No one should be allowed to look that good in scrubs. The thought spilled into Tate’s head when Alyssia walked into the office at her animal shelter, Great ‘n’ Small. He shook the words away, but not before trailing his gaze past her hips, up her narrow waist, and over the swell of her breasts, and landing on bright blue eyes and a face framed by long, dark hair.
That wasn’t what he needed to be thinking about. Now, or ever really. He was here as a consultant, not to leer.
“Did I miss a memo?” Alyssia gave an exasperated huff. “When did it become acceptable for a guy to send a picture of his penis as a way to say ‘I’m sorry, please take me back’?”
“Excuse me?” If he’d guessed a million times what she was frustrated about, dick pics wouldn’t have been on the list. From Lys, he almost wasn’t surprised by the blunt, ludicrous question. He’d known her for decades and very little was taboo between them anymore. This came pretty close, though.
She looked directly at him. “Sorry. But am I wrong to think this is creeptastic?” She held out her phone.
Apparently it wasn’t a rhetorical question after all. He shook his head. “I’m going to take your word for it. And last time I checked it still wasn’t acceptable. Care to fill in some blanks for me… Minus the visual aids?”
Her brow furrowed and she ducked her head. Her, “I suppose,” was soft in the room, blending into the dogs barking in the background. “You know that guy I was talking to last week?”
She stuck her tongue out. “You’re funny.”
He smirked. “Damn straight I am. So online distraction of the month…” He wasn’t sure how he’d officially become the person she shared her dating woes with. It had started years ago. At first he participated just to make sure she wasn’t hooking up with the wrong guys. She was his best friend’s little sister, and looking out for her was status quo. He’d quickly realized though, that she could figure it out on her own, she just liked the sounding board.
She blew a strand of hair out of her face, sank into the chair across from him, and rested her arms on the desk. “I need to wrap my brain around how ludicrous this entire situation is first. And we have work to get done.”
“If you’re sure…”
She nodded. “What do you need from me?”
The conversation wasn’t over, but she’d spill if and when she was ready. Besides, she was right about them being on a deadline. He was seated at her desk, using the computer to help set up a crowd-funding campaign for her animal shelter. She was one of twenty pilot groups for the application he was using to spin a new arm off his family’s software company. “I’ve gone through the shelter’s social media accounts. With the updated graphics, everything is in order. I’ll write up the copy for the pledge page. You’ll need to verify it. Then we just have the video left to shoot.”
Normally, any computer-related favors would fall to his best friend and business associate, Jared. Or Jared’s fiancée, Mikki. Both of them were scary brilliant programming geniuses.
However, this was more about sales and marketing, and proving this was a legitimate new market for them to enter. Once the crowdfunding site took off, he had several next steps, and then he’d be running the arm of the business himself. On top of that, he got to help Alyssia raise enough money for a down payment so she could buy the building her shelter was in. When it came to selling anything, Tate would rock the results like no one’s business.
“Right. Video. Tomorrow night.” She raked her fingers through her hair as she pulled it back, twisted it into a loose knot behind her head, and stuck a pen through it to hold it up.
Exposing her long, kissable neck—Tate mentally shook himself. Where the hell had that come from? Too long since he’d gotten laid or something.
“And recording the voice overs in office the day after—they finally confirmed your time slot.” Every aspect of the project was part of an independent budget, to prove the idea was financially viable. Fortunately, he’d been able to contract most of the resources he needed from his parent company, Skriddie Bust Media. The art department was available for all the pilot groups. Marketing had a storyboard for each company’s promo film. It was going to look as clean as possible out of the gate. Tate was making sure of it.
“It’s just…” She fiddled with her watch. “I thought the guy was really into me. I mean, I know a lot of these men in online chat rooms are full of shit and just looking to get laid, but he actually seemed to be listening. Remembering what I said, talking to me. Interested in me and not just my boobs.”
And they were back on that. “We could include those in the vid if you’d like. Draw in a new crowd.” He wouldn’t have made a joke like that with anyone else, but he hoped with her it would bring her out of her funk.
She looked at him, lips drawn in a thin line, expression flat. “My boobs?”
A smile slipped out. “You don’t have to come up with excuses, you just have to ask.”
Good, they were back to casual and fun. Except her teasing dragged up more mental images. Of stripping her top off, running his hands up her stomach, cupping her breasts. He needed to stop that. “But then I’d be like one of those guys online, right? I have to at least make an effort.”
Her expression slipped, and her frown flew back in. “Which is where the problem started. He wanted to see me topless. I told him no. He wanted just a peek. Begged about five million times across twenty-four hours. And when I told him I was done talking to him, he sent me this—” she held up her phone, “—as a ‘please forgive me’ or something. I don’t even know.”
She sank further into her chair. “It’s not like I was falling for him or anything, it was just nice… I’m about to get repetitive.”
Maybe he could lighten the mood. He hated to see anyone bummed out, but especially her. He made sure to keep a teasing tone. “That’s why real people are better than online people.”
“Don’t even start.” Her mouth twisted in irritation. “The situation wouldn’t have been any different if I’d met him in a bar.”
He really did hate to see her like this. She deserved a guy who would give her happily ever after, not a jerk who just wanted dirty selfies. “I know, most men suck. But I promise, Lys, not all of them are bad.”
Her mouth twisted in amused irritation. “What, like you?”
God, that would be a mistake. Even if he were interested—he forced himself to keep his eyes on the computer and not let them drag over her figure—she deserved better. “No. I’m an asshole. Guys not like me. Though, admittedly I’ve never sent anyone a picture of my junk.”
“Junk. Is that the technical term?”
He liked seeing her smile. “You’d rather I called it Tate Jr.? Or George?”
“Touché. So, where do I meet this mystical man who likes me for my mind, isn’t related to me, and isn’t bound by some unwritten guy code not to touch me because I’m your best friend’s baby sis?”
His mind stalled, and he processed her words again. Somehow, this had just become about him. “He’s out there. You’ve got both body and mind covered when it comes to attractive, and if you were anyone else—”
“Really?” She stood so quickly it made his head spin. “If I weren’t the person I am, with all the shared ties we have, you’d be interested? Or is that just lip service?”
It wasn’t just lip service. Though he didn’t see her as approachable, he still noticed she was equally intelligent and beautiful. Even now, he couldn’t help but notice the flush in her full lips. The tinge of frustration on her cheeks. And it was all amplified by the back and forth fun of their conversation.
She moved around the desk, pushed her keyboard aside, and hopped up. She sat directly in front of him, just inches away. “Take that off the table. We’re the only people in the room, right? And I know you wouldn’t lie to me. If we didn’t have that connection. If Jared weren’t my brother, would you make a move?”
That escalated quickly. He swallowed, throat suddenly dry. Blood pounded in his ears, and his dick twitched at the thoughts of what he’d do to her if she weren’t her. “If you were just some random woman in a bar, yes.”
“Not quite what I asked, but let’s go with it.” She rested her stocking-covered toes near the inside of his thigh, close enough heat radiated through his slacks. “You know me as well as anyone, Tate. If there’s more to me than a pair of tits, how come no one who gets to know me is interested in me like that? And how come no one wants to get to know me?”
His restraints were short circuiting tonight, for reasons he didn’t understand. If she didn’t pull her foot away in about two seconds, he might act on the impulse to find out if she tasted as good as she looked.
Except he wouldn’t act on the desire. He mentally steeled himself. This was a moment of temporary insanity, on his part and hers. He’d ignore it, remind himself she was a client and his best friend’s baby sister, and they could get back to work.
His cock twitched as her toes slid higher. Fuck.
Alyssia knew she was being a brat, yet she couldn’t make herself stop. Tate was a convenient target, and she was asking more of him than was acceptable between friends. She needed to apologize. The problem was, now that she’d nudged the edges of this boundary—this temptation that was him—she didn’t want to stop. There was a reason she never pushed this line with him. What had gotten into her? Part of her brain whispered what a bad idea this was. That she needed to suck her up pride and just walk away, but the rest of her wasn’t interested in backing down.
Her ego was already limping. It wasn’t just him denying her now, or even that he had so long ago. It was all of it. It had been ages since she’d run into a guy who seemed to care there was a person inside her. Except Tate, and he treated her differently because of her brother. Tonight it all merged in her skull and was too much. So yeah, she was being pushy, and insecure, and bratty. And she was terrified if she stopped now—even if she backtracked and took a kinder route—she’d never find out what she needed to know. Was she only ever destined to attract, and be attracted to, the wrong guys?
Her toes slid higher on his thigh, and she paused when the landscape changed and she brushed his erection. He inhaled sharply through clenched teeth. Had she really made him hard just with a line of questions? The thought both terrified and excited her.
“The right guy is out there.” His words were strained. Any of the humor that usually lined his voice was gone. “And you’ll meet him, and you’ll know when you do that he’s different.”
Of course. Just like eight years ago. Except this time, she was licking too many wounds to want to stop. His rejection back then, this bullshit online. It all jumbled into a mess, reminding her how much she normally held back around Tate, and that she’d never gotten over him. She draped her arms around his neck. “What if the right guy is you?”
Faster than she could blink, he grabbed her wrists, stood, and pinned her palms to the desk. He pushed her upright and slid between her legs at the same time, standing close enough heat radiated between them. Her pulse kicked into overdrive, and want slid through her. The intensity in his gaze made her mind stall.
He scraped his teeth up her neck, and she bit her tongue to hold back her whimper. Her pulse screamed for more, bringing every nerve ending to life. His warm breath on her skin was tantalizing and tempting, and she needed him to take this further. To feel his tongue explore her, his hands strip her bare. Every inch of his flesh against hers.
His whisper brushed her ear. “I promise I’m not.”
“So everything you’re saying is just lip service.” Irritation tinged her desire, making it surge. He was so sure he knew what was best for her, and she was sick of that. She scooted closer, rubbing his erection each time she shifted her weight. He was definitely interested. What would it take to shatter his defenses?
“If we ever hooked up, it would be because you actually wanted me, not because you were hurt and wanted someone to take your frustrations out on.”
That pushed another button of defiance. Heat—fury, desire, all of it mingled and seared her veins. She didn’t know what to focus on, so she let it all course through her. “I do want you, and you know it.”
He ducked his head closer without warning, still holding her hands captive, and crushed his mouth against hers. His groan mingled with hers when she ground against him. His tongue forced its way into her mouth. His insistent shaft pressed between her legs, making her go from damp to wet in an instant, and her nipples strained against her bra. So this was what it was like to feel sparks.
He broke away as quickly as he’d dived in, breaking all contact as he stepped back. Disappointment and longing surged inside her. His steady gaze locked on her face. “You deserve better than what I’m offering, even for just a night. Trust me.”
“Goddammit, Tate.” Her throat ached from just the few words. She hopped to her feet, bringing her closer to him again. She grasped at every strand of anger inside and used it to smother the overwhelming hurt making her joints ache. “I’m so tired of you telling me what I do and don’t need. Do you maybe think I might know that better than you?”
She raised her hands to his shoulders to push him back, and he grabbed her wrists again, still looking her in the eye. Despite her irritation, his rough touch still spoke to the primal lust raging inside her.
“You might need to get off, but not with me. And I get as much say in the matter as you do. I can’t stop you from keeping the fantasy, though.”
Her face heated to red-hot. She broke free of his grasp and shoved him back. “You impossibly arrogant ass.”
He opened his mouth, but a loud beep cut him off. Her heart beat against her ribcage in frustration and surprise. The tone of the speakerphone cut through the room, followed by her assistant, Sara’s panicked voice. “Doctor, we need you out here.”
Without thought, her fury and indignation were bundled up, shoved into a box in the back of her skull, and locked away tight, even killing her desire to tell Tate the conversation wasn’t over. “On my way, what’s up?”
“Mutt. Broken leg, fractured ribs, probably internal bleeding.”
Alyssia’s gut clenched. The stupid argument could wait. Her patient was more important. She pushed past Tate and out the door without stopping to see what he was up to. She’d care later, this was emergency time.