Basil’s eyes locked with hers. He raised one hand in greeting before walking over to the table. Rae was always on guard, always waiting for him to strike. She was never ready for the attack but constantly aware that it would come.
Rae straightened her spine. Nothing good ever came from shrinking so that other people didn’t feel insecure around you. “What are you doing here? I thought you were having dinner with a client.”
“And I thought you had plans with a girlfriend.” Basil scowled at Nin, Ferrix, and Xavi.
Rae licked her lips and tried to swallow. “I don’t need to tell you every little detail.”
Basil paused, then he laughed. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I don’t need to know where you are or what you’re doing.”
Nin stared at her. The weight of Nin’s gaze was like being under a microscope, being seen for everything, weakness, strength, fear. She took a sip of her margarita and let the flavors dance on her tongue. Maybe the drink would give her some liquid courage.
“This is my boss, Basil. This is Nin, Ferrix, and Xavi.” Rae gestured to everyone at the table.
Basil glanced at Caprice. “Good to see you again, Caprice. How long are you in town?”
Caprice smiled. “Not long enough.”
“Hello, Basil.” Kat’s voice dripped with honey as she toyed with a straw in her margarita glass.
Basil smiled, a calculating, cold curve that didn’t reach his eyes. “Hello, ladies.”
Nin leveled Basil with a glare, which resembled Nin’s expression when he suggested eliminating the HOA. His jaw tightened, and he gripped his knife and fork in his hands as if they were weapons.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I’m a little disappointed in you. You weren’t at the client meeting.” Basil called her out in front of everyone and almost made her cringe.
Rae glanced around the table. The last thing she wanted to deal with was a confrontation with her boss while out with friends. Heat rose to her face, and Rae tried to find the words to tell him that what she did on her own time was none of his damn business.
Kat scoffed at Basil. “I understand you’re her boss and concerned about her, but she’s been working hard, and I think she’s earned a night out.”
Rae admired her friend and recovered from the shock, finding her words. “I’m sure whatever we need to go over can wait until Monday.”
Basil’s eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed when he glanced at Rae. His eyes were like staring into an empty pit with no bottom. Then he turned his attention back to Kat. “I appreciate that, Kat. But I also think she needs to be careful. Work isn’t as important as her life, and she’s letting a lot of distractions get in the way.”
Basil’s lips pinched together, and his nostrils flared when he looked directly at Nin. He was sitting next to Rae with his arm wrapped around her shoulders.
Kat shook her head. “I’m not going to sit here and let you criticize Rae. Not when she’s the best designer at your agency, and there is no reason for your disappointment in her.”
Rae’s mouth dropped open, her eyes on Basil with an incredulous stare.
“I never said I’m disappointed in her. I’m just worried about her. That’s all.” Basil lifted his hands as he tried to backtrack.
Rae lifted her chin. “Actually, you did say you’re disappointed in me. But you no reason to doubt my work, and what I do after hours has nothing to do with my job.”
“Oh?” The narrow blades of Basil’s eyebrows pulled together, forming a deep V. He laid the tips of his fingers on the table and stared at Rae.
“Rae’s social obligations supersede your desire for her to meet with someone after work hours.” Nin gave Basil a meaningful look.
Kat, Ferrix, and Xavi’s eyes all went wide when Nin spoke up. The air tensed with rage or jealousy. Rae wasn’t sure which emotion would dominate. She only knew the two men looked like they would come to blows.
Basil’s jaw clenched. “I just wanted her to meet with a client. He’s very important. We’ve got a lot of work on Monday, and I think Rae should call it a night. Rae, may I speak with you in private?”
Rae’s eyes narrowed. Not only did Basil have big balls, but he also had a big ego. She restrained herself from throwing her margarita in his face. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Surely, this can wait until we’re back in the office.”
Her boss shook his head, changing tactics. “I don’t think I ever properly thanked you for all your help. I suppose it can wait until next week. Perhaps I could take you to dinner, and we can discuss it.”
“We don’t need to have dinner to discuss the details.” Rae took a sip of her margarita.
“I think you should apologize to Rae.” Each word Nin spoke cut like a steak knife.
Rae smiled, loving how Nin had her back even though she didn’t need anyone’s help setting boundaries with her boss. It was still nice that Nin took her side.
“Certainly.” Basil’s nostrils flared. Then he went silent, but he didn’t look contrite at all. If anything, he looked annoyed and sweaty and hot.
“That’s not an apology.” Caprice scoffed.
“Forget it.” Rae looked over at her sister and shook her head.
His cheeks seemed to sink into the rest of his face like a cartoon blush. His ears turned red, and his eyes looked as if they would fall out of their sockets from holding in his rage. Basil didn’t like losing control, but his features seemed so tight that he would crack.
Rae sighed. She let him save face even though Rae should have quit working for him forever ago. “No reason to be sorry. I’m the one who said I was meeting a girlfriend, and I should have been upfront with you.”
Basil nodded, his annoyance washed away by Rae’s apology.
But Nin didn’t work for Basil and didn’t seem to care about sparing his pride. Nin grinned like a Jack-o-Lantern, the flesh of his face turned into a crescent moon, his eyes bright and menacing. “Don’t worry, boss. I won’t keep her out so late that she can’t meet with your client. I’ll be sure I take her to bed.”
Basil’s head snapped toward Nin, who sat with his arms crossed and one eyebrow raised like a mountain. Basil cleared his throat and turned his attention back to Rae, his fingers twitching as if he wanted to yank her out of her seat and drag her from the restaurant. His lips pressed together so tightly they formed a pale white line.
“Enjoy your dinner. I’ll see you on Monday.” Basil turned on his heel and his hands bunched into fists as he walked away.
“I’ll see you on Monday.” Basil didn’t even turn to acknowledge her as he made a beeline for the door.
Once he was out of earshot, Kat turned to Rae. “What the hell was that? I knew he was a dick, but I had no clue he was that bad.”
“You have no idea.” Rae took another sip of her margarita.
Caprice shook her head. “I can’t believe that guy.”
Ferrix stared at the spot where Basil had stood like he wanted to stomp on it. “He sees my brother as competition for pair bonding.”
Caprice laughed. “Wait. What?”
“Oh, it’s a long story. They came to earth to find mates.” Kat smiled while stirring her margarita.
Caprice rolled her eyes and muttered something to Kat that Rae couldn’t hear, but she imagined it was childish from the look on her friend’s face. Kat reached across the table and smacked Caprice in the arm playfully, and Caprice laughed even harder. Rae introduced them back in college, and they’d become fast friends.
Nin glanced at her. “Are you upset with me for what I said?”
Rae blew out a breath. “No, of course not. His behavior no longer surprises me, but that’s the sad part.”
“Forget that guy. Why don’t you strike out on your own?” Kat raised a question that wasn’t one she hadn’t thought of a million times before, but starting her own business wasn’t that simple.
Rae sighed. “I signed a contract with a non-compete clause when I started working for him, and I’d have to start from scratch. I couldn’t work with clients I’ve dealt with for at least a year.”
Caprice shrugged. “So what? You’re talented and don’t need to put up with his bullshit.”
Nin wrapped his arm around Rae’s shoulders and pulled her close. “You don’t have anything to prove to him. Basil’s proposition to have dinner with him is an excuse to take advantage of the situation and his position of power.”
Caprice stared at her. “You’re not beholden to him.”
“I’ve thought about it so many times. I know the people and have my contacts, but I’m not sure I have what it takes. Honestly, the idea of quitting is completely crazy!”
Kat shrugged. “You need to have faith in yourself, and the best choice was when I became my own boss.”
Caprice and Kat both nodded, encouraging her. There was something to be said about being fearless. She finally started living an authentic life when she faced her fears. The first taste of that freedom came with divorce. Surviving the months of uncertainty and becoming stronger on the other side made everything possible again. She even managed to embrace her curves. Better to be curvy and strong than pretty and useless.
“I didn’t realize you owned your own business.” Ferrix stared at Kat with pride in his voice.
Kat smiled and took a sip of her drink.
Rae took a deep drink of her margarita. Working for herself made sense but involved risk. “I don’t know.”
“You’re already working for yourself with the number of hours you put in at that place,” Kat interjected. “The number of clients you manage for Basil is ridiculous. You’re overworked and would make much more if you didn’t work for him.”
“Kat is right,” Nin agreed. “You don’t need that kind of man vying for you as a mate.
Rae laughed. “Yeah, but I need to maintain my professional relationship with Basil for now because it keeps my bills paid.”
Nin cleared his throat. “What if you didn’t? What if you stopped working for him?”
Rae shook her head. “I can’t do that! That’s crazy.”
“We need good people with computer, design, and advertising skills on my planet. You could open up your own agency,” Nin explained as if moving lightyears away wasn’t a completely crazy idea.
She never had enough money to branch out on her own, and finding a place to rent in Media wouldn’t be cheap. It wasn’t that opening an agency wasn’t what she wanted, but the divorce had drained her financially. Hopping in a spaceship with a sexy alien was the furthest thing from her mind when Nin crashed into her life.
“I’m so proud of you.” Caprice winked, and then she raised her glass. “To Rae and her new agency.”
Rae’s eyes widened. “Wait a minute. I haven’t decided anything! I can’t move to Erion. I know nothing about it, especially not their market.”
Nin smiled. “That part is easy enough. We need someone to open an Intergalactic Dating Agency. My genetic research points to diversification, and expanding our genes is what brought us to your planet. We need someone willing to match Erion men with prospective mates. Your marketing background fits because you can read people.”
Rae tilted her head. His proposition would solve both their problems. “Oh. So I would be running a match-making site rather than an ad agency.”
Nin nodded. “I think your marketing skills are a necessary ingredient for what I’m suggesting.”
If being vulnerable and helping Nin open a dating agency would allow her heart to heal and experience pleasure so real that it scared her, maybe Rae needed to take a chance. Perhaps he had been right, and they were fated mates. She found strength in knowing she had a true friend and possibly a soul mate who would remain loyal to the end. He cared about what was important to her. She opened her heart, knowing it might be broken one day, and in opening her heart, she would find love and joy that she never dreamed possible only if Rae left this world to build a new one with him.
Xavi broke through her thoughts. “I think you’ve already made up your mind. Your sister can come with you too.”
Caprice’s mouth gaped open, her eyes widened, and wispy hair fell into her eyes. “I live in Florida.”
Xavi tilted his head. “Is that another planet?”
Caprice shook her head, laughing.
Kat laughed. “Might as well be.” Her gaze slid to Nin and back to Rae. “And don’t you want a new future?”
Rae saw a future with Nin, but the thought of starting her own business and moving to Erion terrified her. And the idea that she was considering his suggestion threw her for an even bigger loop. It was one thing to fantasize about but another to consider.
Nin tilted his head and looked her over keenly, gauging her reaction. “Rae is half in love with me, but she will not admit it.”
Caprice’s and Kat’s hands flew to their mouths, and a case of the giggles ensued.
Nin ignored them and continued, his tone serious. “I’m charming, my mind is clever, and...” He paused as if debating whether to share something else with her but decided against it. “What more can you want in a mate?”
“Well, I’m sold! Rae joked.
Nin placed his hand on hers. “I’m also willing to invest in your new business whether you come with me or not, but I hope you will consider a life with me.”
Rae sat up and stared at Nin, her mouth hanging open. “I-I don’t know what to say.”
Nin shrugged. “Say you will think about my offer. You have until Ferrix fixes our ship to decide. I’ll make it worth your while.”
She kissed him. Nin’s cheek was smooth, the stubble on his jaw prickly. “You already have, and this is the sweetest thing anyone has ever offered.”
The others started talking, but Rae was happy sitting there, wrapped up in Nin’s arms and thinking about the future. It was a heck of a lot to take in, and it was crazy to think about building a life with anyone she had just met, but it felt right for some reason. Rae leaned into Nin when she noticed Caprice cozying up to Xavi across the table.
Caprice smiled slyly. “Are all the men on your planet so blunt?”
Xavi’s expression was like a deer caught in headlights when the waitress finally brought over appetizers.