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More Than Crave You by Shayla Black (1)

CHAPTER ONE

Evan

Seattle, Washington

Thursday, November 2

Successful young entrepreneur seeks wife, business hostess, and sexual partner. Ideal candidate is between twenty-two and thirty, polished, intelligent, organized, educated, and attractive. No children or romance. Sense of humor optional. Must relocate to Hawaii.

As I read the words I printed moments ago, I make my way to my assistant’s desk. “What do you think?”

When I hand Nia Wright the page, she scans it, then scowls at me with incredulous dark eyes. “A personal ad? This is how you’re going to replace Becca?”

I pluck the paper from her grasp, jaw clenched. “No one can replace her.”

My wife and unborn child were killed in a car accident just over six months ago. Since I turned sixteen, Becca was my constant. Without her, the penthouse we shared feels too quiet. I have no one to talk to. My sex drive is raging. I’m empty.

I’m lost.

“So why would you try with a stranger?” Nia shakes her head.

She asks a fair question, and I’m forced to reexamine my original conclusion. But no. The answer still seems obvious.

“Training one woman to fulfill my corporate and personal needs, then compensating her with money and job security seems far more logical than paying a handful of contractors who aren’t invested in our business relationship.”

I could do that, of course. At almost twenty-seven, I helm a growing company that’s worth over a billion dollars, so money isn’t the problem. But hiring five people to do what one can seems inefficient and wasteful. Illogical. Imbecilic. And while I don’t have a moral problem paying a professional and see little difference between engaging a chef or a prostitute for their services, Becca would have seen it very differently. Yes, she would want me to move on. Until now, I haven’t. But I would never intentionally disgrace or dishonor my wife.

“Do you think having a stranger beside you will really improve your quality of life?” Nia asks pointedly.

It’s a calculated risk, but one I’m prepared to take. “I don’t think it can be worse.”

She scoffs at me like I’m an idiot. From any other employee I wouldn’t abide the insubordination. Nia is different. She’s repeatedly proven she’s both loyal and levelheaded—two qualities I require. I value her opinion; it’s the reason she’s my right hand in all things related to Stratus Solutions, the tech infrastructure powerhouse I started six years ago with nothing but twenty-five hundred dollars, a little hardware, my coding skills, and serious grit.

“Then you haven’t thought this through. And your ad is a lie.”

It’s my turn to scowl. “What? Every word is true.”

With a sigh, she stands and snatches the page from my hand once more. “What this should say is: Brilliant workaholic seeks June Cleaver in the living room and Lolita in the bedroom. Ideal candidate is a supermodel who’s mute until I require her to serve guests or service me. No risk of emotional entanglements. Must be at my beck and call.”

Okay, maybe there’s a smidgeon of truth to her version of the ad. “Somehow, I suspect that would bring in far fewer responses.”

“You think?” She rolls her eyes. “The whole idea is inane. The way this reads, I don’t know whether to post it on eHarmony or LinkedIn.”

“If I want the right woman for the job, I have to outline all the duties I expect her to perform so I can find the most qualified candidate.”

Nia huffs at me. “You’re talking about marriage, not a middle manager. Why not take someone you know on a date? See if you like them. Spend a few months together, figure out if you’re suited for a deeper relationship. Use the time to get over Becca. Why are you shaking your head at me?”

“I intend to be married before Christmas. Everything in my non-work life is a disaster, and I’m too busy preparing for the move to Maui and fending off this hostile buyout to clean it up.” Best leave tidying my mess at home to a professional. “So I want you to place this ad everywhere you can think of today, screen all the replies, then give me a slate of the most qualified applicants by next Friday.”

She braces her hands on her hips, which are covered by a snug charcoal skirt. “You want me to help you pick this wife?”

I’m confused by her question—and her obvious displeasure. “It makes sense. You know me well, and you’re an excellent judge of character.”

“Have you ever been on a dating site?”

“Of course not.” Until Becca’s death, I was happily married.

“Do you have any idea how many crazies and gold-diggers an ad like this is going to attract?”

“I’m socially awkward, not naive. Of course I do. That’s why I’m lucky to have a savvy woman like you.”

Nia sits stiffly. “Fine. I’ll get it done. But really, have you at least thought about trying to date someone in your social circle? Someone you know isn’t crazy?”

“Who would that be? You’re the only single female I know who meets my list of qualifications. And you’re dating”—I snap my fingers, trying to remember the name of her latest boyfriend—“Brett?”

“Brick,” she corrects.

As in dumber than? I haven’t met him; she didn’t bring him to the company picnic this summer. But he sounds like a douchebag.

“Him. Sorry. I can never remember who you’re seeing.” It changes so quickly.

“I broke up with him in June.”

That explains why she didn’t mind working more hours over the summer. “I’m surprised. You said he was smart, ambitious, and well-employed.”

“He is. But he was a lot of talk and not much action.”

I frown. “He didn’t follow through on his promises?”

“Do I have to spell it out?” She sighs. “Brick sucked in bed.”

“Oh.” I clear my throat, trying to imagine Nia naked with this guy. I can’t. She’s pretty, I guess. Exotic. Her skin is a pleasing cocoa shade. She’s got the kind of curves often photographed for the purpose of rousing a man’s libido. I’ve simply never thought about my assistant like that. It’s unprofessional. I won’t start now. “Next time, remind me not to ask about things that are none of my business.”

Workplace harassment is such a hot-button topic. I’d rather not be sued for discussing inappropriate things in the office. But I also value Nia as an assistant and a human being, too. I don’t want her to think I’m not listening if she has something to say.

“No.” She waves my words away. “I got too personal. Sorry. I haven’t had anyone to talk to and…” She sighs. “I wish I understood men. Since I never had one to figure out growing up, I feel like I’m forever confused.”

Nia doesn’t like to talk about her father. He wasn’t a part of her childhood. He impregnated her mother, who worked for him, then bought the woman off when she broke the news of his impending fatherhood. Her mother raised Nia alone, not marrying or even dating seriously before tragically succumbing to a case of the flu two years ago.

“I doubt I’ll be much help.” I’m aware that I function differently than most men. They thrive on competitive sports, beer chugging, and dirty jokes. I much prefer a good mental challenge, fine scotch, and video games. “You don’t date my type. I was called a brainiac and a computer nerd growing up. But I drew the line at Dungeons and Dragons.”

My quip somehow makes her laugh. “Good to know you have boundaries. It’s just…some guys really seem to forget there’s another person in the bed. Hell, in the relationship. I’ve done some soul searching since I ditched Brick, and I’ve decided I’m not dating guys I barely know anymore. We have to be friends first.” Surprisingly, she wraps her fingers around my shoulder. “Which is something you should consider, rather than placing an ad. Don’t marry just anyone. You’ll be miserable. Why don’t you let me help with your disorganization? It will give you some time to find a more permanent solution. You know I love whipping a good mess into shape.”

“That’s generous, but I don’t expect you to cook or clean for me after you’ve worked all day, too. Grocery shopping and running errands aren’t in your job description, either.”

Plus, there’s the sex issue. I glance at Nia again. She’s actually more than pretty, now that I’m actually looking. She’s beautiful. Striking. Taking her to bed wouldn’t be a hardship.

And I really need to get off this train of thought.

“It’s not a big deal. I need to cook for myself anyhow. It’s actually easier to toss dinner together for two. I can show you how to grocery shop online. Cleaning up…I’ll tackle what I can, teach you how to manage some yourself, and help you hire out the rest. We’ll figure out the other errands. The dry cleaning should be simple since we use the same one, right?” When I nod, she goes on. “See? We got this.”

“I appreciate you trying to—”

“Save you from getting into a rebound relationship with someone who will probably make you miserable.” She squeezes my shoulder one more time before letting go. “That’s what I’m doing because you deserve more. Don’t you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who will actually care about you?”

Maybe that will matter eventually. Right now, I can only see my current slew of problems and the fact I’m not dealing well with them. Of course, she’s phrased the question so I’ll sound like an idiot if I say no. And maybe I am. Becca often had to explain her brand of logic to me since my emotional IQ is apparently something close to my shoe size. But Nia and I have similar problems, though in reverse. She doesn’t understand men because she grew up without a father, and I barely remember my own mother, who died when I was five. None of my foster families filled in the gaps. So females confuse me. I’m not saying I’ve never made a decision based on feelings…but I’ve done it fewer than five times in my life. Daily? I couldn’t handle that.

“I don’t expect you to take care of me outside the office, Nia.”

“If it will keep you from making the biggest mistake of your life, I will.” Then she sends me a coaxing smile. “Let me cook tonight. I’ll make some of my great-aunt’s famous New Orleans gumbo…”

Nia brought the spicy, soupy heaven to an office potluck once, and my taste buds instantly fell in love. Besides, I haven’t had a home-cooked meal in months. “Your bargaining tactics are cutthroat.”

She shrugs as if she can’t help herself. “I learned from the best.”

That’s true. Nia has paid attention through every step of the negotiations my college buddy and current CFO, Sebastian Shaw, and I have taken with cash-rich Colossus Investment Corporation. I’ve declined their three offers. The first two simply failed to offer me market value for my cutting-edge data storage technology. The most recent buyout approached fair…but still wasn’t lucrative enough.

With a sigh, I give in to my assistant. I’ve never been good at saying no to Nia, especially when she presses on my weak spots. My stomach is definitely one. “All right. I appreciate the help and the meal.”

“While the gumbo is simmering, we’ll tackle some of the projects around your place and hopefully start getting your life back in order.”

“Thanks. I’m lucky to have you in my corner. Who knew that hiring a girl with moxie straight out of college would be one of the best things I ever did?”

Nia’s smile seems to brighten everything around her. “Who knew that taking a chance on a newish but growing company with a ridiculously intelligent founder would end up so great?”

For the first time in what feels like forever, I relax. “I’m assuming gumbo takes a while to cook. So what time should I leave here?”

“If I get all the ingredients prepped and on your stove by five-thirty, we’ll be eating about eight. That all right?”

Actually, it will be perfect. I can barely remember the last time I didn’t spend an evening alone. “Sure.”

“See you at your place then.”

“Thanks.”

If anything, her smile widens. “It’s my pleasure.”

When I arrive at home, it’s almost six. Nia is waiting in front of my door with bags of food and a big cooking pot at her feet. She’s dressed in a gray sweatshirt that clings to her shape, along with a matching pair of leggings that hug her from thigh to ankle. I stop. I’ve rarely seen her in casual clothes, and never in anything this formfitting. The effect is nothing like her usual suit with skirts and silky blouses. She looks relaxed. Female. Lush. I gulp. No wonder she’s never lacking for dates.

I shove the thought aside.

“Sorry I’m late.” I rush from the elevator, opening my door with one hand and scooping up bags of groceries with the other. “I’ll get those.”

I feel more than vaguely guilty that she carried everything up by herself. Becca always did the same, and I hated that I was never around to help. But Nia is volunteering to organize my life. I can’t repay her by being a slacker or seeming like an ungrateful asshole.

“No problem,” she insists as she follows me inside, then gasps.

I’m not surprised. The place looks like a hurricane hit it. She’s only ever been here to drop off work when I was sick. Becca insisted on personally keeping this place spotless back then; she couldn’t tolerate chaos of any kind and wanted control of her surroundings. After my OCD wife was gone, I didn’t have any clue or inclination how to keep the house the way she had.

I lead Nia to the kitchen. She sets the pot on the stove, then turns in a circle, hands on her hips. “You weren’t kidding. This is a wreck.”

I wince, aware that just about every dish I own is piled in the sink. The overflow clutters the counters. I probably shouldn’t spring my bedroom and bathroom on her, too. “Unfortunately, no.”

“Okay…” She sets her purse aside, gets the gumbo heating, then pushes up her sleeves. “Do you know how to start the dishwasher?”

“I’m sure I could figure it out.”

“But you haven’t tried?”

I shake my head. “No.”

Until a couple of weeks ago, I spent all my time at the office. It kept me from thinking about how empty my house was. Since the terrible April day Becca perished, I’ve spent as little time here as possible to avoid the reality that I’m alone. I plump up the pillows in bed beside me to mimic the feel of her taking up space in our king-size bed. I even downloaded an app to simulate the sounds of her breathing beside me. Lately, it’s working less and less. Most nights, I stare at the dark ceiling and try to come up with a logical answer to the emptiness around me. The wife idea still seems like the best solution.

“I’ll…um, look into that while you tell me where you placed my ad.”

Nia hesitates, then reaches for the faucet and flips it on. “I haven’t had a chance yet. Most dating sites want you to fill out a profile, not give them a couple of sentences about your prospective mate.”

“Profile?” That sounds tedious and time-consuming.

“Yes. After all, you’re not the only person selecting someone from the database; a woman has to choose you in return, based on your answers to the questions. Prospective dates looking at your information will want to know what your interests are, what you like to do with your downtime, what your religious and spiritual philosophies are, how your best friends would describe you and—”

“I’m looking to hire a wife, not begin an actual romantic relationship. A dating profile would be a complete waste of my time.”

She shakes her head as she begins washing out the dishes in the sink. “Well, not doing it cuts down on your possibilities. Would you prefer an overseas mail-order bride?”

“I don’t have the patience to deal with government bureaucracy and paperwork. I want someone already in the country legally.”

She sighs. “I was kidding, and the fact you thought I was serious is scary. I’ll do what I can, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Put the glasses on the top rack of the dishwasher.”

I do as she instructs with a frown. “I can’t possibly be the only wealthy man with this problem.”

“Evan, seriously? Most already have wives and are looking for a lay on the side.”

She has a point. “Maybe I should call Harlow, Keeley, and Britta.”

“You know I applaud you for getting to know your newfound family, but you met your sister and your brothers’ wives six months ago. Do they know you well enough to help you find a woman who can make you happy?”

I tracked my long-lost siblings down during a relocation scouting trip to Hawaii. Despite the fact my siblings and I share a biological father, they’re still somewhat like strangers, but… “They already live in Maui and probably have single friends.”

“They don’t know who you are, what you want, or what you’ve been through.” She shuts off the water to face me. My face must tell her I don’t care about any of that because she sighs. “Besides, if you wait until you move to Maui to meet someone, you won’t be married by Christmas.”

“I’m going for Thanksgiving in a few weeks. I’ll ask them to introduce me then.”

“You’re really serious about finding someone right now?”

“I’m serious about filling the position of wife as soon as possible.”

Exasperation fills her face. “Then let me handle it. I’ll figure something out quickly.”

I shake my head. “If you’ll simply screen the candidates, I’ll take it from there.”

“I’m worried what—or who—you’ll come up with if I leave you to your own devices.”

Nia might have a point. My interpersonal skills suck. I was lucky Becca understood me and didn’t have romantic expectations.

“All right. I’ll give you until Thanksgiving to find me someone. But I still want that ad placed as backup.”

“Fine.” She doesn’t sound fine with it at all, but focuses instead on showing me how to scrape off the crusted food from my dirty dishes, then place them in the dishwasher. “How is it you never figured out how to clean your own kitchen? Didn’t you ever live alone?”

I laugh. “For eight disastrous months before I got married. After that, Becca did everything.”

“None of your foster families made you load a dishwasher?” She sounds shocked.

“Nope. I did other chores, but I blocked out a lot of my life before I went to live with Diana. As long as I kept her old cottage in working order, she took care of what little cleaning got done.”

The day I turned eighteen, I packed my bags and left my foster mother’s house. Diana was great, the closest thing to a mom I have left, but once the state stopped paying her to look after me, she didn’t need a financial burden under her roof. There aren’t many jobs in rural Washington State, especially for a starving artist who’s never held a job longer than six months. Besides, she swears that she and the wind are conjoined twins, so she goes wherever her sister takes her. Since she gave me a much-needed, if off-beat, home for six years, I now give her financial security so she can breeze across the world.

“Growing up, Mom and I took turns with the chores. Her motto was that doing everything for me wouldn’t teach me how to fend for myself. That’s why I can both cook and do some home repair. Now, I’m going to help you.” She holds up a casserole dish. “What did you make in here?”

“Nothing. One of my neighbors brought me lasagna shortly after Becca’s funeral.” I probably should have washed and returned it, but I didn’t want to spend any more time in Becca’s kitchen than I had to. Her absence simply reminds me too much of the fact I’m alone.

“You know, if doing dishes were more like rocket science, you’d probably understand it better.”

“No doubt you’re right,” I admit wryly.

“Put some dish soap and hot water in this, then set it on the counter to soak.” Nia shoves the dish in my hand.

A thick layer of black and green crusts the bottom. “It looks like something that belongs in a Petri dish.”

“It totally does.” She rolls her eyes, but there’s a smile hovering at the corners of her lips.

I smile back, then finally remember that I have a few manners. “Wine?”

Nia turns to me with raised brows. “You have some?”

“Yeah.” I don’t mention that most are bottles people have given to me over the years—birthdays, corporate events, congratulations on a great year/new offices/coming baby sort of thing. I simply open the pantry door. “I’ve got a collection. Take a look.”

She strolls toward the mostly empty shelves. “Keep working on that pile of dishes. We should probably have some zippy white with chicken and seafood for dinner, but I love me a good red. Merlot it is. That okay?”

“I guess. I’ve never tried it.” Becca didn’t drink, and I only imbibe when I’m hanging out with Sebastian.

“I’m beginning to think my mission in life is to expand your horizons.”

I only know random details about Nia’s past. She grew up in Georgia, then decided she wanted a totally different experience while she pursued higher education, so she applied to institutions in the northeast and northwest, finally deciding to attend the University of Washington. She graduated with honors in four years with a degree in communication and a minor in business administration while holding down crappy minimum-wage jobs. She filled the summers of her college years with adventures—backpacking through Europe and building clean-water facilities for rural South American villages. For graduation, she saved up for an epic trip, journeying to Africa by herself to see the other side of the world. I give her tons of credit, especially since I don’t step out of my shell much.

“If anyone could, it’s you.”

She looks proud of herself as she wags a finger at me. “Don’t you forget it. Corkscrew?”

I shrug.

“I’ll look around. You keep washing.”

I hear her rummaging through drawers, muttering softly to herself as I continue to work at the mountain of glass and china that’s been stacking up for months. At least the stove is relatively clean since I’ve hardly used it.

“Ah-ha!” After some clinking and rattling, she holds up the implement, triumphant. “Found it.” Moments later, she has the bottle open and she’s poured some into two clean glasses. “What should we toast to?”

“Me getting my act together?”

“Other than this domestic mess, no one has their act more together than you. How about…new possibilities?”

Like a clean house and a new wife? “To new possibilities, then.”

We clink glasses and sip. It’s not awful, actually. I’m surprised.

For the next two hours, we talk about work and fix the abysmal state of my living room while I try to ignore the spices wafting through the place and making my stomach rumble. Becca preferred bland food, but I like something with kick. What Nia is simmering smells divine.

By the time it’s ready, she’s reorganized half my cabinets, directed me on how to scrub my refrigerator from top to bottom, and sorted months’ worth of magazines and mail off the kitchen table and into either the trash or my home office.

My penthouse is beginning to feel something approaching normal again. But it’s not home anymore.

I swallow a bite of gumbo and peer across the table at Nia. I realize that I know her…but I don’t. She’s told me an assorted collection of her facts and memories, but I don’t know the kinds of things that belong in her dating profile. I don’t know what makes her tick.

“Uh-oh,” she mutters and washes down a bite with her wine. “You’re staring at me like I’m a problem you have to solve. That scares me.”

I laugh. “I’m not going to add you to my project list when I get back in the office tomorrow.”

“Thank god.”

Again, I stare at her. I’m used to seeing Nia five days a week. But have I ever really looked at her?

“You know, I was thinking earlier…” she begins. “It’s going to be weird come January, when you’ve relocated to Maui. You won’t be in the office beside my desk anymore. If I have a question, you’ll be far more than a few steps away.”

I didn’t think about it like that. Working remotely has never been a problem for us; we’ve done it when I’ve traveled. But suddenly I’m wondering whether having Nia twenty-six hundred miles away makes sense. I rely on her for so much. “You have a point.”

“Maybe…you don’t have to move that far away.”

I’ve considered this thoroughly. It might be one of the five emotional decisions I’ve made in life. “I can’t stay in Seattle.”

Too much history. Too many memories. No real connections…except maybe to Nia. Suddenly, I’m loath to leave her behind.

Her face softens. “Maybe if you sold this place and found another—”

“The only family I have left lives in Maui.”

“I know, but do you have to move near them? They’re all recently married and getting ready to have babies. Will being around a bunch of expectant newlyweds really make you feel less alone?” When I frown, she holds up her hands. “Sorry. I said too much. Of course, they’re your family, and it’s your call.”

“I understand the move seems sudden to you. But my mind is set.”

She nods, not exactly thrilled but accepting. “What I should say is, if you decide you’d work better with me in Hawaii, then when you move, I’ll go, too. I know you said I don’t have to relocate, but…”

I didn’t ask because she has a life here. Because she was always involved with someone. Because it didn’t seem necessary. And maybe because Becca always insisted I’d benefit from a more experienced assistant. Whatever the reason, I’m now rethinking my decision to leave Nia behind.

“Just putting it out there,” she says, staring into her wineglass. “I mean, since you’re taking Sebastian—”

“I couldn’t have stopped him from coming if I tried. He hates the gray and the rain here.” And I suspect I’ll miss them. They suit me, especially these last six months.

“Yeah, he’s been vocal about that.”

“Thanks for volunteering to come along. I’ll give that some serious thought.”

“Whatever works for you.” She shrugs. “I don’t have any family or specific reason to stay, so…why not?”

We finish dinner, sharing the rest of the bottle and some comfortable business conversation. By the time we push away from the table, it’s shortly after nine. The moon hangs like a big silver orb over my insane view of the Space Needle and Elliott Bay. I’ll miss this scenery, but I’m confident that Maxon and Griff, my two half brothers who are successful Realtors in Maui, will find me something equally stunning.

Nia begins to clear the table, and I follow suit, helping her stack everything in the sink. She puts the lid on the pot of gumbo and shoves it in the refrigerator. “There’s enough leftovers for you to eat another meal or two. I’m going to let you do the dishes so you can practice your new skills.”

I know it’s good for me, but… “Am I supposed to appreciate that?”

She laughs, and I’m struck by the glow of the moonlight on her dark, gleaming skin. By the flash of white teeth against her rosy lips, by the fall of her fat, loose curls cascading over her shoulders and toward the plump breasts I never really realized she had before this moment.

Shit. I have to stop thinking about those. About her. I’m her boss; our interaction can’t be personal.

“I know you won’t, but think of this as tough love,” she joked. “Now…do I even want to know the last time you changed your sheets?”

Her question makes me freeze. I’m sure I look somewhere between lost and ashamed. The truth is, Becca changed them two days before she died, and I’ve never had the gumption to take them off. I thought about it, but every time I tried, I felt like I was ripping another reminder of her out of my life. Even months after her death, Becca can still inspire guilt in my technically geared heart.

“Don’t ask,” I admit finally.

“Do you know how?”

Vaguely. “Yes.”

Nia cocks her head as if she’s reading me. After three years as my “work wife,” I have a terrible feeling she actually can. “Do you want me to do it?”

I swallow, then nod. Becca is gone and she isn’t coming back. Keeping her sheets on the bed won’t change that. “Please. I’ll find a clean set.”

“All right.” She follows me down the hall. “I’ll stick the dirty ones in the washer before I go.”

“Trash them.” I don’t want to see them again. And I won’t be taking them to Hawaii.

Everything there will be new, never touched by Becca.

“If you’re sure… What about the rest of your laundry?”

I’m surprisingly embarrassed to admit that I’ve been ordering new pairs of underwear and socks every week. Most everything else goes to the dry cleaners. “If you’ll show me how to work the washer and dryer, I’ll do it.”

“I’ll get you started,” she assures softly as we reach the bedroom I once shared with my wife and flip on the light. “Whoa.”

Yeah, spread across the room is a jungle of shoes, neckties, socks, and T-shirts. “It’s a disaster. I know.”

This used to be my haven, my favorite spot to read one last report before bed or watch TV on the weekends. Now, I hate to come in here. Every time I do, Becca haunts me. Tonight, the sensation is strong. I feel guilty for being so eager to leave this place behind.

“Well, the good news is, it’s fixable.”

“Thank you. Really,” I murmur, feeling an odd urge to…I don’t know. Hug her? No, something more, but physical contact is not an appropriate way to express my appreciation to my assistant. Besides, what’s rolling through my head now is muddier. My urge to be closer to her isn’t strictly professional, and I don’t understand. “I’ll leave you to it and do the dishes.”

Nia nods as I go. After I rinse off tonight’s bowls, I tuck away the last of the pans we washed by hand earlier. Then I empty the dishwasher, only to fill it up again. I’m not really sure where any of the clean stuff belongs, so I shove everything somewhere and hope I can find it again.

In that thirty minutes, she’s organized my room, remade my bed, and started my laundry. As I begin down the hall, I can hear her muttering to herself. It’s nice to have someone else in the house. She’s been good company. I’ll hate to see her leave. But soon she’ll have to head home. She’s already gone above and beyond. I can’t insist on her company until exhaustion finally takes me somewhere around two a.m. And as questionable as my thoughts about her tonight have been, I don’t know what would happen. It’s better if I let her go.

Even as I tell myself that, I walk into the bedroom for more of her company. And I stop short when I get an eyeful of Nia.

She’s on her elbows and knees, obviously searching for something. All I can see is her bent over. Her soft, round ass fills my vision. In that instant, I want to sink my hands—my teeth—into that.

Holy shit.

I stop breathing. I stop blinking. A lightning bolt of lust jolts me. I can hear my jagged heartbeat suddenly thudding in my ears.

It’s been nearly two hundred days since I’ve had sex. I see beautiful women all the time. Seattle is full of them. Hell, Stratus Solutions is, too. Since Becca’s death, some of her lithe, lanky yoga friends have even hinted they’d be interested in comforting me with more than a homemade casserole and a hug. I haven’t truly been tempted.

Until now.

With a huff, Nia tosses her hair back and sits on her heels. Her thin gray sweatshirt rides up, the band at the bottom circling her tiny waist, accentuating her curves. Her hair, which she usually has pinned up in some complicated twist at the office, falls in ebony waves halfway down her back.

Suddenly, she whirls around. I should look away…but I can’t. She’s flushed. Her eyes are bright. And a goddamn strip of her smooth, bare abdomen shows below the hem of her shirt, flirting with my overloaded senses. I gulp and hope she can’t see how hard my cock is. For her.

I need to think of something to say—fast.

Nia rescues me. “Do you know how many socks are under your bed?”

I press my lips together and try to pry my thoughts off her body. When I attempt to focus on her question, the shock of my sudden attraction has my brain boomeranging away from the clutter and back to all the things I can suddenly picture doing with her. To her.

Somehow, I manage to shake my head. “No idea.”

That’s my honest answer. I have no idea what’s going on. Why this is happening. What I’m going to do next.

She scoffs. “You must have tossed them under here at some point. I’ve managed to find what I can. Once the washing is done, you’ll probably fall a few pairs short. Oh, and did you know there’s some painting canvases under the bed?”

“Yes.” I try not to flush.

“Were they Becca’s?”

They’re mine. Diana taught me to paint as a teenager. I used to find it soothing. When I couldn’t sleep or when I couldn’t solve a business problem, something about turning off the analytical half of my brain and focusing purely on the creative when no one was watching and there were no rules to follow would free up my subconscious enough to untangle my dilemma.

All that ended when Becca perished. A few brush strokes across the canvas weren’t going to change the fact that she was gone. My will to dig for what little creativity I possess dried up. I shoved everything under the bed and left it there for good.

I don’t lie to Nia. Instead, I simply shrug. “I’ll move them later and see if I find any socks underneath.”

“Okay.” She stands, a handful of mismatched socks in her grip. “I’ll toss these in the hamper. They can go in the next load.”

We make our way to the laundry room, her talking about water temperature and me trying not to fixate on the sway of her pretty ass.

A few minutes of torturous laundry talk later, she meanders back to the living room. I can’t take my eyes off her as I follow. When she stops, I do, too. And I realize I’m standing closer than I should. My breathing becomes harsh as I watch her turn in a slow circle and take in her handiwork.

“This looks better.” She nods, seemingly pleased.

“A lot. Thank you for everything.”

“Happy to help. Can I do anything else for you tonight?”

She can’t possibly mean that the way it sounds. I only hear suggestion because I suddenly have sex on the brain. Still, how do I answer?

“I, um…” Want to fuck you so bad.

Dear god, did I just think that?

“You what?” She looks somewhere between concerned and confused.

If I pushed her against the wall, laid my lips over her soft, pillowy ones, and kissed her hard until her frown melted away, what would she do?

The question makes me sweat.

“Nia, I—”

Before I can figure out what I’m going to say, the doorbell rings. I let out a long breath. Damn it. Since it’s nearly ten o’clock, that can only be Sebastian. I don’t know whether I’m cursing the fact he’s interrupting whatever might be developing between Nia and me or thanking god he’s come to save me from making a catastrophic mistake.

“Open up, loner.” Sebastian knocks on the solid wood between us. “I have a problem to discuss and a bottle with your name on it.”

Nia grabs her purse from the nearby chair. “Sounds like he does this a lot.”

“All the time.” I know he’s trying to make sure I don’t spend too much time alone. Usually, he’s a welcome distraction. Tonight, I wish he’d stayed home and watched the damn football game.

“Well, I’ll go and leave you to your guy time. If you think of anything else you need help with, let me know. I’m not busy tomorrow night.”

She doesn’t have a date on a Friday night? I’m both shocked and thrilled—and have no right to feel either. “I think I’ve got it now that you’ve helped me back on my feet.”

I have to say that because if I invite her over again, I’m worried I’ll tell her that I need help with my cock and she can best assist me by stripping and spreading her legs.

Yeah, that’s way past unprofessional, veering into lawsuit territory.

“Okay, then. See you in the morning.”

“Jesus,” Sebastian shouts. “Are you taking so long to come to the door because you’re shitting or masturbating?”

A laugh slips from Nia’s lips before she covers it with her hand. “I thought he was only impatient in the office.”

I shake my head and focus on replying now that Bas has totally killed the moment. “He’s far worse away from it.”

She winces. “Have fun with that. I’ll spend the rest of the evening doing something more fun than appeasing Bas. Tearing out my toenails comes to mind.”

“He’s not that bad.”

Nia raises a skeptical brow. “Uh-huh.”

“Oh, my god. Stop whacking your weenie and open the damn door.” Sebastian pounds on the wood.

“Shut up,” I call back, a smile lurking at the corners of my lips. “I’ll open it when I’m ready to.”

“Why don’t I save you the trouble?” She grasps the knob and turns, then yanks the door open. “Hi, Bas. Glad to see you’re behaving like your usual charming self.”

“Nia…” One of my best friends for the last decade says her name like she’s a welcome surprise. “I didn’t know you were here, especially so late.”

“I’m helping him.”

“Yeah? I can think of a few ways you could do that,” Bas drawls suggestively.

Despite the fact he’s not thinking anything different than I did a minute ago, he said it out loud. I find his suggestion disrespectful, out of line. Most likely, so does Nia. I won’t tolerate it.

“Get your mind out of the gutter,” I snap and shove him against the wall, teeth bared. “And shut. Up.”

Bas blinks and raises his hands in surrender. “Hey, I was teasing. I didn’t mean anything…”

My scathing glare thankfully motivates him to close his mouth.

I turn my attention back to Nia, who’s edged out the door. I can’t help myself. Before I think better of it, I reach out and cup her shoulder. Electric heat sizzles across my skin. My knees nearly buckle.

Shit.

“You all right? I can walk you to your car.”

Nothing should happen to her in the parking garage. It’s secure and open only to residents of my upscale building, but I don’t like her walking in the dark alone. I don’t want our evening to end like this.

I also don’t want to be apart from her.

“I’m fine. Good night.”

“Night, sweetheart,” Sebastian calls with a wave before he shuts the door behind her. The moment we’re alone, he leans against it with a raised brow. “So, how long have you been fucking Nia and how did I not know?”

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