Posted Oct 4 2016, 12:51 am
The steady knocking was only getting louder, ricocheting against the inside of Tripp Black’s skull. He hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in four days and it was beginning to catch up to him. Who the hell was he kidding? It had already caught up to him.
Normally he was up and at ’em at the crack of dawn, out of bed and working through his first cup of coffee before the sun was even up. But not today. He’d been hoping when he’d finally crawled into bed after five that morning that he’d get to sleep in.
Apparently that had been too much to ask for.
It was unseasonably warm for early spring, and a string of thunderstorms had rolled through over the last week. Not a single night had gone by without some crisis pulling Tripp from bed. But that was what came with the job when you were the town’s resident Fire Chief.
Mirabelle was a relatively small beachside town right on the Gulf of Mexico. Tripp had moved here three years ago in hopes of a quieter life…though it wasn’t all that quiet at the moment.
The knocking turned into banging.
What the hell?
He pulled his head from where it was buried in the pillow, cracking one eye and blearily looking over at the alarm clock. It was almost eight in the morning. Three hours…he hadn’t even gotten three hours of sleep. He’d been at the Wilkins’s for most of the night trying to get the family out of their house, which had been almost split in two by a tree.
It took more effort than he was prepared for to pull himself from bed, probably because almost every inch of his body felt like it had been worked over with a two-by-four. The tightness in his arms was courtesy of fighting with the hose during the warehouse fire on Sunday, the twinge in his lower back from carrying Mr. Phillips down four flights of stairs on Monday, the soreness in his legs from the three car pileup that had happened on Tuesday, and so on and so on.
He could keep going, but just thinking about the last week made him hurt even more. So instead he focused on navigating through his dim bedroom. The thick navy blue curtains on the windows did a decent job of blocking out the light, but a few rays of sunshine managed to peek in through the sides, outlining the furniture in his room.
He just made out the pair of athletic shorts hanging from a chair in the corner, pausing only long enough to pull them on. After a quick shower when he’d gotten home, he’d collapsed onto his bed bare ass naked, his preferred way to sleep. He had no idea who was currently trying to knock down his door with their fist, but giving them a little show wasn’t exactly on his morning agenda.
Another round of thunderous blows echoed in the air and he wrenched the door wide before the noise split his head in two. But there was no helping the pain behind his eyes, because the second the door was open he was blinded by the light.
He squinted out into the sunshine, the only thing he could see a splash of hot pink directly in front of him. “For the love of everything good and holy, what do you want?!” Yup, yelling had been a mistake; it just made his head hurt even more.
“What. Do. I. Want?” The words came out clipped, a barely controlled rage behind each and every syllable.
Tripp closed his eyes and groaned at the voice that filled his ears, then rubbed at his temples. Whatever was about to happen wasn’t going to be pleasant. It never was when it involved his neighbor. He’d bought the house he was now residing in almost four months ago, and it had taken him about a week to figure out he’d made a very bad choice of location.
Appearances could be deceiving, and the prime example of that was standing before him.
Beth Boone was a tiny little blond thing, five-foot-three? Five-foot-four? Tripp had met her on a number of occasions before he’d moved in next door. They had quite a few friends in common and had become acquainted with each other over the years, but he’d had no idea what he was getting into when he’d become her neighbor.
None at all.
The woman was a pain in the ass, but she wasn’t the only problem. Nope. Her three wards were just as big of an aggravation.
Beth’s sister and brother-in-law, Colleen and Kevin Ross, had died in a car accident last year. And okay, he had to give the woman a certain amount of credit and respect, as she’d moved back to Mirabelle to take care of her two nieces and nephew. And he’d be a cold-hearted bastard if he didn’t have any sympathy for the family that had been left behind, because he totally did. He’d dealt with too much death in his life to not be fully aware of the pain that came with a loss like that.
Didn’t change the fact that Beth Boone was a pill.
Tripp opened his eyes again and the woman before him came into focus, along with the creature at her side…a creature that belonged to him.
His dog, covered in mud.
“Your damn dog got into my yard again,” Beth ground out through clenched teeth.
Duke—as in The Duke, named after the one and only John Wayne—was a rescue puppy who’d been abandoned at the firehouse last summer. Though puppy should be used loosely; Duke was over a hundred pounds and still growing. Normally his fluffy coat was a fifty-fifty mix of white and light brown, but at the moment he was entirely the dark brownish black of whatever muck he’d rolled around in.
Tripp’s sleep-hazed brain was having a hard time processing the scene in front of him, especially when his eyes landed on Beth. For the first time since he’d opened the door, he really looked at her.
Her blond hair had been thrown up in a messy bun, but a good portion of it had fallen out. A glob of brown mud plastered her bangs to her forehead, and there were streaks on her cheeks, like war paint.
His eyes moved down, landing on the multiple paw prints stamped on her T-shirt. The hot pink cotton material was soaked and plastered to her body like a second skin.
Dear Lord, she wasn’t wearing a bra. Absolutely nothing was left to the imagination. Nothing. He’d seen the woman in a bathing suit before, so he knew full well what she was hiding under those baggy nurse scrubs that she wore every day. Soft curves and perfect breasts. Perfect breasts that would be a pretty good handful and were in no need of a bra to be perky.
And that was just what he needed first thing in the morning, for her clearly displayed nipples to make him tongue-tied. Not that speaking was going to help him, because it was at that moment when Duke decided it was time to shake, splattering mud on everything within ten feet.
Beth let go of the dog, probably instinctively fearing being thrown around like a rag doll with the movement. Because really, Duke outweighed Beth by a few pounds. He was surprised she’d been able to drag the dog back over to his house in the first place.
But Duke had absolutely no bite in him. When it came right down to it, he had pretty much two modes: scared of everything or spaz. Option one had him cowering in the corner at the sound of the vacuum, or sprinting into the house when Tripp mowed the lawn, or eating through a door when he was home alone during a thunderstorm. Option two had him tripping over his too long feet as he tried to chase a ball, or knocking things over with his rapidly moving tail, or attempting to lick someone to death.
No more evidence was needed as to what mode Duke was in at the moment. He was currently rubbing his head against Beth’s thigh, painting her skin with even more mud. Tripp had to give it to the dog, though, because he’d bet good money there wasn’t a person in a hundred-mile radius who wanted to play less in that moment than Beth did. But Duke was oblivious to the fury radiating off the woman.
Tripp, on the other hand, was not.
It couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds since he’d opened the front door, twenty seconds of Beth glaring at him with daggers in her blue eyes. The visible portions of her face and neck were turning red hot with rage.
“I’m sorry, Beth. I don’t know how he’s getting out of the yard.” Which was the truth. Tripp had gone over his backyard more times than he could count trying to figure out an escape route from the fence. He’d come up with absolutely nothing.
Duke wasn’t exactly used to the freedom that this backyard provided. For the first six months of the dog’s domesticated life, he’d been confined to a postage stamp-sized piece of grass attached to the townhouse Tripp had rented. Now he was getting access to about half of a football field, complete with a pool that he loved to take daily dips in.
There was a doggy door to the backyard to give the pup the ability to come and go. But because of that easy access, there’d been more than a few mornings where the trail of water on the kitchen tile from an early morning swim had left Tripp flat on his back and staring up at the ceiling. It had taken a month, but Tripp had gotten Duke to break that habit, and he now only dove in when he was given permission. The dog was capable of listening…sometimes.
“Duke,” Tripp snapped his fingers.
The dog pulled his attention from Beth—and stopped rubbing all over her—as he looked over to his owner. But that was about all of the focus Tripp was going to get. A squirrel jumped from the roof to a tree in front of the house and the dog tore off like his ass was on fire, barking madly.
“You need to figure out how to keep that dumb beast under control.” She pointed to Duke, who was unsuccessfully trying to climb the tree as he attempted to get to the squirrel. “He destroyed my flower beds, ripped up everything. So close up that doggy door, put him on a leash, maybe actually train him, or give him to someone else. I don’t care, but I’m sick and tired of dealing with this. He’s an obnoxious menace and has absolutely no concept of boundaries.”
Okay, so yes it was true that Duke had in fact gotten into her backyard…again, and that he’d done something with a whole hell of a lot of mud included. It was also true that the dog wasn’t always the brightest crayon in the box. But no one called Tripp’s dog dumb.
This was the portion of the morning where little Miss Perky Tits crossed the line.
“Ha! Boundaries! You want to talk boundaries, Beth? How about the fact that I’ve caught your teenage niece and her friends in my hot tub. Or what about the fact that I’ve had two flat tires on my truck because of various toys that I’ve run over on my driveway. Or what about the fact that there is peanut butter everywhere. On the door handles. On the mailbox. In my garage. And I hate peanut butter, so it sure as hell isn’t coming from me.”
Her eyes narrowed as he’d gone through the list, her mouth getting tighter and tighter.
“You think you’re the perfect neighbor?” he asked. “Think again. I’ve had to deal with plenty myself. Maybe you should figure out how to use a leash, too.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth he knew he’d gone too far. But he didn’t have a chance to take them back.
Beth took a step away, her nostrils flaring as she breathed deep through her nose. “God you’re an asshole.”
All right, maybe he didn’t want to take it back. So he said nothing as she turned on her heel and headed down the pathway.
It was then that he got a good long look at the back of her. Her cotton shorts weren’t even discernible at this angle they were so covered in mud, and the backs of her legs were just as bad. Duke must’ve knocked her down into all of that mud. And really, he should feel bad about what had just happened but he was hard pressed to, considering everything. His dog wasn’t the only one who was a “menace.”
A loud bark rent the air, pulling Tripp’s gaze from the retreating woman. Duke was now rolling around in the yard, scratching his back on the grass like it was the greatest thing in the world.
Spaz. But he was Tripp’s spaz, and he wasn’t going anywhere. Well, he wasn’t going anywhere besides to get a bath. Stat.