Russ turned on the shower and tilted the nozzle so it hit the tiles he'd just scrubbed, rinsing away the cleanser. He cursed as water dripped down his arm and into the sleeve of his shirt.
This was ridiculous. He'd spent the last two hours cleaning his house in preparation for Emma's arrival to dean his house. He'd only meant to clean up any embarrassing bits of personal dirt, but suddenly it had seemed that such bits were everywhere. He didn't want her finding a stray toenail clipping on the carpet or a body hair on a sheet; didn't want her finding gunk around his shower drain or a crusty dish on the counter, or coffee grounds under the sink where they'd missed the trash can. The thought of her cleaning up after him bothered him.
If she were older, or married, or unattractive either physically or emotionally, then he wouldn't care. But she was none of those things. She was hot.
A guy doesn't want a hot girl scrubbing his toilet and muttering to herself what a filthy pig he is. Even if the guy didn't have a chance in hell with her, even if one of his friends has managed to get a date with her-a friggin' date!-he still doesn't want that.
He shut off the shower and perked his ears at a distant sound. Did he hear something? She wasn't here already, was she? He cursed again and went to check on his laundry, anxious to get the next load into the wash and safely out of her reach. He could not have her touching his Jockeys; he just couldn't.
He also couldn't go through this frantic cleaning every Wednesday, in anticipation of her arrival.
As he loaded his hockey Puck Skins and other darks into the dryer, he imagined what his brother, James, would have said about all this. "Jump her, you idiot! Or at least make a move on her. Kevin has a date, not a legal claim. Since you don't want her cleaning your house anyway, what have you got to lose?"
James had been a bit of a cad with women, but always managed to find plenty who were willing to put up with his shenanigans. James said they had their eyes on the prize: marriage in a community property state.
Russ had his doubts. Despite his joking comments to Kevin about gold diggers, his impression was that women had better ways to earn money these days than marry for it. He hadn't met many who were willing to put up with an asshole for the sake of a bigger house.
No, women had put up with James because he was fun and clearly loved them. To James, all women were beautiful and witty and worthy of attention. He would have made a pass at Emma within five seconds of meeting her, and would have done so in a light, flirtatious manner that would make her smile even if she wasn't interested.
His ear caught the distant sound of a female voice, talking as if on a cell phone. She was here.
And he didn't have either James's talent for seduction or his willingness to compete with a friend for a woman's affections.
He got the next load of laundry running and went to find Emma to say hello. The talking had stopped and the house was silent as he walked through it. He saw her cleaning supplies in the foyer but no Emma.
Where was she?
He was making his second round of the house when a small sound directed his attention to his recliner in the great room. She was flopped in it, staring blankly out the window, her cell phone lying in her hand.
She looked on the verge of tears. As he watched, her mouth turned down at a painful angle, eyes squeezing shut, face reddening as tears rolled out her lids and down her cheeks. Her lips parted and a soft wheeze of pain whistled out.
Ah, hell! Now what was he supposed to do? He looked frantically around for a Kleenex or an escape route. She couldn't want him to see this. God knew he didn't want to see this.
Before he could make a move either way, her eyes opened and she saw him. He froze like an animal in a hunter's spotlight. Her eyes widened, and then the crying seemed to take on a new, more violent force.
"Great! Oh, just great!" she said, wiping her face with her bare hands as her tears and nose ran freely. "This just tops it." She dropped her hands to glare at him. "What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be at work?"
"I, uh… Excuse me!" He bolted for the kitchen, grabbed a clean dish towel, then jogged back to her holding it out. "Here."
She snorted noisily and reached for it. "Thanks," she mumbled, and wiped at her face. She dabbed discreetly at her nose, then looked up at him over the red and blue cloth, red-rimmed eyes tinged with accusation.
Was she expecting something more from him? What, for God's sake? He scrambled back through memory to his last serious relationship, in which he'd had to deal with frequent female tears. With great reluctance he offered, "Do you, er… need a hug?"
She dropped the cloth from her face and scowled. "No!" Then her lips started to quiver, the sides dipping downward again.
He gritted his teeth and inched toward her, arms open, hoping she wouldn't hurt him. Emotional women were like grumpy bears, in his experience. They were ready to disembowel you at the first wrong move.
She jumped up out of the chair and batted his arm away. "I said I don't need a hug! I'm just having a very bad day."
"Okaaay." Easy there, she-bear. If he could back away quietly…
She glared at him, looked away, then flew at him in a sudden rush. He stepped back in alarm, but not quickly enough to keep her from attaching herself to his chest in a hug, arms going around his rib cage and squeezing the breath out of him as she burrowed her face into his shirt.
When his mind cleared of its adrenaline fog, he remembered to put his arms around her. He patted her back as she sobbed and shook, then as she started to settle down, he changed to a gentle rub. He felt the band of her bra beneath her tight T-shirt, and the soft firmness of warm skin over muscle and bone. He became aware of her breasts pressed against his chest.
Her breathing eased and her grip loosened as she relaxed against him. "That feels nice," she said softly.
Her whispered words went straight from his ear down to his groin, stirring an erection to life. He gently disentangled himself and stepped back. "Are you okay now?"
Her eyes were puffy, but she managed a rueful smile. "Yeah. Sorry about that." She pulled out a chair from the big dining table and sat down. "It's been one of those days where things all pile up at once and something inside you just gives, you know?"
He pulled out another chair and sat, grateful for the chance to hide his arousal. He didn't want to hear a litany of woes, but neither did he want to be callous and leave her.
She shook her head. "It's all small stuff, in the scheme of things. I shouldn't have let it get to me." She smiled again. "Thanks for the hug, and for putting up with me. I'm okay now; you can go to work."
With the prospect of a litany of woes swept away from him, he was suddenly curious about what had set her off. "Something didn't happen to someone in your family, did it?" he asked.
"Oh, no! Nothing like that. No, it's all petty stuff, like I said. Someone broke a window out of my car last night and stole the radio. I got two rejection letters in the mail today from firms where I'd interviewed. My student loan, car insurance, health insurance, and quarterly taxes are all due, and my roommate just called and told me that she's moving in with her boyfriend next week, which means my rent just doubled." She laughed, but it sounded tinged with hysteria. "That's all. Nothing serious!"
"No, nothing serious, but I remember those days myself. Everything hung together as long as nothing went wrong, but when something did go wrong, I was screwed."
She looked at him with interest. "Yeah? What did you do when that happened?"
"Slept on friends' couches and only ate the free food at the pizza place where I worked. That was while I was in college."
Her mouth quirked. "I suppose I could live in my car and eat out of the refrigerators at the houses where I clean."
"I doubt it will come to that. Do you want some coffee?" His arousal had gone down, and he felt safe standing.
Emma followed him into the kitchen, bemused by the turn the day had taken. With each sucky thing that happened, she had felt herself sinking lower and lower under the weight of her situation. It hadn't helped that she had PMS, had stayed up until four in the morning working out and rejecting ideas for the train station, and all she'd eaten today was a banana.
Still, she'd thought she was holding up all right through car break-in, rejection letters, and bills until Daphne called, ecstatic over Derek's proposal that she move in with him. The moment Emma hung up, emotion had washed over her, unstoppable as the tide.
The last thing she'd expected was that Russ would witness her meltdown. The poor man had looked as horrified as she was.
She bit her lip against a smile, thinking of his offer of a hug. He'd dealt with her emotions the best he could. He had no idea that taking him up on his offer had more to do with the chance to touch him than it did with her need for solace. Yet something about the simple physical contact had soothed her, and once her nose cleared she realized that she liked how he smelled. She'd have happily stayed in his embrace all day.
She took a seat on one of the tall stools at the kitchen island while Russ set about making coffee.
"There are times I'm almost nostalgic for that time of my life," he said.
"I'll trade you."
He shook his head. "I wouldn't take the memories from you. It makes success all the sweeter."
She put her elbows on the counter and rested her chin in her palms. "Success. I begin to wonder if I'll ever find it."
"What type of firms did you interview at?"
"I have a master's degree in architecture. I'm trying to find an internship position."
He stared at her. "A master's degree?"
"So you wonder why I'm cleaning houses, don't you?"
"Yes. In a word."
"It was supposed to be temporary." She held up her fingers, counting off: "The money is okay, it takes no training, you don't have to give notice when you quit, I get to see inside a lot of houses and see both bad and good design, I can arrange my schedule to allow for interviews, and the work doesn't take any brain power, so I can save my thinking energy for things I care about."
She dropped her chin back into her hands. "Only the money turns out to be not quite good enough to cover a perfect storm of bills and circumstance."
"Why not take a regular job, if that's what it takes to make ends meet?"
"I'm afraid of getting sidetracked. I'm afraid I'll get lost in some other career, and architecture will become the thing I always wanted to do but didn't. And by the time I try to go back to it, it'll be too late. All my knowledge will be out of date and my ideas won't have evolved with the times. I won't be a wannabe anymore; I'll be a wanted-to-be."
"So what are you going to do?" he asked, setting a mug of coffee in front of her. "Cream, sugar?"
"Both, thanks." She stirred her coffee and noticed him giving the same treatment to his own coffee. Heavy on the cream, heavy on the sugar, like a mug of hot coffee ice cream. "I don't know what I'm going to do. Try to get more work, I suppose." She sipped her coffee, thinking about Daphne moving in with Derek. Daphne said that Derek didn't want her to contribute toward his mortgage; that he wanted her there because he loved her, not because he wanted to save a few bucks.
"Do you know what I think sometimes?" Emma mused aloud.
He raised a brow. "No."
"I sometimes think that it would suit me perfectly fine to be a man's mistress."
His brows went up.
"I'm not the only woman to ever think it, you know," she said in mock-seriousness. "And I don't mean mistress in the sense of a married man's lover. I mean that sometimes it seems like it would be a pretty good deal to be a man's kept woman. Have him pay my living expenses in exchange for on-demand sex." She grinned. "Hey, I'm horny anyway. It would kill a couple birds with one stone."
"Could you do that? Emotionally?"
She shrugged, a half smile on her lips. He didn't think she was serious, did he? "Who knows? Maybe. If the situation was right."
Could she really do it? Probably not. Not unless it was someone like Russ, whom she wanted to sleep with anyway. She made a show of tapping her fingertips along her jaw and tilted her head, looking up at the ceiling as if considering. "I'd have to like the guy, or at least respect him. And I'd have to find him physically attractive." She slid a glance toward him and smiled wickedly.
He looked stunned. "I thought women wanted love with sex. Marriage. Children."
She dropped her hands to the counter. "Oh, I do, but in a few years. Right now, I don't want my life to get swallowed up in a romantic relationship."
"I don't want my ambition to get diluted by attachment to a guy. I've got too much to do, too much to achieve, before I get wrapped up in a relationship."
The look on his face was one of utter befuddlement. "I don't think I've ever met a woman who felt the way you do about love and sex."
She waved her hand dismissively. "Don't take me seriously. The mistress stuff was just an idle thought. Surely you've had impractical fantasies too?"
He laughed. "You just described the perfect fantasy of a lot of men. A beautiful young woman who wants regular sex from him but no emotional entanglements."
She chuckled, feeling a bit better. "Well, there you go. And speaking of going, don't you have to go to work?"
"I have some things to do in my home office; then I'll go in."
She slid off the bar stool. "Well, thanks for the coffee and sympathy. I have another house to do after yours, so I'd better get cracking."
She was happy for an excuse to get away from him. God. What was wrong with her?
You want to get into his pants, that's what's wrong, her inner voice said as she went to fetch her vacuum. She'd noticed in the past that when talking to an attractive guy, she gave away her interest by turning the conversation to sex. Never in an, "Oh baby, take me home tonight" way; she talked about sex under the guise of having a pseudointellectual discussion. She'd mention a Cosmo poll or a factoid heard on TV related to sex, and ask his opinion. The words would spill out of her mouth before she consciously knew she liked a guy.
She shut her eyes, shaking her head in embarrassment. She'd outdone herself this time. She'd all but offered to be Russ's paid love slave. What must he think of her?
"Criminy," she said under her breath, borrowing a word from her deceased grandmother. The day just couldn't get any worse.
Russ answered e-mails in his home office, clearing the most pressing out of his in-box.
The distraction worked for a while, but then he heard Emma vacuuming the hall outside the office, working her way through the house toward his bedroom. He felt for her, trying to find her footing in the world, and wished he could help. Unfortunately, he didn't know any architects who he might ask to give her special consideration.
However, he did own an apartment downtown that he could rent to her for a pittance until she got back on her feet. He himself may have slept on the borrowed couches of friends, but he didn't like to think of a young woman doing that. Bad things could happen: a friend's boyfriend, drunk, finding Emma asleep and vulnerable and taking advantage of the opportunity. A single woman needed to keep herself out of danger.
His old apartment had been sitting empty for the three months since the last tenant moved out. He'd been meaning to put it on the market but hadn't gotten around to it.
He smiled. It was gratifying to have procrastination turn out to be fortuitous.
He could also hire her to cook and grocery shop, as she'd offered last week. He was sick of restaurant food and frozen dinners; it would be nice to have real meals at home. At least until she got on her feet. Sooner or later she'd land the internship position she was looking for, and she'd drop the cooking and cleaning in an instant.
He imagined the the smile, the relief on her face when he made the offers.
Then he frowned.
She would be relieved, wouldn't she? Or would she be offended? She might think he thought she couldn't take care of herself, that he thought her a charity case. She might see him as overprotective, trying to take away her independence.
Dammit, why wasn't anything ever easy?
Emma rapped on the door frame and stuck her head in. "Hi. I think I'm done, unless you want me to clean in here?"
"No, I'd never find anything again. You're done already?" Crap! He hadn't had time to think out how to make his offer.
Emma took a step into the office. "Yeah, the place is spotless. But it was nearly spotless before I got here. Are you always so neat, or did you clean before I arrived?"
At the look of guilt on his face, Emma bit the inside of her lip, trying not to giggle. "I've seen boy mess before, you know. I have a brother."
He scrubbed his hand through his hair and sighed. "Do you have a minute?"
"Sure." She stepped closer and leaned against the leather visitor chair in front of his desk. "What's up?"
He looked at her and then away, his jaw hard. "This is uncomfortable," he muttered.
The thought fluttered through her mind that he was going to fire her. Oh God, no, not today of all days! I shouldn't have broken down; I shouldn't have said all those stupid things! He wouldn't be so heartless, would he, when he knew what a difficult position she was in?
He gestured toward the chair. "Sit. Please."
She slid over the arm and into place, hands in her lap like a good girl, afraid to say anything.
"I don't want to offend you, Emma, so please don't take this the wrong way. It's not a comment on your character."
Oh God, oh God, oh God…
"I have an apartment downtown, in the Belltown neighborhood. It's been empty for three months. I was thinking that you could stay there. And that I would take you up on your offer."
It took several seconds for her brain to make sense of his words. As they sank in, her heart seemed to stop. He wanted her to be his mistress?
"I don't want you to think this is out of pity, or that I don't respect your independence."
Her heart lurched into motion again. He was serious! Oh God, he was serious. What was she supposed to say?
"You're not offended, are you?" he asked warily.
She blinked. "No, I don't think so. I mean, I offered, right? And it would obviously help me out. A lot." She chewed her Up. "If I said yes, how often would you want…" She trailed off, finishing the question with her eyebrows.
"I don't think I need it every night. Maybe, oh, Monday, Wednesday, Friday? With something big on Friday to last me through the weekend? You'd have the weekends off, of course."
"Of course!" Was she really having this discussion? "Er, what type of'big' did you mean, for Fridays?"
He shrugged. "Big. You know, lots of it. I'll leave the details up to you."
"Ah. Are there any particular, um… .flavors that you prefer? It might help me to have a starting point."
"I'm happy with most anything, so feel free to use your imagination." He smiled, meeting her eyes. "It sounds like you're willing?"
His warm gaze went straight to her loins, despite his insane proposition. She never would have guessed he would be up for such an arrangement. Never! Yet he'd said himself that she'd described the perfect male fantasy.
She could stand up and slap him, then storm out of his house. But it wasn't what she wanted to do. What she wanted-against all common sense-was to say yes.
"I need to think about this," she said instead and shifted in her chair, distressingly aware of the arousal pooling down low, imagining him doing wicked things to her body three times a week.
"The choices will be all mine?" she asked, for clarification. "You'll take what I give you?"
"If that's the way you want it, although I'd appreciate it if you'd consider requests."
"Of course I would. I'd want you to be happy, after all. Isn't that the point?"
"I'd like you to enjoy it, too," he said. "I shouldn't like it to be a dreary chore for you. So be creative. Explore. Try new things. I'm up for it."
"Apparently so." She smiled, but he didn't appear to get the joke.
"You're proving very difficult to hire for a position you suggested yourself," he said with a touch of impatience.
"What do you expect? I've never done it before! I mean I've done it, but never for money. Never like this."
"It will be awkward for us both at first, I imagine."
"Yeah, I think so," she said, relieved that he felt the same way.
"Just like it's awkward discussing payment."
"Very awkward. Extremely awkward."
"I can get a prepaid Visa card for you, so you can buy what you need. I know there will be a lot of shopping involved. And then should I pay you by the hour? Or would you prefer a set rate per night?"
Emma swallowed. How much did call girls make? A couple hundred a visit, at least. But if she was already getting her rent free and he was giving her spending money, that was worth a lot right there. And she wasn't going to be a call girl. Being a mistress was different-wasn't it?
"How about we do it by month?" She gathered her courage. "A thousand dollars."
He blew out a breath and leaned back in his chair. "Hoo. Steep."
"It's probably less than the going rate."
"You think so?"
"Yeah, I do."
He grimaced. "I don't know. It sounds like a lot."
She shrugged. "Take it or leave it: I'm not going to sell myself cheap. Besides, it's cheaper than a girlfriend, right? And not half so troublesome."
"Or I could do it myself."
"What fun is that? Besides, I don't see any signs that you've been satisfying your appetites." She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "I'd make it well worth it. I'd do my best to please you, however you want."
He cleared his throat. "You make it hard to refuse."
"Then don't. You'll enjoy it, I promise. And if you don't…" She shrugged and sat back. "We can always end the arrangement. Just promise not to make me move out of the apartment before I find someplace to go."
"No, of course not."
"And I probably shouldn't keep cleaning your house. That would be too weird, and you don't need a housekeeper anyway."
"I don't know about 'weird,' but it's true that I don't need someone to vacuum. I can do that myself."
"Then we have a deal?" Her heart fluttered, sensing that something momentous was about to happen in her life. Something insane and life-changing.
There was a long moment of silence, his thoughts unreadable on his face. And then: "What the hell. Let's do it!"
Oh boy. She smiled shakily. "How soon can I move into the apartment?"
"As soon as you like." He opened a drawer and took out a set of keys, then began scrawling information on a piece of notepaper. "Here's the address. There's parking under the building; the apartment has its own space. There's also a storage room in the basement. Will you need any help moving?"
"I have friends who can help."
He pushed the keys and piece of paper across the desk to her. "We can straighten out the utilities and the rest later. I know that moving is a lot of work, so I won't expect you to start your new duties for a week or two. When do think you'll be able to begin?"
She blinked. It was all so businesslike. "The Friday after this one?"
"Excellent! Could you have dinner ready by seven?"
He wanted her to cook for him, too? Apparently he was looking for one-stop shopping for all his appetites. That Visa card had better be loaded with plenty of cash if she had to buy groceries for romantic dinners. "You want the full deal, huh? Dinner and dessert?"
"Sure, if that's not too much for you. Given the price you asked, it seems a reasonable request."
"I can handle it, if that's really what you want." Damn. He was a sneaky negotiator, throwing that in at the last moment.
"It might be nice. Nothing too rich, though. I'm trying to eat right." He stood. "Okay, then."
She stood, too. "Okay, I guess." She turned and walked blindly to the door, but before she stepped through it a few crucial issues fought their way to the forefront of her stunned mind. She turned around.
"One: you will get a complete physical and show me the paperwork saying that you're free of sexually transmitted diseases. I'll do the same for you. And two: this will be a monogamous relationship. I care about my health, just as I'm sure you care about yours."
He looked confused. "A physical? Why would that-" His eyes widened as if in sudden understanding. "Oh. Oh, you think-"
She held up her hand. "As far as I know, I'm clear, and you may believe the same about yourself. But let's get the paperwork so neither of us has to worry about it. Sound reasonable?"
He nodded, his eyes still wide.
She felt better, seeing that he wasn't as in control as she'd thought. "Hey, relax! Remember, this was both our fantasies. If it doesn't work, at least we're giving it a shot. That's more than most people would dare."
"Much more," he said hoarsely.
"So, rah rah for courage and the unexpected!"
"Rah rah," he repeated faintly.
"Not something to put on my rlbsumlb, but maybe something to put in my memoirs, eh?"
"Emma, I-" he started, and then stopped, the words hanging there.
"I-I never expected something like this."
She wondered if that was what he had meant to say, but smiled. "Like I said before: it's the unexpected that keeps life interesting."