She was driving him insane. Right up the fucking wall. Bonkers, if anyone outside of England ever used that word anymore. When had she become more than his best friend’s little sister? The one who chased after them every chance she got. Who hung on their words and tried to infiltrate their activities. The little sister they were sometimes mean to, but not often because Jeff looked after his flesh and blood far better than their parents ever did.
Simon clenched his hands at his side to avoid tearing his hair out. He liked his hair right where it was, and no tiny sprite of a girl was going to force him to take action against it. Girl. Okay, woman. Alys might be short and weigh maybe a buck ten soaking wet, but she was most definitely not a girl.
Girls didn’t have a full rack and curvy hips and an ass that drew the eye of any straight male between the age of puberty and Viagra. And maybe some of the gay guys too.
She was like a pocket Venus, another term that came bubbling to the forefront of his brain from an earlier age. And damned if he didn’t want to pick her up and drop her in his pocket. Not the one on his shirt. Oh, no. Right smack in his pants pocket, next to his cock. That same appendage refusing to acknowledge his instruction to stand the fuck down.
Though he wouldn’t mind carrying her right next to his heart, either… Definitely not.
Biting back a groan, he schooled his features into what he hoped was a calm, inscrutable look, nothing to reveal the insane draw Alys had on him of late. It was like some part of him had woken up and couldn’t settle without her. He couldn’t get involved, even if she was interested, and she’d done nothing to indicate otherwise. Nope, he was firmly in the friend category.
“Simon?” Jeff shoved an elbow into his ribs. “Your turn, man.”
He snapped his attention back to his cards, studying them intently. Registering a healthy pair of Queens, backed up by an Ace of Spades, he shoved the minimum bet into the pot. It had rapidly built during his introspection. “Call.”
A sweet voice, flavored with a husky undertone, one that made the hair on his arms stand up, announced, “Raise.”
Keeping his gaze on his hand, he caught the sight of Alys’s slender fingers coaxing a number of chips toward the center of the table. The nails were painted a bright, glittering blue with tiny stars applied to the forefingers.
Blue. With stars. He blinked to dispel the image. He dated women who favored scarlet polish, maybe a dark pink, on their talons—no stars. No additional embellishment. Tall, elegant blondes who never put a foot wrong, never a hair out of place unless it was in his bed and sometimes not even then. Even years ago, as a randy teen, he’d done the cheerleaders, usually blondes with an athletic build and part of the mean girl contingent, more often than not.
The betting continued around the table, with everyone folding until it came to him. His hands somehow didn’t shake, despite the effort it took to maintain his casual demeanor, and he forced a cynical smile. With the cards on board, it made sense to raise Alys, but entering into a competition with her spelled some weird form of disaster.
He folded, and threw her a short, “Congrats.”
Her chuckle didn’t entertain a hint of gloating, merely pleasure that she’d won yet another hand as she accepted the chips Andrea pushed her way. “I think I might have found a poker game I actually understand.”
He doubted it. More like the Goddess of Luck or something shone down on her. Alys sucked at cards, except maybe Go Fish or Snap. He wasn’t being a prick. Math was simply beyond her understanding, and she was the first to announce that salient fact. He’d know, having volunteered to do her taxes. Okay, Andrea had volunteered him and his mouth had given his agreement without a second thought. His best friend’s fiancée mothered Alys and expected him to step up. Which wasn’t a hardship, except it put him in her proximity more often and further strained his resolve.
“I’m out,” he said, tossing his cards into the middle of the table and then shoving his chair back.
“It’s getting late,” Jeff agreed.
“It was fun,” Andrea weighed in, followed by Paul and Ryan. Paul worked the cards into a stack and shoved them back in the box.
“I’ll buy pizza if you’d like something else before heading home.” Alys stood, and Simon breathed through his mouth, the better to avoid the spicy scent wafting his way. It was a fragrance that stopped just short of musk and very different from the cloying, floral scents his dates usually wore.
As he was trying to decipher if it was soap or perfume or both, with an undertone of Alys, she smiled up at him. “It’s the least I can do after cleaning you all out.”
Like she’d made a ton of cash tonight, but that was Alys. Generous to a fault. He really needed to make a list of all her faults. Meantime, her mass of red-gold hair bounced around her lovely face, those huge tawny eyes brimming over with the love of life. He’d never seen her down for long, and while her moods were mercurial, happiness predominated. Any anger was for good reason and—damn it, he was doing a piss poor job of withstanding the sprite.
“I can’t stay,” he mumbled, turning away. He sketched a wave in the general direction of the others, avoiding Alys, and hustled to the door.
Snagging his jacket off its hook, he made it through the door and down the stairs, hoping he didn’t look as though he was fleeing. When he gained the street, he sucked in a huge draught of fresh air and resolutely pushed all thoughts of her out of his head. She was the antithesis of what—who—he wanted in his life. Right?
The next morning, Jeff joined him at the office. “Hey.” His friend studied him. “You look rough. Hit the bar after you ducked out on us?”
So much for a casual departure. He brazened it out. “Not feeling great. Kept me up most of the night.”
“Wouldn’t be a woman who kept you up.”
Since Jeff met Andrea, he’d been like a dog with a bone. Not that Andrea wasn’t a particularly attractive and succulent bone. His friend was ass over heels, planning a destination wedding in under a year, and talking about at least three kids. Funny how that didn’t turn Simon off the way it might have, say, a few months ago.
“I didn’t get much sleep,” Jeff said, a complacent tone suffusing his voice. “Andrea might as well give up her place, but she won’t until just before the wedding.”
“Hedging her bets.” Okay, that was a low blow, but envy drove his snark.
“You think?” Jeff froze in the act of pouring coffee.
“I don’t, you ass. She thinks you walk on water.”
Shoving a cup his way, his friend said, “I sometimes wonder what she sees in me.”
He didn’t much feel like handholding, but he owed the guy after stirring up that insecurity. “Do we ever know? But it’s clear she sees something. A lot. She’s marrying you.”
“I can’t believe I found her.”
And it was hearts and flowers time. Jeez. And there he was, no woman in his life and no interest in searching one out, not since Alys effortlessly stepped into that role without knowing it. Yup, he’d figured that out during his sleepless night. “Well, you lucked out. And if you can drag your romantic self under control, we need to discuss these contracts.”
A punch to his upper arm threatened the integrity of his cup of coffee, but Jeff dropped the subject and concentrated with him. They sorted out who took responsibility for which contract to follow up on, Simon drawing the short straw. The job that meant traveling and missing poker night. No hardship, seeing as being tortured with Alys’s proximity was probably worse than not seeing her at all. Right?
“I’m not exactly the poster boy for the good guys.”
Jeff paused in folding up a set of blueprints. “What? What brought that on?”
He figured he might as well let his mouth continue to run away with him. “Am I good enough for Alys?”
The paper crinkled as his friend’s big hands clenched and loosened, his stare turning intent, predatory. “Alys? My little sister, Alys?”
“That Alys.” He was glad the big conference table was between them at that moment.
Jeff suddenly relaxed, his face assuming a broad smile. “That explains your cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof behavior this past while in her company. I didn’t put it together with Alys. Or maybe I chose not to.”
Simon managed a shrug and took a gulp of his cold coffee. “I was thinking about asking her out. On a date.”
Jeff tensed again and then visibly shook it off. “It’s not just you, buddy. It’s thinking about Alys dating anyone. I hate it when guys come to pick her up. Or come over.”
So did Simon. She’d even invited a couple of those guys to poker night. He recalled one weird little dude named Rodney. Not Rod. Rodney. The little asshole knew cards though. Some kind of math genius, not that Alys had asked him to do her taxes.
“She’s not serious with anyone,” he stated, hoping it was true.
“Nope. A few dates and then on to the next guy.”
“Then she might go out with me.” Surely he wasn’t diffident. Women didn’t turn him down. And if Jeff saw him as worthy…
“If you’re asking for my approval, sure. Alys knows her own mind and you’re a good guy.”
Shit, now his friend was holding his hand! “Right. Okay. Just didn’t want to screw with the code.”
“I’m just not gonna think about it. Certain parts.”
They parted with a grin, if Jeff’s was a bit strained, and headed off to assemble the crews and get them started on the projects, passing off the administrative duties to their long-suffering assistant, Mrs. Mayberry.
Simon buried himself in the minutiae of the job and tried not to anticipate or plan the moment when he’d ask Alys on a date. The right time would present itself.