I hoped I wouldn’t miss him. The only downside to these loosey-goosey barbecues was not knowing who was going to be there and when. I got to Victoria and James’ early to position myself on a barstool in the huge, eat-in kitchen with a wide view of the backyard.
If he came in the front door, he’d have to pass through to get outside, and if he walked around and went directly into the yard via the side gate, I should be able to catch him.
Doing another visual sweep of the patio and pool area where another guests enjoyed the warmer weather, I lost track of the conversation with my host temporarily. Victoria snapped a finger over my head while holding a knife in the other hand. “Hello, Nisha?”
I smiled and turned my gaze back to her, and she continued chopping onions and tomatoes for guacamole.
“What? Oh, yeah. Maya’s doing okay. She’s still staying with me.”
“You’re going to keep her?”
“Hopefully.” I sighed. “All Maya has to do is get through the next three years.”
Of course, I knew nothing about how to raise a teenager except worrying every day we were crammed into my townhouse. And now Lisa was back. My spine stiffened until my neck hurt.
It would be okay. Maya knew what she wanted. And I’d handle the rest. I reached out to my lawyer. He agreed to help, but representation would cost a couple thousand dollars I didn’t have just to get started. I would figure it out.
Lord. Today wasn’t for worrying about Maya. Today was for meeting the guy at the heart of the story that would help me not have to worry.
That’s why I’d asked Victoria about one particular hot, successful guy on the guest list. I hadn’t wanted to get her involved, but I needed to make sure he was going to be here. Otherwise, I’d have to get much more creative.
“Well—oh, hey.” She lowered her voice. “Your hookup is here.”
“What’s up, Victoria? I brought beer.”
The back of my neck tingled at the masculine rumble behind me.
I knew before I swiveled around that he was handsome.
All the news clippings and online pics told me that. But they couldn’t warn me about the earthquaking timber of his voice that surely registered on the Richter scale. The vibration made my toes curl around the footrest of my barstool. The only shakes like that around here came from fracking. The tremors in my stomach told me he might be as dangerous as his new oil magnate employer.
I drew in a steadying breath and turned.
“Hi.” The wicked energy of his grin swayed toward me in time with samba-like way his hips moved when he walked.
What I needed from him didn’t have anything to do with his hips. Or the sinewed ripple of his forearms as he reached past me to set a case of Mexican beer on the counter. He wore a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. It was open. His dark, smooth chest rippled and narrowed to hard abs that cut arrows pointing down into the waistband of his long swim trunks.
He started to say something else, but Victoria interrupted.
“There’s a tub of ice outside for the drinks. Then, come back in, and I’ll let Nisha introduce herself.” Victoria took a break from chopping and wiped her hands on a dish towel.
The slash of his smile spread across his face again. My heart swelled and thumped to the beat that had played in my head as I watched him walk in.
“Or we could do that now before I head outside.” He extended a hand. “Carter Cross.”
Even his hands were sexy. Callused, but smooth at the same time. Strong, but elegant. His fingers wrapped around my hand, and I thought about having the grip sliding up my arm, over my shoulder, and down, down, down.
I was sweating like Victoria’s A/C wasn’t cranked to a chill for the party.
Straightening my spine lifted my chest in my magenta bikini, and his eyes flickered down and back up to my face. Normally, that would have irritated me, but instead, my stomach did another salsa dance.
Let go of his hand, creeper. I’d clung on a nanosecond too long, then dropped it. “Nisha Donovan.”
“How have we never met before?”
“Are you sure we haven’t?” I crinkled my brow as if maybe I remembered him from somewhere else and not the days of research I’d done.
“No. I have an expert eye for faces. Yours,” he paused and pointed at me, “I haven’t seen before.”
I grinned. “Well, now you have.”
He laughed. “I’ll be sure to remember. How do you know Victoria and James?”
“Victoria and I lived on the same floor freshman year at TCU.”
“You two sorors?”
I smiled, though the question picked at a decade-old wound. By sophomore year, Victoria and I were rooming together. She decked out her half of the room with every pink and green item her sorority sold. Each new pillow, drink koozie, or T-shirt reminded me how little I could have afforded to pledge.
“Sororities weren’t my thing.”
“They were definitely our thing, huh, Carter.” James charged through to the back door. “‘What’s up, man.” He and James man-hugged, grasping each other’s hand between them for their fraternity handshake.
Carter stepped back, still focused on me. “Sororities were our thing. You know college. So you were a more independent type, then?”
I shrugged. “I guess. I like being able to do whatever I want.”
Victoria scooped a silky mass of guacamole into a chip and dip platter and popped open a bag of tortilla chips. “She still does. Nisha’s a freelance writer.”
I ignored a twinge of guilt. My contract demanded that I keep my position at the Post a secret.
“What do you write?” he asked.
“News articles, blog posts, promotional pieces. That kind of thing.” The practiced not-quite-lie passed easily over my lips. I did that work, just not how people thought.
“Oh. Do you have a card? I might know of some companies who could use your services.”
The corner of my mouth twisted up like a plot. No, he didn’t, but if he wanted my number, that simplified things on my end. I made a show of digging through my purse for my card, but instead, retrieved my phone.
“I left my cards in my other purse. Why don’t I text you my number? Then, you’ll have it.”
And I’ll have yours.
“Perfect.” He recited his number for me. I typed, and the cargo pocket of his shorts chimed. Carter grabbed his beer from the counter. “I better go get this on ice. Nice meeting you.”
As soon as the back door slipped shut behind him, Victoria cackled. “Get in there now, girl, before these Dallas women get after him. He told James this morning that he’s moving back here from North Carolina.”
“Yeah. It’s sudden. He just got a big promotion at his job, but now, he’s moving back here for a new one,” she explained.
“Must be an even bigger promotion,” I said. Maybe at Star Energy?
“He’s great catch, and he’s so into you.” Victoria waggled her brows at me.
I feigned ignorance. “You think?”
All I had to do was keep him chasing. He would never know that I was the one in pursuit.
Click the top tab to read part 2 of the scene from Carter's POV
Cute. So cute. More than cute.
How had I never met the dimpled cutie with the creamy bronze skin? Big, round brown eyes and lashes that curled like the finger beckoning you. She had plump lips you could catch between your teeth and suck until her panties melted.
She was a little shorter than I normally liked, but packed tight like a powder keg.
I popped the cap on my beer with the opener on my keychain and downed nearly half my beer. Thirsty. I shouldn’t be that thirsty.
“Victoria and Nisha went to college together?” I asked James.
“Man, good luck.” He tipped his head back, squinting his eyes in the sun as he laughed.
A twitch sparked in my right cheek. “What?”
“Victoria tried fixing her up half a dozen times. She’s starts hot and then goes cold, man. Ice.” James mock shivered.
I looked through the bay window into the kitchen. Nisha’s shapely backside curved up nicely as she leaned on the counter.
“Looks warm enough to me.”
“A ton of ladies will be here. A ton. And since you’re moving back in a couple of weeks, I can start brainstorming.” James clutched his beer in his fingers, rubbing his palms together.
“Okay. But what’s wrong with Nisha?”
“I don’t know, Carter. She’s just…I don’t know what goes on with her. Her whole situation is cloudy. She has a niece she takes care of. She works all the time. We’ll be out somewhere, and she’ll get a text and just…poof.” James waved a hand overhead. “She has to go because she’s working on some news article. But she’s freelance, right? But I’ve asked her about doing some work for my company, and she’s always too busy.”
“Making she has enough clients.” Success was supposed to be a good thing.
“I don’t know. Something’s weird there. She’s pretty, but… I don’t know.” He sighed and cringed. “I do know I wouldn’t set her up with a friend again.”
He shook his head. “Man, I fixed her up with a guy from work. Smart. Movin’ on up kind of brother. She never called him back because he said, ‘sal-mon’ instead of ‘sam-on.’ She’s one of those picky sisters. No one’s ever good enough. I think she’s fine keeping her scene sparse.”
Picky didn’t bother me. A woman had to be picky. Low standards were how you got into trouble.
“I can handle picky.”
James snorted. “Because you’re so sure women will pick you, cocky asshole.”
I swigged my beer and shrugged with a smile. “Honesty is the best policy.”
“Oh, my God.” He punched my shoulder and rolled his eyes. “Look, she’s friends with my wife. And I like her well enough—”
“Yeah. You sound like her biggest fan.” I snickered.
“I do! But I don’t have to date her, and I wouldn’t suggest it. Honesty is the best policy, man.”
“Understood. That doesn’t mean I won’t hit her up for dinner or whatever.” My gaze wandered back through the kitchen window. She tossed her head back in laughter and did a little shimmy on her kitchen barstool. Yep. I was glad to have her number.
“You want to go chasing ‘whatever,’ have at it, but don’t call it a hookup from me. I take my matchmaking seriously. I’m a connoisseur.” James kissed the tips of his expanding fingers.
I lost some of my beer with a sharp chuckle and drew the back of my hand across my mouth. “Like that Renee girl.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Renee. She’s beautiful and sweet and practical and pays her own bills. That girl will never be broke at the end of the month because she bought a $500 handbag. That fixup was top-notch.”
“She didn’t believe in having sex until marriage,” I grumbled in a low voice, not wanting to draw any newcomers to our wildly inappropriate party conversation.
“She’s a Christian girl. What’s wrong with that?” James raised an eyebrow.
“Nothing wrong with being Christian. Nothing wrong with waiting. But she needs to find a guy who wants that. I’m not getting married without knowing everything about a woman. Especially the important things,” I declared. “You didn’t do her any favors fixing her up with me.”
“Sex isn’t everything.”
“Sex is important.”
“You,” James shook his finger at me, “said you were tired of trifling women dating you for rent money and wanted to settle down. Renee is a woman to settle down with. She has class and style. Your kids would be literate.”
I snorted. “My dick would shrivel up from non-use and fall off before we got that far.”
“Not if you were ready to settle down like you said,” he countered. “The whole thing might do you some good. Learn some discipline.”
I threw my hands out wide in shock. “When have I ever lacked discipline?”
“Never. Look at you.” He twisted up his face in disgust and rubbed his stomach. “Victoria has me on a keto diet. I get a break today for the party, and then she’s back to hiding the bread.”
James had gotten a little softer around the middle since the wedding. But he looked happier. Victoria was probably striving for a happy medium. “They say that’s why straight men live longer if they’re married. Women nag them,” I said.
“Yes. They keep us in line. You need one of those. Someone like Renee.”
“I’m not marrying a Renee.”
“Don’t write them off, man. Sometimes those church girls cut loose and whew!” James jumped back and threw his arms up before doubling over.
I hooted. “You’re a fool.”
I darted a look at the door. Nisha stepped out and slid her sunglasses onto her heart-shaped face. She glanced my way with a warming grin.
Cold? Ice? I didn’t see it.