Kenzie’s sneakers echoed on the pavement, slapping hard with each angry step as she stormed away from her condo. The early morning sun struck her back as it crested the mountains, but it couldn’t chase away her wounded irritation.
There were times when Kenzie envied her sister’s ability to slide into new relationships. Admired the way Riley always found the guys who knew how to have fun. Wished she could let loose like her twin.
Those times never corresponded with Riley showing up on her doorstep at midnight, cheeks smeared with tears and mascara, bags in hand and looking for a place to crash. Even worse, last night Riley had refused to talk about what had driven her from her boyfriend’s apartment.
Kenzie didn’t even know where she was going, just away from home. Away from the vitriol that was Riley’s pissy mood.
An hour ago Kenzie had tried to dig for more information. To help. To nudge Riley into spilling what had gone wrong and maybe offer a little advice in return. Her reward? Insults. An attack on Kenzie’s very person.
Riley’s words echoed in Kenzie’s thoughts, taunting her in rhythm with each frustrated step. Kenzie wasn’t frigid. She’d been the one to leave her last boyfriend for not being able to deliver on the excitement. Just because she was picky about the men she dated didn’t mean she was uptight. Refusing to go out with anyone who thought chartreuse was a flavor of frozen yogurt didn’t make her a horrid person.
And preferring her men clean and publicly presentable didn’t mean she lacked imagination.
Her steps slowed, and she stepped out of the flow of light foot traffic, using a nearby wall for support. Gawd, she really was everything Riley had accused her of. She leaned the back of her head against the brick, staring past the one- and two-story buildings lining the street, absentmindedly watching the pillows of clouds drifting through the sky.
A rich hint of fresh coffee dragged her from her descent into self-pity. Her favorite place was right around the corner. She pushed away from the wall. She could stop in, grab a cup of tea, and focus on all the ways her love life wasn’t pathetic. First way was… Nope, total blank.
Okay, that was a failed exercise.
She pushed into the shop. From the outside it was tiny, tucked away, and had very little parking. But inside painted a different picture. An eclectic collection of furniture dotted the room, almost every seat occupied. Wood stairs led to a loft above half the room, and there had to be at least as many people up there.
Kenzie took her place in line. At least it was moving quickly, even if there were people pressing in on her from all sides. When she reached the front counter, glass cases filled with pastries mocked her. She dismissed the urge to try the plum tart—indulging a sugar craving wasn’t the way to sate her wounded ego—and ordered a large peppermint tea.
She grabbed her drink and scanned the crowded room for a place to sit and sip. Not a single unoccupied table, but three had available seats. A woman sat at the first, trying to force-feed the baby in her lap a pacifier while Mom sucked on a latte. At the second, two teenage boys stared at their phones, their only verbal conversation the occasional laughter as they smacked each other on the arm.
Then there was the scenery at table three.
The man with a shock of brown, spiked hair, broad shoulders, and a tattered T-shirt that looked like it had seen one too many accidental bleachings dominated a table in the corner of the room, one of the few empty chairs sitting next to him. The clothes made him look twenty, but he held himself with a confidence that made her think he was actually older than her twenty-six.
She had no idea who he was, but she saw him almost every weekend, and she’d used the fact that he was frequently engrossed in something on his phone or some game device as an excuse to study him without getting caught staring.
What’s keeping you from approaching him? The question taunted her in Riley’s voice. It wasn’t like she was shy.
The answer was painfully obvious. It wasn’t appropriate. Women didn’t hit on random men in coffee shops.
Except Riley would. Hell, Riley would have had his number weeks ago, and probably been living with him just a few days later.
Kenzie took a deep breath. That meant she could at least strike up a conversation and see where things went from there.
She approached the empty spot before she could talk herself out of it and forced confidence into her voice. “Excuse me.”
“Hmm?” He barely moved his head, immersed in something on his phone.
“Is this seat taken?”
He pulled his attention away from the screen long enough to let his gaze rake over her. A flicker of a smile tugged up the corner of his mouth before he turned back to the phone. “It is now, help yourself.”
Those eyes were gorgeous; her breath caught at the deep brown. But just as quickly, he’d hidden them again. This wasn’t quite going like she thought it should. Not that she had any idea how it should go. She’d never played the role of aggressor before, but she was already realizing it was easier to be the one doing the turning down than the one doing the asking.
“Do you come here often?” She winced at the pathetic line the moment it was out.
He spared her another glance, laughter dancing on his face. “Probably at least as often as you.”
And that was it. He was buried in his distraction again.
How embarrassing. She exhaled. This wasn’t worth the effort, but it would look awkward if she left so soon. She should at least use the seat she’d secured. Grabbing her phone, she pulled up the book she’d been in the middle of and tried to lose herself in the pages while she drank her tea.
Background noise screamed around her, and she pushed it aside. A creeping heat flooded her face as something tickled her senses. Was someone watching her? She looked up, startled to see the man across from her glancing between the phone and her.
She shifted her attention from her book—Scott assumed it was a book since she was staring at a white screen with lots of black letters. Her piercing blue eyes were curious, and a hard line disrupted the swelling in her flushed lips. It was time to forget the game he’d been testing for work.
He’d noticed her before. The long legs, narrow waist, and round ass accentuated her jeans the way the over-priced designer had intended, and the entire package was always nice to look at. But the fact that her wardrobe screamed “I don’t mind overpaying for a label” reminded him of too many women he’d dated who preferred his wallet to his company.
“Is there something wrong?” She stared back, face quirked in question.
He’d been surprised and curious when she’d approached, and amused by the hesitation coming from a woman who held herself with so much confidence. It was a shame she’d let the conversation die when he went to save his game, and he was hoping to reinitiate it. Find out more about this potential dichotomy.
“Nope.” He met her steady gaze, keeping his tone even but not able to hide all his amusement. “Just wondering something.”
She ducked her head, gaze falling to his hand before it quickly jumped back to his face. “What’s that?”
The flush on her cheeks was enticing. How much redder could he make her go before she slapped him? Or let him brush his mouth over hers. Right, like that would happen in a million years. He nodded at her phone. “How contrived their happily ever after is.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
Yup, she was going to slap him. Or at least grind her heel into his toes. Thank the open-source gods she wore sneakers and not heels.
“The big tough hero and his dainty mistress.” He knew better than to assume, but that had never stopped him in the past, and everything about her, from the way she’d folded a napkin on her knee to the ponytail that didn’t look like it would budge even with a solid, impassioned tug, screamed repressed. “Is he a duke? Or maybe she’s a stripper with a heart of gold?” One of his two best friends, Rae, was forever losing herself in romance novels. He adored her, but never understood her fascination with the subject. Reality wasn’t happily ever after.
His tablemate rolled her eyes and slid the phone across the table. “He’s a teenager who was psychologically tortured by Homeland Security for more than a week, and she’s helping him get back at ‘the man.’”
That sounded familiar. He tapped the screen to bring up the book information. Little Brother. His smile turned genuine. “My mistake. Good book, I won’t spoil the ending.”
The ambivalence in her half-formed smile stole his next breath. Her tone was dry. “I appreciate it. Sorry to disappoint you, but bad euphemisms aren’t my thing.”
This was fun. He bit back a smirk. “Really? Sacred vees and turgid manhood—or is it manhoods, plural? Or maybe that’s a different kind of story. That doesn’t do anything for you?”
She dropped the phone into her purse, mouth still twitching in indecision. Damn that was a good look for her.
“Not on paper.” She ran a tongue over her bottom lip before catching it between her teeth.
He wouldn’t mind giving that a try. Nipping at that full almost-pout. His pulse sped up at the banter. He pushed his game aside and leaned in, fingers clasped and hands resting on the table. He was going to enjoy this for as long as she wanted to keep it up. The last couple of women he’d been with—hell, even his last couple of girlfriends before that—had been more giggle than brain. Cared more about how they looked on his arm than what he had to say.
He was sick of fake girls only interested in his money. This woman though, she radiated intelligence, genuineness, and had no idea who he was. “They were wrong. It’s not more fun than a gorgeous woman.”
“They?” Her flush spread to her neck.
Long, slender. What would it be like to run his tongue along that slope? “Marketing. They’re making promises they can’t keep.” He pushed his half-eaten donut aside. Her bold responses mingled with the hesitation and embarrassment flushing her pale skin, all of it short circuiting his thoughts. And he wanted more. “So you’d rather the exploration of honeyed walls took place real time.”
Disbelief mingled with her laughter. “Are you always so forward?”
Frequently, to the dismay of his board of directors. A shadow passed through the shop as clouds covered the sun outside. “Only until it gets me slapped. You?”
“Always and for as long as I can get away with it.” She shifted in her seat, leaning in, arms resting on the table and accentuating full breasts.
He forced his attention to stay on her face. She wasn’t even close to the prissy socialite he’d imagined. It had been a long time since he’d pegged someone so completely wrong, and he was enjoying the hell out of it.
Her phone interrupted, a tinny pop song cutting through the veil of innuendo. She gave him an apologetic glance. “I’m sorry.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “No worries. If it’s your boyfriend asking you to talk dirty to him, go ahead.”
“Not likely. No boyfriend.” She answered the phone. “What? …I stopped for coffee someplace where they weren’t going to snap at me for being nice.” She glanced at him, hesitation in her eyes, and then shook her head. “Fine, okay. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
She dropped her phone in her purse and turned to him. “I’d love to stay longer, talk about whether or not one’s manhood can actually throb, but I have to go.”
“Shame. I might have proposed a hands-on experiment.” He shoved the rest of his donut in his mouth and washed it down with a swallow of coffee.
She laughed through her embarrassment. “Does talking like that ever get you in trouble?”
“Let’s just say I’m willing to take my chances in some cases.” Or more specifically, in her case. He stood and offered her a hand. “I should probably get back to real life too. I’ll walk you out.”
His hand lingered on her arm as he guided her through the crowds toward the exit, her warm skin against his sending pulsing tingles through him. When they stepped onto the sidewalk, the din of Saturday morning traffic rushed in to replace the chatter of inside. “Where did you park?” He was pretty sure he’d never seen her drive—it was hard to miss those things on mornings when the place was deserted except for the two of them—but it was polite to ask.
That was a more vague answer than he was looking for, but it wasn’t like he wanted to meet her family. Or her cats. Whatever. His hand moved to the small of her back, nudging her across the parking lot. She didn’t resist.
“Do you want a lift?” he asked.
Her footsteps slowed, and she pulled away. “In the love van?”
He spun to face her, not sure what to make of the comment. She’d nicknamed his car? Fascinating. “Excuse me?”
She nodded at the Escalade in the back of the parking lot. “That one’s yours right? The Game God license plate? The tinted windows meant to keep out even the most penetrating light?”
She knew what the G4M3G0D on his plates meant. She was full of entertaining surprises. He bit back the urge to joke about the word penetrating. “That’s it, but love van, really?”
She fell into step beside him again. “No one’s ever accused you of that before?”
“Not to my face. Interesting assumption.” He moved closer, letting his bare arm brush hers.
“No worse than deciding I was reading some bodice ripper inside.”
He stopped at his SUV, spinning to face her and leaning back against it, one foot propped up on the rubber strip running along the bottom of the door. He looped his thumbs in his pockets. “Fair enough. We’re even on the inappropriate assumption front then?”
She kept her distance but didn’t seem in a hurry to leave. “I didn’t know we were keeping score.”
A gust of wind tore through the parking lot, whipping her ponytail into her face. She hugged herself and shivered as the clouds devoured the last traces of direct sunlight.
He forced his hands to stay by his side, biting his tongue before he could offer to warm her up. Or ask if she’d like to be the one biting his tongue. “Someone’s always keeping score.”
“Clever.” She shook her head, laughing. A sharp chill wove itself into the wind, and she rubbed the visible goose bumps on her arms. Even through her bra, he could see her nipples were hard nubs, adding new geography to her fitted T-shirt.
He shouldn’t be staring. Or imagining pulling her close, running his hands over those peaks, warming her up. He clicked the locks off on his car, yanked the door open, and grabbed his jacket off the back seat.
“Hmm…” Her voice was closer than she expected. “Clean, beige leather, no shag carpet.” He turned and she stepped back, ducking her head. “I had to see for myself.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.” He draped the fleece over her shoulders, pulling the neck closed, hands lingering on her collarbone. The soft fruit of her shampoo mingled with a flowered perfume, and he pushed back the urge to pull her closer, breathe her in, taste her.
She stepped closer. “Not disappointed at all.”
That was going to make fighting the impulses more difficult. Even though she was only a few inches shorter than his six two, she almost swam in the coat, the bottom hanging halfway down her thighs. An image flashed through his mind of her wearing nothing but that jacket, standing in his bedroom doorway—
A sharp bolt lit up the sky, accompanied by the concussive boom of thunder. She jumped, eliminating a few more inches between them, and laughed nervously, hand flying to her chest. “Holy crap.”
His heart was hammering too, but not from the sudden noise. She stood near enough that her warmth drifted toward his bare arms. Her gaze met his, and his breath caught. Such a captivating face.
A drop of rain landed on her cheek, trailing down the smooth skin. He rested a hand on the back of her neck, thumb brushing away the water. His pulse raced even faster when she tilted her head into the gesture.
Another drop landed on her nose, her forehead, her chin. What would she do if he kissed them away?
The sky opened up, buckets pouring down, plastering his shirt to him in seconds.
She pulled his jacket tighter. “I think I’ll take that ride after all.”
He didn’t argue, yanking open the passenger door and making sure she was inside before sprinting to the driver’s side.