More than want you, p.26
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       More Than Want You, p.26
 

         Part #1 of More Than Words series by Shayla Black

  I stare Rob down. Regardless of the bluster, we’ve been friends. He knows when I mean business. Plus, he’s got a bit of short man’s disease. He talks bigger than he actually is or feels. Once he knows this chauvinist shit bugs me, he’ll back off. I can’t change his heart and mind, but I can sure as hell adjust how he behaves around the office.

  “Okay.” He frowns as if he doesn’t understand why I’m making a big deal out of this, then straightens his tie. “You don’t have to get cranky.”

  “I didn’t appreciate you threatening me yesterday. Keeley is going to try to get the job done, but she’s not spreading her legs for anyone. Don’t expect her to. And I can’t guarantee that she’ll succeed in throwing Griff off his A game. If you have a problem with that—”

  “I don’t,” he rushes to tell me. “It was never a guarantee. I just wanted to make sure you were giving it effort.”

  “I am. Leave it there.”

  With a nod, I shut down my computer, grab my keys, and get the hell out of the office. As I head to my car, I text Keeley to tell her I’m taking Britta and Jamie to dinner. She tells me to enjoy and says she’s leaving my condo now.

  Call me when you’ve left his place. And don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable or unhappy.

  Fine.

  There’s that word again. I hope she’s okay…but I remember some bit on YouTube where a guy said that when a woman says she’s “fine,” she’s pretty much mad enough to cut your balls off. Before I can call her to check on her again, a client rings about an upcoming closing. I slide into my car and assure him that everything is going smoothly while I walk him through the process and paperwork. Thirty minutes later, I’m sure she’s already close to Griff’s. I guess I’ll have to wait to talk to her until later tonight, so I pick up my dry cleaning. By then it’s too late for me to swing home before going to Britta’s. It’s fine. A few extra minutes with Jamie will be nice.

  When I arrive, my assistant has changed into a casual sundress. Jamie comes running to give me a big hug. I don’t see the little man as often as I should. Wow, he’s growing so fast. I’m painfully aware he needs a father figure—now and in the future. Since Griff is still ignoring his own son, I realize that someone in Jamie’s life can either be Makaio…or me.

  Nothing against the banker Britta plans to marry, but Jamie doesn’t have the Reed surname. He needs to have some of the Reed swagger—though only the good parts.

  I picture myself trying to semi-parent and wonder if I’m crazy. But at least it doesn’t scare the shit out of me. I’ve actually learned something since I met Keeley, enough to know I’d like it even more if she and I were raising our own son—or daughter—together.

  Now I sound like a sap, but what the hell? For the first time in my life, I think I finally understand what it means to be happy and why Keeley would want that above all else.

  I’m going for it, too.

  “Hey, Jamie. How you been, big boy?”

  He tugs me toward his toy trucks. With a few grunts and small words, I get the gist that he’s setting up his own racetrack. As we play together, he bangs his new blue cast on the nearby hearth. Obviously, he’s not digging the constraint. I ruffle his hair and take a few snapshots on my phone. He really is a cute kid.

  My obstinate brother has cut away the best part of himself. If I wasn’t so attached to Keeley, I’d tell her to dive into his head and make him acknowledge his son by any means possible. But she’s mine, and Keeley being super close to Griff will only lead to sex. That isn’t what either Britta or I want. I hope Keeley doesn’t, either.

  Still, in a weird way I wish things could be different.

  After a quick plate of fish tacos, we head south down the coast to Lappert’s for some Hawaiian ice cream. Jamie’s evening is complete, and by the time I take him and his mother home, the tyke is half-asleep.

  After an abbreviated bath and a bedtime story, Britta tucks him in. All the while, I’m checking my phone. It’s getting close to nine o’clock. I guess I shouldn’t be too worried yet.

  Still, I am.

  I’m just about to shout down the hall that I’ll leave them to their evening. Of course, I’ll just go home and pace. That sounds terrible. But hanging around here, where there’s no hint or trace of Keeley, is unsettling me. I can’t say why exactly. I keep remembering my last face-to-face with her, and the notion that I’ve really fucked up again keeps plaguing me.

  “Sorry that took awhile,” Britta says as she emerges from the hallway that leads to the bedrooms. “He’s having a hard time settling in with his cast. Since he couldn’t play in the tub as usual, he wanted an extra bedtime story.”

  I nod. “Poor guy.”

  “Coffee?”

  “Nah. I should head out.”

  “Can you spare me ten minutes?”

  Britta and I talked pretty in-depth earlier. She’s not any sort of shallow party girl, but it’s also unlike her to drag me into multiple serious conversations in one month, much less in one day.

  “Sure.”

  She gestures me to the sofa, then sits in the chair beside me. “Why did you lie to me?”

  I freeze. “What do you mean?”

  Britta has always been soft and sweet and a little quiet. Very feminine. But right now, she’s giving me a mean-bitch glare that’s making me shudder. “Don’t act like you have no idea what I’m talking about. I believed you this afternoon when you hinted that you’d given up your idea to flash Keeley in Griff’s face. I even bought that she had a prior commitment. But all night you’ve been checking your phone every two minutes.”

  It’s not like I can tell her that I’m expecting a call from a client. She’d ask which one…and know I’m lying. Frankly, I’m tired of deceiving Britta anyway. I probably need to tell her the truth and let the chips fall. Keeley would want me to.

  “All right. I admit it.” I blow out a breath. “The thing is, Griff called me last night.”

  At that, Britta sits up straight, looking beyond shocked. I don’t blame her. “And?”

  “He just wanted to yell at me about Dad. He said some ugly things and I reacted badly. I’m really beginning to regret asking Keeley to go tonight. I have this gnawing worry…”

  “You should. You know your brother.”

  I do. A devoted man-whore—except when he’d made Britta the center of his world.

  “Fuck. I haven’t heard from her.” I drag my phone into my palm again. Still nothing.

  Britta stands, wraps her arms around herself. “I can’t believe you went through with this. And that you lied to me.”

  I say the first thing that pops into my head. “Don’t quit.”

  She whirls on me, betrayal in the tears pooling in her eyes. “Why shouldn’t I?”

  Valid question. I have very few persuasive answers. “I’m sorry and I’ll make it right.”

  “You can’t.” She sighs. “Besides, I have to stop caring what Griff does. He and I are over.”

  Suddenly, I realize I played a huge role in that. My falling out with my brother was largely his fault because the stubborn fucker wouldn’t even hear what I had to say about my secret royal client. But his split from Britta was at least partially my doing. I kept her in the dark and didn’t give her even enough information to convince Griff that she wasn’t involved. I also didn’t do anything to force him to acknowledge his son. I told myself it wasn’t my responsibility, that my brother didn’t deserve to know Jamie if he was going to behave like an asshole. Harlow even agreed. But now I’m rethinking everything.

  I don’t want to make promises to Britta that I can’t keep, but I also think it’s time I try to right some of my wrongs.

  “Do you want Griff to be involved in his son’s life?”

  She ponders that for a long moment. “Yes…and no. Jamie needs a father. For a long time, I’ve wished Jamie could have his father. But I worry that, deep down, he’s too much like his own. You, too.”

  “I’m trying to change.”
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  “I think you actually mean that.” She sends me a sad smile. “But I also don’t think you’re there. What you did today proves that.”

  I’m not going to lie. That’s a knife in the heart. But I’ve earned it. “I’m sorry.”

  She shrugs. “Sometimes, sorry isn’t enough.”

  Britta is right. Unfortunately, I don’t know what will be enough to right the stupid-ass wrong I’ve done.

  I need to hear from Keeley.

  “Are you going to quit?”

  She looks past me, out the window. “I don’t know. I have to give it serious consideration.”

  If she marries Makaio, she’ll have the luxury of leaving her job. He can more than support them all.

  We fall silent for a long minute. I can’t help it. I check my phone again. Twenty minutes after nine. Nothing.

  On the one hand, imagining that Keeley can exchange small talk and have dinner, then unravel all Griff’s focus about the deal of a lifetime in under three hours is crazy. On the other hand, I’ve seen my brother get a woman from hello to horizontal in under ten minutes.

  “Are you so jumpy because you’re worried Keeley will fail?” Britta asks.

  My business brain tells me that should be my main concern. If she doesn’t find a way to make sure that Griff’s presentation goes poorly on Thursday, I’m probably screwed. But that’s not what’s on my mind at all. “I’m worried because she wasn’t acting like herself after we agreed she would have dinner with Griff.”

  “Was she mad?”

  I shake my head. “She just seemed off. She said she was ‘fine.’”

  Britta winces. “You know that’s bad, right?”

  “Yeah, but I think I heard that in a comedy routine, so I wondered…”

  “It’s terrible. Fine really means ‘you’ve pissed me off and I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of explaining—because you should know—or let you defend yourself because I’m both too angry and I don’t want to hear your lousy excuses.’”

  That’s been my fear. “Bitchin’. So what do I do now?”

  Because there’s no way Keeley can not talk to me. That can’t happen.

  Britta shrugs. “I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that you telling her to even go flirt with another man really told her that you value your career and your ego more than you value her.”

  Those words shoot a cannonball of dread into the pit of my stomach. She says what’s been dancing around the edge of my consciousness, that thing I suspected but didn’t want to acknowledge. It was an inconvenient truth.

  I’m worried I’m going to pay the ultimate price for ignoring it in favor of my own version.

  “I swear, that’s not how I feel,” I argue. “Nowhere near, actually.”

  “Uh-huh,” she drawls cynically. “I’m telling you, your words might be saying that, but your actions are giving her an entirely different message.”

  I plop my head into my hands. “Fuck.”

  “If she’s still speaking to you and you actually do love her, I suggest you find some way to let her know that, from now on, she’s first and always will be. That you value the relationship you two have more than business or money or this insane need you have to be better than your brother. By the way, it’s the same problem he has.”

  She’s right, one hundred percent. From grade school on, Dad made us compete against each other. For too long, we didn’t stop to question why or whether we should. When we began the business together, I thought we were solid and determined to throw off the old man’s yoke. But in a blink, childhood programming overwrote our goodwill. Maybe…Griff acted before he thought. Maybe I wasn’t much better. Not to excuse what either of us did. But isn’t the first step to solving a problem admitting it?

  The real question is, how do I fix it from here?

  “Do you want Griff back?” I ask Britta.

  “What?” She says the word as if I’m speaking a foreign language she doesn’t understand.

  I know she heard me perfectly well.

  “If we’re both going to get the truth out and be totally honest, then let’s cut the shit entirely. Do you want him back?”

  Britta purses her lips together and glances down at her bare ring finger. “I think Makaio has already picked out a ring. It’s really just…too late.”

  And as she utters the words, she looks as if she’s going to cry.

  She wants Griff back; she’s too afraid to admit it.

  I reach across the space between us and take her hand. “Help me out of this mess and I’ll get him back for you.”

  Tears are swimming in her eyes as she looks up at me as if I’ve lost my mind. “You can’t make that promise.”

  Actually, I think I can. Griff loved her once. Until her, he’d never loved anyone in his life. Not his parents. Maybe not even me. He hasn’t loved anyone since her, from everything I’ve heard. I think there’s a damn good chance I can succeed. “Then I’ll sure as hell try. Just help me figure out how to tell Keeley that I’m sorry and I’ll be putting her first for the rest of our lives.”

  Britta pauses a long time. Sadness, agony, and regret haunt her face. It’s so naked I almost flinch. “Don’t do anything to bring Griff back into my life. I’ve moved on. Jamie will have a new stepfather. It’s basically done. But if you want Keeley back, do the one thing your brother never did for me: find out what she values most and do your damnedest to give it to her. Not monetary things.” She shakes her head. “Meaningful things. What does she want out of life?”

  “I asked her that the night we met.” More to make small talk and figure out how to coax her into bed. “Her answer was so simple yet so surprising I didn’t know how to interpret it at the time. She wants to be happy.”

  “What do you think would make her happy?”

  Suddenly, I know. In fact, I know everything I need to do. It’s obvious. I just didn’t want to see it because it’s going to be hard. I’ll have to sacrifice—something I’ve admittedly never been good at.

  But finally, I think I’m ready. No, I know I am.

  Keeley comes first. Somehow, I’m going to convince that woman to admit she loves me. Then, if she’ll let me, I’m going to spend the rest of my life making her happy.

  I glance at my phone. I just need her to call me and tell me she’s coming home.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  Keeley never came home Tuesday night. No note. No return phone call. Nothing but silence. When I arrived at my condo, I found the guest room empty. Every one of her things was gone.

  So was she.

  And clearly, she had no intention of coming back. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a gut punch in my life. When Griff and I first had our falling out, I didn’t freak, because he’s family. I thought it was temporary.

  Keeley’s departure feels permanent.

  That night, I texted. I called. I left apologies galore. No reply…until five hours after her date with Griff began. At midnight, she sent one curt message. I’m making EVERY effort to give you exactly what you want. Don’t call anymore.

  My heart collapsed. As I suspected, “fine” didn’t mean she was fine at all.

  With shaking hands, I messaged back and apologized like hell. Nothing. She hasn’t spoken to me in any way since. It’s been nearly forty-eight hours since she left. I still can’t breathe. I’m a fucking wreck.

  When she left for Griff’s house before their date, she knew she was leaving me for good. Is she living with my brother now? I don’t know. Since she doesn’t have her own apartment anymore, where else would she be? That possibility cuts me up. I can’t even think about the woman I love in bed with him. I mean, I know Griff slept with Tiff. Honestly, I didn’t care. Keeley is totally different. Losing her is gut-wrenchingly terrible. Even worse,
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