Holly swore under her breath as she fumbled in her darkened bedroom for her muck boots. What had she been thinking when she volunteered for the morning shift at the nursery? No civilized human being should be required to rise before the sun.
Of course, her father was probably already dressed and in the greenhouse, watering the perennials. At sixty-six, he had more energy than most thirty-somethings.
Including Nick, Holly thought, her outstretched hand finally coming into contact with the cool rubber of one of her boots. She felt around for the other, grabbed the pair and crept in her stocking feet out of the room and down the long, dark hall. Sure, Nick had offered to help. But she didn’t think he’d appreciate being dragged out of bed in the wee hours on his first full day in Stockton. Seeing his muscles bunch and flex as he mulched the gardens would have made it worth hauling her own sorry butt up at such an ungodly hour, though. If she followed the look-don’t-touch rule, she’d be fine, or so she told herself. Right before she considered what crimes she’d commit—theoretically—to see the man in shorts and work boots. Shirtless, with a thin sheen of sweat covering his chest and back.
A soft thump and the pitter-patter of furry feet told her Jasper had jumped off her bed and was fast catching up to her. His fluffy shadow approached, his purr vibrating through Holly’s toes. “Hey there, big fella,” she cooed. “Ready to catch some mice?
With a haughty tilt of his white-tinged chin that seemed to say “as if,” the tabby snubbed her and glided past. Rearing up on his hind legs, he stretched his front paws toward the door handle of Gabe’s room. Nick lay sleeping in there, wearing who knew how much—or how little.
“Jasper, no,” she hissed, a corner of her brain dimly recalling Nick’s casual comment at dinner about his cat allergy. She should have warned him that Jasper was a regular feline Houdini, able to open doors. “Down.”
Neither “no” nor “down” had any effect on the cat. Holly dropped her boots and started after him, but before she could grab the little bugger he had pressed on the handle and thrown his considerable weight against the door, pushing it open. With his tail held high and an air of superiority befitting his Egyptian ancestors, he squeezed through, leaving Holly staring after him.
Damn, double damn and triple damn.
She had two choices. Keep going down the hall as if nothing had happened. Or rescue Nick from a trip to the E.R. for a shot of Benadryl.“Stupid cat.” Her choice made, she inched the door open farther. She’d sneak in, grab the beast and sneak out. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Light crept through the half-open curtains, and the faint smell of freshly mown grass drifted through the open window. And on the bed…
Holly’s breath hitched at the sight of Nick sprawled, one long leg hanging off the mattress. He wasn’t naked, thanks to a pair of formfitting boxer briefs—drat—but his muscled chest and legs were bare, the sheet bunched around his ankles, as if he’d been too spent after a bout of down-and-dirty, muss-the-covers action to bother pulling it up. He looked every inch the Hollywood bad boy the press made him out to be, even in sleep, with his light scruff, deep tan and sculpted-for-IMAX body. But at the same time, he appeared surprisingly vulnerable, his eyes closed, long, dark lashes resting against his cheeks, his strong jaw relaxed, his breathing deep and even.
She’d seen plenty of him that night in his apartment, but in her rush to leave she’d never had the chance to study him undetected. Now, with him prostrate and unconscious, she could appreciate the perfect symmetry of his face, cheek over chin next to perfectly angled nose. The chiseled highs and lows of his pecs and abs. Corded forearms leading to thick wrists and strong, long-fingered hands. She itched to touch. Taste. Smell. Curl up next to him and bask in the heat radiating off his body.
He’s just a man, she told herself, exhaling quietly in a futile effort to slow her racing heart. Flesh, blood and bone, like any other.
But oh, what a delectable combination of flesh, blood and bone.
She took a tentative step toward him before remembering what she was there for. Jasper. Where was that darned cat?
Holly scanned the room and found him coiled at the foot of the bed, ready to spring onto Nick’s outstretched legs. “C’mere, Jasper,” she pleaded softly. “Come on, boy. I saw some Manchego cheese in the refrigerator. Your favorite.” He might be lower on the evolutionary scale, but he sure had expensive taste in treats.
Unmoved by the bribe, the cat leaped with unexpected ease onto the bed, landing inches from Nick’s pillow. With a swish of his tail, the cat circled a few times before settling into the crook of Nick’s arm, his cocky orange head tucked under Nick’s chin and one paw extended across his sculpted rib cage.
Holly held her breath, waiting for Nick to stir. But the guy slept like a stone. She tiptoed to the bedside and reached for the cat, ignoring the devil on her shoulder telling her to oh so casually brush against Nick as she did. She had to get Jasper out of there before Nick’s allergies kicked in. She couldn’t imagine anything more humiliating than him waking up sneezing and finding her gawking at him like one of his obsessed fangirls. Not exactly how she’d planned to start her day.
“That’s it, boy,” she crooned softly, getting close enough to graze his soft fur with her fingertips. “Just a little bit farther and we’ll go get some of that nice overpriced cheese…”
“Any farther and I won’t be responsible for what happens next.”
Holly jumped back at the sound of Nick’s voice, deep and gravelly and early-morning sexy. The movement startled Jasper, who dived off the bed with a form worthy of Greg Louganis and stalked out of the room. Not that Holly blamed him. She’d be pretty upset, too, if someone got between her and a nearly naked Nick.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Nick rumbled, interrupting her thoughts. He raised himself up on one elbow and pinned her with those velvet eyes. “I’m certainly not complaining. It’s not every day a guy wakes up to a pair of beautiful breasts in his face.”
“Hey,” she retorted, crossing her arms in front of her chest to hide the fact that her nipples were threatening to poke holes through her top. “It was my breasts or the cat’s butt.”
He rolled to his back and stretched, making the muscles of his chest and arms ripple. “I definitely got the better end of that bargain.”