I exited the bathroom still wet from a long soak in the tub. With my terry robe wrapped tightly around me, I stalked toward the kitchen on the hunt for a giant mug of hot chocolate. A triple latte espresso would have been better, but it was nine at night and I’d had a long week working on a deadline cover illustration. I just wanted to put the finishing touches on the piece and call it a day.
Pretty pathetic for a twenty-six year old on a Saturday, but I am what I am.
My plan was obliterated the second I stepped into the living room. The red and blue flash of police lights bounced against my closed curtains as a heavy, authoritative knock landed on the front door. I hurried over, pressed my eye to the peephole and saw Noah Lodge, my brother’s best friend and a city cop.
Noah at my front door was nothing new. He lived three houses down on the opposite side of the street. With my brother Mike in Afghanistan, Noah was in charge of keeping an over-protective eye on me. That didn’t explain why he was on the other side of my door so late in the evening, in his city police uniform with his lights flashing in the drive.
He didn’t patrol this neighborhood — the city didn’t allow it. I ripped the door open, my head suddenly filled with the idea that Mike had listed Noah as his emergency contact so someone he trusted could gently break any bad news to me.
“What’s wrong?” Tears were already filling my eyes. I didn’t know what I’d do if I lost Mike. He was the only real family I had left.
Noah’s hands came up, landed on my shoulders and gave a soft squeeze. “Nothing to panic about.”
I didn’t believe him. There was a slight tremor running through his voice and he gave my shoulders another squeeze that was harder than the first. “Is it Mike?”
“God, no, baby girl.” He shook his head and rubbed at my arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think you-”
“No one’s hurt?” Now that I knew Mike was okay, I was even more confused. Something looked very wrong with Noah. His pupils were larger than normal and his skin was flushed, like he was in fight mode or something.
He frowned. “No one’s hurt — yet.”
“Then why the hell are you standing at my front door with your lights flashing in my drive?” I tightened the robe around me, suddenly envisioning every last one of my neighbors peeking from behind their curtains. Most of them I didn’t know — wouldn’t even recognize them in the local grocery store. Only a few people — like Noah — had grown up on the block.
His cheeks, already flushed, grew a little pinker. “Sorry, baby, give me a second.”
Noah trotted back to his patrol car. He leaned across the front seat to turn the lights off, giving me a clear shot of his magnificent ass in the process. I quickly looked away before I had my own reason for blushing. It didn’t matter that I’ve known Noah since before I could walk, or that I’d seen him go through dozens upon dozens of girls in his twenty-eight years, he still made all my parts tingle whenever I was around him.
Cinching the robe tighter, I retreated further into my living room as he walked back to the house.
Noah stepped inside and shut the door. “The Donovans reported seeing someone peeking in one of your windows.”
He pointed toward the east side of the house. The kitchen and my bedroom were on that side. The neighbors were relatively new, having moved in three, maybe four, months ago. I hadn’t talked to them yet, didn’t even know their names — first or last — but I nodded like I did. “The new couple next door.”
“If by new you mean eight months.” He laughed and gave me an eye roll, my heart fluttering right along with the thick brown lashes that fringed his green-gray irises. “You need to get out of the house more, baby.”
In danger of getting lost in the perfection of his face, I blinked and turned away. I forcibly reminded myself that Noah was not only my brother’s best friend, but also a man who went through women like a drunk goes through a six pack of beer on a Friday night.
Fast and frequently two at a time.
Before I could reach the kitchen, I stopped and looked back. “That still doesn’t explain why you’re here. This isn’t your patrol area.”
Another blush heated his cheeks, but he answered with a casual lift of his shoulders. “Don’t worry, Pattycake, I cleared it with the patrol supervisor first.”
I stopped short of growling at him and pushed the swinging door to the kitchen open. Baby, baby girl, Pattycake. I was going to take his nightstick and beat him upside the head if he didn’t stop using those names. He might be two years older than me, but that didn’t make me less than an adult. And diminutive names like baby don’t suit me. I have at least twenty pounds on him, even if not an ounce of it is the hard muscled heaven he walks around in.
He caught the door on its back swing and followed me in. Stepping over to the sink, he hip bumped me out of the way so he could check the lock on the window. “Make me a coffee, baby.”
“I’m going to take that stick of yours-”
Laughing, he bumped me again. “Please, Miss Harper, would you be so kind as to make me a cup of coffee while I check the rest of your windows?”
I pressed my lips together and stomped over to the espresso maker. I might as well make him one, and then make one for me. There was no way in hell I would fall asleep any time soon, not with Noah having twice rubbed against me. My nipples had hardened to steel pebbles, aching as they brushed against the inside of the robe. My labia slid together with every shift of my hips and thigh flex, the sensation like thick fingers stroking the swollen flesh of my clit.
I would have to pull one of my toys out as soon as he was gone and take care of myself or I wouldn’t get a single brush stroke finished on the cover tonight.
Noah stepped behind me, put a hand on my shoulder and planted a brotherly kiss on my cheek. “Don’t pout, Pattycake. It curdles the milk.”
Growling, I reached for a dish towel to swat him with but he was gone, his chuckle echoing in my ears as the door swung shut behind him.
Damn it, Noah! Damn it, damn it, damn it.
I blew a frustrated puff of hot air just as the espresso machine started to steam and chug. I didn’t need Noah in the house watching over me, not when I couldn’t control my feelings for him. To him, I was his pseudo-baby sister and childhood friend. I, on the other hand, wanted to handcuff him to my bed and ride him until the sun came up.
Every damn night.
Yeah, I had it bad.
Finished making the espresso, I put the milk up, dried my hands and headed into the living room with the mugs. Noah wasn’t there, so I headed down the hall, my heart freezing in my chest at the site of my studio door half open.
The room had changed since he’d last been inside. I’d hung a six-by-six mirror so I could sketch myself — nude as often as not.
My heart resumed, its pace accelerating to push blood out to the capillaries. A hot flush spread across my skin as I tried to remember whether I’d put my sketchbook up, or at least closed it. There was no chance Noah would ever see me naked in the flesh — not with the willow thin girls he chased after — and I didn’t need yet another reason to feel awkward around him.
“I’m in here, baby girl.”
I jumped, hot milk foam splashing against my arm. He’d been standing in my bedroom, less than a foot from me, and I hadn’t realized it — I’d been staring at the studio door so damn hard.
“Careful, baby, you’ll burn yourself.” He took the mug from me, his other hand circling my wrist.
Raising my arm, he dipped his head to the milk spotting my skin. Feeling his lips and the whisper of his tongue, I took a ragged breath in.
Shit, fuck, holy mother fucking fuck. Why did he have to pull crap like this? I wasn’t a little girl, I didn’t need my boo-boos kissed and, no matter how he acted otherwise, he wasn’t my big brother.
I jerked my arm to my side. “Are you almost done?”
Watching me over the rim of his mug, he pursed his lips and took his first sip of espresso. “Just need to check your bedroom window and search the perimeter.”
He turned away and I sagged in relief against my bedroom wall. He either hadn’t checked the studio window or my sketchbook was at least closed. I hoped. He might not rib me about the self-portraits — he could play the discreet gentleman when he wanted to. Which meant I had absolutely no way of knowing whether he’d seen the sketches and it would be months before I stopped fretting over it.
“Shit.” The word popped out and I felt my cheeks grow hot all over again.
“You talking about the quality of your window locks? Because that would pretty much cover it.” He turned, something like anger sparking in his eyes. “These are from the seventies, at least. Mike should have replaced them before he shipped out.”
He swiped at his jaw and I knew then it wasn’t Mike he was angry with. “I should have checked them earlier.”
Relaxing, I smiled at him and tried to laugh it off. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. If the neighborhood has a Peeping Tom, my bedroom window is the last one he’s going to look in.”
Noah’s gaze narrowed. “Don’t be stupid, Pattycake…”
I felt my temper flaring. He put both hands up, his face softening just the tiniest bit. He crossed the room until he was standing next to me.
His hand darted out to tuck a strand of still wet hair behind my ear. “Don’t get your back up, either, baby girl. These guys start out peeking in windows and stealing panties and then they…graduate.”
His voice broke at the last word. He closed his eyes, bending his neck until our foreheads touched. “He damn well will come back. Those locks are getting fixed tomorrow and you’re getting a security system installed.”
I started to protest but he shook his head. “Shut it, Patricia. Don’t make me get hold of Mike and make him worry.”
He knew the threat would shut me up pretty quickly. Mike’s unit ran patrols from a forward operating base and he had to keep focused twenty-four-seven. I didn’t want him thinking about me when he should be paying attention to some shadow on a hill or an odd rise on a dirt road.
But all Noah had was a report of suspicious activity from the Donovans — for all I knew they were slamming back martinis after dinner and couldn’t tell the difference between a prowler and the shadow of a passing cloud.
“Look, you don’t even know someone has been looking in my window.”
He took a step back, breaking contact. His hand went to his utility belt and I heard the click of his flashlight. “That’s next on my list, baby girl.”
Any thought I’d held of grabbing one of my toys and getting down to business as soon as Noah left evaporated when he returned from his perimeter check to report a size fourteen sneaker print outside my bedroom window and chipped wood around the back door’s lock. He left with a stern order to keep the windows and doors shut and locked, the curtains pulled tight and the lights on.
He also said he’d come back after his shift ended in a few hours.
I thought that meant another quick perimeter check. I didn’t expect him to return with a small bag slung over his shoulder like he was ready for a sleep over.
“I’m beat, baby girl.” Stepping inside, he gave me a quick kiss on the forehead before he turned back to the door and locked it. Heading down the hall, he grinned at me over his shoulder. “When are you coming to bed?”
I’m pretty sure my eyebrows shot up to my hair line. The house was a single ranch, originally with three bedrooms and a den. My bedroom had belonged to my parents. After they had died a year apart, Mike and I knocked the wall out between the den and the smallest bedroom to make my studio. The other bedroom had been Mike’s before he joined the Army and was now stacked with boxes full of everything he owned before he shipped out.
I gestured uncertainly at the sofa. “What do you mean, coming to bed?”
“I’m not sleeping on that pile of lumps, Pattycake — neither are you. It’s older than either of us.” Smiling softly, he closed his eyes for a second and shook his head. “And I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep a whole room away from you, anyway.”
He came back into the living room, just far enough to turn the light off before gesturing for me to come with him as he headed toward my bedroom. “Come on, baby. I promise not to snore — too much.”
Following after him, I felt my shoulders slump. I was finally getting my fantasy — sort of. Noah Lodge would be in my bed tonight, but only because there was some pervert prowling the neighborhood and the sofa was too lumpy. It didn’t matter if he did snore — having him that close to me was going to keep me awake all night long.
I stepped into my room just as he stripped his pants off. The lamp next to the bed was on, spotlighting his lower body in the otherwise dark room. He wore a pair of long briefs beneath the pants, the kind runners wear. The material hugged his ass, molding itself to the muscles, the dimples of his butt cheeks visible with each flex as he moved.
“You seriously wear something that tight to bed?” My robe was still on, but I had slipped into a camisole top and some boy shorts earlier — never thinking Noah was going to do more than pop his head inside for a second and then leave.
Sitting on the mattress, Noah swiveled in place until he could look directly at me. Half his face was in shadow, but his eyes glittered with the lamp’s soft light. Hooking the underwear’s elastic waist band with his thumb, he lifted one dark brow as he smiled. “Usually I don’t wear anything to bed, baby. But I figured that would get me in trouble tonight.”
Inside my head, I let out a long gurgling scream. There was no way I was going to get the image of him naked in bed out of my thoughts. I shook my head once, attempting to dislodge it from my imagination.
Didn’t work. I was going to have to look at a ton of naked guy pics online before I would be able to slide into bed again without seeing Noah stretched out and bare assed the second I closed my eyes. I gave another shake of my head and pulled the blanket down.
“I understood you the first time,” he laughed.
“Huh?” I sat on the bed, my robe hugged tightly around me.
“That you expect me to keep my underwear on, Pattycake.” He reached for the top of my robe before I realized what he was doing. “That second head shake just impugned my manhood, baby girl.”
He started to peel the robe from my shoulders. I clutched at it, but he brushed my hands away.
“Baby, it’s summer. You’re not sleeping in your robe…” His hands slowed and his voice dropped an octave when he spoke again. “You do have something on underneath, right?”
Numb, I nodded and relaxed my death grip on the fabric. He pulled the robe away, his hand pressing between my shoulders for a second, coaxing me to lean forward while he slid the rest of the material from under me. He stood to hang the robe and I dove under the covers.
His back to me, Noah reached out and turned the lamp off. I pressed my lips together, a pout threatening to erupt. If I had to suffer through the disappointment of my one night in bed with Noah being only on account of some pervert peeking in bedroom windows, Noah could have at least given me a front view of those oh-so-tight underwear.
I pictured the fabric molded to his sculpted quads, the thighs thick midway, the muscles narrowing as they traveled up. Another big bulge at the front, balls and cock gripped by the material. Thick veins — a tingle shot through me, my chest and shoulders tensing with a quiver as my pussy tightened.
Oblivious, Noah swiveled the clock so its light wasn’t pointing at the bed. “You don’t need an alarm, right?”
I cleared my throat but could only croak out something that sounded like a “no.”
“Good, getting up early on a Saturday sucks.” He pulled his side of the covers back and sat down.
Noah lifted his feet from the floor and slid his legs under the blanket. That would have been tolerable — him on one far side of the mattress, me on the other. Once he was covered, however, he started to roll and wiggle until his chest and stomach were pressed against my side. He draped his arm across my body, his hand curled around my shoulder.
“Baby, four years driving patrol and I freaked when the call came over the radio.” His thumb stroked along the edge of my collarbone and then he did the unthinkable — he pressed his lips against my shoulder. “I kept thinking, what if the guy was trying to break in? What if he succeeded?”
His mouth on me, his thumb stroking my flesh, I could barely follow what he said. I tried to move away, letting him know the Peeping Tom was no big deal. “Nothing bad happened, Noah. And Mike wouldn’t disown you if it had.”
Lifting up on one elbow, he loomed over me. His body rigid as a steel rod, I had the feeling he was scowling at me. He took a deep breath in and then exhaled sharply.
“Patricia…” He only used my first name when he was teasing me or annoyed. Given the low growling rumble of his voice, I seemed to have pissed him off — at least a little. “You really think I don’t have my own reasons for wanting you safe?”
When I didn’t answer, he practically draped his body over mine. I could see the shadow of him above me, feel the brush of his hands along my side as he supported his weight on both arms. “Mike might be my best friend, but you’re my other best friend, baby girl. Even if you’re always trying to pull away…”
I didn’t deny it. I had been trying to pull away for the better part of the last year. Maybe someday I’d learn how to be friends with him again — only after I had enough distance from him to fall in love with some other guy and not have it hurt when I saw Noah’s latest conquest hanging on his arm or heard him calling her baby, but with a completely different meaning than when he used it on me.
“Patricia…” His voice rumbled in his chest. “Pattycake…baby-”
I pushed at his chest, exerting every last ounce of will power I had to keep my hands from sliding up and curling around his neck. I wanted to cry, but I also wanted to lift my hips, to feel just once what it was like to press against him so intimately.
“Move,” I bit out.
“No.” He lowered himself, his weight still off me as he leaned to one side. His free hand ran down my arm, stroked my thigh. “I need to feel you, make sure you’re real and know I’m not going to wake up to some horrible nightmare where I got here too late.”
He buried his face against my throat. Gripping my hip, he squeezed lightly. It was too much and I almost cried out. This was far beyond a concerned friend or him standing in for my absent big brother. I pushed at his hand but he only gripped me tighter.
“You don’t get it, baby, do you?” His weight pressed against me, pinning me to the mattress as his hand moved higher up my side. Feeling the brush of his fingertips beneath the camisole, I gasped.
“Mike wants me to think of you as his little sister — hell, as my little sister.” There was nothing brotherly about the next kiss he planted along my throat, just under my chin. His hand surged the rest of the way up my stomach to cup the underside of my breast. “But I can’t. I heard the call over the radio and all I could think was mine. Mine to protect. Mine to…”
He lifted his head from my neck, never finishing the sentence. His mouth descended onto mine. Gently, he bit my lower lip. His body pressing harder against me, a groan erupting from him. His hand found my hip again, squeezing once before moving down to the top split of my thighs. His tongue trailing lightly along the seam of my lips, he started a slow, insinuating caress of my legs. Shock and an undercurrent of pleasure jolted through me, my senses swirling. Not once had he ever shown the slightest interest. Sure, he changed the oil in my car, checked the pressure in my tires, fixed a dozen little things around the place, all without my asking. But he was just being a good friend.
“Baby, say something — your silence is killing me.” Scooping the fabric of my bed shorts on one side, he pulled them tight. “Tell me you want this — want me.”
He kissed me again, abandoning the soft exploration he had started with. Wedging his hand beneath my neck, he lifted, forcing my head back and my mouth open. The kiss deepened and I felt the first brush of his knuckles against the split of my labia.
I wanted him — had the wet thighs and madly throbbing pussy to prove it. But I didn’t want to be another Noah Lodge one night stand.
“Say yes, Patty.” Breaking the kiss, he surfed down my body, his hands caressing and molding my flesh with each inch traveled. His mouth stopped at my breast, wetting the fabric around the nipple with a slow, sucking kiss as his fingers tugged at my shorts.
I didn’t say yes, neither could I say no. My body had taken up its own rhythm, moving when he moved, lifting to meet his hands and mouth as he stripped my shorts away and buried his face between my legs.
“So wet, baby. So very, very…” He stopped, his tongue laving my clit from up under the hood to the top of its length.
“Wet.” He finished with a groan, his lips sealing tight around my flesh.
I was cresting, my hips starting a little dance as his tongue moved up and down my sex. My hands found his head. My fingers knotted in his short hair. I felt the slide of a finger inside me, then two more. I tightened around him, my body beginning to vibrate. I pressed his head tighter to my pussy, riding the heat and force of his mouth. My cunt pulsed, sharp contractions pushing cream from me as his fingers thickly sluiced in and out, turning and flexing to work me into a quick lather.
I cried out his name, pleasure twisting it into a soft mewl as the last thunder of my climax rolled through me. Noah surged back up the bed, his mouth claiming mine in a rough kiss. He’d shed his briefs and I felt the thick slide of his cock over my clit before he lifted his hips and sank into me with one sharp, toe curling thrust. He gripped my head with both hands, more rough kisses falling along my face and throat as his hips began to piston his cock inside me.
He was big, the head of his cock a hard pommel that pounded against my cervix. The beginning of another climax whipped through me. My hips jerked violently. Three gasps burst from me and then a shuddering moan as the contractions squeezed at my uterus. My clit bobbed rhythmically, pulling up with each clenching throb of my orgasm before relaxing.
“God, yes, baby, come for me again.” He kept slamming into me, the force of each thrust a sharp contrast to the soft kisses that now whispered along my throat. He moaned my name, told me how hot and tight I was.
I squeezed at him, my cunt hugging the broad shaft and fat head of his cock. Every last inch of flesh felt like it was on fire as I lifted and slammed with him. The very air was ablaze, burning my throat and lungs as I drew in ragged breaths and tried to hold him tighter as my entire body exploded around him.
Noah slowed, his strokes elongating, and I knew he hadn’t come yet, was far from finished as his hands began to soothe my flesh, sweet nothings falling from his lips as he cooed at me. He pushed the camisole up, exposing my breasts to his touch and the faint glow of the clock.
Arching his back, he curled around his center, his body contorted so his lips could tease my nipples. His hips took up a slow bouncing rhythm. His cock bobbed left, then right, before he sank balls deep into me.
Nothing comprehensible left my mouth, just long ecstatic moans as he fucked me slow and steady. I tightened around him, my pussy knotting and knotting until his cock felt as thick as a fist moving through me. Hurtling along the edge of another orgasm, I begged him to come with me.
His breathing shallowed until he was taking the same halting gasps of air that fueled my final spastic thrusts. Freezing above me, Noah called me baby one last time. I felt the first jerk of his cock as his release spurted inside me, unleashing another long set of rolling contractions along the walls of my pussy. My muscles milked another thick shot of come from him and then another.
Noah started moving again, his climax spent but his cock still rock hard. Trembling beneath him, I felt my eyes start to roll back in my head. I clutched at his arms, pleading with him to stop before I lost consciousness.
He only relented after he tore one last, screaming orgasm from me.
Collapsing on his side, Noah threw an arm and a leg across me, his face pressed hot and moist against my neck. Squeezing my shoulder, he drew a deep breath in and held it for a few seconds.
“No more pulling away, baby. Promise me.”
For all the good it did me, I promised. Naive little fool, I didn’t stop to think I’d wake the next morning to find him already planning his retreat.
Accustomed to sleeping alone, I woke several times through the night to find at least one part of Noah covering me. He had an arm cinched around my waist at three am and a muscular thigh draped across mine at three fifty. Four thirty found half his torso along my chest and his hand cupping my breast, the thumb brushing at the straining nipple as he slept with his lips against my throat. Each instance sent me drifting back to blissful slumber.
At seven, the bed was empty.
Wrapping my robe around me, I went into the living room to find him quietly slipping into his clothes.
Noah released a harsh sigh, concentrating on tying his shoes before he said anything. “Couple things I have to take care of today.”
He was halfway to the front door before he bothered to look in my direction, averting his eyes the instant they met mine.
“What time…” I stopped before I could ask when he planned on returning — or if he planned on returning. I’d fielded too many calls from too many women asking where Noah was, their needy whines like razors down my back. I wasn’t going to be one of them. I’d crumble quietly, in private, and then get back to building my life with him none the wiser.
“Phil’s coming by later, you’ll be home, right?” His hand was poised on the door knob, his gaze focused somewhere around my bare feet.
I was always home on Sundays. He knew that. Certainly I wasn’t out on dates. Not that there weren’t offers — but the guys all had the same basic fault.
They weren’t Noah.
I glared at him, promising myself next Sunday would be different. “Yeah, but who’s Phil?”
“Owns a security company.” He was jiggling his car keys in irritation, chomping so hard at the bit to leave it seemed pathological. “Window locks…alarm system.”
He lifted his head, locking gazes with me long enough I could see regret sparkling like tears in his eyes. “Patricia…I…”
Whatever he was going to say, he swallowed it down. I shook my head, refusing to be the “thing” he was sorry for. When it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything more, I spun on my heels and left the room.
I stalked into my studio and threw the curtains open to let in the morning light. Listening to Noah’s car start in the drive, I looked at the illustration I had been working on. It was the cover for a children’s picture book — my twentieth and the third with this particular author. Contrary to my plans, I hadn’t finished it last night.
I had five more days before I needed to ship it or face the infamous wrath of my publisher’s art director — a woman who could not be placated with chocolate or flowers or even lolcats. My gaze tracing the last strokes I had put down, I knew I wasn’t going to finish it today. It was a happy book with happy pictures.
I was too damn miserable.
Grabbing my sketchbook and a pencil case, I returned to my bedroom and propped the pillows against the headboard. I sat down, surrounded by the faint scent of Noah’s cologne and last night’s sex, and started to draw.
Zombies are good. Not in some wholesome sense, obviously. They are decayed potential — the destructive symbol of human will — and they suited my mood perfectly. My pencils moved along the paper without my thinking. Zombie people, zombie dogs, zombie caterpillars. I drew until I filled the sketchbook and then I took a nap.
I woke up on and off. Each time, my gaze landed and then immediately glanced off the cell phone. I was looking for the flashing little green light that meant I had a new text or voicemail. Part of me knew Noah wasn’t going to call. Not today — not for several days. He had to work on his excuse for fucking me one night and dumping me the next morning.
At eleven, I went into the bathroom and washed the last of Noah Lodge from my body. Half an hour of hot water later, I was dried and rummaging around my kitchen. Casually inventorying what was available for dinner, I thought about making a southwestern pie — Noah’s favorite. I wasn’t stupid enough to think he’d show up for dinner, but that was fine by me. I’d make it for myself and freeze the leftovers.
Except I was out of black beans.
I looked at the wall clock before I realized I had no idea what time the security guy was coming over. I didn’t even know what company Noah had called.
Swiping at my phone, I sent him a text.
Need to pick up beans for pie — what time is security guy coming by?
I no sooner hit send than I started cussing at my stupidity.
Desperate stupidity — I’d just told him I was making his favorite dish. If that didn’t count as a feminine attempt at luring him over, nothing did.
Fifteen minutes later a woman from Darling Security called to make sure I’d be at the house at two. I told her I would and hung up, wondering if her timing was coincidence or if Noah was avoiding me.
A white van pulled into my drive around 2 pm. The man that got out was about thirty, with most of his features obscured by oversized sunglasses and a tousle of dark blond hair. He went around to the van’s back door and re-emerged a minute later with a huge black duffel slung across his shoulder and a clip board in his hand.
As he got closer to my front door, he lifted the ID badge clipped to his belt. “Phil Darling, Miss Harper. Noah said you’d be expecting me.”
Opening the screen door, I nodded. “Only I haven’t discussed pricing with anyone.”
He offered me a broad grin and a wave of his hand. “All taken care of.”
The hell it was! A string of swear words lined up along my tongue. I would be damned if I was going to owe Noah a single penny or let him buy his way out of fucking and then dumping me.
No matter how many times he’d made me come.
I tried to explain the problem as politely as I could — minus the bit about the one night stand and multiple orgasms. “It isn’t taken care of, Mr. Darling, because I haven’t discussed it.”
I felt the brief caress of his shielded gaze directed at my breasts and then he smiled again. Reaching along his belt, he unclipped his phone, slid it open and started thumbing at the keypad. “Please, call me Phil.”
His head was tilted down as he stared at the keyboard. He looked up at me over the black frames of his sunglasses, his speckled blue irises haloed by a ring of dark gray. “Noah said you’d argue with me, said to tell you this is Mike’s rate and-”
“You know my brother?”
“You don’t remember?” Smiling wider, he pushed his sunglasses up to rest on the top of his head. “Used to live on Madison, went by my stepdad’s last name — Wilkins.”
I shook my head. Even as a teenager, Noah had been the only one of Mike’s friends I’d ever paid attention to.
“Well, I sure remember you, Miss Patty Harper.” I felt another sweep of casual interest emanating from his blue gaze and then he looked back down as a new message popped onto his screen. Reading it, he gave a little chuckle. “I’m also supposed to make you feel guilty about my coming out here on my day off to get this installed.”
Great, Noah could answer Darling’s text immediately but I was still waiting on a reply to mine two hours later.
“Fine.” I surrendered with a soft growl. Noah knew exactly how to push my buttons — in bed and out. That didn’t mean I couldn’t argue money with him later. “I still need an invoice.”
He shook his head. “I’m not authorized to give you one.”
Oh, the hell he wasn’t! “It’s my house-”
Darling shrugged like he wanted to help me out but couldn’t. Glaring at him, I stepped forward, holding the screen door open so he could enter.
Instead of walking past me, he reached one thick arm up and grabbed the top of the door. Looking down at me, he smiled. “Ladies first.”
I went inside, forcing myself not to stomp around like a two year old having her third temper tantrum of the day. “Do you need any assistance?”
When he didn’t answer immediately, I turned to look at him. I had on a short sun dress, black with white polka dots, and he was staring at my legs. I didn’t blame him, they’re shapely but somewhat out of place on a body with broad hips, a full bottom and rounded arms. Still, it wasn’t very professional of him and I cleared my throat, drawing his gaze up to mine at last.
“I asked if you need any assistance.” My voice didn’t sound the least bit annoyed and I allowed myself a small smile. Playing nice with Phil Darling would be good practice for ignoring Noah the next time he lowered himself to coming by.
Darling’s head moved in something that started as a negative shake but slid into a nod. When he spoke, his gaze sparkled and I felt my smile widen.
“Yeah, I could use a little help.”
Really, he didn’t, but I followed him around for twenty minutes pretending like it was a two-person job. I badly needed the experience of smiling at another man, pretending to flirt, acting like I’d never even heard of Noah Lodge let alone felt his lips on mine or surrendered to the hard, penetrating thrusts of his cock as he drove me on to my fifth orgasm.
If I could smile and convince Darling that I hadn’t had my heart broken that very morning, I could convince another man and the one after that. Eventually, I’d convince myself.
I was still smiling later when Darling rested one big hand against the wall, his palm pressed flat about a foot above my shoulder. Leaning in close to me, he confessed he’d wanted to ask me out a time or two growing up.
I arched a brow, my lips curling up in surprise. “Why didn’t you?”
“I always figured if Mike was going to let any of his friends date his baby sister, it would be Noah.” He laughed just as the unlocked front screen swung open.
I looked to my right to find Noah standing in the doorway, his body framed by sunlight, his face in shadows.
“I don’t think Mike would mind.” I pushed off from the wall, offering Darling one last smile before I pointedly ignored Noah and headed into the kitchen.
The next few minutes were filled with the low rumble of male voices as Darling explained to Noah the work he’d done and answered questions on how the security system functioned. The whole scene was ridiculous — Noah wouldn’t be turning the alarm on or off. Hell, after Darling left and I reset the pass code, Noah wouldn’t even know what it was. But he sure sounded like he would — he sounded exactly as if it was his security system, his house, his family.
The word rose unbidden in my mind, quickly followed by the memory of his voice last night as he had said it.
Mine. Mine to protect. Mine to…
I gave an angry shake of my head, forcing myself not to listen or care what Noah was saying in the next room. He hadn’t finished his sentence last night but it was all too clear this morning what he’d left unsaid.
Fuck and dump.
That’s what he’d done. Fucked me. Thoroughly. Even now, angry as I was, the memory made me wet and aching for him. I swiped a sponge along the kitchen counter, scrubbing at a dot that was nothing more than a fleck of metal in the polished granite top.
“Dude, you look like you’re going to clock me-” Darling’s statement broke my concentration.
Both men were almost down to a whisper, their voices strained.
“You were flirting with her.”
“Noah, I didn’t realize-”
Darling’s voice dropped even lower, the words almost indistinguishable. “I mean, I thought you were just taking care of Mike’s little sister.”
Noah cleared his throat, his tone sounding almost normal to someone who didn’t know him like I did. “I am.”
“I meant…you know — is that all you’re doing?”
Noah answered too low for me to hear it. Three seconds later the front screen banged shut and he was gone.
I ate my southwestern bean pie alone — not even the prospect of a future date with Phil Darling on the horizon.
I was okay with that. I wasn’t attracted to him, hadn’t been remotely attracted to any man other than Noah for a good three years. I’d felt like a liar on every one of my dates over that time period and I didn’t want to lie to Phil.
Or lie with him.
I knew, however, I was going to have to find some guy to fuck Noah out of my system — some guy other than my brother’s old high school buddy. It was going to take a lot of fucking to erase last night. More than one man. Maybe more than one at a time. I had it that bad — for so very long — and last night had made it a hundred times worse.
Sighing, I cleared the table, made the cup of hot chocolate I’d missed out on the evening before and crawled back into bed with a fresh sketchbook.
No zombies this time. Instead, I drew my body from memory. My thighs, my calves, the full hips, the almost narrow waist and pert C cups, my pale auburn hair flowing down to cover my nipples in a faint nod to modesty.
It was a beautiful body — at least it was on paper. I didn’t know how it appeared to Noah. Judging by his dates, he seemed to prefer smaller women. Scowling, I started to draw a line through the picture but stopped before the pencil reached the first curve of flesh.
I pulled an eraser from my case, obliterating the harsh line. Noah might or might not have a problem with how I looked — but I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I’d grown up with a big, beautiful mother my father had worshipped with his dying breath — I wasn’t going to tarnish that memory by hating what I saw in the mirror.
Too bad my parents belonged to another generation, one raised before sub-zero sizing had become standard in the department stores.
“Fuck.” I tossed the eraser and pencil into the case, then dropped it and sketchbook on the floor. I turned off the light and rolled onto my side, trying to remind myself that I didn’t give a damn if Noah Lodge thought I was beautiful, or smart or talented or anything other than his best friend’s sister or the plump chick three doors down.
I was done with him — as done with him as he obviously was done with me.
Reminding myself a hundred times over, I finally fell asleep.
Shouting woke me around midnight. Shouting and screams.
Horrible, horrible screams — the kind they had tortured us with in those driver’s ed movies in high school, pictures of teenagers in mangled cars flashing on the overhead screen, their arms bent at odd angles, mouths open in pain, the volume turned all the way up.