Authors: Erin McCarthy
Titles by Erin McCarthy
A DATE WITH THE OTHER SIDE
HEIRESS FOR HIRE
SEEING IS BELIEVING
The Fast Track Series
HARD AND FAST
The Vegas Vampires Series
BIT THE JACKPOT
The Deadly Sins Series
The True Believers Series
THE NAKED TRUTH
(with Donna Kauffman, Beverly Brandt,and Alesia Holliday)
AN ENCHANTED SEASON
(with Maggie Shayne, Nalini Singh, and Jean Johnson)
THE POWER OF LOVE
(with Lori Foster, Toni Blake, Dianne Castell, Karen Kelley, Rosemary Laurey, Janice Maynard, LuAnn McLane, Lucy Monroe, Patricia Sargeant, Kay Stockham, and J. C. Wilder)
(with Susan Sizemore, Chris Marie Green, and Meljean Brook)
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / October 2013
Copyright © 2013 by Erin McCarthy.
copyright © 2014 by Erin McCarthy.
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I couldn’t go home for the summer. I just couldn’t.
Going home would mean endless worried looks from my mother, and reminders about following curfew and the dangers of alcohol and premarital sex. My father would force me to volunteer—which was
an oxymoron—to teach Sunday school at his church and threaten to throw out all of my revealing clothes. Like shorts. Because wearing shorts in summer was so scandalous.
I couldn’t deal with it, a whole summer ruined with their good intentions and their high moral standards that only a saint could live up to. And I’m no saint.
So I lied and told them I was spending the summer in Appalachia building homes for the poor with a Christian mission group when I was actually staying in Cincinnati and working at a steakhouse. I know. That was kind of a shitty lie.
But it was the only one that would have worked, so I had gone with it and there was no turning back now. Maintaining my freedom was worth a little guilt that I wasn’t actually helping people in need, though I suppose I could argue I was at least fueling the economy by serving beef. So the only thing still unresolved was where I was going to stay for a week in the gap between when I had to leave my dorm and when I could take over a sublet on an apartment June first.
I had a plan. Turning the doorknob, I stepped inside and assessed the situation. My roommate Kylie, snuggled with her boyfriend, Nathan, who lived in the apartment. Tyler and my other roommate, Rory, also cuddling. The sap-factor in the living room was huge, with Kylie on Nathan’s lap, their fingers entwined, while Tyler did that weird thing he was constantly doing where he played with Rory’s hair and made me want to smack his hand away on her behalf. She always seemed okay with it though, go figure.
“Hey, Jessica!” Kylie said brightly. “Cute top.”
“Thanks.” I had put on the tight red tank absently, then had wondered if more cleavage would be better for what I had in mind, then had been disgusted with myself for even thinking such a thought. So then I had decided no cleavage was necessary to my self-respect and pulled a Union Jack shirt on over the tank. Appearance was such a process. “What are you guys up to?”
,” came a voice from the kitchen. “Everyone else is engaged in foreplay.”
Ugh. Trying not to sigh, I turned and saw Riley Mann, Tyler’s older brother, popping the top of a beer can. He was not who I wanted to see.
“Jealous?” I asked him lightly, forcing a sardonic smile. Everything about Riley annoyed me, from his sarcasm to his inability to ever be serious, to the fact that he was hot as hell and so clearly knew it. I didn’t see him very often since he worked full-time in construction, which was perfectly fine with me. It was easier to breathe without his testosterone choking the room.
He shook his head. “No. Sex is not worth the headache of a relationship. And my hand doesn’t expect me to text it twenty times the next day.”
There was mental imagery I did not need, though I couldn’t argue with his opinion that relationships were a crapload of work. I made a face. “You’re always so charming. Is Bill here?”
“He’s studying in his room,” Nathan told me. “He has a physics final tomorrow. God, I’m so glad I’m done with my exams.”
I was done, too, which was why housing was becoming something of an issue. I only had two days until I had to vacate the dorms. “Okay, thanks.” I started down the hall to Bill’s room.
“You’re going in there?” Nathan called after me. “I’m warning you, he’s in a mood.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. I just want to say hi.” Bill had been crushing on me for six months, ever since his girlfriend from high school had dumped him for a basketball player at Ohio State. We had hooked up a few times, but I had been totally clear about not wanting to date. I was not in the market for a relationship at all.
Without knocking I went into Bill’s room. He was at his desk, and with the exception of the books and papers spread out in front of him, his room was neat as usual, bed made, no sign of finals stress. Until you got to his hair. Then the tension was evident in the floppy curls sticking out in various directions, looking like he hadn’t made nice with a hairbrush in days. His glasses were sliding down his nose when he looked up, and he was a very cute, modern interpretation of the absentminded genius.
“Hey,” he said, looking vacantly at me.
“Hey. How’s studying going?” I propped a hip on the corner of his desk and smiled.
“Not bad, but I still have a lot to go through. Did you need something, or did you just want to hang out? Because I can’t until tomorrow.”
“I wanted to know if I can stay here with you, in your room, for a few days.” Okay, so it was more like eight days, but who was counting?
“What?” He frowned. “What do you mean?” He tapped his pen on his lips and blinked up at me.
“I need a place to crash until I can get in the apartment I sublet. There’s no way I’m sleeping on that couch in the living room. It’s like chain mail. But I can sleep in your bed with you, right?” I smiled and used the tip of my finger to push his glasses up. “I promise I won’t kick you in my sleep like I did last time.”
For a second he didn’t say anything. Then he shook his head. “No.”
That was definitely not the answer I was expecting. “What? Why not? Okay, so I know I can’t promise to have control over my limbs when I’m sleeping, but you can always kick me back. I don’t mind.” He couldn’t be seriously telling me no. My heart rate started to increase, anxiety creeping up over the back of my neck.
“I don’t care if you kick me, it’s not that.” Bill sighed. “Look, Jess, we both know it’s no secret I like you, and you’ve been totally straight up with me about not returning the sentiment, and I appreciate that. Maybe it’s insane of me to say no, because sometimes I do manage to talk you into hooking up when you take pity on me, but I can’t share a bed with you every night for a week and not feel like shit about it. I just can’t.”
My jaw dropped, and I felt a hot flood of shame in my mouth, which made me angry. I hadn’t done anything to feel bad about, despite what my dad’s opinion about it would have been. “You make it sound so sketch. We’re friends. We’ve hooked up when we both felt like it, not because I was desperate and you were my only option or because I felt sorry for you. I’m not that nice of a person that I’ll blow you out of pity. I just like you as a friend and I think you’re cute. We have fun. Apparently, I was totally wrong in thinking you felt the same way.”
“I do feel the same way,” he insisted. “The problem is, I feel more than that, and I’m just not into torturing myself. I want you to be my ‘girlfriend.’” He made air quotes. “Pathetic, I know.”
The thought of being anyone’s girlfriend made me want to throw up in my mouth a little. There was no way I wanted to give a guy that much control over my emotions and my time. I had finally gotten away from that for the first time in my life.
“I’m sorry. It’s not pathetic, it’s just . . .”
“It’s you, not me.” He rolled his eyes. “I know. You can save the let-him-down-gently speech for another dude,. I get it.”
I had to admit, that was kind of a relief. “This is awkward,” I told him.
“Probably more for me than for you,” he said with a nervous laugh. “Look, you can stay on the couch in here.”
“Except now it will be weird.” It already was.
“No, it won’t. I won’t be needy or anything. I just need to have some self-preservation.”
“Okay, I understand.” I did. But it made it different. I couldn’t casually touch him anymore. I couldn’t flirt without feeling like I was leading him on, and I would have to be careful around him. I fought the urge to sigh. Why did everything have to be so complicated between guys and girls? Curse hormones. “Good luck on your final.”
“Thanks.” He gave me a smile, then he returned his attention to his book.
I left, feeling deflated and oddly sad knowing Bill and I couldn’t quite be friends in the same way we had been. But then again, maybe we’d never really been just friends, because I had always known he liked me. And why did that suddenly make me feel so guilty?
“That was fast,” Riley said the second I came into the living room, his feet up on the coffee table, expression bored. “I guess that’s why they call it a quickie.”
“Shut up,” I said, with more vehemence than I intended. I was feeling bad, and I couldn’t precisely figure out why Bill’s rejection had bothered me so much. I didn’t need Riley judging me.
“What’s wrong?” Rory asked, peeling herself off Tyler’s chest, where she was splayed like plastic wrap.
“I just don’t have anywhere to stay for the next week, that’s all.” I didn’t want to say in front of Riley that Bill had turned me down. It would be like handing him the material for a ten-minute stand-up routine at my expense. No, thanks.
“You can stay here,” Nathan said.
“Thanks, but I don’t think that’s going to work.”
“Why not?” Kylie asked.
I shot her a look, hoping she’d get the hint.
“Did you and the nerd have a fight?” Riley asked. “Is he not putting out enough for you?”
It really wasn’t fair that such a beautiful face was on such an asshole of a guy. Riley was a little shorter than Tyler, just as muscular, but whereas Tyler had a certain hardness to his face, Riley had been gifted with adorable dimples and large eyes. It was almost tragic he was such a jerk-off. I ignored him, but it wasn’t easy, because he seemed to take great pleasure in pissing me off. I really wanted to throw something at him. Like my fist. Right into his cocky face.
“You can stay at my house,” Tyler offered. “The boys and I are going to Rory’s dad’s for a week, remember, so you’d have a bed to sleep on.”
There was a thought, though it was an intimidating one. “Is it safe?” I asked, before I thought about how rude that actually sounded. Tyler and Riley lived with their two younger brothers in a lower income neighborhood in a house the bank was in the process of foreclosing on since their mother had died. Riley had lived in a basement before that, but once his mom overdosed, he had moved back in. I’d never been there, but I was picturing a drug infested neighborhood with drive-by shootings and prostitutes on every corner. My parents lived in a minimansion in a small town, so I didn’t exactly have street cred. My experience with poverty was limited to movies and episodes of
on my laptop. It was like a bear walking through the desert. I had no previous exposure.
“I mean, won’t the neighbors think I’m breaking and entering?” I added, as a very lame cover to my initial question.
“Princess, I don’t think anyone is going to think you’ve broken into our shithole and are squatting,” Riley said, rolling his eyes. “If anything, they’ll just think you’ve come over to score drugs.”
“Rory stays with me all the time,” Tyler added. “No one will even notice. People keep to themselves in our neighborhood.”
“I never feel unsafe there,” Rory said. “But then again, I’m never sleeping there alone. Tyler is always with me.”
“I’ve never lived alone,” I said. Even for a week, the thought had a certain appeal. No one’s opinion but my own. No rules. No guilt. No feeling bad that I could never live up to anyone’s expectations. It sounded awesome and scary. I wanted to try it, just to see what it would be like. “That sounds great, Ty. Thanks for offering.”
“Have both of you forgotten something?” Riley asked, picking up his beer.
“What?” I said, wary. I just knew I wasn’t going to like whatever he was going to say.
“I’m not going to Rory’s dad’s to swim for a week like a kid at summer camp. I’ll be here, working. Living in my house.”
Oh, God. I couldn’t help it. I made a face.
The corner of Riley’s mouth turned up. “That’s exactly how I feel about it, princess.”
“I think it will be good for you guys,” Kylie said, an eternal optimist. Or suffering from massive delusions. “You can become better friends this way.”
“Maybe we don’t want to become friends,” Riley told her. “Maybe we like not liking each other.”
I almost laughed. There was a certain truth to that. I basically felt like I’d seen all I needed to see to know I didn’t need to see more. But if I said that Kylie’s head would explode. She was a very honest and kind person, and she didn’t always get my point of view. Or anything involving math.
“How much will you even see each other? You both work and it has three bedrooms,” Tyler said. “It seems stupid to sleep on a floor somewhere when there’s plenty of room at the house.”
“It’s up to Riley,” I said, because that only seemed fair. It was his house. “Maybe he wants some alone time with all of you gone.”
I didn’t mean that to sound quite as weird as it did.
He laughed. “Does that come right after Me Time and Circle Time?” He stood up and moved further into my space than was strictly appropriate.
It was a game of chicken, and I lost by instantly backing up. Damn it. He smirked in triumph.
“I’ll be fine. I can handle it if you can.”
I was playing right into him and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop myself. “Of course I can handle it. What’s there to handle?”
He stared at me, his eyebrows raised, a challenge in his deep brown eyes. The stubble on his chin was visible, and I could smell the subtle scent of soap and a splash of cologne. He looked and smelled very, very masculine, and I was suddenly aware of my body in a way that made me seriously annoyed.
“Bring some beer.”
“I’m not twenty-one.” Not that it had ever stopped me from drinking, but I wasn’t going to give Riley anything I didn’t have to. I did not want to feel like I owed him. It was Tyler who had made the offer of a place to crash, so if anyone deserved thanks, it was him, not his arrogant brother.
For a second, Riley’s eyes roamed over my chest, like he could gauge my age by my boobs. Such a tool.
But then he just said, “You can borrow my ID.”
And I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “Because we’re practically twins.”
He nodded. “Though I am
I snorted. “I have better hair.”
“I can drink more whiskey than you.”