The obsession, p.25
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       The Obsession, p.25
 

          

  interruption of sleep in the same way he had with Milo.

  “Go away,” he muttered.

  Instead of hanging his head, à la Milo, and sulking off to lie down again, Tag wagged his tail and pushed his cold, wet nose into Xander’s face.

  “Crap.” To make his point, Xander nudged the cold, wet nose away, which Tag took as encouragement.

  The wet, soggy tennis ball plopped on the bed an inch from Xander’s face.

  Even the sleep-clouded brain knew better. If he knocked the ball on the floor, the dog would see it as a game and start all over again. So he closed his eyes, ignored the ball and the dog.

  Helpfully Tag nosed the ball closer so now the soggy and wet rolled against Xander’s chest.

  Beside him, Naomi stirred, reminding Xander he had much more interesting games he could play at oh-dark-thirty.

  “He won’t stop,” Naomi murmured beside him, and sat up before Xander could make his move. And beside the bed, Tag danced in joy. “It’s morning ritual.”

  “It’s not morning.”

  “Five in the morning, like clockwork. He’s actually about ten minutes late.”

  “Where are you going?”

  “I’m getting up, which is part of the morning ritual. Getting dressed—also part of the ritual.”

  To Xander’s severe disappointment, she moved away in the dark, rummaged around. He could see her silhouette pulling on some kind of pants.

  “You get up at five, every morning?”

  “Yes, we do.”

  “Even weekends? This is America.”

  “Yes, even weekends, in America. The dog and I are in tune there, at least.” She crossed over and opened the doors to the deck. Tag happily raced out. “Go back to sleep.”

  “Why don’t you come back to bed, and we can try out a new morning ritual?”

  “Tempting, but he’ll be back inside of ten minutes nagging for his breakfast.”

  Xander considered. “I can work with ten minutes.”

  He liked her laugh, the smoky morning sound of it.

  “Go back to sleep. I need coffee before he comes back.”

  If he wasn’t getting sex, maybe . . . “Is the dog the only one who gets breakfast?”

  She was still just a shadow—a long, slim one—already heading for the door. “Not necessarily.”

  When she walked out Xander lay there a moment. Normally he’d get another hour—maybe seventy minutes more on a Saturday. But he wouldn’t get a hot breakfast.

  He picked up the tennis ball, judged the distance to the dog bed, tossed it.

  So, she was an early riser, he thought as he got out of bed. He could handle that. She wasn’t a snuggler—and that equaled bonus points in his score book.

  He didn’t mind staying tangled up for a while after sex, but when it came to sleep, he wanted his space. Apparently so did she.

  Not only amazing in bed, but didn’t expect him to cuddle her like a teddy bear for hours after. Big bonus points.

  And she cooked.

  He found his pants, tugged them up, and when he couldn’t find his T-shirt, he turned on the mermaid light. It made him grin. A woman who’d buy a naked mermaid lamp—more points.

  The room smelled like her, he realized. How did she do that? And she smelled of summer. Of storms and the sultry.

  He found his T-shirt, pulled it over his head.

  She still kept some of her clothes in packing boxes. Curious, he crossed over, glanced into them. Organized—and he appreciated at least a sense of organization. Not a lot to organize in there, to his eye.

  He studied the opening of what would be a walk-in closet, currently under construction and empty of wardrobe.

  Jesus, he had more clothes than she did.

  It struck him as both weird and fascinating.

  He also spotted a boxed toothbrush in what he’d term her bathroom box, and figured everyone would be happier if he took it.

  He crossed over again to use the bathroom, and when he hit the light found it gutted. The rough plumbing told him where things would go—and she’d have a kick-ass shower from the size of it.

  He could use a shower.

  He went out, found another gutted bathroom, found a bedroom half painted—nice color—and a third gutted bathroom. Just as he decided he’d have to use the great outdoors like the dog, he found one outfitted with baby blue fixtures. Ugly, he decided, but serviceable.

  And if the fist-sized showerhead over the blue tub worked, he’d make use of it later. But now, he really wanted coffee.

  He wandered down, seeing bits and pieces of Kevin’s work. The place would be a showstopper. Not glitzy and fussy—and someone else might have looked for that.

  But solid and handsome, with some serious respect for history, location, style.

  He paused at the living room. Again, the color worked, and while the gas logs made sense up in the bedroom, he was glad she’d kept the wood-burning original here.

  She could use some help with the yard, clearing out the overgrown, pruning back, digging up the weeds. Right now the view from the front was just sad.

  He worked his way back, wondering what in the hell one person would do with all the space—then stopped at the library door. For the first time he felt genuine and deep, deep envy.

  He’d seen the early stages of the built-ins when he’d dropped by Kevin’s shop a couple times, but the finished product beat it all to hell. The natural cherry would glow red-gold in the light, and simmer like the fire in the evenings. And all the space—what he could do with all that book space.

  He’d get himself a big leather chair, angle it to face the fire and the view out the window.

  Change the chair to a couch? He could live in this room.

  The empty shelves and cases stabbed his book-lover’s heart. They needed to be filled.

  He took one more step toward the kitchen, and the scent of coffee reached him.

  She was racking up points like Fast Eddie.

  He found her sitting on one of the four stools that hadn’t been there on his last visit, drinking coffee and looking at her tablet.

  “Help yourself,” she told him.

  He went for one of the big white mugs rather than the daintier blue cups, poured coffee.

  Though it was cool, she’d opened those accordion doors. He could hear the dog chowing down on the deck in the dark that was just starting to thin.

  “I found a toothbrush in one of your boxes. I used it.”

  “That’s fine.”

  “That blue bathroom. Slated for gutting, right?”

  She looked up then—just punched him in the gut with those deep, dark green eyes. “You don’t like the Boxer Bathroom?”

  “Boxer—wait—black and blue. Funny.”

  “I wasn’t sure what to call the pink and black one, but it’s gone now. And so is its cabbage rose wallpaper border.”

  She sipped her coffee as she studied him. He looked rough and rugged, jeans zipped but not buttoned, the slate gray T-shirt bringing out the blue of his eyes, his hair mussed, stubble on his narrow face. Feet bare.

  What the hell was he doing drinking coffee in her kitchen before dawn—and making her regret she hadn’t taken him up on the offer to come back to bed?

  He watched her as steadily as she did him.

  She set the coffee down. “So. I’m trying to decide if you get a bowl of cereal, which is my go-to if I go-to breakfast. Or if I really want to try out my new omelette pan.”

  “Do I get a vote?”

  “I believe I know your vote, and lucky for you, I really do want to try out the pan.”

  “You cook in it, I’ll wash it.”

  “That seems fair.”

  She rose, went to the refrigerator, began to take out various things, set them on the counter. Eggs, cheese, bacon, a green pepper, those little tomatoes.

  This looked serious.

  She chopped, sliced, tore up some leaves she got from a pot on the windowsill, whisked, while he d
rank coffee.

  “What makes that an omelette pan?”

  “It’s shallow with sloping sides.” She poured the eggs over the tomatoes and peppers she’d sautéed, crumbled bacon over that, did the cheese-grating thing over that.

  She slanted him a look as she eased a spatula around the sides of the cooking egg mix. “I wonder if I still have what it takes.”

  “From where I’m standing you do.”

  “Maybe, maybe not.” Watching him still, she tipped the pan, gave it a gentle shake. “I’m taking the gamble.”

  Before his astonished eyes, she jerked the pan so the egg flew up, flipped over. She caught it neatly back in the pan, smiled in satisfaction.

  “I’ve still got it.”

  “Impressive.”

  “Could’ve been a disaster. I haven’t made a serious omelette in a couple years.” She used the spatula to fold it. “Bread’s in that drawer—pop some in the toaster.”

  She slid the omelette out, set it in the oven she had on warm, and did the whole thing again. Including the flip.

  “I officially love this pan.”

  “I’m pretty fond of it myself.”

  She sprinkled a little paprika over the plated omelettes, added the toast. “I still don’t have a table.”

  “We aren’t far off sunrise.”

  “My thought, too. Take the plates, and I’ll bring the coffee.”

  They sat on her glider, the hopeful dog sprawled at their feet, and ate while the stars went out and the sun began its golden burn over the water.

  “I thought the library was the only thing I was going to envy here. But that . . .” Red, pink, and pale blue joined the gold. “That’s another one.”

  “It never gets usual. I’ve taken dozens of pictures of sunrises here, and they’re all their own. If this place had been a dirt hut, I’d have bought it, just for this.”

  “And this is where you eat your cereal.”

  “Or whatever. I probably will even after I get a table. I need to look for one for out here, and some chairs.”

  “You need books. That library needs books. I haven’t seen any around here.”

  “I use my reader when I’m traveling.” She arched an eyebrow. “Do you have something against e-readers?”

  “No. Do you have something against actual books?”

  “No. I’m sending for mine. I don’t have anywhere close to what you do, but I have books. And I have the room now to collect more.”

  It made him think of the book on his wall, the one that told him things about her she didn’t want anyone to know.

  “Do you still want pictures of mine—the books?”

  He caught the hesitation, though it was brief and well covered. “Yeah, I would. It’s a statement.”

  “What will you do with them?”

  “That depends on how they look, if they work the way I see. For the gallery, most likely. And I may do some as notecards for my website.”

  “You do notecards?”

  “It always surprises me how well they sell. People still use notecards. Plenty of book lovers out there to buy them. The wall of books—some angles on that. And a stack of them beside a lamp maybe. One open, being read. I could use your hands for that.”

  “My hands?”

  “You have big hands, big man hands, rough and callused. That’s a good shot,” she murmured, already seeing it. “Rough hands holding an open book. I could do, say, six shots for cards. One big, arty one for the gallery.”

  “Do you have anything going tomorrow?”

  “Why?”

  Always cautious, he thought.

  “You could take the pictures tomorrow, and since you’d have your equipment anyway, you’d be in the mode, I should be able to get the guys together. You could take the shot for the CD.”

  “I don’t know what you want there.”

  “Something that sells some CDs. You’re the doctor.”

  “I’d want to see what you used before.”

  He boosted up a hip, took out his phone. He noted that he had a half a dozen texts to check, then scrolled through for the CD shot.

  The five men, with instruments on the stage at the bar. Done in moody black-and-white.

  “It’s good.”

  “She says without enthusiasm.”

  “No, it’s good. It’s just not particularly interesting or creative. Nothing here to set you apart.”

  “What would you do?”

  “I don’t know yet. Where do you practice?”

  “The garage, one of the back bays.”

  “Well, I’d start there.”

  He wanted, seriously wanted, to see where she’d start, where she’d finish. What she’d do. “Is tomorrow too soon?”

  “No, I guess not. At least I can get a sense. The black T-shirts are okay, but have everybody bring a couple other choices—and some color.”

  “I can do that. That was a hell of an omelette. I’ll get things washed up.”

  It wasn’t much, and easily done. So he still had time to . . .

  “Does the shower work up there?”

  She did a little wiggle with her hand. “Grudgingly.”

  “Okay with you if I grab one before I head to work?”

  “You work today?”

  “Eight to four, Monday through Saturday. Twenty-four-seven emergency towing and road service. When I have a gig, somebody covers until I’m clear.”

  “Right. Sure, you can use the shower.”

  “Great.” He grabbed her, had her back against the refrigerator, plundering with that hungry mouth, those big, rough hands. “Let’s go do that.”

  She planned to get out early, explore on her way to Cecil’s—for pictures and maybe a table.

  But his hands were under her shirt, and his thumbs . . .

  “I could use a shower.”

  —

  Naomi blamed the sexual haze in the shower for her agreeing to have pizza with Xander after the workday.

  It wasn’t a date, she assured herself, and decided to go wild and wear the pewter leggings instead of the black. They were having sex now, so dating was unnecessary.

  If she hadn’t been hazed, she’d have made an excuse or at the least suggested he pick up the pizza, come to her place.

 
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