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By Jennifer Crusie
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen Tess Newhart threw open her apartment door, Nick Jamieson was standing there - tall, dark, successful and suspiciously happy to see her, his pleasantly blunt face a nice human contrast to his perfectly tailored suit. She stared at him warily, fighting down the ridiculous jolt of relief, happiness, and lust that welled up in her just because he was back.
Then he threw his arms wide to hug her.
"Tess!" he said, beaming at her. "You look great!"
Tess looked down at her sagging, bleach-splotched sweats. So much for relief, happiness and lust. She rolled her eyes at him, all her suspicions confirmed. "Right." She slammed the door in his face and shot home both dead bolts.
"Aw, come on, Tess," Nick called through the door. "It's been a month. Actually it's been a month, a week and two days, but who's counting? All right, I'm counting. I miss you. I keep calling but you won't call me back. Is that fair? I think we should talk about this."
"I don't," Tess said firmly to the door, but she ran her fingers through her short red curls. If Nick hadn't had such a large streak of calculating rat running through him, he would have been just what she needed at the moment, instead of the last thing she needed. But there was that streak of rat, and if he was at her door being charming it was because he wanted something. And the something probably wasn't her. It was something to do with money, promotion, status or all of the above. She shook her head and turned back to cross the threadbare gray carpet to her chair and her conversation.
"Who's the wise guy? Your landlord?" Gina DeCosta sprawled on Tess's lumpy couch, her unruly black hair falling into her eyes, her small body lost in a huge black T-shirt, and her legs wrapped in black leggings as tight as Ace bandages. She stretched out tentatively and winced.
"Worse." Tess flopped down into her decrepit armchair, which groaned under her weight, and slung her long legs over the side. "You know, every time I think my life has hit bottom, somebody lowers the bottom."
Nick pounded on the door. "Come on, Tess. Open up."
"Who is that guy?" Gina said.
"Nick, but I don't want to talk about it. Between him and my landlord, I may never open that door again." Tess patted her lap, and a huge black cat jumped into her arms, reclaiming the territory she'd lost when Tess had gone to answer the door. "Sorry, Angela," Tess murmured to the cat.
"Tess?" Nick called. "Come on. Let's be adult about this. Or you can be adult and I'll fake it. Tess?"
Gina frowned at the door. "Why are you ducking Nick?"
"Well." Tess thought for a minute. "It's like this." She stood up, dumping the cat off her lap again.
"I answered the door and he said -" she flung her arms wide and beamed a toothpaste smile at Gina "- Tess, you look great!"
Gina looked at Tess's sweats. "Uh-oh."
"Exactly." Tess flopped back into her chair. "You know, every time I see Nick, my mind looks at him and says, 'Yes, he's fun, but he's also a power-hungry rat, so stay away from him,' and then my body looks at him and says, 'Hello, gorgeous, come to Mama."' She shook her head. "I have to have a long talk with my body."
Gina looked at the sweats again. "I don't think it's gonna listen to you. If you dressed me like that, I wouldn't listen to you."
"Forget the clothes," Tess said. "You're starting to sound like Nick."
"Okay. New topic. Why are you waiting for your landlord?"
"I reported him to the housing commission." Tess smiled, cheered up by the thought.
"Well, that was unfriendly," Gina said. "What did he do?"
"It's what he didn't do." Tess shifted in her chair as she warmed to the story of her landlord's crimes.
"Three apartments in this building have been vandalized in the past two months, and Ray won't even fix the lock on the hall door. Anybody can walk in here. Somebody had to do something." She grinned at Gina. "And, I thought, who better than me?"
"Tess?" Nick called again. "It's not safe out here. If I get mugged because you're playing hard to get, you'll never forgive yourself."
Both women turned to look at the door, and then Gina looked at Tess. Tess shrugged.
"Okay," Gina said, abandoning the subject of Nick. "So you did something. That's no big surprise. I'm just amazed you did something as calm as reporting him."
"Well, I thought about organizing a candlelightvigil protest march," Tess said, starting to grin again.
"I thought all the tenants could light candles and march on Ray's condominium, but this place is such a firetrap I knew we'd never make it to the front door alive, so then I thought about using Bic lighters, instead, but that made me think of Stanley across the hall."
"You've never seen Stanley?" Tess's grin widened. "Stanley always wears the same T-shirt and it doesn't cover his tummy, and Stanley's tummy is not attractive. In fact, Stanley's stomach is the only one I've ever seen with a five-o'clock shadow." She frowned at Gina. "Do you suppose he shaves it?"
Gina made a face. "That's gross."
"I think so, too, which is why I couldn't picture Stanley with a Bic. A torch, yes. A Bic, no." Tess smiled again. "But then I thought, why not give Stanley a pitchfork and put him at the head of the march?" She stopped to visualize it. "You know, there's a lot of Quasimodo in Stanley."
"Come on, Tess, cut me a break here," Nick called. "I came back to apologize. Doesn't that count for something?"
Gina raised an eyebrow at Tess, but Tess shook her head, so Gina returned to Stanley. "I don't think Quasimodo had a pitchfork," she said. "He didn't in the movie."
"Anyway, I finally had to get serious before somebody around here got hurt," Tess said. "So I acted like an adult and filed the report."
"Good choice," Gina said. "Getting arrested for pitchforking Ray the landlord would probably have been bad for your career."
"Well, actually my career is sort of dead right now." Tess slumped down in her chair. "I wasn't going to tell you since this is your first night back from the tour and I was looking forward to one night without trauma, but ... I lost my job."
"Oh, no." Gina sat up, her face bleak with sympathy and concern. "What happened?"
"Don't panic," Tess said from the depths of her chair. "I have a plan."
"Sure you do," Gina said. "What happened?"
"Funding cuts. The education governor we elected decided that supporting private-tutoring foundations wasn't educational. So now the Foundation is going to have to only use volunteers. Eventually the whole place may go."
Excerpted from Strange Bedpersons by Jennifer Crusie Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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