One of the advantages of being a bachelor again, Jack Wolfe told himself, was that he could drink orange juice straight out of the carton if he felt like it. He did so, grimaced at the cardboard taste, and reflected that there was a reason people used glasses.
Turning away from the fridge to grab a clean tumbler from the dishwasher, he jumped at the sight that greeted him. Someone was climbing onto his balcony! The carton slipped from his hand, and orange juice pooled at his feet.
He’d yet to buy curtains for the glass sliding door that ran alongside his kitchen and living room, so he had an unimpeded view of the woman hoisting herself over the rail. The most logical reason he could think of for someone climbing onto his balcony in the dead of night was burglary, but his visitor looked less than felonious wearing a baggy blue shirt and yellow bikini panties. He hadn’t really meant to notice that last detail, but, hey, she was the one climbing onto his balcony.
It was his neighbor, if he wasn’t mistaken. The one he’d met tonight in the elevator. Curious, and wanting to make sure she didn’t fall and hurt herself, he hurried toward his door. As he opened it, the woman started, flailing a little and grabbing onto the ledge she’d just climbed over.
"You almost gave me a heart attack!" She looked down with wide eyes, as though contemplating a seven story freefall.
"Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you." He frowned. How had he ended up the one apologizing when she was the trespasser here? "You know, if you wanted to borrow a cup of sugar or something, you could’ve knocked on the front door."
She turned toward him then, and he noticed the orange, gritty goop covering her perfectly oval face for the first time. Until now, he’d been distracted by the novelty of a woman appearing on his balcony. And the lusciously long legs that ran from her high-arched bare feet to those yellow panties he’d glimpsed.
"You’re the lady from next door, right? We met earlier?"
"Right. We didn’t formally meet, but I’m Clarise. I mean, Risa. I mean, my name is Clarise, but I modified it to Risa in high school when Silence of the Lambs came out, to stem the tide of bad jokes about Chianti and fava beans and now I’m babbling." She took a deep breath and extended her hand politely. "Risa Alexander. And you are?"
"Confused." It was ten-thirty, and he was standing on his balcony with a woman in her pajamas discussing fava beans. "But you can call me Jack Wolfe."
He shook her hand then, her skin soft in his grasp. The scent of apricots and something sweetly floral — honeysuckle? — made him smile. The fellow computer geeks at work would never believe this story.
"Mr. Wolfe, I’m afraid I’m locked out of my apartment." Risa drew back, tugging self-consciously at the hem of her shirt as she spoke.
She needn’t have bothered — one, she was modestly covered down to mid-thigh; two, no matter how much she was covered, the sight of those legs and bright lacy panties were indelibly printed on his mind.
"Come on in," he offered. "I assume you want to go through my apartment and back to your front door?"
"Actually, I need to use your phone, if you don’t mind. My front door’s locked, so I’ll need someone with a set of keys." She might have been blushing, but it was hard to tell underneath the pale orange goop.
Jack stood aside as she entered his apartment, trying to keep his eyes from doing a once-over of her body as she passed. "Phone’s above the sink."
She made a beeline across the kitchen tile, then stopped short. "If I could, um, ask just one more favor."
"Fire away." He could feel the corner of his mouth lifting in a grin, but tried to stifle it so she wouldn’t think he was laughing at her plight. He couldn’t remember a woman making him want to smile this much since the divorce.
"Do you happen to have the superintendent’s phone number?"
He nodded, crossing the living room that was still littered with unpacked boxes. "Hang on a sec." In the spare bedroom he’d made his office, there was a desk piled with paperwork and his computer.
Once she had the number, Risa dialed, muttering repeated thank-yous. "Hi, Harry. I know it’s late to be calling, but this is Risa Alexander in 7-H, and I’m having a bit of an emergency. You know how I put in a request to have someone look at that sliding glass door that sticks? Well, it’s definitely stuck. I was out on my balcony, and now I can’t get back in because my front door — no, I’m next door now, Mr. Wolfe’s apartment. Yes, please. That would be lovely, Harry."
She hung up with a relieved sigh. "He’s on his way."
"Can I get you something in the meantime? Something to drink, maybe?" Not orange juice, though, since the entire container had spilled across the floor.
Hm. . .stained kitchen floor and a living room cluttered with cardboard, nice first impression to make on a woman. She hadn’t seemed to notice the puddle yet, and he told himself it was irrelevant if she did. She was the reason he’d dropped the carton. Nonetheless, he took a small shuffle-step to his left, standing between her and the worst of the mess.
"No drink, thanks, but could I borrow a washcloth?" She gestured toward her face. "I’d like to wash this off before anyone else sees. I’m embarrassed enough as is."
"If it helps, I have a couple of sisters and an ex-wife. I’ve seen plenty of beauty treatments in my time." He led her to the guest bathroom, glad it was reasonably clean; he hadn’t lived there long enough for anything to get grungy. "Washcloths are in the closet next to the tub."
She shot him a grateful smile. He wandered back to his living room so she could commence scrubbing in privacy, then plopped down on the nondescript beige couch he’d bought after Amy asked for their complete living room set in the divorce. Moments later, Risa re-appeared, and Jack forgot all about his ex-wife. Along with washing her face, Risa had loosened her hair from its ponytail, and the caramel waves spilled down over her shoulders, streaked with honey and chestnut and copper. She wore her hair without bangs, so that it fell from a center part to frame her face — the slim nose, high cheekbones, and almond-shaped hazel eyes that were as colorful as her hair. A melting of green and gold and amber.
Quit staring! It was as bad as it had been on the elevator. He’d actually done a double-take when he’d first seen her. Tall and blessed with regal, unique features, Risa Alexander was striking.
"Um, make yourself at home," he offered.
She leaned against the Barca-lounger, but didn’t sit. "Mr. Wolfe, about earlier…" Her tone was hesitant, apologetic. "In the elevator."
"Call me Jack, please, and you don’t have to apologize for your date. Those sisters I mentioned have both dated their share of clods."
"What? I’ll have you know, I’m engaged to the clod!" She clapped her hand over her mouth, then tried again. "That didn’t come out right. Phillip and I are getting married."
Those yellow panties picked an inopportune time to flitter through his mind. "I’m sorry to hear that."
"Sorry?" Risa squared her shoulders. "Maybe you and Phillip didn’t make the best first impressions on each other, but he’s wonderful. A renowned attorney making the country safer for all of us. Handsome, ambitious, financially solvent, does volunteer work with children—"
"Relax." He held up his hands. "You don’t have to convince me, you’re the one marrying him."
A silence that was about as comfortable as wet wool thudded over the room.
What the hell was taking the super so long? All he had to do was grab a key and take the elevator. Of course, there was a chance he’d been asleep when Risa called, so maybe he needed to get dressed and things, but still.
She finally sat down, pulling the hem of her night shirt tightly over her thighs, trying to make the fabric stretch to her knees. Jack didn’t have the heart to mention that her machinations merely flattened the thin cotton taut against her small but firm braless breasts. His gaze lingered across the faded white proclamation "Girls Rule."
No argument from him.
"Those are nice," she commented.
Tell me about it. Figuring they couldn’t possibly be on the same wavelength, Jack dragged his gaze back up to her face. Her sparkling hazel eyes were fixed on the two canvases hanging above the big screen television. Pride shimmered inside him. Even if she were just being polite, at least she’d taken the time to notice the paintings. "You like them?"
"Very much." She stood, then crossed the room to get a closer look.
He watched, unable to resist evaluating her expression as she took in his work. The first painting was a representation of morning dew on a gossamer spider web, caught by the sunlight. The other was an abstract oil painting, done in many shades of orange. He’d been thinking of a sunset when he painted it, but there was no real image to the picture, just an expression of color.
"My original pieces," he confided.
She glanced over her shoulder. "You’re an artist?"
"Not even close. I’m the IT Network specialist for The Sullivan Group. Painting’s just a hobby. I give them out as presents, and it saves me from shopping at Christmas," he joked.
She laughed, but whatever response she might have made was cut off by the peal of the doorbell.
"That must be Harry," she said as Jack got to his feet.
Sure enough, the cavalry — in the form of a burly, fifty-something man with salt and pepper hair and a bushy mustache — had arrived.
Too late, Jack thought about offering Risa the robe hanging in his bathroom, since she was obviously so uncomfortable in just the nightshirt. The view hadn’t bothered him in the least, but Harry’s presence made him feel oddly protective.
"Thank you for everything," Risa told Jack once her apartment had been unlocked.
She laughed, and the throaty sound warmed him more than the recent spring heat wave. "If it’s all the same to you, I’m going to try to never do this again. But I’ll see you around."
He nodded, wondering if they would be bumping into each other frequently. So what if you do? She was engaged, and he’d sworn off women. Even though he understood why Amy had left, she’d still betrayed him. She’d known about his. limitations before he’d proposed. Maybe she’d honestly thought at the time that it wouldn’t be a problem, but she’d changed her mind. There was no guarantee another woman wouldn’t do the same.
Since he wasn’t in the market for a relationship, that left meaningless affairs, which held no appeal for him. Jack definitely liked sex — in fact, he’d been reminded just this evening of how much he missed it — but his family was too full of loving examples of satisfied commitment for him to settle for less. He doubted he was cut out to live a monastic life, so he wasn’t sure what long-term options were left. For the short term, he was concentrating on his job and the new apartment, now that the house he and Amy had once shared had finally found a new buyer. He’d pledged to just regroup and focus on himself for a while.
But he hadn’t known Risa Alexander was about to drop onto his balcony and into his life.