Main Alarm

Alarm

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Year:
2014
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Shay Savage, LLC
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Alarm (Ausrufezeichen) - Wich, H drei !!! Kuss - Alarm

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Digital Edition

Copyright © 2014 Shay Savage

All Rights Reserved

Cover Design by Mayhem Cover Creations

Formatting by Mayhem Cover Creations

Editing : Chayasara

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems-except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations embodied in review or critical writings without the expressed permission of the author, Shay Savage.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.





TABLE OF CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

EPILOGUE

OTHER SHAY SAVAGE TITLES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR





PROLOGUE





I’m not stupid.

Though I wasn’t a straight A student, I got good grades in college and not only did well on tests, but I actually understood the material. I finished on time, didn’t waste my parents’ money, made some good friends, and ended up with a decent job that paid the bills.

I never considered myself a rash person. I was the exact opposite of spontaneous. I always thought things through before I did them. I rarely opened my mouth without thinking first. I thought about the impact of my actions on other people before I did anything.

Then I met him.

The alarm in my head went off immediately.

I ignored it.



“Stay here,” Aiden commanded. His fingers tensed around the grip of his weapon. “Don’t get out of this fucking car for any reason, you hear me?”

I couldn’t answer. I still couldn’t breathe, much less speak. I’d never so much as seen a gun in real life unless it was holstered on a police officer’s belt, let alone been so close to one. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the gleaming black metal.

Aiden opened the driver’s side door and started to get out, the gun clasped tightly in his hand; .

“Aiden?” I managed to croak as I tore my eyes away from his hand and back to his face.

He paused, halfway out the door.

“I’m so fucking sorry,” he said again.

“What are you doing with a gun?” I whispered. I felt like my body was trying to shut down, and I wondered what going into shock felt like. For a second, the phone call from my mother informing me of Dad’s heart attack filled my head. At this moment, the feeling of all my blood leaving my veins was similar to how I had felt when she had told me he was gone.

I focused on Aiden again and couldn’t understand what I was seeing.

Everything my subconscious had been warning me about Aiden Hunter began to fill my head. All this time, I’d been telling myself not to judge him. All this time, I’d been convincing myself that everything was fine, that he was fine. Since the moment I had met him, I’d been trying to convince myself that the only danger was in my head.

But it wasn’t.

The Aiden in front of me wasn’t the man I had known the past week. His face was barely recognizable. His eyes were dark and full of hatred. His jaw was locked, and his teeth were clenched. He had gripped his hands into fists, one of which held a deadly weapon. This man was not the one who cooked breakfast for me. This was a man consumed with raw fury.

Echoed words from Lance’s girlfriend flowed through my head: “I have never seen him mad, personally, but I hear it’s not pretty.”

No, it was not pretty. It was not pretty at all.

And with that, my life was forever changed.





ONE





The alarm went off. I fumbled around for the snooze button, smacked it multiple times until the noise stopped, and then dozed until it went off again.

I groaned, yawned, and stretched before shoving myself out of bed and starting my day. The normal routine began—pee, shower, wash my hair twice because that was what the bottle said to do, make coffee, eat oatmeal with blueberries in it, and drink a protein shake so I didn’t have to lie to my mother if she called and asked if I had. There was absolutely nothing unusual about my morning.

There never was.

I gathered up everything I needed to take with me to work and quickly surveyed my condo. Nothing was out of place. The throw pillows were at the proper angle against each of the arms of my neutral-colored couch, the remote control was right at the edge of the coffee table, and each of the coasters was properly stacked in their tray. From the bookshelf, a conglomerate of heroines surveyed the room as if their twelve-inch forms could protect the place from intruders. Princess Leia and Queen Amidala from Star Wars were joined by Wonder Woman, X-Men’s Storm, Spider Woman, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“So, what’s your plan for the day?” I asked Buffy. “Got some vampires to take out? Maybe a few demons?”

She didn’t answer, not that I expected her to. Sometimes I liked to hear a voice in the empty room, even if it was my own.

“I’m heading off into the oh-so-exciting world of corporate project management,” I informed the whole group. “I bet you wish your day was going to be as interesting as mine.”

I had always had a thing for the superwomen of movies and comic books. They were the epitome of strength, valor, and living life on the edge. They protected the innocent with their cunning intelligence and dedication. They led exciting lives.

Unlike me.

I looked into their blank eyes and shook my head, wondering if I was losing my mind. It would just figure. Only I could drive myself into insanity just because I had nothing better to do.

Sighing, I left the figures to their enthralling lives on the shelf and carefully locked the door to my condo. It wasn’t that I expected to be granted superpowers so I could go about ridding the world of nefarious criminals, but the whole idea was so far removed from project management, it was enough to leave me wondering if I was actually becoming clinically depressed. I’d refused all the usual anti-anxiety medications when Dad died, determined to cope with it all on my own though Dad’s clinic partner and friend kept telling me I didn’t need to do it by myself.

It had been two years since a heart attack took his life, and though I missed him dearly, I was now able to rejoice in memories of my father and his impact on my life. Using anecdotes from the lives of his patients, he had taught me to always watch my actions and my words. I was careful both with myself and with those around me.

Always.

I considered giving Mom a call this weekend to see how San Francisco was treating her. Moving from my childhood home in Ohio to start a new life had been her coping mechanism after Dad was gone. As a result, our relationship had dwindled to the point where we only saw each other on major holidays instead of multiple times a week. Having her most of the way across the country made me miss her, and my father, more.

I never told her that. I didn’t want to upset her or make her think she should move back. It wouldn’t be fair of me to put that kind of pressure on her. She needed to restart her life for her own sake, and I wasn’t going to do or say anything to get in the way of her goals.

In my garage, my slightly-rusting Mazda was pretty far removed from an invisible plane, but it was the best form of transportation—the kind that was paid for and still ran pretty well as long as I remembered to get the oil changed on time. Instead of villains, I fought traffic on the highway and a co-worker for the last space in the parking garage.

Lost that battle.

I smiled and pleasantly greeted the security guard as I swiped my access badge and headed into the building, up the stairs, and to my cubicle space overlooking the parking area. I checked my calendar, grabbed my laptop, and hoped there wouldn’t be donuts at the first meeting of the day.

I couldn’t win a conflict with myself any more than I could rush to take a parking spot from someone whose eyes I might have to meet later on in the day. It wasn’t that I had a problem standing up for myself—I didn’t—but when it came to the little things, it seemed easier to just give in.

Some superheroine I would be.

Meetings went on, project plans were updated, and I worked through my lunch to make sure everyone who needed continuous information regarding the financial impact of this and that were all informed. The day, though typical, went just fine until the last hour.

The little hand on the clock overhead clicked toward the five. I blinked and took a deep breath. Under the table in the meeting room, I clenched my fists and tried not to visibly shake.

Across from me sat Kevin Stump, the rat-bastard who had been hired as my new boss just a few weeks ago. As if his inane smile and ridiculous, over-styled hair weren’t enough to make me want to punch him, the crap that came out of his mouth was far, far worse.

“I realize you’ve only been with us a few weeks,” I said through slightly gritted teeth, “but this upgrade is crucial. I know the business units aren’t going to see immediate results, but if you look at the long-term capacity of the servers-”

“Miss Ellison,” Kevin sat back in his chair and rolled his eyes, “I’m well aware of how these things work. Everyone here seems to be under the impression that this company is somehow unique to others out there, but it’s not. I know when an upgrade is needed and when it isn’t. This one can wait.”

“If you look at the data,” I started to say as I pulled out some of my charts, but he interrupted me before I could explain.

“It’s irrelevant,” he stated. He ran his fingers over the top edge of his hair but not into the actual strands. One of them might get out of place if he did that. “I’ve seen it, and it doesn’t show anything conclusively.”

I blinked a few times as I imagined Buffy stepping out from the giant whiteboard behind Kevin’s head and shoving a stake through his heart.

“But these spikes here…” I pointed to one of the charts, but he dismissed me with a wave.

“We’re done here,” he said. “Inform the team they can focus on projects that will actually earn this company some money.”

I wanted to call him an idiot. I wanted to throw my laptop—or at least my pen—right at his Chia-head face. I wanted to invoke my most sarcastic side and spew forth commentary worthy of Scott Adams himself.

I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Aside from needing the job, I didn’t want to actually hurt his feelings.

Kevin stood and left before I could say another word. I sat there for a few moments until I realized my mouth was open and I was sitting alone in a conference room. I slammed my laptop closed and headed out.

I was still fuming when I got back to my desk. It was going to take me at least another hour to inform everyone on the team that all the work they’d been doing for the past month was now completely worthless, and it was already almost time to leave for the day.

My phone rang, and I glanced down to see my best friend’s face on the screen.

“I’m going to Thirsty’s after work,” Mare said in her usual chirpy tone. “Wanna join?”

I took a deep breath and drummed my fingers on my desk. It had been a crap day in the corporate world, and Kevin was a big, fat jerk. Okay, so he wasn’t fat, but he was an ass, and he’d been hauling me into pointless meetings since the day he arrived in the building. All he needed was the pointy hair to become a walking Dilbert cartoon character, but it just wasn’t funny anymore. The last thing I wanted to do was work late in order to explain why the project was cut, and I wasn’t even sure what to say about it. I just knew that as soon as I hit send, a bunch of people would show up at my desk and keep me here even longer.

A drink sounded pretty good.

“Yeah, okay,” I said into the phone. “Anyone else going?”

“The usual crowd,” Mare responded. “It is Friday after all.”

“Count me in,” I said.

“Cool! See you there about six, Clo.”

I hung up and shook my head slightly at Mare’s constant need for shortening everyone’s name. She couldn’t seem to actually call me Chloe any more than she would allow others to call her Mary. It was always just Mare, like a female horse. She would even introduce herself that way—“My name is Mare, you know—like the horse!”

I browsed through my email, decided there wasn’t anything that couldn’t wait until Monday, and gathered up my things to head home. Of course, I got stopped on my way out by three people in the hallway. News travels fast, apparently, and they all wanted to know why the project was being cut when it was an important upgrade and why I didn’t make that clear to Kevin.

As tempting as it was to throw him under the bus, it just wasn’t in my nature. Aside from that, and unlike a lot of my coworkers, I was single and had to rely on myself for everything. I couldn’t risk pissing off the new executive without another job lined up, so I attempted to explain his faulty reasoning as best I could before escaping down the stairwell, out to the parking garage, and into rush-hour traffic.

I drove cautiously and courteously. I didn’t cut anyone off. I paused to let others merge in front of me, even though it caused me to miss the light.

My empty condo greeted me with its earth tones, clean lines, and superheroines. Though I told people cleanliness was important to me, it really looked so spotless because I didn’t have much else to do with myself in the evenings or on the weekends. I did have something that resembled a social life and often went to movies and dinner with friends, but ultimately I came back here to my solitary, sterile abode.

I popped in a DVD just to hear Princess Leia’s voice as she confronted Darth Vader. Reciting the lines was better than talking to myself.

My closet was full of outfits for evening get-togethers, but I decided on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt I’d bought in San Francisco when I went to visit my mom last year. Thirsty’s Oasis wasn’t a dressy kind of place—just a nice sports bar with lots of big screens, plenty of beer on tap, and friendly bartenders. There would be a few people coming from work and still dressed up a bit, but the majority of the crowd was casual.

The television greeted me as I came back downstairs from the bedroom to the living room. The movie was nearly to my favorite part, and I was tempted to text Mare and tell her I wasn’t going to make it after all. An evening with the Original Trilogy at home was sounding pretty good.

“Of course it does,” I mumbled to myself.

Suddenly feeling overwhelmed, I sat down on the couch and put my head in my hands. I knew for a fact that I was just feeling sorry for myself, and that pissed me off. My mind wandered to Zach, my ex, but I refused to let myself dwell. It wasn’t the lack of a man in my life—I could cope with that—but between thinking about my dad, dwelling over my mother’s distance, and fuming over Kevin being a total ass, it seemed as if something in the universe was ganging up on me.

“I need a little action in my life,” I informed Wonder Woman. “You need any help with some criminals? I bet your bracelets would fit me.”

She stared down from her perch and didn’t accept my offer.

I shoved myself off the couch with great mental effort and checked myself over in the mirror. Turning my head left, then right, I decided my curly brown hair wasn’t going to get any better, given the humidity, applied a little more liner around my blue eyes, and decided I was good to go. Even if Wonder Woman had needed a little help, I would have come up with some excuse as to why I couldn’t be of assistance. Maybe I’d consider it later when I had thought about all the ramifications of leaving my job and friends to go on some grand adventure, but not now, not when I hadn’t prepared for it.

Thirsty’s was packed, and at first, I couldn’t find my group. I meandered through the crowd saying hello to a few people I recognized until I saw Mare frantically waving her arms from a high-top table near the back of the bar.

“I’ve had a shit day,” I said as I approached.

Mare and Nate sat leaning closely against each other in that way people who haven’t quite admitted they were interested in each other often do. I thought they would be the perfect couple if they would just get on with it already. He turned his lively dark eyes from Mare to me.

“Join the club!” Nate replied. He held up an empty shot glass with his meaty hand in salute. He was short with straight, blond hair and geeky black glasses that seemed to drive Mare absolutely wild.

“Shots already?” I said with a raise eyebrow.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll be driving him home,” Mare said with a wink. She tossed thick auburn hair off her shoulder and threw her arm around the back of Nate’s stool.

“It’s been that kind of week,” Gabe said from the other side of the table where he sat. He was the ever-present bachelor of our group and seemed perfectly content to be so. He handed me his shot. He didn’t drink anything but light beer.

“What the hell,” I mumbled. I took the thankfully-sweet shot and dropped my glass to the table before ordering a vodka and orange juice, my standby drink.

“My boss is a jerk,” I said.

“The new guy?” Nate asked. Though he wasn’t on my team, we worked in the same office. I nodded, and he laughed, which made his hair shake around his ears. “Trying to make a name for himself already?”

“If he wants his name to be mud, then yeah,” I mumbled. “He cancelled the server upgrade.”

“Moron,” Nate mumbled. He was a hardware guy and used to getting the smelly end of the corporate budget. All of us worked in the information technology field except for Gabe, who Mare and I knew from high school. “I thought everyone was calling him Chia Head.”

“Chia Head?” Mare echoed.

“He looks just like one,” I informed her. “His hair is ridiculous. I think he’s got about as much brains on the inside, too.”

“That’s why it pays to be your own boss,” Gabe said.

“If you don’t mind feeding dick to people,” Nate said with a snicker.

Gabe smiled and balanced the bar stool on two legs, causing it to creak. He was a big guy with a smile that always made his eyes sparkle like he was about to do something mischievous. He often did, too. He was a pastry chef in his own bakery, and he specialized in one-of-a-kind cakes for various functions. He did your normal birthdays and weddings, but most of his business was titty cakes for bachelor parties and penis cakes for the bachelorettes and divorcees.

Apparently, it was quite a lucrative business.

“I’ve never fed dick to a woman who didn’t appreciate it,” he responded. His eyes twinkled as he winked at me.

I shook my head and rolled my eyes at him. I’d never had a thing with Gabe though we flirted with each other a lot. Many people thought we were going to eventually hook up, but it never happened. We had always kept things in the “just friends” realm.

“Hey, Chloe,” Gabe said as he leaned across the table, “the shop said my car is officially kaput. You still up for helping me find a new one next week?”

“Sure,” I replied. “I did some checking yesterday, and there are all kinds of sales going on starting Monday. Lease returns, mostly.”

“Perfect!” Gabe gave me a big smile and his eyes lit up. “You’re my hero!”

“Heroine,” I corrected.

“Heroin,” Gabe replied. “I’m totally addicted to your company!”

“Ha!”

And so the night progressed with talk of work-overload, lack of comp time, and overzealous bosses who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Shots were brought around again, and I seemed unable to stop myself from joining with the rest of them. I even bought a round myself to keep the tabs even. It was the polite thing to do.

“Well, I gotta run,” Gabe said as he ran his hand though his styled blond hair. He got up from his seat and threw some bills on the table. “If any of you guys need a ride that doesn’t cost you an arm and a major organ, now is the time!”

I checked my phone to see the time. It was still pretty early, and the thought of returning to my empty condo did not sound appealing at the moment. If I left, my weekend would have started exactly how it had started last week and the week before. Probably the week before that, too. Drink, chat, back home to my couch and a movie, and grocery shopping in the morning.

No wonder I didn’t bother to wear a watch; I could tell the time just from what I was doing next.

Mare and Nate weren’t any less predictable, but at least they could end up going home together even if it turned out to be a casual hook up. I hadn’t had a hook up in…well…ever. I didn’t do that kind of thing. There had to be at least three dates first, then kissing, then maybe a little more, and after I was sure the relationship seemed to be going somewhere, only then was sex on the table.

While I wallowed, Gabe flicked his eyes from my face to my half empty vodka and row of shot glasses.

“Chloe, you need a ride?” he asked.

I should have gone. If I had just let Gabe drive me home right then and there, everything would have remained the same. I would have been at work on Monday morning. I wouldn’t have found myself in a situation way beyond my control.

“Nah, I’m good,” I said. “I’ll hang a while longer.”

“Suit yourself,” Gabe replied. After a quick goodbye and promises of staying out later next week, he wandered through the crowd toward the door.

I turned back to Mare and Nate who were gazing into each other’s eyes, practically oblivious to my presence.

Fabulous.

I tried to engage them in a little conversation, but the topic maneuvered its way back to a movie I hadn’t seen yet. My mind wandered to other patrons of the bar for a bit, and then I realized I hadn’t heard a word Mare had been saying.

What a lousy friend I am.

I tried to focus again on her words, nodding and agreeing that a second Magic Mike movie would be the bomb. Another screwdriver appeared in front of me, but I didn’t recall ordering it. My head was definitely fuzzy, and I was starting to wonder how in the heck I was going to get home. All the shots were catching up with me, and I was starting to feel a little sick. Blinking made the table spin, and I quickly I excused myself to the restroom.

Walking proved more difficult than I thought it was going to be. As soon as I stood, I realized just how bad off I was. I held on to a couple of the stools as I made my way to the ladies’ room, thankful that there wasn’t a line. Once I got myself into a stall, I found I couldn’t even hover over the seat like I normally would and plopped down on the cracked toilet with a grimace.

As wooziness overcame me, I steeled myself against the feeling, no longer caring about the cleanliness of the toilet seat. I swallowed hard, leaning over my thighs and telling myself I was not going to throw up. I just needed to focus a bit. Slow breaths. I hadn’t had this much to drink in a while, and at five-foot four and a hundred and thirty pounds, I just couldn’t hold my liquor like I could in college. Still, I had been considered a pro back in the day, and I wasn’t about to lose it now.

I hoped.

With determination and some more meditative breathing, I finished up and fiddled with the lock on the stall. It outwitted me for a moment. The little sliding bolt just wouldn’t move the right way to release the lock at first, but I eventually managed to get myself out. I stumbled forward as I approached the sink and tried to wash my hands, but the lack of soap in the dispenser only allowed me to rinse off. The towel dispenser was obviously in cahoots with the latch on the stall door and made it very difficult for me to get the couple of sheets of paper I needed to dry off my hands. Instead, a big pile of them fell out at my feet, which I found remarkably funny for some reason.

Still giggling, I used one of the fallen towels to open the door, balled it up, and tried to hold the door open with my backside while simultaneously tossing the paper into the trashcan near the sink. The force of the throw was apparently too much, and I stumbled out the door and into a brick wall.

It was pretty warm for brick and not nearly as painful on my back as I would have thought it would be. I leaned back against it some more and sighed. The dizziness returned, and I nearly fell forward. That’s when the brick wall grew hands and arms, which wrapped around me and kept me from falling on my ass.

Still dizzy, I turned to find the brick wall was wearing a grey, cut-off muscle shirt, which did nothing to hide the graffiti-like tattoos all over the arms that held me steady as I tried to get my bearings.

Where am I?

Oh yes…Thirsty’s, outside the bathroom.

I looked forward and focused my eyes on the chest in front of me. I had to tilt my head up to discover it was, in fact, not attached to a brick wall but an actual face that was way, way up in the air.

The guy was massive. Just massive. He was well over six feet tall with shoulders that took up nearly the whole width of the hallway.

“Hi there,” the brick wall said in a deep, jocular voice. “You all right?”

Alarm!

It’s not that Thirsty’s was known for a lot of riff-raff or criminal activity of any kind. It wasn’t. I never would have walked into the place if it were like that. It was a typical sports bar in the suburbs of southwestern Ohio, mostly catering to the pro football crowd whenever the Bengals played the Steelers. The usual clientele were locals blowing off steam from work or commiserating about their failed marriages. Occasionally, there were a few singles looking to hook up. Most of the people I saw there I had seen before, even if I didn’t know them.

This guy did not belong here.

Wherever they keep the official entries for men your mother warned you about, this guy’s picture would be at the top of the list.

His arms and chest bulged with muscles. He really did resemble a brick wall. I could see the outline of his abs through his shirt, stacked like the bricks around a fireplace. Every visible inch of his darkly tanned skin was completely covered by a myriad of tattoos. I couldn’t focus on any one image without all of them blending together like the mosaic of a swiftly moving, graffiti-covered train car. His nearly black hair was the same length as the neatly trimmed beard covering his face, and dark eyebrows framed his greenish-brown eyes.

Maybe I was feeling a little of that southern haughtiness my grandmother was known for displaying whenever we walked through a Walmart when I was a child. Maybe I was going so far as to profile the guy for his height, insane number of tattoos, ripped jeans, muscle shirt, and assumption that he had a Harley parked somewhere outside. Maybe I was just in shock from the abrupt encounter itself.

Aside from all of that, he was absolutely gorgeous.

Maybe I’m just drunk.

“Yes,” I finally said, hoping I sounded more convincing than I felt. “Sorry, I just lost my balance a bit.”

“I see that,” Brick Wall responded. He smiled, and his eyes lit up with amusement. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and his fingers tightened around my hips, causing a ripple up his arms.

Good lord, he had a lot of muscles—great big, bulging muscles that couldn’t be hidden by his clothing.

“You need some help?” he asked.

“No, I’m good,” I replied. I tried to wave my hand dismissively but realized it had a bit of a death-grip on Brick Wall’s forearms. His hard, muscled forearms, which ran all the way up to ridiculously broad shoulders.

I stared into his eyes, which sparkled with amusement. My skin warmed, and I became acutely aware of his closeness despite my intoxicated state.

I cleared my throat.

“My friends are waiting for me.”

I tried to pry my fingers off the muscled arms, but my hands seemed happy to hang onto him and made it difficult to release my grip. I finally talked my hands into releasing him enough for me to take a step back, and his arms dropped from my waist, leaving the voided space a little cooler than it had been when he was touching me.

I took another step back, and even from this new perspective, I still had to crane my neck to look into his eyes. They were deeply shadowed in the dim light, making them seem sinister enough that I shivered a little. His beard was short and looked more like a five o’clock shadow, but it didn’t extend to his neck at all. Instead, it all flowed in a tightly groomed line from his sideburns and into his hair.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“No worries,” he replied.

I walked carefully around him to keep my footing, glancing back only once to see him watching me walk away with his dark eyes and amused grin. It ticked me off a little. The last thing I needed was some lowlife laughing at me, drunk or not. I turned my head away from him and tossed my hair back off my shoulder.

And with that, I marched back to my friends.





TWO





Though I was pretty sure my drink had been nearly empty, a full one was sitting in my spot. My head had cleared a little after the shock of running right into a complete stranger—a really big, brick wall of a stranger—and I sighed and wrapped my fingers around the glass. The bartender had made another strong one, and I could barely detect the tinge of orange from the juice in the glass.

“So what’s the weekend plan?” I asked. I thought if I involve myself in more conversation, it might sober me up a bit.

“Helping my mom with her wedding plans,” Mare said.

Mare’s mother was about to try for husband number four. Mare was giving this one as much as a year, though the last had only survived about eight months. “We have to pick a photographer and a florist. You should totally come with me to pick the florist. I hate flowers.”

“Maybe you could do something other than flowers,” I suggested.

“Flowers are the norm,” Mare replied. “If my mom doesn’t get the norm, she’ll throw a fit.”

I pursed my lips, wondering why they didn’t just go to a justice of the peace and have it done. It would seem she’d be tired of all the wedding planning stuff at this point. I know I would have been.

“I know that look,” Mare said. “What are you trying not to say, Clo?”

I glanced at her, slightly pissed at myself for being so transparent, and shrugged.

“You never say what you’re thinking,” she told me. “Sometimes it drives me nuts. I know you have an opinion in there somewhere.”

“It’s not important,” I said quietly, tensing under the scrutiny. “Just forget it.”

“You’re just too uptight,” Nate said. He held up his glass and pointed at me with the one finger not wrapped around the drink. “Whatever you have to say is not going to hurt my feelings.”

“That’s her dad talking to her,” Mare said as she gave me a playful shove in the shoulder. “Always think twice before you speak.”

“Three times,” I replied with a smile. “He was usually right, too. People are always saying and doing things they regret. I think most of his clients were suffering from regret-syndrome.”

“Yeah, but he was a psychologist,” Nate pointed out, “and his clients were there because they regretted what they said or did. I say what needs to be said, but I don’t regret it.”

“Well, I don’t say or do anything out of line, so I don’t have to worry about regrets.”

Thankfully, that was the end of the topic. Well, at least outside my head. My own words seemed to be floating around in my brain even as the conversation turned back to flower hatred. “I don’t say or do anything out of line.” It was the truth, and a rule by which I’d lived my life. It kept me out of trouble, allowed me to advance fairly quickly in my career, and generally kept me safe.

And predictable.

As I pulled myself from my own thoughts, Mare and Nate had gone back to talking about the movie I hadn’t seen. I tried to focus—I really did—but I had no frame of reference. I looked down at my glass and let my finger slide through the condensation. The patterns were far too interesting to my intoxicated mind, so I looked away and back over my shoulder to find something to distract me from my own thoughts.

I saw Brick Wall again.

He was sitting with two other guys in one of the booths against the wall. The one next to Brick Wall had light brown hair sticking out of a stocking cap and wore a black T-shirt with some band logo on it. The man sitting across from them looked to be wearing a blazer of some kind. He was definitely better dressed than the other two, but I couldn’t see him very well with the back of the booth blocking my view. There was far too much noise for me to hear their conversation, but Brick Wall definitely didn’t look happy about whatever the guy across from him was saying.

Abruptly, Brick Wall stood up and lurched toward the guy in the blazer. The guy in the cap rose to his feet and grabbed Brick Wall’s arm tightly, as if he could have held him back. Brick Wall had to have at least six inches on the guy and probably fifty pounds as well. However, he stilled his movements, curled his upper lip slightly, and then sat back down. His chest rose and fell with a deep breath as he looked away from his companions…

…and right into my eyes.

I jerked my head back around to my drink quickly as I felt my face warm, embarrassed to have been caught eavesdropping. Well, not exactly eavesdropping, but close enough. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and I wondered if he was still looking at me. I wasn’t about to turn around and find out. I was still horrified that I had been caught staring at the same guy I had rammed into a few minutes before.

“Clo?”

“Hmm?” I glanced back at Mare’s face as she raised her eyebrows.

“A little lost in thought there?”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“I was asking if you were busy Tuesday after work.” She leaned an elbow on the table. “We could hit a couple florists then.”

“Sure,” I replied.

The server returned, and I asked for a glass of water.

“I need to get moving if I’m going to make it to Mom’s in the morning,” Mare said as she handed her credit card to the server. She turned to Nate. “I assume you need a ride.”

“I sure as hell ain’t driving,” Nate responded. “I just hope you aren’t planning on taking advantage of my drunken state.”

Mare chuckled.

“You good, Clo?”

“I’m going to drink my water,” I told her. “I’ll be fine in a bit.”

“You sure? I can take you now.”

“No, I’m good.” I waved my hand around dismissively. “I need to hit the grocery store tomorrow, and I don’t want you to have to bring me back to my car. I’ll just hang a bit.”

“You’ve had a lot,” Mare stated. “Be careful and call a cab if you have to.”

“I will.”

Mare and Nate walked out, arm in arm. I finished the water but still wasn’t in great shape, so I asked for another one when the server brought over my bill. I didn’t even look at how many drinks were on it, just handed him my card.

As I sat at the now empty table, I felt life crashing all around me. It was probably just the alcohol talking, but it seemed like everyone around me had things to do and people to be with, while I sat on my own. I missed my dad and our long conversations. When Mom moved so soon after his death, it seemed as if I had lost her, too.

I felt tears in the corner of my eyes.

Oh, hell no. I was not going to be the crying drunk girl at the bar. I needed to get myself outside for some fresh air.

I stood abruptly and pushed back my stool, striking the person walking behind me.

“Damn, girl!”

I spun around to see whom I had hit, got my foot caught on the bottom of the leg of the stool, and fell forward—into Brick Wall’s arms.

Again.

He lifted me into the air with no effort whatsoever and placed me on my feet. My shirt had ridden up in the process, and when he placed his hands on my sides to hold me steady, they ended up on my skin just above my jeans. He laughed.

“We have to stop meeting like this.”

“I’m so sorry!” I cried.

“Then again, I’m starting to like it.” His eyes twinkled as he looked down at me.

I was beyond flustered. Aside from the embarrassment of falling into the guy again, I was horribly distracted by the feeling of his hands on my sides. I could feel the grip of each of his long, warm fingers on my skin. He tightened his hold, and it sent a rush of sensation through my body, which focused right between my legs.

What the hell?

That little alarm in my head went off again, and I pushed away from him, barely stopping myself from falling backwards. I quickly straightened my shirt and steadied my footing. My heart was pounding, and my hands shook a little as I tried to regain some of my composure, failing miserably.

“It was just an accident.” My voice sounded mousy and was was barely audible with the bar music blasting.

“Some accidents are good,” he said.

I narrowed my eyes as he took a fast glance down my body. My drunken embarrassment was quickly turning into something else as my heart continued to beat frantically, and my palms got a little sweaty.

“Well, this was just your normal, everyday, bad accident.” I swallowed hard and tried to figure out if what I had said made any sense at all.

“Well, I’ve specialized in train wrecks before,” Brick Wall informed me, “so it’s still all good from my perspective.”

He took a half step closer to me, and I backed up and into the stool.

“I am not a train wreck!” I heard myself say. “I’m just a little…”

My words trailed into nothing as I contemplated what the rest of my sentence should contain. Again, I failed.

“You’re a little cute,” Brick Wall said.

I glared at him as my face warmed. I was in no shape for this sort of nonsense, certainly not with a guy like this.

A guy like what?

Alarm!

I needed to get the heck out of there.

“I’m a little out of here,” I said haughtily. I turned slowly so I wouldn’t lose my balance again and headed for the door.

Brick Wall followed me.

“Hey,” he called out, “I wasn’t trying to insult you or anything! Where are you going?”

I didn’t turn around or respond even though I knew I was being rude by ignoring him. I still needed that fresh air—now more than ever. I shoved at the handle of the door, and inertia nearly slammed me into it. Realizing I was pushing the wrong side, I moved my hands over and tried again with much better success.

“Hey, babe,” Brick Wall said as the door slammed shut behind him. “Really, where are you going?”

I concentrated on navigating the steps to the parking area and continued to ignore him. From behind me, I could hear him laughing, and I didn’t like the sound of it at all. Angry and confused, I fished around in my purse until I came up with my car keys.

“Whoa!” Brick Wall exclaimed. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m going home!” I snapped back.

“Babe, you can hardly walk,” he said. “There is no way you can drive.”

My head swam again, and just to prove his point, I stumbled into the side of my car. A moment later, he was next to me, gently but insistently pulling the keys from my hands.

I turned, intending to get my keys back, but found my hands pressed against his massive chest instead. I didn’t realize how close he was. With one hand right next to my head, he leaned against the car door. With the other arm extended behind him, he held my keys far from my reach.

“Give me those,” I said. I wanted to sound strong and unafraid, like Princess Leia as she confronted Governor Tarkin, but the words came out as barely a whisper. I wanted to grab my keys from him, but his muscled and decorated arm was too intimidating.

“No can do.” He shook his head slowly. “I can’t let you go like this. Seriously, babe—you can’t drive. Let me call you a cab or something.”

I knew he was right. I just didn’t want to be having this discussion with this guy. He didn’t belong here. He belonged at the biker bar over by the Harley store or maybe in one of those gang-banger clubs downtown.

Did our downtown even have gang-banger clubs?

What the hell is a gang-banger, anyway?

Whatever it was, I was becoming increasingly sure he was one. I glanced around the parking lot, wondering if I should scream for help, but knew that would just cause a scene. He hadn’t actually done anything wrong, and hadn’t I embarrassed myself enough for one night? There wasn’t anyone else in the parking lot anyway. Most of the cars were already gone, and I wondered just how long it had been since Mare and Nate left.

Why didn’t I get a ride with them?

His body pressed closer to mine, and I looked up into his face again. His rough cheeks shadowed the rest of his features, and I wondered what they would feel like on my thighs.

Good lord, Chole! What are you thinking?

Part of me was definitely thinking that he was really, really attractive, despite being nowhere near my type. My type was the same kind of guy Mare was attracted to—guys with glasses and degrees in engineering, like Zach had been. I didn’t go for bad boys because they were…well, they were bad.

“I don’t want a cab,” I said. I needed to get my head back on straight and wondered if a screwdriver was going to be necessary. Then I remembered that screwdrivers were what got me here in the first place. “I just want to go home.”

“Let me drive you, then?”

Images of me climbing onto the back of a souped-up Harley ran through my head. I’d never been on a motorcycle before, and the idea of holding on to someone and relying on my own grip to keep me from falling off the back was enough to make me shudder.

“I’m not riding on the back of a Harley!”

His brow furrowed.

“Harley?” He tilted his head to one side. “I’m in a Honda.”

A Honda? No, that didn’t fit at all.

“You are not,” I said.

“I’m not?” His grin returned, and his eyes sparkled in the light from the streetlamp.

“No way.”

“That’s what it says on the trunk,” he replied. “It’s got that little stylized ‘H’ and the word ‘Civic.’”

“You? In a Civic?” It was my turn to laugh. There was just no way a guy that size could possibly fit through the door of such a small car.

“Yeah, me in a Civic. What’s wrong with that?”

“You wouldn’t fit in a Civic.”

He tilted his head down and to the side as he chuckled.

“Well, it’s not easy, I’ll admit.” He looked back to my face again. “It beats sleeping in the parking lot, though.”

I didn’t know if I should believe him or not. I still couldn’t imagine him with any vehicle other than a Harley, and the image was so stuck in my head, anything else seemed ridiculous. I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders.

“Give me my keys. I need to get home.”

“You know I can’t do that.” Brick Wall moved his hand behind his back, and my keys disappeared into his pocket. He placed his now empty hand on the other side of my head. “Now what’s it going to be—call a cab or drive you home?”

He was very close to me now, and the heat from his body warmed the night air between us. If he moved any closer, his body would be pressed against mine. The thought made my ears—and other parts of me—tingle with anticipation.

I really need to sober up.

I glanced around at the little cage he had made with his body and wondered if I could duck under him fast enough to get away. The warning in my head was getting louder, contrary to the reaction of my body. I was trapped, and I should have been afraid. I wanted to be afraid, but I wasn’t.

That’s the alcohol talking again.

I looked into his face and realized he was still waiting for my answer. Instead of giving him one, I found myself focusing on his lips at the same time I wetted my own.

His eyes darkened slightly as they narrowed. He shifted closer, and I swallowed as the idea of his body pressed against mine became reality. He paused, watching my face closely.

This was it. I knew exactly what he intended to do, and this was my opportunity to say no. This was my chance to just insist on going back inside and having the bartender—a guy I’d known for years—call me a cab instead being driven home by someone whose name I didn’t even know. Brick Wall might agree to give the bartender my keys while I waited for a ride.

I didn’t move. I didn’t protest. I licked my lips again and stared up at him as he slowly lowered his head to my level. I could have pressed against his chest with my hands, but I didn’t. My elbows bent as his chest came closer to mine, pressing the backs of my hands into my breasts. As he leaned closer, I moved my palms up to his shoulders and around his neck.

He tilted his head to the side, and his full lips met mine. All I could do was press the back of my head against the car door and let him as the feeling of being trapped by his body magnified. Again, I knew I should be frightened, but the gentle touch of his mouth on mine electrified me. Even as my chin quivered, I gripped the back of his head with my fingers to pull him closer.

I didn’t want a gentle kiss from him. It didn’t fit any more than the idea of him driving around in a Civic. A kiss from him should be hard, fast, passionate, and rough.

I opened my mouth slightly, and he immediately took the invitation with his tongue. I could taste beer along with mint, as if he’d been chewing gum recently. I gripped the back of his head harder, and he took the hint. The kiss deepened, quickened. His tongue went from exploring my mouth to invading it. He pushed my body against the car as he moved one of his thighs between mine, and I could feel something hard and straight through the jeans encasing my hip. My whole body throbbed but especially that spot between my legs where his thigh was pressed.

Inside my head, a voice joined the alarm and screamed at me to stop what I was doing. I didn’t listen to it. Instead, I moved my hips forward, increasing the pressure as he moved his hand down my side and returned the favor. My God, he felt huge. All those stupid “Is that a rabbit in your pocket?” jokes flooded through my head as he pulled back for a moment, taking my lower lip between his teeth and then turned his head the other way to kiss me again.

It was probably due to closing my eyes—maybe I should have gone with the ultimate in first-kiss faux pas and left them open—but every single drink I had consumed throughout the evening suddenly hit me at once. As his tongue entered my mouth again, I couldn’t hold back any more. I pulled my arms from around his neck and pushed his chest as hard as I could.

He stepped back, thank God, just in time for me to turn to the side and puke on the pavement. My stomached heaved, and I gripped the handle of the car door for balance with one hand and held my hair away from my face with the other.

Searching desperately for some object on the ground to allow me to focus and get control back, my vision blurred in the broken white lines between parking spaces. I started to fall forward, but a strong arm stopped me from hitting the pavement just as everything went dark.

And with that, my boring existence came to an end.





THREE



My head felt as if there were a troupe of dancing elephants practicing their next circus routine just behind my eyes. I wanted to groan, but I was sure the sound would pierce my eardrums, so I held it in. I ached everywhere, and I was in a horribly uncomfortable position. My pillow felt like a rock against my cheek. Even when I tightened my arm around it, it didn’t give way.

My pillow also seemed to have a distinctly musky scent to it, which I had never noticed before. In my groggy state, I wasn’t making much sense of it. The throbbing in my head urged me to go back to sleep, and I didn’t want to argue. I settled in and rubbed my cheek against the warm pillow, but something still wasn’t right.

The scent, the feeling of the pillow on my face—it just wasn’t right. My body ached along with my head, making lucid thoughts fleeting at best. I tightened my arms around the pillow, but it didn’t give way like it normally did.

I opened my eyes a crack and discovered my pillow was covered in tattoos.

What the hell?

I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat as I tried to regain enough consciousness to survey my surroundings.

I was on a bed with the sheets drawn most of the way up my body. The bed wasn’t mine. It wasn’t even a proper bed—just a pull-out mattress from a faded couch. I was wearing nothing but my bra and panties.

My arms and one leg were wrapped around a shirtless Brick Wall.

Oh my God, no…

What had I done?

With a little shriek, I pushed myself away from Brick Wall and tried to climb off the mattress. I was tangled up in the sheet, which was tucked under the far side of Brick Wall’s decorated torso, and for a moment, my legs were trapped under it, sending a wave of panic through me.

“Shit!”

Flailing my arms and legs until I could disengage from the fabric, I fell on my ass next to the makeshift bed.

“Ooof!” Shaking my pounding head to clear it, I crawled backwards a few feet on the floor as Brick Wall opened his eyes, propped himself up with one elbow, and looked down at me. The sheet covered up his lower half, so I couldn’t tell what he was wearing, if anything.

Holding himself up with one arm made the muscles in his arm bulge. His biceps were enormous and decorated with…well, I wasn’t even sure what. I could make out words, a face, some stars, and maybe a few flowers. There was hardly any skin showing anywhere on his upper body. He was covered from his neck all the way to where the sheet was pulled up around his hips. Even the backs of his hands were covered.

He had enough words and pictures on his body to open both an art gallery and a library.

Tattoos weren’t my thing. I wasn’t into guys like that. I liked nice, straight-edged guys who had office jobs and drove Toyotas. Regardless, I still thought he was kind of beautiful. Though I couldn’t make out the details of the designs on his flesh, they still left the impression of telling a story—an intricate and beautiful story.

I shook my head again to clear it. I’d had my leg wrapped around him, asleep in his bed, and I didn’t remember a damn thing after leaving the bar.

I felt my face heating up. This was definitely at the top of the list of situations my mother always told me to avoid. I didn’t know where I was, how I got here, or even the name of the man I was sleeping with.

Oh, God, I slept with him!

Brick Wall smirked as I backed away on my hands and feet until I hit something on the floor—my own jacket. I grabbed it and wrapped it around my chest as I tried to catch my breath.

“You okay?” Brick Wall asked.

“No!” I shook my head vehemently. “No, I am not okay! This is not okay! Holy shit—I don’t do this! I never do this!”

“Do what?” he asked with narrowed eyes.

“This!” I yelled as I waved one hand in the air between us. The other hand kept a firm grip on the jacket against my skin.

He wiggled his eyebrows at me as the panic I felt in my chest increased. I covered my mouth with my hand to keep myself from actually screaming.

“Relax,” he said softly. “We didn’t do anything. You passed out thirty seconds after we got here.”

I processed his words, felt a moment of relief and then doubt.

“Why was I in bed with you then?” I demanded.

Brick Wall sat up and looked pointedly around the living space, which I hadn’t actually done yet. As I did, I realized the whole place consisted of one room—a combination of a living room and bedroom area along with an eat-in kitchen. There was a small, closed door off to one side, which was presumably a bathroom.

“Where else would you fit?” he asked.

Aside from the pull-out couch, there was only one other chair, and it wasn’t nearly big enough to sleep on. There was a card table with two chairs closer to the kitchen and a small stand with a television on top of it but no other furniture—only a suitcase with a pile of clothing in it.

“Why am I here at all?” Somehow, I still felt wronged and needed to prove that he had done something inappropriate. Anything that would keep this from being entirely my fault would have been a blessing, but I wasn’t coming up with much. I tightened my hands into tiny fists against my chest even as I asked myself exactly what I thought I might do with them. It wasn’t as if he’d feel it if I tried to hit him.

“Because you were trying to drive yourself home,” Brick Wall said. “I was going to call you a cab or just drive you home myself, but you couldn’t seem to remember where you lived. So, here we are.”

I glared, trying to decide if I believed him or not. I did remember him taking my keys from me, so that part fit. Everything after that was a blur. Still, his explanation sounded reasonable, and I didn’t see any motive for him to be lying to me.

You don’t know this guy! You have no idea if he’s telling the truth!

“Would you have preferred it if I had left you in the parking lot to fend for yourself?”

So much for blaming him.

“You’re quite the cuddler,” Brick Wall said with a lopsided grin. He reached up to put his hand behind his head and leaned back. “I kept pushing you off but finally gave up.”

Though my face heated at his words, I couldn’t deny what he was saying. I hadn’t been with anyone for nearly a year, but Zach, my ex, often accused me of trying to smother him in his sleep. Nowadays, my giant, overstuffed pillow got the same treatment.

“Crap,” I muttered.

“I’m just glad you didn’t puke in the apartment,” Brick Wall remarked. “I’m out in a few days, and I don’t want to forfeit the deposit, you know?”

“Did I puke?”

“In the parking lot.”

“Crap,” I said again. The evening’s events were starting to come back to me.

“Not the best first kiss reaction I ever got,” he said with another half-grin, “but at least you didn’t hit me.”

“We kissed?” A shiver ran through me as vague memories of his body pressing mine against the driver’s side door of my car and the taste of his tongue in my mouth ran through my head.

“You don’t remember?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Kind of,” I admitted.

“Definitely not the best reaction, then,” he said.

Crap. After all of this, I’d hurt his pride too.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Why?” His eyes narrowed again. “You don’t have anything to apologize for.”

“For not remembering?” The statement sounded like a question, and my organs felt as if they were dropping into the lower half of my body. “I mean, I remember a little…some of it.”

There was a long pause as he stared into my eyes.

“Well, hopefully it’s a good memory.” He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the mattress, and I sighed in relief to see that he was actually wearing shorts. I focused for a moment on the additional tattoos covering his legs and even the tops of his feet. I couldn’t quite read the lettering around his calves, but his feet seemed to be decorated with faces surrounded by flowers or clouds—I wasn’t sure which. The images looked religious. Then I realized I was staring and quickly looked away.

The facts of the matter began to overwhelm me again. Yes, I’d desired a little more action in my life, but not like this, not with some tattooed stranger who was as far from my type as he could possibly be. This was a dangerous situation and one to be avoided.

“I need to go home,” I stated.

“Will you at least let me make you some breakfast before I take you back to your car?” Brick Wall asked. “You’ve got to have a hell of a headache.”

“I need to go home,” I repeated quietly.

“You still ought to eat,” he said. “I’m a great cook—I swear.”

Great, I was hurting his pride again. I swallowed hard before answering him.

“I appreciate it. I really do, but I need to get home. I don’t do stuff like this.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Like being half naked in a stranger’s apartment on a Saturday morning,” I replied. “I should be at the grocery store now.”

“The store?” He laughed, and I felt my blood rise into my cheeks. “Sounds exciting.”

“I always shop on Saturday morning.”

“Then what?”

“Then laundry and maybe a movie.”

“Yeah, that’s some weekend life you lead.”

I looked up at him and tried not to glare. I didn’t need some guy I didn’t know commenting on my lifestyle or habits, but I’d already offended him by not accepting breakfast and bemoaning the whole kissing thing.

I licked my lips, and clearer memories of his mouth on mine surfaced.

“I’m just…not a spontaneous person,” I finally admitted.

“You mean like letting me kiss you last night?”

“That was…that was…” What the hell was that? My heart began to pound. I had no words for it. I couldn’t even imagine myself in that situation though clearly I had allowed it. “I don’t even know your name.”

He smiled, lighting up his eyes.

“Hunter,” he said. “Aiden Hunter.”

“I’m Chloe,” I said.

“You told me last night.” Aiden grinned again as he stood up and offered me his hand. It was also covered in tattoos. There were stars around his wrist, a flower covering the back of his hand, and tribal markings all the way down his fingers. I hesitated, but good manners got the better of me, and I let him haul me to my feet with my other hand still clasping my jacket to my chest. I looked around on the floor.

“Um…where are my clothes?”

“In the bathroom,” Aiden said. “They’re probably still wet. I washed the puke off them in the sink, but I don’t have a dryer.”

I quickly excused myself to the bathroom to locate my clothes. Aiden had been right—my jeans and T-shirt were hanging over the shower door, and though the shirt was only slightly damp, my jeans were still soaked. I pulled the shirt on just as Aiden’s head popped in the doorway.

“Want to try these?” Aiden held a pair of grey sweatpants out to me. “They’re going to be big, but there’s a drawstring. Should be enough to get you home.”

The idea of wet denim was unappealing enough for me to agree.

“Feel free to take a shower or whatever,” Aiden said. “There’s also an extra toothbrush in the cabinet.”

He walked out, and I pulled the ill-fitting sweats up over my legs, tied the drawstring, and rolled up the hem so I could walk. My sandals were on the floor of the bathroom near the shower, so I slipped them on too. I hated taking showers in strange places but did open the medicine cabinet to find an unopened, green toothbrush and made good use of that.

I caught my reflection in the bathroom mirror and stared at the smudged, mascara-darkened area around my eyes. I saw dull blue eyes, hair all over the place, and I still smelled a little like a bar. I looked like hell and wondered just how much worse I must have appeared last night when Aiden brought me here. No wonder he didn’t touch me.

I rolled my eyes at my reflection. Was I seriously disappointed that he hadn’t taken advantage of the situation? That would have been date rape, wouldn’t it? If you can’t give consent, it’s the same as not giving consent—I’d heard that from all the sexual harassment training I had to complete at work every year.

We hadn’t been on a date, of course.

Placing my hands over my face, I groaned in the back of my throat. I had to get out of this place, get home, and take half a bottle of painkillers. I obviously couldn’t think rationally here. I wasn’t even sure what to do with the toothbrush I had used, so I placed it next to the blue one that was already there in the little cup on the vanity.

After rubbing some of the makeup off my face with my fingers and cold water from the bathroom sink, I went back into the main room of the tiny apartment. Aiden was dressed in a white T-shirt with the sleeves cut out of it, tan cargo shorts, and a red baseball cap perched backward on his head. The shirt showed off a lot of his tattoos, but there were so many, my head swam whenever I tried to make sense of them. He was sitting in the single chair, flipping through channels on the television. He turned it off as I walked in.

“You sure you don’t want to eat first?” he asked.

“I’m sure.” I tried not to stare at his arm muscles, but they were just so big. And decorated. Very, very decorated.

“Give me a minute, and we’ll get you back, then.” He disappeared into the bathroom while I stood in the middle of the room, not knowing what to do.

Glancing around the room, I saw my purse sitting on the card table and retrieved it. I checked my wallet nervously and then sighed when I saw all the cash and credit cards were still there. I silently scolded myself for being so distrustful of a man who really hadn’t done anything other than help me out, but the whole thing was so far out of my comfort zone, I didn’t know how to react.

There was definitely the desire to examine my surroundings up close, but I didn’t want to appear rude. Aiden was only gone for a few minutes anyway, and I would have died of embarrassment if I had been caught snooping around. As soon as he came out of the bathroom, I retrieved my wet jeans, and we left.

Outside, Aiden opened the passenger door of a small, silver Civic and then walked around to shove his huge form into the driver’s seat. I buckled up and looked around. I knew the apartment complex from when I had been hunting for one myself, but I’d given it a miss. The neighborhood was a little run-down for my tastes, and the closest shopping was a strip mall with nothing more than a convenience store and take-out Chinese. It was a cheap place to live, but I could afford much better.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked Aiden.

“Sales,” he replied.

“What do you sell?”

“I’ve sold a lot of different things,” he said. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye.

Alarm!

He didn’t seem interested in elaborating, and the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want to know. Sure, he’d been a gentleman so far, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. I watched him stare at the road through the windshield and noticed his fingers gripping the steering wheel tightly.

Nope. I did not want to know.

“What do you do?” Aiden asked.

“I’m a project manager,” I said. “I work in the banking industry, managing teams for various initiatives. I work with the computer groups a lot, mostly on hardware and software upgrades.”

“Fun.”

I snorted out a laugh.

“Yeah, it’s a blast.”

“So why do it?” Aiden relaxed his grip on the wheel and turned the corner.

“It pays the bills,” I said. “I love books, and I used to work in a library, but moving to project management made me a lot more money.”

“I guess that’s something.”

“It might not be too exciting,” I said, “but I like the people I work with. Well, most of them.”

“Most?”

“My boss is an ass.”

Aiden laughed as he looked at me with those twinkling green-brown eyes.

“He hasn’t been there long,” I continued, “and he seems to be doing his best to drive me insane.”

“So quit,” Aiden suggested with a shrug.

“It’s not that easy.” I looked down at my hands as I fiddled with the strap of my purse.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s good money, and the drive isn’t bad. There’s no guarantee what I’d find would be any better than what I have, and looking for a new job takes a lot of time.”

“Might cut into that grocery shopping, huh?”

I glared at him, but he just smiled back and adjusted the cap on his head. I noticed he had a small tattoo right on the upper part of his ear.

I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to defend myself to this man. He probably didn’t even have a real job. Sales people in my company made a lot of money, drove fancy cars, and lived in high-class neighborhoods, not the dump he was in.

“At least I can afford to eat what I want and live where I want.” I looked back to my hands, realizing how my words probably sounded.

“Judging me by that apartment, are you?”

I didn’t answer.

“It’s not mine,” he said. “I’m just borrowing it for the week. I’ll be heading back home tomorrow.”

“Where’s home?”

“Miami, Florida.”

“Ah.” It didn’t surprise me. Half the people in Ohio seemed to live in Florida for part of the year, which meant almost everyone I knew had family down there. “Are you visiting family or something?”

“Not exactly.” Aiden pulled into the parking lot of Thirsty’s and parked next to my car. The place was completely empty save for the handful of mist-covered cars left over from the night before.

As tempting as it was to ask him to elaborate, my inner alarms told me to let it be. My car and freedom from this crazy situation were right beside me, and I was eager to get back to a normal, comfortable routine. We both climbed out of his car and walked over to mine.

“Your keys,” Aiden said as he held out his hand.

“Thanks,” I said as I took them from his grasp, “for everything, I mean. Sorry I sort of went nuts this morning. It was just a little…shocking, I guess. Please don’t take it personally.”

“No worries,” he said. “You were just a little disoriented.”

“Yeah, I was. I don’t do things like that.”

“So I gathered.” He looked at me sideways. “I get the idea you don’t stray much from the norm.”

I blinked a couple of times as I looked up at him. He was grinning again.

“Are you laughing at me?” I asked.

“Maybe a little,” he replied, then shook his head. “Not really at you, it’s just—you’re making me think about my friends back in Miami.”

“Why is that?”

“We’re all big into living life to the fullest, you know? Live in the now, and deal with the consequences later.”

“Sounds like you get into a lot of trouble,” I remarked.

“Sometimes.” Aiden reached out and took my hand in his. “Most of the time we just have a lot of fun.”

“Doing what?”

“Mostly drinking,” Aiden said with a laugh. He pulled at my hand until we were standing close together, forcing me to look up into his face. “A couple of them are big guys, and they can drink a lot.”

“Big guys compared to you?”

“Depends on what you mean.” Aiden raised his eyebrows and released my hand only to place his on my waist. I gripped his forearm, not sure if I wanted to push him away or bring him closer.

This was a bad idea. Playing games with a man like this wasn’t safe. This was what I had always avoided. Still, I’d already hurt his pride once, and I’d practically insulted him, assuming he didn’t make enough money for a nice apartment. Pushing him away would be rude.

His closeness was also having quite an effect on my body.

Aiden’s eyes twinkled as he raised his hand and brushed my cheek with his fingers. His smile made him look boyish and much less threatening than the way his muscles and tattoos portrayed him.

I bit down on my lip as he moved his head closer to mine, just staring into his eyes and completely unable to move. I was sure he could hear my heart beating as I wondered if this was what a mouse felt like as it saw the shadow of an owl overhead. My mind told me this was dangerous, but I was unable to either fly or fight.

His mouth covered mine as he wrapped his arm around my back and pulled me against him. I gripped the edge of his shirt tightly as he kissed me, stealing what breath I had from my lungs. His full lips were warm and gentle on mine, and just as the tip of his tongue touched mine, he stopped.

Aiden pulled back, and I slowly looked at him. His eyes were hooded and dark, and his mouth was slightly open. I felt his breath against my lips as he spoke.

“It was nice meeting you, Chloe.”

I licked my bottom lip, still tasting him there.

“You too,” I whispered.

He released my waist and let his hand rest on my hip.

“Do I get to see you again?” he asked suddenly, and my heart began to pound intensely.

“I thought you were leaving tomorrow.” My hand slid down his arm as he took a half step back.

“Yeah, I guess I am.” His chest rose and fell as he took in a deep breath. “Maybe the next time I’m in town?”

“When will that be?” Was I seriously considering this? No, no I wasn’t. I was just being polite.

“Not sure,” he said. “A few weeks maybe.”

It sounded like plenty of time for both of us to forget the whole night, which was fine by me. I was pretty sure he would find someone more like him in the meantime, and it wasn’t like I was going to offer him my phone number. I’d likely never see him again.

Then I remembered something.

“I need to give you your pants back,” I reminded him.

“Well, I have an appointment at noon I really shouldn’t miss,” Aiden said, “but how about I stop by and pick them up later?”

“What? Come by my condo?”

“Yeah,” he said with a shrug. “Why not?”

“You don’t know where I live.” I didn’t add that I wanted to keep it that way, but he must have sensed it.

“Do you remember where I live?”

“Yes.”

“Bring them by after four this afternoon,” he suggested. “I have to pack up a few things, and I have an early flight tomorrow.”

“I have…” I hesitated and took a deep breath. “I have things to do.”

“What?” Aiden laughed. “Groceries?”

I scowled at him but didn’t have any kind of snappy comeback. The fact was he had me pegged. I didn’t have any plans other than a movie at home—predictable and alone.

But going back to his place? Again? Intentionally? I had no idea what he expected, let alone what I might expect from another encounter. Yes, he had apparently been nothing but gentlemanly toward me thus far, but would that continue? Was this some kind of trap?

Why would he feel the need to trap me? If he was going to hurt me, he’d already had plenty of opportunity. Was I still judging him just because of the tattoos? How wrong was that?

Besides, I couldn’t deny my attraction to him. He was so different from those I’d dated in the past, and the excitement of seeing him again tingled through my fingers where they still touched his arm.

“All right,” I finally said. “I’ll drop them by later.”

“Yeah? Cool!” Aiden beamed. “I’ll see you later, then.”

He folded himself into his tiny car and drove off as I stood there with my keys in my hands and watched him disappear.

And with that, I wondered if I should just forget the whole encounter.





FOUR



I stood at the door to Aiden’s apartment, holding his sweatpants—freshly washed—in a plastic bag on my arm. I had been there for at least four minutes but hadn’t knocked yet.

I had spent all morning telling myself to leave his pants on his doorstep, ring the bell, and run away. I had spent the entire afternoon arguing with myself.

Everything about my encounter with Aiden Hunter was wrong. I didn’t know him. None of my friends knew him. And I had made out with him both in a drunken stupor out in the parking lot and also while stone-cold sober the next day.

I had gone through all the known pros and cons.

The pros were easy: he was really, really attractive and a great kisser. Just being close to him seemed to make my body react in ways I hadn’t felt in a long time, maybe ever. Yes, I’d been physically attracted to Zach and other past boyfriends, but the draw to Aiden was different—more tangible. It was also completely inexplicable.

The cons were also easy. There was no denying that I didn’t really know anything about Aiden Hunter. That should have been enough to keep me away. He was sketchy about his work, which set off alarms in my head. Sales could mean anything. He was also scary-looking with all the tattoos and huge muscles. He was not my type.

However, I couldn’t get over the idea that I was being totally unfair to him. If I had been a police officer, I would have definitely been accused of profiling. It wouldn’t have been any different if he had been wearing a turban, and I had assumed he was a terrorist. I wasn’t like that. I didn’t discriminate against people because of how they looked.

Did I?

Maybe everyone does to some extent, but that didn’t mean I had to act on it. Deciding to avoid him would be exactly that. Would I think differently if he had been in a suit, covering up the artwork all over his body? Probably. How screwed up was that?

The fact was he hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d helped me out when I was too drunk to make any kind of rational decision, didn’t take advantage of me, and didn’t seem to be expecting any sort of repayment for his good deed. I, on the other hand, had spent most of my time judging him based on his appearance.

Who was the bad guy here?

Yes, he’d been a little dodgy on what he did for a living, but he might also just be a private person who didn’t want to divulge too much to someone he just met. I hadn’t told him much about what I did for a living, either. I wouldn’t even tell him where I lived.

Deciding I was just being silly, I took a deep breath, raised my hand, and knocked. The door opened immediately.

“I was wondering how long you were going to stand there.” Aiden’s boyish smile beamed down at me as he waved me into the apartment.

My heart fluttered when I looked at him.

“You knew I was out there?” I asked as my face heated up.

“I saw you drive up.” He pointed to the small window overlooking the parking lot. “Have a seat. I’m just finishing up my packing.”

He stepped to the side of the door, but his shoulders were so wide I still brushed up against him when I walked in. The brief encounter sent shivers down my arm where our skin touched.

I scuttled past, ignoring the way my skin tingled where we met, and sat on the single chair in the living area and looked around. The suitcase that had been open that morning was now closed and upright near the card table. Aiden disappeared into the bathroom and came back out with a black toiletry bag, which he shoved into the front pocket of the luggage. The sleeper sofa was folded back, and the apartment looked even emptier than it had before.

“I thought you were leaving tomorrow.”

“I am,” he said. “I just like to have everything together the day before.”

“You are very organized,” I commented. He grinned at me.

“Want something to drink?” Aiden asked. “I’ve got beer and some Sprite, I think.”

“No,” I replied, “thank you. I just wanted to return these.”

As I held the bag out to him, I tried not to meet his eyes as. Every time I seemed to look at them my brain turned to mush.

He laughed.

“In a grocery bag, huh? I guess you managed to get your shopping done.”

“I did.” I smiled sheepishly.

Aiden took the bag and crammed it into the top of the suitcase. He tossed in a few more items from the card table and zipped up the bag before sitting down on the couch and facing me.

“So, I was thinking,” Aiden said as he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, “maybe we don’t have to wait until I get back. Maybe you could just come with me.”

I stared at him a minute, trying to figure out if there was some joke I was missing. I was probably distracted by the movement of the muscles in his forearms when he leaned on his legs, and I didn’t quite understand what he was trying to say.

“Come with you where?” I asked.

“To Miami,” he replied. “I still have another week off from work, and I think maybe a nice little vacation would be good for you.”

“Vacation?”

“Yeah—sunny Florida and all that. Have you been?”

“Of course I have,” I said. “We went to Disney when I was a kid.”

“Well, adult vacations have their own magic,” he said with a wink. “What do you think?”

I blinked a few times. Was he really suggesting I go to Florida with him? The very notion was ridiculous.

“I think you’re crazy,” I replied.

“Maybe a little.” He shrugged and looked down at his hands. “I just thought maybe…well, with what you were saying this morning…”

His voice trailed off and he looked out toward the window as I tried to figure out what I might have said that gave him the idea that I wanted to take a vacation at all, let alone with someone I had just met. I drew a complete blank.

“What did I say?”

“You said you never did anything spontaneously.” He looked into my eyes again. “I figured maybe you’d like to give it a try.”

I rubbed my hands on my jeans, annoyed with myself for whatever I had done to put such an insane idea in his head. At the same time, I envisioned myself lying on a beach with him at my side, half naked in the sand.

I shook my head to clear it.

“I don’t do that for a reason,” I said as I sat back in the chair and folded my arms. I needed to get a handle on my thoughts. “I have responsibilities here. I’m kind of expected at work on Monday.”

“Don’t you have vacation time?”

“Of course I do.”

“So use it!”

“To go to Florida? Now? With you?”

“Why not?”

I still couldn’t quite believe he was serious, but everything about him said he was. He was smiling but not in a joking manner. He was looking at me intently, waiting for my answer.

“Because I barely know you!”

“Perfect opportunity to get to know me better.”

I didn’t like the way he was using logic against me. I definitely didn’t like the part of me that was actually listening to it.

“That seems a little extreme for a first date,” I replied with a bit of a huff.

“Is that how you see it?” he asked. He raised one eyebrow and tilted his head to the side.

“Well, I…um…” His bluntness had caught me off guard, and I had no idea how to respond. Had I been presumptuous? I had just assumed he would see it as an intimate trip, but now I wasn’t so sure. “It’s just that, well, we kissed, and um…”

Aiden’s smile grew.

“I’d love for it to be an extended date,” he said, “but it wouldn’t have to be if that made you uncomfortable. I just don’t have anyone else traveling with me, and it gets kind of boring. It seems like you could benefit from a little excitement in your life.”

“You think I’m boring?” I asked.

“I think you’re bored,” Aiden corrected.

“And that’s a good reason to pack up and head to Florida?” I shook my head. Normal, rational people didn’t do these kinds of things.

“It’s not a bad reason,” he replied.

I realized I was staring at him again and quickly looked away. I had no idea how to handle this. I couldn’t possibly go on a trip with him on such short notice. He had to realize that, didn’t he?

“I haven’t budgeted for a trip,” I said.

“My treat.”

I glared at him, wondering if he was just teasing me, but again, he seemed absolutely serious.

“I couldn’t let you do that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s just not…not proper.” I glanced around at the sparse surroundings, wondering how he could afford a trip for one, let alone a trip for two. “I don’t even know you.”

He laughed.

“Fuck that,” he said with a wide grin. “I don’t care if it’s proper or not. You’re just making excuses. Come on, Chloe, why not take a chance?”

What was the worst that could happen? Did I really think he was going to kidnap me and sell me into slavery or something? That’s the sort of thing that only happened on television. Besides, he was obviously stronger than I, and if he wanted to haul me off somewhere, I wouldn’t have been able to stop him.

This was ridiculous. I had work. I had to help Mare pick out wedding flowers. I had told Gabe I’d go car shopping with him this week. People were counting on me to be here. I couldn’t just pack up and leave with some strange, tattooed man, irrespective of how gorgeous he may be.

“No,” I said, this time with more conviction. “I’m not going to Florida with you.”

Aiden looked at me for a long moment, smiled slightly, and nodded. I noticed right away that his eyes didn’t light up this time, and I immediately felt bad for rejecting him.

“All right,” he said. “You can’t blame me for trying.”

“I don’t,” I said quietly as I stood up to leave. “I’m just not sure doing something like that on such short notice is in me.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Aiden replied. He stood up in front of me and placed his hand on the side of my face. “I think it’s in there somewhere.”

“Unlikely,” I said as I tried to smile. I was keenly aware of how close he was to me, and again my body reacted. My skin tingled as he bent slightly to place his lips on the side of my neck. I closed my eyes and held my breath as he moved his hand to the back of my head.

“You can still change your mind,” he whispered as his nose dragged along my cheek, making me shiver. “My fight was delayed, so I won’t be leaving until almost noon tomorrow. You have some time to think about it.”

Aiden pulled away abruptly and headed over to the kitchen area. He scribbled in a small notepad that had been sitting on the counter, tore off the page, and handed it to me. It had flight information and a phone number on it.

“Text me if you change your mind,” he said.

“I’m not going to change my mind.” I glanced at the paper as I headed for the door. My heart was pounding again, and I needed to get out of there before I said or did something crazy. I didn’t seem to think clearly in his presence. All those muscles and his intense eyes kept me off guard. I needed to get out of there and back to the safety of my condo.

“Text me anyway.”

I nodded, thinking it was better to let him believe I would contact him later even when I was pretty sure that was not in the cards. He took my hands in his and pulled me in close, brushed his lips against the corner of my mouth, and then opened the door.

I drove home slowly, replaying the entire conversation in my head. Go to Florida with him? He had to be nuts.

Monday morning I would have to explain the project cancellation to the team though they’d likely all heard about it by now anyway. I had to reassign resources, meet with accounting, and figure out where the budget for the server upgrade would land, now that it wasn’t going to happen. I had to change contractor assignments, reallocate technical resources, and update the project plans. Mare needed a florist. Gabe needed a new car. The very idea of jaunting off with some stranger with no notice was ridiculous.

And exciting.

I pulled into my parking space and went inside my condo. I could have sworn Buffy was glaring at me.

“For all I know, he’s a vampire,” I told her.

As I looked away from Buffy, I caught sight of my father’s picture on the other side of the bookshelf. His smiling eyes looked into the camera, and I reached out to stroke the frame.

“I have a pretty good idea what you would think of all this,” I said to the picture. “Stay away from dangerous situations. The unknown is often dangerous.”

After blowing Dad a quick kiss, I picked up the stack of papers on the desk and opened up all the bills. I sat down and logged into my bank account to pay the electric and cable bills that were due. Once I had all that paperwork cleared up, I began to file the papers. As I placed the last one in the appropriate folder, a piece of lined paper dropped to the floor.

Aiden’s phone number and flight information.

I sighed and picked it up. He had seemed very disappointed at my refusal, and I supposed I should at least text him and wish him a safe flight. Maybe we could make plans to have coffee or something when he returned. That was safe enough, wasn’t it?

Pulling my phone from my purse, I added Aiden Hunter into my contact list and hit the “send message” button to create a text. I stared at the blank screen for a moment before typing “Have a good flight!”

I didn’t hit send.

Instead, I deleted the text and stared at the blank message screen again. Maybe I shouldn’t send him anything. Maybe I should keep our brief encounter just that—brief. Sending him a message would give him my phone number, and doing that wasn’t the safe way to go. I still didn’t know much of anything about him.

He’s probably a drug dealer.

I shook my head. The thought wasn’t fair, and I knew it.

Fair or not, the logical and safe thing to do was to forget all about my weekend with the handsome, tall, and muscled stranger. I wasn’t a love-struck child, and I wasn’t a character in a romance novel. Real life just didn’t work that way.

I woke early the next morning, and my very first thought was of Aiden. There were fleeting images of him in my head, walking along a sandy beach with waves crashing around his tattooed feet.

Had I been dreaming about him?

Unable to go back to sleep, I gave up and made coffee. It was still dark outside, and I wasn’t hungry yet. I flipped on the television, which was tuned to one of those home and garden channels and showing one of those house-hunting programs. Coincidentally enough, the couple on the show was looking for a house in Miami.

“Figures,” I mumbled as I stared at the screen. The realtor was discussing all the wonderful sights in the area, the beautiful beaches and fantastic restaurants within a ten-minute walk of the million-dollar condo in question.

Did Aiden live in a pricey complex like that?

“Not going to happen,” I mumbled out loud. I tossed my phone onto the coffee table and hauled out my laptop to check my work emails. There were usually a few I could get out of my inbox before Monday morning, and I liked to have those taken care of before getting into work the next day. Along with a few notices about a weekend upgrade that had apparently gone horribly wrong, there was a meeting request from my boss to discuss project initiatives for the next year.

The meeting was set to last for three hours.

Not only did it double-book me for two of the hours, it also ran through lunchtime. There was no mention of bringing lunch in, and my schedule for the rest of the afternoon wouldn’t even leave me time to run to the refrigerator to grab a packed lunch.

“Bastard.”

It would be the sixth time he’d done the same thing to me since he’d started working there. He would schedule half-day meetings with no break and then expect everyone to just deal with missing lunch. Word at the water cooler was that he was watching for people who left early, too. It pissed me off, but of course I hadn’t said anything. I’d fantasized about rubbing tar into his perfectly ridiculous hairstyle, but I hadn’t said anything.

“You know what? Fuck him.” The harsh word felt strange coming out of my mouth, but I didn’t care. I opened up a new email and quickly typed up a message to Chia Head saying I was taking the week off. I clenched my teeth as I hovered the cursor over the send button.

I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.

Why not take the chance?

It was Aiden’s voice, not my own, in my head. I looked at the clock and then again checked the piece of paper Aiden had given me. He said his flight didn’t leave until noon, and it was only a little after nine o’clock now.

Up on the shelf, Wonder Woman seemed to be leaning forward, urging me to do it. If I squinted my eyes, I might have imagined Princess Leia nodding. Buffy could have been thinking about sharpening some new stakes, just in case.

“I could get fired,” I said to the girls, then rolled my eyes at myself before they had the chance. I wouldn’t get fired for such a thing. It seemed to take a major act of God to fire the idiots who didn’t get any work done at all, and I always had great reviews.

I picked up my phone and stared at it for a moment before I typed another message.

I’ve decided to go with you.

Again, I did not hit the send button. It didn’t matter if I wanted to go; I couldn’t. The very thought was insane.

Wasn’t it?

I did have vacation time to use. Though I’d gone to visit my mom and usually took off a few days around the holidays, I hadn’t been on a real vacation in years. The project team had plenty of work to keep them busy for the next week, and the idea of having yet another marathon meeting with my asshole boss was stomach-churning.

I gripped the phone in my hand, hard enough to make my knuckles go white. My finger shook slightly over the send button on the display as I bit into my lower lip and felt my chest tighten.

Even if the trip was a disaster, it couldn’t be worse than a week of meetings with Kevin. Nothing was worse than that.

I hit the send key.

“Oh, crap. What did I just do?”

A response came immediately.

Awesome! Can you be here in 30 min? I’ll meet you at the Delta ticket counter.

The airport was twenty minutes away. I’d have ten minutes to pack.

Sure. See you then.

I hit send again. There was no turning back now. I sent Kevin my email notice of vacation and jumped up to pack a bag.

And with that, I decided I had lost my mind.





FIVE





“I’m really glad you decided to come,” Aiden said as he handed me a boarding pass. “Do you want to check your bag?”

“No, it’s okay,” I replied. “It should fit in the bins. I didn’t have a lot of time to pack.”

“Decided at the last minute, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” I was sure my face reddened as I glanced at him. He was dressed in a grey T-shirt and camo shorts that reached his knees, showing off the tattoos on his calves. I was starting to wonder if there was any part of him unmarked. The same red cap was on his head—backward, of course.

“If you end up missing something, we can get it there,” he said. He took my hand, grinned down at me with that incredible smile, and pulled me toward the escalators.

People kept looking over at us and then quickly looking away when I met their eyes. The first time it happened, I could only wonder if they knew I was doing something completely rash and borderline insane. Suddenly self-conscious, I looked down to see what I was wearing. There was nothing unusual about my outfit and my shoes matched, so I didn’t think they were looking at me.

As it continued to happen, I realized they were actually staring at Aiden and his tattoos. I began to pay more attention to the passersby. Most people just gave him a subtle sideways glance, but several stared outright.

I had been in the midst of a near panic attack since I sent the text message, and being in the airport with him as people stared wasn’t making it any better. I was excited to be going, but all my focus was on the feeling of his fingers interlaced with mine and the looks other passengers were giving us. I couldn’t concentrate on the actual trip ahead.

“You’re going to love it,” Aiden said. “I live right on the beach. It’s not overly fancy or anything, but the view is incredible.”

“Do you have roommates?” I asked.

“Nope. Just me.”

My heart began to pound again. I had to have lost my mind to be doing this. Yes, it was exciting, but it was also terrifying. I was going to spend a week alone with this man. What if his beach house only had one bed in it, like the apartment he stayed in here? I hadn’t even considered what the sleeping arrangements might be, and now I was too embarrassed to ask.

I wasn’t even sure how Aiden was viewing this little adventure. He said he’d like it to be a date, but we hadn’t said for sure one way or the other. This was completely uncharted territory for me, and I had no idea what he was expecting. I’d let him pay for the plane ticket, and I was going to be staying at his house. What was he going to want in return?

“So, is this a date?” I asked. “I mean, a long date?”

“Do you want it to be?” His fingers tightened around mine.

“I…I’m not sure.”

“How about we just play it by ear, then?”

“All right.” I had to move fast to keep up with his long strides as we headed toward the gate.

“Are you nervous?” he asked as he gripped my fingers.

“No,” I lied.

“You’re shaking.”

“Um...well, maybe a little,” I admitted. “I’ve never done anything like this.”

“Spontaneity suits you,” he said. He reached his arm up to place it over my shoulders and brushed my cheek with his finger. “It puts color in your cheeks.”

He pulled me next to him and pressed his lips to the top of my head.

“I’m a little nervous, too,” he said quietly. “I just want you to have a good time. I want both of us to have a good time.”

I still wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but I didn’t ask. Instead, I leaned into his body. My mind focused on the feeling of his arm around my shoulders. It was warm and comfortable, but it was something else too. I felt…protected.

Maybe that was the reason women were drawn to muscled guys. I’d never thought about it before, but despite his appearance, I felt safe with him next to me.

Getting through security took forever. Though we didn’t have any of the forbidden items, Aiden was pulled aside and searched thoroughly before we could get past the checkpoint to find our gate. By the time we got there, we only had about twenty minutes before our flight would begin to board. That gave us just enough time to stop at a kiosk to grab some snacks for the flight. I picked out some trail mix and a bottle of water, and Aiden grabbed a bag of Swedish Fish.

“Really?” I asked as I nodded toward the candy.

“I love these things,” Aiden admitted. He looked away from me. At first I thought he was embarrassed, but there was something off about his expression. He looked almost sad, and I wondered if I had offended him.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” I said as I touched his arm.

“It’s all good.” He took the bag of trail mix from my hand and walked swiftly to the counter. The curve of his biceps increased in definition, and I noticed his hands were clenched around the bags of food. Despite what he said, it obviously wasn’t all good. I wasn’t sure how, but I had definitely pissed him off, and we hadn’t even gotten on the plane yet.

My former boyfriend, Zach, had been a mild-mannered guy. There wasn’t a whole lot that upset him, but over the eighteen months we’d dated, I learned what kinds of things set him off. You couldn’t talk bad about the Catholic Church, even though he no longer attended mass, or you would definitely get an earful. I’d also learned to avoid conversations about Microsoft products because they would send him into a tirade about good software versus popular software.

This was why this trip was such a bad idea. I didn’t know enough about Aiden Hunter to know what his triggers were. I had no idea what I’d said about Swedish Fish that upset him and didn’t know him well enough to be comfortable asking about it. Anything I said might end up being a taboo subject for him, and it would be like walking through a minefield. Then again, he had said the trip was a good opportunity to get to know him better, so maybe I just needed to ask.

Another traveler walked past us and eyed Aiden up and down.

“Does that happen to you a lot?”

“What?”

“The whole security check thing,” I clarified. “I’ve never been searched.”

“Yeah, pretty much every time I fly,” he confirmed. “I guess I’m used to it.”

“Like the people who…well, who stare when you walk by?”

“It happens,” Aiden said with a shrug. “People make their assumptions about you as a person, based on your looks. It happens to everyone, I suppose.”

I thought about it but wasn’t so sure I agreed with him. I never thought people were judging me by how I looked. Of course, there wasn’t anything particularly unique about how I looked, either. Aiden, on the other hand, had gone out of his way to make himself look different from everyone else. That was bound to get people’s attention.

As we sat down to wait for the flight, Aiden’s phone rang before I had a chance to inquire any more about him. He looked at the number, glanced at me darkly, and then stood up and walked a few feet away before answering. He spoke in a low tone, and I couldn’t hear any of the conversation though the desire to eavesdrop was great. He held the phone tightly against his ear and gripped his other hand into a fist as he spoke. He paced a few feet farther away then turned and glanced at me for a moment before looking back to the floor.

A voice over the announcement system called for first-class passengers to begin boarding, and several people around me stood up and grabbed their bags. Aiden continued to pace, and his voice rose in pitch as he started yelling.

“Listen here, motherfucker! You need to get off your ass and do something about it before I show up there and explain to you just how I feel about all this shit!”

I tensed and gripped the arms of the chair as a few other passengers looked up at him. He lowered his voice again, but I could still see the tightness in his jaw as he spoke into the phone for a few more seconds then ended the call.

He took in a long breath and huffed it out before returning to where I sat.

“Everything all right?” I asked quietly.

Aiden didn’t look at me. He continued to glare at his phone for a moment before he shoved it back into his pocket and dropped his butt down in the seat beside me.

“It’s fine,” he said curtly.

Whatever it was, he clearly didn’t want to discuss it. All ideas of asking about Swedish Fish left my head, so I went with a subject change instead.

“So, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m in sales,” Aiden said.

“Right.” I nodded and fiddled with my hands in my lap. “You said that, but you didn’t say what kind of sales.”

“Pharmaceuticals.”

My heart skipped a beat, and my palms began to sweat. I was right! He was a drug dealer! And here I was, about to get on a plane and head to Florida with him.

What the hell was I going to do?

Our zone was called, and Aiden stood and picked up our carry-on bags.

“Ready?” he asked.

I wanted to say no, I was not ready. I wanted to turn around and run as fast as I could back to my car in long-term parking. I wanted to tell him it was all a mistake and whatever desire I had for a week of beach-life had vanished.

I didn’t.

Aiden had paid for a plane ticket for me. We were here, and the plane was boarding. People were probably still watching him after his outburst on the phone. How would it look if I ran off now?

Instead of running, I simply nodded and joined him in line to get on the plane. I remained silent as the ticket agent checked our boarding passes, and the flight attendant led us to our seats. Aiden tucked our luggage into an overhead bin and handed me my trail mix before he sat down and buckled his seatbelt.

“Do you fly a lot?” I asked. I really wanted to return to normal conversation and forget his harsh words on the phone.

“Some,” he said.

“Do you travel to Ohio a lot?” I asked.

“Pretty often,” Aiden said. “I’m from the area, and I go back to visit friends and do a little business from time to time.”

“Is your family there?”

“My mom is around somewhere.” He turned toward me. “How about you? Have you always lived in the area?”

“Most of the time,” I said. “I went to school out of state, and my mom moved away to San Francisco last year after my father passed the year before.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“It’s all right,” I replied quietly. “I’ve gotten used to the idea of him being gone. It was hard at first, but I’m coping with it.”

“Do you have siblings?” he asked.

“No, it’s just me. How about you?”

“None,” Aiden said.

“But your parents live in Cincinnati?”

“My mother does,” Aiden confirmed. “My father died when I was in high school.”

“Oh, wow. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” he said. “It was a long time ago.”

I had been twenty-five when my father died. It had been so hard on me—I couldn’t imagine losing him when I was still a teenager. I knew through my father’s stories how difficult it was on a child when a parent was lost, and the child was still young.

That brought me to another question.

“So, um…how old are you?” I asked.

“Twenty-seven,” Aiden replied. “You?”

“The same,” I said with a smile. “I’ll be twenty-eight in November.”

“What date?”

“November fourth.”

“Hmm.” Aiden raised his eyebrows and smiled wickedly. “An older woman. I have to wait until the twenty-seventh.”

“You make me sound dirty,” I said with a laugh.

“Well, I’ve never dated an older woman before,” Aiden said. “This is a whole new territory for me. I’m a little intimidated.”

“You?” I crossed my arms in front of me. “Intimidated?”

“Oh, yes,” he said with a serious nod. “Women are scary anyway, but an older one?”

“I’m sure I’m just terrifying.”

“You are.” He shuddered, and we both laughed.

I was glad his mood had lightened although I couldn’t help but wonder what the phone call had been about. Was it one of his drug dealer associates? Was there some big deal about to go down, and something wasn’t right about it?

Was I really thinking this way?

I never should have gotten on this plane, but I was stuck with it now, so I pressed my luck.

“Were you visiting those guys I saw you with at the bar?”

Aiden glanced over at me and then tore open his bag of Swedish Fish. He ate three of them before answering.

“Basically.”

“Who were they?” I pressed. “Friends?”

“Associates,” he said bluntly. “Do you want one of these?”

I took the offered sweet, as well as the hint, and stopped asking questions.

The rest of the plane ride went smoothly. I talked about losing my dad and how I felt about mom moving to the other side of the country shortly after. Aiden ate the remaining Swedish Fish with the exception of the yellow ones, and shoved the rest of the bag into his pocket. We talked about my job but not his. I did ask him more about his family.

“My dad was great,” Aiden said. “We didn’t have a whole lot, but he was one of those fathers who always made time for me. We did a lot of backyard sports stuff—throwing a football around, playing catch—all that shit. Then he died when I was fourteen. Mom pretty much lost it then, and I ended up raising myself at that point.”

“Oh, Aiden, I’m so sorry. That had to be rough on you.”

“I managed.”

“What about your mother?”

“She was already a mess before he died, but afterward, she was a disaster. Dad didn’t have any life insurance to speak of, and Mom couldn’t hold down a job. I almost didn’t finish high school because we were going to lose our apartment if we didn’t get bills paid. I started working at the grocery store, bagging, and then later running the cash register. I had to put in a lot of hours just to keep the lights on. As soon as I finished high school, I moved out. I just couldn’t take it anymore. My mother is still in Cincinnati and living off disability, but we haven’t talked in years.”

“That sounds really rough,” I said. “You were so young, too.”

“I grew up fast,” Aiden said with a humorless smile.

I still had questions, but the plane began its descent into Miami. Aiden retrieved our bags from the overhead bin, and we headed off the plane and out of the airport.

“Do you have another Civic parked around here somewhere?” I asked.

Aiden laughed.

“Nah, I leave that for Ohio. Actually, I hadn’t thought about transportation. We’re going to have to improvise a bit.”

“Improvise?”

“Yeah, not a big deal. I just hope it all fits.”

Across the lines of taxis, I followed him out of the airport and to the parking garage. We took the elevator up to the next floor, and he led me over to a line of motorcycles. He stepped up next to a sleek, black machine.

“I have an extra helmet at home,” Aiden said. “You get to wear this one in the meantime. I’m just not sure if your luggage is going to fit in the side bags.”

“So you do have a Harley.” I eyed him as he removed the helmet from the back of the bike and placed it on my head.

“It’s a Yamaha R1,” he said with a grin. He crammed our luggage into the large, black bags hanging across the back of the bike. They fit, but just barely. “Have you ridden on a motorc