An hour after I begin my run, I return, sweaty and breathing heavily. Unable to help myself, I glance at Carina’s deck. No sign of my beautiful neighbor, of course—God only knows how late she was up last night. In my mind, I replay Mario’s sleepy, satisfied smile as he left her house earlier, and again, my stomach seems to clench up.
None of your business, I remind myself.
My thoughts are interrupted by a whining noise.
I look around but don’t see anything. I hear the sound again, high-pitched and grating, and it seems to be coming from my deck. Curious, I head up the steps, then stop in my tracks.
A tiny Yorkshire terrier with a bright pink collar whines and scratches at my front door. She looks at me and barks, then turns her attention back to the door, scratching some more. The short-term rental house across the street is empty this weekend, so there’s no question whom she belongs to.
“For crying out loud,” I mutter. I’m not sure which is more annoying: the fact that her dog is on my deck or the fact that Carina was worried I’d be scared of it.
I stoop down and scoop the little dog up. She struggles for a moment, then settles down against my chest. “Come on, let’s get you home …” I check the tag on her collar and roll my eyes, “Princess.”
I head back down the stairs and across the sandy yard, the long-haired dog quivering in my arms. I think of Bruno, the dog we had when I was a kid. He could have swallowed this little thing in one bite—not that he would have, because he was a 200-pound sissy—and it’s almost impossible to believe that the tiny, shivery animal in my arms is the same species.
Making no attempt to be quiet, I stomp up Carina’s steps and across her deck then bang on her door. It takes a few minutes and quite a few knocks, but eventually, she pulls the door open and stands there, blinking sleepily in the dawn light.
This, I suddenly realize, was a huge mistake.
It’s possible that on some level I thought that the sight of Carina first thing in the morning, barely awake, no makeup, possibly hungover, ideally wearing a ratty t-shirt and hastily donned sweatpants, might make her less likely to keep infiltrating my thoughts.
No such luck.
If her half-open eyes are any clue, she’s barely awake, but beyond that, my hopes that she’ll be reduced to mere mortal status are dashed. She’s wearing a silky, lace-trimmed gown the color of sunrise that barely grazes the top of her long legs. In some misguided concession to modesty, she’s thrown on an equally silky cream-colored robe, but it’s untied, and the tantalizing way it’s slipping off one slender shoulder gives me the crazy urge to just tug it off entirely.
Her dark hair is a mess, but it’s a sexy, seductive mess, the kind that begs you to run your hands through it and mess it up more. And no, she’s not wearing makeup, which only draws attention to the fact that she doesn’t really need it—because when you have flawless skin and perfect bone structure, lipstick and eyeliner are superfluous.
How Mario was able to just walk away from her so casually is beyond me. If I woke up next to this, I might never leave.
Dismay makes my voice gruff. “Is this yours?”
Carina makes a noise somewhere between “oooh!” and “awww!” and dives for the canine bundle in my arms. I can’t help wondering what it would take to get her to make that noise for me. Her fingers graze my chest as she takes Princess, and I have to forgive the little dog for shaking so much because if Carina’s slightest touch can set off a storm of electrified butterflies in my chest like it does, I can only imagine what I’d be reduced to if I lived with her full time.
Princess gives a short woof! of happiness and licks Carina’s face. Lucky dog.
I am so screwed.