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The Three-Week Arrangement
A Chase Brothers Story
By Sarah Ballance, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Sarah Ballance
All rights reserved.
Not many women were able to capture Ethan Chase's attention nowadays — a likely side effect of losing the one he'd loved more than life itself. But in the blink of a minute, that changed. And it wasn't hard to figure out why. The distraction in question was kicking the crap out of a vintage, cherry-red Mustang.
Ethan winced. He wasn't a car guy, but he knew a '66 classic when he saw one. He didn't imagine many people who owned one so painstakingly restored would resort to kicking it, but hell, this was New York City, where anything could happen ... and usually did.
He didn't realize he'd stopped in his tracks until she turned to look at him.
"I locked my keys in my car," she said, and what should have been a simple statement of fact sounded far too much like she expected him to care.
He hadn't asked. He didn't want to be involved. He'd only wanted to walk down his old street in Flatbush like he did every year on the anniversary of his wife's death, past the house they'd once shared. This year, there'd been kids running around the place, a dog in the mix. Their obvious joy had pierced the darkness a little but with the burst of light, an unexpected shadow had grown. Those could have been his and Amy's kids, but that dream had died with her. He was more accepting of that now — especially when he wasn't standing on his old stretch of sidewalk, peering uselessly into his past — but he wasn't ready to let go of the quiet reflection that had crept up on him.
The car-kicking brunette didn't seem entirely concerned with his lack of a response. To the absolute contrary, she persisted. "I don't suppose you know how to break into a car, do you?"
Her voice was unexpectedly soft. She had a trace of an accent he couldn't place — something definitely not from New York. Maybe Southern, though not entrenched there. "Don't you have roadside service?" Ethan asked, desperately hoping to steer clear of her situation. What was he supposed to do? Break a window? As an afterthought, he really started to hope there wasn't a husband or boyfriend who expected to come home to find that car in one piece. Assaulting a tire was one thing, shattering glass another.
She pursed her lips and tilted her head, sunlight glinting from her glossy hair. The sections fell in varying, choppy lengths — probably one of those five-hundred-dollar haircuts a toddler could accomplish for free — but it suited her. "Sure, I have roadside assistance," she said. "The phone number is on my insurance card, locked in the car. Of course, I could look it up on my phone, but that's also locked in my car. And my computer is locked in my house."
"At least you're thorough," Ethan said. He wasn't prepared for her smile or the way it broke through the clouds that surrounded him despite the beauty of the day. He shouldn't have noticed anything so personal about this woman at all — not now. Not when he should have been thinking about his wife. Now he felt like a jerk.
A jerk with his breath stolen.
Fortunately, the woman didn't seem to notice his gawking. Her soft, full lips pursed in irritation, but not even that could take away from her striking beauty. He didn't see a hint of makeup on her flawless face, and between that and her unusual hair, she was at once wholesome and wild. Sunglasses hid her eyes, but he felt her gaze, and he definitely noticed when a slow smile traced her lips.
But he shouldn't have. The smell of fresh-cut grass drifting from someone's postage-stamp lawn teased his senses, reminding him of when he'd had a lawn to mow and a wife to love. He wondered if Amy would have ever kicked a tire out of frustration and decided probably not. She was the calmest, least excitable person he'd ever met. Not even her cancer diagnosis had riled her. She'd just smiled and assured him everything would be okay, even at the end when they both knew it wouldn't. She hadn't let him grieve with her. Maybe that was why he still couldn't quite let go.
Maybe that was why he apparently looked like a guy who'd break into a car.
The tire-kicker slipped off her sunglasses and studied him with amusement. Bright blue eyes danced, a striking contrast to her dark brown hair. The color combination seemed impossible, and the cynic in him wondered which of the two had come from a store.
"You look like you know your way around a vehicle," she said. "Think you can help me out?"
Ethan looked down, wondering what led her to that conclusion. Couldn't be his clean white tee or his unscuffed shoes.
"By the way," she said. "I'm Rue Campbell."
Great. Now they were making introductions. He glanced regretfully down the street in the direction from which he'd come. Just five yards back, his life had been routine. Like that was worth anything. But at least he was handling it, whereas he had no desire to handle whatever was going on here. Nevertheless, he summoned his manners. "Ethan Chase."
"Nice to know you, Ethan Chase," Rue said brightly. Way too much so for someone who was locked out of everything she owned. "While you work on that door, I'm going to see if I can get in the house through a window or something. Be gentle with her, okay?"
Before he realized the her in question was the Mustang — the one she'd not-so-gently kicked — Rue had crossed the small yard and stepped into the flower bed that occupied the twelve inches between her house and the narrow drive that separated hers from the place next door. With her back to him, he took a moment to appreciate her curve-hugging dress — more classic than trendy, and practically pinning her knees together to create a vintage hour-glass shape. She made quite a sight, standing so matter-of-factly with her high heels wedged in a heap of Black-eyed Susans as she tugged on a window sash. It didn't appear to want to budge. Apparently resigned to the same conclusion, she rounded the back corner of the house, seemingly unconcerned that she'd left behind a total stranger with orders to break into her car.
Damned if he wasn't intrigued.
But not misdemeanor intrigued.
As much as he wanted to avoid the possibility of an angry boyfriend or criminal charges, he figured he could at least let her use his cell phone to call her auto service — surely she at least knew who her insurer was, and they could look it up from there — so instead of taking off, he waited. Hoping to be useful, he walked around the car, trying the passenger door just in case it was unlocked. It wasn't, so he returned to the driver side. The window was cracked about three inches — too small for his arm, but the coat hanger trick might work. Not that he had one on him. Maybe she could borrow one from a neighbor.
He glanced toward the house, but with no sign of Rue and no desire to come across as a creeper, he uselessly toyed with the door handle.
And for his trouble was promptly hit in the face with a blast of ice-cold water.
He was drenched in a split second, and the source of the water didn't relent, though an angry voice broke through.
"... and how dare you try to take advantage of that nice young woman? Get your goddamned hands off her car, you son of a bitch!"
He couldn't see a thing, since the blast aimed directly at his face followed him as he tried to dart out of its way. His attempt at a protest led to a mouthful of bitingly cold water. The idea to duck behind the car came about thirty miserable seconds too late. But once he had taken shelter, it allowed him to discern through the dripping car windows that the source of the onslaught was a water hose in the hands of a little old woman whose language would have stopped a sailor in his tracks. Though his vision was still bleary from the assault, he caught the fact that she was slight. Apron-wearing. He would have taken her for someone who fed strays and baked cookies had she not been cursing and trying to kill him with water.
"Wait!" Ethan sputtered. "She asked me to help her!"
He poked his head above the Mustang and then straightened, hands up in an attempt to sell his harmlessness, only to have the next blast slap him in the eye.
Screw this day. Twice.
"Mrs. Angelo!" Rue's voice cut through the chaos. "Stop!"
The stinging water softened, then ceased, leaving him dripping. And cold. Ethan blinked the water from his lashes. The tiny old woman stood glaring at him, gripping the hose nozzle like it was a pistol. She looked back and forth between him and Rue.
"It's okay," Rue said again, her face aghast. "I locked my keys in my car, but I found an open window." She held up a key. "He was only trying to break into my car because I asked him to. I needed his help." She ended on a shaky note, her gaze darting between him and his assailant.
Ethan stared, unsure how she'd managed to get through a window in that dress. Then he noticed the heels were gone, and her toenails were the same shade of pink as her lips, the former accessorized in white polka dots, the latter tense with horror.
He realized he was staring and shifted his gaze to the old woman. "So if you could just lower your weapon?"
"You shouldn't be entertaining like this," Mrs. Angelo said to Rue, ignoring Ethan. "Pretty single girl like you ought to be looking for a nice young man." Mrs. Angelo's eyes cut to Ethan, suggesting he didn't fit the bill. Probably not. He didn't know if twenty-eight counted as young — though it probably did to the old woman — but there wasn't much nice about him. Not since he lost his wife. All three of his brothers had a dedicated habit of informing him that he'd jumped in the grave after Amy, and maybe they weren't entirely wrong. He was too jaded to be nice.
"Well, Mrs. Angelo, I can't do anything about being single if I don't entertain a gentleman or two, now can I? So if you'll excuse us ..." Rue smiled sweetly as she approached Ethan, turning her back on her neighbor to whisper to him, "I am so sorry. Come inside, and let's get you dried off."
"I'm fine," he protested. But she'd already slipped her arm through his and was tugging him in the direction of the house. He was too stunned by the contact to do anything but follow, at least until they got to the porch. When she went for the front door, he untangled from her grip and took a step back. "I appreciate the ... hospitality, really, but I'm fine, and you don't even know me. Not a good idea to bring me into your house."
"If you were someone I needed to worry about, you wouldn't be trying to get away from me." Mischief danced in what he'd decided were the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. "You were soaked because of me. The least I can do is dry your clothes."
"Actually," he countered, "the least you could do would be nothing. The sun will dry my clothes. I'm pretty sure a clothesline will vouch for that." In an epic stroke of bad luck, his body chose that moment for an involuntary shiver. He blamed the shade of her porch, but the cause was moot. All she cared about was fixing the fact that he was cold.
Her eyes narrowed, a now-familiar smile threatening. "Unless you plan on hitching yourself to a clothesline, come inside and use my dryer."
"I'm pretty sure the sun works even if I'm not attached to a line," he said wryly. The fact that he was enjoying their exchange irritated him. He tried to revisit that urge to flee, but leaving would put him back on that street, alone with these memories.
And within hosing range of the elderly woman next door.
He averted his eyes from Rue's. The porch was bare, he noted. No furniture or planters. Not even a bicycle. Though the house appeared to be well-kept, there was nothing but the car in the drive to suggest the place might be occupied. Even the wildly-growing Black-eyed Susans on the side suggested abandonment, as if they, too, felt the need to flee the confines of their bed. A different kind of interest tugged at him — something beyond unwanted attraction. Something more along the lines of whether that car was hers, or if she lived alone, or why it looked as if she didn't live there at all.
All questions he couldn't afford to ask. Not when he needed to get away from this woman and back to his memories. This was Amy's day, and he wouldn't share it with anyone else.
Certainly not anyone who had polka-dotted toe nails, a killer smile, and something going on with her hair that made him think she hadn't been able to sit still at the hairdresser.
Oblivious to his thoughts, Rue grinned and tipped her head toward the trigger-happy neighbor, making all those glossy layers dance. The foreign sensation of wanting to touch them, to see if they were as silky as they looked, invaded his thoughts, but he pushed it back.
It resurged when she poked at his wet shirt with her free hand. "Lending you the use of my dryer may not be the least I could do," she said, "but I won't take no for an answer." With a hapless, none-too-innocent shrug, she added, "It's either me or the neighbor. At least I don't have any weapons."
When she turned to go into her house, he realized his attention was involuntarily pegged on her perfect ass. No weapons? He wasn't so sure about that.
But he followed her inside anyway.
* * *
Rue couldn't help side-eying her hero in distress. She was zero parts shy and didn't have any qualms about staring head on, but he looked as if he couldn't wait to escape, and he was just too gorgeous not to enjoy a while longer. His hair, now water-darkened and plastered to his head, had been a striking platinum color with dark lowlights that perfectly set off stunning green eyes. He was tall — tall enough that she'd have to tip back her head and completely lose herself in him in order to taste those incredibly sensual lips, but that was only the wretchedly delicious beginning. His soaked T-shirt clung to every rise and fall of his ripped upper bod, from broad shoulders to the provocative V lines that disappeared into a pair of well-worn jeans slung low on his hips.
Oh, hel-lo. Her fingers itched to walk over all that hard, slick skin, but she kept the feeling — and her hands — to herself. The fact that her last fling had been both months before and woefully inadequate was no reason to accost her very sexy, very unhappy-looking ... neighbor? She'd never seen him around, but he'd been walking. He had to have come from somewhere, although he hadn't used a nearby destination as an excuse to get away from her. Still, he seemed distracted, and while he'd graced her with a glimpse of a smile that she'd think about for days, he hadn't exactly warmed to her. Probably because he's shivering.
"Let me toss your clothes in the dryer," she offered again. An unnecessary reminder, considering that was why he was in the house to begin with, but he didn't look to be in any hurry to strip down. Her intent was genuine, but if it got him naked, she'd be okay with that, even if the last thing she needed at the moment was to fall hopelessly in lust with anyone. She was up for an internship out of the country, and with an ounce of luck, in three weeks she'd be so far from New York City, she'd forget all about it — or if not the city, at least the string of disastrous, short-lived relationships she'd suffered within its borders.
"I'm fine," he said, eyeing her like he expected her to rip the clothes off him herself. "I appreciate the gesture, but — "
"But nothing. We're adults here, and you're not fine. You're soaked, and there's no good reason to wander the city that way." With a wink, she added, "You'll chafe." That said, she went into her extra bedroom and grabbed a pair of pajama pants she'd bought for her brother but had never gotten around to giving him because he was in Europe, and they were too hideous not to see his face when he opened them. She and Ian had a long-standing thing of trying to out-ugly the other when it came to sleepwear, a tradition inadvertently started by a particularly hideous matching set their grandmother had given them one Christmas. Rue bit back a grin as she returned to hand the uber-serious Ethan a pair of flannel pants covered in freaky clown faces that more closely resembled John Wayne Gacy than cheerful party entertainers. "You can wear these."
Excerpted from The Three-Week Arrangement by Sarah Ballance, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2016 Sarah Ballance. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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