|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
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Deems Lambert grumbled like a disgruntled orangutan as he trudged up the stairs to his sister's third floor apartment. He was too old to be reprimanded by a mother living a thousand miles away, but to calm her before she stroked, he'd agreed to check on his little sister while he had the mid-morning free.
He hadn't seen Jan in months and rarely bothered to call her on the phone. Consequently, he hardly knew what was going on in her young life. She kept busy with college, and he with work — both in different sections of Manhattan. Two worlds apart in age and lifestyle.
The staircase creaked underfoot, drawing the attention of a second floor tenant who peeked through a chain-secured door. The old woman's gaze cut him in two. To keep the peace, he smiled politely, even though he hadn't the slightest inclination to make her acquaintance.
Thin, cheap carpet, worn in the center by years of foot traffic, covered the steps. The building was one of the city's many brownstones, converted into an apartment occupying each floor, which helped the landlord pay for the high cost of living in New York. Before the start of the new school year, Jan moved from her dinky dorm room and found this place on East Sixty-Eighth Street, close enough to Hunter College, her school of choice. He helped her move what few possessions she owned but hadn't taken the time afterward to see what she'd done with the place.
Truthfully, he never expected her to last this long. Two years under her belt and still no declared major or plans for a future. Big deal, a bunch of liberal art courses. "Until I decide what I want to do," she'd said. He'd be old and gray before she made a decision. But she was his little sister, and he'd help her in any way possible. If she wanted to live here, fine. The place was decent enough. At least, no odoriferous smells assaulted his nose, like decomposing garbage.
Deems paused midway up the third flight, because a lion blocked his path. Not an actual lion, more like an over-sized tomcat fed too many snacks. He glared at the creature, willing it to move, but the furry ball lay spread on the step like a rolled-up rug, eyeing him through one open slit, his purr more like a growl. "Shoo!"
Did one say shoo to a cat? What other word applied? Scat? Scram? The damn beast hardly twitched a muscle except to yawn. Since an important part of his anatomy was in danger of being clawed from his body, Deems cupped a hand around his testicles and stepped over the feline.
The stuffiness worsened as he climbed. Too cool for air conditioning and too warm for a heater. No windows either. Hence, no air flow. The higher he climbed, the hotter the air, and he loosened his tie enough to relieve the strangling effect of limited oxygen.
When Jan first chose this old place and called to tell him, she bubbled with the enthusiasm of a young woman finally on her own. Even though he'd agreed to pay her rent, he'd gladly dole out more for a better apartment. Unfortunately, she loved the layout the second she crossed the threshold.
Slightly breathless and with leg muscles complaining, he stood before door number three, hesitant. Maybe he should have called. What if she wasn't home or still asleep? He had so much to do at the office. He checked his watch. Twelve twenty-three. Too late now. He raised a fist to knock when the door flew open. A woman stopped in her tracks, mouth agape, a pair of gorgeous green eyes wide. Her hair was a mane of dark brown, long and wavy, that floated around her shoulders.
Gripping the doorknob, she retreated a step. "Oh!"
His heart slammed against his rib cage. He attributed the sensation to the suddenness of her appearance, but wow, what a beauty! Swallowing hard and forcing a scowl, he dropped his hand. "You're supposed to look through the peephole before you open the door. This is New York, you know, not the safest city on Earth." She scowled right back, not in a mad sort of way since her sparkling gaze nearly bowled him over.
She scanned him from head to toe. "We don't receive too many well-dressed men at our door. What do you want?"
"I'm looking for Janice Lambert."
"Jan, for you!" She rushed past him. "Behave yourself. I'm only running to the first floor for the mail."
A vanilla scent drifted to his nose, and he snapped his head in a quick double-take. Although a familiar fragrance, she somehow made it truly intoxicating. Clearing his throat, he cupped a hand near his mouth. "Watch out for the lion on the steps!"
She glanced over her shoulder and grinned. "That's King George. He's harmless." Within a second, she disappeared down the stairs.
Without question, she had a strong-looking appearance with broad shoulders tapering to a slim waist, definitely not the pampered type with delicate bones and painted fingernails, but not a muscle-bound Goliath either. If he had to pick a word, he'd use healthy with meat in all the right places, filling her blue jeans and T-shirt nicely.
Startled, he turned to see his sister standing in the doorway. Jan was a small woman, five foot if that, and fit his definition of delicate, except he knew her to be a feisty little devil. Her light brown hair, cut Afro style, was frizzier than ever, and combined with her tie-dyed clothes, she resembled a throwback to the 1960s flower-child era. As with most city dwellers, her skin had a milky-white appearance since the only way to obtain a tan was from spending time on a rooftop. She was younger by ten years, and because of their age spread, they were never close.
She gave him a quick hug. "Well, this is a treat, especially for a guy who has to schedule a time to pee." Hands on hips, she stepped back. "What brings you here?"
Scrunching his face at her comment about his busy work schedule, he crossed the threshold and sucked in a whiff of her familiar citrus scent. "Mom called. She yelled at me for not checking on you." He and Jan weren't blessed with the same mother. Only four at the time, his mother had died after a short illness. A few years passed before his father remarried. Then, along came Jan. At ten years old, he was in no mood to have a baby sister, but he grew to love her and would do anything to make her happy — short of spoiling her to death.
Looking around, he stood in the living room where nothing matched. Different size end tables, different colored lamps. A comfy sofa of red, a stiff side chair of purple. On the wall, a flat-screen TV faced the sofa along with posters of rock stars, none of whom he recognized.
The living room led to the two bedrooms and one bath while a small eat-in kitchen sat off to the side in its own tight cubbyhole. A typical New York City apartment demanding exorbitant rent for scant amenities. At least, the place had a few windows — one in the kitchen, one in each bedroom, and a skylight in the bathroom since Jan had the top floor. "Nice job with decorating." What else could he say that the place was as colorful as her clothes? He had offered her money to buy furniture, but she stubbornly refused.
Jan patted an orange pillow and positioned it in the corner of the sofa. "Thanks. I saved a bundle by shopping at yard sales."
More like something left at curbside for trash pickup. He motioned with his thumb toward the door. "Who was the woman I passed?"
"My roommate. She'll be back."
This was news. His brow cocked. "You never told me about a roommate."
Patting a blue pillow, she placed it in the opposite sofa corner. "She's short term. She needed a place to stay for five months, and I wanted some company." As she waved him to follow into the kitchen, Jan threw a furtive glance toward the open front door. "Hurry."
She shoved him through the archway and toward the stove. Leaning forward, she shot a quick glance over her shoulder. "I know you're paying my monthly rent, but Lauren doesn't know, and our agreement is for her to pay half. I use the money for the utilities and groceries." She jutted her small chin and grinned. "You must have noticed I haven't asked for any extra money."
When necessary, Jan never hesitated to call or text her big brother for a handout. She received an allowance but also had a credit card for emergencies. Sometimes, her emergencies created quite a bill. He nodded at his sister with a satisfied smile. "Not a bad arrangement. I commend your initiative." He gave a slight bow.
Jan's face beamed. "A chip off the old block?"
"Undoubtedly." He suppressed a smile.
"The arrangement's been great, too. Lauren's like an older sister. She's closer to your age and has this maturity that I can only hope to achieve. We've become great friends, and I'll miss her when she leaves." She dragged out a kitchen chair from under the table and gestured for him to sit. "Did Mom really call you?"
Wow, the two chairs and table matched! "'fraid so. She had every right to yell. I've been neglecting my little sister." Applying pressure, he checked the chair's sturdiness but wasn't ready to sit. Curiosity about Jan's roommate kept him on his feet, and he slowly inched toward the kitchen entrance. "Mom's threatening to drag Dad back to Chicago so they can entice you to leave New York."
Her small mouth fell open. "Leave Florida for Chicago? Are they crazy? Maybe they're getting too much sun." She pulled out the other chair but didn't sit. "Besides, Chicago isn't that much different from New York. Like you, I'm used to city life." She pointed toward the doorway. "Now, Lauren, she's a fish out of water here. She comes from some small town in Pennsylvania."
The front door closed. Ever so casually, Deems leaned against the archway to see Jan's roommate sorting the mail. Her hair fell forward in gentle waves but not enough to hide her soft profile with the cute chin and slightly upturned nose. No alabaster skin on this woman. Her face and forearms glowed with the tan of outdoor living.
"Want some coffee?"
Jan's voice jerked his attention to the kitchen. "Sure."
"Sit and have a cookie." She opened a tin and slid the container onto the table. "Lauren's a fantastic cook. I can buy anything, and she'll make something mouth-watering."
He settled at the small table and grabbed a cookie. Chocolate chip, one of his favorites.
Eyeing his suit, Jan frowned. "You can take off your suit jacket, Deems."
Sacrilege in his book. A true violation of his dress code. Instead, he undid all three buttons.
As Jan grabbed the coffee carafe and filled the glass with tap water, she rotated her head and smirked. "And the tie, dear brother. You don't always have to dress so formally."
Irritation swept through him. "I just came from the office, Jan, and have every intention of returning. You should know that." A suit and tie were a part of him, like a symbol of the man within. He never wore anything less. "How's school?" Best to avoid the subject of a wardrobe he wouldn't change for anyone.
She sighed heavily. "Boring. I don't know why I'm going." She poured the water into the machine and then opened a can of coffee, sprinkling the grounds into the filter instead of measuring.
After her high school graduation, he had encouraged her to spend a year working in either several service jobs or an office to see what captured her interest. Disregarding his advice, she entered college with no vocation in mind, accumulating credits for subjects that held no value to the outside world. She wasn't building a career. Instead, she majored in wasting time and money. "Is your roommate in one of your classes?" He popped another cookie into his mouth. The combination of butter and chocolate reminded him of his favorite bake shop in Chicago, and he just might wolf down the entire batch.
"Oh, no. She's studying with a well-known Italian artist and is only here for a few more months." With her finger on the start switch, she paused. "I wish I had her focus."
Well, she admits the fault. A plus.
Jan flipped on the appliance and turned, her thin face bright. "Do you want to meet her?"
He'd been wondering how to broach the subject of a formal introduction without sounding interested. The last item on his agenda was for Jan to play matchmaker for her older brother. "Okay, but before you make introductions, what does she know about me?"
She shrugged a set of small shoulders. "That we both have brothers. Other than that, nothing."
No bragging? No big-brother-is-the-best-in-the-world speech? He wasn't sure whether to feel disappointed or relieved.
"I know how private you are, Deems. We only talked about brothers in general." She stepped toward the doorway. "Lauren!"
Jan's roommate wandered in while reading a letter. She glanced up with a jolt to meet Deems' gaze.
His breath hitched. He'd met a lot of beautiful women over the years but never one with such a down-to-earth look. She wore no jewelry, just a plain watch on her left wrist. A trace of mascara accented her eyes, which, in his opinion, needed no enhancement, but her face appeared natural with her cheeks slightly flushed.
Jan grabbed Lauren's arm and edged her toward the table. "Lauren Howell, meet my brother, Deems."
Two perfectly arched eyebrows rose. "Jan mentioned you once or twice." She extended her hand. "Hi."
He stood to take her hand, and sparks shot up his arm on contact. She had a firm grip, stronger than some men on his payroll. Her mouth dropped open slightly as her gaze scanned his face but gave no impression if the spark was mutual. She was of average height, possibly five-six to his six-one, and even had biceps showing from below her T-shirt sleeve. The strong urge to hold onto her hand forever collided with common sense until she tugged a bit to break the spell. Clearing his throat, he released her before she labeled him as some sex-starved New Yorker. "Jan tells me you're an artist."
Jan stepped forward. "Actually, Lauren has a Master's in Education. She's smart."
Smiling, Lauren rolled her eyes. "Not that smart. Look, I'm sure you two want to visit. I'm late for an afternoon class." She grabbed a green apple from the fruit basket on the counter. "I'll be late tonight, Jan, probably after six. Nice to meet you, Mr. Lambert."
Deems watched her from the kitchen entrance as she slipped on a jacket, hoisted a backpack onto one shoulder, and headed for the front door.
She paused to meet his gaze, hand on the doorknob, and a curl of a smile touched her lips that immediately radiated from her eyes. She lifted a hand for a small wave and left, closing the door behind her.
Suddenly, the apartment felt empty. Lauren had a presence about her that he couldn't understand. Maturity certainly. A woman who understood her place in the world. Definitely a far cry from any of Jan's regular friends. He reclaimed his seat at the table while Jan poured two cups of coffee. "She seems nice."
"I like her." Jan extracted the milk carton from the refrigerator and placed the container in front of him.
He pointed to the fruit basket full of red, green, and yellow apples. "Aren't the green ones bitter?"
"Yes, the Granny Smith. Great for cooking, but Lauren likes them as is. The more bitter, the better, she says. I tried one." Crinkling her nose, she shuddered. "Real pucker power."
Deems poured a hefty amount of milk into his cup until the coffee changed to pale beige, the way he drank it. He wasn't sure he should ask the question, but he had to know. "Is Lauren seeing anyone?"
Jan sat and wrapped her hands around the mug. "No, and she won't either. Her ex-fiancé burned her big time. She won't even look at another man."
But she looked at me. For some reason, that minor fact caused his chest to swell. Hiding a grin, he sipped his coffee. "She's very beautiful."
"She's got the looks to stop a freight train. Guys are constantly asking about her." She spooned three teaspoons of sugar into her coffee and stirred. "I wish I was that pretty."
How many men? Two? Twenty? Far too much testosterone floated around a college campus, and Jan's apartment was definitely too close. With little else to say except squelch his annoyance, he reached across the table and squeezed Jan's hand. "You're pretty in your own way. Like me. I'm not one of those drop-dead gorgeous guys that women chase." He released her hand to grab another cookie with thoughts drifting to other possible delights on Lauren's bake list.
"If women knew more about you, they'd chase."
"For all the wrong reasons." He shoved the entire cookie into his mouth and crunched on the buttery sweet goodness.
She wagged a finger. "Not necessarily, big brother. You're always a little too shy around women. I don't understand how you can be such a successful businessman and yet get all tongue-tied around women."
Chewing before he choked to death, he swallowed his mouthful with a sip of coffee. "Not tongue-tied, Jan. Cautious. You know how some women play games."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Until We Say Goodbye"
Copyright © 2018 Jane Drager.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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