Claiming His Christmas Wife
It’s a convenient Christmas arrangement…
Until he wants her—forever!
After their secret marriage ended in heartbreak, billionaire Travis Sanders never wanted to see Imogen again. Yet when Imogen faints in the cold New York snow, Travis is called to her very public rescue! To avoid a media scandal, they must agree to a temporary reconciliation—at least until Christmas. But with their intense heat still burning, Travis is tempted to reclaim his wife—for good!
Enjoy this emotional Christmas-reunion romance!
The print edition of this book begins shipping on November 20, 2018
The digital edition begins downloading on December 1, 2018
But you can pre-order now!
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“She’s not dead?”
— Travis, Claiming His Christmas Wife
After Bought By Her Italian Boss came out, many readers asked me if Gwyn’s brother, Travis, would have his own story.
Yes! When I wrote Bought By Her Italian Boss, I didn’t know what Travis’s back story would be, or what kind of heroine he would wind up with, but Imogen appeared and she is nothing but surprises. For starters, she’s his secret ex-wife. How did that even happen?
Fun fact: In my first draft, the story took place in the summer. My editor came back to me asking if I’d like to turn it into a Christmas story, which was perfect because Imogen had the worst childhood. She deserves a lovely Christmas memory and Travis gives her one.
Claiming His Christmas Wife is a stand-alone romance, but Vito and Gwyn make an appearance here and it’s part of a number of books that link through the Donatelli bank I introduced in my very first Harlequin Presents, Proof of Their Sin.
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Claiming His Christmas Wife
“Mr. Travis Sanders?”
“Yes,” he confirmed shortly, willing the woman to hurry to the point. His P.A. had interrupted a high-level meeting with this ‘extremely important’ call. “What is this about?”
“Imogen Gantry. She’s your wife?”
Memory washed through him in a rush of heat and hunger. He tensed against it and glanced around, lowering his voice. That broken teacup had been swept firmly under the rug four years ago.
“We’re divorced. Are you a reporter?”
“I’m trying to locate her next of kin. I’m at…” She mentioned the name of one of New York’s most beleaguered public hospitals, but he didn’t take it in.
Whatever old anger had sent him soaring at the mention of his ex-wife exploded in a percussive flash. He was blind. Falling. Wind whistling in his ears. Air moving too fast for him to catch a gulp.
“What happened?” he managed to grit out. He was dimly aware his eyes were closed, but she was right there in front of him. Laughing, green eyes glimmering with mischief, hair a halo of flames licking at her snowy complexion. Swerving her lashes to cut him a glance. So enchantingly beautiful. Gaze clouding with arousal. Sparking with anger. Looking so wounded and vulnerable that last time he’d seen her, his heart still dipped thinking of it.
He’d quickly learned it was a lie, but that didn’t make any of this easier to accept.
Gone? He couldn’t make it fit in his head. He had told her he never wanted to see her again, but discovered he had secretly believed he would.
From far away, he heard the woman say, “She collapsed on the street. She’s feverish and unconscious. Do you know of any medication we should be aware of? She’s awaiting treatment, but—”
“She’s not dead?” He heard how that sounded as it came out, as if that was what he would have preferred, but leave it to Imogen to set him up to believe one thing, contort his emotions to unbearable degrees, then send him flying in another direction. That calculating, betraying, manipulative— If he could get his hands on her, he’d kill her himself.
“And she was taken to that hospital? Why?”
“I believe we were closest. She doesn’t seem to have a phone and yours is the only name I’ve been able to find in her bag. We need guidance on treatment and insurance. Are you able to provide that?”
“Contact her father.” He walked back toward the door to his office, saying to his P.A. behind her desk, “Look up Imogen Gantry’s father. He’s in publishing. Maybe starts with a W. William?” He hadn’t met the man, only heard her mention him once or twice. Hell, they’d only been married fifteen minutes. He knew next to nothing about her.
“Wallace Gantry?” His P.A. turned her screen. “He appears to have died a few months ago.” She pointed to the obit notice that said he was predeceased by his wife and eldest daughter, survived by his youngest daughter, Imogen.
He knew better than to let himself get sucked back into her orbit, but what else could he say except, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Imogen remembered sitting down on the curb. It wasn’t a nice, rain-washed boulevard of freshly mown grass beneath century-old elms with a stripe of sidewalk, then an empty canvas of manicured lawn to her mother’s rose garden ending at the wide stairs to the double-door entrance of her childhood home.
No, it had been a nasty, sunbaked inner-city curb wearing a century’s worth of chewing gum and other disgusting things. Terrible smells had come off the grate at her feet and she should not have touched the post she had braced herself against. She had thought that a car was likely to run over her legs as she sank down, but she hadn’t cared in those moments. The side of her head felt like it was twice as big as the rest. Her ear, plugged and aching, had begun screaming so loud the sound was trying to come out her mouth.
She was trying to pretend she didn’t have an ear infection because those were for children. Her sister had got them, not her. She hadn’t gone swimming recently. She didn’t know how it could have happened, but here she was like a damned toddler, nearly fainting with the agony of it, dizzy and hot and sick.
She had to sit down before she fell down. A fever was nature’s way of killing a virus, so why wasn’t this running its course? And who passed out from such a silly thing, anyway?
Her vision had dimmed at the edges, though. She had felt so awful in those moments, she hadn’t cared that she was sinking onto filthy concrete. Her only thought had been, This is how I die. She’d been okay with it. Her father would love this for her, dying like a dog in the gutter. Even Travis would probably conclude that she got what she deserved. If he ever found out, which he wouldn’t.
It had been a relief to succumb. Fighting was hard, especially when it was a losing battle. Giving up was so much easier. Why had she never tried it before?
So she had died and now she was in, well, this probably wasn’t heaven, not that she had expected to get in there. It might be hell. She felt pretty lousy. Her body ached and her sore ear felt full of water. The other one was hyper-sensitive to the rustle of clothing and a distant conversation that bounced painfully inside her skull. Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t swallow. She tried to form words and all she could manage was a whimper of misery.
Something lifted off her arm, a warm weight she hadn’t recognized was there until it was gone, leaving her with a profound sense of loss. She heard footsteps, then a male voice.
“She’s waking up.”
She knew that voice. Her eyes prickled and the air she’d been breathing so easily became dense and hard to pull in. Her chest grew compressed with dread and guilt. She couldn’t move, but inwardly she shrank.
She had definitely gone to hell.
A lighter, quicker footstep came toward her. She opened her eyes, winced at the brightness, then squinted at a tastefully sterile room in placid colors that could have been the one her father had occupied the last months of his life. A private hospital room. For an ear infection? Seriously? Just give her the pink stuff and send her on her way.
“I—” can’t afford this, she tried to say.
“Don’t try to talk yet,” the kindly nurse said. Her smile was stark white and reassuring against her dark brown skin. She took up Imogen’s wrist to check her pulse, hand soft and warm. Motherly. She checked her temperature and said, “Much better.”
All the while, Imogen could almost, but not quite see him in her periphery. She was afraid to turn her head on the pillow and look right at him. It was going to hurt and she just didn’t have it in her yet.
“How am I here?” she managed to whisper.
“Water?” The nurse used a bendy straw, the kind Imogen had never been allowed to use because they were common. A gimmick.
She got two gulps down her parched throat before the nurse said, “Easy, now. Let me tell the doctor you’re awake, then we’ll give you more and maybe something to eat.”
“You came in yesterday.”
Two days in a place like this? When her bank balance was already a zombie apocalypse running rivers of red?
The nurse walked out, sending a smile toward the specter on the other side of the bed.
Imogen closed her eyes again. So childish. She was that and many more things that were bad. Maybe her father was right and she was, simply and irrevocably, bad.
A shoe scuffed beside the bed. She felt him looming over her. Heard him sigh as though he knew she was avoiding him the only way she could.
“Why are you here?” she asked, voice still husky. She wanted to squirm. In her most secretive dreams, this meeting happened on neutral turf. Maybe a coffee shop or somewhere with a pretty view. She would have had a cashier’s check in hand to pay him back every cent she’d been awarded in their divorce settlement—money she knew he felt she’d conned out of him. Somehow, in her fantasy, she found the words to explain why she’d taken it and he had, if not forgiven her, at least hadn’t reviled her any longer.
But maybe his feelings toward her weren’t that bad. He was here, wasn’t he? Maybe, he cared a little. Had he been worried for her?
She heard a zipper, which made her open her eyes out of curiosity—
“You went through my things?” She clamped her eyes shut against the small red change purse that had belonged to her mother. It held Imogen’s valuables—her driver’s license, her debit card, her room key, the only photo she had of her with her sister and mother, and the marriage certificate stating Travis Sanders was her husband.
“The nurse was looking for your next of kin.” Oh, this man had a way with disdain. It dripped from a voice which was otherwise deep and warm with an intriguing hint of southern charm.
She was a connoisseur of disparaging tones, having experienced a lot of them in her lifetime. Neighbors. Teachers. Daddy Dearest. Nevertheless, inured as she ought to be, this man cut into her with scalpel-like precision with his few indifferent words.
He didn’t care if he was the only person left in this world whom she had any connection to. He found his brief association with her abhorrent when he thought about her at all.
“It’s my only other piece of identification.”
“Birth certificate?” he suggested.
Burned after an argument with her father ages ago. So childish.
She wanted to throw her arm over her eyes and continue hiding, but her limbs were dead weight and the small twitch of trying to lift her arm made her aware of the tube sticking out of it.
She looked at the IV, the ceiling, him.
Oh, it hurt so bad. He had somehow improved on perfection, handsome features having grown sharper and more arrogantly powerful. He was clean-shaven, not ruggedly stubbled and human looking, the way she remembered him when she dared revisit their shared past. Hair rumpled by her fingers, chest naked and hot as he pressed her into the sheets.
No, whatever warmth she had ever seen in him had been iced over and hardened. He wore a tailored three-piece suit in charcoal with a tie in frosted gray. His mouth, capable of a sideways grin, was held in a short, stern firmness. Flat gray eyes took in what must appear like soggy laundry dumped out of the washer before it had even been through the rinse cycle. That’s about how appealing she felt. While he was…
Just thinking his name made her throat flex in an agony of yearning. Remorse.
Why was she always in the wrong? Why was she always falling down and getting messy and driving people away when all she wanted was for someone, anyone, to love her just a little? Especially the people who were supposed to.
Oh, she really was a mess if she was going to get all maudlin like that. Pull it together, Immy.
“Is there someone I should call?” Flat silver-dollars, his eyes were. When she met him, she thought his gray eyes remarkable for somehow being warm and sharp. The way he had focused his gaze on her had been more than flattering. It had filled up a void of neglect inside her.
They were as emotionless and cold as her father’s ice-blue eyes now. She was nothing to Travis. Absolutely nothing.
“You’ve done enough,” she said, certain he was the reason she was in this five-star accommodation. She flicked her gaze to the window that no doubt looked onto a garden of serenity.
“You’re welcome,” he pronounced derisively.
Oh, was she supposed to thank him for saving her life by further impoverishing what was left of it?
“I didn’t ask you to get involved.” She ignored the fact that she kind of had, carting around their marriage certificate instead of their divorce papers. Where had those ended up, she wondered?
“Oh, this is on me,” he said with unfettered scorn. “I came here thinking… Well, it doesn’t matter, does it? I made a mistake. You, Imogen, are the only mistake I have ever made. Do you know that?”
Travis heard her breath catch and watched her eyes widen in surprise at how ruthlessly he’d thrown that direct hit.
He didn’t feel particularly bad about knocking her when she was down. He was speaking the truth and she was showing an annoying lack of appreciation for his helping her when he could have hung up at the sound of her name.
He should have. Imogen Gantry was the epitome of a clichéd, spoiled New York princess. Self-involved, devious, and intent on a free ride.
She didn’t look like much right now, of course. What the hell had she been up to that she had wound up in an over-crowded, understaffed emergency room unable to speak for herself?
“Be happy I had you transferred. Do you know where they took you, when they scraped you off the sidewalk? What were you doing in that part of the city anyway?”
“If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.” Her green eyes met his briefly, glimmering with indecision as she wavered toward telling him something, then decided against it. The light in her gaze dimmed and she looked away.
Drugs, he’d thought when he heard where she’d been picked up and seen how gaunt she was. It seemed the only explanation. Blood tests hadn’t found anything, however. No track marks or withdrawal symptoms, either.
She’d been raging with fever, though. Had a terrible ear infection that had thankfully responded to the intravenous antibiotics. It was something that should have been dealt with sooner, the doctor had said. She could have lost her hearing or wound up with meningitis. He’d looked at Travis as though it was his fault she was so ill.
That had been when she’d been transferred here to this enormously better equipped, private hospital. He’d been trying to remember her birthday and searching for her details online only to discover she didn’t seem to exist anywhere but in the flesh. He’d found a handful of very old posts, selfies with society wenches at whichever clubs had been the ‘it’ spot around the time they’d married, but aside from her father’s obituary, which was short and stated no service would be held, there was nothing recent about her online.
Her father’s house had been sold, he quickly discovered, and Travis hadn’t been able to find her current address. He’d had to write down his own. He had acted like her husband and approved her treatment, underwriting the cost. What else was he supposed to do?
Whatever they’d given her for the pain had knocked her out for almost twenty-four hours. Given how bedraggled she looked, he had deduced she needed the sleep.
She still had dark circles around her eyes and an olive tinge in her normally ivory face. The hollows in her cheeks he put down to every woman’s desire for a skeletal frame in the name of fashion, but she was overdue for a manicure and her hair was limp and dull.
Looking at her, all he felt was pity at her condition. Tired anger. He had known he was making a mistake even as he married her, so why had he gone through with it?
The doctor came in at that moment, along with the nurse who elevated her bed. The doctor wanted her to finish her course of antibiotics orally and said she was anemic. Needed iron.
“You’re run down. Burnt out. I’m prescribing a few weeks off work along with high potency multivitamins and proper eating. Get your strength back.”
‘Off’ from what, Travis wondered acridly? She hadn’t held down a real job in her life.
“Thanks,” Imogen said with a tight smile, folding the prescription in half once, then held out her hand to Travis.
He gave her the worn silk bag that was all she’d had on her when she collapsed, like she was some kind of runaway or something. It might have been good quality twenty or thirty years ago, but it was frayed and faded now.
“So I can go?” She indicated the needle still feeding medication and fluids into her arm.
“Oh, goodness no,” the doctor said. “You’ll have another dose of antibiotics and an iron infusion. We’ll talk tomorrow about discharge, but I would think later in the week—”
“I can’t afford this,” she cut in. “Please.” She lifted her arm. “I’d rather you remove this even if I have to pay for it. I’m squeamish.”
“Gantry,” she said at the same time Travis said, “We’re divorced.”
The doctor sent a perplexed look between them.
“My ex-husband isn’t paying for my treatment. I am.”
Travis had to raise his brows at that, but was far less surprised by her next words.
“And I can’t. So.” She crossed her arm over her body toward the nurse. “Please get me out of here as quickly and cheaply as possible.”
“You’re not well,” the doctor said firmly. “She’s not,” he insisted to Travis, causing an annoying niggle of concern to tug on his conscience.
Why did she get to him like this?
Her stupid arm was too heavy to hold up and even her head needed to flop back against the pillow. “Is this pro bono, then?”
She knew it wasn’t. She knew saying it put Travis in a tight spot. He’d brought her here. He would be liable if she refused to pay.
“I’ll pay for her treatment,” Travis ground out, tone so thick with contempt, she cringed. His next words, resounding with sarcasm, sawed right through her breastbone to scratch into her heart. “You can pay me back.”
“I’ll pay for my own treatment,” she said, capable of her own pointed disdain, but if she knew nothing else, she knew that she would not go deeper into his debt. “But my bills stop now. Bring me whatever forms I need to fill out and get this needle out of my arm. Where are my clothes?”
“I threw them away,” Travis said.
“Are you serious? Who— Well, that’s just great, isn’t it? Thanks.” She looked at the nurse. “I’ll need some pajamas. Heck, throw in a hot meal, since I’m spending like a drunken sailor anyway.”
“Like an Imogen Gantry,” Travis corrected under his breath, just loud enough for her to hear.
She glared at him. “Don’t let me keep you.”
He had the nerve, the solid-gold nuggets, to look at the doctor and jerk his head, ordering the man to confer with him outside the room.
“Don’t you talk about me,” she said to their backs. “Did you see what just happened?” she asked the nurse.
“Let’s finish this dose of medication before we talk about removing your needle. I’ll bring you some soup.”
Imogen fell asleep in the time it took the nurse to come back, but felt a little better after a bowl of soup and a glass of vegetable juice. Half her weakness in the street had been hunger, she realized. Apparently, the human body needed to eat every day and sneaking a few maraschino cherries from the bar while she scrubbed the floor behind it didn’t count. Hashtag things they don’t teach you in school.
The nurse removed her needle after giving her some pills to swallow, then helped her shower and dress in a pair of drawstring pajamas and a t-shirt with yellow birds on it.
After all that activity, even finger-combing her hair was too much. Imogen used a rubber band she begged off the nurse to gather her wet hair into a messy lump, then sat in the chair, trembling with exertion, pretending she was fully on the mend, fishing for the slippers that would no doubt cost her a hundred dollars a piece.
She signed forms that promised the hospital both her useless arms and legs and tried to be thankful it was summer and she didn’t need a jacket. It was still going to be a long, hellish walk home, looking like some of New York’s finest. It might even be dark by the time she got there, but her debit card would combust if she so much as tried to put a subway fare on it.
“Bye, now,” she said as she passed the nurse’s station with a wave. “Thank you.”
“Ms. Gantry,” the motherly nurse said in protest. “You really should rest.”
“I will,” she lied. “Soon as I’m home.” She would swing by one of her jobs on the way, though, to see if she still had a job with the biker bar’s janitorial staff after blowing her shift last night with this unplanned excursion to the right side of town.
She walked out of the air conditioning into the slap of summer humidity. It immediately sapped fifty percent of her energy, making her sob under her breath as she began putting one foot in front of the other, following the looped driveway toward the gilded gates that suggested this place was heaven after all.
It began to look like a really long way. She had to stop and rest on a bench dedicated to a hospital benefactor. She felt so pathetic her eyes began to well. At least her ear didn’t hurt like it had. It was just a dull ache.
There was always a bright side if she looked for it.
Nevertheless, panic edged in around the meditative breaths she was taking. How was she going to carry on?
One day at a time, she reminded herself, closing her eyes. One footstep at a time.
Before she could rise, a black car stopped at the curb in front of her. The chauffeur came around and opened the back door. She already knew who would get out and tried to pretend she was bored, not so very close to beaten, she wanted to cry, ‘Uncle.’
Even her father hadn’t crushed her as easily and thoroughly as one irritated look from this man did.
“You look like a gangster,” she told him, rather wanting to see him with suspenders over that pin striped shirt. “I don’t have your money. You’ll have to break my knees.”
“Can those knees get you into this car or do I have to do that for you, too?”
“Why do you even care?”
“I don’t,” he assured her brutally.
She looked back the way she’d come. As usual, she’d come too far and had to live with where she had ended up.
“I told the doctor I would get you home if you insisted on leaving, and make sure a neighbor checks on you.”
The drug dealer across the hall? She would love for him to come and go.
She held her purse with two hands in her lap, staring at its frayed seams so he wouldn’t see how close to tears she was.
“I’ll find my own way home,” she insisted.
Travis, being a man of action, didn’t say a word. He swooped so fast she barely had time to realize he had picked her up before he shoved her into the back of his car and followed her in. Abject loss struck before she’d even had time to process the safe feeling of being cradled against his chest.
“Now,” he said as he slammed his door and sat back, shooting his cuffs. “Where is home, exactly?”
“Didn’t the hospital tell you? They seemed so keen to share everything else about me. What is my blood type, anyway? I’ve never bothered to find out.”
He only nodded toward his driver, indicating the man was waiting with more patience than Travis possessed.
They were really doing this? Fine. A perverse urge to let him gloat over his pound of flesh gripped her. Maybe if he saw she was being thoroughly punished, he might quit acting so superior and resentful.
She spat out her address.
The driver’s frown reflected through the rearview mirror, matching Travis’s scowl.
“Would you be serious?” Travis muttered.
She shrugged. “You wanted to know what I was doing in that neighborhood. I live there.”
“What are you doing, Imogen?” he asked tiredly. “What’s the game? Because I’m not letting you screw me over again.”
“No lift home then?” She put her hand on the door.
He sighed. “If I drive you all the way over there, what happens? You get into the bed of some sketchy thug your father didn’t approve of?” His lip curled with disgust. “Does he spank you the way you’ve always needed?”
“You’re doing that now, far as I can tell.” She glared at him, but holding his gaze was hard. It felt too intimate. They had never played erotic games, but suddenly they were both thinking about it.
While she grew hot, she watched him shut down, locking her out. Jaw hardening and a muscle ticking in his cheek.
She swallowed. “I plan to crawl into my own bed and hope I never wake up.”
“Tell me where you really live,” he said through his teeth.
“I just did.” She didn’t bother getting emotional about it. It was the doleful truth that her life was so firmly in the toilet, she was barely surviving it.
She let her head rest back and must have dozed, because suddenly he was saying, “We’re here,” snapping her back to awareness of being in his car.
“Okay. Thanks,” she said dumbly, looking behind her to see if it was safe to open her door against traffic.
Travis swore beside her and went out his side, then had to lean down and help her climb out.
She clung to his hand, shaking, longing to lean into his wide chest. Longing to beg, Don’t leave me here. She was scared all the time, not that she had the dim sense to show it. It might be a different neighborhood, but the apprehension was the same as she’d always felt in her childhood. Weakness would be pounced upon. She never showed it if she could help it.
She had never been this weak though. It took a superhuman effort to release him from that tenuous connection of grasping his hand, not just physically, but because she felt so lonely. So adrift.
She dug her key from her purse and moved to the door of her building. It wasn’t locked. Never was. The entryway smelled like sauerkraut soup which was better than some of the alternatives.
Travis swore as he came in behind her and set a hand on her upper arm. His looming presence, intimidating as it was, also felt protective, which made her heart pang.
“Hey.” One of her neighbors paused as she passed them on the stairs. She was off to work the streets in her thigh-high boots, mini-skirt and fringed bra. “No tricks in the rooms.”
“He’s just bringing me home.”
“Right. Don’t get caught. You’ll get kicked out.”
Imogen didn’t look at Travis, but his thunderous silence pulsed over her as she pushed her key into the lock and entered ‘home.’
It was the room where she slept when she wasn’t working and so depressing, she would rather work. It was as clean as she could make it, given the communal broom was more of a health hazard than a gritty floor. She didn’t have much for personal effects, having sold any clothes and accessories that would bring in a few dollars.
There was a small soup pot on the only chair. It usually held a bag of rice and a box of pasta, but she had dumbly left it in the kitchen overnight a few days ago. She was lucky to have got the pot back. Payday wasn’t until tomorrow, which was why she hadn’t eaten when she collapsed.
Sinking onto the creaky springs and thin mattress of her low, single bed, she gave the folded blanket a weak shake. “Can you leave so they don’t think I’m entertaining? I really can’t handle being kicked out right now.”
“This is where you live.” His gaze hit her few other effects—a battered straw basket holding her shampoo, toothbrush and comb, for her trips to the shared bathroom. A towel on the hook behind the door, a wind-up alarm clock, a drugstore calendar where she wrote her hours. “The street would be an improvement.”
“I tried sleeping on the street. Turns out they call your ex-husband and he shows up to make you feel bad about yourself.”
His ‘not funny’ glare was interrupted by a sharp knock and an even sharper, “You. No drugs, no tricks! Out!”
“Would you go?” she pleaded.
Travis snapped open the door to scowl at her landlord.
“He’s not staying—” she tried to argue, but of course she was on the bed, which looked so very bad.
“We’re leaving,” Travis said, and snapped his fingers at her.
She flopped onto her side with her back to both of them.
Oh, she hated her name when it was pronounced like that, as if she was something to be cursed into the next dimension.
“Just go,” she begged.
“I’m taking this,” he said, forcing her to roll over and see he held her red purse.
“Don’t,” she begged. “I can’t fight you right now. You know I can’t.” She was done in. Genuinely ready to break down and cry her eyes out.
“Then you should have stayed in hospital. I’ll take you back there now.”
She rolled her back to him again. “Take it, then. I don’t even care anymore.” She really didn’t. All she wanted was to close her eyes and forget she existed.
With a string of curses, he dragged the scratchy gray blanket from her and threw it off the foot of the bed. Then he gathered her up, arms so tensile, her skin felt bruised where it came in contact with his flexed muscles. He was surprisingly gentle in his fury, though, despite cussing out the landlord so he could get by and carry her down the stairs.
“Travis, stop. I’ll lose all my things.”
“What things? What the hell is going on, Imogen?”