The Sharpest Kiss Excerpt

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The Sharpest Kiss Excerpt

Chapter One

The Courtyard at Vintage Meadow Lake, a suburb of Houston, TX.

Nine days before Halloween.

The vampire glaared down at Lucy with red and glittering eyes, his fangs glinting from a self-satisfied smirk. He had a handsome face, though it was pale as the moon shining above him, and his hair was long and lustrous, black as the midnight sky at his back. His white linen shirt gaped open, revealing what seemed like acres of gleaming muscle. He had the body of a warrior. Or a god. Yet it was the fangs to which Lucy’s gaze continually returned. Elongated and sharp, they made her think of jaguars and panthers, tigers and…baboons.

A crisp breeze swept by, sending a dead leaf skittering across Lucy’s shoe. Predator, she thought, hugging herself as she stared back at the vampire, but she couldn’t bring herself to look away.

Until a voice chirped in her ear. “Hey, Luce, you about ready to go?”

“Oh!” Lucy jumped and turned to find her best friend, Jessica, standing right beside her, with her sunglasses on her head and her purse slung over her arm. “Oh, um, hi, Jess. Y-yeah, I’m all set.”

Jessica paused, glancing at the vampire and then back at Lucy. Her lips curled with amusement, her blue topaz eyes beginning to twinkle. They were a beautiful contrast, those limpid eyes, to her warm brown complexion and dark hair. Lucy glanced over her friend’s perfectly balanced hourglass figure and felt dowdy standing next to her, but then again, after fifteen years of friendship, that was nothing new. “See anything you like?” It was clear Jessica meant the vampire and not herself.

Lucy felt herself blush. She adjusted her glasses. “Wh-who is that?” she asked, gesturing at the vampire. Who wasn’t a real vampire, of course, but a painting of one, printed on an enormous slab of cardboard and propped up in a bookstore window. Jessica’s romance bookstore, Book of Love, which, according to the feathery purple lettering on the door, “specialized in HEA.” Jessica had explained it meant Happily Ever After.

People love a good love story, she’d added with a wistful sigh, because in a good love story, there’s always a happy ending.

Never mind that Lucy could easily think of half a dozen classic love stories that proved her best friend wrong. She knew better than to argue with Jessica when she was adamant about something.

That,“Jessica said, and gave the vampire a long, admiring look, “is Prince Ion Petrescu.”

“Prince Yawn?” Lucy patted her hand against her open mouth.

Ion,” Jessica corrected, laughing. “I-O-N. He’s Romanian…or something.”

“Oh.” Lucy tilted her chin, reading the title printed above the vampire’s head. A Prince at Midnight: The Sharpest Kiss Book VI.

The Sharpest Kiss?” She wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound…very comfortable at all, now does it?”

Jessica laughed again. “Well, it’s a really popular series. This one’s a sequel to A Prince Under the Moonlight, which was a huge bestseller in the U.S. last year. It’s actually not bad, either, aside from the cliffhanger ending. I cannot wait for the shipment of Midnight to show up, so I can finally figure out what happens to the Duchess Horatia Alexandrescu there. Did Ion turn her into a vampire to rescue her from falling victim to consumption, or what?” She pointed at the painting, and Lucy looked again, this time at the fiery-haired woman held fast in the circle of Ion’s massive arms. She was gorgeous, too, and looked perfectly contented to be right where she was, with her hand splayed against Ion’s alabaster chest, her fingers digging into his bulging pectoral muscles. Lucy pictured herself in Horatia’s place, tried to imagine what it might be like to love a monster. Not so bad, maybe, judging by the adoring look on the duchess’s face.

But then Lucy’s gaze went to the sickle lying at Ion’s feet—his weapon for killing upstart rival vampires, she guessed—and she found herself shuddering again.

Jessica chided, “Hey, stop giving the prince the side-eye, would you? He keeps the lights on around here, and food on my table.”

“Sorry. Guess I’m just used to vampires being, you know, scary.” Like the ones Ace Van Helsing fights in the Fiends of Professor Nosferus Chronicles, Lucy added to herself. Professor Nosferus was her favorite currently-running comic book series for adults, and she couldn’t imagine wanting to get snuggly with any of the nosferatu featured in its pages.

Ace Van Helsing, on the other hand…

“Oh, the prince is scary alright,” a wicked gleam entered Jessica’s irises as she waggled her eyebrows at Lucy, “in the sexiest way imaginable.”

Lucy couldn’t begin to understand what that was supposed to mean, nor was she so sure she wanted to. Without another word, she let Jessica thread her arm through hers and lead her across the courtyard to the Dos Lunas Café. The two women ordered sandwiches and coffee and then, because it was a sunny and mild fall afternoon, settled in at a wrought iron table on the sidewalk. As they ate and drank under the canvas umbrella, they discussed all the usual topics. The latest Netflix docuseries, the news, Jessica’s family, Lucy’s family, how the renovations on the bookstore were coming along…but eventually the conversation circled back to Prince Ion.

“Do you mind tacking some of these up in the breakrooms at Acray-Sys? I’m trying to get rid of the few I’ve got left before the party.” Jessica plucked a stack of glossy postcards from her purse and handed it to Lucy.

Lucy examined the A Prince at Midnight book cover on the cards. The back advertised the release party Book of Love was hosting for the new title next Wednesday night. Jessica had told Lucy that new books usually hit the market on Tuesdays, but the publisher was timing this one to coincide with Halloween and encouraging retailers to stay open late and sell it at the stroke of midnight. Lucy glanced back toward the bookstore, where a group of women had gathered around the display window and were snapping selfies in front of Ion and Horatia. She had to admit, the whole thing seemed like a pretty clever marketing ploy.

As if reading her mind, Jessica said, “The tagline for the release date just could not be any better, right? I mean, ‘Get your copy of A Prince at Midnight—at midnight?’ It’s too perfect.”

Lucy smiled and tucked the cards into her tote bag. “I’ll put these up for you, no problem.”

“You’re awesome,” Jessica beamed. “The awesome-est, in fact.” Then, cocking her head, she peered at Lucy like a curious bird. “You’re still coming, right? To the party?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

“And what about Aaron?”

“A-Aaron?” Lucy fidgeted with a button on her sweater. Suddenly she was nervous, just the mention of her boss’s name making her blood pump faster and her skin feel warmer.

Jessica sipped from her coffee, watching Lucy over the rim. “Uh, yeah, you know, the guy you can’t stop thinking about? Unless there’s someone else you’ve suddenly developed a massive crush on?”

“Could you keep it down, Jess? We’re not that far from the office. What if someone I work with were to walk by and hear you saying that?”

“Would it really be the end of the world?”

“It might be the end of my job. I do work for him, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. You’re such a cliché, a secretary falling for her boss. Believe me, we’ve got whole aisles of stories like that back at the bookstore.” Jessica’s sarcasm was tempered by her good-natured smile.

Lucy had to chuckle, letting out a breath that stirred her bangs. “Hey, we’re called Executive Assistants, okay? Not secretaries. And it’s not like I wanted to be living out a trope in real life, but what choice did I have?”

Jessica took another quick sip of her latté. “Working for someone that hot? Not much,” she conceded. “Anyway, my point was: are you inviting him to the party, or what? We’re going to have free food and champagne, fun games and cool door prizes. And I promise it isn’t only for romance nerds—every brand of geek is welcome to show up. I know if he comes with you, he’ll have a great time.”

Lucy picked at the lid on her coffee, contemplating. “You have his email address. Can’t you just send him an invitation?”

“Well, I could, but I think it would be better if you asked him.”

“It’d be weird. He’d think I liked him.”

“You do like him.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want him to know that!”

“As if he doesn’t already?” At Lucy’s alarmed look, Jessica added, “Come on. I’ve seen you with him, remember? Do you honestly think he doesn’t notice the whole blushing and babbling thing? After eight months? Trust me, the jig is up.”

Lucy felt indignation rise at this, and she wanted to defend herself, but she knew it was true. She did blush and babble every time she was around Aaron. Ugh. He probably thought she was the biggest fool on the planet.

“And yet he keeps coming around to talk to you,” Jessica went on. “So he must not consider it a bad thing. If he were grossed out, he’d totally avoid you, right?”

“No,” Lucy groaned. “He can’t avoid me. I’m his assistant. He has to talk to me!”

Jessica tucked a piece of lettuce more securely into what was left of her sandwich, and then rolled it up in a paper napkin. “He could just call or message you from his desk anytime he needs something. He doesn’t have to walk out and talk to you every five minutes. He definitely doesn’t have to come and sit at your desk just to shoot the breeze the way you told me he does every single afternoon before he goes home.”

“He’s a big Professor Nosferus fan. That’s mostly what he likes to talk to me about.”

“He talks to you about everything. How else would I know so many random things about him? Like his favorite coffee, his favorite pizza, what gym he goes to, the fact he runs the marathon every other year. I even know what size pants, shirts, and shoes the man wears, thanks to you buying almost all of his clothes for him. Let’s face it, you’re practically his wife already.”

“He’s a busy guy,” Lucy laughed. “He doesn’t always have time to shop for himself, so I put in the orders for him…Look, I’m sure most assistants know all that kind of stuff about their bosses. Don’t they?”

Jessica’s glance was shrewd. “But he doesn’t just talk to you about himself, does he? Or order you around? He wants to know about your life, too. You told me he asked all about your aunt while she was sick.”

Lucy’s heart hitched at the mention of her aunt. Her favorite extended relative, Aunt Genevieve was only fifty-eight years old when she’d discovered she was riddled with cancer. Four months ago, she’d begun receiving palliative care at her home just outside Dallas, and Lucy had made several trips there to visit her and her family. Aaron had been incredibly understanding about Lucy’s need for extra time off, and he had always asked about Genevieve, seeming to genuinely care about the answers. When Genevieve had finally passed, he’d sent flowers to the funeral. “That was nice of him,” Lucy admitted.

“He likes you,” Jessica said. “I can tell.”

“You mean it?” Lucy sat up straighter, giving her a searching look. “You’re not just messing with me?”

“Would I do that, Lucy Goose? And have I ever led you astray?”

“No,” Lucy said, because she wouldn’t, and she hadn’t.

Jessica picked up her leftovers. “I know you’re not big on making the first move or anything, but maybe it’d be worth risking it this time? I wouldn’t want you to overlook something that’s right under your nose. Or sitting by your desk at the end of every day, as the case may be.” She winked as she stood up and drew her purse from the back of the chair.

“You’re leaving?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah, sorry, but I’ve gotta run. I told Davis I’d meet up with a vendor so she wouldn’t have to. That way she doesn’t have to cut her own lunch short. Total pain.” She rolled her eyes and put the back of her hand to her forehead, feigning despair.

“Please. Don’t give me that. I know it’s your dream job over there. And dealing with Mrs. Davis is only temporary. As soon as her last three months are up, she’ll be retired and out of your hair for good. You’ll be your own boss. Forever.” Lucy’s lower lip momentarily jutted out. “Do I sound jealous? ‘Cause I am. I’m a bowl of green Jell-O over here.”

Jessica grinned and wrinkled her nose. “It is pretty enviable, isn’t it? Don’t worry, someday you’ll be calling the shots somewhere, too. Until then, I think you should enjoy being, uh, subordinate to one of the studliest guys in the A-cray-cray-Sys building. It could be so much worse.” She swiped her empty cup from the table. “And I still think you should invite him to my party. Just saying. Ta!” She wiggled her fingers at Lucy.

“Bye.” Lucy watched her friend dunk her cup into a garbage bin and hurry back up the sidewalk, disappearing into the bookstore. Then Lucy pulled her phone from her pocket and checked the time. There were still twenty minutes left in her lunch hour. Plenty of time to be productive.

Drawing her bag onto the table, Lucy pulled out her planner and her pencil case. She flipped the planner open to the following month and busied herself tracing perfect boxes with a straight-edge, and then highlighting each square the appropriate color. Purple for spinning classes, neon yellow for her dentist appointment, green for trips to the market, and so on. There. Now her near future was all planned out to a tee, just the way she liked it. A sense of deep relief swept over Lucy as she looked at all the squares, and she let out a contented sigh. Then she flipped back a few pages and saw the bright orange squiggles Jessica had drawn around Wednesday, October thirtieth. MY PARTY, she’d written in giant bubble letters.

Lucy chuckled. Her best friend’s words rang in her head. He likes you. I can tell. You should invite him.

Would Aaron actually come to the party if Lucy asked him, she wondered? Maybe. But only because he seemed determined to eventually go out with every woman in the city.

In the eight months she’d worked for him, Lucy had seen her boss go out on what felt like roughly a million dates with roughly a million different women, intimating he accepted every invitation that ever crossed his desk. But not a single one of Aaron’s dates had ever been a dishwater blonde with brown eyes who wore glasses and sweater-sets over their jeans the way Lucy did. His companions had all looked like fashion models straight from the pages of Vogue—raven-haired, jewel-eyed beauties in tailored, expensive outfits and alarmingly high heels. Not that Lucy begrudged Aaron those dates. He was gorgeous. Why shouldn’t he want to surround himself with equally attractive people?

Feeling suddenly deflated, Lucy clapped shut her planner, gathered her supplies, and chucked everything into her tote bag. She cleaned up her trash and headed up the sidewalk, back toward Acray-Sys. It took only a few minutes for her to reach the campus of tall, featureless white buildings, and soon Lucy was swiping her ID badge against the door, zooming up several floors in the elevator, and heading back to her desk. As she rounded the corner to her office, however, she ran straight into a brick wall.

“Oh!” She gasped as the tote bag flew off her arm. It landed on the floor, spewing all its contents. Her pencil case popped open, and pens and highlighters jumped out across the drab institutional carpeting, rolling in every direction.

“Oh, geez, Lucy, I’m so sorry,” the walking wall said. “Didn’t see you there.” Strong hands caught her by the upper arms and steadied her.

Lucy looked up to see a broad torso filling out a starched white dress shirt and, above that, a handsome face staring down at her with concern. The face featured soulful hazel eyes and a strong, straight nose, a firm jawline, and sensuous lips. The light brown hair above the face was cut short, mussed as though its owner had recently been running his fingers through it. Leaving it tousled just enough to make him look appealingly disreputable.

“Aaron,” she breathed, and felt the blood rush to her cheeks.

Gosh, Jessica was right. With reactions like this, there was no way he couldn’t know how crazy she was about him. How humiliating.

“Sorry,” he repeated, rubbing her arms. “You okay?” His perfect mouth slanted up on one side, and his eyes sparkled.

Lucy had always been fascinated by the way hazel eyes seemed to change color from day to day, or even hour to hour. Right now, Aaron’s seemed to be a dark, steely gray, with just a hint of ocean blue threading through them. But regardless of what color they appeared, his irises always had a way of making her feel she could drown in them if she let herself.

“I-I’m okay,” she stammered, tearing her gaze away.

“Good, good, glad to hear it.” Then Aaron looked at the floor and groaned. “Oh, man, look at all your stuff. It went everywhere. Here…” He crouched and started picking things up. Or trying to. His big hands fumbled with the tiny paper clips and miniature markers scattered all around him.

“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that, I’ll get it.”

Lucy fell to her knees beside him and started raking together her pens and highlighters, hair elastics, and tubes of lip balm, tossing handfuls of stuff into the bag until she heard Aaron say, “Oh, hey, you’re having a Halloween party?”

She looked up to see him holding her planner, smiling at the orange sunburst in the middle.

“Oh, um, actually Jessica is. At her new bookstore.”

“Yeah?” Aaron looked intrigued, one eyebrow cocking.

“Yeah, it’s part of this big book release thing…” She hunted around for the postcards Jessica had given her. Finding one, she held it out to him, but he didn’t notice. He was too engrossed in the planner, gazing at the pages in something like awe. Or maybe horror.

“Wow, you’re really organized, aren’t you?”

Lucy bit her lip.

“Like, really, really organized.” His eyes grew as he flipped more pages. Then he looked up and caught the expression on her face. “Not that I didn’t already know that,” he added quickly, “and not that there’s anything wrong with it, either.” He grinned, closing the planner and passing it back to her. “I guess that’s part of what makes you such a good assistant. I know I couldn’t get through a week without you around to keep me in line.” He winked as he got to his feet and extended a hand to her.

With her face on fire, Lucy slipped the notebook into the bag. Hoping he wouldn’t notice the nervous tremor in her arm, she slipped her fingers into his and let him help her up.

“I, uh, I’d better get to work,” she said halfheartedly. In reality, she’d have stood in that hallway for the rest of her life if it meant he’d keep holding her hand like this. His touch was electrifying, making her blood hum, and she’d never felt anything quite as exciting before. She wondered if he felt it, too. She doubted it, since he didn’t look at all electrified. He simply looked cheerful, and vaguely amused—the way he usually did.

“Ah, yeah,” he said, “that boss of yours—he is a bit of a taskmaster, isn’t he?”

Lucy chuckled nervously.

Maybe it was how discombobulated his touch made her feel, or the silly ideas Jessica had put into her head earlier, but she found her mouth springing open and the words tumbling out before she could stop them. “Would you like to come to Jessica’s party, Aaron?”

“What?” he paused, blinking as he looked down at her.

Oh, no! Had she actually said that?

Why had she said that?

“To, um, Jessica’s party. Would you like to go? G-go to it, that is? Would you like to come?”

Aaron blinked again, a slight frown appearing on his face before his smile returned. “Are you asking me out, Lucy?”

To her consternation, she thought she detected a laugh in his voice. Her face blazed anew. “N-no. No, of course not, I would never ask you out!”

Oh, geez.

“I mean, of course I would. If I could. If I thought you would say yes. It’s not that you aren’t super-attractive or anything, it’s just…”

Oh, my WORD.

She sighed, briefly closing her eyes to get ahold of herself. When she opened them again, she forced herself to look at him evenly. “I just meant it wouldn’t be appropriate,” she said primly. “Since you’re my boss and everything. You know.”

And this much was true, at least. Despite Jessica’s flippancy about the subject, it was a genuine concern for Lucy. It seemed every other week there was another required training course for Acray-Sys employees about avoiding workplace harassment. Lucy needed this job. She couldn’t afford to get caught up in any sexual misconduct scandals. Especially since she was highly unlikely to even get any sex out of it first.

Aaron’s confusion faded into understanding. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “About that. I can trust you to keep a secret, can’t I, Lucy?”

Lucy’s ears perked up. A secret? What secret?

He still hadn’t let go of her hand, and now, before she could answer, he tugged her into his outer office. He closed the door, led Lucy to her desk, and turned her around to face him. Raising a finger to his lips he said, “Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I’m not going to be your boss for too much longer.”

It took a moment for his words to register. Then Lucy gaped at him. Again, she thought about how much she needed this job. “Are you…are you firing me?” she squeaked, wracking her brain for any mistakes she might have made around the office lately. She came up blank. As with everything else in her life, she was painstaking in her work, meticulous, even…

“What?” Aaron laughed. “No, of course not. I just mean I’m quitting Acray-Sys soon.”

“What?!”

He nodded, looking eager. “I’ve got something else lined up. Starts pretty soon.”

Lucy was stunned. She’d had no idea Aaron was even looking for another position. And now he said he’d landed one? He was leaving?

Sheesh, what was going to be the point of her even coming to work anymore?

Oh no, this is awful! she thought, and her dejection must have shown, because now Aaron was looking at her funny. “O-oh, that’s great!” she blurted. “Congratulations!”

His smile reappeared, like the sun breaking through clouds. “Thanks.”

“Where are you going?” she wondered.

“A buddy of mine’s opening up a gastro pub nearby. I’m going to tend bar for him.”

Lucy blinked, unsure she’d heard him correctly. “You’re quitting…to go be a bartender?”

But Aaron grinned as though he’d just won the lottery. “Yeah, isn’t it great? I tended bar all through college, and I really liked it. I’ve always thought about going back to it. Now, I finally can.”

Lucy examined him, seeing how genuinely thrilled he seemed about his impending career change. His grin was infectious, and she found herself mirroring it. Because, after all, if Aaron was happy, then so was she.

“Oh, well, good luck,” she said. “I hope it works out for you.”

“Thanks,” he said again. “Listen, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but the higher-ups asked me to keep it under wraps for the time being. I guess they don’t want any rumors starting just yet, about who might be taking over my department when I leave.” He rolled his eyes.

“I understand.” And then she felt her heart twist painfully, thinking of someone else trying to take Aaron’s place here. Someone else sitting behind his desk while she sat in front of it, going over his schedule for the day or taking notes. To her dismay, she felt tears sting the corners of her eyes. Ugh, don’t make a spectacle of yourself, Lucinda! But she decided there was no use in trying to hide everything she was feeling. This much, at least, she could honestly confide in him: “I’ll miss you,” she said softly.

“Aw,” he tilted his head. “For what it’s worth, I feel the same way, Lucy.”

“Y-you do?”

“Yeah, of course. You’re great. You’re the best.”

Her chest tickled with warmth. “Oh. You’re great, too,” she gushed. “I’ve loved being under you. I mean, working under you.” Ahhhh! “I’ve loved working for you!”

He chuckled and gave her a playful cuff on the shoulder. “See what I’m talking about? You crack me up. I’m going to miss that.”

“How long do you have left here?” she asked, dreading the answer.

“Three weeks.”

Three weeks! If Lucy wanted to let Aaron know how she felt about him, time was literally running out. Screwing up her courage, she said, “So, um, about Jessica’s party…” And although it was a little creased and sweaty now, she handed him the postcard. “It starts at ten. I know that’s late, but…”

“No, it’s perfect,” he said. “I’d love to come.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I’m taking Ava to the theater that night, but after it lets out, we’ll definitely drop by for a minute and say hello. I’d like to wish Jessica good luck with everything.”

Lucy blinked. “Ava?”

“Yeah, you remember her, right? A couple weeks ago, she came in to pick me up for dinner?”

Lucy did remember. Ava had been one of Aaron’s most recent dates. One of the few blondes she’d ever seen him go out with. “Yeah, I remember. I’m just not used to ever hearing any of your dates’ names more than once, I guess.”

Yikes. Lucy cringed inside.

Thankfully, Aaron just laughed off her graceless comment and said, “No, I guess not, huh? Ava’s a little different, though.” He smiled crookedly, and Lucy’s heart plummeted.

All those girls and he’d finally found one he wanted to see again. Someone “different.” Well, that just figured.

What had she been thinking, asking him to Jessica’s party? Now she wanted to snatch the postcard out of his hand and pretend she’d never mentioned it.

But it was too late. He’d already crammed the card into his pants pocket and was pulling out his ringing cell phone. “Speak of the devil,” he said, checking the screen. “It’s Ava. I’d better go answer this.” He stroked his thumb over Lucy’s wrist before finally letting her go. “Hey there,” she heard him say affectionately as he headed into his office. And then the door swung closed behind him. Shutting Lucy out of his future.


Chapter Two

The Red Palm was busy for a Monday night. Usually it was just the after-work crowd that gathered here at this hour, but tonight there seemed to be a lot of clubbers around, too, maybe stopping by for a starter drink before heading out on the town. It was just as well, as far as Aaron was concerned. Maybe the noise would help drown out the sound of his cousin’s groveling.

“Come on, Double A, it’s only ten thousand dollars. I know you could lose that kind of dough between your couch cushions and not even notice it was missing.”

No such luck, Aaron thought, and barely suppressed an eyeroll. Despite the dull roar of the crowd around them, he could still hear every word of Neil’s pathetic pitch for more money. He could also hear himself clear his throat and say, with as much steel as he could muster, “Sorry, Neil, but no way.”

“What?” Neil’s hazel eyes, so like Aaron’s own, grew. “No way? You’d really do your own family—some of your only family—like that?” Then his eyes filmed over with tears, and he clasped his hands in front of his chest. It was an impressive performance, Aaron had to admit, but he couldn’t let it affect him. This was the third time this year the guy had asked him for an exorbitant amount of cash, and Aaron was determined not to give in again. Yeah, he had a fat bank account, but it wasn’t bottomless. And now that he was leaving his lucrative position at Acray-Sys, he’d need to be even more careful about how he spent his money.

Some things were worth shelling out for, sure, but his wastrel cousin’s inability to budget didn’t make the cut.

Thinking of his imminent job change prompted Aaron to glance at the bartender, who was balanced on a footstool, busily shuffling liquor bottles on a shelf. That’ll be me, soon, Aaron thought with a thrill of excitement. Soon I’ll be the one stocking drinks and polishing glasses, and not giving a fig about corporate sales projections and conference calls anymore! The thought made his heart feel lighter, and he smiled as he sipped his beer.

Neil’s brow furrowed into pleats. He dropped his hands, as well as the pity-me act. “Get a kick out of punching a guy when he’s down, do you, Cuz? I see how it is.”

“Huh?” Aaron watched, befuddled, as his cousin swiped his Scotch and soda off the bar and angrily slugged the remainder of it down his gullet. Then, realizing what had just happened, he held up his hand. “Wait, Neil, that’s not why I was smiling, I was just—” But Neil was already off his barstool.

“See you later, Cuz. But just remember, what goes around comes around. Maybe someday I’m in a position to help you out and I say no. We’ll see how funny you think it is then.”

I seriously doubt that will ever happen, Aaron thought, but he didn’t say it. He didn’t say anything as his cousin stomped away, almost barreling over a rain-soaked couple coming in, on his way out the door. Aaron watched lightning illuminate the sky just before the door fell shut again, and then he turned back to his beer. Whatever, he thought. It hadn’t been his intention to run off his cousin, but it was just as well he was gone. Maybe now Aaron could finish his drink in peace.

Reaching into his pocket, he took out his phone, along with the crumpled postcard Lucy had given him earlier, and laid both items on the counter.

Lucy.

Aaron couldn’t help but smile anytime he thought of her.

Over the past couple of years, it seemed he’d dated almost every unattached woman around his age in the city, and yet none of them could hold a candle to his assistant’s intelligence and sense of humor. Yeah, Lucy was a little awkward, but only because she liked Aaron so much. He really didn’t mind the crush she obviously had on him. He thought it was cute. And so was she, for that matter. He liked her clear brown eyes, fringed by thick lashes, and her pouty lower lip. He liked the demure way she smiled, and the tinkling delicacy of her laugh. Aaron had stayed a lot longer at Acray-Sys than he should have because of those bashful doe eyes and that dulcet giggle. To say nothing about her tight little body—likely the result of all those exercise classes he’d seen marked out in her planner that afternoon.

For months after he’d met her, he’d hoped something would happen between them, but the situation had proved more complicated than he’d expected. Not only was there seemingly no good way to hit on one’s assistant without feeling like a lech—and worrying about potentially losing the best employee he’d ever had—he’d eventually begun to second-guess whether he was really the right guy for her, anyway. If her behavior around him was any indication, Lucy was inexperienced with men. As in, completely inexperienced. He wouldn’t have been surprised to learn she’d never had a serious boyfriend before. Or even a casual one. Aaron had never been involved with anyone so innocent before, and the idea made him nervous. If things didn’t work out between them, he’d feel as though he’d ruined Lucy, and then he would feel terrible.

So, yeah, he liked her. A lot.

But that was no excuse for him to be selfish.

He should leave Lucy alone, let her find somebody who deserved her. It was better, he’d decided, for Aaron to stick to the types of women his cousin was always introducing him to. They might have all been horrendous mismatches for him so far, but at least they were wise to the ways of the world. If Aaron did eventually connect with one, he wouldn’t have to handle her with kid gloves.

And now there was Ava to think about, anyway.

Typing rapidly, he texted her:

Hey, Ava, I’m at the Red Palm by myself, and it’s feeling lonely. Any chance you can come over and meet me here?

She texted back right away, I thought you were meeting Neil tonight?

Aaron: Yeah, well, he had to leave all of a sudden.

Ava: Oh. Well, I’m busy right now, sorry.

Aaron: Ok. No prob, just thought I would check. Guess there’s always this weekend, right?

Ava: Actually, I’ve been meaning to tell you…I’m going to be busy then, too. In fact, I’ll probably be all booked up for…well, for a while from now on.

Huh?

Suspicion simmered at the back of Aaron’s mind, making his temples start to throb.

But next week. We’re still going to the theater together, right?

Ava: Aaron, I’m sorry, but work’s really piling up on me right now. My boss is breathing down my neck…You know how it goes.

Aaron: But I’ve got tickets!

Ava: Yeah, and it’s a popular show. I’m sure you can resell the tix w/out any prob. Check StubHub. I’ve had luck there before.

Now his suspicion bubbled up to a boil.

What are you really saying, Ava? Are you dumping me?

Ava: Aaron, don’t be a baby. ‘Dumping’ is a little melodramatic. It’s not like we were officially back together or anything.

Aaron felt his insides lurch. No, he thought. No, she couldn’t be doing this to him. Not again!

Ava, you’re the one who got back in touch with ME. You said you wanted to ‘reconnect.’

Ava: And we did. Now I remember why things didn’t work out for us the first time. You and I aren’t really on the same page about things, now are we?

Aaron: Since when?

But he already knew, of course.

They hadn’t been ‘on the same page’ since this afternoon—when he’d told her he was quitting Acray-Sys. She’d made it pretty clear what she’d thought about that decision. Well, that didn’t mean he couldn’t change her mind, did it?

When she didn’t write back, he sent her another message.

Can I call you? Can we talk?

He didn’t give her a chance to answer, he just dialed.

She picked up, but their short, tense conversation didn’t solve anything.

After he’d hung up, Aaron felt as though the world had spun out from under him. AGAIN.

He finished his beer and ordered another one. He finished that one, too, and then ordered a double shot of whiskey. As he reached for the glass, his rapidly blurring vision latched onto Lucy’s postcard. He snatched it up, flipping it over. There was a half-naked vampire printed on the front of it, with some busty chick standing beside him, pouting. A Prince at Midnight? he thought, chuckling inwardly What is he the rest of the time? Then he wished Lucy were sitting next to him, because she would have appreciated that joke. The realization made his heart pinch with longing. He dropped the card and scrubbed his hand over his face.

Screw it, he thought, tossing back what was left of his drink. Then he speed-dialed his assistant’s number and got her voicemail.

“Lucy, it’s me, Aaron,” he said after the beep. And then he went off, pouring out all of his hidden opinions about his executive assistant, all the workplace-inappropriate thoughts and feelings he’d kept bottled up for the past eight months. Among other things, he told her how cute he thought she looked in the new glasses she’d just gotten, and that he appreciated how her hair always smelled like peaches. He mentioned that he loved the way she frowned and caught her lower lip between her teeth when she was writing down whatever he was saying during their morning meetings. He told her he ‘loved her brain’—by which he meant he knew he could always count on her to have some useful idea when he was stuck on a project or trying to figure out a problem.

He even went so far as to admit that it turned him on sometimes, to hear her on the phone with other people, referring to him as ‘Mr. Ames.’

Finally, he sighed and finished, “So. It looks like I won’t be taking Ava out next week after all. Or ever again. So, um…I was wondering if you still wanted to go to Jessica’s party?” Again, he held the postcard up before his bleary eyes. The party didn’t start until ten, he remembered. “And, uh, maybe you’d want to grab a pizza with me, first? There’s this hole in the wall I like to go to…Well, never mind, I’ve probably already told you all about it before.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Just think about it and let me know tomorrow, okay? Take care. Also, you’re amazing. Did I mention that already? ‘Cause you are.” Click.

There. He had done it. He dropped the phone in his pocket and looked at the bartender, who was eyeing him with undisguised interest. What? As if he’d never seen a guy make a total drunken fool of himself before? It probably happened in here every single night.

“Another Saint Arnold Endeavour,” Aaron said, holding up his hand and trying his best to act cool. Not at all wasted. “And could you close out my tab, please?”

The bartender slid his fresh beer toward him, along with a slip of register paper. Aaron signed the receipt, scratching in a hefty tip, and the bartender’s expression eased up, the judgmental hardness fleeing from his eyes.

“Thank you kindly, sir. Call you a cab?”

Aaron held up his phone. “Uber. But thanks, anyway.”

The barkeep retreated to help another customer, and Aaron took a big gulp of his Endeavour, letting the bitter hops light up his taste buds. As he lowered the glass, he caught sight of himself in the greasy mirror behind the bar and saw the thick beer mustache, like a caterpillar of foam, wriggling across his upper lip. He was so blitzed, he almost laughed out loud at himself. But then a hand landed on his forearm and startled him.

“Wha-?” He looked down in surprise. He hadn’t seen anyone standing beside him in the mirror. But there it was, a dainty hand resting on his sleeve. Looking up, he saw the little hand belonged to the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life, with skin white as fresh snow and lips red as ripe strawberries. Despite the humidity in the air turning everyone else’s hair into a mushroom cloud, her tresses lay smooth as gold silk along her shoulders. Her eyes shone like opals, seeming to contain a kaleidoscope of colors. They were so big. And mesmerizing.

“Aaron?” she said, and her voice was like music.

“Aaron?” he repeated blankly. Who was Aaron? Was she talking about him? Suddenly, he couldn’t remember his own name anymore. Or much of anything else, for that matter. What had he just been thinking about before this happened? Some other girl? Well, that seemed ludicrous now, didn’t it? There was no one in the world for him, would never be anyone else, but this magnificent creature standing before him tonight in the middle of the Red Palm.

She was a goddess, and he would do anything she asked.

Anything.

“Come with me,” she said, and tugged him off the barstool.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and staggered after her, out into the rain.