Paul held Ceci as close as he dared, rubbing what he hoped were soothing circles on her back, muttering words of comfort. She clung to him, head against his shoulder. He’d envisioned her in his arms for too long. His cock responded accordingly. Paul tried his best not to let her feel his erection. She might not be with Brian anymore, but she was still hands-off to him because of that previous relationship. A good brother didn’t sleep with his brother’s ex. It wasn’t done. While his brain understood that, his heart and body firmly disagreed. He’d betrayed Brian simply by lusting after her. It was the guilt he’d carried around since he first realized how much he wanted her eight months before.
They’d bonded over plans for decorating this beautiful house. His brothers couldn’t have cared less about the place. Paul loved it at first sight. He and Ceci had fallen into an easy rapport over plans. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment his feelings latched onto her. Maybe it was the scent of her as they’d leaned over each other’s shoulder looking at fabric. Or that time they’d touched hands when picking out drapes. Or any of a hundred situations that put them within each other’s grasp. He’d thought touring would get her out of his system. Wrong. It made him crave her all the more. And she belonged to Brian. Or had…until today. Now she was free—a decision mutually agreed upon by her and Brian. Still the brother code kept him from going after her. And if it didn’t put some distance between him and Ceci right now, Paul was going to violate that code big time.
He focused instead on this latest news—that Brian had married someone years ago and never bothered to tell them. Talk about breaking the brother code. How could Brian not have mentioned her? Their parents were going to freak. It was a wonder they hadn’t called yet.
“Damn him!” The words exploded from his mouth.
Ceci lifted her head from his shoulder, fingers flexed against his chest. A little closer and her palms would cup his nipples. A little lower and her fingers would be able to toy with his hard flesh. The knowledge shot down to his groin, adding more substance to the cock already hard beyond capacity. An erection swelled down one leg of his jeans. That was what he got for going commando. He placed his hands over hers, intending to move them. Instead, he pressed them flat, stealing the sensation he longed for and trying not to show how much it devastated him that he couldn’t have it honestly.
Tears glistened in her sea-green eyes and spiked her long lashes. Mouth parted, lips moist and full. It mystified him again why Brian could not be all over her all the time. How Brian could drift away from her the way he had, when Paul ached for a glimpse of her, held his breath for the sound of her voice, the kiss of her constant laughter, the light in her eyes.
“Don’t,” she said. “You heard him. He thought Howie had handled all the paperwork for the annulment. It was a wild, crazy weekend ten years ago.”
“But he didn’t tell
“Do you tell him every detail of your sex life?”
Ceci had him there. They weren’t teenagers anymore. Sharing sex tales had ended in high school. But it pissed him off that Ceci was defending Brian. Where was her outrage, her fury? True, she had broken the engagement, indicating she’d made that decision before news of Brian’s marriage had come out. Maybe she was relieved. If so, why had she let him pull her into his arms to comfort her? Why was she crying?
She pressed closer, angling her hips a whisper away from his. Too close for Paul’s fragile control. Her body heat poured over his pelvis. His cock pulsed with a life all its own, demanding he thrust forward and cover those last few millimeters between them.
He braced his hands on her hips and gently set some distance between them before he gave in to the urge to grind his cock against her. All he wanted to do was yank her back and kiss her, haul that cute black-and-white sundress to her waist and wedge her against the nearest wall while he showed her what loving a woman was all about.
She slid her hands over his shoulders, reclaiming the distance he needed. Paul’s resolve started to crumble. It would be so easy to take advantage of the moment, so easy to swoop in and have her, to know what it felt like to be wrapped in her arms and buried in her heat. And lose her completely because of it. Because if he made love to her once, Paul knew it would never be enough. One of them would have to go, and since he’d be the one at fault…
He grabbed her fingers and took a small step away, holding her hands between them for a shield against his emotions and the aching cock that so wanted to throw caution to the wind and go for it.
“Women like Alexandria Claremont are a dime a dozen. I’m surprised she hasn’t tried to ride the Mesquite gravy train long before now.” He snorted. “She obviously didn’t realize their marriage was still valid or she would have. Ms. Claremont won’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. I swear to you I’m going to find out everything I can about that woman. This is one fight Alexandria Claremont won’t want.”
Ceci held on tight when he tried to walk away. “Paul, don’t do this. Let Brian handle it. It’s a relief actually. We both agreed. You heard that.”
“You’re crying your eyes out and you call that relief?”
Ceci’s eyes widened at his shout. Paul bit back an apology. If it helped keep them apart, that could only be a good thing at this point. Right?
“I’m going to fix it this. I swear it, or die trying.”
He strode into the house before he caved, before he spread her on the nearest chaise lounge and made his dreams come true. Before he told her how very much he loved her.
* * * *
The chaise’s padded cushion whistled with Ceci’s weight as she sank into it. Normally, that sound resulted in bawdy fart jokes from the Tristan brothers. No one was laughing today, especially her. How in the world had she let things go this far?
What little fire she and Brian had between them had fizzled after two months. She should have ended it then but didn’t because doing so meant stepping away from their lives and returning to the shadows to do the redecorating job she’d been hired to do. She couldn’t bear the idea of never being able to hang out with them. Worse, she wouldn’t be able to see Paul.
Ceci buried her face in her hands. Paul’s was the face she searched for, the smile she sought, the one whose presence she missed the most when the guys were gone. The more time she let lapse, the bigger the hole she’d dug for herself grew. All because her stupid heart wanted a man she couldn’t have. Or rather, shouldn’t have. How could she explain to Paul that her tears had nothing to do with Brian? She cried for the loss of Paul from her life.
The guys were tight. They had that all-for-one sibling code—blood-thicker-than-water stuff. Which was great for a family, great for them as a group. That unity had helped them weather all the crazy ups and downs in this business. It sucked for her. Tristans always stuck together. No one ever came between the brothers, especially a woman. Hell, they’d even bought this huge house together—a place she and Paul had spent hours working on.
Ceci jerked her head up at the slam of the studio door. It was most likely Paul. She’d never seen any of the guys this upset before, but then a secret wife would do that. She prayed it wouldn’t drive a wedge between the brothers.
No, that was what she was doing, more or less. Her agony now was a result of her silence. Of not breaking it off with Brian when she realized two months in that nothing more than friendship and sometimes nice sex could exist between them. She’d stayed with him for the wrong reasons. Had she acted then, perhaps time and distance would have gotten her the man she really wanted.
She swiped the tears from her cheeks. Her makeup was a mess. She didn’t need a mirror to tell her that.
Ceci pushed herself to her feet and hurried inside. She’d dumped her purse somewhere between the front door and the den—the brothers’ favorite room in this sprawling house, after the recording studio behind the pool house. She retraced her steps and found her black hobo purse right where she’d left it just inside the den. Luck was with her. Caz and Nick weren’t in the room. It looked like Howie had taken off too, which was just as well since the brothers were furious with the man.
She snagged her purse and sank into Paul’s big recliner. His scent wafted around her, wrapping her in the comfort she longed to feel in his arms. She tucked her legs under her and nestled deep into the soft blue cushion. There were dozens of other things she should be doing instead of wallowing in self-pity. After all, she had a job to finish. Or would she even have that now that she and Brian had mutually decided to end it? Oh hell, she hadn’t considered that. She’d been too worried that she’d never see Paul again.
Ceci plunged her hand into the depths of the bag to find her cell phone. She needed to make sure she and Brian were still good, still friends.
Nerves crawled over her skin. Hope deflated when the call went to voice mail. He would have flown to Vegas and had the device turned off. Fine.
She’d wait him out, providing he’d return her call and not delete the voice mail unheard. If that happened, she’d keep trying until he finally answered. She burrowed deeper and swiped the last remnants of tears from her face. Mascara and eyeliner blackened her fingers. God, Paul had seen her like this. Great image. Too late to unring that bell.
Ceci hopped to her feet and hurried to the nearest bathroom down the hall. The silence in the house haunted her. As if the place were holding its breath for what would happen next. That was how she felt, locked in perpetual wait mode, afraid to think beyond what she needed to do next. If she thought further than that, Ceci would start dwelling on the ramifications of her actions—never seeing Paul again. Those fears had stymied her in the past. She couldn’t allow them to do so again.
She shut herself in the bathroom and leaned against the door to steady her nerves. The brothers had designated this as her
bathroom. Shades of black-and-pink Victorian designs embellished the room. No Tristan male dared cross the threshold. Makeup, curling iron and rollers, blower dryer, and various other necessities of feminine life filled the drawers in the vanity. Plush towels were stacked in the linen closet. Bath oils, bubbles, and soaps lined the shelf around a tub made for relaxing. Magazines and paperbacks were within easy reach. Her place, her nest. Her sanctuary in a household overrun with testosterone.
She’d also taken over the walk-in closet across the hall for clothes, shoes, whatever. Paul had moved a chest of drawers in there for her use as well. The place was huge. She could have fit a twin bed in there if she’d wanted. From what she recalled of the Realtor’s rambling accolades about the house, it had once been used as a dressing room for the bathroom opposite it. Ceci had wasted no time claiming it as hers. Crazy that she’d done so. Crazy that they’d let her when Paul suggested it.
Another sigh launched her off the door and to the mirror. The damage to her makeup was worse than Ceci expected. She washed her face and left it at that. God only knew how many more tears she’d shed today. Fear and anxiety were the boss of her today. No makeup was better than smudged and runny.
Somewhat revived, she walked back to the den, kicked off her wedge sandals, and tucked into Paul’s chair once again. It felt like heaven to sink into its depths. The only thing missing was him. She should leave. After all, she’d done what she came here to do—end the engagement. If she couldn’t focus on her work, she had no business remaining, but she couldn’t make herself leave, either.
“So are the three of you just about done dancing around each other?”
Ceci jumped at the sound of Caz’s voice. Instinct made her check to make sure her dress wasn’t gaping. He hovered in the doorway, making the space look insignificant. He was no larger than his brothers at six feet, but his personality always made him seem bigger. He stared at her with those Tristan brown eyes. The brothers could have been quads, they looked so much alike. The difference was in their personalities, and the bear in this brother had been poked.
“What do you mean?” She tucked her dress down over her knees.
Caz stalked toward her. “You know damn well what I mean. Nick and I have watched the three of you play this game for almost a year. It’s ridiculous. Brian avoids you. You avoid Brian. Paul makes cow eyes at you. You giggle over Paul and use every excuse to be near or touch him. You and Brian don’t want to be together, and neither of you had the balls to speak up until today. You and Paul want each other so much I can smell it, and neither of you
has the balls to speak up.”
He was over her now, fists braced on the arms of the chair, nailing her in place with his presence, those eyes.
“Bullshit,” he spat out. “He’s chicken. And stupid. The signs are clear enough if he’d open his fucking eyes and look. He can’t see past the fact Brian had you first. It wouldn’t matter to me, sweetheart. If I wanted you, I’d come after you. I thought of it a couple of times just to throw a scare into Paul and get him moving.”
“You did?” Ceci didn’t know how she felt about that news.
“I did,” he said with a smile. “I would have too, if I didn’t find you too vanilla for me.”
Ceci glared up at him. “I am not
Caz’s grin widened. “You are too.”
He cocked his head to one side. “Really? Prove it.” He jerked his head toward the door. “Go get your man. Someone’s got to make a move. Might as well be you. Do it, sweetheart. Go out there and go crazy on him.”
Heat rushed her from head to toe. Ceci knew a blush went along with it. She stared at Caz, saw the continuing challenge in his eyes, and didn’t know what the hell to do.
“I…I…” She shook her head. “Not until I talk to Brian.”
His smirk pissed her off. “No. A clear conscience. The brother code and all.”
“And that, dear Ceci, is why we all love you. Some of us much more than others.” He pushed back and walked away, but only got as far as the door before he looked back. “Don’t dawdle. Nick and I are sick and tired of the facade. We’re prepared to take matters into our own hands if we have to.”