Authors: Kelly Jamieson
Thank you to Fedora Chen for beta reading Sweet Obsession and offering such thoughtful and helpful feedback.
“He’s going to prison.” Sitting in the kitchen of the condo she shared with her roommate Kevin, Sasha leaned on the granite counter and let her head drop onto her arms. “I can’t believe it.”
Kevin stood on the other side of the counter at the stove, stir-frying strips of chicken breast. “That’s not good.”
Sasha groaned. “No shit. I’ll never get paid now. I’ve been hanging on, waiting for the court case, and now as part of a plea deal, Eckhart admitted he knew what was going on with that Cangelo scandal. He admitted that he got nearly a million dollars from the contractor as part of the project, and he knew the contractor was inflating the price.”
“So he pleaded guilty?”
“Yes.” She let out a long sigh and lifted her head. “There’s no hope now.”
“Can you sue him?” Kevin shot her a look of sympathy as he added some chopped vegetables to the pan. “For breach of contract?”
“Yes. I definitely could. Would I ever get a cent from him? Doubtful. I’ve talked to my lawyer about it.”
“I’m surprised your dad hasn’t already filed a lawsuit on your behalf.”
“Yeah,” she said. “He probably would. If he knew about this.”
“You haven’t told him?”
“Are you kidding me? He’d flip out. He’d be running to his lawyer and offering to give me the money himself.”
“True.” Kevin grimaced. “Don’t worry. You’ll get more work. It’s spring. The economy is improving. People will be looking for landscape designers, and you’re one of the best.”
“Aw. Thank you.”
“You are. I’ve been spreading the word to anyone I know who needs landscaping done.”
“If I don’t get more work soon, I’ll have to let Flo and Gareth go.” The only two permanent employees she had in her small landscape design business.
“It sucks rat balls.”
Sasha’s lips twitched as she met Kevin’s eyes, and then she gave him a crooked smile. “Thanks. You always cheer me up.”
“I know it’s not the end of the world. I think I can keep Flo and Gareth on for another month. I have some small jobs I’m working on right now, and I have a meeting Monday morning that sounds promising.” She straightened her shoulders. “Things will pick up.”
“They will. Let me pour you a glass of wine.”
Kevin slid a wineglass across the counter to her and popped the lid off a bottle of beer for himself. He lifted it in a toast. “Cheers. Have faith. You’re a talented designer. It will work out.”
“Thanks, Kev.” She sipped her wine. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that whole deal, it’s
get the money up front
“I mean, I usually get a down payment and sometimes progress payments if it’s a big job. But stupid me, I thought since Eckhart was so high profile and well off, it was safe. Even though it was the biggest job I’ve ever done. And I spent a fortune on materials and subcontractors. Who are also waiting to be paid.” She groaned, her stomach pitching yet again at the thought of the money she owed.
“And then just when you finish the job, he gets arrested.”
“Yep.” She took another gulp of wine. “So I’m not making that mistake again, no matter who it is. I just hope I can hang on long enough to stay in business.”
“Your dad would loan you money to keep going.”
She rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
He grinned. “It’s true.”
taking any money from my father. God.” She shuddered. “They never believed I could do this. The last thing I want to do is go running to Daddy begging him to bail me out. That is
going to happen. I’ll get a job digging ditches before I’ll do that.”
“Every business has ups and downs, Sasha. Cash flow problems from time to time. It wouldn’t be admitting you’re a failure to have a little help.”
“I know that, but you know how much I want to show my family I can do this. They think I should be working at the bank, or maybe married to some rich guy and organizing charity events. Not digging in dirt.”
“What you do is a lot more than digging in dirt.”
think it is.”
He shook his head, smiling. He’d met her family so he got it. “So, big date tonight, huh? Who is this guy?”
He shrugged, then said, “Hey, isn’t he a big realtor?”
She grinned. “Yeah. I figure maybe he knows clients who need landscaping done on the houses they just bought. I’ve actually been calling some agents I know and asking them to keep me in mind. I’ve even met with a few to show them my portfolio. I’m pounding the pavement looking for work.”
“Good thinking. But it’s supposed to be a
. Not a business meeting. Instead of thinking about the jobs you might get from this guy, you should be thinking about falling in loooove.”
She laughed. “Yeah. No. We both know what the chances of that are.”
“Hey, never say never. You’re just too picky when it comes to men.”
“I am not!”
“Okay, so what was wrong with that last guy you went out with? Burton?”
She looked down at her wine. “Um.”
“He wouldn’t put his tongue in my mouth.”
At Kevin’s silence, she sneaked a peek at him through her eyelashes. He stared at her open-mouthed. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. He had no problem when
tongue in his mouth, but he wouldn’t do it to me. I wanted him to…you know…take charge.”
“But all the guys you date are kind of…wimpy.”
“They are not!”
Kevin shook his head. “Yeah, doll, they are. It’s like you look for guys like that, but then they’re not good enough and you dump them.”
She sat back, pursing her lips. “I date
guys. It’s me who’s the problem.”
. “That’s not true.”
“I should go get ready.” Talking about her disappointing love life was something best avoided. “You’re just staying home tonight?”
“Joe and Beamer are coming over. We’re gonna play cards.”
“Sounds good. Hey, save some of that stir-fry for me. I’ll have it for lunch one day.”
“You got it, dollface.”
Sasha slid off the stool, eyeing Kevin. He was her best friend and her roommate, had been since they’d met when she’d started working as a landscape designer. He was an architect and they’d worked together on a project constructing a new medical center where she was doing the landscape design for the exterior. His good looks had immediately attracted her attention, although at the time she’d been dating someone else and so had he. But something had clicked between them, a shared sense of humor, and, although she hadn’t known it back then, a shared sense that they didn’t quit fit in with the rest of the world. When she’d been looking for somewhere to live so she could get out of her parents’ house and their suffocating protectiveness, he’d offered her a chance to move into his condo with him, in the Bucktown area of Chicago, paying him rent and looking after the small yard out back. It worked out great.
They were both single now, and not for the first time Sasha wished she could feel more for Kevin than friendship. He was so perfect for her. Except, obviously not, since he didn’t give her that kick of lust low down inside, or make her pulse flutter, or make her skin tingle and heat, or make her start thinking about sex.
Of course, who did? Nobody—that’s who.
She’d kind of given up on finding a guy who could give her those feelings past the first kiss, or past the first few times they slept together. Tonight she had a date, but she didn’t have high hopes anymore.
But it was Friday night and going out was better than sitting at home. Although…playing poker with Kevin and Joe and Beamer sounded like fun. Nah. She sucked at poker. They always bugged her about her inability to hide what she was thinking and feeling. She was working on her poker face. The ability to bluff was definitely a valuable skill in this world.
She carried her glass of wine from the kitchen and up the dark oak staircase to the second floor of the condo. The old building had been beautifully refurbished into two, two-story condos with shiny hardwood floors and lots of big windows.
Eric was taking her to a blues club for dinner and drinks and music, and she was looking forward to that. She changed into a pair of skinny jeans, a black camisole and a loose, sheer black top with fluttery sleeves and crocheted detail at the front. She debated over shoes, trying to remember how tall Eric was. She was five foot six, so if she wore five-inch platform shoes, that put her taller than a lot of guys, and on a first date she didn’t really want to do that.
She didn’t think Eric was that tall, so she slid her feet into leopard-print ballet flats instead. She checked her fingernails. She’d been digging in potting mix earlier and yup, there was still dirt under her nails. That was not good.
In her small bathroom—Kevin had the big master bedroom and en suite bathroom with a huge whirlpool tub and separate shower stall—she scrubbed away, using her special gardeners’ soap with grainy pumice and cocoa butter to keep her hands from being rough and dry. Which they sometimes were anyway. She loved the smell of the soap and used a similar scented body lotion.
Okay. Ready. She checked the time on her cell phone as she picked up her purse and then stepped into the hall. Oh dear God. Whatever Kevin had made smelled unbelievable. Garlic and ginger and the almost popcorn-like scent of basmati rice. Her stomach gave a gurgle and she pressed a hand there.
Kevin sat at the counter, using chopsticks to eat his dinner. He was such a good cook and she’d learned a lot from living with him.
“I changed my mind,” she told him, picking up a fork and lifting a mouthful of rice from the pot. “I’m staying home with you. That smells so good.” She surveyed the chicken stir-fry with glossy chunks of red pepper and golden peanuts. Yum.
The doorbell rang.
“Too late,” he said, rising from the stool. He had to meet every guy she dated, which bugged her because her whole life her dad and two older brothers had interrogated and scrutinized every guy she’d ever dated. After Jack.
She pushed away those thoughts, because she still thought of Jack way too often for her own peace of mind. And there was no point in it.
But Kevin wasn’t nearly as overbearing about it all as Dad and Sam and Nash were, even though she knew they thought they had reason to be protective of her. Kevin just liked to give the guys a quick check, and sometimes she really liked it that her dates knew she lived with another dude, especially if they turned out to be a little on the creeper side.
“My roommate Kevin Chillen. Kevin, Eric Roscoe.”
They shook hands, giving each other a male look of appraisal. “Male roommate, huh?” Eric said with a smile, apparently unperturbed by this fact.
Kevin returned the smile with one of his own. “Yeah. This is my place but I let her hang out here.”
“For a price.” She shook her head but smiled too. “I pay you rent, remember? Okay! Let’s go.” She pulled her bright red pea jacket from the closet and was pleasantly surprised when Eric helped her into it. She looped a big scarf around her neck and waved goodbye to Kevin.
Eric had parked on the street out front of the big duplex, beneath the maple tree that grew there, its branches bare and dark. The early spring evening was chilly and she ducked her chin deeper into the scarf as Eric opened the door and helped her in.
Another nice guy. Just what she wanted.
“Hai!” Jack Grenville sprang at his opponent and attempted a diagonal knife hand strike to the side of his neck, but a series of fast moves gave him no time to react and he found himself flat on his back, panting, adrenaline flashing through his veins.
Nozumo Sensei may have been nearly sixty years old, but he was still a worthy adversary. Jack had invited him to Chicago to see his new penthouse condo and the dojo he’d had built. They both moved to their knees and touched their foreheads to the mat before each other, then rose to their feet.