Chelsea was being followed.
It was crazy.
True, this wasn't the best neighborhood in Boston, but it was seven o'clock in the morning. It was broad daylight.
She glanced behind her. There were three of them--lean, dangerous-looking young men dressed in gang colors. She slipped the strap of her purse securely around her neck as she moved more quickly down the sidewalk. She could be wrong. Maybe they were headingtoward the H&R Block that was three doors down from her office. Maybe they were looking to have their taxes done.
They were right behind her now, and she moved aside, toward the street, praying that they would walk on past.
"Hey, blondie." The taller of the three leered at her--if it was possible for a sixteen-year-old to leer.
They were only kids. Kids with fuzz on their upper lips and chins that was supposed to pass as facial hair. Kids pretending to be grown men. Kids who were taller and wider than she was. Kids who probably carried knives and could hurt her badly before shecould even shout for help.
"You part of the beautification program in this part of the city?" the shortest of the three asked, laughing at his own joke. He wore an enormous ring in his nose--obviously to make up for his lack of height. He couldn't have been more than fourteen yearsold.
The third boy made animal noises--part dog, part barnyard pig--as he invaded her personal space.
Chelsea stepped out between two parked cars, into the street. "Excuse me. I need to get to work, and you should probably get to school--"
She had to stop short to keep from bumping into the tall one.
"Excuse me," he mimicked her. "Excuse me. We don't go to no friggin' school." "Maybe you should reconsider. You could use a little help with your grammar." She stepped around him, but the dog-boy blocked her path. He grinned, and she pulled back. His teeth were all filed to sharp little points. He snorted and woofed at her obviousalarm.
That's all they wanted. They wanted to scare her. Well, okay. She was scared. They could let her go now.
"You got some money we can borrow?" the nose-ring wearer asked. "We'll pay you back--we promise."
She felt a flash of anger, wondering how often that had worked--how often the people they intimidated simply handed over their money.
As the other boys laughed Chelsea pushed past them onto the sidewalk, aware of the cars moving down the street, aware that not a single one of them had even slowed to see if she needed help. "Go away," she said sharply, "before I call your mothers."
It was the wrong thing to say.
The dog-boy pushed her, hard, and she went down onto her knees. The tall one grabbed the strap of her purse and it lifted her back up as it caught around her throat.
He was running now, all three of them were, and she was dragged and bounced along the cracked, uneven sidewalk. She heard herself screaming and she felt her shoe come off, felt her toes scrape along the concrete. Her head snapped back and her arm twistedbehind her as the boy yanked her bag free.
God! All the work she did at home last night--that flash drive was in her purse! Chelsea pushed herself up off the sidewalk, kicked off her other shoe, and ran after them.
They were nearly a block ahead of her, but she could think of nothing but all those hours of work, and she ran faster.
And then it happened.
With a squeal of tires, a white delivery truck bounced over the curb, right onto the sidewalk in front of the three kids. The driver swung himself out the open door of the cab, landing directly on top of the tallest boy. The kid was no match for a full-grownman, and the truck driver was extremely full grown. All it took was an almost nonchalant backhanded blow, and the big kid went down, her shoulderbag pulled free from his hands.
But the dog-boy and the kid with the nose-ring were both behind the man. Chelsea saw a glint of sunlight reflect off the blade of a knife.
"Look out!" she shouted, and the man turned. The way he moved was graceful, like a choreographed dance, as he disarmed the kid with a well-placed sweep of his foot. He moved threateningly toward the dog-boy, who turned tail and ran after his friends.
Chelsea slowed to a stop, aware that her heart was pounding, that her panty hose were torn, her clothes askew, her hair loosened from her usual French braid and dangling around her shoulders, aware that the soles of her feet burned and stung from her shoelessrun down the rough city sidewalk. She had to bend over to catch her breath, hands braced above her bruised knees.
She tilted her head to look up at the man who'd rescued her handbag. He looked even taller from this position, his shoulders impossibly broad. He was dressed in well-faded blue jeans and worn white leather athletic shoes. He wore a Boston Red Sox cap backwardover a dark head of unruly curls and a T-shirt that proclaimed in large red letters I'm too sexy for my shirt. Given a leather jacket and a studded dog collar, he could have been those kids' older and far more dangerous brother. "You all right?" he asked her, moving closer, his dark eyes even darker with concern. "You need me to call the paramedics?"
Chelsea shook her head no, taking quick stock of her bruises and scrapes. Both knees were bleeding slightly, as were both elbows and the heel of one hand. The top of her right foot and most of those toes were sore. Her neck felt raw where the strap ofher purse had given her a burn.
"I'm okay." She straightened up, trying to tuck her blouse back into her skirt, trying to ignore the fact that her hands were shaking so hard, she couldn't get the job done.
The man didn't ignore it. "Maybe you should sit down."
Chelsea nodded. Sit down. That would be good.
She let him lead her across the sidewalk to a building that had a stone stairway going up to the front entrance. He helped her sit on the third step up, then sat next to her, setting her handbag between them and pulling off his baseball cap. She glanced at him, aware that he was gazing at her.
He wasn't what she'd call classically handsome. His nose was big and crooked, as if it had been broken one too many times. His cheekbones were rugged and angular, showcasing a pair of liquid-brown, heavily lidded eyes. His mouth was generously wide, withfull, sensuous lips that seemed on the verge of a smile. His hair was dark and curly and long, and as he steadily returned her curious gaze he pulled it back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck.
"I've seen you around the neighborhood for a couple of weeks," he told her. His voice was deep and husky, with more than a hint of urban Boston coloring it. "You opened up that computer consulting business around the corner, right?" She nodded. She hadn't seen him around. She would've remembered. "I'm Chelsea Spencer." She held out her hand.
"I know," he said, finally letting his smile loose as he gently clasped her fingers.
It was a smile that was set on heavy stun. Chelsea was not normally affected by such things, but this man's smile was off the scale. It was a smile that seemed to echo the words on his T-shirt. She glanced at those words again. He followed her gaze andactually blushed, a delicate shade of pink tingeing his rugged cheekbones.
"A friend got me this shirt," he explained sheepishly. "I'm visiting him today, and I wore it, you know, kind of like a joke?" He was still holding her hand. "I'm Giovanni Anziano. My friends call me Johnny."
"Thank you for saving my bag."
His smile faded as his gaze swept her scraped knees and dirt-streaked clothes. "I wish I got there sooner. They didn't do more than knock you over, did they?"
He was watching her closely. His eyes may have been lazily hooded, but Chelsea got the sense that this man missed nothing. She shook her head. "No."
He ran one hand down his face. "Jeez, will you listen to me? 'They didn't do more than knock you over'--as if that wasn't enough. I saw you bounce when you hit the ground. You sure you don't want some professional help getting cleaned up? There's a hospitalnot too far from here and it won't take too long."
"Oh, no!" Chelsea pulled her hand free and closed her eyes. "Oh, God, I've got a meeting with a client in an hour." She laughed, but it sounded faintly hysterical, so she stopped. "I look like I've been hit by a train."
"You look like you've been mugged."
Chelsea stood, searching the street for a taxi. "If I hurry, I can take a cab home and get cleaned up and only be a few minutes late." She turned to face him. "Thank you again. If you hadn't come to my rescue . . ."
Johnny stood up, too, and again she was startled by how very tall he was. "Lookit, I'm running a little early. Hop in the truck, and I'll give you a ride home and back."
She gazed at him in surprise. He laughed, as if he could read the trepidation in her eyes.
"I'm not dangerous," he told her. "I promise. Come on, I work for Meals on Wheels, delivering food to helpless little old ladies who unlock their apartment doors for me without batting an eye. Hell, I've got a key ring the size of New Hampshire for allthe people who can't get up to answer their own door."
Meals on Wheels. The words were painted on the side of the truck that was still parked in the middle of the sidewalk. Meals on Wheels was a charity organization that delivered precooked meals to shut-ins. Some of them were ill, some elderly, all of themunable either to get to a grocery store or cook their own meals for whatever reason. Whoever this Giovanni Anziano was, the Meals on Wheels organization trusted him enough to allow him to make deliveries.
He smiled again, and Chelsea felt her stomach flip-flop. She could imagine him smiling at her that way as he leaned over to kiss her, as he pulled her against that rock-solid body, encircling her with those powerful arms. She could imagine him smilingat her as he helped her out of her clothes and . . .
Where on earth had that thought come from? She wasn't prone to having on-the-spot fantasies about strange men--no matter what they looked like. No matter if they were, indeed, too sexy for their shirts.
"Hop in," Johnny said again. "I'll go get your shoes."
She was sitting in the Meals on Wheels truck. She was sitting next to him, holding tightly to her bag as he took the right turn onto Beacon Street, heading out toward Brookline, where she lived.
Johnny glanced at her again, smiling as he met her eyes. Man, she was the definition of incredible.
It was weird, because she wasn't especially pretty--at least not in the conventional sense. Her nose was a touch too pointy, her chin too sharp. But taken with the rest of her face, she was strikingly attractive. Her eyes were a shade of blue Johnny hadn'teven known existed before he first caught sight of her. Her hair was silky and golden blond. And her mouth . . . Her lips were gracefully shaped and gorgeously full. It was the kind of mouth he fantasized about. And God knows he'd been doing a hell of a lotof fantasizing lately. . . .
"I'd been meaning to stop in your office and introduce myself for a couple of weeks now," he said, pulling up to a red light and turning to look at her.
She glanced at him again, and he could see an answering flash of attraction in her eyes.
He felt his pulse accelerate and forced himself to slow down. He had a shot here. If he asked her out, there was actually a chance that she would accept. But he had to chill out, take it slow, be cool. Be very, very cool.
The light turned green, and he stepped on the gas. He couldn't believe it when he'd seen the three punks knocking Chelsea down to the ground. And he really couldn't believe it when she started chasing after them. The lady had guts. When most people were mugged, they got up and ran in the opposite direction."Are you going to press charges?" he asked. She snorted. "Of course."
Johnny nodded. "Of course." He tried to hide his smile. "Silly question." "Will you do me a favor?"
Oh yeah. Especially if it involved full body contact . . . He nodded again, aware that she was watching him. He forced himself to sound cool. Nonchalant. "Sure." She smiled. "Don't you want to know what it is first?"
"Hmmm. In that case, maybe I better think about whether there are any other big favors I need done . . ."
She was flirting. Chelsea Spencer was flirting with him.
"How about we discuss the terms of this favor over dinner tonight?" he countered. There. Damn! He did it. He asked her out.
But she just laughed. "There're no terms. I just need you to file a statement with the police. You probably got as good a look at those guys as I did."
"All right, but . . ." He shook his head. "Just don't expect the police to be able to do too much with what we tell them."
Her smile faded. "I know there's only a small chance the police will be able to find those boys, but . . ." She suddenly sat forward in her seat, pointing. "Take the next left. My building's the second on the right."
He followed her instructions and double-parked in front of her building. This block was all high-priced condominiums. The buildings were perfectly maintained, their grounds well kept. It was Nice, with a capital N, and a silent but very present dollarsign in front of that capital N.
Chelsea Spencer had money. A lot more money than he'd imagined. Johnny gazed up at the ritzy building. It was possible this lady was out of his league. Not that he necessarily thought so, but if she thought so, the game was over.
Chelsea opened the truck door and turned to look back at him. "I'll be quick."
"Don't be so quick that you forget to wash out those scrapes with soap."
She smiled. "You sound like my mother."
"No, I sound like my mother. She was a doctor."
She was just sitting there, one hand on the opened door, gazing across the truck into his eyes. Johnny gazed back, hardly daring to breathe.
"I'll, um, go change," she said breathlessly.
"I'll be right here."
It took her thirteen and a half minutes.
Excerpted from Stand-in Groom by Suzanne Brockmann. Copyright © 2009 by Suzanne Brockmann. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.