The day Robyn Flores meets Zac Fallon is one of those days. You know, when you’re already late for work. Mostly because you haven’t really slept since your best friend abandoned you for her fiancé and her exponentially better life. The kind of day you drag yourself to the cleaners to pick up your laundry, only to discover you’ve got the wrong bag—Star Spangled sequined thong, anyone? So Robyn is definitely not ready for the ridiculously gorgeous guy at her front door, except that they have each other’s clothes. But then, is any woman ever ready to meet the love of her life?
There’s just one problem: Zac Fallon is not the love of Robyn’s life. Zac knows, despite the all-too-intimate dinner they share, he doesn’t have a shot at her. Because the next time Zac sees Robyn, he’s front and center of the male revue headlining her best friend’s bachelorette party. So much for wooing the pretty schoolteacher, much less impressing her old-fashioned family, with his upstanding lifestyle. Now he’s only got one way to win his dream girl. It’s gonna be the steamiest, most irresistible seduction she’s ever seen. And this time it will be no act …
“Castile’s writing sparkles with wit. Readers will swoon for Robyn and Fallon's love story—and their super sexy dance moves!”
—Alexis Daria, author of Take The Lead
“In a perfect mix of sexy attraction that sizzles on the page and enchanting romance between characters you fall in love with, Castile’s novel hits all the right notes!”
—Priscilla Oliveras, author of Her Perfect Affair
“Zoey Castile is a fresh and fun new voice, and the characters in Stripped will capture your heart (and possibly your dollar bills).”
—Alisha Rai, author of Hurts to Love You
About the Author
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The Thong th-thong thong thong
The thong is covered in red, white, and blue sequins reminiscent of the American flag. Though I know it can't be exactly the American flag. One, because it's a sign of disrespect to wear the flag as an article of clothing, let alone a shimmering strip of fabric that gets wedged all up in your private bits. Two, I just went over this in my class when Freddy Dominguez asked how many times the flag has changed since Betsy Ross's original design. One thing led to another, and I suddenly found myself explaining to a class full of ten-year-olds why they could not make a dress out of the flag for an extra-credit class project.
Here, now, at seven o'clock in the morning, I hold the thong up to the light, like an archaeologist might hold a particularly curious desert find. Upon further inspection of the G-string, I don't think it'd be possible to fit all fifty stars and stripes on the triangle attached by flimsy elastic fabric. It's a rather large piece of fabric, all things considered. Either the owner is packing a lot of junk or has a huge vagina.
I take a deep breath. What a way to start the morning. I slept through my alarm, and while my coffee was brewing, I ran down in my pajamas to pick up my laundry bag from the place next door. Since the first item I took out was a thong I don't remember buying, I'm going to go out on a limb and say I was given the wrong bag.
It's pouring outside, and the ink on the receipt attached to the bag is too smudged to read the name on it. In twenty minutes, I'll start the countdown for being late to work. It's probably frowned upon for an elementary teacher to be late to class for the third time this week. It's only Wednesday. Unlike in college classes, my students don't get to pick up and leave after fifteen minutes of me not showing up. Plus, since my lateness is, uh, recurring the last couple of weeks, my little devils have taken it upon themselves to booby-trap my desk with pranks. Lately, it's been whoopee cushion central in room 412. Yet another generation has discovered the hilarity of fart noises. #Bless.
Anyway, when I opened up my laundry bag, I knew it wasn't mine. This leaves me with a few problems. One: I don't have any clean underwear or clothes, other than the ones I'm wearing now. Two: I'll have to run back in the rain and swap them out, leaving me with a desperate need to shower again after sweating my face off and getting soaked in dirty New York water. Three: Wouldn't the sequin itch once it got all up in the owner's butt crack? Finally, on what occasion, other than the Fourth of July, would someone wear something like this?
My second alarm buzzes, but at least I'm awake now. Murphy's Law is kicking my ass. No clothes, no shoes, no service. Well, I do have shoes, I suppose. I could be an Internet sensation. In local news, fifth-grade teacher shows up in pajamas and rain boots. My mother always said I have a face for TV.
Also, what is that dripping noise?
I slide across the living room in my dirty socks (better than Swiffering!) and get to my kitchen. My toe hits the river of coffee snaking across the slanted floor.
"Breathe," I tell myself, looking down at the sight. "Breathe."
There was once a time when I was a hopeful twenty-one-year-old ready to graduate college early with honors. I woke up before the sun, without the help of six alarms spaced out by ten-minute intervals. That Robyn wouldn't wait for all her clothes to be dirty before sending them out to the wash. Hell, she would've walked the extra ten blocks to the Laundromat and sat there while paying her bills early. That Robyn was never late. Didn't even use the word late in her vocabulary, not even when commenting that other people were late to meet her. That Robyn had her shit together. That Robyn didn't forget to put the coffeepot in the coffee machine before it started percolating.
That Robyn was a fuzzy memory, replaced by this Robyn: twenty-eight and with a severe case of "chicken without a head." It's a very technical term, and it's real, my students are sure of it.
"Dammit!" I shout at my apartment in Astoria, Queens. I repeat it until I work myself up into a cocoon of anxiety. I'm answered by a truck horn, dozens of children screaming in the street, and the general cacophony that is my block at any time of day.
New plan: Clean this up. Run downstairs in the rain and swap out bags. Beg Principal Platypus to not fire me. Teach students how to not be a disaster using self as an example. Perfect. Great plan.
I step over the puddle of coffee and shove the empty pot in place to salvage at least one cup of precious java. Then I go to grab a fistful of paper towels. Empty.
I open the drawer for a dishrag. Empty.
I remind myself that the dishrags are in my gray laundry bag, which this is not. It is, however, someone's clean laundry.
"I can't do that," I tell myself, hopping back over the stream of caffeine. I do always tell my students to think outside the box. Sometimes the solution is right in front of you, and my solution might just be this.
I pull open the drawstring and grab a fistful of items off the top. The star-spangled thong, a black tank top too small to fit a human person, and a pair of giant gray sweatpants. As I place the so-fresh-and-so-clean clothes on the river of coffee, I consider that this person must have an unusually disproportionate body.
But who am I to judge? I'm cleaning my floor in nothing but my panties and socks. All of my bras are dirty. If I hadn't spent my after-school time yesterday trying to salvage my friendships, I would've gone to Target to buy new underwear and socks. Aside from a temporary solution to my wet floor, maybe the bag contains something that would fit me.
I wring out the clothes in my kitchen sink and let the water run a bit. I look back at the laundry bag open in my living room. Why stop at three items of clothing? There might be a clean top that fits me. It could be like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Laundry Bag. They'll never know. I'll come straight home, wash everything, and return it.
Then again, the day I show up to class in semi-stolen clothes will probably be the day I start on a downward spiral. What's to stop me from stealing someone's grocery bag or underwear?
"Maybe I should take an Adulting 101 class," I tell myself as my third alarm and a knock on the door interrupts me. "Or maybe get a cat so I'm not talking to myself."
I take off my wet socks and tap the phone alarm silent. The knock on the door is quick and cheerful. I like to think that you can tell a lot about people by the way they knock on doors. At seven fifteen in the morning, no one should be that damn peppy.
I throw on my silky robe that's hanging from the couch and make my way to the door. The person on the other side knocks again in the fifteen steps it takes me to get there. I'm pretty sure they're trying to tap out the tune of "Single Ladies," which is always a great song to have stuck in your head.
"Who is it?"
"Hi, it's your neighbor," a male voice answers. "I think I got your laundry bag by mistake."
My stomach does a weird flip-floppy thing, like I've been caught doing something wrong. That's probably because I am being caught doing something wrong.
"Just a second!" I shout to buy myself time. I look around the room, but there's nothing I can do except answer the door. I clear my throat and undo the bottom lock, then the middle, and leave the chain lock intact.
"Hi," I say in my best attempt to be nonchalant, as in, "Hi, I didn't just use your clothes to clean my floor."
At first, he's just a tall and blurry blob that my brain can't process because this is a terrible, terrible morning. It takes me a second to notice him. Really notice him. The door creates a shadow that obstructs his features. Then, he steps slightly to the right so we face each other through the three inches of open door and the morning light behind me illuminates him.
His strong chin rests just above the chain lock. He's smiling, and I was right. He is too damn peppy for this early in the morning. He's also too damn fine to be standing at my door. I rub one eye, just to make sure I'm seeing right, and, yep, he's still there — the most beautiful man I don't remember ordering.
I almost forget why he's here when he holds up a pink laundry slip with my name on it.
The back of my mind is going, "All the single ladies —"
He smiles and my brain forgets the rest of the words to the song. I zone in on his face, though I'm pretty sure the rest of him doesn't disappoint. I love faces. How unique and different every single one is. I love his face. His smile crinkles at the corners of his lips. It pushes all the way up his face, like he's truly happy to see me, despite this ungodly hour of morning. It's a shameless smile because he knows, he has to know, the effect it has on people. On me.
"Uhm," I start to say, trying to wade through the fog of thoughts.
"Your apartment smells amazing," he tells me, looking past me and inside. "Is that a Colombian roast?"
I can feel my face scrunch up with confusion. Then, I'm completely aware of how quickly this stranger looks at my toes, the long stretch of my bare legs, and tries not to linger at the silky robe that clings to my breasts. I self-consciously pull the robe closer. The dull pulse of a caffeine-deprived headache starts to ebb its way into my brain
"So," he says, because I'm just staring at his face. I'm shamelessly staring. "Are you holding my clothes hostage? Is that what this chain is for?"
Playful. Charming. It's too early to be those things, but he's managing it. When he smiles again, my belly drops straight through my body and down the six floors of the apartment building.
Dammit. Not now, I scold my mind. At least I still have a slightly reasonable part of my brain that works.
"Right! Give me a minute." I shut the door in his face and run across the living room where his open bag of laundry is. I face a decision: Come clean (pun intended) and tell him that I used his clothes as a mop. Or, I shove the clothes back in there and let him find the caffeinated surprise later on. At least I know he likes the smell of my coffee.
He knocks on the door twice.
I realize I don't like either of those options. There's a third. I could take a page out of my students' proverbial books. This option would make me both deceptive and a thief, but that is what I'm going to go with. Besides, I'll return everything later on. He has plenty of sweatpants in there. I don't even need to know about the thong anymore. I just want to get dressed and go to work. That is if I still have a job to go back to. So, I kick the soaked clothes into a corner of my kitchen, and drag the bag toward the door.
I undo the chain and face him.
"Here you go," I say, my heart racing from sprinting back and forth. My heart could also be racing because looking at him now without the door obscuring my view is twice as startling as just the sliver of him. It could be that it's been eighteen months and counting since I've met a man who made my pulse throb. Or because he's equal parts rugged and charming, which is my favorite combination.
In his navy-blue sweats and white ribbed tank, he looks like he could've just left the gym. A duffel bag rests on the floor right behind him, next to my laundry bag, and I realize the tank top I "stole" from him can't be his. His chest is too broad, too solid. I catch myself staring at the curve of his shoulders, and mentally bite him, while trying to restrain myself. Who needs self-control when you're already in a tailspin, amirite?
Down, girl, I think. I realize that there is only a thin sheet of silk between us. And a door. And, well, our laundry bags. Whatever. We are really, really close to being basically naked together.
He lifts his Red Sox cap and runs his hand across his soft, light-brown hair. There's a question marring his features. He doesn't ask it out loud but I'm sure it's along the lines of "Are you crazy?" Instead, he says, "Thanks, darlin'."
I hate pet names. But when my neighbor says it, I don't seem to mind at all. Hell, I'm even getting warm and tingly. He shakes his head, as if dispelling the thoughts in there. I wonder what he was thinking. He picks up my laundry bag and swaps it out with his.
The exchange has been made.
"You're a lifesaver," I tell him. "I'm officially out of clean clothes."
He laughs, and I decide it's the most wonderful sound I've ever heard.
"I don't know," he says. "That silk robe is a pretty good look."
I feel the burning blush creep up my neck and settle in my cheeks. It's not that I'm impressionable. I'm not. Well, I don't think I am. It's that he's caught me off guard. It's early and I'm late for work. If I'm going down that road, I'm late for my life in general, but that's a can of worms I'd rather not open.
"All the single ladies," my mind singsongs.
Then, my fourth alarm goes off.
Panic replaces my attraction to my handsome neighbor. I start to shove him out of my doorway. He budges easily, taking a step back when I take a step forward, like we're doing some sort of morning tango.
"Thanks again, but I've got to go. I'm late for work and the new principal is probably going to fire me, so thanks but —" I start to close the door when he interrupts.
"Where do you work? I could give you a ride."
"Because you're late and the new principal —"
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" I cut him off.
He shakes his head once, and I wonder if I'm imagining the glimmer in his eyes. "Just got home. The only place I have to be is my bed."
I can't help it. The mental image of him on his bed overpowers my thoughts. It's probably a very, very big bed. He looks like he spreads out on it completely naked.
I clear my throat and point to the window. "I teach up here by Astoria Park."
"I can drop off my things while you get dressed. I just moved into 5A a couple of weeks ago."
"You're right under me," I say. Then wish I hadn't.
"I am." He smiles his crooked smile and he leans a little closer to the door, careful to not step back in the doorway.
I recognize the implication in his grin, and suddenly, the silk robe I'm wearing feels more like a fur coat in the middle of July. I wonder where he's from and what his favorite song is, and whether he's a model or an actor because he's not normal-person attractive. He's a little too big and muscular to be the thin, European models in the latest issue of my Vogue. But his face. Damn, dat face.
God. I have to stop eating lunch with my fifth graders.
"You should wear the red dress," he says and winks.
As he picks up his laundry bag and slings it over his shoulder, I find myself stuck between being indignant and flattered.
"You went through my clothes?"
"Did you go through mine?" He laughs good-naturedly.
I cross my arms over my chest. "No."
I realize I sound more like one of my students than the twenty-eight-year-old child I truly am. Deny until you believe your own lie, right?
He bares his teeth and I swear that he's letting me get away with it. That's when I realize that I really, truly can't get a ride from him. Not just because he went through my undies (Hey, Pot! Meet Kettle!), but because it would be harder to return the clothes that are bunched up in a corner of my kitchen floor. I don't want anything to do with him after the laundry exchange. I can already feel the warmth of his smile creeping along my skin and that just can't happen. There is no room for this feeling in my life right now. Plus, how do you look a man in the face and say, "Btw, here's your sparkly thong. I washed it."
Plus, plus! Stranger danger. How can I caution my students about getting into strangers' cars when I'm minutes away from doing the same?
"It's really nice of you to offer," I start. I want to close the door and get to work. I want to hit the restart button for the hundredth time this week. I want to stay and talk to him because I feel a bud of something wonderful flowering in my chest. And that can't happen. Not right now.
"But, it's totally fine. I usually walk. I'm not very late anyway. Sorry about the laundry mix-up."
He nods once, a suspicious grin on his lips. It turns to a yawn, which he tries to stifle.
"Sorry, long night," he says. "Okay, 6A. Have a good day at work."
He walks away, and I start to close the door when he whirls around. I catch the doorknob just before it slams on the hand he reaches out to me.
"Would you want to get a drink Saturday night?"
I want to say yes.
For the past year, I've been complaining about how hard it is to date in New York City. All of the dating apps in the world weren't able to give me a One True Match. I've waded through a Sea of Douche Bags for so long that I haven't just lost interest in going on another bad first date — a part of me has lost all hope in finding any semblance of love.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stripped"
Copyright © 2018 Zoey Castile.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 - The Thong th-thong thong thong,
2 - You Give Love a Bad Name,
3 - Lady in Red,
4 - What a Girl Wants,
5 - I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In,
6 - Tell Me Tell Me Lies,
7 - Puppy Love,
8 - Slide,
9 - You Are My Kind,
10 - 3 A.M.,
11 - Need You Now,
12 - Tempted to Touch,
13 - Bed,
14 - Leave the Night On,
15 - Take Your Time,
16 - Follow Your Arrow,
17 - Heart of Glass,
18 - Locked Out of Heaven,
19 - Happy Now?,
20 - Crawling Back to You,
21 - Love You Like a Love Song,