“No, no, I’m good. Actually, I like the piano. Statement piece and all.” He grinned and looked more directly at her. “Does that change your opinion of me?”
She looked right at him then. “No.”
He laughed outright.
“What?” she said. “I said it didn’t change my opinion. My opinion wasn’t a bad one.”
“You just said it straight out, like having an opinion of me doesn’t come into play because that’s not part of the job.”
She eyed him. “You got all that out of a simple no?”
He studied her face for a long moment. “I’m pretty good at reading people.”
She started to turn away from him again just as the pink rose to her neck, but he found he really didn’t want her to escape. So, without thinking, he reached out and touched the side of her cheek, turning her face back to his.
He rolled his eyes, but didn’t take his hand away. “We’re not business associates. Quinn. Please.”
“As long as you have leased furniture in your bungalow, you’re a client.”
“I signed waivers on all of that. If anything happens to any of it—”
“That’s not what I meant. I just meant ... you’re a client. You leased a home I staged, with pieces I’ll still be responsible for again at some point, and that’s business, so—”
“So, you can still call me Quinn. Unless you really want me to call you Miss Brown.” He tilted her cheek a little. “The scratches have healed up fast. Doesn’t look like they’ll leave any permanent marks.”
She shifted away from his touch. “They have, thanks, and yes, it’s all going to be fine.” She turned again, watching Brutus as he came toward the dock.
“So, it’s just the business thing, then?” he asked.
She looked back at him. “Is what just the business thing, then?”
“You retreat if I get close.”
“You’re right, I do. Partly because it’s a business thing, but mostly because ... well, I’m otherwise not—”
“You’re not available,” he finished for her. Of course she wasn’t. He thought about his behavior with that cupcake. He was lucky she hadn’t pushed it in his face and kneed him in the groin. Wow, he normally wasn’t so slow on the uptake.
It shouldn’t matter. This was the wrong time to play anyway, and she was the wrong woman to play with. He should be relieved. Game over. Back to work. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed otherwise. You’re clearly—I mean, any man would be lucky to—”
He broke off as her cheeks bloomed anew. Her pupils slowly dilated—like they had over the cupcake in his dining room. Yeah, he definitely didn’t need that to be happening, especially knowing she wasn’t available. To him, that put her off limits even for fantasizing—which he really had to knock off. If he was going to fantasize about anyone getting any, it should be his characters. His needs could wait. As usual.
“I’m shutting up now,” he said with a small grin, wondering if she remembered saying those same words to him, post treadmill launch.
She smiled briefly, letting him know she did. They didn’t need things like in-jokes and meaningful looks between them. Not when he had a book to write and an entire career path to figure out.
And she had some other man to go home to.
They fell silent, and then Brutus hit the dock, making them wobble on their feet. Riley was still wobbling when she awkwardly knelt to heave the beast’s hulking wet frame onto the dock, prompting Quinn to kneel beside her. “I can get him. Will he let me?”
“If he wants to get out, he will. You take that side, I’ll take this side.”
Quinn grabbed the side of the dog’s collar with one hand and braced the other behind his front haunch and pulled as Riley did the same on the other side.
Brutus grunted, then scrabbled once his front paws hit the dock, half climbing, half leaping out of the water. It sent Quinn and Riley sprawling onto their backsides, where they got to suffer the further indignity of Brutus extensively and quite enthusiastically indulging himself in a rather long, full-body shake, sending a cascade of seawater all over them.
“Brutus!” Riley spluttered, blocking her face from the spray. “Seriously?” She spit out the briny seawater and clambered to her feet, slipping a bit as she did. Quinn, having just made his feet, grabbed her elbow to steady her.
They stood like that for several moments longer than either of them needed to.
Drop your hand, Brannigan
, he thought, while simultaneously very aware she hadn’t shrugged him off as she had before.
, his little voice reminded him, and he let his hand fall to his side, dismayed at how reluctant he was to do so.
Relief, Brannigan. That’s what this is supposed to feel like. Relief
She stepped back, but not before he noticed the flash of color on the back of her hand. He reached for it without thinking, lifting it between them, holding on when she would have pulled it back as he saw it was an oversized Band-Aid. “What happened?” he asked, smiling briefly when he noticed the bandage sported Minnie Mouse faces all over it. “Are you okay?”
She slid her hand from his, but her smile was a rueful one. “Kitchen burn. Hit the back of my hand on an oven rack. It’s fine. Happens. More often to some of us than others,” she added dryly. She took the dog by the collar, turned to go, then glanced back at Quinn. “You really are soaked. And I know he got you when he first went in, too. Do you want to come aboard? I have dry towels, at least. Wash seadog off your hands? I’ll be happy to have the shirt cleaned. The, uh, shorts, too, if you want.” She looked him up and down, as if noticing the rest of him for the first time. “He really did get you. I am very sorry—”
“Aboard?” Quinn asked, as her words sank in. It had taken a moment because he’d been distracted by the fact that her shirt was soaking wet, too. If he’d thought her body distracting when it was clothed in dry, dirt-smeared cotton, well ... he’d yet to understand the true meaning of the word distraction. Other than the fact that he was a guy, and therefore appreciated the female form, he otherwise wasn’t typically a fan of women who were ... generously endowed. Mostly because he wasn’t a fan of plastics mixing with God-given body parts. But there was nothing plastic about Riley Brown. In fact, every last thing about her was about as non-plastic and God-given as possible. In fact, the big man upstairs had been most generous.
All that, Quinn thought ... plus a gaze he recognized. Maybe he had from the first moment. He understood exactly what it was he saw there now—aware, attentive ... observant—because he’d been recognizing the very same things for the better part of the past thirty-four years. Every time he looked in the mirror.
“My boat.” Her gaze grew quizzical the longer he looked at her. Then, just like that, she shifted it away, but not before he saw the guards go up again. “Oh.” She sounded ... disappointed? Or maybe embarrassed again, though he couldn’t, for the life of him, imagine why. “You didn’t know I live here. I thought when I saw you on the dock, you’d come down here looking for me because there was a problem—or because, ah—” She abruptly waved that away with her free hand. “Never mind. None of my business. I do have towels though, if it would help. Again, Brutus and I are sorry.” She tugged on the collar and gave the beast a pointed look. “Aren’t we, big guy?”
Brutus actually looked slightly abashed. He hung his head a bit lower.
“Apology accepted,” Quinn said. “And don’t worry. About the rest. It’s hot, so it felt good. I was heading back to the house anyway.” Because the very—very—last thing he needed to do was climb on a boat with her, into a small confined space, with them both wearing wet clothes clinging to every inch of her body. Er, their bodies. But mostly her body. Yep. Definitely a bad idea.
Quinn reached out, started to give Brutus a pat on the head, then decided not to risk getting the dog wound up again, and sketched a quick salute to them. “Thanks, though.”
“Okay, then,” she said, as he moved around them so he could head back down the dock. “Dunking notwithstanding, it was nice to see you again. I mean, it’s good to know that everything worked out okay with the house, not because it was nice to see you because I thought—” She stopped and he glanced back to see the blush—hot this time—creep up her neck. She made a self-deprecating face and ducked her chin. “Yeah,” she said quietly, then lifted her head with what he knew was her fake sunny smile. He’d seen the real one. That one came with dimples. “Drive carefully,” she said.
“I will,” he replied, wishing she didn’t feel so flustered around him. Not that he supposed it mattered. He wouldn’t be seeing any more of her. The thought drew his gaze down, whereupon he jerked it right back up again. Nope, definitely didn’t need to be seeing any more of her. He’d seen more than enough. He nodded again and started off down the dock. With every step, his shoes made a rather comical squishing-squirting-squeaky sound, like something out of a cartoon. He grinned, which changed to a laugh when he heard her snicker behind him.
“You sure you don’t want a towel or something to at least put on your car seat?” she asked. “You’re pretty wet.” She smiled when he looked back, a truer one this time, though dry rather than dimpled. “I saw your ride when I left the bungalow the other day. Nice rental when you can get it. I know it’s just a short hop back home, but I’m pretty sure those were hand-tooled leather seats.”
“You made a pretty quick exit.” If she’d been in even half the state he’d been in, the last thing she should have noticed was what kind of seats he had in his old Carerra. “How did you notice that?”
“I’m a stylist. I pay attention to details. The smaller, the better.”
“That’s a skill set I can appreciate.”
“Yes, I guess you would, given what you do. It’s an entirely foreign concept for most people. I will say, I didn’t realize they rented out vintage sports cars.”
Her eyes widened slightly at that. “It’s yours? You drove all the way here from—well, again, I speak without thinking. I don’t even know where you drove from because I don’t know where you call home, if that’s even where you were. With your accent, it might only be Atlanta for all I know.”
He tried not to grin, but she was babbling a little, as if she was nervous. The kind of nervous he was beginning to understand—intimately—when he was around her. Not that he had any business understanding it. Or enjoying it. “I guess maybe my accent has peeked out a bit since I’ve been back. Normally, I never notice it. My dad and his parents are from down this way, but I spent most of my life up north. My father has been up there for eons, since before I was born anyway. I have a place just outside D.C., in Old Town. Alexandria. That’s in Virginia.”
“Yes, I’m familiar with the name. That’s where Lani’s from originally. She owns the cupcake shop. And I meant D.C. Her dad was a police detective there, but her mom was from Georgia. They moved down here after he retired. He’s our sheriff now. Leyland Trusdale.”
“Doesn’t sound all that retired,” Quinn said.
“You probably don’t really want to know all the details. Anyway, very nice ride. That’s all.”
“Actually, I love hearing about the people here. I have sentimental ties to this place, but people always interest me. And the car was the first one I ever bought and paid for, which I did right after I signed my first big book deal.”
“That wasn’t all that long ago, was it? I mean, I’ve read all your books. You were young to publish your first. That was what, ten years ago at the most?”
“Close, nine. But you’re right, the car is a model from the mid-eighties. Neighbor of ours had one when I was growing up, and I’ve always liked the body style. Plus, to me, it symbolized success. Our neighbor was an attorney, middle-upper class, and well ... we weren’t.”
She nodded, then smiled. “So, how did it feel, when they handed over the keys? Did it feel like you thought it would?”
He grinned. “Better. Way better. But that was pretty much all I wanted, or at least the only statement I felt personally compelled to make.”
“But you kept it. That statement.”
“I did. Mostly because I really ended up loving that car.”
She grinned. “You’re such a guy.”
He lifted one hand. “Guilty as charged.”
They stood there another drawn-out moment, grinning at each other, then she cleared her throat and said, “Sure I can’t get you that towel? Protect those beloved, statement-making leather seats?”
He opened his mouth to say no, thank you. Because, pleasant conversation aside, that was the only real option. At least that was the one easy decision he could make. So, no one was more surprised than he when what came out was, “To be honest, I’d really appreciate it, if you don’t mind. I’ll make sure you get it back.”
It was at that exact same moment he realized just how much trouble he’d already gotten himself into.
She nodded, then moved past him and motioned him to follow her. He did, fully and utterly mesmerized by every voluptuous inch of her as she strolled ahead of him in what looked like soaking wet men’s long, black basketball shorts. They should have been the definition of anti-sexy, but they so incredibly weren’t. They rode low on her naturally swinging hips, and it was her beautiful heart-shaped backside they were clinging to. If he dragged his gaze off that view, it was only to collide with the equally sodden, mango-colored tee that clung to her waist and rolling hips, which brought him to the mass of wet and wild blond curls tumbling down the center of her back that would easily be the envy of mermaids the world over.