“Make no mistake,” he said quietly. “I’m wrong for you. All wrong.”
Of that, she had no doubt.
It’s not that chocolate is a substitute for love. Love is a substitute for chocolate. Chocolate is far more reliable than a man.
On Sunday, Mallory watched with satisfaction as the citizens of Lucky Harbor lined up in the hospital’s back parking lot for the car wash. The schedule had been set in advance, and as heavily advertised, every board member had agreed to put in two hours.
They were charging twenty-five bucks a pop. Big price tag but people were paying for the joy of seeing their well-known town hotshots stripped out of their usual finery and working like regular joe-schmoes.
Mallory’s shift was noon to two, and she was scheduled with Matt, Josh, and Jane. Matt was out of his ranger uniform. Josh was minus his stethoscope. Both of them wore board shorts. Matt was listening to the iPod he had tucked into his shorts pocket, his head banging lightly, an easy smile on his face as he worked his line.
Without a shirt.
Mallory knew he was a gym rat, and it was time well spent. He was solid sinew wrapped in testosterone.
His line was wrapped around the block.
Josh was wearing a pale blue t-shirt, but he’d gotten wet while washing a large truck, and the thin cotton clung to him like a second skin. He spent up to sixteen hours a day at the hospital, so Mallory had no idea where his amazing body came from.
His line was nearly as long as Matt’s.
Jane was wearing long Capri-length pants and a man’s button-down shirt. The forty-year-old was tall and statuesque, and in the ER, she could wield a cold expression like a weapon, laying waste to all in her path. She was no less ferocious today.
She had no line.
“I don’t understand,” she said to Mallory. “People hate me. You’d think they’d want to line up to see me washing their car, pointing out every spot for me to hand scrub.”
“Yeah,” Mallory said. “Um…can I make a suggestion?”
Jane slid her a long look. “I don’t know. Can you?”
Mallory ignored the Ice Queen tone. “Push up your sleeves. Oh, and tie your shirt tails at your belly button, and undo three of the top buttons.”
Jane choked out an offended laugh. “Excuse me? Are you asking me to pimp myself out?”
“Yes. And roll up your pants. You’re not even showing knee.”
“I have knobby knees.”
Mallory stared at her. “Okay, you’re my boss, so I’m not going to tell you how much I hate you if that’s your biggest body issue. But I will tell you that if you undo a few buttons and tie up your shirt, no one’s going to be looking at your knees. Oh, and bend over—a lot. Your line will appear in no time.”
Jane put a hand on her hip. “I am forty years old, Mallory.”
“Exactly. You’re forty, not eighty. And you have a better body than I do. When was the last time you had a date?”
Jane thought about that and grimaced. “I don’t remember.”
Mallory reached out and undid Jane’s buttons herself. It revealed only the barest hint of cleavage, but it was really great cleavage. Then she gestured for Jane to do the rest.
Jane rolled her eyes, but tied up her shirt.
“I knew it,” Mallory said on a sigh. “Great abs. Your pants.”
Jane bent over to roll up the hem of her pants, and three cars got in her line.
Mallory was grinning as Jane straightened, looking a whole hell of a lot less like the uptight Director Of Nurses and more like a tousled, sexy, confident woman with attitude.
Jane looked at her line and blinked.
“Hmm…” Jane headed for the first car. “They’d better tip well.”
Mallory went back to her own decent line. Amy was first up in an old Toyota truck that had seen better days two decades back. “Are you kidding me?” Mallory asked her. “You could have either Matt or Josh slaving over this thing, and you’re in my line? Maybe I should be giving the bad girl lessons.”
Amy’s eyes locked in on Matt. He was washing Natalia Decker’s BMW. Natalia was a CPA who ran her own accounting firm, a cute little blonde who’d dated her way through the men in Lucky Harbor with exuberant glee. She hadn’t gotten her nails into Matt yet, though by the way she was hanging out her window watching him, she was working on it.
Oblivious, Matt was bent low over her bumper, scrubbing, the muscles of his back flexing with each movement. He was tan and wet, and looking pretty damn hot.
“Go get in his line,” Mallory told Amy. “One of us should get an upfront, close look at him.”
Amy slid dark sunglasses over her eyes and muttered something beneath her breath.
“What?” Mallory asked.
“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it. Are you going to wash my car or what?”
“Yeah, but Amy…he looks at you—”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay, but this is the first order of business at our next Chocoholics meeting. You hear me?”
“You have other things to worry about.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Like the fact that your Mr. Wrong is behind me.”
Mallory turned to look and went still at the sight of the classic muscle car there, complete with the sexy man behind the wheel in dark glasses, dark stubble, and a darker ’tude.
Ty had been awake since before the ass-crack of dawn. He’d gone for a punishing swim and found Matt waiting on the beach. Ty had given him a long look, but Matt didn’t appear to care that he wasn’t welcome. He’d simply swum alongside Ty—at least until he couldn’t keep the pace, and ended up waiting on the shore.
“You’re doing good,” Matt said when Ty walked out of the water.
It was true; he was doing good. Feeling good. He was making real progress. After the swim, Ty ran, falling only once, and only because a crab had come out of nowhere and startled the shit out of him. Then he hit the gun range, needing to push all his skills. This was the week he was going to get cleared. He could feel it.
The range was about thirty miles outside of Lucky Harbor. He’d been coming back into town when he’d seen Mallory amongst the car washers. She was in a T-shirt and shorts, and was wet and soapy. She looked like the Girl-Next-Door meets Maxim photo shoot.
Drawn in like a magnet, he’d gotten in her line. When she caught sight of him, she squinted, furtively attempting to see through the bright sun and into his windshield. He felt something loosen deep within him and wasn’t sure he could have explained the feeling to save his own life.
She’d piled her hair on top of her head, but it wasn’t holding. Loose strands stuck damply to her temples and cheeks, and along the back of her neck.
She was soft there, and he knew that if he put his mouth on her neck, she’d make a little sound that’d go straight through him. Crazy, he told himself. He was crazy in lust with a woman he had no business wanting. Not that that seemed to deter him in the slightest.
“Hey, Mysterious Cute Guy!”
Ty nearly jumped out of his skin. He hadn’t even heard Lucille come up to his passenger window. She smiled knowingly. “My neighbor’s got a Charger. 1970, I think. Has a front end problem. Told him you might be interested. Are you?”
A Charger was a sweet old thing. Ty wouldn’t mind getting his hands on one. “Yeah. I’m interested.”
Lucille smiled. “That’s right nice of you.”
That was him, a right nice guy.
Mallory had finished Amy’s car and came up to his driver’s window. “Hey,” she said. “Thanks for coming.”
He let a slow, suggestive smile cross his mouth. Clearly realizing what she’d said, she went bright red. “Roll up your window,” she warned. “Or you’ll get wet.” She paused, then blushed some more. “Dammit, now everything I say sounds dirty!”
He was laughing when he rolled up his windows.
She got to work, looking flustered, which he loved. And maybe a little annoyed, too.
Which he also loved.
She was doing a heck of a job washing, her arms surprisingly toned and buffed as she worked the sponge. Her shirt was dark blue, a modest cut knit tee, but she was wet and it was clinging to her. Her denim shorts were snug, and she had a streak of grease on her ass. She was backing away from his car, eyeing it with close scrutiny, clearly wanting to make sure she’d gotten all the soap off, when he rolled down his window. “Watch out,” he said. “Or you’ll trip over the—”
Too late. She tripped and, with a little squeal of surprise, went down.
He leapt out of his car just as she hit, her fingers reflexively gripping the hose nozzle as she landed on her ass in the soapy bucket.
A steady stream of water shot out of the hose and nailed him in the chest.
“Oh God,” she said, dropping the hose and trying to get out of the bucket. “I’m sorry!”
Josh and Matt, washing cars on either side of her, rushed over, but Ty got to her first. “Are you all right?” he asked, pulling her out of the bucket.
She immediately took a step back from him, her hands going to her own butt, which was now drenched with soapy water. “No worries. I have lots of padding back there.”
“You sure?” Josh asked her, reaching for her arm to brace her upright while she took stock. He was frowning at her ankle. “You didn’t reinjure that ankle you broke last year, did you?”
“No.” She laughed a little, clearly embarrassed but resigned. “Tell me no one got a picture of that.”
“Everyone’s too busy staring at Jane,” Matt assured her, looking over at Mallory’s boss himself. “Who’s…not her usual self today.”
They all looked at Jane then, who was indeed looking very unlike herself. She was smiling.
Someone from Josh’s line honked a horn and yelled, “Dr. Scootttt…”