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"DAMN YOU, CONAN! That's it!"
Zack Grange jerked upright in his bed, heart pounding, muscles coiled. His sleep-fogged brain felt in a jumble. He'd been dreaming, a very hot dream about a sexy ladyfaceless, but with a gorgeous bodyand then he'd heard the loud female shout. Caught between drugging sleep and abrupt wakefulness, confusion swamped him.
He looked around his shadowed bedroom and found it as empty as ever. No one lurked in the corners, certainly not the lady he'd been dreaming of, yet the voice had seemed to be right upon him. Heart still tripping, he strained to hear, and caught male laughter floating in through his open window. He frowned.
A glance at the clock showed it to be only seven-thirty. He'd barely been in bed at all, not long enough to recoup from the strenuous night. Certainly not long enough to finish that tempting, now elusive dream.
The deep female voice came again.
"It's not funny, you moron, and you know it," the woman groused, showing no consideration for those people still trying sleep. "I can't believe you did this to me."
"Better you than me, sweetheart." Then, "Ouch! Now that hurt."
Zack threw off his sheet. Wearing only his boxers, he went to the window to look out. He shivered as the morning air washed over his mostly bare body. The mid-September nights were getting cool, but he preferred the fresh air for sleeping. He stretched out aching muscles, still cramped from all the lifting he'd done just a few hours ago, scratched his chest, then slid aside a thin drape and peered down into the yard behind his house.
His was a larger, more private corner lot, and the street behind him ran perpendicular to his own. His bedroom window, at the back of his house, faced the side lot, so that he could see both the front and backyard of the home behind him.
New neighbors, he thought with disgust, noticing the For Sale sign now lying flat, and cardboard boxes piled everywhere around the yard. Squinting against the blinding red haze of a half-risen sun, his tired eyes gritty, he searched for the source of the screeching.
When his gaze finally landed on her, he stared in stunned disbelief.
Extremely curly brown hair was only halfheartedly contained in a sloppy ponytail. He couldn't see the details of her upper body beneath an overlarge, misshapen sweatshirt, but her shorts showed off mile-long, athletic legs and dirty white tennis shoes. Zack surveyed her top to bottom, and because a lot of distance stretched between those two points, it took a good minute.
As a basic male, he immediately considered those long IS strong legs. With the erotic dream still dancing around the corners of his mind, he pictured them twined around him, or perhaps even over his shoulders, and speculated on how tightly they might hold a man when he was between them, buried deep inside her.
As a discriminating man, he wondered why her hair looked such a wreck and what her upper body might present once out of that awful sweatshirt.
And lastly, as a neighbor, he wanted to groan at the lack of consideration that kept her squawking and carping in a voice too deep and too loud to be called even remotely feminine. The future didn't bode well, not with her living behind him.
Zack turned with a smile, but he felt ready to commit murder. Evidently, the noise had awakened his daughter, which meant there would be no going back to bed for him. Exhaustion wrought a groan in protest, but he held out a hand, smiling gently. "Come here, sweetheart. It looks like our new neighbors are moving in."
Rubbing her eyes with a small fist, Dani padded toward him, dragging her favorite fuzzy yellow blanket behind her. Her wee bare feet peeked out from the hem of her nightgown. Standing out around her head, her typically mussed blond hair formed a halo, and one round cheek was creased from her pillow. She reached him and held up her skinny arms. "Let me see," she demanded in her adorable childish voice.
Obligingly, Zack lifted her. His daughter was such a tiny person, even though she was now four. Petite, as her mother had been, he thought, and hugged her close to his naked chest. He breathed in her little girl smell, rubbed his rough cheek against her downy soft hair, kissed her ear.
She liked to be held, and he loved holding her.
As usual, Dani immediately gave him a wet good-morning kiss on his whiskered cheek. She wrapped her arms around his throat, her legs around his waist, and looked out the window. Her blanket caught between them.
Zack waited for her reaction. Dani never failed to amuse him. For a four-year-old, she was very astute, honest to a fault, and he loved her more than life itself.
Most of the kids her age asked constant questions, but not Dani. She made statements instead. Other than two days a week at a preschool, she was always in the company of his friends. Zack assumed her exposure to adults accounted for her speech habits.
"I see her butt," she said with an exaggerated frown.
Startled, Zack lowered his head to peer out the window again, and sure enough, the woman bent at the waist, her legs straight and braced apart for leverage as she tugged on a large box. Her shorts were riding rather high and he could just see the twin moons of her bottom cheeks.
Nice ass, he thought appreciatively, lifting one brow and looking a little harder. Dani poked him, and he shook his head, remembering that this woman had just awakened him from a much-needed sleep and a pleasantly carnal dream. "Wait until she stands up, Dani."
The woman tugged and pulled and when the box broke apart, she fell backward, landing on that nice behind. From somewhere on her porch, a man hooted with loud laughter and called out, "Want some help?"
Zack fancied he could see some of her curly brown hair standing on end. She all but vibrated with temper, then snarled in a voice reminiscent of an enraged cat, "Go away, Conan!"
"But I thought you wanted my help?" came the innocent, taunting reply.
"You," she said back, standing up and dusting herself off with enough force to leave bruises on a less hearty woman, "have done enough."
Zack tried to see the mysterious Conan, but couldn't. Her husband? A boyfriend? What kind of name was Conan anyway?
As the woman gained her feet, Dani said in awe, "She's a giant!"
Chuckling, Zack squeezed her. "She looks as tall as me, doesn't she, honey?"
His daughter nodded, watching the woman unload the box with jerky, angry movements, rather than try to move it again. Dani laid her head on Zack's chest, quietly thinking in that way she sometimes did. Zack rubbed her back, waiting to see what she'd say next.
She shocked him speechless by suddenly leaning forwardleaving it up to him to balance her off-balance weightand cupping her hand to her mouth, she shouted out the window, "Hello!"
The woman turned, looked up with a hand shading her eyes, searching. She spotted them and her frown was replaced by a bright toothy smile. She waved with as much enthusiasm as she'd used to dust her bottom. "Hello there!"
In his underwear, Zack quickly ducked behind the curtain. "Dani," he said, ready to muzzle his daughter. "What are you doing?"
She wrinkled her little nose at him. "Jus' being neighborly, like you said I should."
"That was to the old neighbors. We don't even know these people yet."
She wiggled to get down, and when he set her on her feet, she said, "We'll go meet 'em now."
Zack caught her by the back of her cotton nightgown as she started to barrel out of the room. "Hold on, little lady. We have breakfast and chores and washing up to do first, right?"
Again, she wrinkled her nose. "Later."
He almost grinned at her small, sweet hopeful voicea voice she only used when trying to wrap him around her itty-bitty finger. "Now."
Disgruntled and grumbling under her breath, she trod back to the window and yelled, "I'll be out later!"
The woman laughed. It was a nice rich husky sound, much better than her screaming. "I'll surely still be here."
Zack looked out, feeling as if he'd landed in the twilight zone. Now that his daughter had drawn attention to themand the neighbors knew they'd been watchedhe couldn't very well ignore them.
The man from the porch sauntered into the yard, smiling. Zack blinked with yet another surprise. Massive was the only word for him. Built like a large bulldog, he stood a few inches shorter than the woman, but was twice as thick and all muscle. He lifted an arm as stout as a tree trunk and waved.
"I'm Conan Lane," he called out, "and this squawking shrew is Wynonna."
To Zack's amazement and Dani's delight, the woman elbowed Conan hard, making him bend double and wheeze, then she corrected sweetly, "Call me Wynn."
Seeing no hope for it, Zack shouted back, "Zack Grange, and my daughter, Dani."
"Nice to meet you both!" And then to further exasperate him, Wynn said, "Since we're all awake and it's such a beautiful morning, I'll bring over some coffee so we can get acquainted."
Zack stammered, unsure how to deny that audacious imposition, but she'd already turned and hurried into her house, the enormous Conan following her. He frowned down at Dani, who shrugged, grinned, and said, "We better get dressed." And off she dashed, her blanket dragging behind her.
Zack dropped to the side of his bed and scrubbed his hands over his face. He was badly in need of a shave and a long shower. At the moment he had no doubt his eyes were more red than blue. He'd worked twelve grueling hours last night, tended two especially trying emergencies, and he was starved as well as fatigued.
Luckily, this was his day off, which he'd intended to spend shopping with Dani. Because his daughter liked to play hard, and paid no mind at all to the knees of her jeans or the elbows of her shirts, she was desperately in need of new fall clothes.
He did not want to be bothered with outrageous neighbors.
Especially not neighbors who'd awakened him too early and were too damn large. And loud.
Shoving himself off the bed, he determined to get through the next few minutes with as much politeness and forbearance as he could muster.
The doorbell rang not three minutes later. He'd barely had time to pull on jeans and a sweatshirt. He picked up his running shoes, carrying them loosely in his hand. On his way to the door, he peeked in at Dani. She stood there in a T-shirt and blue-flowered panties, surveying her closet with a studious frown.
Zack leaned on her doorframe. "Dress warm, honey."
She nodded, frowned some more, and looked through her clothes. Zack bit back a grin and asked, "Hard decision?"
She was so intent on her choice, she didn't answer.
Because jeans were a given, he said, "How about a sweater?" preferring that over what she might have chosen otherwisea ratty sweatshirt. He posed it as a suggestion, rather than an instruction, because he knew she liked to make her own decisionsabout everythingany time he gave her that option.
She nodded agreement. "Okay. What sweater?"
He walked into the room, reached into her closet and pulled out a soft red sweater with multicolored buttons. "This one is nice," he suggested, trying his best to sound serious and sincere.
She studied the sweater, considering, until the doorbell rang again. Snatching it out of his hand, she pushed at him and said, "Go! Go get the door, Dad!"
Zack laughed as he walked away. His daughter, the social butterfly. Most times, Dani didn't give two cents for how she dressed. She'd pull on the same clothes from the night before if Zack didn't get them out of her room and into the hamper fast enough. But let them have company and she agonized. Not that she wanted to wear dresses. Heaven forbid! And anything other than sneakers or boots repulsed her four-year-old sensibilities.
But she did like color. Lots and lots of color. Often if left to her own devices, she'd clash so horribly it'd make his eyes glaze.
Still sporting a grin, Zack bounded down the stairs and went to the front door. He turned the locks and opened it, wishing he didn't have to do this today. He'd wanted nothing more than to sleep in, then take a long leisurely soak in the hot tub, eat an enormous breakfast, and spend the day with his daughter.
Now he had to be neighborly.
The second the door opened, the woman looked at him and her smile faded. "Oh dear," she said. "We woke you up, didn't we?"
Zack went mute and stared.
Up close, she seemed even taller, and she did indeed look him in the eye. At six feet tall, that didn't happen to him often. His two best friends, Mick and Josh, were both taller, Mick especially, who stood six foot three. But then they were both guys. They were not female.
A light breeze ruffled her flyaway hair, which seemed to have been permanently crimped. The color was nice, a soft honey-brown, lighter around her face where the sun had kissed it. Curls sprung out here and there and everywhere, like miniature springs. He doubted such unruly hair could ever be fully contained.
A soft flush colored her skinhigh across her cheekbones, over the bridge of her narrow nose and the tip of her chineither by the warmth of the day, her exertions, or the bright sunshine. Zack suspected the latter.
Sporting a crooked smile, she stared right back at him with the most unusual hazel eyes he'd ever seen. So light they were almost the color of topaz, they were fringed by thick, impossibly dark lashes, especially given the color of her hair. After a silent moment, her arched brows lifted and her smile stretched into a full-fledged grin.
Zack caught himself. Good God, he'd been staring at her as if he'd never seen a woman before. He'd been staring at her
with interest. He shook his head. "What gave me away?"
"What's that?" She now appeared confused.
"How could you tell that you woke me?"
"Ah. The hair standing on end? The all-night whiskers? Or it could be the bloodshot eyes." She made a tsking sound. "Have you slept at all?"
He ran a hand through his hair and mumbled, "I worked pretty late last night," and left it at that. He wasn't with it enough yet to start rehashing the past evening's events. He pushed the screen door open and stepped aside. "Come on in."
She looked behind her. "Conan will be right along. He's getting some muffins out of the oven. He's a terrific cook."
The woman held up a carafe. "Fresh coffee. French vanilla. I hope that's okay?"
He hated flavored coffees. "It's fine," he lied, "but totally unnecessary."
"It's the very least I can do now that I know I got you out of bed."
If she hadn't, he thought, perhaps he'd have finished that sexy dream and not been so edgy now. But as it was, he couldn't quite seem to get himself together.
She hesitated at the door. "I really am so sorry. This is my first house and I'm equally stressed and excited and when I get that way, I unfortunately get" She shrugged in apology. "loud."
Her honesty was both unexpected and appealing. Zack forced a smile. "I understand."