Libby Hart eased herself into the piping-hot bath and let lavender-scented bubbles swallow her whole. A dozen flickering candles provided the room’s only light. Relaxing against the fluffy towel she’d laid across the back of the tub, she let out a moan. She’d earned this. In the past two days, she’d achieved nearly everything on her checklist—an unheard-of event. She’d even managed to sneak in a date and a waxing session at the salon.
God it felt good not to have a unibrow.
Every week, she worked a four-day shift, leaving three days to cram her entire life into. She usually spent the first day sleeping and the second and third looking after her baby nephew or hanging out with her friend Matt and the dog they’d adopted together. That didn’t leave much time for tackling important tasks, such as making sure she didn’t resemble a yeti.
This week, though, her sister was visiting their mum in Norfolk, and Matt was playing an away game in Dublin, so she’d had little to distract her. Tomorrow she could relax, drop by her sister’s to clean the place before Mary and baby Caleb got home, and then go to the Bonfire Night event with Matt. A full day enjoying time with the people she loved.
Tiny nails scratched at the enamel tub, and Libby leaned over to find Princess on her hind legs, trying to climb up.
“I don’t think you’ll make it, sweetheart. It’s ten times your size.” She reached down and cupped her hand under the dog’s soft belly, then lifted her so they faced each other. Though she hadn’t named Princess, the poor dog certainly looked like royalty, with her weak chin, wonky teeth and slightly turned-up nose. “See? Lots of bubbles. Hot water. You wouldn’t like it in here.”
Princess gave her chin a lick before pumping her feet in the air and straining to get back to her hot-dog chew toy next to the tub. Libby put her down, slipped earbuds in and flicked through her playlists to one Matt had made her.
Matt, the gorgeous rugby player who’d bizarrely become one of her closest friends, was never far from her mind. He seemed to dominate her thoughts all too readily at intimate moments like these—naked in the bath, with candles lit around the room and Adele belting out songs of desire in her ears. Libby closed her eyes and let her head loll to the side. Tension eased from her shoulders as she pictured Matt sitting behind her, rubbing her shoulders with his strong, capable hands. Imagination not good enough, Libby reached across her chest to rub one of her own shoulders, lending credence to the lie that Matt was touching her. Dream Matt shifted his legs so they stretched alongside hers. His erection nudged the cleft of her bum, making her twitch and turn to give him a stern look, one he answered with his naughty, dimpled grin.
Her hand slipped under the bubbles on its way to romance herself the way only Dream Matt could. Before it reached anywhere special, a hand touched her shoulder.
A hand…not her hand.
Her eyes flew open. A man loomed over her. Libby’s heart exploded—so did his, apparently, since he leaped back against the sink.
“Holy fuck!” She shot up straight, then slid down so the bubbles covered her shoulders as soon as she recognized him. Only her head and knees peeked through the foam. “Matt! Bloody hell, what’re you doing?”
“Checking you’re not dead!” His shout was muffled thanks to Adele’s singing. Libby held up a finger and tugged the earbuds out.
“Ah, that explains it,” he said, his body relaxing a bit against the counter. Even with some of the tension fading away, he was still vibrating with energy. “When you didn’t answer the door, I let myself in. Then I saw you kinda slumped over, and you didn’t move when I called your name. It looked like you’d passed out and were about to go under.”
He must’ve seen her hand going under. Oh thank God he hadn’t come in thirty seconds later. He would’ve known exactly how alive she was. Better he think she was dead.
“For fuck’s sake, Lib, I think you gave me a heart attack.” He leaned back against the counter and rubbed the center of his broad chest.
“Try opening your eyes to find a big, bruised man standing over you in the bath.”
He grimaced. “I’d probably have shat myself.”
“Yeah, well, good thing there’re a lot of bubbles in here.”
He let out a bark of laughter and slid down to sit on the floor. She slipped farther under the bubbles. “Make yourself at home.”
“Cheers,” he said without a hint of irony. “Christ, what a day. I need some quality time with my girl.”
Before Libby could misinterpret who that girl might be, he reached for their dog.
Unbelievable. She was naked in the flippin’ bath and he could sit there completely unaffected. He was fully clothed, but just looking at him made her pulsate. He was big—too big for the bathroom that the estate agent had described as bijou when Libby had bought this flat. His back was against the cupboards, his feet against the tub, and his knees bent to turn his lap into a cradle for Princess. She yipped and tried to leap onto his lap but missed, tumbling off his thigh into a pile of overexcited Chihuahua. He rescued her. Lucky bitch curled up on his crotch.
“Ah, how’s my baby? I missed you. Yes, I did. Yes, I did.”
As Matt made baby voices at their dog, Libby took the opportunity to drink him in. He must’ve come straight from the airport because he still wore the charcoal suit and green-and-white striped tie he traveled in for overseas matches. The jacket fit him perfectly across the shoulders, accentuating their breadth. It was unbuttoned, the plackets falling casually to the side to reveal the white dress shirt beneath. If he stood and turned around, his trousers would hug the tightest arse Libby had ever seen. She could draw his bum from memory—not that she was good at art. She was pretty shit at it, actually. But she was fantastic at checking out Matt’s backside when he wasn’t paying attention.
He finally glanced up at her with those spectacular moss-green eyes and grinned the grin that haunted her most erotic dreams—the one that brought out the dimple in his left cheek, just below a dark red patch covering his cheekbone that looked like it would turn into a nasty bruise. “Romantic.”
“What? Oh, the candles. I do this every night. Don’t you?”
“Nah. I’m more an ice-bath man, myself.”
“What, in your bath?”
“Well, yeah. Where else? My sofa?”
Her hands clenched beneath the water. He lived in a flat just below hers. Knowing he might be down there naked on a bed of ice would make her future bath-time fantasies so hot they’d radiate through the floor to melt his bath. She’d read about things she could do with an ice cube that he would really, really enjoy.
Though she undoubtedly wouldn’t be the first to do them to him.
He gave her face a searching look that momentarily shot her through with fear that he could read her thoughts.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“You, uh, you look like someone smeared you with toothpaste.” He gestured to her eyebrows. “Either that, or you’ve just stepped off the set of the world’s worst porno.”
“Oh, bollocks!” She spun away and tried to hide her forehead with her palm. Her skin had been red and sore when she’d got home from her waxing appointment, so she’d applied thick antiseptic cream across her brows. The cream had dried and turned crusty, but she’d been so distracted with finding Matt suddenly in her bathroom that she’d completely forgotten. She must look like a clown. Like a clown that had been used by men with terrible aim.
“I just, um—bollocks. Could you hand me a flannel from the cupboard?” Still turned away, she held out her hand until she heard a cupboard door close and felt the soft cloth brush her palm. “Cheers.”
She dipped the cloth into the water and pressed it against the delicate skin where her yeti-hair used to be. The wet heat made her skin throb. She rinsed out the cloth and did it again until her skin felt slick and clean. When she’d finished, she dropped the cloth into the tub and turned back to him, sinking to cover herself. “I got my brows waxed today, and the white stuff’s cream to help it heal. That’s all. Definitely not toothpaste. Or semen.”
His lips pressed together so hard they nearly disappeared, and he made a funny noise, like smothered laughter.
“Nothing. Anyway, I already knew. I saw it on your to-do list on the table—along with the fact that you had a date last night. Do you always put your dates on a checklist?”
“Only when they feel like a chore.”
“They wouldn’t feel like that if you stopped dating prats.”
“I don’t date prats!”
He squinted an eye at her, clearly thinking That’s bollocks and you know it. “You must not’ve been too excited if you did your hedge-trimming the day after.”
“Maybe I just wanted to make sure he liked me for my personality, not my naked orbital ridge.”
“Your orbital ridge? Saucy wench.”
“It’s the eyebrow bone, stud.” She blew a handful of bubbles at him, making him laugh as he swiped them off his thigh.
He raised his brows and glanced toward her crotch. “Got cream anywhere else?”
Adopting a haughty tone, she said, “That’s my secret.”
His grin died down to something a little less playful, a little harder to interpret. His fingers seemed to unconsciously find the contusion on his cheek.
“What about you?” she asked. “You all right? Looks like it was a tough match.”
“What, this?” He tapped the bruise and she nodded. “Bloody awful. They humped us in the last minute.”
“Ah well, at least you got something out of it, then.”
His sexy lips turned upward. Oh, Lord. Had someone cranked the heat up in the tub? Don’t kiss him, don’t kiss him.
“I’m a bit wound up,” he said. “Thought maybe we could watch a film or something.”
Her heart picked up its pace. Why did she get so pathetically happy when he sought her out? There was something so flattering about his attention, but he never made her feel like she should be grateful for it. Easy and fun, that was Matt. “Film sounds good. Why don’t you pick something out while I finish up in here?”
He pushed himself up and gave her another funny look.
She touched her brows. “Did I miss a spot?”
“No.” He seemed on the verge of saying something else but then gave his head a small shake and left the bathroom. Libby drew in her first steady breath of the past five minutes. Something wasn’t quite right here. Matt often seemed keyed up after matches, especially away matches for some reason. It must be tough to focus all that energy and adrenaline into a couple of hours, only to lose.
Whatever was going on with him, she was happy to be the one he came to, to unwind—even if it was by sitting on her couch instead of getting naked and sweaty together.
Through the open door, she saw him turn on her TV, pull up her film service and flick through it. He called over to her. “Drama?”
She thought about it for a second before dismissing it. “I’m not really in the mood for anything dark or serious.”
“Me neither. Action?”
“Oh, I saved Castaway. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard good things.”
Matt read the description. “Tom Hanks survives a plane crash? Fuck no.”
“You’d rather he died?”
“No, I just…” He shivered hard and hit the button to go back to the film listings. “Sounds too serious. What about a rom-com?”
“No way.” Watching a rom-com with Matt would be acute torture.
He gave her a teasing smile. “You never want to watch rom-coms with me. Why is that?”
She would’ve thought it was obvious. Thank God it wasn’t. “Too schmaltzy.” He didn’t look away. Her whole body warmed under the weight of his attention. “What?”
He shook his head. “Nothing. Why don’t I choose something? You’ll fall asleep after the opening credits anyway.”
“I will not.”
“Mmm-hmm. What happens at the end of Psycho?”
Damn it. They’d watched that film together twice, and she hadn’t lasted fifteen minutes either time. But at least she’d seen a famous clip of the film several times. “Janet Leigh’s killed in the shower.”
“At the end?”
“Yeah. Isn’t that—what? Why are you laughing?”
He swiped his hand over his mouth, but his eyes still laughed at her. “God, you’re cute.”
The words shot arrows at her vulnerable heart. She tried to shove them from her mind, but they took root alongside a half dozen other comments he’d made over the years. On his first wedding anniversary after his divorce, for example, when he’d spent the evening drinking and told Libby he loved her hair. He’d asked if he could touch it and she’d let him, wondering the whole time whether she should breach the distance and kiss him. But as he rubbed her corkscrew curls between his fingertips, he’d compared her curls to his ex-wife’s stick-straight hair, and Libby’s desire had withered and died.
Like Lazarus, her insecurity was destined to be resurrected…over and over again. After sitting next to her completely unaffected as she lounged in the bath, he heaped on another insult by laughing at her while their dog wagged her tiny tail at his feet.
They’d been friends for five years, and—other than the weird hair incident—he’d never shown any indication that his feelings were more than friendly. While she had crazy, sexy, impossibly acrobatic dreams about him, he apparently thought it was okay to laugh at her and call her cute.
I’ll show you fucking cute.
She stood up in the bath, water sluicing over her body and bubbles clinging to her pointy bits before dropping to the tub with a plop. She stepped out and briefly turned her back to him, stretching up on her toes to pull her satin bathrobe off its hook. Taking her time, she slipped one arm into it, then the other, before pulling it closed over her wet body. It clung to her curves as she lifted her hands to unclip her hair and let it tumble around her shoulders.
Finally, she turned to fully face him and walked casually into the living room. “Pick something out, then. I’ll just change into my pajamas. Be back in a sec.”
Then she turned and left sopping footprints on the hardwood floors as she went into her bedroom and closed the door.
Damn but she itched to run for her mop and wipe up those footprints. But Matt’s slack-jawed, wide-eyed stare—totally worth warping her floors.