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Washington DC (International Guy Book 9) by Audrey Carlan (1)

SKYLER

I hate running. I hate running. I hate running.

The standard chant flows through my mind as Nate and Rachel run alongside me, both flanking my body at a protective distance.

“We going for another mile or two?” Nate says with a grin, sweat running down the sides of his face and into the short, neat reddish-brown beard he’s taken to growing recently.

Rachel firms her lips into a grim line. “I can take it.” She hammers out a burst of energy so that Nate and I have to pick up the pace to catch up.

The building for my penthouse is in sight. “Are you two nuts?” I jog inelegantly and then come to a screeching halt, bending at the waist and resting my hands on my quivering, noodle-like quads. “Seriously, you two are trying to kill me.” I lift my hand and mimic a duck face talking. “Oh, let’s take a leisurely stroll, Sky. Jog a little. The weather’s great. It will be nice to work out outside. Uh-huh.” With extreme effort, I press my hand to my chest and attempt to control my breathing. Sweat trickles down my spine, and I flex my back and rub at the spot with my shirt.

Nate sets his hands on his waist. “A fit body is a healthy body.”

“And a healthy body is a tired body!” I say with a pout. “I’m pretty sure you’re trying to kill me. Death by running. Next time, chase me with a knife, will ya? I’m sure you’d get your extra mile in.” I turn on my Nike-sheathed toes and start walking fast to get ahead of the two hard bodies and their relentless workouts.

Rachel is unable to contain her giggling, which makes me glare and flip her off as I bolt at a fast trot toward the building where I now live in Boston.

“You said you wanted to be in fighting shape for the A-Lister Trilogy. I do believe that was you!” Rachel calls out, laughing, the two of them not more than five to ten feet from me at any given time.

“Grrr!” I see the coffee shop, Grounds, next to the building where my penthouse and the IG offices are right up ahead. Most of the time, the owner is working the counter along with the same barista. I’ve gotten to know them, given them both selfies and autographs so the newness of a celebrity living in the building next to their coffee shop has worn off. They’ve been really good about not making a big deal about seeing me either. Plus, they’ve allowed me to have a tab, which works for the times that my security team is trying to kill me and I don’t have any money on me.

Looking back at them, I open the door to Grounds and slam right into a firm chest. Iced tea splashes all over me and down my workout shirt, capris, and zip-up hoodie. “Shit!” I jump back and shake the ice from my shirt.

“I’m so, so sorry!” I cry out, then scramble to the ground to pick up the ice. “I’ll buy you a new one, right away. I wasn’t looking where I was going,” I mumble while grabbing at slippery pieces of scattered ice.

“Skyler?” a voice says with familiarity.

I glance up at the tall man and look into the green eyes of someone I recognize but can’t place. I frown and stand up, ice freezing my palms even as it melts.

“I’m sorry . . .” I shake my head and toss the ice into a nearby trash can.

Right behind me, Nate and Rachel come in. As the familiar person reaches to take my arm, Nate grabs the man’s forearm and pulls it behind his back and up between his shoulder blades in a move that would make Bruce Lee proud.

“Aaaahhhh! Let me go!” the man screeches, his body arching into the air in obvious pain.

I wave my hands. “No, no, no, Nate! I ran into him. And he’s . . . I know him. Please, drop him.”

“Let me go!” He shoulders Nate back, and eventually Nate lets him go but moves to stand in front of me, arms crossed, a total menace.

“Skyler and I are old friends.” The guy rolls his shoulder and rubs at his now sore hand and arm.

“This true, Sky?” Nate grumbles deep in his throat, sounding a bit animalistic, his eyes never leaving the man in front of us.

I bite into my lip and take in every one of the stranger’s facial features. Kind green eyes. Pointed nose. High cheekbones. Shaven jaw. A normal if unremarkable short haircut. Jeans and a polo. A regular guy if I ever saw one.

“I’m sorry, I don’t recall when we met.” I frown while mentally digging into my mind.

The man winces, his face taking on a hurt expression. “We’re the same, remember? You and me. Worked on that commercial together.” His brows furrow. “Yum yum, in my tum tum. Fun fun in the bun bun. Frosted Mini-Buns!” he sings jovially.

“Oh my goodness! The Mini-Buns cereal commercial! That was . . . wow, seventeen . . . eighteen years ago? I was eight!”

He smiles. “I was ten.” His response is said with bravado, as though his being two years older than me when I filmed a commercial seventeen years ago is something to be puffed up about.

“Uh, yeah.” I nod my head. “What’s your uh . . . I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name.”

The smile he’s sporting slips away, and his jaw firms. “Well, now that you’re so famous, it’s probably hard to remember old friends. It’s Ben. Benny Singleton.”

Benny Singleton. Ugh. Now I remember. My mother told me to stay away from him because the boy was always trying to kiss me in between takes. No eight-year-old girl wants to have a boy kiss her. Especially a gawky one who always smelled like maple syrup.

“Right, I totally remember now.” I playfully conk at my head. “Acting. You know how it is. Play so many parts you forget the real names of people.”

He purses his lips. “I guess.”

“Well, let me refresh your drink,” I offer with a smile, pointing toward the busy coffee counter.

He glances over my shoulder. “As long as your boyfriend keeps his big paws to himself. You know, he could have really hurt me.” He rubs at his arm and hand.

I snicker under my breath, which causes Benny to frown.

“Sorry.” I place my hand on his bicep in a friendly manner until he looks at the hand longingly, his green gaze darkening at the single touch. I snatch my hand away quickly. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

Benny’s corresponding smile is wide, revealing relief and maybe even anticipation.

“Bodyguard,” Nate grates through clenched teeth as he follows us up to the counter.

“Oh. That’s good.” He grins at me and licks his lips, his gaze moving to my mouth. “Real good.”

I suck in a huge breath, turn to the counter, and greet the barista. “Hey, Freddy, how goes it?”

“Can’t complain. The sky is blue, the coffee is hot, and the muffins are fresh baked. Unless you’d rather have tea . . .” He scans my sodden shirt and smirks. “Although I imagine you’ve had your fill today.”

I slump over, leaning on the high counter. “Ran into an old friend, spilled his drink everywhere. I’m sorry. There’s a huge wet spot.” I look over my shoulder and note Rachel is mopping it up with napkins. “Though it seems Rachel is cleaning it up for me. Can I get my usual, Nate’s cup of black nothingness, Rachel’s Americano with room for cream, and whatever my friend here just ordered? Oh, and two blueberry muffins.”

Benny’s eyes light up when I say the word friend. Ugh. I really need to take lessons on how not to encourage unwanted attention.

“Sky . . . ,” Nate warns when I add the muffins.

I turn around, my ponytail flying like a whip behind me. “I’m hungry.”

“Then eat something with protein in it,” he states flatly.

“You’re going to make me a protein drink when I get back, aren’t you?”

He narrows his gaze. “Yeah, I am, but that was supposed to go with your Egg Beater omelet. Not your blueberry-muffin, high-carb, high-fat, high-sugar treat.”

I turn back around to Freddy. “Make that two blueberry muffins and a banana nut!”

Nate groans from behind me.

“It has nuts in it. Nuts count as protein.” I gift him my best crooked smile.

“Yeah, a high-fat protein. Now you’re going to have to give me six extra air squats. And you may have to hold ten-pound dumbbells while you’re at it.”

I squint, pinch my lips together, and step up right to Nate’s furry, playfully scowling face. “You wouldn’t dare.”

He squints. “Try me. I’m not afraid of you. Remember who fired her personal trainer.” He reminds me of the requirement Parker made when we sealed the deal on our relationship. No sweat equity with a man I’d had sex with. Since Nate’s with me 24-7 anyway, it makes sense for him to train me.

“I hate you,” I hiss with mock agitation.

“You love me. More than that, you’re going to love how hard your ass will be when you step on the set of the next movie,” he fires back with a snarky grin.

“Shut up!” I stick my tongue out at him and realize that Nate and I are going on and on while Benny and Freddy watch. “Sorry, guys. Add it to my tab, Freddy?”

“Sure thing, Sky.”

Benny follows me over to the counter as the owner hands me the tea. I shift it over to Benny, hoping he’ll take the tea and leave. No dice.

He sucks on the straw loudly as the rest of our drinks come out along with my bag of goodies. My belly growls, and I walk over to an empty table and sit down. Benny follows. Nate joins Rachel at a table across from me. He starts to hand her the Americano. “Milk, baby?”

She nods.

Nate opens her drink and takes it over to a table set up with creamers, napkins, and other café needs. He pours in a small dose of milk, stirs it, and brings it back before settling his big body into the chair.

“Those two together?” Benny dips his head in the direction of their table.

I nod. “Yeah, they’re married and my security team.” I pull out a blueberry muffin, unwrap the side, and take a giant bite, locking eyes with Nate. “Mmm . . . so goofff,” I say through a mouth of carb heaven.

Nate smiles and shakes his head.

I am so going to pay for this, but it tastes so damn good.

As I’m chewing, I feel the air in the café ignite with electricity. I glance up, and my heart starts beating fast, and butterflies take flight in my stomach. Parker, in a gray suit, white dress shirt, and navy tie, is standing at the front of the café. He looks good enough to eat. I chew the mouthful of muffin as his eyes scan the place and settle on me. Once he sees me, he grins that devilish smile and saunters over to us.

The entire room shrinks down to nothing but my man. The pants cling to his muscular thighs, and the dress shirt stretches across the broad expanse of his chest. I lick my lips and lift my head up as he approaches.

“If he’s not your boyfriend, maybe you and I can . . .” Benny starts to speak, but I can barely focus on what he’s saying, I’m so intent on greeting my man.

“Hi, baby . . .” Parker reaches us, leans down to me, grasps my chin, and kisses me soundly on the mouth, nibbling on my bottom lip before pulling away. “Mmm. Blueberry and peaches. My favorite.” He winks before noticing the man sitting at my table. “Hi. Who are you?”

“Friend of Skyler’s. Benny.”

I want to tell Parker that Benny is not, in fact, my friend, but there will be time for that later. “Honey, I ran into Benny. Literally. Spilled his tea all over me.” Parker’s gaze runs down the front of my sodden shirt and back up to my face as I continue. “Then we realized that we’d been in a commercial together as kids. Can you believe that?”

Parker purses his lips and cocks an eyebrow. “Small world. Where are you from? Benny, is it?”

“Y-yeah. Um, not from around here, actually. Was in New York for a while. Now I’m here. I work in this building.” He points to the wall that’s shared with the building I live in and where the IG offices are located.

Park tips his head. “Really? I work in this building as well. Have never seen you.”

“Just started a few weeks ago,” Benny answers.

“Hmm.” Parker notes the bag of goodies and reaches for it with a smile.

“Yes, there’s a blueberry muffin in there for you. And a banana nut for Bo.” I glance at Nate and smile before focusing back on my guy. “Royce says he doesn’t do muffins or carbs for breakfast.”

Nate gives me a silent slow clap.

I make an ugly face at him, and he and Rachel laugh while sipping their drinks.

“Thanks, baby. I’ll walk you back home.”

I stand up, realizing this is Parker’s way of giving me an out. The moment I stand, he loops his arm around my hip and runs his hand down to cup my ass. “Getting even tighter.” He squeezes my glute firmly. “Nate, you’re workin’ my woman too hard. You know I like a little junk in the trunk.”

“See!” I point at Nate, and he shakes his head. “My man likes my ass just the way it is.”

“Let me remind you for the hundredth time: you were the one who wanted me to train you!” Nate responds with a note of exasperation.

“Uh, well, I can see that you’ve got some things to do.” Benny stands up. “It was nice seeing you, Skyler. Now that we’re in the same place, I hope to see you around.”

“Mm-hmm. Take care of yourself.” I snuggle against Parker’s chest as Benny finally leaves. “Ugh.”

“Guessing that was not one of your friends?” Parker kisses my forehead.

“No. We did a commercial together seventeen years ago, and he acted like we’ve known each other forever.”

Just when the words leave my mouth, I feel Parker tense up. He narrows his gaze and lifts his chin at Nate.

Nate shrugs. “I didn’t get any strange vibes from the guy, but it wouldn’t hurt to look into him. I’ll add his name to the list.”

This has me jerking my head back. “You think Benny is the weirdo sending me texts?”

Parker cups my cheeks. “I don’t know, but he did mention living in New York City, and now all of a sudden he lives here. Acts like he’s a better friend than you believe him to be?”

“That’s true. He did act overly familiar, but a lot of times people do that when they think they know someone.”

“Can’t hurt to look into him,” Nate repeats.

I shrug. “Whatever you guys say. I need to finish my muffin and coffee and get a shower, and then you two need to show me the goods you’ve been hiding on my texter.”

Parker loops his arm back around my waist and leads me out of the coffee shop and toward the entrance to our building. “It’s not that we’ve been hiding anything from you. We just thought—”

“You were protecting me. I get it, honey, and I’m not mad. I know you love me and want to keep me safe.”

He stops on the sidewalk and turns me to face him. His blue eyes look gray in the morning light. “I’d do anything to keep you safe. You’re my world.”

I lift up onto my tippy-toes and kiss him. “I know, but keeping me in the dark isn’t working anymore. Did you find out if Wendy can meet us?”

He nods. “Yeah, she says we should come over for dinner. Is that fine? I have a lunch meeting today with Andre, my headhunter, and a prospective new hire.”

“Oh, for the lawyer position?”

“Yeah.” He fingers his jacket and tie. “Do I look okay? Apparently, this person is a Harvard grad who then transferred to Georgetown University on a full scholarship and passed the bar exam with an outstanding score. She’s been working on Capitol Hill for the past few years but suddenly wants to move to Boston.”

“Honey, you look perfect. I’m sure you’re going to knock her socks off.”

He smiles and leads me into the building, through security, and into an elevator. “How about you guys let me off at my floor, and you can clean up and change. Then we can discuss the issue in my office before lunch. Sound good?”

Nate and Rachel, following us this whole time, both agree, and I nod as the car rises. Just as the elevator dings on the IG office floor, Parker kisses me swiftly and moves to leave. Annie is standing at the door, holding a bundle of mail in one arm.

“Hello, everyone,” she says sweetly.

“Hey, Annie,” I say. “Sorry, you got the car with the stinky bunch! We just got done with our run. We’re also going up.”

She waves her free hand. “No problem. I’ll just take it for a ride. Taking these to the mail room.” She gestures to the stack in her other arm. “Are you happy to be in Boston?”

“Yes! So happy. You know, I’ve only been here a short time, but coming home to Parker just feels right.”

Annie smiles wide as the elevator rises. “I’ll bet.”

“Do you have someone special?” I nudge her shoulder with my own.

Her cheeks pinken, and she fiddles with the mail. “Maybe. It’s new, and I don’t want to jinx it.”

“I can totally understand. Just don’t be afraid to have fun. Live a little.” I waggle my eyebrows at her, and she chuckles, dipping her head so her blonde hair falls around her face, covering her laughter.

The elevator dings at my floor. Rachel and Nate get out, even though their floor is one below mine. They never hit the button for their floor before they come into mine and do a walk-through to confirm it’s all clear.

As I exit the elevator, I suddenly get an idea and turn around to the skittish and rather shy woman. “You know, we should have lunch sometime.”

Annie’s blue gaze seems to widen. “Really?”

“Totally. You’re working with my man. We should be friends, don’t you think?”

“I’d love that,” she says, then gasps. “Oh my, my mom is going to keel over in shock.”

I chuckle and shake my head. “I’m just a normal woman in her twenties who doesn’t have a lot of friends in the area. I’d like it if we could be friends.”

Her shy smile turns bright. “Me too, Skyler. Me too.”

“Then it’s settled. We’ll confirm something this week.”

“Okay. I’d like that very much.” She beams, waves, and lets the elevator doors close.

I gesture to my place with a wave of my arm. “All right, you two, do your worst. I’ll wait here, bored out of my mind, while you do your search.”