Home > Fall (VIP #3)

Fall (VIP #3)
Author: Kristen Callihan

Chapter One

Stella

* * *

There is a man following me. I’m 99.5 percent sure of it. Though it should be freaking me out, I’m more intrigued at this point. I slide a glance over the organic apple bin at the stalker in question. Tall, lean, fit—at least judging by the way his coat hugs his broad shoulders—even features, good jawline. Chocolate-brown hair and tan skin. Chocolate and peanut butter. Yum.

I bite back a snort. It’s never a good idea to shop for food when hungry; everything starts to look tasty. And, okay, maybe I’m about 80 percent sure he’s following. Examine, if you will, the facts: Mega Hot Dude has appeared in every aisle that I’ve been in, but he doesn’t seem the type to follow anyone around. There’s something too self-possessed about him, as if he’s actively trying not to be noticed. Good luck with that. The guy has a luster that has nothing to do with looks but is closer to sheer magnetism. It’s so strong that he seems vaguely familiar, which is just ridiculous. If I’d met him before, I’d remember his brand of hotness.

Is he following me? The jury is still out. More study is needed.

Possible stalker guy glances up, his big hand wrapped around a rosy Honeycrisp, the same type of apple I’d put in my basket a moment earlier. I’m snagged by jade-green eyes beneath expressive dark brows before I look away, my heart thudding from being caught in the act.

Nope, he definitely can’t be stalking me. Guys like him never look at girls like me. They favor tall, thin goddesses with perfect bone structure, or diminutive elfin pixies with big eyes and perky smiles. They do not look at girls of average height, average weight, and average looks. I ought to know; I’ve been overlooked by guys like him my whole life. All the way back to first grade when little Peter Bondi chased all the girls for a kiss—except me.

It’s a terrible thing to realize that you’re the only girl whose cooties are so repellent, even the class booger-eater won’t touch you. The memory of watching all the other girls run around screeching while Kissing Peter chased after them during recess still stings a bit.

Not that I have a right to complain. I have my share of good features: clear skin—always a bonus—and decent lips. Mom used to call me Bardot, not because I looked like the ’60s movie star, but because she thought I had a mouth like hers. Bee-stung lips, my mom called them, which sounds really painful and hideous. I have also been blessed with silky, red-gold, softly curling hair.

Now, I love my hair—and it’s taken me to the age of twenty-nine to be able to say that without worrying I sound vain. But some men see the hair and expect more from my face. They expect stunning beauty, not average attractiveness. How do I know? I’ve been told that very thing a few times. Ouch. And of course, the hair comes with the freckles. Men either love them or hate them.

Honestly, I am more likely to attract comic-book geeks. Soft-bodied guys with sharp minds. It works for me. Give me personality over muscles any day. All of which to say, Mr. Smolder is probably wondering why I’m everywhere he is, and is not at all interested.

Shaking my head at my paranoia, I head for the cookie aisle. The shelves are sadly bereft. Snowzilla, as the media is calling it, is headed this way. Since it’s March and New Yorkers were just starting to enjoy spring, no one is particularly happy about the surprise storm. In the true spirit of city dwellers faced with the possibility that stores might actually close, panic has ensued. People have been stockpiling necessities such as toilet paper, bread, water, and junk food.

I never understood the whole bread thing, because no one ever seems to purchase anything to go with the bread. Peanut butter is still stocked, as is jelly. What do these people do with their bread in the event of an emergency? Huddle down beside their piles of toilet paper and eat plain slices of bread until help arrives?

Whatever the case, all that’s left are a few chocolate chip bags and one lonely package of Double Stuf Oreos. Not to worry, my little Double Stuf delights, I’ll find you a good home. I grab the pack and am about to put it in my basket when Mr. Peanut Butter and Chocolate turns the corner. Again?

His long stride stutters as he catches sight of me, and his brow lifts a touch as though he too is thinking, you again? He glances at the Oreos in my hand, and his fine lips flatten. Because they are fine, those lips. Well shaped, wide, not too full, not too thin but just …

Jesus, I’m gawking at his mouth. And he’s staring.

Facing off like gunslingers at the O.K. Corral, the moment holds a beat, one in which heat flares low in my belly and between my legs. Mortified, I turn and flee. Like a wimp. Because a blush is coming on. Bad enough to be caught staring twice. Worse to be caught with my hand in the cookie jar, as it were.

I’m all too aware of my ass and its generous proportions as I hurry away past smirking Keebler Elves. Pissed at my self-consciousness, I decide to slow down and work it, putting a little extra sway into the motion.

Unsettled by the mini showdown, I hustle while getting tampons and some new body wash, then head for the ice cream aisle. I have plans, and they include cookies, fudge sauce, and my favorite mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Rounding the corner, I come to a screeching halt. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Accusatory is opening the ice cream freezer and reaching for the last …

“You are not going for the mint!” It isn’t a question.

He pauses, and again his dark brow lifts, this time a little higher, a little more outraged as well. God, those eyes, green sin surrounded by thick, thick lashes. Girl lashes. Nothing else about him is girly. “And if I am?”

A little shiver runs over my skin that has nothing to do with the icy air billowing out of the freezer. He has a hint of a British accent, faded in spots like a pair of well-worn jeans. And his voice? Gah. It is sex and sweaty sheets, hot fudge over crushed cookies.

I really need to eat before shopping next time. I should head for the checkout and go home.

But mint chip is on the line here. I stomp down the aisle, far too aware of the way my body pushes through space to get closer to him. Shit, this guy is potent, all irresistible pheromones and irate smolder. I brace myself against the onslaught.

“I’ve been looking forward to that ice cream all day.” And it is the only one left. Geesh. What is with this store? Did everyone in the city raid it earlier?

Mr. Smolder shifts his weight, bringing his lean body closer. “I’ve been looking forward to it too.” His hand wraps around on the top of the carton.

No freaking way. Oh, it is on, dude.

I grab the bottom of the carton. “You do not want to get between a woman and her ice cream, bud.”

His eyes narrow. God, he really looks familiar. Not in an, oh, where have you been all my life way. It’s more of a, have you been on the news lately—and please don’t let it be as a possible murder suspect type situation. Sexy beast murderer? Sure. He’s definitely got a bad boy thing going on.

His dark hair is short on the sides but shaggy on top, falling into his eyes to tangle with those crazy long lashes of his. I have the insane urge to brush the locks back. But I don’t.

I’m frozen by his glare. Great gravy, he’s imperious and utterly assured, awash in the kind of arrogance that says he’s used to getting his way in all things. My perception of him shifts again, and I wonder if he’s a rich boy slumming. His gray sweater is cashmere, and though his peacoat and jeans are worn, their cut is too good to be off-the-rack retail. In my line of work, I’ve been around enough wealthy men to know fine clothing when I see it.

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