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The Harder They Fall
By Jill Shalvis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Jill Shalvis
All rights reserved.
"Only you, Aunt Eloise, could haunt me from the dead." Hunter sighed and reread the note he'd gotten from his great-aunt's attorney. The lighthearted tone of the note sounded so like Eloise had in life, he had to smile. But the amusement drained as the implications of the message sank in.
Well, I'm finally dead, she wrote. And while you might be breathing a sigh of relief, it's a little premature. We rarely saw eye to eye; me, an old woman intent on love and laughter, and you intent on little else but your work. Yet I always knew you loved me. It showed every time you had to save me from some financial scheme or another. I owe you so much money, I lost track long ago.
"There's a surprise," Hunter muttered.
And I know, even grumbling as you no doubt are, you'd never let me pay you back anyway. So I'm leaving you my place.
Hunter blanched. "No. Not the duplex."
I love that place, as you know. Yes, yes, as cosmetic value goes, it needs a tad of work.
Hunter shook his head and snorted.
But if I'd left it to your mother, we both know she'd have sold it and blown all the proceeds within a week. I know this is an unwanted burden and an imposition for someone who has been nothing but kind to me, but please, Hunter, if you do nothing else, concentrate on something other than your work for a time. It'll be good for you. Take care, Hunter, and remember, mad as you are right now, I love you with all my heart.
Her signature was the same as always, wide and bold. Great-Aunt Eloise.
Hunter looked up and stared in displeasure at the rambling, creaking duplex he'd just inherited. The old pile, although charming with its chipped brick front and white-paned windows, looked as if it was on its last legs. Shutters hung crookedly on both levels. Paint peeled off in massive chunks.
A mess, he decided, and he most definitely did not like messes. Any one of his lab techs, whom he regularly terrorized without meaning to, would attest to that.
Someone in the upstairs apartment had a stereo blaring out country blues, rattling the already rattled-looking windows. Probably the same someone singing off-key, loudly.
Because he knew the bottom apartment was empty, he let himself in. Large, airy rooms. Perfect size, very imperfect condition. Sneezing, he shook his head. Dust covered everything, including the various pieces of furniture his aunt had left. Art Deco mixed with cheap antique reproductions. Hunter shuddered.
What would he do with such a place? Demolition seemed appropriate. Yet he couldn't stay forever in the small hotel NASA had provided. But a house would only remind him, cruelly, of his own failings, and of a pain much better buried in his past. His dear, sweet aunt had meant well by leaving him this place, but he couldn't possibly keep it.
Two bathrooms. And after all the tea he'd consumed at the luncheon, it couldn't hurt to check the plumbing. He hated those obligatory events, designed for the sole purpose of charming rich women out of their money, all in the name of research. But much as he disliked them, he always attended. As head of his department he had no choice, plus he had the dubious honor of being called the Devil of the entire floor.
In other words, he could charm the last penny out of a miser, especially when the goal was to fund his research.
Upstairs, the country music still rocked the building, disturbing his thoughts. At least the singing had stopped. But he'd no sooner stepped into a bathroom and unzipped than a creak had him glancing up. Above him, the ceiling panel lifted and two curious brown eyes peered down at him.
Indignation left him stunned, just for a second. Then the panel groaned warningly, and even he knew what that meant. Before he could react, a shrieking, laughing female landed on him, hitting him square in the chest.
Instinctively, he caught her, then tightened his tenuous hold. "What the—"
"Oh, my!" the wriggling mass of woman exclaimed, pushing hair from her face. She blinked up at him. "Oh, my."
Hunter considered himself a calm man, rational and even-tempered at all times. He had nerves of steel, courtesy of years of researching, preparing, and flying experiments on NASA missions most people didn't even know existed. But nothing about him felt particularly calm and rational now, not when he stood before a toilet with his pants unzipped, holding a woman he didn't know. Turning, he unceremoniously dumped her on the hideous black-and-white-checkered linoleum. From above, Hank Williams continued to croon at an ear-shattering decibel level.
The woman let out another startled little laugh and straightened, turning toward him with wide eyes. "Oh, my goodness."
Her vocabulary certainly wasn't anything to remark on, but her manners were. He opened his mouth but nothing came out except his own hot breath, so he closed it again, positively speechless.
It didn't matter, she apparently didn't have the same problem.
"Oh, no," she cried, brushing white plaster dust off her short, tight black vinyl skirt. "Look ... I got this all dirty. They'll never take it back now." Sighing dramatically, she looked at him. "I run a boutique, you see. And I just got this great shipment, but I don't think this works, not really. Now, maybe if it were red ..." She bit her lip, deciding, while Hunter just stood there, flabbergasted. "No, not even if it were red," she decided.
"Who are you?" he managed to say.
Smiling, she stuck out a hand. "Trisha Malloy. I live upstairs. Did you just rent this place?"
"Not exactly." He tipped his head back. Yep, the hole was still there, gaping. She'd definitely fallen out of there. "Do you always spy on people when they're in the bathroom?"
"Oh, no!" she assured him, putting her hands over her chest for emphasis. White dust on her hands, probably more plaster dust, left imprints on the leopard-print crop top she wore. "It's just that I didn't expect anyone. This apartment's been empty for some time. Wow. I guess that leak we had in the last rain left the floor more unstable than I thought." She studied the hole. "There used to be a teeny, tiny, little hole I could peek through. I just wanted to be sure you weren't an intruder." Then she looked him up and down. "But you wouldn't be, not all dressed up like that."
That this woman talking to him had large, melting brown eyes and long brown hair the color of a doe's, on a face meant for an artist's canvas, all attached to a nifty little compact body that could tempt the gods meant nothing. She was insane.
"I'm so glad the place finally got rented. Poor Eloise," the woman said. "I miss her. She was worried her nephew would let her down and sell the house. Told me he was a stuffy scientist."
Space scientist, he thought wearily. Not stuffy.
"And that he worked in NASA, hiding himself from life in some laboratory, studying Mars, of all things. Mars," she repeated with disdainful emphasis. "But she wanted him to take this place and learn to enjoy life."
Enjoy life. He felt no need to explain that he'd lived wild and out of control his entire childhood, thanks to his equally wild and out-of-control parents, and planned never to do it again.
Now the crazy lady smiled, and it was a dazzler. "Everyone should do that," she said. "Enjoy themselves. Don't you think?"
Hunter could only stare. The woman plucked at the provocative top that hugged her every curve, bobbing her head gently to the beat of the music, which was beginning to give him a headache.
"You know," she said, looking down, "this isn't right for me either."
Lacking anything to say that would make much sense, Hunter's gaze followed her movements, and stuck like glue to her breasts. Amazingly, he felt the stir of something he didn't often experience—pure lust.
"I'm afraid that entire shipment is going to have to be returned," she said ruefully, still looking down at herself in that incredibly tight skirt. "Ugh, it's awfully snug on these hips of mine."
Her hips were perfect, and curved just right on top of surprisingly long legs. Hunter dragged his gaze up to meet hers, shocked at how he'd reacted to this strange woman who'd just fallen on him out of nowhere.
"It's a shame," she said sadly. "All that freighting cost, but I just can't, in good conscience, sell something I don't believe in." Again that stunning smile, the one that had Hunter's stomach tightening. "So ... what's your name?"
Finally, he found his voice. "I'm the stuffy—er, space scientist. Dr. Hunter Adams."
"Eloise's nephew?" Her smile never faltered. "Well, Dr. Space Scientist, I'm proud of you, you didn't sell."
She looked immensely relieved, so much so that he almost felt guilty as he muttered, "I still might."
"Oh." The joy just disappeared from her face. "I see." Quietly, with surprising dignity, she moved to the door. "Well, then. I can only hope you'll change your mind."
Too many broken promises in Hunter's past had left him with a major distaste for making any more. He never made promises. Never, but he was fair to a fault. "I'm sorry. But if you have to move, I can assure you I'll give you plenty of notice."
Those red lips curved, but her eyes still looked sad. "I won't be moving, Dr. Adams."
"No?" Her confidence irked him. So did the way the hands on her hips emphasized their lushness trapped in black vinyl. "You will if I sell."
"No, I won't," she said sweetly but firmly. "Eloise gave me a lifetime lease."
He sputtered, actually sputtered. He'd given speeches to entire governments, his staff numbered in the hundreds. He'd been in space three times. Yet this woman tied up his tongue with just a look. It was humiliating.
So, he realized after the enigmatic woman had spun and left, was the fact that the entire time he'd stood talking to her, his zipper had been down.
A day later Trisha sat in the middle of her living-room floor, muddling through her bookkeeping for Leather and Lace. At her feet were three boxes of her latest shipment from New York that she still had to go through and approve. Rock music blared from her stereo, an attempt on her part to lighten the unavoidable "paying bills" mood.
"For someone who sells underwear," she muttered to Duff, the black cat who lay sprawled over her spreadsheets, "I sure do generate a lot of paperwork."
Duff actually summoned enough energy to lift his head and look at her.
"I know, I know." She stroked Duff's sleek fur. "It's a living." Now she grinned, a little wickedly. "And such a fun one." Raised by her military uncle and church-crazed aunt, fun hadn't been in her vocabulary until all too recently. "If only Aunt Hilda could see me now."
Duff seemed to match her grin, and Trisha laughed. "Can you imagine the look on that saintly woman's face at the thought of her poor, orphaned niece selling lingerie? She'd have sprayed me with holy water and prayed for my soul for a month."
Well, she wasn't a frightened little mouse anymore, Trisha reminded herself. Living life to its fullest was her only goal—difficult as that creed might be. Letting loose with things such as her wardrobe didn't come easy after years of being repressed. It didn't come easy to remember she was free to think and feel what she wanted. But she would do it. She would create a full life for herself, and she would enjoy it.
Duff yawned and stretched, scattering a couple of invoices. Tired of working and worrying about money, Trisha lay back on the floor. She stretched, too, staring at the high-beamed ceiling, the plaster-coated brick walls. For a place nearly a century old, it was in remarkable shape. And she loved it beyond reason.
Maybe because she'd been forced to move nearly every year of her life while growing up. Maybe because she'd never been allowed to put down roots. It could have been a lot of things she wasn't willing to think about now—whatever the reason, she didn't ever want to leave.
But now she might have to.
For the first time all day Trisha allowed herself to think of the death of her landlord. Sadness filled her, as did the self-pity she'd managed to keep at bay.
Selfish as it was, Trisha had to face the bitter fact—Eloise's death might mean the end of her time in the place where she'd been the happiest since ... ever. Sitting up, she pulled the closest box toward her and opened it.
Red silk and satin spilled out as she held up a gorgeous teddy, trimmed in delicate lace. Perfect for Leather and Lace. Perfect for her customers, all with someone to please. She forced her chin up. Just because she didn't have someone special in her life didn't mean she couldn't appreciate pretty things. Besides, she didn't want someone in her life. Freedom. That's what she wanted.
Duff, sensing her somber mood, climbed into her lap and pressed his head into her palm. Obliging, she scratched behind his ears, smiling a little when he started that rumbling purr she loved so much. Silly, she told herself, that a woman of twenty-five could feel her life had just begun, but it was true. Because of that, she had to live each moment to its fullest.
And now Hunter Adams wanted to change all that, force her to move once again. Just the thought had her unreasonably panicked. He had not been what she expected, not at all. A stuffy scientist, Eloise had told her, which had conjured up pictures of an old, graying man. But he'd been nothing like that. Young, built, with a powerful grace that spoke of great physical conditioning, but definitely not old or graying.
A sharp rap on the door had her lifting her head in surprise. No, she thought, rising from the floor to face the man she'd been thinking of, Hunter Adams was nothing like what she'd expected.
Briefly, she wished she'd changed after her workout, or had at least pulled on a sweatshirt over the revealing aerobic outfit she wore. Then she reminded herself that she no longer cared what people thought of her.
"Hello." He had to shout over the music, and he didn't look too happy about it. His elegant attire—dark silk dress shirt and perfectly draped matching trousers—which she was sure he'd consider casual, only succeeded in making him all the more masculine. So did that sun-kissed blond hair and serious expression that highlighted patrician, yet rugged features. Those clear green eyes narrowed in annoyance as the music shifted, speeding up in beat and increasing in volume, but he said nothing, just placed his hands on his hips and waited.
Ah, a man used to being in charge. This was likely to get good. Amused, Trisha moved to the stereo, complying with his silent demand. Okay, maybe the scientist could be a little stuffy, a little overbearing, if one let him. She could only imagine how he terrified his peers, but not her. Nope, never again would she let herself be terrified or intimidated by anyone.
Besides, it was hard to be intimidated by a man she'd seen with his pants unzipped.
As the music lowered in decibel level, so did his eyebrows. "How can you think with it so loud?"
"I can think just fine." Crossing her arms, she watched as Duff stepped over her scattered papers and books to check out the new stranger. Without hesitation, the purring cat rubbed his head and body around Hunter's legs, and a cloud of black cat hair rose.
Trisha bit her lip and kept her eyes on Hunter's, hoping he wouldn't notice. No such luck.
"Your cat sheds."
The disapproval was apparent and Trisha's amusement abruptly faded. She'd had enough disapproval to last a lifetime. Besides, any man who didn't like cats, no matter how devastatingly handsome, didn't belong in her apartment. "Was there something I could help you with?"
At her chilly tone, he glanced at her, something in his eyes catching her attention. Not humor, it couldn't be, not in Dr. Hunter Adams's eyes. Yet there it was.
Bending in one easy motion, he scooped up the cat, folded his arms around his considerable body, and scratched Duff behind the ears in his exact favorite spot.
She could hear Duff's purr from across the room, and despite herself, Trisha melted on the spot.
"Planning on dropping through any ceilings today?" he asked evenly.
She'd never been one to hold a grudge, especially with a man who could charm her cat and laugh at himself. "Not today, no. What brings you out here?" A suspicion gripped her, seized her gut. "You're not here with a 'For Sale' sign, are you?"
Excerpted from The Harder They Fall by Jill Shalvis. Copyright © 1998 Jill Shalvis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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