's multi-billion dollar clothing company, as she well knew, involved his spending large amounts of time in China during the next few months. Was she that anxious for him to be thousands of miles away? They barely saw each other now, and they only lived ninety miles apart. How would things be with him spending half his time overseas? Had she thought of that?
Yanking her jangling keys out of her purse at last, she eyed him with concern. "Let's get you upstairs. You're wound tighter than a top."
This was a lie, but he wasn't about to confess that his real problem was that he suddenly wanted to do things with her that were still illegal in some states.
The second her back was turned to open the door, he swiped his suddenly sweaty brow, and followed her inside and up the narrow staircase leading to her apartment.
At the threshold, he paused.
Wait, said a little voice deep inside his head. Wait.
Eric hesitated while his thoughts coalesced into something vague but disturbing. With sudden clarity he knew that if he went into that apartment now, with Isabella, something irrevocable would happen. He couldn't think what, only that it would happen, and whatever it was would be huge.
The simultaneous certainty and uncertainty froze him in his tracks, but after a second or two of this foolishness, he gave himself a hard mental smack. What the hell was wrong with him today? Get a grip, Warner.
Shaking his head, he stepped into Izzy's huge, high-ceilinged living room in time to see her walk to the kitchen and put the groceries on the enormous center island.
"Beer?" she asked over her shoulder.
Yeah, he wanted a beer all right. He wanted a beer, and then he wanted a full psych eval so he could figure out who'd messed with the settings on his brain. What'd gotten into him? Checking out an attractive woman was one thinghell, everyone did thatbut his fierce new physical reaction to Isabella, well, that was just sick. Sick.
"Thanks for driving to Jacksonville with me," she told him. "I couldn't afford plane tickets and the hotel."
"I'd've been happy to" he began.
"I know you would have, Daddy Warbucks, but I didn't want you to."
"I've known mules less stubborn than you." he muttered. "Why couldn't we have just taken the Lear? I get to use the Lear, you know. Comes with the job."
Izzy snorted. "What's the carbon footprint on flying that baby to Florida and back just for the two of us?"
Eric rolled his eyes and kept quiet. It was hard to get a decadent lifestyle going with Isabella hanging around all the time, acting as his social conscience.
Taking the glass she poured for him, he wandered into the living-room half of the enormous space, sank onto the comfy, overstuffed tan sofa, adjusted a couple of pillows behind his back and heaved a long, contented sigh.
Thank God he was finally here.
Isabella had the best apartment in the world, all lightness and air, and a perfect reflection of her eclectic personality. Tall ceilings, huge windows on three sides that always seemed to catch the sun, and lots of cozy chairs with pretty little pillows and throws tossed over the arms. But there were also several carved animal statues, a handful of Oriental figurines and an African mask or two.
A giant red pot of tall pussy willows sat on the hearth, with more pots and candles on the mantle. Bookshelves overflowing with a little bit of everything, including romance novels, Stephen King books and more mysteries that he could ever count sandwiched the fireplace. Wait, was there a new section? He squinted at the titles. There wasa whole shelf lined with books like Speaking Your Dog's Secret Language and Be the Leader of Your Pack! Eric chuckled.
Sipping the rich, vaguely sweet lager she always kept around for him, he relaxed another thirty percent and wondered idly if a man could come from the sheer pleasure of drinking an icy beer at the end of a long day. But then she sat right next to him, tucked her legs under her, took her sunglasses off and gave Eric a good look at her smiling face up close.
That was when the trouble really began.
She'd always been attractive, of coursenothing new there. A thousand years ago, at Princeton's freshman orientation, he'd met her, registered her attractiveness and put her firmly in the adorable category, thereby removing her from the list of "women he wanted to have sex with" and putting her into the category of "women he could be friends with."
Over the years, his friendship with Izzy had become too central to his existencetoo vitalto ever risk screwing it up by making it sexual, not that he'd ever entertained sexy thoughts about her.
Izzy had always stayed fun and cute, and life as he'd known it had sailed along problem-free. Today, however, there was a problema big problemand she was causing it. She wasn't showing him much cute. About zero percent, actually, compared to about a thousand percent sexy, and he didn't like it.