More than want you, p.21
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       More Than Want You, p.21
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         Part #1 of More Than Words series by Shayla Black

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  My heart comes to a screeching, skidding halt. She met Griff?

  Why do I have the sinking feeling that I’m even more fucked? Because my brother goes out for drinks about seven. Keeley is breezing in about ten thirty. A lot could happen in three and a half hours. I try not to imagine what.

  My feet feel like blocks of lead as I enter the condo, shutting the lanai door behind me.

  “You went outside?” She sounds surprised.

  “Yeah.” I nod nervously as my heart decides to wage an all-out war with my chest. The battle is so loud I hear it in my ears. “You were right. It’s nice out there.”

  I’m babbling. I wipe my sweaty palms on the soft cotton of my pajama pants. I want to touch her so badly, but her face is unreadable. I don’t know what to say.

  She nods and kicks off her pumps. “Do you want to know about my evening with Griff?”

  Yes and no. Mostly no. I wish like hell I had any idea what was rolling through her head. I stand there mutely, a boiling pot of emotion melting my brain. I blink. She looks beautiful. There’s really no way my brother didn’t see her, zero in on her, want to know everything about her before he saw every inch of her.

  The thought is killing me.

  “I’m not sure.”

  She softens a little. “Sit.”

  Keeley chooses the corner of the L-shaped sectional. I sit one cushion over, going through the motions of breathing so I don’t freak out.

  This makes no fucking sense. Twenty days ago, I didn’t even know this woman. I would have passed her on the street and stared…before I shrugged and walked on. Now I’m seriously thinking of surrendering my future to her. Giving up the only sense of self I’ve ever known for her.

  “Did you talk to him?” I finally ask into the protracted silence.

  “Yes. He’s…like you. And not. He’s smart and ambitious and interesting. You’ve got that in common. But he’s more serious. More intense.”

  Griff is. He always has been. I wonder if it’s because he has a chip on his shoulder about being the younger brother, if he always feels like he needs to dig deeper to keep up.

  “What happened? What did you talk about?”

  “I got your message with the name of that bar that Harlow passed on. I thought I’d go over there and see if I could figure him out just by observing. I was on my stool about two minutes when he came over to me, drink in hand and swagger in full swing.”

  Knowing he studied her and sized her up as a potential nightly fuck makes me want to both curl into the fetal position and beat him senseless. Breathing is hard again. I’m wishing I had booze or a punching bag—something to bleed off my growing fury. Griff looked at her, damn it.

  The worst part is, I have no one to blame but myself.

  “What did he say?”

  “Not much. We made small talk, exchanged names and a little info. We joked about our favorite drinks, then made a pointless bet about whether the new waitress would drop a huge tray of drinks. He won, by the way. She wasn’t practiced enough to handle all that. We mentioned where we were from, where we’d gone to college, and the fact that we’re both single.”

  Technically, Keeley is single. I know it in my head. The rest of me is shouting a big “fuck no.”

  “That took three hours?”

  She raises a brow at me. It’s a subtle warning that I don’t own her.

  “We took our time. We ended up finding a booth and sharing appetizers. We talked about business. I gave him a cover story. He thinks I work retail but am thinking about going into real estate. That opened him up to talk about business. He spoke in veiled terms about the Stowe deal.”

  As much as I hate the cozy picture her words paint, it doesn’t sound as intimate as I feared.

  I let out a pent-up breath. “Okay. So that’s it?”

  “No.” She folds her hands in her lap and looks at her entwined fingers.

  Is she trying to collect her words? Or hide her guilt?

  “And?” I demand, hearing an edgy note creep into my voice.

  I can’t stand being on tenterhooks anymore. The not being able to draw in a deep breath, along with the sharp, perpetual tensing of my gut, is killing me. The pain bolts down my sternum.

  “We talked about family. He mentioned you.” She taps her thumbs together and pauses again.

  “Spit it out.”

  “He hates you.”

  I guessed that. The feeling has been unspoken for something just north of a thousand days. But Keeley’s soft words makes everything inside me crater.

  Not knowing the truth for certain was easier.

  Fuck, one deal tore up my family. This one is going to rip up my heart.

  Goddamn it.

  “Yeah.”

  “And he loves you. He didn’t say that, but I know it.”

  My heart nearly implodes. I love him, too.

  I shut my eyes and feel tears sting like acid. I miss that stupid motherfucker so much.

  “Maxon?” she prods at me.

  I refuse to cry. It’s been an absolutely terrible day. Not the first. It won’t be the last. I clench my teeth together. I will not lose my composure. I am fucking going to hold it together so I can hear the rest of this.

  “Yeah.” I drag in a shuddering breath. “So where did you leave things?”

  “He asked me to dinner tomorrow night.”

  Jesus. Motherfucking son of a bitch. My stomach tightens so much it’s one giant ball of ache.

  “What did you say?”

  She looks past me, out to the lanai, biting her lip. The tension is killing me.

  Finally, she nods. “I, um…told him this week was hell on my schedule and I’d have to juggle my schedule to make it work. He gave me his number. I’m supposed to call him tomorrow afternoon.”

  “Where does he want to take you?” That will tell me a lot about how interested Griff is.

  “Nowhere. He wants to cook for me.”

  That’s a lie. He wants to fuck her.

  I can’t take that sitting down.

  Lurching to my feet, I lunge across the room, raking my hand through my hair. “It’s a ploy. He only invites a woman over when—”

  “He wants to sleep with her. I’ve been around the block, Maxon. I know.”

  “What the hell? I…”

  She can’t go. I can’t let her. On the other hand, will she even listen to me? Does she want Griff?

  “So you had drinks and appetizers and came home.”

  “I came back to your place,” she corrects me.

  It’s not home to her. Right.

  I swallow as I turn to face her. “Did he walk you to your car?”

  “Yes.”

  “Did he kiss you?”

  “Yes.”

  I stagger. That one word feels like the sharpest blade buried right in my heart.

  Before I can wrap my brain around her reply and insist that she’s never seeing him again, she cocks her head and speaks. “When do you want me to go out with him? I have a feeling I can undo him in a night.”

  I gape at her like she’s lost her fucking mind. “Less than a week ago, you were preaching Kumbaya bullshit about repairing the relationship between me and Griff, and now you’re smacking lips with him and willing to help me tear him down.”

  “Once I realized that you were never going to care about more than business, that didn’t leave me with many options. I can either keep forcing a peace on you that you don’t give a flip about or I can live up to my word. You want to destroy your own family? You’re the one who will have to live with the consequences. Why am I standing in your way? You’ve painted Griff as a man who abandons his loved ones and doesn’t care about the son he’s never met. As far as I can tell, you’re both getting what you deserve. When you approached me with your plan, I naively believed that everyone has good qualities. That, deep down, all people are capable of love. Yes, even you. I was sure you wanted happiness. I just had to show you the way. But
most every choice you’ve made since I’ve known you has been selfish.”

  I wince. She’s right. “Keeley—”

  “No. You brought us to this place so now you’re going to listen. You don’t know what love is. And it’s clear to me that you don’t have the first clue how to be happy. So if you want to know why I’m all in with your stupid plan suddenly, it’s because I want to get this over with and move on to a less toxic situation. Griff’s pitch is Thursday. Isn’t that what Britta said last night?”

  “Yeah, but—”

  “There’s no ‘but’ here. That doesn’t give me a lot of time to work, but since you’re willing to sacrifice everything to win, I won’t feel bad about being really fucking charming to your brother over the next two days. It’s not like Griff is hard on the eyes. By the time you pitch to George Stowe on Friday, he’ll have a muddled head. And you should have a clear path.”

  I tear across the room, torn between violently pounding the wall and clutching Keeley to me like a sobbing boy until she swears she won’t let me go. “No. No! Fuck no! You swore that you didn’t intend to sleep with him, that I couldn’t make you. You didn’t want to be a whore, and I respected that.”

  “You accepted it because I forced you to. But it’s my body and my life. It’s just sex.” She shrugs. “No big deal.”

  I grab her shoulders and lunge in her face. “It is a big deal. Huge fucking deal. You can’t date him. You can’t touch him.”

  She tilts her head, raises a brow. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I know those are warning signals. I try to slow down my outrage and fear. Somewhere under that, I feel logic lurking, trying to reassert itself. But at my head’s insistence that maybe she’s right, my emotions shove those thoughts down.

  “Why?” she asks softly.

  I’m used to animated Keeley, the one who teases and cajoles while she tries to get me to see the best in every situation. That woman lightens me, soothes me, balances me. I’ve grown so attached to her that I’m thinking…yeah, maybe the whole love thing isn’t a crazy hoax. But the Keeley in front of me now is cool, almost calculating. She’s willing to blow up everything between us.

  Fuck. This is exactly how she felt when she seemingly overheard me giving her up for my ambition last night. Unimportant. Confused. Destroyed.

  “Why, Maxon?” she prods. “Why shouldn’t I go distract your brother?”

  Because I love you. The realization rolls through my head. It jets blood through my veins. It envelops my beating heart. She thinks I don’t know what love means, but suddenly I understand. Absolutely. Totally. I would kill for this woman. Die for her. Do anything to make her smile. I cannot live without her. I cannot release her from my life.

  I cannot give her to Griff.

  “I-I…” Do I tell her? Will she believe me? Do I give her that kind of power over me? Will she even care?

  Too many questions pelt my brain. As I’m sorting through the tangle—tough to do when I’m dizzy, shocked, and grappling with how much Keeley Kent has changed me—someone starts pounding on my door. This isn’t a polite knock but a nonverbal demand that I open up now.

  Damn it, talk about the worst possible timing.

  “Who the fuck is that?” I snarl under my breath.

  No one ever comes to my place except Britta and Rob. I don’t have any other friends. Come to think of it, I don’t have anyone I can really talk to.

  Except Keeley.

  I’m going to ignore this unwelcome visitor. If I don’t answer, my staff will assume I’m not here or that I’m busy. If it’s a solicitor or religion peddler, they’ll go away soon enough. Everyone else, I don’t give two fucks about.

  This beautiful redhead in front of me is definitely at the top of my give-a-fuck list—in all ways.

  But whoever is outside is clearly a persistent ass, as the beating on my door resumes, even harder than before.

  “Whoever you are, go the hell away,” I shout.

  I’m focused on the most important person in my world.

  “Open up, you stupid snot. I brought you into this world and paid for your overpriced education. I’ve come a long way. Show me a little fucking courtesy and let me in.”

  I’d know that voice anywhere.

  Keeley gapes at the door. Dread fills my belly before it drops to my toes in a sickening rush.

  “Is that…” She frowns as if she can’t quite believe what her ears are telling her.

  She’s about to see me at my very worst. No way she’ll ever love me after this. And there’s not a fucking thing I can do but watch my demise happen.

  “Yeah.” Fucking son of a bitch. “That’s my dad.”

  With a curse, I pull away from Keeley. “This will probably be ugly. Go to the guest room and shut the door. If Dad has come all the way from San Diego unexpectedly, this won’t be good.”

  She pauses, and I expect her to run to the safety of the bedroom. After all, he’s already shown his usual charming stripes. To my surprise, she shakes her head. “I may be mad as hell at you right now, but from the sound of things, you’ll need a friend.”

  She’s right, and that something soft lurches in my chest again, as if it can get closer to her. I would love to have her hold my hand while my dad, just by being himself, drives me crazy. But my need to protect Keeley is stronger. I can already guess how her interaction with my father will go, and I want to spare her. “I would feel better if you didn’t get in his path. Please.”

  A million reasons crowd my head but Dad starts pounding again. I don’t really have time to relay all the terrible crap between me and this man. It’s impossible for her to understand the decades of our complicated relationship, even if she saw each moment in real time, much less to blurb it in ten seconds.

  Keeley looks as if she’s going to resist, and I grab her hands. “Please. I promise I’ll get through it. After a lifetime with him, I’m a pro. If he pisses me off, I’ll come talk to you afterward. He’ll want privacy. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll be an even bigger asshole. Go.”

  When I nudge her toward the guest bedroom, she drags her feet a bit but finally nods. “I’ll be here if you need me.”

  I nod her way, then when she’s safely ensconced in her room, I slump toward the front door. Dread is digging a hole in my stomach as I turn the lock. I haven’t clapped eyes on my father in over three years. Hell, I’ve barely talked to him. But he’s come from San Diego on the spur of the moment and insists on seeing me. Every moment I keep him outside is just another moment for him to get more irritated.

  Knowing I can’t put it off anymore, I wrench the door open and step back to admit him. Damn, he’s aged. Before he left Maui, his hair was still salt and peppery. Now he’s completely silver, even his beard. He sporting a summer tan in early February, which tells me he hasn’t stopped being a regular at a tanning booth. He’s fit, as always. But his shoulders are slightly slumped. His jawline isn’t as firm as it once was. He’s wearing glasses now—a weakness I never thought he’d bow to. He’ll turn sixty-two this year, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that time has changed him. He no longer appears invincible. When I was a kid, my dad was always larger than life to me, and seeing him look more like an old man is a shock.

  “Hey, Dad,” I finally manage to say.

 
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