Desire by Design
Author:Paula Altenburg

chapter Nine

Lena recovered faster than Matt.

She slapped his face before spinning on her heel, her head held high as she brushed past Eve’s parents.

Matt rubbed his stinging cheek, wishing that he could follow her and make as grand an exit. Sooner or later, however, he’d have to return.

He stared at the Doucettes. They stared back.

“You must be Eve’s parents.” He didn’t bother offering to shake hands, although he did make a feeble attempt at a smile. But the rigid expressions on their faces didn’t change, and his own smile tightened. “I’m Matt Brison, the architect for the new project Eve’s working on.” No response. What luck. Two more Doucettes who weren’t impressed by his name. “You must have had a long drive.” Although not nearly long enough, considering they were a day early. “Could I get you coffee or tea?” He dropped his hand to the top of the pot Lena had abandoned. “Or some soup?”

There was a definite chill in the air.

“No, thank you,” Mrs. Doucette said.

Eve, toting bags of groceries, bounced into the kitchen. She’d changed from the skirt and heels she’d worn to the office into her usual jeans and a T-shirt, which meant she’d likely come straight home after work before going out again. That made him feel better—he’d been worried.

“I see you’ve met my parents,” she said. “This is my mother, Therese, and my father, Giles. They arrived early, so we went out to pick up food for the weekend.” She set the bags on the table, ignoring the tension in the room. “I ran into Lena on her way out. What did she want?”

If the sparkle in Eve’s eyes was anything to judge by, she was enjoying this. And if so, Matt wasn’t sharing her amusement. He doubted if there was anything he could say right now that would convince the senior Doucettes that he wasn’t some sort of serial sex offender.

Nothing he could think of off the top of his head.

“She brought soup,” Matt said.

Eve lifted the lid on the pot. “Mm. Turkey. Wasn’t that nice of her? That’s one less meal we’ll have to worry about this weekend.”

Yeah. Real nice. Lena was a thoughtful woman. Didn’t Eve find it strange that her boss’s wife was dropping off a pot of soup?

“Eve, could I speak with you in the living room, please?” Matt said. He transmitted a look meant to let her know it wasn’t a request. “Now?”

Eve trailed him down the hall, and when they reached the living room, Matt slid the glass doors closed behind them. Where should he begin?

Just that afternoon, he’d had his hands—and his mouth—all over Eve. He’d spent the last several hours daydreaming about repeating the experience. He didn’t want her parents to be the ones to tell her what they’d just seen. He didn’t want her thinking he’d been touching another woman.

Okay, technically he had. But his intentions were good. Maybe not medal-winning good…

Matt steadied himself. He’d just say it straight out and get it over with, then he’d try and explain how it happened. “When your parents walked in, Lena had her hands on my, uh, backside—and it might have looked like I was trying to kiss her.”

“Wow,” Eve said. “That’s awful.” Her eyes welled, and she put a hand over her mouth.

Although it made him feel kind of good to know she cared enough to be upset, the last thing he wanted was to make her cry. He shifted uneasily. “I can explain.”

“Please.” Her voice was muffled. She waved him off with her free hand. “There’s no need to explain. I can picture it just fine.”

She wasn’t crying… She was laughing.

He felt his lips thin. He’d been caught in her house, with another woman in his arms, and she was laughing at him.

“Then would you mind explaining it to me?” he asked. “So I know we’re both clear on what happened?”

“Lena knows I often work late on Fridays, so she made up an excuse to come over, hoping you’d be alone. She came on to you because that’s what she does, and you tried to put her off without being mean about it. Because that’s what you do.” Eve smiled up at him, swiping her eyes with the heel of one hand. “Face it, Matt. You’re too nice, sometimes.”

Matt deflated like a beach ball with a slow leak. His uncle was right: he was boring. It seemed Eve thought so, too.

“Great. I’m a nice person. Could you tell your parents that?”

“They’re going to believe what they want to believe. Don’t worry about it.” Eve looked ready to burst out laughing again at any moment.

Matt wasn’t sharing the joke. A woman he wanted to be naked with thought he was nice. That was the equivalent of “Let’s be friends,” and Matt didn’t have too many friends he wanted to hear moaning his name—which was another thing he couldn’t understand. Eve was none of the things he’d ever desired in a woman. She wasn’t a leggy blonde. She wasn’t the least bit domestic. She was far more interested in work than she was in him.

To top it off, now she thought he was nice.

Yet all she had to do was look up at him with those big brown eyes that sucked the breath right out of his body, and he’d do just about anything she asked. Ever since he’d gotten to know her, he was like putty in her hands.

Uncle Bob was right when he’d said men did stupid things for beautiful women. Eve was so beautiful it hurt to think all she might ever want from him was to be his friend.

“I’m sorry, Matt, but you deserved it. You’re a bit of a flirt.” Some of the laughter seeped from her lovely face. “I know you don’t find this—”

“You don’t know anything,” he interrupted. He wasn’t a flirt. Not with anyone else. So, she’d had a bad marriage. While she still had some issues regarding that, and her ex-husband didn’t seem ready to let go, Eve had to move on. He’d been patient and understanding. It was time to get serious.

He hooked the front pocket of her hip-hugging jeans with a finger and drew her close until she was tight against him. She felt soft, not skinny as he’d first thought, and curvy in all the right places. His hand skimmed up her back until his fingers tangled in her mass of dark curls. It was time she realized exactly what his intentions were, and his intentions didn’t include anything so dull as friendship.

With one hand cradling her head and an arm twined firmly around her waist, Matt took her lips with his—and he didn’t try to be the least bit friendly about it. Instead, he tasted her with his tongue and his hands. The soft fabric of her T-shirt parted ways with the crisp denim of her jeans. His fingers blazed across the soft swell of her hip, gliding around and upward to rest with proprietary ease beneath the warmth of her breast. He wanted more—to get her T-shirt off, to see as well as touch. He needed to feel her bare skin against his.

He needed Eve.

She made a soft, husky, arousing little noise in the back of her throat that scattered his senses. Then, her hands tackled the buttons of his shirt. He lifted her into his arms, and she wrapped her legs around him, fiercely kissing him back. He buried his face in the clean scent of her, all no-nonsense soap and a faint trace of vanilla.

She’d pried enough buttons undone to be able to get her hands inside his shirt, and for a moment, he thought his heart might stop. This was it. Matt was going to make love to her, right here on the sofa. He wasn’t taking the time to get her upstairs. He’d never make it.

He stumbled slightly when he stooped to lay her on the cushions, his injured leg still too stiff for certain movements. As he did, he caught a shimmer of their reflections in the sliding doors.

Glass doors.

Dear Lord. Was he really about to make love to Eve on the sofa where her parents could see them? For all he knew, they might have walked by already.

That thought worked faster than a cold shower.

Eve had him by the gaping sides of his shirt, tugging him toward her. Her T-shirt had slid up to expose the flat lines of her belly, a belly he would have given a kidney to be able to lean forward and press a kiss against. Bad, bad idea.

She was rumpled, but at least she was still decent. Another minute and she wouldn’t have been. Thank you, God, for small favors.

“I’m sorry,” he said, easing her shirt down inch by excruciating inch. She had no idea how sorry he was—the last thing he wanted to do right now was stop.

Correction. The last thing he wanted to do was embarrass her. The next time they reached this point, he’d make sure they were alone.

“Sorry?” Her eyes were wide and confused, like she’d been startled from a deep sleep. Or interrupted in the middle of making love. She had beautiful eyes. Deep, dark, make love to me eyes.

Matt fastened his shirt, his fingers fumbling with the uncooperative buttons. “Your parents are here,” he reminded her. He had enough of an ego to be pleased he’d made her forget about them, but he was intensely glad they hadn’t seen what he was trying to do to their daughter. He hoped. “They already think I’m a sex-crazed maniac. There’s no need to confirm their opinion.” He took her hand and tugged her to her feet. “I’d better spend the night at my uncle’s.”

She had no idea why he’d want to spend the night at his uncle’s.

Neither could she make sense of what was going on. One minute she’d been laughing at the thought of Matt aggressively pursuing Lena, and the next she was flat on her back on the sofa.

“I’m the one who should be sorry,” she said. For the second time that day, she’d pushed him too far. She tucked her T-shirt back in her jeans and struggled to find the right words to explain. “I’m a little too proactive.”

And with her parents in the next room, too.

He looked startled, then ran his hands through his dusky hair, his nearly translucent blue eyes crinkling at the corners. “Proactive is good. Really good.”

That made her laugh, and just like that, her embarrassment faded. It made her like him a little bit more than she already did.

“You really are a nice person, Matt Brison,” she said, reaching up to touch his cheek.

He caught her hand in his and pressed a kiss to her palm. Then he pulled her closer again. “Let’s get one thing straight,” he said. “The only reason I’m going to my uncle’s tonight is because I refuse to get you naked with your parents in the house. Tomorrow, I have to fly to Toronto for a few days.” His hot, intense eyes scoured her in a way that left little doubt as to what he was thinking. “And when I come back, believe me, I’m going to prove to you that I am not a nice person. And Eve?”

Eve held her breath, wondering what was coming next.

He dipped his head and gave her a gentle kiss this time, instead of the hot, soul-searing one his eyes promised. “While I’m gone, please try to be careful. If you need me, just call. And if you can’t reach me, then call my uncle. I know you don’t like him a whole lot, but he’ll look out for you for me.” His eyes softened. “I’d really hate to have anything happen to you.”

Eve’s heart dissolved into a little puddle on the floor.

Something was happening to her already, although she wasn’t sure she wanted to identify it. Identifying it would mean having to think about the future.

And Eve wasn’t ready for that.

The next morning, Eve took her parents to a party rental agency so they could book tables, chairs, outdoor lighting, and a tent. After that, they went to lunch at a small restaurant in a nearby mall. The waitress handed them menus, told them the specials, then wrote her name on a sheet of brown paper with a crayon.

Eve wondered when they would bring up the subject of Matt. She knew it was coming, and she’d bet odds of ten-to-one that her mother would start the proceedings.

They placed their orders and talked about the weather until their food arrived. One of her cousins had joined the army. A great-uncle in Ontario she’d never met had passed away.

Her father spread butter on a roll.

“About your houseguest…” Her mother’s words trailed off, letting Eve know what she thought of the houseguest in question.

There it was. She loved her mother, but while they might share genes, in terms of personality they were poles apart—and Eve always felt hers came up short. She wasn’t traditional enough for her dainty, Acadian French mother.

She plunged her fork into her salad. “What about him?”

Her mother fingered her napkin. “He seems to have a fondness for women.”

“He can be as fond of them as he likes.” Eve shrugged, feeling a tiny pang. “We’re colleagues.” Another pang. “He’s renting a room from me while we work on a project. When the project ends, he’ll head back to Toronto.” And since she doubted if Halifax would ever need another Matt Brison building, it was unlikely their paths would cross again. Pang, pang, pang.

Her mother didn’t appear convinced. “You have a history of getting involved with men, then changing your mind. And I’m concerned about the choices you make.”

Whenever her mother was displeased with her, she alluded to Eve’s ill-fated marriage.

“For the thousandth time”—Eve blew out a breath of frustration—“Claude wanted to head off to an island in the South Pacific and study the life-cycle of some rare breed of shellfish. I didn’t want to live on an island without indoor plumbing or a doctor. We had different goals. I realized it too late.”

“Claude was a nice man.”

If her mother only knew. She dragged a home-cut french fry through a puddle of ketchup. “Trust me, Matt’s a much nicer man.”

Her mother’s eyebrows rose a notch, and she looked down her nose at Eve, no mean feat for a tiny little woman. “I thought you were colleagues?”

“He’s a nice colleague.” Of course, he’d said he intended to prove to her he wasn’t nice, and that he wanted to get her naked. Eve fidgeted in her seat. Her mother made her feel like a little girl. Matt made her feel like a woman. And Eve wasn’t ready for any of this. “Do you have a point you’re trying to make?” she asked.

Her mother folded her napkin and laid it beside her plate. “We’d love to see you settle down, but with the right man this time. We’re concerned you’re about to make another bad choice.”

Eve wasn’t about to make a bad choice, because she wasn’t going to make a choice at all. She and Matt weren’t involved in any permanent sense. Theirs would be a short-term arrangement, if anything. They both knew that. Eve took a sip of water. There wouldn’t be any long-term commitment for her parents, or anyone else, to worry about.

“I’m almost thirty years old. I can make whatever choices I want,” she said. “Besides, I won’t be ‘settling down’ with Matt. Our relationship is a working one.” How much plainer could she make it?

Eve’s father spoke up. “I didn’t like him.”

Indignation on Matt’s behalf pricked Eve. How could her father make such a snap decision? What wasn’t to like?

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, thumping her glass on the table. “Matt’s a wonderful person.” She warmed to her topic. “He’s thoughtful and kind and generous. If you’re basing your judgment on what you thought you saw last night, you’re dead wrong. He was too polite to tell my boss’s wife to leave him alone because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. And he’s not involved with her, either,” she added for good measure. What century were her parents raised in, anyway? Didn’t they know that a woman could be…proactive?

What a great word. It covered a lot of territory.

“That woman was your boss’s wife?” Her mother’s horrified expression gave Eve the uneasy feeling she’d just buried Matt’s good name instead of clearing it. This was why she normally never bothered explaining anything to her. Explanations only ever made things worse.

Her father, usually the quiet one and without too much to say, gave Eve an odd, speculative look.

“I was referring to Claude.”

Eve slumped in her seat. She knew that look. Now her father thought she wanted Matt.

Unfortunately, her father was right.

Matt snapped his laptop shut and looked around the crowded airport lounge.

Fogged in. Totally socked. He’d known when he’d hired the cab from the city that he was wasting his time going to the airport, but the thought of spending another night with his uncle, listening to conspiracy theories about Eve, was too much. Why couldn’t his uncle see that, with her blunt opinions, she wasn’t cut out for intrigue?

Spending the night at Halifax International Airport wasn’t appealing, either, though. Matt really only had two options: he could head back to the city and try and find a hotel room, or he could stay at the airport hotel along with hundreds of other stranded, testy passengers.

But he missed Eve and was itching to call her, wanting to hear her voice.

Wanting her.

He checked the time. It was getting late. Why should he wait around the airport for the fog to lift, or head over to some lonely hotel room, when he could sneak back to Eve’s house and sleep on her floor—okay, he was hoping in her bed, but he’d let her make the call on that—and be gone in the morning before her parents even knew he’d been there?

He just wanted to be with her, to make sure she was safe.

Matt gathered his belongings and went in search of a cab.

He tried to be as quiet as possible as he let himself in and disengaged the alarm system. So far, so good. Everyone seemed to be asleep.

He tiptoed up the stairs and knocked on the bedroom door, firmly but not too loud, listening hard. He didn’t want to wake her parents.


He had to admit, the whole situation was a bit of a turn-on. He hadn’t been the type of teenager to sneak around and get into trouble when he was growing up. He’d spent all his time getting good grades so he’d get into the best schools.

Yes, Matt guessed he really was boring. But things were about to change.

He eased the bedroom door shut behind him. The room was in complete darkness. She must have pulled the shades, because not even the streetlights from outside filtered through. He stumbled to the bed and reached down to give her shoulder a shake, remembering how hard she could be to waken.

“Eve,” he whispered.

The softness his hand encountered told him immediately that this wasn’t a shoulder he was shaking. Before he knew what was happening, a fist connected with his eye. Pain exploded around his cheek and nose. He staggered back, swearing. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”

The light flickered on, and two people stared up at him from the bed. Eve’s mother flapped her hand as if her fingers stung. Matt opened his mouth, then shut it again. What could he possibly say to explain this?

Eve’s father was the one who finally broke the silence.

“How was Toronto?” he asked.

“I told you,” Eve said. “My parents like my mattress better. My mother worries about Dad’s back.”

She doubted if Matt would appreciate her bursting out laughing, so the less said on the matter the better. Besides, she had a certain amount of sympathy for him. Her mother was tough. All five feet of her.

Matt straddled a kitchen chair and rested his chin on its high back while she stood between his knees and applied an ice pack to his swelling eye. The soft glow from the light over the kitchen sink created long shadows on the ceramic tiles and into the far corners of the room.

She held the pack in one hand and cupped the back of his head with the other. She wanted to curl her fingers into the thickness of his hair, to plant kisses along the hard edge of his cheek.

She concentrated on the ice pack instead. “How come you came home so early? I thought you’d be gone for a few days.”

“Fog. And I wasn’t trying to grope your mother,” he added.

“I never said you were.”

“I wasn’t trying to grope you, either.”

“I never even considered the possibility.”

“You’re awfully calm about this.” He glared up at her with his good eye. Eve smiled back.

“Welcome to my world,” she said, thinking how appealing he was when he was upset. “With three brothers, people were sneaking in and out of our house at all hours.” She didn’t add that she’d been the worst offender. “My parents are used to it.”

“Are they used to someone touching your mother’s…um…”

“That’s a new one,” Eve admitted, biting her lip. She wished she could have seen it. Matt—of all people—sneaking into her parents’ bedroom in the dark and touching her mother’s breast. He’d need therapy to recover from this.

He took the ice pack from her hand. “You seem to be enjoying this more than you should.”

She grabbed it back and leaned forward, reapplying it to his eye. Matt might pretend to be all business, but inside, he was really very sensitive. She wanted to wrap her arms around him.

There was nothing to stop her. He’d had a bad day, and she could sympathize with that. She’d had her fair share of days where she could have used someone to lean on, and so far, Matt hadn’t hesitated to lend her his support when he could.

She tossed the ice pack onto the table and slid her arms around his neck. He burrowed his head beneath her chin, the warmth of his breath spreading through the flimsy fabric of her nightdress, and she rubbed her cheek against his hair. He said nothing at first, seeming content just to feel her breathe, then sighed as he traced light circles on her hips with his thumbs, smoothing the thin fabric of her nightgown between his fingers.

Yes, Eve wanted him, and funny, wanting him didn’t seem quite so scary when he touched her this way.

“I’d hoped your parents might like me,” he said.

He shouldn’t have to care what her parents thought. The conversation had the potential for becoming too serious, and Eve didn’t want serious.

“At least you and my mother are getting to know each other better,” she joked, trying to keep things light.

“Very funny.”

Kneeling down in front of him and taking his face with its stubbly five-o’clock shadow between her hands, she looked him straight in his blue, blue eyes. Well, one blue eye. The other one was swollen and red.

“You might as well know now. My parents are never going to like you,” she told him. “That’s why I do. And I’m not afraid to admit it.”

She gave him a light kiss, intending it to be funny, but something fell flat. The truth was, she liked Matt too much. The kind of too much that made her worry things might change, and that she was in danger of having too much of a good thing.

Matt laughed, sighed, then caught her lips with a feathery touch from his own. His hands stroked her forearms. “Wow. I’ve never been the boy a girl’s parents objected to before.”

“Stick with me, baby,” Eve said, “and I can make you objectionable to everyone you know.” She’d meant that to be funny, too, but she really wasn’t very good at diplomacy. She said what she meant, often without thinking, and she didn’t see herself fitting easily into Matt’s circle of acquaintances because of it.

She needed to relax. It wasn’t as if she and Matt had to decide where they’d spend Christmas. They could enjoy each other for the next few months—maybe—and if one of them got tired before the project ended, Matt could always move back into a hotel.

His fingers tightened on her arms, and she saw the pulse leap on the underside of his jaw. His throat worked, his eyes never leaving her face. “You have no idea how much I want you.”

“Oh, I think I do,” she said.

She kissed him then, with all the desire she could pour into it, touching her tongue to his lips, parting them, exploring deeper, until they both were fighting for air. He tasted like coffee and mint chocolate.

He drew back, looking stunned, then took her waist in both hands and lifted her onto his knee. She flung an arm around his neck and held on, gripping the front of his shirt with her free hand.

“Matt! Your leg.”

“My leg is fine.” He held her chin. “Thank you, Eve.”

Before she could ask him what for, he took her mouth in another kiss that could best be described as hungry. Heat blossomed and spread throughout her body. She clung to him, dimly aware that one of his hands had slipped past the hem of her nightgown and that she sat, nearly naked, on his lap.

This was a bad idea. Her parents were upstairs, probably wide-awake and waiting for her to come back to bed.

So what if they were? She was an adult, and this was her home. Still, maybe she and Matt should consider moving this behind closed doors.

She caught hold of his wrists but didn’t try and break the kiss. Matt did that all on his own.

“Don’t tell me. Your parents.” His expression was rueful as he glanced upward. He kissed her again, briefly, then let her go with a great show of reluctance. “I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

“You’ll sleep in your own room, but it wouldn’t hurt you to share your bed,” Eve said. “I don’t snore.”

He half laughed, half groaned. “Don’t do this to me,” he said. “I want to do things right.”

“I thought you were doing everything right already,” she replied. “I don’t think you can get it any more right.”

“I don’t want to start off with your parents hating me. If I sleep on the sofa, they might warm up to me eventually.”

A cold feeling washed over her. That sounded ominous, like he planned on being around for a while. But anything beyond the present was more of a commitment than she was prepared to make. She wanted to be clear on that. People changed when they became too committed. She didn’t want him to think he had a right to tell her what to do, or think, or wear. She didn’t want him to change. She liked him the way he was.

And she didn’t want anyone trying to change her.

“They won’t need to warm up to you,” she said as gently as she could, considering it was hard to be gentle when her stomach was waging a raging battle with panic. She tried to stand up, to put some distance between herself and Matt, but he gripped her thigh. He wasn’t laughing anymore.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She pried his fingers off her leg and stood up. Matt stood, too, towering over her and making her more nervous. She wet her lips. Why did she feel like she was about to suggest something he wasn’t going to like?

“It means, if we’re to keep things casual, we shouldn’t plan on getting too friendly with each other’s families. It would complicate things too much.”

“I see,” Matt said. His face went stony in the dim light. “Casual.”

The refrigerator hummed quietly behind her.

“I don’t do commitment very well.” Eve tried hard not to be embarrassed at having to explain something so obvious.

For a moment, Matt said nothing.

“Has it ever occurred to you,” he finally said, picking up the ice pack from the table and dropping it into the sink where it landed with a wet, squishy thud, “to stop and think that maybe your lousy marriage wasn’t your fault?”

About a million times.

“Of course, it wasn’t completely my fault,” she said. “But it takes two people to make a marriage, and neither one of us held up our end.”

This was it. She braced herself. He was going to tell her to forget it. She could handle the rejection, but she wished she hadn’t been quite so open about what she was offering. She’d asked him to share his bed with her. How subtle was that?

“Okay,” Matt said.

Oh, no. What had she done?

“Are you sure?” she asked, then cursed herself for being stupid enough to ask for confirmation. This was what she wanted, wasn’t it? Why would she give him an opportunity to change his mind? Part of her hoped he’d back out, because another part of her began to get scared.

“I’m sure.” He leaned over her and placed a kiss on the top of her head. “We’ll do casual, Eve, if that’s what you really want. But,” he added, “you’re going to have to romance me for it.”