Authors: Jodi Watters
Tags: #A Scorpio Securities Novel
A LOVE HAPPENS NOVEL
next to me © 2014 by Jodi Watters
If the old saying about never having a second chance to make a first impression was true, then Ali Ross was screwed. And not the good kind of screwed, either.
The head banging, sore muscled, glad-you-were-a-woman kind of screwed that she hadn’t had in too many years to count. Okay, who exactly was she kidding here, because she’d never had that kind of sex before. Never even came close. Swallowing back the sarcastic sob that sorry admission brought on, Ali quickly dabbed her eyes with the loose cuff of the threadbare, white button down shirt she wore over her paint spattered tank top, hoping to wipe away any evidence of the embarrassing tears tracking down her cheeks. And prayed to God she didn’t have snot dripping out of her nose.
Her private pity party, which included a shame filled walk down memory lane, had just been crashed.
“Pete!” The low, masculine command came from thirty yards down the beach and even with the sound of the surf breaking gently as it met the shoreline a few feet from where she sat watching the sun set, Ali heard his voice loud and clear. Felt it in her toes, which curled where they were partially buried in the sand, still warm from the unusually hot southern California summer day. Her heart was beating a loud tattoo in her chest, reminding her of how long she’d been out of the game.
Their first meeting was crucial to her plan and she’d been wondering how to coordinate a chance introduction for days. Only a few plausible options had come to mind and this one, the one where she sat quietly weeping like an emotional basketcase on the beach, wasn’t one of them.
Hoping it looked like she had her shit together, Ali braced herself as the puppy landed ass over teakettle in her lap, paws wet and tail thumping, making himself at home in her personal space. Unable to stop herself, she stroked the soft, sugar-colored hair of her unexpected visitor and watched nervously as the large, dark figure jogged toward her. The steel blue sky, still partially streaked with the hot pink and burnt orange glow of the setting sun, made his shoulders, already a mile wide, look even wider. Thankfully a soft, sympathetic whimper momentarily distracted her and she looked down at her newfound friend. Tongue hanging out in happy bliss, knowing brown eyes stared at her in concern and Ali couldn’t help herself. She smiled her first genuine smile in what felt like forever. Maybe not that long, but too long. It felt good.
“I’m sorry.” The voice was close now, close enough that she could see his bare feet out of the corner of her eye as he approached and she buried her face briefly in the fur of the white Labrador puppy leaning against her as if she was his redeemer. Ali silently snorted. She was nobody’s savior. “Pete’s new around here and he’s still learning the ropes.”
Forced to look up at him, she smiled and shook her head. “It’s fine.”
“No, it’s not,” he said, the casual laziness in his rough voice contradicting his scolding words, meant more for the dog—Pete, apparently—than her. “I’m trying to teach him about stranger danger, but he’s not as smart as I’d hoped.” Crouching down, he scrubbed a hand over the dog’s face affectionately. “I should’ve gotten the Pit Bull, I guess. Right, Pete?”
She grinned and peeked at him again, not surprised to see him staring directly at her, something sparking in his eyes as he took in her blotchy face and puffy eyes. Cursing her shitty timing and fair complexion, Ali stared back at his surprisingly perfect face, unable to look away from such masculine beauty. He looked younger, much less severe than in the one photograph she’d been able to find of him online. The standard headshot pasted next to his short and somewhat awe-inspiring biography showed a magnetic expression portraying the all business attitude suitable for the co-owner of Scorpio Securities, Inc. The fact that he was more handsome than the average man wasn’t something Ali had given much thought to six weeks ago. It was his credentials and real time experience she’d been focused on. But now that he was right in front of her, the sharp angle of his jaw and straight blade of a nearly perfect male nose was only made more appealing by the shadowed, late day stubble covering the lower half of his face. His dark, almost black hair wasn’t long by any stretch but it wasn’t the closely cropped near military cut he’d had in the photo. A woman could run her fingers through it now, if she was so inclined.
And suddenly, Ali was.
Until this moment, she had seen only brief, distant glimpses of him in the week since moving into the house next door to him. Her newly purchased home along the panoramic Pacific coastline in La Jolla was one of only a dozen that sat side by side along the pristine beachfront, a mix of both old and new structures, and all built narrow and tall to maximize the prime square footage that came with a staggering price tag. And in her case, a remarkably hot neighbor.
From far away, Sam Gleeson was the kind of man that easily caught a woman’s eye. Up close, he was the kind that melted her panties. Right after she offered to drop them.
“Hey. Are you okay?” His voice lowered an octave and a wrinkle formed between his straight, dark brows. “Do you need some help?” He looked back toward her house, sitting next to his own, as if he expected to see the reason for her distress.
“No, I’m fine,” she quickly replied, as if she hadn’t just been in the middle of a cathartic cry when Pete decided to disobey his master’s command and come introduce himself. The puppy had created a near perfect opportunity for her, but Ali wasn’t ready. Wincing inwardly, she knew she wasn’t ever going to be ready for what she needed to do in the coming days and weeks, but thanks to Sam’s number one ranking on the total hottie list, it wouldn’t be a hardship.
That was, if she managed to rouse his interest.
No second chance at a first impression, right? Life could be a real bitch.
When he didn’t seem completely convinced by her answer, she smiled at the suspicious glint in his eyes. “Really. I’m fine,” she assured him, while nodding. Wishing her brain could conjure up a word other than
Clearly relieved that he didn’t have to deal with a tearful woman sitting on the beach not far from his back patio, his body relaxed and he gave Pete another quick pat before standing to his full height of six feet plus a few. Ali nearly swooned.
“I’m Sam. I live right there.” He gestured with his head toward the beige contemporary house sitting next to her white-washed bungalow, as if she didn’t know. As if the mere knowledge of him hadn’t been the sole reason behind her purchase of the too large, too expensive home conveniently tucked close to his own. What she hadn’t been aware of was how potent he was in the flesh. “You just moved in, right?”
Taking in his broad chest and tight abs covered in a snug gray t-shirt, along with his lean hips and thighs encased in jeans that were worn thin in all the good spots, she quickly regained her composure and stood up, wiping sand off the back of her shorts.
“Yeah, a week ago.” Needing to retreat—to isolate herself as she’d been doing for the past few months, finding comfort in her solitary life—she raised her hand in a brief wave and headed toward her own back porch. Calling herself a colossal chicken shit.
Pete barked, the high pitched sound sending a shot of unfamiliar happiness through her, and she turned toward him as he ran the few steps to catch up with her. His tail swished back and forth when she reached down to rub his soft ears and a laugh escaped her before she could stop it. It felt odd. And wrong. As if she didn’t have the right.
“Bye, Pete. See you soon.” Still smiling, she glanced up as she turned to leave again and her gaze caught Sam’s, their eyes locking for a second longer than appropriate, considering they were strangers. Her chest tightened near the vicinity of her heart and that felt wrong, too.
“You’re not gonna tell me your name, are you?” he said, his smooth voice equal parts amused and incredulous.
“Ali,” she replied with a small grin, her steps slow in the deep sand.
“Nice to meet you, Ali.”
Only half turning around, she repeated his softly spoken words. “Nice to meet you, Sam.”
He watched her as she skipped up the wide steps of her back porch and disappeared into the dark house. She knew this because as she shut and locked the sliding glass door behind her, taking special care to set the security alarm, he stood right where she left him. A shadowed figure illuminated only by the rusty colored horizon at his back, looking like her very own personal sentinel for all the world to see, on duty to protect her against any harm that might come.
If he only knew.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit!” Ali chastised herself as she began her minutes long nightly ritual before heading to bed.
While most women might have a strict bedtime regimen of plucking, exfoliating and moisturizing, using an array of beauty products that cost a fool’s fortune, doing everything in their power to keep the wrinkles at bay and their men interested, Ali did none of that. Sure, she loved all the yummy smelling potions as much as the next girl, but she had other priorities.
Instead, her nightly routine was completing an obsessive mental checklist to ensure every single window and door was locked tightly and her expensive, state of the art security system was set at the highest sensitivity level. In all honesty, it was a ritual she performed several times a day. And once or twice during the long, lonely hours of the night.
“Why did you just walk away? God, you are such a wimp. You’re supposed to get close to him, not run away like a prudish schoolgirl.” As if letting him witness her mortifying sob fest wasn’t bad enough. “That is not a turn on.”
She muttered under her breath while double checking the deadbolt on the front door, unlocking then locking it again, her mind easing only slightly as the loud metallic sound echoed through the quiet house. Window by window, she completed her task, never finding a single one unlocked or tampered with. Nightlights were placed strategically throughout the main and upper levels, giving off just enough glow to cut through the darkness, and after checking the garage door one more time, still closed and secure, she slowly walked upstairs to the bedrooms. Several of the stair treads, covered in the original walnut hardwood, creaked under her feet and while her realtor had been quick to assure her it was an easy fix, Ali had left them as is.
“You had him right in front of you. And this is not the time to play hard to get.” She laughed out loud at the absurd thought. It wasn’t as if he’d been flirting with her. It wasn’t as if he had asked her out to dinner and she’d coyly declined, liking the thought of the chase. And it sure as shit wasn’t as if he’d asked her to join him in a
welcome to the ‘hood
one night stand, although that would have made this whole thing a hell of a lot easier. She was in way over her head here. Talk about underestimating her powers of feminine persuasion. She couldn’t even handle a basic conversation with him without getting tongue-tied. How many times had she said the word fine, again? Freaking pathetic. What in the world made her think she could pull this off, anyway?
Mumbling under her breath, she walked into the small guest bedroom. The windows were secure, as they had been when she’d checked a few hours ago, and she glanced at the ornate iron bed dressed perfectly with crisp linens covered in a pretty coastal theme of shells and starfish. Ali knew full well this room would never have guests, probably never even have another set of eyes laid on it, but this was the first home that she had just for herself. If she wanted insanely expensive, peach colored fish on a bed that would never be slept on, then so be it. Years of not being allowed to spend a single dollar over the budget, even on something as necessary as groceries, did that to a person. The memory of what had happened to her one cold winter day, when she had spent eighteen dollars over her household grocery budget, flashed through her mind as she entered the spacious master suite.
She had paid a price that day, for those eighteen bucks. And it didn’t have a thing to do with money.
“That’s why you have to do this, Ali.” She said the words sternly, staring at her reflection in the huge master bathroom mirror before stripping off her white shirt, the pale pink tank underneath coming off just as quickly. Her shorts landed on top of the other two pieces as she placed them neatly in the wicker laundry basket, knowing that by lunch tomorrow they would be clean and folded, tucked carefully into her dresser drawer. There was a semblance of safety that came with order, even if it was a false sense of security.