Next to You, p.1
Next to You
36. A sizzling new romance from Julia Gabriel
37. Drawing Lessons, Chapter One
About the Author
Also by Julia Gabriel
Next to You
Published by Serif Books
Copyright © 2014 by Julia Gabriel
Cover image: Evgeny Korshenkov/Shutterstock, Syda Productions/Shutterstock
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage system, without the written permission of Julia Gabriel.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Jared Connor slipped between two majestic oak trees at the sound of tires crunching against the long, winding driveway leading to the estate. The estate was named Twelve Oaks but in fact there were thirteen oak trees that stood like sentries on the approach to the house. Jared assumed the owner was not superstitious.
He ran down his mental schedule for the day, trying to determine who might be arriving. There were no deliveries scheduled for today, no mulch, no pool chemicals. The cleaning company's regular day was yesterday. This had to be an unsolicited visitor, old ladies who wanted to persuade Jared to attend church or impossibly clean-cut teenagers selling magazine subscriptions and wanting to know what his first job was.
Either was going to be disappointed. One, fat chance of him ever going to church again. His mother had dragged him and Jake to the pews every Sunday when they were kids, but the thirty-five-year-old Jared knew without a doubt that there was no God. He was proof of that. And—two—his first job? Overnight deejay at the college radio station. Because some of us have a face made for radio.
But still, he didn't have the stomach for dealing with people today. Or most days, to be honest. That's why he took this job—the glorious promise of solitude. The only living things Jared really wanted to deal with on a daily basis were plants and animals. They weren't bothered by Jared, didn't look at him like he'd just crawled out of a lagoon somewhere. Or if they were, they had no good means of communicating their horror to him. That pesky plant-human language barrier.
He pressed his back to the tree trunk and craned his neck to watch as the car came into view. It pulled right up to the house. An Audi R8 Spyder, a two-door convertible in an unusual deep berry shade. Nice car. Really nice car.
Definitely not a car for little old church ladies or periodical-shilling teenagers.
He watched as a woman unfolded herself from the driver's side. She tugged off her baseball cap and tossed it onto the passenger seat, revealing hair so blonde it was nearly blinding in the midday sun. Jared wondered who the hell this could be as she leaned into the back seat and lifted up a large duffel bag. The muscles in her toned arms rippled with the effort.
Why was that the sexiest thing he'd seen in ages? Probably because you don't get out much. Still, he couldn't ignore the stirring in his nether regions. Just because he didn't get out much didn't mean he couldn't appreciate a beautiful creature when she showed up on the doorstep. He continued to admire her as she hefted the duffel bag over her shoulder and marched right up the porch steps to the front door. She was tall and slender, and more skin than clothes in that outfit: a bright pink tank top that revealed lightly tanned shoulders and cotton shorts below which her golden legs stretched for miles. To make matters worse, those legs ended in strappy sandals set atop high wedge heels.
No, definitely not a little old church lady.
He watched as she fumbled a bit with the key before successfully unlocking the door. Well, if she had a key, clearly she knew the owner. The estate belonged to some businesswoman in Manhattan, that was all Jared knew. He had never met or spoken to her. Her assistant, a briskly efficient woman on the phone, had hired him sight unseen to be the caretaker.
Maybe she was the owner's daughter, here to open the place up for the summer. Miss Briskly Efficient hadn't called to tell him anyone would be up, but it wasn't like the owner needed to give him advance notice. It was her place, after all.
The door swung closed behind the young woman, and Jared slipped from his hiding spot to return to the gardening. Whoever she was, it would be nice to have some eye candy around for a few days. Not that the owner's roses and peonies weren't lovely—and Jared took loving care of them—but there was only so much a mere flower could do for a man. Even a man who was best hired sight unseen.
* * *
The house smelled of lavender and basil, a pretty combination, Phlox Miller thought as she dropped her purse on the antique console table in the foyer. She ran a finger along the wood. No dust. Cherise had hired a caretaker shortly after the accident. Whoever they were was apparently doing a good job. In the house anyway. She'd check the gardens later, then stop by the cottage to tell the person that they could suspend the cleaning service for the next few weeks. Phlox wanted as few people around as possible, in case this really did end up being as hard as she expected it to be.
She hadn't taken two whole weeks off since ... well, since never. Sourcing trips for beeswax and elderflower were as close as Phlox had gotten to a real vacation in years. She'd bought the country home in Connecticut because it was close enough to New York that she could drive up for a weekend and relax, away from the city. She hadn't been here since the accident.
She pulled her phone from her jacket pocket and tapped "Z."
"I made it," she said when Zee Malisewski, her best friend from college and business partner in Phlox Beauty, answered.
"Never doubted you would. Now here are the rules, missy."
"Don't missy me." Phlox laughed. Pretending to boss each other around was a long-running joke—almost a comedy routine, really—between Phlox and Zee.
"You are allowed to check in once per day. Any more than that and I will have your number blocked. I have already deactivated your access card—"
"So you can't change your mind and come back early. You're up there to relax, read reams of trashy novels, and gain weight," Zee reminded her. "So none of that healthy eating shit. Pasta, wine and dessert every night. You hear?"
Phlox looked down at her chest. Yeah, the fabric of her top was caving in over what was left of her breasts. Dr. Ryan had done a terrific job reconstructing them but they were never going to be as full as they once were. You have nice boobs, honey, her moth
A year later, her mother was still shoehorning the subject of implants into every conversation. Phlox just didn't want to go there. She'd had enough surgery to last her a lifetime. Why would she sign on for more? Nice boobs just weren't worth it. Eventually men figured out that she really was a nerdy mad scientist.
She sighed audibly. "Yeah, bread and pasta. I can do that. No hardship there."
"P? Are you okay?"
"Fine." Her reply came out a little more curtly than she'd intended. Immediately she regretted that. Zee had shouldered much of the load of running the business after the accident. "I'm good," she said, her voice softer this time.
"Have you gone into ..." Zee's voice trailed off.
"Not yet. I just got here."
"Do it now while we're on the phone. So I know you're okay."
"I'll be fine. Don't worry about it. It was a year ago."
"Go in there now, Phlox. Or I'm driving up tonight." Zee wasn't pretend-bossing now.
Phlox walked slowly toward the kitchen at the back of the house, the room that had been her pride and joy, the room on which she'd spent a small fortune renovating after she bought the house. Replaced the old appliances with professional-grade ones, ripped up the vinyl flooring and installed antique pine boards, donated the granite counters to Habitat for Humanity and ordered black soapstone ones instead. Now the kitchen was a perfect melding of old and new, historic and contemporary, befitting of a twenty-nine-year-old living in a house built in 1877.
"Phlox? You okay?"
"Not there yet." But Phlox could feel her heart racing already, her palm sweaty on the phone. She kicked off her heels, just in case.
"What was that?" Zee asked.
"I took off my shoes, that's all."
She was close enough now to see the gleaming stainless front of the Sub-Zero refrigerator. Another two slow steps and the soapstone-topped island came into view. She took another deep breath and stepped through the doorway, all her energy focused on putting one foot in front of the other. She inched around the island and stopped a foot away from the range. Her eyes dropped to the floor. The pine boards were spotless. She couldn't even tell where they had been replaced.
"Are you there?" Zee asked. Phlox could hear the worry in her voice, even though it had been her idea for Phlox to come here for a few weeks.
It happened a year ago, she reminded herself. She was healed. This was her beloved country home and it was time to come back. Her parents had asked if she wanted to sell the place, and Phlox had thought long and hard about it. The answer her heart came back with was no. This had been her calm place, her place to think and tinker, to reflect and recharge. It could be that place again. She needed it to be that place again.
"I'm okay, Zee. I'm in the kitchen and I'm fine. It's immaculate. You can't even tell."
She heard Zee's breath release in a rush on the other end. "You had me worried there for a moment. Now kick back and don't call me or anyone at the company until tomorrow. Hear?"
Phlox ended the call and carefully laid down the sweat-slickened phone. Then her hands gripped the smooth, cool edges of the island, and she held on for dear life as the memories burned hot and raw over her. The way it had felt like she'd been hit by a wall of fire, the sudden shock of it rendering her unable to breathe ... scream ... even moan. The thought that she was going to die unless she could somehow get to her phone in the foyer.
The agony of crawling over the wood floors on her knees and elbows.
The frustration of not being able to say more than just "help" to the dispatch officer.
The feeling that dying right that instant might be preferable to waiting for help.
Jared's head snapped up as the screen door slapped open with enough force he was afraid it was going to come off its hinges. He watched as the young woman burst out of the house, flew over the expanse of porch, her feet touching down on the edge of the wooden floor just long enough to propel her body out and over the granite steps. When she landed on the stone pavers of the patio, her body seemed to crumple beneath her and she hit the ground hard.
Jared jumped up from the rosebush he was pruning and ran over to her.
"Are you okay?" Damn. What had just happened?
She whimpered. Did that mean yes she was okay or no she wasn't? He touched her arm. "Hey, what happened in there?" He glanced up at the porch. Something had spooked her, the way she practically exploded from the house.
"Just needed some fresh air," she gasped.
She pushed her body into a sitting position and brushed off her knees. The stone pavers had scraped them raw and droplets of blood were congealing on her skin.
"You need to get those cleaned up. Come on."
Jared scooped her up in his arms and carried her back into the house. Fuck. She smelled so good, like roses and the wind. The skin of her bare legs was soft on his arms. And when he dropped his eyes—which he did because he was only a man and a man who didn't often find himself this close to a living, breathing woman—he could see the gentle swell of her breasts and a sliver of white lace where her tank top gapped open.
He'd never carried a woman in his arms before. It was surprising how nice it felt, actually. In the instant before he set her down on a chair in her kitchen, he imagined carrying her upstairs and into her bedroom, lying her down on a fluffy comforter and ...
A tiny gargled noise coming from her throat knocked him back into reality. Shit. He gently lowered her onto a wicker-seated chair. She was looking away from him, toward the opposite wall of the kitchen. Of course she was, now that she'd gotten an up close and personal look at his mug. When she drove up in her sexy car, he had intended simply to watch her from afar, not get close enough for her to see him. Certainly not carry her soft, pliable body in his arms.
She continued to stare across the kitchen, pretending to look at the sparkling stainless steel range. And that was fine. Jared didn't like making other people uncomfortable.
"Do you have any bandages? Antiseptic cream? You need to get those knees cleaned up." He glanced down at her knees. She was going to have some lovely bruises on them come morning. His eyes dropped further, to her feet. Her toenails were painted a bright pink that matched her tank top exactly. He lifted his gaze back up to her head. She was still staring at the wall. He was consumed with a desire to see her face. He hadn't gotten a good look at her face when she arrived, and of course he hadn't looked at her as he carried her in. He didn't want to see that look in her eyes, the flat sheen of horror every person felt when they saw Jared's scarred and lumpy face for the first time.
He needed to make sure she was okay—he didn't want to get fired for not helping the owner's daughter—and then leave. "Bandages?" he repeated.
"There should be some upstairs," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "In the bathroom."
"Which one?" There were four bathrooms in the house.
Well, he’d figure it out. He took the stairs two at a time and opened the door to the first bathroom he came to. He opened the old medicine cabinet, looked beneath the vanity. Nothing resembling bandages in either place. He checked the other two guest baths and came up similarly empty-handed. He looked down the hallway to the master suite. Was she staying in there? In her mother’s room?
He pushed open the wooden door and slowly stepped inside. He glanced around the room. Her mother had excellent, if expensive, taste in furniture. An antique four-poster bed dominated the space, covered by a colorful quilt. He knew there were names to the quilt blocks, thanks to his sister-in-law Mina who collected quilts, but he had no idea what this one was. It was pretty, though, feminine-looking in i
He hurried through the room to the bathroom on the other side. He yanked open the narrow linen closet and—eureka—there sat a white plastic box with a red cross on top. He grabbed the box and a washcloth and dashed back down the stairs.
He ran the kitchen tap to get the water warm. She was leaning over her knees, inspecting the damage. She still hadn’t looked directly at him. When he saw her fall, his face was the last thing on his mind. He’d simply sprung into action. Now, however, was a different matter. He would bandage up her knees and then get the hell out of there. The last thing he needed was her calling her mother and complaining about the ugly troll her assistant had hired. While Jared didn’t need the money, he did need the job.
“This may sting a bit,” he said as he kneeled before her, careful to keep his head down.
She gave a dismissive snort. Well, how was he to know? Some people were total wimps when it came to pain. He tried to ignore the smooth flesh of her thighs as he daubed gently at her scraped skin. Yeah, he definitely needed to get the hell out of here. He wasn’t used to being around women anymore, not this close anyway.
He struggled to keep his breathing under control as he uncapped a tube of ointment. Her skin was so warm, and her perfume smelled of roses and sweet vanilla. It made him want to bury his face between her breasts and just inhale as deeply as he could. Yeah, that won’t get your ass fired. He squeezed ointment onto his fingers and lightly rubbed it over her knees, then taped a square of gauze over each.
“What happened in here?” he asked, running his index finger along the tape to secure it against her skin. “Did you see a mouse? Smell gas? I need to call the gas company if you did.”
“No. Nothing happened. I’m fine now.”
That was the worst lie he’d heard in years. No one runs out of a house like a bat out of hell unless the house is on fire. And Jared had highly personal experience with running like a bat out of hell.