Excerpt: The Boss's Runaway Bride

 

Chapter One

 

Quinn Marshall had never seen a naked woman outdoors before. That realization came to him later. For now, his brain was incapable of forging a thought, having gone on strike the instant he’d rounded the back of Phil’s beach house and spotted the stranger rinsing off under the outdoor shower situated at the far end of the wooden, wraparound deck.

She was unaware of his presence—correction, blissfully unaware. Eyes squeezed shut against the hammering spray, she was dancing to her own off-key if spirited rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

And that was something else, Quinn would later reflect. He’d never before seen a naked woman dance, much less with this degree of unselfconscious enthusiasm. And no, Phil’s bachelor party didn’t count.

What she lacked in vocal skills, she more than made up for in heart and a healthy sense of rhythm. She was a disco dynamo from the undulating hips to the shimmying shoulders and breasts, tipped by nipples so tightly puckered they looked like pink berries.

Which prompted his first coherent thought, that the water had to be cold. Either that or this lady was really into disco. He was just close enough to see gooseflesh everywhere he looked. And he looked everywhere.

Quinn’s innate sense of propriety finally kicked in, ending his brief foray into voyeurism. He commenced an awkward backward shuffle, powerless to drag his gaze from the spectacle.

The air left his lungs in an astonished bark as he landed hard on his butt on the sandy lawn. Beach paraphernalia clattered out of the plastic tote basket he’d tripped over. “I Will Survive” ended on a high-pitched yelp. The shower stopped. Cursing under his breath, Quinn struggled to pry his foot out of the basket handle.

“You surprised me!” the woman said with a breathless chuckle. She lifted a vividly colored beach towel from the deck and started blotting her face. “You must be my downstairs neighbor.”

“Uh… yeah.” Quinn managed to wrench the basket off his foot, but his deck shoe went with it. He shoved the shoe back on his bare foot while racking his brain for words appropriate to this situation. Please forgive me for inadvertently witnessing your display of public nudity and enjoying it.

“I just got here this morning,” she said, squeezing water from her waist-length brown hair. “I leased the upstairs for the month of July.”

Her attitude couldn’t have been more blasé, while Quinn felt a scalding flush crawl up his throat. He staggered to his feet and brushed sand off his khaki shorts.

She started toward him, briskly toweling her chest and arms. “I’m Molly. How long are you staying?”

She stuck out her hand and automatically he shook it. It was icy from the cold shower.

I’m shaking a naked lady’s hand. There’s a naked lady standing here and I’m shaking her hand.

He cleared his throat. “Quinn Marshall. Nice to meet you.”

“That is such a great name! Welcome, Quinn.”

Molly’s smiling eyes were sapphire-blue, shading to violet near the center with a dark ring around the iris. There was a little mole under the outside corner of her left eye. She squinted just a bit against the moisture that spiked her lashes, giving her a slumberous, just-been-loved look.

None of which would have registered, he knew, if he hadn’t been staring fixedly into her eyes in a heroic effort to keep from staring anywhere else.

She bent down to dry her legs, looking up with an expectant expression that reminded Quinn she’d asked him something.

He said, “Uh… I have the place all month. Yeah. Until August first. Well. Not the whole place. Just the downstairs. Not the upstairs. I mean, well, you know, you have the upstairs, right?” Shut up, he commanded himself. Shut! Up!

“Oh, listen, does this bother you?” Molly straightened with an open-armed gesture meant to draw his attention to those parts of her he was studiously trying to ignore. A few lingering droplets of water quivered between her breasts and in the triangle of dark hair at the juncture of her thighs.

“No!” He shooed away the ludicrous idea and struck what he hoped was an indolent pose.

“I sometimes forget that most people are a little, you know, uptight about their bodies.” As she spoke she slid the big, colorful towel behind her back, wrapped both sides over her front, and tied the top corners behind her neck. It looked like some sort of psychedelic toga.

Quinn had known there would be another tenant, in the second floor of the duplex house, but where had Phil dug up this flaky exhibitionist? Was this little town in Cape Cod some kind of clothing-optional vacation spot and no one had seen fit to inform him?

No distractions, his friends had said. They’d assured him this vacation would be just what he needed, a few weeks of solitary R and R to evaluate his options, fine-tune his resumé, and chart his next career move—with better results than last time, he hoped.

Quinn had had to take their word for it. What did he know about vacations? He could count on one hand the number of times he’d taken so much as a weekend off during the past eight years he’d spent clawing his way up the corporate ladder in the advertising business.

Two weeks earlier he’d taken an unexpected tumble off that ladder when he’d lost his job as executive account manager at Phil Owen and Associates. The fact that Phil had been forced to let him go due to a business merger didn’t make unemployment any easier to stomach. Quinn had been with the agency only four months, but nobody could say he hadn’t been doing a damn fine job.

Knowing better than to burn his bridges, he remained on amicable terms with his ex-boss. Even so, when Phil had offered him free use of the first floor of his Cape Cod beach house for a month—probably out of feelings of guilt—Quinn’s first instinct had been to refuse.

His buddies had had other ideas. They’d urged him to take a little time off before leaping back into the job market. Chill-out time, they’d called it. The critical component? No distractions. They’d been quite firm on that point.

He’d only known Molly a minute or two, but he doubted he’d ever been more distracted.

She walked past him around the house, which was sided in weathered gray cedar shakes that had seen better days. “I’ll help you bring your stuff into the house.”

“Oh, thanks, but that’s not—”

“Wow! Nice car!”

He rounded the corner to find her running her hand over the gleaming fender of his new Mercedes, the only car occupying the crushed-shell parking area. He wondered where hers was.

“It is the exact color of butter.” She leaned over the hood, stroking his vehicle as if it were a lover. “Pale and creamy, the perfect yellow, you know? Classy.”

As she straightened, her long, wet hair trailed over the freshly waxed surface. Judging from his physical reaction, it might as well have been trailing over his bare thighs.

Quickly he circled the car, unlocked the trunk, and hauled out his burgundy leather garment bag and matching suitcase. She joined him and hefted the plastic milk crate crammed with coffee, sugar, and other staples he’d brought from his Manhattan apartment.

“No, I mean it,” he said. “I can do this.”

“You’re really tense, Quinn,” she observed pleasantly as she led the way to the front door. “Stiff, you know?”

He knew. But thanks to loose shorts and an untucked polo shirt, maybe she didn’t have to. He followed her with the luggage. The toga-towel thing covered her modestly to her knees, but it hugged her form in a way he could only describe as, well, distracting.

Tucking the milk crate under one arm, Molly opened the front door, which was desperately in need of a new coat of paint, and stood aside to let him enter the vestibule. To the left was a locked door that obviously led to his portion of the house. Directly ahead was a scarred wooden staircase to the upper floor, which Molly had rented. The door at the top had a lock, but at the moment it stood wide open. Quinn set down the luggage, dug in his pocket for the keys Phil had given him, and unlocked the inner door.

Phil had described the place as a bare-bones beach house, and he hadn’t lied. The living room and dining area sported an eclectic assortment of functional, if shabby, furniture. The floor was brown vinyl tiles, warped and peeling in the high-traffic areas. Tacky seaside prints adorned the fake-wood paneling. The inside of the place was as dilapidated as the outside, but at least it was reasonably clean, and it was all his, free of charge, for the month of July.

Yep. Thirty-one days to just relax, kick back, and try to decide what he really wanted out of life. An entire month. No work. No urban hustle and bustle. No work. No know-it-all pals spouting unsolicited advice. No work.

If he left now, he could make it back to the city before dinner.

“It’s not that bad,” Molly said, dearly misinterpreting his expression. She shrugged and shifted the crate to the other arm. “Nothing fancy, but at least you don’t have to worry about trashing the place, right?”

There was that luminous smile again, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Perhaps she didn’t. Perhaps Mellow Molly was as shallow and uncomplicated as first appearances suggested.

“Hey, Quinn, check it out. You’ve got tunes!” She crossed to the ponderous sideboard and set the crate next to a little record player, one of those cheap old portable models built into a pressboard carrying box. Next to it sat a stack of ancient LPs in cardboard sleeves held together with brittle yellowed tape.

Quinn said, “We’ve entered a time warp.”

“Fifties and sixties, it looks like,” she said, flipping through the albums. “Too early for disco, but it’s still great stuff. The Supremes, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Looks like somebody bought a CD player on vacation and abandoned their old friends. How sad. The Jackson Five, James Brown, the Ronettes—‘Be My Baby,’ I love that song. Jerry Lee Lewis, the Shirelles.”

She gazed fondly at an album cover. “Bill Haley and the Comets. I mean, how can you not love a group with a name like that? The Isley Brothers, the Marvelettes. Oh wow! Little Richard!”

Molly tipped out the album, set it on the turntable, and turned on the machine. She positioned the needle on a groove in the vinyl. Static spewed from the tinny, built-in speaker as both Little Richard and Molly awahbahbaloomahed into the opening of “Tutti Frutti.”

As she sang, she performed the twist, gyrating low enough to make the towel gape alarmingly as it rode up her thighs. American Bandstand was never like this. When Little Richard got to the part about the girl named Daisy who almost drove him crazy, Molly let him continue solo.

“Whoo!” She fanned herself with her hand. “You are, like, so lucky, Quinn!” She hefted the crate once more and carried it through an archway into what he could only assume was the kitchen. “I don’t have any music upstairs,” she called out. “Just my trumpet.”

Quinn heard cupboards and drawers open and close, the rattle of flatware and dishes. He headed for the vestibule to get his luggage.

Just her trumpet. Yes, Quinn thought, I am, like, so lucky.

“You’ve got more cooking stuff than I do!” she hollered. “And it’s newer, too. Guess we’ll be eating down here a lot.”

He froze in the process of lifting his bags. We? He entered the living room just as Molly headed down the hallway toward the bedrooms.

“You’re here alone?” she asked.

“Uh, Molly—”

“Me, too. Each level has three bedrooms. You’ll want the one at the end of the hall. It’s the biggest and has its own bathroom. Well, half bath. You’ll have to shower in the hall john.” She let herself into the master bedroom and hurled herself onto the bare double bed. “This is where I’ll be staying.”

He took a moment to find his voice. “Excuse me?”

Molly pointed to the ceiling. “Upstairs. I took the same room. You’ll be sleeping right under me.” She looked at him quickly. “Oh, listen, I hope that didn’t sound, you know, suggestive or anything.”

“No!” he said, trying to sound convincing.

She smiled in relief. “Good. Sometimes I say something and then I think, gosh, could that ever be taken the wrong way!” She bounced vigorously on the bed a few times. “You may have a melon baller, Quinn, but I’ve got better support. My springs squeak like crazy, though.”

She jumped off the bed and headed into the bathroom. With the morbid fascination of a storm watcher tracking a lethal tornado, Quinn moved to the doorway and watched her inspect the half bath, about the size of an airplane lavatory. It featured rust-stained white porcelain and broken hinges on the under-the-sink cabinet.

“Don’t tell me,” he said. “Upstairs you have a marble vanity, a Jacuzzi, and a gold-plated bidet.”

She whirled on him with a delighted grin. “You have a sense of humor!”

Quinn took a deep breath. “Molly, uh, when you said you guessed we’d be eating down here… well, what exactly did you—”

“I meant since it’s just the two of us, you know?” Without warning, she started to squeeze past him through the narrow bathroom doorway. He held his breath and smiled awkwardly and tried to make himself very flat. Her warmth and the scent of her wrapped around him, a blend of coconut oil, the briny sea, and her own elusive feminine essence.

Pressed belly-to-belly with him, she paused and said, “I don’t know about you, but I hate eating alone.”

“I myself don’t mind it,” he croaked.

She shrugged with an agreeable smile and scooted past him. “That’s cool. Let me know if you change your mind.”

He followed her down the hall, unaccountably disappointed that she’d given up so easily.

Which was asinine in the extreme. Not that he was averse to a diverting summer romp, but in this case diverting could turn into disastrous. He and Molly had to share this house for a whole month. Just long enough for a little harmless fun to balloon into some kind of tedious overblown entanglement, complete with tears, tantrums, and recriminations. Fatal Attraction, Cape Cod style.

While Little Richard screeched something unintelligible from the living room, Quinn silently chanted his mantra du jour. No distractions, no distractions.

At the doorway Molly turned. “You will not want to miss the sunset, Quinn. Everyone congregates on the beach to watch the sun sink into the bay. It’s like that whole Key West thing but without the hype, you know?”

“Wait. I thought you said you just got here this morning.”

“I did.”

“So how do you know about the sunset thing?”

“Oh, Phil and I used to stay here whenever we could get away, and we never missed a sunset. This place might not be the height of luxury or anything, but I’m telling you, the location can’t be beat. It’s the last house before the beach, so it’s, like, a thirty-second walk to the water. What?” She eyed Quinn curiously as comprehension whacked him on the noggin.

He said, “You’re Molly!”

“Didn’t I say that?”

Phil’s Molly.”

“Well, not anymore. But yeah, I’m Molly Lamb. So how do you know Phil? I figured you found this place through the local realtor he uses.”

“I work for him. Worked,” he corrected. “Until two weeks ago.”

“You quit?”

“Uh, no.”

A surprised smile lit her face. “Then we have something in common. He fired me, too!”

“Yeah, I know that.”

“Oh, that’s right, I guess everyone does, huh?”

She could have been talking about the latest summer movie. Did anything get to this woman?

She laid a hand on his arm. “It was so nice meeting you, Quinn. Listen, I just know you’re going to have a fabulous vacation here. It’s like magic, this house! And hey, I’m not kidding about that sunset. Will I see you there?”

He nodded woodenly.

“All right!” A playful slap on his shoulder and she was gone, springing up the stairs.

Quinn locked his door, trudged into the living room, and flopped onto the rump-sprung sofa. Little Richard began hollering his way through “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

It was a big house, but it wasn’t that big. How was Quinn supposed to avoid Phil Owen’s runaway bride for a whole damn month?


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