Getting Off Easy ~ Chapter One
copyright 2019, Erin Nicholas, all rights reserved
“I don’t suppose you know anything about babies,” James said as Harper Broussard swung her door open.
He watched her gaze go from his to the white blanket in his arms. Her eyes widened. “A baby what?” she asked, her tone and expression wary as she leaned back.
Holy shit, he almost laughed.
He had not expected that.
From the moment his boot had hit the landing at the top of the steps, his night had been completely off kilter. The second his eyes had landed on the pale blue laundry basket outside his apartment door, he’d known that his plan to pick up where he and Harper had left off two nights ago was out the window. But he’d been expecting a basketful of kittens. He really had. Which had immediately led to him thinking that he’d be able to cross the landing to Harper’s door to ask for help with yet another life that needed intervention. This was hardly their first rodeo.
They’d probably curl up on her super-comfy couch and watch reruns of NCIS: New Orleans—her addiction—while they bottle-fed a lapful of kittens. He’d watch her tuck her hair behind her ear and lick her lips, and every time she shifted on the cushions, he’d see her shirt pull up to expose that strip of skin on her side he was obsessed with.
But when he’d looked down into the basket and saw the face of a human, he’d felt his world tip and a very deep, sincere sense of oh fucking hell go through him.
In the past, the tree, the lizard, the drunk girl, and the dog had all been reasons to talk to and interact with the out-of-his-league woman who lived across the landing from him. He’d sauntered over, knocked, flashed her a grin, and asked for her help each time, slowly wearing her down with his charm and his see-I’m-a-good-guy-that-people-trust-with-other-living-things shtick.
Tonight he’d sprinted to her door and pounded on it like his ass was on fire.
Her soft, French-accented voice always worked to make him feel calmer—and yeah, horny. At the moment, his heart was thudding so hard he hadn’t believed either of those emotions could possibly make it through the ones swirling in his system. But they did.
He actually felt the corner of his mouth curl just slightly. “A baby boy.”
Her eyes flew to his. “How did you get this baby?”
Okay, that was a fair question. He didn’t think for a second she was insinuating he’d stolen the kid. He was certain she knew fire stations were safe havens—specified places where people could leave infants without question or penalty—which begged the question: why hadn’t this person left this baby at the fire station?
“He was in that.” James leaned to the side so she could see the basket still sitting outside his door. “I just got home and found him.”
Her eyes, amazingly, got even rounder. “Oh my God!” She reached out, grabbed James’s arm and pulled him into her apartment.
James couldn’t help but compare that reaction to the first time he’d ever knocked on her door and asked for her help with something.
Six months ago
“I don’t suppose you know anything about ficus-ing?”
James Reynaud watched his across-the-hall neighbor raise a single eyebrow. God, she’d even come to the door with her hair up in a messy bun and the red-framed glasses perched on her nose. He felt his cock stir. He didn’t go for staying-in-reading-in-my-favorite-chair-with-a-cup-of-tea types. But his body wasn’t listening. Every time he saw Harper Broussard—Professor Harper Broussard—across the outdoor landing that separated their front doors on the third floor of their building, he thought damn.
She was a freaking linguistics professor at Loyola, for fuck’s sake. He wasn’t even entirely sure what linguistics was. She had the librarian thing going strong though. She was a little older than him. Definitely classier and smarter than him. And entirely unimpressed by him. In spite of the fact he’d left his work boots out by his door so she’d note he was a firefighter. In spite of the fact that he’d fixed stuff in her apartment with his shirt off. Twice. In spite of the fact that he’d left his window open so she’d hear him practicing on the piano. He was good, dammit. Really good. But none of that had seemed to do much for her.
Yet here he was, asking her about trees.
He might have been running out of ideas to get the professor to notice him.
And he never had trouble getting women to notice him.
So why did he care if she noticed him? He didn’t go for the bookworm type anyway.
It was a challenge, pure and simple. Probably. That had to be it.
“Pardon me?” Harper asked.
“Ficus-ing. Taking care of ficus trees.” He leaned to the side so she could see the four-foot-tall potted tree behind him. “I’ve become a father to a tree. And I don’t know much about them. I don’t suppose you do?”
She tipped her head, took in the tree, then looked back up at him. She had to look up about four inches. “I do, actually.”
He grinned. “Awesome.”
“Did you think that ficus-ing sounded like innuendo and would come off as flirtatious?” she asked.
James felt his grin dim. “Uh… yeah. Maybe a little.”
Got it. “Duly noted.”
“Ficusing isn’t a word, of course,” she went on. “And it doesn’t really sound anything like fooling—as in fooling around—or fucking.”
He blinked at her. Had the seemingly uptight professor just said the word fucking?
“Just because the words start with the same letter, doesn’t mean that inserting ficus into that sentence makes it seductive.”
James sighed. “Okay. Thanks for… that.”
She just looked at him.
He had no idea why he was going to pursue this, but he said, “Will you help me with it?”
“Will I help you take care of a ficus tree?” she clarified.
“Sure. Let me know when you get one.”
He blinked at her, then looked over his shoulder. “That’s not a ficus?”
“That is an olive tree,” she told him. “An Arbequina olive tree, to be precise.”
She had this lilting voice, with a soft French accent around the edges, that made his gut tighten. His grandmother was a French immigrant and spoke her native language ninety percent of the time. He supposed he associated that accent with love and comfort and exasperated affection. And that was as far as he was going to go into why he thought this woman and her accent turned him on, thank you very much, Dr. Freud.
“I like olives.”
She nodded. “Probably a good thing.”
“I don’t suppose you know anything about taking care of an Albuquerque olive tree?”
“Is that different from taking care of a ficus?”
“I don’t know what an Albuquerque olive tree even is,” she said.
He looked at the tree again then back to her.
She just watched him, patiently-ish. Wow, this woman didn’t give an inch. “What’s it called again?” he asked.
“An Arbequina olive tree.”
“Arbequina. I was close.”
“Because there was an A and a Q in both words?” she asked.
“And an R and an E,” he said. Okay, he was assuming about the E, but he was ninety percent sure about the R.
Yeah, that unimpressed look was firmly in place. “Words and names matter,” she said. “It’s disrespectful to not make every attempt to get them right when speaking to or of a person, place, or thing.”
James blew out a little breath. She was a ballbuster. Definitely not his type. He was used to women who were inclined to say or think, “Oh, you’re a cute, charming firefighter who’s also a musician? Here are my panties.” Not women who were inclined to lecture him about being disrespectful in how he referred to trees.
Still, he said, “I didn’t mean anything disrespectful by it.”
“I can’t take seriously your desire to take care of this tree if you can’t even take seriously what kind of tree it is.”
He was half expecting her to give him detention. And not the naughty-professor-and-bad-boy-student type of detention that, with any other woman, he would have teasingly suggested.
He found himself straightening. “Right. Okay, point taken. Do you know anything about taking care of an Arbequina olive tree?”
“I assume there is sun and water involved,” she said. “I also assume that there is information all over the internet about it.”
And, of course, the professor was going to give him homework rather than answers. “Want me to write a three-page paper about it?” he quipped before he thought about the fact that this woman actually kind of intimidated him.
She took a step back and put her hand on the door, clearly indicating she was about to close it. “Yes. And as soon as you turn it in, I will use it to help care for the tree while you’re at work.” Then she shut her door. More or less in his face.
But she’d offered to help. While acknowledging that she’d noticed his work schedule. A twenty-four-hours-on, forty-eight-hours-off firefighter’s schedule was odd to most people, but James loved it. It gave him time to indulge in his love for jazz music and take care of the plethora of activities, errands, and responsibilities that filled up his life. But, yeah, if he was going to keep something alive while also being gone for twenty-four hours straight and having an erratic schedule during the forty-eight hours he wasn’t at the station, he might need some help. It was just a tree but… he wanted to take care of it. It had been Amos’s tree, and Amos had given it to James to look after.
It had been in Amos’s room at the nursing home as long as James had been visiting him. The older man had played with the jazz band James joined on his nights off. Amos had played trombone for eighty of his ninety-two years. He’d been amazing. When he’d gone through surgery and then chemo for pancreatic cancer and had been too weak to play with them all night, he’d still come to the club, do a couple of numbers, and then sit at one of the front tables and listen while nursing a gin and tonic. When he’d gotten sick again and finally had to go to the nursing home, James had visited twice a week. And that tree had always been there.
Amos’s funeral had been yesterday.
This morning, Amos’s favorite nurse had brought over the trombone and the tree with a note that just said, “Give these to James. He’ll take care of them.” A trombone didn’t need special care. It was in a place of honor in James’s living room, but it could be left there for days without trouble. But a tree needed a little more effort.
He didn’t know why he’d thought of asking Harper first thing. Maybe because she gave off an air of knowing everything. A theory that definitely had not been disproved by her knowing the tree was an Albeq—no… James thought and came up with Arbequina after just a second—an Arbequina olive tree and not a ficus.
He smiled. He’d gone over because it had been a reason to talk to her. Not a fantastic reason, but he was out of his depth with her. He didn’t have to come up with reasons to talk to women. They came to talk to him. Every single night at the jazz club, but also at Trahan’s Tavern, the bar and restaurant up the street from the station where some of his buddies hung out. He’d gotten to know the Trahan brothers, who owned the place, and it was a great stop after a long shift for food and drink. And yeah, women.
Hell, the only thing easier than meeting women in New Orleans was getting drunk in New Orleans. Especially for a local guy who was a firefighter and a musician. He didn’t do any of that to seduce women. He loved it for his own sake. But the willingness with which women took their clothes off for him was absolutely a perk.
He headed back inside his apartment, hoisting the tree with him. He had a paper to write.
For the buttoned-up professor across the hall who was in no hurry to take anything off. Even those I-don’t-give-extra-credit glasses of hers.
Five months ago
“I don’t suppose you know anything about lizards?”
Harper looked at the tank James held up.
“Do you know what kind of lizard that is?” she asked.
James noted she didn’t grimace looking at the animal. He hadn’t known what to expect and had to admit he’d been curious about her reaction to it.
He had been expecting her to ask that, though, so he’d made sure he had the answer. “It’s a bearded dragon.”
She crossed her arms but gave him a look that was a little skeptical but also a little intrigued. “Why do you have a bearded dragon?”
“It was sitting in front of my door.”
Her eyes widened slightly at that.
“In this tank,” he added.
“So someone brought it to you?”
“Like the tree.”
“With a note?”
He’d told her all about Amos in bits and pieces over the past month. “Yes. It said, ‘I know you’ll take care of Henry.’”
“The dragon’s name is Henry?” she asked.
“Apparently.” He held up one hand as if to stop what she was going to say next. “And I know that you have a thing about names and words. The kids named him, so I don’t feel like I can change it even if there is something possibly more meaningful out there.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Were the kids the ones who brought him over?”
“Well, I’m guessing it was Simon.”
“One of the little boys in the third-grade class I spoke to the other day,” he said.
He liked that she seemed a little interested in this and planned to milk it for all he could. He was great with kids, and people trusted him to take care of things, and he’d never miss a chance to remind her that he was a firefighter. “I do classroom talks about fire safety,” he said. “Simon is a kid I met last year. He thinks I’m amazing.”
She pursed her lips almost as if she were fighting a smile. “I see.”
“When I was there a couple of days ago, he was telling me that their regular teacher is out for the rest of the year having a baby and the substitute hates Henry and wants to get rid of him. She’s been asking the other teachers if they’ll take him and even told the students that one of them could have him. No one wants him, and Simon’s mom and dad won’t let him keep Henry. He then asked me if I like bearded dragons.”
“And you said yes.”
“I said I had never met a bearded dragon that I didn’t like. Which is true.”
“You’ve met other bearded dragons?”
“No.” He gave her a grin.
“So Simon got it into his head that you would take Henry, and the teacher is desperate enough to be rid of him that she went along with it, and somehow someone talked Simon’s mom and dad into bringing him over here to you?”
“They actually brought him down to the station. But we were out on a call, and our smart-ass dispatcher said there was no way in hell she was letting Henry hang out with her, so she gave them my address and said it was fine to drop him off here.”
Harper pressed her lips together and shook her head slowly. “Wow.”
“So… can you take care of Henry when I work?”
“What are Henry’s other options?” Harper’s eyes were back on the tank now.
“Hunger, neglect, probably years of therapy.”
She sighed. “Can’t let that happen.”
James grinned, feeling like he’d just gotten an A from the toughest professor on campus. “I’ll bring him over on my workdays.”
“You go into the station at the crack of dawn,” she said.
Uh-huh. She’d noticed. “I gotta go protect the people of our great city.”
She gave a little eye roll. “Just get me a key to your place, and I’ll go over and check on Henry on my schedule.”
Give her a key to his place, huh? Was Professor Broussard the type to go through his drawers? He’d like to think so. “Okay,” he said. “Will you know what to do once you’re in my bedroom?”
Ah, there was that you’re-not-nearly-as-charming-as-you-think-you-are look she was so good at. And that made her look so fucking hot for some reason. “I assume that was supposed to be flirtatious, too? And then I was supposed to say something about you having a dragon in your bedroom to which you would quip, ‘already do’?”
He flat out laughed at that. She called him on his shit, and he liked it. He would not have expected that. The liking-it part. He’d expected the other from the very first time she’d done it. “Yeah, probably something like that.”
She rolled her eyes. “This time, when you write up the paper about the care and feeding of a bearded dragon, use spell-check, and I’d appreciate a twelve-point font and double spacing. Also, bearded is b-e-a-r, not b-e-e-r.”
Then she shut the door in his face. Again.
Yeah, she was really hot.
Four months ago
“I don’t suppose you know anything about…” James sighed and swung the door open to reveal the woman who was slumped against his front door. Sobbing her eyes out.
Harper looked up at him. “What did you do?”
He huffed out a little laugh. “She’s not mine.”
Harper had to admit she liked hearing that. She hadn’t seen a lot of—okay, any—women in and out of James Reynaud’s apartment over the two months she’d been living here, and she’d fully expected to. But she had absolutely no doubt the man had as many as he wanted, whenever he wanted them. And there was no way he was celibate.
He was the kind of guy who just oozed sex appeal and confidence that said he knew every one of the ways he appealed to the opposite sex. Hell, even to a few of his own sex, she was sure. From the dark scruff on his jaw, to the swagger, to the tattoo that wrapped around his upper arm, to the fact he wasn’t just a firefighter—oh, no, he couldn’t have just one sexy profession—but also a musician. The guy was an alpha cliché from the tips of his work boots to the tips of his perfectly-styled-to-look-mussed dark hair.
Not that it was always perfectly styled. When he’d just gotten home from a shift at the fire station, his hair was definitely mussed. Just like his normally cocky swagger was traded for a fatigued trudge, and his quick, mischievous smile was a tired, solemn expression. She only ever saw any of that through her window, though. He never came over until he was freshly showered, smelling great, and full of cockiness.
The first time she’d laid eyes on the guy and thought hot, young, and arrogant, she’d figured living across from him was going to be either a parade of women, a parade of kegs, or both.
It had been neither.
It had been the sounds of his door opening and shutting, the sounds of those boots on the wrought-iron steps that led up from the brick courtyard below, the sounds of his piano drifting out of his window and into hers, the sounds of him calling down from over the edge of their shared balcony to Clyde and Billy, the two old men who worked in the kitchen of the praline shop that made up the first floor of their building, and then, every once in a while, the sound of him knocking on her door. Followed by his somewhat lame yet stupidly funny attempts at flirting with her.
She was now a co-parent to an olive tree and a bearded dragon. How had that happened?
But it had. And now it looked like she might be on the verge of… what? Adopting a sobbing twentysomething woman?
“What’s going on?”
“She’s drunk and heartbroken and hates men,” James explained.
“Is she aware that you’re a man?”
“I’ve never proven it to her in any meaningful way, but I assume so,” he said dryly.
Harper really did like his sense of humor. “So, then, why is she on your doorstep?”
“Because this is where her sister dropped her.”
Harper hadn’t quite reconciled the fact that this man, who kept strange hours and had one of the most laid-back attitudes she’d ever met, was someone who others brought things to for caregiving. It was… fascinating.
And she wasn’t a woman who used that word—or, really, any word—lightly.
Harper crossed her arms and propped her shoulder against her doorframe as she settled in for this story. There was always a story. And she found them… yes, fascinating.
“This is Courtney,” he said, gesturing toward the woman.
She was sitting against his door, her knees pulled up to her chest, clearly not caring that with her short, bright red skirt, they could see she was wearing an equally bright red pair of panties. Her blonde hair looked like she’d run her hands through it repeatedly, and her mascara was streaked down her cheeks. Her eyes were red and swollen, and she looked quite miserable.
“Courtney was dating a guy in the band,” James said. “He broke up with her last night. Her sister took her out to drown her sorrows. Then Courtney wanted to go to his house to talk to him. Her sister knew that was a terrible idea, but the only other person Courtney would agree to talk to was me.”
“Her sister just left her here?”
“She figured this might take a while, and she had to go home because she’s got a sitter with her kids.”
“What, exactly, might take a while?” Harper asked.
“Me making her feel better.”
Harper felt her eyebrows rise. “I see.”
“Not like that.” He gave her a look that seemed sincerely offended. “Her sister thought since I know Scott really well, I could convince her that Scott was serious about the breakup and that he’s not worth her time and tears anymore.”
Harper leaned to look around him at Courtney. “You think you can do that?”
“I will give it my best shot.”
“What do you need from me?”
“A place for her to stay tonight.”
Harper straightened away from the door. “What?”
“I can’t talk to her about it tonight. She’s blitzed. She won’t remember a thing. She needs to sleep it off. Then we ply her with coffee and greasy food and ibuprofen in the morning and have a Come to Jesus.”
“A Come to Jesus?”
“A talk that’s serious and blunt and lays it all out.”
“But you’re going to be nice, yes?” Harper asked with a frown. “I mean, you’re going to be gentle about it.”
“But not too gentle. You’ll be honest, and make sure she understands that she needs to move on.”
“And you’ll definitely be sure she drinks a lot of water and gets home safely and everything?”
He shrugged. “Yeah.”
She sighed. She actually thought he would do all of those things. He was a good guy. He liked to walk around with his shirt off—not that she minded—and he always made sure his windows were open when he was playing piano because he clearly thought he was very talented—which he was—but he was a good guy. Guys didn’t take in olive trees for old men and bearded dragons for little kids if they weren’t, and, of course, he was a firefighter. There was no way she could forget that. Seriously. There was no way. He pointed it out constantly, besides leaving his boots out and NOLA FD T-shirts and hoodies draped over the outside railing.
“She can’t sleep on your couch?”
“I’d rather she didn’t. What with her being blitzed and hating men and possibly in the mood for revenge.”
“You think she’d come after you with a knife or something?”
“Or naked lady parts.”
Harper almost snorted at that. And she did not snort. “You wouldn’t be able to resist?”
“Of course I would,” he said, again, clearly a little offended. “I don’t do things to people they’re not going to remember in the morning.”
“But I’d have to reject her, which would probably not be good for her right now and I’d have to touch her, which I’d rather not do if she’s naked, lest we have some kind of misunderstanding about where my hands landed while trying to peel her off of me.”
Harper studied him. He not only seemed sincere, he also had a point. It was possible things could go pretty wrong over in his apartment. “All right. She can sleep on my couch.”
Her agreement had nothing to do with the fact she really didn’t want James to see Courtney naked. She had no claim on James Reynaud. Nor did she want one. She was helping her neighbor and this poor vulnerable woman avoid a potentially messy situation. That was her story, and she was sticking to it. “You need to run and get some Gatorade, and I’ll need more eggs for the morning. And chocolate chips.”
“I’m not eating chocolate chips in my eggs.”
“Did I invite you for breakfast?”
He flashed her a smile. “You’re gonna want to.”
“You seem certain of that.” The idea of having James across her kitchen table for breakfast really shouldn’t be so tempting.
“Courtney is a talker, and she’s… loud. And inappropriate. I have a feeling five minutes into breakfast, and you’ll be knocking on my door.”
Harper felt herself fighting a smile. “Fine. You can come to breakfast.”
“No chocolate chips in my eggs, Professor. That’s disgusting.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. The chocolate chips are for the cookie dough tonight.”
“Cookie dough. Best falling-asleep-with-heartbreak snack there is.”
“You’ve had your heart broken?” he asked, his gaze suddenly laser focused.
Oh boy. She knew a lot about him, but she’d been careful not to share much about herself with him.
Like the fact she hadn’t, actually, had her heart broken.
She’d dated. She’d had a few relationships. But none of them had ever broken her heart. When she and the men parted, they’d been very amicable. So much so, she’d wondered how deep everyone’s feelings—including hers—had really been all along.
Which, stupidly, made her wonder about her romantic life at large. By the time a woman was her age, shouldn’t she have been in love? Not a little in love or lust. Not just had a few crushes. But truly, passionately in love? Enough to have had her heart broken and cried herself to sleep at least once?
That’s what the romance novels she read told her, anyway, and she read nearly one a day. Contemporary romance, romantic suspense, erotic romance, historical. She read it all.
She’d wondered briefly if those novels were making her set her standards too high. But then she’d realized that no, actually, what those stories had done was help her not confuse lust and crushes and simple attraction and I-kind-of-like-him with something deeper and more passionate. And they’d helped her decide to wait for the real thing. She knew what love looked like. It just hadn’t come along for her. Yet.
Finally, she answered flippantly, “Of course. Hasn’t everyone at some point?” Because she didn’t really want to get into all of that with James tonight.
“Well, damn, what a dumbass,” James said simply. Then he turned and headed over to gather Courtney up.
Harper watched him talk softly to the sad girl as he lifted her into his arms and carried her over to Harper’s apartment.
Damn. Hot, young, cocky, and a good guy.
Yeah, her romance novels definitely talked about guys like him. All the time.
Three months ago
“I don’t suppose you know anything about dogs?”
Oh, man. He’d just shown up with a dog.
Her hot-flirty-firefighter-jazz-musician neighbor who was also a good guy and took care of whatever and whoever showed up on his doorstep.
Harper helped. Some. But she often suspected that if it weren’t for his crazy work hours, James wouldn’t need her at all. He wasn’t exactly a nurturer, perhaps, but he did what needed to be done, stepped up, met challenges.
The essays he’d written for her on olive trees, bearded dragons, and how alcohol effected men and women differently had all been surprisingly thorough. Not that he hadn’t added his own flair and commentary to it—commentary, she, of course, deducted points for—but it had been obvious he’d actually looked into the topics and found the pertinent information to deal with taking care of the things that had been thrust into his path. Rather than giving them away or ignoring them, he’d done what he’d needed to do to help them not just survive, but actually thrive.
Their—his—olives were delicious. Henry was doing well, and now that he was past the stage where he needed insects regularly and could eat fruit and veggies during her shifts, she found him to be a surprisingly curious and interesting creature. Courtney had not only sworn off men over the past month, she also hadn’t had a drink since the night she’d passed out on Harper’s sofa—and puked on Harper’s favorite throw blanket.
And now… Harper and James were clearly about to become co-parents to a dog.
A cute, shaggy little dog, whose breed was hard to determine and whose entire body was wiggling and vibrating with happiness.
She sighed. She didn’t really want to sleep with James Reynaud, but it was extremely hard to remember why sometimes.
Too laid back.
James was at least five years her junior, and more, he was hardly interested in the same things she was. She loved to cook and read and knit and stay in. He loved jazz—playing and listening to it—and the nightlife and going out. He ate out a lot, and she certainly didn’t know what he liked to read or even if he liked to read.
So, yes, he was younger than she was, but they were also so obviously mismatched, it was laughable.
But he was gorgeous.
And he was holding a dog.
She was only so strong.
“Where did the dog come from?” Harper asked, unable to resist reaching out to touch its head.
The dog pivoted quickly, swiping his tongue over her hand before she could touch his soft head. She smiled. He was a cutie.
“He brought himself to the fire station,” James said.
He’d worked for the past twenty-four hours and was just getting home. His hair was mussed, and he definitely looked tired, but he had an air of happiness around him that just seemed untouchable. Harper suspected it had to do with the love he had for his job. She knew how it felt to do something that just felt right, like you were made for it.
“He’s been hanging around for a few days, I guess,” he said.
“And, of course, as you were leaving, the guys all said that you should bring him home.”
He grinned at her, and, as always, her heart gave a little extra thump.
Which was ridiculous. She was thirty-two years old. She was intelligent, highly educated, fully independent. She’d lived in France, Canada, and now the United States. Had had short-term affairs with a Frenchman and with an Italian. Never had her heart thumped over a man. It was not just ridiculous. It was annoying. She was better than to fall for a pair of deep-brown eyes, or a slow Louisiana drawl, or a set of six-pack abs. Because, of course, he had all of those. He looked every bit the part of a walking, talking romance-novel hero.
The real problem with James Reynaud, however, was that she was getting to know him. And he didn’t just look the part. He definitely acted like a romance hero, too. Willing to rush into buildings, risking his life to save others? Check. Sweet with the elderly, vulnerable, and neglected? Check. Creative and talented? Check. Able to be self-deprecating and charming at the same time? Check.
And now he had a dog.
That was like a triple check mark.
“Do you like dogs?” he asked.
“Of course I like dogs.”
James leaned in and ruffled the top of the dog’s head with his nose in maybe the cutest gesture Harper had ever seen. “You’re in, buddy,” he told the pup.
The dog pivoted again and licked James’s chin.
Harper propped a hand on her hip. “But he’s going to have to live here full time, and you can come visit on your days off.”
James lifted a brow. “Why’s that?”
“Because he needs stability.” She did, too.
This guy was messing with her emotions. Maybe not intentionally, but he was getting to her. She knew these things—the trees and drunk girls—weren’t things he’d planned, so she couldn’t say he was wearing her down with all of this on purpose, but the fact he attracted and welcomed all of these needy creatures and then helped them get even better than when they’d first come to him, was making her feel things she didn’t want to feel.
So she couldn’t be a co-parent. She needed to have a dog that her neighbor sometimes played with. With his shirt on. She needed to start drawing some lines before he further sucked her in.
“He needs someone who’s here on a consistent schedule. Not being shuffled back and forth.” She reached out and took the dog from James.
They didn’t need to worry about the dog together or buy toys for the dog together or have Christmas with the dog together. Because of the together part of all that. The more time she spent with him, the more she figured out about him, the more she liked him. She was going to end up falling for him and then getting her heart broken. She did not want to find herself propped up against his front door with her mascara running down her cheeks.
He let it go, but he was watching her with a bewildered expression. “You want the dog full time?”
“Yes. And maybe sometimes on your days off you can take him to the dog park while I work. Sometimes.”
James’s brows drew together slightly. “Sometimes.”
She lifted her chin. “Yes.”
He seemed to think about that for a moment then said, “I guess I’ll need a key to your place, then, too.”
She frowned. “Why?”
“So I can come over and get him when I’m off. When you’re in class. Unless you want me to wake you up early before I sack out after my shift.”
He was right. He left early, which meant he got off his shift and back to the apartment early—twenty-four hours later. He’d need a key to her place if they had a dog together. No, if he was dog sitting once in a while. She’d gotten the key to his place because of Henry.
“Fine,” she agreed. “I’ll have one made.”
He reached out and ruffled the dog’s head again. “Lucky guy,” he said. “Be sure to snuggle her good.” Then he gave Harper a wink and turned and sauntered off to his apartment.
Two nights ago…
Harper’s phone rang as she was leaving her classroom. She’d had a department meeting run late and then needed to finish up some paperwork and was now hurrying home. James had been off today, but he had plans with his friends tonight, and she didn’t want to leave Ami alone for too long tonight.
Okay, truthfully, she would just always rather be at home with the dog… and James… than pretty much anywhere else.
Her shaggy, devious, matchmaking dog.
She smiled as she reached into her jacket pocket for her phone. It really seemed that James also enjoyed being at home more when she and the dog were there, too. The dog he called Fred even though she’d officially named him Ami, which meant friend in French. He insisted on saying it Amy and claiming it was a girl’s name. Harper knew damned well that he knew French and knew how to pronounce it. But he didn’t know she knew that he knew French. Because he didn’t know she’d overheard him speaking French, fluently, to one of the tourists in the praline shop one afternoon or that she’d heard him swearing in French one day through his open apartment window or that she’d heard him talking on the phone to someone fully in French on the balcony another day.
Why he was pretending not to know the language, she wasn’t sure, but she was playing along for now. And rolling her eyes every time he called their dog Fred.
Yes, the dog was officially theirs in spite of her best efforts to not get even closer to James. Her arguments that they were confusing the poor thing by using two names didn’t hold water either. The mutt responded, happily, to both. He was smart and very much preferred when James and Harper were both with him. If he knew one was home but was in the other apartment, he whined and paced and lay by the door looking completely forlorn. It was how, over the past month, Harper and James had started spending more time together whenever they were both home.
It was all very domestic and, she knew, very dangerous. Because, while it seemed wholly platonic, she was constantly noticing things like how one of his middle fingers was crooked, as if it had been broken, and it made her aware of how much she wanted his fingers stroking her body. Or that he always started his slow, flirtatious smiles with the right side of his mouth, which made her aware of how much she wanted to feel those lips on hers. Or how the low, deep chuckle of affection he’d give for something Ami-Fred did made her stomach flip in a different way than the surprised, entertained chuckle he’d give when she one-upped him. Oh, her stomach flipped with that chuckle, too. It was just a different sensation. Strange she’d never noticed stomach flips could vary.
She glanced at her screen as she headed for her car.
It was James.
She stopped in the middle of the grassy square she was crossing and shifted her bag to her other shoulder.
He had plans with his friends tonight. Why would he be calling her? Was Ami-Fred okay? Was Henry okay? She couldn’t believe she was actually concerned about a lizard, but here she was.
“James? What’s wrong?”
“Hey, Professor. Nothing’s wrong.”
She could hear the grin in his voice. Was he drunk dialing her? She frowned. “Then why are you calling me?”
“I have a question.”
There was music in the background along with the clinking of glassware and boisterous conversation. He was definitely still out somewhere with his friends.
She narrowed her eyes. “Okay.”
“If a guy ties a girl up in bed—”
Immediately she realized he’d been talking to his friends about the conversation they’d had the other day. He’d noticed the books on the table next to her sofa and had asked about them. They’d had a mature conversation about romance fiction and erotic fiction and had even talked about some of the pieces of the BDSM lifestyle.
But now he was either calling to tease her or calling to get more information that he could share with his friends. She was going to make him regret either of those. “Oh my God, James. Does she have a safe word?”
He paused. “Who?”
“The girl you’re tying up,” Harper said. She didn’t really think he was tying anyone up, she realized.
He’d, of course, noticed the stack of books was made up of five romances—two contemporaries, two erotic, and one suspense—and a book about female self-esteem. Because, at times, James was a thirteen-year-old boy in a twenty-seven-year-old man’s body, he’d made the mistake of sharing his perception of all that. Harper had taken the opportunity to educate him—for twenty minutes—on the genres of romance, erotic romance, and erotica, in addition to the topic of women’s sexual fantasies and empowerment and men’s erroneous assumptions about all of the above, including women’s self-esteem issues.
She’d fully expected it to turn him off that topic, and possibly talking to her again about anything ever, but he’d been surprisingly interested and attentive.
The man simply would not stop surprising her.
Which was probably even more dangerous than owning a dog together.
“You’re sure she wanted you to do that?” Harper went on, resuming her walk, intent on giving him a hard time. “You have to talk about this stuff.” She got to her car and unlocked the door. “I’m coming over.”
“You’d come over if I have a girl tied up in bed?” He sounded a little baffled but also amused.
That was often how he looked at her in person as well. For some reason, it always made her feel warm.
In her real life, people looked at her as they would a well-respected professor and colleague, with admiration and respect and just enough intimidation to keep them from saying something inappropriate.
James looked at her warmly. That was the best word to describe it. It was almost as if there was affection mixed in when he talked to her or listened to her. He was not inappropriate or disrespectful, but there was an underlying air to him that said he wanted to be. That he was waiting for a time or a circumstance when he could be. And that when that time came, she’d very much enjoy it.
That all made her feel warm, too. But in a very different way.
“Do I need to bring scissors?” Harper asked, slamming her door shut behind her.
“You think I tied her up and can’t get it undone?” James asked. He was clearly enjoying this.
“Zut! I don’t know where my scissors are,” Harper said. “I have a knife. That will work. But tell her not to freak out when I come in.”
She had to admit, it often felt as if James had the upper hand when it came to flirting and teasing. For some reason, tonight she felt like turning the tables. Maybe because after their conversation about erotic romance, he’d seemed not only interested in the subject matter but very intrigued by the fact she read it extensively. Was there a side to her that he hadn’t expected? Good. Because there were many layers to this man and every one she discovered made her feel more and more out of her element.
“Not to freak out that you’re carrying a knife when you come storming into my apartment where she’s tied to the bed and can’t get undone?”
She heard the humor in his tone.
“Wow, Professor. Take it down a notch.”
“Open the door, James,” Harper said.
“I’m not home.”
“Where are you? I need to drive this knife over to you?” Harper realized she was grinning. She was teasing a very hot, young, fully-accomplished-and-very-experienced tease and seemed to be doing a good job at it.
“Put the knife down, Harper,” James said firmly. “I’m not home. I don’t have a woman tied up. I was asking… for a friend.”
“Did she know it would be two of you?” Harper asked, a surge of adrenaline pumping through her. Yeah, this teasing stuff was fun. Especially when it had to do with sex rather than ficus trees that weren’t really ficus trees and adorable dogs that made her feel warm and fuzzy rather than warm and… sexy. She loved Ami, of course. And sharing him with James had brought them a new level of intimacy that was definitely sexy. Seeing a man in love with a dog did something to a woman’s insides. No matter how much that woman wished that wasn’t the case. But it all felt like… foreplay. There was another word she didn’t use lightly. Yes, everything with Ami and even Henry, in spite of him being a lizard, and the olive tree, and even Courtney, had felt like foreplay. This felt like they were finally talking about sex. And she wanted him to come home. Right now. “You really have to talk this stuff out ahead of time,” she went on. “Avocado makes a good safe word.”
James blew out a breath. “You aren’t standing outside my door, are you?”
“You’re also not holding a knife, are you?”
“I’m not even at my apartment,” she said. “But I’ll have you know that I know exactly where my scissors are.”
There was a pause. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”
She thought she knew this man better than she’d realized, actually. She liked that. “If you called to tell me that you had a woman tied up in your apartment and couldn’t get the knots undone, I’d call 9-1-1,” Harper said.
“Because you couldn’t stand the thought of seeing another woman in my bed?” James asked. A sexy, teasing tone had slipped into his voice now.
For the first time, Harper let the warm tickle of awareness trip down her spine and didn’t try to suppress it. “Because all of your firefighter and cop buddies would show up and would torture you over it forever,” she said.
She heard the quick huff of laughter from him and felt her grin stretch.
“I’m taking this outside,” he said to someone he was with.
Harper found herself squeezing the steering wheel in what felt like anticipation.
James was making their conversation more private. She didn’t doubt for one second that James flirted, outright and blatantly, more often than not. He was not a guy who hid a lot of emotion, period. There was no way people would keep dumping things on his doorstep for care if they didn’t know he was a loving, fun, warm person. So what did he need to say to her in private that his friends couldn’t hear? For some reason, that made her feel like something more was about to come.
His voice was low and rough. Over the line, she could hear he must have moved outside. There was still noise—there was always noise in the Quarter—but this was traffic noise, and the conversation was more muted, as if the people were moving past him rather than gathered around.
She swallowed, shocked to find her nipples beading just from that single word, his nickname for her. Of course, other people called her Professor. But there was something in the way James said it that made it sound sexy and affectionate at the same time. It made her think of him saying it, low and husky, against her ear, as their naked bodies slid against one another and on her cool linen sheets…
She snapped out of that little fantasy. “Um, yes?”
“You said you’re not at home.”
“When will you be?”
Her breathing sped up. He hadn’t said anything like, meet me in bed, naked, in fifteen minutes, but somehow her body had heard something very much like that.
“I’m on my way home from campus.”
“You’re going directly there?”
“You’re on your way home?” she asked. Could he hear that her voice was breathless now? Did she care?
“Now I am.”
She smiled in spite of the fact her heart was pounding so hard she could feel it thumping through her whole body. She’d seduced the playboy by teasing him over the phone. Yeah, she felt good about that. She wasn’t a seductress by any stretch of the imagination, but maybe the tree, lizard, drunk girl, and dog had been working on James, too.
“I’ll… meet you there.”
“Yeah, you will.”
His voice was gruff, and a there was a touch of demand in the way he said that. Harper had never dated a man who was sexually dominant, but she’d read about a lot of them. Strangely, she’d always assumed she’d go for the scholarly, professor or scientist type herself. A little older than her. More mature. Confident. Not intimidated by her degrees or her own confidence.
But a little-bit-demanding, kind-of-a-big-kid, heart-of-gold-under-the-super-hot-exterior firefighter-jazz-musician type was okay, too.
“Make sure Fred’s fed and watered and walked and… not needing anything for a while.”
Harper felt her whole body go hot. “Okay.”
They disconnected without another word.
Harper drove home, her mind on everything but the city streets and things like speed zones. Of course, living in the Quarter meant she couldn’t go fast even when she wanted to. There was far too much foot traffic. She finally made it to their building, parked, got upstairs, and was in the midst of taking care of Ami when her phone dinged with a text.
Got called in. Warehouse fire. Don’t know when I’ll be home.
Her disappointment was shockingly intense.
Really fucking sorry, he added.
She believed him. Me too. Please be safe.
No worries. I’ve got a rain check with you to live for.
In spite of the disappointment, that made her smile. He was pretty sure of himself. But yes, she was definitely giving him a rain check on tonight. Don’t let that distract you while you’re supposed to be working.
It’ll be tough, but I’m a professional.
Yes, a professional, badass, life-saving firefighter. As if she could ever forget.
She was still smiling as she took a deep breath and looked around her apartment, realizing she didn’t have to worry about digging any lingerie out from the very back of her drawer tonight after all.
But she was fine. This was fine. She would do what she always did in the evenings after work. She’d make a little dinner, she’d hang out with Ami, and read for a while.
But as she went through her evening routine, she avoided her stack of erotic romance like it was a pile of poisonous snakes.
She hardly needed any further fodder for the heat that still coursed through her body just thinking about their conversation on the phone.