Their eyes met.

Alexa hated clichés, and what she hated most was becoming one. But at that moment, her heartbeat thundered, her palms sweated, and her belly dipped and plunged as if on a rollercoaster ride. Her body went on full alert, begging him to come to her, promising him surrender. If he told her to go home, get in bed, and wait for him, Alexa was sure she’d follow his instructions.

The weakness of her will infuriated her. Her honesty made her admit she’d do it anyway.

“Oh yeah. Definitely no attraction there.” Maggie’s words broke the weird spell and allowed Alexa to gather her composure. She had issued the invitation to Nick for poetry night because he hadn’t seen her bookstore. He politely declined, citing work as an excuse, and she hadn’t been surprised. Once again, she had reminded herself they came from different worlds, and Nick had no desire to visit hers. As he walked toward her, she wondered why he had changed his mind.



Nick picked his way through the bookshelves. Some guy dressed in black spouted into a microphone about the correlation between flowers and death, and the scent of cafe mochas rose to his nostrils. Sounds of a flute and the faint calling of a wolf drifted to his ears. All of his impressions were secondary to the sight of his wife.

Ebony hair fell loose and wild past her shoulders. Her black-framed glasses actually enhanced the sky blue of her eyes, slightly widened with surprise as she watched him approach. Her sweater hugged every inch of those delectable breasts, then opened to a wide bell around her hips. A tight black miniskirt stopped mid-thigh. At second glance, Nick revised his opinion to a much shorter option, since the fabric had snuck way up in her comfortable sitting position and now barely covered her. Knee-high black leather boots completed the outfit. Those long Amazon legs were encased in black tights and Nick knew she wore nothing else underneath. The stores didn’t make a slip that short, he was almost positive.

Her true sexiness lay in her ignorance of her effect on men. Aggravation tickled his nerves. He lived in a constant state of emotional turmoil and he hated every moment. He was the calmest man around and dedicated his path to avoid messy feelings. Now, his normal day ranged from annoyance to frustration to anger. She made him crazy with her whacko arguments and impassioned speeches. She also made him laugh. His home seemed more alive since she moved in.

He reached her. “Hi.”

“Hi.”

He directed his attention to his sister. “Maggie May, how goes it?”

“Fine, brother dearest. What brings you? You’re not going to read that poem you wrote when you were eight, are you?”

Alexa tilted her head in interest. “What poem?”

He actually felt himself flush and realized the two women before him were the only ones who ever made him lose his composure. “Don’t listen to her.”

“I thought you had work,” Alexa said.

He did. And he didn’t know why he was here. He had left the office and entered an empty house and the silence bothered him. He’d thought of her surrounded by people in the bookstore she created and wanted to join her world for just a little while. He said nothing, though, and shrugged. “I wrapped up early. Thought I’d check out poetry night. Do all artists smoke? There’s a long line outside and they’re all puffing away.”

Maggie snickered and stretched both of her legs out on the floor. Her back was propped up against the side of the chair. Her green eyes held the teasing light of a younger sister who still enjoyed torturing her older brother. “Still having cravings, Nick? Bet I could bum one for you.”

“Thanks. It’s always nice to have a family member as your drug pusher.”

Alexa gasped. “You smoke?”

Nick shook his head. “Used to. Quit years ago.”

“Yeah, but when he gets stressed or upset, he regresses. Do you believe he doesn’t think it counts as long as he doesn’t buy?”

Alexa chuckled. “This is very enlightening, guys. We need to get together more often. Tell me, Maggs, does your brother cheat at card games?”

“All the time.”

Nick reached down and snagged Alexa’s fingers, pulling her up from the chair. “Show me the rest of the store while this guy finishes up.”

Maggie chuckled and settled herself into the empty chair. “He’s just afraid of what I’ll tell you next.”

“You’re absolutely right.”

Nick led her away from the crowd. With an instinctive motion, he stopped in a shadowed corner by a sign entitled RELATIONSHIPS. He guided her so her back pressed against the bookshelf, then dropped her hand. Nick shifted his feet and cursed under his breath at his sudden uneasiness. He hadn’t planned what to say, just knew he had to break the tension between them before he got crazy and dragged her into his bed. Somehow, he needed to bring the relationship back to friendship. Back to older brother/younger sister camaraderie. Even if it killed him.

“I want to talk to you.”

A slight smile twitched those bee-stung lips. “Okay.”

“About us.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t think we should go to bed with each other.”

She threw back her head and laughed. Nick didn’t know if he was annoyed at her amusement, or fascinated by her open beauty. This was a woman who enjoyed life and gave out a full belly laugh. Not one of those calculated smiles or slight chuckles. Still, he hated when she laughed at him. Even though he was older, she dragged him back to a time when he was endlessly trying to be cool, and she thwarted every step.

“Funny, I don’t remember offering you my body. Did I miss something?”

He frowned at her casual disregard of their problem. “You know what I’m trying to say. The night of the party got out of hand, and I take full responsibility.”

“How chivalrous of you.”

“Stop being a smart mouth. I’m trying to tell you I was out of line and it won’t happen again. I had too much to drink, I was pissed about Conte, and I took it out on you. I intend to stick to our original agreement, and I’m sorry I lost my control.”

“Apology accepted. I’m sorry for contributing to the whole episode, too. Let’s put it behind us.”

Nick didn’t like her terming such sexual heat as an episode, but ignored the twinge. He wondered why he wasn’t feeling relief at her easy agreement. He cleared his throat. “We have a long year ahead of us, Alexa. Why don’t we try to build on friendship? It will be better for appearances and for us.”

“What’d you have in mind? More poker games?”

An image of her sprawled in his lap flashed in his mind. Of full breasts pressed against his chest. Of squirming, soft, female flesh all over him, ready to burn up in his arms. As if on cue, he looked up and read the title of the book right beside her in full presentation.

How to Give a Woman Multiple Orgasms.

Shit.

“Nick?”

He shook his head and tried to clear the fog. Was she multi-orgasmic? She shook in his embrace over a simple kiss. What would her body do if he treated her to a full-blown sexual treatment, using his lips and tongue and teeth to push her over the edge? Would she scream? Would she fight her response? Or take it with pleasure and give it all right back?

“Nick?”

Sweat formed on his brow as he pulled his focus from the book and back to reality. He was a damn chump. Two seconds after stating they could be friends, he had her coming in his fantasies.

 “Ummm, right. I mean, sure, we can play card games. Just not Monopoly.”

She gave an unladylike snort. “You always sucked at that game. Remember when Maggie made you cry when you landed on Boardwalk? You tried to bargain but she wanted cash. You didn’t speak to her for a week.”

He glowered. “You’re thinking of Harold, the kid who lived down the street. I’d never cry at a game.”

“Sure.” Her crossed arms and expression told him she didn’t believe him.

Aggravated, he dragged his fingers over his face and wondered how she made him lose it over a Monopoly game that never happened.

“So, we’ll be friends. I can live with that.”

“Then it’s a deal.”

“Is that why you came to the poetry reading?”

He looked in her face and lied through his teeth. “I wanted to show you I can compromise.”

He wasn’t prepared for the sweet, sunny smile that curved her lips. She looked genuinely pleased, even though he admitted he’d done it for smooth sailing ahead.

She touched his arm. “Thank you, Nick.”

Startled, he pulled back. Then fought embarrassment. “Forget it. Are you going to read tonight?”

Alexa nodded. “I better get back. I’m usually the last one. Go ahead and look around.”

He watched her go back to the crowd and wandered through the shelves. He listened absently to the next poet, who recited lines through the muted wilderness music, and wrinkled his nose. God, he hated poetry. The spilling out of emotion, messy and unbridled, for any stranger to pick up and share. The convoluted comparisons between nature and rage, the endless clichés, and the confusing imagery made a man question his intelligence. No, give him a good biography or a classic like Hemmingway. Give him the opera, where within the fierce emotions there was control.

A familiar, husky tone spilled over the microphone.

He paused in the shadows and watched Alexa take the small stage. She joked a bit with the crowd, thanked them for coming, and introduced her new poem.

“A Small Dark Place,” she said.

Nick prepared himself for high drama, and already started forming some compliments in his mind. After all, it wasn’t her fault he didn’t like poetry. He was determined not to make fun of something so important to her, and even give encouragement.

“Hidden between soft fur and smooth suede;

My legs cramped and folded beneath me.

I wait for the end and for the beginning,

I wait for the bright, clean light to bring me back;

To the world of glittering colors and of perfumed scents that attack my nostrils;

To the world of sharp tongues, snaking out to shred soft smiles. I listen as ice tinkles against amber liquid.

Heat burns within, a reminder of a suicide from the past; a reminder of a silent murder.

Seconds…minutes…centuries…

The sudden knowledge twists my belly; I am home. I open my eyes to the blinding flash of a door opening.

And wonder if I will remember.”

Alexa folded the piece of paper and nodded at her audience. Silence settled over everyone. Some people wrote feverishly in their notebooks. Maggie gave a whoop. She laughed and stepped off the stage, and then she began to gather empty cups and chat as the night came to a close.

Nick stood alone and watched her.

A strange emotion bubbled up inside of him. Since he’d never experienced it before, he couldn’t seek out a name. There was little left in life that touched him, and he admitted he liked it that way.

Tonight, something changed.

Alexa had shared an important part of herself with a room of strangers. With Maggie. With him. Open for criticism, vulnerable to the whims of others, she took what she felt and made him feel it, too. Her courage stole his breath. And as much as he admired her, doubt rose up inside of him like a monster out of a swamp and he wondered if beyond all his rationalizations he was just a coward.

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