Taking a shortcut to his office after a meeting at the Rod and Cane Society, Dan Tanner spotted the blonde. He noticed her ass first. Tight and shaped like a perfect heart. With an enticing wiggle, she filled out her jeans like nobody's business.
He had to meet the woman the ass belonged to. Slowing the SUV to her purposeful pace, he pulled up alongside and lowered his window.
"Jinx! Jinx! Here, Jinx!" The blonde swung her arms as she walked, and Dan eyed her so-promising bare left hand before checking out the rest.
Silken hair the color of honey flipped up on her shoulders, freckles dusted her nose, and her pink mouth looked sweeter than cotton candy. Some might have called her cute rather than pretty, but to Dan, she was 100 percent wow. She flashed a dismissive glance in his direction, and Dan drank in stormy gray eyes framed by dark glasses. Despite her brush-off, desire tightened his body.
"Jinx! Come, Jinx!" She ignored Dan and peered at the houses lining the street. Her voice carried a sultry huskiness that contrasted deliciously with her girl-next-door image.
"You know, most people don't go looking for bad luck." Dan flashed what he hoped was a charming grin as he rolled beside her.
"Jinx is my cat." She threw back her shoulders, which drew his attention to the fact that it wasn't only her butt that was firm and rounded. Full breasts swelled beneath her hooded zip-up sweatshirt, her nipples beading against the gray cotton fabric.
"A black cat?" he asked.
She shot him a dirty look before the worried crinkle settled back on her forehead. Dan remembered how anxious he'd been when his childhood dog, Barkus, had gone AWOL for a few days.
"Is Jinx lost?" he asked.
She tossed her head, and Dan caught how the sunlight glinted off the honeyed strands of her hair. "I'm sure he knows where he is, but I don't." She gave a sniff and tromped down the sidewalk.
Dan parked at the curb, locked his SUV with a click of his key fob, and sprinted to her side. "I'll help you search."
A petite thing, she barely topped his shoulders, but she had full-grown curves.
"Why would you do that?" She inched back warily, her body acquiring a tension that hadn't been there before.
"I know what it's like to lose a pet," he said quickly. "I didn't mean to scare you. Here." He pulled his business card from his shirt pocket. "I'm a real estate agent. I have a house listed for sale a couple of blocks thataway." He pointed east.
Emma studied his card, then him.
"Dan Tanner." He stuck out his hand.
After a slight hesitation, she accepted it. "Emma Dupree."
Her grip was firm, but her bones felt delicate in his larger hand, and he resisted an urge to caress her palm with his thumb. Reluctantly he released her.
"Dan Tanner." She repeated his name and drew her eyebrows together as if trying to place his name, but then her expression cleared.
"How long has Jinx been missing?" Dan asked.
"Not long. Ten minutes. But his previous owner had him declawed. I adopted him from a cat shelter."
Dan nodded. "So it's not safe for him to be outside."
"No." She shook her head. "I should have named him Houdini."
Dan chuckled. "He's an escape artist, is he?"
"He's persistent, but it's my own fault. I need to keep the door shut."
"He's gotten out before?"
"Quite a few times," she admitted. "I usually catch him before he gets very far, though."
"Is there a certain place where he goes?"
Emma shrugged. "Not really."
"Would he come if I called him, or would that scare him off?"
"I don't know. He disliked my ex-boyfriend and wouldn't go to him."
"Perhaps I'll serve as another set of eyes and let you call him."
Emma looked relieved. "That would be best."
"Just so I don't kidnap a strange cat, what does Jinx look like?"
"He has short orange fur." She paused. "He weighs about sixteen pounds."
Dan arched his eyebrows. Most cats weighed between nine and eleven pounds.
"He's not fat." Her chin jutted out in defense of the hefty feline. "He has a glandular problem."
"Let's find him." Dan gestured for her to lead the way. "A cat matching his description shouldn't be hard to spot." He strove to keep a grin off his face and laughter out of his voice.
The glare she directed at him indicated he'd failed.
"Jinx! Jinx!" Emma called. "Here, Jinx!"
They continued down the street, scrutinizing porches, peering under parked cars, but saw nothing. Emma's face grew increasingly somber, and her voice sharpened.
"It's daylight, Emma. We'll find him," he said.
They'd walked the length of the block and were halfway back to where he was parked when Dan caught a faint, plaintive cry. He stilled Emma with a touch on her arm. "Do you hear that?"
She shook her head.
"Call him, then listen."
"Jinx? Here, kitty! Jinx?"
"JINX!" Emma pivoted in a circle. "I don't see him. JINX!"
"Meow? MEOW." The wails grew louder, and Dan tracked the noise to a nearby house, where the cat's cries seemed to emanate from beneath the cement. Dan moved closer and discovered the driveway crossed a drainage ditch, obscured by overgrown weeds. He stepped into the crevice and then dropped to his knees when he spotted the mouth of a culvert. Mud soaked through the fabric of his khakis to his skin.
Crouched inside in the metal cylinder, a cat with unblinking yellow eyes stared at him. "Is your cat wearing a dark collar?" Dan glanced at Emma, who shifted from foot to foot.
"He's there?" Hope lightened her voice.
"He's here." Dan rolled up his shirtsleeves. "Come on, kitty. Come on, Jinx," he murmured and pulled the cat out of the culvert. Clutching the animal to his chest, he stood up. Jinx weighed every bit of sixteen pounds. Emma might have even underestimated his bulk. Stickers and other brambles clung to his ginger fur, which was streaked with dirt. The cat's paws pressed muddy prints onto Dan's white shirt and the skin exposed by his open collar and rolled sleeves.
"Thank you!" Emma face lit up, and she held out her arms.
Dan regarded her pristine jacket. "Why don't I carry him? There's no sense both of us getting dirty."
She eyed his muddy shirt and pants and twisted her mouth ruefully. "Maybe you'd like to wash up a bit inside? And send me the cleaning bill for your clothing."
"Don't worry about the clothes." He waved aside her offer to pay. "But I wouldn't mind using your bathroom. I carry a change of clothing with me for emergencies like this."
Emma kissed a clean spot on the cat's head. "You're a naughty kitty. Very naughty kitty."
Her fresh, womanly scent stirred his libido, and Dan considered pointing out his clean spots. But he wouldn't be satisfied with a peck on the forehead.
"Do you have many emergencies?" Emma motioned, and they ambled toward her house.
"No." Dan shook his head. "Jinx is my first cat rescue. But I've had dogs with dirty feet jump on me, I've sat in wet paint that wasn't marked, and opened attic doors and been coated with decades of dust."
Emma pushed her glasses up on her cute nose and treated him to a dazzling smile. "I'm grateful for your help. I didn't hear him meow. If you hadn't been here, I would have walked right by. I have to thank you in some way."
"Have dinner with me tomorrow night." Dan stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. He didn't want this unexpected meeting to be the last time he saw her.
She widened her eyes with surprise, but a flicker of pleasure flashed across her face. Their gazes locked. She nodded. "I'd like that." Emma curved her mouth into a smile that tugged at his heart. Would her lips be as soft as they looked? How would they feel wrapped about his cock? Would he be rushing it if he kissed her now?
"Meow." Jinx squirmed, butting Dan's chin as if to say too soon, buddy.
"I'm surprised Jinx is letting you hold him. He doesn't usually warm to strangers, men in particular. He hated Ron."
"It's my animal magnetism." Dan grinned and stroked the cat's dirty fur.
She laughed, a husky sound that immediately made him wonder what kinds of noises she would make in the throes of passion. Emma resumed walking, and Dan let her get a few steps ahead so he could enjoy of the sway of her denim-covered derriere. If ever an ass invited a spanking, hers did. But he needed to stop staring at her before she caught him and had second thoughts about going out with him. He assumed his place beside her.
HE ASKED ME out. He asked me out! Pleasure fluttered in Emma's stomach. Her offer to let him clean up hadn't been motivated solely by gratitude; she'd wanted to extend her time with him. Perhaps as a modern woman, she should have asked him on a date, the way her mother had done with her father, but Emma wasn't that bold. Women taking charge sounded good in theory, but sometimes she wanted the man to be, well, the man.
She sneaked a glance at Dan. He was every inch that, for sure.
He wasn't overly tall, perhaps a hair under six feet, but he towered over her, and while Emma normally dated shorter men closer to her height, she found, to her amazement, that she enjoyed looking up at Dan. Summer, her mother, would be horrified to contemplate her daughter relishing such an archaic thought, but that wouldn't be the first secret Emma had kept from her.
She enjoyed the flex of muscles in Dan's strong forearms as he carried Jinx as if he was no bigger than a kitten. His blond hair, a shade darker than her own, was thick and mussed, and she itched to smooth it into place--then mess it up again.
And what a sexy voice he had. As worried as she'd been about Jinx, she couldn't halt the arousal his baritone rumble stirred. Who knew the words "here, kitty" could be so sexy? He wasn't talking about that kind of pussy! But hers was getting wet. It was too soon to feel this way about a stranger--even if he was incredibly nice and had dimples that deepened in his cheeks when he grinned his slightly crooked smile. That little imperfection made him even more attractive. He'd laugh, and all she could think about was how his mouth might feel on hers.
Okay, that wasn't all she could think about. But the rest was totally inappropriate given the shortness of their acquaintanceship. Jeez. You'd think she was totally sex deprived. Sure, it had been a while since she'd rolled between the sheets with a flesh-and-blood man, but her trusty vibrator took the edge off, so why was her body responding like she was a starving woman loading her plate at an all-you-could-eat buffet?
Her nostrils flared as she inhaled Dan's smell, a woodsy, masculine soap scent mingled with 100-proof testosterone--a heady cocktail that beckoned her to release her inhibitions. She also detected a trace of sour mud and stagnant water, but she liked that too. It impressed her that Dan hadn't hesitated to crawl into the ditch to rescue Jinx.
They reached his SUV, and he handed her the keys so she could retrieve a duffel bag from the trunk. He slung it over his shoulder and resettled the cat in the crook of his arm.
"Thank you again for your help with Jinx," she said.
"You're welcome. It was my pleasure."
"Are you married?" The question just shot out of her. Mentally Emma slapped herself for her lack of finesse, but she needed to know. She'd assumed he was single, but a girl couldn't tell for sure. At thirty-three, she'd been dating a long time, and she'd gone out with a few men whose commitments conveniently slipped their minds. Dan didn't wear a wedding band, but rings came off easily, and some men didn't wear them at all.
"No. And I'm not involved with anyone. You?"
She respected his direct answer. "No. No husband. No boyfriend," she responded.
"Good." He flashed his teeth.
That smile. Those dimples. Down, girl. She grinned foolishly as she peered up at him. Compared to her modest height, he seemed tall, and she wondered how awkward it would be when they kissed. When? She was getting ahead of herself. If. She meant if.
Emma shifted her focus to Jinx. Cradled against Dan's broad chest, her cat appeared, if not small, less huge. Dan stroked the animal gently with his big hands, and Jinx ate it up, purring blissfully. Her stomach somersaulted. Dan was built more like a construction worker or a firefighter than a paper-pushing real estate agent, and watching such a well-built, masculine man act with tenderness sent her libido soaring.
"So you sell real estate." Emma tore her gaze away from his hands and tried not to wonder if the correlation between large hands and other anatomical parts was true.
"Yeah. I'm the broker. I own the agency."
Emma nodded. "That explains the name of the company." The card he'd given her had read Tanner Real Estate.
"Not very original or creative, I'm afraid."
"It works." Seeing the TANNER REAL ESTATE signs around town was probably what had made his name sound familiar. The moment he'd introduced himself, she'd gotten the feeling she knew the name from somewhere.
They reached her house, and Emma stopped. "This is me. My house, I mean."
She'd painted the exterior of her home cream with brown trim. A cheery red door splashed color at the entry, as did a couple of large ceramic planters filled with a profusion of flowers.
"Cute. Nice curb appeal," he said.
His gaze drifted to her lips, and Emma's breath caught in her throat. She didn't kiss strangers. But of course, Dan wasn't a stranger. She considered him a new acquaintance, who'd rescued her cat. A hero. A hero with whom she had a date. Who needed to use her bathroom.
"Come on in," she said.