Autumn grabbed the laptop and tilted it so the tea trickled from its keyboard. The external keyboard Evelyn used looked untouched. Her monitor, too was all right.
“Is the data backed up?” Mike asked. Evelyn had her own mysterious system of office procedures.
“More or less.” Evelyn balled up her knitting.
“Do you have a forced air duster we can dry it with?” Autumn asked. Seeing Evelyn’s blank stare, she said, “How about a blow dryer?”
“In the bathroom!” Evelyn ran in that direction.
“Please hold this.” Autumn thrust the laptop at him, still tilted, then ran back into his office. She came out with her purse, fished out her keys and detached a small device, which she held up. “This key drive has a gig of memory.” She stuck it into a port at the back of the laptop. “Hopefully I can copy the recent files before the motherboard freezes.”
Mike set the laptop on a dry spot on Evelyn’s desk and Autumn quickly clicked into the hard drive, organizing the files by date. He was impressed by her calm efficiency.
“This way she’ll have access until you can service the laptop,” she said, still working. “If it’s fried, a tech can likely retrieve the files, but who knows when you can get that handled. You have to go to Tucson for service, I imagine.”
“True. Good idea. And quick thinking.”
“This happened to me at the bar once,” she said. “Laptops are convenient, but that also makes them vulnerable.”
“I tried to talk Evelyn into a tower, but she likes to stay fast on her feet, she says.”
“And I bet keeping Evelyn happy makes everything go smoother around here.”
“Exactly.” Already, she’d caught the rhythm of the place. They locked gazes and he felt a zip of recognition and pleasure not entirely related to how attractive she was.
He watched Autumn copy the most recent files onto her drive, almost not thinking about her underwear.
She touched her finger to a drop of liquid on the computer, then tasted it. “No sugar. That’s good. Stickiness is fatal.”
“Yeah,” he said, thinking about her tongue. “Fatal.”
Evelyn arrived with the dryer and handed it to him. “I need to rinse off my knitting.” She bustled away. Evelyn was great with people, but she never let her work interfere with her day. She came through when the chips were down, though. Worked at home on the laptop and read his mind when it counted.
Autumn bent to plug the dryer cord into the power bar and her skirt pulled brutally tight. He looked away, but not before he saw them: black stockings. With seams. And through the slit in her skirt he recognized garters.
Lord God in heaven. Seamed black stockings, garters and a leather cut-out bra. Under that suit, Autumn Beshkin was dressed to kill. Or at least seriously maim. Minimum, make it tough for a man to walk.
She jerked up, surprising him while he was still gawking at her like a kid with his first Playboy.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah.” He cleared his throat.
“You sure?” A knowing smile teased her lips. Had she noticed the drool?
“I’m, uh, sure.”
“If you say so.” She waved the dryer at the damp computer, watching him. “You’ll want to have the unit serviced, of course. Dried and cleaned thoroughly.” She spoke slowly, thoughtfully, playing with something in her mind, he could tell.
He thought about her thoroughly servicing something on him…with her tongue. Get a grip.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Thanks for, uh, jumping in.”
“Whatever you need me to do, Mayor,” she said, low and slow, “I will do.”
Now Mike Fields was not a guy who made snap decisions or reversed course on a dime. But Autumn Beshkin, standing there in her leather underwear, with her magic key drive and suggestive smile changed all that. “Okay,” he said with a sigh, “when can you start?”
IT WAS EARLY EVENING when Autumn entered the Copper Corners High auditorium to check on Jasmine, who was at the first rehearsal of the pageant. The job Jasmine had designing costumes would pay for her daughter Sabrina’s nearby summer camp since the burlesque revue Autumn and Jasmine were in together was on hiatus for the summer.
Jasmine was fired up about the two friends spending quality time together, but her real purpose for being here was to spend time with her new guy—Mark Fields, brother to Heidi and Mayor Mike.
From close to the stage, Jasmine spotted Autumn and hurried down the aisle carrying a bolt of fabric. “So? Did you get the job?” Jasmine asked, when she was close.
When Autumn nodded, Jasmine whooped, threw down the fabric and hugged Autumn so fast and hard that Autumn accidentally bit her own tongue. “That’s so fabulous!” Jasmine said, then leaned back. “Hey, aren’t you happy about it?”
“Yeth. Bery ha-y,” Autumn said over her aching tongue. Except she was queasy about how she’d gotten the job. She’d caught Mayor Mike in a lust daze and worked it.
Use what you got had always been her philosophy, but using the sex angle had felt like selling out her new self—the woman who got ahead with her brains, not her body.
The idea made her head hurt. Or maybe it was the French braid that she’d pulled so tight her scalp ached. She’d changed into more casual clothes, but had forgotten to let down her hair.
Or maybe it was her reaction to Mayor Mike’s lust. She’d felt an answering response that had turned her insides to liquid.
Ridiculous. The man was her boss. Completely off-limits, even if she had time for sex. Which she hadn’t since she started school.
“So what have you been up to?” Jasmine asked.
Besides seducing the mayor into hiring me? “Not much. I unpacked, did some housework, fed the pets.” They’d scored free rent in exchange for doing light housekeeping, watering the plants and taking care of the owners’ two cats, freshwater fish tank and a terrarium of turtles and lizards.
“I gave the chuckwalla some meal worms.”
“Gross.” Jasmine scrunched up her nose.
“Everybody has to eat. Though I don’t get the Huffmans. Why spend so much on creatures that couldn’t care less?” The Huffmans had bought piles of toys and elaborate hideout towers for their two cats. The fish tank was jammed with plastic plants, a castle and tunnels, and the lizards and turtles had a tiny creek, decorative boulders and miniature hollow logs in their terrarium. The care instructions filled two typed pages.
“I’m sure the animals love them back,” Jasmine said.
“With brains the size of kiwi seeds? How much love can there be?”
Jasmine shrugged. “The cats are affectionate.”
“When there’s food involved, sure.” Though Autumn respected a cat’s self-sufficiency. If you took care of your own needs, you never got disappointed. “How about you? You’re here for the read-through, right? And did you get Sabrina to camp okay?”
“Yes. She made a friend right away. The girl brought the same Bratz doll to camp.”
“That’s a relief.” Autumn worried about Sabrina, who was eleven, pretty and bright, but fought a weight problem, social awkwardness and puberty, which had her giddy with joy one minute, steamrolled by depression the next.
Jasmine tended to gloss over Sabrina’s troubles, but Autumn connected with Sabrina—they shared a sense of isolation—and she listened in, advised where she could and felt good that Sabrina saved up her tales of triumph and agony for “Auntie Autumn.” Autumn loved that. It made her feel like family. Jasmine said Autumn was Sabrina’s