I’ve had the mother of all crushes on my brother’s best friend since I was a preteen.
Who can blame me? Nico is the perfect guy: he’s kind, funny, smart . . . he’s a talented chef, and he looks like a Greek god.
When he helped me get this job, I was excited that we were actually going to live in the same town again. But then he moved to Chicago, sub-letting me his house, which is awesome for my budget but sad for my body. And my heart.
The fact that Nico’s on my mind is the only excuse I have for why I used his name when I needed a pretend boyfriend in order to keep my new job. But now that I’ve done it, it’s no big deal, right? I mean, he’s in Chicago, and I’m in Florida. He’ll never have to know . . .
Until the unexpected happens, and Nico’s back home. Suddenly, I have a lot of explaining to do.
Although I convince Nico to play along, each day it gets harder to make believe something that feels so real. How long can I keep pretending . . . before the truth comes out?
Read the first chapter here!
“I will never be able to thank you enough for this. Not as long as I live.”
I turn in a small circle, my arms wrapped about myself, taking in all the details of the room where I’m standing. It’s all shades of tan and brown, a complete study in understated elegance, and I am one hundred percent in love. I can’t wait to lay on the extra-wide couch and watch Grey’s Anatomy with a big glass of wine. Or a beer. I’m not that picky.
“Jen, you’re making this a bigger deal than it is. You’re helping me out, too, you know. I mean, I’m moving to Chicago, and I still have a year left on this lease. I’m just happy that someone I trust can sub-let from me.”
Nico stands across the room from me, leaning against the doorjamb, his back to the screened patio and pool. The late afternoon sunlight casts a glow on him, gleaming on his silky black hair and burnished skin. With his impossibly wide shoulders and the broad chest that tapered to narrow hips, he looks like a god who’s popped down from Olympus to toy with us mere mortals.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Clearing my throat, I glance away from him before I do something wacky, like fall at his feet and beg him to kiss me. Or something.
This isn’t anything new. I’ve been coming up with ingenious ways to hide my feelings for Nico Angelos since I was nine years old and saw him take off his shirt for the first time. I was too young to really get it then, but I was precocious enough to know that if I blurted out what was on my heart—that I wanted to worship the shadow he cast on the ground for all of eternity—I’d never hear the end of teasing from my brother Kyle, who happened to be Nico’s best friend and the reason the object of my obsession was always over at our house.
He’s talking again now, and with no small amount of difficulty, I wrench my attention to his words and away from the way his hands look as they rest on his crossed arms.
“ . . . and the cool thing is, just about everything is taken care of here. The landlord has a company to clean the pool once a week, plus it’s got one of those perpetual motion vacuums, too. There’s a lawn service—they show up every Monday—and the sprinklers are on a timer. You don’t even have to touch it.” He pushes off the wall and heads down the hallway toward the garage, motioning over his shoulder for me to follow. “I want to show you the panel for the security system, too. It’s not hard, but you have to remember to turn it off when you come home, or the cops will show up—and if it’s not a real emergency, you could get the bill for the unnecessary call.”
I wrinkle my nose. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll need to worry about setting an alarm system way out here in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like this is New York. I bet people don’t even lock their doors.”
Nico casts me a serious look as he stops next to the door that leads to the garage and points to a small electrical panel with buttons on it. “You’d be wrong. You need to set the alarm every single time you leave the house. Yeah, Harper Springs isn’t exactly the big city, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t crime, and it doesn’t mean you can ignore your own safety.”
He punches four buttons. “That’s the code for when you leave, to set the alarm. It’s four, three, five, nine.” Touching my arm, he adds, “Don’t move, okay? As soon as the alarm is armed, the motion sensor is working, too.”
I stand still as a statue, insanely aware of Nico’s fingers still warm against the skin of my bare arm. He keys in another code, reading off the numbers to me again. “That’s what you enter when you come inside. It disarms the alarm.”
“Got it.” I breathe, all too aware that my voice makes me sound like a porn star who’s just been instructed on her next move.
“Now, if you’re in for the night, or the rest of the day or whatever, set the alarm again, but then hit this button. It turns off the motion detector, so you don’t have to worry about walking around the house.”
“Nico.” I tilt my head and allow myself to look into his eyes because even though it’s still dangerous for me, it’s also perfectly natural to give attention to the person I’m addressing. Right? “I really don’t think I need to set the alarm every time I’m here. You do know I’ve lived alone before, right? I’m twenty-five years old. I’m not a baby.”
His lips curve into a smile that nearly stops my heart, and he reaches down to brush my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Jenny, you’ll always be my baby.” With a cough, he adds, “My baby sister. Or just like it. I’ve known you since you were still in diapers.”
I cringe. “Thanks for that visual.”
Nico goes on as if he hasn’t heard me. “Humor me, please. Promise me—” Stepping back, he shakes his fingers in my face, those dark eyes serious. “Promise me that you’ll use the security system. Not just now and then—all the time.”
I give in, of course, because I really don’t have a choice. I can’t imagine ever telling Nico no about anything.
“Okay, okay. I promise.” I roll my eyes because even though I’m giving him his way, old habits die hard and I don’t want him thinking I’m that easy.
“Good.” He taps the tip of my nose with the same finger he just shook at me. “I know you might not understand it, but I feel responsible for you. I’m the one who helped you get this job. I’m the reason you’re down here in the middle of nowhere, as you put it.”
“Hey, that’s just one more reason for me to be grateful,” I counter. “Getting in on the ground floor of the new oncology wing of this hospital—that’s the kind of position I’ve been dreaming about. I never would’ve even gotten the interview if it wasn’t for you.”
Nico shrugs. “I didn’t do that much—just asked a friend to give you a recommendation. You nailed the interview—and you’ve been working hard for a while now, so you have a great resume.” He grins. “I remember the first time you told me what you were going to do—what you wanted to be. I’d never really even heard of a nurse practitioner, but you knew all about it. You laid it out and educated me. I think you were maybe. . . fourteen? Fifteen?”
“Fourteen.” I nod. “It was right after Grampy went into remission. Watching him fight lung cancer, and being at the hospital when he was getting his treatments, really made an impression on me. That was when I met Brooke—she was one of the NPs on the floor, remember? I knew right then that I wanted to be like her when I grew up.”
“And here you are.” Nico smiles at me again, and my soul lights up. I’m amazed that he can’t see it. “I think you’re going to do all right here, Jen. Harper Springs isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis, but from what I’ve seen, the people are decent.”
“Do you know your neighbors?” When we were outside looking at the pool a few minutes ago, I’d seen the backs of two other houses. Neither are close by—each property in this area includes a lot of land—but still, they’re close enough to walk over if I needed to borrow a cup of sugar or something.
“Nah.” Nico shakes his head. “The place where I worked is about forty minutes away, close to the coast, so I spent most of my time there. I never even saw them to wave. Weird, I know, but I was gone early and didn’t come home until late.”
“That’s a long commute,” I comment. Nico is a chef. He’s got crazy talent, but right out of college, he had a terrible experience working at a restaurant, so after that, he took a job with a hospitality company, designing menus for their hotels, resorts and cruise ships. He’s spent two years nursing his wounded pride down here in the sticks of Florida, but now he’s moving to Chicago to work with a friend of his on a brand-new restaurant venture. I’m excited for him and glad he’s finally getting back to where he should be—in a kitchen, making hundreds of people happy every night—but I’m also super disappointed that he’s moving a thousand miles away from me, just when we were going to live in the same zip code again for the first time since he’d graduated high school.
Still, his move is what made this gorgeous, sprawling house mine for now. Nico’s been renting it from a guy who doesn’t really care if he makes any money on it or not, and he’s cool with me taking over the lease. And of course, Nico didn’t require a security deposit or first and last months’ rent from me.
“Yeah, housing is crazy around here,” he says in response to my comment about his commute. “Because it’s mostly small towns and rural country, there aren’t apartment complexes or condos—and very few houses for rent. I was lucky to meet the dude who owns this one. Otherwise, I probably would’ve had to live somewhere even further.”
“And your luck is my luck.” I wander further down the hallway to peek at the huge master bedroom that is now all mine. “I would’ve had to look for a roommate, I guess.”
“Probably.” Nico glances at his phone and grimaces. “I hate to drop all this info on you and then run, but I need to get on the road. I want to make Atlanta before midnight.”
He’s driving up to Chicago so that he doesn’t have to ship his car. I swallow back a sigh of disappointment that he can’t stay longer and put on a happy face.
“Oh, don’t worry about me.” I keep my tone breezy. “I’ve got this. I’m just waiting for you to hit the road so I can really explore.”
“Yeah? What’re you going to do first?” His eyes hold a teasing gleam.
“Hmmm.” I pretend to consider it. “As soon as your car is out of the driveway, I’ll run into the bedroom and throw myself across the bed. Bounce on it a little, because, you know, why not? Then I’ll rip off all my clothes and dive into the pool.” I give him a saucy wink. “Skinny dipping’s my favorite.”
Do I imagine it, or is there a flare of . . . something in the depth of Nico’s eyes when I say that? I decide it’s probably just wishful thinking. He’s never looked at me as anything but his buddy Kyle’s kid sister—and that’s not likely to change any time soon.
With that firmly in mind, I turn and throw my arms around him, giving him a tight bear-hug that is entirely appropriate for an honorary little sister to give her surrogate big brother. If my lady parts sing when my boobs press into that incredibly muscled chest, or if my heart gives a happy little sigh when his hands rub my lower back . . . well, no one needs to know but me and my lonely, yearning body.
“Safe driving,” I tell him when I pull away, which is much sooner than I want to end the embrace. “Text me when you hit Atlanta. Eat a peach for me.”
“You got it, Jenny.” He touches my face briefly. “Remember what I said about the alarm. Be safe.”
“Promise.” I hold up my hand as though I’m taking a pledge.
“Enjoy your skinny dipping.” With a move so deft I don’t even see it coming, he reaches around and smacks my ass, making me shriek in surprise. I’m still giggling—and Nico’s still chuckling—when he shuts the front door behind him.
I listen for the sound of his car backing out of the drive, and I watch out the front window until he disappears around the curve in the road.
Once he’s gone, the house is eerily quiet. I don’t jump on the bed or swim naked as I’d teased Nico; instead, I indulge my hurting, neglected heart and curl up on that giant sofa for a good, long cry.
Tawdra Kandle writes romance, in just about all its forms. She loves unlikely pairings, strong women, sexy guys, hot love scenes and just enough conflict to make it interesting. Her books include young adult and new adult paranormal romance, new adult and adult contemporary romance and adult paramystery romance. She lives in central Florida with a husband, kids, sweet pup and too many cats. And yeah, she rocks purple hair.
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