Today's Reading

"I'm so sorry about River. She's very friendly though. Doesn't bite; only licks you into submission." The girl whipped her hat off and ran a hand through thick chestnut hair that was at an awkward stage between short and shoulder length.

The girl shuffled closer. No, not a girl, but a woman. Younger than Ella, but only by a few years. And she was pretty. Very pretty. A woman that pretty didn't work with three men and not attract them. Ella understood from a too-young age how men manipulated and wielded power.

Mack stepped forward to stand at the woman's side. Were they involved? They looked good together and had a lot in common, no doubt. Ella's smile felt like a caved-in souffle.

"I'll pay to have your blouse cleaned." The woman stared at Ella's chest.

Dirty dog prints dotted the front of her white blouse. Ella tried to brush them off but only managed to transfer grease from her hands to her shirt. Black streaks highlighted both breasts. She needed to retreat and regroup.

"I've got some wipes in my office. Come on in. We need to talk." Mack turned on his heel and walked away, expecting her to follow. She hesitated. The moment felt like a skirmish in their battle of wills.

The woman gave her a tight, apologetic smile. "Send me the bill. Seriously."

"Sure." Ella nodded, though she knew she wouldn't. The blouse was an expensive remnant from her failed marriage. She wouldn't replace it.

Mack had propped his shoulder against the jamb of the door, his bulk filling the doorframe. Although a part of her wanted to stick her tongue out as she stalked past him to her car, her practical, mature side decided to concede. Just this once. She needed to establish the fact she wasn't going away.

She ambled over, making sure to swing her hips. The grease and paw prints decorating her chest dented her air of brazen defiance. He didn't immediately move to allow her inside his office, and a game of chicken commenced.

She slowed but didn't stop. He shifted like a door opening when she was inches from his chest. She sidestepped by him, so close his heat and scent enveloped her. He smelled of honest work and cars. Potent, painful memories rushed her like a flash flood and left her floundering for her footing.

Afraid to give him access to another weakness, she presented her back to him. Two deep breaths helped control her physical reaction. She rubbed at the grease stain on her hand, and like her memories, the grease didn't go away, only spread over her palm.

"Here." His voice was husky. He held out a canister with the top popped and a wipe poking out.

She ran the lemon-scented cloth over her hands, turning the white gray. Next, she dabbed it over the front of her shirt, doing nothing but wetting the cotton. Giving up, she tossed the wipe into the trash. "Thanks."

"You've got..." He pointed at her face. She swiped her hand over her right cheek.

"No. The other side. Here, let me..." He pulled another wipe from the canister and stepped closer. Taking her chin between his thumb and forefinger, he titled her face to the right.

The cold wipe made her shiver. It had nothing to do with Mack's intimidating size and off-putting gruffness, qualities she shouldn't find attractive. Yet the surprising gentleness of his touch made her sway a little closer.

She closed her eyes and forced her quick breaths to slow down to non- sprinting levels. He continued his ministrations as the moment stretched to interminable.

"How dirty am I?" Her already husky voice entered new lows.

Dear Lord, that had sounded very naughty even to her own ears. She stopped breathing and popped her eyes open. For a split second, what looked suspiciously like amusement flickered in his hazel eyes and quivered the corners of his mouth. She blinked, and it was gone. He let go of her and stepped away.

"Your skirt is ruined too, I'm sorry to say."

She twisted to see. The back of her skirt looked like an inkblot test. She wondered what word would come to mind if she turned and presented her backside to Mack.

"Next time, I'll know what not to wear." She bypassed a leather chair and perched on the edge of a cheap vinyl one.

Mack cleared his throat and tossed the dirty wipe into the trash with a jerk. "Why did you come in the first place?"

...

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