There were certain things Kelsey Monahan had come to rely on: the afternoon commute being nothing short of hellish, the parking spot closest to her apartment door being occupied, and dinner ready and waiting on Thursday nights. It wasn't a particularly exciting list of expectations, but Thursdays were rarely exciting.
She glared at the white Camry parked in what she considered her spot as she hefted her laptop case, purse, and gym bag to the ground floor apartment she shared with her cousin. Her key slid into the lock, but turning it was unnecessary. The deadbolt was undone. Cold, breath-stealing fear seized her lungs.
No one left an apartment door unlocked in mid-town Houston. Her apartment complex had a guard at the gate and access-pass only entrances, but there were still break-ins. Kelsey had passed her cousin's Accord on the way in, so she knew Avery was home. Why was the door unlocked?
"Avery?" she called out, tiptoeing across the darkened living room.
Another anomaly. Avery was loud. And bright. Kelsey was used to coming home to find all the lights on, the radio or TV blaring, and mouthwatering aromas wafting from the kitchen. No lights. No sound. No aroma.
"Avery, if you don't answer in two seconds, I'm calling 9-1-1!" Kelsey dropped her bags beside the couch and slipped out of her brown leather pumps. Running, either to rescue her cousin or to avoid a prowler, would be easier in bare feet.
"I'm getting dressed. I'll be out in a sec."
Kelsey unbuttoned her blouse as she moved toward her bedroom door. The apartment's two bedrooms were separated by a short hallway and the closet that housed the washer and dryer. It was common for the cousins to converse through closed doors.
"Are we doing Chinese for dinner?" Kelsey asked. "I hope you ordered from the usual place and not the new one we tried last time. Donna's bringing her customer in tomorrow to discuss the new project, and I cannot be sick."
It wasn't until Kelsey had traded her work clothes in for cotton pajama bottoms and a threadbare, faded Astros t-shirt that Avery rapped on Kelsey's door.
"I have a date, Kel."
Kelsey opened the door once she was certain no emotion showed on her face. She adored her cousin, but Avery's taste in men was beyond atrocious. After the latest in a string of loser boyfriends had stolen Avery's car and two of Kelsey's credit cards, Avery had called a six-month moratorium on dating.
Kelsey wanted her cousin to be happy and loved, but she dreaded the likelihood of drama, heartbreak, and late nights listening to Avery sob. Especially since Avery had also called a moratorium on Kelsey punching loser boyfriends.
"That's great! I didn't even know there was anyone on the radar." Kelsey perched on the edge of the bed, patted the space next to her. Avery didn't move from the doorway. Kelsey's eyes narrowed in suspicion. It was unlike her cousin to hoard gossip or good news. "This isn't a retread, is it?"
"No!" Avery shuffled into the room. Her hands, nails painted a cheery blue, pleated the skirt of her sleeveless, knee-length ivory dress. "I met him today. At lunch. That tiny sandwich place near campus. You know, the one that makes that potato salad you orgasm over?"
"God, I'm starving, and I want a Rueben and potato salad," Kelsey groaned, placing a hand over her empty stomach.
"So now would not be a good time to tell you that's exactly what I had for lunch?"
"No. It would, however, be an excellent time to tell me how you managed to meet someone while eating Reisen's potato salad. I wouldn't notice JJ Watt walking around naked when I'm around that stuff." Kelsey paused for a second, wrinkled her nose. "Okay, that's a lie. I'd notice JJ."
Avery's smile lit up the entire room. She practically floated to the bed. "I met him before I ate. We were in line, and he was just staring at the menu. Staring. Forever. It's a small menu. I was in a hurry because I had a parent conference right after lunch, so I might have nudged him a little. Just a small cough and maybe my elbow in his side."
"What? I was hungry and he was slow." Sparkling brown eyes fixed on the ceiling. "Anyway, he asked for a recommendation from a local. He's from New York. I suggested he try the club – it's good for newbies, you know – and the potato salad. Somewhere in the exchange I gave him my phone number. Don't ask how it came up, because I really couldn't tell you."
"Please tell me this story doesn't involve any more mention of food." Kelsey's stomach burbled loudly as if to punctuate her plea.
"He texted me an hour later to say he loved the club and wanted to take me to dinner as a thank you."
"Did you fill out the form?" Kelsey asked, hating that practicalities would dim her cousin's shining smile.
Avery dutifully handed over a sheet of paper. The cousins had developed the First Date Form shortly after they'd moved in together. There were spaces to fill in the date's name, age, physical description, and any information that could be helpful if, God forbid, the date went really sour. They'd never had to take a First Date Form to the police, and Kelsey prayed the trend continued.
"David Novogradac. 30s. Brown hair, basset hound brown eyes, cute. Great butt." Kelsey arched an eyebrow over the top of the sheet. "Really, Ave? You want me to show up at the PD and tell them my cousin's been abducted by a cute guy with basset hound eyes and a tight ass?"
"He's nice. Really nice. Friendly. My instincts say this is one of the good guys."
"I want to remind you that your instincts are, in fact, crap."
"He has a friend," Avery blurted.
Kelsey nearly fell off the bed. All of Avery's earlier nervousness made sense. Kelsey didn't do blind dates. She'd made that extremely clear after the first, and only, disastrous attempt Avery made at setting her up with a friend of a friend.
"Please?" Avery puffed out her lower lip. "Pretty, pretty please?"
"No. I have work to do. And things. And I didn't shave my legs."
Avery hopped off the bed and skipped to Kelsey's closet. As the elder, Kelsey had claimed the bedroom with the larger closet. "So wear pants. What about brown linen pants and that sweet pink twinset you picked up last month?"
"It's 84 degrees outside," Kelsey protested. "And I said no."
Avery stalked out of the closet, yanked up the hem of Kelsey's left pant leg to her knee. "You are such a liar. Black dress capris and that lavender sleeveless blouse that makes the girls look huge."
"I'm wearing that shirt to work tomorrow with the black cardigan."
"So don't spill. And no cardigan tonight." Avery disappeared into the closet. She reappeared a moment later with the outfit in one hand and a pair of black wedge sandals in the other. "Heels. Your date's a giant."
"I don't have a date, Avery. You have a date. I have a production schedule to update and a Lean Cuisine to nuke."
"This is his first visit to Houston. He and his friend. David works for an investment firm, and he's looking at expanding into Texas. They don't know anyone here. He doesn't want his friend to be stuck in a hotel room eating room service and watching CNN. Pretty please? The guilt will give me heartburn."
Kelsey stared at her cousin for a long moment. With a frustrated sigh and the certainty she was going to regret it, she nodded. "But I will wear the cardigan."
"Thank you!" Avery dumped the clothes on the bed and wrapped her arms around her cousin's neck. She pressed smacking, wet kisses all over Kelsey's face until she was shoved to the floor. "Thank you!"
"Fill out a form on the new guy," Kelsey instructed as she stepped into her bathroom. Not only did she need to wipe off the remnants of her makeup, but she needed to wash off the pink lip prints Avery had left on her cheeks and forehead.
Avery read off what she knew of Kelsey's date as she filled out a new form. His name was Mike. He worked for a software company. He was tall. Quiet. Serious. Kelsey paused mid-mascara application to roll her eyes. Great. She was going out with a tall, serious, quiet mass-murderer named Mike. It was always the quiet ones, wasn't it?
Ten minutes later, a dressed and irritated Kelsey met Avery in the living room. "We are meeting them, aren't we?"
"Of course. I'm not an idiot. We'll take your car."
"I should have seen that coming," Kelsey muttered. It had rained earlier and, though she'd lived in Houston all her life, Avery hated driving through the city when the roads were slick. "Where are we going?"
"I had thought about Bantanga because who doesn't like tapas, but the service is hit-or-miss. Not a good impression. They're going to meet us at The Grove. The food's good and the view is excellent."
Kelsey couldn't argue with the choice. The restaurant had an outdoor dining area, and the interior dining room boasted large windows that offered a view of Discovery Green park. The food was a little pricey for a first date but offered something for just about every palate.
Rush hour traffic was dwindling. The drive to the restaurant was considerably more pleasant than Kelsey's drive home. As she didn't want to fool with finding a spot near the park or in the underground garage, Kelsey happily handed the keys to her small SUV to the valet.
While Kelsey tucked the receipt into a purse pocket, Avery scanned the crowd for her date. Avery looped her arm around Kelsey's. "I think we're early. We can wait at the bar. It's still happy hour."
"Yeah, because drinking on an empty stomach is a stupendous idea," Kelsey groused. Still, once they found two empty seats at the bar and caught the bartender's attention, she ordered a pomegranate screwdriver. It didn't take much arm twisting to get Avery to agree to share an order of al pastor sliders.
Once she'd finished her drink and the majority of the sliders, Kelsey had relaxed enough to enjoy the restaurant's atmosphere. Avery's innocent query about Kelsey's afternoon launched a passionate, and humorous, rant about the software her company used. Kelsey's diatribes on Ashbury Distribution and Manufacturing Software – ADMS – were a weekly occurrence.
"And then the damn thing kicked me out three times when I was exporting an order to Excel. We're still having the problem with ship-and-debit, which means that I can't close two orders. Stewart's pissed, of course, because this is throwing off the accounting numbers." Kelsey drew the pad of her finger through a pool of condensation on the bar. "He asked me, again, why we're not using the work order module for projects. I had to remind him, again, that the software doesn't do what we want it to do. It's an utter piece of crap obviously written by programmers who were fed only LSD and candy corn."
"Life's too short for bad software," an amused, masculine voice interjected.
Both women swiveled to face the intruder. He was slim with a crop of freckles to match his untidy mass of brown hair and basset hound brown eyes. Avery sat straight up, primly crossed her legs. Giddiness practically radiated from her.
"David!" She swept a hand toward her cousin. "Kelsey, this is David. David, this is my cousin Kelsey."
Kelsey took note of his handshake. His hand was cool. The skin soft. He applied the barest amount of pressure to her hand and gave it a quick jiggle before stuffing his hand in his pocket. Not a remarkably strong handshake. Not a weak one, either. Just a… blah… handshake.
"I know someone who would love to hear about your software woes," David said. He stepped aside to push forward a tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in a crisp gray suit. The man – undoubtedly Mike – wore his blond hair cut short and, unlike David, had no hint of a five o'clock shadow.
Mike shook her hand. His hand was warm. Faint calluses on the palm. The pressure was firm without being crushing. He gave her hand one good pump, and then his fingers lingered as he pulled away. Her father would have told her it was a handshake to trust.
It took a moment for the man's square jaw and sharp gray-blue eyes to sink in to Kelsey's vodka-fogged brain. She knew that face. She had it taped to the electronic dartboard on her office file cabinet.
"No, that's all right. It's not a very interesting topic," she demurred, eyes dropping to the clasp of her purse.
Avery snorted inelegantly. "She's just being modest. You should hear her go off on the lack of user friendliness. I would advise you not to try to drink while she's talking, though. It can be painful." She rested a hand on Kelsey's shoulder. "What were you saying about the labor module? That it is only slightly more useful than an abacus and a stone tablet? You do a great Fred Flintstone impression."
"Something like that, yes." Kelsey raised her head and pasted on a tight smile. "They're holding a table for us on the patio. It's a gorgeous evening. We won't have many more like this once summer settles in."
"I really would like to hear more about your software," Mike offered. "I work in the industry, and it's always helpful to hear from end users."
Kelsey wished she'd had time for a second drink. The date was going to be a disaster. Mike, poor, clueless Mike, was going to keep pushing. It would only be a matter of time before she reached the breaking point. If she started venting her frustrations over ADMS, Mike would get more than he bargained for.
"I really don't think you do," Kelsey sighed. She resignedly shrugged a shoulder. "See, you're Micah Ashbury, and the software I've been talking about was produced by your company."