A long, hot summer with her secret crush…what could possibly go wrong?
Nissa Lang knows Desmond Stilling is out of her league. He’s a CEO, she’s a teacher. He’s gorgeous, she’s…not. So when her house-sitting gig falls through and Desmond offers her a place to stay for the summer, she vows not to reveal how she’s felt about him since their first – and only – kiss.
Desmond should’ve known better than to bring temptation into his house. He decided long ago that his best friend’s sister was too sweet, too good, for him. She deserves a guy who can give his heart. For her sake, he’s stayed away. But as her laughter breathes life into his lonely mansion, he’s not sure how long he’ll be able to resist.
“Darling, we’re pregnant!”
“We are?” Nissa Lang asked, somewhat confused by the “we,” as well as the news of the pregnancy.
Mimi was in her midforties and as far as Nissa knew, Mimi and her husband hadn’t even been trying. Not that Nissa could be sure about that. Her relationship with Mimi was casual at best. Nissa was going to house-sit Mimi’s grand mansion while the happy couple spent the summer in a different mansion in Norway. Not only would Nissa get paid a princely sum for things like flushing the many toilets and making sure the gardeners (yes, plural) did their thing, the money was going directly into her I’m-turning-thirty-and-to-prove-my-life-isn’t-a-disaster, I’m-taking-myself-to-Italy-for-three-weeks-next-summer fund.
Knowing she had a place to live for July and August, Nissa had rented out her own small condo, to add even more money to her fund. Only the sinking feeling in her stomach told her that maybe she was about to get some bad news in that department.
Mimi laughed. “I know it’s a shock. We’re stunned. We didn’t think we were ever going to be able to have children, but I’m pregnant and it’s wonderful. I’m calling because the baby means a change in plans. Between my age and the previous miscarriages, I’m a high-risk pregnancy, and travel is out of the question. So we’ll be staying home this summer. I hope you understand.”
Yup, there it was. Disappointment on a stick, stabbing her right in her travel dreams.
“Of course,” Nissa said politely, because that was how she’d been raised, but on the inside, she was pouting and stomping her feet. “Congratulations. You must be thrilled.”
“Thank you. We’re beyond happy. Take care. Bye.”
With that, Mimi hung up and Nissa sank onto the sofa. She looked at the open boxes scattered around her small condo, the ones she was filling up with personal items so the charming young couple who had rented her place for two months would have room for their own things. She glanced at the calendar she’d tacked on the wall, with the date she was supposed to be out circled in red.
“This is bad,” she breathed, letting the phone drop onto the cushion next to her. “What am I going to do?”
She didn’t have a summer job lined up, the way she usually did. As a fourth-grade teacher, she had summers off and used the time to get a job to supplement her income. It was how she’d managed to scrape together the down payment for her small condo. She’d moved in nearly a year ago and loved every inch of the place.
She was going to use the Mimi house-sitting money and the rental income for her condo to pay for her Italy trip next year. Postponing it was not an option. Two years ago she and her fiancé of three years had broken up. Before that, her best friend had been diagnosed with kidney disease—the kind that would kill her if she didn’t eventually get a transplant. Nissa had firsthand knowledge that life didn’t always turn out how you expected or wanted, so putting things off was taking a serious chance of losing out. Something she wasn’t willing to risk.
She’d been dreaming about going to Italy since she was fourteen years old. She’d devoured guidebooks, watched travel videos on YouTube and had planned and replanned her stay. Next year, she was spending her thirtieth birthday in Italy.
The problem was, she’d just lost her funding.
Oh, she was putting aside a little every month, but living in the Seattle area was expensive and it wasn’t as if she had a six-figure salary. The summer money was how she was going to make the trip happen.
She leaned back against the cushions and considered her options. Obviously, she would have to get a different job. It was already late June, so she might not have a lot of options, what with competing with high school and college students for the best ones. Regardless, she would find something. The more pressing problem was where she was going to live for the next two months.
Her parents would happily welcome her for the summer, but they lived in a small town in Eastern Washington. There wouldn’t be many job opportunities if she stayed with them. Plus Nissa didn’t want to be that far away from Marisol and her kids. Not when a transplant could show up at any time.
Crashing at Marisol’s place wasn’t going to work. While her best friend would welcome her, the house was tiny and already overcrowded. Which left one option.
She grabbed her phone and scrolled through her contacts. Shane picked up on the second ring.
She smiled. “You think you’re such a big brother, don’t you?”
“It’s kind of my thing.”
“I’m surprised I caught you. Why aren’t you slicing and dicing?”
“I just got out of surgery. Knee replacement. The patient is going to be very happy with the outcome.”
Shane was an orthopedic surgeon in a busy sports medicine practice. Four years older and definitely the smarter of the two children in the family, he’d always been driven to be the best. Nissa knew she was much more in the “average” category and was comfortable there. She didn’t need to change the world, just improve her small part of it.
“I’m glad for your patient,” she said. “I need to come live with you for the next two months. And don’t you dare say no. You have that extra bedroom. I know you do—I helped you decorate it.”
She explained how her house-sitting job had fallen through.
“I’d love to help, but I can’t.” Shane’s voice dropped nearly an octave. “I’ve met someone.”
She resisted rolling her eyes, mostly because he couldn’t see her doing it. “Shane, I refuse to accept that as an excuse. You’ve always met someone. You spend your life ‘meeting someone.’ It’s the sticking with them for longer than three weeks that doesn’t work for you.”
“This is different. No can do, kid. I can’t have you hanging around when I’m trying to…you know.”
“Seduce a perfectly nice woman who doesn’t know you’re going to be a hit-and-run lover? While that sounds great, I’m in trouble. It’s serious and I need your help. I have people showing up in three days to move into my place. I need somewhere to go.”
“Stay with Desmond.”
“What?” she asked, her voice more of a yelp than she would have liked. “No. I can’t.”
What a ridiculous suggestion. Desmond? As if.
“He has a giant house and he’s practically family.”
The key word being practically. He was, in fact, her brother’s best friend from boarding school. Because Shane had gotten a scholarship to the fancy place when he’d been thirteen, and he and Desmond had been close ever since.
Desmond was great. Nissa liked him just fine. He’d taken her to her senior prom when her boyfriend had dumped her at the last minute. She’d warned him not to marry his now ex-wife and she’d been right.
“It’s a perfect solution,” Shane said cheerfully. “I’m going to text him right now.”
“What? No. You can’t. I’m not—”
The rapid beep, beep, beep told her she was talking to herself. Shane had already hung up.
“I’m not comfortable staying with him,” she muttered to no one in particular.
Not that she could explain exactly why to her brother. Or herself. In truth, the thought of living with Desmond made her insides get all twisty. It would be too strange.
Besides, what were the odds of him agreeing? He wouldn’t. Why would he? People didn’t generally enjoy having unannounced roommates for months on end. He would say no. She was sure of it. Practically sure. Mostly sure.
For the second time in less than ten minutes, she dropped her phone onto the sofa cushion and knew she was totally and completely screwed.
Stilling Holdings, Inc., or SHI as everyone called the company, was a multinational conglomerate with interests in everything from rare element mining to biofuels to construction to infrastructure. The different divisions were managed as separate companies, each division president reporting directly to CEO Desmond Stilling.
Three years ago, Desmond had moved the company headquarters from San Francisco to just north of Seattle. A new ten-story building had been constructed, SHI had adopted six elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school as their local charity projects, and on most days Desmond managed to stay on top of everything work related. Every now and then circumstances bested him. An airport strike in South America had delayed shipment of needed parts to a plant in Germany, leaving road crews in Eastern Europe without crucial equipment. Every day of delay was a problem in a part of the world where there was a season for construction.
In the end, he’d had his people charter two planes out of a private airfield forty kilometers away. By Tuesday of next week, the completed machinery would be on its way and the road work could continue. The cost of the chartered planes would chew up any profit, but he knew the road was more important. He would make up the money elsewhere. He always did.
Shortly after eleven, his personal cell phone buzzed. He pulled it out and smiled when he saw the name and picture displayed.
“No, I can’t take off the rest of the day and go hiking with you,” he said by way of greeting. “Some of us have to work for a living.”
“I work,” Shane protested with a laugh. “I save lives, my friend.”
“You replace joints, not hearts.”
“I improve quality of life. What do you do?”
“I build roads and feed the world. This is me, winning.”
The familiar banter was a welcome relief from the fast-paced, business-only rhythm of his day. Much to the chagrin of his staff, Desmond got to the office early and stayed late. When he’d been married, he’d had something to go home to, but these days, there wasn’t much waiting for him in his big house, so he stayed at work later and later.
He knew he would have to make a change at some point—just not today.
“You think you’re such a powerful CEO,” Shane said.
“I am a powerful CEO.”
“You’re talking but all I hear is a buzzing sound.” Shane chuckled. “Okay, enough of that. I need a favor.”
“You don’t know what I want.”
Desmond knew it didn’t matter. Shane was his best friend and he would do anything for him or a member of his family. Desmond had grown up the classically clichéd lonely, rich child. The first ten years of his life, he’d been homeschooled with excellent tutors. When he’d finally been sent off to boarding school, he’d had the education of a college freshman but the social skills of a pencil. The transition had been difficult.
Two years later, he’d been sent to a college prep school where Shane had been his roommate. They’d quickly become friends. That first Christmas, Shane had dragged him home for the holiday. Inside his friend’s modest house, Desmond had experienced what a family was supposed to be. For the first time in his life, he’d seen parents hugging their children and had felt warmth and affection. The presents had been chosen with care and love rather than ordered by staff. For those two weeks, he’d been just like everyone else and it had been glorious.
Ever since then, the Langs had been a part of his life. He would do anything for any of them, regardless of what they needed. His parents were still alive, but the Langs were his real family.
“Nissa needs a place to stay for a couple of months. She had a gig house-sitting but that fell through. She’s rented out her condo. I’m guessing backing out on that contract could be a problem. Plus she wants the money for her trip to Italy next summer.”
Technically Nissa wanted to go to Rome and Florence, rather than generically visit Italy, but Desmond didn’t correct his friend. Nor did he mention he was the one who had introduced Nissa to Mimi and her husband when Mimi had said they were looking for a dependable house sitter. Of course Mimi’s unexpected pregnancy would have changed their plans. He should have realized that himself.
“She can stay with me,” he said. “There’s plenty of room.”
“That’s what I said. You have what? Twelve bedrooms?”
At least he thought there were eight. Maybe it was ten. After his initial tour of the house before he’d bought it, he’d never much gone exploring. He used his bedroom, his home office and the media room. The rest of the house didn’t interest him.
“So that’s a yes?” Shane asked.
“It is. I’ll get in touch with her today and find out when she wants to move in, then I’ll let my housekeeper know and she’ll get a room put together.”
“Thanks, bro. I appreciate it. You’re doing us both a big favor. So let’s go out on your boat sometime soon.”
“I’d like that.”
“I’m on call for the next two weekends, but after that.”
“Let me know what days work for you. We’ll have fun.”
“Thanks for helping with Nissa.”
They talked for a few more minutes, then hung up. Desmond glanced at his computer. But instead of rows of numbers, he saw Nissa in her prom dress, earnestly thanking him for offering to take her to the dance at her high school. He’d been in the first year of his MBA program then, having finished his undergraduate degree in three years. He’d flown up from Stanford to be her date.
At the time, he’d been doing a favor for a friend, but the second he saw her, everything changed. Gone was the preteen who had tagged along whenever he’d visited. In her place was a beautiful woman with big eyes and a mouth he couldn’t stop staring at, and later kissing.
But nothing more. No matter how much he’d wanted to take things to the next level, he’d known he couldn’t. She was the only daughter of his surrogate family. He loved and respected the Langs too much to betray their trust in him. So he’d done the right thing and had firmly put Nissa in the friend column, where she had stayed. And would stay.
He shook off the memories and quickly sent a text.
Shane says you need a place to stay. I have plenty of room. Just tell me when you want to be there and I’ll get a room ready.
There was a pause, then he saw three dots, followed by her reply.
Really? You will? I seriously doubt you know where the spare sheets are kept.
He chuckled. You’re right, but I’ll have it done. Hilde will be thrilled to have someone else to care for. I disappoint her with my boring lifestyle.
Desmond, you’re nice to offer, but I couldn’t possibly impose.
I insist. There’s plenty of room. He hesitated, then added, It’s not your parents’ house. Whoever you’re seeing is welcome to stay over.
As in a boy? LOL That part of my life is a disaster. Kind of like yours. Can I LOL twice in a text without seeming like I’m getting weird?
You can if you’d like. When do you want to move in?
Gulp. Is Friday too soon?
It’s not. I’ll let Hilde know. Text me when you have an approximate time so I can make sure I’m home to give you a tour and a key.
Thanks, Desmond. You’re the best. I promise to be the perfect guest. You won’t even know I’m there.
He studied her words, thinking that he very much wanted to know she was there. He would have offered his place, regardless, but he’d always liked Nissa. She was easy to be around, and he felt comfortable in her presence. With her, he didn’t feel as much the heartless bastard the women he dated always ended up claiming he was. Plus she’d been right about Rosemary and he’d been the fool who hadn’t listened.
See you Friday, he texted.
He sent a quick text to Hilde, telling her about Nissa’s stay. When his housekeeper sent back questions about the types of foods Nissa liked and which bedroom would be best, he gave Hilde Nissa’s number so the two of them could work it out. Once that was done, he returned his attention to his computer, because work was the one place where he had all the answers.
Friday morning Nissa got up early to finish getting ready for her move-out. She’d packed her personal things, along with a few breakables she didn’t want to leave out. All that was left was her grandmother’s china and her clothes. She would take care of the clothes first thing, then wait for Shane to arrive to help her with the china. Once that was done, she would give her place a final clean, then head over to Desmond’s house.
So far she’d done a good job of ignoring her upcoming living situation. If she didn’t think about moving into the big house on the Sound and, you know, living with him, she didn’t get nervous. But if she allowed herself to dwell on the reality of sharing a roof with a guy she’d had a crush on for over a decade, she got a little queasy.
Not that her crush meant anything, she reminded herself as she got dressed before heading for the bathroom. It was just a funny quirk, left over from when she’d been a teenager. Desmond had been older, fantastically good-looking and sweet to her. Of course she’d liked him. Now, as a grown-up, she knew those feelings were just remnants of happy memories. These days they were friends. Good friends. He’d been married, for heaven’s sake, and she’d been engaged. They’d both moved on. Or at least she had—she doubted he had anything to move on from. So there was nothing to worry about or any reason to be nervous. Really.
That somewhat decided, she finished getting ready, then put together several boxes and got out packing paper. She set everything on her dining room table. Shortly after eight, her doorbell rang.
She let in her brother, smiling when she saw the to-go tray he carried.
“Morning,” he said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I brought breakfast.”
“I see that. Thank you.”
She took the coffee and breakfast sandwich he offered, then led the way to the sofa in her living room. They set their food on the coffee table. Shane glanced around at the bare side tables and nearly empty floating shelves.
“You were robbed.”
She sipped her coffee before smiling at him. “You know how I am. I have stuff everywhere. No one wants to live with that. So I put it all away. It’s very clean looking, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know. It makes me feel as if you’ve been taken over by aliens.” He nodded at the small hutch in the dining alcove. “We’re just wrapping up the china?”
She nodded. “It’s a full set for twelve. I don’t want anything to get broken. I made space in my storage unit, so we can take the boxes down there.”
“Sounds like a plan. You’re moving in with Desmond after that?”
“This afternoon.” She wanted to protest that she wasn’t moving in with him—not in the traditional sense. But saying that would cause her brother to start asking questions and there was no way she wanted to explain about her crush-slash-fluttery stomach.
“So what’s with the new girlfriend?” she asked, hoping to distract him. “Who is she and what makes her ‘the one’?” She made air quotes with her free hand.
“Her name is Coreen and she’s an ER pediatrician.”
“A doctor,” she teased. “Mom and Dad will be so proud.”
He grinned. “I know. I’m the favorite for a reason, kid.”
“Oh, please. They so love me more.”
The joking was familiar. Shane might be more brilliant but she was no less adored by her parents. They hadn’t had a lot of money for fancy things when she’d been growing up but there had been plenty of attention and affection.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she pointed out as she picked up her breakfast sandwich. “Why is she special?”
“I don’t know. She’s smart and pretty and I like her a lot.” He took a bite of his sandwich. “There’s something about her. We’ll see how it goes. I’m optimistic and I don’t want to mess up anything.”
“Why would you think you mess up your relationships?”
“I’m not like you,” he said. “I’ve never made being in love work.”
That surprised her. “Not with any of the women you’ve dated?”
He shook his head. “There’s always an issue.” One corner of his mouth turned up. “Unlike you and Desmond.” He made kissing noises. “You’ve always had a thing for him.”
She willed herself not to blush, then socked him in the arm. “I had a crush on him when I was a kid. So what?”
“You followed him around like a puppy.”
“He was dreamy.”
Shane scowled. “Please don’t say dreamy before I’ve finished my breakfast.”
“Deal with it, brother of mine. So when do I get to meet the magical Coreen?”
“Not for a while. I want to make sure it lasts. What about you? Who’s the new guy?”
“There is no new guy.” Her love life was sadly lacking.
“You haven’t been involved since you broke up with James. Come on, Nissa. That’s been what? Two years? It’s time to move on.”
“I know and I want to. But it’s hard to meet people. My luck with online dating is nonexistent and all the guys I meet through work are married.”
“There have to be a few single dads with kids in your class.”
She looked at him pityingly. “I don’t date students’ fathers. It’s tacky and against policy.”
“That makes sense. What about when you go to Italy? You can meet someone there. A handsome Italian with a nice accent.”
She laughed. “Technically if we’re in Italy, I’ll be the one with the accent.” She was less sure about a vacation romance. Not that she would object to being swept off her feet for a week or two but she doubted the affair would last past her time there.
“Want me to ask around at my practice? See if any of my work friends know of a single guy.”
“No. Absolutely not. I shudder at the thought.” The last thing she needed was her brother finding her guys to date.
“Hey, I have good taste.”
“You’ve never set me up, so we don’t actually know that.” She tempered her words with a smile. “But thank you for thinking about me.”
“I always think about you. You’re my baby sister and I want you to be happy.” He grinned. “And safe. Why else would I have told Desmond to walk away after your prom date?”
She’d been about to take the last bite of her sandwich. Instead she stared at her brother, her mouth hanging open.
“What?” she managed, trying to make sense of his words.
Shane winked. “I know. You’re impressed, right? Like I said, I look after you.”
She put down the sandwich. “Wait a second. Are you saying Desmond wanted to go out with me after prom?”
“Sure. He had a great time and was all into you, but I pointed out that he was too old and too experienced. He was in grad school and you were a senior in high school. No way that was happening on my watch.”
The adult side of her brain could appreciate what her brother had done. He was right about both the age and experience difference between them. But the teenaged girl that would be with her always nearly shrieked in protest. She’d liked Desmond—she’d liked him a lot. When he’d disappeared after their one date, she’d been devastated.
“Besides,” Shane added, obviously unaware of what she was thinking, “he’s a part of the family. I reminded him that he owed my folks for taking him in and stuff, and he shouldn’t repay them by going after you.”
“You’re pretty proud of yourself, aren’t you?” she asked, reaching for her coffee.
“I am and you should thank me.”
She held in a sigh. He’d done what he thought was right, and at the time, it had been. Her broken heart was her own business. But the information did leave her with some interesting questions, such as if he’d liked her, why hadn’t he tried dating her later, when she’d been all grown up? And most important of all—what did he think of her now?