Ethan Vicker sat in his car outside the small diner, occasionally directing his attention to what little he could see of the place through the lace-trimmed curtains covering picture windows that spanned the length of the strip mall location. It was only a few blocks from his favorite bookstore—Graphically Novel—so he’d lost count of how many times he’d driven by it in the past.
Before today, there was never a good reason to stop here. Then again, he hadn’t visited the bookstore in several months either. Almost a year ago, his fiancée decided her spinning coach was a better life choice and walked out on Ethan, leaving only a note behind. He hadn’t heard from her since. Having the entire apartment to himself was nice, but in the last couple of months he realized he didn’t like choosing between meeting his financial goals and occasionally indulging in takeout.
He needed someone in his spare bedroom soon to help make rent. No way would he ask his brother for help. It wasn’t that he was broke—he made good money—but the more he put toward paying off his student loans and building a fund for the business he wanted to start, the sooner he’d be working for himself.
Which brought him here. Almost fifteen minutes early, lingering in his car so he didn’t look anxious, and hoping to catch a glimpse of his appointment when she arrived. Maybe he should have asked her for a picture. Happy enough someone reasonable answered his Craigslist ad for a roommate, he hadn’t thought past agreeing to meet somewhere public, in a location where she knew the people.
Needing something to pass the time, he scanned back through their brief email exchange. The messages started terse and generic.
Hi. I’m interested in the room for rent. Can you provide more details?
She was the only person to email him who didn’t lead with something like, I’ve got three full sized dogs, is that okay? or the rent’s kind of high, can you spot me for the first month?
That was enough to warrant more of a reply than I’m sorry, it’s no longer available.
From there, they swapped details about location, utility cost, and if either of them cared who drank the last of the milk.
She replied with, as long as I’m not taking my coffee black, and there’s a new carton by the next day, I’m not picky
On the surface she was reasonable and didn’t balk at the cost. It might be too good to be true, but he’d take the risk. Meeting her didn’t mean he had to rent to her.
His clock said he was still five minutes early, but he’d run out of things to poke at on his phone. Might as well head in.
Ethan entered the diner and scanned the interior. Tables topped with Formica and trimmed with steel dotted the room and lined the walls, the matching chairs occupied by couples, families, and a few individuals. A long counter decorated the same as the tables sat across the room from the door, stools lining one side, and the kitchen partly visible through a window on the other.
His gaze flashed over each face in the room and moved on. Were any of them Jaycie? A tune he’d know anywhere mingled with the light chatter in the room, and he sought the source of the Mario Brothers ringtone. A woman at the far end of the counter glanced at her phone, her black hair forming a curtain around her face. She shook her head, clicked something, and then looked out at the room.
When her gaze met his, his breath hitched. Wide, pale-green eyes stared back at him. A smile twitched on her full lips before she turned her attention back to her phone.
Was that her? A tingle of heat and anticipation raced over his skin. And if so, was that good or bad? She was gorgeous. He definitely wouldn’t mind getting to know her better, but if she was about to be his roommate, that made her off-limits for any kind of intimate relationship.
She was also the only woman in the diner, alone, who looked to be in her mid to late twenties. Only way to find out for sure would be to ask, and if she wasn’t Jaycie, at least he could chat this woman up about her ringtone until his appointment arrived.
He summoned his warmest expression and dropped into an empty stool next to her at the bar. “I don’t suppose you’re Jaycie?”
Laughter danced in her eyes. “I’m glad you didn’t open with a line like do you come here often? or is this seat taken?” Her dry tone and the fact she hadn’t told him no were good signs. She also hadn’t said yes.
“Do you get that a lot?”
“Not as much as the movies tell me I should. I’m starting to think real life doesn’t always mimic fiction.”
“I’ve heard that.” He couldn’t draw his gaze from the playful way her mouth curved up. “But I still hold out hope someday they’ll find remnants of civilization from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
Her smile reached her eyes. “Ethan?”
It was her. Or someone very good at guessing. He was going with the former. Damn. The gorgeous brunette was off-limits. He tilted his head, and mimed tipping a hat. “At your service.”
She laughed—a lighthearted crystalline sound that made his blood roar—shook his hand. Her palm warm and smooth against his. “At my service. Really? There’s a lot of potential in a statement like that.”
“And it’s completely open to interpretation.” He cringed. “That sounded more suave and less needy in my head.”
“I guess if your intentions were good… I’ll let it slide just this once.”
He forced back his growing arousal, and dragged his gaze from her full lips to her eyes. Nope, those weren’t any less enticing. Roommates didn’t make good fuck buddies so he needed to decide which he wanted before the conversation went further. Practicality and the thought of cutting his bills in half won out.
He nodded at the phone still sitting in front of her. “I like your ringtone. Are you a fan of the games or the music?”
She shifted her body so she was half-turned toward him, rested an elbow on the laminate bar top, and leaned in. Her posture brought her closer, forced her breasts together, and gave him a fantastic view of how well her V-neck top complemented her narrow waist and full chest. “If I say I’m a fan of the games, do you ask me next if I know who Shigeru Miyamoto is?”
“The creator of Mario Brothers, and… You know what, never mind.” Jaycie ducked her head and tucked her hair behind one ear. “It’s not important. I love the games; the music is just nostalgia.”
She might just be more fun to talk to than to fuck. Probably for the best since, when sex was involved, his track record for long-term relationships was pretty shitty.
He drilled the reminder into his head, and shifted to a more neutral topic. Questions she either avoided, or they never got to over email. “Why are you looking for a roommate?”
“I need a place to stay and sharing rent helps save money.”
“I kind of figured that bit. What do you do for a living?”
“Ooh, twenty questions.” While she talked, she moved behind the counter, grabbed a few glasses, and then filled one with ice, tea, and lemonade. “What are you drinking?”
“Coke. No ice.” Wait, what was she doing? She was awfully familiar with the place, and making a lot of assumptions, for someone who wasn’t an employee. “Do you work here? Not that there’s anything wrong with here. It seems like a nice place.”
“I’m in journalism.” Seconds later, she set the drink in front of him. She licked her bottom lip. It was a nervous flick of the tongue, and it drove blood straight to his cock.
He shoved the reaction to the back of his mind. “Do you make yourself at home like this everywhere?” He winked. “Hop from local place to little café, sample the soda, see how long it takes for someone to call you on it?”
His breath caught when her smile grew. The expression smooshed the smattering of freckles on her pale face and made her eyes light up. “I tried that once. Didn’t like the results. I ended up serving drinks for three hours.”
“Ouch.” He chuckled. “But I bet the tips were fantastic.”
“It meant I got the expensive pizza for dinner that night instead of the five buck special.” She nodded at the kitchen behind her. “Real answer though—my best friend Gwen owns the place.”
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “And once again, reality intrudes on an entertaining fiction.”
“Nice way to bring us back to the start. That wasn’t quite twenty questions, but my turn. What do you do for a living? Why are you looking for a roommate?”
He swallowed back the completely honest response to her second question. Not that he intended to lie, but there was no reason to spill his entire past now or possibly ever. “I work in game development. I’ve got an extra room because the last person I rented to bailed on me without as much as a good-bye kiss. Woke up one morning, and half my stuff was gone. Poof. So I’m looking for someone to split the bills with.”
“I get that. Writing freelance is such a glamorous life that I really can’t foot the rent on my own if I want heat in the winter and a working refrigerator. But game development, that’s so cool. Anything I’ve heard of? Are you at one of the bigger companies in town? Rinslet, maybe? Or are you indie?”
A snort of a laugh slipped out at the name. That was first on her list? “Rinslet is a group of hacks who got lucky.”
“Twice. Digital Media then.”
“What gave me away?”
“Only someone working for the company who got burned by Rinslet—more than once—would discredit what a big impact they’ve had on the industry. And hacks or not, they’ve still got a larger positive revenue stream than DM.”
She almost knew more about his industry than he did. Was she a fan girl or something more professional? “What kind of writing do you do?” he asked.
Her pleasant expression froze, and her brow furrowed. “Did you work on their most recent game? The FPS that’s out next week?”
Of course she’d be familiar with their games if she could spout off revenue information. Gamer, then. No one else had that kind of random knowledge base about corporations in the trade. “No. I head the story implementation group for their role-playing games.”
Her smile leaked back in. “Then you worked on Enemies of Fortuna?”
“Yup.” The awe in her question inflated his pride. It didn’t hurt that the game was his crowning achievement. He loved it, buyers gobbled it up, and reviewers praised it. Since it was a shame to peak so young in his career—twenty-seven was only a starting point—he’d have to make the next one better. And his plans for when he got started on his own blew Fortuna out of the water.
“I loved that game. Amazing dynamics, interaction, and storyline.”
“Thanks. We worked hard on that.”
Her jaw worked up and down, and her joy died.
How was that a conversation killer? Before he could ask, her familiar ring tone filled their corner of the room.
She gave him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. I have to take this.”
He watched the sway of her hips with each step, as she walked toward the front door. She might be off-limits for a hookup, but there was no reason he couldn’t enjoy the view.
“This is J-Dub.” Her words hit, and his stomach dropped like lead as she vanished behind the swinging door.
“Amazing dynamics, interaction, and storyline.” Her voice echoed in his thoughts, tied to that name. It couldn’t be, though. Total coincidence that she had the same nickname and talked about his game the exact same way as one of Console Power Magazine’s most prolific and well-written game reviewers. J-Dub was a common nickname, right? Besides, the reviewer was male. He’d assumed.
It was too much of a coincidence. At the same time, there was no way Jaycie was the J-Dub.
A few minutes later, she returned to the seat next to him, phone stowed, and friendly smile back in place. “I’m sorry again, sometimes work calls. Being freelance is great, but the hours are a bit unpredictable.”
Freelance. Journalist. It couldn’t be. “You really liked Enemies of Fortuna? Thought the hero’s story followed an enticing and emotional arc, without weighing down or interfering with the game play?” He couldn’t help quoting the review at her. It had been one of his favorites.
She tightened her jaw.
“Is there a reason you share a nickname with the person who gave that write-up?” he asked.
She turned her gaze to her drink and downed half of it in a single swallow. Even when she was done, she didn’t look at him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She was definitely lying. But why?