He found the source of his small-scale meltdown in the hotel’s breakfast buffet, her platinum hair smoothed back into a little ponytail, her attention focused on the piles food in front of her. When Nik saw her, he stopped in his tracks. Looking at this woman felt like stepping out of an air-conditioned building into the heat of summer; like being smacked by a wall of heat. But this heat had little to do with the temperature, and everything to do with the sight of her bare legs beneath the table. Nik sent up a quick prayer of thanks for the invention of short shorts. Then he stared some more.
She looked up, obviously feeling his gaze, and scowled.
Which was not the reaction Nik typically received from people he’d kissed. It certainly wasn’t the reaction he wanted from the woman he appeared to be obsessed with, but life was not for the faint-hearted. He made his way over to her table and sat down.
She gave him a flat stare while chewing on a croissant. He briefly fantasised about licking off the smudge of scarlet jam hovering at the edge of her lip, then decided that would be coming on too strong.
“Found you,” he said.
She swallowed her mouthful. “Whoopee.”
Ouch. But he was pleasantly distracted from that sting when her tongue snaked out to lick away the smudge of jam he’d been eyeing. Watching her do it was almost as good as doing it himself. He imagined.
But enough of his imaginings. He wasn’t good at talking to people, not romantically. He had no practice, since he typically didn’t have to try. This conversation, therefore, would require all of his concentration. “Good morning,” he said, offering his most charming smile. All of his smiles were charming, according to his agent, but this one was definitely the best.
She nodded, a sort of jerky head-tilt that only went up, rather than down. “Hi.”
He was surprised she’d responded at all, considering the extra-strength aura of fuck off she was giving out. Truthfully, after last night’s kiss, that aura might as well have been a dog whistle. When it came to her, he was definitely a fucking dog.
“I’m sorry to intrude on your breakfast,” he began, “but I wanted to thank you for what you did yesterday. It was kind of you to help me when we are strangers.”
Aria sighed as if considering a great tragedy. “I don’t know what I was thinking, to be honest.”
“I believe you must be softer at heart than you’d like.”
She glared at him. Nik shifted subtly in his chair and decided that later, he’d take a moment to examine why her glares made him hard. Right now, though, he’d just have to go with it. “You’re a very impressive woman. I’d like to get to know you better.”
She rolled her eyes and picked up a bunch of grapes. “I’ve heard that before.”
His lips twitched. “I bet.” The array of dishes before her was so massive, it covered his side of the table as well as hers. It was as if she’d made her own little buffet within the buffet. Since he was always starving, courtesy of his unholy metabolism, Nik reached for a slice of cheese as he spoke. “Really, though. I think—”
“Wooooah,” she said, reaching out to slap his hand. “Don’t touch my food, man.”
He gaped. “Are you serious? You have an absolute mountain on this table. You’re never going to eat this.”
“It’s my mountain. And you don’t know what I can eat. If I see your hand on this food again, I’ll stab it.” She raised her fork, apparently serious. “I know where all the important tendons are.”
He must be fucked up, because the sight of Aria waving a fork with violent intent was making him want to smile. He really had no idea why people apparently found her intimidating. She was adorable. And lickable. And funny. And so, so lickable. He dropped the cheese.
“Good boy,” she said, slicing into her eggs.
“Now, since you’re taking all fucking day to spit this out, let me speed things up.”
Oh, wonderful. She was going to cut right through his strange brand of social awkwardness. They really were made for each other.
“You’re after a repeat of last night’s avoidance routine,” Aria said. “Right?”
He blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
She gave him an arch look. “Keynes told me all about you. Apparently, you really are drowning in genitalia of all sorts. He reckons you’re too nice to say no to people.”
Well, that was arguably true. But… “That’s why you think I’m here?”
She raised her brows, looking genuinely confused. “Is that… not why you’re here?”
“I just…” He paused, considering. He couldn’t run his mouth as usual, not in this situation, not with her. He needed to tread carefully, to find out what she thought. “It wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to assume that I came to find you with a different goal in mind, would it? A more personal goal.”
A look of horror crossed her face. “You’re not asking me out, are you?” she demanded.
“No,” he said quickly. Because he certainly fucking wasn’t, not if the prospect made her look like that.
“Oh.” She rolled her eyes, almost at herself, and smiled slightly. “Sorry. Keynes did tell me that you don’t date.”
Keynes talked too fucking much. “That’s true. I don’t.” But if you’d like to change that, feel free.
“Cool.” She took a moment to chew on a few bites of egg, her expression thoughtful. Meanwhile, Nik sat in silence and tried to figure out how to keep her with him at all times, forever-and-ever-amen, if she wouldn’t even let him take her out. He may have to get creative. That was okay. He worked best under pressure.
Finally, she swallowed, took a huge gulp of orange juice, and focused on him again. “So, you want, like, an escort?”
Ah, yes. His quest for a human shield, which she had somehow invented entirely on her own. “Are you an escort?” How much did escorts charge? Could he conceivably hire her for… the rest of his life?
“Never done it before,” she said cheerfully, “but everyone starts somewhere, right? No, I’m actually a tattoo artist.” She raised one heavily inked arm, waving it about like a prop rather than a limb. “And, you know, a walking cliché.”
“There is nothing cliché about you,” he murmured. As soon as the words left his mouth, he realised he’d said them all wrong. They were too fervent, too earnest, too fucking obvious. But her self-deprecation made him want to outline her perfection in detail. With his tongue. Between her legs.
Just an idea.
is a Black British author who lives in a bedroom full of books. Supposedly, there is a world beyond that room, but she has yet to drum up enough interest to investigate.
She writes steamy, diverse romance because she believes that people of
marginalised identities need honest and positive representation. Her interests include makeup, junk food, and unnecessary sarcasm.
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