I can’t stop thinking of this.
It’s a song that loops in my head.
It’s a movie I want to watch until I have every scene—every line—memorized.
It’s my favorite book where all the words have been read and reread in search of something new, something more.
However, this isn’t a fangirl moment over a book, a song, a movie … the love I have for whatever this is goes so much deeper. I’m connected to it in a way that’s the same yet different than my love for Griffin. This love belongs to me too. I’m not merely an outsider looking in—admiring and wishing it were my life.
This is big.
I know it. I feel it. And I can’t let go.
Nate sets the book aside. I move beyond the doorway so he can’t see me.
“I love you, my sweet baby girl.”
I smile, my back flush to the wall as I crane my neck just enough to peek around at him easing her into her crib. His fingertips feather her cheek.
“I need you to be the one to stay,” he whispers.
“I need you to live a long life, many years beyond mine.”
“Nate …” I whisper so softly that only the gods can hear me. Blinking away this sudden rush of emotion, I pad to the kitchen for my water.
I nod, keeping my gaze focused out the window on the halos of solar lights lining the front walkway.
He opens the freezer then shuts the door. I turn toward his narrowed eyes, halting mid step.
“I think you took something that belonged to me.”
My back was to the camera. Maybe there’s more than one camera in his bedroom.
“I … I just wanted to look at it.”
Nate steps closer, sending my head back to keep eye contact with him. “Just look at it?” His head cocks to the side.
I nod, swallowing my tongue and some unexpected fear. Why did I take it? Such a stupid move.
“You didn’t want to taste it?”
“Um …” Please don’t let this be about the text. I don’t want Griffin to be right.
No blowjobs for Nate—not even a taste.
No pills to get his cock ready for action.
Nope. Not happening.
“What if I give it back and we just forget I ever took it. It was a curiosity thing is all. It’s eye-catching. My mom is a photographer. I … I don’t know. But—”
“Eye-catching?” He laughs. “Are we talking about the same thing? Because I’m confused as to how you plan to give me back the last ice cream sandwich.”
This is not about his cock. Thank god!
“It will be replaced with a new box by the time you arrive home Sunday night.”
“So you did eat it?”
“After you admired its beauty?”
I clear my throat and lift my chin. “The silver packaging with blue lettering is a great design. I notice things like that.” Someone please shoot me now and just put me out of my misery.
“Did you take a picture of it? Or did you save the wrapper for your mom to take a picture of it?”
“No. I’ll tell her the brand. That’s what she does. I told you this, right? She’s a product photographer?”
Nate nods slowly. “You said she hasn’t picked up her camera since your father died. Are ice cream sandwiches wrapped in silver with blue lettering going to inspire her to get back in the game?”
“Ya never know.”
He twists his lips, failing to completely disguise his amusement. “Well, let me know. I’m going to be on pins and needles waiting to see if my impulse buy inspired something so miraculous. In the meantime…” he jerks his head toward the hallway “…why don’t you help me pick out a tie for my trip.”
“You mean tie it before you pack it.”
We stroll down the hallway. He shoots me a grin over his shoulder. I divert my eyes to the floor.
Ice cream sandwich. Gah!
“Blue or red?” He holds up the ties.
“Red. The blue one has something on it.”
He flips his wrist and frowns at the dark smudge. “Well damn. I wonder what that is. I haven’t wore this tie in a long time.”
“Probably food. Don’t you tuck it into your shirt or flip it over your shoulder when you eat? That’s what my dad did.”
“No.” He tosses the soiled tie on the floor and snakes the red one around his neck, chin tipped up while he looks down at me.
“You’re serious? I need to tie it for you?”
“I think five grand should include a Windsor knot.”
Taking a step closer, I grab the ends to his tie and tug them. Nate grins. It’s so familiar. If I could freeze time, I would press pause on this exact moment, letting my eyes see beyond the familiar to the absolute, letting the fingers of my mind grasp something concrete. Every day it feels like I’m chasing a butterfly. Sometimes I think I could follow it over a cliff and not feel the loss of earth beneath my feet.
Professor Nathaniel Hunt shares space in my reality. Nate lives behind closed eyes, in the recesses of my memory—haunting my conscience, unraveling my existence.
“It probably should.” I twist my lips, trying to remember what I saw on the how-to video. “But I didn’t tie a Windsor knot, just a simple knot. Is the Windsor knot a requirement for you this weekend?”
He chuckles. “No.”
My gaze remains fixed on the red silk between my fingers, but I sense his eyes on me. The only thing more disturbing than the familiarity I feel toward him is the way he looks at me like he knows all of my secrets—even the ones I don’t know.
“I feel like an enabler. You know the saying about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish?”
“You know that saying about the more you know, the more that’s expected of you?”
I laugh, making a quick glance up at his cocky grin. He’s so handsome, especially when his lip quivers a bit as he attempts to control his amusement with me.
“I ate the ice cream sandwich,” I say with a meaning behind my words that’s greater than the actual words.
“Yes,” he says, drawing out that one word into something greater as well.
My focus returns to the tie. “I took something else too.”
“You do?” I whisper, adjusting the knot, feeling the heat of his chest beneath my fingertips.
“Because there’s nothing special about those silver and blue wrappers.”
I’m scared to look at him. I’m scared to not look at him.
“I stole a photo of you.” I inch my gaze up to meet his.
He studies me with the exact look he has in the photo.
After a few moments, he nods slowly. “Okay.”
Okay? That’s not the right answer. I confessed to stealing something. What photo? Why? Those are the right responses. Not “okay.”
“Don’t you want to know why?”
He shakes his head, a soft surrender in his expression.
“Don’t you want to know which photo?”
He shakes his head.
“Why?” I whisper.
“Because Morgan—Daisy—used to say, ‘If I’m snoopy then you’re Charlie Brown.’”
“I don’t—” As I release his tie, his hands cuff my wrists.
“You said that to me.”
“No. Not Professor. Nate.”
“What are you doing?” I close my eyes and bite my lips together. Whatever this is … it’s wrecking me from the inside out. I want to pull away, but I can’t because Nate’s touch comforts me in a way that it shouldn’t.
“Do you feel it?”
“No.” I force myself to pull away, turning my back to him. “I have a boyfriend.”
“Swayze, that’s not what this is and you know it.”
My lungs draw in a shaky breath. I don’t know what this is, but it scares the ever living hell out of me. And it hurts. The unexplainable should be miraculous and exhilarating—giving birth to promise and something greater than ever imagined. But this, whatever the hell this is, feels like it’s ripping me apart. Maybe Griffin’s right; I should walk away. But the memories will follow me.
“Yeah, well … I don’t know what this is.” I stab my fingers through my hair, taking a slow breath that fails to soothe my nerves. “I don’t know why I took a picture of you. And I don’t know why I can’t stop staring at it.” I turn. “And you don’t care that I stole something from you. You don’t care that your wife died months ago and now there’s this stranger in your house, watching your child, rummaging through your stuff.”
Creases line his forehead as his gaze slides to the floor between us. “For the record … I care a whole goddamn lot that my wife died.”
“Nate, I didn’t mean—”
His head snaps side to side, jaw clenched. “And I went through the proper process and background checks to hire you. I didn’t pick you up off the street to watch my daughter.” He brings his attention back to me. “Take whatever you need to take to figure this out.”
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