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Open House

Open House

Аннотация

    When Lacey Ferguson walked into her dream home the last thing she expected to find was her dream man. She was looking for granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. Not rock hard abs and buns of steel. Meeting the rugged and downright sexy man who built her ideal home almost convinces her to take a chance on love, but is Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handy possibly hiding something? Too good to be true usually spells disaster, right? Or is she just making excuses to avoid having her heart trashed again?
    Jackson Kingston has been using work as a distraction from life for the past year and a half. And it's been working great. His plan to re-build his father's home construction business with his three brothers is finally happening and he's so exhausted from working 16 hour days he doesn't have the energy to think about the past. Mission accomplished in his books.
    When Jack meets Lacey while touring one of his properties, all he can think about is using the granite countertop for something much more erotic than meal preparation. Suddenly life is worth experiencing again. If only he can convince the voluptuous home buyer that a no strings affair is the ideal arrangement for both of them.
    Things get complicated when they end up working on a real estate project together, and a no strings affair turns into something more. Can a man with a tendency to shutdown when emotions become involved and a woman who mistrusts love build something real together, or is their foundation too weak to last?


Tamara Larson Open House

Chapter One

    “It’s huge!” Lacey exclaimed, angling her head to get a better look. “That is way more than I can handle.”
    “You’re exaggerating. It’s average size.”
    “Are you kidding me? Look how deep it goes.” Lacey pointed. “How would you even keep it clean without help. You’d need a crew.”
    “Now you’re just being ridiculous. We’ve had way bigger and a cleaning crew was not required.”
    “This is a waste of time.”
    “Just look then.”
    “The more I look at it. The more I want it. This is such a bad idea!” Lacey bit her lip, but moved forward tentatively anyway.
    “Just relax. Maybe you’ll like it. Maybe you won’t. There’s only one way to find out and that’s to take the plunge.”
    Lacey and her mom were standing on the sidewalk discussing the four large, craftsman-style, row-houses before them. The attractive properties were set far back from the road, and flower beds lined the cobblestone paths leading to each front door. Most importantly to Lacey and Diana Ferguson, there was a large, bright 'Show Home – Open House Today' sign perched on the front lawn.
    They had arrived just minutes before the Open House closed at four, so the late March sunshine highlighted the external features of the homes. Each of the four dwellings was painted a different color. As Lacey walked from her car she noticed that all of the front doors had their own distinctive style as well. The row-house on the end with the sign in front was painted a lovely sage green and featured an imposing arched red door with black twining ironwork, like a castle, while the yellow one next to it had a delicate-looking, mostly etched glass door. She couldn’t help being charmed by their individuality. Obviously the builders, The Kingston Brothers, didn't want their homes to resemble the typical cookie-cutter houses seen in most suburban real estate developments.
    “Alright, Mom. Let’s go in,’ Lacey said, turning onto the path to the Open House. “But this is our last one today, okay? It’s torture looking at all these places I can’t afford.”
    “Lacey, as I’ve told you, many, many times. There’s always room for negotiation. The list price is merely a suggestion,” Diana Ferguson said, stepping around her daughter and leading the way up the path.
    “If you say so,” Lacey said doubtfully. “But I can’t help feeling like we’re here under false pretenses. Like I’m pretending that I can afford something like this, when we both know I’d have to take a second job, and possibly sell my body to afford it.”
    “The real estate agent has to sit there anyway, dear. And I don’t see any other cars here, do you?” Actually there was a sleek white Mercedes parked in front of Lacey’s car at the curb, and a large, shiny, black pick-up truck in the driveway of the Show Home, but Diana ignored them. “I’m sure they’ll be glad to have us come in an distract them for a few minutes.”
    Lacey rolled her eyes, but followed her mother reluctantly. “Okay, but just a quick tour, okay? Let’s not waste their time with a lot of questions, right?”
    “Of course not, dear. I wouldn’t dream of it.” Diana grinned at her daughter and Lacey was certain her mom was going to be grilling the real estate agent within seconds of stepping through the door. Lacey loved her quiz-master mom, but she certainly didn’t endear herself to the real estate professionals, who really just wanted her to go away, or better yet, put in an offer and then go away.
    Lacey and her mom were seasoned house hunters. They had been looking for a new home for Lacey for the past eight months, without much luck. A recent promotion to Clinical Resource Nurse at The Health Unit where she worked had allowed her the option of finally moving out of her tiny rental apartment. But finding the right place was proving to be much more difficult than she’d anticipated. Everything they looked at was much too small, too old, or way too expensive.
    The Show Home they were currently looking at was their third property that day, and it was way above her budget. But she had jogged past the row-houses many times as they were being built, and the quaint style had charmed her. When she spotted the Open House sign on the lawn earlier that day, she couldn’t resist checking them out.
    Lacey admired the home’s quaint front porch as she climbed the wide stairs. Mentally she was already seeing the white wicker chair she would place to the left of the bright red door. Trailing behind her mother she imagined they were walking into her house rather than a Show Home. It was just a fantasy, but she really could see herself living in one of these places.
    This particular property was in the perfect subdivision, just minutes away from her mom’s house and work. And best of all, the real estate developers had retained many of the mature trees and landscaping that had existed when this area had been army housing. So, it looked like an older, well-established neighborhood but it was gloriously fresh and new, with all the modern design features she had been lusting after from watching the Home and Garden Channel like it was porn.
    “Hello,” Diana called as she turned the knob and poked her head in. “Yoo-hoo. Are we too late for the Open House?”
    “C’mon in. There’s plenty of time,” A friendly female voice answered from down the hall.
    Diana wiggled her eyebrows at Lacey. She was in her element. Looking at real estate was a game to her. Having bought and sold more than fifteen homes over the past thirty years she loved the challenge of negotiating with real estate agents and getting the very best price.
    At 55, Diana Ferguson was still slim and attractive. Her blonde hair had faded and she had a tendency to wear high-waisted mom jeans, and oversized sweatshirts, but it was easy to believe she had once been a great beauty. Many people underestimated her because of her sweet appearance and kind nature, but underneath that maternal exterior lurked the heart of a born hardcore negotiator.
    Today Diana was thrilled to be checking out homes in this particular neighborhood. She wanted her daughter to live close by and in a safe environment. The quicker Lacey was out of the dumpy apartment she was currently living in, the happier Diana would be.
    They left their shoes outside and stepped into the Show Home’s impressive hallway. The sight of beautiful, shiny, hardwood floors and high ceilings greeted them and Lacey gave a gasp of delight when she saw the crystal wall sconces lighting their way toward the kitchen. She pointed at them, and mouthed, “Those are gorgeous,” to her mother. Diana nodded vigorously and they continued into the Great Room. It was always their strategy to appear cool and detached from the properties they looked at, but usually failed miserably at this.
    Entering the open concept kitchen and living area, Lacey stopped in her tracks and reached out a hand to touch the object of beauty before her. “I think I just fell in love,” she said over her shoulder to her mother. The two strangers standing at the counter both chuckled at her reaction to the giant island of grey-flecked, white granite she was currently fondling. “Where have you been all my life?” she asked no one in particular. Looking up she smiled at the people watching her molest the kitchen island.
    The woman, obviously a real estate agent, held out her hand and introduced herself as Serena Garrison. She was tall, blonde and coolly elegant in her white blouse, black skirt and spiky black stilettos. Lacey reluctantly took one hand off the granite, and returned the handshake, suddenly quite self-conscious about her sloppy jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt and bare feet. She really wished she hadn’t let her best friend’s nine-year-old daughter paint her toe nails in a particularly horrendous shade of acid green. Bella wasn’t terribly careful about restricting the polish to nails, and the result made Lacey’s toes look like she’d dipped them in toxic waste.
    "Hi Serena, I’m Lacey, and this is my mother, Diana," she said, as her mother stepped up beside her to admire the island. Serena smiled warmly, welcomed both ladies, and handed them each copies of the row-house information sheet. Lacey liked her instantly, but was curious why she didn’t introduce the tall, dark figure who was watching this scene unfold without saying a single word. Must be her boyfriend, she thought. Lucky, lucky girl. Who didn’t like the strong, silent type?
    She tried not to stare. She really did. But the last time she had been this close to a guy who looked like he’d just stepped out of a beefcake calendar was probably at her friend Liz's thirtieth birthday party. Lacey had drank way too many lemon drop martinis and ended the evening by groping one of the sweaty Chippendales dancers, much to everyone’s amusement. And that was more than three years ago. So, while her mother chatted with Serena about the features of the home, and his attention was diverted by their conversation, Lacey allowed herself a sneaky side glance at him. A glance that turned into a stare which lingered for just a minute or two longer than was absolutely polite.
    He was leaning against the kitchen counter with his arms crossed across his wide chest. She could clearly see how the fabric of his blue plaid shirt strained against powerful biceps. The kitchen area was wide and airy and had extremely high vaulted ceilings, but he still seemed to dwarf the room. Casually, she pretended to look out the window next to him but was actually trying to see if his bottom half was as impressive as the top. It was. At least what she could see. Unfortunately, his shirt was too long do a thorough examination, but she noted that he wore loose dark jeans and extremely large suede boots.
    His dark, silky hair was just a little too long to look professional and his nose looked like it had been broken more than once, but overall everything about him made her sigh inwardly in appreciation. This was not a pretty man. He was entirely too rugged to be called handsome or cute. He looked like the broody, intense type. Or perhaps he was more like a conquering warrior, bent on vengeance. Obviously she had been reading too many novels featuring highlanders lately. She resolved to read something less stimulating in the future. Her libido suddenly seemed to be in hyper-drive.
    Deciding that she’d ogled him for long enough Lacey turned reluctantly back toward her mother and Serena. Joining the conversation seemed like a great distraction from staring at the silent, sexy giant. Hopefully he hadn't noticed that her attention had not been focused on the whatever Serena had been saying about the features of the home.
    Did she honestly think that he was oblivious to the way she had been staring at him? Jackson thought to himself incredulously. The curvy little brunette with the biggest smile he’d ever seen had been eyeing him like a prime cut of beef at the supermarket for the past three minutes.
    Her stare should have felt intrusive or even downright offensive, but instead he found himself liking the way her eyes wandered over him with such honest interest. He liked it a lot. But it had been so long since he’d even been aware of a woman that he really wasn’t sure how to react. What were the rules now? He had no idea. His last experience with this had been in college. Surely, things had changed in the 10 years since he’d graduated. Should he stare back at her? Ignore her? Wait and see what she did? Slip her his number? Cop a feel? No, definitely not. That would get him a slap for sure.
    He’d been tempted to ask her if she liked what she saw, but was fairly certain she would have panicked and grown flustered if he’d acknowledged her blatant perusal of his body. It might have been amusing to watch her recover from her embarrassment, but he really wanted to feel her eyes on him again. And that was unlikely to happen if he confronted her. He was just glad he’d left his shirt untucked or she’d really have gotten an eyeful of his body’s reaction to being visually assaulted. Mr. Happy could pound nails right about now.
    He couldn't figure it out. This woman wasn't even his type. His wife had been fair-skinned, ash-blonde and as tall and thin as a runway model. Lacey was olive-skinned and petite, maybe a few inches over five feet. Usually, his size made him feel clumsy around small women, but not with her. She was perfectly curved, and fit-looking with a small waist and gently flaring hips. Her face was expressive with huge vivid blue eyes that contrasted with her darker skin and hair. But the most striking thing about her was her smile. It was huge and open and made him want to amuse her, just so he could see it again and again. He had never seen someone smile so often and with such genuine warmth in such a short period of time. No denying it, he liked what he saw.
    "I can’t believe all the high end finishes in this place. It’s like a miniature version of all of those lottery homes," Lacey said, admiring the travertine tile in the laundry room just off the kitchen. Jackson inwardly preened at the compliment. He’d picked out that tile himself, and his brothers had ribbed him for his extravagant taste.
    “You wouldn’t happen to know the name of that color, would you?” Diana asked Serena, gesturing toward the wall beside the huge natural stone fireplace which looked like it belonged in a hunting lodge rather than a suburban townhouse. "It’s a beautiful shade. Neutral but so much warmer than plain beige, don’t you think, Lacey? I don’t think I’ve seen it before.”
    Serena looked down at her notes and then glanced at the dark-haired man. “Jay, can you remember? I don’t seem to have it written down.”
    He stepped forward and smiled at Lacey and her mother. “That’s called Biscotti,” he said, pointing toward the wall. "And the darker color leading up the stairs is called Espresso. I guess the paint manufacturer really had a thing for coffee.” On a less masculine man, this knowledge of specific paint shade would have seemed effeminate, but the deep rumble of his voice and the way his eyes warmed when he looked at Lacey left little doubt that his orientation was 100% heterosexual.
    “This is one of the builders,” Serena explained, gesturing toward the dark-haired man. “So, if there’s anything you need to know, he would be the man to ask. He just popped in for a second to check on things, but I’m sure he’d be glad to answer your questions. Is there anything you’re curious about?”
    Lacey was wildly curious to know his name, but it seemed rude to ask at this point in the conversation. Should she introduce herself again? Or would that seem odd considering she’d done that just a few minutes earlier. Better to just go with it, and hopefully he would volunteer his name later.
    “Unfortunately, this place is a little bigger than what I was looking for,” Lacey said, tentatively. "But I would love a scaled down version. It’s just my dog and I, so we probably don’t need four bedrooms.” Was that too obvious? “Any chance of you guys doing a miniature version anytime soon?” Lacey asked, addressing him directly for the first time.
    She was impressed with how cool and detached she sounded when all she wanted to do was stare at him for the next few years. And run her hands over his broad shoulders, and perhaps squeeze those big, hard thighs which were revealed when he stepped around the counter. Whew! This guy was something else. She really must focus on what he was saying.
    “Have you seen the Alderbrook Townhouses?” he asked, apparently oblivious to Lacey’s lascivious fantasies about his various body parts. “My brothers and I built those too and they have a lot of the same features, but are a somewhat smaller. No basement and only two bedrooms. And a den.”
    “Are they up on the Ridge?” Excellent. She was following the conversation. She could interact with him without accidentally licking his neck if she didn’t look directly at him.
    “No, we don’t build up there.” His tone said the townhouse-riddled Ridge development was the equivalent of building igloos in hell.
    Lacey laughed. “You make it sound like the slums or something.”
    “No, nothing like that. There’s some nice homes there, but unfortunately the planners have gotten greedy and everyone is packed in like sardines. When we build a home we try to consider how the neighborhood is part of the home and, personally, I would feel claustrophobic up there, with all my nosy neighbors right on top of me all the time.” He shuddered at the thought. “But you should check out our townhouses. They’re overlooking the ravine, just off Cherry Lane.”
    Hmmm…neighbors on top of him. What an excellent idea. If she was his neighbor anyway. “Oh. I think I have seen them. They’re lovely, but on the other side of town. I was really hoping for something around here. Are you building anything else in this subdivision?”
    “Nothing smaller, right now. But you never know in the future. We tend to build family homes, so size really does matter, at least in this case.” He smiled when he said this, and Lacey changed her mind about him being broody. His smile was warm, flirtatious and downright sexy.
    Must stop staring at him, she thought to herself. He’s going to think I’m unbalanced. “To be honest, I’m okay with big, but it’s the price tag that goes along with it that I have a problem with. Big isn’t really something I can afford.” Lacey responded without thinking. Did she just say she was 'okay with big.' Oh God! He’s going to think she’s also a complete pervert. But his smile just widened and Lacey felt herself melting.
    “I get it, but would you like to see the rest of the place anyway?” he asked, gesturing toward the dining area. What was he doing? He didn’t have time to give tours. He was expecting a call from their appliance supplier, and another one from his drywall guy. The absolute last thing he should be doing was playing guide to these recreational real estate tourists. If he was smart he would leave them to Serena and get back to business as fast as he could. And yet he found himself saying, "I’d be glad to give you and your mom the grand tour.”
    Lacey tried to recover from her shock quickly, but was fairly sure her mouth dropped for a moment. Having revealed that she wasn’t a serious buyer for this property, she had expected him to make his excuses and take off as soon as possible. Builders, in her experience, left the tours to the real estate agents and avoided dealing with the curious public. As much as she wanted to spend more time with him, it just wasn’t in her nature to pretend she might make an offer.
    “That would be great. If you’re sure you have the time. Wouldn’t it, mom?” Lacey said, finally noticing that her mother and Serena had been watching this exchange with some amusement. Her mom was smiling widely, and she knew that look. Diana was playing matchmaker, and that never boded well for her.
    “By all means,” Diana said, following them through the archway to the formal dining room. ’Let’s take the special builder’s tour.”

*****

    “He’s flirting with you,” Diana Ferguson whispered, pulling her daughter into the Show Home’s enormous master walk-in closet for some privacy. Her china blue eyes were wide with excitement and she clutched her daughter’s arm tightly to get her attention.
    “You’re delusional,” Lacey responded, shaking her head in mild exasperation. Diana always thought men were interested in her daughter, and she was always wrong. They weren’t. Ever. But her mom’s conviction always made her smile. The previous month Diana had been certain that a real estate agent from a previous Open House had asked for Lacey’s number because he wanted a date. The fact that he was flamboyantly gay did not deter Mrs. Ferguson in the least.
    Lacey was single for a very simple reason. At 32, the pretty brunette rarely encountered single, straight, sane men. Somewhere along the line, her life had become practically testosterone free. Her father, brother, and male cousins all lived in other parts of the country. Her coworkers were all women. Usually this was okay, but every 28 days or so, things could get a little spicy. Most of her clients at The Health Unit were of the ancient variety, so unless she developed a taste for saggy bottoms and liver spots, she was unlikely to meet anyone there. She went to a women’s gym, the people in her running club were all female or married, and even the college courses she’d taken to upgrade her nursing degree a few years ago had been dominated by women.
    Men were like some kind of exotic species to her. Seen in the distance, but she rarely had the opportunity to interact with them on any kind of personal level. As a result, she had lost the knack for flirtation. When she did encounter an eligible guy she usually developed a case of verbal diarrhea or worse, clammed up and appeared downright aloof.
    On some level she knew she had engineered her life this way. Her last relationship, with Barry, the accountant, had ended badly more than three years ago. She hadn’t caught him cheating or discovered he was a cross-dresser or anything so dramatic. He didn’t kick puppies, or belch excessively or belittle her in front of his friends. He was a nice guy. A nice guy who happened to find the prospect of spending anymore time with her completely uninspiring. He had simply said that life was short and he didn’t want to spend it being bored, with her. He needed some excitement, something to look forward to, and all he could see with her was routine sex and a lifetime of wondering if he was wasting his life.
    Harsh, yes, but at least she had found out he before they had moved in together, or gotten engaged. That would have been really messy. After the initial hurt wore off, Lacey realized that he had actually done her a favor. She hadn’t exactly been head over heals with old Barry, but he had seemed like a good, solid, marriage prospect. At the time she'd thought perhaps passion was not a very practical consideration when it came to choosing a life partner. Compatibility, reliability and respect had seemed like an excellent basis to a committed, monogamous, long-term relationship. But it wasn’t, at least for Barry. And if she was really honest with herself, she wanted more too.
    This disaster, in addition to being a first-hand witness to her parent’s horrific divorce eight years ago had convinced her that life without romance was so much cleaner and less complicated than constantly compromising with another person. Relationships were just messy and potentially painful. Bottom line was she hadn’t been willing to take a chance and trust another person after Barry had dropped the Boring Bomb. If it meant being a little lonely, then that was the price she was willing to pay to avoid having her heart stomped into little tiny pieces.
    Recently, however, she’d started regretting her decision to give up on romance. When she hung out with her happily married friends, or watched a chick-flick where everyone lives Happily Ever After, she suspected she was missing out on something important. Something wonderful. When her promotion at work finally came through, she decided that it was time to put her personal life in order, too. She would try to make an effort to be open to meeting someone and to keep her mistrust at bay.
    Unfortunately, she hadn’t met anyone worth the risk to her heart since making that decision. And it certainly didn’t help that she was addicted to romance novels. The studs in those books certainly made her hyperaware of what she was missing, especially on evenings when the thought of climbing into her bed alone seemed like the most depressing thought in the world.
    She hated herself for needing anyone, but she wanted someone there to touch, someone to hold her and make her feel beautiful. And there never was anyone. Just her dog, Charlie. And he was cute as hell, but not exactly what she was looking for in a bed partner. He snored, for one thing, and had a tendency to chase squirrels in his sleep.
    She wanted her dream guy. No compromises. If she was going to make an effort then she wanted someone incredible. Someone hot, but unaware of it; employed, but not a workaholic; kind, but not a doormat. In short she wanted the hero from one of her sexy novels, in the flesh. Damn those books. They made it just about impossible for average guys to measure up to her expectations. Until they’d come to this Open House anyway.
    “I’m serious this time. Why would the builder be spending so much time with us if he’s not interested in you? That’s the real estate agent’s job. Not his.” Diana persisted, closing the closet door, so the stud-muffin in question wouldn’t overhear their conversation. He’d paused in the hallway outside the master bedroom to answer his cell phone.
    For just a second, Lacey thought her mother might have a point. Why was he with them exactly? He’d spent the last half hour showing them all the impressive features of the Show Home and had only left them alone long enough to answer his cell phone. Could he actually be interested in her? A guy who practically oozed sex appeal like that? No way! He’s probably just a really friendly guy, she thought to herself.
    “Maybe he’s trying to help sell this house? That is his goal, right? He’s just being very thorough,” Lacey said absently, admiring the customized closet’s many drawers and shoe shelves. There was even a small round window on the back wall.
    She walked over, looked outside, and was delighted to see rose bushes, grass, and the Rocky Mountains in the distance. She sighed. Even the closet window has a view, she thought. Unlike her current apartment which featured a grim view of either a cinder block wall from the bedroom window or a front row seat to her creepy exhibitionist neighbor's bedroom from the patio. She shivered at the thought of his hairy, portly body squeezed into a schlong thong. Yuck! She’s kept her blinds closed since that unpleasant sight had assaulted her eyes a few months ago.
    “He’s selling something, alright. But it’s not this house. You already told him it’s too big for you. Face it. He thinks you’re cute.” Diana gave her daughter a sly wink and pushed her toward the closet door. Lacey opened it to find Mr. Sexy Builder Guy standing on the other side, looking a little puzzled as to why they were checking out the closet with the door closed.
    “We were just curious to see if the door closed all the way,” she said, giving him an inane smile. “It looked a little warped or something.”
    “Warped? Seriously?” He asked, seeming downright offended that a door in one of his houses would dare to be sub-par. He maneuvered around her, brushing his large warm body against her in the process, and opened and closed the doors several times, examining it for flaws. “Looks okay to me. In fact, it looks pretty much perfect.” But he wasn’t looking at the door, he was staring intently at her with laughing green eyes.
    Their gazes locked and Lacey felt the strangest sense of connection with him. Looking into his eyes seemed more intimate than having sex with her ex-boyfriend. In fact, doing the nasty with Barry seemed quite cold compared to the weird electricity flowing between her and this stranger. Just a glance from him and her palms were sweating and her panties became as moist as a rain forest. She forced her eyes away from his before she embarrassed herself by completely losing control and launching herself into his arms.
    She regained her composure and moved toward the master bathroom, putting as much distance as possible between herself and his mind-numbing, testosterone-induced brand of hypnosis. He must have an excess of pheromones or something, she thought. Or I’ve been without a man so long that I’m becoming hysterical from sexual frustration. That must be it. She was just imagining there was something between them. All she needed was a quiet evening alone with her battery-operated boyfriend and she’d be fine.
    “Mom, did you notice the heated floors in the bathroom? Wouldn’t they be incredible on a cold morning?” Lacey called over her shoulder, acting as casual and nonplussed as possible considering she’d nearly assaulted a complete stranger in front of her mother.

Chapter Two

    An hour later, Lacey and her mother were walking slowly toward the car. Alone. Not only had Mr. Superstud shown them the rest of the Show Home, he had also shown them the other three row-houses, which were in varied states of completion.
    Lacey was impressed with both his generosity and talent. He was knowledgeable and obviously passionate about this project and answered every single question her mother shot at him with patience and humor. Lacey could tell that Diana was completely charmed and wouldn’t be surprised if she did the unthinkable and offered Lacey’s virtue on a silver platter if this continued much longer.
    Unfortunately, her virtue seemed quite safe at the moment. As they’d been leaving the last property, he’d received yet another call on his cell phone and had excused himself to go back inside and answer it. They’d waited on the porch for a few minutes to say good-bye, and thank him for a tour, but his phone call had continued and they’d decided to leave. Standing around and waiting for him had seemed intrusive and a trifle desperate.
    As they reached their vehicle, Lacey noticed Serena walking down the path from the Show Home toward them. She met them on the sidewalk between where Lacey’s Mini Cooper was parked at the curb and the sleek, white Mercedes.
    “Wow,” Serena said, clearly shocked. “I can’t believe you’re still here. You really did get the grand tour, didn’t you? Jay usually can’t be bribed or threatened to do that. You must have caught him in a really good mood, or something.”
    “He was really great. He showed us everything,” Lacey said, trying not to gush.
    “Hmmm… I’ll bet he did. It sounds like you really liked what you saw.’ Serena raised one finely arched eyebrow at Lacey, and it was obvious that she was not talking about the granite or the crown moldings.
    “Well, they’ve done an incredible job here. We were very impressed, weren’t we, Mom?”
    “Absolutely,” Diana agreed. “That young man knows his stuff. And is extremely easy on the eyes.”
    “Mom! Seriously?”
    “Well, he is. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice. Your eyes nearly fell out of your head when he bent over in front of you to demonstrate the built-in vacuum. You practically salivated, dear.”
    “I certainly did not salivate!”
    “Wipe your chin, dear, and we should be going.” Diana reached out for the real estate agent’s hand and they shook warmly. “Serena, it’s been a real pleasure. That dreamboat had to leave us to take an important call, so I hope you’ll extend our gratitude to him for being so gracious. We’ll be in touch.” With that, Diana let go of Serena’s hand, got in the passenger side of Lacey’s car and looked expectantly at her daughter.
    “Ignore her. She just likes to ruffle my feathers,” Lacey said in an undertone to Serena.
    “No worries. She’s hilarious. I wish my mom was that much fun.”
    “She really is. But seriously, please let him know how much we enjoyed the tour, okay?” At this point, Lacey really wanted to ask his name, but if Serena was, in fact, his girlfriend as she’d thought when they arrived, she didn’t want to seem too infatuated. But then, with a man like that, Serena was probably used to women lusting after him.
    “I’ll let him know. Thanks for coming in today. Please let me know if you have any more questions, okay?” She handed Lacey her card. “Or just stop in. I’m here on weekends from 1-4. At least until they all sell. I can’t guarantee ’The Dreamboat’ will be here, but I will be.” They shook hands and Lacey got in her car, started the engine, and reluctantly prepared to leave.
    They had just started to pull away from the curb, when the man of her dreams came out of the final row-house they had been looking at. He broke into a run when he saw them down the road and his long legs ate up the pavement. Within seconds he was right beside her front window, smiling and tapping on the glass.
    Lacey, delighted by this display of enthusiasm, put on the brakes and rolled down the window, grinning up at him, so happy this encounter was going to continue, if only for just a few more seconds.
    “I’m glad I caught you,” he said, not even out of breath from his sprint. He pulled a business card out of his jeans pocket and handed it to her. Their fingers brushed as she took the card from his hand and she felt that jolt of electricity again. Their eyes locked and he leaned down until they were on eye level. “You should really call me,” he said, huskily. “I mean, if you have anymore questions. I’d really like to hear what you have to say. About the properties.”
    Was it just her imagination, or did this Sex God sound nervous? “I think we probably know everything there is to know about them, but thank you. I’ll call you if I think of anything. And I’m certain my mom will probably come up with something to interrogate you about.” There, just the right tone. Professional, yet playful. She was getting better at this.
    “Call me anyway. I’d really love your input. You see, my brothers and I are having a little competition. Instead of using a pain-in-the-ass interior decorator, we all chose one of the row-houses and each of us picked out all the fixtures and colors and stuff. You probably noticed that they were all a little different, right?”
    Lacey nodded as her heart sank. He hadn’t been interested in her. He saw her as a guinea pig for some manly real estate competition with his brothers. She wasn’t a potential sex kitten to him at all. How could she be so foolish? She tried to keep her face impassive as he continued.
    “Well, whichever house sells first determines the design scheme we’ll use for our next project, which is huge. And whoever is responsible for it will earn bragging rights until the end of time. So, give it some thought, and let me know which one you liked the best, okay?" He pointed to the card. "I’m really curious what impartial observers like you and your mom would prefer,” He said, smiling like he hadn’t just crushed her.
    Lacey recovered quickly and returned his smile with an incredibly fake grimace. “I’ll think about it and let you know. Thanks again for the tour.” Lacey said, rolling up her window, she threw the card on the dashboard, put the car in gear and turned away so he wouldn’t see her face fall in disappointment.

*****

    “When are you going to call him?” Diana asked eagerly, as they drove away from the subdivision. She grabbed the business card Lacey had flung on the dashboard and examined it closely.
    “I’m not,” Lacey said, checking the rear view mirror to get one last look at him.
    “Why-ever not? He really liked you. And you liked him. It was so obvious.” Diana rolled her eyes and tucked the card in the rear view mirror, where her daughter couldn’t help but see it, constantly.
    Lacey snatched the card out of the mirror and threw it back on the tiny dashboard. “You heard him. Obviously, he’s not in the market for a girlfriend or whatever. He’d rather use us for some free market research.”
    “So what? Can’t you do both? Work and play? You should call him. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
    “Maybe. But that’s the chance I’m willing to take. He’s way out of my league anyway.”
    “Whatever do you mean?”
    “You said it yourself. He’s a dreamboat. I’m not his type at all. He should be with someone like Serena. Willowy and elegant. Not someone short and prone to gaining twenty pounds if they even look at a Twinkie. Like me.” She had meant to make this declaration sound light and self-deprecating, but her voice broke at the end and she felt tears of disappointment welling up in her eyes. She only hoped her mother wouldn’t acknowledge her obvious over-the-top emotional reaction. If Diana said one sympathetic word, Lacey was going to start bawling right then and there.
    But she didn’t. Instead Diana said something so shocking Lacey nearly had to pull over. “Well, dear, if you’re sure you don’t want to make the first move, then I wouldn’t worry about it. You are most certainly just his type. And I’m sure you’ll be hearing from him.”
    “What do you mean? 'I’ll be hearing from him.’ How would that happen exactly? I just gave our first names. Please tell me you didn’t slip him my phone number.” Lacey’s face flooded with color at the idea of her mom pimping her out like that. He was going to think she was positively pathetic. Not that she cared. Well, maybe a little…
    “I thought about doing exactly that. But decided you wouldn’t be happy with me if I did something so obvious. No, I was more subtle than that,” Diana said smugly.
    “What did you do, Mother?”
    “Well, while you were attempting to chat him up, I was signing Serena’s guest book. With your name. And email address.”
    “You didn’t.”
    “I most certainly did.”
    “Mom. How could you do that? Now I’m going to be flooded with emails from her. She's going to try and convince me to make an offer on one of those row-houses. Or even worse, she'll want to show me a bunch of properties I can’t afford either. You know real estate agents. They’re like pit bulls. Once they get a hold of you, they don’t let go.”
    “Serena struck me as a sensible girl. I’m sure she will not harass you. And if she’s as smart as I think she is, then your email address will find it’s way into the correct, hunky hands anyway. So, you’re welcome.”
    “Hunky hands? Really?”
    “Well, they were hunky. And very large.”
    Lacey groaned. “Please tell me you did not just comment on the size of his hands. I think I’m traumatized.”
    “Don’t tell me you didn’t notice. How could you not? That young man was a prime specimen.”
    “Yes, I did notice. But you are definitely not supposed to notice big hands. Hunky or otherwise.”
    “Why-ever not? I’m single and vital. Just because I’m in my fifties, does not mean I’m dead inside, you know. If I was ten years younger, you might have some competition.”
    “Oh my God. Why am I suddenly picturing him as my new step-daddy?” Lacey shuddered at the thought of her mother, happily married to the hot builder, while she went through life as a spinster, collecting spoons, dressing her dog in embarrassing outfits, and knitting away the profound loneliness. “Thanks, Mom. This conversation has taken a disturbing turn, and I’ll be looking for a therapist tomorrow.”
    “My pleasure, dear. Now, can we stop at Starbucks? All this big hands talk has made me parched. Besides, I think one of the fellows who works there has his eye on you. If the Handy Hunk doesn’t email you then perhaps you should give Lars a try. He makes an excellent triple-foam latte.”
    Tempted to beat her head against the steering wheel, Lacey pulled into the parking lot of the Starbucks on the corner, just a few blocks from her mom’s house, and waited in the car while Diana went in to retrieve her coffee. No way was Lacey going in there to be the victim of another one of her mother’s romantic ambushes.
    As she waited, she couldn’t help but wonder, would she hear from him? If only to ask her about the house? Maybe he just brought up the whole 'I want your impartial opinion’ thing as an excuse to talk to her again. Perhaps her mom was right, for once, and he was interested in more than just pumping her for information. Hopefully, an entirely different kind of pumping was on his mind. A small part of her thrilled at the thought, but she quickly stopped her mind from wandering down that path before she could get too excited.
    She refused to overanalyze this little episode and turn it into a big deal. If he wanted to take this weird chemistry between them to the next level, then he was going to have to make a real effort and ask her out on a date. No more games. Until that happened, she wasn’t going to think about him. At all.

*****

    “What the hell was all that about?” Serena asked her cousin suspiciously as she observed him standing on the sidewalk, watching the hot little red car fade away in the distance. She could not believe that he was actually showing some interest in something besides work.
    He’d been completely detached since the accident and this was the first sign of life she’d seen from him in 17 months. He shut down completely if she attempted to talk about Deborah, and what had happened, so she tried to focus on the present. And the idea that her cousin might just be coming back to life after all this time. Everyone in the family had practically given up on trying to reach him. She couldn't wait to tell her Aunt Marie, Jack’s mom, that she’d actually witnessed what passed for flirting on Jack’s behalf. Auntie M would be psyched.
    “What? I was helping you out. You’re always complaining that I avoid dealing with the public like they’re a bunch of lepers, so I gave them a tour. What’s the big deal?” Jackson said, stepping back onto the sidewalk next to her, he held up his arms in an ’I can’t win’ gesture.
    Jack had no idea what he was doing exactly. He was so far out of his depth he felt like he’d stepped into another dimension. For so long, his only focus was on getting through each day without losing his mind. Nothing really existed for him outside of work, and avoiding all thoughts of the past. Then, with just a heated look, this girl had him thinking about the future. Maybe not the forever kind of future. He couldn’t really contemplate that. But he could definitely seeing himself spending some time trying to get her into his bed. Well, a bed anyway. And that was more planning than he’d done since his world blew apart.
    All he knew for sure was that when he’d been with Lacey, he’d felt like the door to his dark prison had opened a crack, letting in a glimmer of light. Watching her leave had been like seeing that door slam shut, leaving him in darkness once again. Maybe permanently this time. Feeling alive for these past few hours made him realize just how dead inside he’d become, and he wasn’t ready to go back there. Not at all. If he could just stall for a few minutes, maybe he could see her smile again and figure out a way to ensure that she wouldn’t walk out and leave him feeling empty again.
    He wanted to look at her some more. Maybe catch her watching him again with those furtive hot glances she’d been sneaking at him all afternoon. Those looks made him incredibly hot, and he hadn’t been even lukewarm in years. He was actually having fun with her, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done that.
    At one point during the tour, Lacey had been leading the way up the porch stairs to the third row-house. He had been following close behind her, trying to make out the shape of her ass under those loose jeans without looking like a complete letch, when she’d balked at the door.
    “It’s not locked,” he’d said, nearly running into her back on purpose. He was certain that he’d left it unlocked when he’d been here earlier, checking on the hardwood shipment that had been delivered the day before.
    “If it’s not, then it’s doing an awfully good impression of it,” she’d replied, giving the handle a really good yank. It hadn’t budged.
    The most normal thing in the world would have been to ask her to step out of the way, so he could get his manly hands on the damn thing. Use some brute force to impress her. Instead he found himself reaching around her from behind and gently moving her hand out of the way so he could give it a try. It still wouldn’t move. He must have accidentally locked it.
    But then he was practically wrapped around her, and it hadn’t felt awkward at all. It had felt absolutely fucking great. Better than anything. Like he was exactly where he was supposed to be. Despite their great difference in height, their bodies had fit together perfectly. And if he hadn’t been mistaken, she had actually angled her body toward him rather than trying to minimize their contact.
    It was completely crazy, but he was pretty sure that if her mother hadn’t been waiting impatiently behind them, he would have put one of his arms around her waist so he could bring that round ass flush against his suddenly hardening cock. But her mom was there, so he reluctantly disentangled himself from her sweet body.
    “I guess it is locked.” He cleared his throat and waved his hand toward the side of the building. “I’ll go around back and unlock it from inside. Wait for me, okay?”
    “Are you sure you don’t want us to come with you?” Lacey had said.
    Had it just been his imagination, or had her eyes looked a little glazed from those three seconds of contact? He’d hoped so. Brushing up against her had made him positively horny as hell. He’d needed the few seconds it had taken to run around back to catch his breath and adjust his jeans.
    Now he had to attempt to explain what was happening to his nosy cousin, when even he wasn’t sure what was going on. He knew Serena was just concerned, and he appreciated it on some level. But mostly he resented being put on the spot like this. He didn't need to share everything, did he?
    People had been trying to get him to open up for the last 17 months, but he just wasn’t the sharing type. He dealt with things internally and didn’t see what yammering on about his feelings really accomplished. Unfortunately, she would not let up until she dragged something out of him. So, he resigned himself to revealing as little as possible, and hoped she’d be content with that. If she knew he was still sporting a major boner even thinking about the locked door incident with Lacey, she’d be on the phone with his mother in a heartbeat, planning a June wedding.
    “Don’t you dare play innocent with me!” Serena poked him in the chest to emphasize her point. “You were into her.”
    “Give me a break. I was nice to both of them. Maybe I was into the mom. Come to think of it, she was pretty cute.” He rubbed his chin as if considering his options. ’What do you think? Am I Cougar Bait?”
    “I think that particular cougar would eat you alive,” Serena said dryly.
    “You’re probably right about that, but what a way to go,” He waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively.
    “Gross!” She punched him in the arm this time. “Quit trying to distract me. You liked her, didn’t you? That Lacey girl.”
    “Ouch. You’re so violent. No wonder you’re single.” He rubbed his arm where she’d punched him and pretended to cringe away from her. Man, what did he have to do to change the subject? Usually bringing up Serena’s single status was a surefire way to get her to focus on herself, but he could see from the enraged expression on her face that she would not be deterred from the subject at hand. He had to admire her tenacity. No wonder she was such an excellent real estate agent.
    “Oh, I’m going to go ballistic all over your head in a minute if you don’t explain yourself,” she said, raising her briefcase over her head and preparing to brain him with it.
    All her efforts to seem cool and elegant were gone and she was just his bratty little cousin again. He much preferred her in real estate professional mode. Much less painful. “Okay, okay. I thought she was cute,” he admitted. There, hopefully that would satisfy her and she’d let it alone. “What was your first clue? The way I followed her around like a puppy for an hour and a half? Or the way I bulleted down the street after her when I thought she was going to leave without saying good-bye.” He rubbed one hand over his face in embarrassment.
    “I don’t get it. I know you want to win this really stupid pissing contest with your equally stupid brothers, but why lie to her about why you want her to call?”
    “I don’t know. I just panicked. I’m out of practice with this shit. I just realized how completely idiotic I must have looked chasing her down the street, and I didn’t want her to think I was pathetic.” Had he really been out of line? What if Serena was right and he’d hurt Lacey’s feelings? That had never been his intention. He wouldn’t purposely hurt a girl if he could avoid it, especially one who made his jeans tent like this. He’d just wanted to save some face and maybe give her a reason to call him that hadn´t required putting his feelings on the line. Was that really so wrong?
    “But now she thinks you’re an asshole. Is that really an improvement?”
    “An asshole with some dignity left though, right?”
    “Great. So you’ll be a lonely, horny, dignified asshole. Sounds like a plan, Mr. Smooth.”
    He sighed. “You didn’t happen to get her number, did you?”
    “Nope. But I wouldn’t give it to you anyway,” she said, popping the trunk to her car with the key fob, she placed her briefcase inside and slammed the lid closed with unnecessary force.
    Jack put his hands on his slim hips and stared at her for a moment. “What the hell? Why the fuck not?” He asked angrily. Used to dealing with men, he wasn’t above using his size to intimidate people to get what he wanted. But his cousin wasn’t a contractor or a plumber and he needed to calm down and try not to be so domineering. He sometimes forgot how to act around polite society. So much of his life was spent barking orders and demanding action. He was sadly out of the habit of being patient and courteous.
    Granted, Serena was tall, and feisty as hell, but he knew he could look downright intimidating when thwarted. So he made a conscious effort to relax his angry pose and talk in a moderate tone of voice. “I won’t stalk her or anything. I’ll just call her up, casually, and ask her what she thought about the houses. And then if she seems into it, maybe I’ll ask her to meet for a drink or something. I won’t be creepy, I promise. Scout’s honor.” He held up the wrong hand to do the Cub Scout’s Pledge, but didn’t think Serena would notice.
    The truth was that he did, in fact, plan to stalk Lacey a little bit. Not in a twisted or scary 'I’ll be hiding in the bushes when you come home’ sort of way. But hopefully, in a charming, 'What a coincidence. We both drink coffee,’ sort of way.
    If he could call Lacey up and make some idle conversation, and in the process maybe find out where she hung out or even worked, then maybe he could arrange a casual meeting without appearing too desperate. A casual meeting where he would be direct and tell her exactly what he wanted. By comparison, calling her up on the phone and asking her out for dinner seemed so tame when he really just wanted to get her naked. Naked and sweaty, and hopefully very, very wet.
    Besides, a traditional courtship was frankly beyond him right now. He wanted to spend time with her, yes, and get to know her too. He wasn’t a complete animal. But mostly he just wanted to bury himself in her body and forget about the past. If that was slightly creepy behavior then he was okay with that. Sometimes there’s a fine line between creepy and romantic. And if walking that line gave him another chance at spending some time with her then he swore to himself he would not pussy out this time. Serena was right. That had been a big mistake.
    “Don’t get me wrong, Jay. I would love it if you got together with her, or her mother, or the crazy cat lady on Third Avenue, for that matter. You’ve been a bear for months now, and personally, I think that semen retention headache of yours would go away if you got a little action.”
    He cringed. “Please don’t ever say the word ’semen’ in my presence again.”
    “Semen, Semen. Semen. Semen. Grow up, Jay.”
    He rubbed his temples as if he actually did have a headache. “When did you become the sexpert anyway? Geez. You haven’t exactly been dating up a storm lately yourself. Besides, if you want me to get together with her then why wouldn’t you give me her number?”
    “Frankly, because you don’t deserve it.”
    He felt his temper flaring up again, but kept it firmly under control. If he started yelling at Serena on the street, she would just get in her car and flip him the bird as she drove off. He’d never find out what she was getting at. “Quit playing games, Ess, and tell me what you mean,” he said through gritted teeth.
    “Well, Mr. Socially-challenged, tell me something. When you meet new people. Especially attractive people of the opposite gender. What are you supposed to do? I’m positive your mom tried to teach you basic manners so this should come easy to you.”
    He looked at her blankly. He really didn’t know.
    “You introduce yourself, dummy. Even if she wanted to get hold of you she couldn’t. You are so screwed. And not in the fun way.”
    Jackson cursed, loudly and creatively. How could he not have introduced himself? Where was his brain? In his shorts, evidently. The truth was that he hadn’t planned on talking to Lacey and her mother at all. He’d been grilling Serena about prospective buyers for his row-house unit when the pair had walked in. He was about to slip out the patio door before he could get entangled in a time-wasting conversation, but then Lacey had reached out and ran both her hands over that granite countertop in a gesture so sensual he’d felt his mouth go dry and a chuckle escape him before he was even aware of it. That was it. All thoughts of escape had left him. He was intrigued.
    But Serena didn’t have that excuse. “Why the hell didn’t you introduce me?” He demanded, running both hands through his longish hair.
    “I thought you were planning on fleeing the scene if anyone came in. Why would I introduce you when you’re usually so rude to possible buyers?”
    “I am not rude. I’m busy. There’s a difference.”
    “You’re just pissed off because you blew it with that girl and now you’re trying to blame it on me. Well, do you want to know what I think?”
    “No, I really, really don’t.”
    “What I think is that the next time you meet someone you like, you need to man up and say what you want. That whole ’objective opinion’ bullshit you were trying to feed her was weak, and you know it. It’s beneath you, Jay. And so is trying to make this my fault.” Serena poked him in the chest three times for emphasis, and smiled when she saw he was finally speechless. At least for a moment or two.
    “Alright, Dr. Phillis. Now what do I do to fix it?”
    “I have no idea. But I bet you won’t make the same mistake next time.”
    Jack groaned as he watched Serena fold herself into her car and gun the engine. With a wave she pulled away from the curb and he watched yet another woman drive away from him. He seemed to be doing that a lot today.
    Like Lacey, Serena couldn’t help glancing in her rear view mirror as she pulled away. Jay wasn’t watching her as he had when the petite brunette had left earlier. Then he’d looked like a dejected little boy. Right now, he looked enraged. All in all, she preferred it when he was spitting nails. It was a vast improvement over the indifference that had plagued him since his wife and unborn son had been in a car accident more than a year and a half ago.
    After his initial heartbreaking grief had subsided, his coldness had grown more and more pervasive. It defined him. With the exception of the occasional flashes of rage he exhibited toward any lazy or dishonest workmen unfortunate enough to cross his path, he was positively robotic. No one had seem him exhibit a single bit of humor or humanity in all that time. It was genuinely frightening what loss could do to a person.
    Jack had always been hard-working and serious, but after the accident, he became like a man possessed. Whatever playfulness and warmth he’d possessed simply disappeared. He worked constantly. Not 12 hour days, but more like 16 or even 18. Serena was fairly certain that he didn’t even sleep in the gorgeous house he’d built for his wife, Deborah. Most evenings he just showed up at one of his brother’s homes after he couldn’t work anymore and fell asleep on their couch in his clothes. Then, he disappeared like a thief in the night before anyone got up.
    He didn’t show up for family gatherings and screened all of his calls. If he did return a voicemail it was always work-related. And forget about email or texting. He could not be bothered. Any attempt at a personal conversation with him resulted in a change in subject or worse, a cold stare followed by an abrupt departure. This Jack was not a fun guy. In fact, he was a bit of a prick.
    Jack’s behavior today was so out of character that she was actually more worried about him now than when he was in Mr. Freeze mode. This kind of abrupt change in demeanor could not be normal. Serena didn’t trust this metamorphosis one bit. Just a cute girl smiling at him? That’s all it took to heal him? Women threw themselves at Jack all the time and he barely reacted. Beautiful women, sexy women. And he brushed them off like so much saw dust. What was so different about this Lacey girl?
    She was pretty, of course. And she had seemed very genuine and sweet, but these weren't exactly miraculous qualities. What exactly did Jack see when he looked at her? His wife had been an attractive but unhappy woman. Was that it? Jack was drawn to Lacey because she seemed cheerful and fun? Or was that just an act? Serena needed to know more about Lacey before she allowed Jack to get more involved with her. What if she was a gold-digger, or a psycho? Jack could not take anymore drama.
    Serena could not believe he had actually been teasing her earlier, and making cracks about her dismal social life, and smiling. Okay, he’d been annoyed with her too, but that was pretty normal. Her cousins were always a little annoyed with her. But that was her job. Every single one of the Kingston brothers were successful and gorgeous. They needed to be brought down a peg or two, and she was just the woman to do it.
    She’d been making their lives difficult practically since the day she was born and loved every second of it. Which is why it was so important that Jack come back to the land of the living. Mostly because she loved him and hated seeing him in pain, of course, but also because she really didn’t know how to deal with him in his cold and indifferent state. She wanted her cousin back on a permanent basis and was pretty sure that Lacey was the key to doing that. Getting in contact with the object of Jack's infatuation might just be the first step in resuscitating him.
    Serena hadn't been lying when she told Jack she didn't have Lacey's phone number. But she did have Lacey's email address. Just giving it to him seemed reckless. In his current giddy state, he would either scare Lacey off with his aggression, or he would get too involved, too fast, without finding out if Lacey was good for him or not. That would be a disaster. The best way for this to unfold would be for Serena to get to know Lacey first, and then somehow get them together if they seemed like a good match. Now if she could just figure out what to say to get the girl's attention. Something she couldn't resist. Like maybe her dream house?

Chapter Three

    I’ll just check out their website, Lacey thought to herself. It’s not cyberstalking if I’m legitimately looking for a property. Keeping an eye on her office door, she typed in the website address on the card she'd retrieved from the floor of her car this morning.
    Without warning, Lacey’s door burst open and Liz Chamberlain came stalking into the room. “Walter is back. And he doesn’t want anyone touching his catheter, except you.” Liz said. She dropped a thick file in the middle of Lacey’s crowded desk, and slumped down in the chair across the desk from her.
    It was the following day, and Lacey was back at work at The Health Unit, but she couldn't stop thinking about that house or the gorgeous man who had built it. Working as a Clinical Resource Nurse meant that she didn't have as much contact with patients as she had in her previous position as a Home Health Nurse. As a CRN her job had become more administrative, dealing with process and overseeing care rather than actually tending to patients. But occasionally one of her long-term clients insisted on her attention to their surgical wounds or catheters.
    Walter, an 85-year-old Lothario was one of her more aggressive regulars. It didn't really matter to him that she'd been promoted. Usually she didn't mind, but today she was distracted and more than a little frustrated. All thanks to that sexy builder. She sighed and barely glanced up from her computer screen at her friend and coworker. “My job is sooo glamorous. Where is Walter now?"
    "He's in clinic room two, but no rush. Chelsea is with him, changing his bandage. He's okay with above the waist action, but saves below the waist for you." Liz looked at her friend, puzzled when her comment didn't get much of a reaction. "What's up, Lace? You've been out of it all day."
    "It's nothing. Really. I just have a document I'm trying to get together for a meeting and it's not going well."
    Liz snorted. "Bullshit. You are such a sucky liar. What's really going on?" She came around the desk and looked at the screen over Lacey's shoulder. She was amazingly quick for a woman nearly six feet tall. Lacey scrambled to turn off the monitor, but it was too late. Liz had seen what was on Lacey's screen.
    "Kingston Brothers?" Liz exclaimed, her freckled brow wrinkling." Aren't they builders or something? Did you find a place? Holy shit, are you going to build your own place? I'm so jealous!"
    "No, no. Nothing like that. Maybe if I won the lottery. I just toured one of their places this weekend, and I was curious to see what else they were working on."
    "Hmmmm… then why are you looking so guilty?"
    "Because I'm using my work computer to look up personal info."
    "Oh, Please. Seriously. Stop it. Don't even try to lie. You're just embarrassing yourself."
    "What? You make it sound like I spend my days looking at midget porn," Lacey said indignantly. "I'll have you know that I very rarely use my company internet access for anything but work."
    "Right. I seem to recall you using it last week to look up the lyrics to 'Eye of the Tiger.' Explain to me how that was work related."
    "Alright. Consider me busted. But if you harass me about this, you will be doing wound care on the next anal abscess that comes through that door. Mark my words."
    "Yeah. Yeah. Huge threat. Like that would be my first ginormous, infected, ass wound. Just another day at the office for me, sister. But I appreciate your attempt at abusing your power like that. We'll make a dictator nurse out of you yet," Liz teased. "But if you tell me what's got you all off kilter, I'll try to restrain myself from harassing you too badly."
    Lacey hesitated. If she told Liz about her infatuation with one of the Kingston Brothers then her friend was going to pressure her to contact him, and make plans to ride him like Secretariat as soon as physically possible.
    Liz was not one for playing games when it came to the opposite sex. Or anything else for that matter. The attractive red-head knew what she wanted and wasn't afraid to ask for it. And when she met a man she liked she wanted it quick, dirty, and with no strings attached. Unlike Lacey, who was sadly repressed when it came to sex, at least according to her more adventurous friend.
    Maybe Liz would have some good advice, Lacey thought. Liz was certainly more successful with men that she was. It couldn't hurt just to get her perspective, could it?
    "Well, I met one of the Kingston Brothers at an Open House, and now I'm contemplating cyberstalking him. But I can't quite seem to make myself go past the home page of their website. It just seems like I'm invading his privacy, or something."
    "Oh my God! Are you serious? You finally met someone non-repulsive and non-gay, and you can't even look him up online? I would have had a Private Dick and a credit check on his ass by now." Liz snatched the business card Lacey had propped beside her keyboard. "He even gave you his card? Why don't you just call him? Cyberstalking is for obsessed Justin Bieber fans anyway."
    Lacey snatched the card back. "Small problem. I don't know his name."
    "I thought you said you met him."
    "Well, I sort of met him. My mom and I spent an hour and a half with him yesterday. He gave us an extended tour of one of his properties."
    "Sounds really sexy, being chaperoned by your mom and all," Liz scoffed. "But I don't get it. Isn't his name on the card."
    "I'm sure it is, but I have no idea what it might be. All I know is that the real estate agent called him, 'Jay'. But if you look at the card, all four Kingston Brothers are listed, and all four of their names start with the letter "J."
    "So, you were hoping that you could find a picture of him on the website and match it to one of the names. I get it. Pretty smart. And then you'll call him."
    "Nope. No way."
    "Why the hell not?"
    "Because I'm pretty sure I've embarrassed myself enough. I was thinking we had this amazing chemistry, but it turns out that he wasn't interested in me."
    "Then why are you contemplating the cyberstalk?"
    "I don't know exactly. I guess it just seems weird to not even know the name of the guy who just crushed me."
    "Do you want me to do it?" Liz grabbed the chair from across the desk, set it down beside Lacey and began nudging her away from the computer screen. "Here. Scooch over." Lacey obediently scooched and found herself sitting kitty-corner from her usual position in front of the screen. She could see the back of the monitor, but not the actual screen. Oddly enough, this really did make her feel somewhat less creepy. It made Liz, however, seem positively desperate to check out the guy Lacey was interested in. Was it just her imagination, or was there a predatory gleam in Liz's eyes?
    "What does he look like. I'll check the website for pictures. All you'll have to do is tell me, in detail, what he looks like. Go slow now, and don’t leave anything dirty out."
    "Well, he's big. 6'3 or 6'4."
    "Yum. But I thought we had a pact. Anyone over six feet is my territory. All the shrimps are yours."
    "Just because you're an Amazon, does not mean you automatically have jurisdiction on tall guys. I happen to like 'em big too."
    "I'm pretty sure you agreed to this stipulation on our friendship last time I beat you at pool. Fine. See if I care. But if I meet a cute guy who comes up to my belly-button, I'm not saving him for you. Come to think of it. A guy that height would have some very useful applications." Liz said with a lecherous grin.
    Lacey just rolled her eyes.
    "Alright. You've obviously lost your sense of humor. What else? I'm looking at a family photo now."
    "Well, he has green eyes," Lacey said, dreamily. "And longish straight dark hair. Not 80s ponytail style, but longish on the top and short in the back."
    "Oh my God. Does he have a mullet? You're into a guy with a mullet?"
    "No, you idiot. A mullet is long in the back and short in the front."
    "Are you sure? I may have to look that up."
    "I'm sure. But look it up later. Focus on stalking now. Have you found him?"
    "Ummm…I think I may have. But you're not going to like what I've found."
    "What? Is it a bad picture? Does he have a mullet? It must be an old picture."
    "No mullet. But he has something much worse."
    "What? He's not wearing one of those terrible tuxedo T-shirts, is he?"
    "Lace. He has a wife."
    "What? He does not!"
    “I’m afraid he does. Here. Take a look.” Liz turned the screen toward Lacey, and pointed to a picture of Lacey’s fantasy man, with his arm around an unsmiling blonde woman. “Is that him?” Liz asked.
    Lacey leaned forward until her face was practically pressed against the screen and read the short bio beside the picture, which mentioned his education and also the fact that he was married to his college sweetheart. After a minute she pulled back and covered her face with her hands. “I don’t believe it. How could I be so stupid? I swear, I had no idea. He didn’t wear a ring, and he certainly did not act married.”
    "I wouldn't feel too bad about it, Lace. He's probably just a big flirt. Probably helps to sell houses, you know. He throws out these signals to get women interested in the property, and then when the offer is made, he acts like it's all in their head. Classic salesman trick."
    "Are you serious? People do that?"
    "C'mon. You see those barbie-clone pharmaceutical reps come in here all the time. They flirt with the doctors, take them out for lunch, hang off them, just so the idiot docs will prescribe whatever sample they're peddling that week. This guy probably does something similar. I mean, wouldn't you rather buy a house from someone hot, who's into you, rather than a troll, who ignores you?"
    "I suppose, but he really didn't seem the schmoozy type?"
    "All part of the act, I'm sure. If he was too smooth, you'd probably run the other way, right?"
    "Maybe." It made a weird kind of sense. She had been right all along. A stud-muffin like him really couldn't be interested in her. She was just a mark. Some poor lonely woman who could be charmed into giving over her life savings with just a flirtatious smile and some intense eye contact. All that chemistry was just in her head. Or he'd somehow fabricated it. Maybe he sprayed pheromones all over himself to get women all hot and bothered? Just to sell a house?
    Oh my God, Lacey thought to herself. That's exactly what he did. She had practically rubbed against him like a cat in heat when she’d been trying to unlock that door yesterday. So humiliating. She had given serious thought to throwing herself at that man. Even after he'd hurt her feelings yesterday, she had still been toying with the idea of trying to get hold of him somehow. Obviously, whatever part of her brain was in control of character assessment must be on the fritz. Damn pheromones were clouding her judgment.
    How could she be so wrong about a person? He had seemed so wonderful. And yet all evidence suggested he was either a phony or a player, or possibly both. Well, he really deserved some credit for his acting skills. But she wasn't having anything more to do with him. And this time she meant it. She was no one's fool.

*****

    Subject: Still looking for a scaled down version?
    From: Serena Garrison ‹Serena@Dreamhomes4Sale.com›
    To: Lacey.Ferguson@TheHealthUnit.com›
    Hi Lacey,
    Nice of your mom to provide your email address. She's a wily one, isn't she?
    I was thinking about what you said last week. You were looking for a scaled down version of the row-houses, right? I think I may have something to show you. Interested?
    Lacey read the short email twice before sitting back from her work computer and crossing her arms. She had expected to hear from Serena much sooner. It had been a week since the Open House and she'd thought perhaps her mother had provided the wrong email address. Usually, real estate agents were quick to act on new contacts, but Serena had taken her time. Did this mean that she might really have something suitable in mind for Lacey? Intriguing.
    Lacey knew she should just stay away from He Who Shall Not Be Named in any capacity, but that didn't mean she couldn't have contact with Serena, did it? Obviously, they were colleagues, but real estate agents and builders probably had their own little community. Most likely, Serena knew all the builders in town. Lucky girl. That didn't mean that Lacey was obligated to do business with Him if she allowed Serena to show her some properties, did it?
    But being around Serena would definitely remind her of Satan's Handyman. As much as she'd tried not to think about him, he kept popping up in her thoughts. It didn't help that her usual running route took her right past the row-houses where she'd humiliated herself. It was petty, but the last time she'd ran by, she'd let her dog, Charlie, do his business in the yard. It had seemed appropriate at the time. She'd changed her route since then, but the thoughts of him just kept coming.
    Mostly, she thought about his eyes, how intensely green they were, without a hint of blue or hazel. Should a man be allowed to have such gorgeous eyes? They made him impossible to forget. And those arms. He'd rolled up his shirtsleeves at one point during the tour, and she remembered being practically mesmerized by the sight of those sinewy-looking forearms, so masculine, and sprinkled with just the right amount of dark hair. Not so much that he looked like a gorilla, but some. As a man should have. And his back. The wide V-shape of his shoulders, tapering down to his tight waist and neat buttocks. Just incredible. The guy was a looker, a regular dreamboat just as her mother had said. It would be odd if she wasn't thinking about him.
    It wasn't just his body she kept dwelling on, though it did feature prominently in her recent fantasies. She also thought about the way he'd acted with her mother. So polite and patient, despite Diana grilling him about the row-house's features. He'd been genuine and gentle with her. If he was the kind of man Liz had suggested, would he have put so much effort into charming her mother? Was it possible that he somehow knew that the surest way to charm her was to win over her mother? If so, he was truly diabolical.
    Bottom line. He's married, so she must stop thinking about him. But one thought kept circling around in her brain. Maybe they were estranged? Him and his wife hadn't looked very happy in that picture. Even if they were in the process of separating, it would be a recent break up and she didn't want to be the rebound girl. Rebound girls were always temporary. And she was not into being his transitional sex toy. Though, with a man like that, it would certainly be better than nothing. In fact, temporary could be downright hot. And she could really use some nasty, dirty, no-strings sex, for once.
    But he was married, happily or not didn't matter. He was strictly off limits. And if Liz was right and he wooed women to get them to buy houses, then he was kind of smarmy too. Not exactly her dream guy.
    The question is, what if looking at real estate with Serena brought her into contact with him? Could she deal with that? Nothing had actually happened with the sexy builder. She was just a tad obsessed with him. It's not like they had an actual relationship. Just a harmless flirtation that she had built up in her head to mean more. If she did run into him, then she would just be coolly professional. She could do that. She dealt with difficult people at work all the time with a smile on her face. One oily builder should be nothing to her. She was a mature woman. And it really did sound like Serena had something interesting to show her.
    Lord knows, she did need to find a place soon. Her pudgy nudist neighbor had found himself a rather vocal girlfriend, and the sound of those two rutting like wildebeests had become unavoidable. She was glad they'd found each other, and they really seemed to be having fun, but listening to them enjoying each other while she was alone was unbearable. Yup, time to vacate. Hopefully whoever moved into her apartment would enjoy the grunts and groans coming through the walls more than she did. Or maybe she could tell the landlord to find a nice little old lady with a hearing aid that could be turned down when the wildebeest loving became too enthusiastic.
    If Serena had a solution to her real estate dilemma then it was in Lacey's best interest to see what she had in mind. What could it hurt exactly? She wouldn't have to be in contact with any of the Kingston Brothers. And she would not bring them up. This was purely business.
    RE:Still looking for a scaled down version?
    From: Lacey.Ferguson@TheHealthUnit.com
    To: Serena Garrison ‹Serena@Dreamhomes4Sale.com›
    Hi Serena,
    Yes, my mom definitely missed her calling as an international woman of mystery. I didn't even see her sign the guestbook. But I'm glad she gave you my email address if you really do have a scaled down version of that fabulous row-house in mind. Just understand that my budget is limited. I don't want to take up a lot of your time if whatever you want to show me is in the same price range. My budget is about 20% less than that.
    So, if that works for the property you want to show me, then lets go for it. I'm halfway through a six day rotation at the Health Unit, so I have this Thursday and Friday off. Do either of those work for you? Let me know. I'm looking forward to seeing what you have up your sleeve.
    RE: Re: Still looking for a scaled down version?
    From: Serena Garrison ‹Serena@Dreamhomes4Sale.com›
    To: Lacey.Ferguson@TheHealthUnit.com›
    Well, it's more of an idea at this point rather than an actual property yet, but I do have something to show you. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Let's get together on Thursday at The Daily Grind on 3rd Ave around 1pm, and we'll go from there. You game?
    RE: Re: Re: Still looking for a scaled down version?
    From: Lacey.Ferguson@TheHealthUnit.com
    To: Serena Garrison ‹Serena@Dreamhomes4Sale.com›
    Hmmm…you definitely have my attention. Consider me game. See you at 1pm on Thursday. And thanks for thinking of me, Serena.
    Curiouser and curiouser, Lacey thought to herself as she closed down her work computer for the night. Turning off her office light, she wondered what Serena was up to. The real estate diva had something to show her that wasn't actually a property for sale? Very mysterious. Lacey hoped it wasn't a blueprint or a floor plan for a future development. She was visual and needed to see something concrete before she would commit to anything. Hopefully, this little exercise would not be a huge waste of their time. But she was excited to see what Serena had in mind for her. If she was really lucky, her housing problem would be resolved in just three short days. If only her romantic problems could be solved so easily.
    Subject: Stopping by on Thursday
    From: Serena Garrison ‹Serena@Dreamhomes4Sale.com›
    To: JackJunior@KingstonBros.com
    Since you're completely uncivilized and never answer emails, I won't expect a response. Just letting you know that your mom wanted me to check on your progress at The Fortress of Solitude this week, so I'll be stopping by sometime on Thursday afternoon. The forecast is for rain, so don't try and use the Elm Street project as an excuse. Roofing in the rain is a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen. So be at the FoS or I will snoop.
    By the way, give your mom a call, okay? She's worried about you. And it'll save me making any future trips out to the middle of ass-crack nowhere to check on you.
    See you Thursday. And don't wear the Oscar the Grouch T-shirt, okay? It's tacky for a grown-ass man to wear a cartoon character on their chest.

    There, the stage is set, Serena thought, rubbing her palms together as she sent her final email off to Jack. She would spend a few hours with Lacey on Thursday, and if the pretty nurse was a good match for Jack, then she would bring her out to his cottage and reveal her brilliant plan to both of them. If not, then she would take Lacey to see a totally inappropriate townhouse on the wrong side of town, and that would be the end of her match-making. But if this worked out, then not only would her cousin Live Happily Ever After with Lacey, Serena would also have a potentially lucrative new business venture to distract her from her own single status. It seemed like a win-win situation to her. If Jack and Lacey would just cooperate.

Chapter Four

    "Ummm… Serena. Where are we going exactly?" Lacey asked nervously from the passenger seat of the Mercedes. She gripped the armrests tightly as the little car neatly veered around a squirrel who had the poor judgment to venture out on the country road they were currently traveling on.
    They had been driving for close to forty minutes, and as far as Lacey could tell, Serena was not familiar with the term speed "limit." In truth, Lacey felt like a little like she was trapped in the Delorean with Dr. Brown from "Back to the Future," and they were about to take off. That's how fast they were going.
    "We're almost there. See that turnoff on the left? That's our destination," Serena said, steering deftly into a hairpin curve.
    "But why are we going there? You know I want to buy something in town, right? And I don't think there are any townhouse developments being built way out here." She squeezed her eyes shut as yet another squirrel came close to meeting his squirrel-maker.
    Serena just smiled secretively and said, "Wait and see. I don't want to spoil the surprise."
    Lacey and Serena had met that afternoon as planned. But instead of immediately heading out to see Serena's mystery property they had sat for hours, just chatting and drinking coffee. And sampling some of the coffeehouse's famous red velvet cupcakes.
    Lacey had found herself talking about her job, her dog, her mom, her hobbies, even her ex-boyfriend, Boring Barry. She felt like she'd been grilled by the world's nicest interrogator. She was actually a little embarrassed by how much she had revealed about herself, but Serena had seemed so interested. She had just kept asking questions, and her honest, non-judgmental responses had compelled Lacey to really open up and talk about herself for a change. It was a tad disquieting how much she'd volunteered. Clearly, this real estate agent should be working for Homeland Security or Scotland Yard or someplace like that. She certainly knew how to draw information out of a person.
    Now they were in the middle of nowhere, driving up a long winding driveway towards a huge, colonial-style house that looked like it belonged in the Old South rather than the Pacific Northwest. Surrounded by trees and heavily landscaped, the house at the end of the long drive featured a four car garage, a wraparound porch and a set of stately black double doors, so large that a giant could walk through them with ease.
    Lacey gaped in disbelief. "Serena. If that 'scaled down' mansion is what you had in mind for me, then it must need an exorcism. Or maybe it has an indian burial ground, or possibly a nuclear power plant in the back yard. Because there is no way that place is in my price range. And I'm pretty sure we're going to get arrested for trespassing if we try to go in there. Or worse, this place looks like the owners might employ an army of rabid Rottweilers to guard the family jewels."
    "Relax. That's my cousin's house. No one lives there now. Not even a single rabid Rottweiler. Besides, we're not going there. The cottage out back is our destination."
    "Oh. I get it. Is it for sale?"
    "Nope. It's not even finished yet. I think the hardwood floors are being put in today, or possibly tomorrow. But I want you to keep an open mind. Check out the floor plan, the size, and the fixtures. I think something similar might be a perfect fit for someone like you."
    Lacey wasn't sure what Serena meant by 'someone like you' but she was too distracted by the sight before her to comment. They had driven behind the monstrous white house and followed a narrow paved road into the woods until they came to a clearing. In the middle of that clearing was a small, adorable house. It was tiny, yes, but had a huge bay window and a porch large enough for a swing, or some chairs. In short, it was lovely.
    "Oh. Wow. Look at that," Lacey sighed, getting out of Serena's car, and walking toward the cottage. "It's so cute. What is this place?"
    "Well, it started off as a playhouse, but my cousin modified it from the original plan, and turned it into a cottage. Only a few people have seen it. Last time I was here it was just a big room, with some of the framing completed, but it didn't really look like much. One of my other cousins told me that Jack has been working on it like mad. So I'm just as curious as you are to check it out." They walked up the small flight of steps to the porch. "Let's go inside. Evidently, the door is missing, so we probably don't even need to knock."
    The missing door was just inside, lying on two saw horses. A familiar, dark-haired figure, naked to the waist, was leaning over it, running a piece of sandpaper over its rough edges. He was so intent on his task that he didn't even notice their arrival until Serena cleared her throat. Jack looked up, clearly annoyed at being interrupted, but then his expression changed to what could only be described as surprised delight when he saw who was with Serena.
    Lacey's expression, however, was one of horror. "You," she said. "What are you doing here?" She loved this little cottage, but running into him again, especially shirtless, was too much for her. She needed to get out of here.
    Jack frowned at Lacey, shocked at the way she had gone pale when she recognized him. What exactly had Serena said about him? "I'm here because this is my place. What are you doing here?" He hadn't meant to sound quite so belligerent, but she was looking at him like he'd just belched the alphabet or something equally disgusting.
    Serena interrupted. "She's here, Jay, because I wanted to show her your cottage. I think something similar would work for her, don't you? Why don't you introduce yourself and show us around?"
    But Lacey was already out the door and down the steps. She knew she was being incredibly rude, especially considering Serena had gone to all the trouble of bringing her out here. But being around him was too much of a temptation. Just the sight of that all that tan skin and muscles made her think about indulging in some downright dirty immoral and possibly illegal acts. None of which were possible with a married man. The best thing for everyone involved was to get the hell out of here before she made an ass of herself again, or worse, caved into her carnal impulses and jumped him, hard.
    If she'd had her own car, she would have been gone already. But she had foolishly carpooled with Serena. She pulled her cell phone out of her bag and was relieved to see that she was able to get reception. She started to call a cab company when she realized that she had no idea where she was. What now? She was trapped out here with Captain Temptation.
    "Lacey, what's going on?" Serena called from the porch. "Are you not feeling well?"
    That was a great idea. Maybe she could fake an illness and have an excuse to leave with some of her dignity intact. Perfect. "Yeah. I'm really not. Can we go? Like right now?"
    Serena caught up with her at the car and studied her for a moment. "You do look a little pale. Is it your stomach? Do you want me to check with Jay to see if he has anything for diarrhea, or whatever? He'd probably have to go to the main house to get it, but his wife was a complete hypochondriac, so there's probably something there that would work."
    "No. Please don't," Lacey shouted. She didn't want to be trapped here like a rat, but that was preferable to him suspecting that she might be suffering from some repulsive stomach bug.
    "Lacey, what's really going on here?"
    "Nothing. I just need to get back."
    "Seriously? You were fine on the ride up here. Was it my driving? Some people don't like the way I drive."
    "No, it wasn't that. Though I am a little surprised that you still have a license. I just wasn't planning on running into him again."
    "Jack?"
    "I guess so. You called him 'Jay' before."
    "Because he's a Jack Junior, and it was too confusing having two Jack's in the family. But never mind that. You don't like my cousin?"
    "He's your cousin?"
    "Yeah. Did he do or say something offensive at the Open House? He wasn't creepy, was he? He's been out of the game for awhile and I'm not sure if he realizes how intense he can appear."
    "What do you mean? In the game? He's married. The only game he should be playing should be with his wife."
    Serena gaped at her. "His wife has been out of the picture for almost a year and a half!" Serena wanted to tell Lacey about the accident at this point, but thought Jack would prefer to tell her himself. Besides, Lacey was skittish enough without sharing that particular story. "And how did you know he was married anyway? He didn't even bother to tell you his name last week, and yet you seem to know a lot about him. Now, who's creepy?"
    Lacey flushed a bright red. "Alright. I looked him up online. But just because I was interested in his skills as a builder. I wasn't cyberstalking him."
    "You totally were," Serena said, triumphantly. "That's okay. If he wasn't my cousin, I'd probably do the same thing." Serena's smile faded. "But I'll warn you, the subject of Deborah, his wife, is a touchy one, so I wouldn't bring it up. Even his family avoids the subject. That's why she's still on the website. No one has gotten up the nerve to ask him about removing her. And he hasn't been interested in dating, so we didn't see any urgent reason to change it."
    "So, he's single?" Lacey asked tentatively. How could that guy be single? And being single didn't mean he wasn't above flirting with women to sell houses. Maybe Serena was kind of like his real estate pimp and set him up with desperate, lonely women all the time? It would totally work. What woman wouldn't want to buy a house from him, especially in his manly shirtless state? That sight had certainly fried her brain cells, not to mention her panties.
    "Very. And he asked me if I had your phone number after the Open House last week."
    Lacey looked at her doubtfully. "So, he could ask me about the row-houses, right?"
    "Absolutely not. He was into you. But turned chicken-shit at the last second. That was just some weird macho ruse."
    "Seriously? So you orchestrated all this just to get us together? Wouldn't it have been easier to just give him my email address?"
    "Well, partly. It seems silly now, but I wanted to check you out first."
    "Okay. That's what the interrogation at the coffeehouse was all about. You were doing some kind of background check. So, did he know about this?
    "Oh God. No! I acted completely on my own. I swear he didn't even know I had your email address."
    "You're going to an awful lot of trouble to match-make for him? Should I be worried?"
    "Well, like I said, getting you two together was only part of it. I have an ulterior motive that I'll get to later. Bottom line is, I really do think a place like this would work for you, and if you want to go back inside, Jack will show us around and maybe you can get to know him a bit. He's a bit of a grump, but a great guy otherwise. And I think he needs someone like you in his life. But no pressure."
    "Right. No pressure at all. But what are we going to tell him about my reaction to seeing him? I did run off like a freak." Maybe Serena had a point. What harm could there be in getting to know him a bit. It was possible that he was sweet and honest and impossibly hot too. She just had to have a little faith, and quit being so paranoid. She had to at least give him the benefit of the doubt. How often did she meet guys like him anyway? Never. She might never meet someone like him again. And she didn't actually have any evidence that he was a creep, so why was she assuming the worst about him?
    "We'll just say you were overwhelmed by his manliness and had to get some air."
    "He'll believe that?"
    "No, but he'll be so glad you came back that I don't think he'll push it too far. I'll leave it upto you to explain that you cyberstalked him and thought he was a slimy, married shit-heel."
    "Good point. Maybe I'll just say I left my cell out in the car."

*****

    Jack was utterly confused. He'd been fantasizing about running into Lacey almost constantly for the past week. Mostly these daydreams consisted of some variation on him being suave, saying something witty, followed by her being so charmed that she immediately removed her shirt and sunk to her knees in front of him. Something like that. Not once had he ever imagined her turning white and fleeing the room. What had happened here exactly? And what did he need to do to remedy it?
    He was standing on the porch, watching Serena and Lacey have what appeared to be a very animated conversation out by the car. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but he was pretty sure his cousin was trying to convince Lacey to come back to the cottage. He put on his threadbare Oscar the Grouch T-shirt, and sat down on the bannister, crossing his arms across his chest.
    It was difficult, but he would wait. If he ran out there now, he would definitely look like a domineering jerk. A very big part of him wanted to just pick her up and throw her over his shoulder and keep her. But what he considered a romantic gesture could be misinterpreted as a felony, so he kept himself in check, and waited. But if she made a move to get in the car, then all bets were off. He was going to drag her back to the cottage and convince her to stay. Using every sensual skill he'd dreamed of sharing with her over the last week.
    Today, she was dressed in jeans again, but instead of a T-shirt, she was wearing a black ruffled blouse that scooped low in front, exposing just a hint of a red lacy camisole beneath. She had her arms crossed and the position caused a deep valley of cleavage he could see even from 30 feet away. He wondered if she was aware of what the sight of those magnificent curves did to a man? It was completely unfair that he was going to have to make polite conversation with her when all he wanted to do was bury his face in those firm globes.
    Finally, they were walking back toward him. He tried to look nonchalant, but feared that the huge grin splitting his face was probably ruining the effect. Lacey's shy smile was confirmation enough that Serena had straightened out the problem, whatever it was. And that was good enough for him, for now. He would get the whole story from his cousin later. Right now, the woman he was completely hot for with was within touching distance, and he wasn't going to waste another second. Hopefully he could pretend to be civilized long enough to convince her to see him again.
    "Jay, you remember Lacey Ferguson from the Open House last weekend, right?" Serena asked with a wicked sparkle in her eyes as they climbed the steps toward him. "I know you don't like anyone bothering you out here in your super secret lair, but I thought you might make an exception in her case. Why don't you show us around?"
    Jack glared at Serena and held out his large hand to her companion as she reached the top of the stairs. "Hi, Lacey," he said, gruffly, shaking her hand. "I'm Jack Kingston. Serena didn't mention she was bringing you out. It probably doesn't look that impressive without the floors installed." He gestured toward a large pile of cherry-stained planks to his left, just inside the door. "If you come back next week, it should be completely done."
    Reluctantly, Jack let go of her hand, but not before noting that the chemistry between them was just as potent as he remembered. Just the gentle brush of her fingers against his made him feel a bit dizzy as the blood drained from his head and settled in his groin. Today she was wearing some kind of light and fruity scent that was adding to the dizzying effect.
    "Hi Jack. I'm already impressed, so don't worry about the floors. Where's the rest of your crew?" Lacey asked, following Serena into the front hall where Jack had been sanding the oversized door earlier.
    "Crew? Sorry. No crew. Just me." He smiled, pleased with this opportunity to impress her.
    "You mean you're doing this all by yourself?" Lacey asked incredulously. Why did this knowledge make her knees weak with arousal? There was just something so freaking sexy about a man who was capable of building something from nothing. Not to mention, good with his hands. As if the practically transparent T-shirt he was wearing wasn't stimulating enough. She could actually see the dark outline of his chest hair through the material. Oscar the Grouch had never looked so provocative.
    "Pretty much. I mean, I didn't do the plumbing or electrical work, or pour the concrete for the foundation. But the actual construction and dry-walling and painting and stuff, that was me. Now I'm going to lay the floors."
    Hmmm… that sounded so dirty when he said it, Lacey thought. "Are you serious? How do you know how to do all that? I mean, I know you and your brothers own a construction company, but I kind of thought you contracted people to do the work, and then you just sort of stood around, supervising the project."
    Jack laughed. "We do that too. But that's not all we do. My dad started this company 35 years ago, and my brothers and I have all been raised on construction sites. At some point, all four of us have done our time doing just about every task connected with building a house. My mom has a picture of me hanging in her kitchen. I'm 11 years old and I just dry-walled my first house. I'm covered in dust, but grinning ear to ear. I loved getting my hands dirty, even then." He held out his saw-dust covered hands for her inspection.
    All she noticed was that her mom was right about the size of his hands. "Sounds like you enjoyed it, even if your dad was using you guys for cheap labour," Lacey said with a grin, charmed by the idea of him as a junior handyman, following his dad around, soaking up knowledge and learning his destiny at such a young age.
    "We only worked weekends and summers. It wasn't like we were home-schooled slaves or anything. And I enjoyed it. Still do. He just wanted us to learn the business. His philosophy was that we couldn't know if someone else was screwing up unless we'd done it ourselves, so we'd be better at supervising a build if we actually weren't talking out of our asses. He didn't put it that way, but that was what he meant."
    "He sounds like a smart man."
    "He was. He died a few years ago. Heart Attack."
    "I'm sorry. You must miss him."
    Serena interrupted. "Jay, are you going to show us your masterpiece or what? Uncle Jack would have told you to quit wasting time and show the buyer what she came to see."
    "Yeah, yeah. You're right. I was just giving Lacey some background, and showing off a little. No harm in that, right?"
    "Like your ego needs anymore stroking. I don't think so. Let's move this along. I have to get back to town in an hour, so that gives you twenty minutes to show us the highlights, okay?"
    "Man, you are impatient. But twenty minutes is plenty of time. The place isn't very big."

*****

    They were done with the tour within ten minutes. There really wasn't much to it at all. The cottage consisted of a huge open concept living area, a large bedroom with walk-in closet, and a ridiculously oversized bathroom with a glass-tiled shower big enough for an entire basketball team to share comfortably. Basically, it was over-the-top luxury done on a very small scale. And it was Lacey's dream place, but not out in the middle of the country.
    "Do you live here, Jack?" Lacey asked as they walked back into the living area. She looked around at the small signs of life, like the take-out containers on the granite countertop, and the towels beside the sink.
    "No, but I will when it's done." He omitted the fact that he currently didn't really "live" anywhere, though officially his address was the huge mausoleum they'd passed on the way to the cottage. "After the floors, I just have the kitchen island to install and then I have to bribe Serena here to pick out some furniture for me, and I'm all set. Instant bachelor pad in the woods."
    "You'd like that wouldn't you, you old hermit," Serena said, punching him in the shoulder. "Living in the woods with no one bugging you. Maybe you should just buy a couple of ugly recliners and embrace your man-cave lifestyle."
    "Well, I am hoping to have a few very special guests," Jack said, smiling warmly at Lacey. She looked away, but not before he saw the delighted little smile turn up the corners of her gorgeous mouth. "So something more inviting than a giant TV, a Wii game console and a Lazy Boy would probably be more appropriate."
    "He's talking about his brothers' places," Serena said in a stage whisper to Lacey. "Each and every one of them is single and living the ultimate bachelor dream. Last time I was at Jason's, the youngest, there wasn't even toilet paper in the bathroom, just a stack of coffee filters sitting on the bathroom counter. Disgusting."
    Lacey laughed merrily and Jack was struck again by what a joyful person she was. He felt better when she was around than he had in years. Maybe ever. Even talking about his dad's death hadn't caused him to spiral into a black mood as was typical for him when the subject came up. Obviously, she had a positive effect on him. If he could just figure out a way to spend time with her without getting too emotionally attached, life would be so much better.
    He knew he wasn't capable of anything serious. He couldn't even pretend he was ready for more than a physical connection with another woman after Deborah. It would probably be years before he could put the past behind him enough to really be willing to share his life. Maybe not even then. Just the thought of a traditional courtship made him panic. How could he go on dinner dates, make polite conversation and plans with someone new after what had happened? He couldn't do it. He just couldn't. It felt like a betrayal.
    But sex he could definitely handle. Idly, he wondered if Lacey would be open to a casual relationship. Would he blow it if he suggested such a thing? Or maybe she was looking for something without strings too? Looking at her, he doubted very much that she was that open-minded.
    He wasn't very good at guessing women's age, but he estimated her to be in her late twenties or very early thirties. But somehow her innocence seemed somewhat intact to him. Not virginal exactly, but definitely not experienced. Bold looks aside, she seemed unnerved by his attention, almost skittish. Like she wasn't used to men wanting her. Or she didn't believe that anyone could be interested in her. He couldn't quite fathom how she had escaped male notice. She was exotically beautiful, quick-witted, sweet, and beyond sexy. Everything a man like him lusted after, and yet she didn't seem to trust that his desire for her could be sincere. Either she had been living in a convent, or the only men she came in contact with had to be gay. That was the only way she could remain so oblivious to the effect she had on his gender, and especially him.
    Her innocence both delighted and horrified him. On one hand, the thought of her with anyone else sent him into a jealous rage, so he would be relieved if she hadn't been with a lot of other men. But, if she was relatively inexperienced, it was unlikely she would want to be with someone who was incapable of any kind of emotional connection.
    If he was really lucky, like lottery-winner lucky, then she would be innocent and adventurous. What were the odds of that? He was pretty sure this phenomenon never happened outside of really bad porn. But this was exactly what he needed at this point in his life. If there was even a chance Lacey could deal with his limitations and still wanted to explore her sensual side with him then he really needed to broach the subject with her. He would be kicking his own ass if she got away from him again.
    Until Lacey had walked into that Open House he'd thought his libido was dead. But apparently it had just been dormant. Now that it was active again, his lust was like a constant hunger in him that refused to be ignored. He was used to keeping that side of his nature in check. Even while married, he had learned to repress it. But all his usual tricks, like cold showers and exhaustion, weren't working anymore. He needed to let the beast loose.
    He was a deeply sexual person, but Deborah had not been an enthusiastic lover. She had barely tolerated his touch, and yet he had remained faithful, even when it was obvious that their marriage was over. He had pushed his body and mind to the limit of his endurance with work and exercise, and yet it would still be there. That need. He had hated that weakness in him. Despised his inability to control his thoughts and the way his mind would shift into a fantasy world of women, usually not his wife, when he was not diligent in repressing his impulses. He never acted on them, but his fantasies were vivid and he feared that they would take over if he ever gave them an outlet.
    Man, would he love to play out some of those fantasies with this woman. He had many years of frustration to make up for. If only she was willing to buck traditional values and have some fun. He would do everything he could to ensure she didn't get hurt. They were adults. They could be honest about their needs and what they hopefully both wanted. He didn't see why they couldn't enjoy each other without getting too heavily involved. Now, if he could just figure out a way to bring it up without sounding like a complete scum-bag.
    "Okay," Serena said, looking down at her watch. "This is what I propose. Just give me three minutes, and then take a day to think about it before you guys react, okay?" She waited for Lacey's vigorous nod, and Jack's impatient, "move this along" gesture before she continued.
    "Jay, you know that big old house on Elm you're currently working on? You were going to put a gatehouse sort of building out back, right? Well, I was thinking why don't we have it rezoned as two properties, and then we could build something like this for Lacey." She spread her arms to indicate the cottage.
    Jack couldn't help it. Serena's idea was ridiculous. He needed to interrupt before her big ideas got out of hand. "Ess, you know that's not possible. When you brought her here to see the cottage, I thought she already had purchased the land for us to build on. What you're talking about is a very expensive piece of real estate. If the row-house was out of her price range, then your idea is way, way beyond her means." He looked apologetically at Lacey. "I'm really sorry. You have no idea how much I hate disappointing you, but Serena's plan is totally unrealistic."
    "That's okay. I totally get it. I kind of had a feeling it was too good to be true," Lacey responded, trying not to let her profound disappointment show.
    Serena stomped her foot in impatience. "What did I say? Give me three minutes, and then react. Just listen for another two minutes, and then you can both go back to shooting down my idea before you even give it a chance." She glared at them and then continued. "What I was thinking is that the market is changing. Look at Lacey, she's single and childless. Sorry, Lacey, but you are. Usually someone like her would be restricted to an apartment or a small townhouse. But she also has a dog, which kind of limits her ability to live in either. Right, Lacey?"
    "Yup, the neighbors complain if he makes any noise, so I leave him at my mom's house with her during the day while I'm at work."
    "See. Lacey doesn't need a lot of space, but she needs some separation from her neighbors. And it's the same for a lot of single moms. They want a yard for their kids to play in, but can't afford your standard three bedroom house. But what if we created something new? A community of very small, detached houses, with all the luxuries people want, but on a very small scale."
    Serena smiled, knowing she had their attention, and gestured toward the front of the house. "If you used a similar floor-plan to this place, you could put a small bedroom or den there, with an attached en-suite. For guests or for a kid. Or you could build a loft over the living area."
    She waved her arm toward the back of the house. "I know what you're thinking. It would still be pricey. But it wouldn't have to be this customized. I mean, I'm sorry, Jay, but that shower is ridiculous. And why do you need a front door that's ten feet tall? Do you guys see it? And how about seniors? Their population is skyrocketing, and they want to downsize. Many of them don't like apartments after living in houses for fifty years, and townhouses aren't an option because of all the stairs. Do you see the potential?"
    Jack was looking at her speculatively. "I don't know. It seems like a gamble."
    "It totally would be, if we were going to create the whole huge community at once. But what if we started off with just one unit? One very special place that would pilot the whole project. We could build something Lacey would love, at a discount that she could afford, and in return, she would let us use it as a Presentation Centre for a potential new development, just for a month or two. If there's no interest in it, then we could forget about the whole thing. But if it revolutionizes the real estate market, as I think it will, then we'll all be wildly successful and you'll have me to thank. Now, what do you think?"
    "Wow. I'm speechless," Lacey said, looking at Jack. "What do you think? Is it possible?"
    Jack rubbed his chin, and looked thoughtful. "I think Serena knows that it's not quite that easy. You can't just show people a property that may or may not be built somewhere else. It's vaguely fraudulent. But the idea itself has merit. A community of small scale detached houses. Hmmm…I wonder where you came up with that?"
    "I know. I totally stole the idea from Lacey. That's why I wanted her to be a part of it. She got me thinking about options for single professionals and how they are a huge untapped growth market."
    "I'll admit it. It has some merit." Jack said. "But I need some time to think about it, work out the logistics, and maybe, just maybe, if I can get my idiot brothers onboard with it, we can talk about it."
    Serena squealed and hugged Jack fiercely. "Oh, and since it was my idea, I get a big chunk of the profits, plus my commission, right?"
    "We'll talk about it." He turned to Lacey, who was looking a little shell-shocked. "What do you think, Lacey? Would you consider it? I mean, if we decide to go ahead with it. You and I might have to spend some time together, going over plans, and deciding on where we can cut costs. Could you handle that?" He held his breath, waiting for her response.
    If this actually happened, then it was the perfect opportunity to get to know her better and see if she might be open to a strictly physical relationship. Otherwise, he was going to be forced to be direct, and that didn't really feel like the right approach. Asking a sweet woman like her if she wanted to be his sex toy seemed unlikely to get a positive response. It might even get him a slap. Maybe prolonged enforced contact with him would take care of the awkwardness and things would just happen naturally. He wasn't a saint. If a little seduction was required, then he was certainly up for it.
    "I really don't know," Lacey said, shaking her head. "I'm totally overwhelmed. The thought of my own place, especially something this lovely, in the perfect neighborhood, and in my price range, didn't even seem like a possibility before. I feel like I really shouldn't get my hopes up. Or there's going to be some kind of nasty string attached. I'm not going to have to parade around naked out front to attract buyers or something, am I?"
    "Personally, I think that is a great idea. Let's write that into the contract," Jack said, only half kidding.
    "You're a pig," Serena said to Jack, but smiled as she said it. She turned to Lacey. "I can't make any promises, but I think this might actually happen. And if I know Jack, it will happen fairly quickly. He prides himself on being a man of action. So, you need to decide if you want to be a part of it. You gave me this idea, so I really do want to return the favor. Take tonight, and think about it seriously. This is kind of an unorthodox proposition so I get it if you're hesitant. Change can be scary, even if it's positive. But let me know soon, okay? This is an opportunity to have exactly what you want, and that doesn't happen all that often. All you have to do is say the word."
    Was it just Lacey's imagination or did it seem like Serena wasn't talking about real estate anymore? "I really don't need to think about it. If your plan is really possible, without going outside my budget, then I am totally up for it. What's a few hours a week as an Open House compared to twenty years in my own home." Wow! Her own home. That sounded so wonderful to her, she could hardly believe it. And even if Serena's plan didn't work out, at least there was chance that she might get to spend some quality time with Jack. Serena was right. How often did an average girl like her get to spend time with her dream guy while building her dream home? She'd be a fool not to jump at the opportunity.
    "Okay, then. The brains of this operation are clearly onboard. Now, all we need is the brawn. Jay? When do you think you can get some kind of definitive answer from your minions?" Serena asked, looking expectantly at Jack.
    "Don't push it, Serena. I said I'd talk to them. You're just going to have to wait and see," Jack said, crossing his arms across his chest again.
    "Fine. Pretend you haven't already decided this is going to happen. Play your little game, but we both know you would have shut me down five minutes ago if you didn't think it was a great idea. Now, I have an appointment with a man with powerful hands and a bottle of lube, so I need to take off."
    "No one needs to hear about your deviant sex life, but thanks for the mental image, Ess," Jack said, with a pained expression on his face.
    "A massage, you pervert. I have an appointment with Klaus, my masseur. Presenting brilliant ideas gets me so tense, I really need him to work me over tonight." She wiggled her eyebrows at Jack suggestively, and he rolled his eyes.
    "You're a sick individual, you know that, right?" Jack said, shaking his head.
    "Yup. But it's genetic. Oh, by the way, are you heading into town tonight, Jay?" Serena asked, her eyes wide with innocence. "Maybe you can give Lacey a ride if she wants to stay here and check out your hardwood?"
    "Subtle, really subtle, Serena," Jack muttered. "Lacey, ignore her. You're welcome to stay and hang out if you want. I was going to head into town in about an hour anyway." This wasn't actually true. He usually worked late into the evening. But she didn't need to know that. "So, I'd be glad for the company if you want to explore a bit." That had sounded a bit dirtier than he'd intended, but after Serena's "hardwood" comment his mind was firmly in the gutter.
    "No, really. Thanks for the offer, but you obviously have a lot of work to do. You don't need me here distracting you from your rubbing, I mean, sanding. I'll just get a ride with Serena." Other than the flush staining her cheeks, Lacey valiantly ignored her slip. Hopefully, they would too.
    "Lacey, I would be happy to drive you. Please stay. I insist." And help me with my rubbing, he thought to himself with a grin. Obviously, he wasn't the only one having dirty thoughts here.
    "I seriously have to go," Serena said, walking toward the door. "Lacey, are you coming? I'd be glad to call ahead and see if Klaus can squeeze you in with his partner, Clay. I mean, it seems like you have some tension of your own to work out. So, a massage might be just the thing. Jay will let us know what's happening with 'The Plan,' won't you, Jay?"
    Jack was trying block the image of any other man rubbing Lacey's smooth olive skin with scented oils. Just the thought made his vision cloud with a red mist. He felt his fists clench of their own accord. There was no way he was going to allow some soft-handed pretty boy to touch her, while he sat here by himself, polishing his wood.
    "You know what? Serena is dangerous behind the wheel on any given day, but when she's in a hurry, she's downright frightening. You should really let her go, and stay here, with me. I'd really like to spend some time with you." There, he'd said it. He felt like a complete weenie, but he was a man, and men said what they wanted. Consequences be damned.
    "If you're sure?"
    "Yes, I'm completely sure."
    "Okay then. I'd like to spend some time with you too. And talk about the cottage. Go ahead, Serena. I'll talk to you tomorrow. Have fun with Klaus. And maybe I'll set up something with Clay for another time."
    Like hell you will, Jack thought to himself, but grinned like an idiot as they followed Serena out to the porch and watched her walk to her car.
    "Jay, if I don't hear from you tomorrow, I will be calling your mother, so get on this thing right away, okay?" Serena called, sliding behind the steering wheel.
    "Yeah, yeah. Quit badgering me or I will develop selective amnesia on this subject, I swear to God."
    "Okay. Have fun, you two. Don't get any splinters." Putting on her sunglasses, Serena smiled wickedly as she flipped the car into gear, and rocketed down the driveway. All in all, she felt like she'd accomplished a lot today. Both her match-making and her real estate plans were coming together, perfectly. If only her own personal life was so easy to control.

Chapter Five

    "My car is parked at the Daily Grind on Third Ave," Lacey said, darting a glance at Jack. His strong profile was barely illuminated by the truck's dashboard lights, and she couldn't tell if he was smiling or frowning. She really hoped he was smiling. It became brighter in the cab as they approached the city limits, but his expression seemed neutral to her.
    They had spent an hour at the cottage, simply wandering around as Jack pointed out features that she'd missed on their whirlwind tour with Serena earlier. Then, they had spent another twenty minutes sanding the door Jack had been working on when they had arrived. He had simply handed her a sheet of sandpaper and demonstrated the proper technique as they stood companionably, side by side.
    Lacey had half expected him to jump her bones the second Serena's car was out of sight, but he hadn't even touched her. She was totally disappointed. There had been something so intent about the way he had been watching her upto this point. She had felt a little like a particularly juicy rabbit being stalked by a famished wolf. And yet he had been a perfect gentleman, damn him and his mixed signals.
    What did she have to do to get a little action from this guy? Maybe, like Barry, he thought she was boring. Well, she wasn't. She was a wild woman. She just needed to figure out how to go about being the aggressor without looking too desperate or slutty. Desperation was not sexy. Neither was clumsiness. And she was terribly afraid she was going to mess this up. Why couldn't he just lean over and kiss her? That would be so much easier.
    "Do you mind if we take a little detour?" Jack asked, interrupting her thoughts.
    "Not at all. I'm not in a huge hurry to get home." She hoped he might suggest going to dinner. She was famished and a meal would prolong their time together. She was about to casually mention a Thai place she frequented when she noticed where they were.
    They had just driven past the row-houses where they'd met, and Jack slowed the truck as they approached a building site that was fenced off and had a large 'Kingston Bros.' sign hanging from the gate. The old-fashioned streetlights revealed the frame of a large, roofless house. It stood on a wide, corner lot facing a green space containing a lovely path through a wooded area.
    Jack turned off the ignition and pointed through the windshield with his keys. "It's a construction zone right now, so we can't go in. But you see that corner? That just may be your new address in about six months. What do you think?"
    Lacey didn't think anything. For perhaps the first time in her life, she just acted.
    Instead of answering him or worrying about making a fool of herself, she slid across the bench seat and completely surprised him by turning his face toward her. Looking into his shocked eyes for a moment she leaned forward and kissed him soundly on the lips. It was really more of a peck to show her joy and gratitude than an attempt at seduction, but the result was the same.
    Jack's response to Lacey's lips on him was immediate and enthusiastic. He threw his keys on the dashboard and lifted her onto his lap, angling her chin so he could deepen the kiss. His tongue licked at her lips sweetly and then thrust between them with gradually accelerating heat and force.
    Suddenly they were making out in the cab of his truck like horny teenagers. The windows quickly fogged up, enclosing them in their own little sensual world and Jack took full advantage of the privacy. He slid his lips down her jaw to her throat where he nibbled at that sensitive skin until she gasped and tightened her grip on his hair. He shoved the shoulder of her blouse part-way down her arm and sucked at that spot where her neck meets the collarbone. She would probably have a bruise there the next day and the idea that she would be walking around with his mark on her pleased him.
    Sliding his hand up her denim-clad leg, he made small circles on her inner thigh, and then slid his hand back up to her knee. He did this three times before momentarily cupping her between her thighs. He could feel her heat against his fingers and was overcome with lust when she reached down to capture his hand and keep it there between her legs.
    He groaned against her neck as she shifted restlessly in his lap, and there was no hiding his state of arousal from her. He was painfully hard and impatient for relief, but no matter how much he wanted her, screwing in a truck on the side of the road was not good enough for their first time together. If he took her now, he probably wouldn't get another chance, and he could not let that happen. She'd almost slipped away from him once. So he took a deep breath and stopped moving his fingers against her mound. Removing his lips from her neck, he sat there with his face pressed against her sweet-smelling neck, trying to get his breathing under control.
    "Jack? Is everything alright?" Lacey asked tentatively.
    "Yeah. Everything is fine. My penis and my brain are just at war right now. It will be over in a second. Just don't move, okay?"
    Lacey giggled and the motion made him groan. "Umm, is it okay if I don't want your brain to win?" She asked, delicately licking the shell of his ear.
    He angled his head towards her for a moment, chills running up his neck from the the feeling of her warm breath against his ear. But then he came to his senses and jerked his ear away from her marauding tongue. "Probably not a good idea. Because if my brain loses, then you' re going to be spread-eagled, with your legs in the air and your jeans balled up on the floor faster than the speed of light. And 3 seconds after that, I'm going to be really embarrassed. So, Mr. Happy really needs to lose this battle today, but hopefully he will get a chance to fight another day. Alright?"
    "Wow, what a tease your are, Jack. Don't I have any say at all in this?" She asked playfully, running a hand through the hair at the nape of his neck.
    Easily, he lifted her off his lap and set her on the seat beside him. "Lacey, I'm seriously begging you to stop. I like you, and I don't want to take advantage of you like this." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew he'd said the wrong thing.
    Lacey glared at him as she slid back to the passenger side of the truck. "Take advantage of me? What does that mean? I'm 32 years old, Jack. Not a silly teenage girl. If I want to boff your brains out in the front of your truck, then it's because I've been fantasizing about you for the past week, and I can't wait any longer. Not because I'm some poor lonely spinster who is too overcome with frustration to know what she's doing, okay?"
    Oops. Damn it. He'd touched a nerve. But he really liked the part about her fantasizing about him for the past week. He needed to smooth this over, pronto. "What I meant was, I took you here to show you the lot of land we were talking about earlier because I knew you would be excited to see it, and I thought I would probably get a hug out of it. And since I've been trying to think of a way to touch you all afternoon, I brought you here with my own perverted agenda in mind. That's what I meant by taking advantage of you. The whole frustrated spinster thing never occurred to me, I swear."
    "So, you brought me here to cop a feel?"
    "Well, I wouldn't put it quite that crudely, but yeah."
    Her smile was radiant as she slid back across the seat towards him again. "That is just about the sweetest thing I've ever heard," she said, and reached up to kiss him gently on the lips.
    Jack returned the kiss for a moment and then pulled back to look at her beautiful face in the moonlight. He traced one finely arched eyebrow with his thumb, and drew in an unsteady breath. "Let's get you back to your car, and then we can talk about what's going to happen next, okay?"

*****

    Ten minutes later, Jack slid the truck into the slot next to Lacey's car in The Daily Grind parking lot. He had been trying to distract himself from his prominent erection by talking about plans for Lacey's place, but she seemed to have lost her enthusiasm for the idea. He sincerely hoped she was just thinking about getting naked with him as soon as possible, and couldn't concentrate on anything else. But he doubted that was the problem. She was still smiling and joking with him but otherwise seemed a bit subdued for someone who had just committed to her dream house and been kissed senseless, all within the last two hours.
    He turned off the ignition, got out of the truck and quickly moved around the vehicle in time to help her down from the passenger side. The truck seat was too high off the ground for her to manage gracefully, so she scrambled down with a laugh at her clumsiness. Jack took her hand and pulled her against him as he leaned against her little car.
    "Now what?" He asked, kissing her on the forehead. Was it just his imagination or had she pulled away from him a bit?
    "Well, now we decide what's going to happen next."
    "I was thinking that we head over to your place…to talk," Jack said, reaching down to cup her bottom with one hand.
    "But Jack, you were just making plans for the cottage." She said, looking at him incredulously.
    "Yeah. I think it'll be really amazing if we can get the property re-zoned so your place faces the north side. Don't you think? Then you can be looking at that little green space instead of your neighbor's jungle gym."
    "But the cottage isn't going to happen. At least not with me."
    He pulled back to look at her. "What the hell are you talking about, Lacey. I thought you wanted to do this. Didn't you tell Serena that you wanted to go for it?"
    "But that was before."
    "Before we kissed? Was it that bad? You don't want to have anything to do with me because of what happened in the truck?" Jack felt coldness starting to creep into his expression and fought valiantly against giving into it. He looked at the ground, so he couldn't see him shutting down.
    "No, Jack. I want a lot to do with you because of what happened in the truck. And as soon as possible."
    "I'm confused. What do you want, Lacey?"
    "Jack. I want you." She reached up and put her hands on each of his cheeks and forced him to look down at her. "For a night or a week or a month. I want to be with you. For as long as you want me. That's what I want. There'll be other houses, but there won't be another chance with someone like you."
    "Are you serious? Please don't be kidding, okay? I really couldn't take that." Was he dreaming or was she actually offering him exactly what he wanted? He felt the coldness ebbing away and being replaced by something relief and warmth. She wasn't rejecting him. She was just being overly cautious. He could work with that.
    "Jack, why would I joke about that? I'm telling you exactly how I feel."
    "I just find it hard to believe that you would want something casual. I mean, girls usually want a commitment right away, don't they?"
    "Not me." Lacey shook her head and held up her hands in supplication. "Oops, that sounded bad. Like I do this on a regular basis. That's not what I meant. I've never done anything like this before, but I swear, I'm not looking for anything long term or serious. This isn't some kind of trap. We barely know each other. All I know is that I've never wanted anyone like this before, and if I don't act on it today, I know I'm going to regret it. You may meet a yoga instructor nymphomaniac with nipple piercings tomorrow and then I'll be kicking myself because I missed my opportunity. I'm sick of being boring and predictable. So, I say, screw the house. I want to be be impulsive for once in my life. And I want to be impulsive with you. What do you want, Jack?"
    "Well, right now I'm a little stuck on the whole nymphomaniac thing, but other than that I feel the same way. I've been alone for a long time, granted, but I can't remember ever being so clearly obsessed with a woman before. I swear, I haven't been able to stop thinking about you for the last week either. I really, really want you too. But why can't we go ahead with Serena's plan too?"
    "Jack, we'd be working together. As much as I'd like to reduce this to just mind-bending hot sex between us, I know I'll become emotionally involved and that will complicate things. What if things go sour between us while the house is being built? Imagine how awful it would be if you get bored of me, and we're still forced to work together on this project? Talk about awkward."
    "Lacey, I can't imagine getting bored of you. Everything about you excites me and makes me smile. But I don't want to watch you give up on your dream house either. I think we can do both."
    "Jack, I wish I could believe that, but I can't see it working. Things change between people when things don't work out. And even if we do manage to stay on good terms, I'm still going to feel like a total prostitute if I'm having sex with my builder. What's next? Blow-jobs for a really steep discount on bathroom tile?"
    "Well, now that you bring that up…" He reached down to squeeze her ass again.
    Lacey rolled her eyes and swatted his hand away from her bottom. "See, I knew this was going to happen. It's just not a good idea."
    "Lacey, sweetheart, I would never trade building materials for sex." He grinned. "Unless you wanted some Italian marble. Then I might require some special compensation. I'm thinking Princess Leia bikini, and maybe a video camera."
    "How about some trashy lingerie and a polaroid snapshot? Taken from the neck down."
    He whistled. "Done deal. Italian marble it is. Do I have to wear the lingerie?"
    "If you do, I definitely want a picture of that."
    "Nope. If that got out, my brothers would crucify me. I'd have to leave town."
    "You're probably right. Speaking of them, what would they think if they knew the risky project you're trying to steamroll them into just happens to benefit the woman you're sleeping with?" She asked, raising an eyebrow.
    Jack stopped smiling. Lacey had a point. His brothers would not be impressed with that at all. They'd be thrilled if he was dating someone, especially someone like Lacey, but mixing work with any kind of sexual conquest was strictly forbidden. He personally had enforced this rule over the years when any of his randy brothers had become too flirtatious with buyers. It hadn't been easy, but he felt like it was his duty to prevent any kind of scandal from tainting the business. The last thing he wanted in this city's ruthless real estate community was for people to be talking about how the Kingston brothers couldn't keep their dicks in their pants. They wouldn't be taken seriously if that was their reputation, and their success was directly linked to how buyers perceived them.
    Besides, he owed it to Jack Senior. His dad had always emphasized the necessity of being a professional, and maintaining respectability. And that did not include using their work to procure women. So, no, any kind of emotional entanglement, even if it was just sex, would not be looked upon favorably by his family. In fact, it would be downright hypocritical.
    "They wouldn't have to know," Jack said, placing his hands on her shoulders, and stooping down to get a better look at her expression.
    Lacey moved out from under his hands, took a step away from him and turned towards the street. "Okay, I wanted to have some really dirty sex with you, Jack. But now you want me to be your dirty little secret? How did this become so complicated? I totally suck at this whole seduction thing."
    Jack couldn't help it. He laughed. Her profile looked so forlorn. It was not a look that suited her at all. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her from behind. "I happen to think you are incredibly talented at this whole seduction thing," he whispered against her neck. "In fact, if you were any better at it, I'd probably be on my way to the hospital right now because of the lack of blood to my brain."
    Despite herself, Lacey chuckled and ran one of her hands along the muscled forearms across her stomach. "You know that can't happen, right? I'm a nurse, and I've never seen anyone suffering from massive cranial blood loss due to a prolonged erection. At least not a natural one."
    "Hmmm…I love it when you talk all clinical like that. Say 'prolonged erection' again," Jack said, grinding himself playfully against her bottom.
    "You have the strangest idea of dirty talk, Jack."
    "Sadly, this is the closest I've come to dirty talk in a long time. I may be a little rusty. But I bet I could get better with practice," he said, biting down on her earlobe.
    "Why has it been so long? I don't understand. How is a someone like you even single?"
    "What do you mean, 'someone like me?'"
    Lacey pinched his forearm. "You're going to make me say it, aren't you? Serena's right. Your ego doesn't need anymore stroking. But if you insist, what I meant was how can someone successful and funny and so damn hot be single?"
    "I could say the same thing about you. But I assure you that my wife didn't think I was any of those things. But I'm glad you do. That means a lot to me. However, the story behind my single status is a very long and depressing one. So, let's figure out how we're going to work and play together instead, okay?"
    Lacey turned in his arms to face him. "Jack, as much as I wish we could make that happen. You must know that it'd be a huge mistake to even try. There's a lot at stake here. Your business and your relationship with your family, for one. My emotional trauma if you reject me after we sleep together and I still have to work with you. We have to choose: definite fun now and no house, or house now and the possibility of fun later. I already told you what I want. Now you have to decide what you want." She poked him in the chest for emphasis.
    What did he want? If he was smart he'd forget about the stupid house and take Lacey as fast and as hard as he could without appearing like a complete sex maniac. And Lacey wanted that too. So, why was he hesitating? She was offering him exactly what he wanted. No strings sex. A sure thing. And with a woman that made his dick hard and his mood light for a change. It was perfect. And yet he couldn't do it. At some point today, something had changed and he wanted more. He still couldn't see himself in a relationship, but coldly using someone for sex, especially someone like Lacey, seemed empty and a little sad. He didn't want to be that guy. His penis wanted him to be that guy, but Mr. Happy wasn't in charge, at least for now.
    And wouldn't she come to regret her decision to sacrifice the cottage eventually? Maybe not tonight, when they were so ridiculously hot for each other. But if the sex ran its course, and they parted ways, what if she was still looking for a place six months from now? How would he feel then if he ran into her at some random Open House and she looked at him reproachfully? He would feel like complete shit.
    Bottom line was, he wanted to make her happy. And that meant giving her both a place to live and mind-shattering orgasms. According to her, that was only going to happen if he could wait until her place was complete. But that could take six months. He could not wait that long to get her naked. It was a physical impossibility. Maybe there could be some kind of compromise?
    "What, exactly did you have in mind? I mean, if we held off until after the house was complete? Are we talking no physical contact at all, or just not any full-on sex?" Jack asked, brushing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes.
    "Jack. No. You can't be serious! I can not wait that long to be with you. Let's just forget about the whole house thing." Lacey said, reaching up to slip her arms around his neck. "Let's just drive back to my place, light some candles, and take a bubble bath together instead. Okay?" She got up on her tip-toes and kissed the side of his neck. "Wouldn't that be fun? I've always wanted to do that. My tub is kind of tiny, and you're so big, but if we really squeezed, I'm sure we could make it work. Don't you think?" She said, nibbling her way upto his ear as she rubbed her breasts against his hard chest.
    Jack felt his control slipping again as he imagined Lacey, naked, wet and covered in bubbles, her tits bobbing up and down as she rode him hard in her tiny little bath tub. He could have that tonight, probably within the hour, if he just ignored his stupid conscience.
    Or better yet, the parking lot was deserted, and all the businesses nearby were closed for the night. If she was into it, he could have her on her hands and knees in the back of the truck in no time at all. That's what he wanted, he wanted it so bad his hands were actually shaking. But if even thinking of allowing her to sacrifice her home made him feel guilty, then how could he live with himself if he actually did become that shady version of himself? The one who who used women and then abandoned them once his needs were met?
    "Lace? Seriously. What I want is to make the house happen for you, but I need to know how we can make this work. I don't really see how I can have any contact with you at all and not totally ravish you. So, you need to tell me the ground rules. If it was up to me, we would just screw like bunnies at every opportunity. But since that would probably compromise the project, I need to know what waiting means. If you say no kissing, no touching, nothing physical at all, then I don't think I can do it."
    "Jack. I'm sorry, but I think this is an all or nothing proposition. Either we forget about the house or we forget about anything physical between us happening at all. I hate this, but it's just the way it has to be."
    "At all? I thought we were just waiting until the cottage was done?"
    "Jack, that's months from now. What if that nymphomaniac yoga instructor comes along? Or I meet someone else? Will I still have to have sex with you when the cottage is done?"
    "Of course not," Jack growled at this idea.
    "So what I'm saying is that we can't promise that we'll still even be interested in each other months from now. What if we work together and discover we can't stand the sight of one another? Or the chemistry fizzles? If I say I will definitely have sex with you when the house is done, doesn't that make me about the most expensive hooker ever? Instead of fifty dollars for a back alley hand-job, I'll get an entire house. But it's basically the same thing, isn't it?"
    "It wouldn't be like that at all. We could change our minds at any time. I don't want you to feel obligated to have sex with me. It would totally be up to you."
    "But what about you?"
    "What about me? I have absolutely no problem with you using both my body and my building skills. In fact, I encourage it."
    "No, I mean. Doesn't it make you feel a little dirty, knowing that I'm expecting you to put out when the cottage is complete?"
    "Dirty in the best possible way."
    She rolled her eyes at him. "Nope. I think we have to re-evaluate when this is over. If we still want each other then, we'll talk about it. Until then, strictly platonic. With no expectations."
    Jack was appalled. "And how do you propose we manage that? Are we going to communicate strictly by email and phone? Use Serena to pass notes, like in junior high?Because I don't think I can handle that. I want to see you. A lot. You aren't proposing that we don't even see each other until this is over, are you?"
    "No, I don't want that either. How about this? If your brothers agree and the project gets green-lighted, you and I are going to have to get together to go over plans, and choose materials, right?"
    "Yeah. Probably a lot at first, after the property is rezoned anyway. I'll have some modified plans drawn up in the mean time."
    "Okay, whenever we meet, we'll do it with a lot of people around, so we won't be tempted."
    "You can not be serious. We're going to need chaperones? Did I just walk into a Victorian novel?"
    "Jack, we don't have to do this. I would much rather get on with the threesome with Mr. Bubbles. You're the one that's insisting that we go ahead with the project. I'm just letting you know the only way that will work."
    "But you kissed me. Back at the truck. Why did you do that, if you knew we couldn't couldn't get physical without jeopardizing the project? Maybe if I hadn't tasted you, I could have somehow managed to get through this, blue balls or not. But I can't go back now. Knowing what it's like to touch you, feel you. It will be fucking torture. Or rather, no fucking torture." He was being coarse, he knew it. But he was way beyond being polite.
    "For me too. And I'm sorry I kissed you. Well, not really. I loved it. But it definitely will make this harder. Pun intended, by the way. But you looked so sweet, looking out at my possible new address. I was so excited and grateful, I just lost my head for a second. But the second I did it, I made my choice. I knew I couldn't have both, and I chose you. Without hesitation. So, now, for the last time, do we go back to my place and break out the bubbles, or do we build a house?"
    "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think we're building a house. Damn it." But he didn't let her go, instead he kissed her, with mind-numbing, nerve-tingling passion. He ate at her mouth, as if trying to imprint his taste and the feel of his lips on her memory.
    When he was done, Lacey felt positively woozy, like she'd just drank a bottle of champagne on an empty stomach. She grabbed onto his waist for support and looked up at him. "That was our last kiss, wasn't it?"
    "If I have anything to do with it, that kiss will be continued just as soon as the paint is dry on your new place. Be prepared. This project is going to be completed in record time."
    "So. We're actually doing this, then? No sex until the cottage is done?"
    "I feel like I'm making some kind of pact with an angel rather than a devil, but yeah. Nothing remotely physical until the project is complete." Jack held out his hand to Lacey, and she shook it reluctantly. This was going to be an incredibly long and frustrating six months. He just knew it. Many cold showers and nights spent working into the wee hours were in his future. He just hoped he wasn't making a huge mistake.

Chapter Six

    Five Months Later
    For once, Lacey was wearing a dress. She'd put a lot of thought into her wardrobe for this meeting and she only hoped she wasn't wasting her time. The wraparound style emphasized her curves and the blue and green mosaic pattern flattered her olive skin and light eyes. It had taken her forever to decide on this particular dress, but she thought the overall look was sexy, but not too slutty. The boots, however, were crossing that line. Black leather and stiletto heeled, they made her feel just a bit like a porn star. But that was kind of the effect she was going for today.
    It was the final builder walk-through on her new cottage and she would be seeing Jack, alone, for the first time in five very long months. He had banned her from the property three weeks ago because he'd said he wanted to surprise her with the final product. But she feared that wasn't the only reason. The tension between them had become so intense that the air seemed to crackle between them when they occupied the same space. It was thrilling, but awful. Thrilling because the electricity between them had only grown more powerful over time, but really terrible because they had begun snapping at each other in frustration.
    Her greatest fear was that something might have changed over the past three weeks. She hadn't seen or spoken to him during that time, and she wondered if he had met someone else. Serena, who had become a good friend during the house building process, hadn't mentioned anything, but that didn't mean anything. Jack could very well have found a kinky lawyer or a horny divorcee to relieve some of that tension. Someone without all of her complications and rules. And since she had set those rules, she would have no choice but to step aside and be happy for him.
    At least she could take solace in her new home. Everything had still been in chaos the last time she'd visited the property, but what had been completed was wonderful. Jack and his brothers had done an incredible job. She had decided to add a bedroom and bathroom to the original one bedroom and one bathroom plan, and everything was done on a slightly less grand scale than Jack's cottage in the woods, but overall she was thrilled with the end result. She was squirming with excitement to see it all put together. If she could just get through this final formality with Jack without making an ass of herself, she could relax and enjoy being a home owner.
    Lacey looked at her reflection in the full-length mirror in the bedroom of her tiny apartment and practiced her most fake smile. This is how she would look when he told her that nothing was going to happen between them. She had blown it. She just knew it. What had she been thinking insisting that they wait so long? She should have compromised with him and things wouldn't have gotten so messed up between them. Would it have really ruined anything if they'd made out a little, or gone for coffee a few times? Why had she been so stupid?
    Grabbing her purse from the front hall table, she left her apartment thinking that it would serve her right if Jack didn't even show up. One of his brothers could do the walk-through just as easily, and avoiding her would certainly make things easier for him if he wanted to opt out of any kind of future hanky-panky with her.
    He was probably with some double-jointed, ex-stripper/brain surgeon right this second. And they probably weren't fighting over tile color. Had she actually done that? Yelled at him? Over tile? What was wrong with her? She never yelled at anyone. Ever. She hadn't even liked her ex-boyfriend, Barry, and yet she had worked like crazy to appear cheerful and easy going around him. But with Jack, someone she really liked, she couldn't seem to hold back her emotions.
    It was like she was another person around him. Someone exciting and unafraid to speak her mind. She kind of loved this new Lacey, but feared her too. She had lived her whole life being afraid that people wouldn't like her if she showed her true colors. And now, she was pretty sure she'd been right all along. Jack couldn't possibly still want her after she'd kept him at arm's length for five months, could he? As if that wasn't bad enough, she'd added insult to injury by arguing with him at every turn too. He'd be out of his mind to still be interested.
    Getting into her little car, she paused, and took a couple of deep breaths to calm the butterflies beating themselves senseless in her stomach. Being sick would not improve this situation. She just had to stay calm and keep her emotions under control. Whatever he said, or did, she would take it in stride. She could handle his rejection with dignity. And if she was wrong, and Jack was still interested in her, she would keep her cool as well. Being in control was key to not getting hurt.

*****

    Jack was sitting on the top step of the stairs leading up to Lacey's future front door. A familiar perch for him. He felt like he'd spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for Lacey over the past few months.
    Today, she was scheduled to arrive for the final walk-through of her cottage in a few minutes and he was trying to contain his excitement at seeing her again. He was smiling like a fool just thinking about her reaction to the changes he'd made to the original plan. She was going to be so happy. The place had come together beautifully and he was so proud to show her his work, and make her dream house a reality.
    It seemed as though he had sat here waiting for her countless times over the past few months. They had met here every Wednesday evening so he could show her the progress they'd made on her place. One of his brothers or Serena or a member of their crew was always around and Jack and Lacey hadn't even touched since that kiss in the Daily Grind parking lot. These meetings at Lacey's cottage were an odd combination of pain and pleasure for Jack, depending on how long they spent together and how frustrated he was.
    Sometimes she came to the build site directly from work. On these visits she would be dressed in formless scrubs, and her hair would be in a practical bun. Not exactly sexy attire, but her beauty still brought him to his knees every single time. Sometimes, when he was really lucky, she would jog to the build site.
    Lacey usually wore an oversized T-shirt and loose-fitting sweatpants for these mid-jog visits or even a boxy reflective running jacket. She never dressed provocatively, but it didn't seem to matter. He salivated like a Pavlovian dog whenever he saw her familiar curvy figure approaching.
    On one particularly hot day, she'd appeared like a wet dream in just a sports bra and spandex shorts, and he'd been forced to cut their visit very short, or suffer what felt like a permanent zipper imprint in his penis. He had spoken quite gruffly to her that day, and had practically walked out in the middle of their paint discussion because he had felt his attention wandering into dangerous territory as he'd watched a single drop of sweat roll down her neck and into the deep swell of her cleavage. It was more than a man could take.
    From that day forward, she dressed like an absolute prude. Even on days when the temperature was sweltering she purposely dressed as frumpy as possible. He appreciated the effort, but it really didn't do any good. He'd suspected that the body under the scrubs and sweats was jaw-dropping and now that his suspicions were confirmed, getting her naked was all he could think about.
    Despite the discomfort of unsatisfied sexual tension screaming between them, he still anticipated her visits like a kid on Christmas morning. When Lacey arrived he felt alive. Annoyed and horny as hell, but alive. And the rest of the time was just dead space until her next visit. This wasn't healthy. He knew that. Especially for someone who wasn't supposed to be interested in a relationship.
    Over the past few weeks it had become pretty evident to him that despite his best intentions he was already involved with Lacey. They had an odd, unconsummated relationship which had been on hold for five months, but still, it was definitely a relationship. And it wasn't nearly as scary as he'd thought. In fact, except for the no sex part, it felt very natural. And his guilt and grief over his wife and son's death had finally receded to a manageable level.
    He'd stopped constantly reliving that day. His mind no longer circled all the possible ways he could have prevented the accident. For so long, his objective had been to focus on the immediate task at hand to distract himself from thoughts of the past. It took all his effort to get through each day without succumbing to despair, and most days he failed miserably at this. But now he could contemplate the future and actually felt like there might be something to look forward to in life. Because of her. She simply made him happy. Well, at least she did before the friction made them so crazy, and they started arguing over stupid things.
    As an outlet for their passion the sniping wasn't very satisfying, but it did give him a chance to really get to know Lacey. He felt he'd seen her at her very worst, and her worst was still pretty damn cute. And funny. She made him laugh even when he wanted to pull his hair out in frustration. This was a woman he could fight with and make up with for the rest of his life. He only hoped her feelings hadn't changed. He had, after all, banned her from her own house. Not because he didn't want to see her, but because he really couldn't handle being around her anymore without some kind of relief from the tension. And they were so close to being done. If he could just live through this walk-through, then they could take things to the next level. He only hoped the next level included some hugely anticipated sex, and hopefully a whole lot more. Maybe even love?
    A familiar little red car pulled up in front of the cottage, and Jack rose from his step to greet his woman. He watched Lacey get out of the car, and throw her sunglasses on the dashboard. She was wearing a dress and her long, dark hair wasn't in a ponytail or a bun for a change. He was amazed to see that it fell halfway down her back in a glossy, wavy cloud. His mouth went dry as she stepped around the car and he saw those boots. He rarely noticed women's footwear, but Lacey in fuck-me heels was a sight to behold. He grinned inwardly as she nearly stumbled coming up the cobblestone walk. Obviously, she wasn't as comfortable as she looked in those lethally sexy boots.
    "Hi Jack," she said breathlessly, as she climbed up the stairs to join him on the porch. Any intention she had to be calm and cool flew out the window the second she saw him waiting for her. He was even more handsome than she remembered. And he was wearing a tie, white dress shirt and what looked like wool slacks. No denim or plaid or Oscar the Grouch T-shirt. He was dressed up. It even looked like he'd had his hair cut. He looked positively polished.
    What did this mean exactly? Was he trying to look his best for her, or was his formal attire part of keeping a professional distance between them? If that was his intention, it wasn't working. She wanted to rip that tie off with her teeth and tie him to the closest headboard with it. She wasn't feeling very professional at all. In fact, if he didn't outright reject her, she had a feeling her new non-boring wild side might make an appearance. Seeing him again just made her realize how much she had missed him and how stupid she had been to waste so much time.
    Jack took her hand as she reached him and brought her knuckles up to his lips. He noticed that even her short nails were painted a dark, sexy red. "You look beautiful," he said. "No scrubs today?"
    "Not today. It felt like a special occasion. You look very nice too. I think you combed your hair." She reached up and ran her other hand through his silky strands. "I like it a little messy though." She shook it out a little, and smiled into his eyes as his hair settled back into its usual casual disarray. "There, that's better. Now you look like Jack."
    "C'mon," he said, his voice gruff. "Let's check out your new digs. You ready?"
    "Yup, I really can't wait to see what you've done here. But with all the anticipation, I'm a little worried that it'll be anti-climactic. I mean, how can it possibly live up to all build-up?"
    "You're still talking about the cottage, right?"
    She laughed and pulled on his arm to urge him through the front door. Walking over the threshold, she stopped in her tracks. It was incredible. They were in a large room that was a combination kitchen/dining/living room open concept design with vaulted ceilings. Wide-plank, glossy, hardwood covered the floors and the walls were painted the same golden beige Lacey's mother had admired in the first row-house they'd seen months ago. Best of all, the kitchen was a stylish oasis with stainless steel appliances and glass fronted, white cupboards.
    "Oh Jack," Lacey squealed. "You were able to put in an island. I can't believe it." Lacey walked over and ran her hands over the huge slab of black granite. The gesture was an unconscious imitation of her reaction to this feature the first time Jack had seen her. "You said it was too expensive."
    Jack ducked his head, pleased at her reaction, but embarrassed at how emotional he felt seeing her delight in such a small thing. It almost felt worth all the sacrifice to see her like this. Five months of blue balls seemed insignificant in comparison to her joy. "Yeah, well, the granite was left over from another job, so I was able to get a great deal on it. Do you like it?" He asked, quietly. It was obvious she did, but he really needed to hear her say it.
    "Oh Jack, I love it. Thank you so much. And what's this?" She spied a clipboard on the far end of the countertop. Clipped to it were some official looking documents, a pen, and a single yellow rose. She picked up the rose and gave it a sniff, sighing at its sweet scent. Glancing at the papers beneath it, she saw a blood test from Jack's doctor detailing a clean bill of health, and beneath that, a checklist.
    Jack didn't comment on the blood test. She could draw her own conclusions from why he left that for her. "That is an incredibly boring checklist, but we need to go through it before this place becomes officially yours."
    "And the rose is always part of this builder's ritual?"
    "Yup, part of the contract, I'm afraid. Supermodel or lumberjack, all my client's get one."
    "Right. And the blood test?"
    "Definitely not part of the house building process, but I thought it would be a good idea if we decided to move onto the non-torturous portion of our relationship. Unless you've met someone else?" He tensed waiting for her response. If she had moved on he was going to howl in frustration. Punching a fist-sized hole through the drywall was also a definite possibility.
    "No, Jack. I haven't met anyone, and I had a similar test last week too. Coincidence, wouldn't you say?"
    Jack beamed. She had been planning on having sex with him, despite the enforced distance between them over the past weeks. Everything was okay between them and he was finally going to be able to live out some of the X-rated fantasies that had been plaguing him for the last five months. He could barely restrain himself from ravishing her right then and there. "So, there's nothing holding us back anymore? You're still interested. I'm still very interested, so I say let's get to this checklist as fast as humanly possible and then we can discuss where and when our first date will happen. What do you say?"
    "Why don't you show me the rest of the cottage before we get down to checklist business, okay? I'm too jazzed to concentrate on it right now. I need to see my new place." She was practically jumping up and down with excitement.
    Jack laughed and took her hand again. "Let's go see the Mistress Bath first." He lead her a few steps down the short hall to a door and pushed through, watching as Lacey got her first look at her new bathroom.
    Lacey gasped. The Mistress Bath contained an oversized glass-tiled shower, separate commode, double-sinks, and a large garden tub in front of an etched glass window. But what made her gasp was the huge bouquet of yellow roses sitting next to the tub. And next to that was a large, pink plastic bottle of Mr. Bubbles, with a ribbon tied around it.
    "You remembered," she said, picking up the bottle. "I'm overwhelmed."
    "Are you kidding? How can I forget? You said a threesome with you, me, and Mr. Bubbles. A guy doesn't forget something like that. Though, personally, I would prefer a threesome with you, me, and Mrs. Buttersworth someday. Just because I prefer the gender ratio in that scenario."
    "Ewww. Syrup. Okay. But you're doing the clean up afterward."
    "Deal. But are you still interested?"
    "In Mr. Bubbles?"
    "Well, yeah. Him too. But mostly me. Even after all this time. And all the awkwardness of the past few months. Do you still want to be with me?"
    Lacey set the bottle back down on the tub ledge and walked back to him. She reached up to rest her hands on his chest. "Jack, you have no idea how much. It's been awful, the waiting. I'm so sorry for being such a shrew the last few times we met. I don't know where that came from."
    Jack closed his eyes for a moment, savoring her touch after so long. "I know. It was complete hell. But now that the house is done, how do you feel? About us. Giving it a try, I mean. You said, no strings before. But how about now? I feel like there are strings in place already, don't you?"
    "Yeah, there are definitely some strings. Powerful, thick ones. More like ropes."
    Jack couldn’t wait any longer to touch her. He’d been thinking about this moment for months and now she was here, looking up at him with huge crystal blue eyes filled with desire. For him. He couldn’t believe it. It was like all of those fevered dreams, the ones that left him hard and aching in the night, were finally coming true.
    He reached out with one callused palm and cupped her cheek. Her skin was incredibly soft compared to his large, callused fingers. He trailed his thumb across her rosebud-pink, lower lip and was completely shocked when her tongue darted out and touched his thumb delicately.
    He groaned. He couldn’t help it. The erotic sight of her silky tongue touching him, any part of him, even his thumb made him grow instantly hard and impatient to possess her. It took all of his control to be gentle as he lifted her chin, and lowered his mouth to kiss her.
    She tasted so sweet and her body felt very soft and warm against him. Her hands on his chest now gripped his shirt tightly, as if to imprison him. Her lemony scent enveloped him and he felt almost drunk on all of the combined sensations. He was finding it incredibly difficult to ignore his body and its rampant demands to plunge his tongue deeply into her mouth, to simulate how he wanted to slide his hard cock deep into her body and claim her. But he really needed to be gentle. This moment with her mattered and he desperately wanted to show her that this wasn’t just about satisfying an itch and moving on. He wanted to please her. Make her cry out in pleasure.
    To distract himself from the intensity of his desires he focused completely on her mouth, rubbing his lips against hers from one direction and then another, just barely touching her. Allowing his warm breath to tickle across her skin, he tasted her.
    Jack's approach to kissing her this evening was remarkably chaste and yet carnal at the same time. Her nerve endings came alive at the slightest brush of his lips and she longed for him to relieve some of the tension by touching her more aggressively. But one hand still cupped her cheek gently, and the other never strayed from her waist.
    Lacey couldn’t take anymore. She made an impatient sound and let go of the death grip she had on his shirt. Reaching up, she grasped both her arms around his neck, and finally brought her breasts flush against his hard chest. Her nipples, within the lacy cups of her bra, grew hard and unbearably sensitive. Taking control of the kiss he had been torturing her with for what seemed like hours, she touched her tongue to his top lip and traced its curve with just the tip. Then she gripped the silky hair at the back of his head tightly and plunged her tongue deeply between his lips, showing him exactly what she wanted and how she wanted it.
    “You are driving me completely crazy,” he groaned against her lips. “Do you know what you’re doing to me? I feel like I’m about to explode.” He reached down and gripped her buttocks with both hands, lifting her slightly so she could feel him so hard against her soft mound. He flexed his hips against her and they both groaned at the sensation. She parted her thighs slightly and he could feel her heat through their clothing and underwear. Imagining her wet and ready for him made him wild. He lifted her higher and was delighted when she wrapped both warm thighs around his waist and locked her ankles in the small of his back.
    “You feel so good, but you have entirely too many clothes on,” she whispered huskily, tightening her thighs around him to relieve some of the tension between her legs. He obliged by squeezing her more tightly against the prominent ridge in his pants. Her breath caught and she writhed against him, wanting to feel the evidence of his arousal more fully, but it wasn’t enough.
    She desperately wanted to taste his skin. She brought her hands down from his neck and began unbuttoning his shirt. She made quick work of the buttons but was appalled to find a white T-shirt underneath. She yanked the shirt clumsily from the waistband of his pants, reached underneath, and ran her hands along his rippling abs, through the silky hair in the middle of his chest, and finally brushed his nipples with her nails.
    His breathing became harsh and he found her lips with his, kissing her deeply, his tongue rasping against hers in a primal dance of domination. He walked back out the bathroom door and down the short hall toward the kitchen's granite island, every movement causing electric currents of friction to ignite in his aching cock. He placed her gently on the edge of the counter, moved back a step and looked deeply into her eyes for a second while he caressed the silky skin above the tops of her boots. Finally, his hands were free and he was going to touch her as much as he liked.
    “I want you to spread your thighs wider,” he said, watching her. She complied and moved her legs apart just a few more inches. He was so glad she had worn the dress with the full skirt. It gave him much easier access to her sweet little body and he really couldn’t wait too much longer to touch her, everywhere.
    “Wider,” he said, reaching underneath her skirt he pushed gently against the inside of her knees. Now she was fully open and he could just catch the scent of her arousal. He breathed in deeply through his nostrils, drinking her in.
    He stepped between her widely opened thighs until his pelvis was right where he wanted it. He rubbed against her gently and she gripped his hips tightly with both hands to keep him there. The small feminine gasps she made as he ground himself against her were driving him completely mad. She was so warm there between her open thighs that he had the crazy impulse to just rut against her until he came like a teenager in his pants. But he took a deep breath instead and reached behind him, pulling his shirts off in one quick economical gesture, and flung them carelessly onto the granite beside her.
    Lacey could not believe what she was looking at. His chest was incredibly beautiful, wide and hard and sculpted with muscle. Reaching out, she smoothed both hands over his body from waist to shoulder and then back again. His skin was so warm and silky. Leaning forward, she flicked her tongue against one flat copper nipple and was rewarded when he rasped out a curse and gripped her head with both hands to keep her lips on him. She moved to the other nipple and flicked that one too. He groaned and she reached behind him and ran both hands up his gorgeously muscled back, and finally, very slowly trailed them down to squeeze his buttocks. Twice.
    How could he have denied himself this? Jackson thought, looking down at Lacey as she trailed her lips across his chest. He needed it so badly. Her touch. This connection with another person. It had been so long. How had he survived without it? Without her? If he had his way, everyday would be spent pleasing her, if only he could have her like this, wanting him, needing him. But also giving him the affection he had so desperately craved.
    He loosened his hold on her head and ran his fingers through her long hair, loving the silky feel of it around his hands. He desperately wanted to see it spread out on a pillow as he hovered about her, imagined sliding between her legs as he penetrated her hot, slippery flesh. The fantasy was so vivid in his mind, he could practically feel her parting for him, accepting him eagerly, as he pounded his shaft hard and deep until she sighed his name.
    He grasped the knotted belt tied at the side of her wrap dress, untied the bow and yanked the two sides of the dress apart, perhaps a little too roughly in his eagerness. But she just laughed at his less than smooth manner of undressing her and he smiled into her eyes for a moment. More gently, he took his time sliding the long sleeves down her arms, kissing her shoulder and then the sensitive inside of her elbow as he went until the dress was pooled around her lovely hips. He spread it out around her until she was perched on the edge of the granite countertop in nothing but her bra and panties. “Lie back,” he said, his voice raw with desire. “I want to look at you.”
    Lacey hesitated. She would much rather look at him. Being nearly naked under the harsh light of the pendant lanterns hanging over the island seemed daunting. All her flaws would be highlighted against the cold, slippery granite. What if he noticed that her stomach wasn’t perfectly flat, or that she had a small appendix scar on her abdomen? Thank God, she'd made a visit to her waxer, Wilhemina, this week. But she was determined to move past her insecurities, so instead of covering her chest as she felt compelled to do, she slowly and somewhat gracefully lay back on the countertop, and raised her arms above her head in a gesture of complete trust and surrender.
    Jackson was awe-struck. He hadn’t spent a lot of time with her but he knew Lacey usually dressed to camouflage her body. Except for that memorable afternoon she'd shown up in the sports bra and shorts, her clothes were usually al ittle too big, and somewhat shapeless. And for this he was eternally grateful because if he’d known what she was hiding under her T-shirts and jeans, he would have been walking around with a permanent erection all day and wouldn’t be able to get any work done at all.
    It was crude, but it was a fact. The girl had major curves. The cups of her bra were overflowing and he cupped those wonderful scoops of flesh with reverence. He was a breast man. He knew it was wrong to objectify women, but in his heart he was a caveman and he loved the sight of large, round, bouncy breasts way more than anything else in the world. The fact that she was wearing a dark green, lacy bra that just barely contained her nipples made him so hard he thought his cock was going to burst through his jeans.
    Her curves didn’t end with her breasts. Everything about her was soft and sweetly rounded. She had the body of a pin-up girl and he'd always had a thing for those exaggerated images of femininity from the 40s and 50s.
    And those matching green lace panties were going to haunt his fantasies for the rest of his life. It made him feel so honored that she would adorn her body like this, for him. Lacey was very much a functional, white cotton granny underpants kind of girl, but this morning, she'd dawned these frivolous scraps of lace with him in mind. He loved lingerie on a woman. Silky stuff, lacy stuff. It didn’t matter. It was like unwrapping a present and he couldn’t wait to see what she was hiding from him.
    “Your body is incredible,” he said, leaning down and licking one extremely tight nipple through the lace of her bra. He lightly pinched the other crest of her breast with his fingers as he sucked lace and her rosy flesh between his lips. Biting down gently on one nipple, he abandoned the other one just long enough to reach down with both hand and lift her legs until they were wrapped around his wide back. Then he trailed his short fingernails back up her stomach, past her delicate rib cage and to those wonderful breasts. He just couldn't stay away from them.
    Lacey writhed in response. The dress provided a bit of a barrier, but the sensation of cold granite beneath her and hot man above her as he licked her sensitive breasts was overwhelming. She moved her legs higher and this new angle put his hard, wool-covered cock right where she wanted it most. He began circling his hips against her again and she found that if she moved her hips and tightened her legs in rhythm with his movements, the friction was perfect and she felt herself beginning to lose control.
    “Oh God. Please don’t stop doing that. It’s so good,” she moaned, arching her back to bring her breasts more fully against his warm lips and blunt fingers.
    “You like that?” he asked, hitching his hips forward as he scooped both breasts out of their lace prison and squeezed them together. This created a deep valley that he licked as he imagined sliding his shaft between those satiny curves. But that was for later. He wanted to watch her come right now.
    “Yes, yes. Just like that. Don’t stop. Please.”
    "I won’t, baby. Not until you’re done.” He slid one hand between them and touched her sweet mound over those pretty green panties. He cupped her for a moment and then dipped one long finger into the moist heat of her. That was all it took and she was shuddering beneath him. She was so responsive, he couldn’t believe it. Was she actually having an orgasm just from dry-humping like teenagers? He could not wait to find out what happened when he got her naked. He might just die from the pleasure.
    Lacey’s surprisingly strong thighs stayed clamped around him so tightly that it was actually painful. He didn't usually enjoy pain mixed in with his pleasure, but it was a welcome distraction from how her body was trembling around him.
    “You’re not too cold, are you?” He asked when she finally released the stranglehold she had on his hips. He was still standing between her thighs, hard as a two-by-four and not about to let this moment end.
    “No, I’m actually unbelievable hot. That was so good. But what about you?” She said, raising her body up on one elbow, she was able to trail her other hand down his sculpted abdomen, and slide her small palm between their bodies until she was finally cupping his hardness through his jeans. “Is there room for you up here? I want to touch you too, you know. In fact, I can’t wait much longer.”
    And it was true. She really did want to explore him, desperately. She was wildly curious about his body. Everything else was so perfect. Could he also have the perfect penis? What if he was scary big? Or she’d heard about some men having members that curved to the side, or had a weird bend in the middle. Or a giant mushroom head. Yuck.
    Being a nurse she’d seen all kinds. And it was true, penises weren’t very impressive or even interesting on patients. Seen one, seen them all. But she’d only been intimate with two men before Jack, and she had never really been all that interested in their bodies. At least not that part of their bodies they were so preoccupied with. But with Jack, it was different. His body was completely fascinating to her. From his warm, hair-roughened skin to his big, callused hands and gorgeously small, rounded ass, it was all like an amusement park to her that she couldn't wait to explore. And his penis was the main attraction.
    Jack moved back a few inches so he could unbuckle his belt. Lacey was staring intently below his waist, rubbing him gently through his clothing and waiting impatiently. He unzipped and was thrilled when she reached her hand inside and touched him over his grey cotton briefs. Oh God. Had anything ever felt so good? Touching himself paled in comparison to her fingers brushing against him. He gritted his teeth and willed the tightening in his balls to stop. It would be really humiliating if he shot his load into his underginch. To distract himself and her he grabbed the hand that had been caressing him and brought it to his lips.
    But Lacey would not be distracted. She removed her hand from his lips and replaced it with her open mouth, thrusting her tongue between his lips as she reached down with both hands and began sliding his underwear and slacks down his tight hips. She leaned back and watched as his beautiful cock was revealed. She was not disappointed.
    His penis was large, yes, but not freak show material. It curved upward, nearly to his navel, and was so thick she was a little concerned about the logistics of how her body was going to accommodate it. Her pussy was certainly doing its part to supply the lubricant, but the prospect of being penetrated by that huge column of flesh was still somewhat daunting and yet wildly exciting too.
    Lacey gripped him lightly in the fist of one hand and pumped his flesh, sliding her hand slowly up and down his length. Jack's eyes nearly rolled back in his head at her touch. It was so good, but he needed more. He reached down and tightened her grip on his shaft, showing her exactly how he liked it. "Yeah," he rasped. "That's good. Just like that." He guided his hand around hers and she quickly caught onto the rhythm he needed from her. Removing his hand he reached around her, slid both palms inside the back of her panties and squeezed her ass cheeks. "Harder," he said, his breath now hot and moist against her neck.
    Jack leaned back and began moving his hips in cadence with the movement of her hand, watching her face as she pleasured him. His movements became faster and wilder, and Lacey seemed quite excited by the sight of jerking him off. Her eyes were dilated and her mouth was open as she watched his cock slide through her fingers. He really couldn't take much more of this. It felt so incredibly good and she was so beautiful in her excitement that he didn't want to stop. But he wanted to be inside her when he came and that wasn't going to happen if she kept touching him like that.
    "We've got to stop. Please, Lacey." He groaned, closing his eyes against the image of her flushed cheeks and spread thighs. It was torture, but he stopped moving his hips and reluctantly removed his hands from her lush bottom.
    "You don't like it? Am I doing it wrong? I'm not hurting you, am I?" Lacey asked, stopping the movement of her hand immediately. But she couldn't quite let him go. His penis was fascinating, so big and hard and silky, and she found it incredibly exciting to touch him like this. She'd only done this a few times in high school, and had felt demeaned by the experience. Doing this, here, with Jack, felt positively empowering and erotic as hell.
    "No, just the opposite. But I'm going to embarrass myself and mess this up if I let you do that anymore." He gently removed Lacey's hand from his aching shaft. She whimpered in protest, but he placed one of his hands on her chin and angled her face upto his. He kissed her deeply, and she threw her arms around his shoulders, nestling her incredible breasts into his chest again. He savored the feeling of her those partially covered mounds thrust against him for a moment, but could not wait another second to get her naked. Reaching around behind her, he unsnapped her bra and slid the straps down her arms.
    "These are so pretty," he said against her lips as reached down and squeezed her unencumbered breasts with both hands. He played with her nipples for a moment, trying to gain some control over his body. But it was a lost cause. Everything about her seemed engineered to drive him over the edge. Everywhere he looked or touched made his excitement grow. But there was something he needed to do before he could let go, and give into his need to fuck her, fuck her hard.
    He leaned down and brought one perfect pink nipple upto his lips. He traced it with his tongue, around and around, until he heard Lacey gasp his name and felt her grasp the back of his hair with both hands. Sliding down to his knees between her thighs he began kissing his way down her torso, slipping his tongue into her navel as he trailed his hands down her smooth legs.
    He was distracted for a moment by the knowledge that she was still wearing her black boots. The feel of that cool leather was a sharp contrast to her warm flesh, and he wanted to stop and remove them, to feel more of her skin, but wasting anymore time wasn't an option at this point. Besides, the sight of her clad only in her panties and those high-heeled boots was weirdly provocative, and exciting. His rock hard penis agreed, so he left them alone and slid both hands up her thighs until he was petting her wet pussy through those sexy green panties.
    "Take them off," Lacey demanded. "I can't take anymore. Please."
    "But I like them." Jackson said, playfully looking up at her from his position between her legs. He leaned forward and breathed against the juncture of her thighs, his warm breath caressing her through the lace. "Maybe you should leave them on."
    Lacey was dismayed. He couldn't be serious. Those panties had to go. Fine, she would take matters into her own hands. Lord knows she'd had plenty of practice with that over the past few months. She reached down and began sliding the panties down her hips.
    Jack caught her hands and placed them beside her hips on the edge of the countertop. "Just let me play for a minute and then we'll take them off, okay?"
    Every word was said against her pussy and the feel of his lips delicately caressing her through those damn panties was electric. "Okay, but you know you'll pay for this later, right?"
    "Trust me. I'm paying for it right now. My dick feels like it's about to burst," he said wryly, sliding his thumbs along her hipbones, he licked along the edge of her panties.
    She giggled, partly in response to his condition, and partly because of his ticklish touch. "Well, who's to blame for that? Captain Foreplay!"
    "Actually, it's your fault. I've been fantasizing about finally getting you naked for months. Now that I do, I want don't want to miss anything. Especially getting my hands on this sweet pussy." Instead of taking the panties off, he slid them to the side and opened her gently with his thumbs. He looked at her for a moment and was shocked to find that she was completely hairless. She had shaved or waxed all of it away. He had never seen such a thing outside of one of his brother's magazines. On those women it had looked odd, prepubescent and kind of like a plucked chicken, but on Lacey it was the most erotic thing he'd ever seen. Like the underwear, she had done this to please him. He felt humbled by her sacrifice. And oh so horny.
    He breathed in her essence. She was so wet and flushed a delicate pink. He could see everything and was struck by how truly beautiful a woman's body could be. He licked at her opening, tasting her and groaned at the flavor. She was unbelievably sweet. All restraint finally left him and he buried his face between her thighs, only half aware that she had moved her thighs until they bracketed his head. He could feel the leather of her boots against his back and even the pinpoints of her heels digging into his flesh. But it was all secondary to the sensation of her warm, slippery flesh against his tongue.
    "Jack?" Lacey cried out as he slid one long finger into her pussy. Her inner muscles tightened and he licked delicately around her exposed clit, moving his finger slowly in and out of her, loving the way she moved her hips in tandem with his rhythm in order to maximize the penetration. On the second or third retreat he added another finger and her movements became frenzied and out of control. Finally, he swiped directly at her clit with his tongue and she came apart, crying and grasping his head tightly with her thighs and yanking his hair in both her hands.
    As soon as her grip loosened, Jack was up off his knees. Without another moment's hesitation, he lifted her thighs high up around his waist and impaled her in one sure thrust.
    Oh God. It was so good. Even better than he'd imagined.
    Lacey was overwhelmed with sensation. One second she had been having a truly intense orgasm from Jack's expert oral skills and the next she was being ravaged by a barbarian. She loved it. All his restraint was gone and he was pumping inside of her with wild abandon. The strength of his thrusts actually moved her hips along the granite. She was completely at his mercy and wouldn't have it any other way. His deep and forceful penetration should have been painful, but he had prepared her body so thoroughly that she was easily able to accommodate his driving pace.
    She tightened her thighs around him and the friction began to work its magic. She was going to come again. She looked up at his gorgeous face and was thrilled at the intensity in his gaze. He was looking down, watching his cock plundering her body. It was so good. Lacey leaned back and reached above her, luxuriating in the feeling of being so thoroughly pleasured by this man. Of their own accord, her hips began bucking against him, and she was powerless against the wave of sensation that flooded her body once again.
    Jack felt Lacey's orgasm along the entire length of his shaft. She rippled around him and her cry of release was the sweetest sound he'd ever heard. Finally, he could let go. He lifted her thighs higher up around his back, and drove into her, fucking her with all the pent up desire and frustration of the past several months. It was intense and primal and definitely the best sex of his entire life. He felt the tightening in his balls, and then unbelievable waves of pleasure. His hoarse cry echoed in the empty room and he slumped forward, resting his head against her breasts, only half aware of her hands creeping up to cradle him there.
    "God, Lacey, I'm so sorry," Jack whispered against her breasts a few minutes later, when his harsh breathing had settled and he was able to speak. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
    Lacey laughed and slid one hand through his silky hair. "No, you didn't hurt me at all. And you don't need to apologize for a thing. I loved every second."
    "Seriously? I know I'm too rough. It's not an excuse, but I was so excited and it's been so long. I totally lost it." He lifted his head up from her chest and helped her to sit up, but remained between her thighs. The polite thing to do would have been to disentangle himself, but he just couldn't do it. She felt amazing around his shaft and he didn't seem to be going soft, despite the amazing orgasm he'd just had. Perhaps if they tried again he could be gentle and not disappoint her.
    "Jack, listen to me." She ran the fingertips of one hand over his lips and caught his eyes with hers. "Rough or gentle. I love what just happened between us. And the fact that I make you so excited that you can't control yourself makes me incredibly hot. Couldn't you tell?"
    "Well, you did practically suffocate me with your thighs at one point, but I can't think of a better way to go."
    Blushing, she covered her face with one hand. "Well, it's been awhile for me too. But I'll try not to put you in a headlock next time."
    "Next time? Meaning this wasn't just some isolated event brought on by months of prolonged frustration?"
    "Well, partly that. But like we said before. I think there's something here. Something good. More than sex. What do you think?"
    He paused and looked down at where they were still joined. Reluctantly, he gently disentangled himself and reached down to pull his pants up around his hips. It just didn't feel right to talk about this while still cradled in her moist heat. But he stilled her hands as she moved to gather her dress around her, stopping her from covering up those delicious curves. He could use her beauty as a distraction and hopefully wouldn't get too emotional.
    He cleared his throat and brushed her hair off her face with one large warm hand so he could read her expression. "Well, when we met, I didn't really think I was capable of more than the sex part. Losing Deborah and the baby did something to me -"
    "Baby? What baby?"
    "My son. The one who died in the car accident."
    "What car accident?"
    Jack stared at her in shock. How could she not know about this? It had been all over the news. "The one two years ago that killed Deborah. She was eight months pregnant. And I was driving."
    "What?" Lacey nearly shouted.
    "Didn't Serena tell you about this?"
    "No, of course not. Do you think I would have been lusting after you if I'd known you were just widowed?" She moved to grab for her dress again, but he kept an iron grip on her hands. She grunted in exasperation, suddenly feeling naked in a very bad way.
    Jack knew he should let her get dressed. But as long as she was nude she wouldn't be able to leave and walk out on him. He just couldn't face that kind of rejection. Not again. And especially not after finally making love to her after all this time. But he felt her slipping away from him and it made him feel desperate and angry so he lashed out. "Oh. I get it. Too much baggage. I'm sorry if my grief isn't very attractive. I had no idea it was such a mood killer."
    "Jack, don't be ridiculous. That's not what I meant. You took me by surprise here. What I meant was that I shouldn't be chasing after you when you needed time to grieve. It's disrespectful."
    "Disrespectful? To who?"
    "Well, your wife. You're probably still mourning her, and I'm all over you. I'm so embarrassed. How could I not know any of this?"
    "Believe me. My wife would be relieved to know I'm moving on. She certainly did. Long before the accident." He said, bitterly.
    "What do you mean, Jack? She was having an affair? The baby, it was yours?"
    "Yes, it was mine. Considering she'd moved on with a woman from her Pilates class, I'm reasonably sure that it was. Unfortunately for her, we still had sex occasionally. At least twice or three times a year, if I was lucky." He let go of her and ran both hands through his already messed up hair. It stood up on end and he edged away from her, expecting her to bolt.
    Instead she reached out and palmed his cheek with one hand. The gesture was incredibly sweet, and he closed his eyes in reaction.
    "Oh my God. Poor Jack. I'm so sorry."
    Hearing the awful pity in her voice he pulled away from her hand and leaned casually against the counter, doing up his belt while looking away from her. "Sorry my wife was gay, or sorry that you just had sex with a guy with a pretty messed up past?"
    Lacey pulled her dress around her shoulders, and used it to cover up her breasts as much as she could. "Sorry that you've lost so much. Sorry that you've had so much pain to deal with. I swear, I didn't know anything about this. All Serena said was that your wife was out of the picture."
    "Wow. That's one way of putting it. Nice, Serena."
    "She probably thought it was something you should tell me, Jack." Lacey said reproachfully.
    "And when was I going to do that exactly? When we were making out in the truck? Or maybe when we were discussing eco-friendly toilets? When is the right time to tell someone you're interested in that you killed your wife? And worse yet, you're not really that sorry that she's gone." He looked at her defiantly. If they were going to talk about this then she should know everything.
    "Jack. You don't mean that." Lacey shook her head in complete denial. In no way willing to believe Jack was capable of hurting anyone.
    "I kind of do actually. Deborah was an unhappy woman. She never loved me and she certainly never wanted me."
    "That can't be true. How did you guys get together then?"
    "We were sort of friends, at first. I thought she was different. Kind of aloof and unattainable. I was an idiot. I thought I could win her over eventually. But I never did. Even after we were married, she was distant. Every single day I disappointed her in some way. And every single night she rejected me. Not just in bed. Eventually, she made it very clear that she found everything about me distasteful. My job, my clothes, my sense of humor, my family. Nothing. I mean, nothing met with her approval. So, when she said she was leaving, I was actually relieved. There was going to an end to it. I wasn't going to have to feel unworthy forever. But when she said she was going to open a pilates studio with her girlfriend in San Francisco, and she was taking the baby with her. We argued. She said she didn't want to raise a child around a brute like me. It was raining, hard. And I lost control of the truck. Stupidest thing ever. I've driven that road a million times. And never had a problem. I just wasn't paying attention. That's all it took. Three seconds of distraction and my son was gone."
    Talking about this was a mistake. It brought it all back. The squeal of tires, Deborah's scream as the car crunched against the tree. The flying glass and sharp pain as the seat-bealt drove into his hips and chest. And then the awful silence in the truck. Silence and the scent of blood and gasoline.
    Jack moved as far away from Lacey as possible and looked out her kitchen window at the neat, yet tiny backyard his buddy, Mark, had landscaped. He wondered if she could see his hands shaking. He put them in his pockets, hoping she wouldn't notice and feel sorry for him and his lack of control over his body.
    "Oh Jack. That's just awful."
    "Yeah, well it doesn't help that the last thing I said to her was, 'Better a brute like me than a bitch like you.'"
    "I don't know what to say. I'm so, so sorry."
    "Don't be. I'm the one that should apologize. This must be the worst pillow talk ever."
    "Well, we don't exactly have pillows here. And I suppose it was long overdue to come out. But are you sure you're ready to be with someone? Even on a casual basis. It sounds like you still have a lot to deal with where Deborah is concerned."
    "I don't know. I thought I was ready. But I doubt I'm ever going to be completely over it. How do you feel about being with a guy who doesn't really know how to talk about anything serious unless it's being forced out of him?"
    "I don't really know. This is a lot of information to process. Would it be awful if I asked for a little time?"
    "Don't you think we've wasted enough time, as it is?"
    "Jack, I'm not rejecting you. You're everything any woman could possibly want, despite how your wife made you feel. I do want to try. I really do. Right now I feel so bad for you that I'm almost willing to be the distraction you need. To make you feel better. But I want more than that from you. And I think I deserve more. Just give me a few days to absorb all of this, okay?"
    He sighed. "What's a few more days at this point? But Lacey, I'm not using you to bury my grief, or distract myself, or exorcise my demons. I have real feelings for you. And I hope you can forgive me for omitting all the ugly details of my life. It wasn't intentional. I just prefer not to talk about it. Or think about it. Or deal with it in any way."
    "I get it. Believe me. Communication isn't my strong suit either. I'd much rather keep things light, too. But being together isn't all about having fun and wild monkey sex. There has to be more to it than that."
    "Are you sure? Wild monkey sex and enjoying each other seems like enough to me. Can't we just try it like that for a while? Does it sound so terrible?"
    "Actually that sounds pretty good, in theory. But you know it never works like that. I need more and I think you do too. I'm just not sure you're ready. And I'm really worried that I can't give you what you need. I've never suffered anything even close to what you've been through. In the last three years you've lost your dad, your wife and your unborn child. By comparison, I've had a pretty uneventful life. Maybe you need someone who can understand what it's like to lose so much."
    "So I need to be with someone as messed up as I am?"
    "No, you're not messed up. Not at all. The fact that you're still capable of functioning and laughing and even contemplating moving on is just astounding. If it was me, I'd be catatonic."
    "But I was like that, before you. Not catatonic exactly. But barely hanging on. You woke me up. Made me see that life can be good again. Made me smile and made me so horny I could hardly see straight."
    "You have a way with words, Jack."
    "I know, one track mind. What can I say? I'm a guy. I know it's not terribly romantic, but that desire, that need for something as normal as sex was such a relief after not being able to feel anything but anger and grief. You have no idea how close I was to being lost forever. If you hadn't shown up when you did, I don't know if I would have recovered, ever."
    "I didn't do anything. I just stared at you and made a fool of myself."
    "That was part of it, for sure. Not the fool part, but the staring. You made me feel like a man again. People have been so fucking weird around me since the accident. They don't know what to say, or they're always asking me how I'm doing. Or they just look at me with pity. I can't stand that look. But to you, I wasn't some poor schmuck you felt sorry for. I was the guy you were hot for. And that was the best feeling in the world after being 'Poor Jack' to everyone else."
    "You can't tell me that I was the first woman to mentally undress you since the accident."
    "No, I can't say that. Serena started to play match-maker about a year after it happened. She was constantly throwing me and random women together."
    "Great. So I was just the latest woman she threw at you?"
    "Kind of. But you were the first I wanted to catch."
    "Wow. You are smooth, aren't you?"
    "Hardly. If I was smooth at all, I probably wouldn't have started this conversation with my pants around my ankles.
    "Maybe not."
    "What I'm saying is that you really were the first woman who simultaneously made me laugh, made me curious, and made me want to rip your clothes off. So, you were exactly what I needed at that moment in time to make me feel alive again."
    "Where do we go now? What if I start giving you the 'Poor Jack' look. Not intentionally, of course. But it's hard not to see you differently knowing what you've been through. I may have been what you needed then, but what if I can't be what you need now?"
    "Lacey, all I need from you is what you've given me up until now."
    "And what's that exactly?"
    "Just treat me like a normal guy. 'Cause that's what I am. Fight with me if I'm being a jerk. Make me laugh if you want. And jump my bones whenever possible. Not because you want to console the poor widower, but because you want me. All I ask is that you don't tip-toe around me because of all this stuff from my past."
    "And what if I can't do that?"
    "Well, then I guess our days of hot monkey sex are numbered. I was with someone who made me feel bad about myself for years, but even that would be preferable than being pitied. I want the next woman I'm with to feel lucky to have me. Not feel sorry for me."
    "I really do want to be that woman, Jack. But I need to sort this all out in my head. Can we meet up in a few days?"
    "Whatever you need, Lacey. But if you do decide you want to take a chance on us, please do it because it's what you want. Not because of some misplaced sense of obligation. Okay?"
    "Okay. Now can I get dressed? This granite is freezing without all the friction."
    Jack silently handed Lacey her bra. His brow furrowed as he realized that this might be the one and only time he saw her naked. He drank in the sight of her as she shimmied into her pretty green bra.
    It was pretty clear that she wanted out. Her demand for just a few days to sort things out was just a polite way of pulling the plug on this relationship. He couldn't really blame her. Who wouldn't want to escape his troubled past? So, she would avoid him and there wasn't anything he could do about it. He knew he needed to be warm and reassuring in order to convince Lacey not to give up on him, but it just wasn't in him. Being numb was better than feeling pain, so he embraced the coldness in him and pulled away from her.
    "I gotta go," he said, crossing his arms over his naked chest. "Okay if we do the checklist another time?"
    Lacey looked at him reproachfully. "Well, sure. If you have to go."
    "What?" He asked frostily as he yanked on his shirts. "You said you needed time. Might as well start right now."
    Lacey gaped at him. "Okay. I'll call you in a few days."
    Jack moved in front of her and gripped her by the waist. Lacey thought maybe he was going to kiss her, but instead he lifted her down from the kitchen island as impersonally as possible. Like he was helping his grandma or a stranger. Not the woman he had been naked with just minutes before.
    "Yeah. You do that," he said, sounding like he didn't give a damn if she called or not. He looked a his large silver watch. "So, we're done here then?"
    Lacey's mouth dropped open even further. "Yeah. We're done. You go ahead. I'll get myself together and follow in a few minutes."
    "Good deal. And would you mind cleaning up a little? The counter, I mean." He gestured towards some polish and paper towel on the kitchen counter. "Selena is showing the place in two days, and a butt imprint on the granite will be hard to explain to any prospective buyers."
    He wanted her to stay and clean her butt print off the precious granite? Lacey nearly shrieked at him as he turned towards the front door and let himself out with a casual wave. Fighting the impulse to throw his stupid clipboard after him, she restrained herself. She had asked for this in a way. Finding out about his past certainly proved that she didn't know him at all. Maybe this jerk who left her standing here with the sweat barely dry on her body was the real Jack. If that was the case then she had made a huge error in judgment. Or the man she was falling for was more damaged than she knew how to deal with. Either way, she needed to decide what to do next. At this moment, as she tried to muster her dignity, it really didn't seem worth the risk. Boring suddenly seemed very, very appealing.

Chapter Seven

    Two days later Lacey was once again walking up the front path to her new cottage. It didn't seem real to her that this was her place. She felt an enormous amount of pride when she looked at its red brick exterior and yet it hadn't actually sunk in quite yet that she belonged here. Partly because she couldn't actually move in until Serena was finished using it as a Presentation Center. But as soon as the six similar units currently being built two blocks over were sold, the cottage was all hers.
    Today it felt bittersweet approaching the front porch. The last time she'd been here, Jack had been sitting on the step, waiting for her with a big, welcoming smile and warmth in his eyes. Seeing him there, she had momentarily fantasized about coming home to him everyday. Like they were a real couple instead of some undefined mystery relationship. Right now it seemed like he would never look at her like that again.
    Their previous meeting had ended on a very awkward note. After making love on the granite countertop with such hunger, they'd dressed in silence like strangers and then parted without completing the walk-through checklist as planned. Jack's demeanor had completely juxtaposed from playful and sensual to icy cold in seconds. Her reaction to his confession had made him withdraw to such a degree that she felt like she didn't know him at all. And maybe she didn't. She'd been positive she'd been falling in love with him but now she wasn't sure how she felt. Could she really love him and know so little about him? Probably not. Maybe she was just in love with the idea of him, rather than the actual person.
    When she'd met him, he'd seemed so perfect. Her romance novel stud come to life. But instead of rescuing her, he was the one with actual issues, and a past, and a whole mess of problems to overcome. Was she ready for something so intense? Could she heal him after everything he'd been through? She felt like a superficial jerk for thinking it, but she wasn't sure how she felt about taking on so much. She'd wanted him, yes, but not this flawed version of him. Not the jerk who made love like an angel and them morphed into a devil when things didn't go his way.
    Until meeting Jack, Lacey had skated through life without getting too involved. Even her previous romantic relationships had been very much about comfort and convenience rather than passion. But with Jack, she would have to commit herself fully. She couldn't just have the parts of him she adored, like his sense of humor, and his ability to kiss her senseless. She would also have to deal with a man who buried all emotion to avoid getting hurt. Was she really up to the task of unthawing Mr. Freeze? Or would she just compound the problem if she failed and drive him even deeper into the cold?
    Distracted by her thoughts, Lacey's hand nearly collided with the crotch of a well-dressed young man as he opened the front door from the inside. He was smiling as he deftly moved out of the path of her fingers, said 'hello' and looked adoringly behind him at another neat young man who was following him down the porch steps.
    Lacey went inside, shaking her head in embarrassment at nearly groping a stranger. She was doing a lot of that lately.
    Leaving her shoes by the door she entered the main living area where Serena was parked with her brochures and cards spread out on the granite countertop exactly where Lacey and Jack had spent a very memorable half hour. She gulped as she recalled the image of Jack, standing between her spread thighs with his pants around his ankles. The feel of his warm breath against her neck and the scent of his clean skin returned to her in a rush causing her face to heat and her thighs to clench in sensory memory. She certainly hoped this wasn't going to happen every single time she entered her kitchen, or she was going to develop some kind of granite fetish.
    "Lacy!" Serena squealed, interrupting Lacey's X-rated thoughts. The pretty real estate agent gracefully slid off the red leather barstool she'd been perched on, and grabbed Lacey by the shoulders. "Did you see the couple that was just here? Weren't they gorgeous? And guess what? They might be your neighbors, well, sort of. They just put in an offer on one of the other cottages. Let's hope they sunbathe in the nude, right?"
    Lacey smiled and gave Serena a hug. "Congratulations. That's fabulous. You sold one on the first day? Is that typical? I thought this was going to take months." Lacey didn't comment on the cute gay couple and the possibility of spying on them in their backyard. She could only imagine Jack naked at this point and was pretty sure no one else could compare to that particular sight.
    "One? Are you kidding me? We actually have offers in on all six. I am going to be so filthy rich, rich, rich." Serena gave Lacey a big squeeze, released her and did a happy little jig. She sobered for a second, but her grin was still blinding. "We still have to wait and see if the financing goes through, of course, but they're all on their way to being sold. In one day. At full price! I've never even heard of that happening. And guess what? Your friend Liz came in and made an offer on that really cute one with the Japanese Maple tree out front."
    "Are you serious? That's great. I told her about them, but I didn't think she was going to be able to get the down payment together. She must have talked to her dad. I'm so happy for her. Plus, it'll be great to have her so close. We can drive into work together."
    "She seemed like a lot of fun, though she did seem a little disappointed that Jay and his minions weren't here. Did she think they'd all be hanging around shirtless, working up a sweat while we were showing the place? Though now that I think about it, that would be a good sales gimmick. Do you think Jay and his bros would go for it?"
    "I can't see Jack strutting around shirtless to sell houses," Lacey said wryly.
    "Why not? It certainly worked with you when I took you out to his lair," Serena teased.
    "I knew it. You planned that, didn't you?"
    "Not the shirtless part, but I suspected he'd be wearing the Oscar the Grouch T-shirt because I told him not to."
    "You're diabolical. That shirt is obscene. It should have been turned into rags years ago."
    "What can I say? Jack is about as far from a metrosexual as a guy can get. His wardrobe is limited to that shirt and about a dozen plaid work shirts. I don't think he owns anything else."
    "Really? He was wearing a tie when I saw him the other day?"
    Serena snorted. "What? A tie? You've got to be kidding. He didn't even wear a tie to their funeral." Her eyes grew big as she realized what she'd just said. She quickly tried to cover. "His dad's funeral, I mean."
    "It's okay. He told me about his wife. You don't need to keep it a secret anymore."
    "Ahh, Lacey. It wasn't actually a secret. I just thought it should come from him."
    "That's what I told him. But he'd assumed that you'd told me months ago, so he mentioned it very casually right after we, you know, consummated our relationship."
    "Wow. I'm glad you guys finally got down to business. Bloody well time. Tension was getting thicker than tar around you two. But talking about his dead wife after doing it? Talk about a mood killer. How did you take it?"
    "Not well. Not well at all. I think I may have screwed up. Royally."
    "So, that's why you're here, checking out an Open House on your own home rather than holed up in a motel room with Jack, getting rug burns on your ass?"
    "Yeah. I told him I needed some time to work through all this, and he turned into Frosty the Snowman with attitude and took off. I just meant a day or two. Now I'm totally confused. And I should be talking to him, but he's not a big talker. At least not about serious stuff. And I'm not even sure that he wants me anymore…" Lacey trailed off and looked at Serena morosely.
    "First, come over here and sit down," Serena patted one of the bar stools pulled up to the island and gave Lacey's shoulder a squeeze as she sat down. Serena took the seat across from her and studied her friend for a second. "Now, what makes you think he doesn't want you anymore? Because I gotta tell you, it was pretty obvious to just about everyone that he wanted you bad over the past several months, and I can't see that going away over one little misunderstanding."
    "But it happened after we had sex," Lacey said, gesturing toward the end of the countertop where her and Jack had done the deed.
    "Ewwww," Serena said, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "I ate my lunch there earlier."
    Lacey blushed madly. "It's clean. I swear. But you know what I mean. There was so much build-up. Maybe the real thing was a letdown and he lost interest."
    "I still can't believe you had sex for the first time here. Not even in a bed? You guys were serious when you said you were waiting until after the cottage was done, weren't you? I think the last coat of paint is still drying. Damn. Who knew old Jack had it in him? Or in this case, in you."
    "Serena, focus. Do you think Jack is using my reaction to his past as an excuse because he doesn't want me anymore."
    "Absolutely not. Jack's not like that. If he just wanted sex, he could have gotten it any number of places while you guys were stupidly abstaining from jumping each other's bones. And he didn't. He wouldn't. Even with Deborah, he was as faithful as a neutered beaten dog. Probably not the best metaphor in this case, but you get the point."
    "Okay then, but what's with the deep freeze?. He looked right through me when he left here the other day. The timing makes it seem like he got what he wanted and now I've given him the perfect alibi to move on."
    "Lacey. That's ridiculous. Jack built you a house. He took a huge financial hit on all the extras he put in. Why would he do that if he was just looking to bang you and move on? Jack doesn't need to do that to get laid. Any one of my friends would take him for a ride for free, believe me." Serena paused and rubbed her stomach. "And just for the record, talking about my cousin's sex life is making me a little queasy."
    "I know. I'm sorry. I should be dealing with him directly. But I really don't think he'll talk about this with me. He isn't big on the whole communication thing."
    "And can you live with that?" Serena asked, suddenly very serious.
    "I don't know. If this is going to turn into something other than a fling, we're going to have to talk about something other than how much we want each other, right?"
    "Well, Hell, that sounds like a pretty good start to me. Better than a lot of people have, don't you think?"
    "God. I hope not. How depressing. But I can't help but think that we're supposed to confront his feelings about his wife's death, and how awful their relationship was in order to move past it. Isn't that what we're supposed to do? I'm sure Oprah would agree, don't you think?"
    Serena whistled. "You mean, he actually talked about how it was with her? The way she treated him?"
    Lacey nodded. "He said she never wanted him and that he disappointed her every day of their marriage. And he called her a bitch right before the accident happened."
    "Wow. That's total disclosure for Jack. You have no idea. And I had no clue about the bitch thing. Though she was a world class one."
    "Did you know her very well?"
    "I don't think anyone knew Deborah really well. Including Jack, and they were married for nine very long years. She wasn't exactly an open book. But, yeah. I knew her."
    "I feel like I'm prying. This is such a hot button topic with Jack, I don't want to upset him by asking about her. But I'm really curious. What was the problem between them, do you think? I mean, besides her being gay."
    "Holy shit. He really did tell you everything then. Jack never said a word about her being into chicks. No one even knew about that until her girlfriend showed up at the funeral, all distraught and blaming him. It was a very ugly scene. Like out of some soap opera. But Jack was completely cool about it. Everyone was really impressed, until it became obvious that he was able to stay so calm because he was completely shut down. All normal human reactions were just gone. No emotions. Just a void where Jack used to be."
    "That's kind of how he was when he left here the other day. So cold and distant."
    "Yeah. That does seem to be his go-to move now. It wasn't always. He used to be really warm and even sweet. So, I think he'll snap out of it and be ready to kiss and make-up in no time. He was showing such promising signs of humanity when you were around. Given the circumstances, I guess he was bound to have a relapse. I'd hate to see him give up so easily. But are you sure you're up to this? I mean, if you're uncertain then it's really better if you get out now. Jack's been through enough already without being with another woman who isn't really into him."
    "Was that how it was? She married someone she wasn't attracted to, so she made his life hell? Why not just leave? I don't get it."
    Serena sighed. "It's a mystery. But I gather that she came from a very conservative, upscale family, who expected her to marry some tight ass and live a very traditional, boring life. I think she met Jack when she was in some kind of rebellious phase because her family was horrified that she chose a man who works with his hands for a living. No one from her side even came to the wedding. It was awful."
    "Okay, so clearly they made a mistake. Why didn't Jack get out?"
    "Good question. Probably because he thought he could make it work. He's incredibly stubborn and loves a challenge more than anything. His dad was really hard on him, so proving people wrong just motivates him. And everyone was always telling him that Deborah wasn't right for him. I think that just aggravated the situation. Plus, I think he felt sorry for her. Her family had pretty much disowned her, and she didn't have a lot of friends. She'd be almost totally alone in the world if he abandoned her."
    "So, you don't think he loved her?"
    Serena looked down at her folded hands for a moment and contemplated Lacey's question. "I really don't know. He never said a bad word about her, and would defend her if anyone criticized her, but love? I don't think so. He certainly cared for her and wanted to make her happy, but I can't say I ever saw any real affection or heat between them. Not even in the beginning."
    "Wow. That's so sad. I can't imagine Jack being content with that."
    "Hey, no one knows what goes on in a marriage except the two people involved. But I can safely say that he really tried to make it work. Look at that house he built her."
    "The white one out in the woods?"
    "Yup. That was a fifth anniversary present for her. As a surprise. And she hated it."
    "Hated it? How could she hate it. It's gorgeous. At least from the outside."
    "But, you see, it's in the middle of nowhere. She scoffed at it when he showed it to her. Called it a cabin, despite the fact that it's a bloody mansion. She hated being around his family, so he built their home as far away as possible. And she hated that too. Now, he's stuck with it."
    "Couldn't he sell it?"
    "I don't know. Maybe. There must be someone else out there who would like to live in a mausoleum. Count Dracula, perhaps?"
    "What do you mean?"
    "It's white from top to bottom. And filled with marble and tile. I imagine it would be like living in the world's nicest igloo. Deborah had a lot of allergies, so wood floors and carpet weren't possible. That icehouse was customized, just for her, and she mocked him for it."
    "Surely Jack could renovate it and unload it."
    "Yeah. But that would mean having to walk through that front door and I don't think he's done that since the funeral."
    "What? Where has he been living?"
    "Well, now that I picked out some furniture for him he lives in the cottage behind that house. But until four months ago, he was pretty much homeless. Just camping on couches for months on end. Pretty weird for a guy who builds homes for a living."
    "I had no idea."
    "How could you? It's not exactly typical.And I don't want you to think I'm gossiping about him. I'm telling you this stuff, so maybe you'll understand how bad it was with him and understand if he retreats occasionally and acts like a complete dick-wad. For awhile it looked like he wasn't going to bounce back, and then you walked into that Open House, and it was like my cousin was back. Just like that." Selena snapped her fingers to demonstrate.
    "I don't understand. Why me? Women must throw themselves at him all the time."
    "Who knows? Maybe you just came along at the right time. Or your chemistry was just right. Or perhaps fate or whatever brought you together because you're meant to be. Regardless, what do you want? And how are you going to fix whatever has gone off the rails with Jay? And do you want to fix it?"
    Lacey rubbed her temples with her fingertips. "I think I want to fix it. But how do I go about doing that? Do I call him up, ask him on a date and just keep things light and pretend the whole Deborah thing never happened, or do I attempt to force him to talk about it so we can bury the past and move on."
    "Definitely an emphatic "NO" to scenario number two. In case you haven't noticed, Jack is never going to be one of those sensitive modern males who enjoys talking about his feelings. You are barking up the wrong Tarzan if that 's what you expect."
    "Maybe so, but I can't just ignore it either."
    "Why not?"
    "Well, because we're supposed to talk to each other." Lacey stared at her friend incredulously. Was Serena serious? Could she avoid all the nastiness of his past and just focus on the future?
    "If you really want my opinion. You do, right?"
    "Absolutely. I'm totally out of my element here."
    "Well, then. I think you have to let things happen naturally. Just relax. Get to know each other, and maybe he'll feel comfortable enough to talk about Deborah. But maybe not. Sometimes we have to make our own rules and not go by what the world and Oprah tells us we need to do."
    "So, I'm wrong to want to hash this all out?"
    "Not wrong exactly. I think it's great that you want to help get him over what happened, but if talking about it turns him into the Tin-man, then maybe you should give it a rest until he wants to open up."
    "I don't know. It seems too easy."
    "Listen. It's going to take some patience, but I swear Jack is worth the trouble. Underneath it all, he's the best man I know. Just a little damaged. And who isn't really? His issues are just a little more obvious than the rest of ours." Serena looked out the window wistfully for a moment, staring at the landscaping for a moment. "Some guys seem great, but are way more twisted than you expected."
    Lacey looked at her for a moment, puzzled. Who was Serena talking about exactly? Obviously, her friend had some experience dealing with guys with issues. Maybe she should listen to her.
    "Alright. I'll give the whole 'complete denial' approach a try," Lacey said, pulling Serena's attention away from the empty yard. "I'll arrange to meet him somewhere, but if his doppelganger, Mr. Freeze shows up, I am pulling the plug on this operation. Okay?"
    Serena patted her hand and focused on her friend once again. "I don't think you'll regret it. Just stay off the granite, okay? I don't want that image in my head while I'm giving tours."

Chapter Eight

    "Lacey? Are you here?" Jack called, cautiously entering her new home using the set of keys he hadn't given her yet. He set the key-ring on the fireplace mantle and looked around. Lacey was moving in. It was starting to look like someone lived here. He could see there were glasses in the glass-fronted kitchen cupboards, and Charlie's bowl was sitting beside the island. From where he was standing, he could see into the bedroom and what looked like a king-sized bed taking up a large portion of one wall.
    He'd spent practically everyday here for the last five months, but after his confession he felt a little uneasy just walking around like he belonged there. He'd been trying to figure out a reason to come by that wouldn't seem too desperate, but Lacey had saved him the trouble by sending him a text. She wanted him to check out a problem with the tile in the bathroom, so he came right away. It wasn't actually his job at this point, but it offered the perfect excuse. Maybe it would be a chance for them to work through their issues.
    "Lace?" He called again. But there wasn't any answer. He thought he heard something that sounded like off key singing coming from the bathroom, so he went in that direction. He knocked on the bathroom door, but still no response. Slowly, to avoid startling her, he slid open the unlocked door a crack and looked inside. The tub was on the far side of the huge bathroom, so he couldn't actually see her, but her reflection in the elaborate mirror over the double sinks was clear enough.
    She and Mr. Bubbles were taking a soak together. In the dimness of the candlelight he couldn't make out any of the details, but he assumed she was naked underneath all that froth. He became hard instantly, imagining her all slick and wet beneath the warm water. It was the fantasy she'd mentioned in the parking lot of the Daily Grind. The image of her, covered only in bubbles, in her apartment's tiny tub had been haunting him since they made that stupid pact five months ago. But now it was actually happening. Better yet, he knew this tub was big enough to accommodate both of them with ease. He'd picked it out specifically with this scenario in mind. Now, if only she could look past all his baggage and omissions, maybe they could move forward and have an actual relationship. Getting in that tub with her seemed like a great start.
    Taking a deep breath, he took off his shirt and toed off his boots. He thought about stripping down completely, but decided that it might look a little creepy, strutting in there with his cock waving in the breeze, so he left his jeans on and knocked loudly on the partially opened door. Her barely recognizable version of "The Way You Make Me Feel," by MJ stopped abruptly and he heard water splashing as she reached for the iPod sitting on the edge of the tub. Sliding open the door completely, he stepped into the room and tried to look casual as Lacey sat up in the water.
    "Jack, that was quick. I just sent you that text a few minutes ago." Lacey said, trying to cover her bobbing breasts with a washcloth. Actually, she had been lying in the tub waiting for him for a half hour. If he looked closely he'd see her toes were pruning. She had been considering getting out and greeting him in a towel when she'd seen him out in the hallway, stripping. Nothing could have made her happier than seeing the silhouette of his gorgeous body shown in sharp relief by the light from the kitchen.
    Her intention had been to stand up proudly, and boldly suggest he get in the tub with her, but she just couldn't do it. After his coldness the other day her natural tendency was to cover up as much as possible of her body, and pretend she actually wanted him to check out her tile. That had been a ruse too. The tile and everything else in her new home was perfect. The only flawed item here was her. She couldn't be the bold seductress she wanted to be, and didn't think Jack was capable of moving past his own insecurities to act on his desires either. If he still even wanted her after their last conversation.
    She felt her heart plummet as she realized they may be at an impasse if one of them couldn't be the aggressor. And that would be tragic since she was pretty sure she was completely in love with him and desperately wanted to show him that she could be exactly what he needed. If he gave her a chance. She pulled some of the bubbles closer around her, but the action just seemed to highlight her breasts rather than cover them.
    She shouldn't have bothered. Her nipples were hard in the cool air above the water and the wet cotton displayed them more provocatively than the most risque lingerie. Jack could not wait to taste them, but didn't think she'd appreciate it if he just jumped in and started licking her breasts. But then again, why not? She hadn't screamed and demanded he get out, so why not just go for it for a change?
    Without a word, he paused just long enough to rid himself of his jeans, stepped over the ledge of the tub and settled his body in the huge garden tub across from her. She squealed as the water level rose alarmingly, but didn't overflow.
    "Jack! What are you doing?" she laughed, pinching his ankle as he settled his legs on either side of her much shorter ones.
    He grinned and took a handful of bubbles and blew them in her direction. "I thought I heard someone torturing cats in here, so I came to the rescue. Turns out it was just you, singing along to your iPod." He laughed as she splashed him, and caressed her smooth calves under the water. "Seriously, you looked like you were having fun, so I thought I'd join you. Do you want me to wash your back, or do you actually want me to inspect some faulty tile work?"
    "Actually, I think I want you to wash my front," she said, smiling coquettishly as she boldly peeled away the washcloth to reveal her breasts.
    Jack gulped and leaned forward to grasp her beneath her knees, pulling her forward until her thighs were on either side of his thighs. He gasped as her warm, wet flesh molded to his hard cock. The sensation of being able to feel her heat, combined with the water and the cotton barrier of his underwear between them was unbearably erotic, but he wanted to keep this light and fun, rather than intense and rough like last time, so he fought his impulse to just unleash his penis from his jockeys and thrust home like a beast.
    Taking the washcloth from her hand, he grabbed a bar of soap from the edge of the tub and began soaping the cloth. He looked at her breasts in a manner that was supposed to be speculative rather than hungry, but failed miserably. "Yes, your breasts are extremely dirty. It's a good thing you called me to help," he said, rubbing the rough cotton across her clean white mounds in a gentle figure eight that never quite touched her nipples.
    "How about you?" Lacey gasped, rocking against his erection. "Do you need help washing anything?"
    "Umm…somehow saying my dick is dirty, doesn't sound very sexy, so I think I'll just wash your gorgeous body and keep my dirty talk to a minimum," he said, leaning down to tongue one hard nipple.
    "Maybe you're right about that," she laughed, running her hands across his hard chest. "But I'm more than happy to do my part. Especially if it includes getting my hands on you again."
    "But your hands are already on me." He teased.
    "You know, down there." She ducked her head in embarrassment.
    "I can't believe it. You're a nurse, and you can't say 'penis.'" He said, incredulously.
    "I can say 'penis.' I just can't say the other words for it."
    "Are you serious? I love it that you can talk so matter of factly about anal abscesses and prolonged erections, but can't say 'cock.'"
    "I can so."
    "Do it then. It would make me really happy, not to mention really hard, if you just said 'cock' or 'dick' or 'love hammer' just once."
    "You're already really hard," she said, grinding against him sinuously to make him groan. "And I am not saying 'love hammer.'"
    "You just did!"
    "You're ridiculous. How did we go from dirty talk to this?"
    "I don't know, but I'm having a lot of fun. And I'm really glad I'm here."
    "Between my thighs?"
    "Well, yes. But with you. That's exactly where I want to be. Between your thighs or not. I love being with you. How about you?"
    "Yes, I love it when you're between my thighs," she said, squeezing his hips for emphasis.
    "No, really. Is this what you want? Me? Here? With you?"
    "Jack, how can you even ask that? Things just got really complicated and messed up. I needed some time. But I never stopped wanting you. I don't think I ever will."
    "Good. Because I can't wait anymore. I need you, Lacey." Pulling her forward until her breasts were smashed against his chest, he threw the pink washcloth across the tub where it landed with a plop and a small splash. Grasping her jaw in one hand, he tilted her head up and kissed her voraciously, saying with his lips what he'd been trying to communicate with words. His need for her was out of control, barely restrained, as he ate at her mouth with primal hunger.
    Lacey writhed against him in response, grasping the ledge of the tub behind Jack's head for leverage. Pulling back from his kiss, she slid up in the water until her knees were on either side of his hips, and she was able to control their rhythm. Feeling like a goddess, she began riding him in earnest, sliding up and down his erection, feeling every inch of his hard cock against her pussy. The cotton between them prevented complete penetration and it was deliciously exciting to feel so much of him but not everything. She started off slowly, just teasing them both with a long glide from top to bottom of his straining erection. Loving the sound of his groans, she put her hands on his shoulders and altered her movement, arching her back to grind her hips in a slow circle that made her sigh with pleasure.
    She felt fevered as she ran her hands over his chest and down his defined abs to his waistband. She reared back just enough to slide his underwear down his hips and unleash his cock. She feathered her warm, wet fingers over the head of his erection and then angled her hips so she could resume their dance, sliding against him skin to skin now.
    Jack wanted to let Lacey take the lead. He really did. She looked so lovely, covered in bubbles and moving so sensuously. Her nipples were hard little buds in the cool air, and he felt hypnotized as he watched them sway and bob. Her hair had been piled on top of her head when he climbed in the tub, but now small tendrils of it were loose, and they trailed down her neck and framed her gorgeous breasts, emphasizing their round, full curves and maddeningly upthrust nipples.
    He could watch her pleasure herself against him for hours, if it wasn't so much like erotic torture. She was moving much too slowly. He needed to thrust and take control, increase the friction until he came. This long, slow grind was surely killing him. It was cruel to be so close to her sweet pussy without being inside her. Unable to take anymore he reached down and grasped her hips, bringing her heat tightly against his hardness, but still without penetrating her. He began bucking his hips upward, while sliding her hot slit downward, meeting his rhythm and increasing the tempo until she took over and met him thrust for thrust.
    "Oh God. Jack. That's so good," she gasped, digging her nails into his shoulders, and bouncing so enthusiastically that water began sloshing over the edge of the tub.
    Jack reached between them and parted her slippery lower lips, allowing the head of his penis to rub against her clit as she rode him with increasing urgency. Suddenly, she went still and her body stiffened. Throwing her head back she exposed her lovely throat, crying out his name as she convulsed around him and collapsed against his chest.
    Jack gave Lacey a few moments to recover, but he really couldn't wait too much longer. Wanting to be gentle, he carefully stood up in the cooling water. Keeping Lacey's legs wrapped tightly around his waist, he stepped over the tub ledge as water sluiced off them both. Not even bothering to dry off, he quickly snagged a towel and carried Lacey into the bedroom.
    The huge bed was covered in white cotton sheets. He hesitated, not wanting to ruin them with their wet bodies, but not really caring too much at this point. He dropped Lacey on the foot of the bed, and smiled wickedly as she looked up at him.
    "You're soaking wet, Jack," she said, licking her lips as she watched a stray bubble sliding its way down his sculpted abdominal muscles.
    He slowly toweled the moisture from his chest and arms, leaving his rock hard erection exposed to her hungry gaze. "I could say the same for you. You're way wetter than I am," he said, dropping the towel and reaching down to cup her between her legs.
    "Well, I was in the tub a lot longer than you were."
    "Hmm… and that's why you're so wet? What were you doing in there all by yourself?"
    "Thinking about you."
    "And what exactly were you thinking about me?"
    "I was thinking about how wasteful it is for one person to be using that giant tub all alone. And how I would feel better about it if you were there to share it."
    "You were thinking about the environment and that's why you were so wet?"
    "Okay, I was thinking about other things too."
    "Like?"
    "How much I love your body. And how much I'd like to do this again." She reached up and grasped his penis, pumping it in her fist.
    "Ah, I get it now. Thinking about my love hammer made you wet."
    "Wow, that is such an unsexy term. Let's never use it again. Okay?" She laughed, sitting up on the edge of the bed she lowered her head until her lips hovered over his erection.
    Jack put one of his hands in her hair and guided her mouth forward until her breath feathered over the head of his cock. She didn't seem very sure of herself, but watching her as she flicked her tongue out and lapped at him was easily the most erotic thing he'd ever seen in his life. Growing bolder, she traced the vein on the underside of his shaft with just the tip of her tongue. He gasped as she gripped him tightly with one hand while sliding the other up his sensitive inner thighs until she cupped his balls gently. God, she was beautiful.
    Lacey licked Jack's erection from base to tip and then circled the head with her tongue. She was hardly an expert at this but she wanted to make him wild for her, so she enfolded his very hard cock in her mouth and slowly slid her lips down, down until he was as far back as she could bring him without gagging. She heard Jack's breath hiss between his lips and looked up at his gorgeous face. He was watching her as she developed a slow and tantalizing rhythm, adding her hand as an extension of her mouth she gripped him tightly and gradually increased the pace of her movements.
    Jack was at his limit again. Was there anything better than a gorgeous woman with her lips wrapped around his dick? Only one thing that he could think of, and that would be her sweet pussy. Not able to stop quite yet, he gripped her hair in both hands and began fucking her mouth in earnest, pistoning his hips in fast, shallow lunges that he could barely control. That tingling in his balls began and he gasped as he felt his orgasm approaching with almost alarming speed and power. Throwing his head back, he stopped moving and gasped Lacey's name. He'd barely been able to stop it this time.
    He pulled away from Lacey's grasp. "I want you in the middle of the bed," he rasped, gripping his own erection in one fist and watching as Lacey moved to the center of the bed. She parted her lovely legs in invitation and watched him touch himself hungrily.
    Instead of pouncing on her immediately, he climbed onto the bed and lay down beside her. He propped his head on one hand and and kissed her upturned mouth, sweetly. His penis was like an iron bar against her soft smooth hip, and he flexed against her, loving the feel of her satiny skin. He ignored the urgency in his blood and reached down to fondle one beautiful breast, teasing the nipple into hardness, and then moving his hand to the other, and molding its generous curve as well.
    "Jack, please. No more. I want to feel you inside me," Lacey whispered, spreading her legs wider and sliding one hand down her stomach until it rested just above her smooth pussy.
    Jack wanted to mount her a thrust home immediately, but he was too close to the edge. He didn't want to be a brute like last time so he moved between her spread thighs and kneeled there, looking down at her. He ran both hand sup and down her spread thighs and then parted her slippery lower lips with his thumbs. He angled his body until the head of his penis was posed at the entrance of her body, and teased her with it, sliding it up and down her slit, but never actually penetrating. She was incredibly hot and wet and the sweet scent of her arousal was making him light-headed.
    "Jack," she whimpered. "Please do it. I can't take anymore."
    He leaned forward and dipped his cock into her pussy. Lacey sighed and braced herself for his deep penetration, but it didn't happen. Instead Jack pulled back out and slid the head of his cock up over her clit, circling it several times, teasing her with his silky hardness, but not giving her what she desired. Finally, when she was just about to lose her mind he dragged his penis back down to where she wanted it most.
    Covering her body with his, he propped himself up on his hands on either side of her head to take some of his weight and drove home with an exhilarated shout. "You feel so good," he grunted, and slowly pushed forward another inch until he was so deep he felt like he was a part of her. He stayed still, allowing her to adjust to him, and then slowly withdrew a few inches.
    Lacey gripped him with her inner muscles and wrapped her legs around his back to ride out the storm she knew was coming. Despite the pleasure she had taken in the tub earlier it felt like she had been on the brink of orgasm for a very long time, and she needed it so badly. She began undulating her lower body in rhythm with his movements, sensuously rippling around him, and increasing the friction between them.
    Control left him as Lacey's warm body began meeting his thrusts and urging him to move faster. He looked down at her face and saw her biting her lip savagely as she angled her hips to take as much of him as she could get. He caught her eyes and held them as his thrusts came faster and harder.
    "Oh, Oh Jack. Yes," Lacy cried as she finally let go and felt her climax take hold fiercely. Closing her eyes, she arched her back and dug her fingers into his hips, her hands tightening on him convulsively.
    Watching her, Jack felt his own release gathering and began the quick, shallow thrusts that his body demanded. The pleasure flowed over him in a wave that seemed to last a very long time. Finally, he collapsed on top of her, his face buried in her hair, and felt her legs wrap around him to keep him between her smooth thighs.
    "When do you work next?" He asked when he was able, hoping they could spend the night together. They were lying face to face on the same pillow with one of her legs once again wrapped possessively around his hip. They were both dazed with the aftershocks of pleasure, and Jack couldn't stop touching her. He ran his hand from knee to hip, and back again, awed at the soft texture of her skin.
    "I don't. I have the next few days off. I was able to trade a few shifts when Serena told me I could start moving in if I wanted." Lacey said, leaning forward to place a warm, open-mouthed kiss to his powerful shoulder.
    He gasped as she gave his collarbone a little nip, and slid one hand to the small of her back so he could bring her body even closer to his. He felt his penis twitch in response as her warm stomach came in contact with his hardening flesh. "So, when should I bring the truck over?" He asked, trying to ignore his burgeoning erection. He'd just came, and yet his body seemed primed for another round. But to Lacey this was probably time for cuddling and talking. He needed to calm his dick down and quit acting like a 14-year-old boy.
    "Truck? Why would you bring the truck over?" Lacey asked, puzzled. She momentarily forgot about kissing her way down to his nipple and pulled back to look at him.
    "Umm… to help you move. Men lift heavy things to impress their women. It's kind of a rule." He said, gravelly.
    "I like the sound of that," Lacey purred, reaching up to kiss his chin. "But you don't need to help me move. I've already arranged for some guys to do it tomorrow morning. And since my new bed was delivered today, everything else is pretty minor. You can just stay here and wait for me if you want. I'll bring you some breakfast, maybe some Mrs. Butterworth for your pancakes and that threesome you wanted." She wiggled her eyebrows at him suggestively. "Then we'll try out that fabulous new shower, okay?" She slithered down a bit, so she could reach one of his nipples with her tongue, and gave it a delicate lick.
    "I do like your new bed," he said, huskily, distracted from the conversation for a moment as she ran her fingers through his chest hair. "I can see myself spending a lot of time here, but what kind of boyfriend would I be if I let someone else get his hands on your boxes?" He grinned wickedly at his double entendre.
    "Boyfriend. Is that what you are? When did that happen?"
    "When I helped you break in your new bed. Also a rule."
    "So, if I have sex with anyone on a new bed, he's automatically my new boyfriend?"
    "Yup. But there is one other stipulation."
    "What's that?"
    "They also have to be in falling in love with you. Like I am." All the playfulness left his voice, and he tilted her chin up so he could look into her shocked blue eyes. "I know I acted like a jerk the other day, but I want you to know that I'm going to do better. Sometimes I shut down. I don't do this to hurt anyone. I just don't know how else to respond when I feel too much. I hope you can help me with it because I want to be in a real relationship with you, not just for a night, or a week, or even a month. I want to be a big part of your life, for as long as you want me. And I'm hoping that's forever."
    "Oh Jack. Are you serious? I can't believe this. Just a few hours ago I was trying to gather the courage to call you over here on false pretenses, and now you're telling me you've falling in love with me? I don't know what to say."
    "Say you feel the same way."
    "I do. Jack. I really think I do. I know it's completely crazy. But I'm pretty sure I've been in love with you since that first Open House. I guess I was just afraid. On some level I kept putting up obstacles between us because I couldn't believe someone like you could possibly be interested in someone boring like me without a challenge to spice things up."
    "Lacey, you must know that you never, ever have to fabricate anything to keep my interest. Just being around you is stimulating enough, really." He looked down between them where his rock hard penis nudged her navel. "And Mr. Happy agrees."
    "I can see that," Lacey said, shimmying against him. "But eventually, we're going to have to get out of bed. What about then? What if I bore you silly?"
    "Lacey, we've spent the last five months out of bed and I wasn't bored for a single second. Okay, I'll admit I probably spent the majority of that time with a raging boner, but I still fell in love with you. And I was thinking of you practically every second. Even when you were picking out the most hideous tile I've ever seen, I still thought you were incredible, despite your bad taste."
    She gave his nipple a good twist. "That red tile had style. But you were probably right to go with something more neutral." She sobered and gazed seriously into his bright green eyes. "I just hope you're right about us too. Maybe we don't need to discuss all that ancient history in order to move forward. But no more cold shoulder when I say something you don't like, okay? You said you wanted me to treat you like a regular guy. Not someone I have to tiptoe around. That means that occasionally we're going to disagree and I need to know that we can talk about it without worrying that you'll act like a detached jerk and stomp off. No more Mr. Freeze, okay?"
    "Yeah. Asking you to clean the granite wasn't one of my prouder moments." He rubbed his brow and then returned her steady gaze. "I will try, Lace. I can't promise I'm not going to fuck up on a regular basis, but I will never leave you feeling rejected again. I know what that's like and I never want you to feel like that, ever." His lips quirked up in an endearingly boyish smile. "Though the make-up sex was almost worth it, wouldn't you say?" He rolled onto his back, gripping her by the back of the knee so she rolled with him until she was once again sitting astride his hips.
    Lacey reached up and gripped the grey suede headboard, sliding up his body until her thighs were on either side of his head. "I'd say, you still have some apologizing to do. Wouldn't you?" She said, bringing her flesh tantalizingly close to his mouth, but just out of reach.
    Jack gripped her bottom tightly, gathered her sweet mound against his lips and buried his tongue in her moist folds. He showed her exactly how sorry he was by making her shout his name over and over until she begged him to stop.
    Later, after Lacey recovered from Jack's apology, she curled up with her head on his warm chest. What a perfect way to spend her first night in her new home, she thought.
    It was dark now and she could faintly hear rain beating down on the roof. Her roof. Under her ear, she could hear his heart beating and the sound was both soothing and oddly sexy combined with the rain. Six months earlier, she had longed for a new home and someone special to share her bed, to make her feel beautiful and cherished. Now she had that and so much more. It almost seemed like a dream. If Jack was wearing a kilt, she would know for sure that she was in some fevered fantasy brought on by reading too many romance novels. But he was real, and even with his flaws, he was still better than any fictional hero. Because he was hers.

***

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