D. Renee Bagby presents the first chapters of romance (any and every genre) around the web. Authors have contributed the first chapters of their books for your reading pleasure. Come, read, comment, and find a new book to add to your TBR pile.
Lost In His Arms
June 1991, Washington, DC
Odious air conditioning unit! Chloe cursed it and all appliances that ceased working when you needed them most. In this unseasonable heat wave, her house reminded her of that awful spring break on a palmless, humid, breeze-free tropical island. Which was why she huddled under the sad little dogwood in her front yard, pressing a cold washcloth to her face. She‘d caught her thick auburn hair under a barrette to keep it off her neck and wore a skimpy khaki cotton shift, in her discomfort not caring how well it set off both her hazel eyes and her long, shapely legs.
She checked her watch again: 11:30. Gail at Comfort Air had assured her the repairman would arrive between ten and twelve that morning. He’d better get here soon or she’d burn up.
Wait … A white van turned into the parking lot. She could just make out the lettering. Yes—Comfort Air! She waved frantically at it. A fellow in a white uniform shirt at the wheel squinted at her, but maddeningly stopped at another townhouse. He consulted his clipboard with great deliberation. Then, praise the Lord, he put the van back into gear and slid into the visitor’s parking spot in front of her townhouse. He stepped out and tipped a nonexistent cap. “Miss Gray?”
She didn’t bother with the niceties but turned toward her house, summoning him with an imperious hand. “Yes, yes, come in. Bring a pocket fan.”
The man grinned and reached back into the van for his tools. He followed Chloe up the steps. She started to describe the problem, but he was already heading downstairs to the unit. She had a glimpse of a well-muscled back and a full head of glossy black hair. “You know what to do?”
“Yes, ma’am.” His answer floated up. “I’m here to fix your air conditioning, right?” She hoped that wasn’t a snicker she heard in the rich, baritone voice. She gave him five minutes, then descended after him. She found him bending over the unit, making busy noises. “Ma’am, do you have a maintenance contract with us?”
“Yes, yes I do. Why?”
“Who serviced this unit last? Do you remember?”
Chloe had her answer ready. The company had a right to know about its incompetent employees, didn’t it? She’d rehearsed it carefully, so as not to come across as too waspish. “Alex Jones, I believe. I’m not sure he was exactly…thorough.”
The man snorted. “Well, now I know why Alex is no longer with Comfort Air. This may take awhile.” He straightened and turned toward Chloe. For the first time she got a good look at his face. She backed off, partly to get out of the way and partly because she didn’t want him to see how breathless he made her. The man was gorgeous! His face—well, a romance writer would describe it as craggy, rough-hewn, or maybe lived-in. Deep, deep blue eyes under a tousled thatch of ebony hair, his skin tanned and tight over a strong nose and high cheekbones. His mouth, although currently set in a thin angry line, promised to be sensual and full.
She attempted, with little success, to keep her eyes from traveling down his barrel chest to his hands. Quite delicate for such a big man, the fingers long and slim. She looked up quickly and found him observing her, his face impassive. He watched as she backed away blushing, then without a word returned to his work.
Chloe trudged up to the kitchen. She wanted to sit down and finish her coffee, but felt too restless. She knew better than to bother the repairman; unwritten code gave him at least ten minutes of peace after the initial overture before the homeowner was permitted to renew acquaintance. So she wandered upstairs, tidied her bedroom, and checked her hair and makeup. Only, she told herself, because she had shopping to do as soon as what‘s-his-name—what was his name?—fixed the air conditioning. Her telephone rang as she returned to the kitchen.
“Chloe? Amanda here. How’s the book outline coming?”
“Oh, Amanda, I can’t work in this heat.”
“Well, work inside like the rest of us!”
Chloe gritted her teeth and wiped her forehead with a dish towel. “I am working inside, but it’s hotter in here than it is outside.”
“What’s the matter?”
“The air conditioning quit last night.”
“You’re kidding. The temperature hit a hundred degrees this morning! And the humidity is over ninety percent. It’s not supposed to be this bad this soon.”
“Yeah, why does it always come as a surprise to the weather forecasters? This is June in the swamp otherwise known as Washington D.C. I can’t breathe, much less write, Amanda. And besides the book on machine politics for you, I have a column for Phyllis on Congressional summer interns due.”
“Well, figure something out. Go to a coffee shop or something. My deadline is next week, you know.”
“I know. I can’t go anywhere yet. I’m waiting for the repairman to finish. We’re still on for Saturday though, right?”
“If you get my work done.”
Chloe hung up the telephone. Despite the constant pressure from her editor—who she would hate, if Amanda were not also her best friend—she loved her work. Punditry.
She smiled, thinking what a great discovery that had been. After all of those years of beat reporting, writing a column only once a week was a lot more satisfying, not to mention more lucrative, than answering to a city editor every day. And so much cooler. Unlike her house.
She checked the clock. The proper interval having passed, she moseyed toward the basement again. From the top step she cleared her throat. “So… how’s it coming?”
He grunted. Chloe waited a minute, and when nothing further was forthcoming, meekly backed up into the hall. She sat at the kitchen table, watching the minute hand as it marked off another half hour, and went back to the head of the cellar stairs again. “Would you like a glass of water?”
“So, how’s it coming?” It occurred to Chloe that she hoped to annoy him just so she could see his face again. It worked, even though the handsome face glaring up at her was twisted with testiness.
“Look, ma’am, I’m just trying to keep this unit from falling apart. It’s a little tricky. I’ll let you know when I’m through, okay?”
Chloe retreated and spent another fifteen minutes drumming her fingers on the counter. At last she heard his footsteps and slipped quickly into the living room, taking petty satisfaction in knowing he would be forced to call out to her.
“Yes? Oh, are you finished?” So nonchalant. She was proud of herself.
“No, actually.” Damn. Round one to the repairman.
“But I heard the blower come on. It does seem a little cooler.”
He poked his head into the living room. “That’s because I’ve jury-rigged the unit to run without being unsafe. I’m going to need several parts. I don’t have them with me, so I’ll have to come back a couple more times to fix it properly.”
“Unsafe? As in dangerous? Should I move out? Doesn’t gas explode?” Her voice rose.
“No, no.” He hurried to reassure her. “Well, I mean, yes it can. But not in this instance.” Chloe looked at him, a skeptical frown on her face. “Really, Miss Gray, no need to leave the building. I have it under control for now.”
“Well, when will you be back?”
“As soon as the parts come in. Look, I’ll call you tomorrow to let you know what the warehouse says, okay?”
Chloe nodded. “You have my phone number?”
“It’s on the work order. But you’d better give me your cell phone number as well.” He moved closer as she wrote the number down on a card.
Despite the heat and the slight perfume of natural gas hanging about him, he smelled enticing. She couldn’t stop herself and leaned a little into him. His arm felt powerful. She looked up quickly to see his reaction and found him gravely contemplating her. For an instant she saw reflected in his eyes what pelted through her heart. Could he find her attractive, too?
She stepped back, mentally shaking her emotions into place. Please don’t let me be one of those lonely single women eager for a roll in the hay with any willing repairman. Please.
Confused and suddenly a bit resentful, she stood up. “Here you are.” She handed him the card and abruptly strode to the front door, holding it open.
He hesitated. Could that be bemusement, or astonishment on his face?
“I’ll call you.”
“Thank you.” She shut the door after him and stood staring at it. What the heck was that all about? What a display! How humiliating! But she found herself rubbing the spot where her arm had touched his and dreamily visualizing those blue, blue eyes.
The phone rang the next morning as she finished her coffee.
“Hi, I’m calling about your air conditioning?”
“Yes?” What a glorious warm voice the man had! So rich and round. Her soprano sounded impossibly tinny in response. It didn’t help that it cracked mid-word.
“Well, ma’am, some of the parts will be in next Thursday, but not all of them. If you like, I can come by tomorrow and tighten up the temporary fittings so they’ll last until I can put the new system in.”
Where did this huge lump in her throat come from? Why did this guy have such an effect on her? At last she gurgled, “That would be fine. What time?”
“Between nine and noon?”
“Earlier would be better. Could you call me when you’re on your way? I gave you my cell phone number, didn’t I?” Of course I did. Could I possibly sound any more idiotic?
“Yes, you did. I’ll call if I’m running late, all right?”
“Fine.” She hung up the phone, poured a large glass of water and drank it down. She was too old for this.
He showed up Friday morning at 9:05 and went right to work. Chloe offered him water at 9:20, which he accepted. He came up the stairs to drink it. “It sure is hot down there.”
Chloe didn’t know what to say. She sipped her water.
“Not as hot as some places though.”
“Somewhere hotter than Washington in June? I don’t think so. Unless it’s Washington in August!” Oh, God, this is agonizing. I should just nod and smile. Gabbling about the weather when all I can think about are those beautiful hands caressing his tall, frosted glass.
“It’s nothing compared to Vietnam. My buddy used to claim that the Viet Cong only hid in the jungle to stay out of the sun.” His eyes crinkled at what was obviously an old joke. Then he sobered. “Poisonous climate.”
“So you were in Vietnam?” Duh. Another conversational zinger. Shut up, Chloe.
He didn’t seem to notice her discomfort. “Just at the end. Six months was enough for me.”
“My father served two tours.”
The man perked up. “Really? Army?”
“No, Navy. He commanded an LST. A transport ship.”
He laughed. “I remember them. Real tubs. Sailors who shipped out on them used to claim LST stood for Long Slow Target. And talk about First Class accommodations. They didn’t just carry tanks and trucks. They delivered Marines on those babies. Poor guys claimed it was like riding on a dolphin with an upset stomach. In a stuffy little room.”
Chloe laughed with him, taking note of his perfect white teeth. They flashed against his tanned face, a face transformed by humor. She caught herself gawking again. He stopped suddenly, looking at her the way he had two days before when they sat so close together—speculative, surprised. Interested?
She stepped to the sink hurriedly. “More water?”
She turned with the glass and found him right behind her. Startled, she spilled the water down both their fronts. “How stupid of me. I‘m sorry.” She tried to blot his shirt without actually touching him, but he took the towel along with her hand and gently dried his chest. Chloe realized after a bit that they had stopped mopping and were just gazing at each other. She mentally shook herself and slid around him.
“So how’s it going?” Could he hear the tremor in her voice? Did she even know any other sentences?
He blinked, almost as though he’d forgotten where he was. “Oh, fine. I’ll have the rest of the pipes set in a few minutes, but I won’t be able to complete the job until next week when the new parts come in. May I call you?”
“You mean, when you have the rest of the parts?” Of course that’s what he meant. It’s not as though he’s going to call me for a date.
“It will probably be next Wednesday or Thursday.”
“Great.” She fled upstairs and hid in her bedroom until she heard his voice calling from the hall.
“Miss Gray? I‘ll be off then.”
“Okay, thanks!” She called down as brightly as she could manage, not trusting herself to see him to the door. She heard it slam, and despite her best intentions, leapt down the stairs to the kitchen window in time to see the white van pull out of the lot. She watched until it disappeared down the street.
For at least two years now, one Saturday night a month was set aside as Ladies’ Night Out. Chloe and her closest friends Elise, Amanda and Katharine, gathered, as usual, at Clyde’s. The huge mahogany bar, convivial atmosphere, and half-price oysters provided relief from both men and demanding careers. Chloe’s friends were all divorced, or, like her, not quite ready to take the plunge.
Katharine carefully licked all of the salt from her margarita glass and smacked scarlet lips together. Her lipstick, as usual, matched her perfectly manicured nails, as did the crimson Bill Blass camisole peeping out between the lapels of her perfectly-tailored Donna Karan jacket “So, Chloe, how’s George?”
Elise and Amanda smiled knowingly. Chloe’s last boyfriend, George, a too-pretty lobbyist much too caught up in the Washington scene, enjoyed a less than favorable rating among her friends.
“George? You didn’t know? I dumped him six months ago!”
“Really? Good. He’s an ass.” Katharine could be succinct when she wanted to.
“Yes.” Chloe took a long pull at her drink. “I got tired of those monotonous Capitol Hill receptions he dragged me to. I’d get to sit around eating endless plates of shrimp and crab claws while he worked the room, glad-handing and whispering lies. After my second nightmare where this enormous, pink, thousand-legged crustacean sucked me into its gaping maw...”
“Maw. Gaping maw. Its throat, Amanda.”
“You’ve been doing crossword puzzles again, haven’t you?” Amanda, as an editor and therefore a literalist, leaned forward, ready to pounce. Thirty-five years in the business had left her with gray hair, a substantial figure and a healthy distrust of pretentious words.
“No, reading Moby Dick.” Her dignity secured, Chloe continued. “Anyway, that tore it. I gave him the boot. Plus it’s been great for my career. No more K Street cattle shows, no more boozy lobbyists bearing down on defenseless legislative assistants. I’ve been doing one-on-one interviews with power players for the last couple of months.”
“Yeah, I saw your column on Tom Foley. You do get the big guns.” Katharine took another sip.
“It’s just luck usually.” Chloe expected her modesty to be taken with a large grain of margarita salt, and it was.
“Being smart and beautiful doesn’t hurt though, does it?” With her usual impeccable timing, Elise finished her drink and joined the conversation. She knew whereof she spoke; neither her Mensa membership nor her gift for radical fashion design could distract admirers from her lithe figure and tawny eyes. Milan had yet to recover from her spring line of jungle-inspired jumpsuits, especially since she had modeled them herself.
“And persistent, thank you very much.” Chloe donned a self-satisfied smirk. “I have been very successful at roping them in, haven’t I? And now there’s more time for my research and writing, not to mention the chance to lower my cholesterol.”
Amanda preened like a proud mother. “Chloe’s column is syndicated in fifteen states now.”
The ladies ordered another round and had begun to look at the menu when Katharine brought up the state of Chloe‘s air conditioning. “Golly, it’s taking forever! You must be so uncomfortable. Would you like to stay at my place until it’s done?”
“No! I mean…” Chloe took a deep breath. No need for the others to know about her crush. “The repairman has managed to keep the A/C functioning while he fixes it in phases. He doesn’t seem totally inept.” Huh? Now why did I make him sound incompetent? It’s not like the fellow means anything to me. In any case, I’ve never been the jealous type.
But somehow she knew she wouldn’t recommend him to anyone, least of all to the sexy, curvaceous Katharine. She didn’t want her, or Elise, or even Amanda—who in any case was too old for him—to have a shot. She would have to think about this later.
Elise brought her back to the conversation. “What’s the company? Didn’t you say Comfort Air? What’s the guy‘s name?”
“It’s funny you should ask. I never caught his name. I usually try to get the repairman’s name, you know, to establish a working relationship. But this time I simply forgot. Odd.” Yes, true, and totally unlike her, the ever inquisitive journalist. This whole affair—now why did I use that word?—was a muddle.
“Well, I’ll call you if I need work done. Now, where’s that waiter?”
The conversation thankfully turned to politics.
Chloe flopped on the sofa. It was only 10:00 p.m., but she didn’t like to stay out late when she had to drive herself home. She reached for the TV guide just as the telephone rang.
“Miss Gray? This is—click, click—from Comfort Air.”
“Hello? Hello? I didn‘t catch your—” Click, click. Chloe sighed. “I’m sorry, I have another call. Could you hold a second?”
He spoke hurriedly. “I only wanted—click, click—over Monday, if it’s convenient. I can pick up whatever parts are available on the way. I’m afraid I have to leave town unexpectedly. I’m—click, click—the change, but Gail will assign another technician. I assure you, your repairs will be—click, click—time. Is between noon and six on Monday convenient for you?”
“Sure,— click, click— that’d be great.” Before she could say anything else he rang off.
Katharine came through on the other line. “Everything okay? Just wanted to make sure you got home safely.”
Distracted, Chloe mumbled, “Thanks, dear. Yes. I’m heading off to bed. Good night.”
She spent Sunday in fevered decision-making. What to wear? What to say? Hey, how about, “What’s your name anyway?” The hours dragged by.
By Monday at noon she had made two pots of coffee and a pan of Katherine Hepburn’s brownies. She tried to work on her column all morning, but the deterioration of civil discourse in the Senate just didn’t seem a particularly fresh topic. By the time she gave up on writing, she’d finished one paragraph and eaten half the brownies.
The doorbell rang, startling her. She rearranged the bars to camouflage her little indiscretion, but with little success. Hiding the plate behind a large bowl, she went to the hall.
He stood on the doorstep, his crisp white uniform shirt gleaming against the tan of his face. She tried to check his name tag, but he held a large carton to his chest, covering it. He grinned. “Are you ready for me?”
“Oh yes!” She stood aside to let him in and he brushed past her, leaving tingly waves of heat in his wake. How am I going to survive the next few hours in this state? At least he’ll finish today and leave town and I’ll never see him again. If she needed repair work she could ask for someone other than—who?―I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your name.”
He said something incomprehensible over his shoulder as he carried the box downstairs. Just then the phone rang.
“Miss Gray? This is Gail at Comfort Air. Is our man there?”
“Yes, he is. By the way—”
“Could you ask him to come to the phone? He’s leaving Thursday, and we need to make sure he’s briefed his replacement. I hope his work has been satisfactory?”
“Why yes. Actually, he’s—”
“Great. Could I talk to him please?”
Chloe went to the cellar door. “Excuse me. Gail is on the phone.”
There was a crash and a curse and the top of a curly black head hove into view. She handed him the telephone.
“What, Gail? Oh, okay. Sure. It will have to be tomorrow. This job is going to take awhile. I don’t want to leave it without being sure everything is in order. Okay. See whether Fred can start Joseph’s training. I’ll see you later.”
He turned to hand Chloe the telephone. Something plopped. She looked at the floor, where a small red puddle spread slowly out. She looked at his arm. “You’re bleeding!”
“This? Just a cut. I dropped my saw.”
Chloe pulled his arm closer, trying to ignore the electric shock that went through her at his touch. “It is not just a cut. It’s a gash. Look at all the blood you’ve dripped on my rug! Come here.” She held his arm under the faucet and carefully washed the grit out of the wound. “Now just stay there. Press this paper towel against the cut. I’ll go get some Neosporin and a bandage.”
She slipped up the stairs and through her bedroom to the bathroom. As she came out with the supplies she stopped short. He sat on her bed.
“I thought I’d save you a trip.” He spoke diffidently.
“Oh…that’s…okay.” Chloe willed herself not to touch his thigh as she sat down on the bed next to him. Too close? She applied the ointment and bandage, trying to keep her hands from trembling.
He must have noticed anyway, because he put his larger one over hers and gently squeezed. “Is the blood bothering you?”
She hesitated, breathless. He looked into her eyes, and before she knew it his arms went around her and she was kissing him. No, he was kissing her.
She lost all sense of time and place, clinging to his mouth as though she were drowning and it the only lifeboat. She felt herself falling, landing on his chest. He held her tightly, squeezing the life out of her. Or was it her soul he drew into his own? How could she tell him it wasn’t his blood that bothered her but her own, boiling up in waves of desire?
He let her go reluctantly, but she held onto his buttons, tearing them off. She opened his shirt and buried her face in the soft black hairs of his chest. His hands went to her arms and gently moved her off him to the side. Slowly he undid her blouse, unhooked the bra and brushed each breast with his lips. She lay back, her eyes unfocussed, waiting for the touch, living for the scent of his hair. He looked up through his bangs and blasted her heart out with a glance of those azure eyes.
She didn’t need elaboration. She nodded mutely. He kissed her neck, her shoulders, her breasts, and down her stomach. A thousand butterflies fought to escape from her belly. He pulled down her zipper and tugged at the skirt. She still lay quietly, lost in pleasure. It all seemed to pass in slow motion. Everything felt perfect. Then he stopped. She opened her eyes. “What?”
His expression had altered. He glared at her, his face only inches away from hers. “What the hell am I doing? This is nuts!” He sat up, facing away from her.
She saw that she had taken his shirt off and his belt and zipper were undone. For some inexplicable reason his shoes were neatly arranged at the foot of the bed. She put a hand on his back. He stood up abruptly and a flash of panic hit her. He couldn’t leave. Not now.
“Please don’t go.” Her voice stayed almost steady. “It’s…not exactly something we planned. Unexpected, unexplainable, maybe. But it’s also right. Don’t you see?”
“No, I don’t.” His voice slurred with anger as he slapped the words down. “This is neither the time nor the place. I can’t afford to do this now.”
“To do what? Make love?”
He looked down at her, his face softening. “It’s more than that. I don’t know why. But you know it too.”
Chloe gazed at him. It was true. She knew that first day, when he stood on her front step in his white uniform, the sun glinting off his dark head and his eyes flashing blue in the heat. Her heart flip-flopped. She had never wanted a man so much before. She didn’t want to ask any questions; she didn’t even want to ask about protection. Mentioning condoms could be so...well...deflating. She rose and put her arms around him. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him softly. His arms went slowly, inevitably, around her and they drifted into their own world.
When she opened her eyes she found him calmly pulling off the rest of her clothes. She appeared to be doing the same for him. He stopped and took a condom out of his wallet. Good. Now she could relax.
His pants flew across the room and she fell on his naked, beautiful body. He pulled her under him and moved, hard and swift, up her body and then down. Everything moved, as though they rode on the sea, in a great harmony of tides. She felt him press inside her, so deep it almost touched her heart. She moved with him, accepting the throbbing energy and meeting it. Faster he went, closer she came to her climax, her hands clutching, drawing him toward her. She dimly heard herself crying and calling him all sorts of names. Relentless, entering and leaving, driving her to the brink, he murmured, “Love me. Oh God, love me.” Then the world stopped. They looked into each other’s eyes and collapsed.
She held onto the dream, hoping the delicious softness would go on a bit longer. She tried to move her arm and discovered it crushed under a heavy, solid, sensual chest. She opened her eyes. He watched her, softly stroking her cheek. His blue eyes held hers. She tried to smile. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
He grinned. “No, I suppose not.”
“Should we have done that?”
“Absolutely not.” And he let his hand drift down her breasts to her stomach. “A terrible idea.” A finger delicately probed a little lower. She arched to meet him. “I can’t believe I let you do this to me.”
“I! Me!” She gave up speaking, too busy responding to his exploring fingers. He accepted the catch in her throat as enough conversation and put his mouth to better use. She couldn’t believe how aroused she felt. His touch did extraordinary things to her. She let the desire course through her, wallowing in pleasure. Then she took hold of the situation herself. When she had brought him to the same level of passion, they came together again, this time even faster and with more hunger than before. He poured everything he had into her and she pulled at his body, melding with him. A great rushing noise came and left them limp and happy.
“Now that was unquestionably a good idea.” She managed that much.
But he slept.
Chloe examined him. How could she have developed such intense feelings in a few short hours? She looked back over…what? Three days? Yes, it had to be. Three days to the first time he had touched her.
She had been drawn into a new realm of emotions, a different way of looking at the world and herself. She had been transformed from self-possessed, independent career woman to quivering flesh by one glance of those cobalt eyes. And when he took her in his arms, she was lost. Nothing else mattered when he held her in his arms.
She thought of the old song “Let the world go away.” Could this be just a precious moment, one that would only last a short while longer? How could anything permanent come of it? A blue-collar repairman and a high-powered Washington writer! But somehow she knew there was more to him than met the eye. Something...mysterious and dangerous.
There he lay, chest rising and falling, a smile on his lips. She kissed his back, and, before she dropped off, decided that soon she would start asking some questions.
Red Rose Publishing
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