Risky Business

by Patricia Campbell

Doggedly determined, Risky Williston strives to rescue every homeless dog in Simi Valley and beyond. Her small house and yard bursts at the seams with dogs of all breeds, some her personal pets and some waiting for her to find homes for them.

Disciplined, neat and orderly, Chet Jensen desires Risky, but can he cope with her bizarre and disorganized lifestyle?

Chet stirs old fears Risky has spent a lifetime repressing. She doesn't want to confront them, to face them again.

Is it possible for two people with such diverse values to have a lasting relationship?


Chapter One


Uncle Jack’s wake, Simi Valley, California

He was exactly the type of man Mariska was not interested in. Then why couldn’t she stop staring at him?

Oh, God.

As if he felt her eyes on his back, he turned. Even from this distance, she could see that his eyes were a clear, deep blue. He acknowledged her with a tilt of his head and an amused smile.

The only reason she came to Jack’s funeral and wake was for Bobby and her dad. Ordinarily she could have come up with some excuse to avoid ever being present at one. Funerals gave her the deep down creeps. She clenched her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut at the open casket.

Risky turned her attention back to her father to pick up the threads of their conversation.

“I’m telling you, Mariska, you’re asking for more trouble. You can’t keep daring the county to come after you for code violations.”

“I know, Dad. But what could I do? I’d have to be heartless to leave the poor thing out in the rain, filthy, starving and covered with mud.”

“You didn’t have to give him a name, did you? You know what happens when you do that.” He sighed and shook his head, but it didn’t dim the love light shining in his eyes.

“I know. I can’t help myself sometimes. Harley needed shelter from the cold rain. He was hungry. You should have seen his big, sad brown eyes. He begged me, Dad.” She huffed and cocked a black eyebrow. “Who is that guy?” She pointed to the man talking to her cousin, Bobby. “The Viking warrior in the gray suit. He keeps looking at me.”

Her father smiled. “He’s probably wondering how much gunk you put on your head to make your hair spike up like that. Or maybe it’s your overdone eye shadow?”

“Come on, Dad, who is he?” Why was she so mesmerized by his platinum blonde hair and big shoulders? Nobody had a right to look that luscious. Risky tingled, picturing how he’d look shirtless.

“His name’s Chet Jensen. He goes by the nickname, Digger. He’s Bobby’s friend. They went to school together.”

A nasty little snigger escaped her mouth. “Digger! What does he do, dig graves?”

“Close enough. Bobby asked him to handle the arrangements for Jack’s funeral. He’s the undertaker, but the name Digger comes from his days as a champion beach volleyball player.”

“What! An undertaker?” Risky’s vision blurred, her stomach flipped. “Oh, yuck, yuck, and yuck.”

The handsomest guy in the room, a ghoul? That’s a very good reason not to be attracted to him. So ... why was she?

Her dad reached out and gripped her arm when she gasped. “Are you feeling okay? You’re pale. Sit down over here.”

Risky brushed off her father’s hand. “I’m ... all right. I think I forgot to eat this morning. Yeah, I haven’t had anything to eat.”

“Well, you stay right there, my girl. I’m going to bring you something from the buffet. It’s no wonder you’re skinny as a stick. Half the time you forget to eat before you go running.” Clucking and shaking his head, he left her.

She wasn’t skinny as a stick. At five-foot-eight, a hundred ten pounds was the perfect weight in her opinion. Anyway, she had to run ten miles a day to stay in shape for the L.A. Marathon. She could eat an entire cow and never gain an ounce.

Oh no! Please no!

The blonde ghoul strolled in her direction. She quickly swung around on the chair to face the opposite wall.

A gentle hand rested on her shoulder. A warm hand. A big hand. A hand that smelled so good. A deep, sexy voice that sounded so ... uuhhh. “I couldn’t help noticing how pale you look.” His touch should’ve repelled her—so why didn’t it?

“I’m fine.” She raised her eyes to meet his handsome, square-jawed face. A dimple appeared at the very corner of his mouth when he smiled.

She swallowed. “I ... uh ... I forgot to have breakfast this morning. My dad’s bringing me something from the buffet.”

“Funerals are often very stressful. May I bring you a soft drink or a club soda?”

Yeah, he’d know about stressful funerals, wouldn’t he? He probably rarely crawled out of his coffin before the sun went down. “Yes, thanks, club soda.” At least that would get him to go away. Get his strong, delicious hand off her shoulder. She must be nuts. That was it. Her run-in with the animal control officer this morning before Uncle Jack’s funeral had freaked her out.

Where in the heck was her father?

Digger returned with a glass of ice and a small bottle of club soda. “Would you like me to pour it for you?”

Mariska glanced at his eyes. Mistake. “Uh, sure, thanks.” She crossed her legs against her tight, black leather skirt, and bounced her foot up and down. Her feet looked huge in her favorite black ankle-strap shoes with the clunky soles. God, were her feet that big? She uncrossed her legs and tucked them under the chair.

“Here you go.” He handed her the glass. “Were you close to your Uncle Jack?”

“How did you know he was my uncle?” Heat flared in her neck and cheeks when she accidentally burped like a construction worker after a big swallow of the club soda. Mortified, she said, “Excuse me.” Her scalp burned like a forest fire.

“Sure, don’t worry about it.” He grinned and rocked back on his heels. “Bobby told me Jack was your dad’s brother. He claims you’re his favorite cousin ... actually his favorite wacko cousin.” He chuckled. “His nickname for you is Dog Breath?”

“Good old Bobby, master of tact and diplomacy. I’m his only cousin.” Risky pounded her chest with her fist and a discreet burp escaped her lips. “Sorry. I don’t always have such bad manners. And if I didn’t feel so lousy right now I’d go over there and kick Bobby’s behind.” Her cheeks heated again.

He raised his eyebrows and grinned. “I see you’re getting some color back.”

“I didn’t mean to say that out loud. It must be low blood sugar. Where the heck did Dad go? He was bringing me some food.”

Jensen showed no sign of leaving.

“How’re you doing, Dave?” He reached out to shake her father’s hand after he handed Mariska a plate. “I’ve just had the pleasure of meeting your daughter.”

“Chet. Nice to see you again, my boy. Too bad it had to be my brother’s funeral that got the two of you together.”

Together? Had Dad slipped a cog? There was no way they were together. An undertaker? Dad needed a drink. A stiff one. She’d never be in the same room with Digger Jensen again. Eek! Risky stuffed a meatball in her mouth to keep from saying something inappropriate. She’d keep her comments to a minimum in front of this guy.

“I was just asking her if she was close to your brother.”

Dave chuckled. “I’ll let her answer that. Excuse me. I need to speak with some friends before they leave.”

Risky nearly choked on the meatball that grew bigger every time she chewed. Dad, don’t leave me with this guy. Please! There was nothing to do but take a big gulp of club soda and wash the damn thing down.

Digger sat in the chair next to her. “Easy on the club soda. We both know what it does to you.” He had a deliciously crooked and sexy smile.

Was he teasing her? There was no other way to account for his wink and twisted lips. She took a deep breath. “If you must know, I hated Uncle Jack, the nasty tempered old tightwad. He said if I didn’t change my ways, he’d cut me out of his will. Hah! The old bastard never had me in his will in the first place.”

Chet crossed his arms and chuckled.

She crossed her legs again, changed her mind and tucked her feet back under the chair. “Poor Bobby. There are probably so many restrictions and conditions on the old goat’s money and property, he’ll have to hire an army of lawyers to sort it out. He’ll be lucky if he ends up with a dime.” What happened to her vow to stop talking?

Digger sat back and laughed. He had a deep, sensuous, rumbling laugh. “You do have a way with words Ms. Williston. Bobby told me I’d like you, and I do. What ways of yours did your uncle object to so strenuously?” He extended his hand. “I’m Chet Jensen, by the way.”

She failed at her attempt not to return his smile. “Risky Williston.” Oh, God, the feel of his hand.

“Risky? Interesting.”

“Not really.” Her breathing rate increased when Chet eyed her as he would a candy bar. “Uncle Jack was nothing like my dad. Hard to believe they were brothers.” She took a dainty swallow of the soda. “Jack thought it was over the top to have seventeen dogs at my small house.”

Pleased at the surprise on his face she added, “Now you know why Bobby calls me Dog Breath. Anyway, as of yesterday I have eighteen dogs.”

Chet raised his eyebrows. “I’m a dog lover myself, but eighteen? I’m afraid I see Jack’s point. I can’t imagine what it’s like to clean-up after and feed that many dogs.”

Tempted to say it couldn’t be worse than cleaning up after a corpse, Risky pressed her lips shut and congratulated herself on her unusual restraint. Why did she care what he thought? She didn’t plan to see him again once she escaped from the required after-funeral ritual. “My guess is, Chet, you’ll never be in a position to find out.”

He stood. “One never knows.” He extended his hand again. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m working today and need to get back to business. It was a pleasure to meet you, Risky.”

She took his hand, and her breath caught as tingles went from his fingers straight to her girly plumbing. She needed to get out of there, and fast. Certain her nipples were standing at attention against her sleeveless black turtleneck, she feared drawing his attention there by looking down.

He squeezed her hand, flashed that dimple, and without a word he turned and made his way across the room.

What just happened? Risky’s gaze darted around the reception, searching for her father. She gasped with relief when she found him. All she needed to do was tell him and Bobby she was leaving, say a polite good-bye to the grieving widow, five years younger than herself, other relatives, and get the heck out of Dodge.

* * * *

That he found Ms. Mariska Williston so alluring puzzled Chet. She resembled some kooky character on a TV series with her bizarre dress and makeup. Any thought that entered her head came right out of her mouth, uncensored. She had great long legs, but so did a lot of women who were much softer and prettier.

How intelligent could she be if she had eighteen dogs? A psychiatrist would have a field day divining the answer to that question. One thing he did notice—she didn’t smell like dog breath, in spite of Bob’s pet name. The fragrance of cinnamon surrounded Mariska.

Her scent triggered memories of the day he visited an open-air spice market on a back street in Kowloon.

Searching for herbal blends to use in the public rooms of the funeral home, he brought home pounds of specially mixed potpourri, heavy on cinnamon, made by an old Chinese woman who told him she blended her own herbs with secret ingredients used by ancient Egyptian embalmers.

The blend accomplished exactly what he hoped it would, giving the rooms an exotic freshness. Now he had a standing order with the tiny Hong Kong doctor. She shipped product to him every few months.

Chet had always loved the scent of cinnamon, especially that sensual scent surrounding Mariska. It had a hungry, sexy quality to it.

Yes ... Ms. Williston. When he’d placed his hand on her toned, muscular shoulder, an arousal that had long been M.I.A. shot through him. One thing Chet did know—he’d see her again.


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Women's Fiction

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