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Never Stay Past Midnight

Never Stay Past Midnight by Mira Lyn Kelly
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"You did it in a car!"

A week already and still with this.

Elise pushed a windblown curl from her brow and stared, disbelieving, across the hood of the Volvo Wagon at her sister. "That is not an explanation for setting me up on a blind date. Which, incidentally, I can't believe you're dropping on me the same hour you stick me with babysitting Bruno, the puppy beast. There's got to be a rule about that or something."

It should have been a perfect day. Following a pre-dawn rain, the sun shone bright against a vivid blue sky dotted with cotton-ball clusters of pure white. It was the first she'd had off in two weeks, and she'd intended to spend at least a piece of it jogging the lakefront paths. She hadn't even made it past Burnham Harbor when her phone rang, and her sister's latest emergency sidelined her at the entrance to Soldiers Field—where she stood now, withering on the receiving end of her sister's caustic glare.

Ally Porter-Davis shook her head, disappointment coloring her words. "A car, Elise."

Yes, well, more accurately, she'd done it in a bed. And then a car. And then against the door just inside her apartment. But somehow she didn't think the clarification would win her any points.

"The car part was an accident?"

Ally's brow arched impossibly high. "An accident? Like he, what, just fell in?"

Cheeks flaming, Elise shook her head. "No! Like I wasn't planning for it to happen again…we were at a stoplight and he asked how long I'd lived in the neighborhood and when I looked back at him to answer…" She closed her eyes, awash in the heat of that moment, the look in his eyes when they'd skimmed down her body; the feel of those big hands pulling her over him left her shuddering—

"That! Right there." Ally rounded the back end, tapping her fingers against the backseat window as she passed. "That look and—and full body meltdown—that's the reason I'm setting you up. You need a man. A relationship with someone nice and reliable. Someone you can lean on. Not some thanks-for-the-free-ride-in-my-car guy you're too ashamed to give me the name of either."

"I don't need anyone. And, nice try, but I'm not giving you his name because you'd have him Googled and the whole sordid scenario up on Facebook with six of your mommy-and-me compadres posting comments in less than an hour's time."

"Excuses." Ally popped the trunk and took a step back as her six-month-old Great Dane bounded free of his confine, spun around with a frighteningly exuberant bark, and then lunged, pinning Elise to the passenger side door. "And about Bruno. Thanks for bailing me out with him. You were the only one I could ask."

The wind knocked effectively from her lungs, Elise stared down at the two saucer-sized puppy paws, planted dead center over her breasts. Shooting an accusing look at her sister, she wheezed, "You are so on my list."

Ally waved her off, closing the trunk with her hip. "Your 'So hip-deep in trouble' list?"

For crying out loud. Well, if she broke it down to the acronym, then yeah. This was what happened when people had babies and they struggled with creative ways to stop swearing. "That's the one."

"He's a puppy. You can't put him on your list."

As if. Bruno might be the one feeling her up, but it was Ally who'd dropped not one bomb, but two on her today. "I'm not talking about Bruno. I'm talking about you!"

"Me?" Ally spun on her, one hand fisted on her hip, the other swatting at the air in indignant protest. "I'll grant I owe you for dog-sitting like this. But on the date…I'm doing you a favor. That little incident last week was a cry for help if ever I heard one."

This was what she got for confiding.

"It wasn't a cry for anything—" Bruno stomped his big paw with renewed puppy vigor "—aghg, Bruno, no!—least of all matchmaking services."

"Right. You haven't been out on a date since Eric. And that was over a year ago. I've been telling you for months it was time to move on and find someone new, but you keep brushing me off with all the business about not being ready and no time or energy, needing to 'do something' with your life. Blah, blah, blah… And then you go and pick up some random guy—who does not count as a date, by the way—and do it in a car. I'm sorry, but if that doesn't smack of desperation, I don't know what does."

Elise coughed out her protest. "I am not desperate!"

"Denial, is it? Well, consider this my intervention, sister. Some day you'll thank me."

Some day she'd strangle her.

"I'm not going out with him," Elise said flatly, considering only too late where that kind of statement would take her.

Ally's arms crossed as her upper lip curved into that bossy big-sister sneer. "And I'm not canceling for you."

A battle of wills. The kind that never seemed to end the way she wanted it to.

"Which means, Elise, if you don't show up, then Hank—a nice, emotionally in-touch, stand-up man—will be sitting there Friday night… waiting…" Ally's face screwed up into a facsimile of the would-be angst this Hank would suffer "…wondering why… Was it something about him…? Maybe he should just stop trying…putting himself out there and give up…"


This was why she never won…her sister knew just how to hit her.

Elise let out a long-suffering sigh that Ally batted off like a gnat as she pulled open the rear door of the wagon to check the infant restraints and coo at her groggy son. Straining beneath Bruno's weight, Elise pushed to her toes and craned her neck to catch a peek of that beautiful downy head.

"So sweet," she whispered to her sister, who beamed back appreciatively as she quietly shut the door.

But then Ally was back to business. Hand on hip, stubborn chin leading the helm. "You might like him. Come on, it's a couple of hours. What's the big deal?"

The big deal was Elise didn't want to like this Hank who came so highly recommended. She was afraid to meet some guy who might be perfect, because she wasn't in a place in her life with room for a perfect man.

Her thumb rubbed at the fourth finger of her left hand, and that same twinge of bitterness and sorrow stirred at the feel of the bare skin there.

She simply didn't have enough to give. Not yet. She was starting her own business. Trying to build something, not just for herself, but for all of them. And even once she got it going, she'd probably still need to hang on to one or two of her other jobs. Between that and the situation with her family, she'd be lucky to find herself with five minutes to spare. Let alone the requisite time for phone calls and dates it took to get to know someone.

Whoever this Hank was, he deserved more. Better. "I'm really not interested."

Ally clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and shrugged. "But you're going anyway. Later, sis."

Six miles and Levi hadn't found it yet. That quiet numb where thinking shut down and nothing registered but the repetitive slap of his feet hitting pavement. The quiet place where he could mentally disconnect. Recharge. Clear his head. Following the network of intersecting paths at the south end of Grant Park—the grassy lakefront oasis within an urban sprawl, proudly referred to as Chicago's "front yard"—he pushed toward the pedestrian overpass and the far-reaching tracks that ran beneath. Tried to find some sort of Zen place within the gusty wind and rush of traffic, but he couldn't quite get there.

Sweat stung his eyes and oxygen burned through his lungs with each hard pull of breath. Still he kept thinking about the call earlier that morning from his guy in Seattle. Another problem with the contractor. The kind that Levi could have resolved within thirty seconds if he'd been there, but now had them pushed back another day at least.

Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off—

"Bruno, heel!" The cry rang out, tugging Levi's consciousness out of that middle space and settling it firmly on a remarkably familiar knot of blonde curls bobbing atop a tight little curvy package of a woman as she stumbled down the path, one arm tethered to a dog almost as big as she was.

Elise. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he followed her with his eyes.

Miss Exceptionally Distracting herself. She'd blown his mind with that crazy, bendy body and those soft, breathy cries at his ear. Her smart-mouthed teasing, nervous fluster, and broken rules.

They'd been good together and he liked her a damned lot. But he had his own rules regarding women like Elise—women who were all about commitment. To their families, their relationships, themselves. He left them alone—and he'd already broken his rules once just to get a taste of her. Only that taste merely whetted his palate for more and it had been a near miracle that he'd finally let her go. Which was why, as much as he might like another foray into the kind of compelling distraction she'd offered, he veered off to the opposite path from the one she occupied. Pushed his thoughts to the rising skyline reaching wide ahead of him. Michigan Avenue…still a good distance from Elise's Printer's Row apartment.

He didn't remember a dog.

That one would have been tough to miss.

Turn it off, turn it off, turn it.

Of course, now that he'd seen her, now that he knew she was right over there, she was back in his mind, daring him to revisit the details of a night he hadn't quite had enough of. Thinking how he'd gotten lost in her body…in her laugh…in that hellfire hot kiss when she'd been pinned against the steering wheel—

Damn. He was watching her again too, jogging backwards like a total jackass. His body reacting in a way that wasn't wholly conducive to running.

He needed to run.

Only he didn't really like the look of that Great Dane dragging her down the path.

What was it about these little women with dogs so big they couldn't handle them?

And Elise definitely wasn't handling this one.

The dog bounded right, nearly tripping her. Then cut back left, jerking her forward. Levi's brow drew down as he headed toward the canine fiasco in action. If someone didn't take control, Elise was going to get hurt—

That was when the dog stilled, head snapping around at the sound barely permeating Levi's consciousness.

Fire truck.

The dog took off like a flash, his powerful haunches pushing beyond Elise's strength and taking her down hard into the grass. She bounced once—damn, that couldn't feel good. And whoa, was that mud?—before the leash jerked free of her wrist and then the dog was speeding away even as she scrambled to her knees. "Baddog, Bruno!"

By then, Levi'd already pushed into a dead run. As distractions went, apparently, Elise was the kind that couldn't be ignored.

Harlequin; August 2012
192 pages; ISBN 9781459234826
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Title: Never Stay Past Midnight
Author: Mira Lyn Kelly
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