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"Sorry, sorry, sorry!" Marlie Waters winced at her housemate's grim expression.
Tyler stood in the doorway of her home office and jammed his arms into his shirt sleeves. He looked exactly like a man who'd been about to get laid and had been interrupted. Because he had been. By her. Not the laying, the interrupting.
"I was distracted." Marlie gestured to her computer. "I was concentrating on the website and checking to make sure it looked the same in every browser and decided a snack sounded good and while I was thinking about code and something to eat, I wasn't thinking about you and " Your chest.
Her gaze danced ahead of his fingers as he did up his shirt.
"Axelle." Tyler finished buttoning his shirt and glared at her, fists on his hips, his hair rumpled. A little smear of eye shadow gleamed on his cheek.
No doubt whatsoever about what he'd been doing on the big, brown, comfy sofaand with whomeven though Marlie had raced back downstairs, eyes averted.
Awkward, yes, but more disconcerting was seeing her housemate as a desirable man through Axelle's slate-shadowed eyes instead of her own naked, puffy, over-worked ones.
Intellectually, Marlie had known Tyler was a good-looking guy, the All-American, touch-football-on-the-weekends type, but emotionally, he'd never pushed her buttons. She'd disconnected those buttons, anyway. Maybe forever. Life was much less stressful without those buttons connected.
But now, here he stood in all his rumpled, sexy glory, and right in the middle of her apologetic explanation, her buttons decided to reconnect themselves just in time for Tyler to lean on them.
Lust sucker-punched her.
Marlie needed a moment. Ty was like a brotherokay, never a brother. More like a cousin. Her gaze skipped over his face, gritted jaw, and the rise and fall of his chest. A really distant cousin. By marriage.
A muscle worked in the cheek unadorned by Axelle's eye shadow.
Tyler Burton, the son of longtime friends of her parents, her reluctant playmate on several joint family summer vacations, the sulking teen from their last, shared camping tripthat Tyler Burtonhad grown into a manly man. One might say he was a hunk. Tyler inhaled deeply, his chest rising impressively before he exhaled in a whoosh. And that person would be Marlie.
How convenient that he was temporarily living with her and how incredibly remiss of her not to have taken advantage of that fact sometime in the past eighteen months.
Whoa. Marlie beat the lust back into long-term storage and summoned the memory of the skinny, surly Ty of her youth. "Axelle," she repeated to ground herself. Axelle, Ty's current girlfriend. And her client. In fact, Axelle's website was the one Marlie'd been working on this evening. She didn't think they'd appreciate the irony. "Anyway, I forgot you and Axelle were here when I came upstairs, and then I remembered and"
"It was more of a yelp." The muscle twitched again.
"I'm sorry! I closed my eyes, I swear." Unfortunately not before the image of a shirtless Ty and, oh, this was not good, her shirtless client, was burned into her retinas.
"You spoiled the mood." Tyler tucked in his shirt and buckled his belt.
Marlie thought he'd been overdressed for a casual dinner at home, but Axelle's idea of casual was more upscale than hers. Probably a French thing. "You can get it back. I'll stay in my office for the rest of the night, I promise. Look, I'm shutting the door."
There was a rustling at the top of the stairs and Tyler glanced up before fixing Marlie with a look that told her their discussion wasn't over. "I'm driving Axelle home now."
Marlie went into her office and stayed there, anyway, but she could hear their voices murmuring. She couldn't make out what they were saying, so she pressed her ear against the door.
"But she never goes anywhere!" she heard a frustrated Ty protest.
"No boyfriend?" Axelle asked. "Well, no, she wouldn't I suppose." And the door to the garage closed.
Ouch. Ouch not because Marlie was pining for a boyfriendshe wasn'tbut because in the nearly three years since Marlie had had a boyfrienda fiancé, actuallyshe'd embraced a simpler style. Simple meaning Marlie no longer bothered with make-up, stuck her bushy, over-grown hair in a ponytail, and adopted yoga pants, a tank top, and flip-flops as her uniform. It wasn't as though she spent her days in pajamas, she thought virtuously. But that was only because she slept in her clothes.
So what? It was an efficient, time-saving system and there was nobody around to see her, except Ty, who didn't count.
He wouldn't have noticed anyway. But Axelle had noticed and that was the ouchy part. Axelle had forced Marlie to acknowledge that there was a difference between simple and unkempt.
The first time they'd met face-to-face, when Axelle had been bringing by the new menus for the downtown Houston restaurant she and her brother owned, Axelle's gaze had swept over Marlie, and her expression had immediately changed to concern.
"You should have told me you were sick!" Axelle had made little French tsking sounds. "We won't be using the new menus until next week, so updating the website can wait. Please. Return to bed. Get well."
"Okay" was all Marlie had been able to manage as Axelle had quickly backed out the door.
Marlie hadn't been sick. Or in bed.
After hurrying across the hall to the powder room beneath the stairs and really studying herself in the mirror for the first time in months, Marlie couldn't justify feeling insulted. Especially when Axelle returned later with leftovers from the restaurant, including veggies swimming in the most intensely flavored broth Marlie had ever tasted.
Axelle was explaining that her brother, the chef, had made it especially for Marlie when Tyler, who'd been lured downstairs by the smell of the food, appeared in the doorway.
At the sight of Marlie's housemate, Axelle had beamed a smile so bright it had dazzled Ty, who'd remained dazzled and smitten to the point of goofiness ever since.
Marlie was going to have to make this up to him somehow.
She stood by her office door several more minutes, just in case Ty and Axelle fell into a passionate clinch on the doorstep and needed the sofa again. Yeah. "Need the sofa" was going to be their new code for alone time. "Alone time" being code for doing the horizontal mambo. Which was
The garage door opener cranked and a few moments later, Tyler's car engine started, interrupting Marlie's mental avoidance of the word sex.
Ty's car zoomed away. The garage door closed with a final "thunk" leaving Marlie in silence. It was weird because even though she hadn't heard them upstairs, the place seemed overly quiet now.
Marlie folded back the double doors of her office and took the three steps across the entryway that brought her to the foot of the stairs leading to the living area. She gazed up at the sound-absorbing carpet that had been her undoing. Ty and Axelle hadn't heard her approach and she'd been too preoccupied to notice the soft jazz playing.
Ty had wanted privacy for tonighta perfectly reasonable request. Marlie climbed the stairs. The first time he'd brought a date home, Marlie had gone to a movie, but wasn't away long enough. The next time, she'd taken her old laptop, which she kept on hand for computer-crash emergencies, and hung out in her car in the garage. She'd enjoyed surfing the internet and posting on discussion boards. Unfortunately, she'd fallen asleep in her car and Ty had discovered her the next morning. He got points for being horrified even though she hadn't minded. Sure, she owned the townhouse, but he lived there, too, and was entitled to time alone. It wasn't his fault that she didn't have anywhere to go.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Marlie saw the remains of Ty's dinner for Axellebouillabaisse, bread and salad. She fixed her eyes straight ahead to avoid looking at the sofa, and made a beeline for the kitchen. Maybe there was still some soupy goodness in the pot on the stove. She lifted the lid. Score! Not only that, but a pastry box from Axelle's restaurant sat on the counter. Inside, Marlie saw two black and white wedges, their tops decorated with chocolate scrolls twining around one perfect raspberry. Ty and Axelle hadn't gotten around to dessert. Regretfully, Marlie closed the box and scooped a bowl of tepid soup, which she zapped in the microwave. Doing so toughened the chunks of seafood, but Ty wasn't here to protest that she was ruining his one and only impress-the-date specialty.
No, he wasn't here. She might have a problem. Marlie leaned against the counter and ate, all the while wondering if Ty was angry enough to move out. He would eventually, but construction on the townhouse he'd bought had been delayed because the developer had run into permit issues with the city. Marlie sent up a silent cheer for government bureaucracy and the extra time it gave her to build a financial cushion. If the delay was long enough, Ty would be the last renter she'd be forced to have in order to afford her mortgage.
He was a really excellent roommate. Because their parents were longtime friends, she knew his background, a major plus. And until a few months ago, he traveled so often for his job with an oil company that he wasn't around much.
Marlie tore off a hunk of bread and sopped the last of the bouillabaisse from the bowl. Yeah, the situation with Ty was as good as she'd ever find and she'd blown it because she'd been distracted.
He was really hung up on Axelle, who was the anti-Marlie. Axelle was French, for one thing, which gave her a sophistication Marlie could never equal, even when she was on her game. Axelle was also one of those women who always looked put together. Marlie suspected it was genetically impossible for her to look sloppy.
A little broth dribbled down Marlie's chin and onto her tank top. She set the bowl in the sink and dabbed at her chest with a paper towel. Perfect example. This would never happen to Axelle.
Tyler always went for the polished types. She guessed that he'd be shocked at the hours and expense Axelle invested in her ever-glossy appearance. It took time and money to keep up with manicures and facials and highlights and who-knows-what skin treatments and fitness classes. Axelle made an effort. Marlie didn't. Simple as that.
As she dropped the wadded paper towel into the trash can beneath the sink, Axelle's pastry box called to her. Technically, what was in the box was doing the calling. Marlie eyed it before surrendering and lifting the lid. Chocolate fumes made her momentarily light-headed. She couldn't simply help herself, although she really wanted to. On the other hand, it wasn't as though Tyler would eat both pieces.
Axelle probably wouldn't have eaten a piece. No elastic-waisted pants for her. She was the glamorously chic hostess of Ravigote, the restaurant she owned with her brother. She handled the business side as well, and Marlie knew for a fact that Axelle worked as many hours a day as she did. So, no, Marlie was not in any way jealous of Axelle.
Except for having unlimited access to fabulous desserts and clearly being able to resist their siren song. But that's what elastic was for, right?
Maybe she could cut a little from each wedge. Just a taste. While they were fresh. Choosing a long, sharp knifeone of the set Axelle had given TyMarlie carefully sliced a sliver from the side of one of the pieces. At least she thought she was carefully slicing, but the dessert had warmed, softening the cakey part, and the hard icing on top cracked when she pressed on it. The raspberry rolled down the side, leaving a pink trail. If the knife hadn't left an impression, Marlie would have stuck the box into the fridge and pretended not to know anything had happened.
Fine. She'd just eat the whole thing and if Ty objected, or even noticed, she'd go buy him another piece. He probably wouldn't be back tonight, anyway.
Taking a bite from the point of the wedge, Marlie closed her eyes in sugary, chocolatey, bliss. Fabulous. Ravigote, serving Texas-European fusion cuisineMarlie had made up that termwas out of her price range, so she enjoyed the samples that came her way now that Ty was dating Axelle.
The dessert was so rich that Marlie felt a little sick after eating it. "And that's what they call 'just desserts,'" she said aloud and laughed.
Oh. She looked down at her chocolatey fingers. "I'm telling myself jokes. Not a good development."
After putting the pastry box into the fridge, Marlie loaded the dishwasher and wiped the counter. She knew Ty would have, but it was her fault he wasn't here to do it.
She'd finished and had just clicked off the kitchen light when she heard the back door open and close. She hadn't locked it. Adrenaline shot through her. The clock glowing on the microwave display told her it had been less than half an hour since Ty had left. He couldn't be back already. He wouldn't have had time to do more than drop off Axelle and return. Barely enough time for a good-night kiss.
She hadn't heard his car enter the garage, but maybe it was because the water had been running in the kitchen sink. The living area's mood lighting stretched into the darkened kitchen. Stepping into a shadow, Marlie clutched the dish towel and had two thoughts at the same time: as a weapon, the towel wasn't going to do a whole lot, and the footsteps were climbing the stairs two at a time the way Ty always did. Usually when he came home, Marlie was working downstairs and heard them receding; it was odd hearing them coming toward her. Still, she exhaled in relief as his head became visible through the slats in the banister.
"Hey," he said when he saw her.
"Hey," she said back. Ooo, yeah. He was still angry, but he was trying to hide it from her as he walked toward the kitchen bar.
Dropping his keys in the ugly ceramic dish Marlie had made during a joint family vacation many summers ago, he nodded toward the empty dining table as he took off his jacket. "You didn't have to clean up."
"I know." Marlie folded the dishtowel over the rack. "But I figured I owed you and I had no idea when you'd be back." Or if you'd be back.
"It's not like I could stay over there." Ty's profile was to her as he looked across at the sofa. He still had eye shadow on his cheek.
Nope. Not gonna look at the sofa. "Because ?"
"Because she lives with her brother."
"I didn't know that. Since when?"