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Raphael moore tensed his body then relaxed it one inch at a time. He began with his toes, moving up his calves to his knees, and concentrated on releasing the strain in his lower back. Breathing evenly, he imagined floating on a warm, soothing ocean current, the heat of the sun hypnotically beating down on him, and drifted off into a dreamy half consciousness that soon would lead to sleep.
"Oh, that's so good . Touch me right there ."
"Dammit!" he cursed as his eyes shot open. The agitation of being wrenched out of his relaxed state doubled his shock. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes again, trying to control his heartbeat. He flexed his fingers in an attempt to catch hold of what had almost been hisa good night's sleep.
"I love how you kiss me. I want your mouth everywhere ."
He sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, planting his palms tightly against his ears, attempting to block out the woman's voice. He could still hear her moans and sighs.
Obviously she was having a very good time, and he had no problem with that, but couldn't she do it with the window shut? He felt like some pervert, for Chrissakes, listening in.
The action happening a few yards away wasn't the only thing that was hot. A freak heat wave had temperatures up near ninety for Christmas in San Diego. It was inducing weird behaviors in everyone, the unusual weather combined with the usual holiday madness. His neighbors, however, seemed to enjoy being all sweaty.
After just having left the bitter cold of New York, he welcomed the heat, too. Summer was his favorite season. Even the smothering, humid city air in July and August didn't faze him. He'd happily embraced the West Coast, which didn't look at all Christ-massy to him, in spite of the holiday decorations.
It felt like August, not December, and Rafe knew he'd made the right decision taking Warren up on his offer to stay here while his buddy was on his honeymoon in Thailand. Warren had grown up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Rafe. As kids they'd been inseparable and had served time on the volunteer ambulance together before Warren had decided that life wasn't for him. Now he had his own consulting business in sunny California. He'd been bugging Rafe to come out for a while, so Rafe had flown out for the wedding, then stayed to house-sit. It was great timing for both of them. Rafe had the place to himself for a month until Warren and his bride returned on January third.
If only for the neighbors, it would have been perfect. Warren had bought this little fixer-upper on a small residential street in North Park, and after the renovation the house was going to be fabulous. Rafe liked working with his hands, and it helped to have something to do. He was used to working, and he'd go nuts sitting around all day. He'd remodeled his entire apartment in Brooklyn, a relaxing activity in his off hours. Warren was happy to have him do some work on the house.
This was Rafe's first time in California, and he'd taken to it immediately. The sunshine and heat had lightened his mood as soon as he'd hit the tarmac. A native New Yorker, he hadn't been sure about leaving his home, but San Diego was heaven by comparison, at least at this time of year.
"A little lower please ." a sexy woman's voice begged.
Rafe experienced a stirring in his groin that he had no business feeling, but hell, he was a man and he'd been listening to this monologue for three nights running. How many months had passed since a woman had talked to him like that? Insomnia was a libido killer.
Before his sleeplessness, his job had ruled his life, including his sex life. Being an emergency medical technician was all he'd ever wanted to do.
He'd thought about medical school, but he wasn't interested in the years of training it took to be a doctor. He liked the action of emergency services over being camped out in a classroom. Instead of spending the last twelve years studying how to help people, he'd been able to do it every day.
Despite the constant stress and pressure, for years he'd thrived on helping people when they needed it most. That was until this past year. Suddenly he couldn't sleep. Nothing helped, save the pills that he refused to take. Pills might address the insomnia issue, but they wouldn't solve the larger problemwhy he'd burned out on the job after all those years, and why he couldn't handle it anymore.
All he could see was the endless stream of people in trouble and that they'd lost far too many of them. His last loss had been a five-year-old girl with asthma, alone at home in her tenement apartment. No one had been there to help her when she'd suffered a serious attack, and her parents hadn't been able to afford the costly medicines. Though the girl had been smart enough to dial 911, Rafe had gotten there too late.
Over the years, there had been so many cases like that he could barely keep count. Lots of good stories, too, but the bad ones were catching up with him. Like the husband and father of six children who had died right in front of him after being hit by a drunk driver, or the teenager shot on the street for no apparent reason while coming home from a graduation party. Their faces haunted Rafe as he lay awake in the dark hours of the night.
Something critical that had kept him sane seemed to have broken. The result was he'd lost his sense of purpose, his drive to do the work.
The insomnia might be a cause or a symptom, he still wasn't sure, but it had messed up his life for good. When he'd almost crashed the ambulancewith a patient on boardhe'd been put on paid leave, and he couldn't argue with that decision. The company had taken his record into account and hadn't fired himthey were treating his break as accumulated sick and vacation time. However, if he couldn't solve his sleep problem, he knew he'd be in for permanent retirement.
The prospect made him feel hollow inside, and he pushed it away, knowing it would torture him for the rest of the night, at least. That was part of the problem, the endless thoughts that wouldn't stop, and the more he tried, the more they barged through, keeping him awake even when he was exhausted.
"Oh, yes again "
Rafe fell back on the bed, groaning, but not in pleasure. How long were they going to keep at it? It wasn't normalthese people went at it for hours every night. He wanted to be cool, to say, "More power to ya," but in truth he wanted them to shut the hell up and go to sleep.
Grabbing a pillow and heading to the sofa in the living room, even though it was about eight inches too short for his six-foot frame, he walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
"DAD, I'M SORRY, I just can'tI know, it's yours and Lois's first Christmas together, so maybe it's better for you to spend it alone."
"Joy, we'd love to have you. It would be good for you and Lois to get to know each other."
Joy Clarke closed her eyes, exhausted, counting to twenty before responding. She'd met her new stepmother at her father's wedding, and liked her well enough. Lois was a nice woman who made her father happy. Still, Joy wasn't particularly interested in bonding. Her own mother had left them when she was nine. Since Lois was only ten years older than Joy, she was hardly a maternal figure.
"I know, that would be nice. Maybe in summer."
"That's what you said last spring."
"Work is crazy, Dad. I'm up for a promotion, and I can't afford to take time off now. Holidays are crazy in the toy business."
In truth, Christmas was a year-round holiday in her industry, everyone competing to get a jump on what the next hot product would be and making sure marketing and distribution was in place if they found it.
"I'm proud of what you've accomplished, Joy. You work hard, like I taught you, but I hope you'll be able to take some time off to come home. Perhaps once you get that promotion."
"Yeah, Dad. I have to go. Duty calls."
"Okay, sweetheart. Work hard, now."
"Always do," she said, hanging up the phone on the familiar exchange they'd shared since she was a child. He always told her to work hardas he hadand she always did.
Joy settled her face in her hands, permitting herself a moment of quiet. She wanted a nap, badly. But a two-minute power-nap wasn't going to replace all the sleep she'd been losing thanks to restless dreams that were bothering her as much when she was awake as when she was asleep.
For several weeks, she'd had strange, muddled sexual dreams that left her edgy and restless. At first, they weren't about anyone in particular, just a shadowy figure who brought her to the edge of pleasure, but denied her real satisfaction. Then her neighbor, Warren, whom she barely knew, caught her by her car one day and told her a friend of his would be house-sitting over the holidays. She'd listened dutifully though honestly she had so much to do she didn't keep track of her neighbor's comings and goings. Warren told her the friend's nameRafe Mooreand a general description. She hadn't thought twice about it at the time, until she'd seen the house sitter moving in, hauling his bags from the taxi that dropped him off.
Ever since well, suffice to say her vague dream lover had taken on a real face. The experiences were getting much more intense, more explicit, and even more satisfying, but she woke up every morning exhausted. It was aggravatingwhy was she dreaming about this guy every night? She'd never even spoken to him, just watched him walk from the car to the house, puttering in the yard, in all his shirtless glory .
She groaned, trying to shake away the thoughts. It was bad enough he was in her head every night, let alone starting to obsess about him in the daylight hours. She had to work. She'd managed to dodge the bullet of having to go to her father's house for Christmas this year, using the one excuse her dad always gave merit: work. Never failed, but she wouldn't be able to put them off forever.
Her excuse was the truth thoughshe really was buried under work. The piles of papers and file folders stacked up all over her desk was proof of that.
As the public relations officer in charge of handling recalls, which happened fairly regularly in the toy-manufacturing industry, her responsibility was to make sure that the company's image didn't suffer when a product didn't work. God forbid anyone got hurt or worse, but sometimes it happened. Her whole life was about spin control, but she also legitimately tried to make sure that customers were taken care of, and would continue to buy Carr Toys.
She was good at doing that. Still, as corporate bottom lines became more pressing, manufacturing was forced to lay off more workers. The remaining staff had to pick up the slack, taking on more and more work. That had inevitably led to the making of more production mistakes. The result of those ended up in her lap. Her life had become a parade of broken toys and apologies on behalf of her company.
It wasn't what she'd pictured when she'd chosen PR as a major in college, where her classes had always been fun and exciting. Her professors had said she had talent, and she'd believed them. When she'd taken a job with a toy company, somehow she'd expected it to be fun. Six years later though, turning the corner of her thirtieth birthday, she knew better.
Carr was a multibillion-dollar company with three manufacturing locations, worldwide distributors and hefty competition within a troubled economy where customers were more than willing to sue when a product had a defect, especially a dangerous one.
Thanks to the triple punch of corporate downsizing, performance testing, and the replacement of older, more experienced employees with younger ones at lower pay and benefits, the work atmosphere had become increasingly cutthroat. She was up for a promotion, but she was also going against three other department managers who would be happy to sell their grandmothers for the same job.
Pressure, not fun, had become the name of the game. Fun was only a marketing strategy.
Joy could work under pressure because it was required of her, but it was something she'd had to become accustomed to. When things got tough, she remembered all the years her dad, who had been a utilities lineman, had worked weekends, holidays and whatever else he'd had to do to support them.
He never complained about it, and that taught her the value of hard work. She'd learned from his example. She took pride in what she did, but lately, in weak moments, she wondered if it was enough.
She straightened in her chair and turned her attention to the nearest pile of folders, picking the top one off and opening it. Then eyeing the calendar, she pursed her lips.
Two weeks before Christmas.