Private Investigator Tanner Bravo took his responsibilities and the mind–numbing chemistry he felt with Crystal very seriously. And he had a serious proposal: let's try a "practice" marriage.
He had a feeling that practice would make perfect
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Crystal Cerise stood in the cute little kitchen area of her one-bedroom apartment, staring out the window over the sink at an uninspired view of the parking lot. She was two months pregnant. And that evening, over dinner, she intended to break the big news to the father of her child. The salad was made and waiting in the fridge. The main course, lasagna, was almost through baking. Its tempting smell filled the air. Crystal looked down at the open loaf of Italian bread on the counter in front of her. Ready for the garlic butter. She picked up the spreader and began slathering it on, pausing for a glance at the yard-sale kitchen clocka red vintage treasure with big deco-style white numbers that usually made her smile. Not today, however. Today it would take a lot more than a whimsical wall clock to make Crystal smile.
6:05 p.m. Twenty-five minutes until he arrived. Oh, she did not want to do this. But putting it off would only make the job all the harder in the end. Or so she kept reminding herself .
God. Having Tanner Bravo's baby. How could she have let this happen?
The answer was simple: chemistry. She and Tanner had it bad for each other. Neither of them wanted to be driven nuts with mutual lust. They constantly agreed that they'd never do that again.
And then they did do that again. And again.
Sadly, other than between the sheets, the two of them weren't a match in any way. She knew he considered her a flake, though he never actually used the word. Uh-uh. He would talk about her "woo-woo ways" and give her a hard time for the way she'd packed up her car and moved to Sacramento on what he considered a whim.
"Better a flake," she muttered, reaching for the paprika, "than overly serious and broody and grim." She shook the paprika onto the garlic-buttered bread. And controlling. Oh, yeah. Tanner Bravo was way too controlling.
She should never have had sex with him. Not the first time. Or the second. Or the third or the fourth.
She set the can of paprika down. Hard. And stared out the window some more.
Raging lust had made her careless. And now there was a baby coming. A baby she would keep, thank you very much. Crystal may not have been practical or thrifty or all that wise. She was scared to death she'd be a terrible mother.
And yet well, she simply could not refuse such a huge gift of the universe. Especially not in light of what had happened when she was sixteen.
So. She would keep the baby.
Twice in the past couple of weeks, she'd tried to tell Tanner that there was going to be a baby and that she was keeping it. Both times, they'd ended up having sex. As per usual. And after the sex, well, she was so disgusted with herself for giving in to her crazy yen for him, yet again, that she never did get the words out.
Truth to tell, she still felt the urge to put off telling him. More than once that day, she'd found herself reaching for the phone, ready to call him and cancel this little get-together tonight. The desire to back out had been especially compelling at about two o'clock that afternoonright after she'd quit her job. Because, please, who wants to be newly unemployed and telling a man she's pregnant, both on the same day?
Frowning, Crystal stared out the window some moreand blinked in surprise when a wiry gray head popped into view. It was Doris Krindle, who had the one-bedroom next door.
Frantically, Doris mouthed, "Nigel? Have you seen Nigel?"
"Omigod," Crystal cried in sympathetic distress. "He got out?"
Doris nodded, hard. Nigel, her enormous black-smoke Persian, was an inside cat all the way.
It was three steps from the kitchen sink to Crystal's dinky entry hall. She pulled the door wide on Doris's deeply tanned, wrinkled face and asked, "How long has he been gone?"
Doris pressed her bony hands to her chest. "Oh, Iwish I knew for sure. I went to the store. When I got back " She shook her head so her wiry silver curls bounced. "He's terrified of being outside. Usually, when I open the door, he runs the other way. But I've looked all over the apartment. He's gone. Just gone."
Crystal took Doris by her thin shoulders. "Stop. Take a breath. Think thoughts of peace and positive outcomes. He can't have gone far."
"Oh, I do hope you're right."
"Come on," Crystal said briskly. "We'll find him. You'll see. We'll start by going through your apartment again." She turned Doris to point her in the right direction and gave her a gentle push along the concrete walk toward her apartment door.
Tanner Bravo rolled up the windows, killed the Mustang's engine, draped a hand over the steering wheel and glared out the windshield at the white stucco wall of Crystal's apartment complex.
She'd invited him to dinner. Why?
Since they were always planning not to have sex again, they never did things like going on dates or sharing a meal with just the two of them, alone. They would hook up without planning to at family events: his niece DeDe's dance recitals, Sunday dinners at his sister, Kelly's .
At least once a week, it seemed, they ended up in the same room together, surrounded by family. Simple proximitythat was all it took, though in front of the others they would fake complete lack of interest in each other for all they were worth.
Even when it was time to go home, both would try their damnedest to keep up the pretense that they had no intention of getting naked and crawling all over each other the minute they were alone. They would say their goodbyes to his sister and her family and drive away in their separate cars.
And then one of them would weaken and call the other. The other, breathless, would say yes.
And after that? His place or her place, it was always the same: hot and wild and absolutely amazing.
Damned if he wasn't getting hard just thinking about it.
But an invitation to dinner at her apartment? That wasn't the way they did things. Something was up.
And what the hell was that noise? Some kind of alarm or something, coming from inside the building.
Tanner got out of the car. Yeep, yeep, yeep, yeep
Sounded like a smoke alarm. It seemed to be coming from Crystal's place .
He raced the hundred yards or so along the walk to Crystal's door, the alarm growing louder with each step. When he got there, he raised his hand and knocked, yelling, "Crystal!" good and loud.
She didn't answer. But the door, not quite latched, drifted open.
Gray smoke billowed out. From inside, the smoke alarm shrieked. Yeep, yeep, yeep, yeep
Tanner shouted, "Crystal, Crystal!" No answer.
Was she in there defenseless, unconscious from smoke inhalation? The thought made his heart pound the walls of his chest like a wrecking ball and his gut clench tight. "Crystal!"
Again, she didn't answer. So he pulled the top of his shirt up to cover his nose and mouth, dropped to his hands and knees to get under the worst of the smoke and crawled across the threshold, shouting her name.
Nigel was nowhere to be found.
Crystal and an increasingly freaked out Doris had searched every inch of the older woman's apartment about six times. They'd checked outside in the parking lot, under all the cars. They'd closely examined the small spaces between the photinia hedges that rimmed the walkways. They'd raced down the sidewalk between the complex's buildings and scoured the central courtyard, with its swathes of emerald grass and pretty weeping willow trees. They'd even gone all the way to the rec room, and opened all the cupboards and checked under all the furniture. They'd beat the bushes around the pool area, too.
No sign of an overweight pug-nosed, long-haired cat with a smoky-black outer coat and creamy fur beneath.
Finally, they'd returned to Doris's living room, where Crystal's neighbor wrung her hands and cried, "My poor, poor baby. Where have you gone?" A tear cleared the boundary of her lower lid and tracked a shining trail down her brown, creased cheek. "Oh, Crystal. He won't last a day outdoors. I know he's got an attitude. He thinks he's king of the world. But really, he's just a fat, fuzzy sweetheart with no survival skills beyond a crabby meow when he wants his dinner ."
"He's okay, I know it," Crystal insisted for the hundredth time.
"Oh, you're a darling to say so, but"
They both heard the low, cranky "Rrreeow?" at the same time and turned in unison to face the open arch to the entryway. Nigel sat there, his expression aloof, his fuzzy explosion of a tail lazily twitching against the floor tiles.
"Nigel!" Doris cried. She ran to him and scooped him up, gathering him close against her heart. "Where have you been? You scared us to death!"
The cat let out another grouchy meow and acquiesced to be scratched under his almost nonexistent chin.
With the back of a hand, Doris swiped tears of relief from her cheeks. She turned grateful eyes Crystal's way. "Oh, thank you, thank you."
Crystal laughed. "For what? I didn't do anything. Nigel seems to have found himself."
"True, true." Doris laughed in relief and happiness. "He did, didn't he? But you were here with me while I was so afraid. I can't tell you how much that meant at a time like that."
"Well, I know you'd be there for me, too, if I needed you."
"I would. I swear it," Doris passionately declared. "Anytime." She stroked the cat's thick fur. "Oh, where did you get off to, you bad, bad boy?" The cat started to purr, a deep, rough sound. Doris sighed. "I suppose we'll never know "
Now that the crisis was past, Crystal glanced at the small gold-and-ebony clock perched on a spindly side table. It was six forty-five.
"Oh, no," she muttered. "Tanner " He was probably waiting at her door, thoroughly annoyed, wondering where the hell she'd gone off to now.
Doris frowned. "Excuse me?"
Crystal put on a smile. "Oh, nothing. Really. I invited someone over. I have to get going."
"Someone?" Doris hugged the fat cat, her still moist eyes now sparkling with interest. "A man? A date?"
"Uh, not exactly."
Still cuddling Nigel, Doris trailed her to the door. "Not exactly a man?"
Crystal laughed again. "Oh, he's a man all right. But it's not exactly a date ."
"Humph. Well. You've been here more than two months. It's about time you had a man around."
In lieu of an actual reply, Crystal made a noncommittal noise in her throat.
Doris said, "You have a lovely time, Crys. And thank you again."
"Glad to help." She pulled open the door and smelled
"Smoke!" Doris sniffed the air. "I smell"
"Yikes! The lasagna " Crystal took off.
Doris called after her, "If you need me"
"Thanks!" Crystal sent a wave back over her shoulder as she reached her own front door.
It was open. So was the kitchen window.
"Tanner?" She stepped cautiously past the threshold.
"In here." He was leaning against the counter in the kitchen area, hard arms folded over his chest. The oven door was open. And the lasagna sat on the cooktop, burned beyond recognition.
"Oh, God " Crystal groaned.
"I got here on time."
"Oh, I'm so sorry ."
"I heard the alarm, smelled the smoke. I called your nameloud. When you didn't answer, I thought you must be passed out from smoke inhalation. But when I got in here and got the windows open no sign of you."
She knew how his mind worked. He'd been a private detective for too long. "You probably thought I'd been kidnapped, trussed up in a burlap bag, and dragged off to who knows where, while my lasagna was left to burn."
"Something like that."
"Honestly, Tanner, I'm so, so sorry." Ugh. She was not only pregnant and unemployed with four hundred twenty-three dollars and sixteen cents in her checking account, she'd made Tanner worry for her safety. And her apartment reeked of burned lasagna. Did it get any worse than this? She met Tanner's dark, watchful eyes. Oh, yeah, it got worse. There was still the big news to break. She explained, "The neighbor's cat ran away. I went to help her find him."
He unfolded his arms and hooked his hands on the counter behind him. Mildly, he suggested, "Next time turn off the oven first."