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The Hang Up
A First Impressions Story
By Tawna Fenske, Stephen Morgan
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Tawna Fenske
All rights reserved.
Miriam Ashley glanced at her Cartier wristwatch as she hurried out to the mailbox in front of her house. The heel on her Jimmy Choo stiletto caught on the edge of the sidewalk, but Miriam barely wobbled.
Bitch, please. She'd been maneuvering in heels since she was old enough to go to the mall without a grown-up. Even though Saturdays didn't require her to report for duty as co-owner of First Impressions Branding and PR, Miriam was still rockin' the uniform.
She was always rockin' the uniform.
Her watch read one fifteen, which gave her just enough time to grab the mail, fix herself a smoothie, then watch three TiVo-ed episodes of Project Runway before meeting up with her best friend for cocktails. Which of course meant work in a roundabout way, since her best friend was also her business partner. If she hurried, maybe she'd even have time to —
Miriam glanced up to see a homeless man standing in front of her. At least, she assumed he was homeless. He was filthy from head to toe, covered in mud like he'd been rolling around beneath an overpass. Poor guy.
"Yes?" She shoved one hand in her jacket pocket to fish for spare change, but didn't find any, so she slipped her keys between the knuckles of her other hand like she'd been taught in a women's self-defense class.
Miriam was always prepared.
But the guy didn't seem to be lunging for her wallet or her tits. In fact, he looked downright cheerful. His smile made cracks in the filth covering his face, and his eyes — startlingly bright blue — almost seemed to be laughing. He sure as hell didn't look like a serial killer, but she was hardly the best judge. It wasn't like serial killers routinely appeared on her doorstep seeking help with a marketing plan.
"I was wondering if you could help me," the man said. His voice was deep and smooth, like dark chocolate, and she felt her stomach ball up in a funny, fizzy little knot.
"Of course, I'm happy to help," she said. "There's a shelter a little less than a mile from here. I know they have a shower truck that drives around to some of the different parks, and they serve three meals a day, but I'm guessing you just missed lunch since it's after one."
"Wait!" she said, desperate to be helpful. "I just remembered I have some leftover sushi from dinner last night. If you want to hang on, I can go inside and grab it for you."
"That's very kind, but —"
"Sorry, what am I thinking?" She smacked her forehead with her palm, which hurt a lot more than it should have since she'd forgotten the damn keys between her fingers. "You'd probably prefer something a little more substantial, like a sandwich or a protein shake or —"
That stopped her. "Ma'am?" She frowned. "Do I look that old?"
"What?" The guy laughed and shook his head, and Miriam was struck by how sexy that damn laugh was.
Quit ogling the homeless guy. And he was still talking! Pay attention.
"... just trying to be polite," he said, rubbing a hand over a jaw thick with mud-covered stubble. "I'm new to the area, so I guess I don't have the local professional lingo down yet, but 'ma'am' seemed more respectful than 'hey you' or 'baby' or 'beautiful,' even though you are. Beautiful, I mean. Stunning, really."
"Oh." She felt herself starting to blush, and she briefly wondered if he was just saying that to butter her up so he could beat her senseless and steal her wallet. Then she realized that was a lousy thing to think. She'd done a pro bono marketing campaign for a homeless shelter last year, so she knew the majority of homeless people weren't criminals or degenerates. They were just regular people who'd had a stroke of bad luck.
"I'm sorry," she told him. "That must be really hard, finding yourself homeless in a new area without friends or family around to help."
"Homeless?" He quirked an eyebrow at her, which made more cracks in the mud on his face. "I'm not homeless. I just bought a place down the street. Two blocks away — it's the blue duplex with the white shutters."
He pointed toward a shady, tree-lined section of the neighborhood, and she recalled seeing the glossy "sold" sticker tacked up on the real estate sign a few weeks ago. She looked back at the man. Okay, upon closer inspection, she could see he wore expensive running shoes and trendy, designer athletic apparel, even if it was covered in mud. What the hell?
"I just did the Tough Mudder," he said, answering her unasked question. "You know, the big race with all the mud pits and obstacles?"
"Right," Miriam said, and recognition dawned as the guy turned around to show her the dirt-covered number pinned to his back. At least, that's what she assumed he was showing her, though her eyes strayed down to one of the most impressive asses she'd ever seen.
Even if it was covered in mud.
The guy turned back around before she thought to avert her gaze. The result was an awkward five-second pause where she found herself staring at his crotch.
Also very impressive.
She gave herself a mental slap and met his eyes again. "So what are you doing walking around looking like a giant malt ball? Don't they have showers or something at the finish line?"
He grinned, flashing a set of perfectly white teeth that contrasted with the mud. "Just hoses. Hoses with really cold water. I figured since I only lived a couple miles from the race course, I could just run there as my warm-up and run home as my cooldown, and then I could grab a warm shower at home."
"Right," Miriam said, trying to wrap her brain around the idea of willingly running four miles on top of whatever the hell they ran in the actual race. People really did this on purpose?
"The thing is," the guy continued, "I lost my key somewhere in the racecourse, and now I can't get back in my house to shower off in time to make it to a doctor's appointment."
Sympathy fluttered through her belly, or maybe that was anxiety. Probably anxiety. The mention of doctors and hospitals and anything medically related tended to send her spiraling down a path of panicked memories and despondent terror, and she found herself gripping her keys a little tighter.
"You have to get to the doctor?" she asked.
"The appointment's at two. Please, I just need to borrow your phone to call a locksmith. Then I'll be out of your hair, I swear."
She glanced at him, then back at her house. Her phone was back on the entry table, but right beside that was her guest bathroom with a shower the guy could use without stepping more than five feet inside her place. Ordinarily she'd think twice about inviting a strange man into her home, but there was something about this man that made her consider it. She could always stand there with a butcher knife, ready to stick it in him if he tried anything funny.
She hesitated, then looked back at the guy.
"I'm Jason, by the way," he said, smiling wider. "Jason Sanders. I'd shake your hand, but I don't want to get mud on you."
"Miriam." She added polite and considerate to his list of attributes. His eyes were kind, and he seemed sweet and well-spoken.
That's probably what every serial killer's victim thinks just before he strangles her with her own panty hose.
But she wasn't wearing panty hose, and she did have a soft spot for friendly, burly, blue-eyed, stubble-jawed guys in need.
"Come on," she said and turned toward her walkway. "Follow me."
"Follow you where?"
"My house. You can't stand out here being dirty."
He quirked one eyebrow, which caused the mud to crack on his forehead. "You'd rather I be dirty in your house?"
Hell yeah, her libido telegraphed, but she shook her head.
"No, I mean I have a shower in the guest bath that's right by the front door. You can call a locksmith and then clean up while you wait for him."
"That's very kind of you." He seemed to hesitate. "Aren't you worried I'm some sort of deranged killer?"
"You don't seem to have any weapons, though I guess I haven't frisked you."
"By all means ..." He held up his arms, and the sight of those well-toned biceps sent a fresh shiver of pleasure through her, but she held it together as she turned toward her house.
"I'll take your word for it."
"Thank you." He put his arms down and smiled broadly. "You're too kind."
"Not really. The sight of all that mud under your fingernails is making my skin crawl. I'm doing this for purely selfish reasons."
"I'll take it," he said behind her as she started up the path to her front door.
She could have sworn she heard him laugh as he followed her up the walkway.
* * *
Jason finished drying off with the fluffy green towel the woman had given him, then inspected it to make sure he hadn't smeared it with any residual mud. He'd been careful not to leave dirt streaks in her shower, too, conscious of the pristine white tile and the expensive-looking array of bath products lined up on the built-in shelves.
Whoever this woman was, she must own stock in a beauty supply store.
Miriam, he reminded himself, rolling the name around in his brain like a cinnamon Life Saver on his tongue. She'd said her name was Miriam, and though she'd seemed nervous enough to offer up a fake name, he didn't think that was the case. She looked like a Miriam, all flashing green eyes and glossy dark curls that he bet would feel exquisitely soft twisted around his fingers. She was built like a 1950s pinup girl, lush curves and full lips that practically begged to be kissed hard.
Stop thinking like that.
He glanced at the clock on the wall. It was one thirty already, and he'd be pushing it to make it to the hospital on time. His five-year-old nephew, Henry, had his third appointment with the new pediatric oncologist. As of last Friday, Henry was officially in partial remission, but they weren't out of the dark yet.
Jason's sister, Ellie, would be with him, of course. Henry was her son, after all, but Jason wanted to be there, too.Needed to be there. The whole reason he'd moved them all to the city in the first place was so Henry would have access to the best medical facilities and doctors. So Ellie or Jason could be with the boy at all times instead of trusting Henry's well-being to babysitters and day care providers. These early stages of remission were a crucial time for the whole family, and Jason's new job made it possible for one of them to be with Henry around the clock.
Jason finished drying himself with the green towel, then folded it neatly on the edge of the counter. Wait, no. That didn't seem right. Maybe he should hang it up? Or hand it right to Miriam so she could put it in the laundry?
Good idea, dumbass. Hand a gorgeous stranger the towel you just used to dry your balls.
He was still contemplating the folded towel when the door burst open behind him. He spun around to see — a cat?
"Fuzzy, no! Oh my God, come back here!"
Before Jason could grab the towel or even cover his crotch with a free hand, Miriam appeared in the doorway. She looked frazzled and frantic, and he froze at the sight of her.
Miriam froze, too. Her cheeks went bright red, and as Jason watched her gaze drop lower, he remembered why he'd been reaching for the towel.
"Hi there." He grabbed the towel off the counter. He should probably move a little faster, but the heated look in her eye as she stood there with her gaze fixed on his crotch left him in no particular hurry. He'd never been especially modest, but he'd also never been so blatantly ogled by a gorgeous woman.
"Thanks for the shower," he said.
"Wha —" She seemed to shake herself out of some kind of trance as he spread the towel open, wrapped it around his waist, and tucked the edge in against his hip.
She licked her lips and drew her gaze from his crotch to his face. "I'm so sorry!"
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "I'm not sure how to feel about a woman who stares at my junk for that long and says 'I'm sorry.'"
Her cheeks went a shade darker, but she laughed and raked her fingers through those glossy curls. "I'm sorry for walking in on you, not for what's behind that towel. There's not a damn thing to be sorry for behind that towel." She cleared her throat. "Not that I was looking. Not that I noticed whether it was really impressive or not or —" She shook her head and glanced away. "I should probably stop talking now."
Seeing her flushed and flustered and beautiful in the doorway gave him at least a dozen ideas of things he'd like to do besides talking, but he settled for nodding as he finger-combed his wet hair. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"My cat," she said suddenly, and her gaze scanned the bathroom. "I can't believe he did that."
The fluffy white feline was perched on the toilet lid, looking bored as he swiped a paw behind one ear. Miriam scrambled forward to grab him, and the warm, silky sleeve of her blouse brushed Jason's bare arm as she moved past. He stepped aside and noticed how carefully she seemed to be keeping her eyes averted now.
"Bad kitty," she scolded as she scooped up the fluffy white ball. "Bad, bad, kitty."
The cat looked almost smug as Miriam cradled him against her breasts, and it was the first time in Jason's life he'd felt jealous of a cat. Miriam moved past him again, her gaze fixed on her wayward pet.
"Sorry about that." She pivoted in the doorway to look him in the eye. "He has a bad habit of pushing doors open if they're not latched all the way."
"In that case, I apologize for not latching it," he said. "My mistake."
"Not your fault. It's an older house, so a lot of the doors don't close properly." Her gaze flickered over his chest and lingered for a few seconds before returning to his face. "Good Lord, you're in great shape."
He laughed. "Thanks. And thank you for the change of clothes." He nodded at the stack of blue hospital scrubs she'd handed him earlier, and Miriam looked at the pile. Some of the smolder seemed to vanish from her eyes as she stared at the heap of blue fabric for a moment.
"No problem," she said at last, her voice softer than it had been just seconds before. "They're my dad's. Were my dad's. He's a doctor. Was a doctor." Miriam shook her head and adjusted her hold on the cat. "He passed away last year, but hopefully those will fit. He was about your size."
The wistful tone in her voice made Jason want to reach for her, but he opted to reach for the scrubs instead. "I'm sorry," he said. He couldn't think of anything else to say, but that seemed like enough.
"Thank you." Miriam nodded. "I'll let you get dressed now. Shout if you need anything."
Balancing the cat on one hip, she pulled the door closed behind her. Jason dropped the towel, pulled the scrubs on, and glanced at the clock again. He wished he could stay here all day getting to know his gorgeous new neighbor with the killer curves and the Peeping-Tom cat and the fuck-me eyes that made him want to call her back to demonstrate just how unoffended he'd been by her apparent interest in his anatomy.
Truth be told, it turned him on.
Which she'd probably noticed, considering how long her gaze had been fixed there. Well, no matter.
He had more pressing things to think about right now than polished brunettes with lingering stares. Like the fact that he was running late for Henry's appointment.
Or the fact that he was starting a brand-new job on Monday. Holy hell, he still couldn't believe it. Jason Sanders, CEO of the second-largest sporting goods retailer in America.
Not that he was a complete neophyte when it came to running a recreation-focused business. The executive team at Urban Trax had seemed impressed with his experience operating his own outdoor adventure tour company for the past decade, and Jason certainly had the know-how to lead a large corporation like Urban Trax.
He'd just never held a job that required footwear besides hiking boots.
Jason pulled on the scrub top, relieved to discover it fit well. Miriam had sized him up perfectly. He grabbed the plastic bag that held his muddy clothes and shoes, then pulled open the bathroom door and walked into the living room.
Miriam was seated on the sofa, stroking a hand over her cat's back while she flipped through a fashion magazine. She looked up as he walked in, and he felt a wave of heat rush through his body.
"The locksmith just called," she said. "He's five minutes out, so he should get to your place right about the time you do."
"Perfect," he said. "Thanks again for the shower. And the clothes. I'll wash them and run them by later this week."
"No need. Keep them. Consider them a housewarming gift or something."
"That's a switch from a tray of cookies."
She laughed. "I'm not much of a cookie baker, so you're better off with the scrubs."
It was on the tip of his tongue to use that as an entrée, to ask her if she'd be willing to show him some of her favorite restaurants, maybe let him take her to dinner sometime.
You don't have time for that, he reminded himself. You've got enough on your plate taking care of Henry and Ellie. Don't get distracted.
Right. He cleared his throat. "Thanks again. Seriously, you really saved my butt here."
Excerpted from The Hang Up by Tawna Fenske, Stephen Morgan. Copyright © 2016 Tawna Fenske. 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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