Into Your Arms

CHAPTER ONE

“You’re trying too hard.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Sweat trickled into Sara Minetti’s eyes and she used the hem of her tee shirt to wipe it away.

Her air conditioner was going full blast without making much of a difference. If it was this hot in June, what was the rest of the summer going to be like?

Emilio paused the music. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be doing the heavy lifting here. Literally.”

She sighed. Emilio had come to her apartment on their day off so they could work on this duet, but it wasn’t going any better than it had in rehearsal. “I know. Can we agree that I suck and try again?”

Emilio waved a hand in the air. “Stop with the negative thinking. You don’t suck, you’re just working too hard. You’re supposed to surrender in this one, remember? You’re consumed by love. Transformed by love. You’re so in love your pretty little feet don’t even touch the ground.”

She glanced down at the feet in question, which under her frayed toe shoes were covered with bruises, blisters, and bunions. “My feet are hideous.”

“Of course they are. You’re a dancer. But imagine for the moment that they’re indescribably beautiful, just like the rest of you.”

Damp tendrils of hair were sticking to her face and neck, and she used both hands to brush them back. “Are you saying the rest of me is beautiful in real life, thereby becoming a useful point of reference in imagining that my feet are beautiful, or are you saying that I also have to imagine that the rest of me is beautiful since that is not, in fact, the case?”

“Sweetie, you’re babbling. And you’re fishing for compliments, which isn’t like you.”

Sara rolled her shoulders in an effort to loosen her muscles. “I’m having a bad day. I’m thirty-five and my body is starting to rebel against me.”

“Our bodies have been rebelling against us since our first ballet class. What else is going on? You’ve been tense all week.”

“Well…I think Harry’s starting to lose interest in me, possibly because I haven’t slept with him yet. And that’s depressing, because if I have to be thirty-five, which I’m pretty sure is mandatory, I should at least have a love life that doesn’t make me feel like I’m in high school. I haven’t felt this much pressure to put out since I was sixteen.”

“You haven’t slept with Harry yet?”

“No. Could you try not to sound so gleeful about it?”

“You know I can’t stand that guy. He’s way more in love with himself than he’ll ever be with a woman. And I think your subconscious knows it, which is why you haven’t slept with him.”

She pulled her sweat-soaked top away from her stomach and fanned her overheated skin. “That’s not true. We haven’t slept together yet because I don’t feel like I’m going to die if we don’t, which is the point I like to be at before taking the plunge. But now I’m worried that my sex drive is gone for good, along with my dancing ability. And I’m going to be thirty-six in ten months. Now would be a good time for you to say something nice.”

“You don’t look a day over thirty-four. Now can we focus, please?”

“You have a heart of stone.”

She let Emilio swing her up into the air again, and once more she stiffened instead of relaxing into his hold. But this time she also jabbed him in the eye.

“Mmmf.”

“Damn! I’m sorry. That was even worse, wasn’t it? I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Emilio set her back on her feet. “Maybe we should take a break. Also, I need some sustenance if we’re going on with this torture session. What do you have to eat?”

“Yogurt, cottage cheese, apples…”

“Aaah! Stop. I’m going around the corner to grab a burger and fries.”

“Curse you and your male metabolism. But why don’t you just call in an order? I’m sure they deliver.”

“Then the delivery guy would have to walk up all those flights of stairs, and I can’t afford to tip enough for that. I know it’s rent-controlled, but don’t you think it’s time to consider moving into an apartment with an elevator? Especially since you’ll be a senior citizen any day now.”

“That might be funny if you were older than me. But since you’re twenty-eight and can eat hamburgers and French fries without gaining an ounce, I am not amused. Get out of my apartment before I’m forced to kill you.”

He kissed his hand to her with a flourish. “Your love for me knows no bounds. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”

Once Emilio was gone, Sara took off her shoes and then pulled off her top, using it to wipe her face and the back of her neck. It felt so good to be out of the clammy tee shirt that she stripped off her yoga pants, too. Maybe fresh rehearsal clothes would give her a fresh perspective.

She went into her bedroom to drop her sweaty things into the laundry basket and eyed her bed longingly. What she really wanted to do was curl up and feel sorry for herself until Emilio got back, but then she caught sight of her dance bag on the floor. There were a dozen pairs of new shoes in there that she needed to break in. She should probably get started on that.

Besides, breaking in toe shoes was always a good stress reliever. Her favorite technique for softening the boxes was to slam a door on each shoe several times, ideally with loud rock music playing in the background. Something like…AC/DC.

Oh, yeah. AC/DC was definitely what she needed right now.

There were only two apartments on this floor and the one next door was empty—her neighbors were out of the country and their subletter hadn’t moved in yet. So she turned up the volume on Back in Black and took the bag of lovely new pointe shoes over to the closet, where she proceeded to beat the crap out of them.

* * *

When he wasn’t playing a sport or destroying a political opponent, Nick Landry was an easy-going guy. And even when he was kicking someone’s ass, he always did it with a smile. Nothing ever got under his skin.

But he was definitely feeling annoyed right now.

It wasn’t just the obnoxiously loud music coming from the apartment next door, although that was uppermost in his mind at the moment. One of the reasons he’d taken this place was because it was supposed to be quiet.

He lived in D.C. but he’d gone to college in New York, and he was still on his fraternity’s email loop. When he’d posted that he was taking a consulting job in Manhattan and needed a sublet, Harry Blake, a guy he hadn’t heard from in years, had told him about this apartment.

“It’s on the Upper West Side, in a nice neighborhood. They’re going to be out of the country until Christmas. That’s long enough for you, right?”

“Yeah. Once the election’s over in November I’ll be heading back to Washington. It has to be quiet, though. I’ll be working from home some of the time.”

He was also thinking of his brother, Kevin, who might need a place to crash once he got out of his alcohol treatment program. His brother was the reason Nick had taken the job in New York.

“There’s only one other apartment on your floor and your neighbor’s perfect. She’s a ballet dancer and she’s always out rehearsing or performing. She’s hardly ever home.”

“A dancer, huh?” Nick had asked—not because he was particularly interested, but because he knew Harry would expect it. Nick had earned a reputation as a hound during his last two years of college, although the truth was that Harry had gone through twice as many girls as he had. He was a musician, and for someone reason women couldn’t get enough of his tortured artist persona.

“Yeah,” Harry had answered. “But don’t get any ideas. I’m already dating her.”

“Of course you are. How thin are the walls? Am I going to have to listen to the two of you going at it every night?”

“Hell, no. She comes to me. I don’t do walk-ups, man. No chick is worth that kind of effort.”

Nice.

“I guess some things never change. It’s good to know you’re still an asshole.”

Nick had said the words lightly and Harry had laughed, never guessing the truth—that when it came to women, Nick really did think he was an asshole.

That’s the thing about words. You can tell the truth with a smile, and everyone will think you’re kidding around…and someone else can spout lies so convincingly you’d swear they were telling the truth.

Words are all about perception and presentation, something every politician knows instinctively. Except, apparently, for Nick’s current client.

Which was the other reason he was feeling annoyed right now.

He was going over Keisha Watkins’ latest speech, one she’d insisted on writing herself, and it was dry. Bone dry. He’d tried to explain to her that the public couldn’t care less that she had a doctorate in economics and they didn’t want an academic paper on the subject; they just wanted to believe that if they elected her, she would help the economy get better.

“But I want people to understand how the economy works,” Keisha had said.

“That’s a great goal, Ms. Watkins. But I’m here to tell you how a campaign works, and giving people a master’s thesis on macroeconomics is not the way to go. You have some fantastic ideas about financial reform, and it’s okay to talk about the broad brushstrokes. But if you keep giving speeches like this you’re going to lose. And you won’t be able to put any of your ideas to work if you don’t get elected.”

He’d only been on this campaign for a few weeks, and already he felt like he was banging his head against a brick wall.

Nick had never been on the losing side of a campaign in his life, and he wasn’t planning to start now. Which meant, among other things, that he needed to fix this damn speech. The problem was, Keisha hated empty rhetoric and would reject any suggestions he made that struck her as insincere. So he had to try to pump up the speech in ways she’d accept.

He was already on the edge of a headache when the music came through the walls. AC/DC was a band he could enjoy at the right time and place—a sports bar after a basketball game, for example—but to say he wasn’t in the mood right now would be an understatement.

He’d been in the building two days and had yet to see his mysterious neighbor, but he seriously doubted that a ballerina would be playing Back in Black at top volume. There had to be a plumber or contractor doing work over there.

His suspicion was confirmed when he heard the sound of muffled, rhythmic banging.

A minute later he was out in the hallway pounding on his neighbor’s door. When no one answered he tried the knob, and when it turned he went inside.

The living room was empty. It was sparsely furnished, giving a feeling of spaciousness, and the south-facing windows let in deep swaths of light that made the oak floors glow like honey. The walls were covered with photographs and art work, a lot of it dance-themed.

The music and banging were coming from the master bedroom. Nick strode over and paused in the doorway.

It wasn’t a plumber or contractor. It was a woman in white cotton panties and a white lace bra, slamming her closet door over and over again on some object she held in her hand. She was also singing along with AC/DC at the top of her lungs as she shimmied to the music.

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He was vaguely aware that his jaw had dropped.

Her body was…unbelievable.

Her legs went on forever, so slim and smooth and strong that his mind shot immediately to an image of them wrapped around his waist.

On any other woman, those legs would have been the show-stopper. But then there was her ass.

He’d never imagined that an ass could be that perfect outside of men’s magazines. It was so firm and delectable he wanted to sink his teeth into it.

His eyes traveled to her slim waist and strong, graceful back. Her long brown hair was up in a messy knot, leaving her neck bare, and his brain, which had been stuck on sexy as hell for the last few seconds, allowed another thought in.

Beautiful.

The music ended, and in the sudden silence the woman turned towards her iPod dock to choose another song.

Then she caught sight of Nick.

She gasped, and before he could say a word, she moved. In a flash she crossed the space between them and smacked him in the head with whatever she was holding. Then she hooked an ankle behind his knee, put a hand against his chest, and shoved.

He went down hard, and in the next moment she was hovering over him with her arm upraised, ready to hit him again.

In the split second before the blow fell, time seemed to slow. Dazed as he was, he seemed able to focus on every detail of the face above him.

Brown eyes fringed with long lashes. Soft creamy skin flushed pink at the crests of her cheeks. Silky brown hair tumbling out of the knot at the back of her neck and curling around her face and shoulders.

Bizarre thoughts floated through his brain.

Let her bash my head in with that thing. Let me die just like this, looking at her.

Then common sense reasserted itself, and he grabbed her wrist before she could whack him again.

“Hold on! I’m your neighbor. From next door. I thought there were workmen in here, and I came to ask them to turn the music down.”

She jerked her wrist out of his grasp, and he held up his hands in the universal I-come-in-peace gesture. “I moved in two days ago. I’m subletting from the Wineskis. I met them through Harry Blake.”

The suspicion in her eyes started to fade. “You’re the one Harry talked about? He said he’d found a subletter for Sam and Maria, but I didn’t know you’d moved in.”

Her voice was as beautiful as her face. But hearing her say Harry’s name reminded him with an unpleasant shock that the two of them were dating.

She shouldn’t be with him. She should be with—

Wait. What?

This woman was a total stranger. There was no reason in the world to feel this surge of possessiveness, this bizarre impulse to grab her by the shoulders and drag her down on top of him.

Of course it didn’t help that she was straddling him at the moment, with a knee on either side of his hips.

And that she was practically naked.

He kept his eyes on her face through sheer force of will, but every cell in his body was conscious of her sleek muscles and all that smooth bare skin, barely covered at the essential spots by thin white fabric. A pleasurable warmth pulsed through him from his ribs to his thighs.

He tried to remember what they’d been talking about, but came up blank. He asked a question instead.

“What was that thing?”

She frowned. “What thing?”

“Whatever you hit me with.”

“Oh. You mean this?”

She held it up and showed it to him. How could something that small and delicate feel like a baseball bat?

“It’s a toe shoe,” she said.

“You hit me with a toe shoe?” For the first time he was struck by the humor of the situation, and he started to smile. “It packs a hell of a punch,” he said, rubbing a hand across his forehead.

One corner of her mouth lifted, and his stomach muscles tightened. What would happen if she smiled at him for real?

She rapped on the tip of the shoe with her knuckles, and it sounded solid. “It has to be sturdy enough to hold up a dancer.”

He looked at the shoe again, remembering the time an ex-girlfriend had dragged him to see the Nutcracker. Those ballerinas had flitted around the stage like it was easy, but he knew that only someone who’s mastered their profession could make it look easy.

“You balance your entire body weight on that thing?”

Okay, now he didn’t have to wonder. She was smiling at him for real, and all the blood drained out of his head.

Good thing he was already lying down.

“That’s the idea,” she said. Then her eyes went to his forehead, and she bit her lip. “I should get some ice for that.”

If she went to get ice, she wouldn’t be straddling him anymore.

He acted without thinking, reaching up to grab her wrist again. “It’s fine. You don’t have to—it’s fine.”

She stared down at him in surprise, but before she could make the obvious connection—he didn’t want her to move because she was kneeling over him half-naked and any man in his right mind would do whatever he could to make that scenario last as long as possible—the sound of a throat clearing interrupted the tableau.