His doorbell rang at almost eleven the next evening. He’d packed, run through a few of his programs, played Assassin’s Creed, and was in his gym—the only clean place in his apartment at the moment. His computer room had exploded with his latest project, and his living-room-slash-gaming-room-slash-bedroom looked like what it was…confused.
He pulled himself over the bar one last time and dropped to the mat below. He grabbed the chamois off the hook on the wall and wiped his neck, face, and chest. His fingers bumped over the scar bisecting his pectoral.
His wake-up call.
He tugged a t-shirt back on. When he went through the confused room, he stopped to open the blinds. Stepping over the pile of movie cases, he scowled in disgust and then opened the front door.
Marie. “Fuck. What are you doing here?”
“Is that how you say ‘hi’ to all your friends?” Her brow rose.
Speechless, he hesitated, not sure what to say. Friends. She’d said the word, but he still struggled to equate what they had with something he shared with…say, Craig or John.
“I was thinking,” she began, as if sensing his dilemma, “maybe we got off on the wrong foot.”
Forget feet—the sight of her and those big eyes had his tired body reacting…inappropriately, or appropriately if they were on a path toward being in his bed. He cleared his throat and thought about the last string of code he’d created for Tangent Media.
Her hands fluttered to her sides and she shrugged, reminding him of how small she was, but delicate? No. “Look, if we have to spend the next few days together, I’d like to clear the air.”
Malcolm couldn’t invite her in. The mess was embarrassing, a problem he’d been meaning to fix. He glanced over his shoulder. “Um…”
“Oh my God. Do you have someone in there with you?” Her eyes had gone even wider. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think. Of course you have someone over. You’re leaving town for a few nights. And—” She paled. “Uh, you know what? I’ll just see you at the airport in the morning. I’m sorry.” She leaned, as if to yell around him. “I’m sorry,” she called out into his empty apartment.
She turned to leave, and guilt rode his conscience to stopping her. “It’s not a woman,” he called out, immediately second-guessing himself. He wanted the distance. He didn’t need her thinking about him as single or available or…fuck, a liar. He prided himself on being straightforward and honest. “It’s only… Fuck. Weeks of not cleaning up.”
Marie turned back, a wary look on her face. “It’s a bad time.”
“It’s fine. Come in,” he said. “For a few minutes,” he added pointedly. She might be the drop-by-and-stay kind of girl. Admitting the lust was better than ignoring it, he told himself, feeling like a total prick. No matter if she was a crook or a sweet girl who really did want friendship.
She could have turned over a new leaf.
Or she could be playing them all.
“I’m going to go get changed. I’ll be right back.” He hesitated. “Don’t steal anything.”
“Hey.” She pouted, her bottom lip sticking out.
He pressed his lips together on the groan wanting to escape.
And then she surprised him by laughing. “Okay, okay. No touchy.”
Oh, that did it. And why did her voice sound sultry?
In his bedroom, he picked up his jeans and stepped into them. He removed the sweaty shirt and wiped himself with it before he tugged the shirt he’d had on earlier over his head. Shower later.
She’d made herself at home in his kitchen and pulled down his only package of Oreos. “How do you eat these?” she asked.
“The usual methods. Sometimes, I pop it in whole. Sometimes, I twist it open and lick the cream filling.”
She swallowed. “Oh.” Her cheeks flushed, in the same moment he realized how those words sounded.
“That’s not— I mean, sorry. I didn’t mean… Shit. I would never purposely make you uncomfortable. Shit. Talk about a sexual harassment suit.”
She waved him off. “What I mean is…they’re horribly unhealthy, have a habit of getting stuck in your teeth, and, overall, aren’t exactly adult cuisine.”
“Oh, that.” Heat rose on his neck. He shrugged. His history with Oreos was long and complicated.
Marie leaned against his counter and waited, at ease, as if she belonged right where she was, waiting for a friend to say something. A flyaway strand of her hair fell against her face. Her eyes showed a warm interest he hadn’t seen in them before.
Then she took a bite of Oreo. A little crumble stayed at the corner of her mouth until she licked it off with the tip of her tongue. Fuck. He cleared his throat. Friends. If she was going to push and insist on a truce, they could be friends. He could handle that.
“I never had any of the extras growing up,” he finally said. “My first night on my own, I had enough money for very little. I bought a small bunch of bananas and a package of Oreos—”
“Did you sit and eat the whole package or ration them?”
It was a personality quiz, and he might have avoided answering. But for some reason, he looked at her and knew the shaky friendship they’d developed over the past several months either needed to take shape or be cast off completely if he was going to move on.
“I rationed, eating three a day for almost two weeks.”
“A big package.” She laughed at her double entendre. “Sorry.”
His laughter came unexpected, and he cut it off, covering his mouth as his shoulders shook. “Geez.” When he looked up at her, she was smiling. Was this the truce she wanted? It was working.
“You ready for tomorrow?” he said.
He nodded. “Anything you want to share about this trip? You did say you wanted to ‘clear the air.’”
She moved then, pacing away from him toward the hallway, which led to his bedroom. “No. It’s hard enough to work with someone who I’m close to. I thought it would be good if we were at least speaking. You’ve been avoiding me, Malcolm.”
“You have an uncle that lives on the coast, near Portland,” he said.
“He is my uncle!” she exclaimed, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Sure,” he drawled, egging her on for no good reason other than he liked to see the fire in her eyes…and that blush on her pretty little neck. Glutton for punishment.
She scowled at him. “He raised me. He’s at least seventy-five-years old.”
Malcolm lifted his hands in surrender. “There’s fucking something, though,” he muttered.
“There’s nothing,” she answered, the look in her eyes challenging him.
He conceded with a nod.
“We going to be okay?” she asked, serious again.
“Have you given up your pickpocket ways?”
She narrowed her eyes. “For the most part.”
He considered her, taking in her open sandals and the long skirt with lace on the bottom and pretty metalwork on the belt at the top, below her navel. “You like people to see you a certain way. You fill a stereotype.”
“I am what I am. A Romanian by birth. I come from a long line of proud, sometimes arrogant, people. My family.” Her chin went up, and he wanted to run the edge of his thumb along the soft skin revealed beneath it. “I like the peasant skirts, and I love the jewelry. That’s being a woman, nothing to do with my roots.”
She never admitted to being a thief. But she’d wanted something in Germany. And that was what bothered him. What had she wanted and did she want now?
There was only one way to find out—by staying close to her. “Okay.”
“Okay, we’re going to be okay? Or okay, whatever you say…?”
“Okay, the air is clear, and I’ll be watching you,” he added.
She’d said she wanted to clear the air, but as far as he was concerned, the smoke screen was thick between them. She had plans for something, and if she wouldn’t talk to him about it, wouldn’t he be a fool to trust her?