It was just her luck that they knew each other.

“Bothering this woman? Me? You know me better than that,” Chet answered, beaming Monica a cocky smile. “I’ve got more important things to do.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“He refuses to leave,” Monica supplied huffily.

“Now, listen, miss, I know Chet’s a sorry-looking alley cat, but he’s harmless. Let me assure you, you’re in no danger from him.”

“Thanks, Dennis,” Chet said and dipped his head slightly.

“That’s simply not true,” Monica tried again, more adamantly this time. “I politely asked him to leave and he refused.”

Dennis bounced the billy club against his open palm a couple of times. “Chet, stop pestering this pretty young lady.”

“Sure thing.”

Dennis touched the tip of his hat. “He’ll leave you alone now, miss.” With that he strolled away.

“You aren’t going to leave, are you?”

“Trust me, sweetheart, he’s got better things to do than listen to you making a fuss over nothing. This is a public sidewalk, there’s nothing Dennis can do but ask me to move on, which he’s already done.”

“Why do you insist upon doing this?” Monica demanded, straightening her shoulders. She forced herself to look directly ahead and away from him, because looking at Chet caused her stomach to flutter as if she were coming down with the flu.

“Hey,” he said, raising both hands, “I’m paying you back for what you did the other day.”

“I was trying to help you.”

“You were a major pest. Now you know how it feels.”

“If you’re looking for me to apologize, then—”

“No, thanks.” He walked all the way around her once more, then stood directly in front of her, hands on his hips. “You know, you might really be something in the looks department if you ever decided to wear makeup.”

Monica ignored the comment.

“A little blush and eye liner aren’t tools of the devil, you know.”

She pursed her lips to restrain herself from chastising him the way he deserved.

“My, oh, my, look at that sour puss. I was right the first time.”

“About what?” she demanded before she could stop herself.

“What you really need is to be kissed, and sweetheart, I’m the man to do it.”

Chapter 4

Chet never intended to kiss Monica. He’d taken delight in teasing her and she was easy game. Her face flushed with color, brightening her cheeks, and her eyes snapped with outrage, challenging him. Chet was ready to laugh and walk away when a Metro bus came rushing down the street, the thick tires spraying the sidewalk with a shower of icy, muddy water.

Monica, standing as close to the curb as she was, would receive the brunt of the spray. Thinking quickly, Chet caught her by the shoulders and whirled her around. The bus passed and the muddy water sprayed him against the back of his legs. He grimaced as the icy liquid soaked through his trousers at his calves.

“What are you doing?” Monica demanded.

Her back was against the brick building and she was breathing hard. Her breasts rose up and down and her hands clenched at the lapels of his trench coat as though to push him away. When she moistened her lips as if she fully expected him to follow through with his threat, it was his undoing. He felt as if a fist had been plowed into his gut. He didn’t want to kiss her any longer, he needed to.

“No, please,” she blurted out, sounding as if she were near panic.

“Relax,” he whispered coaxingly. “This isn’t going to hurt in the least.”

She jerked her head to one side but he caught her by the chin. By all that was right he should have released her then, but the temptation was too strong, too sweet and piercing to ignore.

Slowly he lowered his mouth to hers with the confidence of years of experience. His lips cut off her gasp of protest, and the strong pressure of his mouth opened hers to him. She tasted good, damn good, a hell of a lot better than he expected. When his tongue entered her mouth, her nails dug into his coat, and then she amazed him and quite possibly herself with a soft, womanly sigh of pleasure. Chet slanted his head and kissed her with months of pent-up passion.

He didn’t mean to be so demanding, but he couldn’t stop himself.

With effort, Chet forced himself to break off the intensity of the kiss and wean himself away from her with a series of short, nibbling ones. With a reluctance he didn’t dare question, he lifted his mouth from hers. He would have enjoyed continuing this experiment and given the opportunity, a hell of a lot more.

Monica’s chest was heaving and her eyes were closed. Her head was slightly lowered but not enough to disguise the soft, feminine look about her. He noticed that half the pins were missing from her hair so that it fell haphazardly over one shoulder. Hell, he didn’t even remember doing anything more than plowing his hands into the thick fullness and positioning her head so he could kiss her properly.

Her eyes slowly opened and she looked slightly dazed and definitely pale. She gazed at him steadily for just a moment and then quickly lowered her eyes. Her slender throat moved up and down as she swallowed and it seemed that she was getting ready to speak.

“I . . . wish you hadn’t done that.”

“No, you don’t,” he returned, sounding far more cocky than he intended. Insolence was part and parcel of his job. He didn’t like it in himself, but he didn’t know how to stop.

“Please, will you leave me alone now?”

“Is that what you really want?”

She nodded, but refused to meet his eyes.

He stepped away from her and she immediately went about tucking her hair back into place, her hands trembling so badly that Chet had to resist offering to help.

“It was just a kiss,” he said in a weak effort to comfort her, although he was beginning to feel he was the one who needed reassurance. This woman was completely unaware of what a powerful punch she packed. She’d felt good in his arms, as if that was where she was supposed to be. The thought didn’t sit well with Chet. Nor was he keen on admitting how difficult it was to walk away from her.

“I . . . think it would be best if you left,” she said, struggling valiantly to compose herself. She refused to look up at him.

Chet’s mind was sluggish and his pulse still hadn’t returned to normal. He nodded, unable to think of anything more to say. As he moved away from her, he found the small, silver bell she’d dropped on the sidewalk. Stooping, he retrieved it for her.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“You’re sure you’re all right?”

She nodded and Chet stepped away from her, walking backward. He bumped into a lamp post, his shoulder hitting it hard enough against the steel column to jar him. Sucking in a deep breath, he rubbed his hand over the tender spot, turned, and walked away.

He didn’t want to think about what had just happened. He’d kissed a woman who, for all intents and purposes, was living the life of a nun. It shouldn’t have been this good. One kiss should have been enough to cure him of ever thinking about her again. He could tell right now that it wasn’t going to happen that way.

By the time Chet returned to his office, he discovered he was shaking like a leaf. He’d faced danger a dozen times, hell, more than that, but no encounter with life or death had left him so jittery that he needed to sit down. It took a morally uptight missionary intent on saving the world to reduce him to this.

“Oh, Leah, look,” Pam Hewitt said, holding up a thick cable-knit sweater the color of winter wheat. “Doug would love this.” She checked the price tag and then slowly shook her head. “Unfortunately I can’t afford two hundred bucks for a sweater.”

“I thought we were shopping for a party dress for you,” Leah reminded her friend. They’d known each other since university days and kept in close contact although they weren’t able to get together often. Pam had temporarily traded in her nurse’s uniform to be a full-time housewife and mother to her three youngsters. Leah loved each one, but Scotty, the just-turned three-year-old, held a special place in her heart. The baby Andrew and she were to have adopted had been born around the same time. Somehow Leah had transferred to Scotty all the love she had for the child that was to have been hers. She gave Pam’s three children gifts every Christmas and invented excuses for outings with them, but it was Scotty who ruled her heart.

“I hate Christmas parties,” Pam muttered, folding the sweater and setting it back on the table. She ran her hand over the top and sighed expressively. “I was thinking I’d cut down the fancy maternity dress I wore a couple of years ago and—”

“Absolutely not,” Leah insisted. “We’re going to find you a dress that will make you feel like a queen for Doug’s Christmas party.”

“That will take some doing,” Pam muttered. “Two years at home with the kids and I’m afraid I’ve lost it.”

“Lost what?”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Pam admitted slowly. “I think a part of the brain starts to deteriorate after so many years of dealing with diapers, bottles, and potty training. It’s like you’re on the children’s level for so much of the day that you lose the ability to communicate with other adults.”

“All this tells me is that you need to get away more often.”

“That’s probably true,” Pam agreed, “but you wouldn’t believe the trouble it is to find a baby-sitter, especially on weekdays.”

“What about taking some time for yourself while the kids go down for their naps?”

Pam laughed softly as they headed toward the escalator. “Nap time is like an oasis in the middle of the day. I treasure every moment of that hour, but lately even that time’s been robbed from me. I’m sewing Scotty and Jason Batman pajamas and that’s the only free time I have to do it.”

“Batman pajamas?”

“They’re crazy about him and Spider-Man.”

“Why don’t you sew in the evenings?” Leah suggested. It made perfect sense to her since the three were generally in bed by eight.

Pam laughed and shook her head. “Because, my dear friend, I’m too pooped. Honestly, I head for bed no more than an hour after the kids. I never dreamed I’d be in bed before nine. Remember me, the original night owl? Trust me, kids will do that to you.”

A pang of envy struck Leah at the thought of her life being dominated by the demands of a houseful of children. Then again, the grass always appeared greener on the other side of the fence. More than once, Pam had said how much she envied Leah her freedom.

Freedom. True, she often had time on her hands, but for what?

“I’m on a budget, you know,” Pam complained when they reached Nordstrom’s second floor.

“Would you stop?” Leah demanded, laughing. “We haven’t even gotten to the women’s section yet and already you’re convinced you aren’t going to find anything.”