Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Why Don’t You Stay? … Forever

Book 2: The McLaughlin Brothers

“Ben, I am so sorry!” Erin has removed her glasses, and her beautiful eyes are wide with mortification.

“I’m all right …” I wheeze, gasping for air, black dots spinning before me.

It’s not every day you’re kicked in the privates by the woman of your dreams. I mean that literally—her foot smacks right into my crotch.

It’s not Erin’s fault—the blame is all on me.

Here’s what happened: I work at my family’s business as the IT guy, because none of my brothers, or my mom or dad, really understands computers. I mean, even the most basic stuff. Kinda sad, though I don’t mind helping out.

I like to take a stroll at lunch and get out of my cave—as my brothers call my office where the servers are. Today, in the middle of May, it’s stifling hot, about a hundred in the shade, so I duck back inside early. In Phoenix, air conditioning is our friend.

Our office is a showroom where we display a few high-tech kitchens and bathrooms, and where we meet with clients, show them sample books, etcetera etcetera. At least, Austin, Zach, or Ryan meet them and schmooze, while I make sure the tech works so my brothers can process the orders and we get paid.

Around the small showroom are a ring of offices, and a high-counter reception desk just inside the front door.

The reception desk is empty as I clomp back inside. I feel a twinge of disappointment—I’d hoped Erin Dixon, the temp since our previous secretary retired, would be there. I could casually lean on the desk and say hi.

Erin is gorgeous. Long, sleek brown hair, big blue eyes behind glasses. She has a dancer’s body, because she’s an actual dancer. She’s with the West Valley Ballet, apparently a well-respected company, not that I know much about ballet.

I head to the break room. That’s set up with a table and chairs, a few vending machines, a microwave, and a big fridge, so any of us can eat lunch here if we want. Mostly my brothers go out or home, but I usually eat in my office and then take a walk.

Halfway to the break room I hear music.

Not the raunchy, dance club stuff Austin listens to, or the popular music Zach likes. It’s rippling piano music I’m unfamiliar with, lilting and magical.

Through the window next to the break room’s door, I see Erin.

She’s dancing. She’s donned a tank top and bicycle shorts, and she’s bending and stretching, her limbs in graceful arcs.

I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life.

I halt, stunned, and watch her. She rests one hand lightly on the back of a chair, while she lifts a leg into the air, swiftly, precisely. Down it goes, then up again, liquid high kicks.

Erin drops her head back, eyes closed, one arm curved above her. Her chin juts out in a regal pose, like a sculpture. I’m frozen in place by the beauty of it—the human body at its most amazing.

I realize I can’t stand out here ogling her like a peeping Tom. I open the door noisily to alert her, but any sound is drowned by the music streaming from her phone.

Up goes her leg again, and she bounces high on the ball of her other foot.

“Hey, Erin. Sorry to—”

She pirouettes to the music, her leg sweeping around. She sees me at the last minute and tries to stop, but the momentum carries her, and her outstretched foot slams right into my crotch.

“Oh, shit. Ben …”

I double over in serious pain, which recedes slightly when I feel her slender, cool fingers on my arm.

“Ben—you okay?”

The music plunges on, the piano’s chords crashing through the room. Erin lunges away and silence falls, except for her ragged breathing and my groans.

“Ben, I am so sorry.” Erin’s face comes into view. “Here, sit down.”

“I’m all right.” The words are barely audible, escaping from my mouth like air leaking from a tire.

I drop into the chair, trying not to grab myself down below. The poor guys are aching, but the rest of me tingles with awareness. Erin smells good, like the golden flowers that burst into bloom around here every spring.

“Can I get you anything?” she’s asking. “I didn’t see you. I didn’t mean …”

“Erin.” I rest my hand on hers, the smoothness of her skin starting to ease the pain. “It’s okay. I shouldn’t have sneaked up on you.”

“I had the music on too loud. I thought everyone was gone. I’m trying to practice—I’m an understudy and I have to take over the lead on Saturday night. I’m so nervous, and I figured I might as well use the time to …”

“Hey.” Boldly I lift my fingers and rest them over her mouth as she babbles. “I said it’s okay.”

We both freeze. Her breath is warm on my fingers, and my extremities start recovering enough to react.

Erin takes a quick step back, her face beet red. I’m torn between sitting in misery or reaching for her again.

But the last thing I want is her running to the head of HR and saying I engaged in inappropriate touching. Especially since the head of HR is my mom.

Erin stars gathering up her stuff—phone, gym bag, paper wrapping that once held her lunch. Her movements are jerky and quick, the complete opposite of the grace that flowed in her dance.

“Are you okay?” I ask. “You whacked me pretty good. Did you hurt your foot?”

Erin sticks it out, her legs bare from the shins down, soft ballet slippers cupping her feet. She rotates the foot in question, flexing it and her ankle.

“Fine I think. I’ll just go back to work.”

“Hang on a sec.” I climb to my feet, my balls still throbbing, but the ache is lessening. She’d pulled her kick at the last minute, which made me not want to think about how I’d feel right now if she hadn’t.

Erin tosses out her trash. “I’m really, really sorry, Ben. I shouldn’t have been using the break room for my personal time …”

“Why not? Everyone else does. Austin brought friends in here to sing karaoke one night. Long time ago. He still hasn’t lived it down.”

“I’m just … I don’t want to lose this job …”

I step in front of her as she tries to hightail it out the door. I’ve been thrown together with this woman for weeks now, as I’m the only one who can train her in our tech and software systems. When she has a problem, she comes straight to me.

I love being her geek-in-shining armor, but we never talk about anything other than how to use the new software I’ve been working on. Not real talking, as in I want to know everything about her.

“You think I’ll ask Mom to fire you because you kicked me in the nuts?” I grin to myself as I picture the look on my mother’s face. “She’d make it all my fault anyway. She likes you.”

Erin’s mouth droops. “I feel terrible.”

I can’t take Erin’s sad eyes as she snatches up her glasses and shoves them on. I want to put my arms around her and comfort her. Maybe hold on a while longer, for more than comfort.

“It was a stupid accident. I’m fine. Really.” I gyrate my hips to show her, hoping to make her laugh.

I’m rewarded with a faint smile, and I reflect that this is the most natural conversation we’ve ever had. Mostly I can barely open my mouth except for IT talk, and she says, YesSureI understand, and Thank you.

Erin wets her lips, which zings my attention straight to them. Full, sweet, red lips … “Tell you what,” she’s saying. “Would you like to come to the performance Saturday night? I can give you some tickets … Unless, well, it’s ballet, and not everyone’s interest—”

“Sounds great. Thanks.” I dive into her flow of words. Would I like to sit and watch Erin in a leotard, or whatever they’re called, float around a stage, moving her body in ways that will make my dreams seriously interesting? Hell yes.

“Really?” Erin’s surprise is amusing.

“Really.” Yes, the IT guy with the Star Wars poster and signed photo with Levar Burton in his cubicle is interested in watching ballet. At least ballet with Erin in it.

“Great. I’ll get it fixed up.” She hesitates. “Would your brothers like to come? Or your parents?”

“My brothers? I doubt it.” I shake my head. “Ryan and Calandra are busy being newlyweds, and Abby and Zach are getting ready to be. Notice how both those couples went home for lunch?”

Erin’s sudden smile is like sunshine. “I know. They think they’re being discreet. It’s adorable.”

Aw, she thinks my brothers and the loves of their lives are adorable. That bodes well.

“And Austin—he’s just … busy.”

I have no idea what Austin will be up to Saturday night, and I don’t care. I just know I won’t want him there.

“Your mom and dad?”

“I’ll ask them.” I really want this to be just Erin and me, but I need to be polite. She’s inviting me because she’s trying to make things up to me, not because she thinks I’m hot. Plus, Mom is interested in Erin’s dancing and would probably love to go.

“Good.” Erin gives me another warm look that dissipates all pain I’ve ever felt. “I’ll make a call.”

Her smile turns shy, and she darts a glance past me. I realize I’m blocking the door, as though I’ll keep her in here, speaking stiltedly with me all afternoon. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, but again, she might complain to HR, and Mom will be all over my case.

I step aside and Erin slides past me, almost running on her light feet. Hard to believe such an elegant, gorgeous woman can kick like a mule. The immediate pain is fading, but I’m going to be sore for a while.

I don’t mind. Erin can kick me all she wants if she smiles at me like that for the rest of her life.

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