“So, you like, get scaly, and big, and stuff?”
Kryssa Drake gritted her teeth and counted to five. What she wanted to do was get scaly, and big, and stuff, and eat the annoying young woman following her around the office loft, but Human Resources had warned her about doing that again. Not that she’d actually eaten the other temps, but the way that last one had hollered you’d have thought she had him half swallowed when security showed up. It’s what they got for sending irritating, yet crunchy and salty-good humans during her period. It was a conspiracy.
Firmly ignoring the too-cute, too-blond, too-perky Barbie clone, Kryssa continued the tour to the break room, explaining the shelving and territorial marking of foodstuffs. Just when she thought the dedicated over-talking of the girl had imparted a clue to the temp, it—she—took Kryssa’s arm.
“You’re like, warm and stuff.”
She gave a slow blink as she looked at the girl. Taking that extra breath before speaking, just like they’d taught in anger management, Kryssa tucked a glossy black spiral curl behind her ear and sighed.
“The air conditioner is on low, and it’s eighty-nine degrees outside, not to mention I’m Therian and run hot. What exactly is the mystery?”
The bubbly twit smiled, tilted her head, and gave an affectionate squeeze, confirming the suspicion she had indeed originated from the head cheerleading rung of hell.
“Well, the whole cold-blooded thing, silly. Dragons are reptiles, right?”
Kryssa stared at the porcelain hand on her arm. It stood out against skin the color of gingersnaps, its paleness making it seem delicate and outright fragile. With that in mind, along with a clenched jaw, mental counting exercise, and thoughts of sitting through yet another Anger Management and You course, Kryssa managed not to crush the thin wrist as she removed the offensive touch.
“Regardless of what we shift into, Therians are mammals. We’re all hot-blooded.”
And hot-tempered and just plain hot when in a thriving environment, but that was neither here or there. Kryssa needed something to calm her nerves before she forgot herself and a simple orientation became a full-blown situation. A quick rooting through the fridge produced a large tub of raw vegetables. Almost before the top was fully off, several baby carrots disappeared into her mouth.
“Ooo, you eat vegetables too?” A slow continual nodding of the head followed the question, a trait that took the temp all morning whenever something challenged her to think too hard.
Kryssa crunched louder and groaned. “We’re omnivores, you idiot.” The last two words came out a mumbled wreck that bought her a little extra time for decorum.
“Oh yeah, okay, right. So, um, just between us girls, have you ever eaten anyone, Chrissie?”
Time’s up. “No, but give me a minute.”
Big blue Bambi eyes blinked over at her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.”
I’m not the only thing she doesn’t understand, by a long shot. “I said give me a minute. I have to take care of something.” Kryssa backed away slowly, the way you escape from a dog you think might be rabid. Or in this case, one severely mentally stunted, and therefore dangerous to your dry cleaning bill with the slobbering and the pawing. “Get familiar with the cabinets and snack machine and I’ll be back.”
Broccoli florets, raw cauliflower, and more carrots disappeared in the hundred yard dash to a neutral corner. An open concept conference room became her refuge as she ducked through the glass double doors and hopped up on the conference table. She considered the meeting going on at the time just a minor inconvenience she could generously overlook.
“Kryssa, can we help you?”
She looked to the company’s CEO and shook her head.
“Nope. I’m good. Nice suit.” She reached out and fondled the material. “Did I buy you this one?”
The handsome, regal, professional air collapsed in on itself as he looked at her. She reached up and brushed a dark lock of hair from his forehead. It was the same glossy jet black, but had the barest wave to it, unlike the tight curls pinned back off her face and spilling down her back. She couldn’t help but smile at the face, several shades lighter with its olive hue, yet otherwise incredibly similar to her own.
“Yes you did, Kryssa. Nice jeans.”
Funny, it didn’t sound like a compliment. She looked down at the black tailored jeans, matching cropped three-quarter sleeve blazer and white lace cami, unable to find anything wrong. “What? I’m still in head-to-toe Armani. Classic black and white, down to the Italian ankle boots, business casual at its finest. How can you complain, Nicky?”
Dominic Drake sat back and shook his head. “My baby sister just came in eating the equivalent of an entire salad bar and sat on my conference table to crunch her way through the middle of my business negotiations. Where should my list of complaints begin?”
That didn’t leave a lot of room to argue with him, but with family, such a thing is hardly a deterrent to trying. She popped another carrot into her mouth and looked to the oval table. “First, this is my conference table. Your conference table would be two floors above, up the hall from your office. You came to my floor, and for the next two months until my sabbatical starts and I escape this place for a while, it’ll be run my way. As Chief Liaison Officer, I like to liaise in comfort so we do things rather informal here.”
She leaned across the table, smiling at the childhood friend at its other end. “You’re going to accept the merger right, Jimmy? You always were. Your sister told me last week. This is just a bit of show in order to ensure you get the east coast offices; which, let me tell you, Nicky is completely prepared to give to you. So you all may as well take an early lunch, business done.”
Dominic stood abruptly and picked her up, carrying her from the room without another word. As distractions went, it worked, and she munched contently as he strode down the hall, giving the smallest grunt when he finally plopped her down on the receptionist desk in her outer office.
“Where’s your assistant?”
The contentment vanished and more vegetables disappeared. She muttered around the mouthful. “She’s on maternity leave, remember?”
She watched Dominic look around the office like he expected the object of his question to materialize out of nowhere. “Where’s the temp they sent over this morning?”
When she didn’t answer right away, he grabbed the plastic tub. After a bit of a wrestling match, he secured it and held it out and above her reach in ransom.
“Where is the temp, Kryssa? Tell me now if we need someone from clinic to come up.”
She graced her brother with a begrudging grin. “No, we don’t need medical personnel. I left her in the break room. She’s probably trying to figure out if the screen on the microwave gets cable.”
Giving up on getting the veggies back, she leaned back against the desk, propping herself up on her hands.
“Look, I’m sorry I barged in on your ‘Playskool, My First Meeting’ and everything, but you’ve got to send that girl home while she’s still in one piece. She keeps asking me asinine questions, and she touched me, Nicky. She touched me. She wanted to check if I was warm-blooded. You and I both know, I’m going to be checking her blood if she touches me again.”
Dominic ran his hand over his face. “At least you haven’t thrown her out of a window like the last time someone touched you.”
Kryssa’s jaw dropped open. “First of all, as an Avian, he should have known better. Second, we were only twenty stories up, for a WereFalcon that’s playground level; he would have landed safely in his sleep. Third, not only did we still get the account, but he thanked me for the compliment to his virility and he asked me out.”
“And as I recall you said no.” Dominic nodded and looked around the office. “Maybe we’d run into this a lot less if you’d said yes. If not to him then to someone.”
Kryssa crossed her arms and stared at him, speaking through clenched teeth. “My sabbatical hasn’t started yet.”
“I know that, and you don’t have to mentally measure me for a coffin, Krys. I’m not talking about a relationship. I just think you need another focus. What about Xander? He seems great from everything you say. When’s the last time you had sex anyway?”
Kryssa slid back on the desk and folded her legs tailor fashion. “Don’t bring this down to sex and stress relief, Nicky. I could sleep with the entire Human Resources department and that girl would still be only slightly smarter than a bag of hammers. Why are you making this about me?”
Dominic rubbed his chin. “Let me think. The temp agency keeps sending people to this office and none of them last a full day. I’m sure there must be a common denominator in this equation somewhere.” He popped a carrot into this mouth.
“Hey.” She reached for the tub again. “Don’t eat my food. It’s the only thing keeping her safe. At my last check, humans don’t fly or bounce, and I doubt what’s-her-name will take any compliment at an abrupt departure from this floor via window if she survives it. Do you really want to hold my coping tools hostage and thus be directly responsible for the resulting paperwork?”
He gave Kryssa back the container with a shake of his head. “All right, I see your point. Eat up.”
He paced in a tight circle, working through the no-win situation. Kryssa smiled around her vegetables. She came from a truly handsome family, and Dominic personified all it meant to be Dragon. He would fix things and look great doing it. “How is Pam doing? Am I going to be an aunt any time soon? I mean to actual children finally?”
“Pam’s fine, and the boys are a full seven years younger than you; they’re babies and don’t change the subject. We have to figure this out. We’re under a deadline that that you set. With the boys in Tokyo and your interns not back from Sydney for two weeks, you’re short-handed. This has to go smoothly, Krys. Our clients and sister companies are all incredibly nervous.”
Kryssa couldn’t help but smile. “Why are they nervous, Nicky?”
Dominic closed his eyes and took a deep breath before his own smile broke free. “Because when you’re not tossing potential clients out of windows, you’re the best. You know what people want to hear and how to give them what they want.” He walked over and took her face in his hands. “What I want is for this to work. You’re good, but you’re not good enough to do your job and the grunt work portion of phone calls and files and still make deadline. You need the help.” His expression became pleading. “I’ll make sure she’s talked to and doesn’t touch you again. Okay, Krys?”
She sat the tub down with a heavy thump. “Talked to? Talked to? Nicky, she asked me if I’ve ever eaten anyone. Talking isn’t going to cut it.” She visibly fought to sound reasonable. “Look, I’m already ahead of schedule. I don’t need an assistant. I’m fine. Send her home.”
Dominic stepped back and put his hands in his pockets. “There are a million small, mundane things to be done that required another pair of hands. Surely the girl can’t be that bad.”
“She is that bad, Nicky. And why did they send an unindoctrinated human anyway? Especially one from an under-funded public school? We should have a no human policy for the company. In fact, I’m instituting it right now.”
A third voice joined in from the hall. “Um, maybe I should just go.”
Kryssa looked past Dominic to the young man in the hall with the lunch cart. Salvation. There were few things that good food and good company couldn’t cure, and what waited in the hall definitely qualified as both. Kryssa hopped off the desk and breezed past Dominic. “I didn’t mean you, Xander. Besides you’re only Near Human, three quarters hardly counts at all.” She leaned over the sleek aluminum cart and inhaled, returning the breath to the world as a near moan. “And useful. You’re very, very useful.”
Xander opened the top of the waist-high deli cart and pulled out a foil wrapped sandwich the size of her arm. He presented it to her with a flourish. “Italian Beef, dipped twice so the bread soaked in just the right amount of juices and possessing enough cheese for an entire dairy case. Exactly as you like, my dear.”
Dominic laughed when she didn’t even bother to walk off, opening the end and taking that first ecstatic bite. She’d had enough feedback to know watching her eat rated as a full-out sensuous experience that came with its own FCC guidelines. Few people ever got to experience full enjoyment mode. Fortunately everyone in the room had made the cut a long time ago.
“Oh gods, it’s incredible. Just like your timing,” she mumbled.
Xander smiled, and Kryssa smiled back. It didn’t come with a choice, like the movement of stars across a night sky. She gave her brother a suspicious glance when he blocked her view of that smile by walking a circle around Xander.
“So, Xander…” Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and looked eye to eye with him—impressive for a Fae-blooded, considering her brother stood a touch over six feet, six inches barefoot. “How are things across the street at our beloved Luciano’s?”
Kryssa made a dismissive sound. “If you didn’t rely on catered meetings through the company’s commissary, you’d know they just finished renovations for their fiftieth anniversary and added to the menu.”
Dominic crossed his arms. “Really? Your grandfather must be so proud. I remember when Mr. Luciano opened the summer of my first full time shifts here at seventeen. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted. I remember being fascinated watching it all come together. Now a third generation of Lucianos are running things and expanding. How long have you worked there now, Xander?”
“Nearly his entire life.” She waved them both into her inner office, walking ahead of them as she spoke. “He’s been there every summer since he was seven. Xander’s been full time since coming back from university and becoming co-owner with his brothers.”
She dropped into the large high-back chair and gestured for them to sit.
Dominic offered his hand. “It’s official? Congratulations. I had heard your dad retired, but I didn’t know you boys had completely taken ownership. You’re only thirty, right? The youngest in the family, like my baby girl here?”
“Yes, sir, I turned thirty this past March,” Xander confirmed.
Kryssa shot a look at her brother as he once again reminded her that at a mere thirty-three she was still the baby of the family at less than half his age.
“I know I’ve heard these details several times but I forget. Did you major in business at university, Xander?”
“He has a degree in communications and women’s studies,” Kryssa answered. “He got roped into the family business just like I did.”
Dominic looked between the two of them. “Did communications cover the English language? I could switch to something else if it means you’ll let him speak for himself.”
She occupied her mouth with another large bite and attempted to stare daggers at Dominic. The visible thrills of pleasure moving directly from her taste buds to the rest of her body brought her up short, but she tried anyway.
“Yes, sir, it included English. But everything she said is accurate, so I don’t mind.” Xander smiled.
Dominic looked between the two of them again. “Kryssa’s always been about the details. She knows every employee’s name and never forgets a birthday. After all the lunch dates you two have had, I’m not surprised she knows so much. How long has it been anyway?”
Xander paused. “Over two years now I guess. The conversations just kept getting longer and longer until I finally had to make her my last stop just to ensure everyone on the other floors I cover got fed.”
He laughed, and Dominic laughed with him. Kryssa chewed in suspicion.
“You’ve managed two years with her? It must be that ingenious combination of communications and women’s studies. If I knew you could go to university to learn how to talk to women, I’d have gone back to school years ago. How much do you think it’s helped you navigate my sister?”
Kryssa was too interested in the answer to be offended by the question. Personally, she suspected it had helped Xander a great deal and would happily put every male she knew through the course load.
“I couldn’t say how much it’s helped, if at all, but I have an A.A.S. that I know has made all the difference in our interactions,” he said with a sly grin that she answered with a laugh.
Dominic arched a brow. “An associate of applied science degree that helped you more than communications? It has to be either Therian Sexual Development or Culinary Arts.”
Kryssa smiled at the heat that crept into Xander’s face. She wanted to walk over and lick his cheek to taste the hot blood beneath his skin. Then again, she wanted to taste him every time she saw him. He had skin the color of rich peanut butter cookies and short wavy hair the exact hue of pecan pie. Darker lashes framed large bright irises of ground thyme that sparkled in the light thanks to that non-human fourth of his DNA.
She didn’t need a shrink to let her know equating everything about him to food spoke of a different hunger altogether. She just wasn’t ready to go there again so soon. Her brother couldn’t believe she’d been single for two years, but it had been rather easy to stay that way. Once she’d focused in on work with the goal of moving her sabbatical up, there hadn’t been time to think about dating. Sex, yes, dating and the trouble of relationships, not so much.
For someone never embarrassed about anything, it was embarrassing to be embarrassed about the cause of her last break-up. She’d let everyone except Dominic think she was simply too over the relationship to even talk about its demise. She couldn’t explain that she’d shifted in front of Landon for the first time, and from his reaction, all bets had been off. The last positive communication she’d given him was the flower arrangement she’d sent him in the hospital while he was recovering from their falling out.
“It was Culinary Arts, sir. I went to Kendall College here in Chicago.”
Dominic smiled, obviously impressed. Kryssa knew Pam, the commissary’s executive chef, had gone to Kendall, one of the many details Dominic had shared after his date with her.
“Kryssa must adore you.”
“Are you kidding, Nicky?” she chimed in. “He’s a pastry chef and a living incarnation of the Food Network.” She ticked off points on her fingers. “He’s handsome, socially educated, culinarily inclined and he brings me food every day. Not to mention he’s got a gorgeous boyfriend who has given permission to share details. With Caitlin out on maternity leave, he’s my favorite person in the entire building right now, and at least a six block radius. Not counting you of course.”
Xander chuckled and ran a hand over his neck. Suddenly the black short sleeve T-shirt and dark blue jeans seemed as stifling as a wool blanket. He felt entirely too warm and was thoroughly sure he failed to hide it from the two Shifters. He was used to Kryssa’s compliments and flirtations. Caitlin teased him mercilessly about them to his delight because it meant she saw the depth of attraction too. But with Dominic present, it felt different somehow. Each word seemed more important as the older man scrutinized him.
“See?” He smiled to Dominic. “Better than communications, or at least just as good, since it gives us a lot to talk about. In fact, if I didn’t own part of the deli, my brothers would have fired me by now for the two and three hour lunch breaks I have to take when I come over.”
He pushed the cart from the doorway of the inner office all the way to her desk. It gave him something to do to avoid looking at either of them for the moment. With his expression obscured, he smiled to himself, knowing he’d exaggerated his brothers’ displeasure a bit. In truth, once his brothers had found out about Kryssa, they’d been all but pushing him out the door every day to come see her.
He glanced up at her with the thought and grinned. “And, despite what Kryssa says, for the record, Caleb’s not my boyfriend, just a great friend and occasionally my lover, in an off-again, on-again, currently off-again sort of way.”
The off-again part had his siblings concerned. Xander remained the only one in his family not in a stable, long-term relationship with at least one mate, and his brothers treated it like an affliction. Most of the time when he and Caleb were off-again, it felt like an affliction. But every trip over to Kryssa’s office changed that. Her no-dating policy had cramped his plans for romance, true, yet coming over each day made him feel less alone.
“With that kind of daily dedication, how do the two of you manage when she’s away on business?” Dominic asked.
“Skype,” they said in unison.
Dominic just stared at them. Xander understood. If you didn’t have that kind of friendship, if you didn’t need it the way he did, you couldn’t get the dedication. He loved having someone who knew him better than his own family because she listened to all the things they didn’t. She knew where he wanted to live, what he wanted to do with his life, how he felt about his family, the deli, Caleb and everything. Everything, including her—for all the good it did. But every relationship had a snag or two, they’d work it out. A Luciano never gave up.
He moved rapidly and set a bottle of water, napkins, and warmed plate from the steam drawer before her. With the necessary silverware and a second sandwich produced next, round two began. Xander smiled at her brother as she finished the last few bites of the first one.
He explained, “The first is an appetizer. The main course has been soaked just shy of falling apart and then wrapped quickly. It can be a wonderfully sensuous disaster of a mess when you eat it with your hands, but it’s hard to convince her to do that at work.”
Dominic nodded. “And with her working twenty-hour days, seven days a week, work is about your only chance to see her at all.” He frowned at Kryssa, but she ignored them both in favor of the food.
“I plan to change that soon. I haven’t ruled out kidnapping as a possible method. I’m just checking the law and figuring out if it’s still a felony after she swoons into my arms and declares her undying love.” Xander smiled, ignoring the pull of worry. Undying love might be a stretch, but he knew when friendship had become something more. He just needed the chance to see if things could hold up outside of the comfort zone of her office. He had to know if a real possibility existed for things to become more than afternoon get-togethers and late night phone calls.
“Just a second,” she chimed in. “First, let me point out that just because you take a break, it doesn’t mean he’s not your boyfriend. But as you will, you have a gorgeous lover, and you share details. So you’re definitely my favorite person.” She smiled at him with a tilt of her head. “Second, let’s talk about this kidnapping-slash-undying love thing. When did you start planning this?”
She smiled, but the look in her eyes remained unreadable. Before he could regret opening this line of questioning and letting his mouth move ahead without double-checking with his courage—or lack thereof—they were interrupted.
“There you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere, Chrissie! I’ve finished learning the break room.”
Xander looked from the beaming girl to Kryssa and then over to Dominic, who looked ready to duck and cover. The bouncy blond came over and held out her hand to Xander.
“Hi, I haven’t met you yet, I’m Cassie, her new assistant. Isn’t that neat, Chrissie and Cassie? C and C? I just know we’re going to be great friends.”
Xander shook her hand, somewhat dumbstruck. He went for the most obvious flaw in her sentence and then decided it wasn’t his place to speak on the impossibility of friendship. So he went for the second flaw instead. “It’s Kryssa, and it’s with a K. It’s right there on the door where you came in.”
A bright smile and accepting shrug were his only reward. “Oh, that’s okay. I mean, I can be Cassie with a K, right?”
He watched both Dragons actually flinch at the high, grating laughter the girl let loose and stepped out of the way in case of a sudden stampede to the door. Not that Kryssa would likely abandon the food. She’d started eating as if they’d never been interrupted and the girl didn’t exist. But the set of her shoulders told him she took in every word.
“We’ve been having a great day. Krys-sa has been teaching me all about Dragon Shifters this morning. Did you know she was warm blooded?”
Xander bit his lip and nodded. “Therians are mammals, regardless of what they shift into.” He said it in the slow, higher pitched tone one would use with a toddler.
She went into a slow nod of discovery, and he caught Kryssa’s telltale flinch in his periphery. “That’s what she said too. Isn’t it just wild? Hey, does that mean she doesn’t lay eggs either?”
He leaned forward as if covering the distance might mean less strain on her IQ. Again, he spoke slowly and deliberately. “Mammals. They’re mammals. Duck-billed platypus and spiny anteater aside, mammals don’t lay eggs.”
A big Bambi blink of puzzlement. “Spiny anteaters? You mean porcupines? They lay eggs? Are there were-porcupines?”
Kryssa got to her feet, Xander got to Kryssa, and Dominic got to the temp and got her out of the room while the getting was good. A muffled explanation about another department needing her across town drifted through the door, and then the two were out of earshot for Xander.
He rubbed Kryssa’s shoulders, turning the symbolic restraint into an impromptu massage. At six feet six inches, he was one of the few non-Therians taller than she was even in her modest heels, which made her six feet three inches at most. He knew the height advantage contributed to the comfort factor, and he went into full soothing mode.
“She’s gone,” he coaxed. “She’s gone. We can sit down and have lunch and forget any of this ever happened. In fact, we’ll never speak about it again.” He pressed his cheek against her hair and hid his smile in the abundant curls. “Although I freely admit I’ve never seen a living bobble-head before, and I’m deeply fascinated. When you take out the part where you looked homicidal, it was so painful as to be funny.”
Kryssa kept her feet and took a long swallow of water. The moment the bottle touched down on the desk, she turned without preamble and caught Xander in a kiss. His body—way ahead of his mind on these things—jumped into it with both feet. By the time his brain caught up, his arms were already wrapped around her and interesting things were happening elsewhere as he shaped her to him with his embrace.
Her tongue explored his mouth like there’d be a quiz on it later. He hoped it counted for the half the year’s grade because she put all the right effort into it. The unexpected displays of intimacy and affection were by far the best thing about their daily lunches and the thing that kept him holding out hope. By the time she broke the kiss, he’d almost forgotten such a thing could actually end.
“Thank you.” She said it against his lips as she took in a steadying breath.
He answered with a shaky smile. “I was just about to say the same thing. You know these sudden moments where you have to quell the sexual tension between us by throwing yourself into my arms is my favorite part of our friendship. What brought on this particular kiss by the way? I want to do it again quickly and see if we come out of it with fewer clothes.”
She took a deep breath and laughed, laying her head on his shoulder. “She drove me crazy all morning, and every time someone spotted us, they ran in the other direction. You’re the only one who got it. You’re the only one who tried to help me.”
Not quite the declaration of undying passion he would have liked, but it would do. Her arms were around his neck, her hand playing in his hair. The blazer had come undone, and her soft laughter pressed lace-covered breasts against his chest. It didn’t really matter what she said in the moment. As moments went, it rated right up there as reasons to hang on.
“I could run out and retrieve her then save you again. I see good things in my future from it.”
She held him closer, as if keeping him in place. “No thank you. But you know,” she said, lifting her head to smile at him, “you’re also the only one that recognized she was a bobble-headed, body-snatching demon from the third rung of hell. For that alone, I may have to bear your young.”
“Agreed. Does today work for you? My vacation starts in six hours.”
Well, his mini-vacation started. There would be some business thrown in there as well. But first it would be a few days, maybe a week, spent up north at the cabin, surrounded by nature and little else, a chance to get back in touch with what he wanted to do with his life without all the distractions of life to confuse things. The last three weeks would be spent in the tourist-filled art community to reconnect with that side of him and check out the bakeries and restaurants interested in carrying some of his specialties. Although, if he was honest, only one bakery mattered.
“Your vacation, yes; I’ve been wanting to ask you about that all day. I got an email from Caleb. Eternal Delights is still doing wonderfully.”
Eternal Delights stood as the hottest new eatery in Port Jacobs and just happened to be owned by Caleb James. Caleb had called him six months ago with an offer Xander couldn’t help but consider—a pending partnership in a thriving business that encompassed everything the two had dreamed up while still in culinary school. They hadn’t broken up after graduation so much as drifted apart to fulfill the obligations they each had back home, coming together every few months like a long-term tide.
No matter how he tried to tie it up in his mind as a business vacation, the truth remained. He’d be spending time away with one lover while trying to figure out how to gain the commitment of a new lover. Not exactly the kind of thing they put in the brochure for the touristy town, but Xander was willing to juggle the drama if everything worked out in his favor.
“Come on, I want to hear everything,” Kryssa insisted.
She came out of his arms with what he chose to believe was reluctance. She sat back down, gesturing to pull the chair across from her closer. The front of his body radiated with her warmth and a generous bit of his own. He brushed his hand just shy of his chest as he moved into his usual lunch spot and took his seat.
“So, is everything set for the drive up there?” she asked. “Groceries delivered, water tank flushed, vents checked, circuits cycled, the whole nine yards?”
Xander nodded and pulled out his own lunch. The scent of baked spaghetti filled the room as he explained those things taken care of on his palm-top and the details he’d had to call the caretaker to cover in person. She beamed over every little thing as she took their plates and swapped out half of each dish like always. It depressed him to think he’d be eating alone for a full week. If he took his laptop, it could be his turn to Skype in from the road and ensure he wouldn’t be alone. Assuming of course Caleb stayed away long enough to make it matter.
“So what about Caleb? You know he’s got more than baking and business in mind. Your month off is going to become two, easily.”
Yes, he knew, and he wished she didn’t sound so enthusiastic and encouraging about it. She and Caleb had hit it off beautifully the moment he brought Caleb to meet her, and Xander probably talked about him more than he should—every time they spoke, for instance. Still, not a reason for her to try to pawn him off on his old flame. Not that he was really an old flame, more an ongoing-but-with-little-guarantee-of-a-future-together, kind of…never mind. Caleb. She didn’t have to pawn him off on Caleb.
“Yes, I know he does, and as usual, he’ll draw things out to fit his own desires. But the opportunity is something I can’t turn down without at least considering it.”
She looked confused and shook her head. “Wait a minute, what do you mean ‘without at least considering it’, as if you shouldn’t consider it just because he wants to be with you? You don’t get more perfect than sharing your dream with a gorgeous guy who then goes out of his way to build you your very own place. What’s not to consider? Are you insane?”
Xander turned in his chair and looked behind him, searching the room for another presence before turning back to her.
“I’m sorry; I thought you had to be talking to someone else. Because there’s no way the woman I haven’t been able to drag out the office for a drink in two years just counseled me on what to do when a gorgeous guy that’s really into you goes out of his way for your attentions. I mean, if that had happened, I might have to get out of the way before the lightning strikes.”
She threw him a narrowed gaze and then nodded with a smile. “Agreed, it’s hypocritical. You’re going to have all sorts of wonderful details to share when you get back, and it should be done in person. We can have a drink together and discuss Caleb and everything as soon as my sabbatical starts and you’re back from your time off.”
Xander didn’t know what to say, nor did he get the chance to figure it out before they were interrupted.
“Time off? Did I hear he has time off?” Dominic came through the door with a hopeful smile. “Do you have plans for this time off? Because rest is important, but boredom can be lethal if you don’t have something to do and we wouldn’t want that.”
“With Kryssa needing an assistant and you needing something to do, it feeds two birds with the one handful of seeds. Lovely, yes? Best of all, it’s all small things; it’ll hardly cut into your relaxation at all.”
In that moment Xander believed in faerie godparents again. It was perfect. He’d stay and spend his first week with Kryssa, helping and talking and eventually he’d get them to relocate so they could spend some time outside of—
“You can’t ask him to do that, Nicky.”
“But, Kryssa, he seems perfectly willing to help and…” He looked down to the plates. “Are you sharing food?”
Xander’s heart sped up at the sound of Dominic’s voice. He’d known it held significance that she blended their food. It was a Therian sign of affection and acceptance. But her brother’s tone said that with Kryssa it might mean even more. Xander didn’t get the chance to find out before she waved off Dominic’s words.
“We share lunch every day but don’t change the subject. I’m not going to let you ruin my best friend’s vacation.”
Xander warmed at the words as he always did. If she’d been human, the label “best friend” would’ve been the kiss of death to any romantic plans, but he’d grown up around Therians and knew it to be the one guarantee on his side. Most Therians had scores of acquaintances, but they only tended to form full friendships with the type of people they’d one day want to build a Sect with. And Sects always began with lovers and mates. The thought distracted him so much he missed part of their argument and picked it back up with Kryssa’s plea.
“I know, Nicky, but you can’t trap him into being stuck here for his vacation. He’s got a cabin upstate that his parents gave him. Seven acres on the lake, and he just finished upgrading everything last summer. He hasn’t even had the chance to enjoy it. And it’s just twenty minutes from that little art community of Port Jacobs where we went antique shopping for Mom’s birthday.”
“How great does that all sound? You can’t guilt him out of it; it’s wrong and evil.”
Very wrong and very evil and Xander wanted him to succeed. How to help that? It was the first vacation he’d taken since he’d met Kryssa, and she wouldn’t let him give it up easily. He’d already offered up his time upon hearing about Caitlin’s early maternity leave. He’d felt a sense of culpability since his brother first stole her away, got her pregnant and then talked her into an early leave, but Kryssa had shot him down before he’d finished his first full sentence.
“Xander, it’s on a lake, private property, fully updated?” Dominic asked.
Something in the older Dragon’s eyes made Xander smile as he answered. “Yes, sir. Fully updated and private.”
Dominic slipped his hands in his pocket and gave a decisive nod. “Perfect. I’ll see you both when you get back.”
Xander stood and took the hand Dominic held out. It seemed to take Kryssa a second to catch on to what her brother had just said.
“Wait, what? I’m not going.”
He ignored her, still focused on Xander. “Luciano’s caters, right? You’ve coordinated calls, scheduled appointments, and arranged callbacks before. That’s all this is, only easier. Caitlin left a complete step-by-step instruction booklet for the temps. She did all the heavy lifting before her maternity leave. Only the grunt work’s left, and the temp agency apparently feels anyone with a high school reading level and moderate command of the English language can do the job. You should be able to pull it off in your sleep.” He stepped closer. “Having seen what they’re sending her, you do want to help, yes?”
Did he want to help? Let me think… The first legitimate opportunity to see if Kryssa and I have a real chance together, plus the bonus of having my best friend present to buffer things with Caleb while figuring that whole thing out? “I’d love to, sir.”
“Good. She never leaves the office, and sixty percent of what she does in a day is work for other departments. They dump things on her desk because they know that she completely lacks a life and thrives on chaos, so she gets the job done. Take her out in the middle of nowhere so she can concentrate on her own work. Help her out, feed her, have a good time, don’t come back early. I’ll see one or both of you in two weeks to a month or so. Emphasis on the or so should you find the time away as productive as I predict.”
“Nicky!” Kryssa got up, put her hands on Dominic’s chest and pushed them apart. “You can’t do this.”
Dominic kissed her forehead. “Of course I can. I did. It’s done. Just go. Why are you fighting this? This whole no-dating thing originated around your sabbatical, right? Your five year plan that you’ve managed to pull off in two and a half years—which I’m very proud of by the way. But your sabbatical is around the corner, so what’s the problem? I’m not asking you to elope, just to go and work in a beautiful environment with a helpful friend. I mean look at him, Kryssa. He’s healthy, he’s handsome, and he’s sexually available.”
“He’s also right here, Nicky!” she pointed out.
“Which makes it no less true. You’ve been seeing each other for two years. Him and Caitlin are all I hear about over breakfast every morning. He’s obviously a great friend because he’s willing to do this, and by your scents, neither of you have had a lover in months. He’s aroused right now by the idea; just go with it.”
“He’s. Right. Here. Dominic.”
Dominic hugged her close. “Then the sooner you leave the sooner I stop talking. I can stand here and state the obvious all day, I went straight from captain to admiral, and I enjoy that particular shade of red he’s wearing. So pick your poison. Are you going to fight me on this or accept Xander’s hospitality and stop making him feel like a little time with him is a fate worse than death?”
She mumbled something Xander couldn’t understand, but Dominic’s smile told him enough.
“Good.” He kissed her forehead and stepped back. “Thank you again, Xander. Bye, Kryssa. Love you.” Dominic walked out of her office without even a look back.
Kryssa turned to him, a near bewildered look on her face. “My brother just kicked me out of my office for two weeks, horned in on your vacation, got work out of you—that as far as I can tell he expects for free—and did it all in the same breath.”
Xander shrugged, fighting to keep an ear-to-ear grin off his face. “He also tried to pimp me out there at the end, but he looked damn impressive when he did it all. I should go and order more groceries.” And find someplace to jump up and down. “What time should I pick you up?”
She was going to refuse; he could see it in her face. She just couldn’t let go of the mindset that had her chained to her office, even though she seemed equally as tempted. He steeled himself for an argument. Dominic had laid the groundwork for him, and he’d be damned if he’d let her steer them off the path now. Just as her lips parted, a burst of braying laughter came from the hall and he watched her face change mid-thought as she looked at the door in panic.
“It’s still in the building, and they’ll send more like it from the Bobble-headed, Body-snatching Demon Factory and Temp Agency.” She looked back to him and nodded. “How about now? Now’s good.”
She shut her laptop, got up, and opened the large closet in her office. “It’s just two weeks, right?” She hefted the larger of the duffle bags marked casual and took up its matching backpack and computer bag. “Impromptu business trips are what these are here for, so I’m ready. And this’ll be good, right? I mean I can return the favor and look over the paperwork Caleb has for Eternal Delights and mediate if you guys need me to.” She nodded, convincing herself. “We’re just two friends helping each other out; it’s good. Now let’s get the cart back and go before I change my mind. Or before she comes back and wants to know if I breathe fire.”
As it happened, it was the last question shouted after them as they both ran full tilt out of the building, lunch cart and all.