Authors: Megan Erickson
He wanted to point at the scars on his neck. He wanted to pull out the photo of his dead sister and shove it in her face. There were many, many reasons he was angry, but all of them he’d caused himself.
He stepped closer to her, but the minute he did, all rational thought seemed to leave his brain. She smelled amazing, like flowers and coconut, like a tropical paradise mirage. Up close, her brown eyes were wide and warm, ensnaring his gaze so he couldn’t look away.
Her lips parted as she stared up at him, her chest rising and falling. Her cheeks were slightly redder than they’d been before. Was it possible she was as affected by him as he was by her?
As if she couldn’t help herself, she closed the distance between them, so that their chests brushed, and he thought belatedly that he should step back. Get away. But before he could, she made a small gasping sound as the hard shaft in his pants brushed her stomach.
But she didn’t step back. She didn’t move at all. He could reach out a hand and brush his fingers along the tops of her full breasts. He could bend down and take that gorgeous mouth, find out if she tasted as good as she looked.
He didn’t even make a conscious effort to do it, and he hadn’t realized that he had bent down, intent on pressing his lips to hers, until she inhaled sharply and stepped back, taking her scent with her, along with her warm eyes and those sweetly parted lips.
Her brown eyes flickered, her head dipped, so he couldn’t see what those expressive eyes held.
Great, so now he’d sexually harassed the photographer. Before he got himself in further trouble, before he said or did something worse, he clamped his lips shut, shot her his best impassive expression, and nodded curtly.
Then he turned around, pushed the door open with an aggressive shove, and resisted all his instinct to catch one last glimpse of the enchanting Lissa Kingsman.
Lissa finished editing the images of Grant and then fired them off in an email to Sa
l at the
Willow Park Daily
It was Monday, the day after the shoot at
, and Lissa was in her photography studio on Main Street. She loved her little place in a strip mall that also had a grocery, a liquor store, and a gift shop.
Her finger hovered over the button of her mouse and she bit her lip, staring at her raw images folder. Just one peek. Her assistant was off getting lunch for them, so no one would know.
With a sharp intake of breath, she opened the folder and scrolled to the one image she’d managed to take—okay, steal—of Ethan Talley. He’d said no pictures and she’d honored that…kind of. She hadn’t sent this picture to Sal to use, and Lissa now felt like a total creep, but she’d wanted a little something of the man who’d intrigued her.
In the picture, he was staring out the window. She’d snapped it when he wasn’t paying attention, when he thought she was taking pictures of Grant, but she’d clicked the shutter when she dropped the camera to her side. He was in profile, the sun highlighting his face, his hands shoved deep in his pockets.
He’d been about to kiss her in the foyer at the
office. And for a moment, she’d been about to let him. Something about his cold glare, his pained expression, his all black suit made her want to see what he’d be like warmed up. Hell, even with a smile.
She pressed a hand to her chest, her breath catching when she realized she hadn’t seem him smile once.
Back when he was E-Rad, his smile was ever-present on his handsome face. She was sure he was rarely recognized, if ever. If it wasn’t for his voice, which she knew so well, he probably wouldn’t have seemed familiar at all.
There was a chasm, a whole lifetime, it seemed, between E-Rad and Ethan Talley.
She leaned closer, narrowing her eyes on the scars creeping up his neck. “What happened to you, Ethan?”
Would a kiss from her have brought a smile to his face? She wasn’t so sure she had magical powers like that. Plus, she still wanted to find a way to get him to commit to her project. Getting involved romantically with him, while it sounded insanely hot, was unethical. Kissing him—and maybe more—was not the way to get him to agree to let her take his picture. She had principles, after all.
The bell over the front door chimed, and Lissa slid the image to a password-protected folder then closed out all of her windows.
Her assistant, Daniel Huang, dropped a Chipotle bag on her desk. “Here’s your burrito bowl, Master.”
She snatched it up and pulled out the container. “I told you not to call me that.”
Daniel grinned and sank down onto a chair beside her, propping his feet on her desk. She pointed at the soles of his Vans. “And I told you not to do that!”
He just shrugged and stuffed a taco in his mouth.
Her assistant was cheeky. But he was very organized—unlike her—and was excellent at making little children laugh so their parents were thrilled with their portraits, so she kept him around. He was a student at the local university but only took classes part-time. The rest of the time, he was hers to torture. “Thanks for getting lunch.”
“No problem, I was hungry for guac. So did you manage to score pictures of that guy at the magazine?”
She pushed around the contents of her burrito bowl. “No, he was…resistant.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow. “Resistant? And you couldn’t charm your way into getting your lens on him?”
“I think he was charmed, but my lens was still not his friend.” The memory of the heat of his body made her shiver.
“Bummer. So how’s the project looking?”
She wiped her mouth and opened up her file for the Rona’s Scars project.
Every time she photographed someone who was scarred and listened to their story, she came away bruised, but also fuller. After a car accident had left her sister, Rona, with severe scarring on her face and the use of only one eye, she’d begun to lose her ambitious drive that had always made her Rona. Lissa’s big sister. Her idol.
She’d been studying to be a lawyer, and while Lissa and the rest of her family thought Rona was coping well, she wasn’t. At all. And a year after the accident, she’d taken her own life with a bottle of pills.
The guilt over what she could have done to help her sister, how she could have prevented her death, was a constant weight on Lissa’s shoulders, sometimes so heavy she couldn’t breathe.
Starting the Rona’s Scars project and the scholarship was the only way she felt like she could give back. For the project, she talked to people who dealt with physical, non-genetic disabilities, and once the website launched, she hoped the pictures and stories would make others in similar situations feel less alone.
Donations would go to the scholarship fund, which would be awarded to black women studying to be lawyers.
This was her dream, her sole focus. And she’d roped Daniel into it, too.
She gazed at the list of participants. “We have about a dozen. I’d really like a couple more.”
He nodded. “Too bad that guy was a bust.”
Lissa bit her lip. As much as she wanted Ethan to sign on, she had a feeling dealing with him would be like walking on fire. “Yeah, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Daniel tossed his wrapper in the trash and stood up. “I’m going to get the studio ready. You have a family shoot in a half hour.”
She waved him off and he strode out of the room, whistling to himself. Her cell phone rang, and she smiled when she saw who was calling. She answered it. “Hey.”
“Hey, babe.” Chad’s voice was a little breathless, like he was running outside.
She frowned. “What’re you doing?”
“We got a dog!”
She was in mid-sip of her soda and had to turn her head so she didn’t spit it all over keyboard. “I’m sorry,” she sputtered. “What did you say?”
“O and I got a dog. He’s this tiny little yappy thing. We got him at the shelter, and he’s mixed with, like, three breeds. He’s actually kind of ugly, but O fell in love with him.”
Chad, the former wild child who couldn’t be tied down, had moved in with his boyfriend Owen and lately they were the perfect example of domestic bliss. Now, with a dog. “So why are you running?”
“Oh, I’m at the park and he pulled the leash out of my hands. I had to run after him.”
“And you called me mid-chase?”
“I needed something to get my mind off the fact that I was running. It’s all good now. Got the leash!”
She smiled. “You’re weird.”
His voice was muffled. “Don’t do that, Dap!”
His words were clearer now. “Yeah, Owen named him Dapper, and he wears a little bow tie. It’s pretty fucking cute, honestly.”
“I can’t believe you have a dog. And a boyfriend.”
His laugh was loud in her ear. “You and me both, babe. Anyway, what’s up?”
“You called me.”
“How’d that thing with Ethan go?”
She blew out a breath. “Oh, Chad.”
He didn’t speak for a minute. “Dude’s kind of a brick wall.”
“You think? He wouldn’t even let me take pictures for the magazine. I didn’t even bother to ask him about my project.” A bell jingled from over the phone and then, a wet sound. “Chad?”
“Sorry.” He grunted then said something muffled. “I picked up Dap and he attacked my face with his tongue. God, his breath smells. Anyway, Ethan’ll be at Marley’s wedding, you know.”
Lissa straightened in her seat. The wedding was in two weeks, and she was the photographer for the event. “Seriously?”
“Yep. Rare for him to attend anything social, but he RSVP’d yes. You get another shot to charm him, babe.”
She rubbed her sweaty palms on her pants. Why was she so nervous now? All she had to do was talk to him again. Maybe he’d be less angry this time. Weddings were happy, right? He’d be happy. And maybe drunk. This could totally work in her favor. “Okay, this is good news. Maybe I can catch him alone at the end of the night.”
Chad paused. “Alone?”
“You know what I—”
“Please don’t tell me you found that grumpy bastard attractive.”
She bit her lips.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered. “Ethan’s, like, immune to happiness.”
She thought about asking Chad what happened to him, why he didn’t smile and had scars on his neck, but that felt violating. If she was going to do this, then she was going to give the guy the honor of letting him tell her his secrets. She shrugged, even though she knew Chad couldn’t see her. “I don’t know, I think the right person could make him happy.”
Chad didn’t speak for a minute, and when he did, his voice was softer. “I gotta go, babe, but just be careful, okay? You’ve been through a lot and you’re still shining like a diamond. I don’t want anyone to dull that.”
Her eyes stung as she said her good-byes to her friend and hung up the phone. She glanced at the clock and wiped under her cheeks, because her clients were going to be here in ten minutes.
She didn’t want to dull her shine, either, but she would have loved to share it with someone, if it was needed. And if anyone needed a little shine in his life, it was Ethan Talley.
Ethan didn’t understand what was wrong with his black suit.
His sister Chloe wasn’t so bashful anymore, not since she hooked up with Grant. She didn’t tiptoe a
round Ethan, and while he’d been glad about it at first, this bold Chloe was into “fixing” him.
He didn’t need to be fixed.
The main reason was there were no broken pieces anymore. They’d been crushed long ago. Ethan was quite whole; there just wasn’t much to him anymore.
Chloe tapped her finger to her chin and held up a series of ties she’d brought over. “These will all match the wedding party. Do you like any of them?”
He eyed the pile of silk. “What’s wrong with my black-and-white-striped tie?”
“Which one?” She flailed an arm toward his closet at his tie rack, which held…okay, a lot of black and white ties.
He didn’t answer, and she rolled her eyes. “Please, for the love of God, let’s get some color on you.”
“I wear color sometimes,” he pointed out.
“Yes, but this is a wedding. You’re supposed to look festive.”
He sighed and leaned back against the wall, his arms crossed over his gray T-shirt. “You pick.”
She looked at the ties, running her fingers down a couple before she settled on a plain pale blue tie. She held it up to his face and smiled. “This one.”
He took it from her and rubbed it between his fingers. To be fair, it was a great tie. “Why this one?”
“It looks nice with your eyes.”
Hers were filling now, and fuck, was she going to cry? He tugged her to him in a brief hug then let her go, refusing to look into her face, because that might start a discussion about him. He didn’t want to talk about himself. “So I’ll wear this one. Anything else?”
He heard a small sniffle and then her voice, which was clearer than he expected. “I have a blue handkerchief to match. For your pocket.”
He turned around and held out his hand for the fabric square. “Thank you.” She nodded then gathered up the ties and stuck them in the bag she brought to return the ones he didn’t want. “I really appreciate it.”
She looked up, and yes, her eyes were wet. “I know this wedding isn’t on your list of things you’d like to do, but it means a lot to me that you’ll be there. And Grant. You are a part of this whole family, you know?”
The word family made him cringe. Their family was broken. “Right.” His voice sounded hoarse.
Chloe flinched. “Ethan—”
“Of course I’ll be at the wedding. I’ve gotten to know Austin and Marley more since I took over
, and I want to be there for them.” But he didn’t want to be told he was part of a family. The only family he cared about was Chloe, his youngest sister. The sibling who was still alive. His best friend, really.
Her struggle over the death of their sister still cut him to the core, as if he’d been hollowed out with a serrated knife. But she’d found happiness now, with the ever-happy Grant and his teenage daughter. They’d kept their relationship a secret from him at first because they worried about how protective he was over his sister, and that made him feel worse. He wanted Chloe to be able to share the joys of her life with him. She wasn’t meant to be in the muck where he was stuck.
She stepped closer to him, the bag in her hand. “I have to go, but do you want to come over tonight? Sydney’s cooking.”
That was the only way to get him out of his house other than work. Grant’s daughter was a teenage baking machine. But he wasn’t in the mood tonight. He smiled at his sister. “I appreciate it, but I’m staying in tonight.”
She widened her eyes in mock surprise. “Staying in, huh? Wow, mixing it up for once.”
He shoved her shoulder gently. “Shut up.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine, but if you change your mind, give me a call.”
“Will do. Thanks for the ties.”
He saw his sister out and then headed to the home gym in his basement. He pushed himself hard on the weight bench, doing bench presses. Then he ran on his treadmill for longer than he should have. After a shower to clean off the smell of sweat and iron, he heated up some leftover lasagna and parked himself in front of the TV.
He used to work out because he cared about how he looked. That his abs were defined, his pecs even, his shoulders round.
Now, he worked out because it was the one way he could punish himself physically. He upped his weights until he shook and ran on the treadmill until he almost passed out. It was one of the reasons Chloe brought him so much food. He’d lost weight in the last couple of years.
Although, he’d spent a little time in front of the mirror today—which was rare. He didn’t look at his face, but he’d studied his muscles a little, flexing his arms. He tried to look at himself through, say, that photographer’s eyes. Was he anything worth looking at anymore?
And then he felt like a tool, so he’d gotten in the shower and didn’t look in the mirror again.
On nights like this, he wondered what his parents were doing. MLB playoffs were on, and he could imagine his dad on his recliner, beer bottle in hand, a bowl of peanuts on the table beside him. Just like always.