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"What do you call a female Peeping Tom?"
Griffin King didn't really expect an answer to the question since, for the moment, he was alone.
Still, it was an interesting puzzle.
Sprawled out comfortably in his cousin Rafe's hot tub, Griffin took a sip of his beer. Sliding his gaze to the short fence and the neighbor beyond, he watched as Nicole Baxter trudged in and out of her garage carrying what looked like tons of potting soil.
Seriously, he'd never seen a woman more focused on work. Most of the women he knew didn't do anything more strenuous than stretch out on a massage table. But Nicole
she was different.
He'd first met her more than a year ago, when his cousin Rafe married Nicole's next-door neighbor Katie Charles the Cookie Queen. Griffin smiled to himself. Katie was still running her cookie business and, bless her, had left a few dozen cookies for Griffin to eat while he was staying at their house.
But back to Nicole, he told himself with another sip of his beer. Despite the number of times he had been at Rafe's place, he had hardly spoken to Nicole. All he really knew about her was that she was divorced, a single mom and absolutely seemed to never stop working. Hell, she could give some of the Kings lessons in drive and determination. Made him tired just watching her.
Yet he couldn't seem to look away.
Maybe it was the whole forbidden fruit thingthe woman he couldn't have was the one who fascinated him? Possible, he told himself. Although it could just be that everything about her appealed to him.
Shaking his head, Griffin took off his sunglasses and set them on the edge of the redwood tub. The afternoon sun was bright, but he was shaded by a giant elm tree that grew between Nicole's house and the one he was currently living in.
Rafe and Katie were off on a three-week trip to Europe and Griffin had volunteered to house-sit. It hadn't been a completely altruistic offer. Since Griffin's beach-side condo was for sale, the constant stream of lookie-loos prowling through his place on a daily basis was making him nuts. So staying here kept him sane and Rafe and Katie's place occupied.
A win-win anyway you looked at it.
Unless you counted Nicole.
His gaze followed her as she strode across the yard. Her shoulder-length blond hair was tucked behind her ears. She wore a pink tank top and cutoffjean shorts with a few dangling blue threads lying against her tanned, really exceptional thighs. Her skin was a sun-kissed pale gold and her curves were enough to make Griffin enjoy the viewa lot.
Knowing she was watching him back was a nice plus that would ordinarily have had him inviting her over to join him in the hot tub. Ordinarily. But in Nicole's case, there were a couple of perfectly good reasons why he wasn't going to be getting any closer to her than he was right now.
"Speak of a reason," Griffin murmured. He took a long drink of the icy beer.
Nicole's nearly three-year-old son, Connor, was a cute kid, with big blue eyes and blond hair just like his mother. And Griffin didn't have anything against kids. Hell, he had more nephews, nieces and infant cousins than he knew what to do with. The King family was really taking the old Go forth and multiply thing to new levels.
What Griffin did have a problem with was getting involved with single moms. Frowning to himself, he tightened his grip on the cold can in his hand. He admired the hell out of a woman who could run her life, hold down a job and be both mother and father to a child. But he didn't do permanent, and when you inserted yourself into a child's world, there were bound to be complications.
He'd learned that years ago.
So Griffin's one main rule was no women with kids.
"Though for the first time," he said to himself, "breaking a rule looks really tempting."
"What is it, Connor?" Nicole's voice floated in the warm, late-June air. As busy as she always was, Griffin had never heard an edge of tired impatience in her voice.
"Wanna dig," the little boy shouted and waved a lime-green plastic trowel in the air like a Viking with a sword.
Griffin grinned, thinking about just how many holes he and his brothers had dug in their mother's flowerbeds. And how many hours of penance they'd all paid for every dead rose and daisy.
"Soon, sweetie," Nicole told the boy and tossed a quick glance over the fence at Griffin.
He lifted his beer in salute.
She frowned, shook her head and turned back to her son. "Let Mommy get the trays of plants from the garage, okay?"
"Need some help?" Griffin shouted.
She shifted her gaze back to him. Wryly, she said, "I wouldn't want to tear you away from the hot tub."
Griffin smiled. She made it sound like he was hosting a drunken orgy. "Oh, I can always get back in."
"So it seems," she muttered, then said more loudly, "that's okay, Griffin. I can do it."
"All right then. If you change your mind, give a shout. I'll be right here."
"Where you are every day," she muttered.
"What was that?" he asked, though he'd heard her just fine.
"Nothing," she said and headed for her garage, her son racing after her like a much-shorter shadow.
Grinning, Griffin had another drink of his beer. He knew what Nicole thought of him. Lazy was no doubt first in her mind, which sort of bothered him, since this was the first vacation he'd taken in five years.
The security firm he and his twin, Garrett, owned and operated was the biggest of its kind in the worldwhich meant the King brothers were always on call. Well, they had been, until Garrett had married Princess Alexis of Cadria several months back. Now Garrett ran their European operation and Griffin had control of the U.S. business.
But even workaholics needed a break eventually, and Griffin had decided to take his nowwhile a real-estate agent was parading people through his beachside condo. He had no idea yet where he'd movehe wanted to stay somewhere close to the beach. Maybe a place like Rafe and Katie's. All he knew for sure was that his condo had suddenly seemed a little too
sterile for him. Tastefully decorated by a woman Griffin had once dated, the place had never really felt like a home, and with Garrett making some major changes in his life, it had struck Griffin that maybe it was time he did some changing of his own.
He scowled to himself and took another drink of his beer.
Strange that he hadn't realized it before now, but Gar-rett getting married had precipitated all of the recent changes in Griffin's life. Not that he was in any hurry to race down an aisle or anything. All he wanted to do was shake up things in his life a little. Get a new house. Take a vacation.
That last part wasn't working out so well, though. He'd only been "relaxing" at Rafe and Katie's house for a few days and already he was getting itchy for something to do. He phoned the office so oftenjust to check on thingsthat his assistant had actually threatened to quit if he didn't stop calling.
It wasn't that he didn't trust his people. It was just that with nothing to do, nothing to accomplish, Griffin was quietly going a little whacked. He was coming to realize that he had no idea how to relax. He just wasn't made to sit still and do nothing. In fact, Garrett had bet him five hundred dollars that Griffin's vacation wouldn't last ten days, that he'd be racing back to work and burying himself in timetables and schedules.
Since Griffin wasn't about to willingly lose a bet, that wager pretty much insured that he was going to take his full three weeks off even if it killed him. It just might.
Frowning, he took another sip of beer. What the hell did people do when they weren't working?
He knew what he'd like to do, he thought, letting his gaze slide over Nicole's trim, curvy body again. But it wasn't only Nicole's son that had Griffin dialing down his impulses. It was the fact that Rafe's wife, Katie, had made it plain a year agoto all of the King cousinsthat Nicole was off-limits. Hell, he could practically hear her even now.
"Nicole has been through a lot, with her rat bastard of an ex-husband," Katie had said, giving each of the King men at her engagement party a hard look. "So none of you are going to make a move on her, okay? I don't want my best friend getting hurt by a member of my new family."
And since there were millions of available women in the world, the King cousins had agreed to steer clear of Nicole Baxter. It hadn't been a hardship for Griffin, of course, because of the single-mother thing. At least, it hadn't until recently. The problem was, he thought, that he had too much free time. With nothing to do, naturally his brain was going to wander to a pretty woman. And of course his body was only too willing to remind him that he'd been so busy since Garrett's marriage that dating and sex had taken a backseat.
It didn't help the situation any to know that while he was watching Nicole, she was watching him. And it wasn't irritation he saw on her features as much as attraction. He wasn't an idiot. He could tell when a woman was interested in him. Usually, he'd be the first one to make a move in this situation.
Pretty woman. Close proximity. All good.
And at least then he'd have something to do.
But he knew boredom wasn't Nicole's problem. The woman seemed to be constantly in motion. When she came back out of the garage, awkwardly balancing a huge tray of brightly colored flowers, Griffin scowled. No doubt she wouldn't thank him for his help, but he couldn't just stay where he was and watch while she staggered under the heavy weight. He set his beer down and bolted from the hot tub. He was across the patio and through the gate separating the two yards an instant later.
"Give me those," he said, snatching the surprisingly heavy flat from her.
Nicole swayed a bit when he took the carefully balanced weight from her so quickly. But she recovered fast. Lifting her gaze to his, she said, "I don't need your help. I can manage on my own."
"Yeah, I know," Griffin said amiably. "You are woman. You don't need a man. Let's just pretend we had this argument already and that you won. Now, where do you want me to put these?"
He glanced around the yard, spotted the bags of potting soil and headed for them. The grass was warm and soft under his bare feet and water ran in rivulets down his legs from the hem of his bathing suit. The sun felt good on his back, in spite of the fact that he also felt Nicole's gaze firing jagged pieces of ice at him.
Setting the tray down, he straightened up and turned to find her standing where he'd left her, across the yard, Connor's hand in hers. The tiny boy was grinning at him, but Nicole wasn't. Shaking his head, Griffin asked, "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
"Accepting help," he said.
"I suppose not, and I should thank you even though I didn't ask for your help or need it," Nicole told him.
"Well, very gracious. You're welcome."
He laughed a little and headed back toward the fence, the hot tub and his beer. She'd made it clear enough that he wasn't welcome on her side of the fence. So if he needed something to do later, he'd call his assistant again and bug the hell out of her.
He was almost to the gate when her voice stopped him.
He looked over his shoulder at her.
"You're right," she said. "I did need the help and I do appreciate it."
Smiling, he said, "I think we're having a moment here."
She laughed and Griffin felt a solid punch of desire slam into him. The soft sound of her laughter spilled out around him. Her eyes lit with amusement and the wariness he was used to seeing glint out at him was gone.
"No moment," she said after a second or two. "But definitely a truce."
"Also good," he admitted and leaned one arm on the top of the gate. He watched Connor run to get his plastic shovel, then he shifted his gaze back to the boy's mother. "So, want to tell me why we need a truce in the first place?"
A soft breeze twisted a long strand of hair across her eyes and she reached up to tuck it behind her ears. "Okay, maybe truce was the wrong word." She looked over her shoulder to check on Connor, then turned her gaze back to Griffin. "It's just, I know Katie and I'm guessing she asked you to look out for me while they were gone and"
"Nope." He cut her off with a shake of his head.
"Really?" She didn't sound convinced.
Griffin watched her, watched the breeze play with her hair and make the dangling blue threads from the hem of her shorts dance. Her nose was pink from the sun, her eyes were as deep a blue as the bowl of sky above them and there was a niggling, gnawing sensation inside him that was hunger. For her.
To remind himself, as well as to put her at ease, he said, "Okay, not completely true. Katie did ask me to keep an eye on the neighborhoodwhich would, of course, include you. But specifically?" He paused and shook his head. "Katie actually warned us all to keep our distance from you."
"Us all? Who all?"
"Us," he said. "The King cousins."
"She did not." Surprise flickered briefly in her eyes, followed quickly by a flash of outrage.
"Oh, yeah, she did. When she married Rafe, Katie made it clear that you were off-limits."
"Isn't that nice?" she muttered under her breath.
He lifted both hands. "Hey, wasn't me. I'm just saying
you've got nothing to worry about. I'm not about to cut off my own cookie supply by hitting on Katie's friend."
Although, Griffin had to admit, at least privately, that being this close to Nicole might have convinced him to give up his lifetime cookie connection just for a taste of her. If she hadn't been a mother.
Nicole wouldn't want to give up the cookies, either. After all, Katie made the best cookies in California. Possibly in the world. But at the same time, it wasn't easy to know that a man would just as soon keep open his pipeline of chocolate chip goodies as take a bite out of you.
Still, knowing the truth explained a lot, she thought. Ever since her best friend Katie had married into the King family, there had been a steady stream of gorgeous, rich, single men in and out of the house next door. And every last one of those men had treated Nicole like a little sister. Heck, they'd done everything but pat her on the head.
She'd begun to believe she'd morphed into some kind of sexless, uninteresting blob. Not that she was looking for a man. Not a permanent one, at any rate. She'd already tried that and had found her ex-husband had the shelf life of an overripe tomato. No, she didn't want a man, but she didn't mind being flirted with occasionally, and the lack of interest from the King men had baffled her.
Now at least she knew what had been going on.