“Wanna tell me what the hell is going on?” Ryker stared down at his friend as they stood in the kitchen.
“I don’t have to tell you shit.” Luke backed away to leave.
Ryker grabbed his arm, pulling him back. “No. I never said you did, but you’re clearly deep into some shit and I can’t fucking help if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”
“No one asked you to play the big brother.” Luke shrugged Ryker’s arm off. “There’s nothing going on for you to worry about. Leave me alone.”
Ryker let him go this time, watching as he did. Luke was definitely up to something and, if he didn’t miss his guess, was in some kind of trouble. The normally happy-go-lucky member of their friend group had been pissy for weeks. This was the first poker night he’d shown up to in a while.
“You good?” Jake asked, getting a beer from the fridge.
“Yeah,” Ryker answered, trying to shake off the issues with Luke.
“Not upset it’s finally your turn?” Jake joked.
Ryker sighed. “Fuck. I forgot about that.”
“Not sure how you could forget something so life changing.”
They both headed back to the table where the poker game was about to start and took their seats.
Ryker wasn’t sure how he’d forgotten, either. It wasn’t like him to forget anything, much less something like this bullshit plan they had come up with.
Of his friend group, Ryker would be the fourth to go on a series of blind dates that were set up by his friends. The catch was that these were all at a restaurant that Evan’s girlfriend own, and he was a not so silent partner in, where the dates were done in the dark.
“Ryker said he forgot it was his turn,” Jake announced.
“Shut up.” He took a swig of his beer.
“Well, it’s been successful so far, so maybe you’re just scared it will work?” Evan laughed as he started to deal the cards.
It had been. Jake, Evan, and Cade had all found their significant others through this scheme they had jokingly concocted. It wasn’t fear of finding someone that worried Ryker though, it was the fear of who they might set him up with, namely Catherine, Cade’s sister.
Luke shook his blonde hair. “Ryker won’t find anyone. That’s why I was glad to go last. He has no desire to settle down.”
Ryker didn’t acknowledge him, instead focusing on the shit hand he’d just been dealt. The more he was around all these happy couples in his friend group, the more he wondered what it would be like to have someone that was always in your corner. Then he’d remember that the women he knew were either after his money or wanted him to play the part of the bad boy.
Tattoos showed wherever he went and he did little to dissuade anyone from thinking he was an asshole, but generally, he wasn’t. The things that some women had asked him to do had blown even his mind. It wasn’t what he wanted in a relationship.
“Can we focus on the game?” Ryker grunted out.
“Can I tell Kayla to send the questionnaire over?” Evan prodded.
“Whatever,” he bit out. “Just play the damn game.”
Evan smiled. “As usual, Luke, you need to pick someone for him to date first.”
Ryker held in a groan. That was sure to be more of a disaster than everyone else’s experiences with Luke’s dates. He always picked women that were exactly what everyone was avoiding. One woman practically chased Jake out of the restaurant, upset the night didn’t end in a billionaire’s bed.
“I’ll send the information to Kayla. Been waiting on this one,” Luke grinned.
“Okay. That’s settled. Can we play the fucking game?” Ryker said.
Everyone laughed, but the game did get started. Each of the five of them were billionaires in their own right, all with different companies, but they played poker for change. Usually the pot at the end of the night was less than fifty bucks, but it was a way for them to get together and the low stakes meant there was no pressure here.
This was one of the few that Ryker had hosted in his place. He didn’t normally like people at his place, friends or not. Things were changing though and as one of the remaining single men with only Luke for company there, they had asked him to host. He had stocked the fridge and agreed without hesitation.
Ryker loved all the women that his friends had found. They were all perfect couples, which was absolutely nauseating, but he was starting to envy it. The one person he wanted in his future was the one person he would never let in, Catherine.
She was raised in this world and deserved so much better than him. He had earned a reputation as a shrewd businessman and it was well deserved. While he wasn’t the bad boy, the women thought he was. He was every inch the man that other businesses feared, for good reason.
Ryker wasn’t above blackmail to get what he wanted in a business transaction. The men he dealt with left so many options open to take it, too. He had one man dedicated to researching, not just the skeletons in any company he was about to takeover, but also that of the people that were pulling the strings. It made things simpler when he was ready to make a deal.
Sometimes those men would try to retaliate against Cade before they saw reason. More than once that had meant someone had attempted to put a hit on him, unsuccessful, but no less attempted.
Ryker was used to dealing with the seedier side of things in business and Catherine didn’t need to be mixed up in that. No, she deserved someone that was born and bred into her world and would fit neatly with her image. Not to mention she was in public relations, where image was everything.
“What do you think?” Cade asked.
Ryker wracked his brain and tried to find bits of the conversation he had missed with no luck. “About?”
Cade shook his head. “About the new deal that Jake is working on?”
Oh, that he already knew about. “I already told him. I don’t think it’s a good idea. That company is going to come with some pretty serious bullshit that you’ll have to clean up.”
“Would you take it?” Jake asked.
“For me? Maybe. I’d at least consider it,” Ryker admitted. He rubbed a hand over his short hair and tried to focus back on the conversation. “That company is connected pretty deep with the mob, from what I could find. I don’t know for sure I’d even bother with it. You’ll have a tough time keeping people in line there and legal.”
“Hmm,” Jake scratched his chin as he thought about it. “You don’t think all the numbers are legal?”
“No. I told you the numbers don’t add up. They have to be padding the books.” Ryker was positive of that.
“Can you get Hacker Guy to do some digging?” Jake asked.
“At least you asked,” Ryker shook his head. “I’ll have him run what he can on it.”
Hacker Guy was actually just Matt, an employee that Ryker had that was really good at finding things people wanted to stay hidden. He was Ryker’s go-to guy for things like this. His friends had grown used to helping themselves to his expertise and Catherine had started calling him Hacker Guy or Hacker Man and it had stuck amongst them.
“Oh, so if I ask first, I can put him on my payroll?” Evan teased.
“No, but if you ask first, I might let him do some work for you,” Ryker answered. “Except Cade.” He glared at his friend.
“Whatever. We all know he will help us with or without your permission.” Cade glared back.
Cade had used his employee for months to track his father while he was threatening Cade and Catherine. The problem was that he hadn’t told any of them that this was going on even when the threats became real and started impacting the restaurant. His father was in jail now though, and hopefully that was the end of things.
“So I shouldn’t tell you that I already have him looking for my missing siblings?” Cade shrugged.
One thing that Cade’s father had revealed throughout his chaotic run of threats and destruction was that he had two other children that he could use to do his bidding if Cade wasn’t willing. Cade and Catherine both were unaware until that moment.
“Jokes on you. Your sister already asked for permission because she can follow instructions, unlike some people. But if it makes you feel better to think you are getting one over on me, then feel free,” Ryker quipped.
Cade grunted and crossed his arms, clearly unaware that his sister had told Ryker what they were doing. “Whatever.”
The rest of the night was much lighter conversations and joking. Luke was still stoic compared to his normal self and didn’t speak much. He didn’t joke at all and was the first one out the door when the night started wrapping up.
“Is he okay?” Evan asked, referring to Luke.
“I don’t know. He isn’t talking,” Ryker admitted.
“Well, we can all help keep an eye on him, but it might be useful to have your guy dig in on what he’s been up to, since it could affect everyone.”
Ryker nodded. He’d already thought about it.
“Have a good night, man,” Evan said as he left.
With the last one gone, Cade locked the door and turned off the outside lights. Something about having it off made him feel like no one would knock on it again. It wasn’t always the case, but it made him feel better.
As he walked to his room, he contemplated Luke’s problem and what it could be. Too many scenarios existed from a pregnant date to the mob. He would have Hacker Guy get on it first thing in the morning.
“You can’t buy that house.” Cade slammed the paperwork on the table.
“I wasn’t asking you,” Catherine said with a smile.
Her brother was always in her business and living with him since her parents had held her and Cade’s girlfriend, April, hostage in her apartment. She couldn’t go back in there and didn’t even want to. It had taken forever to find a place though, and now that she had, her brother was being his overbearing self about it.
“I’ve already bought it. The deal is done, money transferred, so it doesn’t really matter what you have to say. It’s a safe area and other than the real estate agent saying the neighbor is kind of a jerk, it’s a great place.”
Cade snorted. “Don’t you want security, a doorman, something?”
“To what extent? I had one before and that didn’t stop what happened, did it?” She snapped.
“Fair enough, but it’s not a good idea for that house in particular. Just maybe look into that neighbor?” Cade said.
Catherine squinted at him, trying to see what he wasn’t telling her. “What do you know?”
“That you should have done your research.”
“Well, you can gloat about it now. Who is the neighbor?” She hated that he had her curious, and he was definitely going to gloat.
He stared her down as though debating if he was going to answer. “Nah, I think I will let you figure this one out all by your big girl self.”
“Dammit Cade, just tell me.”
“Little sister, I think I’ve changed my mind. It’s a good idea. Go for it. Happy for you.” With that, he rushed out of her office and left her sitting there.
“What the hell was that?” Catherine asked the empty room.
Not above looking up the information, she quickly messaged her real estate agent.
Catherine: Hey. I know you said the neighbor is a bit of a jerk at this place, right?
Amy: That’s the rumor.
Catherine: Who is it?
Amy: What do you mean?
Catherine: What’s his name?
Amy: Ryker something. He’s hot as hell, but apparently an asshole. Why?
“Shit,” Catherine looked away from her phone and took a deep breath before writing her back.
Catherine: My brother knows him. Said something about looking at who my neighbor was.
Amy: I mean, we can’t change it now, but you can list it for sale again if you need to.
Catherine: It’s totally fine, nothing like that. My brother was just being an ass.
Amy: Okay. I’ll see you later to pick up the keys?
Catherine: I’ll be there.
She set her phone down and looked out the window at the rain coming down. It was beginning to seem like the day was suiting her new mood. Ryker as a neighbor of all people.
For years she had lusted after him with zero reciprocation on his part, save for one kiss that he quickly called a mistake. She didn’t think it was the whole friend’s sister part that was the issue either, because she’d heard from her friends that Cade had pretty much told Ryker to go for it.
Ryker wasn’t uninterested, either. She caught him paying attention to her enough to get her hopes up for a while, but again, nothing. So she’d decided to put him from her mind and she was going to just move on. She had given up chasing him and hinting at anything between them just to be rejected.
Now, she was going to be neighbors with him. This should be a blast. Definitely not the best way to get him off her mind.
Maybe it was time to truly move on, do something completely different. Grabbing her phone again, she texted one of her best friends, Kayla.
Catherine: Sign me up for a date.
Kayla: I never say no to that.
Catherine: Great. I just want to do the questionnaire and find someone.
Kayla: Are you okay?
Catherine: Fucking peachy.
Kayla: So, no?
Catherine: You’ve been telling me to sign up for months. Are you trying to talk me out of it?
Kayla: Of course not. But I am trying to be a good friend and figure out where this is coming from.
Catherine: My new neighbor.
Kayla: Oh? Did you meet them already? I thought you got your keys tonight?
Catherine: It’s Ryker.
Kayla: Shut up!
Catherine: Just found out. I need a drink.
Kayla: I’ll send the details over for the dates.
She set her phone down on her desk again and sighed. This wasn’t what she had planned for her new place. With any luck, she just wouldn’t see him around, anyway. She didn’t know what hours Ryker kept, but something told her he was out more than he was home.
“Hey boss, I’m going to head out unless you need anything else?” Jack, her assistant, poked his head into her office.
“I told you there was no need for you to come in on a Saturday,” she reminded him.
“And yet here we are, both of us working on a weekend.” He smiled at her and left.
Until her recent personal PR disaster, she hadn’t bothered to have an assistant. Now, she needed one just to field the calls from reporters that were still coming months after her parents were arrested. But it seemed that Jack was determined to make her feel bad for working long hours, in addition to answering calls for her.
Taking it for the sign that it was, Catherine gathered her things and let herself out as well. It was weird doing her job halfway lately, since her own PR mess wasn’t good for helping anyone else. She had to sit back and only plan. She was giving it a few more weeks and then she was going back in again in front of the cameras and anyone that questioned her personal life would just be removed from any conferences.
Catherine waited for the valet to bring her car around in the comfort of the lobby. She wasn’t above using a little of her own power to not stand in the rain. Normally, she parked her own car on the private parking deck with Cade because she could. When it was nasty out, she didn’t bother, someone else could do it.
If she had thought it all the way through, she would have arranged for a car instead of driving herself, but she wanted to buy this house completely on her own. Her brain this morning convinced her that also meant driving herself there. It made no sense, but here she was.
When her car was pulled around, she quickly got in and headed for her new house. Amy would be meeting her there with the keys and she was ready to take ownership and get all the new things she’d bought delivered and setup. Taking it one step further, she’d even taken vacation time for next week.
She’d be working, of course, but not in the office. Jack would no doubt give her heavy sighs as she did. She tried to convince him to also take time off, but he declined. His boyfriend couldn’t take the time off too, so they were waiting to take a vacation together.
Catherine admitted she was a bit jealous of all the couples around her now. She wanted that. Wanted someone to come home to and to share everything with. Maybe a reason to not want to work all the time.
One problem with that scenario was her crush, or whatever it was, on Ryker. She had wasted a good amount of time pining after him instead of someone that maybe wanted her back. The other issue was that she scared a lot of men away with her direct and firm demeanor.
Catherine could play the game as well as anyone, but given the opportunity, she preferred being the one in charge of everything because then you knew it would go right. Cade and his friends challenged her often and weren’t put off by the power she held. Once, though, she went out with a man who told her a woman’s job was to bow to her husband and he would have to train her. Gross and absolutely not.
She pulled up in front of her new home and settled in to wait for Amy. She was about twenty minutes early. If it wasn’t for the rain, she would get out and walk around Ryker be damned. Now she was trapped in her car, looking at the rain fall on her car and the beautiful brownstone she was now the proud owner of.
Her phone chimed, pulling her out of her peaceful thoughts. Catherine pulled it out of her bag and unlocked it, opening the message from Amy.
Amy: Hey! Hope you haven’t left yet. There’s an accident and everything is backed up. I don’t know how long I’ll be.
Catherine: I’m here already, actually. No problem though, you can’t control the traffic.
Amy: I’m so sorry. If you want to leave, I can call you when I’m close.
Catherine: I’ll let you know if I leave. Just going to hang out here for now.
Amy: Okay. Sorry again.
Catherine screamed at the tapping on her window and her phone went flying as she panicked.
“What the hell, Catherine?” Ryker’s gruff voice, muffled through her closed windows, shouted.
Pressing a hand to her racing heart, she took a deep breath before rolling the window down. “What the hell me? What the hell you? You just scared the crap out of me.”
“Why are you parked outside my house?” he demanded.
This was going to be fun. It seemed Cade had failed to inform his friend that she was his new neighbor. “I live here.”
“No you don’t. I do.”
Catherine rolled her eyes. “Not with you. I bought this house. I’m waiting on my realtor with the keys.”
Ryker swore and she couldn’t help the small grin that creeped out at getting to surprise him. She had convinced herself that he already knew.
“Anyway, you can go,” she told him.
“Where’s your agent?” he asked.
“Stuck in traffic,” Catherine answered.
A look of defeat crossed his face. “Come on then,” he said, waving his arm for her to get out.
“What?” she sputtered.
“If she’s in the mess that is out there, she won’t be here for a while. You can wait at my place until she gets here.”
Confused at this random act of kindness from Ryker, Catherine didn’t move.
“Come on,” he said, sounding annoyed.
Not prepared to argue this offer, Catherine quickly looked for her phone, finding it in the passenger seat before rolling her window up, turning the car off, and opening the door. Immediately, Ryker was there, offering her his hand.
She took it, once again surprised by him as he took off at a brisk pace towards his home. They rushed through the rain before finally reaching his porch and both standing under the small roof as he unlocked the door.
“Why did you buy that house?” he asked as they walked into his home.
“I liked the home. I didn’t want to live in my apartment anymore and I’ve been staying at Cade’s, but I wasn’t going to do that forever. This one came up for sale and I bought it.”
“You just had to live next to me?” Ryker shrugged out of his coat and hung it on a rack by the door.
“I didn’t know you were the neighbor until today. Cade didn’t know the address of this property until today and then he refused to tell me who my neighbor was, so I had to ask Amy and only just found out.”
“Cade could have called me,” Ryker muttered.
“He could have, but he’s also an ass, so…” Catherine let it trail off.
Ryker grunted his agreement. “Coffee?” he asked.
“Anything warm would be great,” she answered, following him through to a massive kitchen,
“I really didn’t know you lived here. I just assumed you were in a penthouse or basement or something,” she half-joked.
“It is what it is,” he told her, putting the coffee pod in the machine.
Chill Ryker wasn’t someone she was used to. Catherine stood awkwardly in the kitchen and waited in silence for the coffee to brew. She studied him as he moved around his kitchen and wondered what was going through his mind.
“Cream and sugar?” he asked.
He pulled both out and set them on the counter. “You can have a seat.”
She walked around the bar and slid onto one of the stools. “Are you okay?” she asked after a minute.
“Yeah,” he ground out.
“You know I wasn’t going to bother you, right? I can go sit in my car, honestly.” She was going to get that warm cup of coffee first, though.
“It’s fine.” He put the cup in front of her and went back to make another.
“Ryker, it’s obviously not fine. I swear I didn’t know that we were going to be neighbors, but I doubt we will see each other much. I’ll just drink this coffee quickly and you can have your space back.” Catherine poured the cream into her cup and added a bit of sugar before giving it a stir. It was piping hot, but she was prepared to guzzle it just to get out of here right now.
“You’re fine. There’s no need to wait in your car. You can wait here because it’s going to be a while before you have keys to next door.”
“I know that you like your personal space, Ryker. I’m not trying to be in your way.”
“I never said that you were.”
“You’re acting like it. Frankly, I’m confused you invited me in at all. It’s like you’re scared to be anywhere near me most of the time.” There, she’d said what she was thinking.
“I have a lot on my mind right now, Cat. I am not going to do this with you and you aren’t going to go wait in the cold for hours, either. Make yourself at home.”
Cade jerked his coffee from the machine so fast it splashed on his hand. As he swore, Catherine was out of her seat, already looking at his hand.
“I’m fine,” he told her, pulling his hand back.
“Fine. Sorry for being concerned,” she spit back at him.
“Dammit,” Ryker whispered. “Why isn’t anything with you easy?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” She stiffened her spine, prepared to go to battle with him over it.
“Nothing. I’m going to my office. Living room is through there and the remotes are on the table.”
With that, Ryker left her standing there alone in his kitchen. He didn’t even take his own cup with him, just stormed out instead.
Catherine huffed and went back to her coffee. It wasn’t like she asked him to let her in. She was perfectly fine to wait in her car like she had planned on. It wasn’t cold in her car with the heat on, anyway.
Something stopped her from storming back out, though. Maybe it was the fact that she was standing in his sanctuary. The one place she knew he didn’t like people to be. He didn’t want anyone in his space and that included his friends. He rarely hosted their poker nights, preferring to go to someone else’s home instead.
Ryker was an enigma of a man. Hot one minute, cold the next. A bit like the October weather they were having at the moment.
With nothing else to do, she let herself into his living room and took a seat, carefully placing the still very hot coffee on the table. The overstuffed black leather furniture wasn’t a surprise and suited the man she knew. The pops of color in this room, those were. The yellow accent pillows threw her off right away.
He did have a pleasant garden out back and a beautiful view of it from where she sat. Rather than turn the TV on, Catherine sat and watched the raindrops chase each other down the window. Her mind wandered as she did and as much as she didn’t want it to be to Ryker, he was all she could think about as she sat there in his home.
She wondered what was going on with him being so welcoming in the beginning and then what he might be up to. It was likely that he was just busy. Ryker being short with her, or anyone for that matter, wasn’t strange. Being concerned and fixing her a cup of coffee that was weird.
She reached for it and took a hesitant sip, finding it a pleasant temperature. Any other day she would have turned down coffee this late in the day, but today it seemed fitting. It was nasty outside, and she was still a little cold.
“Couldn’t figure out how to work it?” he asked.
She turned to find him standing in the doorway. “I didn’t even try. I was just watching the rain. It’s so peaceful.”
“I thought you just sprinkled tidbits of chaos everywhere you want. It’s nice to know you like calm sometimes,” he was joking, but she still took offense.
Catherine sat up again, no longer relaxed. “Yeah. I should probably call Amy.”
“Traffic app says everything is at a stand-still,” Ryker told her.
Damn. “Well, I guess I should tell her to try again tomorrow then, and I should make my way back to Cade’s for the night.”
“Were you planning to stay over there tonight? It’s not furnished, is it?”
“I have an air mattress in my car. I was just going to order pizza and celebrate owning my own place.” She stood, uncomfortable that she had admitted anything to him.
“Didn’t you own the apartment?” he asked.
Oh, so now the man wanted to have an actual conversation? “Kind of. I owned it, but my father helped me buy it. It was messy and just not something I did on my own. This house is mine. I own it, I made the decisions, I paid for it.”
Ryker nodded. “Well, I don’t think you’re going to get back to Cade’s, either.”
It couldn’t be that she was stuck. “Let me check the app.”
It didn’t take long to pull it up and see that she wasn’t going to make it there either. At this point, she was going to need a hotel or sit in traffic for hours.
“You can stay in the guest room,” he announced.
She couldn’t have closed her mouth if she tried. Her jaw hung open at the mere fact that Cade was allowing her in his space and then offering her a place to sleep. He literally had done his best not to be anywhere near her in months, and now this?
“I can get a hotel,” she assured him.
“And waste money. It’s fine, just stay here.” He walked out of the room like everything was decided.
Catherine followed him. “Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but why would you let me?” She called after him.
“You hungry?” he asked instead of answering.
She was, actually. “Yes.”
Taking a seat at the bar again, she watched Ryker seemingly in his element as he pulled ingredients out and lined them up on the counter. A pot came out next before he turned to face her.
“Pasta Carbonara okay?”
“You… cook?” she barely got out over her surprise.
“I didn’t grow up rich, remember? If you wanted to eat, you had to learn to cook something with a few ingredients. I admit this is a step up from buttered noodles, and definitely higher end ingredients, but I assure you, it isn’t hard.”
That was probably the most he’d ever said at one time to her. “Umm, yeah, that sounds great.”
“Okay,” he said before putting his back to her again.
Ryker made quick work of cooking the dish. She’d had it before, but not watched someone make it. Her eyes were glued to his hands, watching him move from pot to pot as he cooked and stirred.
“Here,” he said, handing her a plate.
“Thanks,” she croaked out.
“Don’t turn this into something, Cat,” he warned.
“Like what?” He had this uncanny ability to ruin any sense of relaxation she had.
“I just am offering you a place to stay and making sure you’re fed. That’s all it is.”
She nodded. No chance was she going to take his nice demeanor personally. Hell, she was more confused than anything.
“I’ll show you the room when you’re done and then go get your bag out of the car if you give me your keys.” He took a big bite of his own pasta from where he stood, leaning on the counter, as far away from her as possible in this room.
“I can get it. I need to get my computer and stuff, too. Plus, I still need to call Amy.” She’d completely forgotten about her.
“I’ll get it. It’s getting dark already, and it’s still nasty out.” The words were an offer, but the tone left no room to say no.
“Fine,” she relented and explained what bags she needed.
Twenty minutes later, she had settled in a guest room and Ryker was bringing her things up to her.