Authors: Melissa Whittle
Tags: #aa romance, #series, #small town, #ptsd, #grief, #bakery, #coffee shop, #Alpha Hero Romance, #business partners, #Melissa Blue, #contemporary romance, #multicultural romance
“Why are you naked?” he asked.
If she hadn’t been listening for it, Emma might have missed the huskiness in his voice. “Long story.”
Emma glanced between him and Abigail. Is this what Cinderella felt like having to leave the Prince before midnight? They didn’t feel done, but that was insane because she’d just met him. No. You had to introduce yourself to officially meet someone.
“A story I would very much like to hear,” the man said.
She said a little incredulous, “Are you asking me on a date?”
“I’m asking for an explanation.”
Ok. Given the circumstance, she expected more…interest from this man. She was naked down to her Passion Pink toenail polish, but all he wanted was an explanation? His disinterest in her was a shame—no, a blessing in disguise.
Abigail honked the horn again, and when Emma looked, the back passenger door stood open.
“Sorry but my carriage awaits,” she said, getting a grip on herself.
Emma sprinted to the car, slid in, and the door was barely closed when her friend sped off. It wasn’t until they were a few blocks away that her brain managed to settle down and process the last five minutes. Holy hell. She’d just kissed a stranger while completely naked. Heat flushed to her face.
“Why do I smell coffee?” Sasha asked.
Emma licked her bottom lip out of reflex. It tasted of chocolate and something dark and deeply masculine. She snuggled the leather. “The man’s coat smells like it.”
The city, so familiar to all of them, passed by the window in the darkness. Emma could close her eyes and see it all. The university in the backdrop of almost every street, and the trees planted on the sidewalks gave the semi-big city/small town a welcoming atmosphere.
All of it passed by unnoticed as Emma stretched her arms into the supple leather to clothe herself. “What happened to the cops?”
“The guy covered you pretty well,” Abigail explained. “Even from our view all we could see were legs. Probably figured their minds were playing tricks on them. You were running pretty fast.”
The threat of being arrested wasn’t the reason her heart beat hard in her chest. A man she’d never met before kissed her senseless. Even in her own mind, it was stupid to ask what kind of man would kiss a naked stranger. A better question was what man had those types of reflexes? What man preferred an explanation rather than a date?
“Are you ok?” Abigail asked.
She shook the memory of him out of her head. The kiss had added to the adrenaline already pumping in from the risqué act, leaving her exhilarated. There was nothing special about his lips. The chiseled chest beneath her hands was nothing to praise either. She’d concede he tasted as delicious and decadent as a store filled with desserts.
“I’m fine, really, but that was close,” Emma finally said.
“This was probably why we never did a naked dare. It’s stupid.” Sasha handed over Emma’s clothes. Her friend looked more put out now than before she’d streaked.
Emma said with a smile, “Feeling a draft was pretty classic.”
“That man could have done anything to you,” Sasha continued.
When he had his lips on her like that…yeah, he could have. “It’s over. I’m exhausted.” Emma slid down into the seat and pulled the jacket up to her face, secretly sniffing it again.
“Check the pockets,” Abigail suggested.
She did. There wasn’t anything in them. Not even a lint ball. “Empty.” Disappointment filled her at the thought of never knowing her rescuer.
“At least you have a souvenir,” Abigail said.
Talk about a tall, dark and handsome souvenir. “I do.”
“Did you recognize him?” Abigail stopped in front of Emma’s house.
“No,” she answered and finally her heartbeat leveled back to normal.
She looked out the window. On both sides, the neighbors’ safety lights flickered on. The house had been her childhood home. Many times her parents had greeted her when she arrived in the yard. Those memories had faded at the edges. The long held grief ached like an old injury. The house was hers now. The small cookie-cutter shape belied its large size. In the night you couldn’t see the light blue paint or the trimmings with white and yellow accents. Didn’t matter, she could see it in her mind’s eye.
Sasha said, “It was so dark I’m sure you couldn’t pick him out of a line up.”
But Emma could. There was no way she’d ever be able to forget those eyes. Shock, surprise, and then want had flickered behind his steely gaze all in less than a minute. One measly minute of her life and Emma kept replaying the heat of his mouth, the feel of his hands and his gaze. She kept sniffing the stupid coat to reassure herself the moment happened. Sasha was right. The man could have been dangerous. He felt dangerous with glass at her back and him at her front.
With her clothes balled in one hand, Emma closed the front of the coat and stepped out the car. “Come by after work. Tomorrow’s Cookie Wednesday.”
“Macadamia?” Sasha perked up again.
“Don’t know yet,” Emma teased.
She would have waved good-bye, but one flash a night was more than enough. Once inside the house she took in what would be the last deep breath of the coat’s scent and put it and him out of her mind. The odds of ever seeing him again were nil, which was for the best. Any man who could kiss like that on the fly was bound to create nothing but havoc.
He wanted an
. Had asked for one without once letting his gaze leave hers, a gentlemanly act and a respectful gesture. The acts held a restraint that hadn’t been in the kiss. The whole thing left her feeling off-kilter.
She had her friends, her business. A lust, let alone a love affair, didn’t fit into the compact life she enjoyed and created. She had balance and that man promised anything but that one thing. She preferred the slow build to attraction anyway. Half convinced now, she nodded. That quick, hot jolt of attraction always fizzled out. She pressed her nose to the leather.
would be the last smell before she hung the jacket in the foyer’s closet.
Emma slipped off the coat and placed it into the dark recess of the closet without sniffing the air.
“Good riddance,” she said and slammed the door.
“Let me get this straight.” Tobias Merchant breathed through his nose to get a semblance of calm. He did that a lot when talking to his little brother. “This woman hired you off the street without checking references. Without you having actual work experience.”
His mind filled with all the possible dangers. As a former homicide detective, his imagination didn’t have to do a lot of work. He’d seen more than enough to know how small, seemingly innocuous circumstances ended with a dead body. “She didn’t even ask for your ID before hiring you?”
He kept his voice low, because he had five customers sitting at various tables, sipping their coffee. Joshua’s brows went up, and Tobias knew he’d slipped into cop mode. Low didn’t mean without menace. Much worse, he’d planned to go into business with the woman who owned Sweet Tooth where no more than five minutes ago his brother had gotten a job. Not to mention how awkward it would be if he decided Emmaline Sharp didn’t pass muster. He’d still have to deal with her because the job involved his brother.
“I’m supposed to go back at three tomorrow to fill out paperwork.”
“If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. It sounds as if she’s going to have you twiddle your thumbs for four hours a day and pay you a dollar more than minimum wage.” Another suck of air. A slow release. “No.”
“Tobi, I really want this job.”
He cut his brother with a glare. “Not getting on my good side with that nickname.”
Eleven years his junior, Josh had trouble saying Tobias when he’d first started to talk. Now, at eighteen, Josh only used it when he really wanted something.
“Tobias,” Josh emphasized the name, and several people looked to the front. “I’m going to do this job. I don’t get why it’s a problem. You had me make every table and chair in here. The shelves. Man, I still can’t get the smell of tea out my favorite jeans.”
“I bet you also neglected to mention you’re my brother.”
Josh looked away; his lanky frame bunched with tension. “I wanted to get a job on my own, without using your name or the business name. And I got one.”
“I don’t know.” Tobias crossed his arms and put a smile on his face so it wouldn’t look like they were arguing.
“She didn’t act like a con. A con would have hit on me. Heck, she’d have gotten my information the first time around.” His brother grinned. “She didn’t look like one either. Wavy hair, but she had these strange looking eyes. Almost golden. Really nice too.”
Tobias stiffened and the bottom of his stomach filled with lead. The woman from last night had golden eyes. This was a university town, but a small one nonetheless. How many people would have that eye color?
Despite having researched Emmaline Sharp thoroughly, she wasn’t a put-your-face-out there kind of woman. Neither was he, so he looked at her business. He had Tina and George, the faces of Caff-aholic, ask all the appropriate questions you could through e-mail. So far so good. They had a meeting today to iron out his and her cut of the profits, how much he’d take on and the percentage he’d get back because of it. Schedules of deliveries, etc. Nothing that would cost him more than it already did.
More importantly, today’s meeting would allow him to check her out in person. Then he’d make the offer to display her desserts in both this store and the one in Heron. In the end, a trade-off that would bring in more revenue and start him off on the right foot with this branch.
From his brother’s description, the woman he planned to go into business with and the woman from last night sounded one and the same. When she’d first run into him, all he could see in her eyes was panic and anxiety. But, if you were naked in a commercial district and the police happened to show up, well, that might be a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
He’d been trained to protect, instincts kicked in, and he wrapped her in his favorite leather coat and blocked her body from view. It wasn’t until her face lifted up and those honey-golden eyes silently pleaded for help that Tobias had a moment to hear and see what his brain processed. She wanted him to lie and say he was her boyfriend if the cops stopped to question them. To make sure the cops didn’t, she wanted him to kiss her.
How could a man logically process information with a naked woman pressed against him? Those caramels eyes had flashed fear and shame, for the briefest moments, desire too. When he looked at her then it wasn’t insanity in her gaze but awareness of him.
But then maybe he imagined that part. She did have the darkest, caramel-tipped nipples he’d ever seen. He’d acted out of character and kissed those succulent lips without stopping to consider his actions. But there were two things Tobias would never forget: the tattoo and her eyes.
“Tobias?” His brother sounded cautious.
“Describe her.” His tone was flat.
His brother detailed the store, the woman and the conversation. “No, she doesn’t sound like a con,” Tobias agreed.
She sounded like a bleeding heart, but not the type of woman who would run down the street naked.
. No, it was a good thing. No matter how beneficial for both of them, Tobias wouldn’t link himself up to someone reckless and Emmaline had been. He would miss the opportunity to get his jacket back. The coat survived many homicide investigations without a stain. A token of his past he’d left behind to open up a coffee and teashop here. He’d only been on the street last night because he’d been working late to finalize all the details for the soft opening. Making the store a success was more important than a random naked stranger.
Tobias took in his brother and frowned. “Back when I was in the Academy, I would have loved for someone to have said just concentrate on school,” he said. “Why do you need a job?”
Josh shrugged. “Treat me like a brother, not like your kid.”
For the past two years, he’d raised Josh. The shift in the relationship changed how Tobias looked at him. It changed how he lived his life. “As long as you’re under my roof, I won’t be able to treat you in any other way.”
“Which is why I wanted a job. To pull my own weight. I’m not a kid and haven’t been one for a while.”
Tobias’ shut his mouth for a moment and he looked at his brother. Despite the fact Josh worked out in the weight room every day and ate more than Tobias could in a week, his brother didn’t fill out the suit he’d worn to the impromptu interview. Yet they moved here for the college. His baby brother was growing up.
“Fine,” he agreed, reluctantly. “But I’m checking this woman out.”
Josh groaned. “Don’t get me fired.”
He kept to himself the job was probably offered out of pity. His brother did sad, puppy dog face well and this woman sounded like a soft touch.
“I won’t,” Tobias promised.
Glancing out the window to the bakery across the street, he scowled. The carefully stenciled words Sweet Tooth hung above the store. The eggplant-shaded sign held no frills. Unlike the night before, cars lined up the street. Once dusk set the low lighting created a better ambiance. Inadequate lighting always created possibilities for danger. If it were up to him, he’d sacrifice the ambiance for safety.
A smile quirked at his mouth. The lighting convinced young, naked women they could safely run down a dimly lit street without anyone the wiser. The occasional slow drive through by cops wouldn’t deter a determined prankster or professional criminal.
The memory of the woman crept into his mind. Her silken skin, slender but supple thighs, concave soft stomach…just a voluptuous form—Tobias pushed the image out. He could, too well, imagine what could have gone wrong for the woman. He could also imagine what might have happened if her friend hadn’t showed up, and that kept him preoccupied for a moment.
“Earth to Tobias,” Josh said.
Distracted, he answered, “Huh?”
“Are you ok?” Concern furrowed Josh’s brows.
“Yeah.” He had a lot riding on this deal. The quick revenue would do for him what he needed. She wouldn’t be across the street. Couldn’t be. “Man the front. Do everything as I taught you. Don’t veer from the formula or you’ll end up with crap.”