Never Tempt Fate
Copyright 2012 Fran Lee and Ellora's Cave
Chris threw her jacket over the back of the chair and kicked off her high heels. She had promised Mrs. Allen that she would vacuum the lobby and polish the first floor paneling after she got off work, and the bus had been terribly late. She tore off her silk blouse and her skirt and dragged on a rather ugly-looking old T-shirt and a pair of well-worn Levi’s, jamming her bare feet into her ratty old sneakers. She hurried through to the bathroom, pulling her hair up off her neck with her hands as she looked for a scrunchy to secure it with.
She glanced at her watch after securing her flyaway mop and hoped Mrs. Allen wouldn’t be too upset about her vacuuming after six. It shouldn’t disturb anyone. Mrs. Abbott was as deaf as a post and Mr. Delayne worked afternoons. They were the only ones who complained all the time. She grabbed the utility room key off the hook by her door and hurried along the hall to the stairs, not wanting to wait for the elevator. It probably wouldn’t work anyway.
She hoped she’d made a good impression on Mr. Anderson today. She’d worked through her lunch hour to get her office set up. The previous person in the position had left a stack of work that dated back seventeen months. It would take her weeks to get it all sorted out. She was hungry and tired and she still had to do the cleaning she’d promised to do.
She hurried down the steps and through the fire door on the first floor and headed for the utility closet across from the manager’s apartment. She wouldn’t have a spare minute to check the paper for rentals until after eight, and nobody liked to be bothered by phone calls that late. She had tried valiantly to look through the ads on the bus, but standing and hanging onto a damn strap had made it impossible.
As she dragged the ancient Kirby from the closet and plugged it in, she wondered if she might be able to get an actual seat if she left half an hour earlier in the morning. The trip was pretty lousy standing in the aisle. It was a five block walk to the bus stop, then a thirty minute bus trip on her feet, then another three block walk to the office. Her feet were killing her. Tomorrow she would wear her sneakers and carry her heels in a shopping bag.
She jabbed the switch on the vacuum with her toe, and when it whirred to life she quickly and efficiently worked her way along one end of the main hallway, then the other, before heading for the entryway and lobby. She backed around the corner and avoided knocking the antique lamp off the hall table, working her way toward the main entrance.
If she hurried, maybe she would be finished before Mrs. Allen even got home.
* * * * *
The car slid to a halt before the steps leading up into the lobby of what must have once been a rather elegant apartment building. As Jose opened the door for him, Tonio stepped out, frowning at the untrimmed shrubbery that half-obliterated the uneven, broken concrete of the sidewalk. The place had been utterly neglected for what appeared to be quite some time. He knew that his father had always insisted on his properties being kept up, but this one had somehow been missed. He glanced at the peeling paint on the wood around the front entryway and nodded at his driver. “I won’t be long.”
He climbed the cracked concrete of the front steps and removed his leather glove to push open the sadly neglected oak and glass doors. The sound of a vacuum cleaner met his ears as he stepped inside and glanced about, and he paused as a woman appeared around the corner from the right hallway, her back to him as she negotiated the turn, jabbing the whirring edge of the Kirby into the corner and under a table.
He noted how quickly she was moving, as if in a hurry, and he wondered if this could be the manager. He glanced at the paper in his hand, and as he lifted his eyes the darting vacuum attempted to eat the toe of his hand-made Italian shoe. He stared down at the offending machine, irritated that its operator had been so careless. He drew a deep breath as the vacuum was shut off and a startled voice gasped, “Oh my God! I am so sorry!”
“No terrible damage done,” he breathed in a well-controlled voice, lifting his eyes up the worn jeans, over a baggy T-shirt to meet a pair of horrified green eyes, and he had to stop himself from laughing out loud. She looked so utterly stricken that he found it difficult not to smile. He inhaled slowly, noting the smudge of dirt across her nose and the way her mouth had dropped open wordlessly as she stared up into his face.
He lifted one brow and asked quietly, “Mrs. Allen?”
She shook her head jerkily and stammered, “No—no—I’m not. I mean, I’m not her. Mrs. Allen, that is.” He noted the high color staining her cheeks and sensed that she was fighting some inner battle as she seemed to struggle to calm herself. She tore her eyes from his face and looked down at the scuffed shoe. “I’m really terribly sorry about that. I hope it isn’t ruined.” He found himself trying very hard not to smile.
He glanced at the toe of his shoe and shook his head. “It’ll survive,” he drawled. He lifted his eyes back to her face and wondered what it was about her that reminded him of a Renoir painting. She was not what he might call beautiful, yet there was something in the way she held herself. A touch of sensual elegance, despite the shabby clothes and the tousled coppery hair, that made him sense there was far more to her than met his practiced eye. His eyes rested thoughtfully on the agitated rise and fall of her rounded breasts beneath her well-worn T-shirt—his cock jerked to instant attention.
He unwillingly lifted his eyes from her chest, inhaled deeply and caught the light bouquet of a delicate floral fragrance. He noted the way her eyes would not lift above his chin when she looked back up, as if she were afraid to meet his gaze.
“Is Mrs. Allen here?” he asked softly, noting the fresh wave of brilliant pink that flooded her cheeks.
She seemed to force herself to smile politely and reply in a calm tone. “She’ll be back in about an hour. Have you come to look at the apartment?”
He lifted one dark brow again. “Yes. I’m here to see it.” This was an excellent opportunity to look the place over. He noted the way her face fell a little at his reply and he wondered why she seemed suddenly unhappy to show him the apartment that was available
As she hesitated, he said softly, “Perhaps I should wait for Mrs. Allen.”
She drew a shaky breath. She shrugged and shoved the Kirby out of the way, fishing in her pocket for the key. “It’s on the third floor. I’ll show it to you.” She seemed upset for some reason. “Come on.” She headed for the elevator.
Tonio followed her along the faded carpet, which had obviously once been very expensive but was now badly worn and in need of replacement. His eyes slid over the oak paneling that had long been left un-oiled and the dingy wallpaper of a bygone era clinging forlornly to the walls and ceiling. This Mrs. Allen was certainly not a very good manager.
He was sure his father would never have allowed this place to run down so. His eyes shifted once again to the woman walking ahead of him and he was mildly surprised to notice that under those loose, unattractive jeans and that horrible shirt there was an uncommonly well-made female body. He let his gaze move appreciatively over the swaying bottom, recalling those succulent breasts, then he drew himself up.
No time for those kinds of thoughts. There was far too much to be done. She couldn’t be much over twenty-five, yet her eyes told him she was older. Bad experiences, perhaps. He watched as she pushed the button for the elevator, and as she turned to him with a polite smile he noted that the smile did not quite reach her green eyes.
She cleared her throat and said, “The elevator is pretty slow—when it works.”
He wondered why she seemed irritated with him so suddenly. It was as if he had run over her toe! It was unusual to see antagonism in a woman’s eyes. He was used to quite a different reaction. Her reaction to him at first had been what he expected. What had made it change so rapidly? Why the hell did he care? She was nothing to him, personally.
He gave himself a mental shake. She was no one—an unimportant female working in one of his apartment buildings. Obviously paid to clean the place and doing a very poor job of it at that. Yet the feeling that she did not seem to find him at all attractive made him instinctively want to test the depths of these waters. Perhaps it was simply a matter of male pride. Then he smiled to himself. She had no idea who he was or how rich he was.
That could be the problem.
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