STEALING HOME

© Karla Doyle, 2015, All Rights Reserved

Chapter One

No matter how much she willed it to get here sooner, summer was still a couple weeks away. Ifit arrived on schedule. The temperature had already dropped several degrees since Paige left the house for her evening dog walk. Kind of had her rethinking the decision to forego a sweater. Her baby-doll t-shirt wasn’t much insulation against the cool, early-June breeze.

Standing in one place didn’t help matters. If only her dog would simply do his business instead of delaying the drop by turning the requisite seven pre-poop circles, she could get moving again. But no. In fact, he’d just added an eighth rotation to his routine. Good thing she loved the big lug, because his canine OCD was OMG crazy.

Once he’d finished—finally—Sasha rolled around on the lawn while she bent to do scoop-up duty. The disadvantage of a larger dog—really big, and frequently really smelly, poop. Seriously, what did he eat while she wasn’t around?

A spray of cold water fell over them. Her dog lurched at the surprise, nearly dragging Paige onto her face in the poop-smeared spot on the grass.

“Oh my god, what the hell?”

Dark hair popped up from behind a dripping navy-blue pickup truck in the next driveway. A scruff-covered face and wide male shoulders followed. “Looks like you got a bit wet.”

No apology, nice. Paige glanced down at her wet t-shirt, then back to the guy, who appeared completely amused by her newly dampened condition. “You sprayed me, now I’m soaked.” Impulse overrode responsibility as she threw the knotted poop bag at the side of his truck.

He rose to his full height then—and holy hell, was he tall—and looked over the hood at the missile she’d launched. His gaze lifted to meet hers. “That spray was accidental, and it only misted you a little.” One thick, tattooed arm brought the hose up from his side. He took aim, smiled mischievously and pulled the trigger. A clear shot. Direct hit. “Nowyou’re soaked.”

Utterly dripping, she shrieked. “You asshole…look what you did.”

Dark eyes did just that, from head to toe and back.

Paige held her chin up defiantly, aware that her nipples were jutting through the now-transparent white jersey. She stepped forward to collect the baggie and spun on her heel to leave.

“Hey, hang on, you’re freezing.”

“Yeah, I noticed that you noticed,” she said, over her shoulder.

He laughed. “Let me give you a towel or something.”

The combination of his deep, husky laughter and the waterlogged shirt made her shiver. She stopped and turned.

He was leaning against the truck now, arms folded over an expansive chest. Legs casually crossed at the ankles. Jeans with honest-to-god tears showed off his long, thick legs. The man was one big muscle. One big muscle topped with a strong jaw, thick dark stubble, hair and eyes to match. He oozed attitude.

“Forget the towel, I’ll take the shirt off your back.”

“Seems fair.” And off it came, peeled in one easy, multiple-muscle-flexing motion.

“Toss it over.”

“You’ve got your hands full, you’ll never catch it. Come get it.”

Jerk.She stomped toward him with Sasha in tow. “Hold my dog—if he lets you.”

Sasha, the traitor, sat contentedly between them while she yanked the massive black t-shirt over her sopping white one. Mr. Huge scratched behind the dog’s ears, making the pit bull’s tongue loll out of his mouth. Geez, her dog was practically smiling up at the guy. Make that traitor times ten.

“Shirt looks good on you.” He passed her the leash, their fingers brushing during the exchange.

Another shiver rippled through her. He stared at her so intently, she might as well have been naked as covered in his giant t-shirt. Since he clearly had no problems ogling, she returned the favor.

Thick pecs and well-defined abs—he definitely worked out. A lot. Ornate tattoos decorated his shoulder and most of his left arm. Good god, he had nipple piercings too. Time to go, pronto, before she reached out and flicked one of those silver barbells.

“What’s your dog’s name?”

“Sasha.”

Beneath the dangerously sexy stubble, his lips curled ever-so-slightly upward. “Did you name him that?”

“Yes. After a Russian artist.”

He snorted in response.

“Yup, first impressions are always right. You are an asshole,” she said, walking backward.

The dark-haired guy full-out laughed this time, making his muscles dance.

She wanted to storm over there and slug him. Or fuck him. Possibly both, neither of which she had the guts to do. Damn it, she had serious issues.

She’d only gotten one house width away when he called out, “Hey, tell me yourname.”

“In your dreams.”

“Looking forward to them.”

Her face was the traitor now, smiling when she should have scowled. She turned so he wouldn’t see it, resisting the urge to look back until she’d put another house between them.

He’d returned to washing his truck, still shirtless, apparently unaffected by the cool evening breeze. Mouth-watering, even from a distance. Dark hair curled at the back of his neck. Tattoos crept out from under his arm to wrap around a monstrous back.

It was safe to say he’d be in herdreams.

“I still can’t believe you broke up with Johnathon,” Becka said, sighing as they chose a checkout line at the superstore. “A warning would’ve been nice. My current emotional state can’t handle big surprises.”

“Sorry. I didn’t plan it, but when he suggested we move in together, I knew it was time to cut him loose.”

“Just like that, after almost a year? You could’ve triedliving with him. He might’ve turned out to be The One.”

Paige didn’t answer. No point.

Her best friend desperately wanted Paige to join the ranks of the happily cohabitating. Legally married and knocked up would please Becka even more. She didn’t understand how a serial monogamist could get so spooked by the idea of a permanent commitment. But Becka hadn’t grown up in a household where one parent’s recurring infidelity repeatedly broke the other’s heart. Love did not conquer all.

So, as expected, the breakup had devastated Becka. She’d actually cried upon initially hearing the news, though she’d blamed the tears on pregnancy hormones being one hundred times stronger than the worst PMS. Paige had added that to the list of reasons not to alter her current heading from its childless-by-choice course.

Once Becka had managed to shut down the waterworks, she’d insisted they have a girls’ night in. Chick flicks, junk food and non-alcoholic wine. Not as exciting as an evening watching male strippers from the front row, but Becka had nixed that idea immediately. The party pooper.

“Think I have time to run back to the chip aisle for some Cheetos?” Becka asked, poking through the contents of their shared shopping cart.

The opportunity was too good to resist. “If you could actually run, maybe. Since I haven’t seen you do anything faster than speed waddle in over a month, I think you’re going to have to make do with the Doritos, Pringles, and mint-chip ice cream you already grabbed.”

“I won’t be the only person eating them.” Binge-eating justification at its finest.

“You don’t even like Cheetos. When I put them out on New Year’s Eve, you said they were gross and taste like plastic.”

“I was two months along. Everything is off during the first trimester,” Becka said, as if that explained everything. “I’m going to get some. Don’t worry, I’ll be back before we’re at the register.”

Minutes ticked by after Becka’s departure. The line moved forward as customer after customer finished their transactions and cleared out. Shit, she and Becka were almost up.

Paige pushed the cart to the end of the checkout belt and began unloading the contents, piling Becka’s at the rear to buy extra time. If her friend didn’t hurry though, she’d be officially out of luck in the Cheetos department. She’d also owe Paige a chunk of change for paying for all her pregnancy crap.

“Hey, dream girl.”

That voice. Paige turned—gravitated, really—toward the rich sound. Several people stood between her and the owner’s twinkling brown eyes. She silently mouthed the words hey asshole, but her smiling face betrayed her yet again.

Without apologizing to a single person, he detoured around the customers separating them and deposited his armful of products behind her two piles.

“You just cut in front of four people.”

“I wanted to be behind you.” He took his time perusing her body before meeting her eyes again. “I’m sure nobody blames me for that.”

“She does.” Paige pointed at the shrunken-looking woman chirping at him in Italian. Or maybe Portuguese. Whatever language it was, the lady was definitely peeved.

He showed zero concern, didn’t even bother to look. “Did my t-shirt keep you warm last night?”

“Very. Especially when I was lying on my sheepskin rug…watching it burn in the fireplace.”

He barked out a laugh, attracting the attention of everyone in their line and beyond. “That was my favorite t-shirt.”

“I don’t think you’ll miss it.” She nodded at his current apparel—an identical plain black t-shirt.

He shook his head, still smiling. “Big attitude for such a tiny thing.”

“I’m not tiny.”

“No?” He stepped closer. Invaded her space with his massive everything.

“I’m average. You’re just—” Her eyes drifted across his shoulders, then down. “Huge.” Heat flared in her cheeks as the last word slipped from her mouth in a breathy tone that belonged in the bedroom, not the superstore checkout line. Shit. “Don’t even go there.”

He shrugged, a wolfish grin spreading across his face. “You said it, not me.”

And now they both knew she was thinking about his cock. Awesome.

The cashier saved her with the obligatory, “Did you find everything you were looking for today?” while scanning the items in Paige’s pile.

Chips, ice cream…and Becka was still nowhere in sight. Crap, where was she? Waddling down the candy aisle, probably.

“These too,” Paige said, shoving Becka’s items along to merge the two piles.

The guy at Paige’s side chuckled. “Looks like you’re very focused on nutrition.”

She quit craning her neck in search of her absentee friend and blinked up at him. “This is for a party. I’m celebrating a big life change, Mr. Nosey.”

He snagged the green bottle and inspected it. “With non-alcoholic wine. Don’t get carried away and do something you’ll regret tomorrow.”

“Some people have to abstain, you know.”

The clerk swiped Becka’s prenatal vitamins and a parenting magazine. Paige scanned the crowded store again. Still no sign of her friend.

“Is that everything?” the cashier asked, with less-than-zero enthusiasm.

“Other than my friend and her wallet…I guess so.” So much for attempted humor, the cashier stared at her completely stone-faced. “All righty then. Yes, I guess that’s everything.”

“Don’t forget this.” Her tall, dark stranger handed off the faux wine.

“Right, thanks.” She focused on completing the transaction, but god, he was close. And hot. Or maybe that was her.

She loaded the bags into the cart and moved to the end of the aisle to wait for Becka. Okay, for him too. No harm in appreciating the scenery since she had to hang around anyway.

He paid for his items, scooped his single bag, then paused in front of her. “Are you waiting for a carry out? I can help you with those if they’re too heavy.”

What the huh? No sarcastic comments, no flirty come-on? And what was with the Boy Scout routine?

“Pretty sure I can manage a few grocery bags, but thanks. I’m just waiting for my fellow party animal.” She grabbed the bottle of glorified grape juice and waved it while smiling.

“Have a good night. And…congratulations.” As quickly as he’d popped into her day, he left it.

When Becka walked up a minute later, Paige was still trying to figure out what had just happened.

“Who was that giant guy?” Becka asked, stuffing Cheetos into her mouth.

“Somebody who lives in my neighborhood, a couple blocks over.” Paige narrowed her eyes at Becka’s bag of neon-orange snacks. “When did you get those?”

“A couple minutes ago. When I came back and saw you with the hulking hunk of tattooed beef, I ducked into the express line. I could practically smell the pheromones from six lanes over. That guy is so into you. He’s good-looking, in a terrifying sort of way. How long have you known him?”

Not a bad description, all in all, and Becka hadn’t even seen all of his ink, or the silver barbells through his nipples.

“I met him while I was walking the dog last night.”

“Convenient,” Becka said, winking. “What’s his name?”

Mr. Huge, Mr. Nosey, Mr. Tall, Dark and Terrifyingly Handsome.

Paige shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“Well, all I can say is—girl, you work fast. Bye-bye, Johnathon, hello handsome neighborhood dude, before you’d even had time to change the sheets. Guess I won’t be sweeping up the pieces of your broken heart tonight.”

“You may as well retire the broom. You’ll never need it for me.”

Time always flew in June. Some kids completely lost their shit at the end of the school year—once the realization that final report cards would soon be hitting their parents’ mailboxes pushed through their hormone-rampant brains. Other kids practically vibrated with enthusiasm and high hopes. Either way, as the final days of the term approached, Westdale Collegiate’s six-hundred-or-so students turned into a mass of frenzied energy.

Alex got a kick out of this part of the school year. Impossible not to catch the hyper buzz from his students. Not that he tried to avoid it. One thing too many adults forgot—life was meant for living. Since he’d come close to losing his, he kept that lesson front and center.

No better season for appreciating life than summer. A couple weeks from now, he’d have his days free to work on art—if his MIA muse ever returned. To play baseball and appreciate the beauty of July and August, including beaches and bikinis. And a cute neighborhood chick with a big dog and a bigger attitude, he’d hoped, until he caught a glimpse of her maternity supplies.

Wasn’t that a big what-the-fuck? There’d been sparks both times he got close to her, no question. His radar usually picked up the unavailable vibe, and a pregnant woman definitely belonged in that bracket. Shitty. At least he’d found out before doing something stupid.

Knowing she was off-limits didn’t keep her out of his damn head, though. A mental image of the spirited blonde with the nice curves and luscious lips had stayed with him all week.

From that first glance over the side of his truck, she’d zinged him. That was just from the visual. There was a definite correlation between her saucy mouth and the amount of blood that’d rushed to his cock. Feisty always did it for him, and the girl with the black pit bull did it for him in fucking spades.

He’d jerked off thinking about her lips wrapped around his dick the night they met, the fantasy progressing to much raunchier ground as the week progressed. Yeah, he was an asshole, jerking-off while thinking about some other guy’s future baby-mama. But damned if he could stop.

He turned into the driveway and did the thing that had become part of his homecoming routine—scanning the street for a sign of her or the dog. Nada. Shit. He’d never seen her before the hose incident and only the one time since.

Maybe she didn’t live in his neck of the woods after all. Maybe she’d been walking her boyfriend’s dog that night. Maybe they usually hung at her place, somewhere off his grid, and meeting her was nothing more than a fluke. Maybe he should stop fucking wondering about some girl he couldn’t have and get ready for tonight’s game.

He tossed his work bag on the table. Shucked his I’m-a-respectable-professional clothes and dug his rec-league gear out of a dresser drawer. Black socks, pants, jersey—he loved this stuff. He’d frequented the batting cages plenty during the winter and spring months, as he always did in the off-season. He’d been out casually tossing the ball around since the snow disappeared from the fields. But nothing beat stepping onto the diamond.

Beginning of the season always got his pulse jumping. Seeing faces he hadn’t laid eyes on since last summer’s end-of-season tourney, scoping out the new blood on the opposing teams. The first crack of the bat, the crunch of gravel under his cleats. Just thinking about it put a smile on his face.

This is what he needed to take his mind off Dream Girl, as he’d nicknamed her. Sweating. Laughing with buddies. Checking out the available women at the bar afterward wouldn’t hurt, either.

He scooped his black cap from a hook in the closet, grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and headed out the front door. Game on.

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