CUP OF SUGAR–Chapter One

CUP OF SUGAR by Karla DoyleCUP OF SUGAR

Copyright © Karla Doyle, 2014

All Rights Reserved, Karla Doyle

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Chapter One

Well, look at that—Nia’s little Chevy, its lights on, but not running. Perfect timing.

Conn pulled into his half of the joined driveway and parked beside her car. For the eight months since she’d moved in next door, the twenty-four feet of asphalt separating their houses had been almost impassable. Whenever he got close to crossing the distance, something or somebody got in the way. Overtime on the jobsite or a time-consuming sideline project he couldn’t afford to pass up. Phone calls from his family that he had to answer. His pissed-off ex dropping by to unleash her rage. Yeah, that last one had particularly sucked.

The times he’d had the opportunity to speak to Nia, she’d blushed throughout their brief, casual conversations, bolting as soon as she had the chance. Polite, neighborly waving seemed to be her preferred method of communication.

But he’d caught her looking his way. Many times. The pretty blonde’s ability to fry his circuits with her stolen glances had had Conn on high alert for months. Hell, he’d purposely put himself on display—doing all kinds of things—hoping she’d get tired of secretly watching and come knocking on his door. She never did.

He wasn’t one for making New Year’s resolutions, but this opportunity called for one. Tonight, he resolved that Nia wouldn’t get away so easily.

He stepped onto the snow-covered ground. Not much accumulation yet, but the forecast called for six inches before the calendar rolled over at midnight. He’d shovel it before it piled up, then again later, when it quit coming down. He’d do Nia’s side of the driveway too, as he did whenever she didn’t beat him to the job.

She was a petite thing, but never shied away from property maintenance. Such as climbing a ladder to clean out the eaves troughs—which she’d done wearing cut-off jean shorts and a pale-pink, body-hugging tank top. Best day in all of August, that one.

He left the shopping bags in the backseat of his truck and cut between their vehicles. The groceries could wait a few. Spotlights mounted on Nia’s backyard pergola illuminated most of the driveway. She hadn’t started her engine, nor had she gotten out of the car. Intentionally avoiding him? If so, about time he found out why.

He bent and peered through the window, giving a light rap on the glass as he did. “Hey, neighbor.”

Her muffled “hello” was as soft as Conn imagined her skin and hair would be—if she ever let him close enough to find out. Her gloved hands gripped the hell out of the steering wheel. The keys dangled from the ignition. Small clouds formed and dissipated as she breathed the cold air. She darted another glance at him, but didn’t move.

“Everything okay, Nia?”

Her shoulders slumped and a larger puff of fog left her lips. “My car won’t start.”

Chalk this one up as a late Christmas present from the universe. He motioned at the passenger door. She nodded in response, so he opened it, stuck his head and shoulders inside. “I’m at your service. I can jump you or give you a ride.”

She squeaked—actually squeaked—and the frost melted from her expression. Oh, she was still pink in the cheeks, the color just didn’t look cold-weather induced. Maybe this New Year’s Eve wouldn’t completely suck after all.

But he didn’t grin, though it pained him greatly to hold it in. Any sign of wolfishness and she’d bolt again. That much he was pretty damn sure about. No problem. He could take it slow and easy.

“What happens when you try to start it up?”

“It goes click click click click click.”

Goddamn, she was cute. So much so, the grin almost got away from him. He nodded at the steering column. “Mind giving it a go so I can hear it? Not that I’m doubting the accuracy of your impression.”

“Oh god, of course. Sure.” She mumbled something under her breath while leaning forward to turn the key in the ignition. The Chevy clicked in rapid-fire succession.

“Okay, good enough. You can stop. I’m not a mechanic, but I’d wager it’s your starter. Maybe the solenoid.” A guess he’d already made, based on the operational status of the car’s lights and the adorable-as-hell sound effects she’d made.

“What’s a solenoid? Wait, better question—what are the odds I can get it fixed tonight?”

“Unless you have a mechanically inclined relative or close friend with access to automotive parts and a warm garage, I’d say zero.”

“What if you jump me—will that help?”

It’d help him, hell yes. But he couldn’t say that either. Not to a woman he didn’t know beyond some casual conversation and eight months of ogling from his side of their mutual property line.

“Nope. That only works for a low battery. And yours,” he nodded at the windshield, beyond which her headlights bounced off the fence, “seems to be working just fine.”

“Shit.” She slumped again. A cloud of curly fog rose as she sighed. “Thanks, Conn.”

Since moving in, she’d never called him by name. And man, did it sound good in her sweet voice. If she thought he could close the car door and walk away after hearing that, she could think again.

“Give me ten minutes to toss my stuff in the house, feed Zeus and I’ll give you a lift wherever you need to go.”

She didn’t raise her head, but turned it enough to look at him. A curtain of long, blonde hair obscured half her face. “Why?”

“Why not?”

The eye he could see squinted at him. “Because it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m quite sure you have plans.”

Really now. This could get interesting. “And why would think that?” he asked while sliding onto her passenger seat and closing the door.

That move had her sitting straight. “What are you doing?”

“Being neighborly.”

“Oh my god, just no.” She shot from her seat and out of the car as if her cute little ass was on fire. When he didn’t follow suit, she leaned in and scowled at him. “Are you going to get out?” She rolled her eyes and huffed at his shrug. “Good lord, this is all I need.”

“See, now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me what you need, Nia. A ride to…?”

“I do not need to ride you.” Forget squeaking, this time she shrieked. Then clapped one gloved hand over her mouth, and with the other hand, slammed the driver’s side door.

He choked down the gut-busting laugh that threatened at the base of his throat. But when she reached the door of her house and realized she’d left the keys in the ignition, the dam burst. One loud laugh erupted from his lips. No doubt that was going to get him in serious shit with his neighborette. He’d just have to make it up to her.

He removed the keys, locked her car, and headed toward her house. A steady flow of fat snowflakes filled the column of light surrounding her. Made her look like a Christmas angel. The innocent look—his weakness. And that weakness had bitten him in the ass more times than he cared to count.

A smart man would learn from past mistakes. Toss Nia the keys and back the hell away before he made another. Instead, his boots were clomping up her steps.

“You might need these,” he said, pressing the keys to her palm.

“Thanks.”

Not giving an inch, was she? All right. He leaned on the bricks, biting the inside of his cheek as she fumbled, twice dropping the keys onto the snow-covered deck. “Want some help?”

“I’m fine.”

Indeed. “How about a lift somewhere,” he winked, “since you’re not interested in a ride.”

She scowled at him, the teasing obviously missing its mark. “Fine. I was on my way to Barry’s Bay to visit my parents. Go take care of your dog and I’ll meet you at your truck. You should probably pack snacks, you’ve got a long trek ahead.”

“Barry’s Bay?”

“Yes. Do you know where Bancroft is?”

“Yeah.” Fucking far away, that’s where.

“Just a bit north of that.” She shot him a smug smile. “Still feeling neighborly?”

If they drove non-stop at normal speed, they were probably looking at a six-hour drive. In this weather, he’d bet on seven, maybe eight. They wouldn’t make it to their destination until well past midnight.

“Guess I have a date for New Year’s Eve after all. See you in ten, neighbor.”

* * * * *

God, this was nuts.

Nia’s hands shook as she locked the house. But the shaking had nothing on the wild thumping in her chest when she stepped out her back door and came face to face with her hunky neighbor. The guy she’d purposely been avoiding since she took possession of her house back in April. The man who’d been one half of a committed couple when she put the offer on this place, but who was most definitely single by the time she moved in. There were more stray women around his house than there were stray cats. Of course, his massive dog kept the felines at bay. Whereas Conn’s massive everything attracted the women.

And yes, she did mean everything. He really ought to install blinds in his bathroom.

“Ready to roll?” he asked.

Such a simple question. How could she possibly give him a simple answer? He’d been nice enough to offer her a ride—an offer clearly intended as a quick, drive-across-town solution to her transportation woes. Rather than graciously declining, she’d repaid him with snark, thinking she could scare him back to his side of the property line. Instead, he’d called her bluff. Now here they stood.

As for that standing, he was so freaking close to her, she could smell his cologne. And it was really yummy. The kind that made her want to bury her nose against his neck—and wherever else he applied the stuff. She couldn’t get into the vehicle with him. Not smelling that way. He’d likely take off his coat once they got underway, which would further release the scent. In an enclosed environment. Where she’d be trapped for at least six hours. God help her.

“Nia?”

Her head snapped up and she met his waiting gaze. “Sorry, I was thinking about which route we should take. Some of the back roads are hard to find and navigate in the dark.”

“Want to figure that out on the way? Before the snow comes down any harder?”

“Of course. Sure. Yes.”

“Great.” He smiled, sliding the strap of her duffel bag from her shoulder, into his hand. “Let’s roll.”

She nodded and followed him down the steps. She took one last look back. Yep, there was her stomach, lying on the deck. If she were smart, she’d run back, scoop it up and barricade herself inside the house. Hide out until spring. Maybe by then, Conn would forget all the embarrassing crap that’d come out of her mouth in the past twenty minutes.

“Need anything from your bag before I stow it out of reach?”

She would’ve suggested he put it in the back seat—until she saw that seat was taken. “You’re bringing the dog along?”

“Yeah. He’s been alone all day while I was at work and I’ll be gone for at least fourteen hours now. Plus, it’s New Year’s. Nobody wants to be alone on New Year’s Eve, right?” Conn didn’t wait for an answer. He opened the passenger door and waved her inside. Or maybe it was a dare, she couldn’t be sure, given the grin on his face. “You do like dogs, don’t you, Nia?”

“Of course.” She just wasn’t accustomed to being around one so big. “I love dogs.” She climbed up into the truck. Apparently, this meant she was fair game, because Conn’s dog promptly shoved its massive head between the front headrests and pressed its squishy, somewhat-moist jowls against her cheek. “Oh god.”

“Zeus,” Conn’s deep voice dropped a couple more octaves as he slid onto the driver’s seat, “get in the back.” He spread one palm over the dog’s face and gave the beast a gentle shove.

Not that the gesture was needed. The dog adored its master, and vice versa. Nia had seen evidence of that every day for the last eight months. Conn walked Zeus in bucketing rain and blowing snowstorms. When Conn was outside, so was his faithful dog. In all the time she’d lived beside him, she’d never heard Conn raise his voice to his canine companion. They had the “man’s best friend” thing nailed. And yes, being an awesome doggy daddy added to Conn’s hotness factor.

He started the truck and tapped the dashboard near a built-in display screen. “Go ahead and input your parents’ address in the GPS. We don’t have to follow the route it gives us, but it’ll give me a starting point.”

The reality of the moment hit her then, like a hard flick to the middle of the forehead. He truly intended to drive her all the way to her childhood hometown. In a storm. On New Year’s Eve.

“I can’t let you do this, Conn. I was only kidding when I suggested you take me to my parents’ place. I didn’t think—or expect—you to say yes.”

“Glad I could surprise you.”

Oh, he’d definitely done that. “You really don’t want to do this.”

“And why’s that?” Teasing her again. Baiting her into another embarrassing slip of the tongue.

“Numerous reasons.” She turned in her seat, forcing herself to look at him directly. A dangerous thing to do while trying to form coherent, rational sentences. “First of all, I’m sure you had plans tonight. Second, you don’t even know me, not really. And third, only a crazy person would go to Barry’s Bay voluntarily.”

Their houses’ exterior lights provided enough illumination for her to see his smile. He smiled a lot. He had a variety of smiles—that she’d seen, anyway—and all of them were natural, easy and way too appealing. Accepting his offer of transportation had been a major mistake.

His hand shot over to cover hers when she unbuckled her seatbelt. “One—I had no plans tonight, aside from lying on the couch with a bowl of potato chips and the remote. Two—I’d like to get to know you, and this road trip is a good time to start. Three—you’re going to Barry’s Bay voluntarily, and you’re not crazy.”

A laugh bubbled up from her nervous stomach. “You want to get to know me? Then let me set you straight on that one right now. I’m definitely crazy. As in, a couple hours from now, you’ll be wishing you hadn’t knocked on my car window tonight. I’m pretty much the poster child for crazy chicks.” Okay, so that was quite the disclaimer to slap herself with, but coherent and rational had gone up in smoke with their skin-to-skin contact. “So, how about I say goodnight, go in my house and we just go back to the way things were?”

He found the end of her seatbelt and clicked it into place. “Going back never works out.”

“I wouldn’t know. I’m more of a ‘run far, far away’ person.”

“Look at that—not even out of the driveway and I’m already getting to know you.” He tapped the GPS console again, then put the truck in reverse. “And now I’ll tell you something about me. I only do things I want to do, sweetheart.”

The statement could have been a threat. Or a promise. Regardless of his intent, the way he spoke the words, so serious and sexy-like, sent a ripple of awareness all the way to her toes. Of course, the effect of that ripple was strongest at the midpoint. Between her thighs, which she clamped tightly together.

On the street, he switched gears. But he didn’t drive away. Not immediately. He kept his foot on the brake while idling beneath the streetlamp. One hand casually holding the top of the steering wheel, he looked over at her. Another of his smiles slid into place on his handsome face. A very knowing smile.

This was going to be the longest road trip of her life.

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