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Because it was drizzling out, Harris Black pulled on a windbreaker before he headed outside to jog. Streetlamps left long slithery ribbons of light across the wet blacktop drive. After the heat of the mid-August day, the light rain had a sauna effect, making the air downright steamy.
He preferred jogging at night for two reasons: less human and automotive traffic, and Clair Caldwell.
Clair lived in the apartment building across the lot and always joined Harris in his evening run. For a dozen different reasons, Harris liked her a lot.
Unlike most women, Clair enjoyed the same things he enjoyedtelevised sports, running, and junk food. Not once had she ever forced him to sit through a romantic comedy, thank God. But once, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, they'd watched the entire Alien series, back to back, without budging from the couch.
Clair's job fascinated him. When two well-respected private investigators relocated their offices close to Chester, Ohio, the town they lived in, Clair had jumped at the chance to work for them as a receptionist. She was an adventurous sort and enjoyed the excitement of the job. But her duties went beyond secretarial. She was a computer guru, helping with online investigations, and an all-around know-itall. She always had entertaining stories to share.
By the same token, she liked to hear about his work and his friends. Being a firefighter left him open to a lot of bawdy jokes, and Clair seemed to know them all. She teased him about the fires he put out, the length of his hose, and his specialized gear. But when he was serious, she was too, automatically picking up on his moods in a way no one else ever had. Even with his best friends, Buck, Ethan and Riley, he had to put on the occasional front. No one wanted a morose or moody friend, even if he'd just spent hours fighting a fire that sometimes didn't have the best conclusion. They always wanted to joke him into a better mood.
Not Clair. Once, after a really grueling car fire that resulted in two deaths, Clair had just sat beside him on the couch and held his hand. They'd stared at the television, but Harris knew neither of them was really paying any attention to the movie.
What mattered most about Clair, though, was the no-pressure tone of their relationship. He saw her when he wanted to, yet he never felt he had to call. Oddly enough, because of that, he called and hooked up with her often.
They hung out without any implied intimacy to muddy the waters. She didn't care if he shaved or if he ate Twinkies for lunch or if he stayed out all night with the guys. At first, her disinterest had bugged him, but after Ethan and Riley had up and married, Harris became leery of smiling womenand with good reason. The females had detected a nonexistent pattern of matrimony, and they pushed him constantly, to the point that he'd about given up dating.
Which meant he was celibate and that sucked, but it beat dodging topics of "happily ever after." Nothing messed up good sex like a woman grasping too far into the future.
With Clair, sex was never an issue. It just didn't come up. They were friends, totally at ease with each other, but neither of them ever crossed the line. It was such a relaxing relationship that he spent more time with Clair than with his buddies. Of course, Ethan and Riley now preferred the company of their wives, anyway.
As Harris stepped out from beneath the building's overhang, a fat raindrop landed on his nose. Given the heavy static in the air, he knew it'd be storming before they finished their run. He sprinted across the lot at the same time that Clair's doors opened and she strolled outside. Harris stared toward her with a smile.
Her personality put her somewhere between an egghead and a jock; she loved sports of all kinds, and was almost too smart for her own good. But no matter what the situation, and despite a lack of feminine flair, Clair always looked stylish. Granted, it was her own unique style, but her appearance was always deliberate, not one created out of lack of taste or time.
A few weeks ago she'd cut her glossy, dark brown hair shorter, and now she wore it in a stubby ponytail that looked real cute. She'd attached an elasticized band to her black-framed, oval glasses to hold them on her head while she ran. Somehow, on Clair, the look of an athletic librarian worked.
With her hair pulled back that way, Harris noticed for the first time that she didn't have pierced ears. In fact, he realized he'd never seen Clair with jewelry of any kind. Odd. In this day and age, he thought every grown woman had her ears, if not other body parts, adorned. But then he'd always known Clair was different from other women.
At five feet five inches tall, she would be considered medium height except that she was all legs. Very long, sexy legs that even in clunky running shoes looked great. Tonight she had those gams displayed in comfortably loose, short shorts. Like Harris, she'd made a concession to the rain and wore a nylon pullover.
Harris looked up at the black sky. There was no moon, no stars to be seen through the thick clouds. Branches on the trees bent beneath an angry wind.
Debris scuttled across the road. "Looks like we'll get one hell of a storm tonight."
"Backing out on me, sugar? Afraid you'll melt in the rain?" She swatted him on the ass. Hard. Then took off.
Grinning, Harris followed. "Paybacks are hell, sweetheart."
To tease him, she put a little extra sway in her backside for a few steps, then she got serious again. They ran side by side, silent except for the slapping of their sneakers on the damp ground and the soughing of their steady breaths. Within fifteen minutes, the drizzle changed into a light rain. Clair said nothing, so Harris didn't either. He could take it if she could.
After about a mile, Harris glanced toward her. She wore a concentrated expression, and her short ponytail, now darker with rain, bounced in time to her long stride. "Anything interesting happen at work today?" he asked.
She scrunched up her brow. "Dane caught a guy screwing around on his wife." Disgust dripped from her tone. "Dane was pissed when he came in to file it. Said the wife was real sweet and better off without the guy, but that she was bawling her eyes out."
"Shame." Harris didn't want to marry, but if he ever did, he knew he'd be a faithful hound. He thought spouses who cheated were lower than slugs. If you wanted to screw around stillas he didthen you shouldn't say the vows.
Clair pushed a little harder, her feet eating up the ground with a rhythmic slap, slap, slap. "I wouldn't cry." Her hands balled into fists and she picked up her pace even more until they were running instead of jogging.
"What would you do?"
The seconds ticked by and she slowed, gradually going loose and limber once again. With an evil, anticipatory grin, she said, "I'd take a ball bat to him. Then I'd leave him."
"Effective." Harris laughed. "But I think that's illegal."
"Yeah. Well, I'd find some way to make him pay"
A slash of white lightning illuminated the entire area, followed by a crack of thunder that seemed to rip the night. They both pulled to a startled halt.
"Wow." Clair propped her hands on her knees, breathing hard, wide-eyed in awe of Mother Nature's display.
"This is nuts. Come on." Harris grabbed her arm and hauled her toward the main street. "Time to head back." Normally they'd take the long route to extend their jogging time, but now Harris just wanted to have Clair safely out of the storm.
She didn't protest, but then that was another of Clair's assetssound common sense. He'd found it rare for people to have both book smarts and everyday logic. But Clair had both, which was another reason he liked her so much.
They were within minutes of their apartments when the rain turned into a deluge, soaking them through to the skin in a matter of seconds, making visibility nil. The sewers couldn't handle the flow and the streets filled like creek beds, washing icy water up past their ankles. With the help of the wind, the rain stung like tiny needles, making Harris curse. Trying to protect Clair with his body, he steered them toward a closed clothing shop and into a dark, recessed doorway. The opening was narrow, forcing them close together. Clair didn't seem to notice the intimate proximity.
Her hair was plastered to her skull, her entire body dripping. She shivered, but she didn't complain. "You think it'll let up soon?"
Another fat finger of lightning snaked across the ominous sky. The accompanying thunder shook the ground beneath them. "No. But we'll wait here a few minutes to see."
With a sigh, Clair pulled off her glasses, now beaded with rain. Lifting her pullover, she located a dry patch on her T-shirt beneath, and wiped them off. In the process, Harris got a peek at her belly. Not much of a peek, considering it was dark as Hades and she stood so close her elbows kept prodding him. He narrowed his eyes, straining to see her better.
She noticed him peekingand flashed him, yanking both her pullover and tee above her breasts for a single split second. Startled, Harris shot his gaze up to her face.
She grinned. "There, did that take care of your curiosity?"
He almost strangled on his tongue. "No." It took his brain a moment to assimilate what he'd seen, and then he asked, "Is that a sports bra?"
Laughing, Clair elbowed him, harder this time so that he grunted in discomfort. He crowded closer still, stealing some of her warmth and hindering her more violent tendencies.
"Yeah, as concealing as a bathing suit top, so put your eyeballs away. You didn't think I'd actually show you anything important, did you?" She tsked. "The rain must have made your brain soggy."
"I saw a flash of white," Harris argued, "and didn't know if it was boobs or cloth. Can't blame a guy for wanting clarification."
"I don't have enough boob to go around showing them off."
In the crowded confines, with icy rain blowing in against his back, there was no way to get comfortable. Harris flattened one hand on the wall behind her and leaned in a bit, inching farther away from the stormand closer to Clair. With his gaze zeroed in on her chest, he murmured, "You have enough," and he meant it.
"Spoken like a loyal friend. Thanks." And before Harris could say more on that topic, she went on tiptoe to look over his shoulder. "Hey, the rain's letting up a little. Looks like the worst of the storm is moving away from us. Let's get home before we freeze."
The rain was cold, and with it, the temperature had dropped by at least ten degrees. Not that Harris was especially chilled. Discussing a woman's upper works with her, even a woman he wasn't intimate with, had a decisive effect on his libido. Given that the woman was also pressed up against himwell, he was having some surprisingly lascivious thoughts. But then, he'd been on a month-long, self-imposed dry spell. Under those circumstances, just about anything could turn him on.
Maybe on his next day off he'd have to break down and take his chances with a little one-on-one comfort of the female kind.
Together, he and Clair continued on their way, not jogging now, but not exactly taking their time either. Since Clair stayed silent, Harris had too much time to think. About her boobs.
He gave her body a surreptitious look without turning his head. The cold had tightened her nipples, and with her clothes wet and clinging, there was no way to miss it. His pulse sped up a bit, doing more to warm him than their jaunt.
The snug sports bra didn't allow for much jiggling, but he judged her to be a B cup. Plenty enough there to fill his hands. Well, not his hands, but some other guy's
No, he didn't like that thought either. Not that he had any claim on Clair other than friendship. But the idea of her snuggled up and intimate with some faceless, nameless bozo didn't sit right. Harris shoved the disturbing image away and concentrated on her comment.
Why did women assume men were only drawn to pinup models? A woman was a woman was a woman. Each different, each sweet and soft in her own way.
"Hurry up, slowpoke. I swear, my granny could move faster than you."
Maybe not so sweet, Harris admitted to himself with a grin. But definitely soft. He fell behind another step and took in the sight of Clair's full bottom. No lack of curves there. Yep, even egghead jocks were soft when you looked in the right place.
Clair turned to face him, walking backward. "Want a cup of hot chocolate? I'm going to make me some."
Her glasses were beginning to fog over, her ponytail was more out of its band than in, and water dripped from her ears.
Harris shook his head. "Can't. I'm on first shift this week. I need to get home, shower, and hit the sack." As a firefighter, Harris had a rotating schedule. The good part was that every third week he got extra days off, and the third week was rolling around.
"Okay." They were only feet away from his apartment building. Clair turned back around to head across the street. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
Harris took swift advantage. The moment she presented him with the opportunity, he landed a stinging swat on her behind. Given that her shorts were wet, it had a little more impact than he'd intended.
Her hands slapped over her butt in shock. Before her gasp of outrage had a chance to fade away, Harris darted to his side of the street, barely muffling his chuckles. "Good night, Clair!"
He bounded up the steps to his apartment, but waited at the door, watching as he always did until Clair had time to get inside. She rubbed her bottom as she climbed her own steps, muttering and casting him dirty looks. Moments later, a light came on in her living room, then Clair was at the window, waving to him. Harris waved back.