For four thousand years, creatus have concealed themselves from the humans who hunted them almost to extinction. Now, one creatus will endanger them all by breaking one of their laws: falling in love--with a human.
Bored beyond belief by the instructor’s dull and repetitive lecture, Derrick leaned back in his chair, wishing he could skip this part of his training. He’d already gone through extensive preparation and instruction, and by all accounts, had his PH.D. in Internal Medicine. As with the rest of the residents at his family’s small hospital, though, he needed to complete his education in the US and receive an accredited degree.
The double doors of the auditorium burst open, and a young woman barreled into the didactic session. A backpack slung over one shoulder, causing her to walk with a slight tilt, and her long platinum hair fighting to escape her ponytail captured everyone’s attention from the speaker, especially Derrick’s.
The instructor didn’t miss a beat, though, as he droned on about malpractice suits, state-of-the-art procedures that the training hospital would be putting into effect, and finally the importance of being on time if you wanted to be selected to be a resident upon finishing the program.
The last topic, Derrick was certain, was aimed at the young woman who was now nervously jotting down everything the lecturer was saying.
Derrick couldn’t care less about a position within the prestigious Boston hospital. He knew his future and what role he was destined to fill. He would be an attending physician at his family’s small hospital, and his father had hinted that he’d be overseer. The council had already mentioned him stepping in; it was just a matter of him being ready.
The discourse ended, and Derrick moved quickly, cutting off escaping students so he could bump into the woman. Not that he was supposed to fraternize with anyone in school, but she’d caught his eye so completely he had to talk to her.
While tapping on her cell phone, the young woman juggled her books in the crook of her arm as she rushed toward the exit. Busy woman, he thought.
“Need some help?” He reached for the books in her arms before she could object.
“Hey…” She looked like a viper ready to strike, but then her pupils dilated as she stared up at him. “I’m sorry…do I know you?”
“No…” He offered her a smile, hoping to settle her nerves. He didn’t speak to many women, but when he did, he always got that same staggered expression. “But you looked as though you needed a third hand.”
“I don’t think I could manage if I were an octopus.”
He laughed. Beautiful and a sense of humor. Most of the women he knew were too serious. “Funny. Are you off to another lecture?”
“No…I’m late for work. I keep telling my boss not to schedule me on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but he doesn’t listen, and then—sorry…TMI. I tend to ramble on, something the professors keep fussing at me about. Thanks. I sent the message, so I can carry my books now. I’m not up on all these new gadgets.” She waved her phone. “This is my first cell phone. I can’t afford it, but I really needed it. ” She smacked her hand over her mouth and reached for her books. “See…I never shut up.”
Derrick couldn’t help but smile. She was so cute. “I’ll walk you to your car. That way if your boss replies, you can respond quickly.”
Her eyes narrowed this time, a look he wasn’t accustomed to; the few women he talked to trusted him completely. Even the female professors said he had a wonderful bedside manner. “Umm…it’s okay. I take the ‘T’.”
“Would you like a lift, then, so you aren’t late?”
She shook her head. “No. Thank you. I appreciate it…but I don’t even know you.”
“Derrick Ashton.” He offered her his hand.
The young woman hesitantly extended her slender, creamy-skinned hand. Her hand looked so small and delicate in his larger, olive-skinned hand. “Nice to meet you, Derrick. I’m Janelle Heskin. But still…”
Derrick released her after a second and lifted his hands in front of him. “I’m harmless, I swear. They wouldn’t have accepted me into medical school if I had a record, and I’m here because I want to help people, and you looked like you needed help.”
She laughed. “That makes sense. Okay, but I have a bottle of pepper spray, and I’m not afraid to use it.”
“Keep it handy, but I assure you, you won’t need it. I only want to help.” Derrick turned and headed toward his Navigator, hating that she’d see him driving such a fancy new vehicle after her comment about not being able to afford a cell phone. He’d bought it because of the leg and headroom. At six-four, he didn’t fit comfortably into too many vehicles, and when his brother was home from school, he appreciated it too. At six-six, his brother barely fit through some doorways.
Derrick held open the passenger door, allowing Janelle to step up. “Nice,” she said as he opened the driver’s side door. She ran her hand over the soft leather. “Your parents do well, I take it.”
“Yeah, but I don’t live off my parents’ money.” He hated when people automatically assumed that. He knew he looked young, but he’d always been a hard worker, and he put in plenty of hours at the clinic. Everyone in his family worked from the time they were sixteen.
“Oh…okay…” She paused for a breath, then said, “Just head toward East Somerville.”
He cringed without meaning to.
“I know it’s not the best neighborhood…but—”
“Sorry…that was rude. As I said, I worry about people, especially beautiful young women walking home at night.”
She attempted to mutter ‘yeah right’ under her breath, which was impossible; he had excellent hearing. Although he knew she didn’t mean for him to hear her, he wanted to laugh at her denial. How could she not think she was beautiful?
Resisting commenting, he just peeked in her direction. “So, what time do you get off work? Would you like to grab something to eat afterward?”
She released a soft exhale. “Derrick, you seem like a really nice guy, but didn’t you notice that I’m a lot older than you? How are you even in medical school? I know what you are…you’re one of those young princes from overseas, aren’t you? From Romania maybe? You have such dark hair and eyes, like a gypsy.”
He laughed. “I’m not sure if that was a compliment or if I should be offended, but you’re not even close.” He continued to chuckle as he pulled out his wallet. “I was born in Massachusetts, I assure you, and I’m older than you think.” He was also ten years older than his driver’s license indicated, but he couldn’t share that with her.
She peeked at his date of birth. “Twenty-five? I’m twenty-five! You barely look eighteen, while I probably look thirty,” she groaned.
He furrowed his brow. “Most people say I look at least nineteen, so at least I’m above the legal age to date. That’s why I showed you my license, though. No one ever believes me,” he said through a laugh, attempting to set her at ease. “And you don’t look thirty. Twenty-nine tops,” he said, grinning.
She smacked his arm. “Hey, that’s just mean to kick a girl when she’s already feeling inferior.”
“Maybe that’s why I can’t get a pretty young woman to have dinner with me.”
“I’m sure you get turned down all the time. Not!”
He chuckled softly. “Actually, you’re the first woman I’ve asked out in a year.”
She released a non-believing puff of air. “I’m flattered. But honestly, I really don’t have time to date. And…” She paused, reaching into her backpack and pulling out her wallet too. She flipped it open and held it out for his inspection. “I have an eight-year-old daughter.”
He stole a peek into the rearview mirror, then glanced at the picture of Janelle and her daughter. It appeared to be one of those shots taken at one of those photo booths in the mall. Her daughter had the same color hair, identical features, same smile. Even with the seventeen-year difference, they looked more like sisters than mother and daughter. “Nice try, but you failed to deter me. How about we study together at a coffee shop.”
She released a long sigh. “You’re sweet—”
“Oh, no…” He laughed harder than before. He felt so natural with her. “Not sweet, anything but sweet.”
She smiled but then pointed to a diner at the end of the block. “You can drop me off at the back entrance.”
Derrick pulled into the alley behind the structure, hoping she didn’t walk home from here. He stopped near the back door, next to an overflowing dumpster that reeked. It took everything he had not to pinch his nose. As with most people, the stench didn’t bother her. Few had a sense of smell as acute as his.
“Thank you, Derrick. I really appreciate the lift.” She reached for her backpack and moved to get out.
Not wanting her to leave, wanting her to know he wasn’t feigning an interest, he touched her arm. “Seriously, what time do you get off work?”
With her eyes still cast on the door, her escape, she sighed softly. “Thank you for the ride, Derrick.” She opened the door and hopped down, closing it behind her.
He waited while she walked inside, then pulled around to the front of the restaurant to read off the hours of service. Unable to keep the smile off his face, he drove away. “I’ll see you at ten, Janelle, even if you don’t see me.”
Derrick sat on the ledge of one of the taller, more vacant rooftops in the city. Not a difficult thing to find in Somerville, but practically impossible to find in Back Bay where he lived. Most of the Victorian Brownstones and new condominium towers had converted the rooftops into getaways, whereas most of the Somerville properties were basic tenements.
Janelle had finished with her last table fifteen minutes ago, but she was still sweeping and doing other menial tasks. He couldn’t help but admire a young woman who attended medical school, worked a full-time job, and then went home to an eight-year-old daughter. When did she find time to study?
“Good night, Bob. Don’t forget. No Tuesdays or Thursdays, okay?” Janelle called as she walked out the back door of the diner—no escort.
“Yeah, yeah. See ya, Elle!”
Derrick smiled. Elle. Cute, but he liked Janelle. He watched as she rounded the building, following her track down the street. As she turned the corner, he took off in a sprint and leapt onto the next building so he’d be able to see where she headed.
Janelle scanned the area cautiously, her hand stuffed inside her pocket. Probably holding the pepper spray. Good, but not good enough. He knew he wasn’t supposed to do this. The family had enacted the policy years ago. It was too dangerous to watch and protect, as his father and grandfather used to do, but how could he sleep at night knowing this young woman could become a statistic any day. He couldn’t.
She stopped in front of a brick building but didn’t go inside. Instead, she glanced up and down the street as she pulled out her cell phone.
Derrick peeked over the side of the building, making sure it was clear, then slid down the fire escape to the pavement. While he’d waited for her to get off work, he’d gone to his condo and changed into all black clothes, typical watching gear. No, he wasn’t supposed to watch, but sometimes his family had to when one of their own were committing crimes, something that hadn’t happened here in New England in years, but he’d helped other families across the country.
A few seconds after her phone call, Janelle was still standing on the street. Did she have a date? he wondered. Is that why she turned him down?
The door flung open, and a miniature version of Janelle bopped down the brick steps. Watching the happy child reminded him of playing Ringolevio with his cousins and brother. Base had always been the brick steps leading to the front door of his parents’ house.
The child held up a paper for Janelle. “Look what I made for you today, Mommy.”
Janelle accepted the black and white image. From the quick glimpse he’d caught, it appeared to be a charcoal drawing. “Wow. This is beautiful.” Janelle surveyed the street again, and then stooped in front of the young girl. “Honey, did you trace this?”
The girl whipped her head back and forth. “Uh-uh.”
“Baby, you have talent.”
Janelle squeezed her daughter’s shoulders. “Really, really. We need to get you to some art classes, baby. I’m impressed.” Janelle held the paper under the streetlight to get a better view.
Derrick smiled. She wasn’t patronizing the child. If she hadn’t traced it, she was good.
Janelle took her daughter’s hand and strolled down the street. “So, what else did you do today, Kristina?”
How could he not protect this beautiful, loving mother and her child from the crime surrounding them? He thought about what had happened to his mother. She’d understand. His father would understand too. But they wouldn’t know. He wouldn’t get involved with Janelle, not that she’d let him anyway. He’d just be her friend.
Derrick followed, but remained far away. If anyone approached them, though, he’d break every rule his family had made. He’d never stand by idly. Two blocks down, both of them stepped into another building. Now he knew where she lived, and it was only a few blocks from her work. Next time they spoke, he’d find out what nights she took off, which he suspected were typically Tuesdays and Thursdays, and he’d just privately escort her home. He could spare fifteen minutes of his day to protect a woman who obviously didn’t have anyone else helping her.
Nothing could ever come of them; his family would never approve. She was too old, or he was too young, they’d say. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he knew they’d be right.
And then there was Tori. He knew what she wanted, but it’d be five years until she returned to the States permanently, and as much as he liked her—loved her—he wasn’t in love with her.
He’d only seen Janelle walk into a room, and his soul had practically leapt out of his body. His father’d said he’d know. He’d said his soul would know whom he was destined to be with before he did. It wasn’t looks either. Although the two women were polar opposites, Tori was one of the most beautiful women on the planet. He’d never had a problem with wanting her, but he knew better than to screw around with her head. He had to wait until he felt something inside his head and heart, not his loins. Otherwise, her uncle and father would make sure he never felt anything again, he was certain.
“Morning,” Derrick called as Janelle stepped off the bus.
Janelle turned. “Oh…umm…hi.” She shook her head. “Were you waiting for me?”
Derrick shrugged, handing her a cup of Dunkin’. “I figured since you didn’t have time to have coffee with me, I’d bring it to you.” He took a pull off his water bottle.
She rested her hands on her hips. “Well, where’s yours? How can we have coffee together if you already drank yours?”
“Oh, I don’t drink coffee.”
She laughed. “You’re a bit odd, Derrick.”
He smiled in response. “So I’ve been told. Can I walk with you?”
“We can sit. I have a few minutes today. I’m not always so frazzled.”
“You don’t look frazzled at all. I’d be. If I were a single parent, working a full-time job, and going to medical school. How do you do it?”
Janelle walked to a squat brick planter surrounding the hospital, which enabled the area to have something other than a parking lot surrounding the mass complex of buildings. The trees and shrubs added color to the otherwise monotonous shades of beige and red brick surfaces. Unlike some of the architectural masterpieces in the Boston area, the hospital buildings were just tall and square, boring, nothing to catch the eye.
She sat down and lifted her coffee cup in salute. “Plenty of caffeine and the ability to go days without sleep.”
Derrick sat too, angling his body so he could look into her eyes. She had beautiful hazel eyes, the color of peridot with golden flecks that seemed to dance in the sunlight. “No one can go days without sleep; they only think they can. It catches up with you. It’s extremely unhealthy.”
She lifted her eyes, but resisted a full-out eye roll, it seemed. “Why thank you, Doctor. So why exactly are you here? I told you, I’m flattered, but you still look as though you’re barely out of high school, and as handsome as you are, I simply don’t have time to add one more thing to my schedule.”
“Ouch. Another compliment and slap in one sentence. You’re good at those. Are you sure you’re not a law student? You’d be good at cross-examining.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head again. “I’m serious. You’re such a handsome man…women must throw themselves at you.”
He laughed. “No…but again, thank you. I don’t want anything from you, Janelle. I swear. I just want to be your friend.”
“Oh, so you’re a sucker for a damsel in distress, is that it? I assure you, my hands may be full, but I’m no damsel.”
“Wow…you’re tough.” He lifted his hands in surrender. “Okay…no rescuing. No dating…” he paused, “but who couldn’t use a friend? It’s actually better that you aren’t interested in me. We can really be friends, then.”
She bit her lip, but a chuckle still escaped. “You’re incorrigible.”
“Heard that one too. So, how about it? Can we be friends? I could use a study partner.”
She nodded slowly, so Derrick took the close and ran with it. “What’s your number? I’ll program it in my phone. That way when I have a question I can’t answer at three a.m., I’ll have someone I know who’s wide awake.”
She read off her number, then took another sip of coffee. “We’d better go. It probably won’t look professional if I’m late again.”
Derrick stood and picked up her backpack.
“Umm…” She just stood there, a blank stare in her eyes, as though no one had ever helped her. Had nobody truly ever offered her a hand, or was she one of those women who took offense when a man tried to be a gentleman?
Whether she liked it or not, he had to be who he was, as much as he could anyway. He glared at her. “Yes?”
“Never mind. Thanks.”
Janelle strolled silently beside him as they made their way to the main entry. “I have clinic duty today, so this is my exit.”
“Ah…fun,” Derrick said. “I get to shadow.”
“More fun.” She accepted her backpack from him, but didn’t turn away. “So, should I expect to see you later?”
“Are you working this afternoon?”
She shook her head and smiled. “No. Today I get to study without pulling waitressing or mommy duty. The sitter has Kristina until five o’clock, so I have about three hours.”
“Meet me up front at two o’clock then.” He was supposed to take over the nightshift at his family’s hospital, but someone else would cover him until he arrived. His father knew he got caught up at school sometimes. Nothing could come of this, he reminded himself for the hundredth time. He just wanted a friend.
“Okay…” She didn’t sound completely at ease with their impromptu engagement, even though she’d opened the door for his request, which he just realized came out like a statement, not a request.
“See you then.” Derrick smiled and turned. It felt awkward, as though he was supposed to kiss her goodbye. Friends didn’t kiss each other goodbye, though. He was thirty-five, and he felt like an adolescent who’d just secured his date to the senior prom. Of course, not only did he look nineteen, his family tended to mature slower too, so he did have the mentality of a twenty-something male, not always good when you were trying to procure a ‘friends only’ relationship.
How could he ignore the way his heart leapt every time she said his name…how his soul knew from the first moment he’d seen her. It was as if there was a connection somehow. He needed to call his mother. Something was off about this. It wasn’t normal. Not yet, though. First, they’d have an innocent study session over lunch. She hadn’t agreed to lunch, but he was sure she wouldn’t mind.
Derrick glimpsed at the clock over the patient for the tenth time since he’d followed the attending physician into the room.
If the doctor hadn’t been training, he would have been long gone by now. Instead, he asked the patient tons of questions that the man had probably answered a hundred times over. The symptoms were cut and dried; any first-year resident could answer, and Derrick had no desire to be a star pupil, so he rarely spoke up.
“Mr. Ashton, do you have an appointment elsewhere?”
Derrick blinked. “Yes, sir.”
As always, Derrick took his close. He’d deal with the repercussions later. He glanced at his watch. “Damn.” He skipped the elevator and made for the stairs. He listened and then did something else that would get him in major trouble if he was caught, possibly even endanger his entire family, but he was on the first floor in a second.
He pushed through the metal door and slid down the foyer a few yards toward the front entrance. Since he looked nineteen, he could act like it sometimes.
Janelle was pressing keys on her phone when he calmly walked out of the hospital. “Oh, I thought you were going to stand me up.”
“Not a chance.” He took her backpack from her, slung it over his shoulder, then reached for her hand, pulling her toward his Lincoln. Her hand was warm in his, but her pulse quickened. He was making her nervous. It’d felt so natural that he hadn’t even thought about it, but it was wrong of him. He’d assured her they would just be friends, and he couldn’t take a chance that anyone in his family would think otherwise.
He released her hand as he held open the door and resisted watching her step up inside. He walked around to the driver’s side and inhaled a deep breath before entering. They’d have lunch, study, and then that’d be it. He wouldn’t bug her to go out with him again.
“So…Janelle…have you ever had sushi?”
“Sushi? As in raw fish?”
Derrick dipped his head, resisting a chuckle. Sushi had only become popular in the last few years in Boston, but he and his family practically lived on it, since it was one of the few meats they could eat in public without being stared at. “There’s more to it than that, but yes. I’ll help you order.”
“I usually just grab a smoothie and go to the library, Derrick.”
“My treat. You’ll love it, I promise.”
He buckled his seatbelt and took off.
As soon as he pulled in front of the building, Janelle’s eyes darted to the six-story brick exterior, then back at the waiting valet. She peered down at her jeans and t-shirt as the valet opened the door. She stepped out, but Derrick was certain she planned to make a run for it. He darted around the vehicle and handed over his keys without his normal spiel about being kind to his vehicle.
He rested his hand on the small of her back. “You look great, and I promise I’ll have you home before five.”
As they walked inside, her eyes shot up to the two-story entry and the waterfall, then back at him. “I’m not dressed…I don’t have this kind of money—”
Derrick pointed to the lounge. “We’ll sit in there. It’s casual, and it’s more fun to watch the chefs as they make the rolls anyway. Come on. I haven’t had anyone to go out with me in a while.”
She shook her head but allowed him to escort her to a booth in the bar area.
He knew it was a mistake, but he didn’t care. All the time he’d spent with Tori, as many times as they’d made out, he’d never felt even remotely like this. Just friends…they could only be friends.
“So tell me about yourself,” Derrick started. “I’ll give you a list. Just answer whatever you want. Where’d you go to college? Are you from Boston? Do your parents live here? Do you have any siblings?”
It worked. She laughed. He’d hoped to ease her tension. “What is this, the dating game?”
“I don’t play games, Janelle.” Liar…he was playing the riskiest game of his life.
“I think you do, Derrick.”
He’d managed to put her on edge again. He picked up her hand. “I’m sorry. Let me rephrase. I’ve never played games…” He sighed. “Where did you go to college?” He quickly got back on track.
“Believe it or not, Harvard.”
“Really? So your parents do well?” He threw her question from yesterday back at her.
“No…they weren’t well off. And they died in a car wreck when I was seventeen. A little known fact about Harvard, though, if you’re smart enough—and determined enough—you can get in. As an orphaned child, I applied for every grant I could find, and I do have a mountain of student loans that will hit after I’m working for eighteen months, but it’ll be worth it. Anything I can do to give Kristina a better life will be worth it.” Her jaw tightened as though she were holding back emotion.
“I’m so sorry,” Derrick offered. They needed a lull in the conversation so she didn’t get too uncomfortable. He signaled the waiter, who had politely brought them water and then walked away when Derrick motioned him off. The waiter headed back toward them. Derrick didn’t bring women here, but he was a regular. “Would you like me to order for you?”
Janelle nodded. “Yes, please. I wouldn’t have a clue.”
“Are you allergic to anything, or is there anything you don’t like?”
“Nope. I’ll eat just about anything you put in front of me.”
Perfect. The woman was perfect…except for one small detail—okay, one large detail. He ordered for both of them, then went back to his questioning.
“And your daughter…what about her? If you don’t mind my asking, that is. I hope you receive assistance from her father.”
Janelle sighed. “Kristina, thankfully, slipped through the cracks.”
Derrick tilted his head. “What do you mean? As in, you made a mistake?”
“No. Never. I’ve dedicated my life to her and my education. I told you, I don’t have time to date.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“Kristina isn’t really my daughter. She’s my sister. But luckily, the authorities didn’t pay much attention until I was legally old enough to be her guardian. Otherwise, they would have taken her away from me. So, I’ve raised her as my own, told everyone, including Kristina, that my parents had claimed her on her birth certificate because I was so young when I had her. The schools don’t question me because I have all her records, along with my parents’ death certificates. Either way, I’d be her next of kin now.”
“You’ve taken care of all of this since you were seventeen?”
She nodded and a tear slipped down her cheek. “Not that you’d ever meet Kristina, but if you ever do, please don’t tell her. She might be angry with me. And I only did it because I didn’t want her to grow up thinking she was an imposition. She hasn’t been. She is as much of a daughter to me as if I’d had her.”
“I promise.” Derrick thought about how loving Janelle had been to Kristina last night. How she took the time to look at her drawing, said that they’d get her to art classes. Most young parents weren’t that attentive. She really loved her. It also explained how they were so alike in their physical appearance. Most mothers and daughters couldn’t pass for twins because of the father’s influence on their genes. But since they had the same biological parents, it made sense that he’d thought Kristina had looked like a miniature version of Janelle last night. “Although, I would like to meet her someday.”
The waiter brought out their plates, providing another break in their conversation. His meal was exactly how he always liked it. Mostly, he didn’t explain to every waiter that he wanted sushi, but he didn’t want all the accompaniments; he only wanted the fish.
Derrick picked up a set of chopsticks. “Allow me to make your first one.” He drizzled a drop of soy sauce to add flavor, a thin slice of ginger, then peeked up at her. “Do you like wasabi? Horseradish?”
She offered him an assuring nod.
He added just a dab and then held the sushi roll out in front of her. As sexily as he’d imagined, she leaned forward and took the bite off the chopsticks. If he knew it, why had he put himself in this situation? What was wrong with him? He sucked in a breath, then absently set the thin strips of bamboo on her plate. “Now, you try,” he said as casually as possible while his heart thrashed in his chest.
He ate his food quickly. They needed to get back. He’d made a mistake. He couldn’t do this.
“You okay?” she asked.
He smiled. “Yeah. How could I not be?” He sucked down his water, then pushed away the plate. “You like it?”
“It’s very good.” Her tone was clipped. She’d recognized his hesitancy.
“Do you plan to stay in Boston?” he asked, attempting to get back to normal conversation.
“It’s okay, Derrick. I know I have a lot of baggage. I tried to warn you. We can just go.”
He sighed. “Janelle, don’t ever let anyone tell you that. You are an incredible woman. To have done so much for Kristina and yourself, when so many others would have just laid down and cried, ‘poor me’. I’m honored to have met you. It’s just—”
She reached across the table. “You don’t have to explain anything. Life is complicated. Obviously if a man as good looking as yourself hasn’t dated in more than a year, you have a reason. You don’t have to explain anything to me.”
He smiled at her. “I’m not gay.”
Janelle’s face turned bright red. So that had been what she was thinking. He could have let her think that; it would have been an easier explanation, but he didn’t think he could hide his attraction to her, and there was no way he could tell her the truth.
“It wouldn’t matter to me one way or another. As I said, I still want to be just your friend. Can you do that, Derrick? It’s clear that you made that point for a reason. And I assure you, as attractive as you are, I just don’t have time for a man in my life, so let’s just keep our secrets, okay? You don’t owe me anything.”
He turned his hand so hers was resting in his. “Okay. That’s probably the best for both of us. Just friends.” But her pulse quickened in his hand, and his own heart rate matched hers beat for beat.
Derrick parked outside Janelle’s apartment. She was supposed to pick up her daughter only a couple blocks away, but she hadn’t directed him there, so maybe she didn’t want him to know where she was. It was good that she was wary. It’d keep her safe.
He got out of the vehicle, even though she hadn’t waited for him to open the door for her. He couldn’t just drop her off at the curb; it felt ungentlemanly like.
He walked her to the bottom of her steps, and she turned. “Thank you, Derrick. It was excellent and definitely not in my budget.”
He stood motionless for a second. He wanted to kiss her; God, he wanted to kiss her. Friends don’t kiss, he reminded himself. They don’t have sex either, and they definitely don’t fall for each other. He stepped back, smiling. “My pleasure.”
Dejection was clear in her eyes, even if she tried to cover it with a smile. They weren’t meant to be. He spun away as his eyes burned, a feeling he’d never experienced. He’d never been unhappy in his life.
As he entered the vehicle, he turned to see her watching from her top step. He hadn’t even kissed her, and yet, he’d broken her heart too. Two short interludes and he’d felt more than he’d ever felt for any woman.
He pulled the vehicle into drive and sped off. He was only going around the block. He’d slip on his hoodie and he’d be ready to watch. From now on, that’s all he’d do. Keep her safe. It was the least he could do for the wonderful woman he could never have.
“Derrick!” his brother’s deep voice echoed through his earpiece. “Dude, I just landed. I’ll get my luggage and meet you out front.”
“You’re at Logan? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s Spring Break, dude. I did tell you. I emailed you, left you messages. Where’ve you been?”
“Hanging around. Okay. On my way.”
The line clicked. His brother had always been matter of fact in his style. He was looking forward to seeing Michael. He didn’t think it was possible, but he actually missed his bratty brother. Five years difference in age wasn’t a lot as an adult, but as a teenager, it’d been annoying on many occasions. Especially since his larger and heavier brother always wanted to challenge him, as did Mike’s best friend, Jonas, and Ry, Jonas’ brother. For that matter, Tori liked to wrestle too. Growing up around almost all guys, she’d always been rather tomboyish.
He’d spoken to Tori at least once a week over the last few months, and she’d always seemed distraught, mentioned coming home, even though she knew that was out of the question. She’d asked him on more than one occasion if they’d attempt a relationship when she returned from London. He’d deflected as often as he could. She still had almost five years. All he could hope was that she’d meet someone while she was there.
Derrick circled until Mike texted him an ‘OK’. He pulled up to the airport arrivals and couldn’t keep from sighing. They were all here, and they were all behaving like college kids as they wrestled with one another outside the terminal. Yeah, it was Spring Break, but they were professors, not students.
“Dude!” Michael called through the window as Derrick pulled up in front of the group.
And if he called him ‘dude’ one more time, Derrick might just grant his brother’s wish of another wrestling match. Derrick hopped out and walked around to the sidewalk. He accepted a pat on the back from Jonas and Ry and then a hug from his brother, who quickly stepped back after a second, knowing Tori would want her time.
She uncharacteristically leapt into his arms, pressing her lips against his. Her mouth worked its magic, parting his lips, and then her tongue touched his. She was an incredible kisser, but he couldn’t do this.
He pulled back, gasping for air. “Wow. What a great reception.” He took the bag propped up beside her and hauled it to the cargo area.
Clearly, Tori wasn’t buying his attempt. He was certain she’d felt what he’d felt. Nothing. He loved her; she was one of his closest friends, but he’d felt nothing. Shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t a kiss from a woman you’d kissed a thousand times, but hadn’t in almost a year, make your toes curl, your heart pulse, and other parts of your anatomy react.
He walked to the passenger side and opened the door for her. She got in, but didn’t even look at him. The three men crawled in the backseat, chattering about which club they’d hit first.
“Man, am I glad to be back in Boston!” Michael hooted out the back window.
Derrick raised the rear window and activated the child locks. He glared in the rearview mirror at his immature sibling. “Try to control yourself, brother. You’re not really a college kid on Spring Break, even if you look like one.”
Michael wiggled his eyebrows. “The ladies don’t know that. To them, I’m a twenty-year-old college student from abroad. I can even speak in a British tongue, and they eat up that stuff.”
“You are also underage according to your driver’s license, and you barely look as though you’re out of high school.”
“Never stopped me before. Besides, I have a big brother who’ll let me use his ID.”
Derrick raised a brow. “You have another brother I’m unaware of?”
“Are you kidding me, man?”
“Nope. If you want to stay at my place and drink, fine. I know your real age. But I’m not giving you my ID. You get busted, I get busted, and there goes my career.”
Michael punched the back of his seat.
“You put a hole in my new leather, and I won’t buy you any wine either,” Derrick chided.
Michael huffed, but Jonas and Ry laughed, smacking his brother upside the head. Tori sat in the seat next to him without saying a word.
Derrick reached over and picked up her hand. He didn’t say he was sorry; he didn’t say he’d try. He just held her hand, hoping he could feel something. Just a flutter…anything. If he could fall for Tori, everything would be fine. It’d remove all doubt.
She squeezed his hand, letting him know that she forgave him. She always forgave him. She knew what she wanted. What she’d always wanted. The hang up was his, not hers.
Derrick peeked in the rearview mirror before he changed lanes and locked eyes with Jonas. They’d never gotten along well; they merely tolerated each other. He was an okay guy, but he was a hothead, and losing your temper could get the family in trouble. Of course, falling for someone outside the family could get you in trouble too, so who was he to talk?
He and Janelle had stuck to their promise, though. In the last month, they’d met several times a week over coffee—and water—and studied. They had lunch a few times, but no more five-star eateries, she’d insisted. They talked and had fun, but he kept his distance. Then, on the nights she worked, he made sure that she and Kristina got home safely. She never went out, so he never had to worry. She pinched every dime.
Derrick stopped by a liquor store and purchased two cases of wine, the only type of alcohol that he and his family could drink. Chardonnay, because it went with everything, and merlot, because Tori liked merlot.
As soon as they reached his apartment, Tori grabbed a bottle of merlot and headed into his kitchen. She went directly to the drawer that housed the corkscrew, then pulled a wineglass off the rack. She deftly removed the cork, filled the glass, downed it, then filled it again.
Derrick followed her into the kitchen, placing his hand over hers. “I’m sorry. You took me by surprise.”
She tucked the bottle under her arm and looked up at him. “Bring your own bottle and meet me on the roof.”
He knew he didn’t have a choice. He opened a bottle of chardonnay, downed a glass, and then filled another. Unlike his brother, he rarely drank, but he needed to loosen up.
He followed a few minutes later. Michael and his buds had already cranked up the music on some video channel, so they’d have fun all by themselves. They’d probably leave the apartment after they had a few, but as long as his brother didn’t have his ID, he didn’t care. Even drunk, Michael could outrun any of The Boys at Boston PD.
Derrick pushed through the door to the rooftop. Tori stood at the ledge, looking out over the Back Bay skyline. The night air was cool, but she’d removed the sweatshirt she’d been wearing earlier, displaying her finely sculpted arms. He walked up behind her and set the bottle on the wall.
In a relaxed, unhurried manner, she turned to him. The wine must have started working. He couldn’t deny that Tori was all kinds of beautiful. Sleek black hair that almost reached her slender waist. Legs that seemed to go forever, wrapped in close-fitting, faded-in-all-the-right-places jeans and a body-hugging, white tank top that showed off her ample chest. Any man would jump at the chance to have her, and she wanted him.
The two glasses of wine he’d downed warmed his insides. He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her.
She draped her hands around his neck and molded her body against his. “Let’s try this again.” She pressed her lips to his, and he accepted her this time. He moved his hands through her hair. He wanted her. He wanted her badly. Maybe if they…
She pressed her hips against his, pulling him with her as she backed up against the wall.
Coming to his senses as his body lit up with a hunger to consume her, he retracted from her lips. “Tori…”
“Maybe if we…” She kissed him harder, and her hands gripped him powerfully. “Maybe if we just tried…maybe we’d fall.”
Everything in him wanted to experience her fully, but he knew he couldn’t allow that to happen. He couldn’t lie to her. His brother could whisper plenty of sweet nothings into a woman’s ear. He had no problem taking what he wanted. Derrick couldn’t seem to clear his head.
“No, Tori. It’s not right.”
“Then let’s just enjoy it. It doesn’t matter if nothing happens. I know this is me pressing this. I don’t expect anything from you.”
He pulled back. “No…”
“Derrick, I’m a thirty-year-old virgin. I’ve waited for you for twelve years. At what point do we just go for it?”
He pressed his hand to her cheek. “Why? Why me? Tori, you have five more years in London. Most of us meet our soul mates in school. Why are you waiting for me?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Because I love you…”
In the nicest tone he could muster, he reminded her, “Love isn’t enough. You know that. I love you too. But I’m not going to take advantage of you.”
“Even if I ask you to?”
He smiled. “Even if you ask me to.”
She dropped her head against his chest. “I’ve missed you.”
Derrick brushed her hair off her shoulder and pressed his lips to her neck, inhaling. “I missed you too. I really have. You’re my best friend.” And damn, he wanted her, but he couldn’t do it.
She lifted her head. “I wish I wasn’t. Then maybe you’d be willing to take advantage of me.”
Derrick laughed. “That still wouldn’t happen, Tori. I’m just not that kind of guy. I think you’re confusing me with the other Ashton downstairs.”
“Yeah,” she laughed, “Mike’s a slut, and he doesn’t seem to know how to turn it off.”
Derrick pressed his forehead against hers. “I know. I really am glad to see you, Tori. It’s been so boring here without you—or Mike, as hard as it is to believe I’d ever admit that. Don’t tell him, though.”
Her dark eyes glistened in the dim light. “Maybe I could just come home now.”
“You know that’s not possible.”
“Will you wait for me, Derrick?”
“What other woman would I choose? There’s no one like you. The few women my age came home from school attached,” he lowered his gaze at her, “which is normal.”
“You didn’t come home attached,” she said, smiling.
“That’s because I left the only girl I ever cared about, ever even kissed, in London.”
Tori pressed her body against his again. “Then let’s just go to your room.”
“There are three other men in my apartment. Not happening.”
She moved from underneath his arm. “I’ll go remedy that right now.”
Derrick reached for her. “No. Can we just talk?”
She sighed. “You are so not a guy.”
He directed her to a bench situated between a few potted evergreen shrubs. The night was clear and cool, and she had to be freezing. He pulled her into his arms. “Believe me, I’m a guy, and you, as always, are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. But tonight, this week, nothing is going to happen between us. And yes, I will wait until you come home, and I will try. But we’re not going to have sex until I feel it in my heart first.”
“But, Derrick, I’ve heard that the only way to really fall is to have sex.”
“Did my brother tell you that?”
She lowered her head.
“Tori…I know you don’t have a mom, but maybe you should stop hanging out with just us guys. That is not true. My mother, and my father, assured me I’d feel it in my head and heart before I felt it anywhere.” Tired of having this conversation every time they talked, he sighed. “Besides,” he nudged up her chin, so she’d look at him, “What if we did fall? How could I live here without you while you’re in another country for five years? You know that’d be impossible.”
“If we fell, maybe I could stay.”
“No…you have to complete your training. It’s the law. We’re all required. We don’t have that many laws that we can’t abide by them. And since I’m going to be overseer—”
She bolted upright. “You are? My uncle didn’t tell me that.”
“Shh…it’s not public yet. But according to my father, they’ll announce it at the next meeting. Since the four of you are home, it’ll probably be this week.”
Tori kissed him quickly. “I’m so proud of you, Derrick. Are you ready? It’s a lot of responsibility, being in charge of all the families in New England. And my uncle said the overseer always has enemies. Even though he’s part of the council, he said if there were any rogues who didn’t want to follow our ways, they always blamed the overseer if they banished them.”
“I can handle it.”
“I have no doubt about that. After all, you’re the strongest in the family.”
Tori nuzzled against him, and he automatically wrapped his arms around her. He did love her, and he would wait for her to come home. He didn’t have any concern that another creatus woman would turn his head. Only one woman had captured his heart and mind, Janelle. But…Janelle was human.