Melting Into You Excerpt
Oh. My. God. What was wrong with her? She rubbed the tingly place on her arm as if she could erase the arousal his touch inspired. Alec was the last man in Falcon she should be messing around with, yet when was the last time her blood sparked like this?
She stayed at his side up the grand staircase to avoid staring at his butt in action, rambling on about the how her ancestors had built the long oak banister. She pointed out a saber gash from the Civil War.
“We were occupied for a time. Yankee officers commandeered the house. Anna Hancock fell in love with one of them and ran off with him after the war. Quite the scandal.” Unlike her Aunt Esmerelda who whispered the fact like poor Anna was a criminal, Lilliana announced the defection with pride.
At the top of the landing, he glanced over at her. “You admire her?”
“She forged her own path in a time when it was difficult to break free of family expectations. Especially for a woman.”
“You went off to art school in New York, didn’t you? I can’t imagine any other Hancock doing that.” Was that a hint of appreciation in his voice? She couldn’t trust her intuition or senses.
“I did, but you see where I ended up. Back home trying to live up to my family’s expectations.” The weight of responsibility pressed on her lungs, tightening her voice with emotion. “I wish I were as strong as Anna. I would let someone else worry about the old place falling down, let their fingers blister from hours of sanding sheet rock, let them lose sleep over loans.”
She held her hand between them, palm up to showcase the calluses she’d grown from the constant work. Mindless work that took away from her real passion. His fingers skid over the back of her hand, tentatively at first, but he brought her hand higher for a closer inspection, his grip firming as his thumb massaged the blisters and calluses along her palm.
His touch was unexpectedly tender, his voice understanding. “Family expectations can be tough. But, maybe staying is the brave thing to do, not the weak one.”
She kept her gaze on their hands, afraid to look him in the eyes. She could handle him being brusque and all business. She could even handle him being hot-as-sin. What she couldn’t handle was him being so…nice.
She pulled her hand away, their fingers tangling for an instant, and led them into her bedroom. He stopped in the doorway, his gaze sweeping the spacious room. His face gave no indication of what he was thinking or feeling. He closed the door behind him and moved toward the first outlet.
Instead of crouching down, he stared at the small portrait on the wall, so only she could see it when she closed the door. She curled her hand into a fist, waiting to hear his judgment.
“You did this?” He pointed like a toddler and glanced over at her.
“Yes.” She shrugged and said the word more like a question than a statement.
A long pause made her squirm on the edge of the bed.
“It’s absolutely incredible.” He turned back to study her pencil portrait of an old woman in Central Park. She let her mouth drop, the relief at his praise unexpected.
She and the old woman had been regulars during the afternoon lull between grown-up lunch and kids getting out of school. Lilliana had done her best to impart the beauty and tragedy of the woman’s life in detailed pencil lines and on stark two-dimensional paper. It was her favorite medium but the one she was the least confident about.
“Amazing. There’s joy yet sadness too. Is that what you intended?” He looked over his shoulder, his eyes serious, before turning back to the picture.
She controlled the urge to hug him once more. This time for seeing what she had taken pains to reveal yet feared she’d failed at doing. “Everyone’s life is a mixture of joy and sadness, don’t you think?”
He didn’t answer, yet stared for another long moment at the portrait. Finally, as if coming out of a dream, he crouched at the first outlet and went to work. She sat on the edge of her bed and watched him work with an efficiency of movement that reflected his athletic background.
His voice was back to its short, brisk usualness. “Everything in here checks out electrically. But your balcony is a hazard. Get it fixed, and for God’s sake don’t take one step onto it until you do. Next, I want to see the bathroom that caused so much fuss last year.”
The moment she’d been dreading. Without offering an excuse, she led him into the Pepto-Bismol bathroom. She propped a shoulder against the doorjamb instead of following him into the tight space.
The hand-held machine he used let out a series of beeps when he checked the outlet. He grunted and dropped to his knees to check under the cabinet. Even from the doorway, Lilliana could see the tangle of wires that Carl hadn’t known what to do with.
Pulling out a flashlight and crunching his shoulders into the tight space, he muttered, “Good Lord.”
Having your inspector utter calls to the Almighty didn’t bode well. His flashlight clicked off, and he reversed his shimmy. Would she need to tear the wall out? Rewire the entire upstairs? She waited for the crushing blow to her plans.
“Dammit!” He jerked as he ducked his head out from under the cabinet. Crouching on the nauseating pink tiles, he fingered a tear in his shirt. Blood oozed, but she couldn’t tell how long or deep the scratch was.
“Goodness, how bad is it?” Falling to her knees, she tugged the shirt out of his pants, lifting it to reveal his wound. She traced the smooth, firm skin alongside a long, shallow scratch. Her voice creaked a little. “It’s not bad. Let me dab on some ointment, and I can stitch the tear in your shirt. It’ll only take a minute.”
She went to work on his shirt buttons from the bottom, her breathing pacing faster to match the beat of her heart.
“Stop. I’m fine. I have other shirts.” His words sounded rushed, panicked.
He grabbed both her wrists in his hands, but the movement only flipped his shirt apart, exposing the bottom half of his chest, something dark edged from the checked cotton. He froze, his hands loosening. She finished working his buttons open and spread the shirt to expose his entire chest.
“Oh. My. God.” Her words compressed out of lungs that held no air.
She wasn’t in shock from the defined muscles of his chest. That she’d expected. It wasn’t even the sexy dusting of hair over his pecs or the trail into the waistband of his pants. What hypnotized and held her rapt was the enormous tattoo that covered one side of his torso.
The vibe was difficult to nail down. Tribal with some Picasso cubism thrown. Script played peekaboo under his arm, obscured by the shirt hanging to the curve of his shoulders. What words would a man like him would pick to inscribe on his body? One thing was certain—his tattoo was a work of art. Now she was less interested in his warm, man-scented skin than what was drawn on it. Impatiently, she pushed his shirt off his shoulders to hang at his elbows.
The tattoo extended to his shoulder and upper arm, stopping at mid-bicep like a permanent sleeve. In all the football practices she’d attended, he’d never revealed his ink. Unlike the boys or other coaches, he generally wore long-sleeved workout gear and used a towel tucked into his shorts to wipe away sweat, but she’d chalked his habits up to being a quarterback and needing a protected throwing arm and dry hands.
Never in a million years would she have guessed what preppy, uptight Alec Grayson had up his sleeve. Literally.
“It’s old. From when I was young and stupid. Most of my teammates in Philly had tats and I thought I was the sh—” He muttered to cover the curse word and ran a hand through the top of his hair, mussing the regimented style. “I’m planning to get it lasered off.”
“Don’t you dare!”
Clarity struck like a shot of adrenaline to her heart. He was ashamed or at least embarrassed by the tattoo. With trembling fingertips, she skimmed the outer line of a dark black swirl of ink tracing the muscle of his pectoral. At first contact, the muscle jumped, and he flinched away as if in physical pain.
“Don’t you dare,” she repeated in a whisper leaning in to follow the line with her lips.