Boss With Benefits

By: Talia Hunter

Tiny closed her eyes again. “Okay.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” whispered Rosa. “Sleep well.”

She slipped out of Tiny’s room and stood for a moment in the hall of Tiny’s little house. There were more marks on the walls here that told her two paintings had been taken down. Down the hall was a closed door. The bedroom where Dalton was staying, perhaps? Rosa took a step toward it, almost curious enough to risk easing the door open and peeking in. But she stopped herself, glancing toward the front door. If Dalton came in right now and caught her, it wouldn’t improve his opinion of her.

Instead, she put her head into the living room, where it looked like three more paintings had been removed. The place was simple but feminine, with cream walls, floral curtains, and bright cushions on the cane furniture. She could imagine Tiny picking out the colors with her artist’s eye. On the coffee table, a wooden carving of a bird in flight took pride of place. And on the book case was a photo of Tiny and Dalton. He had an arm thrown across her shoulders and both were smiling. Rosa stepped forward for a closer look. The picture obviously hadn’t been taken on Lantana, because they were wearing warm jackets. Sydney, perhaps? Tiny occasionally went back to visit the aunt and uncle who’d raised her. Each time, she and Rosa had met up to share some champagne and laughter. But now those two things seemed a long way away.

Rosa lifted her finger to gently brush across the glass of the photo frame. It was hard to believe the man in the picture was the same one she’d just met. She couldn’t stop staring at the shape of his dark eyes, creased in the corners by the warmth of his smile. The Dalton in the photo looked like the kind of guy everyone would gather around at parties, because he’d tell the best stories. His charisma shone right out of the frame.

So how come she’d met the darker, meaner version of Dalton? Did he have an evil pirate twin? Or had his sister’s illness punched him in the guts hard enough to drive that gorgeous smile away?

Rosa felt a twinge of guilt for christening him Captain Ass-Wipe. She hadn’t realized how low Tiny was. Seeing her like that had been a shock. It had to be tough for her brother.

She took one final look at the photo, then let herself out of the house. As she stepped onto the shell path outside, a tall figure came barreling around the corner, almost colliding with her. He grabbed her arms, and Rosa found herself a few inches from Dalton’s naked chest.

He smelled good. Sweaty, yes. But manly. A musky, hard-work, fresh-air smell that spoke to something primal, deep inside her. The smiling, protective man from the photograph was fresh in her mind and she had a sudden urge to nestle her face into his neck. She wanted to feel the safety and reassurance of a man’s large arms. To have him murmur in her ear that everything would be okay.

Until she raised her eyes and saw the frown that darkened his handsome features.

“What the hell are you doing here?” His voice was rough. “Didn’t I say Tiny was too tired to see you today?”

“I only stopped in for a moment.” She stepped backward, jerking free of his grip. To her horror, a single tear managed to break free and rolled, hot and heavy, down her cheek.

Dammit, the last thing she wanted was for him to see her upset. She swiped the thing away. She was Rosa Roughknuckles, the best resort manager in the South Pacific, and she’d come to save the damn day, not fall apart in front of him.

He was still frowning, but when he spoke again, his voice was a little gentler. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” It came out loud and angry, so she stopped and dragged in her breath. “It’s just that I didn’t realize the stroke had affected her like that.”

“Like what?”

Rosa blinked hard, forbidding any more tears from daring to follow the first one. “Does she have any movement in her arm?” she asked.

“Not much.”

“Will she get it back?”

“Not without proper treatment.”

“What happened to her paintings?”

Dalton’s mouth tightened. “She wanted me to put them in a sack, weigh it down with rocks, and throw it off the end of the wharf.”

“Oh my God. You didn’t do it?”

“Of course not.” For the first time, he seemed to relax a little. His voice softened, as though he’d finally decided she wasn’t the enemy. “Well, it wasn’t like she could walk all that way to check. She doesn’t think she’s ever going to be able to paint again. I keep telling her not to give up. But the truth is, it’ll take time, lots of rehab, and hard work. Even then, she’ll need to beat the odds.”

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