He was bare naked!
Tracey Scott stood trance-like with her hand still on the blind she'd pulled. Jon had warned her last night he was hard to wake. He might have at least warned her he slept in the raw, too!
Biting her lip, Tracey tried to get herself to stop looking. At the very least, to get herself to do what she'd come in here to do and then leave.
When she'd come to live with her employers, Jon Rushing and Blackie Scarpacchio, she'd foreseen a few issues of privacy being breached. Now she stared at a part of Jon she'd admired more than once in worn denim. No denim this time. No nothing. Oh my.
He'd yanked a pillow over his head as soon as she'd drawn the first blind and sunshine had poured across the bed. It was summer, and the old house they rented had few amenities like air conditioning. The fan did little or nothing except recirculate hot air. Why not sleep in the nude?
Tracey swallowed the lump in her throat. After a night of steamy, erotic dreams about this man, ones she'd almost convinced herself were normal and no indication of real desire, seeing Jon's muscled, nicely rounded rear end...
He started to roll, and Tracey panicked. She couldn't see any more than she already had. She couldn't!
Darting forward, she put her hand on his shoulder, hoping to deflect the full-body roll onto his back. "Jon, wake up! We're still going to the car show today, right?"
"What time is it?" he grumbled.
"Nine-thirty. Are you awake?"
His head popped out from under the pillow, and he looked up at her with barely open eyes.
Tracey desperately tried to keep her gaze on his face, but this close up... Mhm.
Although Jon was only five foot seven--and a half, he was always quick to add--he was the most attractive man Tracey had ever known. She was barely five-four herself, so she didn't mind his height at all. He remained larger-than-life to her. Perfectly proportioned. Wildly sexy...
"Why don't you crawl in here and we'll both go back to sleep. After."
With a start, Tracey felt his hand gliding like a blaze of fire up the back of her leg and under her short, pleated skirt. If she hadn't jumped away out of necessity, he would have gone further than the curve of her behind. Jon's flirtations had always been outrageously daring. "Are you awake?" she demanded.
He combed back his thick, blondish-brown mane of hair. "Stick around, honey, and you'll be able to answer that yourself."
The husky note in his voice told her all she needed to know. He was aroused. As soon as he rolled over, she'd see for herself.
Tracey fled with his chuckle floating after her. After pulling the door closed behind her, she stopped when it touched her back. She pressed a hand against the bare strip of skin at her waist. She shouldn't, but couldn't, help smiling. Sure, she'd heard most men woke in a certain condition. Jon's had nothing to do with her, but, all the same, she wouldn't mind knowing he found her attractive enough to get in that condition with her nearby.
Over the past year, since she'd moved from Los Angeles to Stevens Point, Wisconsin in order to take the job with the guys, Jon and Blackie had become more than employers. They were her best friends. When they'd invited her to move into the house and share the rent with them, she'd agreed almost immediately. Family was important--essential--to her. Living alone had been...well, lonely.
So far, she loved living with them. She liked cooking for them, having someone around to talk to or just to watch a movie with. Sure, the two of them had more than one foible. Hogging all the hot water so no one else could shower, smoking in the house, "ordering out for sex" as Tracey called Blackie's many one-night stands, Jon's penchant for walking around naked, especially from the bathroom to his bedroom. Up to this point, she'd only caught brief glimpses, just enough to startle but not paralyze her.
All in all, it was working out. Having a few erotic dreams about the guys was normal. And yes, she reminded herself, she'd had one or two, okay so maybe just one, about Blackie, too, though it'd been nowhere near as intense as the many starring Jon. She told herself any woman living in such close proximity to two good-looking, sexy men would have the same.
On a deep exhale, she pushed off the door and went back to the kitchen and her cooking. She and Jon were taking the day off today to go to a car show. When he'd seen the ad in the newspaper last night, Jon had suggested they go. Blackie would take over for them at Hog Heaven, the motorcycle repair and retail shop he and Jon owned with another friend, Rod Summers. She worked as the receptionist/secretary/PR/bookkeeper for the shop.
"Now that's what I like to see," Tracey heard Jon's voice about fifteen minutes later. She glanced back to see him in the kitchen doorway. "Barefoot lady sashaying around the kitchen, making me breakfast."
He'd moved into the room, close enough that she could smell his intoxicating cologne.
"You don't look anywhere near pregnant though."
Tracey truly enjoyed their flirtatious repartee--something that had started again gradually, over the last few weeks. Yet what he'd said was too close to the bone. He might as well have read her mind.
He curled an arm around her bare midriff, beneath the apron she'd put on, with his palm flat against her belly. Tracey forced herself to get back into the spirit of their sparring. "Hey, hey, the cook needs some space. See this apron."
She turned to show him but knew he'd seen it enough times to know what it said without reading it: Dangerous chef at work. Keep a ten-foot distance for your own protection. An amusing gift from her parents, who knew how the kitchen could look like a cyclone hit it after she got done cooking.
"Ten feet? This kitchen barely has two." But he slipped away to get some coffee for himself.
She went on with cutting out her homemade buttermilk biscuits, surreptitiously glancing at Jon and rubbing at a tickle on her nose. He wore a blue T-shirt that brought out the blue in his blue-gray eyes. The shirt lovingly defined the muscles in his chest, his stomach and his arms.
Tracey hadn't minded the corner of the living room the guys devoted to their weight-lifting equipment, not when her sit-up mat fit in nicely and not when she saw the benefits of that equipment. She didn't need to go to the gym to lust after the bodybuilders. Another perk to living here.
Jon looked and smelled so good today. He was also in a good mood, one that reminded her of not only The Florida Keys, where they'd met about eighteen months before, but also of the first couple months after she'd moved to Wisconsin. When Jon wasn't trapped in his black misery, pushing everyone including his closest friends away, he was fun, funny, sweet, impulsive and completely crazy.
Tracey doubted he really meant all the outrageous things he said and did but knowing that hadn't stopped her from wishing once or twice that he was serious. But his black misery had taught her more than once not to even consider getting involved with Jon. She never knew when the darkness would roll in, and she couldn't trust her heart to him, just in case it did.
After popping the biscuits in the oven, she started the eggs and ham for Jon. She didn't eat meat herself, but she enjoyed cooking for anybody who enjoyed eating. Jon and Blackie ate like they were starved each time she made a meal. She'd learned to prepare army proportions every time.
"I've never seen anybody look so damn cute with a face full of flour."
Tracey glanced up at Jon, too aware of him for her own good, and he dabbed a towel over her face. "Thanks," she said with an embarrassed smile.
"Still cute," he said, under his breath. He leaned toward her, and Tracey stopped breathing when she realized he was going to kiss her. She dodged him quickly. Kissing Jon, even the unserious one he'd probably give her, would be far too much temptation for her. Maybe spending the day alone with him wasn't such a good idea.
"Hey, I charge double for stolen kisses," she teased, her throat dry. Her hand shook, which meant the spatula in it did, too. She put it down.
"How much do you charge for dreamed ones? I'd be broke after last night."
I'm just not as good at this as he is, Tracey thought, feeling heat flood her cheeks. He couldn't possibly know she'd dreamed about him last night. He was only flirting, saying he'd dreamed of her, too.
The front door slammed, and Tracey jumped. And she'd thought her heart was racing before! Blackie came into the kitchen, obviously coming off an all-night, one-night stand with some nameless woman.
A redhead, Tracey thought to herself. They were all redheads. He glanced at them as if they were naked and rolling around on the floor together. For some reason, Tracey felt herself blush again. Without a word, he grabbed one of the bran muffins she'd made earlier and left the room. Tracey sneaked a look at Jon to find him staring back at her. She smiled and threw herself into breakfast again.
A half hour later, after arguing about which vehicle to take, they finally got on the road in her car. Jon asked her if she really liked antique cars during the course of the hour-and-then-some trip. "My parents own an antique shop in Chicago. I wasn't crazy about antiques at first. Why buy old when you can have new? But it grew on me, I guess. Now I love antique cars, antique furniture, antique houses--although it'd be nice to have more than one outlet per room and a phone that weighs less than twenty pounds."
Jon grinned. "No kidding."
He reached for the radio at the same time she did. Both fell away without turning it on.
"We could fix the place up if we ever decide to buy the monstrosity."
Tracey shrugged. "Wouldn't it lose some of its charm if we modernized it?" But she thought, We won't be living together long enough to buy the house. Tracey had plans for the future that she couldn't imagine Jon and Blackie wanting to share in.
The car show already had most of the streets lined with parked cars. They repeated to each other a dozen times which street they'd parked on, but Tracey suspected it wouldn't do them much good when they came back looking for it. They didn't know the town well enough to have the street locations down. They walked the rest of the way. It was hot, muggy, and looked like it might rain later.
Jon spent a lot of time talking with car owners, checking out the cars top to bottom. Tracey ended up walking ahead. While she found the cars neat to look at, she wasn't interested in getting to know them inside out.
When she turned down another line of antique cars, something caught her eye. She glanced again at an auburn-haired woman about two-hundred feet from her. Recognition hit her in seconds, although she'd only met the woman once. Blackness, misery, oh man! I have to make sure Jon--
"You walk too far ahead, we might not be able to find each other," Jon said, behind her.
Tracey whirled, forcing a smile. "Hey, let's...I...uh, saw this really neat car...back this way." She steered him back the way he'd come.
"I saw all of 'em that way." He started forward again, and Tracey tried to get in front of him to block his view. Obviously he thought she'd gotten a touch of heat stroke based on his expression.
"Then let's go get something to eat," she suggested.
"Tracey, we just ate a breakfast big enough to feed an army two hours ago. What's wrong with you?"
He walked around her again, and, even when she started to say something about bran muffins not being filling, she knew it was too late. His entire body had gone stock-still. He'd seen Jessie Nelson with her husband, Steve Thomas. Tracey knew the names, the stories, and she couldn't doubt just seeing Jessie would throw Jon back into that impenetrable darkness. Nothing Tracey did could prevent that now.
Jon turned suddenly and started walking like a man on an important mission. To escape. Tracey ran after him, torn between anger and sadness. It wasn't fair! They'd planned the whole day and now it was destroyed in two seconds flat, the way Jessie destroyed everything.
To the innocent eye, Jessie appeared to be no more harmful than any other drop-dead gorgeous woman with a body that could sink and raise ships. But those who'd followed her reputation knew she'd thoughtlessly crushed Jon countless times, betrayed her husband--again, countless times--and God only knew the damage she'd done to her and Steve's three, young children. That didn't even get into the rebounding effects of her crimes.
Jon walked fast, too fast for Tracey to catch up to him without breaking into a dead run. Just as she'd suspected, they had a hard time finding where they'd parked. When she finally caught up with him, she saw being lost made him even more furious. "What street did we park on?" he demanded of her.
"You do realize what you feel for her isn't love?" she said instead of telling him what he wanted to know. "You do realize it's an insidious, killing obsession? That's all?" That's all? Tracey snorted even to herself. His obsession could easily become everything. It devoured him like a black hole. After the last time, it'd taken him almost six months to get back on track.
"Yeah. I realize that. Now what damn street is it?"
Tracey spit out the only answer he wanted, and, half an hour later, he drove with absolute concentration, the radio blaring to prevent her from talking. He never wanted to hear anything she said when Jessie got her hooks in him.
Tracey was as angry as he was, even more so, when the rain finally broke, coming down in sheets, and she tried to tell Jon what to do and what not to do with her car in the rain. Her car was fickle; in the rain, only she knew how to handle it to keep it running. Jon didn't listen.
They made it to Stevens Point, but he ignored her instructions to put it in neutral and press lightly on the gas pedal at lights to keep it running. The car died at an intersection, and, no matter how many times he tried to get it to turn over, it refused to cooperate.
"I told you," Tracey couldn't resist the jab.
"Why don't you get a decent car? Or at least let me fix this bucket so it runs right?"
"Just because you don't know how to handle Mabel doesn't mean she's a bucket!"
"Nobody else in the world would name their car after their dead great-grandma!"
Cars honked behind them. Jon flipped on the trouble lights.
Impulsively, Tracey jumped out of the car and ran through the pouring rain to the phone booth on the corner.
Once inside, she spent a minute gasping for breath before she picked up the receiver with a dripping hand. She shoved in money after she dialed the shop, and Blackie picked up after half a dozen rings. "My car broke down," she said, shouting as much as she could over the pounding rain and her chattering teeth. "Can you pick us up?"
After some cursing and name-calling of Mabel, he said he'd be there in ten or less. Tracey raced back to the car.
"What was that?" Jon asked immediately.
"I called Blackie. He'll be here soon." Taking off her waterlogged shoes did nothing to warm her. Even squeezing the water out of her clothes didn't help.
Jon turned away from her, shaking his head. Probably hearing her shiver, he glanced back. Tracey covered her chest with her arms at his obvious focus. "You're insane, honey. Why didn't you let me run out there?"
She was too miserable to answer his soft, concerned rebuke.
A second later, he yanked his T-shirt off and pulled it down over her head, unwilling to allow her first-refusal.
"Nut," he muttered as, undercover of his T-shirt, she reluctantly removed the soaked cami top she wore. Then she put her arms into the dry cotton he'd taken off his own back.
"No more than you," she returned in a whisper he probably didn't hear over the rain.
* * * *
Looking like an adorable, half-drowned kitten, Tracey kicked off her shoes once inside the house, stalked down the hall, and slammed into her bedroom. Jon and Blackie looked at each other, sharing a silent, "Women!" before they went into the kitchen.
Blackie had come with the tow truck, and "Mabel" was now in the garage next to the house. According to Tracey, she'd start right up tomorrow as if nothing had happened.
It wasn't until Jon got a brand-new bottle of Jack Daniels out of the cupboard that Blackie seemed to realize Tracey's mood hadn't simply been based on rain and being stranded.
Blackie emerged from his unspoken life philosophy that the world would be a better place if everyone was telepathic--no talking required--long enough to mutter, "Oh man, say it ain't so." On a good day, Blackie might say a grand total of a hundred words. Before Tracey had come along, days could go by when he spoke only one-word utterances. Jon sensed he was about to become Chatty Cathy.
"I don't wanna talk about it."
"What's Jess doing up here for a car show?" Blackie asked.
Jess lived in Milwaukee, where they hailed from. When their friend JoJo had moved up here, Jon, Blackie and her brother Rod had migrated, too. Jon had figured there'd be less chance of running into Jess. No matter how obsessed he was with her, he at least had the smarts to avoid her at all costs. He only got involved with her when she sought him out. And only then because she knew exactly how to work her black magic over him.
"Steve's into antique cars, remember?" Jon muttered, tearing the seal off the whiskey bottle. Even as he opened it, he wondered, What do I need this for? Force of habit, after seeing Jess, had made him get it out. Instead of drinking, he lit a cigarette at the same time Blackie did.
Unbelievable as it was, at one point in Jon's life, Jessie's husband had been his friend. But then Jess had gotten between them. Steve had married her, Jon only got her whenever the marriage and life became too much for her.
Jon grabbed a magazine, ripped out a page, and furiously started folding. His paper-folding--self-taught and without rules--had started early in life. Even he'd deduced it was a way to relieve stress and pain.
"Did she see you?"
Jon shook his head without looking up.
Blackie apparently realized there was no need to guess what would happen next. Every time Jon saw Jess, he went down into the pit of despair. His recovery time hadn't gotten any less since the first time she'd left him, when he was seventeen.
The phone rang. Jon leaned back on his chair to grab the receiver of what had to be the world's oldest working phone. It was huge, black and resembled the maid's robot head, flipped on its side, in the Jetsons' cartoon.
"May I speak to Tracey Scott?" a severely uptight voice asked.
Jon's anger flared. How many guys could Tracey date in a month's time? She always said she was "going out with a friend", but he knew they were actually dates. Almost all of the guys were uptight suits, too, based on their voices and the few he'd seen. A woman with a wild streak in her like Tracey didn't fit with rich, staid guys.
"Why?" Jon demanded, holding back a cruel laugh when the suit started to sputter. "Hold on." Jon hung the receiver on the curtain rod, then got up to get Tracey.
"Another suit?" Blackie guessed, and Jon muttered, "Yeah."
When he knocked on Tracey's door, she opened it with a furious, "Yes?" She wore a short bathrobe with her hair up in a towel.
"Oh." She sounded almost embarrassed.
What did she think? He'd come to apologize? Or to chew her out?
"I'll be there in a minute."
She closed the door again, and Jon went back to the kitchen seriously considering hanging up the phone.
While he'd never liked the idea of Tracey with some other guy, the fast and furious way she'd been dating lately obsessed him. She'd never gone out this much before. Why did she even need to?
She came out dressed in boxer shorts imprinted with a tool belt design, her hair in a ponytail. In all the time Jon had known her, he'd never seen her with her hair down. It was this silky-looking, golden stuff a man couldn't help but want to take down out of all the sophisticated twists and knots she wore. Take down and get his hands in.
Figuring she'd have a harder time agreeing to a date if he eavesdropped on her conversation, Jon turned his chair to face her and sat staring at her, smoking.
She turned away with a glare but obviously sensed him continuing to stare.
Intrigue should have disappeared after she'd moved in here with them. Now he saw her run around the house in those crazy boxer shorts of hers, without makeup. He knew firsthand how cranky she was before her first cup of coffee in the morning.
Jon was still intrigued. Intrigued wasn't exactly the word for it. When he wasn't in the pit, just looking at Tracey...well, consumed him.
She was an utterly adorable, tiny creature. The first time he'd laid eyes on her, his immediate thought had been, She'd have adorable kids. We'd have adorable kids together. She had a little girl's face. Sweet as could be, sheer innocence, with an inner light. But some of her features were purely feminine. Narrow, baby blue eyes with thick, long lashes and silky, arched brows. A pink mouth with all those pillows of softness, those sexy curves. Her top lip had a full cupid's bow, and her chin had a deep dimple he found so sexy, a lot of his erotic dreams about her were just of kissing. And none of that got into her heavenly body.
He'd fallen in love with her on sight, after she doused him with a bucket of ice water. 'Course now he was over her.
"I'll be ready," Tracey said.
Jon only heard one side of the conversation, but she'd made another date, no doubt about it.
Tracey hung up, then marched over to the freezer. Jon picked up the whiskey and drank deeply. "Let me guess: a lawyer? doctor?" he said sarcastically, setting the bottle down with a thump. Only his thumb over the hole kept the whiskey from spilling.
Tracey brought a little cup of ice over to the table, fanning the air of smoke and grimacing before she sat down at the table with them. "If you must know, he's an accountant. He's the brother of one of Bethany's employees. She gave him my number."
Bethany was their business partner Rod's wife.
"You know, second-hand smoke causes cancer, too. Do you want to kill me? If you guys care about me at all, you'd smoke outside. Or quit."
Miss Healthy-Inside-and-Out crunched on a handful of ice.
Jon used the glowing butt of his cigarette to light the paper dragon he'd folded on fire. Each of his creations met this fate. "Who dates on a Friday night?" he muttered.
Tracey snorted a laugh. "Try everybody in the civilized world! I have to get ready. He'll be here in a half hour."
Jon watched her leave the room, then swilled more of the whiskey. When he offered it to Blackie, he shook his head.
What did she do with all those guys? Jon wondered. She always came in alone, late sometimes, but came in all the same. Did she date any of these suits more than once? Did she kiss them? Sleep with them?
Jon banged the bottle down on the table.
"I've got handcuffs. You wanna chain her to her bed?" Blackie laughed at him. "Why shouldn't she date? You're too screwed up to tell her you're nuts about her."
"I just saw Jess. I'm over Tracey."
"Yeah. I can see that." Blackie shook his head like Jon was transparent.
Twenty minutes later, the doorbell rang and Tracey walked past the kitchen on her way to it. "See you later," she called.
Jon got up with his bottle and went to the window. He saw Tracey, dressed in a form-fitting red dress that would come off tonight--in Jon's dreams. He saw the guy she was with--yeah, definitely a suit--and his hold on the bottle tightened. Miraculously, the glass didn't break.
They drove away.
Hell, the rest of this day would be long and the night even longer.
When he glanced at Blackie and saw his you're-pathetic expression, Jon muttered, "Shut up."