Nothing could keep the mischievous little smirk off Derek’s face. Every glance over to the passenger seat of the Prince sent another bolt of lightning crackling through his insides.
How dare Casey wear leather on their first date? Was she trying to kill him? Did she not realize the effect she had on him? Wait. Derek’s brain short circuited. What if she did it on purpose, knowing he would react this way?
He snuck another side glance at her. Casey’s hands squirmed in her lap, her posture rigid as she chewed the inside of her cheek repeatedly. His Casey senses told him she was overthinking. And if she thought too hard, he might lose his chance. And he did not mean his chance to win.
Derek had a plan. And that plan involved both him and Casey winning the bet. Look at him, all grown up and compromising. If only Casey knew that he could compromise… on certain subjects. Well, she would find out if everything went according to his plan.
Smirking to himself, Derek imagined the blush dancing across her cheeks and cascading down her neck, disappearing underneath dark leather… Reluctantly, he pulled himself out of that train of thought, but filed it away for later.
Last night, he spent longer than he cared to admit devising what he was now referring to as Plan B.E.T. Hey, he had to keep it simple in case he slipped in front of Casey. Those three little letters were not capitalized to stand for something bigger like… Be. Exclusively. Together. Because that would have taken too much time and effort on his part. But if it was a thing, it was still better than Purple Fog, excuse him, Covert Operation: Purple Fog.
Anyway, back to business. Step One: Relax Casey. His mind briefly flashed to the nights they spent off campus, grabbing food, hanging with their friends, and even (Derek mentally cringed) shopping. He could remind Casey that it was still them… even if they were on a date.
His hand grasped the radio dial, flipping on his favorite station and cranking the volume to a little less than deafening. On the way back to the wheel, if his hand nudged Casey’s knee lightly, it was entirely accidental.
Perfect. Here we go.
Casey desperately reached for the controls, turning the thudding base down to an acceptable level, all the while glaring at him. “Who said you get radio control?”
She fumbled with the buttons and soon the Prince was filled with her favored preppy pop. A smile flashed across her face as she leaned back into her seat, closing her eyes, satisfied she won.
And Derek let her.
For exactly one minute. Then he flipped it back to his station, startling Casey’s eyes open as the drums blared again. Instantly, she leaned forward to switch it. As soon as her finger hit the button, Derek was pushing her hand out of the way and taking control.
Casey fought, trying to reach around his hand to get to the dial, but he blocked her at every turn. With one hand clutching the wheel, Derek focused on the road as their hands battled for dominance. He took extra delight in every split of his name while she slapped and pulled at his fingers.
Chuckling, Derek chanced a glance at her. Color had returned to her cheeks and her posture relaxed. Well, as much as it could while raging a war with him over the radio. Pleased with his work, Derek turned back to the road.
Calmly, the hand battling Casey’s, caught hers, lightly lacing their fingers together. Casey went rigid, her breath catching as she stared at their entwined hands.
Lowering their hands to the console, they rested gently between them. His thumb brushed over the back of her hand. Once. Twice. No, he did not lose count after the second. Time just… got away from him. With a gentleness he did not recognize in himself, he squeezed her hand, pulling away to maneuver through traffic to take their turnoff.
Derek was pulling into a parking spot in front of their dinner destination before Casey took a breath.
“This is your idea of a… da-date? Derek, we come here like every week.”
“I know that, Casey. This is only part one.” He shook his head exasperatedly. “And we come here every week because it’s your favorite.”
She pressed her lips tightly together, but proceeded to unbuckle her seatbelt, following Derek’s lead. “Are you saying it’s not your favorite?”
Heaving a sigh, Derek opened his door as he answered, “No, it’s not my favorite, but they serve a mean plate of barbequed ribs, so I don’t complain.”
“How come you never said anything before? I thought it was your favorite too.”
His foot paused halfway out the door as he turned back to look at her, taking in her pouty lips. “What’s the big deal?”
It was Casey’s turn to sigh as she unlatched her door. “It’s been over a semester and I’m just finding this out.”
“Okay.” Derek whistled through his teeth. “Can we go in before you analyze it? I’d like to eat before I waste away.”
Casey rolled her eyes but clambered out of the Prince. Derek bailed out after her, rushing around the vehicle to catch up with her.
She teased, “Waste away? Has it been more than two hours since you’ve eaten, D?”
He bumped her shoulder as he snorted. “Three to be exact.”
“Oh, you poor baby.” She shoved him back.
“Give me a break, Case. Workouts were murder tonight.”
“Derry’s sore?” A laugh escaped her as she pinched his bicep and he flinched.
“Watch it, woman. I’ll tickle you as soon as I can feel my arms again.”
Casey threw her head back, laughing again. Derek’s eyes traced the soft angles along her throat, only realizing she was speaking as her eyes found his. “You’ll have to catch me first.”
With a smirk, Derek opened the door and followed Casey inside, mumbling to himself, “That’s the plan, Princess.”
As Casey slid in across from him at their regular booth, Derek smiled at the naturalness of their actions. He teased lightly when she picked up her menu, “Why do you even bother? We both know what you’re going to order.”
“They might have changed something, Derek. Besides… something new could catch my eye tonight.” She hid behind her menu before he could gage the look on her face.
“Hmm, that’s interesting. Because I was thinking the usual looks extra… delicious tonight.”
Casey did not emerge from behind her menu, but Derek thought he could see her forehead tint pink. But before he could comment, the waiter popped in on them, so he settled for a grin.
By the time they placed their order, Derek knew the first step of his plan was working. Casey seemed more relaxed if the decrease in fidgeting was anything to go by. But if her hand trembled when their fingers brushed as the waiter took their menus, Derek assumed it was his wishful thinking.
It became more obvious she was unwinding as they breezed through their typical topics of conversation of their non-date date nights with the same easiness that always accompanied them.
“Did you finish your paper yet?”
“Der-rek, what are you waiting for? It’s due Monday!”
“So, Casey McKeen-a-lots, did you get a 100% on your English exam?”
“What was that? A 99%? Wow, someone’s slipping! Did you beg your professor for extra credit? Wait, you did, didn’t you?”
“Are you doing my Feminist Theory assignment Thursday or Friday?”
“I am not doing your assignment for you. I have my own to do.”
“Good, just make two copies.”
“You only took the class so you could take my notes, didn’t you?”
“Nah, I wanted to spend time with you, Princess.”
“Coach said if I put on some more muscle, I’m pretty much guaranteed to start next season.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful, D! You’ve been working so hard!”
“You’ll have to reschedule drinks with the guys on Saturday because my dance studio changed performance times.”
“I thought you were going to be in the early show?”
“Ugh, don’t ask. But a lot of drama later and now I’m in the late.”
Derek snorted, “Right. She’s even more of a drama queen than you.”
“Ha, ha, Derek. But regardless, we had to reschedule all the shows.” She picked up her lemonade and tipped it to him, a silly smile etching across her face. “But after Saturday, we won’t have to deal with her anymore because she’s moving!”
“Derek—” Casey stifled her laugh in her hand. “Be nice!”
They were almost finished with their food when he brought it up. “So, why were you so upset this isn’t my favorite place?”
Casey chewed thoughtfully, carefully swallowing. “Just forget it, D. It’s not a big deal.”
He took a sip from his iced tea. “If it was worth mentioning before then it’s worth explaining now.”
She dropped his eye contact as she twirled her fork around. “I just thought it was something we shared.”
“We do.” His brow furrowed. “Every week.”
Casey was already shaking her head. “I know.”
“Then what do you mean?”
Mumbling under her breath, “I meant having a favorite in common. We’re usually at opposite ends.”
Oh. She wanted them to share things. His heart gave a pleased thump, and his trademark smirk broke out.
“We can have different likes and still be… compatible, Casey.”
She hesitated, “I like when we share things, Der.”
His pulse thumped happily in his neck and Derek quickly covered it with a hand. “You know what they say—” Derek gave her an alluring grin. “Opposites attract.” Her blush squeezed the air right out of his lungs.
“We still have to have something in common, Der.” Her eyes widened and she immediately bit at her cheek. “I mean, opposites. Opposites need to have a common core for it to work between them.”
“Casey, look at me.” Reluctantly, she raised her gaze to meet his. “It’s about balance.”
Her stunning blue eyes blinked at him.
“You keep me in line, and I get you out of your box. I make your life interesting, and you keep me grounded. So what if we don’t like the same music or the same food? We’re the same where it matters. And if you can tell me when I’ve gone too far, and I can talk you out of a certified Casey fit then I’d say we work. Being different makes us dynamic, and the same core keeps us strong, but the combination holds us together.” Derek took a deep breath, trying to slow his frantically beating heart. “We balance each other, Princess.”
An agonizing amount of time passed as Casey’s molten eyes stared into his soul, an indescribable look on her face. The room began to shrink in around him as he waited for a reaction.
Suddenly, the waiter appeared between them, dropping off their bill. Casey fumbled for her purse, but Derek’s hand shot out to cover hers. Without a word, he shook his head, giving her a small smile as he reached for the wallet in his back pocket.
Derek grasped to remember a time that he had done this for Casey without there being something attached to it. Like a bet. Guess his record of treating Casey was still at zero. Mentally cringing, he resolved to change that as soon as he caught a glimpse of Casey’s delighted expression.
As they climbed back into the Prince, Casey asked breathlessly, “So, where to now?”
“You’ll see.” He allowed the serious eye contact, his voice dropping octaves. “I have a plan.”
On the inside, Derek smirked. He managed to behave through dinner, but now Casey was about to be dated. Venturi style. Commence Step Two.