Copyright © 2013 Nikki Duncan
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The gentle trill of a feminine laugh clanged like an alarm in Burton Anderson’s head. The nightmare wasn’t foreign after six years, but he’d thought he’d driven it back. Unlike the other times he relived the dream, the laugh didn’t turn to pathetic tears that morphed into evil glee.
This laugh remained gentle. The laugh sounded carefree and happy.
Pulling himself from the morass of sleep, Burton stretched. His neck protested movement and his head did the hangover throb he hadn’t allowed in years. His back popped with loud cracks running the length of his spine which it only did when he slept on too hard a surface or in a bad position.
His eyes snapped wide. He’d definitely slept in an awkward position on a too-hard surface—Hearth and Home’s linoleum-covered concrete floor. More awkward than the position was how he’d gotten in it, and it hadn’t involved enough alcohol to earn the current headache.
He tugged at his wrist. Metal clanked against metal and his memory flooded back with the horror of the discovery to come. The wall of clocks nearby told him Hearth and Home wasn’t due to open for customers for several hours. It was even too early for the employees to come in, but someone had. That same someone would discover him—in all his nudity—in a few short moments.
Attempting to minimize his exposure, he scooted up so he sat beside the toilet. With his wrist handcuffed to the pipe behind the show floor toilet he wasn’t able to move far. The mock bathroom, like the three others around the bath section, was complete with shower, garden tub, sink and fancy hooks for hanging towels.
“I love the setup.” The woman’s voice sounded prim. And close. “You’ve made it easy for people to envision what items complement each other.”
“We want everyone to be able to outfit their home with ease.”
That was a voice Burton knew well. It belonged to the Mark Dixon, manager of Hearth and Home. The man who possessed no sense of humor, and he would not appreciate finding his lead contractor naked. There was no explanation good enough to keep himself employed. Nope. After this, Burton would never again be trusted with another construction contract, because this client was sure to tell everyone of his unprofessionalism.
“I could say I hate you for it. With places like this why do people need me?”
Soft, shy, the woman laughed again. Her shoes smacked the paved floor with a dull thud rather than the thwack he’d grown familiar with over the years of feeding a shopping addiction. Conservative flats. Shy laugh. Professional shopper? This woman didn’t sound like the type to appreciate his nudity any more than Mark.
She and Mark stepped into view. Mark’s head was bowed to his phone. The woman studied the wall of clocks. Both kept their backs to Burton. Each ticking second hand shortened the gap between secrecy and discovery. With the shrinking distance he saw his success as a new business owner vanishing.
“Without you, Leigh, how else will those brides and grooms know how many towels or place settings to register for?” Mark adjusted a mantle clock so it sat perfectly straight on a display shelf. “And there’s no one better than you at picking out those little touches that finish off a look.”
She touched her fingertips to Mark’s arm, pulled back quickly, as if she immediately regretted the gesture. “Who needs caffeine when they can have flattery in the morning?”
Mark ignored the woman’s touch. Her joke seemed to go unnoticed, perhaps because it seemed odd for the woman with a pencil skirt and snug bun to make jokes.
“Listen, Leigh. I have to go deal with something. Make yourself at home and I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
“Take your time. Thank you.”
Leigh stayed focused on the clocks, as if she was studying each one carefully. Mark turned and walked past Burton without looking up from his phone. Burton breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t been discovered by the boss. If he could get the woman—Leigh—to help there was a chance he could keep his embarrassment a secret.
When he was certain Mark was out of earshot, Burton cleared his throat. “Leigh. Hi.”
She didn’t flinch or even react for several seconds. Thinking she hadn’t heard him, he opened his mouth to call out again. Then she turned.
Her green eyes were unblinking and her cheeks were flushed red. With her brown hair pulled into a bun, subtle makeup, and clothes that hugged her figure without being tight, the woman’s image was a contradiction of sophistication and sex.
She defined the cliché lines about elegance in simplicity and leaving something to the imagination. His was certainly going to be working overtime.
“I wonder… Could you… Could I get your help?” He’d never suffered from a loss of words. Quick thinking and the ability to put a great spin on most any situation had been the secret to his success in the business world. Facing a blushing librarian who only needed a pair of reading glasses to top off the image had his brain short-circuiting.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” She took two steps in the direction Mark had taken. “I’m going to get Mark.”
“No! Please. Don’t.”
“You’re in his store, handcuffed to a display toilet. I think he deserves to know.”
“I… There’s an explanation.”
She stood and faced him. Her hands weren’t on her hips, but the look in her eyes said they could land there any moment. Damn she was beautiful.
“Please.” He should be begging or pleading his case. He could only stare and think how sexy she was.
“Give me one good reason.”
Any sense of humor she’d shown with Mark vanished. Burton could have had a better shot with Mark.
“It could cost me everything. My new company. My new life.” He muttered the last, knowing it sounded melodramatic even to his own ears. It didn’t make it less true.
She glanced around, possibly looking for Mark before bringing her gaze back to Burton. “How did you…?”
“My company did the build-out.” He rotated his head, indicating the building around them. “I was on a date last night when a call came in about a problem. She came with me to check things out.”
Leigh’s forehead creased above one brow. It wasn’t quite a brow lift, maybe she didn’t know how to lift just one. It didn’t matter though if her goal was to make him feel like a toddler being chastised. The effect was the same.
“The problem was with the plumbing in the women’s restroom. Flushing tampons is one thing. Pads are not meant to be flushed.”
Slowly, so slowly he was able to watch an unheard “Eew” form, her nose wrinkled, curled up the left side of her lip.
“That’s what I thought when I found myself wading through the overflow. I was soaked. It was…gross.”
“So you stripped?”
“I cleaned up the restroom and fixed the other issues the pad uncovered. I didn’t want to get in my truck with my clothes like they were. I took off my boots and jeans. My date encouraged me to go the rest of the way.”
“So you stripped.”
He started to ask if she’d have made a different choice. Somehow he knew she would have. This buttoned-up, bun-toting, long-skirt-wearing woman would never give in to passion. Especially not in public. “The idea was exciting. At the time.”
“You saying you regret it?”
“Yes.” He regretted putting his trust into a woman he hadn’t known as well as he’d thought. A woman who’d hidden a deceptiveness he thought he’d learned to spot. “It’s a mistake I will never make again.”
“I see.” She looked around again, this time keeping her gaze down as she searched the floor. “What I don’t see are your clothes or a key to your cuffs.”
Burton shook his head. It was all he could do, because he was out of excuses.
“Your date took them?”
He nodded. Once.
“As a contractor, can I assume you have tools somewhere?”
He dropped his head.
“You’re kidding. She took those too?”
He looked up without lifting his head. He really hoped the bitch had dumped his things in his truck. He wasn’t sure he would get so lucky.
Shaking her head and mumbling about men only thinking with their small head, Leigh turned and walked away.