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Today was the day.

Layla Habib walked into her favorite coffee shop. The one where she’d first seen him

He was totally out of her league. But here they were. About to have their first date. Her heart nearly exploded out of her chest.

A month ago, he’d walked into her coffee shop, this coffee shop, looking like a God, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful people. A beam of light speared through the clouds and shone through the shop window, and it had been as if angels were singing. Her heart thundered in her chest like she was having a heart attack, and she’d been enveloped by this weird feeling that he’d been sent just for her.

She couldn’t look away. He was laughing, white teeth, lush almost feminine pink lips, his body surrounded by an essence that seemed to glow like a halo.

Fanciful, silly girl. Yet she couldn’t look away. As if he felt her stare, he glanced over and their eyes met, held, for just a moment. Her heart pounded harder and a rushing sound filled her ears. His intensely bright blue eyes widened, and then she ducked her head and got back to her homework but continuing to watch them out of the corner of her eye.

One of the gorgeous girls in his group tugged on his arm and the moment dissolved as if it never happened. She had probably imagined the whole thing.

Except a couple of days later he was in her coffee shop again, alone, and he seemed to be searching for someone.

He’d ordered a drink and then sat at the table next to her.

Layla thought it must be coincidence, but then he’d started a conversation. “Do you have Professor Jones?”

What? She looked around, trying to figure out who he was talking to. “Are you talking to me?” She was so shocked she just blurted it out.

He flushed. “Uh, yeah. But I can leave you alone.”

Her first instinct was to agree for him to leave her alone and she could go back to her studying. She was so unused to being seen. Was her mouth open like a gaping fish? Highly possible. Because a freaking Greek God was talking to her.

Very attractive, Lay.

Nerdy, shy, Layla hid in the back of the class and tried to be invisible. She was a nearly unheard-of mix of Jewish and Muslim, shunned by both her heritage communities. When her mother was alive, their little family had been their own happy unit. But these days, their household of only her and her dad, lived an awkward tense coexistence, as if her baba were unable or unwilling to figure out how to deal with the woman she’d grown into.

She’d never had many friends and she was awkward socially.

“You want me to go?” As he studied her, she realized she’d been sitting there staring at him blankly.

“Oh, umm, yes?”

“You’re not sure?” A smile quirked his perfect lips and his eyes sparkled as if he knew what effect he had on her. He probably did. Guys like him didn’t typically look twice at girls like her.

Was it hot in here? She fluttered her hand in front of her face and managed to knock over her tea onto him. The brown liquid splattered all over his pristine white shirt. Luckily it wasn’t very hot. “Shoot!”

He jumped up and grabbed napkins from the dispenser and wiped up the mess, but he was cleaning up the table, not his shirt.

Oh my gosh! She was a complete and utter idiot. He was so out of her league. “I’ll get the table. Take care of your shirt.” Now she was ordering him around like he was her baba. If only she could disappear into a hole in the floor while he wasn’t looking. She glanced around, searching for a place to literally disappear while she slapped the napkins over his chest.

“I think you got it all.”

Layla was sure her face was a deep, dark burgundy. “I’m so sorry.”

He grabbed her fingers and held on loosely. “It’s fine.” Her hand tingled where he touched her. What was that all about?

She pulled away and plopped onto the bistro chair, fighting the urge to drop her head into her hands.

He took a step back. “Sorry for touching you.”

“Oh, it’s fine.” Although she wasn’t touched often. Her baba wasn’t physically affectionate. He would have a heart attack that a strange man had touched her. But her mom had been a hugger, and she missed her dreadfully.

“I’m Ben.” He extended his hand.

“Layla,” she muttered.

“Like the Eric Clapton song.” He smiled and the sun came out to bestow her with sunlight and joy. “I love him.”

She brightened. “My mom was a huge Clapton fan.” 

“Was?” he asked gently.

She blinked away tears. Her mom had been gone for almost ten years and it still hurt. This was one of those days where she wished that she could go home and tell her mom what a complete dork she was.

“Yeah. Cancer.” 

“Fuck cancer.” The vehemence of his reply took her by surprise. “I had a friend who died of Hodgkin lymphoma in high school.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.” He had a faraway look in his eyes. “But I made him a promise before he died and knowing him changed my life.”

“What was the promise?” She couldn’t believe she asked such a personal question of a complete stranger, but there was an ease between them that made it somehow okay.

He flushed again. “I, uh, wasn’t in the best of shape and I vowed to take care of my body. We started walking together while he was undergoing chemo.”

It was hard to believe he hadn’t been in good shape. He had sleek arm muscles dusted with pale blond hair and thighs that strained the fabric of his jeans.

“Looks like you’re doing a great job.” She blurted out. Then covered her face with her hands. “Oh my goodness. Shut up, Layla.”

He laughed, rough and yet husky. “I work hard at it but thank you. I don’t do it for the attention, but I need to be the healthiest version of me I can be.”

Layla hunched in her seat, trying to hide her softer body. She definitely wasn’t the healthiest version of herself these days. Lately it seemed she spent all her time studying or helping her dad.

“Don’t hide.” He smiled, his bright blue eyes soft. “You’re beautiful.”

She ducked her head, resisting the urge to argue with him. “Thank you.”

They’d talked for over an hour about everything under the sun. 

School: she was studying English—her father wanted her to be a teacher, she wanted to keep working in the family business. He was getting his MBA, so he could move up in the family business. They were both older students, her twenty-four, him twenty-eight.

Favorite Smithsonian museums:

His, the Air and Space Museum. So cool that they explored the unknown. 

Hers, the National Portrait Gallery. Without connection to an extended family, she liked to learn about all the different ways people contributed in the world and their backgrounds.

Her job was naturally somewhat disheartening, so she liked to find positive stories to reaffirm her faith in humanity.

Favorite outdoor activity: 

His, Lacrosse because of course he played the most extra all-American sport there was. 

Hers, walking in the park.

“Where do you live?” he blushed. Blushed! “Never mind. Sorry too personal. I’m not a creeper. I swear.”

She laughed.

“I’ll go first, just so you know I’m willing to reciprocate. I’m getting my MBA and live in a house with five guys. But I go home on Saturdays to have lunch with my parents.”

She really shouldn’t tell a stranger, thought about deflecting, but he couldn’t possibly be interested in her, so it didn’t matter that she was twenty-four and had never lived anywhere but home. He was a beautiful man, and she was a quiet, shy girl. “I live at home with my dad. I work in his business and go to school part time.”

“Your face lit up when you mentioned work.” He leaned closer. “What do you do?”

“Private investigations.”

“Cool.” He looked intrigued. “So you could check me out and make sure I’m not up to nefarious purposes?”

“Do I need to?” She couldn’t get over that she was sort of flirting with him.

“No. What you see is what you get.”

She seriously doubted that. She looked at her phone and realized she had to run. “Oh, I’ve got to go.”

“It was nice chatting with you.” He held out his hand.

“You, too.” The best stress relief she’d had in forever.

“Maybe I’ll see you around.” His blue eyes twinkled as if he had a secret. “If you’d like that.”

“I would,” she said softly. Not believing that she’d see him again, even by accident.

But the next time she went to the coffee shop, he was there. Every day she went to study, he was there. Finally they exchanged cell numbers.

They had talked every day for hours on the phone and at the coffee shop. Until yesterday, when he’d asked her out on an official date.

Her father would flip. He was very conservative. She was twenty-four and he still thought she was a virgin. Frankly in relationship terms she kind of was.

Now a week later they were having their first official date.


Layla headed for the back of the coffee shop. This was the first time they would sit together. Normally, she sat at one table, and he would sit at the next table over. She worried that her father would randomly walk by, see them together and ask questions. He wouldn’t approve and she couldn’t bear to cut short whatever this was. Seeing Ben and talking with him had become a bright spot in her otherwise colorless life.

“Going old school, huh?” Ben tapped her giant textbook.

“Can’t afford the iPad and stylus,” she said defensively. Used textbooks were it for her.

“Must be heavy.”

“I get by.”

He lifted her backpack easily with one hand. “Damn.”

She refused to ogle his muscles but darn it, he was ripped. Being attracted to his physique was so superficial. The more she’d gotten to know him, the more she’d been attracted to his mind and his kindness.

“You like my muscles.” He teased, full of confidence that was not misplaced.

“I like you,” she said softly. It was true but she still braced for a laugh, or worse, rejection. She still couldn’t quite believe that he was interested in her.

He paused, then said equally as softly, “I like you too.” He smiled and set down her favorite drink. A hot, chai with extra almond milk foam.

Layla dug through her backpack for some dollar bills. He held up a hand, palm facing her. “I’ve got it.”

“You sure? I’ve got money.” She clutched the ones in her hand.

“Are you always going to be this difficult to buy things for?” The exasperation in his voice was hard to mistake. But her heart trilled at the way he said always. As if they had a future.

That gave her hope.

Maybe things could work out for them.

A few hours later, Layla was on the way home.

Was today even real?  Ben had kissed her! Just a chaste peck on the mouth, but her lips were still buzzing, and she was floating on the air.

She walked from the bus stop to their house. They only had one car and they used it strictly for work and to go to the grocery store.

A blue sedan going slowly down the street caught her eye. There’d been a sedan just like that behind the bus.

Probably nothing.

She ignored the momentary disquiet, floating along, reliving every moment of the past few hours, going through each facet of their conversation, and adding up the clues. He liked her. He really liked her!

He was totally out of her league.

“It’s just infatuation.” She mentally chastised herself on the way to the house. But she couldn’t make herself believe it. This didn’t feel like something trivial. It felt huge and light and full of possibilities.

Just as she acknowledged that something good was happening, movement out of the corner of her eye pulled her attention back.

A blue sedan was coming down the street again.

Was she being followed? Layla stopped ignoring her instincts and hustled to their house. She was being followed.

She would be a terrible PI if she didn’t tag her tail. But she had to wonder why someone was tailing her. She pretended to be talking to someone on her phone and dictated the license plate into the notes app. She’d run the plate when she got into the office.

Her stomach jittered and her hands were shaky as fear replaced the joy from her date. The car drove past her slowly, then sped up and turned the corner.

Her concerns over her father’s new case came roaring back. Could the car be related to baba’s recent job? Or was she being paranoid? Her baba had taken a case to surveil a guy for supposed insurance fraud, but something had seemed off about it. 

 He’d been secretive about the details which she didn’t like. She hadn’t wanted him to take it, but of course, he knew best. And never failed to remind her of it.

She finally reached the front door of their little bungalow. The bushes in the yard were a month past needing a trim and the paint was starting to peel on the siding. Money was scarce. They still had five more years of payments before they could finally pay off the debt from her mom’s medical bills.

After her mom died, her dad had converted the garage into the office for his private investigation business. He used to have an office in a building across town, but after her mom’s cancer treatment bills, he’d given up the office and converted the garage. The good news was private investigators were always in demand in the DC metro area so they had plenty of business.

She opened the door quickly and scurried inside, her heart beating in double time. Finally in the tiny entry, her shoulders unhunched and her stomach eased. She hadn’t realized how much that car disturbed her until she’d accomplished this smidgeon of safety.

She let herself into the office and headed for her dad’s desktop. She’d prefer some cases with more meat, more mystery, but insurance fraud and cheating spouses were their bread and butter. 

She loved what she did. Loved that her father let her help out. She adored mysteries and sleuthing. She’d started working with him after her mom died. It had been a way for him to keep an eye on her and to keep her busy.

She walked into the office, took in the receptionist’s desk where she’d spent her middle school and high school years doing homework and taking care of the office administrative stuff for her father.

If she peered hard, she could still see the faint dots from when her permanent marker had bled through the paper to the desktop. Now she was taking classes at college part time and working for her dad.

She thought about forcing a conversation with her dad again, but when she peered in his office, he wasn’t there.

The unsettled feeling wouldn’t leave, so she locked the front door.

She slung her coat on the rack in the corner behind the file cabinet and pulled out her laptop. She needed to file the paperwork and send the pictures from the insurance fraud case she’d completed yesterday.

Her buzz from her date with Ben had completely worn off. Real life intruded painfully.

While she entered the information so they could get paid, that tail kept nagging at her.

Once she finished paperwork, she logged in to their multipurpose PI software, Tracers, and pulled up the plate number to see if she could get any info. The website was legal, but she always had the urge to glance over her shoulder when she accessed their database.

After twenty minutes, she acknowledged defeat.

She couldn’t find any info on the person who owned the car.

That was weird. But not completely out of the ordinary.

Her heart jumped when someone scratched at the door to the office. She pulled up the security camera feed and saw her father fumbling with the lock. Layla let out a breath and willed her heart to slow down.

“What the heck did you lock it for?” He groused.

She debated whether or not to tell him. He still wasn’t crazy about her doing the private investigator work. They’d been able to increase their income, but he didn’t like her involvement and he constantly mentioned when she’d be done with school and could get a teaching job.

She did not want to teach.

“Someone was following me.” She couldn’t deny how freaked out she was.

He shrugged it off. “Probably just someone going the same way as you.”

“Really, baba?” Her blood boiled. She wasn’t some fair maiden scared of her own shadow. She had self-defense training, some anyway, and a healthy dose of situational awareness in dicey circumstances.

“Run the plate.”

“I did.” She hesitated. “Couldn’t get a hit.” 

She had such a bad feeling about the job he just took. “You think it’s related to that new job?”

Supposedly this guy her dad was surveilling had committed some sort of insurance fraud, but the client had given them a company name she’d never heard of. The request had come in online. Not unusual. PI business these days was more high-tech computer work and less gumshoe dicks with fedoras and cigarettes.

“Let it go, amirti.” He brushed a hand over her hair. “I got this.” 

But did he?

“And it’s good money.”

Maybe too good. But her father wouldn’t be swayed. She’d been worried about her dad lately. Little things had caught her attention. Forgetfulness that she was afraid was more than forgetfulness. Recently he’d lost some client files, so she’d set up an automatic backup system on his laptop without his knowledge.

That way if he accidentally deleted customer files, she could access them. She wanted him to see a doctor, but she was trapped in the cycle of parent and child. No way would he take advice from her.

So she kept watch and hoped it was nothing. But deep down in her gut, she knew it wasn’t nothing. Just like she knew, deep down, that the blue sedan hadn’t been random.

Who was watching her? And why?


“My dad is gone.” Layla texted Ben. “You want to talk more?”

She had debated contacting him since they’d already talked for hours earlier on the phone before she had dinner with her father. But she really wanted to connect with him.

Her dad just went out for surveillance on their new subject and said he’d be gone most of the night. Another red flag. Why do they need surveillance on this guy in the middle of the night for insurance fraud? Typically, those were day jobs to catch the person doing physical stuff that they claimed they couldn’t do.

She’d lain in bed propped up on pillows, staring at the Eric Clapton poster of the Layla album cover but not really seeing the sleek form and funky lines of the iconic artwork. Instead, she was picturing Ben.

He texted back. “Can I come over?”

Her heart quickened. It was a terrible idea. But her dad would be gone for hours. She dialed his number. “What for?”

“What do you think?” She could hear the smile in his voice. “I want to kiss you.”

Oh. Oh.

She wanted that too. So badly. “It’s a terrible idea.” But her voice weakened. She wanted to see him so badly. Like an ache in her soul. He’d been the bright spot in her life for the last week.

“Really wonderful idea. I’ll be right there.”

“Park around the corner. Just in case.”

“Are you ashamed of me?” The uncertainty in his voice surprised her.

“No!” How could she explain? “My dad is very old fashioned and he’s very strict. When you meet, I want him to like you.”

“When?” The smile in his voice warmed her heart.

“Yeah.” But not yet. She was going to have to prepare her father for a boyfriend. Since her mom died, he’d gotten less flexible and more rigid.

“See you in twenty.”

She let him in the back door through the kitchen and ushered him inside. The room was mostly dark, a light under the stove the only illumination. They were both in shadows, the atmosphere intimate as they stood only inches apart. Anticipation fizzed in her blood.

His deodorant scented the air as the warmth of his body seeped into hers even though they weren’t even touching. Inches separated them, but he didn’t make a move. He’d said he wanted to kiss her but maybe he changed his mind?

Suddenly there was an awkwardness between them. She wanted him to kiss her, but….

“What are you thinking right now?” he demanded.

She was more comfortable with him than anyone else, even her father. Before she got to know him, she would have deflected, tried to make him laugh. But she wanted to answer honestly, because they’d talked about so much stuff in the past week.

“On the phone…” ugh she hated being so wishy washy. But she was in uncharted territory. She took a deep breath. “…you said you wanted to kiss me.”

“I do.” He shot back immediately. He grabbed her hands, but gently. “But I didn’t want to come in and just maul you.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Ben placed her hands on his shoulders, then slowly, carefully, treating her as if she were important, curled his arms around her waist and pulled her into the safety of his body. Layla tilted her head up and stared into his eyes. They stood there for a full minute, adjusting to the almost embrace. If she inhaled deeply, her breasts would brush his chest muscles. Heat rose between them, the air becoming sultry and laden with import.

“You are so beautiful,” he whispered.

He bent and pressed his lips to hers. The kiss was soft and sweet. Her lips parted and his tongue traced the opening. Layla pushed onto her tiptoes, increasing the pressure of the kiss. Wanting to be nearer to him, wanting that intimacy that she was craving. He pulled her closer, her breasts smashed against his muscles. The contact was delicious.

A rush of desire flowed through her. She slid her hands around his neck and he pressed harder. His tongue invaded her mouth, and they tangled together. A rough slide then swirl as he angled his head and pulled her even tighter against him.

She felt the throb of his erection against her belly. Oh.

Ben was much taller than her and soon the arch in her neck was getting uncomfortable. The kitchen was hardly the place to continue kissing. Layla pulled away and took his hand leading him to the living room. The room was dark. The sheer curtains hid them from the street view. The room had the standard layout of couch flanked by chairs and a coffee table to hold the remote and a few private investigation magazines. The shabby furniture and well-worn rug were just there, an integral part of her life. Nothing had changed since her mom had died. Her father unwilling, and financially unable, to update their house. He saw it as a betrayal of her mother. But she hoped Ben wouldn’t judge.

Based on all talks, his family had money with a capital M.

She pulled him down to the nubby sofa.

“You sure?” he groaned against her mouth. 

“Yes,” she replied breathlessly, willing in this moment to surrender her soul to him and he’d only kissed her.

She didn’t have a lot of experience. She’d always lived at home with her strict father. She’d had sex a few times, but it hadn’t been all that noteworthy. Definitely not good enough to repeat. But suddenly, she was on fire.

He sat on the sofa and pulled her onto his lap so she lay across his body. Ben threaded his fingers through her hair, her scalp tingling with his touch, every nerve ending coming alive.

He held her head for a kiss that went on forever. Layla stroked her palms over his arms and shoulders longing for bare skin but not sure how to ask for what she wanted. Then she thought, screw it. She would touch him the way she wanted.

She gently pushed him away. Ben sat up his hair mussed and his lips red from kissing her a dazed look in his eyes.

She did that. His unfocused gaze was from her.

“I need better access,” she said boldly. Surprised at her ability to demand what she wanted. She’d never imagined she could be this comfortable with a guy.

“Don’t let me stop you.”

Layla straddled his lap, her knees bracketing his hips as she sat on his thighs. Then she gripped the bottom of his t-shirt. “Can I…?”

He smiled at her. “You can do whatever you want.” 

She pulled his shirt over his head. She glanced at the clock on the wall. “You too.”

His smile brightened the dark room as she smoothed her palms over his pale skin. The contrast between them an erotic reminder of their differences. She watched his nipples pebble at her touch, the smattering of goosebumps over his chest. His skin was lightly browned from the sun but still much paler than her. “You were in the sun today?”

“Skins in practice today.”

She blinked, relishing that image of a sweaty Ben without his shirt on, muscles flexing. 

His fingers toyed with the hem of her loose top, the tips of his fingers brushing her the soft skin of her belly. “May I?”

She’d already given him permission, but she liked that he asked again. She nodded. Slowly he raised her shirt over her head, his breath catching as he trailed his fingers over the swell of her breasts. He cupped her in his large raw-boned palms and lifted her to his mouth. Burying his face in the swells, he turned his head, the softness of his hair teasing her skin and then he slowly licked her nipple.

Layla moaned.

He licked again then gently sucked the bud into his mouth. 

Oh my. She clutched his head as he began to feast on her.

“We should stop,” she panted. “Probably.”

“You don’t sound very sure.”

“Because I’m not.”

He pushed her bra cups down and scooped her out so her breasts were completely exposed. Somehow the juxtaposition of her bra still on, but her breasts pushed up and out over the lace was more erotic than just being naked. It felt naughty and forbidden. He ran his fingers over her belly. “You feel so good.”

Layla threw her head back, eyes closed as she let the sensations his fingers and mouth elicited roll through her. The air was cool against her wet nipples but her body was on fire.

As he feasted on her breasts, his fingers slipped beneath her flirty skirt. The ruffly floral more feminine than she usually wore, but she’d put it on and wondered if he would like it. His fingers skimmed along her thighs and wetness coated her panties. “May I?”

Layla’s breath caught. Her heart thudding so hard she could barely hear. She nodded.

He lifted her skirt and dipped his fingers into her serviceable cotton and headed straight for her. He was gentle and slow, treating her with a care that sent ribbons of warmth flowing through her. 

Layla gripped his shoulders and leaned in to kiss him.

They ate at each other ferociously. And his fingers kept exploring her sex, cupping her, teasing with his middle finger but never penetrating.

Layla rocked her hips into his touch. Wanting to beg for more.

Sex had never been like this.

Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Arousal spiraled higher. 

Her thoughts scattered into a million fragments like a mirror shattering. She needed to touch him. To give him pleasure like he was giving her. She pushed the elastic waistband of his shorts down and gripped his penis.

He was so big and hot in her hand.

Layla watched as her fingers curled around the engorged red tip and she pumped, staring in fascination as he leaked. The air scented with their desire.

She moaned as his finger slid just a bit further inside her. She squeezed him harder, his hips lifting off the sofa and into her touch. Heat swirled around them like a dervish. 

“I want to have sex with you.” He licked her nipple.

Yes. She wanted that too.

“But I don’t want to rush you.” He rubbed his nose along the curve of her neck and then sucked the skin. Her sex pulsed with each intense kiss.

“We have plenty of time,” he groaned as she rocked over his erection.

But she didn’t want to wait. She cupped her hands around his face and stared into his eyes. “Let’s do it.”

“Only if you’re sure.”

Layla awkwardly dismounted from his lap.

The disappointment on his face cut into her heart like a visceral knife. Then she held out her hand. “We need to make sure we get all our clothes off the sofa and floor.” 

They couldn’t have sex in the family room.

Ben surged to his feet so fast he swayed. He grabbed her hand and scooped up his backpack and their clothes with one lightning fast swipe. 

“Lead the way.”