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Her Heart’s Secret Wish
Copyright © 2012 by Juliana Haygert
Cover art by Angela Anderson Designs
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work, in whole or in part, in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.
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Her Heart’s Secret Wish
To my parents, for allowing me to dream big and supporting my insane ideas
“Anything for me?”
Bells rang in Natasha’s mind along with the male voice addressing her. She stood from her crouch behind the shop’s counter, where she’d been looking for one of the fifty staplers they kept in the bookstore, and found Mr. Stone—or just Jason, when he wasn’t wearing slacks and polo shirts—smiling at her.
“Hi.” Reminding herself to stay cool, she said, “In fact, there is something for you. It arrived this morning.” She picked up the small package under the desk and handed it to him.
“Sweet!” He tore open the parcel and stared at the book and DVD inside. His bright blue eyes contrasted his indigo T-shirt, causing the butterflies in her stomach to flutter their wings.
Wow, sweet is his scent
. She didn’t dislike the aroma of books and pens around her, but whenever he was close, his cedarwood, nutmeg, and coffee cologne was the only thing her nose caught, teasing her mind and other body parts, including the butterflies.
Natasha soothed the flapping of the wings, knowing she shouldn’t be so casual with him, but she couldn’t help herself. Illustration and gaming professor or not, she liked talking to him. Many times they had accidentally met at the library or the computer lab and chatted for hours about numerous topics, but mostly about design and graphics and all kinds of things from fashion to cars, and even his games.
Not having to pretend who she was—or wasn’t—and turn on her charm was the best part of their friendship. For some reason, she allowed him to see the side of her only her roommate knew.
“Early Christmas gift?”
“Only if it’s from me to me.” Jason flipped through the book as though he was at the campus library, not the bookstore.
“Are you going to tell me what it’s about?”
“Don’t you recognize this?” He showed her the book and DVD, and she shook her head. “It’s the game I’ve been waiting three years for. It released yesterday.”
“So, I’m guessing it isn’t one of yours?”
The smile faded from his handsome face. “I wish. If my company sees me with this, they’ll fire me on spot.”
“Storm might be one of the largest and most profitable gaming companies in the world, but there’s no way they’d fire you. You’re the best out there.”
His gaze met hers, and the silence between them placed an uneasy feeling in her belly. When he looked at her like that, she saw someone else in him. Not a professor, but not a friend either. She couldn’t figure him out, and whenever she came close to discovering who lay beneath the dressy clothes and educated lingo, a shadow moved across those stunning eyes, and he averted his stare.
“Well, I should get out of here.” He handed her the proof of purchase, as though she hadn’t been the one who’d processed the transaction. “I still have some grades to enter into the system, and there are only a few hours left.”
“The last day of the semester is always crazy.”
“It sure is.” He retreated, still staring at her. “Merry Christmas, Natasha.”
How could a nerd be so hot and yet so relaxed at the same time? Jason seemed comfortable in his skin.
And what skin
. Heat swirled low in her tummy at the sight of his back, with his firm butt in tight jeans and the hoodie hugging his broad shoulders as he exited the bookstore. Simply perfect.
She sighed. He was nine years older and her professor. Unlike the other female students from the health or music programs who’d signed up for his class just so they could gawk and throw themselves at him, she respected the boundaries—even though her reputation portrayed her as being a player, a female Casanova. While they had never discussed that particular topic, she was sure he knew about it, too. What boggled her mind was why he kept talking to her.
“There’s some drool right there.” Fallon’s finger touched the corner of her mouth.
She slapped her roommate’s hand away. “What are you doing here?”
Fallon pushed her glasses onto the top of her head, revealing her big green eyes, and flashed a fake pout. A thousand times, Natasha had told her she should use contacts or purchase a more modern style of glasses because the giant ones she currently wore hid her beauty.
“Oh, you know, observing your star-struck gaze and its subject.” Her roomie glanced toward the door through which Jason had disappeared. “If I didn’t know better, I would say you’re taken.”
“Thank goodness you know me.” She continued rummaging for the stapler, an effort to disguise her discomfort. “So, what are you really doing here?”
“Saying bye to you,” Fallon said. “I’m done with the semester. Gonna pick up my things at the apartment and go home. When you get back from work, I won’t be there.”
“Oh, yeah.” She paused her search. “I’d forgotten you were leaving so soon.”
“I could leave a few hours later if you wanted to come with me. Any chance of changing your mind?”
“No way. I won’t go to your parents’ house and pretend I can behave.” Moreover, she had to work. She was running short on money this month. “Besides, aren’t you going to someone else’s party for New Year’s? Your father’s new boss? Imagine if I got him fired. That wouldn’t be good.”
“No, it wouldn’t.” Fallon laughed. “But I’ll miss you.”
“No sentimental stuff. Just tell me bye and go.” She walked around the counter and led her roommate toward the door. “It’s only three weeks. Then you can be mad at me for partying too much.”
Fallon hesitated, and she worried her roommate might say something else—or worse, give her a hug. Before the girl could act, Natasha patted her back and pushed her outside.
“I’ll call you,” her roomie yelled.
“I know. Several times.”
“Exactly.” Fallon waved and stepped out into the snow.
She stood at the door as her roommate, her only friend, left her alone during the worst time of the year.
But that was okay. She had survived the holidays many times before. She would survive it this time, too.
In his office, Jason had three twenty-seven-inch monitors on his desk in front of him—one with his new game, another with the game he was working on, the third with the college grading database—and he couldn’t focus on any of them.
He’d battled against his mind and his body for months. Although he had been winning so far, he didn’t know how much longer he could endure the situation. Lately, the more he tried to fight his feelings, the more his thoughts wandered to where they shouldn’t go.
He minimized the college grading database and opened a web browser, going to a bookmarked page with a dozen positions he could apply for at other universities. It was the one way to ensure he kept on winning. Or he could simply quit, move to California, where the headquarters of his gaming company, Storm, was located, and work full-time there. His boss would certainly love it. If only he was strong enough to actually do it, to quit or leave, he would be free of—
His cell phone rang. Checking at the caller ID, he answered. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hi, dear. How are you?”
He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and his forefinger. “I’m good, but busy at the moment. Can I call you later? Or maybe we can talk tomorrow evening when I see you?”
“That’s why I called, dear. We’re changing our plans.”
“You see, Travis’s parents invited us to go down to their house in Florida for Christmas.” At the mention of his sister’s boyfriend, he gritted his teeth.
“And we accepted. We’re leaving tomorrow or the day after.” She paused. “Will you come with us?”
Jason laughed out loud, a bitter sound even to him. “Sorry, Mom. I can’t stand the guy, he can’t stand me, and I won’t pretend to like him for anyone’s sake.”
“But what will you do for Christmas?” Her tone dropped a pitch, concern dripping from her words. “You can’t stay alone.”
He stood up and turned to the large window behind him. He rested a hand on the cool glass and stared out over the peaceful blanket of snow covering the campus paths, benches, and yards.
“I’m almost thirty years old, Mom. Don’t worry about me. I’ll think of something, call some friends….”
He caught sight of a dash of long brown hair and pink coat among the white landscape. A wave of anticipation grew inside of him, and he inhaled sharply, trying to quiet it down.
He glanced at the time on one of the monitors. A little past four. Natasha had finished her shift at the bookstore and was walking toward her apartment on the East side of the university.
“I would rather you came with us,” his mother insisted.
A smile stretched across his face. With her earphones in place and moving her arms and shoulders, she danced along the almost deserted path, her carefree motions contagious.
A red-haired man approached her, and Jason’s grin died. She stopped and greeted him with a hug. Knots formed in his stomach.
The guy grasped her hand, trying to hold on to her—even when she stepped back and gestured in the direction of her apartment. What, the jerk wouldn’t let her go? Rage bubbled in his chest, and a hiss escaped his lips. She wasn’t a defenseless kid. Hell, he knew what she did with most of the boys on campus, but that didn’t prevent him from wanting to strangle all of them.
“Jason? Son, are you there?”
The dude tugged her arm and pulled her to him.
He let out a shaky breath in between gritted teeth. “Yes, I’m here.”
Natasha pulled back, but the guy kept her close and tried to kiss her.
“You don’t sound well, dear. Are you sure you’re okay? I would feel better if you came down with us, and I saw you for myself.”
The jackass finally released her, and she scurried away. The fellow stared after her until she disappeared in between buildings.
He sighed in relief. “I’m fine, Mom. Listen, I won’t go with you. Tell them I had to work on a new project or whatever. But don’t worry about me.” A new idea brewed in his mind, and he smiled to himself. “I’ll find some friends to spend Christmas with.”