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Michael Anderson, CEO of Anderson Enterprises, stepped onto the curb, buttoned his jacket, straightened his tie, and then, with a Guinness Book of World Records worthy string of curses, grabbed the abomination from the floorboard of the limousine.
If this turned out to be some elaborate joke perpetrated by his brothers, heads were going to roll.
The Anderson family chauffeur, Jacob, held out a leash. "You forgot something, sir." The rhinestones embedded in the leather winked in the sunlight, mocking him. He snatched the leash and shoved it in the outer pocket of the powder blue pet carrier.
Jacob's face remained completely expressionless, which was a good thing, because after the morning Michael had had, losing his shit on a busy New York City street was a very real possibility.
Fortunately, the doorman of his upper West Side apartment building kept his eyes at face level, so Michael made it to the elevator without incident.
He should have gone back to the office after his appointment with the shrink, but decided to take the rest of the day off — his first day off in over a year. But there wouldn't be another one. He vowed he wouldn't let this ludicrous situation get in the way of his productivity. He'd brought Anderson Auctions to the top of the heap, and it was his "self-centered, single-minded, rigid inclinations" that had allowed him to accomplish that, and now he was supposed to believe it was those very things that were bringing him down. Just thinking back on those words his therapist had used rankled.
The creature in the carrier whined as the elevator doors slid shut.
Yeah. Like dealing with one more needy thing was going to help him "loosen up."
"Rigid," he muttered under his breath, pushing the button for his floor. She'd actually called him rigid and self-centered. Self-centered. Surely this therapy regimen was a joke. Only, he knew it wasn't. He'd been seeing Dr. Whittelsey since he was fourteen. She'd helped him through lots of hard times and had never steered him wrong yet — or rather she'd helped him steer himself — and she wasn't the type to joke. Ever.
Before the elevator door even opened, he could feel the bass vibrating in his chest.
Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom.
Shit! Ever since his neighbor had brought in a house sitter, his home life was in chaos. He gave a snort. Home life. More like the time when he slept or entertained dates. His only real life was the office — which Dr. Whittelsey said was the root of his problem.
He'd lost his interest in "the kill", as his dad called his unwavering desire to win, and in order to stay at the top, he needed to get it back and he'd try anything. Even this.
He glanced down at the blue box and grimaced. How Whittelsey thought shaking up his routine would help was beyond him. No way would it work.
Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom.
He shoved open his apartment door and then slammed it behind him with a bang, causing the creature in the box to shift to one end. The carrier tipped, and he almost dropped it.
This was unacceptable. When he came home, he didn't want to hear a bunch of noise from next door. He must have called the guy at the security desk to file complaints a dozen times since the house sitter moved in three weeks ago. There were six units on this floor. Why did she have to live next to him?
Growling, he retreated to his kitchen and set the carrier on the floor. It had never been like this when Ellen Braxton lived next door. Sure, she'd been a pain in the ass the first few months with her Mrs. Robinson routine, but she'd backed off and had been nothing but the perfect, invisible neighbor since. She'd evidently gone off to traipse all over Italy, and someone he hadn't met was living next door. He'd never even seen the house sitter, but he'd heard her. It was like she was a one-woman nightclub over there.
He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and placed it, along with his keys, in the bowl on the kitchen counter — like always.
The thing in the carrier made a high-pitched whine.
"Okay. I don't like this any more than you do." Leaning down, he opened the wire carrier door and the beast bolted out in a blur of black and white fur. "Hey, get back here."
He didn't remember its name. Hell, he didn't even know its gender. Sighing, he stood and smoothed his tie. It didn't matter. He only had to deal with it for three weeks, and then his life could get back to normal. Really, how hard could it be? Feed it, water it, take it out four times a day. Piece of cake.
"A dog," he muttered, striding toward the wet bar in his living room. He'd never had a dog. Not even as a kid. This was a horrible idea.
Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom.
Not as horrible an idea as losing his cool and confronting his neighbor in person rather than just filing a complaint, which appealed more and more by the second.
No. Someone would tell the tabloids, and he'd learned long ago that reputation was everything. He'd worked hard to cultivate the correct image for the CEO of Anderson Enterprises.
He flicked a dog hair off of his sleeve and sighed. Being a caretaker of a foster dog was not going to enhance his image. Not one bit. And he didn't see how it would help him get his edge back, either. Still, he'd made a promise and he never went back on his word. Like it or not, he was stuck with the damned thing for a while.
After filling his glass with ice, he remembered it was morning, and his homecoming routine would have to be adjusted. Instead of scotch, he filled the tumbler with water, then wandered into the bedroom to take off his suit and tie and stopped short.
Everywhere. Like a pillow had exploded — or been ripped apart by the teeth of a wild, savage beast. "Dammit!" he said under his breath. The dog leapt off the bed and then wiggled underneath it.
In a trembling falsetto, he mimicked Dr. Whittelsey's singsong voice. "The dog is completely housetrained and has never torn up anything." A single feather, still airborne, landed on his suit lapel. Taking a deep, calculated, calming breath, he set his drink on the nightstand, and then gently plucked the feather from his jacket and deposited it in the trashcan next to the bed. One in the right place was better than none.
And still the booming bass from Club House Sitter continued its relentless attack on his already frayed nerves. One thing at a time. Dog first.
"Never torn anything up, my ass," he grumbled, getting down on his hands and knees to peer under the bed. Big, brown eyes stared back. Then blinked, and a majority of his anger floated away like feathers.
It wasn't the dog's fault, really. Most likely it was as unhappy about this arrangement as he was. No. That wasn't accurate. Nothing and no one could be as unhappy about this as he was. "Dog therapy," he muttered. "Total bullshit."
The dog stuck its tongue out and for a moment, it looked like it was smiling.
"I'm glad you agree. If I hadn't promised her that I would take care of you personally for the three weeks she's in Europe, you'd be at a boarding kennel," he said, still on his hands and knees. "But I did promise because my shrink thinks you'll break my routine and make me more flexible."
The racket from next door continued as the dog flipped its back legs behind it and stretched out on its belly under the bed.
"Don't get comfortable. I don't want you in my bedroom, so come on out." He crooked his finger like he would to an employee across the office lobby. Only, unlike his employees, the dog didn't come running. It simply looked at him, panted, and tapped its tail on the floor.
"Now, listen, dog. Let's get this straight. This is my house. You will do as I command. Now, out!" It blinked its huge eyes while the rest of its hairy body remained motionless, except its tail, which kept wagging.
Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom, the bass pounded.
Shit. This was a fucking nightmare. "I said, out!"
Rolling to its side, it gave the appearance of being completely at ease and unaffected.
He reached, but couldn't touch the animal because it had positioned itself directly under the center of the low king-sized bed.
A frustrated growl rumbled in Michael's chest, then morphed into a defeated groan. He'd been bested by a ten-pound animal with pink nail polish and a bow in its hair. "I can't believe I'm paying Dr. Whittelsey to torture me like this."
The dog lowered its chin to its paws and closed its eyes.
"Okay. You win this round, but if you think you're sleeping in here, you've got it wrong."
Before he'd gotten to his feet, a relentless eardrum-piercing pulse came from the other side of the wall.
God, he missed the days when he could come home to a peaceful, relaxing environment to unwind. Recently, it was like a living in a nightclub or video arcade with thumping music and now a deafening alarm clock of some kind.
The music stopped, but the shrill beeping continued. It wasn't an alarm clock, he realized. It was his neighbor's smoke detector.
Shit. She was going to burn the place down.
One thing at a time. Get out first, and then, if need be, call 911. That would require his keys and phone, which were on the kitchen counter. Purposefully, he strode to the kitchen, calm and level headed, as was his style. Everything had an order — evacuating a burning building included. People first. Possessions last.
On his way to the kitchen, a preliminary check-list ran through his head for a worst-case scenario: Call 911 and report the fire, call his parents and brothers to let them know he's okay, call his insurance agent and file a loss claim, call the office and make sure things are running smoothly, and then call his tailor to order clothes to replace those lost in the fire.
First though, he needed to get out and assess the seriousness of the situation, which hopefully, was nothing more than a false alarm.
As he grabbed his phone from the counter, his foot crashed into something: the powder blue carrier. The dog was still under the bed. Damn. He couldn't leave it there. People first, he reminded himself. It wasn't a person, but it wasn't a possession either.
Still, the shrill pulse penetrated the wall and a faint smell of smoke accompanied it now. Maybe it wasn't a false alarm.
Shit, shit, shit. "Come on, dog!" he called, striding back to the bedroom. "We need to get out of here. Dog! I'm serious." When he reached the bed, he dropped to his knees and saw ... nothing. It wasn't there.
He jumped to his feet and ran his hands through his hair. Everything had an order and sequence. Even chaos.
Over the alarm, there was another sound: a loud, high-pitched yip.
Michael skidded into the living room to find the dog sitting patiently by the door.
"Thank God," he said, scooping it up and tucking it against his side like a football. "Glad your survival instincts are in working order." Well, that, or it just needed to pee. Dr. Whittelsey said it would bark at the door when it needed to go out.
When he entered the hallway, he stopped short. The neighbor's door was standing wide-open and faint wisps of smoke drifted out. Not enough to burn down the building or even trip the central alarm or sprinklers, but evidently enough to set off a smoke detector in the unit. Stepping further in the hallway to get a better look, he froze.
Standing on a rolling desk chair immediately inside the door was a woman. He couldn't see anything from the ribs up, but he could see her legs and belly — her exceptionally well-toned legs and belly — and her shiny, skin-tight, cobalt-blue exercise shorts adorned with hot-pink swirls.
Surely this wasn't the house sitter from hell.
The dog barked and the woman leaned down from her perch on the chair and peeked under the door frame.
"Oh, hey," she said with a smile. "Cute dog."
Whoa. Cute girl. "Uh, thanks."
"Sorry for the scare." She stood again, and the desk chair seat swiveled then stilled. "I'll make this thing shut up in just a sec."
The dog whined, then wiggled, and Michael lost his grip, barely able to control the beast's fall before it hit the floor running. Like a furry tornado, it sped down the hall as an elderly man opened his door to check out what was going on. Since it was mid-morning, most people were at work.
Shit. "Come here, dog!"
"Maybe if I pull here ..." Before she could finish her sentence, the chair swiveled, and then tilted while she struggled to not lose her balance. Too late. It was obvious she was going down. Michael charged forward, wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her against him right as the chair toppled over, upended casters spinning in the air — spinning like his head as he held her tight against his body.
Convincing himself that his heart hammering a million miles a minute was solely the result of his evacuation scare, always in control Michael Anderson was stunned to find himself momentarily unable to speak ... or move ... or do anything but hang onto the stranger and stare. It wasn't like he hadn't seen an attractive woman before, but somehow this one had taken him by surprise. Damn, she felt good.
Reluctantly, he loosened his grip and she slid down his body, her arms looping around his neck before her feet touched the floor. "Thanks," she said, barely above a whisper, making no effort to move away.
"My pleasure," he replied, knowing full well that, being completely pressed up against him like that, she could tell just how true that statement was.
The dog barked from the end of the hall, and his head cleared enough to bring him back from his proximity paralysis.
"What the hell is going on here?" the man down the hall called, echoing Michael's sentiments precisely. What was going on? She was the house sitter from hell, for God's sake.
Still clinging to his neck, she answered the man back. "It's okay. I forgot I had some bread under the broiler. Everything's cool." The man shook his head and closed his door. Most of the people bought into this building because they valued their privacy. It was held out as exclusive, secure, and quiet. And it lived up to its reputation ... until recently.
Michael dropped his arms to his sides and she slid hers from around his neck, leaving him feeling cold somehow.
She stepped back and scanned him head-to-toe, then grinned. The dog yipped from the end of the hall, barely audible over the still-pulsing alarm.
"Hey little pup!" she called. "Come here. Want a treat?" The dog stopped running in a circle at the stairwell door and faced her.
"Yeah, treat," she called, and the beast came running, hair flying out to the sides as it bolted toward them.
Son-of-a-bitch. There was a magic word to make the thing obey. Treat. Yeah, well, he might come running if she called him, too. He shook his head. No. That's absurd. He had no time in his life for that kind of nonsense. He didn't run when called.
"I'm Mia," she said, extending her hand.
He took her hand, surprised by her firm grip. "Michael."
"Well, Michael, I tried to remove the battery from the smoke detector, but I can't figure out how to take the cover off," she said, voice a bit loud in order to carry over the still-shrieking alarm. She picked the dog up and held it against her chest, which was covered by a sports bra that matched her shorts.
"Do you think you could help me out and give it a try?" she asked.
She stepped back and he entered what looked more like the inside of a spin-art machine than a living room. The floor was covered with a bright blue tarp, and a large canvas, covered in brilliant splatters, sat propped up against the tarp-covered sofa. One thing at a time, he reminded himself. At least the smoke had dissipated for the most part. "Do you have a step-stool?"
"Nah." Dog in her arm, she grabbed what appeared to be an authentic eighteenth century mahogany Hepplewhite shield chair. "Just use this," she shouted over the alarm as she dragged it under the smoke detector above the entry door.
Grimacing, he stepped up onto the leather cushion. The Braxton woman was going to have a fit if she ever found out her fine antique had been abused like this. The smoke alarm cover slipped right off after a quarter turn, and the battery was no problem either, resulting in sweet silence.
When he stepped down, she was feeding the dog something from her hand.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Neighbors with Benefits"
Copyright © 2015 Marissa Clarke.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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