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When the man with the blazing tomato stain on his shirt entered The Suds Club Laundromat, Naomi Shannon was sitting by the dryer and paging through a community college catalog.
The bell on the door went ding andboom!there he was.
Or maybe a better way of saying it wasboom! there he calmly exploded.
It wasn't really that he seemed "dangerous" as he headed straight for the detergent dispenser. He just had a very smooth method of looking fit to be tied, if she said so herself. The way he movedso assured, so confidentcaught her eye because he basically commanded the room without even trying.
But what didn't catch the eye about him?
As he stood in front of the ancient dispenser and rested his hands on his hips like an admiral inspecting a wrecked ship, Naomi told herself to stop staring. It wasn't polite, first of all, and, most importantly of all, it wasn't on her list of things to do.
Yet she couldn't help herself.
Dark-blond hair cut in a conservative, neat style. New-looking jeans and a crisp, light-blue button-down that matched his piercing eyes. Work boots that seemed fresh, too. He was slender, but strong and muscular, the veins in his arms etching the surface of his tanned skin. A muscle clenched and ticked near his jaw but, for all her close scrutiny, he still managed to seem as collected as rain in a bucket.
Not that Naomi was a rocket scientist, but she could guess why he might be a bit put out and also why he was in a Laundromat. The nasty red stain on his otherwise perfect shirt did a lot of explaining.
She kept her eyes on him. He was taking a long time to look at that machine, enough time for her skin to get a few goose bumps .
Shaking her head, she went back to her college catalog, inspecting the accounting classes with double the focus.
Bomp, bomp, bomp, went her clothes in the dryer. The cadence echoed her heartbeat.
But Naomi hadn't traveled nearly cross-country from Kane's Crossing, Kentucky, here to Placid Valley on the outskirts of San Francisco, to get caught up in a man again. Lord knows she had enough male trouble to deal with already.
On the TV, the theme song from Flamingo Beach filtered through the detergent-laden air, and Naomi's glance shot toward the screen. Finally, time for her soap. She wasn't going to look at the stranger again. There were better things to take in.
Across the room, the usual crowd had gathered below the tube, which was bolted to the corner of the wall near the ceiling. Though fairly new in town, Naomi had already gotten to know some of the women. Whether they had TVs and washers in their apartments or not, there were about ten people who met on and off here every weekday to watch the soap together and, little by little, they'd made her feel like a part of their group. Today there were only about six other diehards present, all doing their laundry.
Friends, she thought. It's nice to have some in this new town.
Then she corrected herself, skimming her hand over her still-flat belly. Not to say we can't make it on our own.
She patted the place where her baby was growing, then went back to watching TV, all the while knowing that the stranger with the tomato stain was still behind her. She felt his presence with every rogue tingle buzzing up the skin of her neck.
But then, as Flamingo Beach went to commercials before the drama really began, a blond woman madly stuffing the last of her darks into a dryer called to Naomi.
"We've got plenty of seats over here." After finishing her task, she motioned for Naomi to join them while walking to her own chair, sitting and crossing one long leg over the other, then smoothing down the skirt of her smart pink dress.
It was Jenny Hunter's work-from-home day, and the businesswoman was washing a load while taking lunch hour here in this neighborhood gathering spot. She always told Naomi that it got lonely working alone in her apartment every Wednesday. She missed hearing people around, missed the distracting bustle of her office in the city proper.
Naomi closed her catalog. "Coming."
Still, she hesitated all the same, feeling it necessary to glance at the lately arrived food-splattered newcomer again.
He was fighting with a stubborn lever on the dispenser now, his jaw so tight she thought it might shatter. But before that could happen, he stepped back, waited as if to gather his composure, then assessed the temperamental gadget. It was almost as if he were strategizing.
But a new voice interrupted the lovely reverie.
"Naomi? The show's going to start."
When she glanced at the speaker, she found a calmly amused woman easing to a chair in front of the TV, her arms full of laundry consisting mainly of little girls' dresses. Her name was Mei, and she was originally from Hong Kong, though she'd been raised in San Francisco since her mid teens. Long black hair, creamy skin and a strong maternal glow gave her an air of maturity, even though she didn't have more than a few years on Naomi's own grand total of twenty-four.
Based on the woman's knowing glance, Naomi guessed that Mei had seen her gaping at Tomato-Shirt Guy. And Naomi had been gaping all right, no doubt about it.
But well, Mei knew dang well that Naomi wasn't on the market. Back in Kane's Crossing, Naomi had gotten herself in such a tight spot with Bill Vassey that she had no business shopping around for another chance at failure here. Not for a while, at least.
Absently, she placed her hand over her tummy. More than two months along and counting. Naomi didn't know whether she was carrying a boy or a girl yet. She needed to get to the doctor for a second prenatal visit, and she would do it on the COBRAed health plan from her previous joba plan she could barely afford. Heck, the vitamins she'd been advised to take by a friend from back home tested her slim budget enough already. Thank goodness the new job she'd gotten at Trinkets, a corporate chain of collectible shops, offered modest insurance for the future, so at least she was on her way.
Still, this child was hersall hers. She was well into the best thing that'd ever happened to her, even if she'd needed to move away to start over with Baby.
It's all about you, sweetheart, and no one else. We're in this together.
As the soap came back on, everyone applauded, excited, and Naomi stood, intending to join the rest of the viewers who called themselves The Suds Club, named after the Laundromat itself.
Yet she never quite made it to her waiting seat in front of the TV.
Tomato-Shirt Guy was going at it with the dispenser again, fighting a lever. Sympathy fully evoked, Naomi held a finger up to Meiwait a secthen wandered toward him. The soft part of her just wanted to offer a little aid. She knew how much of a nightmare that machine could be. Also, in spite of her foster-care musical-chairs upbringing, she'd always been raised to be polite and helpful.
And being polite would hardly get her into trouble, would it?
By now, he'd regrouped, gotten out his wallet, and gone to the change machine, probably to replace the first batch of lost quarters. She knew the dispenser-eats-coin story all too well from her own initial visit.
His new position left her a view of his back. And what a back it was: broad, tapering into slim hips and a butt she'd
Back in possession of her common sense, she stood behind him and cleared her throat. But she wasn't prepared for the flare of heat that prickled her skin when he turned around.
Eyes so blue you couldn't help but gape.
For an endless second, Naomi couldn't form a single word. Not even a "hi." Not even the "yow" that struggled to escape her throat.
No, sirinstead she just stood there looking awkward, as country as corn bread next to a man who carried himself with such an obvious sense of self.
At least, that's what she thought until she realized that he was kind of gaping, too. He just wasn't doing it so blatantly. Instead, his gape was in his gazea flash of hesitation that she couldn't read worth anything.
Waitmaybe she'd just startled him. He'd been concentrating forcefully on his mission, after all, and here she was, sneaking up on him.
Quicklyor efficiently might've been the better descriptionhe looked at her as a man might look at a maid who'd stumbled into his hotel room when he was least expecting it. Civil, but with a touch of "What can I help you with?" aloofness.
Naomi ignored a twinge of self-consciousness. Back home, her appearance had always been an issue: since her mother had given her up when she was tiny, Naomi didn't know where her own olive skin came from or what race she was. There was no doubt some mixed blood in her, but she couldn't exactly say from where.
"I" She pointed back toward the detergent dispenser. "I noticed your challenge in engaging our raging soap monster. I've got a touch with that thing if you'd like me to give it a go for you."
He cocked a brow, suddenly all male pride. Impressive, how he could pull it off even while wearing a food-splattered shirt.
"Actually," he said, voice low and measured, "I think I can" He cut himself off, his face going serious, as if a particularly vexing thought had entered his mind.
But then he exhaled, his features relaxing. Funny, though, how relaxing seemed to cause him some effort.
"You have a 'touch'?" he repeated.
Their gazes locked, and she told herself not to blush, don't blush, don't
Abruptly, she turned away, skin burning. She focused on fishing a few quarters from her skirt pocket to prime the machine. Meanwhile, she keenly sensed him in back of her.
She shook all that off by listening to Flamingo Beach. The main couple, Dash and Trina, traded star-crossed lover dialogue. But it sounded like gibberish right now, as untranslatable as the messages her brain was sending to her unsure fingers.
You're not on the market, she kept telling herself. Not even remotely.
While she fiddled with the dispenser, breathing in the powdered cleanliness of its detergents, she felt his eyes on her.
A delicious rush. Oooh, such a bad tingle.
She cleared her throat again, sneaking a peek behind her and smiling.
Andsure enoughhe was watching.
Yes! Er no. She didn't want him checking her out. Why complicate her life when that was the last thing she needed?
She swiveled back around to the dispenser, heart in her throat.
Not on the market .
The lever loosened up, just on the edge of giving in, and Naomi bolstered herself again before she beat the machine then had to turn around to see Tomato-Shirt Guy's blue, blue eyes. All she had to do was rest her hand over her bellya connection, a real reason to stay strong.
One-handed, Naomi gradually persuaded that lever just a tad more, determined not to allow the pleasant shock of the stranger's blue eyes to rattle her once she finished.
After all there was Baby to consider.
And there was her own bruised heart and pride, too.
David Chandler wasn't used to having these kinds of days.
As he waited out the slender, friendly woman who'd so easily approached him to offer help, he wondered if his mortification was obvious.
Him, the man who was so used to the well-greased flow of perfectly timed meetings that allowed him to acquire multimillion-dollar TV and radio stations, hotels and properties ripe for takeovers.
The CEO of a billion-dollar-plus empire. "So," she said as she finessed the machine, her back still to him, "I'm guessing this is an unexpected laundry trip for you?"
"Right. My hotel's in the city and I wasn't about to go back there for another shirt." Plus, he didn't add, the idea of wearing a tomato stain the rest of the day, whether he was merely wandering the sidewalks of Placid Valley or not, was unthinkable. "I didn't come upon any clothes stores yet and I didn't know when I would. Then I saw the laundry."
Once more, his veins crackled with frozen frustration just at the thought of how he had lost control of his day so damned quickly.
Get it together.
He never resorted to frustration. Never. And that's why most of The Chandler Corporationor TCO believed their CEO was made of unbreakable ice.
"Then welcome to The Suds Club," she said, tossing a smile back at him as she slowly worked the machine's lever. Her fingers were slim, feminine.
As she turned back around to finish her job, he said, "Glad to be here." Not that he really was, but running into a friendly local was at least a positive.
A very pretty local, too.
Maybe a less high-strung person would chat more with her, small talking and perhaps telling her all about how he'd come to have tomato on his chest, but that wasn't what David did. He was more used to commanding, and he wasn't sure he knew what to say to well, a normal person. Someone he'd never related to very much as a perpetual boss.
Boss. His mind went into overdrive. How was everything running without him back in New York?
A weight seemed to press down on his chest, and he clamped off that line of useless thinking.
Even though this unease was dogging him more often than he liked, he had to trust that his older half brother, Lucas, was handling everything well back at TCO headquarters. He'd done it for a year and a half now, ever since stepping out of his former-playboy sandbox to assume his rightful place in running the family company.
Business associates, society, the pressall of them had been shocked at Lucas's turnaround, but David knew what had reformed the rake. Marriage. Marriage to a woman named Alicia. Somehow, she'd tamed the Don Juan and now he was the Happy Family Man and Business Success of the Decade.
The irony was that David had manipulated them into that marriage.