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“I’m going to beat you,” Brandy declared.
“Only because you stole that,” he complained, pausing in his artistic swipes at a flat wall. With paintbrush perched on his hip, he pointed at the roller that was constantly splattering paint back at her. Fat drops landed in her hair, but Marty somehow avoided all the spray. Maybe he was just that lucky.
Brandy dipped the roller through the paint tray. “I can’t steal what I bought. Not my fault you brought a tiny tool for a big job.”
“Ouch,” Marty scoffed. “I’ll have you know it’s not the size of the tool but the consistency and rhythm of the strokes that matters.” He cracked a smile at her and heat burned across her face. Had to be her damn apartment and the shitty air conditioning.
So much exercise in a tight space with two bodies…it was no wonder she felt flushed. Struggling to reach the ceiling, Brandy pushed harder against the wall. A large swipe of gross yellow lingered above their heads. “Damn it!” she gasped, straining on her toes and making no progress.
Her blackmailed man paused in his delicate strokes to watch her. The flush returned again, causing her to break out in fully flustered sweats. Uncertain what to do, Brandy kept trying to reach what she couldn’t get.
“Here,” Marty said. “Trade?” He passed her the small brush and took the roller for himself. Starting where she’d already greened up the wall, Marty began to inch the paint higher. A slick roll scattered over the yellow, but the line was light and left a two-inch gap above their heads.
He gritted his teeth and took a step closer, straining his hand far above his head. Out of ideas, Brandy stepped back and watched Marty. It was obvious he couldn’t get any farther past what she‘d done, but he didn’t seem to want to give up.
She’d never thought of him as short. Okay, compared to the average guy, he was smaller. But it didn’t matter, not to be her friend. Not to be her…not to work in the shop. He never seemed to have that little-Napoleon complex, like a chihuahua trying to bite a Great Dane’s ankles. To think it bothered him to the point he felt like he had to prove himself with a cheating…
And there you go, thinking it’s your job to fix his relationship.
What? You’ll slot into the place where Janeth was kicked out of? Like you’re ready for that.
Too much pizza and alcohol sloshed about inside her, unsettling her stomach. Brandy reached to touch it, when she caught the paint-soaked brush in her hands. That would have been quite the mess—
“Ah!” Marty cried, and his straining tiptoes collapsed. He splattered right onto the wall that was coated in wet paint.
“Oh no.” Brandy dashed to his side, but it was too late. A great smear of mint green covered the entire front of his black T-shirt. Marty held up his hands, showing one stained palm too. The other clung to the roller and he stared in shock at the mess he’d made.
A strange smile rose on his lips and he took a step closer. “Brandy, come here.”
“Give me a big hug!” he said, flailing both hands.
She took a step back and knocked right into the damn stool she’d moved so they could reach the ceiling in the first place. Movement in her peripheral vision caused her to turn back to find Marty advancing.
“Don’t you dare,” she warned, shaking the brush at him.
He snickered at the empty threat. “Come on. It’s tradition.”
“No, it’s not,” she shouted, laughter escaping. Marty lunged for her, but Brandy was quicker and ducked under his arms. He spun around but kept lumbering toward her like a reanimated corpse.
“Of course it is. The Fourth of July hug.”
“Stop!” She full-on giggled, running for her kitchen. Marty was quick on her heels, his entire torso glistening from the wet paint.
What was she doing in here? The stove and counters trapped her in place, pinning her between escape and Marty. He winked and—in his smoldering voice—said, “Don’t you want to be wrapped up in these arms?”
And she hated herself for it.
“Here.” Yanking a towel off the stove, she wiped at Marty’s hand. That seemed to slow the charging beast. His minty-green belly showed, but it stopped the attack. Instead, he stood silent as she wet the towel and kept cleaning him off.
“So you don’t…” Brandy glanced away from his nearly spotless palm up into his face. A breath rolled between his barely parted lips and his Adam’s apple dropped.
Shaking off the rise in her body, she said, “So you don’t make a mess of my place.”
“Too late for my shirt,” Marty said with an accepting sigh. “Well, don’t want to be a poor guest.” And, before she could get another towel to sponge off the paint, he gripped the neck of his shirt and yanked it off.
Holy crap. Shame tried to direct her to look anywhere but at the half-naked man attempting to rinse off the paint. But she couldn’t escape the pull. Instead of the nearly full spread of man fur of her dream, he only had a light smattering that was a softer brown than his head hair. It dashed halfway across his rounded pecs, then pointed straight down his flat stomach. Even with a giant pizza sitting in there, she could make out a hint of a four-pack flush to his half-moon belly button. And it was sexier than anything she could have dreamed.
“You, uh…” Marty swallowed hard, his voice tenuous as he stared at her. “Find anything?”
Shit. He caught me. “That scar on your…um.” She pointed to his side, because even acknowledging that he had a set of lats twisted her tongue into knots.
“Oh, that.” He laughed, drawing a thumb down the stark white line amongst a sea of brown. “You wouldn’t believe how I got it.”
“No, this was all me. I…” Marty paused in caressing his old memory and turned to her. The friend, the confidant, the widowed coworker staring at his half-naked body. “I’ll tell you about it some other time. For now, there is a wall to subdue!”
Brandy smiled, all laughs as he jumped to the paint and this time used the stool to climb up near the ceiling. So he’s shirtless. It was an accident.
“Are you coming to help, or do you intend to sit in a chair watching me work up a sweat while you sip wine?”
A nice deck chair, Marty in low-slung jeans holding a rake. No, by the pool and he’d just emerged from the water. Droplets shimmering on his skin and he wore a tiny pair of…
“As if. You need me to keep you from messing it all up,” Brandy said, getting a laugh from him. Shaking off her foolish fantasy, she moved to join him. But before she left the kitchen, she shut off the water on his soaking shirt.
Rather than dive back into painting, Marty stood above a pint can, glaring down as if it’d wronged him. Brandy paused from lifting her backup brush to watch him point at the smaller can, then to the half-used gallon. “What’s this baby for? So the mama doesn’t get lonely?”
Brandy laughed and, with her screwdriver, cracked open the can. Brown the hue and vibrancy of melted milk chocolate rested inside. “It’s for the accents,” she said, pointing to the various edges where the walls connected. “Something I saw online, to give the room an old-world feel.”
“And you didn’t trust me to do it?” Marty gasped as if she’d wounded him.
She dipped the brush into the brown paint, barely soaking it into the bristles before she rose. Marty watched, his dignity on the line. Twisting the brush in her hand, Brandy stepped closer. Her hand glanced against his, about to pass over the brush, when she said, “No.”
“Traitor!” Marty cried in faux indignity. He reached for the brush, but she wasn’t having it.
Laughing, Brandy tried to leap back from his range, only for Marty to swipe against the bristles.
Drops of brown splattered off the brush onto her body. She froze, her arms locking in place as cold paint clung to her face, chest and arms. Oh, and her tank top. Of course.
She expected Marty to break into laughter, but he wore a slightly concerned look. “Let me help,” he said, and excised a white handkerchief from his jeans.
The only thing that surprised her about Marty carrying an old-fashioned kerchief around was the fact that she hadn’t seen it before. He swiped at her upper arm, smearing the brown paint in a line to connect her freckles. “Damn it,” Marty cursed, trying again.
“Here, you have to dab it.” She tried to reach for it to do it herself, but Marty clung to his white linen.
“Please, let me.” He blotted now, pulling more paint free, and Brandy tried to stand perfectly still. It wasn’t easy as Marty moved from her arms across her chest.
The stained kerchief drifted against the top of her breast, his fingers pressing and swiping into the start of her padding. “That, uh…” Marty stuttered, shifting on his toes.
She felt the same secondhand embarrassment rising and tried to slide away. But he raised his head and the handkerchief. Rolling it to a clean spot, Marty pressed the surprisingly soft fabric to her cheek. His thumb and the kerchief dipped into her smile line. The rubbing gave way to a gentle swish of his finger back and forth, Marty’s gaze locked on hers.
Somehow his fingers curled around her chin, holding Brandy, propping her up. Keeping her mouth in line with his. She swallowed deep, instinctively licking her lips and finding a dab of paint on them as well.
But there was no time to worry as he wrapped his fingers around the small of her back. No, they didn’t just hold, they pulsed against her skin. Marty guided her closer, a serene smile on the lips about to press to hers.
“Marty,” Brandy breathed, her mind at war. One faction wanted to give in, to let him dab and wash every inch of her body. Another kept screaming that he had a girlfriend, one she couldn’t find the courage to tell him was a cheater.
A wet chill crawled up her spine and she frowned. “Did you get paint on your other hand?”
He whipped free the palm that’d worked its way under the back of her tank top and, sure enough, brown streaks were smeared over the fingertips. Marty stared at it in shock while she tried to tug up her shirt to keep it free of the paint. Not too high, maybe an inch or two, but whatever moment they’d almost had evaporated. Now it was just awkwardness and uncertainty.
“Would you mind…” Brandy spun around to show him her smudged back. “Fixing this?”