Brad stepped into the room, a tailored shirt worn casual and untucked, sleeves rolled up. It fit snug over his firm upper body, worn with a pair of jeans that emphasized his fine ass and long, muscled legs.
Inwardly, Casey cursed as she rallied her girl power. She gave him no more than a cursory glance, nor did she straighten from her position as she sighted down her cue stick and prepared to break.
He closed the heavy oak door and crossed to the billiard table.
As she met his gaze, she could not help but notice that the navy tone of his shirt turned his aqua eyes intensely blue, his chiseled face even more divine. Lily had once remarked that Brad bore a strong resemblance to the actor Chris Pine. That unhelpful observation had triggered Casey’s agile imagination, and consequently she had placed Brad in a number of Star Trek
fantasies. Damn her oversexed brain. It always felt free to go where no woman had gone before.
Combatting her increased heart rate to his vibrant masculine persona, she inserted a tone of nonchalance as she inquired, “What’s up?”
Brad’s silence filled the room, rattling her nerves. He let his gaze wander from her face, down her neckline until he came to a deliberate pause at the generous swell of cleavage shown to full advantage in her feminine attire.
She resisted the instinctive urge to cover her chest. Instead, she returned her attention to the game and broke, knocking two balls into pockets.
“Mind if I join you?” Brad’s deep voice echoed in the still room.
Shrugging with practiced indifference, Casey replied, “Sure.”
Brad chose a cue stick. Casey studied the table, called her shot, nailed it.
Making a concerted effort to avoid eye contact, she focused on the balls to identify her next move.
Brad’s stance was casual, cue stick held lightly between his hands. “You want to tell me why you’ve been treating me like some sort of world-class asshole? Did I go out with your best friend, then never called her back?”
That got Casey’s attention. Their eyes met and locked before she parried, “Kiki doesn’t do guys like you.”
“Guys like me?”
Casey replied in an even tone, “Dudes with greenbacks, who like tidy sex with girls named Prudence.” With a slight smirk, she pointed out, “You asked.”
Brad perused her for several heartbeats before he asked, “And is that what I am?”
“Yeah.” Sighting down the cue, she sank the next ball before she returned her attention to Brad.
Feeling a flare of guilt for the rude, if honest remark, she offered, “Look, I know I’ve been a bit…off around you. Maybe you’re just catching me at that time of the month? Hormones. Um…yeah, I just bleed a lot. I’ll try to avoid you when I’m premenstrual. We cool?”
She scanned the table, settling on a target. Unfortunately, it placed her directly in front of Brad.
The twitch to Brad’s lips indicated he had spotted the shot and had no intention of moving.
Refusing to be intimidated, she repositioned herself in front of him, hyperaware of every bit of bare skin. Her legs below the hem of her skirt, upper back, her arms, even her shoulders felt exposed.
From behind her, Brad said mildly, “Hormones. I thought the same thing.”
“Do tell.” She glanced back, hackles rising as he deliberately allowed his gaze to traverse her legs, then up her body before he met her glare.
“Hormones.” He repeated the single word with an obvious challenge.
Casey affected a tone of mock sweetness. “Brad, why don’t you step to the side so I don’t stick you in the eye with my cue?”
A low chuckle was followed by, “Is that your nice way of asking me not to look up your skirt?” She waited while he relocated, choosing to stand back from the table to her right.
She bent to take the shot, now conscious that he could again look down her top. Silently, she cursed all feminine apparel as she slid her cue through her fingers. She was off the mark and missed.
“You got a point to make?” Casey asked, tone level.
Brad circled the table. “Just that I’ve come to the same conclusion. Your hormones have got you riled up.”
He sunk two balls as she tried to make sense of his words. Was he suggesting he thought she acted out because she might be hot for him? As if, she fumed in outrage, ready to deflate that oversized ego with the nearest heavy implement.
Inclining his head toward her, Brad observed, “You look nice. Dinner with the folks doesn’t usually inspire you to put on a dress.”
Casey could feel the color bloom in her cheeks. She had no good explanation. Stupendously Stupid Syndrome was not a disease she discussed openly.
Brad had paused, bent over the table, cue held idly between his fingers. Casey was aware he would have noted her rising color. Damn her pale skin.
She made a true statement, though not one that had anything to do with how she was dressed. “I might have plans after dinner.”
His shot went wide.
She hadn’t expected him to miss, so it took her a minute to scope the table.
As she positioned to make her move, Brad noted tersely, “It will be fairly late by the time dinner ends.”
Her cue connected with a satisfying click
. Casey became absorbed in the game and was now fully focused on her next target.
She did an internal victory dance as she sank another ball.
“Where are you going?” Brad’s voice barely registered as she called the next shot.
“Um…” She wasn’t sure if her angle was right. She readjusted her hold on the stick. She had to hop up on the edge of the pool table, slide her hip under her as she leaned awkwardly, elbow bent and forearm braced to the felt-lined surface. There was no way she would let her height and skirt length stop her.
The sound signaled she had hit the ball squarely right before it dropped into the pocket. “Yes!”
She twisted back around just as Brad’s hands wrapped around her waist, spanning the circumference, before he lifted her from the table.
“What…?” She was too startled to say anything more as he set her feet on the ground.
He took her cue and set it aside. Her back was to the table, and Brad stood just inches from her. Disturbed by their proximity, she added a touch of bravado as she quipped, “Ah. Got a problem, Brad?”
To her shock, he placed both hands on either side of her, hemming her in. Brad was a big guy and she felt absolutely dwarfed by him.
Her heart went wild, whether from anxiety or Brad’s sheer hotness, she couldn’t be sure. As she breathed in his divinely masculine scent, she decided there was no point in lying to herself. It was not anxiety that made her pulse race. It was arousal; definitely arousal.
Brad gazed down at her, expression stiff. “Mind telling me where you are going?”
Her chin tilted in defiance as she demurred, “I’d like to speak to my attorney before I answer any more questions.” When he continued to stare at her, she blew out. “Shit, Brad. What’s up? You afraid I’m not going to get enough sleep?”
A brief second passed as she watched his features tighten. Then, drawing in a breath, he took a step back before he reiterated, “I would like to know what you are doing after dinner.”
Casey was decidedly put off balance by Brad’s behavior. “Why?” She honestly could not figure him out. Then she waved her hand to concede. “Whatever. Sure. It’s nothing mind-blowing. I might meet up with some friends at a pub.”
Evenly, Brad asked, “And for this, you needed a dress?”
She flushed further. Brad took note of this, his attention sliding to her cheeks.
Casey prevaricated lightly. “Never know what the night might bring.”
There was a palpable silence as again, her response appeared to rattle him. Then he relaxed, the unaccountable tension slowly dissipating. He propped his hip against the pool table as he scrutinized her.
When he spoke, his voice was quiet and apologetic. “Sorry. I don’t have any right to pry into your plans.” He scrubbed a hand along the back of his neck, then exhaled long and low. “Casey. What’s going on? We used to be friends. Lately, it seems like all you want is to piss me off or ignore my existence. Shit. Some days you’re barely civil to me.”
He gestured toward her, eyes intent as he pointed out, “We are about to work together. I would like to offer an olive branch. I don’t know what I have done to make you hate me, but I want to fix it.”
Casey fidgeted, deeply mortified to be called out on her antagonistic behavior and unable to confess to what lay behind it. “I know I’ve been a…pill. I…” She was flooded with remorse and confessed with a drawn-out sigh, “It’s nothing you’ve done. I can’t explain it, but I know I haven’t been treating you nicely. I’m sorry.”
Straightening her shoulders, she peeked up at him with a smile. Resolved to find a new manner in which to battle her silly attraction to him, Casey declared firmly, “I swear I will adjust my attitude. I am amped and ready to take on the fete. Working with me will not be a problem. But jeez, Brad, let up a bit. You’re not my keeper. It gets my back up when you pull the big-brother routine.”
Her pulse raced as Brad surveyed her from head to toe, a leisurely tour that left her tingling. Brad stated, “I don’t think of myself as your brother.”
“Oh. Well…I just meant, that for a friend, you can be weirdly…bossy, and anyway, we’re friends.” This assertion was given in a rush, babbling as she stumbled to define their relationship. “I mean, friends without benefits. The platonic sibling-type of friends. Like…asexual beings from another planet…in a universe with no reproductive cycles of any kind.”
Humor glinted in his eyes. “Wow. That establishes very firm boundary lines. No way for either of us to mistake the nature of our friendship.”
“Yup. That’s me. Firm boundaries.”
Brad tipped his head, apparently at ease with her description. “Well, now that I can safely hope for a return to our former platonic
camaraderie…” His lips curved with potent charm as he placed emphasis on the word platonic
. “How about I give you a ride home after dinner? It will give us a chance to talk.”
“Sure.” Casey would never let on that she could not be alone with Brad without wildly non-platonic thoughts entering her head. A ride home. No problem. She could handle that.
* * * *
Despite her supercharged emotions to Brad’s presence, Casey got through dinner in a rational manner, participating with every appearance of a girl without a care in the world.
Fortunately, Nathan and Lily’s new romance put much of the attention on them. Lily shared some of her history and background while Nathan discussed his upcoming business trip to Italy.
Then there was talk of preparations for Nicole and Spencer’s wedding. Nicole was one of Casey’s few childhood friends from the neighborhood. The two of them had also attended college together at UCLA. As one of Nicole’s five bridesmaids, Casey had volunteered to host the bachelorette party.
She still had some details to hammer out, including music and entertainment.
Teasingly, Casey prompted, her gaze on her friend, “So, Lily, now that I know you play the piano…”
Lily blushed as her musical talent had just been revealed during her tour of the Carlstrom home. Nathan had been flabbergasted when Lily, overjoyed at the sight of a particularly fine instrument, had proceeded to skillfully execute a complex classical piece with ease.
Rubbing her hands together, Casey inquired with eagerness, “Do you play modern, pop?”
Lily perked up, clearly willing to help out. “I can probably play anything you need.”
Casey warned with wicked humor, “Remember, this is a bachelorette party. We’re talking raunchy and tasteless.”
Straightening in her seat, Lily replied gamely, “I can do that.”
There was a glimmer of unease as Nathan asserted, “Casey. Spence was firm on this. No guys. No strippers.”
She waved her hand breezily. “Right. No worries.” Casey looked to Gail, head tilted in question. “You sure you’re okay with us having the party here?”
“Casey, this is your home,” Gail assured warmly. “The house is yours. We will be setting up on the lawn for a brunch the following day. Perhaps there are things you could utilize.”
Casey nodded her thanks. “Oh. Kiki and I will be coming by to use the pool. We are still in training for Sharkfest.” Both girls were participating in the Alcatraz Sharkfest, a yearly event where they would swim 1.5 miles in the ocean. It was a strenuous test of endurance under challenging conditions.
Ben cleared his throat, his concern and disapproval evident. “The water can be very rough, and there was a recent report of a shark attack in that area.”
Blithely, Casey assured him, “My worst fear is a cramp. Sharks I can handle.” Waving away his anxiety, she reminded him, “Kiki and I have done the swim for the last five years. We’re good. No worries.”
It was clear there was more her father wanted to say, but he decided to let it go. Instead he turned toward Brad. “How is your family? I haven’t seen Clayton or Wesley in months.”
Brad paused to take a drink of his wine. “Clay travels a good part of the year. The corporation keeps him busy. Wes has taken a full-time role as legal counsel for the Croft holdings. He manages that, plus a busy social calendar. He has always had a huge amount of energy.”
Ben chuckled. “Yes. That boy works hard and plays hard. Well, I hope to see them soon. I believe your family is due to attend some of the upcoming functions at our home.”
Gail leaned in to get the attention of Casey and Nathan. “I wanted to remind you both that Mary’s family is expecting us for Thanksgiving.”
With a smile to Lily, Gail gestured between herself and Nathan. “We always go to Idaho for Thanksgiving. Mary and I grew up together, and she still lives in our hometown. For the last few years, Ben and Casey have joined Nathan and me for the visit. We are all very close to Mary and her family.” Gail tilted her head hopefully. “Lily, we would be delighted if you had the time to make the trip. It is beautiful country, and I know the Hollisters would be thrilled to meet you.”
Lily hesitated, looking to Nathan before answering. His countenance indicated his enthusiasm for the idea.
Casey shot Lily a playful grin. “Mary and Alan have four kids: Kip, the twins— Ryder and Dylan, and Josie. Kip’s a year younger than Nate. Josie is the baby of the family and finished college about a year ago. She’s fantastic good fun and has been in love with Nate since birth. When she finds out Nate has fallen for someone, it may send her to the brink of despair. She never had any reason to think it could happen, since Nate appeared destined for bachelorhood.”
Nathan hastened to reassure Lily. “The Hollisters are family. Josie is like a cousin to me.”
Impishly, Casey qualified, “Kissing cousins.”
When Nathan would have denied Casey’s ribbing, Gail regretfully agreed. “Josie has held on to a youthful conviction that she and Nathan would marry. When she was little, we thought it sweet but something she would outgrow. She’s a beautiful, intelligent girl and certainly could have had her pick of boys. Unfortunately, I do believe she has waited for something to happen with Nathan.”
Gail reached out and gave Lily’s hand a quick pat. “Seeing you and Nathan together will be good for Josie. It’s way past time for her to give up this daydream.”
Lily’s brow creased as she turned to Nathan. “Did you and Josie ever date?”
Appalled, Nathan shook his head vigorously. “Lord, no. Known her all my life. We visited during holidays and summers. The Hollisters are family, and jeez, she’s a kid. A lot younger than me.” He seemed to realize that Lily’s age was the same as Josie’s because he hastily supplied, “When we were children, the age difference seemed more extreme.”
Lily’s lips pursed in humor as she murmured, “Oh? Well, I wouldn’t like to think you were having inappropriate thoughts of a much younger woman.”
Nathan threw Lily a sideways grin, his lids lowered as he glanced at her through thick, dark lashes. Something in his look caused color to rise in Lily’s cheeks.
Ben spoke up, a slight frown marring his brow as he eyed Casey. “I want you to limit your nighttime excursions. Last year, there was an all-out brawl when you went into town.”
Casey began to protest, but Gail saved her the trouble as she leaped to her defense. “That isn’t fair, Ben. You know Casey had nothing to do with that. The boys in that bar lost their heads. Casey was just hanging out. She did nothing to instigate that scene.”
Ben was not deterred. “Still, I would prefer if Casey avoided spending too much time wandering about.”
With a wide, mischievous grin, Casey strategized. “If Lily and I go out, we’ll take one of the Hollister boys with us. Man, those guys are big, brawny, and badass. And howdy doody.” Casey released an appreciative whistle. “They are good-looking.”
Casey chortled as Nathan muttered his opinion of the Hollister genetics. Biting back a smile, Lily patted Nathan’s hand in a placating fashion.
Gail drew Brad into the conversation. “Brad, you’ve met the Hollisters when they’ve come to visit?”
Brad toyed with his glass. “Yeah. Kip’s smart, a good guy. The twins, Ryder and Dylan, are…uncivilized.” There was a burst of laughter from the table, then Brad continued, “Don’t know Josie particularly well. She doesn’t say much.”
Casey chimed in. “Josie can be shy when she’s around Nate. But heck yeah, the boys are a riot. They got this rope swing out by the river, and we let fly on that thing. Dylan can get some serious air…” Casey trailed off, then rolled her eyes as Nathan burst out.
“There is no way Lily is—”
Lily’s mirth pealed forth. “Nathan. I am afraid of heights. You do not need to worry I will be swinging from a rope.”
Casey was highly entertained at Nathan’s discomfiture. “I think Nate objects to you catching a glimpse of the Hollister boys unclothed. I can promise you, it’s not an unwelcome sight. Those boys are fine country stock.” Nathan’s glare earned him an unrepentant grin from Casey.
Gail seemed equally amused, her lips twitching as she acknowledged, “The Hollisters are a very attractive family.”