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Excerpt for Unsolicited Advice by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Unsolicited Advice

A Between the Sheets Romance

Melinda Di Lorenzo

 

 

Unsolicited Advice

Copyright © 2018 Melinda Di Lorenzo

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-947636-78-1

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Epilogue

The Between the Sheets series

Excerpt from Training the Temp

About the Author

Chapter One

Heidi Bluthe pinched the bridge of her nose and pushed her laptop across the desk. For a good hour, she’d been staring blankly at the screen, willing something to jump out at her from the pile of emails in her inbox. But all of it was slush. Reams of cheaters. Husbands, wives. Girlfriends, boyfriends. Siblings hating siblings. Best friends ditching best friends.

And such is the glamorous life of an advice columnist, Heidi thought.

With a sigh, she dragged the laptop back and searched for something that would make her want to channel her inner, snarky self onto the page. A glance at the little clock in the corner of the screen told her she had less than seventy-two hours to go until she had to turn in no less than five carefully worded responses. And really, her editor at Between The Sheets magazine preferred to get eight. “More choice,” said Rowena. But over the course of the last year, Heidi had decided that the woman just liked drama. She probably devoured it with the same fervor as the readers of Dear Miss Anonymous.

They wanted juicy stories and over-the-top questions that made them shake their heads. Moral turpitude. Spice. It was what they paid for. What she got paid for. And even though it wasn’t the genuine counseling work that Heidi had been trained for—or maybe because of it—she still felt a great deal of satisfaction in it. It was a fun job. One where no one knew who she really was, and one where no one cared, either. On top of that, the popularity of her two-page advice column meant she earned a decent salary, too. All in all, Heidi thought she was pretty damned lucky.

“So the drama’s what you have to give them,” she murmured to her laptop.

She stared at the screen a little longer, as if trying to glare something to life. When that didn’t work, she sent up a mental prayer to the gods of advice column writing.

Please let there be something here that will work.

But her efforts didn’t change a thing. And truthfully, she knew it was because her heart wasn’t in at the moment. Part of that, she knew, was the date looming on the desk calendar. Not that she’d circled it or marked it in any way. In fact, she’d left it completely blank. Which, in retrospect, might’ve been the wrong thing to do. She should’ve filled the upcoming square with ten different things. A fitness class. A yoga session. Anything to keep her mind off the one-year anniversary of the most trying time of her life.

But none of that stuff is an option, is it?

Heidi didn’t answer the silent, self-directed question. The nagging voice in her head had a real knack for pointing out the obvious. Her conscience, she supposed. And every time it reared up, she pictured a crotchety old woman—who looked remarkably like her fifth grade teacher—sitting on her shoulder and shaking her fist somewhere awfully close to Heidi’s ear.

With a sigh, she strummed her thumbs on the table and wondered a little absently if maybe her screening process had turned things a little stagnant. She had a pretty good filtering system in place. First, an automated bot weeded out the curse-filled messages. Then everything went through one of the assistants at the magazine’s head office. They took out anything political. Anything contentious. Any spam that slipped through, or anything too lewd. Finally, it came to Heidi herself, and she quickly did her own little dance through them. She never replied to anyone who she thought might need serious, psychological help. She filtered out the ones full of anger, too. She didn’t want a lawsuit. She didn’t want a fight. And she really didn’t want to steer someone in the wrong direction.

Not again, anyway, said her old lady conscience.

“Would you just shut up?” she said aloud to the nagging voice.

She pulled the computer even closer—like she could use it as shield—and skimmed the next few emails.

“Cheater, cheater.”

Delete, delete.

“Hate-my-sister, hate-my-brother.”

Delete, delete.

“Mom sleeping with stepson.”

A bit ew. And delete.

“Dad having an affair at work, aka, cheater.”

Delete.

“Ugh. Cheater. Would it kill you all to exercise a little restraint?”

Delete.

She exhaled a frustrated breath and resisted an urge to bang her head on her keyboard.

Then the old-fashioned wall clock hanging just behind her desk caught her eye, and she was reminded that she wasn’t doing herself any favors by criticizing every little thing that came through her inbox. And somehow, she’d already managed to waste another sixty minutes. Doing nothing. Which meant she was now down to less than seventy-one hours instead of seventy-two hours.

“Okay, Heidi,” she said. “You need a plan. First thing on the agenda. Pick one—just one, because that’s a start—Dear Miss Anonymous letter to answer.” She reached for her computer, then stopped. “Actually. Make that the second thing on the agenda. First, you should make a cup of coffee. You clearly need it.” She paused again, and shook her head. “Actually. Before both of those things, how about you stop talking to yourself? Oh, and maybe don’t refer to yourself in the third or second person, either.”

She started to answer that suggestion with a snide comeback, realized the irony of it, then clamped her lips together and pushed to her feet.

I’ve got this, she told herself.

She was probably a little overly pleased that the reassurance was both silent, and appropriately first person. But she didn’t care. She knew that the self-affirmation wasn’t just about that. It was a reassurance that she would get through the next seventy-one hours. She’d complete her work on time, just as she always did. And she’d make it through this awful anniversary without completely losing it.

“I’ve got this,” she repeated aloud, stepping confidently toward her kitchen.

But she no sooner lifted the coffee canister from the counter and started to scoop the pre-ground beans into the coffeepot than the universe decided to throw her the mother of all curve balls. Or maybe it—he—was the father of all curve balls. Because he was undoubtedly a man. A few feet into her backyard, and perfectly in view through her kitchen window.

A very attractive man, her usually ornery sub-conscious pointed out.

And for once, Heidi couldn’t disagree with the little old lady on her shoulder.

The strange man had to be six foot three or more. She’d bet her solitary, advice columnist existence on it. And she’d always been a sucker for a tall, lean man. From where she stood, she could see the details of his face, too. The cleft in his chin. The hint of dimples in his cheeks. His square, even jaw, and his mouth—full and firm-looking. His hair was an interesting color—a shade too dark to be true blond and a shade too light to be called brown. It hung a little long in the front. Like he sensed Heidi’s scrutiny, he lifted a hand—tidily groomed but still masculine—and flicked back the hair in question. Unconsciously, she leaned forward, trying to catch a glimpse of his eyes. And a heartbeat later, she got what she wished for. He lifted his face and tilted it to fix his gaze her way. Blue-gray. Like an incoming summer storm.

He took the smallest step forward then, and Heidi’s brain finally caught up and issued a belated warning.

There isn’t supposed to be an attractive man in your backyard, it reminded her.

To get there, he would’ve had to ignore the large, red-and-black No Trespassing sign at the end of her front pathway. He would’ve had to have walked past her front door. And he would’ve had to bypass the padlocked gate that led to the thick rosebushes where he stood now.

Shit.

Slowly, with her heart in her throat and her stare still locked on his, she reached for her phone. But in her eagerness to grab it, she forgot that she still held the coffee scoop in one hand. As her fingers went for the slim device that sat on the edge of her counter, they loosened their grip on the scoop. It dropped down, spraying ground beans up to her mouth as it fell.

Heidi drew in a startled breath, then doubled over, choking on the coffee. The forward motion sent her forehead straight into the solid countertop. She barely had time to let out a shriek, but she was strangely sure that as the blackness overtook her, she heard a distinctly British voice yell out, “Bloody hell!”

William Rutherford dropped the noisy curse, then tried to stride forward, completely forgetting he was stuck. Startled, he swung around. Just as they had been for the last four or five minutes, his trousers remained attached to the over-excited rosebush behind him.

He swung his gaze back to the house. The dark-haired woman showed no sign of reappearing.

“Double bloody hell!”

He tried again to yank himself free. He wasn’t even rewarded with the satisfaction of a tear. If anything, he only got himself more thoroughly tangled.

He could swear that just five minutes ago, he’d been on his way to solving the problems that had plagued him for the last year. After nine months of brooding—and no, he didn’t believe that time frame was a coincidence—he’d finally given birth to the idea that brought him to this moment. A month more of fervent research, and he’d at last tracked down the woman who ruined his life.

Heidi Bluthe.

The name, plucked from weeks of endless research, had brought him more than a modicum of satisfaction. So had driving up to her house. So had knowing that his fate sat just on the other side of the out-of-the-way bungalow on the outskirts of Seattle. He’d bloody relished it.

“And now you’ve probably inadvertently knocked her unconscious, haven’t you?” he muttered. “Right sorry state.”

He started to reach for his mobile phone, then stopped. How the hell would he explain the scenario to the police?

Oh, hello. Sorry about all this. Was just stalking this lovely American citizen in her home country—in her home, in fact—and I might’ve caused a near-death accident. Oh, is that illegal here in the States? Didn’t mean to break the local laws. Sure, I’ll gladly spend a year in one of your lovely prisons.

“Triple bloody hell,” he muttered.

He cast a look around the back garden in search of an answer. He didn’t see one. After another second, though, he realized he had an answer right in front of him.

With an unsuppressed groan, he dropped his fingers to his belt and fumbled to loosen it. The metal was slippery, his hands uncooperative.

Come on, mate, he said to himself. It’s just a sodding belt. You undo it every day. Ten times. Maybe more.

At last he got it free. He moved onto his button, then his zipper, relieved that both things were more cooperative than the belt. Exhaling, he kicked off his shoes, dropped the trousers to the ground stepped out of them, then renewed his efforts to get to the bungalow. He got to the back door in seconds. There, he let out a relieved breath. The relief only lasted as long as it took for his hand to close on the handle and find it unyielding.

Locked.

It wasn’t surprising, but it was irritating as all hell. It also meant that he’d need to try the front. He shot his discarded pants a final, disgusted look, then jogged off from the back door to the fence. He grabbed a hold of the gate and pulled. It didn’t move.

William growled. “For the love of…what’s she expecting? An invasion?”

He looked down at his underwear. Not exactly the best climbing attire.

Then again, you were fully clothed the first time, and look where that landed you.

Muttering to himself, he grabbed a hold of the nearest fence slat, then heaved himself over. Thankfully, he cleared it without too much bother. Just a solitary splinter and an off-kilter landing. He quickly righted himself, then moved on, wading through the overgrown grass to the front of the bungalow. He took the rickety stairs, two at a time, then paused on the porch to pray for a spot of luck. He reached for the doorknob. It didn’t move.

“Right, then,” he said.

He eyed the nearest window. Undoubtedly, it was locked as well.

Smash it? offered a not-so-prudent voice in his head.

“And just add that to the list of things the police are unlikely to understand,” he muttered, spinning to look for another option.

The front of the house was in just as much of a disastrous state as the rear. Knee-high grass decorated the entire front garden. Colorful weeds sprouted out here and there, adding a splash of unintentional sprightliness. The profusion of foliage nearly masked the late model hatchback that sat up near the top of the driveway. The car—in spite of its year—seemed to be in complete disuse. The rear, driver’s side tire was flat, and the grass from the yard had crept up and grown past the hubcaps. A stone walkway led from it to the house. Cracked and uneven. Dotted with wild, long-stemmed buttercups that were of no use to a man who wanted to break into a house.

“Bloody lawsuit waiting to happen, though, isn’t it?”

None of it was of any help.

Truth be told, when he’d first parked his truck down at the bottom of the gravel drive, he’d questioned whether or not anyone lived there at all. Even the affirmation from his ever-reliable GPS hadn’t quite convinced him. His doubt prompted him to take a quick look around rather than rushing in. And the exploration was what had led to demise.

He’d leaned over the fence in an attempt to get a glimpse of the inside of the house, and immediately dropped his entire set of keys straight into a rosebush. He’d had no choice but to climb the hip-high fence to retrieve them. When he’d bent to grab them, though, the overgrown foliage had unceremoniously taken a hold of his trousers. Then stubbornly refused to let him go no matter how he twisted and pulled. Stubborn bugger of a plant.

As is evidenced by the fact that you’re standing here without them, staring at a ceramic frog in your underwear while you…

“Hang on.”

A ceramic frog.

He stepped toward the decoration, bent down, and tipped it over. Sure enough, a silver key sat beneath it. Triumphant, William snatched it up. He turned to the door, jammed it into the lock, and twisted. A satisfying click told him it was a perfect match. Leaving the key where it was, he slid his palm to the knob. This time, it slid smoothly open.

“Aha!”

The pleased exclamation no sooner left his lips than an unidentified projectile came flying his way.

William considered himself to be a man with good reflexes.

He’d played football—the proper, non-American kind—his whole life.

He’d dabbled in martial arts as a much younger man.

And in his hometown near Southsea, he’d been the only person—ever—to win the bonus in the pinball machine at the arcade. Which, he was proud to say, he’d done twice.

Unfortunately, none of it prepared him for the unexpected attack. He didn’t duck. He didn’t dive out of the way. He took it straight in the face.

The impact was far from pleasant. It stung like a bitch, actually, and made him yelp in a way that would’ve earned him some serious laughs on the soccer pitch.

His hand lifted to touch the already-tender spot, and his watery vision fixed on the woman in front of him. “What, in God’s name—”

He didn’t get to finish.

“Sorry!” the woman gasped.

Then she yanked the key out of the lock and soundly slammed the door in his face.

Chapter Two

The moment the door left Heidi’s fingers, she realized her mistake.

“Oh, God,” she muttered, pushing to her tiptoes to peer through the peephole.

The tall, still-attractive man—now in his underwear—clutched at one eye and turned in a small circle on her porch.

“Oh, God,” Heidi groaned again.

He was clearly in search of her weapon. Her spontaneous, panic-driven weapon. Which she currently needed.

“Oh, God.”

She sank down from the peephole, fear increasing in steady increments with each already-quick heartbeat. What had she been thinking?

Of all the things to throw, Heidi…

The solid smack of her ass on the tile floor in her kitchen had clearly addled her brain even before that, though. Because when she’d stood up, her first concern hadn’t been a worry about the fact that somewhere outside was a strange man with unknown intentions. She didn’t wonder if he was planning a robbery. Or consider whether he was a squatter in search of a place to sleep. No. She just hoped he hadn’t seen her fall. She was worried about embarrassment. Humiliation. So much so that she’d felt compelled to check if he had seen her demise.

Except her cautious peek out the kitchen window had told her he wasn’t there. And for a brief moment, she’d questioned herself. Asked if she’d imagined him. A tall, British—yes, she was certain about the accented cursing, if nothing else—phantom. But then she’d spotted the pants. Abandoned by the rose bush. Khakis, if she wasn’t mistaken. Puzzlement had only lasted a few moments before reason kicked in.

She had to call the police. Had to. Personal preference, irrational fear, and all else needed to be pushed aside in favor of self-preservation.

But before she could force herself to dial 911, the key had leaped to her somewhat foggy mind. And her instincts screamed that he would find it. So in a desperate attempt to get there first, she’d bolted for the front door, only to realize it was too late. The knob twisted. The door opened. And panic had made her react badly.

“Oh, God.”

She knew she was starting to sound like a parody, and she clamped her lips shut to keep from saying it one more time. She started to push up for another look outside, but a sharp rap on the door cut her off. In fact, it made her squeal like a stuck pig, then jump back.

“Heidi Bluthe?” called the man.

He knows your name. Okay. Don’t freak out. Don’t answer at all. Don’t—

“Miss Anonymous?” he said.

“Shit,” she mumbled.

He not only knew her name. He knew her secret identity.

Damn, damn, damn. How?

“Are you okay?” he asked.

The question startled her into answering. “What?”

“Are you okay?” he repeated. “I was a touch worried you might’ve banged your head.”

She stared at the closed door. Her underwear-wearing intruder was worried about her? That didn’t exactly match up with her mental image of what a trespasser sounded like. Then a realization hit her, and she stifled a groan. Because his concern meant something else. He most definitely had seen her fall.

“Heidi?” he called.

“I’m here,” she replied. “And my head’s fine.”

Then she had to stifle another groan. You do not out him any attention. Even if he doesn’t properly fit the crazed stalker profile.

“That’s good news,” he said.

“Um…thanks?”

Seriously, Heidi…what is wrong with you? Tell him to leave.

But he spoke first. “I have to admit…you don’t quite fit the profile I’d built up in my head.”

For some inexplicable reason—maybe because she’d just been thinking almost the same thing and it caught her off-guard—Heidi answered him again. “Why? What were you expecting?”

“Mm. I had two options, really. One being the all-American cheerleader. You know what I mean. Bouncy ponytail. Big smile. Rah-rah to your face, then a knife in your back. Sharing your opinion with the world by doling out snarky opinions.”

His voice was laced with heavy amusement, and in spite of the way her brain protested against it—more for absurdity reasons than for safety ones—Heidi stepped forward again, and took a peek through the peephole. The Brit had moved back from the door a bit, and didn’t look at all bothered by the fact that he was standing there in his underwear. Boxer briefs. Black. Snug. And leaving his long, leanly muscled legs on display. He wasn’t just good-looking. He was hot. Damn him. And as Heidi continued to watch, he lifted a hand and tapped his chin thoughtfully, a charming little smile playing over his mouth.

“So you’re not that, then,” he said. “Can’t see that a cheerleader would attack a guest at her door.”

Heidi rolled her eyes, but refrained from pointing out that he was an intruder, not a guest, and that he’d been sneaking around in her backyard, not knocking politely on her door. She actually wanted to hear what he had to say.

And he was already moving on his musings anyway. “The second option was a self-righteous old bat who looked an awful lot like my year-seven school marm. She was a sixty-something women who all the lads suspected had stayed a virgin on purpose, and wanted to make everyone suffer as a result. Never smiled. Not unless she was getting ready to rap some knuckles with a ruler, anyway.”

Heidi wrinkled her nose. A school marm or a cheerleader. Was that what people pictured when they thought about Miss Anonymous? Personally, she would’ve gone with a young librarian. Bookish. Smart. A touch of sass hidden under tortoise shell glasses and –

“What’re you talking about?” she muttered, at herself then sank down on heels, cleared her throat, and called, “Those were very…uh…colorful descriptions. But if you don’t leave in thirty seconds or less, I’m going to be forced to call the cops.”

“Which one sent you over the edge?” he replied. “The teacher bit or the cheerleader?”

“Neither. I—ugh.” Why, oh why, did she keep answering him? “I’m calling them. I mean it!”

“Do you now?”

“Yes!”

“All right, then.”

“What?”

“Go ahead. I’ll just wait for them to get here.”

“You’ll…what?”

“I feel an obligation to stay,” he told her, that same dry amusement in his voice. “I’m actually getting worried for your general safety. I mean, just the fact that this door is so thin that we can carry on a conversation is concerning.”

“So thin?” She frowned at the door, then discerned what he might be implying. “Is that a threat?”

“A threat?” he echoed, sounding genuinely puzzled.

“To kick the door in.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Heidi realized that she’d probably just given him an idea, and this time she couldn’t suppress her groan. Dammit.

But the Brit’s delayed reply was tinged with more humor. “I don’t know if I should be a little flattered that you think I’m so dangerous, or if I should be horrified by it.”

“Flattered by my assumption that you’d commit violence?”

“Flattered that you think I could wreak such destruction while in my socks and underwear.” He paused. “But no. I’m not going to kick in your door. I’m merely pointing out that you sounded a little doubtful about calling in the cavalry.”

“I did not.”

“Did so.”

“I did n – ugh. Could you please just leave?”

“Very polite,” he replied. “But no.”

She blew out an exasperated breath. “Why not?”

“Honestly? I’m a touch worried about the politeness, too.”

“What?”

“I’m a touch –”

“I heard you. I just don’t know what you mean.”

“Think about it,” he said. “Some maniac shows up at your door. Demands to know who you are. Then you threaten to call the police. But the maniac can tell you won’t really do it. And then you ask nicely for the maniac to leave.”

“So you admit that you’re a maniac?” she replied.

“Would a maniac stay here just to keep you safe from yourself?”

She let out an exasperate sigh and weighed her options. He clearly had no interest in walking away. But he hadn’t said what he wanted, either. And in spite of his claim (ish) that he was a maniac—and in spite of the weird circumstances, too—he didn’t give off a dangerous vibe. If anything, he was almost…charming.

Except for the stalking, Heidi’s conscience piped up. And the pant-less-ness. And that whole unmasking your identity thing. But other than that. Harmless.

“Shut up,” she muttered.

She hazarded another glance outside. Her oh-so-charming stalker had his hands on his hips now, his summer storm gaze fixed directly on the peephole.

“Heidi?” he prompted.

She sighed and opted for the truth, hoping it would spur him to…something. Leave, maybe? Take pity on her?

“Look,” she said. “I’d like to call the police. But I can’t.”

“You can’t?” he echoed.

“No.”

“Care to tell me why?”

“My phone is out there.”

“What?”

“I threw it at you,” she admitted.

“Ah. That explains my headache,” he said, his attention turning from her door to the ground.

“Sorry,” she replied automatically.

“And now you’re apologizing again? You really ought to – aha!”

He bent down abruptly, giving Heidi an embarrassingly thorough view of his ass. She stared for a moment, then flushed as she realized she was checking him out.

He stood up again, a familiar gray phone in his hands. “I guess you’re in a bit of trouble, now, aren’t you?”

She swallowed, suddenly nervous. “Why? What are you going to do?”

“Not much. Just sit here, holding your phone hostage until you come out and give me what I want.”

“That’s not happening.”

“Don’t worry, luv. I’ve got nothing but time.” He directed a smile toward the peephole.

“I hope you have a year, because that’s how long you’ll be waiting.”

“But I’ve got a bit of ammunition, haven’t I, that should speed things along?”

Dread suddenly sent Heidi’s heart hammering. It wasn’t William himself that made her upper lip break out in a sweat. His tone was as light as it had been from the beginning, and it was hard to be intimidated by a man whose ass had sent her mouth watering a moment earlier. It was just that she knew what was coming.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she lied, her voice so quiet she was surprised he could hear it enough to respond.

“Sure you do, luv. I know who you are. And I know you’d prefer it if no one else did. So I’ll wait. And when you’re ready, we can chat.”

Then he took a few steps back and made himself comfortable on the long, cushion-covered bench that sat against the porch railing.

“Buggered that up, didn’t you, mate?” William murmured at the now silent door.

He didn’t know if Heidi still stood on the other side or not, but she hadn’t said a word since he suggested he might expose her identity if she didn’t cooperate.

You mean the blackmail, you right bastard?

He couldn’t quite shove aside the sour taste left behind by the way the words had come out. It was supposed to have been a last resort. An ace up his sleeve. In case of an emergency only. Break glass. Pull the alarm, extract the solution, et cetera, et cetera. Something to suggest if—and only if—things were going poorly, and Miss Anonymous hadn’t been responsive to his request.

But you didn’t even get as far as telling her what you wanted, did you? Nearly a year of work, tracking her down, and instead of doing what you came to do, you chatted about cheerleaders and school teachers.

He eyed the door again, wondering if he ought to holler out his demands now, or if that would just make him seem like more of a bloody fool.

Or you could apologize.

But he had a feeling it would come across as insincere. A backpedal. Or worse yet, she might call him out for it, insist that he wouldn’t expose her at all, and then what? It didn’t change the fact that he needed her.

He glanced down at his watch, wondering how things had gone so abysmally wrong. The seconds had already ticked into minutes. The minutes would soon slide by as well. He shook his head. Not likely that she’d have jumped at a chance to hear him out now. A chat and a cuppa were hardly the typical follow-up to a man making threats in his skivvies. But sooner or later, Heidi Bluthe would come back to the door. No woman William had met in the last decade could go long without her phone.

What makes you think she’s like every other woman?

He grunted an acknowledgement. He’d been telling the truth when he’d said she wasn’t what he’d expected. Certainly not anything close to being a know-it-all who handed out life-ruining advice like it was candy.

What Heidi Bluthe was…was a right mess. A woman who not only looked like she probably didn’t know it all, but a woman who looked like she might be clueless about damned near everything.

Fly-away hair, near-black in color.

Wild, worried eyes, the darkest shade of brown.

Dressed like she’d just crawled out of bed after a three-day bender. On a bloody Wednesday.

Wearing slippers that his blind, ninety-year-old gran wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Checkered shorts that were so short they bordered on pornographic.

A shirt so hideous it bordered on comedic.

Yet for some unfathomable reason, her looks did hold a certain appeal. Or they would for someone who was into that sort of thing.

“Not me,” William stated as he crossed his arms over his chest in stubborn denial of the fact that her looks and awkward replies were what had disarmed him and derailed his plan and sent him straight to blackmail.

What? You’re so far above it all that you can’t appreciate a finely curved arse and set of completely kissable lips?

He narrowed his eyes, annoyed at himself. He hadn’t even realized until right that second that he’d noticed her lips at all. Of course, now that he was thinking about it, he had to admit that he had taken slightly more stock of her looks than he probably should have. Especially considering that he’d been staring at her for no more than a few seconds and had only one good eye.

Doesn’t change that you somehow managed to take a complete inventory, though, does it?

It was true. And yes, dammit. Her lips were plump. Lush, even. Kissable was an understatement. When he closed his eyes, he could picture her, head to toe. He could see those exposed legs. So fair that they’d all but disappear in the white cotton sheets William favored.

An unexpected—and thoroughly unwanted—rush of lust hit William then, and it startled him almost as badly as her initial appearance had done. He couldn’t recall the last time such a specific trickle of desire had run through him like that. He cast a look down at one particularly traitorous body part, half-wondering why the hell it was wasting time with a woman in a dog shirt.

“Not just a dog shirt,” he grumbled. “A dog shirt with sequined eyes.”

He shifted his attention to his surroundings, trying to piece together a little more about who Heidi was—other than a source of distraction for his underused libido, of course.

His eyes locked on the folded flyers. He’d barely noticed them when he first stepped onto the porch, and hadn’t thought much about why they were there. Staring at them now, he realized they weren’t really sitting in a stack, like someone had delivered them with the newspapers. They were scattered loosely. Used. Crumpled or partially folded. They had staples in the corners, or holes where staples had been—like they’d been ripped off and discarded. Possibly by accident. Because in spite of the signs of neglect on the parts away from the house—and despite Heidi’s appearance—what little William could see of the interior of the house were clean and tidy.

The windows were un-smudged and covered in crisp, mostly-closed curtains. Each one of those was cream-colored and covered in almost indistinguishable flowers. Through one pane of glass, he spied a glimpse of a book-lined shelf. It was organized—tallest book to shortest. Through another, he noted a collage of photos, hung on the wall with care. It looked like a house someone took care of.

Which led him to question the discrepancy. It crossed his mind that maybe a single woman just didn’t know how to keep up the exterior of her house. Then he dismissed that idea, silently apologizing to his mum, who’d been sure to teach him there was nothing a man could do that a woman couldn’t do, too.

He wondered if maybe Heidi just didn’t have time. Except a woman who organized her books like that cared about the order of things.

If she doesn’t have time, why not hire someone? Pride?

It didn’t add up. Her secretive nature. The dilapidated state of the yard. Her very organized house, and her quick-witted column in the bloody awful women’s magazine.

William’s eyes came back to the folded pamphlets, trying to suss it out. Feeling like even more of an intruder than he knew he already was, he grabbed a couple from the cracked wood and examined them. Two were from restaurants, one was from a local grocery store. Normal enough. He grabbed a fourth and noted it was for an online clothing store. Also normal. The woman liked to shop online. For everything, apparently. Still not all that weird.

He sank back down, tapped the pamphlets against his leg, and tried to ignore the sudden rumble in his stomach. It was no small feat. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and there was a pleasant, garlicky scent drifting out from Heidi’s house.

“Sure,” he said to the closed door. “Today’s the day you don’t order takeout.”

His own words gave him pause. He was sure there was something there, even if he couldn’t quite put his finger on what.

“Could actually do with some Chinese takeout,” he muttered. “Or maybe a curry.”

Then, like he’d magically summoned it into existence, a minivan turned up the driveway. It rolled to a slow stop, just the other side of the hatchback, and made William privy to a puzzling exchange. It appeared to be an argument between the driver—a thirty-something woman with a tidy ponytail—and a little girl—just visible from where William sat—in the back of the van. The woman was nodding encouragingly. The kid was shaking her head vehemently. After a few seconds of inaudible push and pull, one of the side doors slid open, and not one, but three little girls climbed out. Each was dressed in a matching uniform, and each clutched a box in her hands. And at last he placed them.

Biscuit-selling Girl Scouts.

They approached the house timidly, jostling each other and carrying on a failed attempt at a whispered conversation that made William frown.

You go first,” said the one with little blond pigtails.

“No you,” said the one with the freckle-covered face.

“My brother says it’s not haunted,” said the tallest in the bunch.

“He also told you he knows Justin Bieber,” pointed out Freckles.

They all slowed down as they got a little closer, and Blondie gave Little Miss Tall a nudge.

“You go first,” she said in another pseudo-whisper.

“Uh-uh,” Little Miss Tall replied quickly. “It was your mom who made us come here.”

Suddenly, William’s frown cleared. It hit him like an epiphany, and he stood up without thinking about it. All three little girls screamed.

“He’s in his underwear!” Blondie shouted.

“Run!” Freckles added.

Little Miss Tall was already on her way, the box she’d been holding falling to the ground as her long legs propelled her ahead of the other two. William only half-watched as they high-tailed it back to the minivan. He barely noticed the worried look the driver shot his way as she quickly backed out of the driveway. Instead, he turned to the door, the idea in his mind solidifying even more. He took a few steps closer, then paused. In no particular hurry, he strolled to where the abandoned box had landed. He snapped it up, popped it open, then strolled back to the door, biscuit in hand.

Chapter Three

Heidi could feel the odd placement of her jaw. It was hanging somewhere down near her cleavage.

“Four years,” she grumbled. “Four years!”

It was how long she’d been living in the little bungalow. And not once over the course of those four years had a single Girl Scout come calling. Not one box of cookies had ever graced her front porch. Yet today—of all days—there they were the uniformed girls. Throwing cookies at the man who’d been sitting on her favorite bench for the half hour. The man who was trying to blackmail her.

Trying to?

“Yes, trying to,” she muttered as she sagged down and leaned against the wall in the front hall. “He hasn’t succeeded yet.”

But the bottom line was…he would succeed. Because just the thought of the world—or even the greater Seattle area—knowing that she was the person behind the Miss Anonymous column was almost enough to make her fling the door open. She’d actually spent the better part of the last thirty minutes forcing herself not to do it. Well. Dividing her time between that and sneaking glances outside in hopes that he might’ve simply given up and left. And also worrying that if he did give up and leave, it would only be to follow through on his threat. So she’d checked the pants in the backyard on repeat as well. Because she was damned sure he didn’t have a set of keys hidden in his boxer briefs, and she wanted to be extra sure that he didn’t have the means of leaving. Just in case she had to chase after him. Or yell after him, if she was being realistic.

She breathed out, frustrated that she couldn’t see an easy way to free herself from the situation. Even if she could somehow break free of the invisible barrier that held her trapped behind her own front door, the only solution that seemed remotely possible was going out the backdoor. Or—since was positing wild ideas anyway—maybe a window.

But once she was out, what would she do?

Her house backed onto a ravine that was pretty much a guaranteed broken leg. Her nearest neighbor was three and a half miles down the road, and she wasn’t even sure the little old man who lived there would recognize her. If he did, there was still the matter of actually getting there. Not exactly a cakewalk. Heidi’s car was directly in front of her little bungalow, and her brand-spanking new, personal stalker would have a nice view of her as she climbed in. And the idea of going that far on foot was overwhelming. Even if she could manage to push through her anxiety about it, what were the chances that her new friend wouldn’t notice her escape? He probably had some kind of supersonic hearing. Or had set up a booby trap. A string of empty cans strung across the window, maybe.

You’re really starting to lose it, Heidi, she thought, knowing full-well she’d just reverted back to second person again, too. He’s not some super villain. Just your average, everyday stalker. With a charming British appeal. Who’s probably eating cookies on your porch now.

She fought a need to look out the peephole to check. She knew perfectly well what she’d find. Aside from the recent Girl Scout incident, the Brit had barely moved a muscle. Not that she’d seen, anyway. A couple of times, she’d caught him with his eyes closed. But she was dead sure he wasn’t sleeping. Just resting. Biding his time. And even though a part of her head reasoned that she should be scared—after all, she was overly anxious at the best of time—all that was really happening was that Heidi was getting more and more annoyed.

How dare the bastard sit on her front stoop like he owned it? How dare he suggest that she couldn’t take care of herself? How dare he man-spread his denim-clad legs like that and cross his arms in a way that perfectly showcased the more-than-slight bulge of his biceps as he stuffed a cookie into his mouth?

Heidi jumped back from the door as she realized she’d disobeyed her own, self-directed command. She’d unconsciously crept to the door and peeked without even meaning to.

She sighed. If that was going to start happening, she was going to have to build a barbed wire fence between the kitchen and that hall, just to keep herself out.

Because clearly that’s the better solution than climbing out a window, she thought sarcastically.

“But he has to give up sooner or later,” she said to the empty hall. “Right?”

Surely he had a job of some kind. He didn’t look like a vagrant. His clothes—what was left of them, anyway—were clean, his face nicely shaven. And of course, she’d already noted the well-kept state of his hands. Maybe she’d even unconsciously thought about those hands a few times as she paced her house and tried to thinks of ways to get him to leave. And maybe over the last half hour, a few of the times she’d looked outside, his fingers had caught her eye, and it might’ve occurred to her—absently and inappropriately—that he might have the kind of hands that felt nice to hold. Maybe.

But none of that changed the fact that it was Wednesday. A workday for normal people. Not that she thought he was normal by any stretch. But he certainly didn’t seem to need to be anywhere.

He could be self-employed. Or on vacation. But still…

He’d eventually have to use the bathroom.

“Of course, with his luck, he won’t have to,” she muttered. “A toilet will probably drop out of the sky.”

But there were other things that would send him on his way. He’d get hungry in a way that cookies couldn’t satisfy. Or run out of cookies. And in that respect, Heidi knew she had to have an advantage. With the exception of her recently depleted coffee supply, her kitchen was stocked enough to last a week. Two, if she dived into her canned goods. Longer if she rationed.

Longer if you ration? This isn’t the zombie apocalypse. This is a strange man, sitting on your doorstep. Who will leave far sooner than a week from now.

“And hopefully take his blackmail with him.” Heidi sighed, then added, “I really need to stop talking to myself.”

She eyed the door, pursed her lips, and stepped forward to steal another look. Then jumped back as the strange man’s voice carried through, loud and clear.

“Fancy a biscuit?” he asked.

She stumbled hard into the wall. “Ouch!”

“I’ll take that as a no,” said her stalker.

“I’ve got plenty of my own food, thank you very much,” Heidi replied.

“Maybe so. But is any of it a Thin Mint?”

“I don’t even like Thin Mints.”

“More for me then.”

“Listen, mister…” she trailed off as she realized she had no clue what to call him. Mister Stalker? Mister Blackmailer?

“It’s Rutherford,” he said, his tone annoyingly helpful.

“Rutherford?” she repeated.

“I know. It’s very posh-sounding. But I assure you, I’m as far removed from royalty as you can get.”

“You don’t say.”

He laughed. And even more annoying than his helpfulness was the fact that it was a full, rich chuckle. A nice sound. One that matched the pleasant, masculine appearance of his hands and had no right coming from the mouth of a stalker.

“First name’s William, by the way,” he added.

Heidi rolled her eyes so hard she half-expected him to hear it through the door. “I can’t exactly say it’s nice to meet you.”

“I suppose not.” There was a pause, and then he asked, “Are we really going to carry on this whole transaction with the door closed?”

“Transaction? Oh. You mean the thing where you have me trapped in my house while you stand out on my porch in your underwear and blackmail me.”

“To be fair, it wasn’t my intention to do any of this without my trousers.”

“Without your trousers,” Heidi grumbled under her breath, then said in a louder voice, “Then I guess you shouldn’t have decided to start a fight with my sister’s roses.”

“Your sister’s roses?” He—William—echoed.

She clamped her lips shut. It wasn’t what she’d meant to say at all. And she hadn’t even realized she had said it until he pointed it out.

She swiftly changed the subject. “Either way, you’re still holding me hostage and threatening my livelihood.”

Her words were met with momentary silence, and she had to force herself not to check to see if her unwanted guest had suddenly keeled over. He took a few moments to answer, and when he did respond, it was just to pose his own long-winded question.

“You know what strikes me as odd?” he asked. “You just had a perfect escape opportunity, and you didn’t take it. You could’ve come running out here, screaming bloody murder to those Girl Scouts and her mom. You could’ve told them I was holding you hostage. But you didn’t. I wonder why?”

“That would’ve been over-the-top, don’t you think?”

“Would it?” His slightly dismissive, slightly disbelieving tone irked her for no good reason.

“Yes,” she said coolly. “It would have.”

“I have another theory,” he replied. “Care to hear it?”

“No.”

“Then I guess you’d better walk away from the door, because I’m telling you anyway.”

Heidi narrowed her eyes. His words made it so that if she did leave, it could be perceived as taking orders from him. But staying gave him what he wanted, too. She didn’t get a chance to decide which was worse before he started speaking again.

“I think the reason you’re staying in there isn’t that I’m holding you hostage at all. I think you’re staying in there because you can’t come out,” he said.

Heidi drew a breath, suddenly lightheaded. And when she answered him, her voice was so faint that she was surprised he heard it all. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then. Prove it.”

“What?”

“Open this door,” he said. “Come out and walk past me. If you do, I’ll leave. In fact…I won’t even tell you what I came for, and I promise that I’ll completely retract my blackmail threat.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“I reckon it’s worth a go. Don’t you?”

Heidi closed her eyes. She took a breath and reached for the door. Immediately, the air around her rushed away, and a familiar, doubting voice filled her head, telling her she couldn’t do it. Shouldn’t do it. That even if she thought she could manage to muster up enough mental strength, it still wouldn’t be enough.

So this is it, she thought. My choice is between giving away my secret and making myself go outside.

She blew out the breath she was holding. She knew full-well that the decision would be easy for just about anyone else. Really easy. But she also knew that she wasn’t quite the same as anyone else.

She opened her eyes and mouth at the same time, prepared to admit as much to William. He spoke first, his voice surprisingly gentle.

“Coming out, Heidi?”

And for some reason it gave her just the push she needed.

She flipped each lock open once again, then pushed open the door, and found herself just inches away from William Rutherford’s ocean-storm eyes.

William blinked in surprise at Heidi’s sudden reappearance. He truly hadn’t expected her to come out. Or even to open the door, for that matter. He was so certain he’d been correct in his conclusion. The poorly kept yard. The pile of online ordering evidence. The fact that Heidi’s house was “that” house.

So when she met his gaze with a determined, defiant one of her own, he was—as his dear old granddad would say—right flummoxed. Rendered temporarily and uncharacteristically speechless.

He stared wordlessly at her. Drinking in her wide, coffee-without-the-cream eyes. Inwardly smiling at the sequined dog shirt. Worrying a little absently about a tiny bruise on her arm. Wondering if she was about to prove him dead wrong.

She lifted a slipper-covered foot and placed it on the threshold. She put both hands on the door frame. She took the smallest step onto the porch. Then she swayed. And William shot out his arms just in time to stop her from falling forward. She clung to him, her hands snaking around his waist to clutch tightly to his lower back, and her sudden nearness assaulted him on all fronts.

Her sweet, vanilla cupcake scent filled his nose.

Her warm body folded into him like it belonged there.

Her wisp of soft, dark hair tickled the underside of his chin.

The unexpected physical contact was undeniably pleasant, and the wave of attraction that’d hit him hard earlier came back with a vengeance. This time, he couldn’t quite shove it off. Heat rolled through him so hard that he nearly didn’t notice something important. Something that proved he was right, and which drew his attention away from his attraction the moment he felt it.

Heidi was shaking. Hard. Her breaths were coming in gasps, and her pulse thrummed at a dangerously fast pace.

A panic attack, William realized.

Concerns of whether he was right or wrong flew away, as did thoughts on his real reason for being there. Automatically, he moved his hand in a firm circle over her back, speaking in a low voice into her ear.

“Focus on three things you can hear, and count them off in your head,” he said. “Can you do that for me?”

There was the barest hint of a nod against his chest. Satisfied that she’d do it, he followed his own instructions, too.

One. The rapid inhale and exhale of Heidi’s shuddering breaths.

Two. A horn honking, somewhere in the distance.

Three. The creak of the front door as it gently rocked on its hinges.

“Okay,” William said softly. “Now three things you can feel, all right?”

Her nod was a little more discernible this time, and again, William did his own little count-off.

One. The cool air, hitting his bare calves and thighs.

Two. The tremble of Heidi’s body, pressed to his own.

Three. The rough wood under his sock-clad feet.

“Got it, luv?” he asked.

She breathed out a reply. “Yes.”

“Good,” he replied. “If you can open your eyes, do three things you can see, all right?”

She leaned back, but didn’t pull away. Her hands rested on his hips in a familiar, slightly intimate way, and her gaze lifted to meet his.

One. Her drown-in-me eyes.

Two. Her flushed cheeks.

Three. Her full, pink lips.

William couldn’t help but note that with the decrease in her breaths, there was now a marked increase in his own. The quick thump of her pulse, visible in her pale throat and palpable in her grip, now moved in time with his. And there was the small, not-so-delicate matter of the way her abdomen rubbed against thin cotton boxer briefs.

He wondered what she’d thought about. What had she heard, seen, and felt in those long, drawn-out thirty seconds?

Let her go, ordered a voice in his head. Quickly. Before what she feels is that you’re a perverted wanker.

When his hands dropped, though, and he made himself take a step away to put a few inches between them, it was with true reluctance. Which doubled when she looked up at him, gratitude evident in her expression.

William cleared his throat, but his voice still held a touch of gruffness when he spoke. “Grounding exercise.”

She flushed and shook her head like she was trying to clear it. “I know. I’ve tried it before, but…”

“What?”

“It’s never worked quite as well as this.”

William ignored a trickle of satisfaction at the statement. “Feel better then?”

“Much.” She said it like she meant it, but her eyes still shot a nervous look over his shoulder, then hung there like she couldn’t look away.

He took another step back because his hands—which he would’ve shoved into his pockets if he’d had any—suddenly itched to reach out and pull her inappropriately close again.

The dog shirt is definitely imbued with some kind of witchcraft.

He cleared his throat, knowing that comforting her—and repeatedly admiring the way she looked, felt, and smelled—was detracting from his ability to control the situation. “Tell me something. When was the last time you left the house?”

Her gaze flicked back to his face. “Excuse me?”

“You’re agoraphobic,” he said.

Her head inclined, but a denial slipped out. “No.”

“No?”

“Not exactly.”

“You’re certain?” he asked.

“What kind of question is that?” she replied.

“Hmm.”

“What?”

“Well. Panic attack aside…You live in the middle of nowhere.”

“So do lots of people.”

“You order everything you need online.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“The car in your driveway’s probably be sitting there for a month.”

“You couldn’t possibly know that.”

“It’s got a flat tire.”

“It has a—well. That could’ve happened overnight. Or in the last hour, even.”

“True. But it’s also practically got its own ecosystem.”

She swallowed. “Maybe I like to use Uber.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Bollocks.”

“Excuse me?”

“If you’re going to tell me a lie, then at least make it a believable one.”

Two spots of charming color appeared in her cheeks. “I’m not lying.”

“Come on out then, luv,” he said. “Walk from here to the car, and I’ll give you the deal I promised.”

She pursed her lush lips. “This is ridiculous. Blackmail and harassment aren’t a ‘deal.’ And I’m not bargaining with you.”

“You opened the door and you’re on the porch,” he pointed out. “It’s basically another…what…hundred feet to the car? And by the way…you forgot to put stalking on that list of offences.”

“So you admit it.”

“Proud of it, actually.” He grinned cheekily. “Took a fair amount of detective work to figure out your real identity.”

She made a face. “A real detective would’ve figure out that there’s a good reason I keep it a secret.”

“So you can give out life-ruining advice without having to answer for it?”

The words slipped out before William could stop them, and even though it was more or less what he’d come to say to her, he hadn’t intended to make her react the way she did. Instead of getting angry, or spouting off a denial—either of which he would’ve both expected and accepted—her face abruptly paled. Her brown eyes blinked several times in succession, and it didn’t take a genius to clue in that she was warding off tears. Her lower lip even wobbled, like a small child’s might.

Guilt and concern mixed together and made him take a step forward. He knew he was going to reach forward and draw her into his arms and apologize, reason and personal space be damned. But as he lifted his hands, she flinched, and he froze mid-stretch. Her gaze dropped to his arms, then lifted to his face, and she shook her head.

“I don’t know what you think I did, or what you think I owe you as a result,” she said in a cool voice, “but I’m an advice columnist, not a therapist. Every person who submits a request to me through the magazine clicks yes on a waiver saying they understand it’s for entertainment purposes only. And as a side note, I’m not in the habit of sharing details about my mental health with strangers.”

“You’re Heidi Bluthe. I’m William Rutherford. William Henry Charles Rutherford, actually. My primary teacher told me it sounded like I made it up, every time I said it,” he told her. “You?”

She frowned. “Me, what?”

“Have you got a middle name? Or two, maybe?”

“Just one.”

“Which is?”

“Why should I—never mind. It’s Lynn.”

“Heidi Lynn Bluthe.” He said it slowly, just because he liked the sound of it. “Quite a bit lovelier than Miss Anonymous, in my humble opinion.”

She made an exasperated noise. “Knowing each other’s names doesn’t make us not strangers. So if this is your attempt to make it seem like that…”

“It’s not,” he replied. “Just a courtesy. But you know what might make us not strangers? The fact that you felt you knew enough about me from a ten-line letter to ruin my life.”

Her eyes flashed with irritation. “I did not –”

A noisy chime carried up from behind William, and Heidi tipped her head to look past him.

“Is that my phone?” she asked.

“Yeah. I think I did something to the ringtone.”

“No kidding.”

Then she surprised him by walking straight by to snap it up from the bench where the mobile sat. William blinked, waiting for her to either melt down a little more, or to offer an explanation. Instead, she lifted up, glanced at the call display, and opened her mouth. Before she could say anything, another woman’s voice lifted from the phone.

“Heidi?” she said.

Heidi shot William a lips-zipped signal, before answering in a cheery voice. “Hi, Jan. Can I call you back?”

“I’d rather talk to you now,” replied the disembodied voice.

“Okay. Hang on. I accidentally put you on speaker. Somehow. I’m just going to fix it.” She fiddled with the screen for a second, then fixed William a narrow-eyed glare. “I just muted my boss. But I have to take this, so going to step inside. I’m assuming you’ll still be here, waiting to blackmail me into whatever it is you want?”


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