The Spanish Duke’s Holiday Proposal (Christmas in Manhattan)

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Note from Robin: This scene happens as they’re about to leave a subway tunnel collapse where both were rescuing a victim, and more of the ceiling begins to fall 🙂

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MATEO’S HARD BODY took her down like a football linebacker, as he somehow managed to wrap his arms around her before they hit the earth. The sharp pebbles they landed on stabbed and scraped her one bare leg, a bigger chunk of concrete jabbed into her ribs, and her face landed on the hard pillow of Mateo’s muscled forearm before sliding off it into a pile of silty debris.
His weight smashed her down so hard she couldn’t get her mouth clear to breathe, and his body jerked at the same time as he grunted loudly in her ear. Lifting her head half an inch to suck in a chokingly dusty breath, she twisted and pushed at him, blinded by the dirt in her eyes, which sent tears streaming down her cheeks. “Get off! Can’t breathe…”
He didn’t move, and she jabbed her elbow into his ribs, which sent another low grunt into her ear. “Hold still a minute,” he said. “I just took a boulder for you and you’re trying to hurt me more?”
“What?” His weight lifted slightly off her, and she twisted around fully to lie on her back, sucking in deep breaths as she stared up at his grim face. Her hands decided on their own to grab at him, landing inside his coat on his shoulders, clinging, pulling him close. Somehow, she wriggled enough to move her spine off whatever was currently lodged there.
“You okay?”                                                                                            “I—I’m okay.” She realized that was true, she was fine, possibly only because she had a two-hundred-pound blanket of bone and muscle covering her. “You?”
“Bleeding, but okay. And see? Seems to be all finished,” he said in a ridiculously calm voice. He lifted his gaze to scan the tunnel. “Let’s give this a few more seconds to make sure it’s done, then we’ll get the hell out of here.”
Light silt still showering down in intermittent swishes mingled with his heavy breaths against her lips, and her own fast breathing against his. Their eyes met and held, and she was suddenly acutely aware of the feel of his skin against her palms, the strength of his muscles, the movement of his naked chest against her. The grip she had on his warm shoulders loosened, and her hands moved down his pectorals, smoothing across the soft hair covering them before she realized with dismay what she was doing. Making herself let go, she curled her fingers into her palms to keep from touching him again. Fought the peculiar combination of sensations swirling around her belly that didn’t seem connected to the fear that had consumed her just moments before.
She pulled in another deep breath. What in the world? The two of them were lying in a collapsed tunnel, for heaven’s sake, and it was long past time to get safe.
“I’m…I’m ready,” she said unsteadily. “To leave.”
“Finally?” His lips curved just a little. “Let’s go.”
His big body lifted from hers, and his hands grasped her waist, effortlessly swinging her to her feet. His arm wrapped around her shoulders as they moved quickly out of the tunnel toward the light. Miranda blinked at the brightness of the sky—how had it seemed so gray and gloomy before? The fresh, cold air filled her lungs, sharp and stinging and wonderful. Trembling a little now that the whole thing was over, she tried not to think about how bad it could have turned out, and turned to see Mateo watching her with an odd expression on his face.
“You sure you’re okay?”
Probably, she looked pale and shaken, her pretense of bravery through the situation now shot to heck. “Yes, okay. Thanks for, you know, crushing me with your body so I didn’t get crushed worse by flying debris.”
“You’re welcome. Except I didn’t completely succeed. Your coat is torn.”
She followed his gaze to the large rip in the shoulder seam of her coat, and couldn’t help the little dismayed sound that came from her lips. “Oh, no! I just bought this last month! Must have happened when you tackled me.”
“Better a torn coat than a broken head. Which you would have deserved for not leaving when I asked you to.”
“Not even I deserve a broken head.”
That statement made his lips quirk as he reached out to brush his finger across her dusty eyelids. “You’d better get washed up.”
“Me? You look like a gray-haired old man right now.” Which couldn’t be further from the truth, since no old man had the kind of wide, muscular chest that was mostly bare right in front of her, or flat, rippling abs, or such a chiseled jaw. And because she couldn’t stop looking at him and was enjoying their banter far too much, she forced herself to look away up the sidewalk, pretending to focus on all the emergency equipment and personnel. Then her peripheral vision caught bright red drops of blood splattering on the sidewalk behind his feet.
Wide-eyed, she jerked her attention back to him. “You’re bleeding! Oh, my God.”
“I can tell it’s just a scrape. Maybe a gouge, too, but nothing worse than that.”
“Take off your coat so I can see.”
“I’ll freeze.”
“Better to freeze than die from blood loss.” She pushed at the shoulders of his open coat and, shaking his head and grumbling, he finally slid it off. She turned him around, then stared in dismay at the swollen, raw scrape and shallow puncture wound that was the source of the drops of blood. “For heaven’s sake, you really did take a boulder for me!”
“I’ll live.”
“Does it hurt anywhere else?” She ran her hands across his shoulders and back, wiping off the dusty debris from when he’d had his coat off earlier, looking for other injuries that might not be obvious. “I feel just terrible that I was pushing and jabbing you to get off me when you really were hurt.”
“Like I said, just a scrape. And I’m tough.”
He tried to turn around, but she stopped him. “And you call me stubborn! Just be still a minute.” With her scarf gone, the best she could do to staunch the trickle of blood was a pathetic wad of tissue she scrounged from her coat pocket, pressing it firmly against the bruised indentation as her left hand continued to roam his hard contours and smooth skin.
Abruptly and without warning, he surprised her by turning, her hands moving along with him, and the sight of that manly chest and the feel of his skin and soft hair on her palms had her mesmerized again, touching him the same way she’d touched his back, slowly and thoroughly, though there was clearly no injury on this side of his body.
“You about finished examining me, Doctor?”
Oh, my God. His low rumble made her realize exactly what she’d been doing. Dropping the tissue and yanking her hands back like she’d touched a hot furnace, horrified that she’d practically been fondling the man, she stared up at amused brown eyes.
“I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to, you know, run my hands all over you like that, I was just, um, checking for more injuries, but you seem…” She cleared her throat, utterly mortified. “Fine.”
He gave her a slow smile that said he knew exactly why she’d been touching him, which had been way too softly and leisurely to be considered a medical necessity. Heat flooded her face because, yes, the man was very, very fine and she’d just made an utter fool of herself.
Beyond relieved that he slid his coat back on, she wished with all her heart that he’d button it up, too, so she wouldn’t have to keep finding other things to look at. Like his gorgeous face.
“Thanks for the first aid.” He reached out to gently smooth a finger down her dirty cheek. “You’re a mess. Do you live nearby?”
“No, I live in Brooklyn. But I’ll go to the hospital and use the showers there.”
“Be careful walking—looks like some of the sidewalk has heaved in the collapse.”
He turned and, astonishingly, it looked like he was about to head back inside the collapsed street they’d just come from. “What are you doing?”
“I’ve got to find John’s dog.”
“What? Surely you’re not going back in there! Or at least get the safety equipment and hard hat on before you do.”
“Unless he somehow got out, it won’t take long. The space beyond where John was injured ends just another thirty-five feet or so back.”
And with that, he disappeared, leaving her with her hands clutched to her chest and her mouth gaping open after him.
What should she do now? Go on to the hospital like she didn’t know the crazy man had gone back into harm’s way? Go tell the first responders that one of their men was insane? She felt bad about John’s poor dog and understood why he’d gone back in for it, but what if the whole ceiling collapsed and neither one of them survived? He should have gotten help before going back in to look for him, and protected himself somehow.
She stood there with various horrible scenarios running through her mind, each worse than the last, making her feel a little woozy. After several minutes ticked by she decided, nearly hyperventilating, that she had to tell someone so that he wouldn’t be in there alone, knocked unconscious by a slab of concrete or buried under a shower of rubble, and just as she was about to rush to one of the fire trucks, an even more dusty Mateo trudged up out of the wreckage. A small dog was tucked into the crook of his elbow like a football, and Miranda wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or yell at him.
She planted her hands on her hips and sucked in a shaky breath. “Are you out of your mind? You had me worried to death!”
“Unnecessary. But when a beautiful woman worries about me, it’s appreciated nonetheless.” He held up what she could now see was a rather chubby dachshund that was probably brown, though it was hard to tell for sure. “Benny likes it, too, don’t you, buddy?” Mateo scratched beneath the dog’s chin, who managed to feebly wag his tail despite his ordeal.
Miranda smoothed her hand across the pup’s back, smearing the dust around, and her fear and desire to yell at Mateo faded into a smile of her own. “He’s so cute. John will be very glad. How in the world did you find him?”
He stuck two fingers into his mouth, and the shrill whistle was so loud it made Benny squirm and Miranda cover her ears.
“Oh, my gosh! That would make me run instead of come to you. And you do realize your hands are filthy.”
“Eating a little dirt is good for one’s immune system, which you surely know, Dr. Davenport.”
“Yes. Well, I already ate my quota of dirt for the day.” Aware of a ridiculous desire to just stand there and talk with him for hours, filthy and cold or not, she managed to remember that she had to see if the hospital had a big patient load after the collapse. “Gotta go. You want me to find John and tell him? What are you going to do with the dog?”
“Take him home. I’ll call the hospital and have them tell John, and he can find someone to come pick him up.”
“That’s…nice of you.” In spite of her best intentions, her eyes kept wandering from the dog to Mateo’s naked chest beneath his coat, remembering how his skin and body had felt, and she decided she’d better get out of there before he could see exactly what she was thinking. “Well…”                                               Fixated as she was on his handsome face and beautiful physique, she didn’t even hear the chime of her cellphone announcing a text until his finger pointed to her purse. “That your phone?”
“Oh! Yes. Thanks.” Lord, had he noticed her distractedly, ridiculously, staring at his body? Again? She quickly fished in her bag and read the message. “The hospital says they don’t need me. That there aren’t too many injured, they’re sure it wasn’t a terrorist event, and everything’s under control. So that’s good news.”
“It is.”
She lifted her eyes to his brown ones, and something about the way he was looking at her made her chest suddenly feel oddly buoyant. The thought of going to her apartment and being all alone for the rest of the day pushed that air right back out, but she shook it off. When she wasn’t working, didn’t she spend most of her time alone anyway?
“Well, good luck with the dog and all.” She cleared her throat. “See you at the hospital sometime.”
She turned away from that mesmerizing brown gaze and started walking, then realized she’d have to rethink her route, since the subway she usually rode might be out of commission. She pulled up the subway updates on her phone to check which ones were running and which weren’t, when a large, dirty hand rested on her forearm to stop her in her tracks.
“So where are you going?” Mateo asked.
“Brooklyn. My subway might be open but if not, I’ll just take a taxi.”
“In this mess? It’ll take you hours.”
And wasn’t that the truth? The clogged-up traffic looked even worse than when she’d left the taxi. “Then I’ll go to the hospital after all.”
“Do you have a friend or boyfriend who lives close enough to walk to their place?”
“No boyfriend, and most of my family live on the Upper East Side.”
“I live just a couple of blocks from here. You might as well come with me and Benny and get cleaned up there. I probably have pants that’ll fit you that you could wear home.”
She’d hardly be surprised if a man as hunky as Mateo Alves had clothes women had left at his place, but she wasn’t about to wear any of them. “Thanks, but no. I’ll be fine.”
“Suit yourself. Walking ten blocks to the hospital, covered with dirt, wearing a torn coat and pants with one bare leg exposed in this cold, is going to feel very uncomfortable.” An indifferent shrug made her wonder why he was even asking. “And if you can ride the subway, people will think you’re homeless and want to sit far away from the strangely dusty woman with ripped clothes. Or offer you money.”
She had to laugh at that, but as she looked down at herself, she realized he was right. Not to mention that her leg already felt a little numb from the cold wind. And what if she ran into someone she knew, or a former patient, and had to answer a gazillion questions and have people think she was crazy to run into a collapsed tunnel, just like Mateo had?
She thought about how her sister Penny always accused her of doing everything in her life as safely as possible, and today she’d proved that wasn’t always true. And taking Mateo up on his offer would definitely not be the quiet, boring route either, would it?
“Fine.” Her pulse quickened as she agreed. “I appreciate it.”
“I have a secret reason for asking, you realize.”
Her heart lurched at the wicked glint that suddenly appeared in his eyes, and a whole lot of possibilities swirled through her head. Was she out of her mind to actually go with him? Her eyes glued to his, she breathlessly asked, “What?”               “Benny can’t be returned in his current condition.” He held out the little dog. “I’m hoping you’ll take him in the shower with you to get him washed up as well.”