Desire by Design
Author:Paula Altenburg

chapter Six

Matt grabbed a handful of paper towels off the roller beside the sink and mopped up the puddle of coffee.

Eve’s baffled brain tried to process his suggestion. Rent a room to Matt Brison? Bob Anderson’s nephew?

She could think of a dozen reasons why she wasn’t going to do it. She’d grown up with three older brothers and a father, and she’d spent two immeasurably long weeks living with an unstable husband. She worked with men every day. Under no circumstances did she want them infiltrating her private space. Her home was where she got away from it all.

But then she remembered her home was no longer a haven, and that ticked her off, which was good. She’d rather be angry than scared.

“Renting me a room makes a lot of sense,” Matt was saying. He began to list off his own reasons. “You have a home office already set up. You use the same computer-aided drafting program I do. We’ll be working closely together anyway. And,” he added after a brief, meaningful pause, “it might not hurt for you to have a roommate around here for a while.”

If that was an opening for her to talk about the neatly folded underwear in her bedroom, Eve wasn’t taking it.

“My house isn’t very big,” she said.

“I won’t take up much room. I’ll stay out of your way,” Matt promised. “Besides, I’ll be traveling back and forth to Toronto. You’ll never even know I’m around.”

Eve felt the first flutters of panic. “I don’t cook.”

“Believe me, I’ve already noticed.” He lifted the pizza box and wiped up the coffee that had seeped under it. “I don’t mind doing the cooking. I’m quite good at it when I have something to work with.”

He tossed the soggy paper towels into the proper recycling bin under the counter, earning himself a few roommate points for environmental responsibility.

She already knew what her mother would think if she let him move in, and that shifted the score into a negative range. She shuddered inside. And after Bob had found them trampling his bushes, she had a good idea what he’d think, too.

And then there was Claude.

That scored Matt the winning goal. Maybe he was right. Maybe it would be a good idea for her to have a roommate for a while.

Eve tried to ignore the knot of nervous tension building at the nape of her neck. His reasons for moving in made more sense than hers for keeping him out. It would be a temporary situation. She’d save budget money. She’d have someone around in case Claude came back. She might even get a decent meal or two out of it, without having to use speed dial.

And she might be able to convince Matt not to design some awful steel monstrosity that would get Sullivan Construction in trouble with the zealous public action groups determined to preserve the historic integrity of the city.

Relief evaporated her tension. Those were all good reasons for letting him stay. They’d be roommates. It was no big deal.

She had a mental flash of how he might look coming out of her shower, dressed in nothing but a towel.

“Okay,” she said. “But we need to set some house rules.”

House rules, Eve discovered, could only cover so much.

Even after a few days of trying to get used to Matt, she still wasn’t comfortable sharing her space. She used any excuse she could find to spend even less time at home than she had before he moved in.

The other volunteers at the youth center’s Internet café had trickled out around suppertime, but Eve had wanted to finish this one last coat of paint so she could start cutting trim for the large, street-front windows.

Fumes from the thinner stung her nose as she stirred a can of ecru paint beneath the bright glare of a bare, 100-watt bulb in the soon-to-be main meeting area. She poured the paint into a tray and dipped her roller, ignoring the prickling sensations between her shoulder blades. She’d done this dozens of times in the past, but it was getting late, and it wasn’t the greatest neighborhood for catching a cab. She’d gotten a ride here with one of the other volunteers and hadn’t planned on staying after everyone else left, but she didn’t want to go home too early, either.

She ran the roller as far up the wall as she could reach, tiny paint drops splattering her coveralls. She couldn’t deny it felt good having someone else in the house with her at night. She wasn’t always listening for every little noise, and so far Matt was an exemplary roommate. He was tidy, unobtrusive, and fed himself.

That meant the problem had to be her. She felt awkward around him, not so much uneasy as a bit too aware of his presence. She wasn’t sure why. He’d done nothing wrong.

Maybe that was it. He was a little too perfect, and she was waiting for the illusion to crack.

Shortly before midnight, she finally called it a night and packed in her roller. The building groaned as she tapped the lid back on the can of paint.

She could no longer ignore the creaking sounds the old building made or the sensation of being inside a giant goldfish bowl. Blinds on those large, open windows would be a nice touch. She made a mental note to approach Bob for a personal donation. If he could toss away three hundred municipal dollars a night on a hotel room for his nephew, then he could find some spare change of his own for window treatments for a youth project that he’d initiated.

The building groaned again, and Eve stiffened, along with the fine hairs on the backs of her arms. The large windows reflected the café’s interior, but through the reflection a slight movement caught her eye. Someone was lurking in the shadows across the street, watching her.

Chunks of construction debris crunched beneath her boot heels as she dashed to flip off the lights, plunging the room into a thin darkness illuminated only by the faint glow from the streetlights outside. She was going to talk to Bob about the lack of decent lighting in this ratty neighborhood when she approached him about the blinds. No wonder it had such a lousy reputation.

She ducked behind a large stack of unused Gyprock sheets, telling herself not to panic. Maybe she’d imagined the movement, although her instincts screamed that she hadn’t.

With construction dust tickling her nose, she felt around until she found the nail gun she’d left on the floor. There was no way she was going to wait for a cab now. The driver would be in no hurry to come to this neighborhood at this time of night.

Eve grew angry then, but mostly at herself. She wasn’t big, she wasn’t all that strong, but she wasn’t defenseless, either. She wasn’t going to cower in the darkness and wait for something to happen.

She clutched the nail gun to her chest and glanced at the luminous dial on her watch. Then she found her briefcase and Blackberry, hesitated for a moment, and reluctantly punched in some numbers.

Matt propped his feet on the coffee table and prepared to take a bite of his salami sandwich, checking his watch for what must have been the fiftieth time and wondering where Eve might be so late at night.

Sharing a house with her wasn’t turning out quite the way he’d anticipated. He’d given her three days to get used to him, and still, Eve didn’t observe any of the common courtesies normally extended when two people cohabited. She didn’t tell him where she was going. She didn’t call when she was going to be late. And he found her habit of drying her delicates on the curtain rod in the shower to be more than a little disconcerting. He couldn’t get fantasies involving lacy panties out of his head.

What bothered him the most, however, was that she’d never mentioned the break-in, the trashed bedroom, or the crumpled-up divorce decree.

And the wary way she watched him made him very careful of the way he treated her. Whatever had gone wrong in her marriage, Eve had been burned, and despite Matt’s best efforts, she didn’t want to trust him.

He balanced the sandwich and plate on his stomach and chewed thoughtfully.

She didn’t have to trust him, but it was about time he insisted she show him a little consideration. They didn’t need to advertise he was living with her, but he should have worked it into the house rules that he had no intention of being treated like a dirty secret.

His uncle’s reaction to him moving out of the hotel hadn’t been much more encouraging than Eve’s. When Matt had explained to him it was a matter of convenience, that Eve had all the equipment he needed in her home office, Uncle Bob had been indifferent.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me, Mattie,” he’d said. “Never in a million years would I think there’d be any other reason for you to be rooming with Eve.”

Matt had no idea what that comment was supposed to mean.

He’d given up trying to work. He had the design well in hand, although he wasn’t about to let frugal little Eve get a look at it yet. He didn’t want her complaining about the budget before his uncle had the funding in place. Besides, Matt had some ideas of his own as to where to cut costs. She was in for a surprise. And he was prepared to be entertained by that, because it was no big secret that Eve liked to win.

He polished off the sandwich and headed into the kitchen to get a glass of water. The phone rang as he walked by, and he grabbed it, breaking the third house rule on Eve’s one-sided list. The small act of rebellion gave him a sense of satisfaction. “Hello?”

“I’m sorry. I must have the wrong number,” a woman said.

Matt wondered if he should identify himself, then decided against it. Let Eve do her own explaining.

“If you’re looking for Eve, then this is the right number. But she’s not home right now.”

“Oh.” A long silence. Then, “This is her mother. Could you tell Eve her father and I are coming up to the city for a few days at the end of the month? We thought we’d stay with her, but if there isn’t a spare room…”

In a two-bedroom house there wasn’t likely to be, but he could always move back into a hotel for a few days. He could even fly back to Toronto to do some business in his office, something he’d been putting off because he hadn’t wanted Eve to be alone in the house. This might provide the perfect opportunity.

“There’s plenty of room,” he said. “She’d love to have you stay here.” He figured the odds on that being true were fifty-fifty. Okay, maybe not that high.

“We’ll look forward to meeting you, then,” her mother said.

That sounded ominous. Maybe Eve’s rule about not answering the phone was a good one after all.

He shrugged it off, but the next time the phone rang, he waited for the answering machine to pick it up.

“Matt? Are you there?” Eve’s voice was muffled, like she was in a closet or maybe whispering.

Matt’s heart bounced like a basketball off his rib cage. Something was wrong or she wouldn’t be calling for him. He snatched up the receiver.

“Where are you?” he asked. “You sound funny.”

“At a job site, working on some renovations. I was going to walk home, but hadn’t planned to be here so late. My car keys are on a hook by the front door. I don’t suppose you could come and get me?”

That threw him. Had she been working late at construction sites for the entire past week?

He scraped his fingers through his hair. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I can always call a cab, but I’d rather not if you can come instead. Cabbies don’t really like to come down here at this time of night, and sometimes you have to wait a long time to find one who will.”

As she reeled off the address for him, Matt wrestled with an overwhelming urge to shout at her. He might not know the city well, but he read the papers, and he knew the parts to steer clear of. The fact it was hard to get a cab there at night should have told her a few things. One of them was that she shouldn’t be walking around that area in daylight, either.

He could yell at her later. The important thing now was to get her home. And when he did, her house rules were going to undergo some serious modifications.

He didn’t know how long it would take him to get to her, but he made a quick estimate, wanting to give her some sort of reassurance and a timeframe. She sounded afraid—and that terrified him.

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

He made it in less than ten.

He parked the car in front of a fire hydrant, ran to the building entrance, grabbed the heavy steel door, and jerked it open. Why wasn’t the door locked? And what had happened to all the lights?

A fiery pain blossomed in his leg and exploded upward into his groin, doubling him over. He heard a sharp cry and the sound of something heavy as it hit the floor, then Eve was at his side, both of her small hands scrabbling at his shirtsleeve.

“Are you okay?” she asked, anxious.

Matt clamped a hand over whatever was now embedded in the inner flesh of his right thigh. He felt cold sweat beading on his forehead and trickling down his back.

“No. I’m not. Put a light on, will you?”

As bright light flooded the room, he took quick inventory. There was surprisingly little blood, and although his leg hurt like hell, the nail didn’t seem to have hit anything vital. Just an inch or two higher, however, and he’d be singing a different tune—and in a higher key.

He spotted the nail gun on the floor, then looked at her in disbelief. “You shot me.”

“You said you’d be here in twenty minutes,” she wailed, wringing her hands. “How was I supposed to know it was you storming through that door?”

“Process of elimination?” Matt tore the fabric of his pants to free the nail head and get a better look at the puncture wound. “You must have some idea of how long it takes to get here from your house. What did you think I was doing—taking the scenic route?”

“Maybe you were going to stop for a hamburger or something. Maybe you were going to take a shower first. Maybe you were in the middle of something important. I didn’t know!” Her eyes grew wide and fat teardrops trembled on her lashes. “You said twenty minutes!”

“Eve.” He leaned against the wall, counted to ten, and tried to remember what he was doing there in the first place. “When a woman calls me from a high-crime neighborhood in the middle of the night, nothing is more important. I don’t take the time to stop for a hamburger or a shower or anything else.” Then he asked the question he believed to be the most important, given the circumstances. “What were you doing hiding in the dark with a nail gun?”

“Old buildings make strange noises. It sounded like someone was walking around in here. I got nervous.” Eve’s soft brown eyes swam in her pale, elfin face. “And I thought I saw someone watching me through the front window. I turned off the lights so he couldn’t see in.”

“Why didn’t you lock the door instead, so he couldn’t get in?”

“I didn’t want to be locked in with anyone, either…in case someone was already inside.”

That made sense.

Whoever had been watching Eve, if he was still out there, he could certainly see everything now. Matt discovered he didn’t like the idea of being spied on any better than Eve had.

He gave up. He wasn’t going to yell at her for working alone. Not at the moment, when he had something more important to do first.

Her whole body shook as she reached for her briefcase. “I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

“In a minute.” Injured or not, if there was someone inside the building, Matt planned on kicking butt.

Ignoring the pain in his leg, he limped through every room in the main floor of the building. Eve clung close to him, her fingers twisted in the tail of his untucked shirt, hammering home to him without words just how spooked she’d really been. The thought of her crouched in the dark—afraid and armed only with a nail gun for protection—filled him with helpless fury. And if he felt that way, how helpless must Eve be feeling?

There was a kitchen with a storage room and a locked rear entrance, the main meeting area with the enormous street-front window, and two single-unit washrooms. There was no access to the upper levels of the building from inside. The place was empty.

“Can we go now?” she asked when they arrived back in the main room.

“Just one more minute.”

Matt took her by the hand and hobbled over to the large front window, then turned to stare down into her upturned face.

Her tear-dampened eyes glistened with such a look of remorse, he wanted nothing more than to wipe it away. She shouldn’t be sorry. If the person spying on her tonight was the same one who’d broken into her house, it was time he learned that Eve didn’t have to defend herself. Not anymore. And if that person was her ex-husband, it might help for him to think Eve was now off-limits.

Matt cupped her cheeks between his palms, threading his fingers through her hair. The rich, silky strands were smooth and cool against his skin. This time, he hoped her trembling had nothing to do with fear.

“Matt, this isn’t such a good idea,” she began, correctly interpreting his intention. She tried to pull back. “Anyone outside can see us.”

“That’s the whole point.”

Matt had been waiting for this moment ever since the night he’d missed his chance in the bushes at his uncle’s fundraiser. Now he had a perfectly legitimate excuse. He covered her mouth with his own and cut off her words, intending only to put on a show for whoever might be lurking outside.

He was unprepared for the knife of desire that stabbed through him, hot and hard. He was unprepared for a lot of things, like her warmth and the delicate touch of her fingers as they stole around his waist to smooth the sensitive spot at the base of his spine. Or the heady way sawdust smelled when mixed with the tantalizing scent of a woman. His tongue flitted briefly over her lips before plunging deeper, his fingers twisting in her hair.

But what threw him the most was the sudden, soul-deep conviction that Eve, prickly and unpredictable, and without a domestic bone in her body, was the woman he wanted.

The subtle shift of her hip jarred the nail lodged in his thigh, and a small groan escaped him. She broke away and backed up a step, the rapid rise and fall of her breasts beneath her ridiculous flannel shirt telling him she wasn’t unaffected, although her eyes were cautious now.

“What was that for?” she asked, suspicion sharpening her tone.

Matt cleared a throat that felt like it had been rubbed raw with sandpaper. He might want Eve, but she didn’t want him. Not yet.

“So that whoever’s watching will think you’ve got a man in your life,” he said. “Since we’re already living together, I guess that makes me the likeliest candidate.”

“We aren’t ‘living together,’” she pointed out, her eyes darkening. “We’re roommates.”

A lone car hummed by on the street outside, the reflection of its headlights bouncing off the far wall. It seemed she found simply the idea of living with him distasteful. Good thing Matt’s ego was healthy.

“Call me what you want,” he said, “but you may as well take advantage of me as long as I’m around.”

She muttered something that sounded sort of like, “Men” and “marking their territory.”

“What was that?” he asked, but she shook her head.

“All I wanted was a ride home.” She reached once again for her briefcase. “Now,” she said briskly. “Do you want me to take you to Emergency, or were you planning to remove that nail by yourself? Because I have a pair of vice-grips around here somewhere if you’d like to borrow them.”

If their situations were reversed, she would undoubtedly remove the nail from her own leg. With her teeth. Matt weighed trying to impress her against the amount of extra pain it would involve.

“Emergency,” he said.

The crowded Emergency room was hot and smelled of unwashed bodies. The bright fluorescent lights were blinding as Matt registered, then limped to a vacant chair. Eve was forced to sit across from him, and he made a careful assessment of the other patients in the room.

He might be the only patient with a nail in him, but he doubted if he were the only one who’d been shot. It was a toss-up if Eve would be safer here with him or at home with her new security system.

“You don’t have to wait with me,” he told her, leaving the decision up to her.

“I shot you,” she said. “I should at least keep you company.” The man on her left got up and moved. She smiled at Matt, patting the now-empty seat. “Care to join me?”

This was going to be a long night.

Several hours later, Matt’s name was called. He eased himself off his chair.

“You coming?” he asked Eve.

The nurse who’d called his name looked at the form in her hand, then addressed Eve. “Immediate family only. Are you family?”

Matt wasn’t about to leave her in that waiting room by herself. She might not have noticed it, but there was a three-hundred-pound, tattooed, pro-wrestler type eyeing her with open interest. Matt laced his fingers through hers and hauled her to her feet. “She’s my wife.”

The nurse tapped the line in question with her finger. “You’ve listed your mother as your next-of-kin.”

“Apron strings,” Eve said. “He can’t seem to cut them.”

Her comment earned a few laughs from the people around her, and Matt’s face warmed. Did she always have to have an answer for everything?

The nurse shook her head back and forth, jowls bouncing, and slipped her clipboard under one ample arm.

“Honey, all men are the same. A little boo-boo and they want their mommies.” She hustled them through a swinging door, then behind a curtain. “I’ll just leave you here, and you can help your husband get his pants off.”

This wasn’t how Matt had envisioned the first time Eve helped him out of his pants. He waited until the nurse left, then said, “You can turn your back.”

“Oh, please.” Eve rolled her eyes. “I grew up with three brothers. If you have anything I don’t already know about, I’ll be sure and tell you.”

He was sure she would—and probably everyone else within earshot. He was also certain that his own reaction to having her see him without his pants on would be entirely different than any reaction from her brothers. He didn’t need that commented on, either.

“Turn your back,” he growled.

With a little sniff and a lift of her slender shoulders, she did as she was told. Matt eased the torn pants off, got on the stretcher, and pulled a thin sheet over his hips and legs. It was bad that he had to be half-naked in front of Eve right then—he wasn’t even wearing a hospital gown.

A young resident came in, took one look under the sheet, then sent Eve to the other side of the curtain.

“You’re going to need a tetanus shot when we’re finished,” he said to Matt. The nurse returned with a tray of instruments, and the doctor selected one. He held it aloft and flexed it.

“Hang on. This is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts me.”