ater, she would blame the whole thing on the cupcakes.
Riley glanced through the sparkling window panes of the hand-stained, sliding French panel doors to the extended, multilevel tigerwood deck—complete with stargazer pergola and red cedar soaking tub—straight into a pair of familiar, sober brown eyes. “I know that look,” she called out, loud enough so he could hear her through the thermal, double-paned glass. “Don’t mock. I can too do this.”
She turned her attention forward again and stared at the electronic panel of the Jog Master 3000. “I mean, how hard could it be?” A rhetorical question of course. Anyone, probably even the sunbathing mastiff, could figure out how to push a few buttons and—
“Ooof!” The belt started moving under her feet. Really fast.
Really, really fast.
“Oh crap!” She grabbed the padded side bars, an instinctive move purely intended to keep from face-planting on high-speed rubber, with little actual athleticism involved. Okay, not a drop of it, but if she could keep pace long enough to get her balance, she could relax the death grip of just one of her hands and smack—press, she meant press—the electronic panel of buttons on this very—very—expensive piece of leased equipment. At which point her ill-advised, unfortunate little adventure would end well.
Or at least without the local EMTs being called. Or a lengthy hospital stay. She was way too busy for stitches.
“Yeah,” she gasped. “Piece of cake.” She managed a smirk at the irony of that particular phrase, but quickly turned to full panic mode as she realized she wasn’t exactly gaining ground. Rapidly losing it, in fact, along with what little breath she had. “Crap, crap, crap,” she panted in rhythm with her running steps. It had only been a few minutes—three minutes and forty-four seconds, according to the oh-so-helpful digital display—and she was already perspiring. Okay, okay, sweating. She just wasn’t sure if it was from the actual exertion, or the abject anxiety that she wasn’t going to get out of this latest catastrophe in one piece.
Where were those big, strong Steinway deliverymen when you needed them, anyway? Surely they could race right in and save her, in blazingly heroic, stud-monkey fashion. And she’d let them, too. Just because she prided herself on her total I-Am-Woman independence thing A.J. (After-Jeremy), didn’t mean she wasn’t above a little Rapunzel fantasy now and again.
She’d been awaiting delivery of the elegant baby grand for over an hour. So, technically, it was all their fault. The baby grand in question was the final component, and the
pièce de ré-sistance
, of this particular staging event. With every other remaining detail attended to, she’d foolishly given in to the urge to run a test check—all right, play—with some of the toys she’d had installed. Once again, she had managed to get herself into a bit of a pickle.
Enough with the food analogies, Riles
. Eight minutes, twenty-three seconds. At a dead run. The only way she could have ever pulled that off was if she were being chased by zombies. With machetes. And the world as she knew it would end if she didn’t get to the edge of the dark, scary forest in time.
Instead, all she had was her mastiff and his baleful stare. Not exactly adrenaline inducing.
Ten minutes, thirteen seconds. She was well past sweating and deep into red-faced overexertion. She glared back at Brutus, who kept faithful watch, but otherwise appeared unconcerned with his mistress’s current distress. “No gravy on your kibble tonight,” she called out. Well, in her mind, she called out. She was so winded it was all she could do to think the words. But her expression hopefully conveyed the message to her mutant, one-hundred-fifty-pound dog ...
Who looked completely unmoved by her menacing glare. He knew she was a pushover. She’d taken him in as a rescue, hadn’t she?
The sweet sound of the cascading entrance chimes echoed through the room, indicating the deliverymen had, indeed, finally arrived.
“Thank God,” she wheezed. She didn’t even care what they thought of the situation, or how horrible she must look. She’d bribe them with a few of Leilani’s decadently delicious Black Forest cupcakes, featuring raspberry truffle filling, and topped with fresh, plump, perfectly rosy raspberries. There were two dozen of them, carefully arranged on the three-tier crystal display dish in the beautifully appointed breakfast nook. That, and maybe throw in a few bottles of imported lager presently chilling in the newly installed, stainless-steel Viking fridge with handy bottom freezer, and surely they wouldn’t say anything to Scary Lois about Riley’s less-than-professional activities.
Lois Grinkmeyer-Hington-Smythe was easily the most intimidating person Riley had staged showcase houses for thus far, or worked for in any capacity, for that matter. Given her former career as head food stylist for
, the number one selling food magazine in the country, that was saying something. Even the most intimidating chef had nothing on Scary Lois, highest performing realtor for Gold Coast Properties, and Riley couldn’t afford to annoy the source of her best bookings.
The chimes cascaded again.
Oh, for God’s sake, come in, already
! She tried to shout, but all she could muster was a strangled, guttural grunt. Why weren’t they just coming in? Open house meant the house was open!
She could see the headlines now.
Riley Brown Found Dead!
SUGARBERRY ISLAND’S PREMIER HOUSE STAGER IN HIGH-SPEED TREADMILL INCIDENT!
BARRIER ISLANDS, GEORGIA
—Piano deliverymen and part-time models Sven and Magnus claimed they had no knowledge that the front door to the island’s newly redesigned, prime lease property was unlocked, and that they could have entered the home and rescued the lovely and talented house stager from escalating terror and certain death. They did, however, make sure the reporter got their names right and photographed them from their good side.
Meanwhile, poor, dead Riley Brown probably wouldn’t even warrant a hunky CSI investigator, who—clearly moved by her still glowing, cherubic face and bountiful blond curls—would posthumously vow to go to the ends of the earth to find out who was responsible for this, terrible, terrible tragedy.
Of course, you couldn’t exactly arrest a Jog Master 3000.
Right at the point where she knew her sweaty palms couldn’t grip the rubber padding one second longer and her gaze had shifted to Brutus out on the deck for what could likely be the very last time, someone with a very deep voice that carried the warm caress of a slight Southern accent said, “Beg your pardon. I thought this was the house being leased. My apologies, I—”
Riley jerked her head around to look at the intruder. That was no Sven. Or even a Magnus. He was way—way—better than any Nordic fantasy. Framed by what she knew was a nine-foot archway, he was a rugged six-foot-four at least, with shoulders and jaw to match. Even in his white cotton button-down shirt, faded jeans, and dark brown sport coat, he looked like he could have delivered a baby grand with his left hand, while simultaneously saving the world with his right. Thick, dark hair framed a tanned face with crinkles at the corners of the most amazing bright blue eyes ... Wait—she knew that face! How did she know that face?
Her jaw went slack the instant she realized who was standing, live and in the amazingly more-gorgeous-in-person flesh, right there in her Florida room. Well, not
Florida room, but ... that didn’t matter, because unfortunately the moment her jaw had gone slack, so had her hands.
She let out a strangled shriek as the rapidly spinning rubber track ejected her from the back end of the machine as if she were a clown shot out of a circus cannon. Sans the acrobatic skills. Or clean landing.
The good news? The tastefully arranged indoor/outdoor cluster of salt-air tolerant baby cabbage and saw palmettos, cockspur prickly pear and Adam’s Needle yucca kept her from being ejected straight through the sparkling clean, thermal double panes she’d spent a full hour on that morning. The bad news? Well, other than the part about saw palmettos and prickly pear not exactly being soft and cushy kinds of foliage? Yeah, that would be lying in a sweaty, red-faced, scratched-up heap ... all while looking up into the breathtaking, turquoise blue eyes of the one-and-only Quinn Brannigan.
Dazed in more ways than one, Riley found herself thinking that if her life were ever made into a movie of the week, she sure hoped the screenwriter would give her some clever, witty line to say at that exact moment. One that would show her to be adorably spunky and utterly charming ... despite her bedraggled, pathetic, utterly disastrous appearance.
Alas, she was more a visual person—which was why she was a stylist and a photographer, not a writer. Quinn Brannigan, on the other hand, was a writer. Of the number one with a bullet,
New York Times
best-selling variety. So, of course, he knew exactly what to say.
“I am sorry.” That hint of drawl in his voice made him sound inherently sincere, while the concern etched in every crease of his perfectly gorgeous face only underscored the tone. “I don’t know how I made such a mistake. I never meant to alarm you like that. Let me to help you up, make sure you’re all right.” He extended a hand.
See? Perfect white knight, perfect amount of sincere contrition, perfect ... well, everything. She’d always thought him handsome, staring back at her from the glossy book jackets of his many best sellers. What the photo didn’t convey was the magnetism and charisma that packed an even bigger wallop in person. Not to mention his voice. Deep and smooth, with a cadence hinting at warm honey drizzled all over a hot, buttery biscuit. If they could package that voice along with his books, he’d double his already enormous sales.
“You know”—her words came out in more of a post-marathon croak—“you really should read your own books.” She closed her eyes when his expression shifted to one of confusion.
I said that, right out loud, didn’t I?
Another rhetorical question, of course. “On tape,” she added lamely, as if that was going to clear matters right up. “You know, audiobooks.” Riley let her head drop farther back into the sharp fronds. “Never mind. I’m shutting up now.”
“Give me your hand.” When he crouched down, his handsome face and hot-sex-in-a-summer-hammock voice were even closer to her. “Are you hurt? Did you hit your head on the glass?”
Given her random commentary, his concern wasn’t the least bit surprising. It was an easy out that a lesser woman might have taken. No one had ever accused her, however, of being lesser. Too much, maybe. All right, definitely.
“No,” she managed. “Just a few scratches. I’m fine, I just—” She broke off, and, with a little sigh and a not-so-little huff of breath, tried to struggle her way out of the forest of serrated-edge foliage by herself. Then just as quickly gave up as the plants seemed to want to suck her in more deeply. She’d lost enough skin already.
She couldn’t lose any more of her pride, however. That was all gone. She rubbed her dirty, still-sweaty palm on her pant leg, then took the offered hand, steeling her already fluttering hormones against the feel of his skin on hers. Not that she was normally so overwrought about such things, but, at the moment, her defenses were abnormally low. As in, completely missing.
And ... yep.
Right in the libido. Wide palm, warm skin, strong grip.
He lifted her overly tall, less-than-lithe form out of the tangle of deadly blades as if she were nothing more cumbersome than a downy little feather. She’d never once been accused of being a feather. Of any kind. She had to admit, it felt rather ... blissful. So much so, that, if he’d asked her, she’d have happily agreed to strip naked, have his babies, or anything else he wanted, right there. On the evil Jog Master, even.
Because, oh yeah, that’s what he’s dying to do, Riles. Take you, take you hard.
Not that it mattered. Even if she had somehow managed to look adorably spunky and utterly charming despite the scratched-up flesh and blotchy red face, she’d sworn off men. Nineteen months, ten days, and dozens of cupcakes ago.
Not that all men were stupid, lying, cheating, ex-fiancé bastards like Jeremy. She knew that. And she hadn’t held his actions against the rest of the male members of the human race. Most of the time. But given how thoroughly and completely duped and humiliated she’d been by the one person from that part of the population she’d most trusted with her deepest, truest self, not to mention all of her carefully guarded heart ... yeah, she wasn’t in a mad rush to find out if her judgment in that arena had improved. Hence the switch to baked goods for personal comfort.
Men were complicated. Cupcakes, on the other hand? Not so much.
“You’ve got a few scrapes,” Quinn-the-hot-celebrity-savior was saying as he steadied her with a wide palm on her shoulder.
Rapunzel, eat your heart out
. Still working to get her heart rate back to some semblance of normal, she acknowledged that her studly savior was probably more to blame than the Jog Master.
After another moment passed, he carefully disengaged his hand from hers, which took a bit of doing as she’d apparently switched her Jog Master death grip to a Good Studly Samaritan one, but he kept the steadying hand on her shoulder for an additional moment before letting go completely. “Let me help you get cleaned up.”