His Plain-Jane Cinderella

By: Jennie Adams

As Troy followed, her dog trotted into the house behind them. Rather than greet Troy with a territorial, warning growl, it wriggled against Stacie’s legs and gave a happy woof, and then became even more excited when it looked at the fellow canine in Troy’s hold.

The poodle froze for a moment and sniffed the air, but apparently decided it was safe with Fang, because it relaxed again in Troy’s hold.

As for Fang, the beast was dressed in a pink dog-coat and matching collar. The male actually looked proud of the fact.

Troy glanced about Stacie’s home. A chew toy lay in the hallway. Bright rugs covered board floors. It smelled of womanly things and home cooking, fresh paint and furniture polish. And welcome.

Those things might feel just right to some people, but to Troy they were warning signs to stay clear.

So why wasn’t he feeling the urge to back away? Perhaps it was because he was here for very practical reasons. A lost dog that he needed to deal with was a nuisance, a problem that needed to be fixed. Put like that, it sounded very much like business.

Keep saying so, Rushton. Maybe you’ll even believe it.

‘No bath for you, Fang. Not while I take care of this little one.’ Stacie bent to pet her animal.

She turned back to take the bundle of scruff out of Troy’s hands. Her words, her kindness to the stray, pulled Troy back to reality. A home smelling of welcome, a soft-hearted woman, were the last things he should have on his mind. And that brought him to the mutt, and to Stacie’s reaction to it.

‘The dog should be checked for a microchip.’ He passed the animal to her. ‘It’s probably got an owner out there.’

His instincts told him that wasn’t true, but he wasn’t going to take on a pet. To do that denoted ‘making a home’. Troy was not about that.

He was happy to have a roof over his head, an investment business and the challenge of his orchards. He had no plans to emotionally attach himself to any of it.

‘I understand, Troy. The dog just turned up on your doorstep. I think the water’s a decent temperature now.’ Stacie spoke the words as her dog sat with a woeful howl at her feet. She glanced down, and back to Troy. ‘Fang loves the water. He’s going to be jealous about this bath.’

Stacie stood the pseudo-poodle in the laundry tub and washed it efficiently, but not efficiently enough to avoid being liberally splashed as the dog tried to decide whether it liked this treatment or wanted to escape. Mostly the latter instinct won out.

How could a laundry, even a nicely renovated one, seem cosy and intimate with a dog in a tub and another looking reproachful on the floor, for crying out loud?

‘There. I think he’s all clean now.’ Stacie drained the water out of the tub, holding the dog in place as she did so.

‘Okay. I’ve got him.’ Troy wrapped a towel around the dog and together they held him still while Troy rubbed the towel over him. Get the job done, and then exit out of here; that was what Troy needed to do now.

But for a moment Troy’s face was bent over Stacie’s nape as he reached from behind her shoulder to rub the towel over the dog’s back. The temptation to drop a kiss on Stacie’s soft skin swept over him.

He drew a breath and covered the thought at the same time that he lifted the small dog clear of the sink area.

Troy glanced down at the splattered front of Stacie’s soft blue sweater. ‘I’m not sure who ended up wearing the most of that bath, you or the dog.’ If he tossed the words off, maybe they would defuse that desire to kiss her. Since when had he pined for softness? The one relationship that Troy had committed to had been with a woman employed in the armed services, and though there’d been commitment it had been a practical one. This reaction to Stacie must be some kind of glitch or something.

‘I’ll go and change.’ Stacie glanced down too. When she looked back up, there were roses in her cheeks.

Troy’s hands stilled where he held the dog. He blinked. Perhaps he lost a round of the battle, because Stacie had blushed over her water-spattered sweater. That was about the most appealing thing he’d seen in a long time, and he liked it. For all that he’d lived by his self-control, right now he couldn’t seem to control that response to her.

Delicate; that was what Troy thought when he tried to come up with a word to describe her.

And in terms of outward appearance that was true. She was fine-boned, built on small lines. But Stacie was also a DIY expert in the making, someone who obviously had some physical strength and determination to go with it.

She was also beautifully shy about herself as a woman. Which of those things was responsible for this interest he felt towards her, that would surely disassemble itself any moment now?

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