“What’d you think?”

He blinked at Maggie, then tried to focus. “Oh. I liked it. I’ve never heard her work before.”

Maggie grinned like a proud Cub Scout mother. “I keep telling her she can get an anthology published, but she doesn’t seem interested. Her real passion is BookCrazy.”

“Can’t she do both?”

Maggie snorted. “Sure. Me and you would do it in a heartbeat, because we never miss an opportunity. Al is different. She’s happy just by sharing—she doesn’t need the glory of publication. She’s been printed in some magazines, and she goes to a critique group, but that’s more for the others than her. That’s our problem, bro. Always has been.”

“What?”

“We’re better at taking. Part of our childhood screw-ups, I guess.” They both watched Alexa as she escorted her patrons out the door with her usual good humor. “But Al found her way by doing the opposite. There’s nothing she won’t do for someone.”

Maggie suddenly turned on him. Her eyes blazed with a fierceness he remembered from the old days. Her finger jabbed into his chest. “One warning, pal. I love you dearly, but if you hurt her, I’ll personally kick your ass. Got it?”

Instead of rising to the bait, he surprised himself by laughing. Then he dropped a quick kiss on her forehead. “You’re a good friend, Maggie May. I wouldn’t be so quick to judge yourself as a taker. I just hope the right guy sees that one day.”

She stepped back. Her mouth dropped open. “Are you drunk? Or an imposter? Where did my big brother go?”

“Don’t push your luck.” Nick paused and glanced around the bookstore. “What’s going on with the expansion?” He watched his sister’s eyes widen, and he held back a chuckle. “Don’t worry—it’s no longer a secret. Alexa admitted she wants the money to add a cafe. I gave her the check but figured she’d ask me for a consult.” His sister blinked and refused to speak. Nick frowned. “Cat got your tongue, Maggie May?”

“Oh, shit.”

He quirked a brow. “What’s the matter?”

Suddenly, she busied herself with the lone coffee cups and cleaning up the table. “Nothing. Umm, I think she may be embarrassed because she’s hiring someone else to do it. Didn’t want to bother you.”

He fought a surge of annoyance. “I have time to help her.”

Maggie laughed but it had an odd, desperate tone. “I’d leave it alone, bro. Gotta go. See ya.”

She took off in a flurry. Nick shook his head. Maybe Alexa didn’t want him involved in her project. After all, she had cited many times their relationship was based on a business contract.

Just as he had wanted.

He made a note to bring it up later. He helped lock up, and walked his wife to her car. “Did you have dinner?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No time. Want to pick up a pizza on the way?”

“I’ll throw something together for us at home.” His tongue tripped on the last word. Odd, he started to think of his sanctuary now as partly hers. “Won’t take long.”

“Okay. See you at home.” She turned, then spun around. Opened her mouth. “Oh, Nick, don’t forget—”

“The salad.”

Her eyes widened, and her powers of speech seemed to desert her for a moment. She pulled herself together with a speed he admired. And she didn’t even question how he knew. “Right. The salad.”

Then she turned and walked to her car. Nick began to whistle as he made his way toward his BMW. He was definitely learning. He liked catching her by surprise. About time he got the upper hand.

He whistled most of the way home.

Chapter Seven

Nick shut the door behind him and fell into the leather chair. He stared at his drawing board and curled his hands into tight fists to stop the itch. He wanted to create. He envisioned materials such as limestone and brick, with flowing images of glass and sleek curves. The pictures danced behind his closed lids at night, and here he was, owner of Dreamscape Enterprises, and stuck most of the day in board meetings.

He cursed under his breath. Okay, so the board members aggravated him, with the pencil-pushing tactics and money-grubbing ideas. Most of them opposed the waterfront contract, believing the company would go bankrupt if he took the job and couldn’t deliver. The board was right. He had a simple solution.

Don’t fail.

Conte’s party was Saturday night and he still hadn’t secured a business meeting. Hyoshi Komo hadn’t called either. Stuck at square one, the only thing to do was wait for the man to make his move, and count down the hours to the party. Maybe Conte was waiting to see how the social function turned out before seeking a meeting, unlike he told Alexa.

Alexa.

Her name alone was a punch in the gut. He remembered the way she shrieked and shook her head and bounced around the living room in a victory dance after winning chess the night before. A grown woman acting like a child. And once again, he had laughed his ass off. Somehow, as beautiful as his companions were, their slick wit only rippled the surface. Alexandria made him connect with a deep belly laugh, like he was young.

His direct line buzzed. He picked up. “Yes?”

“Did you feed the fish?”

Nick closed his eyes. “Alexa, I’m working.”

She made a rude snort. “So am I. But at least I worry about poor Otto. Did you feed him?”

“Otto?”

“You kept calling him Fish. That hurt his feelings.”

“Fish don’t have feelings. And yes, I fed him.”

“Fish certainly do have feelings. And while we’re discussing Otto, I wanted to tell you I’m worried about him. He’s placed in the study and no one ever goes in there. Why don’t we move him into the living room where he can see us more often?”

Nick dragged a hand down his face and prayed for patience. “Because I don’t want a fish tank ruining the look of the main rooms. Maggie gave me the damn thing as a joke and I hated it on sight.”

Frost nipped through the receiver. “Messy, too, aren’t they? I guess you don’t do humans or animals. I’m sorry to inform you, but even fish get lonely. Why don’t we get him some company?”

He straightened and decided to put an end to this ridiculous conversation. “No. I don’t want another fish, and he will not be moved. Do I make myself clear?”

The line hummed. “Crystal.”

Then she hung up.

Nick cursed, grabbed the nearest stack of papers from the last board meeting, and got to work. The woman actually bothered him at his job about a fish.

He pushed the image of her out of his mind and resumed his work.



“He’s gonna be mad.”

Alexa bit down on her lower lip and wondered why Maggie’s words caused a chill to run down her spine. After all, Nick Ryan was no alpha male. Sure, he’d be a little put out from the situation, but he always remained rational.

She surveyed the living room filled with dogs. Lots of dogs. Puppies and mutts and purebreds and hound dogs. Some crowded the kitchen, bumping into tables as they ate their food and slurped water. Others kept up a furious pace as they explored their new home, sniffing in corners and moving from room to room. The wire-haired terrier chewed on a throw pillow. The black poodle jumped on the couch and settled down for a nap. The mutt looked about ready to lift his leg by the speaker, but Maggie grabbed him and threw him into the back yard before he did serious damage.

The worry blossomed into a full-fledged panic attack.

Maggie was right.

Nick might kill her.

She turned toward her friend. “What should I do?”

Maggie shrugged. “Tell him the truth. You’re only taking them for a night or two until the shelter can make other arrangements. If you give them back, they’ll all be put to sleep.”

She winced. “What if he still makes me get rid of them?”

“Take them to your apartment.”

“Too small.”

Maggie threw up her hands when she spotted the look. “Hell, no, I’m not taking them to my place! I’ve got someone coming over and he’ll be a lot warmer than a puppy. You’re on your own.”

“But, Maggs—”

Maggie gave a wave. “Gotta go. Man, I’d love to see the show when my brother walks in. Call me on my cell.”

The door shut.

Alexa surveyed the room, now in puppy chaos, and decided she’d been a little too impulsive. She could have reasonably told the shelter she’d take a few, then brought them to her apartment. But no, she’d been mad at Nick for being a cold-hearted monster about the fish, and decided to teach him a lesson. Except now she was just plain scared.

The hound dog gnawed at the table leg. She pulled herself together and prepared her battle plan. She’d put them all in the spare room and maybe Nick wouldn’t notice. He never went in that room. She’d bring all their toys and food and sneak them out the back for their walks. She convinced herself the strategy would work, and herded the group down the hall. She dumped out a whole bag of play toys and made sure most of them ran after her. Then she shut the door, gathered up the sleeping puppies on the couch, the food and water bowls, and some spare newspapers. She raced out and got the last stray from the backyard, and set up the room so the dogs would be comfortable.

Alexa stared worriedly at the beautiful loveseat and chair in swirling patterns of silver and gray. Damn, why did Nick have to be rich? No one’s spare room looked this good, with slate carpeting, pewter tables with ornate scrolling, and throws that cost more than her whole comforter set at home. She ran her fingers over the soft, precise stitches of an afghan. She needed some old blankets, and she bet her husband didn’t have one. She decided to go on a hunt upstairs but she heard the key in the lock.

Panicked, she threw the afghan over the chair and shut the door behind her. Then she hurled herself down the hallway and skidded to a stop in front of him. “Hi.”

He looked suspicious already. Blond locks slipped over his forehead and his eyes narrowed, as if he didn’t trust her to be nice. Guilt squirmed within, but she ignored the emotion.

“Hi.” He looked around the house and she held her breath. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I was just about to cook dinner. Unless you’re tired and want to go to bed right now.”

One brow shot up at her hopeful tone. “It’s six o’clock.”

“Right. Well, I bet you have a lot of work to do, huh? I’ll bring your food upstairs to your office if you want.”

Now, he looked plain irritated. “I did enough work today. I want to relax with a glass of wine and watch the ball game.”

“Are the Mets on?”

“Don’t know. They’re not in the playoffs anyway and they didn’t make the Wild Card. The Yanks still have a chance.”

She squirmed with pent up annoyance. “They’re too far back—it’ll never happen. New York won’t be getting in the series this year.”

He let out an impatient breath. “Why don’t you watch the Mets upstairs?”

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