One of my favorite things about the endless stream of conferences I had to attend was the old conference hookup. Over the years, I’d perfected all the finer points to it and now considered myself to be something of an expert.
I’ve outdone even myself this weekend, though. I grinned out at the view of downtown Seattle, Washington. twelve stories below, doing up the last button on my shirt before I turned to face my companions.
All weekend, once the drinks in the bar downstairs had been drunk and the day’s ass kissing came to an end, I’d come up to this suite to entertain the two redheaded beauties currently putting their clothes back on next to the king-sized bed.
“This was fun, ladies,” I said before walking to the couch and grabbing my suit jacket from where one of them had flung it after I’d gotten back last night. “I’ve got to get going. The closing address starts in about twenty minutes.”
The closing address I’m giving, which means I really can’t be late to this one. “Thanks for a great weekend.”
“Thank you.” Agatha—Annette?—smiled and batted her long lashes as she shimmied into a tight red dress. “Annette and I had a good time too.”
Score. I guessed the right twin then. Sliding my arms into my jacket, I did up the buttons and crossed the room to them. “You’ll have to see yourself out.”
“You’re not coming back up?” Annette pouted, crossing her arms under her bra-covered breasts. “Our flight only leaves tonight, so we’ve got time for another round this afternoon if you do.”
With a firm shake of my head, I leaned in to kiss her cheek. “No can do. I’m only going to have a minute to grab my stuff then I have to take off as soon as I’m done.”
Agatha shrugged, stumbling a little as she pulled on one high heel. “No worries. We’ll see you around, Noah. Good luck with your talk.”
“Thanks.” I kissed her cheek too, then paused. “Just so we’re clear, you won’t be seeing me around. We talked about this, remember? It was a one-weekend-only thing.”
Fuck. I really didn’t want to give them the wrong impression. Maybe I didn’t have the art of the conference hookup down as well as I’d thought I did. That’s what you get for being cocky, Noah.
Thankfully, it seemed it wasn’t necessary to second guess myself. Annette arched an eyebrow, chuckling before she bent over to grab her shirt off the floor.
“Relax, Noah. We know the deal. Kindly untwist your panties.” She shoved her shirt over her head and made sure that I saw her roll her eyes. “All Aggie meant was that we might run into you at the next one of these things.”
“Right.” Whew. Bullet dodged. A slight smirk pulled at my lips as I held my arms out to my sides. “Can you blame me for wanting to double check, though? I’m not in the business of breaking hearts. Didn’t want you leaving here thinking it was going to happen again, only to be crushed when I didn’t call, write, or send a carrier pigeon.”
Annette snorted, giving my shoulder a playful shove as she breezed past me to get to her shoes. “Trust me. We knew that about you going in, Mr. Hotshot Inventor. Your reputation precedes you.”
“Glad I could live up to it.” I winked, lifted my hand in a wave, and headed for the door. T- minus ten minutes to my speech. “Safe travels, ladies.”
“You too, Noah,” one of them called just before I closed the door behind me. “Good luck.”
“Don’t need it, but thanks.” I wasn’t sure if they heard my response since the door clicked shut while I was talking, but I didn’t have time to go back and check. It didn’t matter anyway.
One of the best things about hooking up at a conference was that there was a predetermined period of time that would be spent together. When the conference wrapped up, everyone went back to wherever it was they came from, and that was it. Thanks for playing. The end.
Since the conference ended today, so did my time with the twins. Regretfully.
Sort of, anyway.
I sighed, heading down the hall and pressing the button to call the elevator. I had approximately nine minutes left before I had to be on stage, so I wasn’t worried. I would be right on time—early even.
The conference was being held in the hotel. It wouldn’t take me nine whole minutes to get to where I needed to go.
Since I had time, I allowed myself a final minute to reminisce over what had definitely turned out to be a hot-as-fuck weekend. Then I got my head into the game. Switching from personal life to business mode had mercifully never been a problem for me.
By the time I walked into the conference center five minutes later, no one would have guessed that I’d been daydreaming about four naked, creamy breasts only minutes before. The only thing on my mind now was the water purification system I had invented and how best to promote my brand in this speech.
The auditorium was packed with people wearing every shade of black and gray imaginable, and as I stepped onstage, they got to their feet to applaud me.
What a fucking head trip.
Christ. If anyone had told me a decade ago that there were places where engineers got treated like rock stars, complete with comped suites, standing ovations, and billions of dollars, I’d have laughed them out of the room.
But that was before exactly that scenario became my life. And what a fucking life it was.
I was riding high after my speech, convinced that I’d once again knocked it out of the park. Practically gliding out of the hotel after collecting my stuff from my suite, I headed to my car and started the three-hour drive back home.
I’d barely hit the highway when my phone rang. My brother’s name popped on the screen on my dash, and I answered. “I blew it out of the fucking water, Jordan. You should have been there.”
My brother let out a long-suffering sigh, capped off with a groan. “Oh, god. You’re still in Conference Noah mode. I knew I should have waited longer before I called.”
“I’m not in Conference Noah mode,” I said. “I’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again. Awesome is the only mode I have.”
“Insert a string of curses here,” Jordan said, cluing me in that his daughter—who just so happened to be my favorite girl in the world, after my mother—was with him. “Let’s agree to disagree. I wasn’t calling to have some stupid argument with you anyway. I wanted to know how it went.”
“Am I on speaker?”
He made a grunting noise at the back of his throat. “Do you think I’m that much of an idiot?”
“Daddy said a bad word,” Della said in a sing-song voice in the background.
There was a scraping sound that let me know he was covering the receiver with his hand. Then he was back. “Thanks a lot, asshole. Now she’s going to think that it’s acceptable to call people an idiot.”
“You’re the one who used the bad word, Daddy,” I said, keeping my tone as sweet and innocent as I could get it before I burst out laughing. “Don’t worry. Awesome Uncle Noah will be back in town in a few hours. I’ll set her straight.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.” He sighed. “Anyway. I have about a minute or two before she’ll be back from the kitchen. She wants to talk to you when she does, so give me the Cliff Notes version. How was it?”
“Fucking incredible. I spent the weekend with the McKay twins.”
“I meant your speech, not your extracurricular activities.” He groaned. “Gross, how do I unhear that?”
I laughed. “Gross? I think you’re spending too much time with that five-year-old of yours, bro.”
“Maybe, but I’d rather spend time with Della than—”
“Than what? A gorgeous pair of twins who let me—”
“I really don’t want to hear the end of that sentence.” It was the hint of pain in his voice that made me drop the teasing.
Jordan knew that I wouldn’t give him any details that were too private or explicit. The guy was my brother, for God’s sake. He knew me. Hell, he wasn’t only my brother, but also my closest friend since—
The slice of pain that shot through my heart shut that thought down hard and fast. I wrapped my fingers tighter around the soft leather of my steering wheel and took a deep, steadying breath. No way was I going down that rabbit hole right now.
“You’re having a bad day?” I asked, my voice quieter now.
For all the shit Jordan and I could give each other, we had each other’s backs. Always. He was the guy I could always count on for a joke or to see through my bullshit and call me on it. I tried my very best to do the same for him.
“Yeah.” The hint of pain became an ocean. “Five and a half fucking years. How pathetic is it that some days it all still feels like a nightmare I have to snap out of?”
“It’s not pathetic.” I resisted the urge to screw my eyes shut. Probably not a good idea since I was driving and all. “You loved her, man. You’re entitled to some bad days.”
“Della’s starting to look so much like her, you know?” He paused. “She found one of Hillary’s purses in the closet this morning and came into the kitchen with it.”
Fuck it. A split second isn’t going to hurt anyone. My eyelids closed for no longer than a blink before my eyes were on the wide-open road again. “That sucks.”
“Yeah.” A heavy sigh fell from his lips. The sound echoed from the speakers in my car.
It was the kind of sound where you felt the depth of the emotion behind it even on the other side of the state. Even when it was a sound that was devoid of much sound at all, you could hear the pain in it.
Hillary and Jordan had met in high school. They were that couple, the one that defied all odds and stayed together all through college. Degrees in hand three years later, they went back home and got engaged. They started their first jobs, got married, and less than a year later, Hillary was pregnant with Della.
Their story was a fairy tale, their love so powerful that it made even the most cynical of love’s critics—a.k.a. me—believe that maybe, just maybe, I was wrong.
It turned out that their fairy tale was more an original brothers Grimm one than a Disney one with a happily ever after, though. Hillary delivered their perfect little girl after fifteen grueling hours of labor, but only Della made it out of the ordeal alive.
It had been a rough time for all of us, each for our own reasons. Jordan had lost the love of his life. Mom had been reminded of losing Dad, and for me? Well, Ryan had only passed away a couple of years before that. Sure, losing a best friend couldn’t measure up to losing the love of your life, but it was more than just Ryan. Mom had also lost a daughter in Hillary and I’d lost the only sister I’d ever had.
Our family had always been close, but we banded together after that. Della wasn’t biologically my child, but my blood ran through her veins, too. I loved that little girl like she was my own, with the added benefit of getting to be the cool uncle instead of the disciplinarian.
Hearing her little voice in the background of the heavy silence that had settled between me and Jordan brought a smile to my lips. It always did. “Can I talk to Uncle Noah yet?”
Although I couldn’t see him, I could practically hear my brother rally and force a grin. “Sure, sweetheart. Just for a minute, okay? He’s on the road.”
“Where are you this time, Unkie?” She knew my actual name. She could say it now, but there had been a time when I’d been Unkie instead of Uncle Noah.
I let it slide. The nickname brought back fond memories for me. Those were the days.
“On my way home now, D. How are you doing?”
“Grandma let me have ice cream,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice. “On a Thursday.”
“It’s not Thursday, though.” I frowned. “Unless I missed a few days.”
Della laughed like I’d told the funniest joke in the world. “You’re silly, Uncle Noah. I didn’t have ice cream today. I had it on Thursday.”
“Maybe you should remind Grandma that it’s the weekend. You might be able to get her to give you some more.”
I’d hardly finished my sentence before Jordan’s voice was back on the speakers. “Don’t you dare. She’s already had an eclair. No more dessert today.”
“Ice cream is not dessert,” I said solemnly. “It’s a way of life. Put my niece back on. I need to make sure that she doesn’t buy into your propaganda.”
“No can do.” He chuckled. It seemed that the heavy moment between us had passed with Della’s brief appearance.
Children had a way of doing that, I’d noticed. They brought joy to even the darkest of places by simply being themselves. “She’s run off. Probably to go try convince Mom to give her ice cream. You’re going to have your ass handed to you when you get back.”
“Please.” I scoffed. “I’m Mom’s favorite child. She’d never hand me my ass. She took it from me after the garage-fire incident when we were kids and hasn’t yet given it back, so it’s a moot point anyway.”
Jordan’s chuckles turned to full-blown laughter. “I’d forgotten about that. To be fair though, it wasn’t an incident. It was arson.”
“Was not,” I argued. “Potatoes, potahtoes. As you said earlier, let’s agree to disagree.”
“Sure, why not? Conference Noah’s an asshole, anyway. I don’t want to talk to him any longer than I have to. Listen, Mom just asked me to tell you that she’s expecting you for dinner tomorrow night. You in?”
“Always,” I said, already getting hungry when I thought about our Mom’s famous lasagna. Although it might also have been because I had skipped breakfast and eaten something else instead. I resisted the urge to tell Jordan just to yank his chain. “Tell her I’ll love her forever if she puts double cheese on it.”
“You’ll love me forever anyway,” my mom’s voice came through the speakers.
I groaned, letting my head fall forward and thanking my lucky stars that I hadn’t said anything. “What gives? You couldn’t tell me you’d put me on speaker, Jordan?”
“You deserve it after earlier, Conference Noah.”
“Oh, good lord. Was he being all arrogant again?” I could picture my mother burying her head in her hands and peeking up at my brother through her fingers.
“Yes. I told you I should give it another hour or so before we called.”
She groaned. “I should have listened. I’ll listen next time.”
“You guys know I can still hear you, right?” I rolled my eyes, watching as the city started giving way to untouched wilderness. I loved the transition, how the concrete and noise gave way to the pristine beauty of nature. This was why I had never left this state, why I didn’t want to and had no plans to.
I’d traveled enough to know that other places all had a beauty of their own, but this beauty was the beauty of home. There was nothing like it.
“I’m getting to the relaxing part of the drive now,” I said. “I’ll let you two gossip about me in peace. Call you when I get home.”
“He’s just been away for a week,” I heard my mother saying. “What could he possibly have done while he was away that requires him to need to rela—”
My brother cut the call before she could finish her sentence. I chuckled into the newly silent interior cabin of my car and shook my head. Have fun explaining that one to mommy dearest, brother of mine.
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