Emergency Engagement Excerpt
Copyright © 2015 by Samanthe Beck. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Was it possible to be castrated by a playlist?
Beau Montgomery held his tongue while Alanis Morissette growled her way through “You Oughta Know.” He basted turkey and tuned out Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” but he refused to silently endure Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” That, ladies and gentlemen, constituted disco, and he sure as hell would not survive. He was stressed enough about hosting his mom and dad for Thanksgiving dinner without the marathon set of breakup anthems coming from his neighbor’s apartment.
A glance at the clock on the stove made him wince. The ’rents had left Magnolia Grove at noon. Assuming reasonable holiday traffic coming through Atlanta, they’d be on his doorstep anytime. The sexy little blonde across the hall needed to take the volume down several notches, or better yet, conclude her Men Suck Festival altogether.
Since it had been going on all day, he doubted either option would come to pass without a word from him. She probably assumed he wasn’t home. He usually worked the holidays to give the other paramedics on the crew—the ones with wives and kids—a chance to spend time with their families. Even when he was home, he preferred to keep to himself. If his parents weren’t part of today’s equation, he’d just focus on the football games and ignore the music.
Beau cursed. Confronting her with a noise complaint on Thanksgiving felt like an asshole move, given they’d barely said hello to each other since she’d moved into the complex six months ago. She wasn’t around a lot—thankfully—because when she spent time at home, she managed to disturb his peace just by existing.
She liked to sing in the shower, seemingly unconcerned if her low, Southern-bluesy voice carried, inviting him to picture her wet and naked. She liked to bake, and the hobby sent distracting scents of cinnamon and vanilla into his apartment like unwanted guests. She liked sex—thin walls held no secrets—though by his count the guy she had it with only brought her all the way home once in every three times at bat. Sheer laziness in his opinion, and why she settled for less than a grand slam every single time he really couldn’t fathom. Maybe silk ties and snappy suits compensated for a lack of bedroom skills?
Or not. Today’s music selections suggested she and One-for-Three had parted ways. She’d stormed into her apartment last night and proceeded to bang around as if she were rearranging furniture and digging through closets. The back-and-forth of footsteps in the hall indicated she’d made several trips to the garbage chute. He didn’t need a degree in psychology to know there was a purge going on next door, both tangible and emotional.
Not that it was any of his business.
Her wild tumble of honey-blonde waves was none of his business either, but it always caught his eye, as did the playful bounce of her full, round breasts when she descended the stairs or the sway of her hips when she climbed them. Nature had stacked some truly awe-inspiring curves onto her slender five-foot-nothing frame.
Her smile usually made an appearance when they passed. She probably aimed for friendly, but something about the way those lips tilted upward in an inherently flirtatious greeting teased his cock, even on those occasions when she had One-for-Three on her arm.
Beau shook his head and went back to straightening up his kitchen. At a different point in his life, her distracting smile—or her equally distracting ass—might have tempted him to find out if she liked his smile, his ass, or anything in between, but that point had come and gone several years ago. He wasn’t looking to get involved, no matter how strong and persistent a pull he felt toward his sexy little neighbor.
His eyes strayed to the pile of yesterday’s mail he’d tossed on the counter. The mail carrier had accidentally included an item for number 202 in his box. He fanned the pile out until he spotted the embossed envelope from the Solomon Foundation for Art, which he’d never heard of. Not surprising, considering he knew fuck-all about art, but he knew a good strategy when he saw one. He’d wander over, knock on her door, and she’d have to lower the music to answer. While he delivered what probably amounted to fancy junk mail, he’d casually mention he expected his folks to arrive at any moment, and he looked forward to having a nice, quiet visit with them.
Satisfied with the plan, he folded the envelope, slid it into the back pocket of his jeans, and walked out his door. The music gained volume as soon as he stepped into the hall, and he immediately understood why it seemed especially loud today. Her front door hung open, with a Post-it note on the outside reading, “Come in.”
Not smart. They lived in a secure building, with nice, normal neighbors, but still. Why court trouble?
“Hello?” He barely heard himself over the sound of Carrie Underwood and her Louisville Slugger. After pushing the door all the way open, he tried again, louder. “Hey?”
Still nothing, although judging by the scents of cooking turkey and cooling pie filling the apartment, the chef hovered nearby. Her living room and kitchen, which were mirror images of his in terms of layout, but universes apart in terms of color and texture and…stuff, were empty. Empty of people, at any rate. Her floors sported the same neutral wood laminate as his, but the rest of the room looked like a combination of Buckhead estate sale and third-world bazaar. Yet it worked. A slipcovered white sofa and a couple of matching armchairs provided a blank canvas for red throw pillows, a wrought iron coffee table straight off a French Quarter patio, and a blue-and-white ceramic garden stool stacked with old books. Atop the coffee table sat a huge glass bowl full of fist-sized marbles swirled with every hue imaginable. The arrangement made him think of exotic planets suspended in a crystalline galaxy.
An eclectic collection of art covered the walls. Large abstract oil paintings surrounded by black-and-white photographs, a few pastel watercolors, and even some framed architectural renderings. The envelope in his back pocket started to feel less like junk mail. The music blasted from a digital speaker dock on a long mirrored table against the wall opposite the sofa. He let that be for now and made his way down the hallway.
The bedroom door stood ajar, and he could hear her singing on the other side. He might have hesitated, but a woman with a welcome note stuck to her open front door on Thanksgiving Day clearly expected company.
He pushed the door open. It slammed into something and swung back at him. His shoulder took the blow, and instinct had him shoving through. Whatever was on the other side gave way under the force of his momentum. He heard a scream over the last ominous lines of “Before He Cheats” and stepped into the room in time to realize he’d banged into a ladder—one on which his neighbor perched, now struggling for balance. Time slipped into a frustrating slow motion as he reached out to grab the rungs and stabilize her. Another scream assaulted his eardrums and the ladder lurched out of his reach. His neighbor fell hard on the white tarp covering the floor. She looked up at him with wide blue eyes and opened those fantasy-worthy lips to speak just as yellow droplets showered down on him.
Then the lights went out.
Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats…
The thunk of a nearly full can of paint meeting skull echoed in the silence between “Before He Cheats” and “Hit the Road Jack.” Savannah Smith watched, stunned, as her hot neighbor’s eyes glazed, and then slowly rolled up behind the descending curtains of his eyelids.
He took one swaying step backward.
Shit. She lunged forward, hands skidding through puddles of paint as she tried to catch him. One palm bounced off a hard-muscled thigh, and the other brushed the front of his jeans. No good. The man fell like an uprooted redwood.
“Oh my God!” Adrenaline helped her hurdle the capsized ladder, and she crouched beside him.
One minute she’d been painting an accent wall of her bedroom Mitchell Prescott III’s least favorite color and fantasizing about slashing holes in all four tires of his pampered Audi coup. The next, she’d been strangling a scream as a looming figure swung through her door and knocked her off the ladder. An instant after she’d hurled the paint can at his head she’d recognized the intruder as her strong, silent neighbor across the hall.
Drops of yellow now spattered the planes and angles of a face she usually sneaked a second glance at when they passed. It was worth a second glance—the masculine slant of his forehead, the straight slope of his nose, and the angle of his jaw. He owned the kind of bone structure that made her wish she sculpted.
Once upon a time she might have felt a twinge of guilt at how easily his guarded eyes drew hers, or the renegade flutter the whole formidable package inspired—especially when he wore his paramedic uniform. But enjoying a harmless spark of attraction from afar ranked way down on her list of relationship transgressions. Acting on the attraction? Different story, though as she discovered last night, apparently Mitch abided by a separate set of rules.
I’m going to marry the partner’s daughter. But don’t worry. Nothing between us has to change.
A splattering of paint didn’t camouflage number 204’s good looks, or…uh-oh…the stream of red trickling along his temple from the gash at his hairline. Some heretofore undiscovered Florence Nightingale instinct had her pressing the hem of her black henley to the wound. Maybe she pressed too hard, because he groaned, and his hands jumped from their resting places by his hips.
“Uhhh…” His voice rumbled up from beneath her shirt, and the wash of warm breath against her torso alerted her to the fact their position gave him an under-the-tent view of her black lace bra. The bra she’d worn last night because she’d fully expected Mitch to pop the question, and she’d wanted to make the rest of the night equally memorable. Oh, he’d had a proposal for her, sure enough—one she hoped he choked on.
Another low groan pulled her attention to the present, and the man on her bedroom floor. She yanked her shirt away from her neighbor’s forehead, tugged up the slipping waistband of her black thermals, and stared into platter-sized pupils floating in amber irises.
He raised his hand to wipe paint off her cheek. “You okay?”
Thanks to the volume of the music, she read his lips more than heard his voice.
“I’m fine,” she shouted. “Are you okay?”
He nodded, but she didn’t like how he paled from the slight movement. Nor did she like the amount of blood flowing from the cut. “I’ll be right back,” she mouthed, and scooted into the attached bathroom to grab a towel.
She returned to find him shirtless, propped in a sitting position, with one hand braced behind him, and the other holding his bundled-up navy blue button-down to his forehead.
The sight left her a little dizzy. Even sitting on the floor he radiated strength, from his mountain range of shoulders, to his wide chest and rippling abs bracketed by a “V” cut that made her thighs clench. Her heart might be broken, but the rest of her, including both eyes and every single one of her hormones, remained in full working order. They appreciated how his obliques sloped and narrowed, funneling her gaze down to his—
Hey, how about you ogle him later, when he’s not bleeding?
“Here.” She knelt beside him, tossed his shirt aside, and pressed the white towel to his cut. When he leaned into her touch, her worry doubled. During the six months she’d lived at Camden Gardens, she’d formed the impression the man rarely leaned on anyone. Not that he wasn’t friendly, but “polite” defined him better. He held doors. He yielded the right-of-way on the stairs. He greeted neighbors with a brief nod.
Visitors were rare. Occasionally another paramedic came by—a gorgeous blond guy with an indecently charming grin—but no women. Based on those facts, her downstairs neighbor, Steven, insisted number 204 played for Team Rainbow. She didn’t want to dash Steve’s dreams, but the flash of pure male appreciation she’d noticed more than once in her reserved neighbor’s broody gaze told her exactly which team he played for—or would play for, if he bothered playing. As far as she could tell, he’d benched himself.
All of which made his out-of-the-blue appearance in her apartment more curious, but she could wait to satisfy her curiosity until he’d stopped hemorrhaging. Something he showed no signs of doing.
Poinsettia red bloomed through the white terry cloth, and the sight sent her heart on a long, fast roller-coaster plunge into her stomach. She needed to get him off the floor, find her phone, and call 911.
Her bed stood just a few steps away. Could she drag two hundred pounds of rock-solid male a couple feet? Maybe, if the male cooperated. She wrapped her arms around him and lifted. “Come on,” she groaned into his ear over the strains of “Hey Bartender.” Whoa, he smelled good. Like fresh-cut juniper…she sniffed again…grown in an oak forest, and stored in freshly soaped leather. She had to resist burying her nose against his neck and inhaling deep. “Let’s get you to the bed.”
Lady Antebellum drowned out his reply, but he slung the towel over his shoulder and braced his hands on the paint-slicked drop cloth. Then he flexed his long legs and helped her guide him to his feet. She barely reached his chin, which made the prospect of steering him to her bed somewhat daunting, but she backed him up a step, then another, and then, with her target in sight, she got overly ambitious and took the next step too quickly. She stumbled into him and unbalanced them both. His hands came out to catch her as they fell.
The music stopped.
They landed in a tangle of limbs on her bed, her fingers hooked into the waistband of his jeans, her breast cupped in one big, wide palm, and another hand that most definitely didn’t belong to her splayed across her ass.
“Hello, sweetie. We’re early!” an all-too-familiar voice chirped from the hallway.
Savannah looked over to see her mother’s smiling face appear at the bedroom door.
“Happy Thanks”—the smile faltered—“giving?”
Savannah scrambled off her neighbor, inadvertently elbowing his unyielding abdomen in the process. Her mom inched into the room, followed by her sister, Sinclair, and her father. Three sets of eyes took in the Sun Shower wreck of her bedroom, the man sprawled across her bed, and then, strangely, the front of her shirt.
A weirdly fatalistic calm settled over her as she followed their gazes. Yep, a large, starkly yellow handprint decorated her left breast, and she had a sneaking suspicion the seat of her pants bore a similar mark. The voice of one of her more strident art school professors echoed in her head. I don’t care if you work with oils, charcoal, or garbage. Medium is irrelevant. You can create profound art with finger paint, as long as the result sends a message to the viewer.
This certainly sent a message. Something along the lines of, “Oops. My family just interrupted my X-rated paint job.” She switched her attention to the artist in question, still stretched across her mattress in bare-chested glory, propped on one elbow as if he spent all his free time languishing in her bed. Her gaze continued down his body and she swallowed a groan. Smaller but equally vivid handprints glowed against the wash-faded denim of his jeans, on the thigh, and…oh, nice aim, Savannah…the fly.
Her father cleared his throat—a sure sign he was preparing to speak—but she cut him off. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
Sinclair’s midnight-blue eyes sparkled. “I don’t think there’s a name for what this looks like, but I take it last night’s dinner went well. If you’d responded to any of the texts I sent, we would have driven slower.” Her eyes slid to the bed, and she winked. “Much slower.”
Crap. Sinclair assumed the half-naked man in her bed was Mitch. That’s what you get for jumping the gun yesterday afternoon and telling her you thought your six-month anniversary dinner with “M” might end with a ring.
Old habit. Growing up, she and her sister had always been each other’s closest confidants. When she’d secretly crushed on Mr. Casey, her sixth-grade art teacher. After she’d given up her V-card on a freshman year spring break trip to Fort Lauderdale. When she’d expected the ambitious-yet-romantic lawyer she’d been seeing to pop the question. Every time, she’d told Sinclair.
Her mother stepped toward the bed, her chin-length blonde curls swinging as she smiled and held out her hand. Somebody had raised him right, because he straightened and shook her outstretched hand.
“Hello. I’m Savannah’s mother, Laurel. You must be the mysterious M we’ve heard so much about. I’m…oh my goodness, you’re bleeding.”
God, he was. Still. Though not as copiously as before. He needed medical attention, not a round of introductions to her misguided family. “I told you this isn’t what it looks like. I—he—”
“I surprised your daughter while she was painting.” He covered the wound with the towel. “We had a minor accident.”
His deep, calm voice sounded reassuringly steady, despite the head injury, but she didn’t plan on taking any chances. “Not so minor. He lost consciousness for a moment. I was about to call 911 when you arrived.”
“That’s not necessary,” he replied.
“Absolutely not,” her father seconded, his nod of agreement sending a wing of dark hair over his brow. “We’ll drive you to the emergency room.” He dug into the pocket of his khakis for his car keys. From the corner of her eye, Savannah caught a movement by the bedroom door, but before she could say anything, her dad added, “It’s the least we can do for our future son-in-law.”
“Future son-in-law?” The gasped question preceded an attractive and vaguely familiar brunette into the bedroom. She clung to the doorknob for support and blinked back tears. “Sweet baby Jesus, my secret prayers have been answered.”