Authors: Lauren Layne
“Not your music at two a.m.,” she clarified, lifting her mug and pointing it at him.
Then she took a sip and moaned in pleasure. “Oh my God, what is this?”
“Italian roast from that little place around the corner.” His voice was a little bit husky, and she wasn't entirely sure if it was because he shared her pleasure in the coffee or because he was appreciating her pleasure, and right now she didn't care.
“It's incredible,” she said reverently, glancing down at the coffee with what could have only been described as love before looking back at him with something decidedly less so but also with a bit less animosity than before. Any man who appreciated coffee like this couldn't be all bad.
Their eyes locked, and for a moment, Heather lost her breath. He was just so darn good-looking, with his sleepy sexy eyes and his casual charm, and his really yummy Italian roast coffee. And then there was the matter of that dreamÂ .Â .Â .
“What about hedge fund managers?” Sue asked, slowly whisking some of Heather's milk into the bowl.
Heather was still looking at Josh when his mother asked the random question, and she was surprised to see something that looked like pain cross his face, followed by a complete shutdown.
It was as though the guy she'd been talking to vanished and was replaced by someone a hell of a lot more broody.
“Um, what?” Heather asked, forcing her attention back to Josh's mother and trying to figure out if she'd blacked out and missed some sort of transition. Why were they talking about hedge fund managers?
“Josh used to be one of those,” Sue said as she placed a skillet on the stove and dropped a blob of butter onto it.
Josh's voice was sharp, and Sue glanced at him in confusion. “Am I not allowed to say that? It's not something to be ashamed of, honey.”
He lifted a thumb to his face, pressing his thumbnail along the crease between his eyebrows just briefly as he closed his eyes. “I'm not ashamed. I'm just not that person anymore.”
“I didn't say you were,” Sue said in a happy voice. Too happy. As though she knew full well that she was pushing her son's buttons but was determined to feign ignorance. “I said you
to be a hedge fund manager.”
“Which was relevant to the conversation how?” he snapped.
“Well, we were talking about careers, and I know you're taking a break from Wall Street for a little while, but
Â .Â .Â .”
Heather took another sip of coffee as she debated the most subtle way to take her leave and let them settle what was obviously a personal, family matter.
Josh apparently read her thoughts, because he reached out a hand to stop her. Not touching her, but there was no question that he wanted her to stay.
She shouldn't, and yetÂ .Â .Â .
Heather glanced at his profile, taking in the Âsudden tension and the rawness that had replaced his easy cockiness. And though she didn't know him, she
And she wasn't completely immune to the pain on Sue Tanner's face, either, as she pressed her lips together and focused on ladling scoops of pancake batter into the now sizzling skillet.
“I just want you to be happy,” his mom said quietly.
Josh exhaled a tiny sigh that only Heather could hear before he stood and walked over to his mother, wrapping his arms around her in a hug that tugged at Heather's heart.
Sue reached up a hand and patted her son's cheek in reassurance that they were okay, and when Josh stepped away, Heather's heart twisted even further when she saw his mother swipe a tear from her cheek.
What the heck had she stumbled into?
“Don't do it, 4C.”
Heather glanced at Josh as he came and sat back in the chair next to hers, reaching for his coffee.
“Don't do what?”
“Don't go all soft on me now and let me think you're nice. I won't be able to handle it.”
“I am nice,” she insisted. “Super nice.”
“Excellent,” he said, back to his easy charm and wide smile. “So would now be a good time to tell you that my band's coming over to practice tonight?”
Heather shoved her empty coffee mug his way. “Let's just say that you making me more of that heavenly coffee is your best chance of me not strangling you with a guitar string.”
He scooped up her mug and stood with a wink. “Damned if I don't like you a little bit, 4C, especially when you're all pissy and shit.”
Heather ignored this, pointedly looking out the window as she waited for him to return with more of the insanely good coffee.
But damned if she didn't like him a little bit, too.
OSH HAD QUIT
his old life cold turkey, he'd figured that the best part of “new Josh” would be the lack of rigid routine. No more five a.m. wake-up calls after a two a.m. nights. No more seven thirty meetings followed by coffee obligations and lunch obligations and happy hour obligations and dinner obligations.
Hell, no obligations of any kind. No commitments. No routine. He'd be able to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. To live each day free and clear of yesterday, and more importantly, to live each day free and clear of
, because if he'd learned anything, it was that
was far from a guarantee.
Which was why it was so annoying to realize that despite his very deliberate intentions to embrace the carefree musician lifestyle, complete with its odd hours, one-night stands, and don't-give-a-fuck mentality, he was still very much a creature of habit.
Grocery runs on Sunday nights. Wake up at six
without an alarm, regardless of how late he'd gone to bed the night before. Breakfast of smoothie and vegetable omelet to offset his penchant for pizza. Out the door by eight to get to the gym, followed by a stop for an extra large cup of coffee, followed by shower, followed by a lunch of protein shake and saladÂ .Â .Â .
he was tired of himself.
Which was why, as Josh let himself out of his apartment at 7:55, the way he did every morning, he felt a slow smile creep over his face as Heather stepped into the hallway and pulled her door shut at the exact same time.
Sure, he could have done without her wince and sigh of dismay as she spotted him, but then again, maybe that was part of the appeal. Josh was desperate for a changeâdesperate for a challengeâand the neighbor in 4C with her determination not to like him was exactly what the doctor ordered.
“Morning, 4C,” he said with an easy smile, giving her a slow once-over as they locked their respective doors.
She lookedÂ .Â .Â . hot. White blouse tucked into a gray pencil skirt with sky-high blue stilettos. Nice if you liked the polished-career-woman look, and he normally did. And yetÂ .Â .Â . Josh's eyes narrowed a little because it didn't seem quite like
. She pulled it off nicely, but he'd seen the inside of her apartment; he knew that she liked just a little bit of funk, and nothing about her clothing choices represented the quirky personality that he was pretty sure lurked beneath the surface. Still, he supposed he knew as well as anybody that sometimes you had to dress the part.
“Leaving the house before noon,” Heather said, dropping her keys into her purse and turning to face him. “I'm shocked. Where's your redheaded friend?”
“Ginger?” he asked as they headed toward the stairs. Technically, their building had an elevator, but it was slow as molasses and not much good for anything other than furniture delivery.
Heather halted at the top of the stairs. “Tell me you did not just call your red-haired one-night stand
“That was her name.”
“A ginger named Ginger?” Heather asked skeptically.
“Don't know if it was her real name,” Josh said with a shrug. “Didn't ask.”
“You're a pig,” she muttered.
“Hurtful, 4C. Very hurtful.”
“Yeah, you seem like a real softie underneath all those muscles,” she muttered.
Josh moved quickly, descending onto the first step while she was still at the top of the stairs, minimizing the height difference between them and leaving them almost at eye level.
He leaned in slightly and lifted his eyebrows. “Noticed those, did you?”
Heather raked her gaze over him. “Hard not to, what with the too-small shirts and all. Do you shop in the children's section?”
Josh gave her the slow, lopsided smile that had coaxed more than one girl into his bed, but Heather Fowler was no adoring groupie and merely narrowed her eyes.
This time when he smiled it was a quick and genuine grin. Yup, definitely a challenge. Just what he needed.
“You'd better watch yourself, 4C. I'm going to figure out what softens you up. Other than pancakes.”
“Don't sound so smug,” she retorted. “Yesterday's pancakes were all your mother's doing.”
“Ah,” he said, holding up a finger. “But the
was all me.”
Heather's eyes narrowed further. “Are you seriously trying to seduce me with coffee right now?”
His eyebrows lifted. “Is it working?”
“No. I made my
coffee this morning.”
Josh's grin grew. “Dear God, please tell me that's a sexy euphemism forÂ .Â .Â .”
He trailed off, and Heather frowned as she followed his train of thought, then her mouth dropped open when she put the pieces together.
“Did you just ask me if I masturbated this morning?” she hissed.
“No, I begged you to
me that you masturbated. Willing it to be true is not the same as asking a woman if she did. That would be rude.”
“You're unbelievable,” she said, stepping to the right and trying to move around him.
He sidestepped, blocking her departure. “Okay, but did you?”
“I'm not answering that!”
Josh sighed and shook his head. “No wonder you're all keyed up. You could use a littleÂ .Â .Â . you know.”
“Not all of us run on orgasms,” she snapped.
“Maybe if you did, you wouldn't be so riled up all the time.”
“I'm not riled up
the time. Just when work's crazy.”
“Best I can tell, your work's always crazy,” he countered.
“Because I like it that way.”
“Bullshit,” he shot back. “Nobody likes it that way.”
“A little PTSD from your hedge fund days?” she asked.
This time it was Josh's turn to narrow his eyes. “Don't go there, 4C.”
“No problem, 4A,” she said sweetly. “You stay out of my business, I stay out of yours, and maybe, just maybe, we can refrain from killing each other.”
“If anything kills you, it's going to be a heart attack. You're a workaholic, sweetheart,” he said, falling into step beside her as they walked down Âtogether.
“Just because I'm not sleeping with a different woman every night and strumming my guitar into the wee hours doesn't mean I don't enjoy my life.”
“I don't sleep with a different woman every night,” he countered as they stepped onto the scuffed marble floor of the lobby.
“Oh, so there are repeats?”
“God, no,” Josh said. “I meant that I take some nights off.”
“Gotta give the little guy a chance to recover?” Heather asked with a pointed look at his crotch.
“More like the other nights are devoted to band practice. The guys don't like it when I'm distracted by
girls, the girls don't like when I'm distracted by the band.”
Heather put a hand over her chest. “You poor thing. And you've lived this long?”
lived this long.
Josh frowned as the dark thought overtook him. He didn't let his mind go that direction these days. Figured that his storm cloud of a neighbor would rub off on him.
Time for a subject change. “Where you from, 4C?”
“None of your business.”
“Would you quit being prickly for two minutes?” he asked, exasperated. “I'm just making friendly conversation.”
“You are not, you're trying to get in my pants.”
“Honey, if I wanted to be in your pants, I'd be there already,” he said, even though he wasn't at all sure it was true. She seemed
determined to dislike him.
“Go away,” she muttered as they stepped out onto the sidewalk.
“Tell me where you're from, and I'll leave you alone.”
She rolled her eyes. “Midwest.”
“Where in the Midwest?”
“What do you want, like, a map?”
Josh's head fell backward as he stared at the sky. “How about a state, 4C. Jesus. Why of all the women did you put this one next door to me?”
“It's not like I'm begging you to talk to me,” she grumbled. “I'm just trying to go about my business.”
Josh let out a little laugh. “Fine. You win. I'll leave you to take over the world of weddings.”
He lifted his own hand for a cab. One stopped immediately, and she huffed in annoyance. “Of course.”
Josh opened the car door and gestured for her to get in.
“No, go ahead,” she said grumpily.
“I don't need a cab.”
“Oh,” she said, frowning, as though trying to figure out how to spin his gentlemanly gesture into something else. “Where are you going?”
He shook his head. “Too late for small talk, 4C. This chatty thing has to go both ways or not at all.”
“Not at all sounds
,” she said enthusiastically, stepping down from the curb to get into the cab.
Then, at the last minute, she looked up and caught his eye. “Hey. 4A.”
“I'm from Michigan. Specifically, Merryville, a little town you've never heard of and likely never will again.”
He studied her for a moment. “That wasn't so hard, was it?”
She didn't answer, starting to drop into the taxi when his fingers brushed hers where they rested on the top of the cab door.
“Hey, wait, you didn't answer my most interesting question of the day,” he asked.
“What?” she asked warily.
He tried again with the slow, sexy smile. “Did you touch yourself this morning? And, important follow-up question, did you think of me?”
“Oh, for the love ofâ Good-bye, Josh,” Heather
said, pulling her hand free and dropping into the cab and slamming the door shut.
He watched the cab pull away, feeling a stab of victory when she turned to look at him over her shoulder. Her head whipped back around the second their eyes made contact, and he barked out a short laugh.
Yup, Heather Fowler of 4C was going to be a challenge, all right.