Page 1


SIDELINED


VIOLET PAIGE


CONTENTS 1.

Sam

2.

Natalia

3.

Sam

4.

Natalia

5.

Sam

6.

Natalia

7.

Sam

8.

Natalia

9.

Sam

10. Natalia 11. Sam 12. Natalia 13. Sam 14. Natalia 15. Sam 16. Natalia 17. Sam 18. Natalia 19. Sam 20. Natalia 21. Sam 22. Natalia 23. Sam 24. Natalia 25. Sam 26. Natalia 27. Sam 28. Natalia 29. Sam 30. Natalia 31. Sam 32. Natalia 33. Sam Epilogue Epilogue II FLY Untitled Copyright Untitled Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5


Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Acknowledgments About the Author


1

SAM

IT WAS THE GAME THAT POPPED THE CHERRY ON THE SEASON. MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL. THE NIGHT. THE ONE that gave millions a taste of what they had been waiting for all summer. And we were headed to Austin to play the fucking Warriors. I got it. I knew that the schedules were arranged ahead of time. But we were Super Bowl champions. The Wranglers shouldn’t be in Austin for this game. They should have come to us. The hatred between our two teams was palpable and an overnight trip into Warrior territory was an insult to what we had accomplished. I sat next to Stubbs on the plane. He kept his earbuds in for the twenty-minute flight from San Antonio. I tried to stretch my legs, but even on the Wranglers’ private jet there wasn’t enough leg room. At six-five, airplanes were uncomfortable as shit. At least I wasn’t in the back with the linemen. Those guys had nowhere to go. I shifted again, banging my knee into the tray table. “Damn it,” I muttered. The flight attendant stepped forward in the aisle, handing out bottles of water. Coach Howell had given strict instructions that we weren’t supposed to drink the night before the game. He couldn’t regulate everything we did, but he sure as hell tried. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had told the flight crew to only stock water on this flight. I smiled at the brunette as I took the bottle from her. “Do you need anything else?” she asked. “I think I’m good, darlin’.” I twisted off the cap and took a sip. The season started tomorrow night and even though it was only my second year with the team, I had a strict policy once the first snap was taken. No women. I’d made that mistake in college and it messed with my head. I didn’t broadcast it. I didn’t discuss it, but she had done a number on me and almost cost me my senior season. She could have ruined my chances in the pros. I’d never make that mistake again. I had a million-dollar contract, and no woman, no matter how great she fucked, was worth losing that. I was the highest-rated tight end in the American Football Association. I had a Super Bowl ring and my agent had recently finalized a bonus contract for this season. I couldn’t let some pretty girl get in my head. Wasn’t happening. There was a prize for me come February worth about two million dollars. I looked out the window as Austin came into view. I’d spent my life playing Texas football. It was in my heart. In my blood. But this wasn’t my city.


The Warriors were our biggest rivals. The fact that we were in constant competition to be crowned the state’s home team was always lingering between us. But this time we were showing up as national champions, and they could shit talk all they wanted. They didn’t have the title we did. The captain called over the speaker, “We are approaching Austin. Please prepare for landing.” I exhaled. I was ready. Ready to get this game over with and take home another win. As soon as we were on the ground and could unfasten our seatbelts, I stood up to an awkward bent position. None of us could stand in this jet. Wes, the team’s quarterback, was the first to take the steps to the tarmac. I could hear the press outside the plane hitting him with questions. They loved that guy. He was a champion. He had led the team all the way to San Diego last year. He had earned his place. One by one, we disembarked. The flight attendant tugged my arm before it was my turn. I looked at her as she tucked a folded piece of paper in my suit jacket. “I’ve got a twenty-four hour layover,” she whispered. “Thanks.” I grinned before ducking out of the jet. “Call me, Sam.” I ran my hands through my dark hair and shook my head. I wasn’t going to pretend I couldn’t get any woman I wanted. I knew how they looked at me. How they licked their lips when I walked by. I worked hard for this body. I spent endless hours in the gym lifting weights and working with my cross-fit trainers. It didn’t happen overnight, but I looked like a god when I took the field. There were painful weeks and months of sweat and hard work that went into creating the physical machine I had become. I didn’t care if I was eye-candy to them—the season started tomorrow and they were background noise. I’d throw her number away as soon as I found a trashcan. No distractions. No women. Tomorrow night the spotlight was on all of us, and I had to show the world Sam Hickson was more than a lucky first-year rookie. I was as much a champion as Wes Blakefield. I had a career ahead of me that would blow all the numbers out of the fucking world. I smiled at the cameras and walked past Wes. He was still answering questions. There was a bus waiting to take us the hotel. I hopped up the stairs, feeling the coldness of the air conditioning rush over my head. The season opener was all that mattered now.

There were two different playbooks. I stretched my legs on the hotel bed and picked up the one designed for Warriors games. We had our own set of rules when we faced them. I had been over it at least twenty times before tonight, but I wanted to review the plays again. “Sam, you in there?” I sat up when I heard Stubbs’ loud voice and his fist pounding on my door. I walked over and opened it. “Hey, man. What’s going on?” “We’re going out,” he announced. “Out?” He grinned. “Hell, yeah. We need to blow off some steam. You’re coming with us.” I shook my head. “I’m studying.” “You sure you’re not still a fucking rookie?” I glared at him. “Maybe I’m the only one who wants to win tomorrow night.”


He laughed in my face. “No, you’re the only fucker who thinks studying will make a difference. We’ve got this game. So come on. We’re going out.” “I’ll pass.” “Do you know where we are?” I bit the inside of my cheek. It was rhetorical, so I waited for him to answer for me. “We’re in fucking Austin. Where the Warriors live. Where they eat. Where they drink. Where people think they aren’t the biggest dicks on the planet.” “What’s your point, Stubbs?” He crossed his arms. “Not only are we going to beat them tomorrow night, but we’re also going to beat them tonight. We’ll drink their liquor. Hit on their women. Party like they could only dream.” The Wranglers liked to party. No—the Wranglers liked wicked debauchery. We threw the kind of parties you couldn’t mention at Thanksgiving dinner. Last year, as the ring leader of the rookie class, I was responsible for the Dean. It was a tradition to give the veterans a party that satisfied their every sinful need. And I did a pretty damn good job. We had high-stakes poker, strippers, and top-shelf liquor, and no one left without an A-list blowjob. But that didn’t mean I was up for it tonight. Things were different. I wasn’t a rookie anymore. I had to prove myself and I wanted that damn bonus this season. “Get your ass out here, Sam,” Stubbs ordered. “I’ll meet you.” “Like hell you will.” He jammed his foot in the door. “Get your wallet and keys.” I hung my head. Damn it. This was the last thing I wanted to do right now. Stubbs’ grin said everything when I met him in the hallway. Tonight was going to be Wrangler-level epic.


2

NATALIA

I HUNG THE SHIRT AND CLIPPED THE TINY SKIRT TO THE HANGER AND SCOWLED AT MY UNIFORM. I HATED IT. Sometimes I didn’t want to even look at myself in the mirror when I had it on. Then there were the boots. Who wore gold metallic knee-high boots? I had wiped the scuff marks from them and placed them under the dance ensemble. Calling it dance was a stretch. It was basically a stripper’s outfit. I didn’t know how anyone could feel Warrior pride wearing that thing, but the other girls on the squad did. They loved it. They loved the W on their chests. They loved the mini stars on their skirts. They didn’t care that half of the shirt was missing and the only reason they got attention was because of their bodies. It didn’t seem to bother any of them. Except me. And I would have to put it on again tomorrow night for the game. I’d parade around showing off my toned thighs and stomach. I’d wave my hands in the air and dance to the techno music with a huge Texas-sized smile on my face. After all, I was a Warrior Goddess. I was trained to be a professional dancer, but this wasn’t what I had in mind. I could win a Tony for the acting performance I gave on the sidelines. I let my fingers trace over the satin ribbon dangling from my pointe shoes. They were on the second shelf of my closet. I hadn’t tried them on again since the accident. I was tempted to slide my feet into them and pirouette around my living room, but it wouldn’t help my mood any. It would only remind me I wasn’t doing what I loved. The knots in my stomach wound tightly. It had been nine months since I had worn them, and I didn’t know when I’d be ready to try them on again. I hesitated for a second, thinking this could be the moment, but I stopped myself. I didn’t want to face what it might mean if my leg gave way. The shoes I loved had made me a prisoner to fear. I was scared my supporting leg would never hold me again. It was one thing to shake my hips and do kicks toward a crowd of Warrior fans. It was something completely different to put all my trust in the ability of my hamstring to withstand the intense pressure of dancing with pointe shoes. My entire body relied on my right leg to work in perfect unison, and right now I didn’t have that trust in myself. I couldn’t try on the shoes. Instead I turned off the closet light and pretended there wasn’t a dance squad uniform hanging inside. I would trade it out for a hundred tutus any day. I was thinking about taking a walk to the park near my condo and picking up a salad on my way home for dinner when I heard my phone ring. I grabbed it from the kitchen island. “Hello?” “Natalia, what are you doing, girl?” It was Heather from the dance team.


“Not much. I was just headed out to pick up dinner.” “Good. Then you can meet the rest of us for drinks.” “Oh no, I’m not up for that. It’s Sunday night.” “You’ll be the only one not there. You have to go. It’s a Goddess tradition.” She sounded bubbly and excited. I rolled my eyes. “And what tradition is that?” “We always go out the night before the first game of the season. Just the girls. It’s so much fun.” “We’ve already had games,” I protested. “It’s not the first one.” “Those were pre-season and totally do not count.” I was tired of the constant lectures on football terminology and rules. I didn’t know anything about the sport. I didn’t really like it. I didn’t understand why thousands of people paid two hundred dollars a ticket to watch men try to bash each other’s brains in. For me, it was only a paycheck and a way to get me back on stage where I belonged. I tolerated as much of it as I could. I knew I didn’t make much per game. No one would be able to survive on a salary as a dancer. We were never paid for the amount of practices we had to attend, but the pay out came from the promotional events. Warriors fans knew no limits when it came to reserving the Goddesses for birthday, bachelor, or retirement parties. I was promised a substantial bonus for appearing in the two calendars the squad printed each year. There was the holiday edition as well as a summer swimsuit collection. There was a rumor floating around that we were going to start wearing patches on our uniforms for advertisers. I didn’t know that I agreed with being a dancing billboard, but if that happened, each dancer would make a small percentage each time we wore it. The only way to make sure I profited as a Goddess was to dance at every game. “I might have to sit this one out, Heather. But I appreciate the invitation. Call me next time.” “Oh no. You are not going to be the reason the guys lose tomorrow night.” Her voice lowered an octave. It was her mother hen tone. I huffed. What was she accusing me of? “Of course not. I always want them to win.” I was praying she wasn’t going to tell me about some crazy powder puff tradition where I’d have to run on the field wearing a set of shoulder pads and a helmet during the halftime show. “Then you have to go. You have to be there or they’ll lose. This is what it means to be a Goddess. You have a duty to the team.” It was absurd. The traditions these girls came up with, or maintained for however many years, were ludicrous. It was completely illogical that the Warriors would lose if I didn’t go out for one drink. Out of the forty girls on the dance squad, Heather was the one I had spent the most time with. We had been paired together at summer training camp. Sharing a room with her hadn’t been all that bad. She took dancing seriously—we had that in common. It just wasn’t the same kind of dance. I learned quickly that the other girls didn’t want to hear about my training in ballet. They didn’t care who I studied under. They were here because it was a lifelong dream to be a Goddess dancer. Some of them were third generation legacy girls. Unlike them, I wasn’t trying to get a modeling contract or snag a spot in a player’s bed. I had bills to pay, and when no one would take an injured ballerina, the Warriors took me in. I did appreciate the money. I couldn’t shake the rest of it. When I took the job in May, I thought eventually I’d wrap my pride around the concept of being on a dance squad, but my pride never backed down. I was a ballerina, and a respectable ballerina wouldn’t do what I did, even if it meant not getting


evicted. I sighed. If I didn’t go tonight, the girls would blame me. They would glare at me in the locker room, and every time I walked in the practice studio, they would hold me accountable for the game’s outcome. I wasn’t ready to start off the season that way. We didn’t have to be best friends, but we did work together. “Fine,” I agreed. “Text me the bar’s address and I’ll meet you there.” She squealed. “Awesome!” “But one drink,” I warned. “I want to be home before ten.” I wasn’t going to bother changing out of my workout clothes. I liked the fitted yoga pants and the lavender top. It reminded me to always move through space with graceful intention. One of the skills Madame Collette had drilled into me. “That’s all you have to do. I promise. One drink with the girls, and there’s no way they can lose. And you know how they like to win.” I heard the giggle in her voice. Again, this was silly, but I had joined silly. I was a part of team silly. I grabbed my bag and walked out the door.


3

SAM

THE LIGHTS WERE DIM. DIM ENOUGH THAT I HOPED NONE OF THE LOCALS RECOGNIZED US. DESPITE STUBBS’ cocky speech, I felt pretty safe invading Warrior territory on a Sunday night. There was a guy on stage singing something about a road trip he took. I stared at my glass of water. Wes came up behind me and slapped me on the back. “Sticking to the hard stuff?” “Yeah.” He held up his fingers to the bartender. “Two bourbons, neat.” The guy already had them poured before I could turn down the drink. It didn’t help that I had a reputation from my rookie season. It was like rushing a fraternity when I was drafted. I made damn sure the veterans liked me, especially Wes. Wes grinned. “To tomorrow night’s win.” He clinked his glass against mine and kicked back the thick liquor. I didn’t have a choice. I swallowed it and felt the fire from my throat to my belly. “That’s good shit.” He slapped me on the back. “Thanks for the drink.” He pointed to the bartender. “Another round.” Shit, he was just getting started. I took the second round and it went down smoother than the first. “I know where to find you tomorrow night, don’t I?” he asked. “Hell, yeah. The end zone.” Wes was part of the reason my numbers had broken so many records. He liked throwing to me. And it worked. We were a winning combination. “Just keep open.” He winked. “Shouldn’t be a problem with the defense the Warriors run.” We both laughed. We had a right to be cocky and arrogant. We were defending national champions. We earned the fucking right to boast. Not only that, but any chance to take a crack at the Warriors, we took. Wes’s eyebrows waggled. “Check that out.” He tipped his head and I followed his eyes. A group of girls walked through the doors and headed for the bar. Every one of the Wranglers had noticed them. It was hard not to. There was no one else here and they were hot as fuck. Each one of them had long hair, killer hips, and a set of tits that we’d all like to get buried in. As they walked past our table, I could smell the expensive perfumes and lotions they wore. It was like walking past a makeup counter in a department store. My teammates’ heads had all pivoted in one direction. “Shit,” I whispered under my breath. “Fuck is more like it.” Wes chuckled. I guess I wasn’t that quiet.


I kept my ass planted on the barstool while most of the team saddled up to the bar, shoving each other out of the way to buy the first round of drinks. This was trouble. Every one of those girls was a distraction to my buddies. Some of the guys had wives or girlfriends. Hell, some even had kids. But when a group of women like that walked in, they had the power to erase all memories. “Not getting in on that?” Wes asked. We stared at our teammates. “Nah.” I shook my head. “I’m focused on the game. Not getting a piece of ass tonight.” I could tell he didn’t approve. “You threw one hell of a Dean last year.” “Thanks.” At the time, it was my crowning achievement, but there was more going on now. I had stats to back up my reputation, and I needed even more to get that bonus. “So why are you holding back now? Seems like your kind of scene.” I leaned closer to him. “I have a season policy. Can we leave it at that?” “Ahh, one of those fuckers.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” I snapped. “You think you can only have fun in the off-season. I know the type. I just didn’t realize you were one of them.” “I still have fun. I just don’t get involved with women. The game is more important.” Wes stared at me. “No football player is that good. You start blocking out what’s around you, and you lose the game. You can’t act like there aren’t women on this earth for six months. Too much focus is bullshit, Sam. This isn’t baseball. Let those guys have their weird superstitions. Football players don’t do those damn things.” “So you think getting shit-faced the night before a game and screwing some random girl is going to help us win tomorrow?” He stood from the table. “Take my advice however you want. But I’ve been in the game long enough to know that extreme anything is never good.” He pressed his heavy hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear. “Technically, the season doesn’t start until tomorrow, so you’re not breaking any rules tonight.” He slapped me once again and walked away. I had to laugh. If anyone thought Wes Blakefield was the team leader who would mentor a rookie into taking the path of righteousness, they didn’t know the man. I’d probably never get that type of advice again in my career. Most people would agree with me. Coaches would. Trainers would. But not Wes. He probably thought less of me now that I revealed why I was staying away from the women. The singer started up again, and I looked around to see if anyone would notice if I slipped out. The guys were too busy talking to the girls. I could walk out now and nobody would give a shit. I stood to stretch my legs. The door was on the other side of the bar. A red neon sign hung over the entrance that read Warriors. It was another reminder that I needed to be reading our playbook, not taking shots and buying pretty girls drinks. I could do that in February. Our hotel was only a few blocks from the bar. I’d walk back, clear my head, then hit the book again. The way the guys were drinking I might be the only one who could hold my head up tomorrow. I looked over my shoulder. Stubbs had his arm around one of the girl’s waists. Shit. He had two girlfriends back home, but that didn’t stop him. I shook my head and took a step toward the door. I wasn’t paying attention to what or who was in front of me. “Ow!” “Oh shit.” I looked down. I grabbed her arm before she hit the floor. “Sorry.” I had plowed her over with one step.


“Watch where you’re going, maybe?” Her voice told me everything I needed to know about her before I even saw her face. She was strong-willed, opinionated, and not afraid to stand up for herself. I helped her to balance on both feet. She smoothed the strands of hair that had fallen over her cheeks and tilted her chin. Her eyes lifted to mine and I swallowed hard. Fuck. She was gorgeous. And not like the other girls. Every part of her was natural and flawless. I stared at her high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, and long eyelashes. There was grace in her movements. Even her scowl. She brushed her blond hair from her face. The rest was pulled back high off her neck. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t looking.” But I was now. I was checking out every inch of her. She wasn’t dressed like the others. It looked like she had run here from a yoga class. She shrugged off my apology. “Sorry, I was a little rude. It’s fine.” “Let me buy you a drink.” It popped out of my mouth before I could think about what I was saying. She looked at me quizzically. “I’m fine, really. No damage done.” “But I want to apologize. What do you like? It’s on me.” She pinched her lips together and I noticed how lush and full they were. God, she was perfect. She shook her head. “Really. It’s not that big a deal.” “I insist.” I pressed my fingers to her wrist and heard a sigh escape those damn sinful lips of hers. Her eyes flashed to mine. “All right. But only one. That’s all.” “That’s all I’m offering.” I grinned. “Wait here.” I led her to the table where I had been sitting with Wes only a few seconds ago. “What’s your poison of choice?” “Vodka tonic.” “Got it.” I maneuvered toward the bar and threw a fifty in front of the bartender. He poured a bourbon for me and a vodka tonic with a lime wedge for the girl. I walked back to the table. She shifted in her seat, and her loose shirt slid from her collarbone down her arm. Seeing a woman’s shoulder had never made my mouth water like that before. She pinched the collar and repositioned it. “Thank you.” I noticed how long and delicate her fingers were when she picked up the glass. “It’s the least I could do. Are you sure you aren’t hurt?” I’d knocked bigger men than me to their asses at the line of scrimmage. It couldn’t have felt good when I rammed into her. “I don’t think I’ll have any bruises.” She brought the edge of the glass to her mouth. I didn’t know what in the hell I was doing. I was getting ready to take my third shot and I was sitting with the most gorgeous girl in the place. I couldn’t blame Wes for any of it. He may have planted an idea in my head, but I was doing this all on my own. I had already started a countdown of how long I had until the team meeting, or if I pushed it back farther—kickoff. After all, the season didn’t start until tomorrow.


4

NATALIA

THIS WAS UNBELIEVABLE. I WAITED AT THE TABLE WHILE MR. SEX ON A STICK BOUGHT A VODKA DRINK FOR ME. What was I doing? I could handle flirting. I was used to it. As a Warrior Goddess, I had more numbers crammed in my hand as I walked through the tunnel than a stripper had one-dollar bills. So why was I suddenly letting this guy with piercing gray eyes trap me with a typical bar pick up line? He had no idea I was standing there when he almost knocked me to the floor. I was impressed how quickly he reached for me. With one arm, he had me on my toes. I was more enamored with his wall of a chest. Holy hell. I wasn’t that kind of girl. I wasn’t that kind of Goddess. I waved at Heather. She was talking to some guy with a tattoo crawling down both arms. She smiled and her eyes went right back to him. At least someone knew I had arrived, and I couldn’t be blamed if we lost tomorrow night. I had officially fulfilled my Goddess obligation for the season. I had been on the squad for four months, and I still didn’t feel like it was home yet. I didn’t know that it ever would. God, I was fed up with all of it. The traditions. The guilt. The embarrassment. “How’s the drink?” he asked. “Good.” I took another sip. Vodka had always been my go-to. If Madame Collette knew I was drinking before a performance, she would have had me doing a hundred pliés to make up for it. My thighs wouldn’t let me do it again. The burn would be seared into my memory. Ballerinas didn’t drink. And they certainly didn’t hook up with random hot guys. But she wasn’t here, and I wasn’t part of the troupe. No, I was on the dance squad. And this was what the Goddess dancers did. “Are those your friends over there?” He motioned to the girls, who were probably on their third or fourth drink. I nodded. “Sort of.” I used the little swizzle stick to push the lime under the ice. “Would you rather join them?” he asked. His question caught me off guard. I froze for a second. I could be over there talking about photo shoots and the calendar that was coming out before Christmas. I could talk about how much I loved to shake my ass in front of the fans. How much I loved being on the Warriors’ payroll. How I lived and breathed two things: football and cheering. But none of that was me. I didn’t want to talk about any of those things, or be reminded that I was a part of the squad. I looked directly in his eyes, trying not to be thrown off by his dark eyelashes. “I think I like it over here.”


“I’m Sam, by the way.” “Natalia,” I replied. “Pretty. Doesn’t sound like a Texas girl’s name.” I didn’t know why that made me blush. “It’s not. It’s French.” “French?” His eyes glazed with lust. There was a moment when the walls fell away and I couldn’t hear the girls laughing. I didn’t hear the guy singing on stage, or the worst pick up lines in history. There was a moment when I felt connected to this complete stranger. “Mmmhmm,” I responded. “That explains some of it, I guess.” I could feel the vodka starting to warm my limbs. “Some of what?” I was curious what he would say. “Let’s see, I’ve known you what?” He looked at the clock on his phone. “Five minutes?” I nodded in agreement. “Yes, I think so.” “And in five minutes, I can tell you’re different. Just how French are you?” He narrowed his eyes as if he was pretending to be a detective. I laughed. “My father is French and I grew up in Paris. That’s how French I am.” “So you’d say that tips the scales past the fifty percent mark?” He chuckled and I could see how sexy his smile was. Rows of straight white teeth set behind a strong jawline. Was it the vodka or was he becoming more attractive by the second? I tended to think the neon lights and the lone singer with the guitar had something to do with it too, but I couldn’t stop staring at his arms. He was ripped. “Probably so. It doesn’t help that half my family is in Paris and I go back and forth to see them. I take it you’re a Texas guy?” I needed to ask him a question before I launched into the sad story of my parents’ divorce. I didn’t know why I had already divulged so much to him. He didn’t want to hear about how I alternated holidays between Dallas and Paris. Or how much I hated moving here when I was seventeen. Texas seemed like an armpit after growing up in France. “Born and bred.” He grinned. “I think Texans are as proud of where they are from as Parisians are.” I withheld the rest of my commentary. He looked over his shoulder and scanned the bar. No one was looking at us. It almost felt as if we were the only ones here, lost in a back corner. He turned around. “I want to say something to you.” I finished my drink. “Okay. What is it?” “If this makes me sound like an asshole, so be it.” He paused. “But I’m not going to be in Austin after tomorrow. I travel for work. So I’m not going to pretend that I can call you, or that I’m interested in taking you to dinner.” I inhaled sharply. My stomach fluttered out of control. Where was he going with this? “What I am interested in is taking you back to my room.” His voice was so low it was almost a growl. A growl that sent shivers down my spine and tingled through my legs. Holy shit. “That’s forward.” I eyed him. “Extremely unexpected and forward.” I arched my eyebrows. “It’s honest.” He kicked back the rest of his dark drink. I didn’t seem to have thrown him. “No try-to-get-my-number and promise-you’ll-call in the morning?”


He shook his head. “Nope. Not going to call you.” He eyes were set in a determined line. I licked my lips. “Not even going to try to tell me you want to see me when you’re in town again?” “Can’t do that.” He leaned toward me. “It’s not possible.” My heart beat faster. This was unreal. “I don’t know what to say. I’m either completely offended or completely flattered.” I think both described the emotions I was feeling. He wrapped an arm around my chair. “Be flattered, darlin’.” His hand made a trail against my neck and down my arm until his fingers twined between mine. “It doesn’t get any more honest than this. I’m willing to break a rule of mine for this.” “A rule?” I started to panic. “Are you married? Is there a girlfriend? Because regardless of how long you’re here, I’m not a home wrecker.” “Whoa. Whoa.” He put up his hands. “There is no girlfriend, and definitely no wife.” He leaned toward my ear. “Tonight, there is you. Let’s go.” “I didn’t say yes,” I whispered. But I was thinking it. Every part of me wanted to get tangled up with him for one night. This had to be the boldest offer I’d ever received. The guy was confident. No one would know. He wouldn’t come back. He wouldn’t hassle me into another night or break my heart because I expected something. He was fucking gorgeous and all he wanted was me. “But you want to,” he teased. “Don’t think, come with me.” What was there to think about? He was offering the perfect one-night stand scenario. The excitement mixed with the anticipation and muddled my thoughts. Logic had lost and my hormones took over. I nodded. “Okay.” “Then come on.” He pulled me from my seat and led me out of the bar. The warm night hit me in the face, but it didn’t knock any sense into me. I fell into step next to him, realizing just how tall he was. For once, I felt petite next to a man. It was hard being the tallest ballerina in the troupe. I was lucky to find a dance partner who met me eye-to-eye. But Sam wasn’t like those men. We walked for a block before he stopped. “What is it?” I asked, wondering if he had decided this was crazy. Without warning, he pulled me behind another bar. This one had a sign for open mic night. I could hear a guitar through the open door. “Wh-what…” But Sam’s lips were on mine and I threw my arms around his neck. His hands snaked under my shirt and I felt the roughness of his palms skim along my back. I moaned as he dipped his tongue inside my mouth. I could taste the sweetness of the bourbon on his tongue. It wasn’t the kiss I was expecting. A kiss between strangers should be awkward and out of sync, but this wasn’t. His mouth moved over mine as I sucked and toyed with his tongue. Our bodies matched a perfect rhythm, pressing together. This man I had known for less than an hour didn’t feel like a stranger. He felt like my everything. My back was against the wall and Sam filled my vision. My senses. My need for something more. He broke away and I saw the lust fire in his eyes. He could probably see it in mine. “I needed to kiss you,” he explained. I was speechless, either from the kiss or the fact that he was reading my mind. I had no idea how much farther we had to walk, but I hoped it wasn’t that far.


5

SAM

SHE TASTED LIKE SOMETHING FROM A TROPICAL PARADISE. THE SWEET LIME ON HER LIPS WAS LIKE NECTAR. I inhaled her, drinking her in. I almost lost control in that side alley when I heard her make that sexy little purring noise. I tugged her hand in mine and walked quickly to the hotel. If tonight was going to happen, I wanted it to happen now. No more kisses in dark alleys. No more trying to grope her under her clothes. This wasn’t high school. I wanted to see the look on her face when I buried myself inside her. My cock ached and my chest beat wildly. I’d never wanted a woman like this before. “This is it.” I looked up at the hotel. The Wranglers always stayed at the same place when we were in Austin. “Your company has good taste.” She approved. I almost let something slip about the team, but I kept it in. She didn’t seem to know who I was and I liked it that way. I held the door for her, expecting her to back out and turn around and tell me no, but she charged ahead. She seemed as determined as I was to make this happen. I tapped the button at the elevator and waited for the doors to slide open. I couldn’t get Natalia to my room fast enough. My hands tangled in her hair as I shoved her against the elevator wall. She groaned as I roamed down her back, gripping her ass. Fuck, she had an incredible body. Her ankle slid up the back of my leg until it was hooked around my waist. I pressed between her legs so she knew just how fucking hard she made me. I was quickly losing control. All I had to do was spin her toward the wall and pull the stop button on the elevator. I could take her here and give in to every impulse pumping through my body. She toyed with my lips and I realized I wanted to savor her body for longer than just a quick fuck in an elevator. The doors glided open and I pulled her with me. I reached into my pocket for the key, but my need for her took over. I shoved her against the door and breathed against her mouth, tugging on her lips. It took three tries with the key card before we were finally in my room. The door slammed behind me and I picked her up. Her legs instantly wrapped around my waist and I growled into her ear. “God, this is going to be fucking amazing.” She nodded as I descended on her lips. This was it. The last time before the season started. I’d make it worth waiting an entire six months to fuck another woman. I’d give her everything I had. And she wasn’t just any woman. She wasn’t a groupie trying to land in bed with a famous AFA player. She wasn’t one of the Fillies on the dance


team luring me into a season romance. This was a stunning, exotic woman. It was as if I had been given a season opener gift. I spun, pressing her back to the wall. She clung to my neck, kissing me urgently. I wanted to explore every inch of her. Feel every curve of her body. Kiss her skin, and lick her tits. I wanted her to come in my mouth and on my dick. Fuck, I wanted everything from her. I wanted to hear dirty French words on her lush lips when I took her to fucking ecstasy. I carried her to the bed, tossing the manuals on the floor. They landed with a loud thud, but they seemed secondary compared to what was in my arms. I’d already memorized them. Now it was time to memorize her. She drew me closer to her face, sucking on my bottom lip until I thought I would explode. I was fucking hard as a rock. I pressed my erection between her legs so she could feel it. I wanted her to know what she was doing to me. And what she had to look forward to. I grinned wickedly, tugging on the hem of her tank top. It was some kind of intricate shirt that crossed in the back and made her shoulders look sexy as hell. She worked out. That I could tell. But she was lean and graceful. Beautiful in all her movements. I hadn’t bothered to ask her what she did. That was part of the deal. Right now, I didn’t give a shit. She sat forward while I worked the purple shirt over her head. I didn’t expect it to expose her breasts in one motion. I stared and then instinct kicked in. I pulled one nipple into my mouth, licking and sucking until it was hard like a little pebble. Arching forward, she moaned. “Oh, God.” I began my attention on the other side, biting at her nipple before I sucked it between my teeth. Her fingers clasped at my shoulders. “Shit, that’s intense.” “I’m only getting started, darlin’.” My hand slid along the contour of her stomach, sliding under the waistband of her stretchy pants. “Fuck, you’re wet.” I dove between her folds, moving my fingers back and forth quickly. I heard her start to pant and lifted my head to watch her. I slowed my movements, taking time to flick her clit then speed up again. And then her hips began to rock, slow and steady. It was fucking sexy. Her head swayed back as I fucked her with my fingers, pushing one finger inside her before curling another deep inside. “Ohh,” she whimpered, clenching around me. She was unbelievable. I’d never seen anything like her in my life. I slid my fingers between her folds again and withdrew them. Her eyes flew open. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “I’ll make you come more times tonight than you have in your life.” “Promise?” Her voice was breathy. I knew I had cut her off when she was on the edge, but I was the one setting all the plays. I tugged on her pants until they were over her hips and off her ankles. I took in her long legs, admiring how toned the lines of her body were. “You’re fucking beautiful.” I looked at the slice of paradise between her legs. She was waxed in a perfect V shape. Everything was smooth and silky. Her skin glowed and I couldn’t decide where to start. She watched me as I settled between her knees. I pried her legs apart so I could have a full view of what was about to become mine. Her nub was swollen with want. She was wet and I had her on the brink of the best orgasm of her life. I traced a circle over her entrance, and she quickly tried to suck my fingers inside.


“Is that what you want?” I asked. Her head rolled from side to side. “I want to come. That’s what I want.” I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to have a taste. My tongue started low at the base of her entrance then licked until I was flicking over her swollen clit. She bucked under me, but I heard the groans in her throat. She fucking loved it. When I touched her it was like I was living out some kind of fantasy. Her skin reacted to me. Her clit responded. Her mouth. Her tits. She was made for me. I lapped against her, knowing she was going off the cliff. Her body shook under me. Her hands gripped the top of my head, pressing my face against her center. “Yes, yes, fucking yes,” she screamed. I kissed her thighs, feeling the vibrations travel through her legs. I licked my lips as I shed my jeans. I loved how she tasted. How she kissed. How she came. And I was going to love fucking her.


6

NATALIA

MY BODY WAS STILL SHIVERING FROM THE MIND-BLOWING ORGASM SAM GAVE ME. ALL I COULD THINK ABOUT was how I wanted more. I wanted his cock. I wanted more of his tongue. I wanted his hands all over me. I heard his jeans hit the floor and I sat up to rip the shirt from his chest. I had imagined what he would look like without a shirt. I had seen the edges of a tattoo peeking from under the sleeve and now I’d finally see all of it. The shirt slid off his smooth shoulders as my hands explored the ridges of his muscles. He was built like a solid block of marble. There was muscle defined by more muscle. I walked my fingers over the ink that raced up his arm. It was a dragon that looked as if its talons had hooked onto his bicep. It was sexy and beautiful at the same time. My fingertips couldn’t get enough, but my core was aching for something much stronger than the power in his chest and arms. He grinned at me. “Feeling good?” I nodded. “Amazing.” Had I ever let a man lick and suck my clit like that? Had I ever spread my legs without embarrassment? I couldn’t think of a time when it felt so right to have a man between my legs. Not until tonight. Maybe it was because he was a stranger and we had an agreement. There were no expectations. No strings. Just pure physical lust and passion. And God, did he have a lot of it. He was cocky, but I didn’t care. He knew what he was doing. And that made him sexy. “Do you know how sweet you taste?” he growled at the base of my throat. “No,” I answered. His mouth landed on mine, shoving his tongue between my lips. I could taste myself there. He pressed harder, sucking over my mouth. I clawed at his back, feeling the want fire through me. “That’s what you taste like.” He grinned. “Like pure heaven.” I licked my lips. I didn’t know it could be sexy to enjoy my own taste, but with it dripping off Sam, it was. I was turned on. I felt the heat of my wetness between my legs. I was beginning to ache again. “And what do you taste like?” I taunted. His eyes lit up. “God, I want to fuck your mouth. I want you to tell me how I taste.” I wanted his skin sliding over my tongue. I wanted that bead of dew. I wanted the salty sweetness of his cock. He straddled me, planting his knees on the mattress next to my shoulders. I licked my lips, preparing for it. His shaft was wide and thick. It would take a few tries, but I’d give him the best


blowjob he’d ever had. I carefully wrapped my hands around his erection, guiding him toward my mouth. I licked with strong pressure, sucking in the first drop of dew off his head. He groaned and kicked his hips forward. My tongue swirled over the top, taking him in gradually. He looked down at me and I saw the utter hunger in his eyes. My mouth opened and he slid inside me. “Fuck,” he growled. And I felt the glory of taking his big dick so deep in my throat. I felt the confidence surging through my limbs as he started rocking into me. I massaged his balls and tugged lightly while he passed through my lips. Nothing felt as powerful as this. He was loving every second of it. His eyes closed for a second and the back of my nails dug into his lower back. With a sudden jerk, he hit the back of my throat and I moaned. I felt his body tense and he quickly pulled out. “Shit,” he whispered. He took a deep breath. “I want to fuck you deeper.” And I could imagine it. Picture it as he plunged inside me. How he would fill me with his masterful cock. I was shaking, I wanted it so badly. “Do it. Fuck me,” I demanded. I swear I had never spoken those words before. But he had unleashed something primal in me. I could be completely wild and free with him. His touch did it to me. Or maybe it was his tongue. Or maybe it was the thought of how his cock would feel pushing inside me. His hands slid under my back and rotated me toward the head of the bed. I looked around, feeling slightly disoriented. He grabbed the stack of pillows next to my head and shoved them under my hips. I felt them tilt in the air. I was completely exposed like this. He had control of me. All of me. “You want it deep, don’t you?” he asked. “God, yes,” I panted. I eyed him as I pointed my toes and laid one calf on his right shoulder and then the other on his left shoulder. He kissed my knee, dragging his teeth over my skin. “Your legs are fucking insane. I’ve never seen anyone as hot as you, Natalia.” I smiled. I wasn’t about to tell him he was getting ready to sleep with a Warrior Goddess. These legs were how I got the job. That, and twenty years of ballet. He rubbed his cock between my folds, coating the head of his erection with my juices. I tipped toward him, wanting to pull him inside. Needing him to fill me with everything he had. “You feel too good,” he groaned. He ran the tip over my clit and I whimpered. I was aching. He was hard like a rod of steel and I wanted to feel the friction of our bodies rubbing together, sliding along each other. Making each other wet and hot with every touch. He leaned sideways and I heard him rip the edge off a foil packet. I watched as he rolled it on his pulsing cock. He rubbed his erection between my legs, parting my slit. “Sam,” I whispered. I didn’t know what more to say. What would make the pain stop. A pain that had me burning from the inside out. He settled at my entrance and I gasped at how intense it was just feeling how I stretched around him. His fingers flicked and rubbed over my clit. “Say something to me in French,” he whispered. “Something dirty.” His eyes glazed with hunger for me. “J’ai envie de toi.” I could barely talk. “Baise-moi.” He continued to massage his shaft through my slickness. “Tell me what you said.” He was breathing hard.


I pressed my palms backward into the tufted headboard, praying he’d sink inside me. “I said I want you. Fuck me.” He closed his eyes and let the words wash over him. I’d say it a hundred more times if it turned him on. “Baise-moi,” I repeated. “Baise-moi.” The frenzy built until I couldn’t take it anymore. I was done playing. I grabbed his ass, drawing him to my center, and then he sank inside me with a solid burst of heat as our bodies fused. Holy shit. Nothing had felt as intense as this. With my hips in the air, he could push deeper than I’d ever experienced. As soon as he was inside, he lost control. He began pumping and riding me, sending me into oblivion. My legs bounced in the air as he gripped my hips, dipping in and out of me with solid strokes of pleasure. Our bodies aligned like the perfect dance. His muscles moving and bending where mine shifted to accommodate him. His shoulders rippled with strength as the grace of my legs wrapped around him. I’d never felt like I was dancing before when I was having sex, but that was exactly what it felt like. As if Sam was lifting me in the air and twirling me around, giving me the high of a lifetime. My body was whole. It was alive with desire and passion. I was spiraling, tumbling through ecstasy. I stretched around his wide cock, desperately trying to hold him close to me. He rubbed my tits with his thumbs and I started to feel the coil in my belly unloosen. I couldn’t stop it from happening. “I’m going to come. Oh, God.” He pinched and toyed. “Do it, baby. Ride it out with me.” I bit into my lip as he took another deep thrust. I cried out as the pleasure ripped through me, starting with my clit, then circling my body with bursts of rapture. “Fuck,” he groaned as he unleashed himself inside me. The sweat rolled down his chest and I panted as my second orgasm picked up where the other one left off. I clutched his firm ass, digging my nails into his skin. “Don’t stop,” I begged. I didn’t want the dance to end. I didn’t want the pleasure to be over. I wanted to stay in the air while he carried me through the high. He grinned. “As hard as I am, I won’t.” He plunged into me again, then kicked my legs off his shoulders, pressing a kiss on my mouth with blistering heat. I held on to him, clinging to his damp, warm body as the waves pulsed through me. One after another. I vibrated and shook in his arms. He yanked the pillows out from my hips, lowering me to the mattress with a wide smile. I knew he had a plan. He rolled on his back, pulling me on top. I grinned, knowing I could move with him like this. My breasts perked and I started to ride him with wild abandon. I felt the power of my body. The skill in my movements as he closed his eyes. I had him. He was going to come. I rose up, bringing the tip of his cock to my entrance, then sank on him swiftly. That was when his arms wrapped around me and he pulled me to his mouth, biting and sucking at my lips. I melted in his arms, feeling another orgasm surge in my limbs as he pumped in and out of me. I’d meant to drive him crazy. Blind him with passion, but our bodies together were like a combustible substance, and I lost the power I had over him. I lost it in his arms. I lost it in his lips as he fucked me with the gentle thrusts of my most beautiful dance.


He kissed the V of my throat. “I—” “What is it?” I searched his eyes. I hoped he had the words that explained what was happening between us. I was looking for the words too, but I couldn’t comprehend what our bodies had done. What they were doing. I tried to catch my breath, but I was tingling all the way to my toes. “Nothing.” He shook his head. “It’s nothing. Just that I can’t wait to fuck you while you come again. How did you say it in French?” I kissed him. “Baise-moi.” He chuckled. “Baise-moi?” I nodded. “Oui.” My body felt warm pressed against him, the sweat of sex slick between us. I was somehow satisfied and restless at the same time. “Then baise-moi, darlin’.” I didn’t question him. But I didn’t believe what he had said either. He was about to say something important. I could sense it. I could see it in his eyes. And if he felt half of what I did when he was inside me, we had both fucked up. We had made the mistake of thinking we could leave the hotel as strangers, just as we had found each other in the bar. But this man didn’t feel like someone I didn’t know. Sam felt like part of my soul. Part of the air I breathed. I looked into his eyes, wondering if he felt the same thing.


7

SAM

I HEARD MY ALARM GO OFF AND SLAPPED THE BEDSIDE TABLE. SHIT. I FELT EXHAUSTED. MY BODY WAS SORE AND I got two hours of sleep. I rolled over, ready to pull Natalia to my chest. I could let the rule slip for another couple of hours. It was still technically not the season. Not yet. Kick off wasn’t until eightthirty. Last night had been fucking incredible. Nirvana, even. It was the most epic one-night stand of my life. And in my gut, I wanted more. My cock twitched, thinking of taking her again. I wanted to taste her, feel her, and kiss her until the last second. I rolled toward the wall, but the covers were flat. I sat forward. Her clothes were gone. Her purse was gone. The bathroom door was wide open. I closed my eyes. Shit. She wasn’t here. I didn’t have her last name or her number. I didn’t know where she worked or what she did. What I did know was that she had done something to me, when I didn’t think that was possible. One-night stands didn’t affect me. They never had. And I’d have to make sure this one didn’t either. I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my palms and let out a deep breath. I knew nights like last night didn’t just happen. Two people didn’t move together like we did. Do the things we did to each other. But I needed to file it in my memory bank and put a lock on it. I stood from the bed and stretched my arms toward the ceiling. I needed to shower. The team would meet for breakfast in forty-five minutes, and then Coach would call a meeting to review the protocol for heading over to the Warriors’ dilapidated stadium. That place was a shit hole and we all knew it. Not only did we hate our rivals, we pitied them. I pulled a T-shirt over my wet hair and the fabric clung to my chest. I stepped into a pair of jeans. Team meetings were casual. We wouldn’t have to dress up until it was time to ride over to the stadium. I stuffed my cell phone into my pocket and walked down the hall. It was hard not to picture Natalia next to the room door. I shook my head. Fuck no. I wasn’t going to do this. I arrived at the elevator and waited for it. I told myself I wasn’t going to relive that kiss inside its walls. I wouldn’t remember how Natalia clung to me. What her ass felt like. How tight her long body was under my hands. The doors retracted. “Sam,” Cavan Grainger greeted me. Thank God there was someone else in the elevator. I already needed a distraction from my own brain. I didn’t care if we talked about the fucking weather. He could say anything at this point. “How’s it going?” I didn’t know Cavan well. He was on the rookie roster. He had been nominated to take my place this year as the coordinator of the Dean.


“Ready for tonight?” he asked. I nodded. “Couldn’t be more ready. What about you? First time on Monday night. Big game too.” He shrugged. “Trying not to think about that part.” “Yeah, focus on the plays. That’s all anybody needs to do.” The elevator deposited us in the lobby. We walked to the conference room together. I left Cavan to search for coffee before taking a seat. Only half of the team was here. They would slowly trickle down from their rooms. I hated to think how many were hung over, and how that was going to affect the game. I didn’t have that kind of hangover. No, mine was worse. There wasn’t enough water or aspirin to get rid of the way I felt when I was with Natalia.


8

NATALIA

THE YOGA OUTFIT WASN’T BAD. AT LEAST I WASN’T WALKING HOME IN A BLACK DRESS. THIS WALK OF SHAME looked as if I had gone for an early exercise class. No shame in that. I had lifted Sam’s heavy arm and slid to the floor, dressing in the darkness of the room. I didn’t want to wake him. I was worried he would go back on what we agreed in the bar. I didn’t want him to call or know where I lived. I definitely didn’t want to tell him I was a professional cheerleader. It was better this way. I’d pretend he was in town on business and would never be back in Austin. It would be easier. I didn’t have his number, either. We made an agreement, and my leaving before he awakened was the only way I knew how to stick to it. Because if I woke up in his arms and took one look in his gorgeous eyes, I’d undo all of it. I’d program my number in his phone. I’d tell him my horrid history with the ballet and the Goddesses. I’d tell him I loved pasta even though I shouldn’t. That I loved scary movies and hated football. I’d tell him my last name or even my middle name. If I had stayed and looked in those eyes, I’d have told him anything he asked. Last night I had given him something I’d never given to another man. There wasn’t a name for it. It was physical and primal, but it was deeper than any connection I’d ever felt. It was the reason I had to leave. It was the reason I snuck out. It was the reason I was questioning every step I made on the sidewalk. For a little while, I knew where he was. He was in the Austin Grand Hotel in room 621. But I didn’t know when he was checking out or where he was going. I had to drive home and stay there until I knew for certain it was past check-out time. I had to force myself to put the key in the ignition and drive home. Because if I didn’t, I’d race back to the hotel and break the promise I made. And as much as I wanted to see Sam again, I didn’t want to break a promise to him. It was the main thing holding me back. Right now, it was the only reason my foot was on the gas pedal.

I didn’t wear a watch. Instead, I checked my phone a hundred times before noon. I did a load of laundry and completed an hour’s worth of stretching. I would do the entire routine again before the game, but I had to find something to do to keep my mind off last night. I jumped when I heard my phone ring, and for a quick second, let myself think it was Sam calling. I scowled at myself. It was Heather. “Hey, girl.” “Hey, what’s up?”


She laughed. “I saw you leave last night. Just checking on you.” I knew she wanted a juicy story. I ran water in the sink to rinse out my bowl from breakfast. “How about you? Looked like you were having fun.” The truth was I hadn’t paid attention to what Heather was doing. I spent my time talking to Sam and making a stupid decision. I wasn’t a very good friend. “Oh my God, we had the best time. Aren’t you glad you went?” “Yes.” I threw my bowl in the dishwasher. “Now I don’t have any guilt about that tradition.” “You’re turning into a real Goddess. You know that?” “Don’t remind me,” I groaned. Last night, I was like all the other girls. I went home with a random bar guy. True, he was an incredibly hot random guy, but I had let the environment and the neon lights influence me. I convinced myself I was being rebellious and free, but when I thought about it, I was the same as my squad partners. I hooked up in a bar. I had a one-night stand with someone I had barely known an hour. It didn’t help that he had a rock-hard body, sexy voice, and eyes that… “Nat? Did you hear me?” “Oh, what? Sorry, I’m doing dishes.” I slammed the door shut and started the wash cycle. “I asked you what time you’re going to be at the stadium for warm up. I thought we could run through some new steps. I talked to the choreographer about it.” “Oh, that.” I sighed. “I guess I’ll get there at five. I need to do some extra work on my hamstring.” “Is it giving you problems again?” “The same. It’s better if I keep it warmed up. Less chance of reinjuring it.” Heather was the only one who bothered to ask about my leg. She was also the only one who knew the extent of my injury. I didn’t want the others to think I wasn’t physically capable of being a Goddess. “I’m glad it’s not worse.” I smiled even though she couldn’t see it. “Thanks. Me too. Listen, I’ve gotta run. I have a lot to do before I head to the game.” “All right. See you tonight. But I’m getting details when I see you. You’re not getting out of this that easily. I know your avoidance tactics.” “Heather, there’s nothing to tell. I’ll see you there.” I hung up and looked at the clock again. Finally. It was after noon and I could convince myself Sam was gone. He had driven out of town—back to wherever he came from. I felt the exhaustion hit my body. I had barely slept. My limbs were sore in new places. And with the realization that he wasn’t in Austin anymore, the tension I held in my shoulders and neck rolled off my skin. I pulled back my white duvet and climbed under the covers. I had been running on fumes. Forcing myself to push through until I knew it was noon. As soon as my head hit the pillow and my eyes closed, I slept.


9

SAM

I SAT ON THE BENCH, GRIPPING MY HELMET BETWEEN MY HANDS. I STARED AT MY CLEATS ON THE DIRTY FLOOR. We had been in some god-awful locker rooms, and some that would make even us jealous, but the Warriors’ guest locker rooms had to be the worst. There was peeling paint. Chipped tiles in the showers. Half the lockers didn’t close. It was disgraceful to the league. I didn’t know how they got away with it. Some teams liked to show off their wealth. The Warriors’ ownership didn’t buy into that philosophy. They kept the money for themselves and let everything else fall down around the team. I felt his heavy hand on my back before I heard his voice. I turned. “Ready?” Wes was grinning. He loved this shit. His hatred for the Warriors ran deep. I nodded. “Hell, yeah. Throw the ball to me every time and I’ll get it done.” “What’s that?” Stubbs yelled from the other side of the junk pit. “I said I’ll get the TDs this game.” “Like hell you will.” The wide receiver strutted over. “I’ll take a few myself.” “Come on, boys,” Wes chuckled. “We can split them. Stubbs, you take four, and Sam, you take another four.” We laughed. The Wranglers had come here not only to win, but also to annihilate our enemy. We weren’t walking out of here with anything less than a complete and totally humiliating victory. Right now, none of us were thinking about the cameras or the hype around the opening game for Monday night. We were defending national champions, and this game would prove that we were on our way to becoming repeat champions. We would rightfully claim the title of Texas’s team. The country’s team. It all came down to this game. I pulled the laces on my shoes, making sure they were extra tight. I liked the feeling across my feet. Coach Howell walked in the locker room. “Listen up.” Our mumbling stopped, and we focused on his pre-game speech. I could predict what he would say. It was seldom different game to game. “Guys, we came here for one thing—to win. It’s opening night. Everyone is watching to see if we can do what we did last season. They’re watching Wes. They’re watching Stubbs. They want to see if Sam can catch the ball. They want to know how many yards Persons can get against their defense. They want to see Grainger’s first game. And all the rest of you… they’re watching. Was it a fluke? Was it luck? “Well, we know the answer to that. This is a room full of champions.” He paused for a second.


“And we’re going to take this game back to San Antonio.” We all nodded in agreement. “Bring it in,” he yelled. I lifted my helmet in the air with everyone else. We could hear the fans through the tunnel. They were screaming and chanting. They would boo when we took the field. They’d throw stuff at our helmets. They’d tell us to fuck off. But it was noise. The points on the scoreboard would shut them up, and that would make all this shit worth it. I bowed my head as the Coach led a Wranglers’ prayer. As soon as Howell said amen, we clapped in unison and filed out of the locker room. I shoved my helmet on my head, ready to take the field. I didn’t care what the fans did or shouted. We were going to win this game. And I’d catch every fucking pass Wes threw my direction to shut them up. It was everything we expected. The announcer called for the Wranglers, and as we stormed onto the field, the jeers were deafening. It only fueled our hatred. They thought they were getting in our heads, but they were feeding our determination to win. We waited on the away sideline while the Warriors ran out of their tunnel. The fans cheered. There was a burst of fireworks overhead. Everything was a production. It didn’t feel like a football game. It felt like a circus. There were cameras everywhere. Someone shoved a mic in Coach’s face before kickoff. I didn’t know how he handled it. The Wranglers won the coin toss and opted for us to receive first. I jogged in place, knowing as soon as the special teams were off the field, I’d be on it. I looked toward the booth where Ross, our offensive coordinator, was assessing the defensive. I took my cues from Wes, but sometimes I could tell from Ross’s stance whether or not we had a problem. He looked relaxed from my angle. The whistle blew and we had the ball on our own thirty-five yard line. It wasn’t a bad place to start. Plenty of room for me to run was how I looked at it. I jogged onto the field and waited for Wes to call the play. The adrenaline was coursing through me. For a flash of a second I thought about last night. How the adrenaline felt with Natalia. Fuck. I shook my head. The lights blazed in the sky. The camera hovered overhead. The crowd was cheering so loudly I could barely hear Wes’s deep voice. This was it. The first snap of the season. It was everything we had prepared for. Everything we had wanted. It all started with this first play. I wiggled my fingers in anticipation. I rocked forward, ready to sprint to my open spot on the field. I expected coverage, but I could get open. The ball was snapped and I took off on my route. I pivoted, and the ball hit me square in the chest. I ran, avoiding one defender and then another. I crossed the fifty-yard line and made it another five yards before the Warriors’ safety took me to the ground. “Fuck yeah,” he hollered in my ear. I jumped up from the ground, brushing the grass off my jersey. “Twenty yards,” I taunted. He thought he had accomplished something, but we were in their territory and no one had stopped me until I crossed mid-field. Wes called out the next play and I knew I was blocking this time. I wanted the ball, but I was a hybrid player, meant to throw the defense off. My size gave me the ability to block and my athleticism made me a hell of a receiver. He handed the ball off to Persons, who took us another fifteen yards down the field. I could smell seven points. We were close.


We lined up on the thirty-yard hash mark. The fans were furious. They felt it too. The energy we possessed was electric. The Wranglers were going straight for the end zone. This time, Wes threw to Stubbs, who caught the ball just inside the twenty. I looked at the quarterback and read the signal. We weren’t going to run. No more blocking for me. I was headed straight for the goal line this time. My heart beat hard, but my hands were steady. I wiggled my fingers and tipped upward, ready to run. I skirted around a lineman and darted across the line. It was a blur. I turned to catch the ball, knowing Wes would find me, but I saw a pair of eyes. Eyes that had pulled me into a deep undertow last night. I whipped around just in time for the ball to hit me. My fingertips scrambled to hold on to the ball, but I clung to it, bringing it to my chest as the cornerback pounded me to the ground. The ground was solid on my back, but I managed to keep the ball on my chest the entire time. I opened my eyes, rolling to my side to stand when I looked toward the back of the end zone. It wasn’t possible. I forgot I was lying on the ground in front of thousands of angry fans. All I could see was her. There were at least ten yards between us, but I’d memorized every inch of her—there was no mistaking those lips or that body. What in the hell was she doing here? Why was Natalia staring down at me? And why the fuck was she dressed in a damn Goddess uniform? Stubbs pulled me from the ground, shaking me from the fog. “Hell yeah, brother.” He smacked my helmet, but my feet were rooted in the grass. Wes slapped my back, but I felt as if I was in the Twilight Zone, not the end zone. “First TD of the season. That’s how we get it done.” She stared at me, both of us searching each other’s eyes for answers, but the guys pushed me out of the way so the field goal team could set up for the point after. I walked sixty yards away from her, trying to figure out what in the hell I was going to do now.


10

NATALIA

OH MY GOD. HE FELL ALMOST AT MY FEET, AS IF HE HAD TAKEN A TUMBLE FROM THE SKY. SURE, HE WAS IN THE end zone and I was close to the fans, but I locked on his eyes. I wanted to turn away or cover up or run back to the Goddesses’ locker room, but instead, my boots kept my feet planted in one spot. My hands were on my hips with a pair of golden pom-poms nestled at my side. Sam was a Wrangler? What in the hell was going on? He walked out of the end zone back to his bench and I stared at the jumbotron. I never paid attention to the opposing team. I barely paid attention to our team. Every time they called Sam Hickson’s name for a catch, they were calling out my Sam? Okay, that was stupid. He wasn’t mine, but last night, he felt like he was mine. “Natalia, our line is moving. Come on,” Presley scolded me. I had forgotten that after every score we moved to the next section of the stadium. It didn’t matter who scored the points, we kept moving. We rotated clockwise around the four sides. Eventually, the line of dancers I was in would be behind the Wranglers’ bench. I had to trade spots before that happened. I had to stay at this end of the field. I couldn’t see him again—not like this. I raised my hands overhead, smiling at the fans, and took my next position behind the Warriors. They were pissed. The Wranglers had scored within the first six minutes of the game. They were cursing like sailors behind me. I focused on the crowd and tried to pick out someone that might appreciate a smile. I saw a young mother with a baby strapped to her chest, a Warriors’ hat on its little head. I targeted her and kept my eyes straight ahead. What was I going to do? My mind raced. My heart beat rapidly. I was going crazy. Sam was on the other side of the field. We had royally fucked this up. I tried to keep calm, but it was nearly impossible. It wasn’t as if I had slept with one of the Warriors players. But maybe this was worse. Everyone on my side of the field hated the Wranglers. I’d never heard of a rivalry like this until I became a Goddess. I was sure I had broken some type of Goddess code. I had probably violated an employee rule. There could be consequences. They could throw me off the dance squad. “What is wrong with you?” Presley asked from the corner of her mouth. I waved at the baby again. “Nothing.” I grinned. “You look like you’re in pain and you’re smiling all weird.” I took a deep breath and kicked my good leg high in the air. “See? Fine.” I laughed, but if Presley could see it on my face, then I was terrible at hiding it. “This is the most important game of our lives, Natalia. Get it together.” “I’m fine,” I replied. “Let’s dance like we’re supposed to.”


I slung my arm around her as our line snaked together so we could kick across each other. Maybe if I focused on the routines I’d forget Sam was behind me. I’d forget last night. I’d forget that I was falling apart. It wasn’t working. I felt off balance. I was smiling, but I was shaking. I lost the mom and the sweet baby in the crowd. There was a slimy guy staring at me and I cringed. What had I done? “Ow,” Presley whined. “Sorry. Sorry.” I had pinched her shoulder. I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the fact that on the other side of this field was the most amazing one-night stand I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t get him out of my head. “What is going on with you?” Presley growled through clenched teeth. “I said I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to grab you. My boots slipped a little.” “You’re going to hurt someone.” I took a deep breath. I didn’t want a lecture from her. She had no idea what I was going through. “I won’t. I’ve got this.” I kicked in the opposite direction, trying to relax my face into a genuine smile. I felt bad for thinking it, but thank God the Warriors didn’t score on their possession. Our team line stayed in the same part of the stadium for another punt return. If the game ended now, with the Wranglers ahead by seven, I’d be happy. I wouldn’t have to rotate one quarter closer to Sam. I could escape without the awkward after-game exchange. Although, what would that be? Could we even speak to each other? Would he want to? Would he realize I was a dance squad girl and not want anything to do with me? This was a nightmare.


11

SAM

I PACED BEHIND THE BENCH. AS SOON AS THE SPECIAL TEAMS RETURNED TO THE SIDELINE, I’D HAVE TO TAKE THE field again. I couldn’t see Natalia from our side. I scanned the dozens of dancers on the perimeter, but there were too many players in the way. I didn’t know where she was or if it was even possible to land at her feet again. The Warriors called a time out and everyone groaned. One of the assistants ran over to me with a printed handout of the defense’s lineup. “Thanks.” I grabbed the sheet to study it. But I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was looking up from the end zone and seeing Natalia. Her long legs were decked out with gold boots and she was wearing a skimpy top. It was as if she was a mirage and I had imagined her, but I was positive it was her. The look on her face said everything. “Looks like they’re changing their blocks.” Wes walked up behind me. “Yeah, I see that.” “I think we should throw to you three times straight instead of rotating between you, Persons, and Stubbs. It’ll confuse them for a few more plays.” “All right,” I agreed. Wes could be reciting the Greek alphabet right now and I wouldn’t know the difference. My head was reeling. I wanted the time out to last an hour so I could find her. I wanted to run up to each of the dancers until I knew what I had seen wasn’t a dream. She was here. Natalia was in the same place. I heard the ref blow the whistle and jogged to the forty-yard line. I was on the far right side of the field and I made the mistake of looking at the Warriors’ bench. There she was, waving her pom-poms in the air. I’d know that ass anywhere. My lips had been all over it. The adrenaline pumped through me, but I hesitated half a second when Wes called for the snap. Damn it, it was enough to put me behind pace. Everything was a blur and I struggled to settle my nerves. I knew I had fucked up no matter how fast I ran or far I dove to get in position. When the ball headed for me, I was off step. I panicked, knowing there was almost no chance I could redeem myself for hesitating at the scrimmage line. I reached for it, throwing my entire body into the air with my full force, but the ball slipped through my fingers and landed on the ground, rolling out of bounds. I hung my head as the fans cheered and the Warriors hollered around me. Shit. Wes screamed at me over the defense. “What the hell was that?” I shook my head and tapped my helmet as if I hadn’t heard the call. If I caught the next one, it would all be forgiven. I knew better than to look over my shoulder. Her back was to me anyway.


Wes grunted the call and I took off. I wasn’t going to miss this time. The ball hit me square in the chest and I raced toward the goal line. I ran another ten yards before the cornerback took me down. The crowd was pissed, and that was enough for me to know Wes would be happy. Stubbs gave me a thumbs up and I took my position behind the line of scrimmage. I had to keep my head clear. Another catch and we could run a scoring play. I cracked my knuckles and leaned forward. I could maneuver through the linemen with no problem. As soon as I heard the snap, I ran toward the center of the field and the ball came spiraling toward me. I grasped it and tucked it against my chest. I shoved off one defender and plowed down a second one. I could see the end zone. I couldn’t believe they were going to let me score this easily. I raced over the ten-yard line, when out of nowhere, the cornerback plowed me to the ground from the side. “Thought you could score?” He stood over me, baring his teeth. “Not in Warrior territory.” I glared at him. “Who has the points on the board?” He stepped over me as one of his teammates hauled him away. He was one of those jackasses who liked to fight. All it would take from me was a real taunt and he would have thrown himself on me. He didn’t care about fines or penalties. He was a defender. Persons walked up to me. “What did that damn corner say?” “Nothing.” I shook my head. “He’s a fucking moron.” Persons slapped my helmet a few times. “Going to let me get this six?” I laughed. “You’re kidding, right?” He looked straight in my eyes, the dark paint running down his cheeks from the humid night. “I don’t shit talk about the score.” I knew I had to block this time, but I wanted those points. I needed them. I gritted my teeth together, determined to get open. If Wes saw me in the end zone, he would throw it to me no matter what play he called. We were alike in that way—we both loved to score. I faced the Warriors’ front line. I glared at the man in front of me. His nostrils flared and his knuckles were white from pressing into the grass with over three hundred pounds of weight. I’d studied him. He was strong, but sluggish. “You’re not getting past me,” he threatened. “You sure about that?” I smiled, cocking my head to the side. He was leaning so far forward it would be easy to throw him off balance. As soon as Wes took the snap I hurled myself forward, throwing the lineman to the ground. He grunted, reaching for my legs, but I was ready for the arms and hands that would come for me. I jumped high over his back, running past him into the end zone. Persons and I were on opposite sides of the goal post, but he had double coverage and I was wide open. I felt the surge of adrenaline. The energy sizzle under my skin. I needed Wes to see me, and this play was mine. The ball zipped close to my head and I caught it with one hand, yanking it from the air. There was no way to describe the feeling. The purity of the moment when I scored for the team. It was fucking unreal. The Warrior crowd started throwing popcorn and beer cans down from the stands. Stubbs gave me a high-five and I felt like the luckiest bastard here. Back-to-back touchdowns and it was only the first quarter. I tossed the ball into the first row to a kid wearing a Wranglers jersey. He jumped up and down. There were a few of our faithful here. Only you couldn’t hear them because the locals were so fucking


obnoxious. I crossed the field and took a cup of water while we waited for the field goal team to kick. I smiled. It was fourteen to zero and it was exactly the way we wanted to start the season. I felt the high. The rush from scoring. The feeling that I was invincible. Nothing could stop me. Not the Warriors. And then I looked up and saw her marching in my direction toward the goal post. I swallowed hard. She was getting closer and I realized she spotted me too. I was on the edge of the bench closest to the goal line. I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see her. I couldn’t stop staring at her legs, or her breasts spilling out of that top. I didn’t know how this would work, but I wasn’t leaving Warriors stadium without her number. She looked up at the crowd and ignored me, but I knew she felt it too. We had an unmistakable draw toward each other. It was everything I didn’t want. Everything I said I had to stay away from. A distraction. The thing that could get in my head. The one thing that could bring me down. But she was twenty yards away, and she was the only thing here I wanted. “Damn it,” I muttered. “You need more water?” the attendant asked. I didn’t realize he was standing close to me. I crumpled the cup in my fist. “Yeah. Colder next time.” He ran toward the drink station. But I wasn’t paying attention to him, or the punt return. My eyes were on Natalia.


12

NATALIA

WE WERE ONE SIDE CLOSER TO THE WRANGLERS’ BENCH AND I WAS SO NERVOUS MY KNEES WERE ABOUT TO GIVE way. Sam saw me as we walked toward the short end of the field. He didn’t just look at me. It was a full-body stare, raking over every inch of me. My spine tingled from it, remembering how he undressed me last night. How he ran his tongue over my skin. How he kissed me. How he felt when he pushed into me, taking me somewhere I’d never been. I let him do things to my body I’d only heard about. It was incredible and magic and hot and all the things I needed to forget. Presley tilted her head toward me. “Okay, something is up. You are totally off rhythm, Miss Ballerina.” I glared at her. “Leave it alone.” “Can’t. You’re making us all look bad.” “That’s ridiculous.” I waved at the crowd. They wouldn’t know if I was off step. The men drooled at us and the women mainly ignored us. We weren’t the attraction here. People only cared about what was going on behind us on the field. There were nine other girls in my line. I wasn’t the one they noticed more than the others. “Are you still drunk from last night?” she asked. “What?” I turned toward her. I wasn’t pretending to shake my hips this time. “We know you left the bar with a Wrangler.” “What are you talking about, Pres?” Was I the only one who didn’t know who Sam was? “Keep dancing,” she instructed. I threw a leg in the air and shook my hair in a long circle. “Keep talking,” I spit back. “The entire Wrangler team was at the bar last night and you’re the only Goddess who went home with one.” My mouth almost fell open, but I knew I had to keep moving or she’d stop talking. I grapevined to the right with her and then followed to the left. “What do you know?” She shimmied, showing off the tops of her breasts with a jiggle. I followed her move. Times like this, I hated myself. “That you either hate being a Goddess or you’re a complete football novice.” I wasn’t going to tell her it was both. “You know I’m still learning the game.” “That might explain how you don’t know who Sam Hickson is. He was the highest-rated tight end in the league last year. But the Super Bowl team was in the bar with us. The entire team.” She eyed


me. “Wes Blakefield, the quarterback?” I stared at her blankly. Ballerinas didn’t study rosters for football. Last year when they were at the Super Bowl, I was dealing with the catastrophic affects of my accident. I was in rehab seven days a week. Sometimes twice a day. I shuddered thinking about the brace I wore and the torture of daily exercises. “Why didn’t someone tell me?” I hissed. “Because Heather and I are the only ones who saw you.” She winked. “And you could use some fun.” “What’s that supposed to be mean? You think I’m stuffy?” I didn’t know which part was supposed to insult me. “Your words, not mine, but yes, you’re a little stuffy. You could loosen up and act like you aren’t a prisoner on this team.” “I don’t act like that.” But there was truth in what Presley said. I didn’t socialize after practices or games. I didn’t do movie night, or get my nails done with everyone. I used my experience on the squad to keep in shape, use the dance facilities, and learn new choreography. I made it work for me because I had to. There wasn’t another job that could offer everything the Goddesses did. “You don’t act like it’s a privilege to be a Goddess. You should be proud of what you do, Natalia.” “You’re right,” I agreed. “You’re completely right. What do I do about last night? I’m not the only one who was hanging out with a Wrangler. I saw you too. Everyone drank with the team. You were with Wranglers. I didn’t doing anything you didn’t do.” “They bought us drinks. Not the same thing as leaving the bar with them. We left as a squad.” It was almost time for us to do a group dance. I needed a few more answers from Presley before I got in place. “But you didn’t tell anyone else?” I asked. “No one knows, right?” “No, but if they find out, you’re off the team. No one can help you if it gets out. Not even Heather.” “What?” My stomach turned. I might be sick in front of thousands of screaming fans. I didn’t love being a Goddess, but I needed the money. It was all that I had. It was how I had health insurance. It was how I rebuilt my leg to ballerina strength. I needed this job. “You committed a cardinal sin,” she explained. “I didn’t sleep with him,” I lied. Her eyes widened. “You didn’t?” “No,” I huffed. “He walked me to my car to get my number. And I didn’t give it to him. I didn’t even know his last name or that he was a Wrangler. This is crazy, Pres. I can’t get kicked off the squad.” “Oh.” She chewed her bottom lip. “We thought you…” “That I’d have a one-night stand?” I used my best astonished voice. “I guess not. Ballerinas don’t do that sort of thing, huh?” “No, we don’t.” I walked behind her to start the team dance. I had narrowly saved my reputation. Now I needed to talk to Heather. In case word spread, I wanted to make sure it was the story I wanted them to hear. They needed to know I hadn’t broken the Goddess code. She was the team captain, and regardless of our friendship, she played a management role.


“That kind of sucks,” she whispered. “Why is that? You said I could lose my job.” She giggled. “Because Sam Hickson is fucking hot.” I closed my eyes, inhaling a deep breath. She had no fucking idea how true that was.


13

SAM

THE LOCKER ROOM WAS INSANE. WE HAD BULLDOZED THE WARRIORS BY TWENTY-ONE POINTS. OUR DEFENSE HAD let them add a few touchdowns on the board, but that shit happens. Coach could barely bark out his victory speech over all the music and dancing. I was surrounded by a bunch of happy, naked bastards. It felt good to win. But she was in the back of my mind. There was no way I could walk into the dance squad locker room. And I had no idea where in the hell it was in this dungeon they called an AFA stadium. There were tunnels and hallways under the stands that I had never explored. We took one path in from the bus and the same one back out. It never occurred to me that I might need to know my way around. That was the question. Did I need to know where she was? Was I actually thinking about poking around this place until I found her? I buttoned my shirt in front of the mirror, my hair still wet from the shower. Yeah, I did want to find her. But it was going to be nearly impossible. And the guys would give me hell. Things from last night started to make more sense now. We hadn’t stumbled upon just any stunning group of women at the bar. We had been smacked over the head by the enemy’s dance team. Now I knew why they all looked like models. The hair, the makeup, the perfume, and the tight clothes. It suddenly came into focus. And then I thought about Natalia. She didn’t fit with the rest of them. She was wearing workout clothes. She barely had on a trace of makeup, and I never got the feeling she was there to impress anyone. Hell, if she did know who I was, she did a fucking incredible job of being unimpressed. I stuffed my jersey in the bag labeled Hickson and threw it on the cart for the trip back to San Antonio. The equipment guys were scurrying around the locker room, collecting shoes, shoulder pads, and helmets. Most of the players had started to make their way to the bus. We were headed straight for the team jet at the airport. There was no reason to spend another night in Austin when we could take a twentyminute flight back. If I was going to try to find her, this was it. I had about ten minutes I could use up while the team filed onto the bus. I darted out of the locker room and jogged toward the signs for the Warriors. It was a start. I hoped I found the dancers before I ran into one of the other players. I wasn’t welcome here, especially after our win tonight. The lights flickered overhead. Crews in yellow jackets stacked chairs and toted bags past me. I kept running, stopping every few steps to check a hallway or door for any sign of the squad.


I didn’t have anything planned. Did I ask for her number? Did we talk about last night? Did we talk about the fact that we were on opposing teams? I didn’t give a shit. I wanted to just talk. That was why I was running through this labyrinth. But it didn’t matter what corner I turned or where I looked, I couldn’t find the dancers’ locker room. I saw the cornerback who had tackled me strutting toward me. Damn it. I turned quickly. “Hickson, you’re in the wrong part of the stadium. Did you lose your way, little girl?” I grinned. “Nah. I’m good.” I wasn’t going to run away from the asshole, but I wasn’t about to start a fight either. Our bus was waiting. “Sure about that?” He caught up to me. I was easily a few inches taller than him, and I could knock him to the ground with one good swing. But I wasn’t looking for a league fine. I was looking for a girl. “I’m good, man. I guess I walked out of the locker room the wrong way. My bad.” “It is your bad.” He stepped in front of me. I huffed. He was eating up minutes and the bus would be filled by the time I got there. It was instinct, but I pulled my shoulders back. “Look, man. The bus is waiting. I’m just trying to get home. Not here to cause problems.” This would cost me my bonus. I wasn’t going to hit him. I stood down. One of his teammates walked up behind him. “Get your ass in the locker room, Floyd.” “Just talking to Sam here.” He cracked a smile, but we both knew he was ready to rip into me. He talked shit, but he also backed it up. “See you next month, Floyd.” I waved. We would have a rematch in four weeks. The guy nodded at me, and I took that as my cue to walk to the Wranglers’ bus. My side trip around the stadium was over. I wasn’t going to find Natalia tonight. I ran through the corridors, pissed at myself for searching for her. Pissed I couldn’t find her. Pissed I couldn’t have last night again.


14

NATALIA

I SAT IN THE LOCKER ROOM STARING INTO THE MIRROR. I HAD WIPED THE BLUSH FROM MY CHEEKS AND PULLED the fake lashes from my eyelids until I recognized my reflection. I didn’t know why I stayed as long as I did. Most days I was the first girl out of here, but I kept thinking about Sam. Who he was. What he almost cost me. Did it even matter to me? Heather sat next to me. “Pres told me you two talked.” She caught me off guard. “Just a little.” “You and Sam Hickson?” “No,” I corrected her. “There is no Sam and me. It wasn’t what you thought. He tried to get my number and walked me to my car. Nothing happened.” Heather smiled. “I know I made you go last night, but maybe I wasn’t clear about some things.” “And what things are those?” “Goddesses have responsibilities. We have a legacy to uphold. And sleeping with a Wrangler isn’t on that list.” “But—” She held up her hand to stop me. “I know your car, Natalia. It was there when I left the bar. You didn’t leave when you said you did.” Shit. I felt the color drain from my face. “Are you going to tell anyone?” “No, but you aren’t either.” “No, no one. It never happened.” She pulled me into an unexpected hug. “It certainly didn’t.” I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or disgusted. Was this blackmail, or girl bonding? I was confused. She smelled like hairspray and sweet perfume. Unlike me, she was in full makeup. “Thanks, Heather. I mean it. I appreciate you keeping this between us.” “Sure thing. It was a mistake. We all get one pass. You’re new to football and to the Goddesses, so I can see how it would happen.” “Heather, I have a question.” “Hmm? What’s that?” She sat back. “If you knew who he was, why did you let me leave with him?” It had been eating away at me since Presley told me about the Wranglers in the bar last night. Every single one of them had known who was buying the drinks except me. I was the only Goddess who didn’t know we were in a room full of the opposition. I was swept up in Sam. I was mesmerized by his eyes and arms. Was it that obvious to Heather? I waited for an


answer. She squeezed my arm. “You were having fun.” My eyebrows rose. “You let me jeopardize my job for fun?” “How did I know if he told you he played for the Wranglers? You’re a big girl, Natalia. I didn’t know you were going to leave with him. I might be the captain, but I’m not going to interrogate every guy one of my girls talks to and ask him what his intentions are. That’s breaking an entirely different code.” I tried to avoid rolling my eyes. There were so many damn codes I couldn’t keep them straight. “Did the other guys mention it? Did they tell you they played for the Wranglers?” I asked. She giggled. “First thing out of their mouths.” “He didn’t say a thing,” I said softly. “He probably didn’t want you to think of him as a football player. I’m guessing you didn’t tell him you’re a Goddess.” I shook my head. I wasn’t going to tell her I didn’t want him to know. I did everything to avoid the topic of careers when we met. I was ashamed to put on this uniform, but to Heather, it was everything. She had Goddess pride I couldn’t comprehend. Presley had already called me out on it once tonight. I needed to think about what she said. “So then neither of you knew what you were doing. Like I said, you get a freebie. Don’t worry about it. Just don’t do it again. Wranglers are off limits, girl.” “I can’t lose this job, Heather. It’s all I have. I’m committed. I swear.” “Aww, honey, don’t talk like that. It’s going to be fine.” I didn’t want to cry in front of her. But my eyes stung from too much makeup and the trap I was now in. If the Warriors fired me, I didn’t have a safety net. My father had cut my mother and me off when she moved us to Dallas. Once that happened, I never felt like I could take a penny from him. My mom made sure I attended dance school in Dallas and paid for all the lessons and instructors I wanted. I couldn’t go to her now and ask for more. I was determined to live doing what I loved, and with the sudden realization I could lose this job, I discovered how lucky I had been all along to land on this dance squad. I dabbed a tissue to the corner of my eye. I smiled weakly. “It’s not like we’d see each other anyway, right?” She laughed and picked up her travel bag with the gold Goddess logo on the side. “We play them next month in San Antonio.” “Oh.” “Are you going to be okay?” I folded the tissue and tossed it in the trashcan. “I’m good. Really. Thank you again, and I think I really understand what you need from me on this team.” “It’s between us. Don’t lose any more sleep over Sam Hickson, okay?” I lied again. “Okay.” “Good night.” “Good night.” Heather had reminded me again I was out of my league. I hadn’t looked at the schedule or realized we played the rival team twice a season. We would be in Sam’s city in a month. I’d have to see him again. That was the problem. I wanted to. I wanted a glimpse of those eyes, and his hands. I wanted to remember his lips searing into my skin. I didn’t want to forget Sam, but I had to. As long as I was a


Goddess, I had to stay far away. Besides, now that I knew he was a famous tight end, things seemed different. He wouldn’t want me. I had been around the Warrior players enough to know the drill. They were multi-millionaires. They kept their distance from the squad, and I knew the Wranglers wouldn’t be any different. If I remembered, they had their own dance squad, the Fillies, who probably filled the same role we did. I pressed my forehead on the vanity table, taking deep breaths until the stadium was silent and the only thing I could hear was the sound of my breath. I had a month to forget about last night and get my shit together.


15

SAM

One month later MY NAME WAS ENGRAVED ON A GOLD PLATE OVER MY LOCKER. I WIPED A FINGER ACROSS THE LETTERS. I remembered the first time I walked in the locker room as a rookie and saw my name with my uniform set up in the mahogany cubby. Hard to believe that was over a year ago. Everything was here ready to go. My cleats, my shoulder pads, my helmet were all sitting out lined up. I picked up the helmet. The W emblazoned on the side was shined, reflecting the lights overhead. This place was immaculate. I loved it. Every square inch of it. It was always my dream to play for the Wranglers. How could a kid grow up in Texas and not want to play Texas football? My grandfather played. My dad played. And now I played. This was my legacy. It was my birthright to be a Wrangler. Some days, it didn’t feel real. But here I was, about to suit up for today’s game against the Warriors. Cavan dropped his bag next to me. “Can you believe we’ve won four in a row?” “Nice being on a championship team, isn’t it?” I only had one season under my belt, but standing next to the rookie, I felt experienced. I was on the winning team. He hadn’t earned that honor yet. “Yeah. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.” “Today will make five.” After we ran up the scoreboard on them last month, we felt confident today’s game wouldn’t be a problem. I liked starting the season five and O. “You going to be at the Dean, right?” he asked. I nodded. “Of course. Wouldn’t miss it. But I doubt you can do better than what I pulled off last year.” “Heard you had more women than we have guys on the team and a high-dollar poker table.” “There was more than that. It was epic. Last year goes down in the history books. They say it was the best Dean ever.” “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.” I pulled the parts of my jersey out of the cubby. “I’ll be there.” “I’ve basically asked everyone about the Deans from back in the day. Even the first one Larry Dean threw, and it’s going to have a little bit of everything.” “You talked to some of the old Wranglers?” He nodded. “You should have heard them talk about the first Dean.”


“Damn.” A few of the other guys began to trickle in while we talked about the party. I knew what it was like to organize the event. It was a bitch at best. But it was a Wrangler tradition the guys loved. I’d make a quick appearance and get out of there. I wasn’t going to get trapped into breaking my rule again. I’d already made that mistake once this season.

I had almost forgotten. Almost. And then I saw her from the corner of my eye. She was behind the Warriors’ bench, cheering for the small crowd of fans assembled on the opposing team’s side. Her hair seemed longer. It was down around her shoulders and her arms waved wildly in the air with pompoms. She looked beautiful. Gorgeous. I wanted to run across the field and tell her what she was doing to me. I wanted to tell her she was the reason I had forgotten the next play I was supposed to run. She was why I had forgotten the last play I did run. I saw her and I remembered the night we spent together last month. I thought I had found a way to keep it from interfering, but one glimpse of Natalia and my hard work was over. I was so fucked, there weren’t words for it. “Sam?” I held my helmet. “Yeah?” I didn’t know who had called my name. “You’re supposed to be out there.” Whoever it was shoved me onto the field. I stumbled to the line. It happened again. My mind felt fuzzy. I remembered her lips and the way she tasted on my tongue. The smoothness of her skin and how her toned legs felt under my stroking palm. God, I had lost it. I had fucking lost my mind to let a girl get in my head like this. This was exactly what Maddie had done. She had made it so it was impossible to think. I couldn’t concentrate after she fucking obliterated my trust. I wiggled my fingers, trying to reconnect to the game. I needed to ground myself here. Smell the sweat. Hear the growls across the line. Watch the anger flare in the Warriors’ eyes. Wes called the play and I lunged forward with the anger pent up inside me. Anger I didn’t realize I was still carrying from all those years ago. I tossed the lineman to the ground as if he weighed half as much as I did instead of double. There was satisfaction in seeing him pound his helmet into the grass. There was a reason I loved playing this position. I could run and score, but there were moments like this when I could focus my energy on the sole strength of my body and shove another man’s face on the chalk lines of the field. My fists clenched as I took a deep breath and moved away from him. As soon as it was over my eyes were on their sideline. I couldn’t look away. She kicked her leg high in the air and I remembered that leg on my shoulder. I remembered kissing her calf as I fucked her like I’d never fucked another woman. I shook my head. I had to get back in the zone or I was going be the one to get knocked on my ass. I had pissed that lineman off. He cracked his knuckles and growled at me. He wasn’t going to be as easy to take down this time. I was still tracing the lines on her legs when Wes crouched behind the center. “21-42-Go-Go!” Wes shouted and I froze. My eyes cost me a second to prepare. I was staring at her instead of dodging the angry Warrior gunning for me. The lineman dove at my thighs and I landed on my back with a heavy thud. I felt the impact rattle my teeth. Damn it.


I stood up, shaking off the hit. And I looked across the field again. She was staring at me. For that second, I didn’t hear the fans or the whistles. I didn’t hear the lineman taunt me, or the coordinators shouting from the sideline. I saw her, and this time, I wasn’t going to let her get away.


16

NATALIA

I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE PREPARED FOR THIS. I HAD TOLD MYSELF REPEATEDLY THAT SEEING SAM HICKSON wouldn’t affect me, but I watched as he hit the ground and I had to keep myself from running on the field to see if he was okay. Who does that? What was I thinking? Where had that need come from? I wasn’t a medic. I wasn’t even his girlfriend. But I felt it. The pull to him the instant I thought something was wrong. I didn’t want him to be hurt or feel pain. I waited nervously for a sign that it wasn’t a serious hit. I had to get out of Sam’s city. The only problem was, we weren’t leaving until tomorrow. The Warriors had decided to do promotion for the Goddesses in San Antonio. I didn’t know why. And now I realized why I had felt anxiety all week. It was the same feeling I got before a big performance. My hands were sweaty and I’d wake up in the middle of the night for no reason. I tried to reassure myself I was fine, but I wasn’t. How could I be with Sam this close? He jumped up and ran back to the line. I let out a big breath. He was okay. I turned to face the fans and smiled, kicking my leg high in the air. It had been a month. A month that didn’t include him. A full month of me throwing myself into practice as if I were the most dedicated Goddess on the squad. A month where I made appearances at charity events and hospitals. A month when I posed for two different calendars. A month I fell asleep begging myself not to dream about his body. A month when I had failed at anything to do with shutting Sam Hickson out of my thoughts.

The forty girls on the team had a bus for driving around San Antonio. I hauled my bag to the side of the big vehicle blowing diesel exhaust, and shoved it underneath the cargo hold. The mood around the team wasn’t good. They had lost again. And there was nothing worse than losing to the Wranglers. “I hate it when the guys lose,” Heather whined. “Me too.” I patted her shoulder. We walked up the stairs and took a seat behind the driver. I heard we were staying on the Riverwalk. The guys were flying back to Austin tonight. I was glad we weren’t on the same flight. I knew what that trip would be like. They would argue about the refs, and how there was a conspiracy to make the Wranglers Texas’s team. They’d curse like sailors and complain about the plane. I’d heard it before. It was a quick ride to the hotel, and we gathered around the side of the bus as our bags were tossed on the sidewalk. I selected mine from the pile and lugged it on my shoulder.


“Glad we’re rooming together.” Heather walked up next to me. “It’ll be like training camp.” “Except we don’t have to get up at five,” I reminded her. “True. We can sleep in for once.” Our manager had emailed the schedule for tomorrow and our first photo shoot didn’t start until almost eleven. I had a vision of sleeping in and ordering room service. It sounded as if Heather was as tired as I was. We practiced four days a week, made charitable appearances, met early before games, and danced for four hours straight during the games. By the time the game was over, we were exhausted. Mondays were usually our days off, but not this time. We had to work. It took a while for all of us to check in. It would have been nice if the squad had let us have our own rooms, but if I had to have a roommate, Heather was a good choice. I felt closer to her over the past month. She knew my secret about Sam, and even though we didn’t discuss what happened, it gave us an intangible connection. She handed me the key card to the room. “What if we get in our PJs and have a romcom marathon and order some dinner?” I smiled. “I love that idea. I don’t think I can muster up the energy to go out. I’m exhausted.” “I call dibs on the shower.” She giggled, pretending to race me to the elevators. I wished we were in a fancy hotel with big Jacuzzi tubs, but there was no way ownership would spring for that. The back of my leg was starting to ache. It usually did after a game. It was another reminder that I wasn’t ready for troupe auditions. The more I danced, the stronger I became. Sticking with the Goddesses had been good for me. It was increasing my stamina and my muscle awareness. I saw that now. I followed Heather in the elevator and to our room. She took the bed closest to the window. “Why don’t you look for the romance channel while I hop in the shower?” “All right.” I picked up the remote and sat on the edge of the bed. I was still wearing my Warriors traveling suit that marked us as the dance team when we were going to a game. The pants were tight, but stretchy, and the top zipped up over a sports bra. I looked around the room when I heard the phone buzz. I leaned over a pile of pillows and grabbed the receiver. “Hello?” “Hello, this is the front desk.” “Hi.” “I have a delivery for a Ms. Dupont.” “Me? What is it?” I couldn’t imagine what was at the desk. We hadn’t ordered food yet. “I’m not expecting anything. It might be for one of the other girls.” “No, no. It specifically says Natalia Dupont.” “Oh. Okay, I guess I’ll be down in a few minutes.” “Thank you, Ms. Dupont.” I hung up and knocked on the bathroom door. “Hey, Heather, I have to run down to the front desk to pick up something. I’ll be right back.” “Okay, I’m almost finished,” she called through the door. She had been in there at least fifteen minutes. I doubted she was in a rush to get out. I picked up the second key card and shoved it in my jacket pocket. I tried to think of what was waiting for me downstairs as I rode the elevator to the lobby level. As soon as the doors retracted, I knew. He didn’t have to turn around for me to recognize him. Sam.


He must have heard the elevator ding because he spun around to face me. I was afraid to approach him. My heart pounded. I was certain he’d be able to hear it. I froze next to the elevators. Was it stupid that I wanted to run and jump in his arms? At the same time, I couldn’t move. “Natalia.” His eyes lit up and it all came flooding back. The night in Austin together. The night I gave myself to him completely. The night that haunted me no matter what I tried to do to forget it. He walked toward me and I felt the blood rush through my veins. “Wh-what are you doing here?” I stammered. “I wanted to see you,” he replied. God, that voice. It was smooth and low and made my core start to ache. I looked around the lobby, realizing one of the Goddesses could spot us talking. I grabbed his arm and pulled him into the closest room I could find. It was a ballroom the hotel used for conferences. It was dark inside, and I suddenly realized this might be worse than being seen together in the light. “We can’t… We said we wouldn’t…” I couldn’t put a full sentence together. Sam’s hands rested on my face and pulled my mouth toward him. I took a breath before his lips descended on mine. I didn’t know if it was instinct, want, or pure misery from missing him, but I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him harder than I’d ever kissed anyone in my life. His tongue whipped wickedly over my tongue and I moaned when I felt his teeth nip along my bottom lip, dragging it playfully. “God,” he groaned. “It’s better. It’s how I remembered.” “Don’t stop.” I reached for his lips again, inhaling his mouth, pressing into him with my body. It felt as if there was fire in my fingertips as I roamed his body. I couldn’t touch him enough, or cut the distance between us. I panted with every kiss. “How?” I looked into his eyes. “How did you find me?” He exhaled. “I called around until someone confirmed this is where your squad is staying.” “Oh. And they told you?” “Not room numbers, but I knew you were staying overnight at one of the Riverwalk hotels. Our press guy filled me in.” “Right.” My chest was about to explode. His hands slid to my ass and he squeezed. He spun me against the wall until my back was flat as his body pinned me. “And my last name?” I asked. He kissed my throat and breathed heavily. “I looked you up on the Goddesses’ roster.” I wanted to crumple on the floor. Sometimes I forgot I was listed on a website for anyone to see. His lips hovered until they crashed against me. His kiss was rough this time. “I want you, Natalia.” “Oh, God.” His lips feathered over my throat and I felt myself awaken with need and want I hadn’t felt in a month. “Let’s go to your room,” he suggested. He pushed my arms over my head and held my wrists together. I shook my head. “I have a roommate.” “Roommate?” But his lips didn’t stop. “Yes.” His hands were digging into the band at my waist. I moaned as he slipped a hand between the layers of clothing and skin. His fingers moved between my folds until I knew he was coated in my essence.


I quivered, my knees shaking as he held me to the wall and his fingers made circles that tightened the coil in my belly. He pinched the delicate outline of my clit and I whimpered. “I have a plan,” he growled into my ear. “What?” I whispered. “I’ll get a room here.” His finger plunged inside my entrance and I bit my lip. I started clenching and squeezing around it. I nodded. I wasn’t thinking. I was only feeling. And what Sam was doing to me was sinful bliss. My body reacted to him with unleashed passion. He kissed my neck and added another finger. “But first.” His eyes were on me. “I’m going to watch you come like this.” My chest rose with heavy breaths. I couldn’t look away. His fingers worked their magic between my legs as the intensity spiraled. I was wet and panting, pinned to the wall. My hips gyrated toward him, wanting him to fill me every time he pulled away. “Fuck me like this, Natalia,” he ordered. And I lost all control. My hips bucked and my muscles clutched around his fingers. It was building inside me like a wildfire and there wasn’t anything that could extinguish the heat except Sam. I tried to look away, but his voice deepened. “No. Look in my eyes when you come.” I stared at him, knowing I was seconds away from exploding. My thighs tingled and my belly pulsed when the orgasm hit me. “Oh, God, Sam.” I breathed. I let it circle my body from head to toe as the heat warmed me. His hands slid from between my legs. “I’m going to get that room now.” He kissed me and ducked out of the door. My head fell back on the wall and I tried to steady myself. But I knew I wasn’t steady. I was off balance and off center. My body wasn’t mine when Sam was around. I tried to straighten my jacket and rearrange my pants. A few minutes later, the conference room door opened. “Come on.” “Wait.” I stopped him. “What is it?” he asked. “I don’t think we can do this.” I didn’t want to tell him, but I had enough time to regulate my heart rate. “Of course we can. And we are.” “I’ll get fired if anyone finds out that I was with you,” I tried to explain. I was also starting to feel guilt. I had promised Heather she could count on me to be a quality Goddess and sleeping with Sam broke that promise. She was upstairs expecting a romcom marathon, and I was in a dark ballroom hooking up with the enemy. He wrapped an arm around my waist and I felt my resolve slip too quickly. “So don’t tell anyone.” I pressed against his chest and felt the solid muscle under his T-shirt. Holy shit. I had forgotten how ripped he was. “It’s not that easy. I have a roommate who thinks I’m downstairs picking something up. She’s waiting for me to order in and watch movies all night. I can’t go with you. I just can’t.” He pulled the hair from my face. “Do you know I tried to find you after the last game?” “You did?” He nodded. “I ran from one end of that stadium to the other looking for you. I tried every door, every damn tunnel. And I couldn’t find you.”


“You tried to find me even though we agreed? You weren’t supposed to do that.” “I did it anyway. And then I ran into Floyd and had to get back to the bus. But I was as surprised as you were that we were… who we are,” he finished. “I’m not a Goddess, really. I mean I am, but it’s not my career and I didn’t want you to know.” I hung my head. “It’s not who I am.” “Who do you want me to know?” His voice was low and deep. “The ballerina I used to be,” I answered. I almost had tears in my eyes. I was glad it was dark and he couldn’t see me. “The girl who danced on water. The prima ballerina who had confidence and grace.” “And you don’t think I see all those things?” “I don’t know what you see. I don’t want you to look at me like I’m one of the Goddess dancers. That I know.” He lifted my chin with his finger. “I don’t care what you do. It doesn’t matter to me if you dance for the Goddesses or an orchestra. I’m here tonight, you’re here tonight, and I have a room for us.” He held up the key card. “Let’s use it.” “And get fired?” I tried to wiggle free, but he was strong. “I don’t plan on having this job much longer, but right now, it’s all I have. I can’t get fired, Sam. You are off limits. I can’t be with you.” “But you just said you don’t want to be a Goddess. I’m fucking confused.” I sighed. “I’m going back to the ballet. I am. But auditions aren’t until March. I have to stay with the Goddesses until then. And as long as I’m on the Warriors’ dance roster I cannot under any circumstances be seen with a Wrangler. I gave them my word. It breaks the Goddesses’ code.” I folded my arms, thinking I had made my point. “And I can’t let you out of San Antonio without another night together, so we better figure this out right now.” He let go of me and pulled out a chair at one of the tables. It was set for an accountants’ meeting in the morning. “Sit,” he ordered. I took a seat as he sat across from me. “This is crazy. I work for the Warriors. You work for the Wranglers.” “Darlin’, I’m aware of this situation, but I have a bigger problem and you’re the only one who can fix it.” “What’s that?” “Look, I don’t date during the season. I don’t go near women.” I crossed my arms. I wasn’t sure I liked where this was going. “But, the more I try to forget you, the more you’re in my head. That night is in my head. And I think being with you is the only way to keep my game straight.” I felt a flare of anger. “You think I’m some kind of good luck charm?” I was louder than I meant to be. “No. I didn’t say that. I said you’re in my head. I think I see you in the crowd and I drop the ball. I think I hear your voice and I run the wrong route. I remember that night and I block the wrong guy.” I was quiet for a moment. “What if I told you the same thing? Not routes or blocking guys, but I’ve missed steps and routines. I called the wrong cheer and almost kicked one of the girls in the face because I went the wrong direction.” “Then I’d say there’s only one way to get out of each other’s head.” “And my roommate?”


He thought quickly. “Call up to the room and tell her your uncle came by to see you.” “Uncle?” I giggled. “Make up someone.” I knew he was right. I had to be with him tonight. As badly as he needed to be with me. And I’d tell an endless pot of lies if that was what it took to get in his bed. No matter how wrong this was. No matter what codes I broke. “What’s the room number?” I asked. “402.” “I’ll see you in a few minutes.” He leaned over the table, brushing his lips over mine. The kiss blistered my lips and I reached for his neck, needing more. He broke away. “See you soon.” He walked out and I went in search of the complimentary concierge phone to call Heather.


17

SAM

I TOOK THE ELEVATOR TO THE FOURTH FLOOR. IT HAD TAKEN ALL THE RESTRAINT I HAD NOT TO FINISH WHAT I started in that ballroom. My cock was hard, and Natalia had awakened the beast in me. I was missing the Dean for this. But she was worth it. I let myself into the room. I had reserved a suite for the night. It wasn’t as if I needed to impress her, but there was something in me that wanted to. A few minutes later, I heard a knock on the door and walked over to let her in. “Hi,” she greeted me softly. I picked her up and carried her into the room. “Hi.” I devoured her lips with kisses while she clung to me. “Roommate taken care of?” She nodded. “I’m out for a few hours.” “That’s all?” I let her feet touch the floor. She stared at me. “It has to be enough.” I didn’t want to waste another second if we didn’t have but a few hours together. My hands landed on her zipper and I yanked until it fell to the side and I saw her breasts heaving under a bra. I shoved the jacket over her shoulders. I kissed one and then the other. Her head reeled back and I thought of all the things I wanted to do tonight. I peeled the pants from her legs and ran my hand over the silk that was still damp. I smiled. She had come hard for me. She shivered as I traced the sensitive spot between her legs. “Did you like fucking my fingers?” I asked. Her eyes widened and she licked her lips. “Yes.” “Do you like it when I fuck you with my tongue?” She nodded. “Yes,” she whispered. “Do you want both?” She stared at me, biting her lower lip. “I do.” I grinned. I didn’t waste any more time. I was going to get her out of my head. And the only way to do that was to fuck her every way possible. I’d taste her. Bite her. Fuck her until she was screaming my name. I ran my hands over her hips and rolled her black lace thong off over her thighs and to the floor. I dug my fingers into her skin, making my way up her sides until I had a good tug on her bra. She raised her hands in the air so I could pull it over her head. She stood in front of me, one gloriously naked Goddess. I pulled my T-shirt off. She walked toward me, pressing her pointed tits against my chest. I groaned as she wrapped her


hands around my neck, drawing me toward her for a kiss. My cock grew hard when her tongue slipped inside my mouth, rolling and twisting with perfection. “Fuck, Natalia,” I growled. My hands tangled in her hair. I wanted to own and possess her. I wanted to be with her and hold her. I wanted all of her at once, but to take my time exploring her body again as if it were the first time. Every sense I had was heightened with her in my arms. “Will you crawl on the bed for me?” I asked. She stepped back hesitantly. I thought she was going to protest, but she positioned one hand and then the other before taking both knees to the mattress. My palms smoothed over her ass, reveling in the firmness of her skin. She wiggled slightly as my hands traveled in circles until finally, I was at my piece of paradise. And that was what it was—mine. She lowered herself to her forearms, hiking her ass in the air for me. God, what she did for me was unbelievable. I pried her folds and she rocked back. I could see how swollen her clit was and I wanted it between my teeth more than anything. I had promised her my fingers and tongue and I wasn’t going to break that promise. I pushed one finger inside as my tongue slid between her legs. She let out a long sigh and my cock twitched. “Feels good?” I asked. “God, yes.” She moved with my finger and clenched tighter every time my tongue whipped over her clit. I sucked at her entrance before my tongue twirled inside. She sank her hips, trying to pull me inside. She offered herself to me, spreading her legs wider, lifting her hips. She pressed forward on the mattress and I wanted to take her from behind, but I wanted to see her hover over me too. Her ass was fucking beautiful. Every part of her body was gorgeous. I rolled her nipple between my fingers and she groaned at the impact. I licked between her legs and kissed her spine, crawling over her. I rolled on to my back. She leaned down and kissed me, sinking her tongue deep in my mouth. I loved that she wanted to taste herself on my lips. It was hot as shit. I shoved my pants off my hips and kicked them to the floor, freeing my cock. “Sam,” she whispered. “Yeah, baby?” I looked into her eyes. “I want to ride you.” I grinned. We were on the exact same page. She finished. “Backward.” My cock almost lost it then. I felt the head surge with pressure. Holy shit. “Hold on.” I hustled to the end of the bed and fished through my jeans pockets until I found the pack of condoms I had brought with me. I broke the seal on the packet, rolled it on in record time and settled on the mattress. “Fuck me, Natalia.” She straddled me, facing away from me, and I pressed my erection between her legs. I watched her perfect round ass as she sank on my dick, sucking it inside her. I groaned as she tilted her hips forward and back with a precise erotic movement. “Fuck,” I groaned. I’d never felt like I’d come this soon. I’d always been able to hold out, but she was hitting the head of my dick at the right spot and watching her from behind like this did things to me I didn’t know were possible. She rose up again and lowered herself over me. I couldn’t take it. It wasn’t ending like this. I


lifted her off of me and maneuvered her graceful body to the pillows. “What?” she asked. “You’re so fucking dirty,” I growled, taking her lips with a forceful kiss. She wrapped her legs around my waist and I plunged inside her, feeling her stretch around my cock. It didn’t matter what position we were in. Everything about her felt fucking amazing. She was hot and wet and so tight I wanted to stay buried inside her all night. I pumped in and out, kissing her, staring into her eyes, listening to the sounds of her rapid breath, threading my fingers through hers and doing it all over again. I never wanted to stop fucking her. Never.


18

NATALIA

I LOOKED INTO SAM’S EYES AND FELT HIM FILL ME WITH HIS SOLID COCK. I LOVED IT. THE WAY HE MADE ME FEEL. The way my body vibrated under him. The way I wanted to try new things with him. He hilted himself inside me and I parted my lips as he shoved his thumb into my mouth. I began to suck furiously, feeling the coiling start to take off inside me. He grinned, watching me come undone. But I couldn’t stop sucking or clenching around his cock. He drove his shaft inside and I shattered, screaming his name. “Sam! Oh God, please, please.” He scooped his arms under me and pulled me to his damp chest while I shivered from my toes with the sensations sweeping through me. He was buried deep inside me. I realized I was the only one who came and looked at his wicked smile. We were both upright and I could ride him, sliding up and down over his cock. “Oh, yeah,” he coaxed me. My nipples rubbed against the solid planes of his chest and the friction was enough to make me come again. Every nerve in my body felt alive and exposed. I leaned into a slight backbend using my hands to support me when his mouth dove toward my breast. He licked and lapped at it. “Did I tell you you have the most perfect tits?” “No,” I moaned. I was going under again. His teeth nipped at one and then the other. It was a delicious pain that ran a shock of electricity from my nipples to my core every time I felt his teeth. “Did I tell you last time how much I love hearing dirty French on your sexy lips?” I shook my head. “You mean when I say baise-moi?” I smiled wickedly. He pulled me forward into a kiss and I moaned at the taste of his lips. “I don’t want this to stop,” I whispered. I moved up and down, driving him wild. But I could tell he was holding back. “It doesn’t have to.” I pressed down on his shoulders, keeping the tip of his erection at my entrance, then sank down swiftly. “Fuck, Natalia.” He yanked at my hair and I smiled. “I want to make you come too. And then do it all over again.” “We want the same thing.” He bit at my lip. I hadn’t thought past tonight or past the few hours together, but I knew this wasn’t going to be the fix we promised each other would cure the problem we had. No, this was only feeding a hungry


monster. I wanted him more. I wanted him again. I wanted him tomorrow and next week. Tonight wasn’t going to be enough. One more time would never be enough. I wondered if we did want the same thing. Did he want more than tonight? Or was this going to be enough for him? Would he get me out of his head like he mentioned and go back to playing a game every Sunday that paid him millions of dollars? Was I the distraction or the cure? He amazed me with his strength. His hands landed on my waist and he lifted me on to the bed. Before I could adjust myself or get my bearings, he rolled me to my stomach. He surprised me again when instead of bringing to my knees, he lifted my hips enough to slide his cock to my entrance. I groaned when he pushed inside and I felt his lips on my ear. His fingers entwined mine and our hips moved together, pulling and pushing, grasping and clinging, until we were on the same cliff, taking the same dive into a pool of ecstasy. It fell over us like rain. Sam pinned me to the bed while he pulsed inside me with strong thrusts, and my orgasm scattered through my limbs. He sucked at my earlobe and growled with satisfaction until his breathing became normal again. He slowly rolled from my back and pulled me to his chest. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if there were words. But Sam broke the silence for me. “I have to see you again.” And that was when I realized we were never going to give this up.

We sat facing each other on the bed, eating a tray of room service. Sam dipped a strawberry in whipped cream and dotted it on my nipple before taking a swipe with his tongue. “Tastes so much better on your tits,” he explained. I swatted at him. But it felt amazing when his tongue was on my breasts. “We’re trying to figure this out,” I reminded him. “Right.” I picked at a waffle on another plate and took a bite. Breakfast food in the middle of the night was the best. “If I’m caught with you, I lose my job and am no longer on the Warriors payroll.” “We’ve covered that.” I looked at him. “But you don’t seem to care, since you make a million dollars and I barely make forty-thousand a year.” “Then let me pay you.” My eyes widened. “Like a hooker?” “Okay, bad idea.” “Very.” He picked up a piece of bacon. “And you can’t get another job?” “Can you?” “It’s different. I’m in my dream job. And you aren’t.” I lowered my eyes. “But I will be again. I need to make it to March when I can audition for the troupe again.” “Darlin’, it’s October.” “We can do this for six months, right?” I fidgeted with the waffle. I didn’t want to tell him I was financially strapped and I wasn’t going to beg my family for money. That wasn’t an option for me. I could make it on my own dancing.


Besides, the last month had been more fun than the entire summer of training. I was starting to see why the other girls loved it so much. “Sneak around? Pretend we’re not sleeping together?” I nodded. “Yes, exactly that.” He laughed. “I’d rather not. I want you when I want you, and this is fucking inconvenient.” “It’s not going to be convenient ever.” I realized this was going to be a disaster. We couldn’t have an actual relationship. “Why do you say that?” “Because you’re always going to be a Wrangler. And that means practice, games, and press events.” “So?” “So, I’m going back to the ballet and that means performances, traveling, and practices as well. We won’t ever be in the same city. Maybe we should agree that tonight is the last time.” I felt a lump in my throat. “Hell, no. I don’t give up that easily.” “It’s not giving up. It’s being practical, Sam. A ballerina and a football player? This isn’t a movie. It’s not going to work. The sex might be amazing, but what do we have when the sex is over?” He sat forward. “That’s the part we figure out together.” I didn’t expect that answer. “What?” He ran his finger through the bowl of whipped cream and coated my nipples. They hardened under his touch. “Sam… this isn’t going to solve our problem.” But my head reeled back as his lips sealed over one nipple and sucked before clamping onto the other one, licking them clean of the whipped cream. He reached for the bowl a second time, and slathered my entire breasts. I laid back on the sheets as he licked and sucked. “Sam,” I whimpered. “You feel it, don’t you?” He studied my eyes. I nodded. My breasts were sticky from the whipped cream, but my skin glowed with anticipation for what he’d do next. “Then we’ll figure it out,” he explained. He hovered over me and I had a hard time imagining I could tell him no. But there was no logic to this. How could we possibly work? “But…” “Shh.” He pressed a finger to my lips. “You have to leave in an hour and I want to fuck you so you know there will be a next time.” “I want a next time.” “Me too.” “Sam?” “Hmm?” His hands slid over my slit and I sighed. “That position earlier.” “The one on your stomach?” He flicked over my clit and I jerked. “Yes, that one.” I breathed. “I’d never tried it before.” He pushed my knees to the side and settled over me. “It’s called the dragon, baby.” Holy hell. I looked at the dragon emblazoned on his arm and wanted to ask the most obvious


question, but I pulled him toward me as my legs fell open and he plunged deep inside me. I bowed off the bed. We had an hour together, and suddenly I knew what Sam meant by proving there was a next time.


19

SAM

I HELD HER AGAINST MY CHEST. I DIDN’T WANT TO LET HER WALK OUT OF THE DOOR. “I’ll call you when we get back to Austin.” I kissed her lips, drinking in the sweetness I was now addicted to. “Good.” “I have to go or Heather is going to get suspicious.” She tried to free herself, but I refused to let go. “She already knows about what happened between us last time.” “Five more minutes,” I pleaded. She laughed. “No, you had your five more minutes already.” True. She had given me a fucking awesome blowjob. She said it was a parting gift. “I like that kind of five minutes. I want another one.” “Really, I have to get back to the room. I need a couple hours of sleep before the photo shoot too.” I let my hands fall to my sides so she could walk out of my arms, but she stayed another second looking into my eyes. “This is crazy,” she said. I shrugged. “Crazy is what we did the last few hours. Wanting to keep doing it isn’t crazy at all.” She shoved me. I laughed. She was adventurous in bed and I fucking loved it. Talking about it, however, didn’t seem to be her strong suit. “I’ll see you this week.” She looked up. “I still think it’s going to be a bad idea to see each other.” “It’s a ninety-minute drive. I will be there. We just have to figure out our schedules. We can do this, Natalia.” “But the Warriors have a home game and then we travel the next week to the DC Sharks. “Damn, I forgot they played the Sharks next week. I mean, you play the Sharks.” It was going to take some getting used to that I was seeing a girl who worked for the Warriors. She wasn’t completely wrong about the implications it would have for us. My job wasn’t at stake, but I didn’t think it would go over well with the fans if they knew I was hooking up with a Goddess. I was trying to ignore all that noise and focus on her. On us. On what I needed to get through this season. She was what I needed. “Yes, and we have another road game the next week. I’m basically gone half of October.” I took her by the shoulders. “Don’t worry. I will see you this week.” She chewed her lower lip. “I want that more than anything. I do.” “Then don’t say anything else. I’ll make it happen. Now get back to your room, before the


tattletale rats you out.” She reached up on her toes to kiss me. “Bye.” “Bye.” I closed the door behind her and walked back to the bed. It was covered in whipped cream and smelled like us, but I fell on top of it and slept for hours.

That same day I checked out of the suite around noon. My phone had been blowing up. The team was pissed I missed the Dean. I was going to have to come up with some story that didn’t include Natalia. No one would believe I’d turn down the kind of girls at that party for one of my own. It didn’t work like that. At the very least, I probably should have shown up for a few minutes. But after the game, instead of getting ready for the Dean, I tracked down the Goddesses’ hotel. And when the elevator doors opened and I saw Natalia, there was no way I was headed to a different party. She was all the party I needed. I pulled my hoodie over my head and found my car in the garage under the hotel. I had meant every word I said to her in the doorway. I was headed to Austin this week. I would see her and we would figure this out. I had let her get away once before and I wasn’t going to let it happen again.


20

NATALIA

IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE POST-SEX GLOW, BUT EVERYONE KEPT ASKING ME WHAT NEW SKIN CARE PRODUCTS I USED for the photo shoot. I laughed them off. “I’ve been drinking a ton of water,” I explained. Heather eyed me. She was next to me in the row. We were standing on a bridge over the river. “Really?” “Really,” I responded. “Nothing else?” “Nope.” I smiled at the camera. God, I couldn’t remember being this happy. Every part of me felt light and airy. It was strange and unique. It reminded me of how I used to feel on stage. That feeling of euphoria as the prima ballerina. The photographer asked us to pose for a few more shots and then he called it a wrap. I jogged down the stairs. Heather was on my heels. “I didn’t hear you come in last night,” she snickered. She was already at breakfast when I snuck into the room. “I stayed out longer than I thought—you know, catching up.” I twisted the cap off a bottle of water. This would help with my water story. “Catching up with your cousin?” I nodded. “Yep, with my cousin.” “Hope you had a good time.” I grinned. “I did. It was amazing.” There was no way anyone saw Sam and me together. I wasn’t worried there was evidence, but it didn’t mean Heather wasn’t suspicious. And she would keep poking and prodding until she was satisfied. The same thing had happened at training camp with another one of the new girls. As the captain, Heather felt compelled to know where we were at all times. One girl was constantly late to practice and her excuses piled up. One morning she blamed a faulty hair dryer. Another day she said she lost her shoes. By the third morning, Heather started tailing her and found out she was sneaking her boyfriend into our squad rooms for the night and seeing him off again in the morning. That girl was released from the team and replaced with someone on the waiting list. “Sorry I missed movie night with you. But my cousin popped in and it couldn’t be helped.” “Of course not. We’ll do it another time.” She waved her hand in the air. “It’s fine.” But there was something gnawing at me that said it wasn’t fine. I didn’t know whether she was


upset I blew her off for my imaginary cousin, or if she had a theory my cousin was Sam.

I turned the lights on in my apartment and looked around. I had been gone a day, but it felt different. I felt different. I reached into my bag and pulled out my phone. Sam’s number was at the top. I hit send and waited for him to answer. “Hey, gorgeous.” I smiled and felt the giddiness of butterflies in my belly. I missed him already. “I’m home.” “That’s too bad. I wish you were still in San Antonio.” “Me too,” I whispered. I sat on the couch. “I was thinking I could drive up Friday after practice. We don’t practice on Saturdays and we have a home game Sunday. I can make it back to San Antonio with plenty of time.” “That could work. But I do have practice Saturday morning.” “Don’t worry. I’ll keep your bed warm for you until you get back.” I felt the stirring sensation in my core. Holy hell. I hadn’t thought what it would be like to have Sam here in my apartment, or in my bed. Suddenly Friday seemed like an eternity. “Promise?” “I do.” I smiled. I could get used to this. Sexy conversations on the phone. Torrid nights that no one knew about. There was a thrill to the secrecy that I was starting to like. “What are you going to do for the rest of the night?” I asked. I didn’t know much about Sam’s life other than he played football. “Probably watch footage for the Sunday game.” “Oh.” Maybe there wasn’t more to him than football. I felt a slight sinking feeling. “And probably make some dinner.” “Do you cook?” “Yes, I cook. Do you cook?” “No. I’m the worst cook.” I ate cereal and salads. Anything with more directions and I would burn it. “Then good thing you met me. I’m basically a chef. Should have gone to culinary school.” “Why didn’t you?” He chuckled. “There’s not as much money in whipping up a mean pasta as there is in catching a leather ball.” “I keep forgetting.” “I like that you forget. You don’t give a shit I play football, do you?” I shook my head. “Not at all.” “And you know I don’t care you’re on a dance team, right?” “I do know that.” “Good, because it doesn’t matter to me. But I was thinking about something today after you left.” “What’s that?” I asked. “I want to see you dance.” “You’ve seen me.” “No, not like that. The way you love dance. I want to see the ballerina Natalia.” He took my breath away. I had old dance videos and piles of audition DVDs, but that wasn’t what


he was talking about. “You really want to see me dance?” “Yeah, I bet you’re beautiful out there.” And I knew he didn’t mean the same way as when I was a Goddess, shaking my ass for everyone to see. “I’ll dance for you.” I was already choreographing something in my head to show him. “I have to go pick up the film for tonight. But I’ll call you tomorrow.” “Okay.” “Good night, Natalia.” “Good night.” I hung up and stared at the phone. I had no idea this was going to happen, but I felt as if we had officially waltzed right into a relationship.


21

SAM

THE DRIVE TO AUSTIN WASN’T BAD. IT GAVE ME NINETY MINUTES TO CRANK UP THE MUSIC AND DRIVE. TEXAS roads were wide and the speed limit let me go almost as fast as I wanted. There were a lot of things to think about other than the lyrics blaring from my speakers. Two nights with this woman and I had decided to break my first rule of the season. But it seemed better this way. Since Sunday night, I’d had incredible practices all week. I hadn’t dropped a single ball or missed any tackles. Even Wes commented on my concentration. With Natalia in my life, I wasn’t as distracted. I wasn’t thinking about where she could be, or what she was doing. All I had to do was pick up the damn phone and call her. It was as if being with her had calmed everything down again. She was some kind of drug for me. I got my focus back. I was the player I was before I met her. Only this time, I had her in my life. Natalia had texted her address to me. She lived in an apartment not far from where we met over a month ago. I recognized the neighborhood when I pulled into her parking garage.

I knocked on the shabby door and waited for her to answer. I held up a bouquet of flowers. “These are for you.” She reached on her tiptoes to kiss me, but stopped and pulled me inside. She took the flowers from me. “Sorry, I don’t want anyone to see you.” I didn’t care. I grabbed her by the waist and pulled her into my arms, crushing her with an earthshattering kiss. She trembled and I felt the satisfaction rumble through me. “I like your place.” I looked around. It had the definite markings of a girl. There were pastels and black and white photos of dancers on the wall. “Thanks, I can give you the quick tour.” She smiled. “This, of course, is the kitchen where I spend almost no time. This is the living room where I spend a little time.” I followed her. “This is the bedroom where I sleep.” Everything was white and clean. “And what’s this, the guestroom?” I pushed open the door beside her room and stared. Natalia was behind me. “No, it’s my studio.” She adjusted the dimmer switch and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling illuminated the space. There was an entire wall of mirrors and a barre that ran the length of one wall. “It didn’t come like this, did it?” She laughed. “No, of course not. I had permission to have the mirrors and the barre installed for


my practice.” Other than an old record player and a crate of records on the far side, the room was empty. The floors were smooth and soft. “You dance in here?” “I used to. I haven’t tried much since I was injured. But I do a lot of stretching, and it’s a great workout room.” “What kind of music do you play on that thing?” I pointed to the turntable. “Mostly classical.” She walked to the stack of albums in the crate and flipped through them and retrieved one from the center. “Where did you get it?” I streamed all my music. I didn’t have a CD player. “It was a gift from my ballet teacher when I left Paris.” She sounded sad. “She gave me all her records and the turntable.” She was smiling, but it was at a distant memory, not at me. “Sometimes I come in here and listen. I remember the dances.” “Like what?” I asked. I had this need to connect with her. To bring her back to where we were. I wanted her to leave those Paris memories and remember I was standing in front of her. “Stuff like this.” She placed the vinyl record on the player and moved the arm for the music to begin. I heard a violin and a piano, but all I saw was her. Her long, graceful legs. The beauty of her breasts. The fact that there were two of her in this room with those mirrors. My cock twitched. I reached for the dimmer, lowering the lights on the shimmering chandelier. “What are you doing?” she asked. “I want you to take your clothes off.” I was ready to strip her bare myself if she didn’t start shedding the tank top and shorts. But she lifted her arms, pulling her shirt overhead, and with a quick snap, her bra skidded over her arms. Her fingers landed on her hips and she shrugged the shorts over her legs and stepped away from the small pile of clothes. I reached for her, pulling her into my arms with a hungry kiss. She moaned as my tongue slipped in her mouth. I moved back, yanking my shirt off and kicking my pants out of the way. We stood in front of each other naked. I led her to the barre and spun her to face our reflection. I kissed the side of her neck as my hands traveled over her breasts. I stopped to roll her nipple between my fingers as my other hand coasted over her stomach and plunged between her legs. “Oh, God.” She leaned into my chest, jutting her hips forward so I could slide between her slit. “Watch,” I told her. “Watch all of it. Watch when you come. Watch me fuck you right here.” I felt the heat between her legs as my fingers massaged her clit. “Yes,” she breathed. Her legs buckled slightly as I spread her opening. I’d never been so fucking turned on in my life. I nudged my cock against her ass. As she rocked into my fingers, she lifted on her toes, then lowered to her bare feet. I felt her sliding her clit against my fingertips as she moved up and down, then slowly, her hips eased backward with each rise and fall until her arms were stretched forward on the barre and her soaking wet entrance was mine to take. I pushed my cock enough to stretch over her. “Ohh,” she whimpered. “Nice position,” I growled over her back, admiring her curves. She wiggled closer and I knew she wanted this as badly as I did. I rubbed the head over her clit, coating her juices over me. She felt so warm I wanted to get lost inside her. I wanted to fill her. I wanted to fuck her for the rest of the night as if it was our first night


together. I looked at her in the mirror. Her tits dangled in front and I reached for them, plucking each one until she whimpered. “Watch me fuck you, Natalia.” Her head jerked up as I positioned myself and drove inside her with a shudder that ripped through my body. We both groaned at the intensity of the angle. She held the barre while I pumped in and out of her from behind. Watching her eyes, her nipples, her slice of paradise, dripping wet from wanting me. I looked down. My hands gripped her just above her round ass. I could see every time my shaft withdrew, then was lost inside her again. I fucking loved it. I could watch this all night. Nothing had felt like this. Nothing was this fucking hot. Her hands slapped the mirror as I reared back and thrust with sudden force, pushing her forward. “Sam, it’s so intense. I have to come. Please let me. Please.” I wanted to give her everything she wanted. And if she wanted to come on my dick, she was going to come hard. I reached in front of her and began to flick over her clit with my fingers, feeling her squeeze my cock with powerful strength. “Oh yes,” she screamed. “Yes, like that.” Her hips moved wildly and I knew we had both lost control. “You’re mine, Natalia. I’m not stopping. You’re mine.” I was going to come inside her and I couldn’t stop it. There was no time to grab a condom or pull out. I wasn’t going to do that. I needed to fill her and make her mine. I buried myself with a final thrust as we came together, gasping for air, clinging for balance. I watched in the mirror as her eyes burned into mine. I unleashed everything I had inside her, feeling my belly relax as the orgasm pumped through my limbs. I slid my dick from her and kissed her back, which was damp with sweat. “You are so fucking amazing.” I twirled her into my arms, crushing her lips against mine. “I’ve never done that,” she whispered. “But God I’ve wanted to.” I laughed. “We can do that as many times as you want.” Her palms locked around my neck. “Welcome back to Austin.” She reached up to kiss me and I took her lips.


22

NATALIA

“THE SHOWER IS READY,” I CALLED OUT TO THE LIVING ROOM. SAM WAS ON THE PHONE. HE LOOKED ANNOYED. I hadn’t seen that kind of scowl on his face before. “Sorry,” I mouthed. I pointed to the bathroom door so he would know I was going to jump in. I couldn’t help but pause when I heard him say, “Don’t ever call me again. I mean it.” I strained my ears in his direction. It was none of my business, but I’d never heard him sound so angry before. “I told you. I’m not going to do it. I don’t care what happened or why,” he seethed. I felt guilty for listening much longer. Maybe it was a reporter begging for a story about him. I had a feeling it was more personal than that. Maybe it was the anger in his tone, or the way he was trying to shield the call from me. I tiptoed away and headed for the bathroom, trying to focus on what we had shared. I’d had a dozen fantasies about the mirrors in my studio. They mostly came to me in the middle of the night when I was asleep, and would rouse me with wicked thirst for something I knew I couldn’t have. Until now. Watching Sam’s eyes as our bodies aligned. As he moved inside me. It sent a shiver through my body. I was still tingling. It was erotic. It was the hottest thing I’d ever done in my life. Each time we were together topped the last time. Not that it was a contest. I didn’t want to have to out-best our sex life. But holy hell, it was amazing. I stepped into the shower and let the water wash over me. We hadn’t had the safe sex discussion either, but as I soaped up, I was reminded we hadn’t used a condom. I was on birth control, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t sleeping with an AFA player. When was the right time to have this discussion? Probably before I let him come inside me. I turned the water up, making the steam rise over the glass door. Sam walked in. “Sorry, I had to take that.” “Everything okay?” I asked. “I don’t want to talk about it. Actually, I want to forget that call ever happened,” he grumbled. I didn’t know what to say. His face was drawn in a frustrated expression. Whoever was on the end of that call had upset him. “You sure? I’m a really good listener,” I offered. He opened the door and stepped in next to me. His palms slid to the side of my face and he kissed me. “I’m sure. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s pretend I never took that call.” He went back to kissing me. I could get lost in this. His kiss. His touch. The way he looked at me. It was everything out of a


beautiful ballet. Although the leading men weren’t anything like Sam. I was used to lithe and limber. Not strong and powerful. He could encompass me and make me feel safe and secure. And I was sure if he gave it a try, he could lift me overhead easily and I could dive into a poisson, one of my favorite holds with a partner. I smiled thinking about it. “What’s that look?” he asked. “Just thinking about you dancing.” He chuckled. “My best dance is in the end zone.” “When should we order dinner?” I asked. The water skimmed over his shoulders and I watched the droplets roll over the muscles in his biceps. “After the shower sex.” He grinned. His mouth moved over mine as my back touched the cool tile. His erection pressed hard against my leg and I gasped. Was this really happening again? His hands lifted me up gently as I wrapped myself around his waist. The steam billowed around us and I felt the heat between us as he slid me over him until finally he pushed inside. I let out a moan as he filled me. He rested one hand over my shoulder on the tile while the other clutched my lower back. And when I least expected it, he started to sway. I smiled at him, feeling our bodies move in opposite directions. “I like that.” It was as if he was rotating inside me, touching everything within. “You feel fucking incredible. Every time.” He nipped at my neck. Part of me wondered if this was always what sex was like for him, and the other part knew it couldn’t be. It had never felt like this. Never felt like someone wanted me so desperately, or that I needed them just as much. I held on while he brought us to the brink of ecstasy. This time he pushed in and out with slow strokes. But strokes that tortured me with pleasure. “Sam, oh, Sam.” It was happening slower than it ever had. The coiling in my belly started to expand and float through my limbs, but not with the fire and intensity I was used to with him. It was exquisite how everything slowed to his rhythm. I kissed him as my body began to shake and jolt. My legs felt like jelly and my core was burning with the blistering orgasm. He pressed his forehead against mine. “I love it when you do that.” I licked my lips from the shower water. I touched the corners of his face as the trickles of water beaded over the sharp lines of his jaw. Then I saw the lust in his eyes. His speed picked up and a look of determination crossed his gorgeous face. I held up while he pumped in and out of me. His chest heaved rapidly and his hips thrust forward. “Fuck, Natalia.” He sank into me again and his body stiffened as he wrapped both arms around me, shaking as his came inside. Slowly, he lowered me to the ground. I looked into his eyes, already missing our bodies being connected. “You said something about dinner?” he joked. “Funny.” I grabbed a bottle of body wash for him. “I’m starving. The practice. The drive. The sex.” “Poor thing.” I lathered my hands and began rubbing them over his chest. His shoulders were wide and I needed two hands to wash one arm. He was a lot to handle.


We decided on ordering Italian and sat in the living room once the driver dropped off our dinner. I lit a few candles and opened a bottle of wine. I poured a glass for each of us. “I think we should toast to something, don’t you?” Sam held the glass. “To more nights in your studio.” He winked. I tapped my glass to his. “I want to hear more about your audition. When is it?” he asked. “For the ballet?” I picked up my fork. “Yes. When do you start preparing? Are you ready?” “It’s not until March. And I hope that by January my leg will be strong enough that I can complete my routine.” I took a bite of salad. “What did you injure? Maybe I could help.” He waggled his eyebrows and I didn’t know whether to take him seriously or not. “It’s my hamstring. It’s not bad enough that I can’t jump around for a few hours cheering. It’s actually gotten much stronger since last year. But I’m worried it won’t support me on my pointe shoes.” “And those are?” “You know the shoes ballerinas wear? The ones with the flat toes so we can stand up on our feet. It’s a lot of pressure on the foot, but it takes a tremendous amount of strength in the supporting leg. I’m afraid to try.” I couldn’t believe I had told him that. I hadn’t shared it with anyone. “I think I know what shoes you’re talking about. Why haven’t you tried it yet if you’re out dancing for the Warriors every week? Your legs seem in good shape to me.” I was tempted to poke him with my fork. “Because if I put on those shoes and I’m not ready then what was all this for?” I took a deep breath. “Why have I joined a dance squad? Why did I try to get my strength back if it was all going to be for nothing?” “Hey, you don’t know that.” He put his plate on the coffee table. “You need to put the shoes on and see where you are. That’s the only way you can plan the rest of your rehab.” I blinked. “You’re talking like you know how I’m going to get back on stage.” “I don’t know shit about ballet, but I know injuries and I know hamstrings. Do you have a trainer? Are you working with a therapist to get you where you need to be?” “I can’t afford it right now.” I didn’t want to admit how broke I was. The Warriors didn’t exactly pay a lot and Austin was expensive. “Then let me help you. I can do that. I know the best physical therapists in the country. I can find someone to get you ready.” “That’s football. This is ballet,” I stated. “Hamstrings are hamstrings.” He picked up his wine glass and took a big gulp. “If you need help, let me help you.” I shook my head. “I don’t know. It’s not like we’re a…” “A couple?” “What is this? What are we?” The questions popped out before I could pull them back in. “Do we have to label it?” “No, I guess not.” I reached for my glass. “I’m not saying it’s not something. It’s just… Damn it,” he huffed. “Why can’t we see what happens?”


“We can. We definitely can.” “This is everything I said I wouldn’t do. And I’m everything you said you can’t do. But I’m here in Austin and I’m thinking that it’s going to suck when I have to drive back to San Antonio tomorrow.” “You are?” I felt little slivers of happiness dancing in my stomach. “God, yes. I don’t want to leave you. I want to take you with me. Can’t you quit the Goddesses?” “I need the paycheck, Sam. I make money doing what I’m doing. And I can’t take charity from you. I wouldn’t feel good about that. It would feel like I belonged to you or something.” I scrunched my nose. His eyes locked on mine. “Don’t you feel like you belong to me?” And it hit me—I did. I did every time I went to bed with him. Every time he kissed me. When I saw our reflection in the mirror, and saw my handprint on the shower wall. He owned me with his body and I gave it to him freely, willingly. “That’s not the same.” I tried to back out of his argument. “I haven’t thought this through, but I want you. I want you with me in San Antonio. I sure as hell don’t want you around the Warriors.” “Because they’re your rival?” “Yes, because they are the rival. I make more than enough to pay for a trainer and a coach and a therapist. Come to San Antonio and train.” I couldn’t believe he was offering me this opportunity, and at the same time, I was stunned how it made me feel. “It’s too soon. We don’t know each other well enough. I don’t want to owe you something like that, Sam.” His gray eyes pierced through the walls I was putting up. “Come with me. Be with me. Let me do this for you.” He took the glass from my hand and rested it on the coffee table. My heart beat wildly. His eyes dipped to my breasts. He pushed my shirt up, exposing my nipple. He bent his head to take it in his mouth. He sucked it between his teeth and I whimpered. “Is this mine?” he asked. “Yes.” My head leaned back on the cushions. He rolled the other nipple between his fingers before sucking it into his mouth. “And this, is it mine, Natalia?” “Oh, yes.” I was already wet and the fire was burning in my core. He let go and I felt the cool air brush over my wet skin. He left my shirt dangling around my shoulders. His lips moved over mine. “And these lips.” He kissed me. “Are these mine or not?” I nodded as he bit my bottom lip. All at once his hand was snaking up the back of my running shorts, squeezing my ass. I squealed. But his grip was firm and his voice was serious. “I love your ass. Tell me it isn’t mine,” he commanded. “It’s yours,” I whispered. One finger and then another slid between my legs, over my slit, and tugged on my throbbing clit. “Oh,” I moaned. “God, Sam.” He twisted it slightly and I felt the need building. He was making his point clear. He pushed his fingers inside me while his thumb rubbed over my swollen nub. “All of this is mine, isn’t it?”


I bit my lip. I was clenching around his fingers while they pushed inside me, curling against my walls. “It is,” I whispered, clawing at his back. He pulled his hands away and sat forward to pick up his wine glass. I wiggled upward and watched him. He looked at me over his shoulder, grinning. “I want you with me, Natalia.” I closed my eyes. I wanted it too. He was giving me a chance to pack up and leave the Goddesses for good. But at what cost? Was I his plaything? Some dance girl he bought to get him through the season? “Are you mine?” I asked the question bluntly. “What?” I could play the same games he could. I maneuvered so I was straddling him on the couch. “You know you own me. But do I own you?” I ran a finger along his jaw and to his bare chest. I didn’t stop there. My nails scraped his sides and I dropped to the floor between his knees. He leaned back while I pulled his warm up shorts from his legs. His cock sprung free and I smiled. I licked the tip, tasting the freshness of the shower on him. I kissed the silky skin before gliding my tongue over the sensitive spot between his balls. “Natalia.” He shoved his cock closer to me. I positioned my mouth over it and sucked him in as he groaned loudly. I sat back. “Is it mine?” “Keep going and I’ll tell you.” He reached for the back of my head, but I jerked to the side. My hand latched around his thick shaft. “No, tell me you’re mine too, Sam. Tell me we own each other.” I took another lick over the top of his cock, resisting the urge to suck him again. I needed an answer that would satisfy me. I would belong to him. I could admit that my body was his, but only if it was reciprocated. I needed to know he was just as much mine as I was his. He tilted my chin upward, and pulled me into his lap. I knew from the look in his eye that he was going crazy with want. I had started and stopped something he loved. “Yes,” he whispered. “What?” “This is yours,” he growled. He pried my shorts out of the way and pushed inside me. I rocked back into his arms. “I’m yours, Natalia.” My shirt flew over my head and I gave him my breasts to suck. I pressed his head to my chest, feeling the pulse run through my body. I didn’t know what answer I was going to give him. I didn’t know if I could uproot everything I had done here, but what I did know was I was his and he was mine and it didn’t matter what teams we were on. Nothing would change that.


23

SAM

I DIDN’T THINK I’D EVER SAY WORDS LIKE THAT AGAIN. I DIDN’T WANT TO BELONG TO SOMEONE. I DIDN’T WANT to love someone, but Natalia had upended all my plans this season, and why would this be any different? If the only way I could have her was to give her me, then that was the deal. Every part of her was mine. I made sure of that. I didn’t drive to Austin planning on having a heavy relationship talk. I planned on spending the night fucking the most beautiful woman I’d ever met. But I ended up asking her to move in with me and offering to help her rehab. She was in my head. She was under my skin. I was drowning in her. I watched her sleep next to me and traced a line between her shoulder blades. Her hair had fallen over her shoulder. She told me she had to leave by seven to make it to early morning practice, but we still had a lot to discuss. I wanted her with me in San Antonio this week. One week of long-distance phone calls and a drive to see her wasn’t going to be enough. I hated that Maddie called. I hated that she had my number. That she tried to throw me off my game for my night with Natalia. The moment I was finally happy again, she blindsided me with a desperate plea for help. Damn it. I didn’t give a shit if she needed anything. I wasn’t her ATM, and I wasn’t her friend. It was enough to scare the hell out of me about getting involved with Natalia. But they were nothing alike. Nothing. Natalia could never treat me the way Maddie did. I had to fight the fear creeping under my ribs. I had to fight the thoughts to run and get out before she annihilated me. I was a different man now. I turned off the lamp next to the bed and stretched my legs out beside her. She sighed softly and I pulled her against my chest. She fit there perfectly. This graceful, beautiful woman fit. Only I had to convince her of that tomorrow before I left. After that phone call, it seemed more important than ever. I needed her commitment. I needed her loyalty. I needed to know she was mine.

Natalia had been gone for two hours. I was working on making breakfast in the kitchen when my phone rang. It was Cavan. “Hey, what’s up, man?” “Sam, I was wondering if I could stop by and pick up one of the playbooks for tomorrow’s game. I never got one and the coordinators said you have those things memorized.”


“Yeah, but I’m out right now. It’ll have to be later.” “Out? It’s nine o’clock in the morning.” “Working out, man. Have to get ready for the game.” I was staring at the playbook on Natalia’s kitchen table. “Just tell me where your spare key is and I’ll stop by.” “Can’t. It’s in my car. I’ll call you when I’m back and you can run over.” “This is serious. I haven’t seen any of the plays.” I flipped the bacon over in the frying pan. “Sorry, man. Call one of the other guys or wait until I’m home.” I was about to hang up on him. “Fine. Just call me.” “You got it.” I shoved the phone into my pocket and continued to work on breakfast. I had muffins in the oven and was ready to whip eggs into omelets, but I wasn’t sure when she’d be home. I didn’t want them to be cold. I heard her key in the door and smiled when she walked through. “Hey.” She grinned. “How was practice?” I asked. “Dreadful as usual.” She hung her bag next to the door and looped her keys on a hook. “It smells wonderful in here.” “Bacon always smells good. I was getting ready to make an omelet for you.” She laughed. “So if I took pictures of you right now making breakfast for me I couldn’t use these as blackmail.” She leaned up to kiss me on the cheek. “First of all, you wouldn’t do that. And second, yes, the guys don’t know about my culinary skills. So don’t blow my badass cover.” “Oh, that’s what you call yourself?” She sat at the table to watch me with the whisk. “You’re looking at the tight end with the most yards, most catches, most touchdowns, and most blocks in his rookie season and I’m on schedule to beat that this year.” “Wow. I had no idea.” I stared at her. “Really? No idea?” She shook her head. “It was never a line. I seriously know nothing about your career or much about football, but I have picked up a lot as a Goddess. We have to go to football class during our summer training camp.” “So if I quiz you, you think you’d pass?” I added cream to the eggs and whipped furiously. How could she not have heard of my record? “I think I would. I can hold my own in a conversation with the girls.” I chuckled. “Yeah, but those girls aren’t professional football players.” “True, but I’d bet I could pass.” “Want to make a bet?” She twisted her pouty lips together. “What kind of bet?” “If you win.” I stopped. “What do you want if you win?” She pressed her finger to her chin. “I want a full-body massage. Naked.” “That sounds like a win for me, but okay. If you win, you get a massage.” “And if I don’t?” she asked. “If I win, you try on those pointe shoes for me and let me watch you spin around the studio.”


The smile fell from her face. “Sam, I was trying to be funny.” “I’m being serious. Take the bet. Prove to me you can pass a football quiz.” “Fine. I’ll do it. And you’ll be thanking me, because your hands will be all over this body you own.” She eyed me. “Either way I win.” I winked at her. I turned toward the stove to layer in the first omelet. “Here’s your first question. How many quarters are in a game?” “Really? That’s insulting. Four.” “Ding, ding, for the ballerina.” I watched to make sure the edges on the omelet didn’t brown too much. “Second question. How many players are on the field during a play?” She scrunched her nose. “Twenty-four?” “Err. No. Twenty-two. But that’s okay. It’s one to one.” She folded her arms. “Next.” I flipped the omelet over. “Okay, for your next question can you name four different offensive positions?” “Easily. Quarterback, wide receiver, tight end,” she paused to smile. “And.” She blinked a few times. “And…” “Err. That is incorrect. You could have said running back, kicker. I’d take lineman or center. But that’s okay. You were close.” She scowled at me. And I felt one question away from watching her dance for me. “For the final question. For my victory question.” I winked at her. “What is the play called a safety?” “That is not a fair question. Who knows what that is?” “Err, also incorrect. A safety is when the team who has the ball is tackled in their own end zone, resulting in two points for the other team.” “Two points? I’ve never heard of it.” “Look it up,” I instructed as I delivered her breakfast in front of her. She started typing on her phone and whispered the definition for a safety score out loud. “I feel tricked. That was a trick question.” “It was not. Now eat up and then put on the shoes. I want to see you dance.” “Today?” “I’m leaving today. So yes.” I cut into my omelet and took a bite. Victory always tasted sweet.


24

NATALIA

I STARED AT THE SATIN LACES DANGLING FROM THE SHELF, TAUNTING ME, BEGGING ME TO WEAR THEM. SAM HAD schemed me into this and I wasn’t happy. He was in the studio waiting for me to show him something a ballerina would do. My Goddess uniform was hanging where it always did. Didn’t he know I hadn’t been a ballerina for a long time? I dug through my closet until I found one of my wrap shirts and a light pink wrap skirt. I quickly put them on and then began to pull the pointe shoes from the shelf. I was shaking and my fingers tingled. I didn’t know if I could go through with this. I sat on the edge of the bed. What if it didn’t feel right? What if I injured my hamstring again? What if this was a setback? This could end all of the plans I had made to audition. With a new injury, I would ruin the chance I did have. “Natalia, where are you?” Sam called from the room next to mine. “Hold on,” I replied. I had to do this. Not only because I had to pay up for the bet I had lost, but because I had been putting it off way too long. My fear had eaten away at my confidence. I could tell Sam was trying to give some of that back to me. But he hadn’t been there. He didn’t know the pain it caused and the months of anguish piled on top. I exhaled, and for the first time in nine months, my feet wore pointe shoes.

I might as well have been stepping onto the stage for my first performance. My stomach did somersaults and I could feel the sticky perspiration in my hands. I took my time walking into the studio. Sam was going through my record collection, but he must have heard me enter and turned around. “Wow.” “I don’t know if I can do this.” My mouth felt dry. Wearing the shoes again had brought back not only the good memories but also the nightmare. I trembled. He took a few long strides toward me and took my hand, leading me to the center of the room. “I know you can.” I looked at us in the mirror. He was tall and strong, overpowering, almost, in my quiet sanctuary. He made me look dainty even though I was five-eight. He stood behind me and squeezed my shoulders.


“I’ll put on the music.” “But what if I can’t?” I eked. He turned. “I’ve got you. And if you can’t, we’ll figure out how to make sure you can.” It sounded simple. It sounded as if he had figured out the perfect remedy to my problems. All I had to do was dance. He placed a vinyl record on the turntable, moved the arm, and hit the switch. There were a few moments of crackling static before I heard the notes of the piano. I needed a moment to center myself. A moment to remember who I was as a dancer. I felt the air fill my lungs before I started with a gentle plié. My arms swished to the sides before I moved onto my toes in a relevé. I wasn’t ready to try one leg at a time yet. I needed to work through the motions slowly. I felt the strength in my legs as I held the position on the tips of my toes and pressed into the ground with my shoes. The more I moved, the more I started to remember the joy of dancing. The lure of the stage. The music in my ears. I stopped thinking about the accident and the pain. I let my body dictate how it floated through space. Sam didn’t utter a word. He stood in the corner next to the record player, while I picked up my left leg and then my right. I leaned toward the bar, kicking a leg behind me, all the while maintaining my balance on my toes. It was happening. There was stability and balance. I had trust in my body again. I didn’t feel like my right leg was going to snap like a twig. Instead I felt the power in my standing leg as I moved easily from position to position. I twirled on my toes and bowed at Sam. My heart was about to beat out of my chest, but no longer from fear—from bliss. “What do you think?” I was practically glowing. I could see it in the mirror. “I think you’re beautiful and you’ve never been sexier than you are right now.” I skipped over the room and jumped into his arms, wrapping my legs around his waist. I kissed him fiercely. “Thank you for making me lose that stupid football bet.” He pressed my face between his palms. “I’m happy for you. How’s your leg?” I lowered myself to the ground and pressed my right toes into the floor. “It feels fine. I can’t believe it feels okay.” I was still stunned. “Whether you like it or not, all that ass shaking you do with the Goddesses has probably been more therapy than you realized. You have a tight little ass and that means strong hamstrings.” “I think that’s a compliment.” I smiled slyly at him. He never let me forget how much he enjoyed my body. “It is most definitely a compliment.” I pulled on his hand. “Now it’s your turn.” “Oh no.” His eyes widened with fear. “I don’t dance.” “Really? Aren’t you the ring leader of the club scene?” “Have you been cyber stalking me?” He eyed me. I pinched my fingers together. “Maybe a little bit.” “That doesn’t mean I dance. It means I party. There’s a difference.” I wasn’t giving up that easily. The adrenaline was flowing through me. “Dance with me, Sam. Not ballet. But hold me. Dance with me.” I could see the defeat as his shoulders sagged. “There are no cameras in this studio, are there?” “No, of course not.”


I placed my hands around his neck as he slipped his palms to the small of my back. “See? Not so bad.” I ran my hand over his shoulder and the width of his bicep, pulling his grip on my hip so that we were holding hands. I clutched our joined palms at my breast. The steps were small and the movements were easy, but we moved together with as much perfection as we did in bed. He didn’t give himself credit for how athletic he was. He wouldn’t be able to dive and avoid tackles without agility and the skill of staying light on his toes. I wasn’t going to present it to him like that, but he had his own style of grace. I pressed up into another relevé, adding several inches to my height. I didn’t say a word as he lifted me from the ground and brought my lips to his as he continued to elevate me into the air. His arms flexed and I looked down into his eyes. He lowered me slowly, dragging my body over his. I closed my eyes, taking in the solidness of him as I slid to the floor. “Natalia, come back with me,” he whispered. The moment felt magical and enchanted. Almost as if we were rehearsing a lovers scene for the stage. “Can I think about it?” I asked. “Please.” He pressed his forehead to mine and I heard the vinyl crackle in between songs. “Don’t wait too long to answer.” “I won’t.” He kissed me gently and walked out of the room. “I have to get back to San Antonio.” There was a giant hollowness in my chest. I didn’t want him to leave, but I didn’t think I was the kind of girl who could go.


25

SAM

I HAD JUST ENOUGH TIME TO MAKE IT BACK FOR THE AFTERNOON TEAM MEETING. I WOULD DRIVE STRAIGHT TO the stadium. I turned up the radio, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. The more time I spent with her, the more I wanted her. I wanted her with me all the time. Not just for quick nights here and there. She had to understand that if I needed her in San Antonio, she had to be there. Ninety minutes later, I parked in my spot underneath the stadium and took the elevator to the strategy floor. I could hear the low murmur of the other guys. I took a seat mid-way down the aisle in one of the auditorium-style seats. Coach Howell was going through plays with the offensive and defensive coordinators. They weren’t ready to start the meeting yet. I yawned, but jumped when I felt my phone vibrate. It was a text from Natalia. Call me when you can. Starting pre-game meeting. It will be a couple of hours. Ok. I wanted to write something about last night, or even about this morning. How fucking sexy she was. How she had stolen my breath with only a few spins in her special ballerina shoes. I looked down when my phone vibrated. I smiled, hoping Natalia had sent me something in French. I loved it when she said something dirty. Something I’d never heard before or imagined. I read the text in disbelief. Can’t we at least talk? Meet for coffee? Shit. It was Maddie again. I had to find a way to block her or I’d get a new number. It would be a pain in the ass, but it would be worth it not to have her contact me. Why was she doing this? Why was I suddenly her life line? I didn’t buy it. No. I wrote back. I turned my phone off. I wouldn’t respond to anything else. That was the last word she’d hear from me. I’d been done with her for years. She was the bitch who had cut me out. Now I’d be the dick who did the same thing. The lights lowered and the film began to run. Coach spoke into the microphone. “Guys, pay attention to this. It’s a play they ran last week. It worked, so we can expect to see it tomorrow.” He got our attention and the room went silent. Everyone focused on the film. Everyone except me. All I could think about was a ballerina who was in my head. Two hours later, I ran out of the meeting with the phone to my ear.


“Hey, you made it back okay?” Her voice sounded sweet. “I drove straight to practice.” I walked to the end of the hallway where I could talk to her privately. “Good. I’m glad you made it back.” “What’s going on?” She sighed. “I want to tell you yes, but I think we’re moving too quickly.” I slammed my palm against my forehead. “It doesn’t feel like it’s too fast when we’re together, does it?” “No, it doesn’t. And I think that’s what scares me the most about it, Sam. Is this even real?” I stared out the window at the indoor practice field. “It’s real for me. I’ve never asked someone to move in with me before. I want you here.” I could feel the tension gripping in my neck. “I want to be there too, but I think we should try things like this for a while. Can we do that? Plan weekends? I’ll come see you next time. Or we can meet in the middle?” “The middle? There’s nothing in the middle.” I was pissed, and my voice was getting louder. “Okay, as soon as you left I started looking up some places and I found these cute cottages on Canyon Lake. We could rent one and no one would see us and we could spend time together.” I huffed. “This is a fucking first.” “Excuse me?” “Most women want to be photographed and seen with me and you’re the exact opposite.” “Sam, I tried to explain to you how important it is that I do this on my own. I don’t want a handout. If you can’t respect that I don’t want your money, then maybe this isn’t even worth trying.” I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to fight with her. I didn’t want to push her away. “I’m sorry, Natalia. I’m tired and it was a long meeting. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry.” There was silence on the other end. “Natalia?” “Yeah. I was thinking.” Her voice was soft. “I’ll let you go and we can talk after our games tomorrow. Just think about it, Sam. I want to see you again, but if you can’t handle me staying on the dance team, then you need to let me know. I made a commitment to the Goddesses and I’m going to keep it.” I saw Wes walking toward me. This was the last thing I wanted him to hear. “Right. Right. Yeah, let’s talk tomorrow.” I hung up to face the quarterback. “You ran out of there like your ass was on fire.” He eyed me. “Something back home,” I lied. “What’s up?” “I wanted to talk to you about a couple of the plays we have lined up for tomorrow. Howell, as usual, is a dumbass.” I scratched the back of my head. I wasn’t going to get in the middle of Coach and Wes’s on-going argument about who should decide the game plays. Some teams were dependent on the quarterback and some relied on a team of coordinators to decide. Coach Howell liked to be the one in charge and so did Wes. “What are you thinking?” I asked. “What I think is, we use the same shit we did against the Warriors. Start off with an even rotation and then I go to you straight every time.” My face lit up. “I like how you think.” There was nothing Coach could do if I ran the route that was called to me on the field. At that point I was only doing my job. “Good. Then expect to make a lot of catches and let’s run that score up.”


I laughed. “Fuck, yeah. Let’s do it all afternoon.” My argument with Natalia didn’t seem as important. I remembered I was here to win football games and collect a two-million dollar bonus in a few months. I walked down the hall for the elevator when I heard Cavan calling my name. “Hey, you didn’t call me about the playbook.” He stopped me at the elevator. “Right. It’s in my car if you want it.” “I checked around and no one else has one. I’ll take yours if you’re sure.” “Yeah. It’s yours. Come on.” We rode the elevator to the garage level. Cavan followed behind me. He was having a pretty good season. I was impressed another rookie could join the team and do what he had with the pressure weighing down on us to repeat our championship victory. I pulled the binder out of the trunk and handed it to him. “Thanks, man. I appreciate it.” “No problem.” I knew how he felt. I remembered what it was like when everyone around you had the plays memorized and you were still trying to get to know the names of a hundred different guys and staff members. He was in a new city with a new job. There were a lot of adjustments to make. But he seemed to be the kind of guy who was handling it in stride. Maybe better than I had. I needed to get home, shower, and study the game notes for tomorrow. I hopped behind the wheel and steered toward my apartment.

I turned the shower off and grabbed the towel on the closest rack, wrapping it around my waist. I heard my phone buzz. Holy fuck. It was a picture of Natalia. She was standing on one toe, pulling her leg behind her so it was almost touching her head. She made a perfect circle using her leg and her back. I knew she was flexible, but this was fucking insane. I texted her back. I thought you said there were no cameras in there. I waited for her response. I set the timer just for you. I laughed out loud. I adjusted the towel so it rested on the lowest part of my hip and took a shot of my profile and sent it to her. That should do the trick. I was dripping wet. J’ai envie de toi. I leaned my head against the glass wall. She was killing me. The dirty French talk. Her body. All of it. I wanted her. I didn’t need to wait until after the game to have the follow up discussion. If I had to wait a few more weeks, maybe it was worth it. I turned off the bathroom light and wrote back to her. I want you too. Good night, Sam. Good night. I plugged my phone into the charger next to my bed and pulled back the sheets. I set my alarm. I had a game day ritual at home that started with a big breakfast and a quick jog in the park. It helped me relax.


I watched a few minutes of Sports Now before I fell asleep. The next morning, I jumped up from bed before my alarm went off. What in the hell was that? I rubbed my eyes and took a deep breath. I knew it was a dream, or a nightmare. But it had felt fucking real. I had bolted awake with fear coursing through me. I had been holding Natalia. We were talking about the lake or something and I rolled away from her, and when I rolled back she was gone. Instead, Maddie was there. Fuck. I ran my fingers through my hair. Why was I dreaming about Maddie? Ever since she called when I was at Natalia’s apartment I had done everything to forget the conversation. She said she needed money. Todd had kicked her out and she didn’t know where to go. Fuck that. I wasn’t giving her a dime of what I earned. She didn’t deserve to be in dreams. She didn’t deserve to speak to me or see me. I didn’t think about her anymore. I didn’t have a single picture of her in my apartment. When we graduated, I got rid of everything that was hers. She had put me through the emotional wringer. I took another deep breath. This wasn’t how I wanted to start my Sunday. I put on a pair of shorts and shuffled to the kitchen. I couldn’t let something stupid like a dream interfere with the game-day routine. I had a big breakfast to cook.

I arrived at the stadium earlier than usual. I was off all day. I had been since that nightmare forced me awake. I couldn’t shake it. I thought about calling Natalia, but what was I going to say? Yeah, I’m fucking freaked out about a dream I had where my ex replaced you. That wouldn’t go over well in any scenario. She was understanding, but that would be pushing it. I had already made the decision not to tell her she had called me when I was in Austin. I wasn’t going to bring it up now. I threw my bag on top of my cubby and sat on the bench. As usual, the equipment guys had laid everything out for me and the rest of the team. All I had to do was suit up for the game. But sitting here, staring at my name, I wasn’t sure if my head was in the game. I pressed my palms to my forehead. I needed a few minutes to get my shit together, because once I took the field everyone in the stadium counted on me. Wes counted on me. Coach counted on me. But right now, I wasn’t sure I could count on myself.


26

NATALIA

I WALKED THROUGH THE DOOR AND THREW MY BAG ON THE FLOOR. MY BODY ACHED ALL OVER. FOUR HOURS OF dancing and I was ready to crawl into a hot, steamy shower. I was headed to the bathroom when I saw Sam’s number pop up on the screen. “Hey, how was the game?” I asked. I turned on the hot water and added a bit of cold. “Natalia…” He sounded upset. “What’s wrong? What happened?” I turned off the water so I could give him my full attention. “We lost.” His voice was low and deep. “Oh, God. I’m sorry, Sam. You’re having such a great season.” “Were having a great season,” he corrected me. “It’s only one game.” I paced in my bathroom. I was out of my element. I didn’t know how to console him. I thought everyone took the sport too seriously, anyway. “You don’t understand.” “Did something else happen?” I was confused. His voice didn’t sound fun and flirty like usual. “I dropped the game-winning pass.” He sounded anguished, and I suddenly understood why. “Oh, God. That’s terrible.” “It was a disaster. It was a perfect pass. Right at me. And I couldn’t hold on to it.” I grasped at something to say. “There will be other games. Other chances. It’s okay, Sam. It’s okay.” “There’s nothing okay about it.” The silence fell between us. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.” “Say you can see me tonight.” “What?” I was exhausted. He had to be exhausted from the game. “That place you mentioned. Canyon Lake. I’ll get a cabin and we can meet. It’s only forty-five minutes for both of us. Meet me.” “Sam, I don’t know.” There wasn’t anything keeping me here. My Monday was free. “Okay, yeah, I can pack and be there in an hour, I guess.” He sounded relieved. “I’ll text you the cabin. See you there.” He hung up and I wondered what he had planned.

I parked under a scrub oak and looked at the little cabin Sam had rented for us. It was only a few yards from the lake. His car was already here.


I stepped from the car as he opened the front door to Cottage 11. “You made it.” He jogged down the stairs and picked me up in his arms. “It’s beautiful here.” The moon was bright on the lake. It didn’t look as if any of the other cabins were being rented. “I’ll get your bags.” He was already pulling them from the backseat and taking them inside. “Take a look at the cabin.” I followed him up the stairs. It was small, but romantic. Exactly what I pictured. Only, I didn’t expect to speed here like I did, but none of that mattered. We were together and Sam seemed more relaxed than when we spoke on the phone. The door opened and I inhaled. “Oh my God.” It was filled with candles and flowers. There was a bottle of wine on the table and a small fire in the fireplace. “You like it?” “I love it. It’s exactly what I wanted.” He came up behind me and deadbolted the door closed. His hands circled my waist and he kissed my neck. “You’re exactly what I want too.” He pushed my cover up off my shoulders, dropping it at my feet. I spun around in his arms, remembering the last time we were together we danced in my studio. His lips brushed over mine and I tipped forward to kiss him. “Are you okay?” My fingers played with his hair. “You sounded upset on the phone. I was worried.” “With you I am.” He lifted me from the floor and carried me across the room. I expected him to lower me on the couch in front of the fire, but he kept walking. “Where are we going?” He kicked open another door. There was a huge tub filled with bubbles. “Don’t you like to relax after a game?” he asked. My eyes widened. “How did you know?” He placed my feet on the tile. “Because I know what it feels like when you work your body like that for four hours. Ever muscle is sore. Every part hurts.” I nodded, rubbing my neck. “Everything.” “How’s your leg?” He lowered to the floor, dragging my shorts to my ankles. He stopped to kiss the back of my leg. “Better when you do that.” I smiled. I liked the pampering. I liked the candles and the flowers and the huge tub with bubbles. He rose from the floor and lifted my shirt overhead. “Fuck, I love that your tits are so perfect,” he growled. They hardened under his stare. I stepped toward him, pressing my hands to his chest. “Are we both going to fit in that tub?” I looked over my shoulder. He laughed. “No, it’s for you. Enjoy it and I’ll be waiting for you out there when you’re done.” I looked at him strangely. “Really?” “Really.” He kissed my forehead. “Enjoy it.” He walked out of the bathroom and closed the door. I pivoted toward the bubbles. I was turned on from his kisses and his touch, but the bath was calling. I knew where he’d be when I got out. I dipped one toe in, feeling the soothing relief of the hot water, then slid all the way in until I was submerged up to my shoulders. I rested my head on the back of the tub. I didn’t know Sam had a


romantic side. I took in the moment and let my body relax. I didn’t worry about being a Goddess or trying out for the ballet. I didn’t worry that he wanted things to move faster than I did. I tried to block all of that out and realize that an insanely hot and sexy man had planned a spontaneous romantic overnight trip for me. That was all that mattered.

I wrapped the towel around my chest and cracked the bathroom door. “You still here?” I asked. “I have two glasses of cold wine.” I padded across the floor and joined Sam on the couch. The gas logs crackled as if they were real. They were pretty to watch. I took the glass from him. “Thank you.” “How was the bath?” “Everything I needed. Even my leg feels better. Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” He kissed me. “How are you feeling? About the game.” He shifted back on the cushions. “I’d rather not talk about it. It’s over. We lost. I can’t get that second back.” “I understand.” I stared in the fire. “I feel the same way about my accident.” “Then I guess I shouldn’t ask.” I shook my head. “No, I think I can talk about it now. I’ve wanted to tell you. It’s a big part of me, Sam, and I think you should know what happened.” I took another sip of wine. “It was during a performance. And not just any performance. It was opening night. My parents were there. Do you know how huge it is that both of them were in the same room to see me perform?” I spoke the words slowly. “I was prima ballerina. My father flew in from Paris. This was what all of us had been waiting for. Finally, after years of practice and fighting for that position—I had it. And they were so proud of me. Proud that all the work had finally paid off. The hours and the years of practice and pain had meant something.” The flames danced over the fake logs. I paused, remembering what it felt like to see my family’s faces in the audience. How the pride poured through me like a white light when I stepped on the stage. Sam took a sip of wine. “I think I can relate to that part, at least. My parents pushed me pretty hard to be a football player. At first it was all about being the quarterback, but after talking with a few scouts when I was ten, they decided I was going to be a tight end.” I stared at him, realizing each moment we were together we had more in common. “But tell me what happened. I want to hear.” He rested his hand on my knee. “I’ve gone over it a hundred times. A thousand times. Questioning myself. Questioning my partner. Did I mis-step? Did I drop his hand at the wrong time? Did my foot miss his palm? What did I do to cause it? I’ve asked myself every question possible.” I took another sip of wine and turned to face Sam. “And you know what I figured out?” “What’s that?” “That it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. If Charles had turned or I had turned. Or if the lights were in our eyes. Or the music was too loud. Or I was so nervous to see my mother and father sitting together. It doesn’t matter. Because I can’t undo the fact that I fell on stage from six feet in the air and that I tore my hamstring in so many places the ballet couldn’t keep me on.


“I can’t make it not be true. It’s my story. It’s my history, Sam. The ballet let me go, and I did just enough rehab to join the Goddesses until auditions for the troupe next year. I hated myself for months for wearing those gold boots and slutty top, but I realized something about that too. Those boots are as important as my pointe shoes. That’s my story. I was a ballerina and now I’m a Goddess. And I have to be okay with it. I fell and destroyed my career.” I touched the side of his jaw, outlining the strong bones that made up the face I had fallen for. “So, what’s going to be your story? Are you going to let one night define who you are, or are you going to keep going?” “It’s not the same.” He leaned into my hand. I could feel the roughness of his stubble against my soft palm. “It is the same. Injury. Embarrassment. Letting other people down on the team. Having a theater full of people see your failure. Thinking you’ve lost something you can’t get back. Thinking the one thing you love more than anything is over. I know exactly what you’re feeling right now.” He traced my collarbone and my skin prickled. “When I’m with you, I’m not worried about all that noise, Natalia. I don’t care right now that I dropped the pass and let the team down. I don’t care that Wes is mad as a fucking hornet. That the only replay they’re showing on Sports Now is the end of our game. You know why?” I shook my head. “Because this is what I want. You are what I want. This is the story I want.” He loosened the tuck I had on the towel and it fell open. I gasped. “It is a good story,” I whispered. “I think we have the same story, Sam.” He nodded, sliding down the couch and pushing my knees wide. I forgot what we were talking about or that the night was slipping through our fingers. As soon as I felt his tongue press between my legs, all thoughts were gone. We were in our own world, in our own cabin where Sam was right. This was a fucking incredible story.


27

SAM

EACH COTTAGE HAD ITS OWN PIER. I LACED NATALIA’S FINGERS THROUGH MINE AS WE STEPPED ONTO THE splintered wood for pier 11. The sun was low on the horizon. “We almost made sunrise.” She giggled. “Almost.” I took a sip of coffee and helped her drape a blanket we grabbed from the cabin as we settled onto the bench nailed to the end of the walkway twenty yards from shore. She snuggled against my chest and I felt the calm the nearness of her brought to my life. The world felt right. It felt quiet. I kissed the side of her temple. The only place to get coffee around here was from the cabin the owners had converted into an office. It was sort of a welcome center for the guests. I filled up two large cups for Natalia and me while she was in the shower. “It’s really beautiful here. I don’t want to drive back to Austin.” “I don’t want to drive back to San Antonio.” As long as we were keeping our relationship a secret, this was the way it had to be. I fucking hated it. “Maybe this could be our special spot, though. The place no one else knows about. Our hideaway?” I took a sip of coffee and nodded. “For now it can be.” As much as I was tired of sneaking around, I started to think about what it would be like once we were free to be seen together. I didn’t know if I wanted to share Natalia. I sure as hell didn’t want to share this place. It was getting harder and harder for me to go out in San Antonio without people asking for autographs. Kids wanted to take pictures with me. Dads asked me for advice for their sons. The newness of the attention had started to wear off. I wanted my own life. There was a cost for fame I hadn’t thought through when I signed with the Wranglers. I was tired of reading speculation about my love life. People weren’t satisfied with a single bachelor on the team. They wanted there to be a woman in my life. I couldn’t count how many times I was asked in interviews who I spent my free time with. I wrapped a protective arm around Natalia. “This kind of reminds me of a place I used to go fishing with my dad,” I told her. “Really? You fish too?” I laughed. “Of course. My dad and I fish, hunt, football—all that stuff.” “You’ve never really mentioned your family.” Her hand slid to my thigh and I felt relaxed. We fit together so well.


“What do you want to know?” I asked. “Where are your parents now? Are they still together?” “Oh yeah. They’ve been married thirty years. Still going strong.” “Basically, the opposite of mine.” She looked up at me. “I think all marriages have their problems. The key is to find the person who can change with you. My parents seemed to have figured that out. Sometimes I don’t know how.” “And mine didn’t. I think my mom kept expecting my dad to move us back here eventually. And he never tried. She was homesick. She missed her family, and when my grandmother became ill, it was the last straw. She wanted to be home and he refused to leave France. He’s not a very flexible person.” “And that’s why you moved to Dallas? That’s shitty. I’m sorry.” “I was asking about your family. Not talking about mine. Tell me more about these parents.” She changed the subject. The sun rose higher and I looked across the lake. There was an early morning boater headed in our direction. “There’s not much to tell. My dad played football and he and my mom met in college. She was along for the ride since the beginning. Football was her life too. I don’t know what discussion they had about me playing, but it was always understood that I was going to be a football player. She was all in. Still is.” “What if you wanted to be a doctor or an engineer? Or an artist?” She smiled slyly. I chuckled. “I don’t think my dad would have gone for that.” I stretched one leg out over the pier boards. “I never asked. I never thought about doing something else.” “I guess that’s like ballet and me. I started dancing when I was three and it was in my soul.” She squeezed my hand. “I can’t imagine being anything else either.” “Do you like Texas now that you’ve been here?” I wondered if she felt the same homesickness her mother did. “It’s not Paris, that’s for sure.” She giggled. “And when we moved, I was a senior in high school. There’s no worse time to have to change schools. Everyone already knew each other and they were applying for colleges. I didn’t even know what the SAT was. It was a miserable year. I missed my friends. I missed Madame Collette. I missed my studio. I missed my dad, even though he was a complete asshole.” She stopped to drink her coffee. “What was so different when you moved?” “I don’t know if it was all the big trucks. Or the hats. Or maybe it was how everyone said hey and y’all. It took a long time to adjust. Everyone was welcoming, much warmer than my friends in France, but it didn’t mean I understood it right away. Texans are unique. And my mom always seemed French to me. I never saw her in her home element until we moved to take care of my grandmother. Now I know she’s really a southerner at heart. She either changed a lot for my dad or changed when we moved back. I don’t know. But there’s a huge difference between living in Paris and Dallas.” “I can see that. But I’ve never been to Paris. Hard to compare.” “You should go.” Her eyes lit up. “Maybe some day.” I wondered what it would be like to walk through the streets with Natalia. She could show me where she lived and went to school. Maybe I’d pick up some of that dirty French she always whispered in my ear. I shook my head. I was getting ahead of myself. “All right, so you moved, and what changed things for you? Why haven’t you moved back?” For all I knew that could be her plan. Maybe she was saving up to get back to France.


“My mom made sure I went to the School of the Arts and once I was there for college, I found my place. I made friends. It made Texas feel like home. Plus, she lives in Dallas, and I don’t want to leave her here with no family. It wouldn’t seem right after everything she’s done for me.” I didn’t think about my parents like that. I never felt as if I owed them a damn thing. I loved them —that wasn’t it. But my success was their success. I carried on the legacy of my dad’s name every time I hit the field. I didn’t owe him for that. Sometimes I thought it was the other way around. “What do you say we take a walk around the lake before we drive out of here?” I suggested. “Sounds good.” She stood and folded the blanket. It was starting to warm up now that the sun was off the horizon. “I’ll get this when we come back.” We left our coffee cups with the blanket. I felt her hand slide into mine as we started on the small boardwalk that lined the property. It only wrapped part way around the lake before it turned into a state park area that was all natural. The sun glistened on Natalia’s hair. I pulled my phone from my back pocket. “I have to get a picture of this.” I held the camera toward her and she smiled. The lake was bright blue behind her. “You look sexy as hell right now.” I looked at the picture I had taken. She’d never looked more gorgeous than she did like this. “What about one of us together?” she suggested. “We’ve never taken one. Is it okay, you think? “Of course.” I didn’t have any pictures of us together. I held my phone out and took a few snaps. She kissed me on the cheek in one and we were laughing in another. She pointed at my phone. “Guard those with your life,” she instructed. “Worried I’m going to post them somewhere?” I teased. “No. I trust you. But really, don’t email them to your parents.” Her arched eyebrows rose in perfect symmetry. “Yeah, I’m not bringing them into this yet. My mom would want to take you shopping and show you my baby book along with every damn football trophy I have. Besides, they’re in east Texas at a very safe distance.” “I like shopping and I like baby books.” She laughed. “Come on.” I tugged on her hand. “We have to get going.” Her lips pinched together in a pouty frown. “We do?” “I’m afraid so, baby.” I pulled her to my chest. I felt her curves align against my body. I leaned to brush my lips against her mouth. Her delicate fingers circled my neck, drawing me closer. “Let’s stay,” she whispered. “God, you’re killing me. I want to. You’re a fucking temptress. You know that?” She moaned, nipping at my lips. If we weren’t outside in the bright sunlight, I’d show her exactly how tempted she made me. But there were boaters on the lake and the owners were somewhere on the property. “Your temptress,” she purred. I closed my eyes. “Let’s get out of here, or this entire lake is going to see what we do best together.” She swallowed hard and blushed. “Sam, I don’t know whether to stop you or let you do it.” I laughed. “We still have the cabin for thirty minutes. Come on.” I would have rented the damn cabin for the entire week, but we both had work waiting for us. I’d take a beating in practice tomorrow and Natalia was preparing for a road game. We couldn’t shack up all week and pretend the rest of the world didn’t exist. I drove back to the city with the taste of her still on my lips.


I had every intention of asking her to move in with me again, but I wanted last night to be about her. I wanted to show her another side of me. A side a beautiful French ballerina would want. Romance and attentiveness. I wanted to listen to her talk, and hold her while she came. I wanted to give her a perfect night, so she’d want more. I slammed my hand on the wheel. It was perfect. All my moments with her were. I pulled into the parking garage and took the elevator to my floor. I locked the door behind me. There had to be a way to get her here. She didn’t need Austin or the Warriors. I’d hire the best trainer. She would have her position back as prima ballerina. I could guarantee it. I walked into the spare bedroom in my apartment. I didn’t know if I could transform it into the same type of studio she had, but there was nothing stopping me from moving. We could have a bigger place. Somewhere that was ours that she could deck out with whatever equipment dancers needed. I picked up my phone and called the agent for my building. “Hey, it’s Sam Hickson. I want to talk to you about moving.” The agent sounded startled. “Mr. Hickson, it’s so good to hear from you.” “Thanks. What’s open in the building?” “We have a studio on the first floor.” He sounded as if he was looking through his listings. “There is a four-bedroom for sale above you, but that’s a lot of space for a single guy.” “I’ll take it.” I was quick to respond. “But you haven’t seen it. We haven’t talked price.” “Doesn’t matter.” I knew what was in my bank account and I knew the going rate for units in this building. I could buy it and list this one. “Would you like to see it?” “How about now?” “Yes, of course. Now works for me. I’ll meet you there with the keys. The owners have already moved out, so it’s vacant. I hope that’s okay.” “Even better. I’ll walk upstairs.” I hung up and grabbed my keys. I hadn’t worried about finding a bigger place because I didn’t need room for anyone other than myself. An extra room made my apartment plenty big. I usually met the guys at their places or the bars, and I either worked out at the team facilities or in the gym downstairs. I climbed the stairs to the next floor. Phil was waiting for me. “I think you’re going to like this place.” He jingled the keys in his hand. “Great.” He opened the door and I stepped inside. It looked like my model, only everything was bigger. There were two bedrooms grouped together, one off of the living room and the master suite at the end of a long hallway. I pushed the door open. I could see it. I could see our lives here. I turned and almost smacked into Phil. “When I can put in the offer?” “Today, if you want. I’ll get started on the paperwork.” “Do it.” I looked at the hardwood floors. They needed to be refinished. The kitchen needed new tile. “How soon can I close? I want to get a remodeling crew up here immediately.” “Uh, I’d have to check with the sellers, but I see no reason we can’t do it quickly.” “I’ll pay cash, so you don’t have to worry about a bank holding us up. And I don’t need an inspection. I’ll take it as-is. I have a lot of plans for the space.” Phil looked stunned. “That’s excellent news. I’ll call the sellers immediately and get everything ready for you.”


“Great. Call me when it’s ready to sign.” I walked out of the apartment and jogged down the stairs to my own place. This was how I was going to do it. I’d build her a studio. I’d show her the life we could have together. I understood she wanted to make money and stand on her own. I respected that, but it was keeping us apart when we should be together. I didn’t want to pay her to be my girlfriend—I tried to explain to her it wasn’t like that. I’d pay the bills and the mortgage while she focused on ballet. It wasn’t a paid relationship. Sneaking around like this wasn’t going to work. If the Goddesses found out, they would fire her. I knew they had strange traditions, as did our dance team. The girls took some things more seriously than the players. And then it hit me. I scrolled through my phone and looked at the pictures we took together this morning on the lake before we left. It was shitty. But I knew exactly how to free Natalia so she could do what she really loved.


28

NATALIA

ROAD TRIPS WERE NOT MY FAVORITE THING. I THREW MY WARM UP OUTFITS IN A BAG ALONG WITH MY MAKEUP case. I also didn’t want to admit that flying out of state meant being far from Sam. It sounded silly, but I didn’t want to be farther away from him than I had to be. He promised me another trip to Canyon Lake when we both had a day off again. I hadn’t seen him in six days and I missed him. We talked every night, but it wasn’t the same. He texted throughout the day, but I wanted to kiss him. He sent me flowers in the middle of the week, and I wanted to jump in his arms to thank him. I hated to admit it, but maybe he was right. Maybe being in two different cities was too hard. I struggled with the decision, but I wanted to finish the season with the Goddesses. There was a part of me that knew I had taken someone else’s spot at try outs. There was a girl out there who dreamed of being a Goddess her entire life, and I made the cut and she didn’t. What did it say to her if I walked away? What did it say to the other girls on the team if I left before the playoffs? Part of being a dancer meant supporting the other dancers. It wasn’t only about me. I didn’t think I had made that clear to Sam. Ballet would be there when I was done with this commitment. I had to pray he would be too. I zipped up my bag and hauled it to the front door. We had several press events and a big part in the halftime show. There was more packing required than usual and the bag felt too heavy. Heather and Presley met me at the gates of the squad entrance. “Ready to fly?” “I’m all packed.” I held up my bags. I smiled brightly. “This is going to be amazing,” Heather helped me put my bag on the cart. “I love traveling.” I put my arm around her shoulder. “Is there anything about being a Goddess you don’t love?” I teased. “Not a thing,” she answered. “It’s the best job in the world.” Presley puckered her lips and applied a layer of lipgloss. “The best. Why would you want to do anything else? We dance. We travel. The men love us.” She laughed. I tried to keep a straight face. “That’s true.” She smacked her lips together. “We know you want to go back to the ballet. But could you least pretend you’re having some fun?” “You know what? I am having fun.” I giggled. “I appreciate what you all have done for me. I do.” I pulled them into a hug. “Whoa, what’s gotten into you, honey?” Heather asked.


“Nothing. I just wanted you to know how much I love being a Goddess. Being a part of the team.” Presley eyed Heather. “Is she drunk? Did I just hear her say that?” “I’m not drunk.” My eyebrows rose. “Ahh, there it is. That admonishing tone we love so much. Okay, it’s her.” Presley winked. “I don’t admonish,” I argued. They folded their arms and stared at me. “Maybe a little bit. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t do that. It’s a very bad ballet habit.” “You blame the ballet?” Heather wasn’t convinced. I actually felt a little hurt. I didn’t realize they thought of me that way. “Yes. No. I don’t know. Madame Collette was very opinionated. And she practically raised me, so maybe a little of the dance snobbery rubbed off on me. Okay?” They both smiled. “We’re just giving you a hard time, Natalia. We know it’s different being a Goddess. But we still love you.” I sighed. “Thank God. I was starting to think you weren’t going to let me travel this weekend.” “And mess up the halftime show? You’re crazy. Maybe she is drunk.” Presley still wasn’t convinced. We climbed onto the bus together. It was a quick ride to the airport and from there, we would fly to DC. For the first time I felt as if I had this all figured out. I sent Sam a quick text. Headed to the airport for DC. I’ll miss you. I waited until my phone buzzed. Don’t stay gone long. I started to giggle and covered my mouth. “Who are you texting over there?” Presley leaned over the seat. I turned my phone facedown. “Something funny I read.” Heather grinned. “I think you have a boyfriend and you aren’t telling us.” “No. No way.” I shook my head. “Something has you all giddy and mysterious. It’s been going on for weeks. I can tell.” “Nothing is going on.” My voice must have returned to ballerina status, because their eyes widened. “Sorry, I did it again, didn’t I?” They nodded. I had that nervous feeling in my stomach. The same one from the conversation when Heather admitted she knew about Sam and me. Although, this time, it wasn’t only about the money. I didn’t want to lose this. I was finally happy. Everything in my life was bliss. Sam. Dancing. I could wear my pointe shoes. It was perfect. “Tell him you’ll be home Sunday night and we’ll take care of you,” Heather instructed. I smiled. “Not necessary, but thank you.” I settled into my seat as the bus driver closed the doors. In a few minutes, we’d be on the tarmac and in the air.


29

SAM

WE WON OUR GAME SUNDAY, BUT AFTER THE FIRST FEW SNAPS, I REALIZED WES WASN’T THROWING TO ME. HE was still pissed about last week. I tried to talk to him on the sideline, but he walked the other direction. I was going to have to prove myself again. Fuck. This was one time I wished I had the power to get Coach to call the plays. He wanted Wes to throw to me, but the quarterback called the shots once we stepped on the field. He didn’t trust me, and it showed. I sat in the locker room after the game and waited for the room to clear. Wes was dressed in his dark suit. He had to move over to the press room in a few minutes. “Hey, man. Can we talk?” I cornered him by the mirrors. “Yeah. I have a minute. I’m waiting on the golf cart.” “Look, I know I fucked up last week. But what happened out there today? I can catch the damn ball.” His hand landed on my shoulder. “You blocked today. That was your job. And you did a damn good job keeping the defenders off our asses. So thank you.” He paused, and his eyes hardened. “But if you ever drop another pass in the end zone again, I swear…” “Blakefield, they’re ready for you.” He looked at me. “Catch what I’m saying?” I glared at him. “Throw me the fucking ball next week.” I walked away from him. I had it today. I could feel it. Everything was together. I had closed on the new apartment. The construction started tomorrow. It was only a matter of a couple weeks before I could move Natalia in. If he had thrown the ball to me at all, I could have given him twenty yards. But no, the bastard passed it off to Persons or threw it to Stubbs. He used me as a wall. I picked up my bag. I remembered what Natalia had told me at the cabin. She didn’t let one mistake define her life. She was back in her shoes, preparing for auditions. I couldn’t let one dropped pass be the end of my relationship with the quarterback. I needed him and he needed me. I lugged my Wranglers bag over my shoulder and stepped into the tunnel outside the locker room. The Fillies were grouped together, talking about going out. “Hey, Sam.” One of them turned around and waved. “Hey, Vanessa.” They reminded me of Natalia. I wondered how her halftime show went today. I wondered if she was in the air flying home. “Want to go get a drink with us?” she asked. “I think I’ll pass. I’m pretty worn out, girls.”


She pouted. “You never come out with us anymore. Last year you were so much fun.” Last year I took advantage of every new opportunity. I had rookie fever—no doubt. But I had someone in my life and I wasn’t going to fuck it up. “Sorry.” I shrugged my shoulders and walked past them. “Maybe next time.” But there wouldn’t be a next time. I was done with the Fillies. I was done with other women. There was only one person meant for me.

I walked into my apartment and grabbed a beer from the fridge. We had the early game today, so there was still plenty of football to watch. I stretched out on the couch and turned on the TV. I looked down and saw Natalia’s name light up my screen. “Hey, baby.” I smiled. “Hey, we’re stuck.” I sat forward. “What do you mean stuck?” “Our jet is down for maintenance or something. That said it’s going to be tomorrow before we can fly out.” “The Warriors aren’t getting you out of there?” “No,” she answered. “We have to wait until a part comes in. I don’t know. They aren’t handing out many details.” “I’ll get a ticket for you. I can fly you in here and then drive you back to Austin in the morning. I’m off tomorrow.” “I can’t let you do that. I just wanted to let you know what was going on.” “You can let me do that. It’ll take five minutes for me to get you on a flight out of there. You can be here in three hours.” “Sam.” Her voice was firm. “What will everyone think if I fly out of here like that?” “They’ll think you have somewhere important to be. They don’t have to know that place happens to be my bed.” It made her laugh. “As much as I want to be in your bed tonight, I’m going to have to wait until all the Goddesses can fly out of here together.” “I don’t like it. I don’t want you on a jet with maintenance problems. This is ridiculous, Natalia. Let me get you out of there.” She was being stubborn and hard-headed. It was the French side coming out. Although, she said my stubbornness came from being Texan. “No. We’re going back to the hotel and I’ll call you when I find out more. Okay?” I took a swig of beer. It wasn’t okay. But she wasn’t playing along. “All right. But call me as soon as you find out. And if there’s something unsafe about that jet, you’re not getting on it. The Warriors are a bunch of cheap bastards. I don’t want them fixing the plane with duct tape.” “If I see any duct tape I promise to call immediately,” she answered sweetly, but I knew she was mocking me. “Should I fly up there?” “No. God, no,” she whispered. “And get me fired?” “All right, then take your safety more seriously.” She huffed. “I’ll call you later.” “Hey, wait.”


“What is it?” “I miss you.” She whispered, “I miss you too.” Then there was silence.


30

NATALIA

IT TOOK TWO DAYS FOR US TO MAKE IT BACK TO AUSTIN. THE MAINTENANCE STAFF HAD TO ORDER A PART THAT wasn’t easy to find and the Warriors refused to buy commercial tickets for us when they had to pay for the jet to be fixed. I sat in a hotel room two extra nights with Heather, missing my chance to meet Sam at Canyon Lake. I sat on one bed while Heather sat on the other, flipping through channels. “Do you think the Warriors would pay for us to watch Game of Love?” she asked. “They need to after leaving us to die in DC.” She hit the purchase button. “Done.” I laughed. “I’ve always wanted to watch this movie. It’s the one about the baseball player who falls for the reporter, right?” Heather eyed me. “You haven’t seen it?” “Umm, no, but I really want to.” The opening credits started. I had a new interest in sports romances, only I couldn’t tell my roommate about it. “Oh, we should order big desserts while we’re watching,” I suggested. I pulled out the room service menus. “I like how you think.” I picked up the phone to call the restaurant downstairs. I covered the receiver. “I’m getting a double brownie with ice cream. What do you want?” “Oh, I want that.” She smiled. “But we have to do double cardio tomorrow for the double brownie.” I glared at her. “You just took the fun out of it.” “Sorry.” She shrugged and threw herself on the pillows while I ordered our sinful dessert. I signed for the silver trays when the waiter brought our snack to the door. “Voila.” I presented one platter to Heather and placed mine on the end of my bed. Things were just starting to heat up in the movie. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pitcher. There was definitely something hot about athletes. Why hadn’t I noticed it before? “So,” Heather turned to me. “Who’s the guy?” “There is no guy. I told you and Pres that.” She scooped some ice cream on her fork with a bite of brownie. “Really? No guy? All the secret texts and phone calls? There’s no one?” I didn’t want to be interrogated and I didn’t want to miss the scene where the couple went on their


first date. He was taking her to the ballpark for a candlelit picnic. “It’s my mom. That’s all. She’s in Dallas and she worries when I travel. She’s one of those hover mothers, you know? A dance mom.” Heather laughed. “I think we all have dance moms. I guess that makes sense. Sorry. We thought it was a guy.” “No, but what about you?” I wasn’t paying attention and dropped a dollop of ice cream on my leg. She rolled her eyes. “I wish. I tried online dating, but that was full of creepy weirdos who found out I was a Warrior and then lied about what they did for a living. Presley set me up with one of her brother’s friends, but that was a disaster. I’m not going to date a player.” She sighed. “I don’t know. It seems impossible right now to find someone. Do you feel like that?” I chewed on my bottom lip. What I should tell her was that it was completely possible. When she least expected it, some guy would show up out of nowhere and turn her world upside down and make everything else seem less important. He would be there for her. He would surprise her and romance her. Yes, it was worth waiting for. It was worth all the lonely nights that came before his existence. “Oh, I know what you mean. Dating is the worst.” I felt my stomach turn. I hated lying to her. She had done so much for me. “Oh, here’s the best part.” She turned up the movie with the remote. We both sighed as the pitcher kissed the reporter on third base. It was sweet and sappy. But he was clearly an amazing kisser. The girl was swooning. “See, that’s what I want.” Heather whispered. “All of that.” I watched and realized that was exactly what I had.

By the time we flew back to Austin, Sam and I figured out there was no way to see each other any time soon. Our schedules were off the rest of the week and we both had away games the next weekend. I called him as soon as I walked through my apartment door. His voicemail picked up. “Hey, we made it back. I know you’re at practice, but I wanted to hear your voice, and maybe you want to hear mine. Call me.” I walked into my room, feeling the drudge of traveling clinging to my skin. I stripped down and stepped into the shower. The last three days were down the drain in seconds. Heather and I finally had our romcom marathon and I discovered that Presley was a lot more fun than I realized. She was an excellent shoe shopper and there were some great boutiques in DC she scouted for us. I came home with three new pairs of heels. Other than missing Sam like crazy, I had a great time. But I couldn’t believe that in a few days, I had to do it again. This time we were flying to San Francisco. I couldn’t think about that now. I stepped out of the shower and dried off. I didn’t have the energy for anything but crawling under my covers and going to sleep. I put the phone next to the bed in case Sam called.


31

SAM

“HOLD ON.” I CALLED TO WHOEVER WAS KNOCKING ON THE DOOR. IT WAS PROBABLY ONE OF THE GUYS FROM THE construction crew. They had been tearing the place down and rebuilding it almost from the studs up. It was going to be incredible. I whipped open the door to find out what had gone wrong this time, when I stared into a pair of brown eyes I never thought I’d see again. “Maddie?” “Hey, Sam.” I looked behind her. This wasn’t right. “What are you doing here? How’d you find me? Who in the hell let you in here?” “I’m here to see you. Pretty much everyone in San Antonio knows this is your building, and I walked in with a really lovely older couple and told them I was your girlfriend.” I was ready to slam the door in her face. “There is no reason for you to be here.” “I told you on the phone Todd and I broke up.” “So?” “So, I thought it might mean something to you.” She brushed past me and walked into the living room. She was wearing a short black skirt and a dark pink shirt that was tight enough I could see her nipples through the front. Damn, she wasn’t wearing a bra. I shrugged. “Sorry you wasted a trip here. But it doesn’t. I don’t give a shit what you and Todd do.” I held the door for her. “Go talk to him about your relationship problems. I haven’t talked to that fucker in three years.” “Come on, Sam. Isn’t there some little part of you that’s glad?” “Not really.” Why was she sitting on my couch? She tucked her hair behind her ears. I remembered how she used to do that in college when we were studying for a test or she was nervous about something. “What’s going on, Maddie?” I closed the door. She obviously wasn’t going to leave until she got what she came for. “I already told you I’m not giving you any money. Todd can fund your shopping habit. I’ve been out for a long time.” “I’m not here for money. I heard what you said on the phone. I’m embarrassed I even asked. I called you because I was desperate and scared. I shouldn’t have done that. It was a weak moment. I’m sorry.” I scratched the back of my head. “Okay, so we’ve got that figured out. Why are you here?”


She wrung her manicured hands together. “I think I made a mistake.” “Other than a drunken phone call?” “Stop being such a dick, Sam. Yes, I made a mistake about us.” “Now you think you made a mistake?” I couldn’t fucking believe this. She nodded. “Will you listen? Just listen to me. Please.” “No. You’re talking about something that happened years ago. I’m over it. I’m over you. I don’t care about Todd or your damn breakup. Go get a job. Make some money like normal people do and leave me the hell alone.” My voice boomed across the apartment. She started to tear up. “Oh, hell. Don’t cry about it. We haven’t been a thing in a long time. I can’t make you cry. You didn’t cry when you cheated on me.” I glared at her. She took a deep breath. “I’m not going to cry. It’s just that when I see you, I remember all the fun we had, and how much you made me laugh. And I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you. It was wrong. I was wrong.” I nodded. “Now you’ve got something right. So you can clear your little conscience and get the hell out of my apartment.” I didn’t like her being here. I didn’t like her acting as if this was even a possibility. “Nothing? You feel nothing?” she prodded. I pulled out my phone. “No. See?” I scrolled through to the picture of Natalia and me at the lake. “I have someone. Someone who doesn’t cheat. A woman who I’m fucking insane about.” I shoved the picture closer so she could see how serious I was. “This woman is my life. You are a bad memory.” She closed her eyes and the tears started to slide down her cheeks this time. “Shit. Hold on.” I dropped my phone on the table and walked to the bathroom to grab a tissue. I looked through a few drawers before I found one. Part of me wanted to throw her crying ass in the hall, but I didn’t. “Here.” I handed the tissue to her when I returned to the couch. “Thanks,” she sniffed, pressing it to the corners of her eyes. “You sound like you’ve found someone special then.” “Yes, I have. Natalia isn’t like you. She wouldn’t do what you did. I’m happy, Maddie. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. So drop this idea that you have. You can give up on whatever scheme you have to get back together and drain my bank account.” I started to relax. I didn’t have to be a complete asshole, even though this girl had shredded my heart at the start of the season. She had fucked my roommate all summer and the only reason I found out was I walked in on them. It was a day I didn’t like to remember. That was college. This was the pros. I was over Maddie. “I told you, that’s not why I came over.” She started to raise her voice and then stopped. She rose from the couch. “If what you’re really saying is that you’d rather be with this Natalia girl, than trying to pick up the pieces of what we had, then I don’t know what to say.” I stared at her in disbelief. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.” I walked back to the door. “I think you should say goodbye.” “For good?” Her eyes were misty. “Yes, for good. Forever. Don’t call. Don’t check on me. Go see Todd next time you’re feeling lonely and broke.” She huffed and I saw the anger boiling in her eyes. “Maybe you are just an asshole, Sam Hickson.” “Thanks for dropping by.” I practically shoved her into the hallway.


She glared at me and walked down the hall toward the elevator. I closed the door. What the fuck was that all about?

Two days later, I figured it out. I woke up when my phone started buzzing. I didn’t take calls this early, but I picked up the phone. “Hello?” “Turn on Sports Now,” Natalia instructed. I grinned. “Since when did you become such a morning sports fan? Is there a story about me?” “Turn it on,” she hissed. I picked up the remote. It was still on the channel from last night. I saw the picture and read the scroll across the bottom. “Fuck,” I muttered. I couldn’t believe it. There was a pit in my stomach. I felt panic and outrage. My hands balled into fists. “How could you do this? Why did you do this?” she cried into the phone. I shook my head, still foggy from sleep. “I didn’t.” But I was staring at a picture that was on my phone. One that Natalia and I had taken at Canyon Lake. “That was a special place. A special night. And you did this with it?” “I’m trying to tell you what happened with the picture. It wasn’t me.” She had never sounded this frantic before. “Don’t try to tell me someone else sold our picture. You’re the only one who had it.” I could hear the sobs. “I thought you respected my decision. I thought you cared about me. You realize I’ve been fired? I have to take in my Goddesses uniform today.” She was crying hard. “I have to give them back the boots. They won’t even let me keep them.” “God, Natalia. I know it looks like I could have done this, but I know who sold the picture. I would never do this to you. I would never hurt you like this.” “Then who? Who has our picture?” I exhaled. “My stupid bitch of an ex.” “What?” “She stopped by a few days ago and now I realize why. I played right into her hands. Damn it. There probably wasn’t a single ounce of truth to anything she said. I bet she and Todd are still together.” “Who is Todd? Your ex stopped by and you didn’t mention it?” I could hear the outrage in her voice. “Right, that sounds bad, but it’s not what you think either. God, this is fucked up.” “Isn’t it?” She paused. “I have to go. I have to get to the stadium to meet Heather and give her my uniform. They won’t even let me inside. We have to meet at the gate. Do you know how humiliating this is? Do you even know what this is doing to me?” I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t take away her embarrassment. I couldn’t retract the photo. God, I couldn’t even punish Maddie for screwing me over again. “I’m sorry, Natalia. Look, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” “No. Stay away. Stay in San Antonio with your ex or whoever. Just leave me alone, Sam. You’ve done enough.” She hung up and I sat up in bed. I stared at the TV. The announcers were still speculating on when Natalia and I had met and how long we had been seeing each other. Maddie must have sent the picture


to her phone when I was in search of tissues for her fake tears. With a first name and a picture, it only took two days to track down her position with the Warriors. I should have given her the money when she asked for it. Instead, she found a way to take it from me. I didn’t know which tabloid had paid her for it, but they could expect a huge lawsuit headed their way. Someone was going to pay for what this had cost Natalia. I knew Natalia was angry and hurt. She thought I betrayed her, maybe in more than one way. I had to prove to her that I wasn’t that kind of man. I had questioned it myself. I had the pictures. I knew with one social media post our relationship would blow up the headlines. A Wrangler and a Warrior. What would be more taboo than that? We’d get all kinds of attention. I knew she’d be fired and that would leave her free to finally move in with me. Yeah, I was the kind of asshole who thought about doing it. I had thought about it more than once. But fuck, Natalia made me want to be a better man than that. I didn’t want to trick her into living with me. I didn’t want to force her into my life. I could have been the one to do what Maddie did, and I was ashamed of that thought more than anything. I rolled out of bed to get dressed. I had ninety minutes to get to Austin. My phone rang. I looked at the number. It was Keith Stone, the Wranglers’ head of publicity. It was never good when Keith called. “Hey, man,” I tried to sound casual as if nothing catastrophic was happening. “Sam, we need to talk about the Sports Now story.” I started getting dressed while I talked to him, grabbing a clean pair of jeans from my dresser. “What do you want to know, Keith?” “Is the picture real? Is the girl a Warrior Goddess? What the hell is going on?” I sat on the edge of my bed to put on my socks. “Yes, yes, and I don’t know.” “Not what I wanted to hear. You know management is on me to find out what’s going on.” “I know. I know. It shouldn’t be a problem, right? I’ve been seeing her a few months. We met when the team was in Austin for the season opener. Yes, she was a Warrior, but they fired her this morning. I’ve got to get to Austin, Keith, so we can talk while I drive or I’ll call you tomorrow.” “No, I just needed the facts.” “Is there a problem?” I ran my hands through my hair, holding my breath. “Nothing a good story from my office can’t handle. Send me a picture of you two when you get a chance. Not that one. Something different we can use exclusively.” Shit. Natalia wasn’t going to like that anymore than what had already happened. I needed to see her first. I needed to make sure we were okay. I had to fix us. “All right. Give me a few hours and I’ll send you something. Anything else?” “I’ll call you if there is. Just know fans are going to give you hell for a while, but it actually helps that the Warriors fired her. She’ll gain sympathy points. It might make it less brutal when you two are seen out together.” I hadn’t thought about that. The rabid rivalry had kept us apart, but now that we were public, it could be a complete nightmare for Natalia. What if the Wrangler fans didn’t embrace her? What if they turned their backs on me? I shook my head. It didn’t matter. She was worth it. And if I had to find another team that would accept both of us, I would. I’d do whatever it took to make her happy and make her feel safe. I’d even leave Texas. “Thanks, Keith. Thanks for taking care of this. And anything you can do to make Natalia look good, to get her Wrangler support, I’d appreciate it.” I realized instantly how valuable this man was. “I’ve got it. Don’t worry. The Wranglers are going to welcome her if that’s what you want. Let me


work my magic and don’t forget to send me a picture.” “Sure thing.” I hung up and raced to the parking garage. Seconds were ticking by and I needed to know that Natalia was okay.


32

NATALIA

I WIPED THE TEARS FROM MY EYES AND DABBED A TISSUE TO MY NOSE. I DIDN’T KNOW I HAD THIS MANY TEARS IN me. I was crying from the shock. From the humiliation. From the betrayal from the man in my life I had given myself to. And what did I have left? I had no job. I had no income coming in. And now I didn’t have a boyfriend. Today was terrible and horrible and I wanted to skip over it. I pulled up in front of the gate. Heather was waiting with her arms crossed. She walked over to my car. “Hi.” I smiled meekly. “I tried to tell you.” I nodded. “You did.” I handed her the uniform and the box that protected the gold boots. “But I guess he was more important?” She was mad. Her voice cracked. “It wasn’t that.” I wanted to explain. I wanted to tell her everything. But I wasn’t sure she would understand. Maybe she did want a love like the reporter girl found with the pitcher, but was Heather really the kind of girl who would give everything to have it? Would she lie to protect her relationship? Would she sneak out in the middle of the night? She said she wanted all the romance, but would she ever put the Warriors second? “Then what? What could make you risk this? You know there was no choice but to fire you once a picture like that went public.” “I know. I’m not mad at you or anyone with the Goddesses. It’s my own fault for trusting him. I’m the only one to blame here. I’m not pretending it’s something else.” I saw the look of pity in Heather’s eyes. We weren’t going to be friends after this. I knew that. I had betrayed her just as Sam had betrayed me. I had lied to her repeatedly and broken my oath to the squad. I felt like an awful human being. “I thought being a Goddess meant something to you. I saw it. You started to love it. You started having fun. You were becoming one of us. A sister we could count on.” I wiped a tear with the back of my hand. “I do love it. I did.” I nodded. “I hope he was worth it.” She swung my uniform over her shoulder. “Heather, wait.” She twirled to face me. “Yes?” “Thank you. Thank you for being so nice to me. I wasn’t the best Goddess and I gave you a hard time. It’s just as important as ballet. And what these girls do is hard work. I’m going to miss it.


Especially the gold boots.” She grinned. “I knew you were coming around. Sad about the boots. Sometimes love wins instead, I guess.” I felt the pit in my stomach widen. There was no win for love this time. “Right.” I got back in my car and started the ignition. There wasn’t anything left to say. She would pass my uniform on to one of the alternates. Someone else would go to practice and fly to San Francisco tomorrow. It wasn’t going to be me.

I didn’t expect to see Sam’s car when I pulled up to my building. I stormed out from behind the wheel, the rage fueling my steps. “What are you doing here? I told you not to come.” He grabbed me by the wrist. “I want you to come with me.” I tried to wiggle free, but his grip was strong. “No. I don’t want to see you. Or talk to you. Least of all get in your car.” He had led me to where he was parked. “Get in.” He opened the door. I sat inside, pissed that I had listened. He locked the doors as he peeled onto the street. “Where are we going?” I asked. “Home.”

I’d never been so mad at any man in my life. Sam drove like a speed racer. It didn’t take long to figure out he meant we were headed to San Antonio. I looked out the window and refused to speak to him. “If you won’t talk to me, maybe you can sit and listen.” “I’d rather not,” I replied. “Natalia, I did not leak the photo of us. I won’t say it didn’t cross my mind.” I glared at him. Was he being serious? “That’s right, I did think about it, but I wasn’t going to do that. I’m not a fucking weasel. I want you. But only if you want me too. This is a two-way street, baby.” I looked at the road. He was driving as if it we were on a one-lane highway, fast and furious. He continued. “I’ve never told you about Maddie. And maybe I should have. But there’s a reason I didn’t.” I waited for his explanation. “She crushed me. Obliterated all the feelings I had. I was in love with that girl in college. And she cheated on me with my roommate.” I bit my lower lip. I wanted to say something nice, but I remembered I was royally pissed. Sam kept talking. “It was at the beginning of my senior season. I had red-shirted so this was my fifth year. It was the most important one of my life. There were scouts looking at me. I had agents courting me. It was my chance to finally get a ticket into the pros. And out of nowhere, this girl who I thought was in my corner, was actually fucking my friend. Sorry.” He winced. “Anyway, it almost ruined everything. The first game I started dropping balls in the end zone. I was late to practice. I lost weight. It was a nightmare. But then one day I woke up and realized I wasn’t going to let her take my dream from me. She could break my heart, but she couldn’t ruin my entire future. And like that, everything snapped back into place.” “Wow,” I whispered. “That’s a terrible, yet inspiring story.” I hadn’t meant to say anything.


He looked at me. “Yes, it is. And I haven’t seen her in a few years. She called me when I was at your place in Austin.” “Wait, is that the call that had you all pissed off?” “Mmmhmm. She said Todd kicked her out and she needed money and there was nowhere else to turn, so she called me as an old friend.” “And you turned her down?” “Hell yes, I turned her down. I wasn’t going to give her anything. So when she showed up a couple days ago, it was suspicious. She had some lame story about wanting to get back together.” I bristled when he mentioned that part. “But I showed her the picture of you and told her how insanely crazy I am about you and how you’re my future.” “You said that?” He nodded. “I did. I wanted her to see how happy I was with you. How happy you make me. So I shoved the damn picture from the lake in her face. But then she started crying and I left my phone for a few seconds. I guess it was long enough for her to get the photo. Now I realize she was approached by one of the outlets to get the scoop on me. She did it for the money. She doesn’t care about who you are or that she cost you your job. She doesn’t care about what it did to me to see you hurt. She’s always been a tunnel-vision kind of person.” “And a complete bitch,” I added. He laughed. “And that.” “I didn’t want to leave the Goddesses, Sam. Not like this. I was really starting to like those gold boots.” “I know, baby. But I think I have something that’s going to cheer you up.” “What is it?” We had been on the road for over an hour and we were getting closer to the city. “You’ll have to wait and see.” I felt as if I could finally breathe. I believed him. I believed the entire story about the ex and the picture. The whole thing made sense. Sam didn’t have to drive to Austin to kidnap me. He did it because it mattered to him whether I believed him or not. “Do you forgive me, Natalia, for putting you in this situation? It is my fault the picture is out there.” I took his right hand in mine. “I do. I’m sorry I jumped to all of the conclusions I did. It seemed logical at the time, and now I realize I was a crazy person.” “Nah.” He shook his head. “Okay, no, I was completely justified and sane.” I smiled. I liked the feel of his hand against my palm. It was warm and strong, just like him. If people only knew what I knew about Sam Hickson.


33

SAM

I SHOULDN’T FEEL NERVOUS, BUT I FUCKING DID. I DROVE UNDER THE BUILDING AND PARKED IN MY USUAL SPOT. “We’re here.” I pulled the keys from the ignition and walked around to let Natalia out of the passenger side. “And here is where you live?” she guessed. “Come on.” I tugged her behind me and led her to the elevator. I punched in the button and we rode to the top floor. “You’re not going to tell me anything?” “Give me five seconds and you’ll see for yourself.” I shoved the key in the lock and opened the door for the new apartment. She walked over the threshold and turned to look at me. “What is this place?” I grinned. “It’s ours.” “What?” Her eyes darted back and forth. “Yep. I bought it for you. For us.” I pulled her hand. “This is our living room, the kitchen, the master suite is back there, but this is really what I want you to see.” I opened the door and waited for her reaction. “Oh my God.” “Do you like it?” “You built a studio for me?” “I did. I wanted you to be able to dance here. And look, there’s even a place for your turntable from Madame Collette built into the wall. I had them add speakers so we can tie the whole system together. And the chandeliers are like the one you have, I think, but you can change anything you don’t like.” “Sam, this is unbelievable.” She threw her arms around me, and I hoisted her from the floor. My lips landed on hers as I drew her close to my body. I wrapped my arms around the curve of her waist. “I’m glad you like it.” “You were sure of yourself, weren’t you?” She smiled. “I was not going to use the picture.” I eyed her. “But, yes, I know you belong with me. Here.” She stepped out of my arms and walked to the barre, pressing on it. She lifted her heel on one edge and leaned over so her body was folded in half. “You know that this is a turn on for me, right? Watching you dance? Watching your body move like


that?” She smiled at me wickedly. “That’s good to know.” She switched legs and stretched across her ankle, letting her fingers flow to her foot. “I’m serious. I see you in the mirror and I think about the night in your apartment.” I walked behind her. “I think about it too,” she whispered. I kissed her neck. She tasted sweet and wild. God I wanted her. I wanted to christen this room and the entire apartment. But it wasn’t ready. There was dust everywhere and wires sticking out of the walls. I didn’t know when one of the workers might walk back in from a break. “Can I take you to our temporary home?” I suggested. She looked around. “There’s more?” I waggled my eyebrows. “Yes. I live downstairs.” I threaded my fingers through hers and maneuvered her through the debris in the apartment. We headed down the flight of stairs and I opened the door. No sooner had we walked through the door, than her lips were on mine and our clothes were flying to the floor. “I missed you,” she whispered. It seemed like more than two weeks had passed since we had been at Canyon Lake. “God, I missed you.” I devoured her lips, not taking my time to be gentle or easy. I wanted her to know what she did to me. Her fingers trailed over my chest and unsnapped the button on my jeans. “I missed this,” she purred. Fuck. My cock was hard. Two weeks away from her and this wouldn’t last long. I grabbed her by the back of the head, but she was already sinking to her knees, struggling to get the denim off my legs. I had her gasp when my cock bounced freely. Her hand clasped around it and tugged gently before her tongue lashed over the head. “Fuck, yeah.” I jerked forward, smiling at her. I moved backward toward the couch and sat. She positioned herself between my knees and I watched as her lush lips inhaled my dick with swift sucking movements. I reached for her tits, and squeezed her nipples. I could feel the tight spasm in my spine as I was about to come. I pushed her away. I wanted to come inside her. She looked up. “Everything okay?” “No,” I growled. “Get up here. Lie on your stomach.” She crawled over me and did as I asked. I palmed the smoothness of her ass with one hand as the other found the wet heated entrance. She bounced up as I slid my fingers inside her. I smiled when I felt her clench around me. I pumped in and out of her watching her ass move with the rhythm. I lowered my lips to her bottom and kissed her. “Ohh, Sam.” “That’s it?” I teased. I added another finger and she whimpered. She was so fucking tight and wet. My thumb traveled lower to her nub and playfully slid it back and forth while she fucked my fingers more wildly than before. “J’ai envie de toi,” she moaned.


I spread her legs and my tongue slipped between her slit. Fuck, she tasted sweet. I nipped at her bottom. “Say more than that,” I demanded. “Tell me what you want.” She clung to my fingers, panting and shaking. “Baise-moi, please. Baise-moi.” I loved hearing the dirty words on her lips. I nestled my cock at her opening, letting her get adjusted to me again. She was slick, and within seconds, I’d be buried so deep inside her, she wouldn’t care. But I wanted to remember this feeling. What it was like with the head of my cock on the precipice of taking what was mine. With her body writhing under mine, wanting me, needing me to soothe her ache. I began to push inside her, when my head reeled back. I lowered myself to her back, so she could tilt her hips upward. I slid so deep in her we both groaned at the intensity. I grabbed her hands and kissed her neck as I pumped in and out. Each thrust stronger than the last. And then we both began to jolt and shiver with the same momentum. “Come with me, Natalia. Come all over me.” “God, yes,” She whimpered. “Oui. Oui!” I felt the orgasm spiral through her as mine finally released me. I buried myself in her, claiming her, making her mine again. “You’re mine,” I growled, hilting myself inside her. “I am,” she whispered. “Don’t ever stop fucking me like this.” “Don’t ever stop talking dirty.” I laughed. I collapsed against her back, trying not to crush her with my weight. She kissed my fingers. “I know today has been full of surprises.” I rolled to my side and rotated her so I could see her beautiful face. “But I have one more.” “You do?” She traced the side of my jaw. “I’m in love with you.” It was the first time I had said the words and knew they were being said to the right person. She smiled, her hands sliding around my neck. “I’m so in love with you.” My lips crushed down on hers and I held her damp body against mine. I finally had her, and I wasn’t going to let go.


EPILOGUE

Natalia

Five months later “Miss Natalia Dupont.” I sat on the bench behind the stage with my eyes closed. I could hear my name called over a small microphone. “Natalia Dupont?” “Yes, yes. I’m here.” I darted from the bench and motioned to the stage hand to let them know I was making my way from behind the curtain. I was in a fog, but I was walking through it. I had to walk through it. I had to push the doubts and the fears to the side with vicious kicks and shoves, or else they would trap me and suffocate me into paralysis. And that wasn’t an option today. The three members of the ballet troupe auditions committee sat in the front row, each holding a clipboard. I hoped to see a familiar face—someone who would remember me from a year ago—but they were strangers. The man in the middle spoke. “It says here you are performing an original piece.” “Yes, that is correct.” I hoped my voice didn’t sound as shaky to them as it did in my head. I had been here before. Two years ago, I was a part of this exact audition. I had been selected from that performance and spent the year working to become prima ballerina. It almost seemed unfair that I had to start over, but I couldn’t focus on those things. Life wasn’t fair. I was stronger now. Stronger because I had to struggle. Stronger because I had to work through my injury. Stronger because I survived as a Goddess and made it on my own. Looking back, all of those things seemed so clear to me. “Are you ready to begin?” He pulled his glasses to the bridge of his nose and scribbled something on the paper. I wished he would make eye contact with me, but he was reading my bio. “I am. Thank you.” I pranced to the center of the stage and smiled when the lights dimmed. The fear evaporated as I raised my hands toward the ceiling and held my pose, waiting for the music to begin. I heard the slight crackle of the record before the piano and violin started. This was home. This was where I belonged. The music flared to a crescendo and I took off across the stage.


It didn’t matter that it was March in Texas, the sun hit me in the face when I opened the back door to the theater. I dug through my bag for my sunglasses and walked across the parking lot. Sam stood with his feet planted solidly on the asphalt and his arms folded, making his biceps flex to epic proportions. “You’re killing me, here. Your face is blank.” He slid the aviator shades from his face. “What happened? How did it go?” He held my shoulders. “Natalia, say something.” I wasn’t sure who was more nervous going into the audition today, Sam or me. He had driven to Austin with me and we stayed in the same hotel where we had our first night together. He thought it might help with the jitters, and he was right. I looked up at him. His head blocked out most of the sun. “Well? Did they tell you? Are you in?” His voice was urgent. I bit my bottom lip before I cracked a smile. “Yes.” I jumped into his arms. “They loved the dance. I’m officially a professional ballerina again.” He held me close to his chest. “You had me freaking out, out here. You know that?” I giggled. I didn’t want him to put me down. “I love that you’re so nervous.” “I didn’t love it.” His brow pinched together in annoyance. “But I love that you made it. I’m so proud of you.” His lips were tender at first, but soon were kissing me hungrily. I sighed. “Not in the theater parking lot,” I warned. He laughed. “God, please don’t tell me the ballet has rules about you dating a Wrangler.” “It’s not so much that, but as the prima ballerina I need to keep a certain image.” “Holy shit! Natalia!” He spun me around. “Why didn’t you say that part first?” I shrugged. “I like keeping you on your toes.” He carried me to the passenger side of the car. “In you go.” He dropped me in the seat and closed the door. I waited for him to slide in behind the wheel. He shook his head. “I can’t believe it. We have to celebrate. Here, or do you want to head home?” I was too giddy to latch on to either idea. “You decide.” He pulled out of the parking lot. “I think I know the perfect spot.” He started driving west and I guessed we were headed back to our apartment. Since moving in together five months ago, Sam and I had been through our share of challenges. There’s nothing easy about moving in with someone, no matter how much you love them. We both discovered that the hard way. I was used to quiet, while Sam seemed to revel in the noise of football games and rock music. He wasn’t wrong about being an amazing cook, but he never mentioned that he didn’t clean the kitchen after he prepared a delicious meal. I don’t think I ever told him about my extensive fingernail polish collection that took up two drawers in the bathroom. But we figured it out. We learned how to move around each other, and to move together when it was right. I loved what we had. I loved the studio he built for me. I loved sharing a home with him, a bed, a life. I looked up from my phone. “Wait, a minute. Is this?” I recognized the turn off road he had taken. “What do you think it is?” I chewed my bottom lip. “What if they don’t have a cabin? What if it’s booked?” He looked at me over his sunglasses. “Darlin’, it’s March. I don’t think anyone is tubing down the


Guadalupe right now. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of everything.” The gravel crunched under the tires as he parked under the same scrubby oak tree. I looked over at Cottage 11. “Wait? Did you already plan something?” I was suspicious. He had driven past the reservation office. He shrugged. “Let’s see.” I closed the door behind me and looked out over the lake. It was a gorgeous spring day, but the sun was setting on the edge of the lake and the hues of deep orange and pink were stunning. “Look at this, Sam.” He circled the car and took my hand. “It didn’t look like that last time we were here, did it?” “No. I left in the morning. It seems even more amazing now.” “I’ll grab the bags from the back.” “Would you mind if I made a quick call out here?” He opened the trunk. “I’ll get these inside. Take your time.” I pulled out my phone. There was one person I needed to tell about what happened today. I scrolled through my contacts and tapped her number. I knew with the time difference I was calling late, but I hoped she would answer. “Hello?” I smiled when I heard her voice. “Madame Collette, it’s Natalia.” “Natalia, my dear. It’s so late. Is something wrong?” “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t wake you. I had news I wanted to share with you.” “Ma chérie, it’s good to hear your voice. It’s never too late.” I could picture her. Her hair pulled back in a dark bun. I never knew how old she was—she kept her age concealed with frequent trips to the hair salon and excellent skin care. She was like most French women—elegant and flawless. “You too. I’m sorry I haven’t called more often.” “Tell me. What is your news?” It was wonderful to share today with Sam. I wouldn’t trade his support for anything, but this woman had raised me in ballet. She had held my hand through shin splints and twisted ankles. She had taught me how to choreograph an entire routine. And when my parents told me they were divorcing, she was the one who let me cry on her shoulder. She was strict, and at times arrogant, but I loved her. “Madame Collette, I made prima ballerina today.” I leaned against the car and watched as a pair of geese flew close enough to let their wings skim the water’s surface. “Oui, oui, such wonderful news.” She was quiet. “I knew you would be back on stage.” “I didn’t.” I spoke quietly. “You are too talented of a ballerina, Natalia. And one day you can be like me. Teaching those to dance.” I grinned. I doubted I could be half the instructor she was. “I’d like to think so.” I tried to imagine what that life would be like. Would I retire from the ballet and open my own dance studio? Would Sam be there? Would we stay in San Antonio or leave if he were traded to another team? My head swam with all the possibilities. “Au revoir, my sweet. Thank you for the call.” “Au revoir. I’ll call more often. I promise.” I hung up and stuffed the phone into my pocket and turned to face the cottage. Sam was waiting for


me inside. I climbed the small steps. When I pushed open the door, my breath caught under my ribs. “Oh my God.” Everything was the same as our first night here. There were flowers and candles, and a crackling fire in the fireplace. It was the same except for the man down on one knee holding a diamond ring between his fingers. “Before I say anything or you say anything, I want you to know I planned this for you whether or not you made the troupe.” I nodded, speechless and shaky. I stumbled closer to him. I wanted to hear everything he had to say. I wasn’t about to interrupt this perfect moment. I lowered to the floor, taking his face between my hands. His gorgeous, chiseled face. The one that had me from night one. I looked into his gray eyes as the tears gathered at the corners of my lashes. “Don’t cry. I haven’t even started yet.” He cleared his throat. I laughed. “I’m sorry.” “Okay. This is what I want to say.” He kissed the center of my palm and held my hand against his cheek as if he needed my strength to get the words out. “It’s been an incredible year. We’ve had to face some of the hardest defeats in our careers. The Wranglers didn’t make it to the championship. You were fired from the Warriors. That entire media bullshit—that was all my fault.” “Hey, this isn’t sounding very positive.” He closed his eyes. “I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.” His eyes gazed into mine. “But despite all of the damn noise, we met. And it didn’t seem to matter that I had rules, or you had rules. We broke through all of them to be together.” I smiled. “We did.” “And when your training schedule picked up and mine slowed down, we figured it out.” I laughed. “Only because you used your bonus to buy an airplane to shuttle me back and forth to Austin. With an on-call pilot,” I added. “It worked, didn’t it?” His tone was serious. I nodded. “It did work.” It was probably the thing that kept us most grounded. With a quick twenty-minute commute, I didn’t feel as if we were ever far from each other. Once I was kicked off the Goddesses, I started traveling when the Wranglers traveled. Sam and I made sure we never spent more than three days apart. That was our new rule—and we’d never broken it. I realized he had done everything in his power to make me happy. He had built the studio the way I wanted. He had hired a physical therapist to complete my rehab. He had paired me with an astonishingly talented choreographer, despite all my protests. He did what he wanted to do, but it was all because he loved me. “You know that’s why I’m down on one knee right now. Because we work. We know how to make it work.” He held the ring closer to me. “I want our future to be together. Will you marry me, Natalia?” I took in the moment. The fire. The flickering candles. The flowers everywhere. And here we were at one of our most romantic spots, where we had spent an incredibly intimate night together. It was the night he let me soak in an enormous tub of overflowing bubbles. It was the night I had told him about my accident. It was the night I knew I was in love with him.


I sighed. “Today is the day I’ve waited for since I fell.” I focused on the depths of his eyes. “And the only reason it happened is because of you. You made me put on those pointe shoes when I’d been scared to for months. You wouldn’t let me stop rehab. You gave me the best choreographer in the business.” I giggled. “And you bought me a plane. “Because of you, I made prima ballerina today. I have my dream back.” I looked down at the ring. I had been too consumed by his words to really notice it until now. Holy shit, it was the size of Texas. “So is that a yes?” I threw my arms around his neck. “In every language. In every way it’s possible to say it. It’s a yes.” His lips covered mine and I groaned from the intensity of his kiss. It was always like this with Sam. He always made my body feel fire and air at the same time. He made me feel protected and loved. And we were going to be together for the rest of our lives. I sucked at the corners of his mouth, lingering over his firm lips. “Try it on,” he whispered. “Oh right.” My body was already moving with his and flush with anticipation. I had forgotten about the ring. I held my left hand forward as he slipped it over my ring finger. It sparkled in the candlelight. “It’s perfect.” I admired the stone on my hand. “It’s big enough, isn’t it?” he asked. “Sam, are you kidding? It’s bigger than big.” I could feel the weight of the platinum circle my finger. “Good. I want everyone to know you’re my wife. That you belong to me.” I crawled into his lap. “I do belong to you.” I pressed my forehead to his. “I’ll always belong to you.” His arms circled my waist and I pressed my lips to his. I’d never been this happy. I’d never felt such love and warmth. “And what about you?” I teased. “How big a ring do you want?” He looked at me. “I have to wear a ring? I’ve got this one.” He held up his right hand, showing off his national championship ring from last year. I nodded. “Oh yes. Not during the game, of course. Or practices. I understand that. But I want everyone to know you are this ballerina’s husband.” He tugged at the back of my hair, dragging his lips over my throat. My breath quickened. I loved how it felt when he held me in his arms. When he directed my movements. When he created the dance between us. I was ready to burst into flames thinking about his next step. How he would position my body. How it would feel when we were taking each other, owning each other, promising ourselves to each other with a new commitment between us. “If the ballerina wants me to wear a ring, I’ll wear it,” he growled behind my ear, kissing my skin roughly. I shivered. “Yes, I want you to wear a ring.” I bit my lower lips as he pushed the shirt off my shoulder. “Deal.” His hands skidded under my shirt, pushing my bra over my head with it. He grinned widely. “You know what I’m going to do now?” I licked my lips. I could only hope. “What?” “Fuck you with nothing but that diamond on.” I sighed as he picked me up from the floor and carried me to the bed. I watched silently as he peeled my pants over my legs, doing exactly what he promised. Was this happening? Was I engaged to


a man who I had given my body to so freely, my heart tumbling quickly after? Sam threw his shirt on the floor and I eyed him hungrily as he stepped out of his jeans. This man was going to be my husband. The father of my children. My life. We would decide everything together. Our lives would forever be entwined. I looked into his wickedly handsome eyes as he crawled on top of me. “We’re getting married,” I whispered. “We are.” He lowered his tongue to my breast and flicked the tip over my nipple. I arched toward him. “You’re going to be my wife.” “Ohh,” I moaned. I’d never realized what a sexy word wife was in English. He sucked it into his mouth and I felt the deep coiling in my belly start to tighten. My hips began to move. He kissed me, as he settled between my legs. I was soaking with want and need. With a thirst I’d never had for him before. I wanted my fiancé to melt into my skin. Get lost with me in our desire. Climb and crawl against each other until we couldn’t breathe anymore. I wanted the friction of his skin, and the smell of his sweat to cover me. I wanted all of his cock inside of me, making me his, owning me in a new way. With Sam, my body was free and beautiful. We fed each other’s need for raw and primal energy. We matched each other’s steps. Pushed each other’s stamina. Took what we wanted, and gave each other everything. He hovered over me as I dug my heels against the firmness of his ass. He was torturing me with his cock, gliding it back and forth against my clit. I whimpered for his release. “You know I want you, Sam.” I panted. “And I’ve never wanted you this much,” he groaned. I tempted him with a gentle rocking motion, trying to draw him inside. He kissed me. “Does it drive you crazy if I do this?” He barely pushed into me. “Oh, God, oui.” I tried even harder this time, but he was stronger than I was. “Or this.” He eased at my entrance then jerked away. “I can’t.” My head rolled to the side. “I want you too much.” The ache inside was deep and hollow, tearing at me from all angles. I was blinded with a delirious and frantic craving. I could only hear the desperate beat of my heart. Feel the desire consume me from within. Time and space had left me and my body yearned for fullness. I wanted the satisfaction of Sam pushing inside me. I wanted the heat and the dirty words that would spring from our mouths. I needed him to move me and push me. Show me what my body could do for him. How I could make him whole again. “Tell me,” he demanded. His eyes flared with cockiness as he bit his lip. “Tell me how you want me to fuck you. Tell me to fuck you the rest of your life. Tell me to fuck you slow and deep.” My nipples hardened and tingled. My clit pulsed and my core quivered into a pool of lava. He had me where he wanted me. He had me wanting him. Needing him. He let the head of his cock slide through my slick folds once again until I was raging with animal thirst for him. I locked on his eyes. “All of it, Sam. Please. All of it. With this ring, fuck me with only this ring on, because I’m yours and only yours. And don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.” His mouth crushed over mine as he soared inside me a piercing thrust. “Oh, God,” I rocked toward the ceiling to meet him. The slower and deeper he moved, the more I felt as if we were lost together in an ocean. Our


bodies, drowning in each other, spinning and colliding through waves and peaks. Lulling to catch our breaths before the tide tumbled over us and we washed back out to sea. “Forever, Natalia,” he whispered in my ear. I could only nod in agreement as my fiancé plummeted me into an abyss of love and ecstasy. Pleasures that only existed between us. Sinful, dirty moves that we loved to perfect. He threw my ankles over his shoulders while he reached for a stack of pillows, wedging them under my bottom. He grinned. “So fucking deep,” he promised. He kissed my calf, licking and sucking on my skin while I pushed against the headboard with my palms. “Oh, Sam.” He always knew what the next step should be—how to send me into a rip current of erotic sensation. His thumb pressed lightly at first and then circled rhythmically over my swollen clit. I thrashed under his touch, clinging to his cock, whimpering his name, reveling in the pureness of what his body could do to mine. My eyes flew open as the orgasm crashed into me. He drove harder and faster, making sure we rode this one together. My ring banged against the headboard, but we kept going. Fighting the tide and the current. Holding on for life while our bodies were tossed in endless pleasure. With one final thrust, Sam plunged into me and I felt his release as his body tensed before he lowered his lips to mine and kissed the hell out of me. “Oh my God.” I breathed heavily. I traced the dragon on his arm. He kissed my collarbone. “You’re fucking incredible. How did I get so lucky?” “You?” I couldn’t catch my breath. We had outdone ourselves. He tucked me against his arm. “Is it okay if we sleep some before dinner?” he asked. “And I brought two bottles of champagne.” “Two?” He nodded over my head. “One for the audition and one for the engagement.” He sounded drowsy. “Naked nap, yes.” I closed my eyes in my fiancé’s arms and fell asleep to the sounds of the lake waves hitting the shore.


EPILOGUE II

Sam

I sat on the stoop of the cottage and held the fresh cup of coffee between my hands. I ran to the office to pick up one for Natalia while she slept. I didn’t want to wake her, so I waited here instead and watched the birds fly over the lake. The lake was peaceful in the morning. We needed this time together. Time before we announced our engagement. Time before Natalia began rehearsals with the troupe. And for me, time before I had to start spring training. It was only a few weeks away. I took another sip and thought about what was in front of us. I thought about my season and how far I’d come with the Wranglers. We may not have won back-to-back titles, but I had outperformed my rookie statistics. If it hadn’t been for Natalia though, I don’t know if it would have happened. Maddie had screwed me over. I was convinced that I’d never date another woman during football season because of her. That was until I met Natalia. She was patient with me when no one else would have put up with my shit. She shared herself so willingly, so easily, that I trusted her. It was the trust I needed to get over the fear that she’d leave. I was terrified she’d walk out like Maddie did. And it was the fear that got in my head—not the woman. It was the fear that distracted me. The fear that kept me off focus. I was a fucking idiot. I had trust issues and didn’t know it. I could have lost the best thing that happened to me because of it. I heard the door creak and I turned around. “Good morning.” She smiled. The sheet was draped around her shoulders. Fuck. She was still naked. “Can I join you?” I scooted to the side. “I got coffee for you.” I handed her the cup as she settled in next to me. “Thank you.” I watched as she inhaled the steam. “It’s so quiet this morning.” “The opposite of last night.” I winked. She whipped around. “Holy shit.” “What?” I followed her eyes. “Our windows were open?” “Yeah. I wanted to hear the lake. I might need to jog back to the office for a refill.”


“The entire time? The windows were open since we got here?” “So I aired out the place? It was stuffy. There’s not a single person here. And you’re the one sitting outside practically naked.” “No one except the little old couple in the office.” I laughed loudly. “Now you’re modest?” She smacked me on the chest. “Do you think they heard us?” “Have you tried to have a conversation with them? They both wear hearing aids. I think your double sex life is still safe.” I winked at her. “It’s not a double life.” She pursed her lips together. I kissed her on the cheek. She was cute when she was pissed at me. “So, how does the rock feel this morning?” She extended her hand and her frown was replaced with a beautiful smile. “Unreal.” “I’ve had that ring for two months, trying to decide when the right time to propose was.” “Two months?” She studied the rainbows bouncing around the porch. “I thought it might be at the Super Bowl.” I didn’t want to think about what a punch to the gut our season was. “But I knew that wasn’t the right time, even if we had made it.” “And how did you know yesterday was it? What if they had rejected me and I was a crying mess? Would you have still done it?” “That wasn’t going to happen. There was no way they weren’t going to offer you the position. I’ve seen how hard you’ve worked the past few months. You’ve thrown everything into ballet. You were meant for this, Natalia.” She pressed a sweet kiss to my mouth. “I think I was meant for something else too.” My eyebrows rose. “For you. I’m meant for you.” There was an instant pang between my ribs. I had done a lot of wrong things in my life. I’d made some shitty decisions and paid the price. But I didn’t know what I did to deserve this woman. This woman who could take me to my knees and then send me higher than a fucking kite. This woman who made dirty seem right, and love seem even better. I had gone down on one knee yesterday, praying like a little kid that she’d say yes. That she’d join me in this crazy life I had. That she’d put up with my bad habits and my insane schedule. That she’d overlook the microscope I lived under as a celebrity. That she’d embrace my culture and realize we’d never live in Paris. That more than anything she would accept how much I loved her and wanted to protect her. I’d never had instincts like this to cherish someone. It felt natural to want to keep her close. I wanted her to be safe and happy, and nothing was more important. She sighed over my shoulder. “How long do we get to stay this time?” she asked. “I might have checked with the troupe ahead of time.” “Oh?” I nodded. “Sure did. And you have about ten days before they need you in Austin. So what if we spend three or four days here?” “Are you serious?” “Sound good?” I already knew the answer before she said anything. Her face was elated. “It’s the best engagement present ever.” “It gives us some time before everyone finds out. Before the media circus begins.” I was dreading that part, but it came with the territory of being a professional athlete. “I thought maybe when everyone found out we were dating the fascination would have been over.”


I shook my head. “Have you seen you?” I eyed the dip at her breasts where the sheet was starting to come undone. “They will never want to stop taking pictures of you. I don’t think they care about me so much anymore.” She giggled. “Not true. I see how the girls look at you.” “Jealous?” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Maybe a little.” I grabbed the edge of the sheet to test how tightly she was holding. It fell off her shoulders. “Sam,” she warned me. I licked my lips. I wasn’t going to stop there. Natalia was mine. My fiancée. My love. My life. And soon she would be my wife. I had to make the most of this honeymoon preview. “If you don’t want that little couple to see what I do to make those sounds come from your gorgeous lips, you better get inside.” “You wouldn’t.” She looked incredulous. “Wouldn’t I?” I winked. She scampered up the stairs, gathering the sheet around her waist, and ran inside with laughter. I dropped my coffee and pounced after her. Natalia had taught me something the first night we met and it was a lesson I wouldn’t forget. No matter what—never let her get away.

Thank you for reading Sidelined! I’m so excited to share a full-length novel with you by my friend, TA Foster. It’s a little extra bonus. Keep reading… Also, I have a preview of my latest book, Turn Over, available now. Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter here so you don’t miss any new releases. NEWSLETTER

Turn Over Preview 1 Luke

Sometimes people are wrong. They’re wrong about what the score will be at the end of the game. They’re wrong about what route to run. They’re wrong about who they can trust. And fuck it, they’re wrong about people. Wrong about love. I used to be one of those people. Cynical. Egotistical. Selfish. But all it takes is one second. One split second of your life when you think you’ll lose everything. And suddenly it comes into focus. Faster than I take a snap. Faster than I read the defense. I can see all of it. I can see it being ripped away. In a split second all of it can be ruined. There could be a life where she doesn’t exist. Where the mistakes push her away. They are wrong about me. And the thing about me is I love to prove people wrong.


***

It was hot as shit on the practice field. The September sun beat down on everyone. It didn’t discriminate between million dollar players or the trainers who took home fifty thousand a year. It was brutal and unrelenting, reminding all of us what it meant to play football in Texas. Ownership promised we would have an indoor facility soon with air conditioning, but that didn’t do a damn bit of good when my linemen were cramping up on the field and I could barely see from the sting of sweat rolling in my eyes. I gripped the ball between my fingers, digging into the leather with my nails while the sideline crew ran out to squirt water in the players’ mouths. I didn’t see what good an ounce of water was going to do in this heat, but I waited anyway. Our rookie tight end, James, walked up to me. “What did you think of that last play?” “I think it sucked.” I held my helmet under my arm and squirted water on the back of my neck. I could see him huffing as hard as the rest of the team and he was twenty-two—the youngest guy out here. “I’ve been asking for pointers since July,” he started. I didn’t want to hear his excuses or anyone else’s. If you played for the American Football Association, you better have the balls to back it up. James was a top draft pick. He was new to the league, the process, and me. “You want advice? Get out there and catch the fucking ball when I throw it.” I slammed my helmet over my head, clamping it against my forehead. “Is there anything else you need to know?” He shook his head, running to the line of scrimmage. I didn’t take on projects, and I sure as hell didn’t take rookies under my wing. They had to learn just like the rest of us had. This game wasn’t built on kindness. It wasn’t built on friendship. It was built on that scoreboard. When the clocked ran down to zero the only thing that mattered was what number was next to the Warriors’ name. Make catches. Block punts. Tackle the runner. That was their job. If they needed me to tell them how to do that, they didn’t belong on my team. The Austin Warriors were one of the league’s original teams. You either hated or loved us. There wasn’t a lot of gray area with AFA fans. There were families in the stadium on Sundays who had handed their seats down for three generations. We were a legendary team. A team with deep roots. A team with history. Warrior football was everything to this town. And that made me the fucking general. The commander of this army. I yelled, scattering the conditioning team. “If you want to get the hell out of this heat, let’s finish this practice.” I could see I wasn’t the only one. The linemen weren’t tolerating the heat. Droplets of sweat beaded on their noses as they took their positions for the snap. We had two more plays to run. Only two. If I could make it through, I could soak in an ice tub for an hour and put this hellish practice behind me. I could forget the imprint the sun had burned on my forearms. Forget I practiced for the third day in a row hung over. There was too much bourbon last night. I could still taste it in my mouth. The way my tongue was thick. But that was part of the Luke Canton package. I did whatever the hell I wanted at night, but I performed on the field the next day.


I called out the next play, took the snap, and threw the ball long into the end zone. I nodded at James. He caught it square in the chest. It was a perfect spiral. No one wanted to be out here. It wasn’t glorious or glamorous. It fucking sucked running drills in a hundred-degree heat. Twenty minutes later I was in the practice facility locker room climbing into a tub of ice. The trainer added another bucket of cubes as I slid my feet to the bottom of the floor. “How’s that, Luke?” he asked. “Just keep dumping it in until I say quit.” The ice was melting against the blistering patches of skin I immersed under the surface. It was both painful and a relief. It was the shock I needed to erase the last fragments of my headache. I started to settle in, trying to adjust my huge frame to the confines of the tub. It was hard to fit all of me in this cramped space. My dark hair was stuck to my head. I scooped a handful of the ice water and dumped it on my scalp, and shook the water from my ears. “Canton!” I whipped my head around. “What?” “Coach wants to see you.” I glared at the tight end assistant coach. “Tell him I’m doing a cool down.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t care. Wants your ass in his office now.” “Damn it,” I muttered. I considered refusing to leave, but the assistant coach waited in the doorway. I pulled one icy leg and then the other out of the tub and dripped across the tile. I wrapped a towel around my waist, tucking the corner against my hipbone and pushed through the locker room door. I knocked on Coach Applewhite’s door and walked inside. His eyes pinched together. “Luke, you couldn’t put any clothes on?” I stared down at my body. There was a puddle of water at my feet. “I was in cool down, but was told you couldn’t wait. This is what I had on. I can come back,” I offered. To his right was Mr. McCade. I straightened my back. I had been too pissed at Coach to notice that the owner of the Warriors was in the office. It was no secret that Coach and I didn’t agree on much. We tried to stay out of each other’s way off the field as much as possible. It usually worked. Until now. “Since you’re here, why don’t you sit?” Coach nodded toward the couch. Mr. McCade was easily in his seventies, but none of us knew for sure. What we knew was he was a cheap bastard. He wanted the best team in the league, but wasn’t willing to pay for the facilities or the equipment we asked for. He wanted high dollar players, but negotiations could drag on for weeks. I didn’t have a lot to say to the man. He was my employer, but I wasn’t a fan. One sweep around Coach’s office and you could see what the McCades thought about funding the management offices. The place looked like it hadn’t been updated since 1985. A row of play manuals lined the bookcase above his desk. There were a few framed family pictures scatted on the top shelf along with a team photo from three years ago. They all needed dusting. “All right. What can I do for you, Coach? Mr. McCade?” “I’m going to skip over the inspirational coach’s speech and get to the point.” “Sounds good to me.” I stared at both of them with eyes just as cold as theirs. Applewhite sighed. “We’ve got a problem on the team.” “Yeah, guys are passing out left and right because they’re out of shape, it’s one-hundred twenty degrees out there, and rookies don’t know their routes,” I snarled. “What’s the status on the new


indoor practice field?” “Luke, we’re not here to talk about facility expansion. I’m not talking about the other guys. I’m talking about you.” I sat there in my towel, waiting to hear what league infraction I had collected this time. Because it wasn’t the first time they had drug me in here with threats about my behavior. I’d gotten the speech fifty times to stop drinking. To stop picking up women. To stop speeding. To stop using my celebrity status to get favors. The thing was I didn’t give a shit. I lived my life the way I wanted and as long as I gave them results every Sunday, they could fuck off. Mr. McCade cleared his throat before reaching into his suit pocket and retrieving a photograph. “Do you know this young lady?” He slid it across the coffee table. I picked it up. Pretty girl, but I’d never seen her before. “Nope.” I tossed it on the pile of sports magazines covering the flimsy white wood table. “That’s not what she claims. She accosted me this morning outside of my home. It was a surprise, especially to my wife.” If McCade wanted me to feel sorry for him, he didn’t know what it was like living with paparazzi. I couldn’t buy gas without reporters asking for a statement. No sympathy here. “So?” “So,” Coach intervened. “She claims you got her pregnant.”

2 Alexa

“Keep still,” my stylist ordered for the third time. “I’m trying to send out an update,” I explained. It was hard to concentrate on hair, makeup, and social media obligations at the same time when I was in a contorted position. “Don’t you have a PR person for that?” Helena twisted my hair above my ears. I grimaced. I wasn’t going to the hospital benefit looking like Princess Leia. “I do, but I try to upload my own pictures when I can. Fans can tell the difference. This is more authentic.” She clipped my blond locks into place. “I guess that’s why they call you America’s Sweetheart, because you’re just so darn sweet.” She pinched my cheek in a teasing gesture. “If I hear that one more time…” I rolled my eyes. “It’s true though. You can do no wrong. Fans love you. The press loves you. I love you.” She smiled at me in the mirror. “Well, that’s mutual.” I blew her a kiss. Helena had been with me from my first album cover. The label threw us together, but there was an instant click between us and I hired her on the spot. She traveled with me on tour. She went to all of my press appearances. Some days I had her come to my house before I went out if I knew the paparazzi was going to be snapping pictures of me, which was mostly a guarantee for anything I did. The sweetheart image wasn’t my idea. The label thought they could sell more music if I was everything that was missing from today’s country superstars. Alexa Wilde, or Lexi, as they started to call me, was born from a list of attributes on a piece of paper and crafted from a manager, tour


director, and producer. When I started I was okay with it. I would do virtually anything to have my songs played on the radio. And if that meant a squeaky clean good-girl image, then I was willing to sign off on that. It didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. The crazy thing was that it worked. The label had been right all the way down to the song selections. I sold more albums the first year than any other of its debut artists. But I was short-sighted. Now I had to watch everything I wore. Everything I said. Everyone I spoke to. It was a nightmare. I couldn’t sing the edgy songs. I couldn’t wear the tight short dresses. They had created the perfect formula and I couldn’t disturb the ingredients. I had to be a role model. It was like an ironic joke. Me? A role model? What girl would want the life I had before I was famous? If only they knew. But Alexa Wilde was a creation, and no one knew who I used to be. And people seemed okay with that. I wasn’t sure I was. I hadn’t forgotten where I came from or how my image was born. I wanted the memories erased. The pain. The humiliation. The struggle to rebuild my life. I wanted every trace of the past to disappear. But that wasn’t reality. It was there when I closed my eyes. It was lurking when I fell asleep. I tiptoed through life, scared one day the truth would come spilling out and this dream would be over. “Lexi, what if we do half up, half down?” Helena asked. I shrugged, typing away on my phone. “Sure. It’s for the hospital. So whatever is going to make Jake happy.” “Nothing makes Jake happy, so why even go there?” “True.” I looked at our reflections in the mirror. “Then do something that will completely piss him off.” I smiled. Helena laughed. “I don’t want to get fired, but I have something in mind.” I settled back in the chair while she went to work finishing my hair and makeup for the show tonight. Jake had set up this charity event for me. It wasn’t often I was in Austin. My Texas tours usually kept me in bigger venues like Dallas and Houston, but this was another opportunity to show how involved I was with children’s fundraising. It was the cornerstone of my platform, and Jake never missed an opportunity to exploit my brand’s generosity. If I wanted I could probably find another manager. It wasn’t as if I was that scrawny girl begging for nightclub gigs anymore. I didn’t have to beg for another thing the rest of my life. I was Alexa Wilde, America’s Country Sweetheart. America’s poster child for sweetness, virginity, and all things pure. I was the girl you wanted your son to date. I was the girl you wanted your daughter to grow up to be. I was the daughter you wish you had. After three years of managing me, Jake wasn’t going to let me out of his clutches. Our contract was ironclad. I had it examined when he wasn’t around. I had five more years with him. Until then, I had to make the most of the partnership and ride out my pure and virginal image that sold millions of records. “Speak of the devil.” Helena rolled her eyes as Jake let himself into my suite. We had rented out the entire top floor of the Austin Gold Hotel. It was impossible to keep my location secret, but at least we could keep things secure. “You’re not going down there like that.” He moved Helena out of the way to place his hands on my shoulders. “Where did you get this idea?” I could smell his expensive cologne. He was wearing his standard crisp white shirt and a smug


look on his face. Jake had sharp cheekbones and sandy blond hair. He almost looked like he could pass as my brother. His eyes were just as blue as mine. “I like it.” I tucked a flyaway piece of hair behind my ear. He shook his head. “No way. Too much eye makeup. Too much sex. Not happening.” He pointed at Helena. “Fix her before I take her down for the hotel meet and greet.” “Meet and greet?” I spun in the seat. “You said this was a benefit concert only. You know how exhausting these things are before I perform.” He opened a bottle of sparkling water from the fridge and poured it into a crystal glass. He twisted the cap off and took a sip. Jake was never shaken. Never off his game. My outburst did nothing to change his itinerary. It was a waste of my breath. I knew it before he even opened his lips. “Your job is to greet your fans. Those people pay to go to your concerts. They pay for your music. Some of them save up every dime of their week’s babysitting money to get your album. So if you have to spend an hour at a meet and greet, then that’s what you’re going to do.” His blue eyes pierced the air. “This is charity, Lex.” “Fine. Then I’m going like this.” I threw off Helena’s hands. “Don’t test me,” he warned. “It’s not a test,” I challenged. “It’s called style. My fans can’t expect the same innocent farm girl act forever. We both know I wasn’t raised on a farm. Styles change. I should change with them. Let me grow with my fan base.” He huffed. “Sweetheart, you don’t ever have to remind me where I found you.” He threw the water down the sink and straightened his jacket. My shoulders stiffened. It never failed. Jake would bring up how we met whenever he got the chance. He wanted me to know there was always a card he could play to tug me back in line when I started to step out of the circle he drew for me. Some days the circle was bigger than others. It depended on his mood. I could tell today it was barely enough for me to spin around. I didn’t know what had pissed him off. It we were still friends I would have asked. My chest tightened. I wasn’t the only one with a secret, but I didn’t know if I had it in me to shred him the way he could rip me apart. What would it take for me to hurt someone like that? Regardless of where our relationship was now, it didn’t start out this way. Seven years ago Jake had given me a chance when no one else would. The part of me that didn’t hate him was grateful for that. He was the first one willing to take a gamble on me. Somehow it created a toxic relationship where I always felt indebted, and yet resentful at the same time. Whatever it was we had, it wasn’t good for me. He turned to Helena. “You, get rid of the eyeliner and put her in something knee-length. I’ll be back to get you in an hour.” He pasted a fake smile on his face. “Be ready, babe.” “Jake…” I called after him, but he pulled out his cell phone and walked out of the room. I hated the way he mixed pet names that should mean something sweet with vicious threats. He could end me. With two words. Two little words and my career would be over. Everyone would know Lexi Wilde was a fraud. Jake controlled me and I had no way out. TURN OVER Available Now!


FLY


COPYRIGHT

Fly by T.A. Foster Copyright Š 2014 by T.A. Foster ISBN-13: 978-1500823016 ISBN-10: 1500823015 All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual events, or locales is purely coincidental. This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author. Cover Art by Perfect Pear Creative Covers.

All rights reserved.


To Shane


1

“BOLT, BOLT!” THERE WAS POUNDING ON THE DOOR. “MAN, WE’RE ALREADY LATE. PRE-FLIGHT’S IN THIRTY minutes. Get your ass out here.” Bolt rolled to his side, removing the arm draped across his chest. He grabbed his phone. “Shit,” he mumbled. He never set his alarm last night. He glanced at the brunette under the sheets. Her hair tumbled over the pillow. “Hey,” she smiled. “Um, hey.” He jumped from the bed. Damn, what was her name? “Bolt! Dude, the car’s downstairs. We’re leaving.” The pounding stopped. “Right behind you.” He called after them, trying to clear the fog from his head. The girl pulled the sheet with her as she sat up in bed. “I thought you said your name was Ben.” She tilted her head to the side. He shoved one leg, then the other in his flight suit before zipping it up to his chest. “Yeah, it is.” He grabbed his flight bag. “Call sign, Bolt.” “Oh.” Her eyes followed him as he rushed around the room, collecting his scattered clothes and shoving them into his bag. He threw his dog tags over his neck and fed them through the neck of his T-shirt. “So, you think I’ll see you again?” She crawled forward on the bed. He stopped for a second, taking in her curves. She was young, gorgeous, and incredible in bed. “Wouldn’t that be cool?” He walked toward her. “But I don’t know when I’ll be back in Miami. Last night was fun.” He smiled as he leaned toward her to kiss the pouty look off her face. Maybe he could get out of the room without using her name. He hadn’t bothered to commit it to memory, but he knew he wouldn’t forget those lips. He couldn’t help but want to steal another kiss. She arched back on her heels. “It was definitely fun.” She ran her tongue over his lower lip. “Bye, Ben. Call me when you’re in town again.” He headed toward the door. “Yeah, I’ll do that, Ash—” “It’s Audrey.” He heard the scowl in her voice. He winced. “Right, Audrey. See ya.” He pulled the door behind him and raced to the elevator. He didn’t wait to get her number. He knew he’d never see her again. He tapped the button for the lobby and leaned against the wall. Last night was a blur of neon, short skirts, and tequila. He and the guys had gone out in South Beach. Audrey was the usual casualty. He shook his head as the doors retracted.


He stepped into the lobby, just as his flight buddies walked out of the hotel. He ran after them. “Oh, there he is.” Eagle chuckled as he threw his bag in the back of the taxi. “Nice of you to join us.” “Dude, you barely made it. Was she worth it?” Hollywood punched him in the arm. “Shut up.” Bolt threw his bag on top of the others. “You know we don’t like being late, right? You’re such an asshole.” Ranger glared at the pilot. “Whatever, you went out too. It’s not our fault you’re the one who’s married.” Bolt knew he would be hearing about this for the rest of the trip. They still had two more days of flying ahead of them. Denver today then back to Miramar tomorrow. They climbed into the cab and directed the driver to take them to the airport. “So who’d you end up with?” Hollywood asked as he popped a piece of gum in his mouth. “The blonde or the brunette?” The other guys laughed. “None of your damn business.” Bolt’s heart was still racing. He hadn’t showered or even eaten breakfast. A cup of coffee would be nice. Eagle jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. “Must have been the blonde. That brunette was ridiculously hot, even for you Bolt.” He cracked a smile. “Then you would be wrong.” “What the hell man? Can’t we do one cross country where you don’t sleep with a girl in every city?” Ranger looked irritated although his shades were firmly planted on the bridge of his nose, concealing his eyes. “Negative.” Bolt leaned into the seat. It wasn’t his problem Ranger was married and stuck to his wedding vows like a choirboy. There were beautiful women all over the world—he was missing out on what Bolt had learned was one of the best perks of being an aviator. Women loved pilots.

“Wow, you fly fighter jets? Like in the movie?” The girls had gathered around Bolt, Ranger, Hollywood, and Eagle. The guys towered over the small group. Ranger was the shortest in the gang, and the heaviest of the four. Hollywood’s bright smile and blond hair helped him stand out in the crowd. Eagle was lean and tall with dark hair and small dark eyes. Bolt knew at twenty-seven he wasn’t bad looking. His close brown haircut and baby blue eyes had lured in more than one woman. It didn’t hurt that he had chiseled features and a workout routine that would kick most Marines’ asses. After last night’s club hopping in Miami they decided Denver was more of a sports bar town. They chose a spot called the Goal Post. “That’s right.” Hollywood winked at the one closest to him. She was perched on a barstool, soaking in his every word. She twirled her dark hair around her index finger. Bolt wondered how many drinks she had already had. “Like, that is the hottest thing I’ve ever heard.” She batted her eyes at Hollywood. The other girls seemed equally impressed. Wait until they heard why he was called Hollywood. It usually was the last piece of bait he tossed into the tank before reeling them in. It worked every time. Bolt surveyed tonight’s options. He wasn’t going to swoop in on the girl talking to Hollywood. There was a code there that wasn’t worth breaking. Ranger distanced himself from the female attention and sat at the end of the bar with his beer. Looked like he was checking the basketball scores on the screen.


“Is it dangerous?” she asked, her eyes wide. Hollywood leaned against the bar and looked directly into her brown eyes. “Yes, very.” Bolt laughed, shaking his head as the three girls gasped. College girls were too easy, but Hollywood was obviously enjoying it. “I don’t even know you, but I’m already worried about you,” she sighed. Hollywood put his arm around her shoulder. “Well, let me buy you a drink, we can get to know each other.” She perked up. “Ok. That would be good.” She turned to smile at her friends, then back to Hollywood. “I’m Joni.” He ushered her to a corner booth where the blare of the basketball game playing on the flat screens wasn’t as loud. Eagle addressed the remaining two. “So are you two at the University of Denver?” They were both cute. Maybe juniors or seniors. They looked old enough not to need fake IDs, but clearly they didn’t want to hang out at college bars. Their short dresses were a sure sign. Bolt assessed the situation. Eagle wasn’t much of a ladies’ man. God love him, he tried, but usually fell flat on his face. He stepped in front of his friend before things got worse. “Can we buy you girls a drink?” He looked from one to the other. They giggled and nodded. “Yes.” Eagle slapped his friend on the back. It wasn’t the first time Bolt had rescued him from certain failure. The girl with large doe eyes looked at Bolt. “Are you pilots too?” He smiled. “Maybe.” He held up two fingers toward the bartender, and turned his attention back to the female audience. He handed each of them a cold bottled beer before taking a sip. The friend clasped slender fingers tipped with pink polish around the label and shot Bolt a take-me-to-bed-now stare. He knew his problem tonight wouldn’t be deciding which girl would go to his room, but which girl Eagle had a shot with. He and Eagle had flown together for over a year. Since Bolt had joined the Rebels squadron straight off his Afghanistan tour, no one else had flown in his backseat. As long as he could help it, he didn’t want anyone else back there. He trusted him, knew he always had his back, and tonight he would do the same. “How long are you in Denver?” It was the doe eyed girl asking again. She had soft lips and light brown hair. She played with her long curls while absorbing Bolt’s every move. Eagle rotated toward her. “Only for the night. We have to fly back to San Diego tomorrow.” “Oh, well that’s too bad.” The girl with the fingernails snaked her hand around Bolt’s arm, giving it a squeeze. Bolt laughed. “I don’t see how it’s bad. It just means we have to make every second of tonight count.” In that moment he made the decision this one was probably too much for Eagle to handle. He held out a hand. “I’m Ben.” “Penny.” She bit her lower lip before slipping into a smile. Twenty minutes later he had her pressed against his hotel wall, her pink nails digging into his back, her dress hiked above her hips. “This. Is. Amazing!” she screamed. Her legs tightened against his waist. Sometimes it didn’t happen until the end, but he felt the numbness spread through his body and he smiled. He closed his eyes as he pushed deeper, forcing thoughts and warnings out of his head. He


wanted the numbness—he searched for it—he needed his body to take over and quiet his brain to white stillness. Penny clung to his shoulders, her head thrown back. “Don’t stop, don’t stop.” Raspy pleas escaped her lips. In a single motion, he gripped her by the ass and hauled her to the bed, where he positioned her on the edge of the mattress. It was as if she could read his mind. She wrapped her ankles around his torso, and he immediately began the rhythm again. He closed his eyes as the numbness took over.

“So, you think you’ll be back in Denver anytime soon? I’ve got spring break coming up.” Penny adjusted her bra strap and reached for her discarded dress. Grateful he had remembered to set the alarm on his phone last night, Bolt leaned over the sink and brushed his teeth. Sometimes the morning after was painfully awkward, and the girl would try to trap him into a return trip. Sometimes the girl was casual about it, and he knew she was interested in what he was—spending the night together in the most enjoyable way possible. No strings. No commitments. No phone numbers. No promises. All of a sudden, he thought Penny might not be the one-night-of-fun girl he thought she was. Though, in her defense, he didn’t spend anytime getting to know her. He left her friend with the big doe eyes with Eagle and raced her back to the hotel before either of them had finished one beer. Other than she was a screamer with wicked nails, he didn’t know a damn thing about her. “Wouldn’t that be cool?” He spit a mouthful of toothpaste in the sink. “We’re headed back to San Diego this afternoon, and I’m headed out of the country next month.” “Out of the country?” She shook her long curly hair out around her shoulders. He realized she looked even younger than she did in the bar. “Yep. I’m deploying for awhile.” He turned off the bathroom light and threw his shaving kit into his flight bag. “Well, maybe I could change my spring break plans to San Diego. I know Trish would understand.” She shoved her right foot into a boot that zipped to her knee. “I could see you off.” Bolt winced. Dammit, this was not good. “Look, why don’t you stay and order some room service on me? I’ve got to get to the jet and the guys are waiting on me for briefing, but you should at least enjoy breakfast.” He bent toward her for a kiss, but she turned her cheek away from his lips. “Room service? You’re paying me off for sex with breakfast?” Shit. He didn’t like it when they got mad. “No. No. I just wanted to do something nice for you, and I don’t have time to take you to breakfast. The guys are already waiting for me in the lobby.” He smiled, hoping she believed him. He never had time for breakfast. Penny relaxed on the bed. “Whew. Ok. For a second I thought this whole thing was a one-night stand, and I was getting ready to call you an asshole and every other name I could think of, but you don’t seem like a dick. I mean, you seem super sweet and so hot, but I’ve never done anything like that and—” He couldn’t let her keep talking. He had to exit now and fast. With his bag over his shoulder he backed toward the door. “Last night was fun, Penny. I’ll call you.” He pulled the door behind him and rushed to the elevator.


Ranger and Hollywood pulled beside Bolt and Eagle and parked their jet next to them. They opened their canopies almost in unison. “Smell that sweet California air.” Hollywood shouted from the seat behind Ranger. All four unhooked their gear and climbed out on the side ladders. The two jets had returned with no mechanical problems and nothing significant to report to command. Ranger, the lead pilot, despite his annoyance with the womanizing and bar hopping, was pleased with the mission. Ranger patted Bolt on the back. “Good flight home, dude.” “Yeah. Clear skies. Perfect day for flying.” Bolt inhaled a whiff of jet fuel on the Miramar tarmac. He retrieved his flight bag from the gear pod under the wing. It only took ninety minutes to make it back to San Diego. Almost record time for F/A-18 jets. Hollywood handed Ranger his gear. “I bet your wife’s waiting for you.” Ranger’s face lit up as he strained to see if anyone was standing in the hanger. “She always is.” Anyone who went on the road with Ranger knew Caroline, his wife, was always prepared for their arrival with cookies or brownies for all the guys. Sure, they gave him a hard time about his weight, but they never rejected the desserts she handed out. They admitted they would easily gain ten pounds too if they lived with someone who baked constantly. “Alright, guys. Who is up for a drink at the O-club?” Hollywood pulled his shades from his pocket. Bolt shook his head. “The O-club? We go there every Friday night. Let’s go downtown. We’re in San Diego.” “Oh, downtown? Since when is the O-club not good enough for you, Bolt?” Hollywood popped a piece of gum in his mouth. “It’s not that, man. I just want to go downtown. A different scene for Friday night. I’m tired of the nurses.” Eagle unclipped the buckles on his suit as they approached the hangar door. “You’re crazy. The nurses are awesome. Maybe you should just try one nurse instead of all of them.” Bolt didn’t want to argue about it. Eagle probably had good luck with the regular girls who partied at the base’s biggest gathering spot, but Bolt had dated half of them and he needed some place new. “You guys go to the O-club, hang out with the same girls and I’ll be downtown if you want to meet up later.” He watched as Ranger pushed ahead and jogged toward Caroline. She was standing with three extra plastic containers. Looked like brownies this time. Eagle and Hollywood exchanged glances. “Whatever, dude. We’ll catch up with you later.” “Later.” Bolt walked toward his truck. He had parked behind the hangar before they left four days ago on the cross-country trip. He checked his watch. It was early enough he could head to his condo, shower, and hit the bars.


2

“THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING. I WORKED ON THAT PROPOSAL FOR SIX MONTHS. SIX CRAZY, INTENSE, I-CANCELEDevery-plan-in-my-life months.” “Skye, it’s not personal. You know it’s business. You heard what they said. Upper management appreciated your ideas.” The raven haired brunette stormed across the office, throwing a black file across her desk. “Appreciated them so much they’re going to use them, but I don’t get the account. Greg gets the account with my ideas!” She slumped in her chair, kicking her five-inch heels to the side. “Well, that’s a crappy way to look at it. You know I’m upset for you, right?” Skye looked at her co-worker and friend. “Kari, only you would try to see the silver lining in this bullshit.” She sighed. “There were two slots on this account and there is no reason one of them shouldn’t be mine. I should be leading this campaign. I earned it. I deserve it.” “Ok, so what we need is a girls’ night.” Kari smiled. “You have a free weekend now, right? It’s time you unwind a little. Loosen up and have a good time. I think you’ve forgotten there’s more to life than work.” Skye glared at her. “Not helping.” “Right. Remember silver lining. We can go to the new bar in the Gaslamp district. It’s right around the corner from your place. It will be fun.” She pulled her phone from her purse. “I’m going to check in right now for reservations.” “No. Don’t, Kari. I’m the worst company right now.” She shuffled one of the graphics she had made of the zoo and sighed. All this beautiful work for nothing. Her friend held up the phone and tapped in a reservation time. “All done. Don’t you love these new apps?” Skye growled. “One drink. But I’m warning you. I’m not going to be any fun, no matter how awesome the bar is.” Kari had tried to drag her downtown for months. At least she would make her friend happy even if she was feeling miserable. “Got it. One drink. Meet me there at eight. I have a new dress I’m going to wear. What about you?” Kari peered over the monstrous desk that took up most of the space in Skye’s office. “Um, what’s wrong with this?” She glanced down at her black suit. It was her power suit. The one that was supposed to scream ‘I am a competent, intelligent, kick-ass advertising executive’. Today, it had failed miserably. “Nothing. I love that suit on you. But I thought you might want to go home and change.” Kari picked up her purse and waited by the door.


Skye shrugged her shoulders. “Nah. I might as well pull together all of the files for Greg now so I don’t have to do on Monday morning. I’ll just wipe this account out of my office before I meet you. I don’t want to be reminded Monday that I lost it.” She scrunched her nose. It still hadn’t sunk in what had happened this afternoon. She was positive she was going to run point on the San Diego tourism ad campaign. It had been her project for six months, and today it had been ripped from her hands. “I’m just glad you agreed to go. I’ll see you at eight.” Kari waved good-bye to her friend before turning for the elevators. “I’ll be there.” Skye returned to the task of organizing the files and figuring out how she could hand over all this hard work. Disappointment didn’t even begin to describe the void that had suddenly opened in her chest.

“What can I get you? Are you alone?” The waiter placed a cocktail napkin in front of Skye. Now that she had actually made it to the bar, she started to regret not changing out of her suit. Sure, it was chic but compared to the cute club clothes surrounding her it looked stuffy. Although, that was the problem, wasn’t it? She was stuffy. “Can I take a look at your wine list?” She smiled nervously. Kari should have beaten her here. It took longer to box up the tourism reports than she thought. She checked her phone again but there was nothing from her co-worker. She decided to give her ten more minutes before calling. The waiter returned with a leather-bound list. “Here you go.” He scornfully glanced at the empty seat across from her. She ignored what he was insinuating. She had not been stood up. “Thanks. I’ll take the California Moscato.” She pointed to one in the middle of the page. Fifteen dollars for one glass of wine seemed outrageous, but that was part of San Diego living. Skye had been in the city three years. After she graduated from college, she interned in Chicago for a year before landing her current job. She knew she was young, but she had spent three full years pouring her energy into this position. It didn’t take long to realize she wouldn’t move up the corporate ladder if she didn’t start knocking away at some of the rungs. Advertising was exciting, but cutthroat. Today was a prime example. The waiter placed the chilled glass in front of her. “Is your date a no show?” He smirked. “No—she’s my—” There was no point in explaining the situation. “No.” He walked away as she reached for her phone. Kari had officially surpassed the safe time to be late. Skye dialed her number. “Kari? Are you ok?” “Oh, Skye. I feel terrible.” There was a muffled sound. “What’s wrong?” “I think it was the sushi we ordered at lunch. I have a terrible stomach something. I’m so sorry— hold on—” Skye thought she might have heard retching. She cringed. “Don’t worry about me. Do you want me to bring you something?” She tried to think of what was good in these situations. Saltines and gingerale perhaps. “No. No. You should stay away. It’s not pretty. I’ll call you in the morning.” “Ok. But if you need anything—” “Got it. Bye.” Kari hung up. Skye looked at the phone in her hand. She had a full glass of wine and was sitting in the middle of


the bar alone. Great. Friday night couldn’t get any better. The void that started this afternoon in the conference room when she was sitting in front of all her peers spread through her chest. She wished she could stomp on it, punch it, or just kick it up Greg’s pompous ass. “I guess your date didn’t show after all.” The smug waiter was back. What was wrong with this server? Before Skye could think of a witty retort, a man slid into the seat across from her. “No, her date is here.” He smiled, flashing white teeth, flanked by edible lips. Flustered she looked at him. Where did this guy come from? “Uh—yep. He’s here.” The waiter, looking annoyed, moved on to the next table. “Thanks.” She looked across the table puzzled. “He’s been on me about that empty seat since I got here, but you didn’t have to do that.” “Sure I did. Can’t let a beautiful woman sit alone in a bar and get harassed by a waiter.” He smiled again, and she stopped herself from licking her lips. “Well, thanks again. You don’t have to stay. I appreciate it.” She sipped the wine, glad that she had ordered it. “Since I’m here, why don’t we share a round?” He raised his eyebrows. “Unless you really do have a date and I’ve crashed your evening.” There was something undeniably sexy about his confidence. It wasn’t just his face or his body. Today had been the worst, most horrible, shitty day in the history of her days in San Diego. So if suddenly a hot guy with blue eyes wanted to have a drink with her, she was going to do it. She needed some way to forget the hell she had been through. Skye threw out all of her rules. “Ok. What can I order for you?” She turned to look for the surly waiter. “Oh no, sweetheart I’ll get it. I can get this round.” “What? You have a problem with a woman buying you a drink?” She challenged. He raised his hands. “No. Buy away. I like it.” He cracked a smile. The waiter returned. “He’ll have a…” Skye offered, wondering what his drink of choice would be. “Bourbon and coke,” the fake date answered. “Alright.” The waiter disappeared. “You start with the hard stuff.” Skye studied him. He was wearing charcoal pants and a light blue shirt rolled up to his elbows. He was fit and tan, but the close haircut was throwing her off. She skimmed through a list of possible scenarios: attorney—no, real estate—no, probably in pharmaceutical sales—yes, that seemed likely. “Well, I just got back from a trip. And it is Friday night.” He winked at her and she felt the color rise in her cheeks. The realization hit her that she didn’t know when the last time she had been on a date was. Of course, this didn’t count as a date. This was some random guy who sat down with her at a bar—not a date. It probably wouldn’t last longer than it would take for her to finish this glass of wine. “So you travel for work?” The moscato tasted sweet. He laughed and leaned back in his chair. “You could say that.” She set a heated gaze on him. “Are you playing the mysterious card?” With her new embrace of reckless Skye, she liked not knowing much about him. It was thrilling just sitting and sharing a drink with a hot stranger. “Depends on how much you want to know.” He eyed the waiter as he dropped the bourbon and coke on the table. “Thanks, man.” He kicked the glass back. Maybe he was being reckless tonight too.


“Why don’t you make up something?” she suggested. He tilted his head. “Ahh, ok.” He paused. “How about this? I’m a doctor in town to work on a groundbreaking case. I’m about to save hundreds of lives, maybe thousands. But I’m only in town for the weekend.” “So, the health of the world rests in your hands?” “Uh-huh.” He finished the drink and rested it on the table. “I have to say I’ve never had drinks with a famous, important doctor.” She grinned over her glass. “What about you? What’s with the suit?” He nodded toward the lapel on her jacket. Skye pursed her lips. This was her chance. She could be anyone she wanted to be. She didn’t have to be an ad executive, working tireless days to compete for accounts. She could be someone hot and sexy, someone that could make any man putty in her hands just for the night. The idea popped in her head. “I’m a librarian in town for a literacy conference.” He coughed. “A librarian who wears a sexy black suit to the bar?” She blushed. Ok, maybe librarian wasn’t the best choice, but she had a vision of piling her dark hair in a bun and letting him pull the pencil holding it in place until it fell around her shoulders. She shook the image from her head. She didn’t even know this guy. “I get the feeling you’re enjoying this.” She looked at her empty glass. Stuffy Skye would pay for her wine, walk out of the bar, and never look back. She would head to her apartment and start strategizing on how she could get the account back from Greg. But tonight, with the sudden appearance of this stranger, she was Reckless Skye and she held up her hand to order another glass. This must be what sexy librarians do. “Can I get the next round?” He smiled. She relaxed in the seat. “Sure.” Two drinks later the room felt a little fuzzy, and her mysterious and spontaneous date for the night grew increasingly more appetizing. He had moved his chair next to hers after the last round. “What do you say we get out of here?” he whispered in her ear. He let his finger inch up her thigh. The words shot chills through her. She nodded knowing all night she had been pulled toward him like a magnet. The answer was going to be yes from the minute he sat down. She grabbed her purse while he paid the rest of the tab. It was pointless to argue about who should pay for drinks when she was getting ready to let him undress her. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and ushered her toward the door. Skye knew where this was headed, and it was exactly what she wanted. She wanted him to do things to her in the dark that would make her forget her name, her job, and her awful day. She wanted to scream and breathe and feel him against her. There was no doubt in her mind she wanted all of those things. For once she didn’t want to feel in control. She wanted him to drive the void right out of her. “Where?” She turned toward him on the sidewalk, the gas lights flickering over his shoulder. “What about your place?” he asked. She nodded again. If he wanted to take her behind the bar and throw her against the brick wall, she would probably be ok with that. Everything about this felt forbidden, dangerous, and wrong, but she couldn’t stop. She wanted him. “Well, since I’m in town for the conference I have the keys to my friend’s apartment. It’s only a few blocks away.” She liked carrying out the librarian charade a little longer. It felt liberating. He smiled, brushing the hair from her neck. Her knees almost gave way. Three glasses of wine with a flirty touch, and she was a goner. “Sounds perfect.”


She grabbed him by the hand and tugged for him to follow her. She didn’t want to lose her nerve. She needed to get laid in the worst way. The keys dropped to the floor as she tried to pull out the right one. “Dammit,” she cursed under her breath. Finally, she found the right one and jiggled the key in the lock before shoving the door open. For once, she was glad she spent all her time in the office. Her apartment was immaculate. Not a dish in the sink or a magazine left open. It was as if no one lived in the turn-key place. She blushed knowing this guy didn’t give a damn about her décor, as long as she didn’t have chintzy china on the walls and pictures of cats knitting he probably wasn’t going anywhere. She debated offering him something to drink, but he snaked his arms around her waist and his mouth was hot on her neck. He peeled the jacket from her arms, tossing it on the floor. She tried not to worry about the hundreds of wrinkles forming in the silk. Reckless girls didn’t worry about insignificant details. “I like the librarian look. Just wish you had some glasses.” He growled. “I’ve always had a librarian fantasy.” She gasped as he spun her against his chest. All night they had flirted and told funny stories about their fake identities just to get to this moment. The moment when they could dive into the attraction that had held them at the table for hours. She had gotten lost in his pale blue eyes at first glance. Now she was ready for her body to give in to the rest of him. She wanted to dive in head first more than anything. Her hands searched for the buttons on his shirt and flicked them to the side. The lights from the courtyard below glowed through the blinds, and Skye marveled at his arms and his chest. Dangling around his neck was a necklace with two tags. She felt them between her fingers and searched his eyes for answers. Tonight wasn’t supposed to be about answers she reminded herself. It was supposed to be about getting lost. She pulled the tags over his head and tossed them on the floor, letting her fingertips graze the space on the chest where they used to be. This guy was unreal, and suddenly she felt very self-conscious. But something in the look he cast her made her shake those insecurities. He wanted her. He wanted librarian, mysterious, reckless Skye. And that’s who he was going to get. She moaned as his mouth took hers, and she tasted the combination of bourbon and wine on his tongue. He held her face with one hand while the other pulled the camisole from her skirt and worked its way along her stomach, trailing the soft skin until he reached her bra. She reached behind her back to unclasp it for him. He pulled the cami over her head and with it the bra. She realized it was the only sexy thing she was wearing, but it didn’t matter anymore as it landed on the floor. Her head rocked back as he kissed along her throat and his tongue made a line straight to her breast. He rolled a nipple between his fingers before his mouth covered it with heat and lightning strikes of sensation. The place between her legs began to respond with a pulse that was driving her wild. “Damn, I want to take you right here.” He nodded toward the couch. “Do it.” She breathed. He yanked on the zipper to her skirt and it fell to the floor in a puddle. She stepped to the side, kicking it out of the way. She lay against the cushions, her body on fire with anticipation. This was a first. She had never had a one-night stand. She strictly adhered to dating for a solid month before sex. It was the golden rule she never broke, but right now that seemed like the most absurd rule ever


created. Why wasn’t she doing this all the time, she thought as he hooked his thumbs on the edge of her panties and stripped them off her skin, leaving her naked on the couch. Reckless felt good. Reckless felt empowering. She watched as he unbuckled his pants and chucked them on the floor. The only thing separating them now was a pair of black boxer briefs. She tugged on the waistband, ready for what was inside. He kissed her deep and hard. Instinctively she wrapped her arms and legs around him, willing him to press into her. “Hold on.” He shifted on top of her and reached for the floor. She heard him rustle through his pockets. She laid there, her legs locked against his waist, her chest heaving, the fire in her core burning for him. “Dammit,” he mumbled. “What’s wrong?” She didn’t want to unwind from him, but she released his waist as he sat back on his heels. “This is awkward.” He ran his fingers over the top of his hair. “Do you have any condoms?” Sudden panic and full-on embarrassment ran through her. Condoms? If she had them did that say she had sex all the time and therefore kept an ample supply in close proximity? Or if she didn’t, did it say she was a lonely spinster who never had sex because she was a total workaholic? Since she couldn’t bullshit her way out of her desperate spinster status, she sat back on the couch, her palms pressed against her forehead. “No. I don’t.” “Shit.” He breathed heavily. “Sorry, I thought I had one.” The shadows from the blinds, slashed across his face. “So, you usually keep them with you for medical emergency trips?” she asked. He chuckled. “Yeah, something like that.” He turned toward her. “I guess sex is out, but that doesn’t mean everything else is.” He grinned as he pulled her under him. “Wh—what are you doing?” She wiggled under him, not sure what was happening. Without a condom, she assumed her hormones would have to go back in check. It was a disappointing thought. “There are other ways we can make each other feel good.” He smiled as his head dipped toward her breasts, and his tongue began a slow delicious torture that had Skye writhing under him. “Oh,” she sighed. “Ok. Keep. Doing. That.” Everything that came from her mouth was breathy. His hand slipped between her legs and parted her so he was touching her where she hadn’t been touched in forever. She tried to bring her knees together, but it felt good the way he stroked and moved his fingers inside her until she was rocking her hips toward him faster. She didn’t care how it made her look or that she was going to ask for more. Being with a total stranger stripped away inhibitions that usually kept her on the safe and quiet side of her sensuality. She’d never see this guy again. “Don’t stop,” she begged. “Please.” “You like it?” he whispered in her neck. “More, give me more,” she pleaded. She gripped on to him with her life as she thrust against his hand. “I want it.” Was almost-sex with a stranger supposed to feel this incredible? She didn’t know, she just wanted to take it. He could kiss her, lick her, touch her anyway he wanted if it felt like this. She felt her core tighten and pulse as he moved against her. Why weren’t there any damn condoms? She held on as long as she could, but he was skilled and she was no match for his fingers. At first it was a slow wave that shook her until finally she was trembling and panting underneath him from massive waves of electric heat.


“Oh my God.” She covered her face with her hands. “I can’t believe I just did that.” He kissed her, his tongue working its way into her mouth. Just when she thought she had hit the highest level of embarrassment, he made her forget all about it with a kiss that made her drunker than the moscato wine. “That was the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.” He broke from the kiss. “Really?” she winced. “Absolutely. I can now scratch making a librarian come off my bucket list.” He winked, then kissed her shoulder. Skye slinked deeper into the couch. What had she just done? Making up a fake identity and having drinks with a total stranger was one thing. Bringing him back to her apartment, getting naked, and letting him give her the most explosive orgasm she’d had in a year was something entirely different. But damn, it was incredible. Her entire body felt relaxed and fulfilled in his arms. He was still hovering over her. Was he waiting for something? He bit his lower lip as he scooped her in his hands and flipped her onto his chest. “Whoa—what?” The room spun as she tried to catch her new bearings. It was a whole new perspective sitting on top of this incredibly hot stranger. Even in the dark, she could see his killer smile. “My turn.” He positioned her legs over his waist as his fingers dug into the soft flesh above her hipbones. His thumbs pressed down causing her hips to rock back and forth. She began to grind against him to relieve the pressure. “Oh my God.” Her head flew back and she cursed the condom situation again. “Like that.” He groaned. He grasped at her breasts and the rocking quickened. “Come for me again.” He clutched at her lower back and Skye heard the moans rising from her throat as his breath quickened. For not-sex, this was fucking amazing.


3

BOLT COULD SMELL THE COFFEE BEFORE HIS EYES WERE OPEN. HE SHOOK HIS HEAD AND SAT ON THE COUCH. “Good morning.” He grinned. It came back to him. Last night he had gone home with the librarian. Of course they both knew she probably had never stacked a book in her life. She was in the kitchen, her dark hair pulled in a ponytail. It had hung loosely on her shoulders at the bar. He wondered how long she had been awake. “Oh, hey.” She kept her head down and was busy with something over the sink. He stretched his arms toward the ceiling before dropping to the floor for pushups. It cleared his head. After a count of thirty he hopped up from the floor and walked toward the kitchen where she was furiously scrubbing a water glass. “Last night was fun.” He winked at her. “Uh—yeah, it was great.” “I think you missed a spot.” He pointed to the glass covered in bubbles. It was perfectly clean, but she seemed nervous. He noticed there wasn’t a crumb on the counter. It didn’t look like anyone lived in the place. She shot him a look. “You don’t have on any pants.” He saw the way her cheeks turned a deep crimson. “I think you took care of those last night.” He didn’t know why, but something about her made him want to test her. She was a bundle of contradictions that he wanted to unwind. Last night felt like only the beginning of what he could get her to do. He walked back toward the couch and dug into the cushions until he retrieved his boxer briefs. He slipped them on and reappeared in the kitchen. “This better?” “Uh—sure.” She reached near him for a coffee cup. He felt her elbow graze his shoulder. “Can I have a cup?” She nodded, then handed him a mug. This was unchartered territory. Bolt waited for her to pour a cup then he tipped the pot toward his cup. Usually, women clamored for his number or gushed about the night before. The silent treatment was a first. “Why don’t we go get some breakfast?” He placed the cup on the counter. “You like pancakes?” He eyed her legs. She was wearing a pair of boxer shorts and a cropped T-shirt. He knew last night when he spotted her at the bar she had an incredible body under that suit, but it was like unwrapping a present when he got her home. Each layer he took off surprised him by revealing


something more gorgeous and sexier than the last. He wasn’t ready to admit that last night was a first for him too. He had never spent the night with a woman and not had sex. True, it wasn’t platonic by any means, but it still wasn’t sex and that hadn’t happened since high school. “Breakfast?” she questioned. “Yes, you know the meal that people eat in the morning. Usually comes before lunch.” “I don’t know.” She hesitated. “I’ve got the literary conference thing.” She stared at the floor. That was all he needed to hear. “Ok. Well, enjoy your conference.” He walked to the living room to redress. His clothes were piled under the coffee table. He debated whether he should try again, but he had dated and slept with enough women to know when the game was over. This one had climbed back into her shell. She must be one of those buttoned-up proper types who goes crazy after a glass of chardonnay and wakes up with instant hangover remorse. He smiled, glad even if it was only for a few hours, he had pulled her out of her comfort zone. She was like wildfire under his touch and he had enjoyed every second of it. He walked toward the door. “Last night was fun.” He waved as he pulled on the handle. “Nice to meet you.” “Uh-huh. Yeah.” She barely smiled. Bolt closed the door behind him and walked toward the elevators. Nice to meet you? What kind of line was that? He shook his head. Three days in a row he had left a woman behind as he walked toward an elevator, but for the first time he left with something—regret. He hesitated in front of the elevator bay. Maybe he should go back and ask for her number. Maybe he should ask her real name. No. That wasn’t part of his plan. Fly straight, he reminded himself as the doors shut and he descended to the lobby.

“Dude, you haven’t hit a straight shot all morning.” Hollywood laughed as he placed his beer on the cooler and put his ball on the tee. “Whatever. Shut up.” Bolt stepped back and assessed his shot again. They had been at the driving range for an hour and there wasn’t any improvement in his swing. Hollywood watched as his ball landed near the two hundred yard marker. “See? Like that. Hit it like that.” He reached into the cooler for another beer. “You missed a good time at the O-club.” “Oh yeah? Nurses again?” Bolt accepted a cold bottle from his friend. “Nurses, you name it, the girls were there.” “How’d you do?” He and Hollywood shared the same philosophy when it came to women—have a good time, but don’t get attached. Hollywood shook his head. “Eh, I got a few numbers, but we leave in a month so I don’t know if it’s worth it. I don’t want to deal with the whole dating thing, then she’s going to get upset when she finds out I’m leaving for six months. It never goes over well.” “Nope. Never goes over well.” Bolt wiggled his hips into position and glared at the ball. He was going to hit this sucker three hundred yards. He pulled the club behind his back and swung forward. “WESTPAC is going to be epic. Korea, Thailand, Japan. We are going to be like rock stars over there. I’ve heard the strippers are unbelievable.” Hollywood chuckled. “Yeah, I’ve heard something like that. I’m just ready for the flying. It’s going to be unbelievable flying over there.” “Six months of nothing but beautiful women and perfect flying. I’d say we have a pretty good gig.” “I agree.” Bolt tossed another ball on the tee and grimaced as the shot curved to the far left of the


range. “Ha! Man, you suck.” “Shut up, Hollywood.” He threw the driver in his bag and reached for an iron. Maybe he just needed to change up his clubs. “You didn’t say anything about last night. How was the Gaslamp scene? Touristy?” Hollywood asked. Bolt tried to focus on the ball on the tee and not the scene of the nameless psuedo librarian under him that flashed in his head. He breathed through his teeth. “That good, huh?” Hollywood wasn’t going to let it go. “Yeah, kinda met someone.” “Met someone? What in the hell does that mean?” Hollywood hit another perfect shot. “Nothing. I didn’t get her number, so I won’t see her again.” Bolt still wondered if he should have at least asked. “Alright. Glad you had fun.” Hollywood returned to his club and ball. “Want to hang out tonight? I was thinking about going to PB. You up for a few beers?” “Sure. Sounds good.” Bolt threw the iron in his bag. He was always up for a few beers. “I think I’m calling it, man.” His friend laughed. “Yeah, you suck today. What, is that girl in your head?” “Nah.” Bolt picked up his clubs and slung them over his shoulder. “Just an off day. Hey, I’ll see you tonight. What time?” “Nine.” Hollywood lined up to take another shot. He didn’t look ready to leave. “See ya.”

Bolt stepped from the shower and grabbed the towel on the rack. He wiped the droplets of water from his face then his chest. He reached for his tags. They weren’t there. He dropped the towel and looked next to the hook where he always put them. Where were they? He searched his dresser, the bathroom counter, and his pockets. Dammit. He hadn’t picked them up this morning at the librarian’s. How could he have left them? Not all Marines wore their tags. It was a personal decision, but after losing Riggs he hadn’t gone a day without them. The guilt tore through him at the thought of abandoning them. It was one thing to take them off. It was something else to leave them behind. He glanced at the clock. If he left now he could still swing by her place in time to meet Hollywood by nine. He pulled on a pair of jeans, a gray T-shirt, and ran out the door. He prayed the librarian was at home on a Saturday night reading a book. Bolt lived in Fashion Valley in a one-bedroom condo. He liked it. There was a local bar within walking distance, and he could be on the beach or at work in fifteen minutes. Location is everything. He pulled onto the interstate and pointed his truck toward the Gaslamp district. The night crowd would be gathering, and he knew parking wouldn’t be easy. It had to be the most popular neighborhood in the seaside city. He slowed near the bar where he met the librarian and pulled behind it to park. Might as well take advantage of the lots where he could. Getting the tags back was worth the five dollars for parking. In a matter of minutes he was knocking on her door. He rapped his knuckles a few times. “Yep, hold on.” She swung open the door and he was met with the vision he had of her last night. Her hair was piled high on her head, loose strands flying to the side and she was wearing glasses. He didn’t know a woman could look so hot in a pair of specs. She was stunning. It didn’t hurt she had


deep blue eyes that sparkled when she smiled. “Hey.” He grinned. “Oh, wow. Hey. What are you doing here?” She looked confused. For a second he worried she might slam the door in his face. “I, uh—left something this morning. Just needed to grab it and then I’ll leave.” He motioned toward the living room. She seemed unsure of whether or not to let him in. Her hand had a death grip on the doorframe. “Can I come in? It’ll only take a second.” He didn’t want to go into the significance of the tags, but if it was the only way to get them back he would. She stepped back. “Sure. I’ll help you. What did you leave? I haven’t seen anything.” He immediately walked to the couch. It was covered in spreadsheets and graphs. “I guess you’re not working on the Dewey decimal system?” He chuckled as she rushed to stack the papers together. “No, it’s for work. Real work.” With the charts out of the way he shoved his hand between the cushions. Nothing. “What did you forget?” She studied him while he searched. “My tags.” He reached between the last cushions. “Tags?” She adjusted her glasses. “Oh, that necklace you had on?” He nodded. “Yes. That.” He watched as she walked to the back of the couch and crouched on all fours, disappearing behind the sofa. She hopped up with the tags clutched in her hand. “Here they are.” “Thanks.” He took two steps to the other side of the couch and reached for the silver chain. He had never been so happy to see them before. Before she handed them to Bolt she flipped the metal over in her hand. “Is your name Riggs? Are these military tags?” He stopped. “No. Riggs was my friend. The other one is mine.” “Hardcastle?” She raised her eyebrows. He opened his palm for her to drop them into his hand. “Yep. You caught me. I’m Ben Hardcastle.” He looped the tags over his head and threaded them under his T-shirt before extending his hand. Introductions seemed strange at this point. He had spent an entire night naked with this woman. She might have wanted to hold back on the smile, but he saw it form on the corners of her mouth. “I’m Skye Stephens.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “Skye? I like it. Fitting for a librarian.” He winked, liking the way it made her blush. “I think we both know I’m not a librarian.” She walked to the other side of the couch. “I work for an ad agency. That’s what all of this stuff is.” She pointed to the work stacked on the coffee table. “Working on Saturday night? That’s no fun.” She scoffed. “Fun? I don’t even know what that is anymore.” He was tempted to disagree with her. Last night she had been all kinds of fun. Bolt thought for a second. Hollywood would either kill him or grill him, but for some reason he couldn’t walk out with only his tags. “Come with me to PB. Let’s go get a beer.” Skye eyed him. “Beer?” “Please tell me you aren’t one of those girls who only drinks wine.” With her hair in that bun and those glasses, she looked like a strict coffee drinker. “I don’t even know what that means, but of course I can drink a beer.” She folded her arms across her chest.


“Ok, then drink one with me. Come on. Let’s go.” His head leaned toward the door. She looked at her yoga pants and tank top. “I can’t go out like this. Besides, I’m working.” Remnants of this morning were starting to surface, but he didn’t feel like retreating this time. He wanted her to go get a drink with him, not hide out in her shell. “You’ve got ten minutes.” He settled on the couch. “What are you doing?” Her hands flew to her hips. He picked up one of the charts. “I’m waiting for you to go change. Ten minutes.” She sighed, but he knew he had victory when she stormed to a room at the end of the hall and closed the door. He flipped over one of the reports. There were statistics, lines, and a graph about Balboa Park. He might as well be reading Russian. He studied the next page. There was a charcoal sketch of a face. He looked around the apartment to see if there was any other artwork like it. He appreciated the smooth lines. Skye must have drawn it. There were a few more like it in the stack. He placed them back in the pile, curious about her drawing hobby. He stood and scanned the apartment. Things always looked different with the lights on. Under her TV was a pile of books, their spines lined in a row. There was a picture as a bookend. He picked it up. Skye smiled from the frame with a group of girls. It looked like a college picture. He returned it to its position and walked to the window. Her apartment overlooked the inner courtyard of the complex. Lights shone from the pool and there was a fire pit in the corner. It looked like every other apartment building in San Diego: hibiscus flowers, faux waterfall, and lined deck chairs in a row. He thought it fit her. Pretty, but well maintained and organized—not a wild weed in sight. He chuckled out loud, realizing he had just spent more time in the last five minutes analyzing Skye than he had the last five women he had slept with.


4

SKYE HELD UP A PINK SHIRT. NO, TOO BRIGHT. SHE DUG INTO HER DRAWER FOR ANOTHER ONE. SHE PRESSED A light blue tank top against her chest. This one might work. She brushed her teeth and dabbed on a pinch of blush. She checked her reflection in the mirror. Was she actually going through with this? True, now she knew the guy had a name, and he wasn’t a doctor or a pharmaceutical sales rep. It was far worse—he was in the military. She kicked herself for not putting the pieces together sooner. But what was there to assemble? It was supposed to be a one-night stand. A botched one, but nonetheless she wasn’t going to forget last night any time soon. Just the way he looked at her made her catch her breath. He was too good-looking. Men like that didn’t appear out of thin air. She stepped into a pair of black wedges and grabbed a jacket from her closet. No matter how warm and sunny the days were, San Diego nights were always chilly. She ran her fingers through her hair again to shake out the bun she had clipped on top when she was working. It was hard to ignore the fact that he had caught her home alone on a Saturday night with nothing to keep her company but spreadsheets. The spritz she used on her hair, might hold, but he said something about going to Pacific Beach, or PB as all the locals called it. Beach breezes would blow this to pieces. She gave up and headed for the door. Although her hand was on the knob, she couldn’t quite muster the nerve to turn it. What if he was some kind of crazy stalker who picked up women at bars and was just waiting for his chance to chop her into tiny bits? She shook her head. That was a completely irrational thought. What if his only interest was getting her into bed? She chewed her lip again, gnawing off half her lipgloss. Of course, he was determined to get her in bed. She had given up all her cards last night by bringing him back to her apartment and getting naked in five seconds flat. There was still another option. She smiled as she pulled the door open. Ben Hardcastle was getting ready to have to prove if he was here for the right reasons. She was going to stick to the golden rule.

“What is this place?” Skye stepped from the truck and took in the building adjacent to the pier. It was wooden and looked like it hadn’t seen a coat of paint or stain in twenty years. “A bar.” Ben walked to her side to help her step down, but she was already on the pavement. It was almost entirely outdoor seating. There were people leaning against the railings, beers in hand, fruity drinks with tropical umbrellas scattered on the tables. Skye followed Ben up the stairs, wrapping her jacket a little tighter as the ocean breeze kicked up. “Dude, where the hell have you be—oh, hello.” A tall, well-built man stopped in mid-rant to


smile at Skye. “Skye, Hollywood. Hollywood, Skye.” Ben introduced them. “Bolt didn’t tell me he was bringing along a beautiful woman.” He took her hand. Skye’s eyes darted to her date. “Bolt?” It crossed her mind maybe he hadn’t been honest about his real name. He nodded. “Yep. It’s a call sign.” “So you’re a pilot?” Her head tilted to the side. Hollywood laughed. “Aw, man. You didn’t tell her? That’s funny.” “Shut up.” Ben looked uncomfortable. Skye scooted onto the open barstool. “Aren’t there always stories that go with call signs?” The guys nodded. “Well, then you have to tell me the back story on your names.” She looked at both men. “I think you need a drink for this talk, sweetheart.” Hollywood waved down a waitress. “There you are!” A tall, lean guy in jeans and a surfing T-shirt dropped into an open seat. “Eagle, what’s up man? I didn’t know you were meeting us out.” Ben looked surprised to see him. Skye assumed the newcomer must be another pilot. Hollywood handed out three beers, while Eagle ordered another for himself. “And I didn’t know we were bringing dates.” He turned toward Skye. “Nice to meet you.” She smiled. “Nice to meet you. Skye.” She extended her hand to his. “Now I get to hear another call sign story.” “Oh, we’re doing that?” Eagle accepted the beer from the waitress with a grin. Hollywood laughed. “Yep. We’re doing that. Why don’t you go first since you got here last?” Eagle hung his head. “Ah, do I have to? It’s embarrassing. Mine isn’t the most glamorous story.” He took a swig of beer. “When I was in flight school some dudes in my class dared me to shave my head one night. We were pretty plastered. Anyway, the next day I woke up with a white bald head, and that with the combination of this nose,” He pointed to his face. “garnered the awesome call sign Eagle, because everyone said I looked like a bald eagle. Never shaved my head again after that one.” Skye smiled. She wasn’t sure how to react. Now that he mentioned it, he did have sort of a hooked nose and high eyebrows like a Muppets character. Giggling definitely wasn’t a good idea. “I’m up.” Hollywood slammed his beer on the table. “Ever heard of the show The Dad?” He searched her eyes. “Of course. I loved that show. It was hilarious.” “Well, I was Little Ricky.” “What?” She studied his face trying to make out the features from the five-year-old boy that she and her family laughed over every Thursday night. Ben and Eagle started to laugh. “He’s a genuine movie star.” Ben winked at her and she felt that sensation deep in her stomach, the one that she hadn’t stopped thinking about since last night. Hollywood nodded. “That’s right. I was Little Ricky for three years.” “But, what happened? After the show ended I don’t remember seeing you on anything else.” She leaned forward in her seat. This was like a Where Are They Now show. “My parents decided to move out of California. They didn’t like the lifestyle, so we headed back to the east coast. I was too young to know the difference. I went to college, flight school, and now I’m here having a beer with my buddies and you.” Skye recognized a flirt when she saw one. This guy had more moves than a chess board. “And Hollywood I’m guessing is to make fun of your illustrious career?” “Exactly. That and they’re all just jealous. I like to think it’s more of a compliment.” He grinned


from ear to ear. “Oh, I’m sure it’s a compliment.” He had the good looks to back up the name. “So that leaves you.” She tipped her beer toward Ben. This was the story she had been waiting to hear. The one she had tried to figure out since she heard his alternate name. She asked the question but was praying the explanation had nothing to with his possible tendency to bolt on women. “How did you get the name Bolt?” He rested on his elbows and rotated so his eyes were locked on hers. “Lightning strike.” “Lightning?” “It was my first tour after flight school and I was heading out for a night flight. There was a storm rolling in, but we thought we could take off before it was over top of us. It was past the five-mile safety mark, or at least we thought it was.” He paused and she knew there was no hiding that she was absorbed in his every word. “But, as I was rolling down the runway and about to lift off, we had a strike on our tail. It must have been a pop-up cloud or something. We were airborne for about a second then, smack!” He hit the table. “We were right back on the runway.” “Oh my God. Were you hurt?” Ben laughed. “Naw. We destroyed a forty million dollar aircraft, but we were fine.” Skye realized she had been holding her breath. “I bet you were terrified.” He shook his head. “Not until much later. We were just glad we didn’t fry. It took awhile for it to sink in what had actually happened. It was one of those surreal experiences. You know?” He smiled at her, and for a second she thought he might be talking about more than just his lightning accident. As he stared into her eyes the heat from last night came back to her. “Who’s ready for another round? Want another?” She looked at Hollywood and Eagle. Suddenly she felt like she had crashed guys’ night. Maybe it was best to head back to the spreadsheets. “I think I should probably go.” She pushed back from the table. “Let you guys have the next round.” “No, no stay.” Hollywood reached for her wrist. “It’s nice to see Bolt with a girl. You can’t leave yet. This is a special treat.” What did that mean? She looked at her date. For the first time since she’d met him, something had wiped the confident look right off his face. She settled back onto the stool. “Ok. You talked me into it, Hollywood. I’ll have another.” “Whew. For a second there I thought Bolt lost his touch.” Eagle whistled before Ben popped him on the back of the head. “What was that for?” He rubbed the spot. “Because sometimes you’re an asshole.” Ben snarled. “But you love me.” Eagle smiled sweetly. “Sometimes.” Ben rolled his eyes. She could tell they had a camaraderie that was layered with more than just beer nights. She wondered what it was like to work with people who depended on you for their lives. The kind of people who weren’t trying to steal projects from you or claw out your eyes to get the next promotion. She didn’t know what to call him anymore. Was he Ben or Bolt? Since he introduced himself as Ben she decided to go with that. “Ben, how long have you been flying?” She thought they had to be about the same age, but she wasn’t sure. After she passed twenty-five, age took on a whole new meaning. This was supposed to be the phase of responsibility and goal-building. She didn’t want to waste time on men who were still searching for themselves or were life-long college students. She crossed her fingers, hoping he was at least twenty-five.


Ben took a sip of beer. “Let’s see, after college I did Officer Candidates School, TBS, which is Marine basic school, then I went to flight school, and did a year at the RAG after that. That’s where I learned to fly the F/A-18. If I count the flight school, I’d say four years.” Skye counted up the years in her head and smiled. Good he was probably twenty-six, like her. Although she had no idea what all these acronyms stood for. Marine speak was weird. “And what about you two?” She looked at Hollywood and Eagle. “The same.” Hollywood grinned. Eagle put his hand in air. “I have to confess. I’m a wizzo.” “Wizzo?” She had never heard of it before. Ben smiled. “Yeah, it’s easier than always saying WSO. It stands for weapons systems operator. Eagle’s my backseat. He’s responsible for all of the instruments, weather checks, that kind of thing. I don’t like flying with anyone else.” “That hurts, man. That hurts.” Hollywood covered his heart with his palms. He looked at Skye. “I’m a wizzo too. I usually fly with a guy named Ranger. We try to keep the same flight teams in our squadron. It’s sort of a tradition with the Rebels.” All of it was new lingo and information for her. But it was thrilling and exciting. Her days were spent analyzing consumer trends and targeting buying habits. Flying was something completely different and foreign. It sounded dangerous, but extremely fun. “What other kind of traditions do you have?” Ben slid his arm around her shoulder. She liked the gesture, but hoped she didn’t look too surprised. It was the kind of thing a boyfriend would do, or at least someone you had been dating awhile would do. “We can’t tell you all our top secret intel.” He grinned, showing off his white teeth. Eagle spit out a mouthful of beer. “Secret intel? Dude, do you want her to think we’re spies or something?” Ben shook him off. “No, but enough work talk. We talk shop too much.” Hollywood leaned in his seat. “What about you, Skye? What do you do?” All eyes were on her. “Oh, nothing as exciting as you guys. I’m a campaign executive for an advertising company.” She wasn’t sure if they were legitimately interested, or really skilled at pretending, but each one nodded. “I work with different companies to help them launch new brands, or either create a campaign for them to remarket an older product. I like it.” Her answer sounded canned, as if she were trying to convince them she loved her job. Ben added, “You should see some of the spreadsheets she’s made.” He winked at her, and she smiled. She hadn’t realized Ben was paying attention to her work when they were at her apartment. Then she remembered she had left him alone in her living room while she changed clothes. What else could he have seen? Hollywood and Eagle stayed for another round then Hollywood stretched his arms to the stars. “Man, it’s late. I think we better get going, Eagle.” “Why? It’s not that late.” Eagle looked disappointed. Skye giggled when she saw Hollywood jab the skinny friend in the ribs. “Oh, right. We should be going. Nice to meet you, Skye. See you at work, Bolt.” “It was nice to meet you both.” She smiled. Hollywood threw a wad of bills on the table. “Have a good night.” He winked at Skye one last


time before following Eagle down the boardwalk and toward the parking lot. “What’d you think of my friends?” Ben moved his stool closer to hers now that they had the table to themselves. It seemed quieter and more intimate. “They’re nice. A little crazy, but nice.” In only a matter of minutes they had taken her in like she had been a part of their group forever. He tipped the bottle back and she watched as his throat moved. No one should be this sexy just drinking a beer. She shivered as he moved his free hand to rest on the top of her thigh. It felt warm through her jeans. “You think you’re going to finish that beer?” His expression was playful. “Why?” she teased. “Because all I’ve been able to think about since we got here is taking you back home.” He brushed her hair off her neck and kissed the spot below her ear. It could have been the ocean air breezing over her skin, but she knew it was his lips that caused her to sigh. “I, uh—I don’t know.” She wiggled toward the edge of the barstool. His brow furrowed. “Don’t know? I thought we were having a good time.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. “I’ll pay for mine.” Her purse was resting on table. “No, I asked you out. I’ll pay.” He insisted. Skye slouched on the stool. There wasn’t a real plan, but none of this was going smoothly now without the other two guys as a buffer. She felt awkward and inexperienced around Ben. It was as if his extreme confidence had a way of chipping away at hers. This was no longer one-night stand territory; everything was different. This was a date. He stood next to her. “Come on, I’ll take you home.” Great. She had pissed him off and embarrassed herself. “Thanks.” She followed him to his truck. On the ride back to the Gaslamp she tried to think of how she could salvage the night without sleeping with him. That wasn’t going to happen. Her hormones had cooled off along with the place between her legs, and her rational, mature self could win out any impulse she might have where he was concerned. No matter what she wasn’t going to change her one-month rule. He slowed in front of her building. For a second she thought he might drop her on the curb. “You can pull around to the gate and I’ll give you the code to get in.” The plan still hadn’t come together, but at least she could try to stall him. “Ok.” He maneuvered to the gate and she called out the code so he could punch it into the keypad. He rolled forward and put the truck into park in one of the open visitor slots. “Thanks for going to PB with me. The guys enjoyed meeting you.” She clutched her purse in her lap. “They were great—lots of fun.” She fidgeted with her keys. “Do you want to come up for coffee?” “Coffee?” Wrong suggestion. “Or I have wine. But I don’t know about that after beer.” Somewhere in the back of her head was a rhyme with beer and wine, but with him staring at her she couldn’t remember what order they went in. He cut the ignition. “Ok. I’ll come up for some coffee.” “Good.” She smiled, but he was already out of the driver’s side and standing next to her, pulling the door open. She wasn’t used to these kinds of gestures. It seemed like most of the California guys she had gone on dates with were of the opinion women


could fend for themselves. Granted, she was one of those women who liked to fend. She got her own doors, paid for her own meals, and brought her own jackets on chilly nights. It had never occurred to her to depend on a guy for anything. If she really thought about it she knew she could diagnose her approach as a symptom of her parents’ divorce. When she was eight years old they separated. Her father moved out and she saw him twice a year out of legal obligations. For years she watched as her mother struggled to pay bills, pack lunches, and wrestle with the house appliances. She hated that her mother’s challenges didn’t end there. It only got worse. As long as Skye learned how to do everything herself, she felt equipped to handle anything. She wouldn’t be the woman who fell apart just because a man walked out the door. She could open her own doors. Her last relationship had ended over a year ago, if she could even call it that. A month and a half in and he complained about her obsessive work schedule. Skye had her own theories as to why things suddenly fell apart after the thirty-day mark. Unlike last night, she let Ben into the apartment without a fumble. She walked straight to the coffee pot and opened the cabinet above. “I have decaf.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Ok. You sound prepared.” She measured four scoops into the filter and poured the water in the top. “Are you hungry?” She opened the pantry, not sure what was inside. It had been weeks since she had gone to the grocery store. Usually she ordered take out or had dinner delivered to the office. “No. I’m good, thanks.” He turned on his heels and walked to the window. The coffee dripped into the pot in a steady stream. Skye picked up the TV remote. “How about a movie?” She punched in the higher channels where the movies were. “Sure. What’s on?” He walked back to the couch and sat in the middle. “I’m not sure.” She scrolled past the cooking shows and the home shopping channels. “No way.” Ben laughed. “Top Gun?” “You like this one?” She placed the remote on the coffee table. “Like it? Who doesn’t? It’s only the best movie ever made.” He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “I’m not sure about that. Best movie?” “Have you ever seen it?” A concerned look flashed across his face. “Of course. I saw it once.” “Once?” He sounded shocked. “That’s un-American. I think there’s a ten-time minimum on this movie. Sit.” He patted the couch next to him. Skye looked at his arm draped over the back of her sofa and the spot he created for her. If she sat there, he would make a move. “Come on, sit.” He looked at the TV as a jet soared across the screen. Right now he seemed more interested in this movie than her even if she stripped down to her underwear. She wiggled into the couch, her hip pressed against his as she pulled her heels under her. His arm instantly roped around her shoulder, bringing her closer to him. He smelled good, like a mixture of cologne and cedar. After a few minutes, she felt the tenseness in her muscles relax and she nuzzled against his shoulder. This felt good. Ben was completely focused on the movie. He nodded during certain scenes and a few times she thought she caught him whispering the lines. It was cute. Watching the jets on the screen it was hard to


imagine that this was his job. He flew fast like that? He was completely in control of something powerful and intense. The whole idea was unreal. It made her both uncomfortable and incredibly turned on. It wasn’t something she could relate to, but it was exotic and very sexy. At the end there was a climatic fight scene and the carrier crew cheered for the American boys. Skye pictured Hollywood and Eagle celebrating with Ben like that. The credits rolled and Ben turned to her. “Good movie.” The grin he was wearing became devilish. His attention was back on her. All of it. His hand grazed the side of her cheek as he tugged her into his lap. His mouth was hot as his lips parted against hers and his tongue slipped inside. The room spun as he rolled her onto her back. His fingers grabbed at the edge of her tank top and pushed it upward. Skye was hit with sudden want as the sensations shot through her body. She had skyrocketed from utter calm and contentment to a raging surge of heat. Ben looked victorious as he flicked the hook on her bra. He shimmied the tank top over her head and dropped the bra on the floor. His fingers latched onto the edge of his shirt and yanked it over his head. She ran her fingers along the tags hanging from his neck. “I’m leaving them on this time.” He flashed a smile. His mouth descended on her nipple and began tugging and sucking with a rhythm that had her rocking against him involuntarily. She had vowed not to do this, but her body responded to every move he made. She writhed under him, trying to catch her bearings and steady herself, but it was too intense. He was already claiming her and she was only half-undressed. “Wait. Wait,” she breathed into the top of his head. She pressed against his shoulders, his tongue kept swirling. “Don’t worry.” He grinned. “I brought condoms this time.” His tongue lashed over the wet skin and she bowed off the couch, while cursing herself for reacting this way. It was hard to fight against what her body was meant to do. “It’ll be even better than last night. I’m so turned on right now.” “No.” She pushed against his chest. She tried to sit up and folded her arms against her breasts. He had to be cut off or she would never regain control. He sat back on his heels. “What’s wrong?” “I—I’m not going to sleep with you.” The words were out there, but they sounded stupid. “Ok. I’m confused.” Ben didn’t move. The lightness in his blue eyes turned dark. Skye bit her lip. “I have a rule about sex. I don’t sleep with anyone before we’ve dated for a month.” “A month? Are you a nun?” “Hey.” It stung. She didn’t think it was that prudish, but considering she had almost slept with him last night, it was maybe a bit conservative and probably confusing. “What about last night?” His eyes darted back and forth. “I had a bad day.” She shrugged. “I just wanted to let go for once. I don’t usually pick guys up in bars. I take that back. I never pick guys up in bars. It’s always been at least a month.” Looking at the floor, she wished he hadn’t flung her shirt so far out of reach. “You’ve never had a one-night stand?” She shook her head. “No. Never. And I don’t plan to.” She wondered how she measured up to his standards now. He probably didn’t think she was as wild and sexy as before. The librarian in her had evaporated. “Hmm. A month? As in thirty days?”


She nodded. “Yeah, a month.” She expected him to stand from the couch and walk out of the door. She wouldn’t blame him. It was a lot to ask of a hot guy who probably could land any woman he wanted, but rules were rules and she didn’t break the rules. It’s what kept her safe and more importantly in control. “What about other stuff? Like what we did last night?” A smile was forming on his lips. She felt the heat rise in her cheeks and her inner thighs tingled. She nodded. “Yeah, I guess that’s not breaking the rules.” “Ok.” He raked his teeth over his bottom lip and she wanted him to kiss her more than she had wanted anything, well almost anything. “Ok?” She didn’t know if that meant he was getting ready to leave or was willing to stay. “I’ve never shied away from a challenge.” He walked his fingers along her shin, over her knee and along her thigh, pressing firmly into her skin. “Challenge?” she questioned as he drew her hands away from her breasts. She felt completely exposed on the couch, sitting half-naked, but she couldn’t stop her nipples from hardening under his stare. It felt like he was getting ready to devour her. “Oh yeah. You’re a challenge, Skye Stephens.” He took her face in his hands and drew her toward him. His tongue ran over her bottom lip. She sighed as he kissed her jaw and trailed his mouth against her throat. “I’ve never met someone so uptight when the lights are on, but so incredibly sexy when they lights go down. I bet you won’t last a week.” He laughed. “Hey.” The heat he had just created, froze. “I’m not playing a game with you.” She was annoyed thinking he didn’t take her seriously. Although it was hard to take anything seriously with his mouth on her stomach. “It’s not a game, baby.” He unsnapped her jeans and pulled on the zipper. “But you’re going to be asking me, begging me to give you more than this.” He wiggled the jeans over her hips and smiled at the black lace panties. “Because I can do this.” He pried the lacy fabric from her skin and slid one finger underneath, causing her to gasp. He stroked slowly and deeply. All the sensation in her body rushed between her legs; all she could feel was the throbbing pulse that had taken over. Her eyes shot to his, and she saw the pleasure he was getting from making her breaths heavy and her hips follow his commands. She couldn’t look away from his locked stare. It excited her that he was watching. “And I can do this.” He added another finger dipping deep inside her until her hips rose from the couch, and she pushed to meet him deeper. Her head rocked back on the pillow. He knocked her knee to the side and she willingly let him position her legs so that she was completely open to him. She met his gaze again head on as her teeth sank into her lip. He had her laid out like a butterfly, with a simple strip of lace running down the middle of her body. Every time he flicked it to the side she gasped. This felt vulnerable, but the way he looked at her made her feel sexy, balancing out all her insecurities. “But it’s not going to be enough.” He kissed her stomach. “I’ll make you come tonight.” His fingers curled inside her. “And tomorrow night.” He pulled them out and she whimpered. There was an emptiness clawing from inside her where they had been. All she could think about was how to fill the void again. What was he doing to her? “You’re going to want me, baby. You’re going to want all of me inside you.” She saw his heated stare before his head moved toward her breast. “Ohhh.” She clutched at his back as his fingers slid inside again, grazing the most tender spot, building pressure one stroke at a time. It was like he had found the center of all her desire, as his


fingers began to circle, teasing her over again making all the colors blend to white as the heat burned between her legs. “Because if I can do this now, imagine what we’ll feel like together.” Skye closed her eyes and tried to balance herself. She knew every word he said was true, but she wasn’t going to give in tonight and she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of breaking her down so easily. Some things were worth waiting for. She vowed to last longer than a week, although right now she had to clench her jaw as she fought the words in the back of her throat. She wanted him. She wanted him to rock her like she had never felt before, but instead she sunk into the couch as her hands roamed across his chest and shoulders. She let her hips take over as the waves crashed through her body and she gave herself over to his hands.


5

BOLT PULLED OUT OF THE APARTMENT COMPLEX, SHOVING HIS SHADES ON THE BRIDGE OF HIS NOSE. WHAT IN THE hell was going on? He had spent two nights in a row at Skye Stephens’s place without having sex. A world record had officially been set. He turned right to wind back to the interstate. She was gorgeous, smart, and could hold her own around his friends, a feat most would fail at immediately. It was hard to ignore that the guys seemed to like her too. Before he had even known what he was getting into he had entered the dating zone. At least that’s what it sounded like. She wasn’t going to give it up unless they had been seeing each other for a month. It didn’t seem like the right time to tell her that he’d be leaving the country in five weeks. He had been looking forward to the WESTPAC deployment since he joined the squadron. It was one of the best tours the Rebels had. It beat his Afghanistan tour hands down. If he was lucky he would go again to Japan in two years when the Rebels hit the next deployment cycle. He exited onto the interstate and merged with the onslaught of cars that buzzed around him. When was the last time he had actually dated a girl? He rolled down the window and rested his elbow on the door. He hadn’t been on a single date since he moved to San Diego. Picking girls up in bars and clubs didn’t count as dates. Those were hookups and he knew it. A date entailed getting dressed up and having a plan. What kind of place should he take a girl like Skye? That’s assuming she accepted his invitation. He didn’t try for breakfast this morning. She wasn’t as standoffish as yesterday, but something about the morning sun made her reserved side return. He left with a promise to call. Something about her and the way the last two nights had gone made him think he would call her later. He had her number in his phone. As soon as he got home he changed into his running shorts and shoes. Sundays were work out days. His favorite place to run was Mission Bay. He could see the bay, the city, and in certain spots, the ocean. He cued his regular playlist and took off running. The low morning mist that settled on the city didn’t usually burn off until lunch time, but today it was already bright and sweltering before he was five minutes into the run. Bolt wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He loved living in San Diego, but it always felt like a temporary home. Since joining the Marine Corps he had lived in four different cities and completed two tours. It was hard to get attached to a place when he knew it was only a stop on the way to the next town. But that’s one of the things he loved about being in the military. He traveled all over the world, met interesting people, and it kept his life fresh. There was never a dull day doing what he did.


He crossed over the first bridge. There weren’t many places more beautiful than this. He stopped at the top of the second bridge that overlooked the bay. He inhaled, filling his lungs with the California air until they felt like they could explode. He looked at his phone tucked in his armband. Thirty minutes wasn’t bad for a warm-up run. He repositioned the earbuds and started the second half of his run. Today felt like it was going to be a good day.

Monday morning came fast. Bolt grabbed his cup of coffee from the ready room and headed to the briefing room. According to the schedule, he and Eagle had an out and in, or a two-part flight today. They would take off in two hours, meet an aggressor squadron from Yuma for tactical dog fighting sets, land for lunch, and then takeoff to do it again. He loved it when they met up with other squadrons. He and Eagle could out maneuver any other jet and every time these events were scheduled was just one more chance to prove it. “Hey, Bolt. Did you see that we’re with the Renegades again today? I thought after last time they’d want to go up against anybody but us.” Eagle laughed from across the conference table in the briefing room. “I’m calling them now.” Bolt punched in the number for the Renegades’ briefing room he had been given by the schedule writer. He and the lead pilot would discuss the meeting time and place, along with the logistics of the mission. “Hey, this is Captain Hardcastle calling in for a briefing with Renegade-one-one.” The voice on the other end of the phone responded, “Hold please, sir. That’s Major Shipley. I’ll get him for you.” Bolt put his hand over the receiver and whispered, “We’re flying against Shipley. Shit.” Eagle shook his head. “Yeah, that’s not good.” Bolt’s shoulders straightened when he heard the booming voice answer. “Major Shipley here. Ready for briefing, Captain Hardcastle.” “Good morning, sir.” Bolt had heard of Major Shipley’s reputation as the premiere dog fighter for the Renegades’ squadron, but he and Eagle had never faced him. The guy was good. He had flown three tours in Iraq, and was fresh off a Blue Angel tour. To top off his resume’ he was a former Top Gun instructor. Bolt shook his head. He was going to get his ass beaten today. “Looking forward to flying against you and Captain Haywood today. We’re planning on taking off at 0900. If you do the same that should put us at the rendezvous point right on target.” “Yes, sir.” Bolt listened as the senior officer gave out the instructions. Shipley had obviously planned out the fight for this morning. “Anything else we need to add before filing our flight plan?” Shipley asked. “No sir, I think you’ve covered everything. We’ll see you up there, sir.” There was a click and Bolt turned to Eagle. “This is not good. We are fucked.” Eagle whistled. “Tell me about it. Well, at least the winning team has to buy us lunch, so we get free tacos.” Bolt threw his coffee cup in the trash. “You know I don’t care about tacos, right? I don’t want to eat some damn loser tacos today. I want to win. I care about winning.” “I know you do, but sometimes you have to know when to fold ‘em.” Eagle followed him out of the room. “We’re not giving up before we’ve even taken off.” Bolt walked into the locker room where their


flight gear was stored. It usually took a few minutes to climb into, buckle, and hook into all the gear that they needed in the aircraft. They walked to the jet, passing Hollywood and Ranger on the way. “Heard you two are going up against Shipley today.” Ranger chuckled. “Jealous?” Bolt taunted. “No way. He might be the only one who can de-throne your pompous ass.” “You won’t be saying that when Eagle and I land with not one, but four victories.” Bolt held up two fingers. Eagle shook his head. “Do not start making bets, man. We need to walk to the jet for pre-flight. Come on.” He tried to push Bolt out of the hangar. “Oh wait, did you say a bet?” Hollywood spun on his heels. “I’ll make a little wager with you both right now.” “Bolt, let’s focus on the flight.” Eagle walked backward until he hit the door with his back. “No bets. Come on.” “You know you wanna,” Hollywood teased. “Alright. What’s the bet?” Bolt didn’t want to back away from the challenge. He had his work cut out for him, might as well make it worth something. “Dammit.” Eagle shook his head. “I’ll even give you one.” Ranger stated. “You only have to beat him once.” “Ok, and if I don’t?” “Then you owe me a case of beer, my choice. Make that one for me and Hollywood.” “What do I get if I do?” Ranger twisted his lips. “Bragging rights?” “Doesn’t seem like much of a bet, Bolt. Don’t take it. Just keep on walking. Come on, we’ve got pre-flight checks to do.” Eagle’s eyes were wider than usual. “How about this? If I do get my one victory, then you can wash my truck and we both get cases of beer.” Bolt pointed at Eagle. “You’re on.” Ranger stuck out his hand. “Better get your buckets and sponges ready. And you might need a ladder to get to the roof of the truck.” Bolt laughed. Eagle shook his head. “I can’t believe you just did that.” “Good luck out there,” Hollywood called as Bolt and Eagle jogged to the jet. If they ever needed four-leaf clovers, heads-up pennies, and horseshoes, it was now.

“How do you boys like your tacos?” Major Shipley strolled to the cantina’s tin counter, ready to take orders. Bolt hung his head. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been taken down like that. “Extra cheese and salsa for me, sir.” Eagle piped up. “What?” He looked at Bolt. “I’m eating lunch. No point in losing and starving.” “Captain Hardcastle?” The major waited at the register. “What kind of tacos?” Bolt left his shades on the bridge of his nose. He didn’t wear defeat well. “I’ll take a chicken and a beef. Thank you, sir.” He followed Eagle to a booth in the corner. After the two jets landed they used the squadron car to drive out to the most popular taco spot in Yuma. It was a tradition when the two squadrons met to dog fight.


It didn’t matter what maneuver Bolt tried, Shipley was ahead of him. Bolt shook his head knowing that he had flown behind the jet and looked like a rookie next to this guy. There was still round two to get through. After lunch they’d be back in the sky trying to out-strategize each other again. “Here you go, boys.” Shipley slid two red trays across the table along with a basket of chips. “Thank you, sir.” Eagle doled out a pile of napkins along with the baskets of tacos. His head rose with a stream of cheese running down the side of his mouth. Bolt eyed him. How could he eat? The flight had gone wrong from the start and the next one was bound to be the same. Bolt had lost his appetite. “How long have you two been flying with the Rebels? Surprised we’ve never matched up before.” Shipley slurped on his tea. “I joined the squadron last year, and Eagle and I have been flying together since then.” “Alright. How do you like it so far?” Bolt thought about how to answer. He enjoyed San Diego and he made friends quickly with the guys in the squadron. Things were different for him though after his Afghanistan tour. Riggs wasn’t in his life anymore. At least not in the way he had always been. “It’s a great squadron. I think as long as I’m flying, I’ll be happy anywhere, sir.” Bolt reached for his first bite of taco. He didn’t want to be rude. “The Renegades are always looking for good pilots. Don’t think I’ve flown against somebody who’s given me such a hard time.” Bolt needed his drink to help him swallow. He sipped on the straw. Was Shipley recruiting him? “Thank you, sir. I’ll keep that in mind.” “I keep my eye out for talent. And you’ve got it.” Shipley stood, taking his tray to the trash bin. “I’ll meet you at the car. I’ve got a few calls to make.” “Yes, sir.” Eagle and Bolt answered. “Dude, you just joined the Rebels.” Eagle had a mouthful of chips and guacamole. “I’m not going anywhere. He’s probably just trying to get me rattled for the next flight.” Bolt knew that wasn’t the case, but he couldn’t let Eagle get worked up for no reason. He wasn’t moving and leaving. San Diego was home for now. “You ready?” He slid out of the booth. “Right behind you, man.” Eagle hopped out. “Let’s get this over with.” They walked into the blaring Arizona sun.


6

SKYE POURED HER SECOND CUP OF COFFEE FOR THE MORNING IN THE BREAK ROOM AND LEANED AGAINST THE counter. Greg was laughing across the hall. Gloating was more like it, she thought. If her scowl could cause mortal harm, he would be slashed to pieces by now. Kari poked her head around the corner. “Hey, good morning.” “Hey, how are you feeling?” Skye had gotten a few texts from her friend over the weekend assuring her she hadn’t perished on the bathroom floor. “Ugh! I will never eat sushi again. I had the worst weekend. But thanks for checking on me. I felt so bad about not going out Friday night. Did you leave?” Skye tugged on her bottom lip. “Not exactly.” “Really? What does that mean?” “Quick meeting in my office.” Skye darted out of the break room and hustled her around the corner. As soon as Kari was inside, she closed the door. “What is going on?” Kari asked. Skye lowered voice as if someone walking by would still be able to hear her through the door. “Ok, well when you didn’t show up, this guy sort of swooped in and bought me a drink.” Kari squealed. “Oh my God. This is the best news. I mean I hate I had to get food poisoning for it to happen, but this is seriously good news. Tell me. Tell me. I love a good swooping story.” Skye sat behind her desk. Talking about everything that happened between her and Ben in her office felt out of place. Who she was over the weekend was nothing like the woman she was at work. “He is hot. As in, drop dead gorgeous hot.” “Oh, go on. I already like him.” “And we kind of tried to have a one-night stand.” She grimaced, this part of the story sounded awkward. “What do you mean tried? Wait? Could he not—” “What? Oh no, no. He was good.” Skye waved her hands. That’s not what she meant at all. She continued to whisper even though her door was closed, “We didn’t have any condoms.” “Ohh. That’s a bummer.” “Tell me about it.” Skye flashed to the moment when Ben asked her for one. Utter embarrassment. “I’m proud of you, Skye.” Kari smiled. “You went out in the world, and you hooked up with a hot guy. See? Without work there are actually fun things out there.” Skye rolled her eyes. “That’s what you keep saying.” “So are you going to see him again? Maybe with condoms next time?” She giggled.


“We already went out again Saturday night.” “Oh, now it gets steamy. How was he?” “Kari!” “Seriously? You wouldn’t be telling me all of this if you didn’t want me to know the details, but you better hurry because we have five minutes before the meeting.” Skye looked at the clock over the door. The last thing she wanted to do was sit in a meeting with Greg and the bosses who yanked the account away from her, but she wasn’t about to quit. If she had to walk through these halls every day and stare them down until she landed the next big account she would. Greg couldn’t force her out. She’d worked too long and hard to turn around and run. “Skye? Come on, tell me what happened.” “How about at lunch? I don’t want to be the last one to walk in the meeting.” “Ugh. I guess I can wait, but this is a serious cliffhanger.” “Let’s just get this meeting over with.” Skye led the way down the hall and around the corner where a few of her co-workers were mingling. She and Kari took seats across from each other. “Good morning, everyone.” Stan Preston, CEO of Regency Advertising, greeted the assembly. A low murmur circled the table. He continued, “As you have probably already heard by now we landed the San Diego tourism account. This is a real coup for our company. I couldn’t be prouder of our research team. Skye, we owe you one.” Stan applauded in Skye’s direction, starting a chain reaction around the room. Skye blushed and nodded. This wasn’t the accolade she wanted. It was almost humiliating. Everyone in the room knew she had pitched the campaign to the city. The fact that they wanted the contract, but her bosses at Regency didn’t see the same qualities in her was frustrating. Kari shot her a sympathetic smile from the other side of the table. At least she had one friend in this shark tank. They had started working at the company within three months of each other. Skye admitted she wasn’t the easiest person to be friends with. She might have been the only human who didn’t move to San Diego for the California beaches and the sunny winters. Instead she moved strictly for her career. If she had money, stability, and a way to pay for her own things, she wouldn’t have to worry and scrape by like her mother. She wouldn’t waste tears on endless amounts of credit card debt and loans she couldn’t repay. Her six-figure salary was the start to that security. She would stand on her own, no matter what. Kari didn’t seem to mind Skye’s goals and ambition. They worked in different divisions and spent all their breaks rehashing meetings, office gossip, and of course whatever current guy situation one of them was dealing with. Eventually the meeting proceedings shifted toward the client satisfaction survey results and Skye felt her shoulders relax. The eyes were finally off of her and for the most part she knew everyone had forgotten her embarrassing ten minutes in the spotlight. But she wouldn’t forget. As Greg reached for another donut hole on the oblong platter, she vowed this would be the last meeting she’d spend watching him stuff his smug face. “Thanks for the reports you sent over.” She tried not to laugh at the powdered sugar on his lips. “The one on the zoo was especially helpful.” He picked up another pastry. Her stomach twisted in a knot. The zoo file had been her favorite. In the three years living in the city it had taken work to get her to visit the zoo. The minute she walked through the gates it had become her favorite spot. It wasn’t necessarily the animals, and it definitely wasn’t the herds of


tourists, but the flowers and tropical plants that grew everywhere made her feel like she had accidentally slipped into a rain forest. It was gorgeous and exotic; everything her life wasn’t. Research at the zoo became an unexpected sanctuary in her life. For once, creating an advertising campaign for such an oasis was the easiest project she’d ever had. “Glad I could contribute to the project.” She folded her planner across her chest. Greg wasn’t going to see how upset she was. He smirked. “You always contribute, Skye.” She brushed past him before she let a four-letter word drop and sought the quiet of her office. She closed the door behind her. There would be other pitches. She would have other opportunities. She hated that once she actually fell in love with one she had to hand it over to Greg.

Kari shook her head at almost everything on the menu. Skye felt bad that food still wasn’t appetizing to her. “I think I’ll just have a club soda with lemon and the bread basket.” She placed the menu on the table. “You’re eating all carbs for lunch?” Skye was stunned. Kari was a stickler for her diet and had the figure to show for it. “I’ll run an extra thirty at the gym tomorrow. I can’t handle more than bread.” She took a sip of water. They sat outside at a downtown deli close to the water. It was a sunny, breezy day, and perfect for dining al fresco. “Enough about my stupid stomach problems. You left off in the middle of a very juicy story. You have to tell me more about this guy. A name for starters.” Skye adjusted her sunglasses. “His name is Bolt.” “What kind of name is Bolt?” “It’s his call sign. His real name is Ben Hardcastle. I like calling him Ben, I think.” She still wasn’t sure which felt more comfortable. “Oh, good lord. Do not tell me you hooked up with a Miramar pilot.” “Why, what’s wrong with that?” Skye felt a little wounded and concerned. What did Kari know about the Miramar pilots that she didn’t? Probably a lot. Skye’s social life consisted of office events and client parties. Kari shook her head. “Nothing. Nothing at all. I think it’s great you met someone. I shouldn’t have said that. Tell me what you did on night two.” “No, wait. What’s the big deal if he’s a pilot?” She didn’t know why but suddenly there were nervous butterflies skydiving in her stomach. “It’s just I had a friend who dated a pilot once, and he was gone all the time and well…he ended up cheating on her with some girl in Japan. It was a mess. Total disaster, but I’m sure this guy is nothing like that womanizing man whore.” Skye ran her fingers through her hair. “Right. I’m sure he’s nothing like that.” She thought about how easily he had seduced her back to her place two nights in a row. If he wasn’t a player, she didn’t know what one looked like. “What’s wrong? I said the wrong thing didn’t I? Shit. I shouldn’t have mentioned my friend. I’m


sorry.” Kari pinched off a roll, but hesitated to eat it. “No. It’s ok. You’re probably right. I already had a feeling since he was in the military it was a bad idea, but then I got caught up in how charming he was. And we just had this immediate banter that I liked. He wasn’t afraid to come back at me with something smart-assy, you know?” Kari nodded. “Ahh, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t sleep with him and besides that he hasn’t asked me out again, so he’s probably already moved on.” She didn’t like how that sounded and she didn’t like the idea of Ben buying another woman a drink, or driving someone else crazy with his baby blue eyes. But she barely knew him. She didn’t think she could name five things they had in common. Everything about the two of them was physical. It was best to move on now before she got attached and he cheated on her with someone in Japan. “I think if he does call you should definitely go out with him again.” Kari smiled. “We’ll see.” Skye knew she had already convinced herself dating Ben Hardcastle was nothing but a recipe for heartache and disaster, even if she’d had the best orgasms of her life.


7

THERE WAS A PADRES GAME AT SEVEN. HE KNEW IT WAS LAST MINUTE, BUT THE TICKETS WENT UP IN THE READY room when he was in the air and Bolt didn’t see them until after his flight. He pulled out his phone to call Skye. “Hello? This is Skye Stephens.” He smiled. She was all business. It made him laugh. “Hey, it’s Ben.” “Oh, hey. Sorry I’m at work and didn’t recognize your number.” “I’m calling from the briefing room. You sounded very professional.” He pictured her in that tight black suit, with the skirt hiked to her hips. He had to remind himself about the tickets he was holding in his hand. She giggled. “I am at work.” “Right. Me too. I just landed, but I got a pair of tickets to the Padres game tonight. I was wondering if you would want to go.” “Tonight?” “Yep. Game starts at seven, so I could pick you up at six-thirty. You’re not far from the ballpark.” “Oh, wow. I don’t know. That’s in a couple of hours, and I have a pile of work on my desk.” “Skye, come on. We both know that a night with me and the Padres is way more fun than any spreadsheet you’ve got going on.” He heard her sigh into the phone and he knew she was rethinking her hesitation. “Six-thirty?” “Yep, six-thirty.” He smiled. “Ok, I’ll be ready.” “Cool. It’ll be fun. I promise.” “I’m counting on it. Bye, Ben.” She hung up and he glanced at the phone. He walked to the lockers to store his gear. For the first time in a long time, he had a date and he was looking forward to spending time with Skye. Even if she was making him work for what he really wanted.

He knocked promptly at six-thirty. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw when she pulled open the door. Her hair was in a ponytail and she was wearing tight jeans and a fitted Padres shirt that dipped between her breasts. He knew he was staring. “Wow, you look great.” He thought of all the other things he could say to her. “Thanks. I got this shirt for a Padres promo we did last year, and I’ve never worn it. Seemed like


a good night to try it out.” Skye locked the door behind her and turned to face him. Bolt winked. “I’m glad you saved it for me.” “They also gave me a big foam finger, but I left that in the closet.” He chuckled. “Yeah, good idea.” He tapped the elevator button. “So, how was your Monday?” Skye rolled her eyes. “Shitty. How about yours?” “About the same.” He reached for her hand as the elevator descended and laced her fingers through his. “Sounds like we could both use a few beers.” She nodded and the doors retracted. “That sounds perfect.” “Ok, then let’s go watch some baseball.”

The ballpark was built on the water, so depending on your seats the wind could rip right through the concourse tunnels and chill you to the bone. Bolt happened to have those gusty seats. He wrapped an arm around Skye, pulling her against his chest while keeping a firm grip on his beer with the other. “You know I was surprised you called.” Skye sipped on the large beverage in her hand. “Really? I said I would.” “Yeah, I bet you say a lot of things.” “Ouch. That hurt.” “Do not pretend with me that you don’t get a lot of numbers. I know your type.” “Type, huh? I might get a few numbers here and there. But I called, didn’t I? Anyway, I was kind of surprised you agreed to go.” He liked the feisty side of her. “Why do you say that?” she taunted. He wondered if he should be so blunt with her, but she seemed like she could take it. “Because you seem a little uptight at times. I figured you were done with the fun.” Skye wiggled out of his wind-bracing hold. “Uptight? You sure know how to compliment a girl.” “I don’t mean uptight, uptight, just a little rigid.” He shook his head as soon as he saw Skye’s expression. “Ok, rigid was definitely the wrong word to use. Dammit. I’m going to stop talking now.” She giggled. “No, I think you should keep going. You’re proving my exact point.” “And what’s that?” He was glad she wasn’t genuinely mad with him. “That you are the kind of guy who likes to have fun and that’s it.” Bolt scanned her eyes. “Are you saying I’m not deep?” “I didn’t say that. You think I’m uptight and I don’t think you’re serious enough. How about that?” He touched the beer to his lips and tried not to smile. “I guess that’s calling it fair.” It was only the bottom of the fourth inning and Bolt was already ready to start making his way back to Skye’s apartment. In truth, from the second she opened the door he didn’t want to leave. Something about her tapped into his more primal side, and it took more self-restraint than he wanted to admit to keep his hands off her. He was freezing and if he had to stare at the chill bumps on her breasts another second he would probably pounce on her right in the ballpark. He couldn’t stop thinking of all the ways he wanted to warm her up. “Are you enjoying the game?” He wrapped his arm around her and felt her ease into his shoulder. “I’m not much of a baseball fan, but yeah it’s good. Just wish we weren’t in a freaking wind tunnel.” “Yeah, sorry about that. I guess there was a reason these tickets were up on the board at work. How about we head back to your place and watch the rest of it on TV and neither one of us will have to freeze?”


She eyed him suspiciously. “My place?” He put his hands up. “I know the rule, don’t worry. But please, I think my hand is frozen to the plastic cup.” She giggled. “Ok, let’s go.” Bolt smiled, knowing he could probably at least make it to third base tonight.


8

“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? I HAVE NEVER SEEN YOU INHALE THAT MUCH COFFEE.” KARI NOTICED. “Ben stayed over last night.” Skye wanted to crawl back in bed but the alarm went off as usual, and she got ready for work. He left at five and they had maybe slept three hours. Skye yawned. “Shut up! He stayed over last night? On a Monday night? You have turned into a wild woman, Skye Stephens.” Kari giggled. “Very funny.” She was supposed to be looking over a pitch for a new sunscreen client, but sun protection was the last thing she was thinking about. Ben’s hands between her legs and his mouth on her body was all she felt. “Skye, where’d you go?” “Oh sorry.” She blushed. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I wasn’t going to go out with him again, but he called with the tickets and he sounded so cute on the phone so I said yes. And then that of course led to us going back to my place, and then you know the rest.” “I wish I knew the rest. I seriously need your sex life.” Skye cleared her throat. “It’s not sex.” “Oh right. Your almost sex life. I’d take that too.” Skye’s forehead pressed into the desk. “This is stupid isn’t it?” Kari stared at her. “What? Having a good time with a guy who wants to keep seeing you?” “I’m playing with fire, and we both know it. I just can’t stop.” Kari leaned in. “And why do you think that is?” Skye shrugged. “I think part of me wants to see if he can make it to the one-month mark.” “But?” Kari urged. “But the other part of me thinks as soon as he does he’s going to be done with me. He’ll leave. He wouldn’t be the first.” Kari looked upset. “Do you hear what you’re saying? You are not giving yourself any credit. You are beautiful, smart, successful—any guy in this city would love to date you. If Ben’s as hot as you say he is, he wouldn’t hang around you for sex. He can get that somewhere else.” Skye straightened her shoulders. Everything her friend said made perfect sense. Ben didn’t have to ask her to the game or take her out for beers with his friends. “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know why my guard is up all the time.” An involuntary smile crept across her face. “So I should keep seeing him despite the fact that he’s in the military? Despite the fact that I don’t know much about him? And despite the fact that our relationship is the most physical relationship I’ve ever had?”


“Absolutely.” Kari’s hand slammed on the mahogany desk, making Skye giggle. “Ok, it’s settled.” “It’s settled.”

One Week Later

Skye stared at the screen on her desk. No matter how many times she went over the campaign slogans, they all sounded the same—boring and ordinary. How many different ways could you tell people they needed to wear sunscreen at the beach and pool? ‘Fun in the sun’ had been played out. She glanced at the clock. It was almost eight. The floor was quiet. Kari left hours ago with everyone else. The rumbling sound from her stomach reminded her that the last time she had eaten was at lunch. She scrolled through the usual take out places programmed into her phone. She realized she had tried every deli, Chinese restaurant, and pizza joint in a five-mile radius. Tonight, she settled on a turkey and cheese from Sandy’s Sandwich Shoppe. “Knock knock.” Greg rapped on the door. “What are you doing here? I thought everyone left.” Skye looked behind him, hoping someone else was still lurking in the office. Greg was one of those guys who looked like he probably played football in high school. He had an athletic build that over the years had been padded by more than one box of donuts. The receding hairline he tried to hide with longer hair on top, made him look older than he really was. Skye knew they had graduated from college the same year, so he wasn’t even over thirty. Unfortunately, she knew more about Greg than she wanted to. “You know, working on the tourism account. I’ve gotta stay ahead of it.” He smiled. “Right.” Her stomach lurched. She reached for her bag and folded her laptop into the front pocket. “You leaving already? I was going to see if you wanted to split a pizza.” Greg walked further into her office sanctuary. She stuffed a notebook behind the laptop and looked up. “Pizza? Ahh…thanks, but I’m picking up dinner on the way home.” She had never been more excited that she decided to eat at home. “Oh come on. We could talk about the account. You can fill me in on the people on the tourism board.” He leaned on the desk. “I think I’ve got a bottle of wine. Let’s try it out.” His grin was practically Cheshire Cat-wide. Skye held in a gag. “Um. I’m really finished for the night.” She tapped the switch on her desk lamp and stood. Greg sighed, “That’s too bad. I was hoping to get your analysis on the account. Maybe even let you take the lead on the zoo campaign.” Skye stopped fidgeting with the snaps on her bag. “The zoo campaign?” “Uh-huh. Isn’t that your baby?” Greg didn’t budge. “It was.” Skye thought about the gondola that sliced through the park, and the panda exhibit. Sunny days on the bench watching the tourists take group photos and line up for snocones. “I bet we could work something out.” She hated the way he said that. He was dangling the one carrot in front of her he knew he had.


There was always the chance he would use all her ideas, take credit for them, and stab her in the back in one quick move. On the other hand, it was a chance to get back on the largest account the firm had. She could handle the zoo marketing and sunscreen ads at the same time. “Alright.” Greg’s eyebrows shot upward. “Ok. Let me go get that wine.” Skye raised her palm. “No wine. And I’m going to run to Sandy’s and pick up my dinner. But when I get back we can start.” Greg slid his hands in his pockets. “Your loss on the wine. It’s a Mystic Vineyards classic.” He bit down on his lower lip, and she noticed his eyes had settled on the top of her cleavage. It made her want to button the top buttons on her blouse. “Greg, I’m not staying late at work to drink with you. If you’re saying I can work on the zoo campaign with no strings attached, I’ll come back with dinner. If not, then you’re on your own.” He held up his hands. “Strings? You don’t think I’m using this account for anything other than professional reasons, do you?” His smile said otherwise. “I don’t know. You tell me.” She looked directly in his eyes. “Skye, come on. You know me.” She shrugged. “Ok, if you won’t agree to that, I’m leaving.” She slung the bag over her shoulder. “No. Wait, wait.” He stood between her and the door. “This is strictly professional. No wine.” Skye wasn’t completely convinced, but she decided it was already late. A few more hours at the office wouldn’t hurt anything. If Greg tried to weasel out of their deal, she’d figure out a way to handle him. The bag dropped to the floor. “Ok, I’ll be back in ten minutes.” “Want me to walk with you?” he offered. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “I take it back. You go get dinner. And I’ll see you in ten minutes.” Skye stepped around him and walked to the elevator. She realized as she hit the lobby, she didn’t even ask if he wanted her to order something for him. She giggled. The street outside the office was bustling. Sure it wasn’t New York, but there were parts of San Diego that never slept. Even on a Tuesday night. Skye waited at the corner for her turn to cross the street. Sandy’s was only two blocks from the office. She paid at the counter for her sandwich and chips. As she passed through the door, she felt her phone vibrate in her purse. “Hello?” “Hey.” She smiled at the sound of Ben’s voice. She hadn’t seen him in a few days and had to remind herself that taking it slow meant not spending every night together. She was learning early that pilots were gone a lot, including weekends. He had flown to Texas over the weekend. “Are you going to program me into your phone or just keep getting surprised every time I call?” he asked. “I don’t know yet.” She stopped to sit at one of the table’s in front of Sandy’s. He chuckled. “I guess that’s fair. You still don’t think I’m going to make it to your thirty-day mark.” Skye blushed. Did he have a way of spying on her conversations with Kari? “I didn’t say that.” “You didn’t have to.” “How did your day go?” She watched a couple stroll past her, holding hands.


“Actually, I just landed. Eagle and I had a late flight. Was thinking about going out. Want to go?” “Go out now? It’s late.” “Don’t tell me you’re working at the office and can’t tear yourself away to go to a concert.” She thought she heard a smile in his voice. “I’m working on an account. I just picked up dinner and was headed back to my office.” “Cancel that. I’ll pick you up in…forty-five minutes.” Skye looked at the phone in her hand. Who was this guy? He automatically assumed she would comply with all his requests. She had serious work to do. And then she remembered Greg in the office. “Ok. But I can’t stay out all night.” She chewed on her lip. She hadn’t seen him in days. Why would she say something so stupid? He laughed. “Let’s not worry about curfews before I even pick you up. See you soon.” Before she could banter back, he hung up. He was frustrating at times, but deep down she knew a little part of her liked how he took control. He was sexy confidence personified. In only a few short weeks Ben had become a part of her waking thoughts, popping up when she was in the middle of a meeting, or interfering with her charts and tables. Yesterday during a conference call she completely blanked ten minutes in when she was supposed to report on model contract candidates. Instead, she couldn’t shake the funny things Ben said to her at the Padre’s game. He had a way of making her laugh that brought out a side of her she was starting to love. She tried to dismiss the feelings that swirled every time she thought about him, but it was harder with each phone call or night they spent together. Slowly, Skye knew she was starting to picture him as the man she wanted, and it scared the hell out of her. She dialed the office number and held the phone to her ear. “Hey Greg, yeah I’m not coming back to the office. Let’s work on the project tomorrow.” She hung up and dropped the phone in her bag. She may have just lost her chance to reunite with the zoo campaign and her favorite panda cubs. Cute cubs came in second to a hot Marine pilot. She headed to the parking garage and pointed the car to her apartment. There was no turning back now.


9

BOLT HOPPED OUT OF THE SHOWER AND REACHED FOR THE CLOSEST TOWEL. HE HOPED HE HADN’T SOUNDED TOO pushy when he called Skye. He hadn’t planned on calling her tonight, but she kept popping up in his head when he was flying. He decided the only way to cure that was to see her again. He hadn’t planned on missing her over the weekend, but he did. The Dallas trip sprung up at the last minute, or else he would have tried to see her Saturday night. She was different than the other women he spent his nights with. Her life was organized and together. She was smart and accomplished. Skye made it clear that she was independent and selfsufficient, and he liked that about her, but what he couldn’t get enough of was when she let down her guard. He knew he was attracted to her like no other girl on the planet. It was as if she possessed some kind of magnetic pull that he couldn’t resist even when he told himself he was headed toward dangerous territory. It was a magnet so strong that he was willing to risk breaking all boundaries just to spend time with her. He looped his dog tags over his head and patted them against his chest. “Where you headed, Princess?” Hollywood called from the other end of the locker room. “Date.” Bolt pulled a pair of jeans up over his legs and fastened them. “Same girl?” “Yep, Skye.” He reached for a T-shirt. “Are you trying to set some kind of record?” Hollywood threw a towel in the hamper. He and Ranger had flown with Bolt and Eagle on the late schedule. “Why do you say that?” He knew what was coming next. “Because as long as I’ve known you, you’ve never seen the same woman more than once. Not saying that’s a bad thing, just noticed.” Bolt shook his head. “Then stop giving me a shit about it. I like her.” “Like her?” Hollywood pretended to close his jaw with his palm. “Shut the fuck up, man. I can date somebody.” Bolt noticed he had clenched his jaw. He tried to relax. “Right. And Ranger’s going to let me make the next flight plan.” Bolt tried to laugh. He knew Hollywood, or any of the guys, would give him a hard time about Skye. He deserved it. They had seen him dart out of more hotel rooms than anyone at the squadron. But now that the jabs were actually happening the words weren’t rolling off his back like he wanted. . “All I’m saying is that you’re not really a relationship guy. You’re a fuck and run guy.” “See ya.” Bolt grabbed his bag. He didn’t want to hear anymore.


“Wait, man. I didn’t mean to piss you off. I just don’t know why you can’t admit that you’re going to screw her over like all the other girls you fuck. She seems nice. I liked her. Cool girl.” Bolt turned toward his friend, his voice low. “Yeah, she is nice.” He didn’t want to get in a fight with Hollywood. He was only joking around, but it had gotten under his skin and started to irritate him like a bad T-shirt tag. “Have fun on your date, Princess.” Hollywood called after him, but Bolt walked straight ahead. There was a lot of truth in what his friend said, and he wasn’t ready to face any of it.

“Hey.” Skye opened the door. She was wearing tight jeans and a black tank top. Her hair was down around her face. “Hey.” He smiled. God, she looked incredible. He had forgotten how sexy she was. “So, what concert are we going to?” She stepped back to let him in the apartment. “I haven’t heard of anyone playing tonight. But, I’ve been working a lot so I don’t really know—” He brushed against her and closed the door behind him. “Change of plans.” He didn’t give her a chance to ask questions. His mouth crashed into hers and he nudged her against the wall, taking her face in his hands. It was rough and hard, but he could tell the kiss wasn’t one-sided. He felt her arms wind around his neck, and tug him closer toward her. The more her tongue lashed against his, the more he wanted from her. She was like lightning in a bottle. He reached around the small of her back and hoisted her legs around his waist. He pressed against her, wanting her to feel what she was doing to him. She let out a groan and he moved his mouth along her neck. She tasted like vanilla icing, and all he could think about was licking every square inch of her body. He already knew his way around her apartment. He peeled her from the wall and headed into the hallway and toward the bedroom. With each step he took she squeezed her thighs tighter against his hips. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out she missed him and wanted him as badly as he wanted her. Her breasts arched toward him as he laid her on the bed. He reached for her tank top and yanked it over her head. Damn, she had on black lace. His favorite. He went for the button on the jeans hoping like hell there was something matching underneath. He smiled as she eased her hips off the bed and helped him maneuver her out of the jeans. It felt like he was trying to harness something wild every time he ran his hands over her skin. He didn’t want to tame her—he didn’t want her to change what she did one bit. He loved how she reacted to him. He loved that she let go and gave in to his touch. “Ben,” she whispered his name as he stepped out of his jeans and kicked them next to the bed. “Hmm…” he wasn’t watching her expression. He was too busy toying with the black lace between her legs. God, she was hot. He wanted her from the first night he saw her sipping wine in the bar. He couldn’t believe a beautiful, sexy woman like her was sitting alone. He kept waiting for a boyfriend to show up and punch him for taking over his territory, but she was alone. She was available. And for the last week he had tried his damndest to get her in bed. Her hands clutched at his shoulders and she let out a whimper as he stripped the lace from between her legs, making sure to let his fingers graze across her heated skin. “We need to slow down.” Her voice was raspy. Slowing down was the last thing on his agenda. He cupped a breast with his hand and squeezed it in his hand. The only thing that felt better than this, was to explore it with his mouth. He eased the


fabric over the top until only half of her was covered. He descended, pulling her into his mouth, feeling the softness of her skin. His tongue moved over her until she was completely hard, and he began to suck, urging her to writhe under him. Damn, he loved it when she rocked her hips toward him. The harder he sucked the quicker her rhythm picked up. He nudged her knee to the side and settled in between her legs, feeling the heat from her core through the last bit of clothing he wore. He rocked forward, pushing hard against her. “Ben,” she groaned. Her head thrashed to the side. He felt her nails dig harder into his back. That’s it, he thought, no going back. He reached for his waistband, keeping one hand firmly on her breast; while the other one freed him from the boxer briefs he wore. As soon as he felt her between his legs he thought he wouldn’t be able to control himself, but he wanted to see her expression when he was finally inside her. It was going to be fucking amazing. He raised his head to catch her gaze as he positioned himself between her legs. “Wait. What are you doing?” Her head jerked forward, and she looked down where his was hand was moving. He smiled. “Baby, it’s going to feel so good.” He kissed her mouth, inhaling one long breath as he steadied himself over her. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold the pause button. He wanted to be inside her five minutes ago. “What? No. No.” She wiggled back on the bed. “I thought we agreed. One month. You said you were ok with that.” He didn’t like the look on her face. She was angry. “Yeah, I did, but we’re headed in that direction anyway. Let me show you.” He crawled toward her and grazed her neck with his lips. “So you thought we should just bypass the thirty day thing because you don’t want to wait? Didn’t you hear anything I said?” He sighed. “Exactly. We’re going to fuck, so why not do it now?” “Excuse me?” Skye retreated to the end of the bed with a look of absolute murder on her face. “What? What are you so mad about?” He scratched his head. Sure she was adamant about her sex policy, but all rules were meant to be broken. He tried another approach. “Doesn’t it turn you on to do something that’s just a little forbidden?” He traced her collarbone with his index finger and watched the chill bumps form along her skin. “I think you need to leave, Ben.” She shirked back, dropping contact with him. For a second he thought she was joking. No woman had ever thrown him out of bed before. “You’re kidding, right? We’re having a good time. What’s wrong?” He just wanted to go back to the part where he had her purring and rocking under his hand. “Because I was stupid to think you were somehow different. I told you this isn’t a game to me. All you’re interested in is sex. You’ve made that clear.” “And you’re not? Don’t act like you haven’t loved every second of this. You can’t wait for me to undress you.” He stood from the bed and retrieved his clothes. He had undone the agreement, but he thought they were on the same page. She wanted him. “I thought if we had sex now I could prove sooner that I can stick around. I’m not only interested in sex. There is more to me than that.” He pulled his T-shirt over his head and shoved his arms through the sleeves. Now he was getting worked up. “That is the most backward, twisted logic I’ve ever heard. I should ‘fuck’ you now, as you call it, just so you can prove to me you’re not interested in sex? Get out.” She pointed to the door. “No problem.” He zipped his jeans and walked to the bedroom door.


He was halfway across the room when his phone started to ring. He glanced down to see who was calling and didn’t hesitate to answer. “Faith, you ok? Hold on a second.” He covered the phone with his hand. He kept walking, knowing he left Skye naked and angry on the bed. Dammit, Hollywood was right. He wasn’t cut out for this relationship shit. He slammed the door behind him. It didn’t feel good thinking that was the last time he would see Skye Stephens. “Sorry, Faith. I’m here.”


10

“SAY THAT AGAIN.” KARI SPOKE THE WORDS SLOWLY. “We were in the middle of a fight, or kind of at the end of a fight, I guess and some girl named Faith called. He answered the call and then he left.” Skye called Kari as soon as Ben slammed the door behind him. She didn’t know what else to do. “But you told him to leave?” “Yes, but I didn’t think he would leave-leave. I thought he would apologize, or turn around and say ‘I’m a jerk. I shouldn’t have pressured you, or broken our agreement.’ Something. He could have said something.” Skye slouched into the pillows against her headboard. After Ben left, she washed her face, brushed her teeth, and threw on one of her frumpier pajama sets. She felt anything but sexy after that fight. What she felt was stupid. The fight didn’t have to escalate like that, but she couldn’t believe the words he used. It made everything they did seem cheap and dirty. “Kari, I’m afraid he never thought of me as anything but a conquest. And now I know there’s some other girl in the picture. He’s probably with her right now. I’m an idiot.” “Want me to come over? You don’t sound so great.” “No, thanks for the offer, though. It’s not like we’ve been seeing each other that long. It was only twelve days. I’ll be fine by morning. I guess you were right after all.” “What do you mean?” Kari asked. “You told me to beware of the Miramar pilots, and you were right. I should have listened.” She thought back to last Friday night. “I did pick him up in a bar. I should have known better.” “I think you should look at this as a positive experience.” Kari’s voice rose. Skye rolled her eyes. “Are you going for the Pollyanna approach? How can you possibly spin this?” “You did something outside your comfort zone. You got out there and had fun. Just think if you actually started dating. Let me set you up with someone. I know the perfect guy.” “Uh-uh. No way. There’s a reason I don’t date. Guys like Ben Hardcastle.” Kari sighed into the phone. “All guys are not like Ben. Come on, one date. One teeny, tiny, innocent little date with a gentleman. He’s someone I know, so there’s no way he’ll be a jerk. What do you say?” After what had just transpired in her bed, it was hard to think of opening that door again. “I’ll think about it. That’s all I can commit to right now.” “I guess that’s understandable. But I’m not giving up.” Kari sounded triumphant.


“I wouldn’t expect you too.” Skye giggled, relieved to know she still had a sense of humor. “Well, if you can’t sleep call me back, ok?” It was midnight. Skye hoped as soon as she turned off the light she would be asleep. “I will. Thanks for listening.” “Anytime. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.” “Night, Kari.” Skye plugged her phone into the charger on the nightstand and reached for the lamp. It had been a long day. From the weird exchange with Greg, to the blow up with Ben, she couldn’t get a handle on which way her emotions were drifting. It was impossible to turn her mind off. Was what Ben said true? Did she want him to undress her every time she saw him? Did she somehow lead him to believe they still didn’t have twenty days to go on the time-table? She exhaled, angry that he was making her doubt herself and irritated she thought there might be something to his accusations. It didn’t matter. He left. He walked right out that door, and probably straight to Faith, whoever in the hell she was.


11

FAITH OPENED THE DOOR. AN OVERSIZED T-SHIRT HUNG OFF HER SHOULDER AND HER BLOND PIXIE HAIRCUT SHOT in all directions. Mascara streamed down her face. “Come here.” Bolt pulled her against his chest. “I—I didn’t know what to do.” She sobbed into his shirt. “Hey, it’s ok. You can call me anytime. You know that.” He let her cry a few more seconds before unwrapping her arms from his waist and leading her back to the living room. It never got easier being here. He told Faith he could handle it, but he couldn’t. His chest tightened and a deep hollow opened in the bottom of his stomach. This was Riggs’s house. His best friend. His family. And he was gone. “What happened?” He handed her a tissue and watched as she blotted her cheeks. “I don’t know. I was going through some of his stuff in the closet today. I was thinking I needed to start packing it up or giving it away. It’s not doing anybody any good in the closet, right? And really I was doing great. But then I got ready for bed, and I looked in the closet. His side was empty, and I just lost it.” Bolt prepared himself for the waterworks. Faith was a strong girl, but losing Riggs had chipped away at some of the resilience she once had. He knew it would tear Riggs’s heart to shreds if he saw her like this. “I’m sure that was hard.” Bolt looked around the room. “Where did you put all his stuff?” She sniffed. “I made piles. I even made a box for you, if you want it.” Bolt felt the hollowness almost swallow the rest of his organs. All he could handle right now were the dog tags. He couldn’t bear to go through any of his friend’s belongings. “Maybe I can pick it up later,” he suggested. “I just wanted to make sure you’re alright.” She nodded, but he wasn’t convinced. Tears seeped from the corners of her eyes every time she attempted a smile. “I’m fine, Ben. Really, you can go back to whatever hot date you were on.” He shook his head, remembering the way he left Skye. “No hot date. I’m here for you. That’s what Riggs would want.” She clasped his hand. “Charlie would appreciate all of this, but he wouldn’t expect you to drop everything every time I call. I’m embarrassed I called you so late. I’m a mess.” “Don’t be embarrassed. I wouldn’t have it any other way, ok?” He tapped the top of her nose with his forefinger. “Ok.” She smiled. “How about I take the couch tonight and maybe you can get some sleep? I’ll be right here if you


need me.” He could tell she was about to protest, probably out of customary response, but she nodded. “Thanks. I think I would sleep better.” Bolt followed her to the linen closet in the hall and took a blanket and spare pillow from her. “Night, Faith.” He wrapped a free arm around her shoulder. “Good night, Ben.” She walked down the hall and closed the bedroom door behind her. He sighed as he spread out on the couch, adjusting the pillow behind his head. This wasn’t the first night he had spent in Riggs’s house, but it had been awhile. He thought Faith was doing better. He thought he was doing better, but seeing her tears tonight brought a fresh wave of guilt. He hadn’t checked on her lately. He hadn’t stopped by to see if she needed help fixing anything, or if her car was running. Hell, he wasn’t her husband, Riggs was, but he had tried to fill in for his best friend by doing handyman things whenever he could. Faith always seemed to cheer up when he was around and that made him feel better. Tonight was like she had gone back two years. The grief on her face brought back the pain from Riggs’s death. Bolt stared at the ceiling. Sleeping on the couch wasn’t much, but he vowed to check in with her more and keep an eye on her. His deployment started in four weeks, until then he would be here for Faith. That’s what Riggs would want. He owed him that.


12

SKYE TOOK A BITE OUT OF HER SANDWICH, AND SIPPED HER DIET DRINK. CHILDREN RAN IN FRONT OF THE BENCH she had acquired. One of the perks of her job was that she didn’t always have to be tied to her desk, though she knew she was guilty of clinging to it more hours than most people would. “Mommy, please can I get an ice cream? They have zebra striped kind and leopard spotted chocolate flavor. I’m sure they have your favorite too.” Skye smiled at the little boy. He couldn’t be more than six, but he had already perfected the art of parent persuasion. His mother smiled at him before nodding and chasing him to the stand around the corner. That little boy was fast. Skye was at the zoo. Greg hadn’t backed out of their agreement. It had been a week since he had offered it to her, and she kept waiting for the strings that were attached to whip her back to reality. He was up to something. She just couldn’t figure out what. The night Greg offered the zoo file made her think about Ben. She hadn’t heard from him since he left her apartment. After the way the argument played out, she didn’t expect to, but it didn’t keep her from being disappointed that he didn’t call. In only twelve days she had fallen for his baby blue eyes and laugh. She just liked being around him, and she really loved kissing him. He made her feel things no other man had shown her. It was hard to forget nights like those. She sighed. Kari had convinced her to go out with one of her friends from college, Dave. Dave sounded like he would be a good date. He was an attorney and lived in La Jolla. They were supposed to meet for dinner Friday night. Skye knew her heart wasn’t in it. She was going through the motions to appease Kari. In the back of her head she hadn’t given up the idea Ben could call. Didn’t he want to apologize? She looked down when she heard her phone ring, but the sudden surge of hope was stomped out when she saw her mother’s name on the screen. “Hey, Mom.” “Honey, they’re here. They’re watching me, and I just need a place to go. Can I come stay with you?” “Wait. Slow down, Mom. Who is after you?” She tucked the rest of her sandwich in her wrapper and waited for the story. “You know who. I told you they were watching me. All the time. Watching.” Skye took a breath. “We’ve talked about this before. There is no one watching you. You are perfectly safe at the house.” “I can stay with you though, and they won’t know where I am. California’s so far away and so


big.” “No, no, Mom. You can’t stay with me.” Skye thought about the last time her mother visited. They only left the apartment a few times. Her mother accused her neighbor of stealing coupons from her, and tried to claim that she had lost a dog. Skye’s mother never had a dog. “Why won’t you let me visit? What kind of daughter are you?” “I’m the kind of daughter who is working and can’t take time off right now. I’m planning a trip to North Carolina in the summer. Remember? We’re going to go to the beach and Aunt Rose is going with us.” “Summer’s so far away, honey. I’d really like to drive out to California. I’ve never seen the country that way.” “Drive?” Skye panicked. “You can’t drive here. It’s three thousand miles away. Just wait and I’ll be there before you know it.” Skye’s aunt hadn’t called in a long time, so she was under the impression her mother’s paranoia was under control. Clearly, she was wrong. “I can drive, Skye. And if it’s the only way I can get out from under them, I will.” “Who is ‘them’? Just tell me, and I’ll get them to leave you alone.” Her mother laughed on the other end. “If I knew that, it wouldn’t be a secret.” Skye watched as the little boy proudly marched in front of her, his zebra cone dripping on the pavement. She wondered why life had to be so complicated. Why did her mother have to have a mental illness that robbed her of her sanity? Why couldn’t she be the mother she was when Skye was growing up? Why couldn’t she just take her medication? “Right, that makes sense, Mom.” She didn’t know what else to say. She had hundreds of conversations like this one with her mother. With no siblings, it was on her to make sure her mother was ok. Aunt Rose was her biggest ally, but even she had her own children and husband to worry about. “Why don’t I call Aunt Rose and see what we can work out? How does that sound?” “I guess that sounds alright.” Her mother hesitated. “You’ll call her?” “Of course I will, as soon as we hang up.” “Ok. All right, honey. I’ll see you soon.” “Bye, Mom. Love you.” Skye tapped the red bar to end the call and rolled her head back. She saw a gondola rider skim over the trees above her. This was why she needed the serenity of the zoo she thought. It brought a sense of peace to her otherwise spiraling family life. Her mother was on the other side of the country and every month seemed to be losing more of her grip on reality. Skye knew the inevitable was closer than she had planned. She was going to have to move home before the end of the year. She picked up her phone and dialed. “Aunt Rose? Hey, yeah just got a call from mom and I need your help.”


13

“HOW DOES THIS LOOK?” BOLT STEADIED HIMSELF ON THE LADDER, KEEPING ONE FINGER ON THE PAINTING. HE tried to figure out what the shapes and colors made. Faith giggled. “Good. There’s no way I could hang that thing by myself. Thanks, Ben.” He let go of the corner, careful not to let the frame scratch the wall. He descended the ladder until both feet were on the floor. It was some kind of abstract piece Faith had fallen in love with at an auction. Not only was she an art teacher at a middle school, but she was also an art connoisseur on the side. The house was full of sculptures and paintings. “How about a beer? I bought a case of that stuff you like.” She nodded toward the kitchen. “Actually, I have to get going.” He checked his watch again. “I’m meeting the guys. We’re testing out a new pilot.” He collected his tools and stacked them in the bottom of the box. He had been by her place almost every other day for the past week. The toilet no longer leaked. The pantry shelf was level. The dishwasher didn’t stop mid-cycle. He felt pretty good about checking things off the broken and busted list. Faith’s smile dropped. “Oh, ok.” Bolt wished it were the kind of event he could let her tag along, but it was a vetting process for the squadron. There were strict rules on the closed nature of the interviews. Faith needed to get out more. Other than teaching and her weekend outings to scout undiscovered art, she had become a recluse. It couldn’t be healthy for a girl as young and cute as her to hide from the world. But, he knew that wasn’t really his call to make. Riggs would want him to keep an eye on her, but her personal life was none of his business. “Maybe another time.” He picked up the toolbox. “I’d invite you to go but—” “No, you don’t have to explain.” She held up a hand. “I remember when Charlie rushed the squadron. He said I couldn’t come within five miles of the bar. I know the drill.” Bolt chuckled. “Yeah, there is a no guest policy.” He reached for the door. “Can I do anything else before I go?” “Ben, you’ve done so much.” Her eyes started to mist. “It’s nothing.” He wanted to leave before she started to cry, but knew it would make him a total asshole if he left her with tears on her cheeks. “How about one beer? I’ve got time.” “Really?” Her face lit up. Bolt placed the toolbox by the doorframe. “I’m right behind you.” He followed her along the hall


and toward the kitchen. He paused in front of a picture of Riggs and Faith on the wall. It was one of their honeymoon shots from Hawaii. “I’m looking after her, buddy,” he mouthed at the photo. He shook his head hoping to God his friend would appreciate everything he was trying to do. Faith twisted the top off a beer and placed it on the table. “Ok, so what’s the latest on your love life?” “What?” Bolt choked on the beer. “I didn’t know I was going to get interrogated.” “Hey, it’s me. I’m basically your sister. What’s going on? Any girls?” Bolt tipped the beer back, letting the cool liquid slide down his throat. “There was one.” “Was? What happened? She couldn’t handle you?” Faith giggled. He shook his head. “No, I think I screwed it up. I’m not used to dating. I’m used to—” Faith held up a hand. “I know exactly what you’re used to. You’ve got to stop sleeping around like you do. Tell me what happened with her.” “I guess I did what I always do. I tried to get what I wanted and didn’t listen to her.” He took another sip. “Ben, you’re really a sweet guy. Look at all this stuff you’ve done for me. You are absolutely boyfriend material, but you get in your own way. Can’t you just let yourself get attached to someone? Have some feelings? You know be a man, not a Neanderthal.” Bolt chuckled. Faith didn’t cut any corners. “That’s pretty good advice. But you know my history. It wasn’t any different than Charlie’s. My parents hated each other. My high school girlfriend cheated on me. What’s the point?” “The point is this.” Faith opened her arms in the kitchen. “You get to share the best parts of your life with someone. You get to build a home and fill it with love and romance, all that stuff that’s in movies. I know people feel sorry for me because Charlie’s gone, and I have days when I still feel sorry for myself, but I wouldn’t trade a single second of my time with him. And if Charlie was here, he would say the same thing. I know he would.” Bolt nodded. “He absolutely would. He loved you more than anything on this planet.” “And that’s what you need, Ben. Fall in love. Stop running and being scared of it. Maybe you screwed up your chance with that girl, but find another one and take the leap. You have a damn dangerous job and you’re not afraid to risk your life for the guys in your squadron. Don’t tell me you’re scared to risk your heart.” He placed his empty bottle on the table. “Thanks for the beer, sweetheart.” He stood to leave. “Did I say too much?” Faith reached up for a hug. “No, I think you said some things I need to think about.” “Good.” She loosened her grip on his waist. “Have fun tonight. Maybe you’ll meet a girl.” She giggled. He knew then that he had fucked up everything good he had with Skye. For once a beautiful and intelligent woman had become a part of his life and he threw it away for nothing. But now it was too late to try to call her. If he was going to fix anything his chance had passed. He shook his head. It would be awhile before he got back in that situation again, but damn if he didn’t regret what he had done.

Bolt made sure the toolbox was snug against the cab. He waved at Faith. She was standing in the doorway. The squadron had ten candidates and only two slots for new pilot positions. The new guys,


whoever they would be, wouldn’t even join until the squadron was back from deployment. That was more than six months from now. Most of the time they took the candidates to the O-club, but after seven interviews it was time to shake things up. Hollywood heard about a new club opening downtown. Everyone agreed a change of scenery would be good. Plus, free drinks made everyone happy. Vetting new guys was part of squadron life, but Bolt was tired of it. It felt like the same tired routine every time. At least tonight they would be hanging out somewhere new. Free drinks meant lots of drinks. He decided tonight was a no driving kind of night. He changed at home then walked across the street to the trolley stop on the other side of the mall. The trolley would take him into the heart of downtown. He rode into the city, watching as the lights blurred past the trolley windows. As the trolley wound through the downtown rail system, Bolt stood to make his stop. According to his directions, the club was on the edge of the Gaslamp district. It would be busy. There was a line outside of the club. Hollywood was upfront and waved him down. “Bolt, dude, we’re up here.” He dodged angry girls in stilettos to hit the front of the line. “How did you get all the way up here?” There must have been a hundred people behind them. Hollywood grinned. “Everyone loves Little Ricky.” “You didn’t.” Bolt shook his head. “It’s all about the star power, baby.” “You did.” Bolt sighed. Hollywood used his ten-minutes of fame any place he could. He wasn’t about to tell him he didn’t want to stand at the back of the line, but still this was crazy. The bouncer lifted the velvet rope and ushered them into Splash. The bar had an aquatic theme. Parts of the floor were cut away and replaced with glass. Bolt noticed goldfish swimming under his feet. Lights flashed under coral and shells. “You made it.” Eagle slapped him on the back. “This place is crazy, isn’t it?” “Yeah.” Bolt looked around. “So where is this guy? Have you already grilled him? I don’t even know his name.” He looked past an aquarium that spanned the length of the bar. He thought there might be sharks swimming inside. “Goes by Hammer. I don’t know his call sign story yet. He was just at the bar.” Eagle squinted. “Oh shit. He’s over there.” He pointed past the sharks to a high-top table. “Why did you say ‘oh shit’?” Bolt followed his friend’s stare. “Shit.” Hollywood walked toward them. “What’s going on?” “Over there.” Eagle nodded. Hollywood shook his head. “Shit. What are you going to do, man?” Bolt decided not to answer. He wasn’t prepared for the adrenaline that pumped through his body. It was possible the vein on the side of his neck was noticeably throbbing. He didn’t have a plan other than to walk toward the table. That, and undo everything from two weeks ago. It was loud in Splash. He couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but the new guy was laying it on thick. It was obvious he was hitting on her, and Bolt hadn’t decided yet whether she liked it. He couldn’t see her eyes. “So, are you trying to vet our pilot candidates now?” Bolt stood in between Skye and Hammer. He had to smile. She looked stunned. “Wha—what are you doing here?” Skye stammered.


Hammer hung his head over his beer. It didn’t take introductions for him to know he had just stepped in the middle of something that could easily cost him the job interview. “I’m here with the guys.” He nodded toward Hollywood, Eagle, and Ranger, who all raised a beer in their direction. “We’re interviewing a new candidate for the squadron. What about you?” He noticed she was wearing a suit, sort of like the one she had on the first night they met. He had to direct his eyes to look at her face and not wander. She seemed flustered. “I’m here for work. My company did the opening night promotions for the bar. I’m here for moral support.” She smiled, letting the corners of her mouth turn higher. “And you?” Bolt eyed the new guy. “Hammer, sir.” He extended a hand. Bolt shook it. “And you’re rushing the Rebels?” “Yes, sir. I was just making conversation over here. That’s all, sir.” Bolt chuckled. The kid was scared shitless. He couldn’t blame him. Skye was beautiful. Seeing her with someone else had made every muscle in his body tense and flex. He was glad he wasn’t going to have to punch the new guy. “You know, if I were you, I’d be buying Hollywood and Eagle drinks. I think we’re good over here.” He glared at Hammer. “Yes, sir. Got it, sir.” Hammer grabbed his beer and headed toward the other pilots without even saying good-bye to Skye. “What was that all about?” She eyed Bolt. “New guy. It’s my job to give him a hard time.” He smiled at her. “You’re pretty good at giving a lot of people a hard time.” Her grin turned to straight-lined lips. He didn’t have an apology prepared. In fact, he never planned on apologizing. He had always thought she was the one who blew the whole thing out of proportion until he saw Faith this afternoon. Seeing Skye again seemed to make the argument fade into the background. What was it Faith had just told him? He was happy Skye was standing next to him—her black suit and frown. Maybe there was a chance he could right all his wrongs. “Yeah, about that. I’m sorry. I was a jerk.” He waited for her eyes to tell him if all was forgiven. “Can I buy you an apology drink?” “Drinks are free tonight.” She held up something in a glass that was pink. “Oh. Ok, how about dinner?” He thought he caught a glimmer of a smile. “I already ate.” “Hmm…what about dessert?” She shook her head. “I don’t know.” He edged closer so his arm brushed against hers. “Look, I know I was an ass the last time I saw you. But I can’t tell you how much of an ass, if you don’t at least give me a chance. One dessert.” She chewed on her bottom lip. “One dessert?” “Yep. Your choice.” He could see her weighing the pros and cons in her head. She was making him sweat it out. “Hey, there you are!” A slender blonde sashayed next to Skye. “I was looking for you.” She stopped when she saw Bolt. “And who is this?” He extended his hand over the table. “Ben. Nice to meet you.” He saw recognition flash in her eyes. “Ben?” Skye must have talked about him. The good and the bad. Skye nodded.


“Oh, well hi Ben. I’m Kari, Skye’s friend. We work together.” “Nice to meet you. Maybe you can help me out. I’m trying to get Skye to go get dessert with me, but I really screwed up so she needs convincing.” “Ha, she needs convincing about everything.” Kari winked. “Kari, I can’t believe you just said that.” Skye elbowed her friend in the arm. “What about Dave? I’m supposed to meet him here tonight.” Bolt noticed the exchange between them was full of inside information. “Just go. Have fun. You’ve done your part here. No one will even notice if you’re gone. I’ll call Dave now and tell him we’ll do it another time.” Bolt wanted to ask who Dave was, but now wasn’t the time. “I—I thought you might need me to stick around and help you with the promo swag.” Kari sighed. “No, get out of here. I can do the rest.” She nudged Skye. “Bye, Ben. It was nice to meet you.” He took his opportunity and wrapped an arm around Skye to steer her away from the table. “Bye, Kari. You too.” He winked as they rounded the shark tank. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Where in the hell do you think you’re going?” Hollywood stood in front of them. “Hi, Skye.” She waved lightly. “Hi, Hollywood.” “We’re headed out. The guy’s got my vote.” Bolt slapped Hollywood on the back. “I don’t need to have any other conversations with him. I’m fine with him.” “But we’re getting ready to take shots.” Hollywood whined. “Take one for me, man.” Bolt smiled and headed for the exit. Outside, the line for Splash hadn’t shrunk. The new club had drawn a bigger crowd by the minute. Bolt threaded his fingers through Skye’s. “And just like that you think you can sweep me off my feet?” Skye turned and studied his face. He smiled. “Just like that.”


14

HE HAD APPEARED OUT OF NOWHERE. FOR TWO WEEKS SHE HAD TRIED NOT TO THINK ABOUT HIM. TRIED TO forget him. Tried not to dream about waking up in his arms. All of that was shot to hell the minute she agreed to leave the club with him. Time had a way of making the sharpness of their angry words seem fuzzy and faded. Time also made her miss him. She looked at the chocolate cake the waiter placed in front of her, and resisted the urge to shovel forkfuls into her mouth. It took the same kind of restraint she had employed to keep from kissing Ben in the bar the second she saw him. The bits of guilt she had for ditching her date with Dave seemed to vanish the minute she looked into those blue eyes. “Did you work on the Splash campaign?” Ben asked with a mouthful of apple pie. She shook her head. “No, that was Kari’s. She does almost all the restaurant, bar, and club campaigns. That’s her thing.” “I guess I’m lucky your friend had a club opening tonight.” He flashed a killer grin, and for a minute Skye couldn’t remember a single thing he said that had made her mad. She didn’t know how to respond. One minute she was talking to a nice guy named Wes who said he was in town for a job interview, waiting for Dave to show up, and the next she was eating chocolate cake with Ben. Ben, whom she hadn’t seen or spoken to in almost two weeks. “What was the interview?” She savored the chocolate flavor as it melted in her mouth. “We have two pilot slots open right now in the squadron. We’ve been interviewing candidates for the past month trying to find the right guys to fit. Tonight was number seven.” “Seven?” He nodded. “After awhile they all start to blend together. But it’s important we find guys who get along with everyone. You can’t have an oddball who nobody likes. We don’t want to fly with a guy like that, and when you have to count on somebody, you don’t want to count on an ass.” He placed his fork on the table. “Speaking of asses—” “No, you don’t have to say anything.” “But I promised you a full apology and you deserve it. I was a complete and total ass the last time I saw you. I should never have pushed things that far.” Skye blushed. “I probably made things confusing.” “No, you didn’t. You told me from the beginning what your rule was, and I tried to bulldoze over it. It was stupid, and I know it was wrong. Forgive me?” As far as apologies went, Skye didn’t think she could have crafted a better one herself. But she still wasn’t sure what it meant.


She nodded. “Thank you.” “Can I walk you home?” Ben had finished his apple pie. Skye wanted to believe that everything he said was true. That he was sorry, that he did respect her rules, that he was happy to see her again. “Ok.” She stood from the table and his hand met the small of her back. She inhaled, knowing this guy was breaking down all her resistance, and she was letting him one sexy smile at a time. They walked along the sidewalk not saying much. It was a comfortable silence. The kind that grows between two people who know each other’s space, who can feel each other’s energy. As they approached the building, Ben turned toward her. “I’m glad I ran into you again tonight.” She smiled. “Me too.” “Can I call you tomorrow?” Skye had to stop herself from stepping backward. “Are you leaving?” She had assumed he was coming upstairs with her. “I didn’t want to rush anything.” He brushed a flyaway strand of hair from her cheek. “Not after last time.” The contact of his fingers along her face sent a thrill through her body. It was the kind of tingling sensation she longed for when he wasn’t around. The feeling she had missed since he walked out the door. It wasn’t until that moment that she realized she would do almost anything to have him touch her again. “It’s not rushing. I mean. If you want to come up for a bit that would be fine.” It looked like he was debating whether to accept her offer. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who needed forgiveness. She had kicked him out of her room in the middle of the fight. “I took the trolley and the last one leaves at 12:30. So if I miss it, I don’t have a way back home.” Skye chewed on her bottom lip. “Hmm…that is a problem.” “Yep.” He put his hands in his pockets. “Come upstairs with me. Maybe Top Gun’s on.” She turned toward the entrance and tugged on his wrist. “Are you sure?” He sounded skeptical. She reached for his face, bringing his mouth to hers. As soon as her tongue ran along his, his arms circled her waist and he pressed her against the stone wall in front of the door. She had never kissed anyone like this in public. Her neighbors could see her, the whole world could see her, but she didn’t care. Ben was kissing her again, and all she could do was breathe in each breath with him. She nipped at his bottom lip. “I’m sure.” “Ok. Let’s go.” She led him through the door. As they rode the elevator, standing side by side, she wondered how much longer she’d be able to adhere to the rule she had created so many years ago. She stopped in front of the door. If he knew she was committed maybe things would be different. “I don’t want to break the rule. I just don’t want you to think I’m leading you on this time.” He moved the hair from the side of her neck and swept it to the other side. His lips found the curved spot above her shoulder. She didn’t think she could open the door with him kissing her like that. The fire spread through her veins and she held a moan in the back of her throat. “I know. I promise I won’t do it again. Not until you ask me.” “What do you mean?” The key finally slid in the lock. He sounded serious. “When you ask me and you’re ready, whether it’s in thirty days or a hundred days, that’s when it will happen.” He laughed. “Doesn’t mean I’m not hoping it’s sooner.”


She swatted him on the chest. “Hey.” “I’m a guy. Don’t forget that.” He closed the door behind her and walked toward the couch. She watched as he flipped on the TV and started channel surfing. “I’m going to change out of my suit.” This was the second time he had seen her in work attire, and she wished she were wearing a cute cocktail dress or something sexier than this. “Ok. I’ll look for a movie.” She left him on the couch and retreated to her bedroom. She thought through her wardrobe options. Lingerie was out—too much too fast. She didn’t want to wear jeans. She held up a pair of pajama pants and a spaghetti strap tank top. Perfect combination of sexy up top, but cute on the bottom. She marched to the bathroom to brush her teeth. Fifteen minutes later she emerged in the living room, ready to pick things up with Ben where they left off. Well, close to where they left off. The only light was from the movie on the TV. It looked like he had settled on an action film. The room flashed from high-tech explosions. She walked to the front of the couch. “Hey.” She stared in disbelief. Ben was asleep. She settled into the open spot on the couch. It must have been instinct, because the instant she laid next to him, he wrapped his arm around her. She smiled. All the nagging doubts she had about letting Ben back in evaporated. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of his breathing mixed with the occasional background explosion.


15

BOLT GLANCED AROUND THE ROOM, STRETCHING HIS ARMS IN THE PROCESS. IT HAD BEEN AWHILE SINCE HE HAD awakened on this couch. He looked down. Skye was curled along his side, her chest rising with each breath. Looking at her, he kicked himself for falling asleep before she came back to the living room last night. He was more tired than he realized. He had been keeping busier than usual, trying to add extra flights all week and marking things off Faith’s list. Now that it was Saturday maybe he could catch up on rest. Skye began to stir under his arm. “Hey.” She lifted her head. “Hey, you. Sorry I fell asleep.” He moved so they could both sit up. “I realized if those explosions couldn’t hold your attention, I didn’t have a chance. You must have been tired.” He nodded. “Long week.” “I’ll be right back.” Skye hopped up from the couch and padded off down the hall. He stood to fully extend his back and legs. It was nice to sleep with Skye, but the cramped style wasn’t good for his neck. Maybe a run would help. He remembered his truck was at his condo and he’d have to walk back to the downtown trolley stop and then walk home from the mall. Skye reappeared. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she had wrapped a sweater around her bare arms. He chuckled to himself remembering how she always bottled up in the morning. He knew he was lucky she had accepted his apology. The way he left things with her was shitty. She didn’t deserve to be treated like the other girls he had been with. She wasn’t like them. He knew her name, he knew how she drank her coffee, he knew where she worked. It was involuntary, but everything she told him he committed to memory. “Coffee?” She walked to the kitchen and began shuffling in the cabinets. “Sounds good. Mind if I jump in the shower?” It was probably too soon to ask if she would join him. He wanted to slow everything down this time. “Um…sure. There are towels under the sink.” “Thanks.” He walked to her bedroom and took a right into the bathroom. He turned the shower nozzle and let the water run for a minute. He knew he had changed his approach with her and none of it had been thought out. The second he saw her talking to someone else at the bar it was as if his relationship life flashed in front of him. Some other guy was going to have a chance to make her laugh, to hear her smartass answers, to watch her fidget in the morning, to make her moan at night. No, he thought. It was all wrong. He couldn’t walk away and let someone else have that chance with her when he knew it was his chance he had screwed up.


Maybe it was spending time with Faith that had changed everything. She was a sweet girl, and if anyone treated her like he had treated Skye, he would slug the guy. It was the wake-up call he needed. Riggs and Faith had been happy. They took trips together, scavenged art shops together, had brunch on Sundays, and did all those married couple things Bolt thought he would steer clear from. But after spending a week in Riggs’s house, it didn’t seem so bad. Actually, it seemed like the perfect way to live. He turned the water to the left, making the steam rise from the nozzle. He let his head hang in the water. If he wanted something like Riggs had, he was going to have to do things the right way. That meant dating, no more sleeping around with other girls, and cooling it on the physical side of things with Skye. Well, he knew there was no way he could completely pull back on the physical relationship with her, she was hot, but he could stick to the thirty-day rule. He wondered if it would be pushing it too much to ask her if they were starting over on the thirty days or if the clock was still ticking, because by his calculations they only had one more week until they had known each other a month. It was something he had been looking forward to. No, he’d let her steer the ship. He told her last night he would wait until she asked him, and that’s what he was going to do. Wait.


16

BEN HAD BEEN IN THE SHOWER AWHILE. SKYE WAS ALMOST AT THE BOTTOM OF HER CUP OF COFFEE. LAST NIGHT was nice. It wasn’t what she thought would happen, but it still felt good to snuggle with him on the couch. He looked cute when he slept. It was hard to ignore that his attitude seemed different. She was used to him jumping her the minute they passed the threshold. She tried to push back the thought that he wasn’t as attracted to her as he was before. He seemed calmer and somehow resolved. Even if she didn’t know him well, she could see the change in how he acted toward her. He was almost hesitant. “Hey.” He walked in the kitchen, his hair still wet from the shower. “Hey. How was the shower?” She twisted her bottom lip, wishing she were brazen enough to invite herself in. She could imagine what taking a shower with him would be like. “Good. Hot. Thanks for letting me.” He reached behind her for a coffee mug. “Sure. Of Course.” She took a sip and watched as he poured a cup. “What do you think about hanging out today?” His eyebrows waggled over the mug. Skye didn’t need to think about it. “Yes. What did you have in mind?” “I don’t know. We’re in San Diego. I’m sure we could think of something fun to do.” “Something touristy?” She didn’t have a plan, but spending a day with Ben sounded like a good time. “Definitely touristy. You know, I’ve never been to the zoo.” Skye’s mouth dropped. “How is that possible?” “Because I’m gone all the time on the weekends flying. I don’t have kids. The zoo seems like a family thing, but I’ve always wanted to see what it looks like.” “If you haven’t been, we are absolutely going. I have a zoo pass.” Ben laughed. “A zoo pass?” “Yes, and I can bring a guest.” She beamed. “This is going to be awesome.” “Alright, the zoo it is.” He sipped from his mug. “But first, can we swing by my place so I can change?” He was wearing his Friday night shirt and pants. Skye giggled. “I think you should go just like that.” “Funny. Do you mind giving me a ride?” “Sure. I’ll shower and then we can go. The morning is the best time to go. We can get there before it gets too crowded.” She watched as he wandered to the window. She wanted to shower before their day date. This could be her chance to show him she was bold. She was a take-charge kind of woman.


He looked into the courtyard. “Ok, I’ll be out here.” Skye inhaled sharply. “Any chance you want to join me?” She forced her eyes to stare into his and not drop to the floor. Confidence was in the eyes. Ben looked surprised. His eyes widened and for a second he didn’t make a sound. “I—uh—I just showered.” “Right.” Skye shook her head and retreated backward. “Never mind. I’ll just be a few minutes.” She darted to her room. She heard Ben call over her shoulder, “Skye, that’s not what I meant.” She closed the door and threw herself on the bed. It was going to take a few minutes to regroup and muster the confidence to face him.

There was a quiet hush that settled over the zoo in the morning. The animals were stirring as they were fed breakfast. The sprinklers watered flowerbeds. Skye thought it was the most beautiful time of the day at the park. “So this is the famous San Diego Zoo?” Ben seemed to be enjoying their stroll through the lush foliage. Skye had managed to shed most of the embarrassment from the shower incident. It was humiliating that she asked him to join her, and he turned her down flat. He didn’t seem uncomfortable though, so she tried to keep smiling and enjoying the day with him. “This is it. What do you think?” They were near the giraffe exhibit. “It’s pretty incredible. I can see why it’s so famous. But you know I don’t think the animals are really the focus.” Skye turned toward him. “Really, what is it?” “I feel like we’re walking around a garden or something and look, there happens to be a lion over there or oh hey, it’s a polar bear.” She laughed. He was acting out the animals with his hands and mouth. His polar bear imitation was fierce. She stopped long enough to answer. “Yes, that’s what I feel every time I come here.” “How often are you at the zoo?” “Honestly, I had never been here until I started working on the tourism account at work. The zoo is one of the many parts to that campaign, and it was my favorite. I started coming to do research, and it turned into almost a daily trip.” “Wow, you really like the zoo.” Skye blushed. She realized that might sound a little strange, but she wasn’t sure about telling him why it had become such a sanctuary for her. “I do. I love it here. It’s peaceful.” She watched the giraffe take a mouthful of straw. “Thanks for bringing me.” He adjusted his sunglasses on his nose. “You’re welcome.” She smiled as he hand moved until his fingers interlaced with hers. “Show me the pandas. I hear they are the big attraction.” “Right this way.”

Ben pulled forward and punched in the access code to the parking garage for his condo complex. After she took him home this morning to change, he offered to drive. They left her car in guest


parking. They had lunch at the park. Walked along the Mission Bay trails and got smoothies at a boardwalk stand. They tried to fulfill every tourist wish in an afternoon. They posed in front of the historic Balboa Park building with its famous domed roof. Ben made funny faces in the selfies, but he still looked sexy. You couldn’t hide eyes and a smile like that. Skye knew the day was winding down, but she wasn’t quite prepared for it to be over. The sun set over the city, and the temperature had dropped ten degrees. After this morning, she wasn’t about to stick her neck out again. Ben could ask her to dinner if he wanted it to keep going. He turned the ignition off and sat staring through the windshield. “I had fun. Thanks for thinking of the touristy day.” She reached for her purse. “Wait.” He turned toward her, his light blue eyes dancing with questions. Maybe he was as confused as she was. “It was a good day.” She fidgeted with her keys, knowing all along she was stalling. She wished his truck didn’t have a console. It felt like a mountain dividing them in the cab. “Yeah, it was a good day.” She reached for the handle on the door and stepped out of the truck. Ben followed her to her parking space. “Do you want to do something later this week?” “Sure.” Skye was ready to peel out of the parking lot. They had an amazing day from waking up together on the couch, to laughing at the penguins, to trading San Diego stories. Why was he ready for it all to end before the sun had sunk behind the ocean? She inserted the key in the lock and opened the car door. “Skye, before you go….” She spun on her heels, meeting a pair of hot and urgent lips. His hands moved over her pulling and tugging her toward him. She dropped the keys and her purse, her hands wanted to touch him. Her mouth parted as his tongue danced against hers. He tasted like strawberries and she worried they might devour each other in the parking garage as he started to growl against her neck. He dotted her throat with her kisses. Her head rolled to the side. This is what she had waited for all day. His mouth, his breath, his hands. But before she could coax him into the back of her car or into the elevator he stopped. “Whoa.” He breathed into her ear. “What’s wrong?” She didn’t see anything in his eyes but what she was feeling, total lust. “Nothing is wrong.” He played with her hair. “I just think we should take it slow this time.” He backed away from the car and retrieved her keys from the ground. “Slow. Right.” She accepted the keys in her palm, but wasn’t quite sure she could do the same with his answer. Had she somehow conveyed to him that she wasn’t interested in all the other things they did before the fight? She loved doing those things to him and with him. “I’ll call you later.” He kissed her forehead and walked backward toward the elevator bay. She slid into the driver’s seat. Her heart was still beating faster than normal, and her hair was tussled on all sides. She took a minute to steady herself before starting the car. Ben Hardcastle had totally turned everything upside down. She steered onto Friars Road when an incoming call beeped through the speakers. “Hello?” She pressed the button on the steering wheel. “Hey, how was last night?” Kari was practically squealing. “Dave was disappointed but I took care of him. You were not kidding about Ben. Wow. I want to hear details!” Skye thought how to answer. “Want to come over?”


“Sure! I just bought a new moscato. I can be at your place in fifteen minutes.” “On my way. See you there.” She exited toward the Gaslamp district. If there was one thing she needed more than Ben, it was a girl’s night.


17

ROOKIE MOVE, HE THOUGHT. BOLT TURNED ON THE TV AND SEARCHED FOR A BASEBALL GAME. THE PADRES weren’t playing tonight so he’d have to watch another team. He didn’t know why he let Skye drive away. The day was incredible. He had never seen someone so excited about a zoo before. He could tell there was more to it than the animals; he just couldn’t get her to open up about it. He didn’t want to push her. She seemed like she was always on the edge of running. After the fight he knew he was walking a fine line anyway. Better to leave things alone. Most guys would have invited her up. He would have invited her up. Taken that jacket off of her and every other stitch of clothing she was wearing until she was moaning and screaming his name under his hands. He shook his head. That was then. This is now. He wasn’t going to go there again until she was ready. He turned off the TV. There wasn’t anything that could hold his attention now that she was gone. Dammit. He reached for his keys and closed the door behind him. He shouldn’t have let her leave. He didn’t wait for the elevator. He jogged down the stairs and headed for his truck. He had one stop to make first.

He knocked on her door. He thought he heard giggling, but wasn’t sure. He held the ice cream and toppings in a bag in his right hand and waited for Skye to open the door. “Hey.” She pulled the door back, a glass of wine in her grasp. “Hey.” He grinned. “Who is it, Skye?” Bolt heard a female voice call from the living room. “Um, I guess I should have called first. You have company?” He shrugged at his bad move. Calling would have made sense, but then that would have taken the spontaneity right out of it. “Come in. It’s ok. It’s my friend Kari. You met her last night at the club.” Bolt followed Skye into the apartment. Music was playing from the stereo and Kari was sitting on the floor next to an open bottle of wine on the coffee table. “Hey, Ben. I didn’t know you were stopping by.” “Hi. I didn’t either. I should have called.” He held up the grocery bag. “Thought I’d surprise Skye with dessert.” “Oh, that’s so sweet,” Kari gushed. She stood to peer in the bag. “Chocolate and strawberry. Nice choices.” She winked at Skye. He handed the bag to Skye. “Why don’t I leave this for you girls and I’ll call you tomorrow?” He


turned for the door, kicking himself for being so rash. “No way. I’m outta here.” Kari darted in front of him. He shook his head. “No, you shouldn’t leave. I’m the one interrupting.” “Too late.” She grabbed her purse and then the door handle. “Call you later, girl.” Before Bolt could protest further the friend was gone. He turned to face Skye. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen.” Skye giggled. She didn’t seem upset. “Kari does what she wants to do.” She placed the bag on the counter. “Dessert?” Bolt walked toward her. “Two kinds of ice cream and toppings.” She reached into the bag and lined the contents on the counter. “Ok, so we have chocolate, strawberry, chocolate syrup, cherries, and whipped cream?” “Did I leave something out?” Bolt realized he had never built a sundae before, but he thought he had all the bases covered. What was he missing? “No, looks perfect to me. I’ll get the bowls.” As she turned to the cabinet behind her, his eyes followed her ass and all the curves from her hips. He shook his head as if that would somehow reset his thoughts. He looked at the coffee table. There were a few candles dotting the surface along with the wine. If he hadn’t just seen Kari walk out of here he would have thought Skye was in the middle of a romantic evening. He picked up the ice cream and the other jars. “How about a sundae picnic in here?” He placed the containers on the coffee table. Skye turned off the kitchen light and walked over, holding bowls and spoons. She smiled. “Ok.” She sat next to him on the carpet. She slid a bowl in front of him and started unsnapping the lids. “So Ben, are you a strawberry or chocolate lover?” “Oh, definitely chocolate. Lots of whipped cream.” He peeled the plastic off of the chocolate container. “Well, at least we don’t have to fight over the ice cream. I like strawberry, but with lots of chocolate syrup. And whipped cream.” She smiled, dipping a spoon into the center of the pink carton. Bolt felt like he needed to explain why he showed up on her doorstep unannounced, but Skye seemed completely calm. He noticed her wine glass was almost empty. That probably helped. Maybe she didn’t need a reason. She was just glad he was here, and with dessert. He scooped a spoonful of chocolate into his bowl and reached for the whipped cream canister. He pressed on the dispenser until the bowl was brimming with the creamy topping. “You weren’t kidding about the whipped cream.” Skye’s eyes widened. “What? Can’t a guy enjoy his dessert?” She giggled. “Don’t let me stop you.” He loaded his spoon and took a mouthful. He watched as she ate the strawberry ice cream. He didn’t know where it came from, but he had an idea that he wanted to try. He dipped his finger into the bowl bringing it forward with whipped cream. “Hold still,” he ordered her. Skye didn’t move as he wiped the cream along her bottom lip. She stifled a giggle. Bolt leaned forward, taking her bottom lip in his mouth. He sucked gently until all the whipped cream was gone. “Mmm…I didn’t think this could taste better, but it does.” He flashed a grin at her as he sat back on his heels and ate another bite of ice cream. Skye rose from the floor and walked to the other side of the room, cutting the lights. The candles flickered on the table. He eyed her suspiciously as she returned to her seat in front of him. She didn’t


sit all at once, instead she reached for the hem of her shirt and pulled it over her head. Bolt swallowed hard. What in the hell was she doing? She reached for the whipped cream and handed it to him. “You can taste more if you want.” With one hand he grabbed the can and with the other he placed his bowl on the table. He didn’t need any more ice cream. He kept his eyes on Skye. She bit her lower lip and leaned forward on all fours, crawling toward him. Her tongue lashed against his lips and he pulled her into his lap. Hands tangling though her hair, mouths moving hard against each other. She leaned back, her head reaching away. Bolt tilted the can up and squeezed whipped cream until he outlined her bra. She smiled as she sat forward, facing him. This was the fun, sexy Skye he had met the first night at the bar. His tongue began to trace the line he made, lapping at the whipped cream as he moved against her skin. Skye arched her back, thrusting her chest forward. Somehow she managed to balance herself in that position and reach behind to unclasp her bra. He watched in amazement as she slid the straps along her arms and deposited it on the floor. She nodded, and he knew she wanted more. He picked up the can again and shook it before pressing the nozzle toward her breast. He made slow swirls along her nipple, knowing in seconds he would be licking it all off. This had to be the single most erotic thing he had done, hands down. He took one breast in his hand, and began licking at the whipped cream. He lapped until his work revealed a hard point in the center of the cream. He drew her into his mouth and sucked, toying her with his teeth. He groaned as she began to rock against him. He loved it when she did that. Her hips were like magic. “More,” she purred. He liked this. She was all in. He shook the can again and covered the other breast then stroked her with his tongue until her skin was glistening from where the whipped cream had been. “You are fucking gorgeous.” He growled, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her mouth. He laid her on the floor underneath him and planted kisses on her neck and ear. Skye clasped her hands to his back, and he thought for the first time they might be back on the same page. They were good at this. He felt her tugging on his shirt and sat up to remove it. As he pressed his naked chest against hers he felt the stickiness from the whipped cream. God, he wanted to cover her in the stuff and lick her entire body, but he was trying to show some kind of restraint. Pants on was good. Pants on would keep him in the safe zone. “Take them off,” she urged. Her hands were at his zipper. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, sweetheart.” He sighed into her ear, as the heel of her hand pressed into jeans, creating a pressure that kept building with each motion. She searched his eyes. “But I thought we were good? Don’t you want more?” He kissed her throat. “That’s the problem. I do want more. And if we do much more than this I don’t know that I can promise I won’t try to seduce you right out of your rule. And I’m not going to do that.” He rubbed his hand across her breast and smiled as she arched into him. “Pants off.” Her eyes flashed at him. “Pants on.” He challenged. He realized she had the upper hand, and if she wiggled out of those jeans he wasn’t exactly going to get up and walk away. Dammit, why did she have to make it so hard the first time he tried to be a good guy? He saw a wicked expression sparkle in her eyes. “Ok, how about you pants off, me pants on?” She had already flicked the button on his jeans and her fingers were working on the zipper.


“Huh?” Now he was confused. She reached for the whipped cream can that had rolled under the coffee table. She grinned. “I want a taste.” Bolt almost fell over. This girl was going to kill him, tame him, or worse, both.


18

WAKING UP WITH WHIPPED CREAM ON HALF YOUR BODY IS STICKY AND STICKY. SKYE ROLLED ON HER BACK. BEN was still asleep. She peeled the sheet from her skin and walked toward the bathroom. A hot shower was the only way to remedy the stickiness. She brushed her teeth while the water warmed in the shower. She smiled at her reflection. It was finally starting to happen. She trusted him. What guy showed up with ice cream and refused to take your pants off if he wasn’t relationship material? Ben was in this for her. For them. She spit into the sink and turned for the shower. Kari’s pep talk before Ben arrived had certainly helped. She was nothing if not a hopeless romantic. Skye wished she could find someone for her friend to date. She seemed to date one loser after another. Although it never deterred Kari from getting out there. The water felt good on her back. She squirted a handful of body wash onto a washcloth and began to lather her body. This was the first time she had scrubbed dessert off her skin, she giggled. Maybe this is what a relationship with Ben would be like. Dessert every night. She wrapped a towel around her chest and shook out her hair. She didn’t want to run the blow dryer right now and wake him up. She walked to the kitchen to make coffee, keeping the towel tightly tucked under her arm. She watched the coffee drip into the pot, and smiled when she heard the water running in the bathroom. Ben was awake. In only two days she had let him back into her life and he had kissed away all the doubts and reservations. She giggled thinking he had licked some of them away too. Skye heard her phone ringing from her purse. She forgot to take it out and charge it last night. She dug through her bag until she gripped the phone. “Mom?” “Honey, I’m almost there. I started driving and what do you know, I ended up in California!” Skye’s stomach rose to her throat. “What do you mean you’re in California?” Maybe her mother was hallucinating and really was on the way back from the grocery store. That was probably it. “I told you I’ve never done it before. I wanted to drive cross-country, so here I am.” Her mother sounded completely victorious and not as scattered as the last phone call . Skye realized it had been a few days since she had spoken with her. It was possible she had been driving for four days. “Mom, just tell me where you are and I’ll come get you.” Skye pulled a notebook and pen from the kitchen drawer hoping her mother had some clear directions for her.


“That’s nonsense. I’ve done this entire trip on my own and I’m going to finish it that way. I’ll be at your place by dinner.” Ben walked into the kitchen. His eyes not quite fully awake, his hair sticking up, and a towel tucked around his waist. He shot straight to the coffee, and reached into the cabinet for two mugs. Skye knew at any other time the fact that they were both standing in her kitchen with nothing but towels wrapped around their bodies would be the precursor to something wickedly fun, but right now she had to figure out what to do about her mother. She turned back to the pad and paper. “I could at least lead you the rest of the way in. San Diego traffic is horrible, even on the weekends. I would hate for you to get lost. Just tell me what town you’re close to, and I can meet you half-way.” “Honey, I’ve got this. I’ll see you for dinner. Pick some place really nice, and I’ll take you out tonight for a treat. Ok?” “But Mom—” She looked at the dark phone in her hand. Her mother had hung up. Ben handed her a fresh cup of coffee. “Mom trouble?” Skye didn’t even know where to begin. She wished she only had ‘mom trouble,’ but it was more like a ‘renegade teenager trapped in a forty-eight year old woman’s body’ trouble. “Apparently, my mom’s coming for a visit.” She slumped into a chair, resting her mug on the kitchen table. Ben’s eyebrows arched. “Surprise parent visit? That’s interesting. You need me to clear out of here so you can get ready?” “No. No.” Her hand landed on his wrist. “She’s not going to be here until dinner time, and I don’t have much to do before then except worry.” “Is she a bad driver or something?” “Or something.” Skye chewed on her bottom lip. She rarely discussed her mother’s illness, but she realized she didn’t know how long Patty Stephens would be in San Diego. At some point, it would interfere with her ability to see Ben. She drew in a long breath. “My mother suffers from a mental illness.” She couldn’t look at him, it was better to focus on the cream swirling at the top of her coffee. “It only started a few years ago, but once it did it has progressed pretty rapidly. She’s paranoid all the time and thinks people are after her. She isn’t easy to spend time with.” “Wow. I don’t know what to say.” Skye glanced up long enough to see Ben was concerned. His light blue eyes softened. “Does she have help?” Skye sighed. “No. I’ve applied for a program so she can have in-care observation seven days a week, but we’re on a waiting list. I’m starting to think we’ll never get in. She can take care of herself, but when she has a paranoia episode her decision making isn’t the best.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Like this trip to drive cross-country without telling anyone. I had no idea she hasn’t been at home in four days. I’m an awful daughter.” “I don’t think that.” Skye met his gaze. “Well, you don’t know me very well. She lives in North Carolina, and I’m in San Diego. I should have moved back home as soon as she was diagnosed.” Crying was not an allowable emotion, but Skye felt the corners of her eyelids stinging and knew she had lost the battle. A tear trickled along her cheek. “True, I haven’t known you very long, but I can’t imagine you’re anyone but the kind of person who works hard, cares about her family, and is way too hard on herself for things that are out of her control.” His thumb brushed against her cheek, wiping the tear to the side.


“That’s sweet.” Skye stood from the table, suddenly self-conscious she was wearing a towel. “But, I haven’t made the best choices where my mom is concerned and today that’s about to bite me in the ass.” She dumped the rest of her coffee in the sink. “Let me help you.” She shoved the mug in the top rack of the dishwasher. “Thanks, but I don’t think there’s anything you can do. She’s my responsibility. I’m going to have to face reality. Either I quit and go home to take care of her, or I have to put her in a home, and I can’t do that.” She shook her head. “I can’t do that to my mom.” “There has to be something I can do.” He stood in between her and the exit to the hallway. “No. I need to make a few calls. Tell my aunt where my mom is, and I need to call in to work and let them know I can’t present the new zoo slogans tomorrow. I can’t believe I finally got part of that project, and I have to cancel on my first meeting.” "Why do you have to cancel your meeting?" Ben's eyes hadn't stopped following her. "Because I can't leave her alone. She could get lost or start trouble with my neighbors. I just can't leave her here where she doesn't know anyone." Skye noticed Ben was concentrating. “Wait, what if I hang out with your mom?” Skye shook her head in disbelief. “Oh no way, I couldn’t ask you to do that.” Ben smiled. “You didn’t ask. I’m offering. Look, I have some leave saved up, and I can take a day or two this week to help you. That way you don’t have to miss your meeting, and it might buy you some time to figure out how to get her back home.” She wasn’t sure if it was the smile, the eyes, or the warmth of his skin radiating in her direction, but she had never wanted to believe in someone so much in her life. “You don’t look convinced.” He drew her into his chest. “I had fun yesterday touring the city. I can take your mom to the museum, or the beach. She’ll love it.” Skye didn’t want to move, she only wanted to stay with her cheek pressed into his chest, listening to his heart beat. For the first time there was someone with her, offering to share the burden, offering to help. It felt like she could breathe. She looked into his eyes. “You’re sure? She’s a handful. She once accused a waiter of poisoning our order at a restaurant. And she’s tried on clothes in the mall and walked out with them still on, insisting she paid for them. She’s not like other people’s mothers.” Ben nodded. “I know women. I can handle her.” Skye laughed. “You’ve never met this one.”


19

BOLT SHOWERED FOR THE SECOND TIME TODAY. THE LAST TIME HE HAD MET A GIRL’S PARENTS WAS IN HIGH school, and it didn’t go so well when he brought her home after curfew. He never let dating get far enough into the parent stage. That was more commitment than he was usually interested in. Why in the hell was he headed over to have dinner with Patty Stephens? Skye didn’t ask for his help. He volunteered. There was something about her that was making things that used to seem impossible, seem possible. Like sticking around for breakfast or volunteering to do something completely insane. Skye suggested he come back over after her mother arrived so that she could explain to her they would have a guest at dinner. She said something about needing time to let her adjust. Parents had stopped being a part of his life a long time ago. Ben hadn’t seen his parents since he left for college. He walked out the door and never looked back. He sometimes wondered how they were doing. Was his dad still drinking? Did his mother still make meatloaf every Sunday? But he didn’t call, he didn’t write, and he didn’t visit. Military life gave him the perfect excuse to stay as far away from Greene, Tennessee as possible. It hadn’t gone unnoticed that they never reached out to him either. He knew it was better this way. He would go back some day, but he wasn’t ready. They didn’t seek each other out for that reason, but he and Riggs always had that in common. Riggs had left home at the same time. When he and Bolt were paired as roommates in college there was an understanding that none of the other kids got. Everyone else on their hall packed up for winter break and weekends home to do laundry, but not Riggs. He and Bolt took trips together, spent summers visiting as many ballparks as their car would take them to, met girls, partied in Cabo, and decided to join the Marine Corps together. Without exchanging the words, they became each other’s family. Their senior year Riggs met Faith. She transferred in from a nearby art school. Bolt tried not to resent the relationship, and for the most part, he prided himself on how he didn’t give Charlie a hard time about getting so serious so fast with a girl. After graduation Riggs asked Faith to marry him. They eloped before Officer Candidates School and the rest was history. Bolt didn’t let his thirdwheel status bother him. Faith was a cool girl and she made Riggs happy. Anyone who spent five minutes with the couple could see it. “Why don’t you try it, man?” Riggs asked one night over a beer. “Try what?” Bolt eyed his best friend like he was growing horns. “Find a girl. Get married. It’s awesome.” Riggs kicked back the bottle. “That’s your thing, man. Not mine.” Bolt shook his head. “I’m glad you have Faith. I really am.


But I’m not the boyfriend type and definitely not the marrying type.” He stood to get another beer. “Can I get one for you?” “Yeah, bring me one.” Bolt walked through the patio door and reached in the cooler for two beers. The friends had managed to stay together through flight school. They only had three weeks left in Mississippi before they would be on to the next stage of the pilot process. “Here you go.” He tossed the beer in Riggs’s lap. “Thanks.” Riggs twisted the cap and tossed it in an open trash bin. “Look, I worry about you.” Bolt chuckled. “Why do you worry about me?” He had lost count on how many beers they had consumed. Saturday nights were their chance to let loose. No flying on Sundays. “Because, I’m with Faith and pretty soon we’ll probably start a family, and I don’t like that you’re out on your own with nobody to help you fly straight.” The words cut into Bolt’s skin like thorns. He wasn’t alone. He had Riggs. He had the guys he would fly with. “I’m fine. Women complicate things. Relationships complicate things. I like my life just fine without somebody in it, telling me what to do, where to go, how to dress. I don’t need the bullshit. I’m glad Faith’s not like that. But it’s not for me.” The cold beer was soothing on his throat. He didn’t know how many more of these humid Mississippi nights he could handle. “Alright, brother, but you don’t know what you’re missing out on. One day you’re going to meet someone and it’s all going to change.” “Negative.” Riggs laughed so hard he spilled his beer on the concrete under his lawn chair. “You say that now, but just wait. I’m going to be there laughing my ass off the entire time. Just don’t wait too long. Ok?” “Let’s talk about something other than women. What do you say we plan a trip after flight school graduation?” “Chicago? We haven’t gone to Wrigley yet.” “I’m in.” Bolt smiled.

Bolt thought about that night as he parked in the visitor space outside Skye’s apartment building. Riggs had tried for years to sell him on the benefits of monogamous bliss, but Bolt didn’t buy it. Riggs and Faith were different. That kind of relationship didn’t happen for other people. He pressed the elevator button and looked at the flowers he held in his hand. Moms liked flowers, right? He wasn’t one to fidget, but he brushed off the imaginary lint on his shirt and pulled his collar away from his throat. The doors retracted and Bolt stepped into the hallway. His heart was beating faster than usual. He reminded himself he was the guy who never got nervous before a flight. This was no big deal—just one little mother. It wasn’t like there was a dad with a shotgun on the other side of the door. He knocked twice before Skye flung the door open. “Hi!” She smiled. “Hi.” He looked over her shoulder, ready to get the parent introduction out of the way. A petite woman sat on the couch, thumbing through a magazine. She once had dark hair, but it was woven with patches of gray. Bolt wasn’t sure what he expected, but from the little description Skye had given, he was expecting someone who looked crazy, but Patty Stephens seemed comfortable and at home in her daughter’s apartment.


“Mom, this is Ben.” Skye led him over to where her mother was sitting. “Ben, Mom, or I guess you would call her Patty.” “Nice to meet you.” He held out the assorted flowers. “These are for you.” Patty stood, placing the magazine on the seat behind her. “Ben. It’s a pleasure. I wish I could say I’ve heard more about you, but Skye has a way of keeping secrets.” She laid the flowers on the coffee table and her hands clasped over his. “Thank you for those flowers.” “Mom, I told you we just started dating.” Skye twisted her bottom lip under her teeth. “Ben’s not a secret.” It was the first time either of them had said something so formal. Ben thought it would feel uncomfortable, like wearing a jacket made out of sandpaper, but he liked how it rolled off her tongue. Dating. He and Skye were dating. Patty rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t mean you have to keep someone as handsome as this from me. I like to know about your friends.” Ben chuckled. It didn’t take long to recognize some of Skye’s stubbornness. “So, where did you ladies decide we’re going to eat tonight?” “Oh, I thought maybe we should order in. Mom, you’ve got to be exhausted from driving for four days. I have lots of menus.” Skye scurried to a drawer in the kitchen and returned with an armful of menus. “That’s nonsense. I told you I wanted to take you out to dinner. What’s your favorite place?” Patty didn’t look at the menus. “Mom, it’s too much. Maybe tomorrow night. We can order anything you want.” Patty turned to Bolt. “Ben, what’s your favorite spot?” He shifted his hands in his pockets. Being in the middle of two women like this wasn’t a comfortable position. “I’m up for anything. I’ll let you girls decide.” “Ok. Fine. We can go out.” Skye walked to the door and reached for a jacket. “There’s an Italian place around the corner. How does that sound, Mom?” A light flickered behind Patty’s eyes. “Honey, I’ll go wherever you want. I don’t want to be a bother.” She winked at Bolt. “I do love Italian.” He followed them out the door.

“How’s your lasagna, Mom?” Skye asked over a glass of red wine. She hadn’t stopped peppering her mother with questions since they left the apartment. “It’s quite cheesy. I like it.” Patty smiled. “So, Ben, I want to hear about your job. What do you fly exactly?” “Mom, he doesn’t want to talk about work.” Bolt smiled. “It’s fine. I don’t mind talking about flying. It’s one of my favorite things.” He looked at Skye’s mother. “I fly fighter jets for the Marine Corps out of Miramar.” “Oh my word. That’s impressive. So you work for the government?” “I guess so, but I don’t really think about it like that. I fly for the military. It’s not like I’m involved with what’s going on in D.C.” Patty paused before asking another question. “But, do you fly secret missions? The kinds of things you aren’t supposed to tell us about?” “Mom! That’s enough. Let Ben eat his pasta.” Skye looked mortified. “I have been overseas if that’s what you’re asking.” He leaned into the table. “If I’ve flown a


secret mission, I can’t really tell you about it.” He stabbed a penne noodle on the end of his fork. “I knew it!” Patty laughed. “Secret missions. Skye, this is exciting.” Bolt didn’t think it hurt to feed her interest in his job; however, the expression on Skye’s face told him otherwise. He knew he’d be getting a thorough rundown on what he could talk about tomorrow on his day with her mother. Bolt waited for an extreme Patty Stephens meltdown, but the evening was a normal get-to-knowyou dinner. He was having a good time with the two women. “Mom, why don’t you tell us what’s going on back at home? Who is watching the dogs?” “I dropped them off at the kennel. I couldn’t very well drive across the country with two dogs to worry about.” She took a bite of salad. Bolt noticed Skye fidgeted with her napkin, glass, and everything on her plate. She was a completely different woman with her mother next to her. Part of him wanted to reach across the table and tell her everything was fine. He was fine. Dinner was fine. But the part that always made him hold back his emotions, won out. He finished his meal and observed the dynamic between the two women, wondering what all of this meant. After dinner they walked to Skye’s apartment. Bolt stood in front of the entrance door. Had it only been two night’s ago they kissed against this wall? Running into her again had changed everything. It was still changing things. “Thank you for letting me tag along on your dinner, Patty. Skye, what time do you need me in the morning?” “Mom, can you give us a second?” “Oh sure, honey. I’ll just wait in here.” The mother disappeared through the door. “Thanks for tonight. Are you sure about tomorrow? You can still back out. I wouldn’t blame you if you did.” Skye stood several feet away. “Yes.” He let his hand linger next to her arm. He wanted to pull her into his chest, but she was keeping the distance between them. “It will be fun. Don’t worry about anything. What time?” “I usually try to leave for work by 7:30.” “Ok. I’ll be here then.” “Goodnight, Ben.” Skye turned toward the door, but he caught her elbow. He brushed his mouth against her lips. “Goodnight.”


20

“HERE IS AN EXTRA BLANKET IF YOU NEED IT.” Skye folded a quilt in half and draped it over the back of the couch. The guest accommodations in her one-bedroom apartment were limited. Her mom would have to stay on the couch. If she wasn’t such a night owl, Skye would offer her bedroom, but her mom could be up all night. Skye needed the door to ensure she’d get her own amount of sleep. “Thanks, honey. I know where everything is if I need anything.” Patty turned to the TV. “Ok, well, I have to get ready for my meeting in the morning so I’ll be in my room working on the presentation.” She leaned to hug her mother. “Night night.” “Goodnight.” Skye left her mother on her couch. The nervous feelings that started this morning when her mother called had started to vanish. They weren’t entirely gone, but Skye felt her shoulders settling down her back and the tightness in her neck relaxing. Patty had been in San Diego for six hours and so far no paranoid episodes. Maybe her new medication was working. Aunt Rose would be here Wednesday night, and she would drive back to North Carolina with her mom on Thursday. Skye flipped open her laptop. Pictures from the zoo flashed on her screen. She was there yesterday with Ben. Laughing, pointing at monkeys, holding hands. She sighed. She didn’t want him to know about her mother, but at some point everyone found out. She could only hope that tomorrow was another smooth day.

Skye straightened her suit and stepped into her highest black heels. She liked towering over the meeting. She always felt like it gave her an edge. Her mother was sleeping on the couch. She opened the door, careful not to wake her guest. Ben stood in front of her. Damn, he looked edible in the morning. “Hi,” she whispered. “Hi.” He slipped past her and nodded when he saw Patty on the couch. He pulled Skye’s wrist and led her to her room where he closed the door behind her. “This is how I really wanted to say good morning.” He pressed her shoulders against the door and his lips blazed along her neck. “Ben!” Skye let out her loudest whisper scream. “My mom’s in there.”


“Yeah, but you know I love this librarian look you have going.” He pulled the collar from her neck and began to unbutton the first few buttons. “No.” She swatted at his hands, but he gripped them and held her still. “I didn’t kiss you last night, and I’m not going to kiss you all day. So you’ve got to give me this.” His mouth landed on hers, and his entire body leaned against her. She felt his warmth through the opening in her shirt. His tongue danced and she moaned, taking the kiss deeper. He pulled back and straightened her jacket. “Now, that’s a better good morning.” He winked as he buttoned the second button. “You should leave the top one undone. It will drive everyone in your meeting crazy.” Skye took the button between her fingers. “That’s not what I’m going for.” For a second she was tempted to cancel the meeting and shuttle her mother off to a hotel so she could see how far that kiss could go, but responsibility set in. She grinned. He had managed to surprise her before 7:30. Her hand gripped the doorknob. She had a presentation to give. If she turned around again, he would probably have her out of her skirt and in the bed in five minutes. The meeting. She had a meeting. “Bye,” she whispered over her shoulder.

“You ready?” Greg glared over a stack of folders. “Yes. I have everything we need right here.” Skye held up a thumb drive. She had downloaded the presentation last night as well as backed it up on her hard drive and a remote server. She was nothing if not thorough. “Good. I’ll let you handle all the talking points on the zoo.” Greg sifted through the pastries on the center of the table until his fingers settled on a strawberry donut. “I’ve got enough on my plate with the rest of this shit.” Skye eyed him. The usually cocky executive looked shaken. “Everything ok, Greg?” “Oh sure. I’m only handling the biggest account we’ve ever had and I just got another client dumped on my desk yesterday. No problem.” Skye plugged her laptop into the projection system. “Are you not happy with the accounts you have?” She wasn’t about to pipe in on how lackluster sun protection was. He mumbled something under his breath. “It’s not like I’m sticking around. I just needed a big account to get the New York job.” Skye looked up, the lights from the projector in her face. “What do you mean?” “Just what I said. This was a means to an end for me. I didn’t expect it to be so much fucking work.” He clutched a second donut. “But, don’t say anything. I haven’t given my notice.” “You expect me to keep quiet about this after you took the entire tourism account from me?” “I gave you the zoo file.” “Is that like hush money or something?” Greg smirked. “You could call it that.” Skye thought of a few choice four-letter words to throw across the conference room, but CEO Stan Preston walked through the door. “Greg, how’s it going? Skye, so glad Greg brought you in on this account. He’s a smart guy.” Stan nodded at each of them before taking a seat at the head of the table. “Good morning, Stan.” Skye busied herself with starting the first graphic, making sure the lighting and colors were right. Greg had just handed her the biggest piece of ammo if she wanted to get the


account back, but right now it wasn’t her focus. The members of the tourism board would be walking in the room any minute. It was not the time to start a coup. “Can’t wait to see what you have to show us, Greg. The board is extremely happy with how you’ve handled this account.” Stan stretched in his seat. “You know it’s only a matter of time before you’re sitting right here.” He patted the tabletop. Skye rolled her eyes. Greg had weaseled his way into the account just to get a rung under his foot for the next step. “Looks like our guests are here. Skye, are you ready to start?” Greg wiped the sugar from his hands. “Absolutely.” She pulled her shoulders back and smiled as the tourism board filed in the conference room.

“This is unbelievable. Greg told you that?” Kari still hadn’t closed her mouth since Skye shared the news. “Yes, he was even bragging about it. I would say rubbing it in my face that he got a new job and the tourism spot is now beneath him. What an ass. He knows what it meant to me.” “I think it could be a good thing. You can take it back.” Kari shifted in her seat. “You know what? I don’t think I want it back.” Skye took a bite of salad. Her shoes were strewn under the desk. “How could you not want it back?” Kari unveiled a chicken salad in a Styrofoam container. “Hold that thought.” Skye retrieved her ringing phone. “Ben, hey is everything ok?” She held her breath, waiting for him to explain how her mother was on the roof, or he lost her at the park. “Yeah, everything is great. Patty and I were just checking to see if you needed anything at the grocery store.” “Grocery store?” “Mmm…hmm. Your mom wants to cook dinner for you tonight. I told her I’d take her to the closest market. Need us to pick up anything for you?” “So everything is ok? She’s not lost?” Ben chuckled on the other end. “No. You realize I’m a trusted member of our military. I’m not going to lose your mother.” The tightness in Skye’s chest lessened. She smiled. “I know. I know. It just wouldn’t be the first time.” “So you don’t need anything?” “No, no I’m good.” “I think you might be out of whipped cream.” “Ben,” she scolded into the phone. He laughed. “I’ll make sure to pick some up. Text me if you need anything. “Ok, bye.” She smiled at Kari. “You look happy. What was that all about?” Kari took a bite of her salad. Skye slid the phone back into her purse. “Ben. He’s hanging out with my mom today. Kind of showing her around town.” “Ohh, this is getting serious.” Kari moved to the edge of the chair. “It is, isn’t it?” Skye leaned in her chair. “I didn’t ask him to stay with her, he just volunteered. Guys don’t do that unless they are serious.”


“How many days to go?” “What do you mean?” Kari laughed. “Don’t tell me you’re not marking them off your calendar. You have to counting until day thirty.” “Kari! I’m not even—” “Don’t give me that. I would be counting down the minutes if I was getting ready to roll in the hay with that guy. Whew.” She pretended to fan herself. “So when is the big night?” “Thirty days would be Saturday night, I guess.” Skye bit her lip. Was it really that soon? She wasn’t starting the clock over. There was less than a week to go. “Ok, so what’s the big plan?” “Plan? We don’t have a plan. It’s not like that. We just got back together or reconnected. I don’t know how to define it. We haven’t actually sat down and said Saturday night we’re going to….” “Then we need to start planning right now. You need lingerie. You need wine. You need a place. Where is this going to happen?” Skye shook her head. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t even know—” “If you’re going to sleep with him? You are totally sleeping with him. Because if you don’t, I will. Now what do you think about this?” Kari held up a lingerie set from Chloe’s Closet on her phone. “You want me to wear that?” Skye didn’t know how she would even crawl into something with so many ties. “Ok, not your style. What about this one?” She swiped the screen and showed Skye a picture with a girl leaning against a wall. “No way. No leather.” “Picky, picky.” Kari scrolled through the online pictures. “Ah-hah! This is the one.” She shoved the phone across the desk. “Oh wow.” She zoomed in, examining the cuts. “You think I should wear this?” “Definitely.” Kari beamed. “It’s the thirty-day special selection.” “Ok. This is the one.” She blushed. All she could think about was how it would feel when Ben took it off of her.

“Knock knock. I’m home.” Skye called into the apartment. She heard laughter around the corner. She followed the sounds to see Ben and her mother chopping vegetables on the counter. “Oh honey, you’re home.” Patty skirted around Ben and pulled Skye into a hug. “Ben here is helping me make chicken stir fry. You still like that, right?” “Of course.” Skye nodded. She watched as Ben sliced into a red pepper. “Hey.” He winked. “Patty was telling me all about your favorite foods. You must be the only kid in the history of kid-dom who didn’t like macaroni and cheese.” “Oh no. What else did she tell you?” Skye noticed how happy her mother looked. Her eyes were clear. “Nothing that embarrassing. She promised some baby photos later.” Skye groaned. “I’m going to go change. I’ll be right back.” She left them in the kitchen, slicing and dicing. Skye returned in a pair of yoga pants and a long tank top. It always felt good getting out of heels and her suit. “Can I help with anything?” She peered over the counter. Ben waved a knife in the air. “We’ve got this under control. Why don’t you take this glass of wine


I poured for you and sit in the living room until it’s ready?” “Yes, sir.” She giggled. Skye took the glass and retreated to the couch. This was nice. Coming home to dinner on the stove, a glass of wine, a somewhat sane mother, and a hot guy in the kitchen. This was something she’d like to get used to.


21

BOLT WAS EXHAUSTED. HE LANDED ON HIS BED FULLY CLOTHED. HE DIDN’T WANT TO TELL SKYE SHE WAS RIGHT. Her mother was more than a handful. He had lost her twice in the grocery store. Once he found her behind the glass talking to the butcher, and the second time was in the parking lot. While he loaded the groceries, she had started up a conversation with a homeless man. Luckily, he found her before he had to call Skye. There was also a situation with an ice cream truck driver in the park. She accused him of being part of a covert operation. Bolt had convinced her his ice cream wasn’t any good any way and steered her in a different direction. For the most part he thought the day went ok. Considering he and Patty Stephens had only met the night before, he thought he handled it well. After an entire day with her he realized the struggles facing Skye. Patty was calm and easy to get along with, but in an instant she’d start spouting conspiracy theories or looking around her as if someone was watching her. It made him wonder what made a person start thinking things like that. What was Skye going to do? If Patty’s illness meant she had to move back to North Carolina everything would change. San Diego without Skye in it suddenly didn’t seem like such a sunny place to live. He couldn’t worry about that now. He’d be back at work tomorrow. Back to flying. He would call Skye to check on her before he took off. He fell asleep with his shoes still on his feet.

The skies were clear today. Sometimes the cloud layer was thick around San Diego and he had to climb to four thousand feet before there was any blue sky, but today was different. As soon as he and Eagle took off they could see the endless stretch of the Pacific. The city sprawled beneath them as Bolt broke hard right. “It’s a good day to fly, man.” Bolt spoke through the headset in his helmet. “Sure is. Everybody should be up here today.” They soared through the sky in silence. Sometimes it was nice to enjoy the air and the quiet. However, the F/A-18 wasn’t the definition of quiet. The engines roared as Bolt took them farther over the ocean. He had only been flying four years, but days like this he couldn’t remember when he did anything else. When he and Riggs joined the Marine Corps becoming pilots wasn’t the plan. The military was a way to travel and to get farther from home. Flying fell into their laps, like rain from the sky. Their first day in flight training they looked at each. “We are in way over our heads, Ben.” Riggs’s


eyes were wide. “What are you talking about? We can do this.” Bolt looked at the stack of manuals in front of him. They were supposed to not only memorize the contents, but also know the material front and back. “I don’t know how you talked me into this. I just wanted some cush officer job, pushing paper. Now look what I’m doing.” Riggs flipped through the first few pages. “Just think how proud Faith will be. She’ll be married to a pilot. What’s sexier than a pilot? She’s going to love that.” “Don’t try to sweet talk me using her.” Riggs laughed. “But you’re right. She’s going to love it.” Bolt didn’t have to wonder whether Faith loved it now. She was a pilot’s widow, and there was nothing wonderful about that. Eagle called through the headset, “Looks like we’re getting low on gas. Ready to head back?” Bolt didn’t want to leave the high altitude, but gas was a problem. They couldn’t fly more than two hours at a time without having to refuel. They weren’t scheduled to meet up with a tanker today, so refueling back at base was the only option. “Alright man, let’s go.” They flew straight to Miramar.

Hollywood slapped Bolt on the back. “How are things with Skye? Good to see her out the other night.” “Shit.” Bolt mumbled. He unzipped the side pocket on the sleeve of his flight suit to retrieve his phone. “What? Forget about her already?” Hollywood planted himself on the bench next to Bolt in the locker room. “No, I was going to call her. Give me a minute.” He walked past the lockers in search of someplace quiet. He tapped her name on his phone. “Hey.” “Hey, I just landed. How did it go today with your mom?” He ducked into the ready room. “My aunt arrived about an hour ago. Once we convinced my mom we were not committing her to an institution, she agreed to drive back with Aunt Rose in the morning. They said they would make it like a Thelma and Louise kind of thing; I’m hoping with a completely different ending.” “That sounds good. You must feel better.” Skye sighed into the phone. “I do, but I feel just as guilty. I should have driven her back, shouldn’t I?” “No, you have responsibilities. You have a job. You took days off of work this week to spend time with her. You’re doing a good job taking care of her.” “Thanks for saying that, Ben. There’s nothing easy about it, and I have no idea what I’m going to do if she keeps getting worse.” He heard her sigh into the phone. “I think we’re going to order pizza. Want to join us?” Bolt adjusted the patch on the front of his suit. “I think you should hang with your mom and aunt tonight. Make sure she’s all packed. But I did want to ask you something.” “And what’s that?” Her voice sounded lighter. “Do you have any plans Saturday night?” He waited for the response. “This Saturday? As in this weekend?” “That would be the one.”


“Hmm…I think I’m free.” He smiled. “Good. Because I want to take you somewhere special.” “Would this have anything to do with a certain thirty-day timeline?” He laughed. “I’m not saying.” “You have to give me a clue.” “Pack an overnight bag and be ready at four. I’ll pick you up then.” Skye sighed playfully. “You’re not going to give me anything else to go on?” “Pack something pretty to wear for dinner. I’ll give you that much.” “I know just what to bring. It’s only Wednesday, you think I’ll see you before that?” He had forgotten to mention his overnight trip to Yuma this week. “Actually, we have a low-level reconnaissance training mission. I’m going to be in Arizona for two days, but I’ll be back for Saturday.” She paused. “Oh, is that normal to take sudden trips like that?” “Sometimes. It depends on what the squadron has planned for training. I don’t go on all the trips.” He wondered if there was more to her question. He wasn’t used to having someone at home waiting for him when it was time to go. “Ok, well just tell me if something else comes up.” “Hey, I’ve gotta go. I’ll call you later, ok?” He waved at the guys who walked in the room. He needed to clear out. “Ok.” Ben slid the phone into his arm pocket. He had waited almost thirty full days for Saturday night and it was only two days away. Maybe there was something to the saying good things are worth waiting for.


22

SKYE SHOOK OUT HER HAIR AND LOOKED AT HER REFLECTION. BEN SAID FOUR O’CLOCK. IT WAS ALMOST TIME. The bag was packed and ready on her bed. Kari had gone over the packing list with her: lingerie, condoms, and a cocktail dress that would make him want to get to the lingerie and condoms. She thought about the first night they met. She was ready to sleep with him then, so why was this such a big deal? Thirty days had come and gone. Thirty days had brought them closer together. Thirty days had prepared her for tonight. Her phone vibrated on the counter.

Ready to go? I’m outside.

Skye smiled and suppressed the bundle of nerves that had been building all day. She was more than ready. She strolled to the door and opened it. Ben leaned against the doorframe. His eyes sparkling brighter than usual. There was a mischievous look brimming in those baby blues. “Hey. I’m all packed.” She stepped to the side, allowing him into the apartment. “Great. I’ll get your bag.” Ben was already hunting for it. Skye thought he might be nervous, but she realized she might have been projecting all the butterflies tumbling in her stomach. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going?” Ben returned from the bedroom, bag in hand. “You’ll see in about ten minutes. I have to keep my man of mystery status as long as I can.” Skye giggled. “Ok. But you’ve built this up so I hope you can live up to the expectation.” She covered her mouth and shook her head. “That’s not what I meant.” A smile spread across Ben’s face. “Don’t worry. I’m not worried I’ll disappoint you.” He planted a kiss on her mouth. “Come on, we have reservations, and I want to see whatever dress you’re going to put on.” Skye followed, locking the door behind her.

“So, what do you think? Surprised?” Ben searched her face for a reaction.


“We’re eating dinner here?” Skye marveled at the famous hotel. “Not just dinner. We have a suite.” Ben raised his hands. “But whatever we do in the suite is up to you.” They were both kidding themselves if they thought either of them was wavering on where the night was headed. Just being in front of the Hotel del Coronado, made Skye want to rush to the room and give herself over to be Ben. This was incredible. A bellman took their bags and led them into the grand lobby. “I can’t believe you got us a room here. Did you know this was my favorite place in San Diego?” “I thought the zoo was your favorite place.” She squeezed his hand. “My favorite indoor place.” “I must be a good guesser, but it is one of my favorite spots. I thought it would be special.” He led her to the elevator. “Don’t we need to check in?” Skye looked over the shoulder at the reservation desk. “I already took care of it before I came to pick you up.” He tapped the elevator button. The doors closed behind them. Skye started to think he had put more thought into this than just a room and dinner reservation. “I —I don’t know what to say.” He smiled. “That’s all I need to hear.” She followed him along the corridor and watched as he inserted a key into the lock and pushed open the door. There was a bottle of champagne and roses on the counter. The suite overlooked the ocean. “This is amazing.” Skye walked to the window. She had never stayed in the historic hotel, but had always wanted an occasion to reserve a room. She and Kari had brunch in the restaurants on site, but there was never a reason to pack a bag. Not until tonight. Not until Ben. She watched the waves crash on the beach. “You want to go down there?” Ben asked. “On the beach?” “Yes, we’ve got plenty of time before dinner. We can come back up and change later. Let’s go.” He held out a hand. “Ok.” It was cool on the beach. It was something Skye never got used to with the California coast. Growing up in North Carolina she was accustomed to warm sand and water, but the Pacific was perpetually chilly. Even on the hottest of summer days. Today they were enjoying the perks of Coronado Beach, an April evening on the shore. They left their shoes on top of a rock and let their toes dig into the white sand. They walked southeast, away from the busiest part of the beach. The water always looked different to her on this side of the country. It didn’t have the emerald and aqua hues of her home beaches. There was a sullenness to the ocean that overwhelmed her every time she saw it. Skye felt a lightness in her step and in her heart as they let the tide lap around their ankles. She knew she was falling for Ben in more ways than one. He was gorgeous, sexy, incredible when the lights went down, but this week she saw what he was truly like when the lights were on. After a few minutes, the water had numbed her toes and tops of her feet. Walking through the water with him felt refreshing. She clutched his hand. “I don’t know if I ever really told you how much I appreciated what you did for me Monday. Taking off of work for my mom, was—”


“You already thanked me. It wasn’t a big deal.” Skye watched as a plane soared overhead. “It was a big deal to me. So, thank you.” “How are they doing on the drive back?” Ben’s eyes were fixed on the plane too. “I talked to my aunt this morning, and she said they’re in Texas. I think they are going to stay in Dallas a couple of days. They’re really making a trip out of it, which is great for my mom. It’s exactly what she wanted.” “I’m glad I got to meet her.” “Honestly, I was worried.” “Why? You thought she’d scare me off?” He laughed and kicked a wave at her legs. “It wouldn’t be the first time.” “That’s crazy. She’s a sweetheart.” Ben stopped and retrieved his phone from his pocket. Skye’s expression changed involuntarily when he answered it. “Faith, hey. Everything ok?” He turned his back to Skye. She remembered the last time he had answered a call from the same person. It was the night of the fight. She could only hear bits and pieces of the conversation. Ben covered the phone with his hand. “Ok, I’ll call you tomorrow. Bye.” He walked a few paces to Skye, tucking the phone into his pocket. “That was Faith.” Skye scanned his face for an expression. Anything that would give her a clue as to who Faith was. She was obviously important. “Ok.” “What’s wrong? You don’t look happy with me.” Ben tried to lace his fingers through hers again, but the mood had changed. “I know this is going to make me sound suspicious and jealous and we haven’t had this discussion, but is Faith someone else you’re seeing?” Ben’s eyebrows rose to the top of his forehead. “No. You think—” He shook his head. “No, Faith is my best friend’s wife.” Skye relaxed her shoulders. “Oh good.” Skye felt more relieved than stupid for prying. But on the night she was going to sleep with him, she didn’t want any other women in the picture. That wasn’t too much to ask. Ben’s hands grasped the edge of the silver necklace he wore and he revealed the dog tags from his shirt. “This is her husband. Riggs.” He held out the bottom tag. “Why do you have his tag?” Skye had a sinking feeling, but didn’t want to jump to any more conclusions. Maybe Riggs was deployed. “Let’s sit over here.” Ben led her to a rock formation, sticking out of the sand. He kept a firm grip on her arm so she didn’t slide on the slippery bottom rocks. “Is everything ok, Ben?” “No, it’s not.” He shook his head. “Riggs and I were college roommates. That’s where we met. Middle Tennessee State.” Skye didn’t want to interrupt a single word. “It was great. We both had the same kind of shitty family lives. We were supposed to be roommates. I have no doubt about that.” Ben’s eyes drifted to the waves. “After four years of it being the two of us, he met Faith and they got married. But, he still wanted to join the Marine Corps. We did that together, then flight school together, moved out to California, and went through the RAG together.” Ben took a long pause. “Anyway, one night we were out doing carrier training. That’s when we have to land at sea. It’s just part of the process to keep us fresh on all the skills.” Skye wanted to put an arm around him or crawl in his lap, but it was like he was on autopilot telling the story. She waited for him to continue.


“I came in for a landing first. No problem. The winds were fine, it was clear. I landed on deck and went straight to the debriefing room. I was excited. I’d never had an easier landing at sea.” His eyes misted. “But Riggs, he never landed.” “Wh—what happened?” Ben used the back of his hand to wipe at his eyes. “I don’t know. He vanished. He lost contact with the tower. They never found him or the jet.” “Never found him?” He shook his head. “Gone.” He looked at the ocean. “Oh my God.” Skye studied his face. “I don’t understand how that can happen.” “There were a few theories floating around. Electrical failure may have led to his losing radio contact. Once that occurred there’s no telling what happened with the jet. One engine problem could lead to the other. If he was trying to deal with that, he didn’t have time to make the landing or find a divert. It was late at night, dark, and he was two hundred miles off the coast.” “How long ago did it happen?” “It’s been almost two years. Sometimes I think he’s still here. It doesn’t feel like two years to me, and I know it doesn’t for Faith either.” “I’m really sorry, Ben. That’s awful. I can’t imagine something like that happening.” He hung his head. “Me either. He should still be here. After we finished flight school, we had the RAG left to complete and then we were going to do our best to get in the same squadron. He only had one month until that. One month.” He shook his head. “He never got a call sign. Charlie Riggs flew almost two years and never got his call sign. Can you believe that?” Skye stared in disbelief. “No, it’s hard to imagine any of it.” “So, that’s why I wear one of his tags. Faith gave it to me. She has the other one.” “Where is she now?” “She decided to stay here. She moved out to California for the one-year stint while we were going through the RAG. Riggs was hoping we would both get on with the Rebels. After the accident, she didn’t want to move out of their house. She’s in San Diego. I’ve been trying to help her at the house when I can, but I’m not always around. I’m not the best substitute for Riggs.” Skye was surprised to see Ben smile. “That’s why she called. I thought something else had broken, but she just wanted to let me know that the garage door was still working. It got stuck and I ran over there this morning to fix it.” “That’s so sweet of you.” Skye pictured Ben with a tool belt. “I bet it means a lot to her that she has someone she can count on.” “I know that’s what Riggs would want for me to do. I think it’s good for Faith too.” “Maybe I could meet her some time.” Skye rested her hand on Ben’s knee. “That would be cool. I think you two would like each other. She’s artsy. Kind of like you.” “You think I’m artsy?” “Yeah, I’ve seen your sketches.” “Wait, when did you see those?” His hand clutched hers as if he was trying to draw strength from her skin. “You’ve left me alone in your place a few times.” Skye blushed. “So you were snooping?” “No, not snooping, but you’ve left a few of your drawings out by the spreadsheets.” “Oh, that’s nothing. Those are doodles. It’s the way I clear my head when I’m trying to come up with campaign slogans.”


He grinned. “You are hard to give compliments to. I think it’s art. I like your doodles.” “Thanks.” He was right. It was hard to take a compliment, especially after the weight he had shared. Her soul felt heavier than before. Ben tucked the dog tags through the collar of his shirt. “What do you think about getting ready for dinner?” She wasn’t quite ready to leave the rocks. She could stay and talk for hours about Riggs, but she didn’t know how much a heart could be pressed until it didn’t beat anymore. It seemed Ben struggled with the words to tell her about Riggs. It had to be hell to lose your best friend. She smiled. “I think that sounds perfect.” He led her off the rocks and back to the surf where the icy water circled their ankles. “I don’t know about dinner, but I’m pretty excited about dessert tonight.” Skye kicked sea foam in his direction. “Someone’s pretty confident.” “Always, baby. Come on.” He started to jog toward the hotel.

Little black dresses were supposed to be the key to a successful date night. At least that was something Skye had put in an ad campaign once. Her hand was on the doorknob, ready to show off this little black dress she had purchased yesterday. She looked at her feet. She might like the heels more. They added inches to her height. Ben probably wouldn’t look past the cleavage show she was about to put on. She whipped open the bathroom door. “Holy shit.” He whistled. “Is that a good thing?” She pulled her shoulders back and walked to the center of the suite. “Sorry, I meant to say you look beautiful. Stunning.” He traced her collarbone with his fingertips and followed the dip of the dress until they hovered between her breasts. Skye swallowed. Breathe, she reminded herself. “You look pretty good yourself.” She always liked him in button down shirts. Tonight was a pale blue that matched his eyes. “We better go or we’ll miss the sunset.” He tucked her hand in his and led her to the door. “If we don’t head out now, I think I might try to convince you to miss dinner altogether.” Skye wasn’t opposed to the idea, but this was part of the entire process. Date, dinner, romance, then sex. Sex. Her throat clamped. “You ok?” Ben pulled the door behind them. She nodded. “Mmm…hmm.” She scolded herself. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, and he definitely wasn’t. Part of her wished they had already slept together, then it wouldn’t be weighing on her all night. It was like the elephant in the room, sitting on her chest until she could barely breathe. The hostess escorted them to the farthest table on the veranda from the dining room. It was under an awning, jutting into the lawn of the hotel. Skye inhaled the ocean air as Ben held her chair. “Perfect. We made it right before sunset.” He sat next to her. “What’s so great about the sunsets?” She picked up the wine list. Wine was definitely on the menu tonight. “You’ve never seen a Coronado sunset? How is that possible?” “I’ve never stayed here overnight, and the only time I’ve come is for brunch. How is it different than the other sunsets?” “Just wait.” He winked. “What kind of wine are we ordering?”


“What, no beer?” “Not tonight. Whatever you’re ordering is fine with me.” She skimmed the list. She was feeling light like summer. Like her body had been infused with some kind of magic. Yep, she was falling. She looked at him. His forehead creased as he read the names of the wines. She giggled. “Want a pinot grigio?” “Sure.” He motioned for the waitress and ordered the bottle Skye pointed out. “Ok. Check that out.” He waited for Skye’s gaze to move to the horizon. Her eyes met a sea of orange, purple, and pink. “Wow. It’s breathtaking.” She sat stunned. He was right. How had she not seen this view before? “One of my favorite things in the jet is to chase the sun. I can make a sunset last for an hour.” “That’s incredible.” She watched as the sun continued to sink past the ocean’s edge. “Maybe I can take you flying sometime.” “Really?” He chuckled. “I can’t take you in the jet, but I can rent a private plane for an afternoon. You’d love it.” The waitress presented the bottle of wine and poured two glasses. Skye had only flown commercially. “Is it safe?” She sipped on the wine, savoring the crispness. “Of course it’s safe. And you’ll be in excellent hands.” The wink he flashed sent a shiver across her skin. “What do you say? Want to fly with me?” If flying with Ben meant letting go and losing herself in his eyes and under his touch, then yes. If he was asking her to soar with him until the only thing they could see and feel was each other, then the answer was definitely yes. She would fly with him anywhere. “Yes.” She nodded.

Ben inserted the key in the lock and pushed the door open. Skye stepped over the threshold knowing she had stepped into the next step of their relationship. His mouth was on her neck, his hands sweeping her long tresses to the other side. “This is all I’ve wanted to do since we got here.” He spun her to face him, his back closing the door behind them. Her arms flew around his neck. All she had wanted to do was kiss him, but the entire day they had set a slow and easy pace, giving each other time to adjust to this idea. This idea that they were about to completely consume each other. Skye hoped they didn’t instantly burst into flames. Her lips moved against his, taking in deep kisses. The taste of wine on his tongue was sweet, and she craved more as he tempted her with a kiss that seared her mouth with blazing heat. She felt his hand slide along her back and land on the little black dress’s zipper. He tugged lightly and cool air breezed across her back. “Wait. Wait.” She pulled away from the kiss. “What’s wrong? Too much?” He stepped back, breaking all contact. She shook her head. “No, it’s not too much. It’s just that…I brought a surprise for you.” “A surprise?” “Yes. Give me five minutes, ok? And don’t go to sleep.” She wagged her finger at him. “Baby, there’s no way I could fall asleep right now.” Skye closed the bathroom door and let the dress fall from her shoulders. She stepped out of her


heels and placed her earrings on the counter. The lingerie was still wrapped in tissue paper. She unrolled it and held it up to her naked body. She carefully dove head first into the lacey contraption. Thick black straps held the bits of fabric in place. It was mostly all lace. The most beautiful lace Skye ever remembered wearing. It felt soft and sexy where it hugged her breasts and hips. There was silk panel that ran from her navel to the tops of her thighs. It didn’t leave much to the imagination, but Ben had already seen everything. She wanted this to be different. This was the first time she was wearing something for him. The scalloped edges of the lace narrowed to create an open V between her breasts. Her entire back was exposed and the little covering her bottom was lace. She inhaled sharply and shook out her hair. This was it. When she opened the door her eyes had to adjust to the lack of light. Ben had lit a few candles next to the bed. He was sitting on the opposite edge, looking at the ocean roll in under the moon. A breeze from the open balcony door made the candles flicker. “Hey,” she whispered. He pivoted from his spot on the bed. “Hey.” His eyes studied every line and curve of her silhouette. Her hips swayed as she walked toward him. “Like your surprise?” He nodded. “You look amazing.” His palms landed on her hips. He pressed against the lace. Skye didn’t need the courage from the wine. She was on fire for him. Her body knew exactly what she wanted. She nudged Ben back on the bed and crawled forward to straddle him, planting her thighs against his. She needed to take all of it in. The way his eyes filled with lust for her, the way his rapid breath felt on her neck, the way his hands explored her curves. Thirty days was an eternity when you wanted someone this badly, but Skye needed it. As Ben held her with his gaze, she knew he wanted all the same things. Skin on skin was louder than words sometimes. She grinned as she took his face in her hands, tracing his sharp jawline with her thumb, admiring the symmetry of his face. “If you don’t kiss me now…” Ben teased. Skye toyed his lips with her tongue, and his mouth parted. She gave in fully to the kiss, pressing hard against him, her breasts thrusting forward to melt into his chest. It was as if he was drinking in all of her. His tongue danced faster as she locked her fingers around his neck. He rocked back until the bed had fallen under them. Every nerve in her body burned. Ben’s hands moved from her back to her hips, until he discovered the lace panties under the lingerie. “I love all these surprises.” He grinned. “I might have some more.” Skye yanked at the buttons on his shirt, forcing the sleeves off his sculpted arms. “I have a few for you too.” She started a trail of kisses on his throat, layering them down his chest, his skin was warm. “Remember what I promised you our second night together?” Ben toyed with the V and the edge of the lace around her breast. His thumb ran over her nipple, and Skye had to stop from bucking under the contact. “What was that? I don’t remember.” Her hand landed on his belt buckle and tugged it free. She wanted everything inside those pants. “I said you were going to want me.” He laughed, rolling her so she was under him. The room spun, but Skye knew it was the magic in her veins making everything so dizzying. Like a fever consuming her limb by limb, it had spread to the sweet spot between her legs. He hovered over her, his beautiful body bare and golden in the moonlight. “So, Skye Stephens. I


said I’d wait. But you have to tell me. I want you to tell me.” His hand roamed lower, pausing against her stomach before pushing up the hem of the silky front panel. His hands slid between her thighs. Her hips rose to meet him, aching on all sides, wanting him so badly to consume her. One finger began to tug at the panties. Skye let out a moan. “Tell me, baby.” Ben’s gaze was fierce. All the desperation and passion that had built all month gripped her from within, clawing to be unleashed. Knowing, the only way she can feel whole, to feel free, is to be with Ben in every way possible. “I want you.” Her eyes flashed to his, hoping he’d take her right then, fill her, and rock her until she was completely breathless and limp in his arms. “What was that?” He began to slide the tiny straps over her hips, peeling the panties off her legs. Skye arched toward him. “I want you. I want you here. And I want you now.” She pulled his mouth towards her, crashing his lips against hers. Ben let out a groan as her legs parted, allowing him to settle between them. She felt the weight of his body press against her. “Take me now. Please.” It didn’t matter to her if she begged. He needed to know this was everything she had waited for. Her body was meant to be entwined with his. A smile spread across his face. He reached for the nightstand and Skye heard him tear into the foil packet. Seconds later he kissed her. Light and smooth at first, but then deep and hard as his body surged to meet hers. “Oh God.” Skye bowed off the bed, taking him deeper. Digging her hands into his back, she clutched at him trying to find balance in the bliss that consumed her. Ben eased out gently, and Skye’s head rolled to the side, in the background she could hear the waves crashing against the shore. That’s how she felt—like the ocean was carrying her on the surface then dropping her into a pool of ecstasy as the water circled her limbs. Was it possible to drown in total desire? The intensity rippled through her veins, her blood fueled by heat as Ben rocked against her. She met his movements, her hips fused with his body. “You feel amazing.” Ben’s teeth grazed her neck. “Don’t hold back.” She breathed. “I need all of you.” She wanted him to take her over the edge, farther than her body had ever gone. “I want you too. I want to feel everything.” He growled deep from his throat. His hand trailed over the lace barely covering her breasts. Skye had gotten too caught up in their lovemaking to realize she was still wearing the black ensemble. He seemed to like that she had it on while he was guiding himself in and out of her. His head dipped over her breast. “You are so sexy, I’m doing everything I can not to lose control right now.” He blew over her breast until her nipple was hard and taut against the fabric. Skye whimpered, fearing if he did much more she would come right then. “Please,” she begged. “Please, Ben. Lose control. Lose yourself in me.” His hands gripped her hips, lifting her from the bed. The angle was intense as he buried himself in her. Her head rocked back. “Don’t stop.” He hooked his arm under her knee, pushing harder. “I’m just getting started. I’m going to make you come all night.” Skye’s knees shook. She was already on her back, how could he give her more than what she was already taking?


She nodded her head, but she didn’t know if he could see her. His eyes were all over her body. She writhed under him as his mouth descended over her breast. He began a slow, tortuous sucking motion through the lace. “I can’t, Ben. It’s too much.” She thrashed under his mouth. His teeth clamped on her nipple and the exquisite sensation shot through her body. There was no turning back, she clenched around him, feeling the pulsing and building pressure in her core. He eased out of her, leaving her desperate for him, and just when she thought her craving for him would consume her from the inside, he plunged hard filling her with total ecstasy. She rose from the bed, gripping his shoulders. He kissed her and wrapped his arms around her as the shudders of pleasures surged through her. “I love it when you come.” He smiled. He laid her back on the bed. Before she could relish in the release of her body, he guided her ankles behind his head. She urged her body to follow his commands, to let go of all restraints, to give him everything she had. She matched the wildfire that took over him. She didn’t know her body could do the things he wanted, but it was as if they had become one wave. Together they rolled into the deep ocean taking each other under with every kiss, touch, and thrust. “Skye,” he called out her name. And that was it, she felt her core tighten once again against him before she shattered in a million pieces in his arms. Her legs throbbed as the sensation seared through her thighs and echoed through her body. He pushed deeper. “Oh, baby. I—I—” Skye met the unbridled desire in his eyes with a smile. Then his body stiffened before he collapsed in a heap, sinking against her chest. She hugged him against her, his head resting on her breast. That was the single most amazing experience of her life. Her body was numb, content, bathed in sexual bliss. Ben rolled on his side, pulling her with him so they were cocooned together. “I don’t have words.” He kissed her neck. Skye let the moment consume every part of her. She smiled, loving how it felt with Ben’s chest nuzzled against her back. She finally knew what it meant to fly.


23

THE MORNING SUN FILTERED THROUGH THE BLINDS. BOLT LEANED OVER THE BALCONY. SKYE WAS STILL SLEEPING in the room. He didn’t want to disturb her. A seagull perched on a nearby light pole. It was early. Last night had surprised him. Sex was always good. He loved sex, but he had never had sex like that. The look in her eyes, the way she felt under him, the softness of her skin. He shook his head. She was amazing. It was hard to think about wanting to do anything else but get lost in her. Isn’t that what she begged him to do? God, she was sexy. He glanced back to the bed, where the sheet covered half her body. No one had taken him like that. He had slept with a hundred women and not a single night had come close to what he experienced with Skye. He had made a lot of stupid mistakes in his life, taken unnecessary risks, and they were mostly selfish. He always made fun of guys who laid it all on the line for a woman. Now, it seemed to make sense. They all knew something he had never taken the time to see. The gull flew toward the shore and nibbled on a pile of seaweed that washed up. The beach was quiet. Bolt peeled off his shirt and tip-toed through the room to collect his running shoes. Sunday morning runs were his favorite. He scribbled a note for Skye and closed the door behind him.

Forty-five minutes later Bolt stuck his head in the door. The bed was empty. He strolled in and closed the door. He heard the shower running through the bathroom. He smiled. “Hey beautiful, you have room for one more?” He dropped his shorts and stepped into the shower before Skye could protest. “How was your run?” Her arms circled his chest. “You look sweaty and dirty. So dirty.” She shook her head, while biting her bottom lip. “Great. The beach was empty. I ran to the end of the island and back.” He watched as Skye reached for the body wash and dabbed some into her palm. She began lathering it against his chest. Her hands were smooth along his skin. “That’s quite a run.” Her hands followed the lines of his chest, pausing every few inches to rub her fingers into his muscles. He studied the water that trickled between her breasts. She was driving him crazy and she knew it. He reached for the back of her neck and brought his mouth on hers. The taste of her alone brought him to his knees. He was drowning in want and feelings he’d never felt before. Skye dropped the bottle and it clanged against the bottom of the shower floor.


He felt her press against his body, all her curves, her breasts, the smoothness of her stomach. He’d never wanted anyone so much in his life. He groaned as she snaked a leg around his waist. His tongue trailed the side of her neck, lashing against the stream of water. She ignited something in him he couldn’t explain. He twirled her to the side, pressing her back against the tile. She smiled up at him. “Good morning, Ben.”

“We don’t have to check out until after breakfast. What are you in the mood for this morning?” Bolt asked. They had gotten dressed and made a reservation at one of the hotel’s restaurants for breakfast. Skye shoved her heavy shades on her forehead. “What I want is not on this menu.” She winked. He laughed. “I think I’m rubbing off on you.” “Maybe.” She shirked. “Coffee. Lots of coffee and then pancakes.” She folded the menu on the table. “With lots of whipped cream.” Bolt choked on his water. “You’re killing me. I promise we’ll go back to bed after breakfast, but I have to feed the machine. I can’t exist on sex alone.” He loved the pouty look on her face. The waiter meandered over to the table and took their pancake and coffee orders before leaving again. “So, was it worth the thirty-day wait?” Skye teased. “Who is this girl? You are bold.” He leaned forward so his hand could rest on her thigh. “Yes. It would be worth a year’s wait if it was always like that.” He settled into his seat, wondering if he had unleashed Pandora’s box by sleeping with her. If that was the case, he was glad he had found a way to unlock her inhibitions. She changed her expression. “Thank you for waiting. I know I didn’t make it easy, but thank you.” “Baby, I would walk through fire for a night like that with you.” He nodded at the waiter as he placed a pot of coffee on the table. “Really?” “Yes, really.” He poured a cup for each of them. “Ben, I was thinking about something.” Skye fidgeted with the sugar spoon. “What’s that?” “I know this sounds crazy, but what if we take off this week from work and just go somewhere? Like Catalina or Cabo. I don’t know, you can pick the place.” Ben closed his eyes. Fuck. He had every intention of telling her, but every time he thought about it, something else came up. She could read the look on his face. “What’s wrong? Did I say too much? Is that moving too fast?” “No, I would love to take a trip with you.” She beamed. “It would be amazing. Shower sex every day, guaranteed.” “The thing is.” He stopped to let the waiter deliver two heaping piles of pancakes complete with berries and whipped cream. He inhaled sharply. This was going to suck. “See, I can’t take any time off work this week. We’re on lock down.” “Lock down? That sounds serious.” Skye poured syrup on the pancakes before dabbing spoonfuls of whipped cream on top. “It’s not that kind of serious, but it’s what always happens the week before a deployment.” “A deployment? Who is leaving?” Skye was focused on breakfast.


“I am.” She placed her fork on her plate. “What are you talking about? You can’t be leaving in a week.” “I should have mentioned it. I’m going to Japan next week.” He cringed, knowing the words were damaging all the beautiful moments they had shared together. “Ok. Is it a quick trip?” She was surprisingly calm. Bolt shook his head. “No, there’s nothing quick about WESTPAC.” He reached across the table, needing to touch her, needing her to know that they could still be connected. “I’ll be back in six months.” “Six months?” Skye’s voice carried through the outdoor dining room. “You’re going to leave next week for six months? Is there some kind of national crisis? Please tell me you just found out, and there is something apocalyptic happening in Russia or China.” God, this was awful. Fucking awful. “It’s a routine deployment. The Rebels go every other year. They call it WESTPAC because it’s basically a trip that covers all of the Western Pacific. Easy acronym to remember.” This probably wasn’t the time to try to toss out a Marine Corps terminology lesson. She usually loved them. “You’ve known about this?” He wanted her to keep her voice down, but she was upset. He could see the anger rising through her flushed cheeks. “Skye, I didn’t know that you and I were going to—” “What? That we were going to sleep together? You knew all along.” She stood from the table, throwing her napkin in the seat. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Please, sit down so we can talk about it. Deployments aren’t that bad.” “I’m sure they’re not for people who don’t keep them a secret. I’ll be out of the room before you get back.” Bolt stood to stop here. “No, don’t do that. We can talk.” “Don’t touch me.” She pushed his hand off her elbow. “And don’t come to the room until I can grab my bag.” “Skye, wait. I don’t want this to be over.” Bolt didn’t care that half the breakfast patrons had put down their coffee cups to listen to their fight. Her raven hair flowed as she stormed off the veranda and into the hotel. He sunk into the seat. He had screwed up the best thing that ever landed in his life.

“You didn’t tell her about the deployment?” Faith shook her head. “You are a dumbass, Ben.” He didn’t know where else to go after Skye left the hotel. He wanted to rush straight to her apartment, but he thought he should give her some time to cool off before approaching her again. “I know. I am beyond stupid. What do I do? How do I fix it?” Faith poured him another cup of coffee. “It’s not like a broken toilet. You really pissed her off. I would be ready to deck you if you pulled a stunt like that.” “I didn’t know we were going to get serious. It hit me. I didn’t plan it. You know me, Faith. I don’t get serious with anybody. I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I honestly didn’t think we would be where we are before I left for Japan.” “So, you thought you could date her for a month, sleep with her, and none of that would matter?” Faith pursed her lips.


“When you say it like that, I sound like a dick. But, I’ve never done the relationship thing. I don’t know how it works. When was I supposed to tell her?” He hoped Faith had all the answers he needed. “You should have told her in the beginning. Not night one, but sometime that after that, and especially after you got back together. Want another cup?” She had the pot ready to pour. Bolt shook his head. “No, I’ve had enough coffee. I need a plan.” “Talk to her. Tell her you were stupid. Beg her to forgive you. Tell her she means more to you than sex and that you have feelings for her.” “And that will work?” Faith laughed. “I have no idea, but nothing’s going to work if you don’t start there.” Bolt stood from the kitchen table. “I better get over there.” Faith reached on her toes to hug him. “Good luck.” “Thanks. I think I might need more than that.” “I’ve never seen you like this. I want to meet this girl one day. That is if you can get her back.” Bolt smiled. “You mean, when I get her back.” He jogged down the front steps and waved as he pulled out of the driveway.


24

SKYE LOOKED OUT OF THE WINDOW. SHE WISHED IT WOULD JUST RAIN FOR ONCE. IT BARELY RAINED THREE TIMES a year. She wanted dreary, miserable, bury-yourself-under-the-covers weather because that’s how she felt. They had crossed over some great divide last night, only for her to realize Ben was going to blow up the bridge all along. He was never serious about her, about them. She threw a pillow across the room. He got what he wanted. She bit the inside of her cheek when she felt the tears well and brim on the edge of her lids. Crying over Ben wasn’t going to happen. She dumped her overnight bag on the bed and pulled the lingerie from the pile. She stormed in the bathroom and tossed it in the trash. She never wanted to see that dirty reminder of what she had done last night. Her hands ran over her swollen lips, plump from Ben’s rough and passionate kisses. Kisses that made her toes curl, her body arch, and her mouth scream for more. Dammit. She gathered up the rest of the clothes and marched to the washing machine where she set the water to the hottest temperature. Maybe scorching them would wash out the memories. Really? Japan. She watched the water fill inside the cylinder. Who goes to the other side of the world without telling the girl they’re dating? She kicked the side of the washer then huffed her way to the kitchen. The only thing on her refrigerator shelves were the leftovers from the dinner her mother made with him. She picked up the plastic container and threw it in the trash, lid and all. She refused to turn to chocolate and wine, but she needed food. She had barely eaten two bites of pancakes at breakfast. She grabbed her keys, slung her purse on her shoulder, and opened the door. She stopped. Ben was standing on her doorstep. “Hey. Can we talk?” The forlorn puppy look almost got her. Her heart jumped to her throat. “I don’t think so. I was headed out.” She gripped the strap on her purse. “Five minutes. Please.” His eyes motioned to the space over her shoulder, but she wasn’t going to let him in the apartment. “Ok, I can say it here.” He sighed. “I should have told you about WESTPAC. I should have said it that first week, so you would know I was leaving for six months. You have to believe that I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t trying to deceive you. I swear I didn’t think it mattered. I didn’t know we would be here.” His eyes locked on hers. “I didn’t know I would be here.” Skye leaned against the door. “And where is here?” She had never seen him like this. His face almost pale, his eyes wide, his expression panicked.


“It’s hard for me to say things like this. I’ve never said them before.” He stared at the floor before lifting his chin again. “Skye, I need you.” The words hit her. Three words that were the most beautiful, sunset-filled, jump-over-the-moon, swim-through-a-waterfall, and roll-with-delicious-laughter words. She didn’t understand how she could feel as if her feet would lift from the floor and at the same time be ready to punch him in his perfectly shaped nose. She wasn’t ready to let him back in. “I don’t know what to say to you right now. I’m angry. I feel like you used me.” “I get that. I do. But would I be standing here right now if I just wanted one night with you? I’m here because this means something to me. You mean something to me, Skye. And I screwed up. I don’t know where to go from here, but please tell me we can get past it.” His words settled on her, soaking through her skin like long rays from an early morning sun. She didn’t rush an answer. She had to know that what she was getting ready to say was the truth. That without a doubt she could say it and stand behind what she needed to tell him. “If I say everything is ok, how do I know there aren’t other things like this that you’ll keep from me? You’re going to be gone for six long months. What are we supposed to do? Send emails? How does that even work?” She shook her head. “I let you in again. I gave you everything I had and you’re leaving?” “This is going to sound shitty, but I’m a pilot. I’m always going to be leaving. I thought maybe you were ok with that part of my life. I never kept my job a secret.” “I guess I hadn’t thought about it yet.” She let the bag fall from her shoulder and walked into the apartment. Ben followed her. “It’s a lot to figure out and I’ve never done it before, but I want to try it with you.” He sat next to her on the couch. “What do I do? Wait for you for six months? That’s crazy.” Skye thought she heard echoes of Kari’s sad tale about the friend whose boyfriend cheated on her in Japan. What if that was next? What if this ridiculously hot womanizing man was about to bed every woman on the Asian continent and forget she even existed? “It is crazy. It’s completely crazy. And I can’t ask you to do that. But, just say I can call you, that we can write, that I can think about you when I’m flying.” After last night, she knew her heart. All the things he said were the same things she had been feeling. “Ok.” Skye finally lifted her eyes to meet his stare. “Ok?” His voice sounded hopeful. “Yes. I’m not saying I’ll wait. I’m just saying right now I’m ok. I don’t want you to go. I don’t want this to be over.” Ben’s arms circled her waist and he drew her against his chest. She inhaled the hints of cologne on his neck. Gradually, she wrapped her arms around his back and relaxed into his arms. She prayed to God that she didn’t just make the biggest mistake of her life. She didn’t know if she was cut out for military life—constant surprises and goodbyes, but right now she knew she couldn’t let Ben out of her life when she had finally found him.

This was her first pre-deployment week. She didn’t know how it was supposed to go or if this one was normal, but her only instinct was to go into automatic problem-solving mode. Ben had a list of things he needed to take on his overseas trip, but limited packing space to carry everything. He told


her there was a two-bag limit. That alone would send most girls into a fashion tailspin. How do you travel around the globe for six months with only a sack for your essentials? There were parts of military life that she knew she would never be able to handle. She was glad she was on the support side. Skye searched online for compact travel accessories. She stopped by the store after work and loaded the cart with power bars and protein shakes he could add to his water while he was flying. She tried not to think about the fact that in the three-leg journey from San Diego to Japan he would be over water for up to nine hours at a time. She pushed that out of her head. But while he was up there, he’d need to eat and it wasn’t exactly the kind of plane you could take along a turkey sandwich for lunch. She researched the currency in Guam and Japan, the types of foods that were available, the time difference, and all the tourist attractions near his base in Japan. “You’re really into this.” Ben laughed as she handed him a spreadsheet. “This is my first WESTPAC spreadsheet.” He studied the categories she had listed: restaurants, historic locations, entertainment. “I know you’re really busy at work this week with all the training preparations you’re doing. It’s something I thought could help.” Sitting on the couch, she wondered if she had gone too far with the research. “It’s awesome. Thank you.” He kissed her cheek. “I can’t believe you’re leaving in two days.” Skye chewed her bottom lip. Saturday morning was going to suck. “After we get off work tomorrow we’ll do something just the two of us. Whatever you want to do.” “But don’t you have to get up early to fly the next morning?” “I do, but I’d do anything to have another night with you.” He pulled her under him so she was completely flat on the couch. “Starting with tonight.” His lips nipped at her ear. “Maybe we should make it an early night.” She reached for the edge of his T-shirt, smiling as he pulled it over his head and threw it across the room. “Oh no, we are going to be up all night. No sleeping for you.” His tongue blazed a trail against her throat. “Uh-uh. If we do that, I’ll worry about your flight to Hawaii the entire day. Early to bed tomorrow, ok?” Ben sat on his heels, taking his time to unbutton her shirt. She arched toward him as he played with the outline of her bra. His mouth descended on her stomach. “If what you’re saying is as soon as we get home from work we’re getting naked and going straight to bed, then I’m not arguing with you.” His hands clutched at her waist and began tugging on the yoga pants she had thrown on as soon as she got home. His fingers dipped between her legs. His teeth yanked on the silk hugging her hips. “Mmm...hmm. That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Her head rolled back. “Baby, you know you drive me crazy.” His thumbs hooked under the silk strings and he peeled them over her legs, dropping them on the floor. “But I want you to feel how crazy you make me.” “Oh God.” Skye’s hands flew to his head as his tongue lashed at her. Her legs began to tremble as the pressure built. Everything Ben did felt like he possessed her, that he was claiming her every time their bodies met. He could own her, take her, drive into her, she wanted all of it and more. His eyes raked over her body as he kissed her inner thigh. He moved to the other side, dotting the inside of her legs with more kisses. Skye knew her body was no longer hers as his tongue pressed against her again


and he began a slow rhythm that had the room spinning. “You know you’re mine, don’t you?” His fingers dug into her hips, steadying her from wiggling away from him. Although Skye would never leave this delicious torture. “Mmm…hmm.” She rose to meet his mouth. She was on the edge of letting everything go. “Say it, baby. Say it.” She heard his pants hit the floor and felt him settle between her legs. She opened her eyes to see his killer smile hovering over her. “Tell me, Skye.” “I’m yours.”

There were only two more days until D-day. That’s what Skye had mentally nicknamed the deployment departure date. She sat at her desk, staring at her screen. The emails rolled in, but she didn’t have the focus to muster a response. All she could think about was Ben. “You here today?” Kari chirped from the doorway. “Oh hey.” Skye looked up from her laptop. “Hmm. You are really taking this deployment thing hard.” Kari wiggled into the seat across from Skye’s desk. “He’s not gone yet.” “I’m trying to be strong. I made a to-do list to keep me busy.” “Of course you did.” “But all I want to do is lock him in my room and throw myself on him and tell him he can’t leave.” She looked at her friend. “He can’t leave.” “Aww, honey. He’ll be back before you know it. I promise to keep you very busy for the next six months.” “Six fucking months.” Skye spit the words. “Do you know what’s going to happen over the next six months? My birthday, his birthday, the summer, the fall, Halloween—” “You have to stop thinking like this. Have you talked to him about it?”’ Skye knew that was a legitimate question, but she was trying to stay light and positive around Ben. The last thing she wanted to do before he left was appear clingy. She was supposed to be the independent self-sufficient type. She couldn’t suddenly reveal to him that she thought she might actually stop breathing if he left San Diego. What would he think of her then? She shook her head. “I can’t tell him all of this. I’m trying to be supportive, not stage-nine clinger material.” “Maybe he’s going through the same thing. Talk to him.” Kari stood to leave. “It’s almost lunch time. Why don’t you see if he can meet you on his lunch break? Spend some time with him and I know you’ll feel better.” Skye pulled out her phone. “Ok, I’ll call him right now. Thanks” “No problem. Back to the Beer Fest campaign for me. See ya.” As soon as Kari closed the door behind her, Skye dialed Ben’s number. He answered on the first ring. “Hey gorgeous. How’s your day?” The smile was involuntary every time. “Hey. I was wondering if you wanted to have lunch today. I know it’s last minute but…” “Lunch today? Hmm...” “I shouldn’t have asked. I know you’re busy getting ready to leave.” She almost choked on the words. “Hold that thought a second. Can you help me with something?” he asked. “Sure. What’s up?” She started fidgeting with the pens on her desk.


His voice deepened. “Is your office in suite 402?” Skye stood from her desk and crossed the room. The back of her neck started to tingle. “Yes. Why?” “Open the door, baby.” Skye pulled on the handle. Ben stood holding two white paper bags. “Oh my God, what are you doing here?” She shuttled him into her office and closed the door despite the curious stare from the main-floor receptionist. “Thought I’d bring you lunch. I know how you like surprises.” He held up the bags. “You like that little sandwich shop around the corner, right?” Skye giggled. “Yes. But I can’t believe you came to my office. How did you get away from base?” She was having a hard time concentrating with him standing in front of her. He was wearing his flight suit. There were patches on his sleeves and along his chest. She liked the one that read Bolt. “I can’t tell you all my secrets.” He winked at her. “So this is where the magic happens?” He eyed her workspace. “Yep. This is it. Not very big, but at least I have my own office. I do have windows that overlook the street.” She pointed to the two slim windows next to her desk. At least there was natural light in an otherwise sterile office building. Once a week she watered the indoor palm that grew in the corner. “It’s nice.” Ben walked toward the door. “Does this lock work?” His eyebrows waggled. Skye recognized that look. It was the one that always appeared right before he stripped every shred of clothing from her. “Yes, but you can’t be serious right now.” “Oh I’m very serious.” He flipped the lever on the doorknob then crossed the room and sat her on the top of her desk, pushing the hem of her skirt to her hips. His hands were rough and urgent “Ben, someone could hear us. This is my office. There are people right out there in the hall.” She shook her head, trying to deny the throbbing that had started deep in her core. She leaned into her palms, trying to balance on the edge of the desk. “What if my boss walks by?” He put a finger to his lips. “Then you’re going to have to do your very best to be quiet, baby.” His palm slid along her thigh until his thumb hooked the side of her panties. “Because, this is something I’m going to think about every day I’m gone.” Her knees almost shook as he peeled them over her legs and carefully navigated them over her five-inch heels. His smile became devilish as he tossed them on the floor. The blood soared in her veins, as she watched him unzip his flight suit, exposing his athletically toned frame. She never got tired of seeing his body. She gasped as he shoved the skirt higher. She arched toward him in amazement. This was the epitome of forbidden activity. The biggest taboo on her list of all things naughty. They could get caught. She could be fired. Her head reeled back. Or she could give herself to him. She let him control her every breath and movement on the desk, with a look, with a kiss. He wrapped one highheeled foot around his waist and then the other. “You know I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” he growled. She nodded. “You have never looked sexier, Skye.” He brushed her hair from her face, his thumb tracing her lips. The look from his eyes blazed with the kind of desire that made her breathless. Made her want to do everything she could to satisfy him, to show him what he did to her, to let him feel how her body loved his. God, how she needed his body. His mouth landed on hers, his hand pressing into the back of her neck. She tried everything she


could not to moan. She kissed him like she did the first night they met, with wild reckless abandon. As if he was the stranger that could erase all her problems and make her forget all her rules and inhibitions. Only this time it unleashed more passion in her than she knew she had. This time she was in love.


25

BOLT THREW THE SECOND OF THE TWO SEA BAGS IN THE BACK OF HIS TRUCK. “I THINK THAT’S EVERYTHING.” Skye stood next to him. She looked sleepy despite their effort to get to bed early the night before. “I can’t believe you’re leaving.” She stared at the green duffle bags. “Six months will be over before you know it.” He didn’t want a long drawn out good-bye, but he wasn’t ready to leave either. This felt fucking terrible. “You ready?” Skye walked to the passenger side and climbed in. The plan was that she would drive the truck back to his parking garage then take the trolley to the Gaslamp district. She shook her head. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to be ready for this.” He grabbed her hand. “I’ve never done this either. We’ll figure it out. Ok? We’ll get through it together.” He hoped that sounded confident. He didn’t know what in the hell he had gotten himself into. WESTPAC was supposed to be one of the best deployments the squadron ever took. They started off in Hawaii, followed by a few days in Guam, then off to Japan. From there they would fly to Korea, Alaska, maybe even Australia. Bolt had counted down to this trip since he joined the Rebels. Now, it was ripping a hole in his heart to leave Skye. He pulled onto the highway and started toward Miramar. At least this wasn’t a 7 a.m. show time. The flight details were worked out based on time zone changes and flight times. They were set to take off before noon. “I guess you’re pretty excited.” Skye fidgeted with the strap on her purse. “I am. I’ve never seen that part of the world. What should I bring you?” “You mean like a souvenir?” “Yes, exactly like that. I bet you would look hot in a kimono.” He winked and thought he saw a smile creep across her lips. “Whatever you think I’d like.” Her gaze floated out of the window, following the dips and curves of the valleys tracking the interstate. “You know I’ll call as much as I can. And we can email every day.” “Mmm…hmm. I know.” He stopped at the main gate, turning the radio off. He flashed his military ID as the guard saluted him and opened the bar on the gate. “This place is huge.” Skye sat forward in her seat. “You’ve never been on base?” “No. You’re kind of my first Marine.”


He laughed. He wanted to say he hoped he was the last one too, but the moment was already fragile. She was on the edge of emotion like he had never witnessed before. He didn’t want to tip things in the wrong direction. They drove in silence until Bolt pulled into the parking lot behind the squadron’s main hanger. “This is it.” “I don’t think I can do this.” Skye’s eyes welled with tears. Bolt unclipped his seat belt and reached across the console. “Hey, it’s going to be ok.” “I should have told you this last night.” “What? What did you want to tell me?” He wiped a tear from her face. He struggled with the aching in his chest. This was damn near impossible. “I’ll wait for you. I want to wait. I’ll be here when you get back.” Bolt searched her eyes. “I told you, you don’t have to do that. I’m not asking you to put your life on hold.” “I know you’re not. But I have to. I can’t let you fly out here today thinking I’m just going on with everything as if you’re not the most important person in my world. I’m waiting for you. Don’t try talking me out of it.” He smiled at the fierceness in her eyes. “I won’t.” His mouth crashed against hers, drinking her in for the last time in six months. He wanted to memorize everything about her. The way her hair smelled, the way she tasted, the softness in that space where her shoulder met her neck—all of it—all of her. He broke free from her lips. “Baby, I’ve got to go. Do you want to walk me inside?” Skye opened the door and walked to his side. “I think if I have to drag out this good-bye I will break down. I better drive back.” He handed her the truck keys. “I don’t want to picture you crying. You’re too beautiful for that.” He reached into the back of the truck and heaved one duffle bag on his shoulder and then the second one onto the other shoulder. “I packed tons of snacks for you, and those powder drinks for you are all on top.” She pointed to the first sea bag. “Thanks. I’m sure I’ll eat all of them before I get to Japan.” He was stalling. He didn’t want to turn his back and walk to the hanger. Everything he wanted was right here. “I’ll call you tonight from Hawaii. Ok?” “Ok.” She plastered a smile on her face and stepped on her toes to kiss him again. “Bye.” “Bye.” He turned toward the tailgate and listened as she started up the truck, the low rumble of the muffler filled his ears. He saw Hollywood, Ranger, and Eagle gathered by the office door. He pressed his palm against his eye. He had to pull it together and fly straight before he reached that door. This wasn’t the way everyone was going to find out he had fallen in love.


26

SKYE HELD HER PHONE IN HER HAND. IT WAS MORE LIKE A DEATH GRIP. SHE COUNTED OVER AND OVER AGAIN HOW many hours it had been since Ben took off from Miramar and was supposed to land in Honolulu. He should have called by now. She paced around her apartment. The afternoon crept by like spending the day watching paint dry. It was day one, and she was already terrible at keeping herself busy. She tried to remind herself that just over a month ago there was no Ben Hardcastle in her life. She had plenty of things to do to keep her busy, like work. She searched for her briefcase before remembering she had left it at the office on Friday. She didn’t want her last night with Ben to be about anything but the two of them. And it was. He was so sweet, cooking dinner for her. She sighed thinking about the candles he lit and the flowers he handed her. Ben had come a long way since their first botched one-night stand. He went from almost anti-relationship to committing to seeing her in six months. That wasn’t the stuff that flimsy relationships were built on. There was strength and steadiness in what they had. She knew that. She just wished the damn phone would ring. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but her eyes could only stay open for so long. She didn’t know what time it was when the phone started ringing. She sat straight up in bed, her TV blaring a rerun sitcom. “Hello.” “Hey, baby. Do you miss me yet?” “Ben! Thank God, I’ve been worried.” She reached for her glasses. They must have fallen off when she was sleeping. “Don’t worry. Everything is fine. We had a little engine trouble when we landed, so I got stuck at the hangar working with the maintenance crew. Looks like we’ll be in Hawaii an extra day.” “Maintenance issue? Is it safe to fly?” “It will be fine as soon as they get it fixed. Don’t worry about that. Tell me what you did today.” Skye realized then that she was going to have to get her act together and start doing her regular routine. She didn’t want her answer to be ‘nothing’ every time he called. She needed stories to share with him. “I did a little work.” “Work? I’m gone one day and you’re already back to the spreadsheets?” he teased. “I did some laundry.” She hit her palm on her forehead. That was lame. “Ok, well, I know it’s late, so I’ll let you go back to sleep. I just wanted to let you know we made it to Honolulu.”


“Wait, Ben don’t go.” She held the phone to her ear as if that somehow made him closer to her. “What is it? You ok?” “I miss you. I already miss you.” “I miss you, too. I’ll call you again tomorrow. Night, baby. Dream only hot dreams about me. Got it?” She giggled. “I can do that. Goodnight, Ben.” She plugged her phone into the charger and slid into the covers. She knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep now for hours. She changed the channel, hoping a sappy romantic comedy could distract her.

Three days later she poured over shots of sunscreen models in her office, while Kari dished on the new guy she was seeing. “Ok, so he has this tattoo on his lower back, and I can’t quite figure out what it is.” “Wait, did you already sleep with him?” Skye looked up from a bikini pose. “Of course. I’m no saint like you. And it was ahh-mazing. He does this thing with his hips, kind of like a swivel move.” “Stop. Stop. I don’t need that kind of detail.” “Who am I going to tell, if I can’t tell you?” Kari whined. “Why don’t you get a journal? Just a suggestion.” Skye smiled at her friend. She was happy Kari had met someone, only she wasn’t so sure about him. He was a dental assistant in La Jolla. Apparently, her friend Dave had set them up. “You are no fun.” Kari pouted. “So speaking of hot guys, when did you hear from Ben last?” “He called from Hawaii last night. Today they are making the flight to Guam. He’ll be there a few more days before they make the last flight to Japan.” “I still can’t believe you two. One minute you’re all ‘he won’t make it to thirty days’ and then the next minute you’re all ‘oh my God we’ve committed to each other for six months’. It’s cute.” Skye twisted her lips into a frown. “When you say it like that it doesn’t sound cute.” “Oh, but it’s totally cute.” “If you say so.” She looked at the time on her phone. Ben was probably flying over the Pacific right about now. She didn’t think his flights were supposed to make her so nervous, but they did. After she heard about Riggs it was hard not to think the same thing could happen to Ben. What if something happened while he was crossing the ocean? The night before he left he told her about all of the contingency plans in place in case there was an in-flight emergency. Eagle was responsible for mapping out places they could divert. They had a plan for every mile of the journey. She knew he was a capable pilot, that wasn’t the problem. It was all the things that were out of his control that she worried about. “What do you say we do a wine night at my place tonight? You can bring your PJs. It will be crazy.” Kari giggled. “You know, that sounds like a good idea. I need to keep my mind off of Ben. What about tattoo guy?” “Oh, we have plans this weekend.” Skye squirmed in her seat. She hadn’t thought about the weekends. At least during the week she had work to keep her preoccupied. The weekend was a different story. There was an empty apartment with a very empty bed. Maybe this was the perfect time to take up one of those art classes she had seen at the studio near her house.


Kari stood to leave. “I’m going to head back to the restaurant launch I’m working on for the tikki bar. It’s a complete disaster, but the owner doesn’t want to change anything. He insists on pineapples everywhere. How am I supposed to work with that?” Skye shrugged her shoulders. “Good luck. What time tonight?” “Just come over after work. Pick up your stuff and I’ll see you with pizza and wine.” “Ok, cool.” Skye sorted through the next set of models. She rocked back in her chair. Time was dragging its ugly feet.

She had worked out until her limbs burned, buried herself in new client files, cleaned her apartment until it was spotless, and talked Kari’s ear off about the deployment. Skye didn’t know how many other ways she could fill her time. It wasn’t that Ben had been there all the time. The problem was now that he was gone, she couldn’t think about anything else. When Faith called and asked her to dinner it was like a small prayer had been answered. Skye wasn’t certain if she had ever been so nervous about meeting another girl before. Sure, it was someone who was important to Ben, and that should somehow put her nerves at ease, but it was having the opposite effect. She was almost shaking. Faith was the closest thing he had to family. If she didn’t get along with her, Skye didn’t know what she’d do. Would Ben end their relationship before he was even home from WESTPAC? Would his entire opinion of her change if she didn’t hit it off with the one person in his life who meant something to him? She ran her palms along the sides of her jeans for the tenth time before taking the steps to the San Diego bungalow. Faith had called and invited her over for dinner. Skye clutched a bottle of wine in her fist and jogged up the stairs. She could do this; she tried to convince herself as she knocked on the screen door. “Skye?” A petite girl, with short locks pushed open the door. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Skye didn’t know such a small person could hug so fiercely. She wrapped a free hand around her shoulder. “Faith, it’s so nice to finally meet you. Ben has told me so much about you. Here.” She shoved the bottle forward. “I brought wine.” “Oh, thank you. Let’s go get this open.” Faith turned, and Skye followed her into the house. She stopped to study the pictures in the hallway. She didn’t need Faith to tell her she was staring at pictures of Riggs. He flashed a bright white smile with one arm draped over Faith’s tiny shoulder. They looked cute together. It hurt thinking he was no longer a part of her life, a part of this house, or a part of Ben’s life. “Alright, two glasses ready to go.” Faith handed one to Skye as she entered the kitchen. “Something smells amazing. What are we having?” Faith smiled. “Chicken casserole. I know it’s cliché, invite someone over and serve chicken casserole, but I swear it’s different.” Skye giggled. Maybe she wasn’t the only one who was nervous for dinner. “I love chicken casserole, no matter what kind. I can’t wait.” “Want to sit out on the porch? We have at least forty-five minutes before dinner is ready.” “Lead the way.” Skye followed her through the kitchen door onto a porch that reminded her of the wraparound porches from home, rather than the California patios she had grown accustomed to. There were potted plants tucked in every corner. She settled into a love seat near a sprawling


hibiscus. It was beautiful. Faith held up her glass. “I think we need to make a toast.” “Ok. What should we toast?” “How about to new friends.” She paused. “And to Ben?” She winked as her glass tapped on Skye’s. “Yes, that’s perfect.” “Ok, so let’s jump right to it. Tell me all the mushy gushy stuff Ben has done.” Skye laughed so hard her wine jostled in the glass. “Mushy gushy?” “Yes. I’ve known for years there was a die-hard romantic buried in that playboy body of his. You are the lucky girl that has drawn it out of him, so I need to know all about it.” Faith sipped her wine. They had only known each other ten minutes, but Skye felt that they were somehow friends for years. “I don’t know if he’s completely mushy gushy, but he has been really sweet. Before he left for WESTPAC he wrote a letter to me.” Skye wasn’t about to tell her she had read it a hundred times and kept it with her wherever she went. The words melted her heart every time she read it. “He just does cute stuff like opens doors, he puts his arms around me when I’m cold, and he knows how I like my coffee.” She thought about all of the things he did without her prompting him. He just did them. Like lighting candles and stopping by with armfuls of flowers. Some mornings if he left work before her, he would leave notes on the mirror for her to find. “I knew he would pull it together.” Faith looked happy. “Did he talk to you about us? I guess he mentioned me.” The air was starting to cool and Skye pulled a blanket from the back of the love seat to throw over her legs as she tucked them behind her. Faith laughed. “He did. I knew weeks ago that he was crazy about you.” “You did? How?” “Because, Ben’s not really the one-woman type.” Faith stopped. “Oh God, that sounded awful. I mean he never got serious with one person. It’s a compliment to you that he wanted to change that about himself. I meant it as a compliment.” Skye sighed. It wasn’t as if she thought he was a saint. She knew he was skilled beyond her level of experience; she just wasn’t thrilled to hear it. Faith rested her wine glass on the coffee table. “I’m sorry. I love Ben to death. I would never say anything bad about him, or say anything about him to upset you.” “No, it’s ok. I knew he was a flirt, and I knew he wasn’t used to dating.” “But he is now.” Faith smiled. “He is completely head over heels for you. It’s so awesome to see him like this.” “You think?” Skye settled back into her seat. “I know he is. How about another glass? I think I’ll bring the bottle out here.” The screen door latched as Faith walked into the kitchen. Before Ben left for WESTPAC, she couldn’t imagine a life without him in it. It hadn’t occurred to her he might be trying to imagine a life with her in it. If she was the first girl he had taken the time to date, was he ready for this relationship? Skye swallowed the last sip of wine and tried to dismiss the nagging idea that she was Ben’s relationship experiment. They were more than that. Faith appeared with the bottle and a plate of cheese and crackers. “I had to turn the oven up. It might be a few more minutes on dinner.” “That’s ok.” Skye forced a smile. “Uh-oh, I really did upset you.” Faith sat across from her. “Deployments are hard. You’re going


through the roughest part right now. I’ve been there.” Skye straightened her shoulders. Nothing she had experienced could compare to Faith’s loss. Suddenly, she felt like an idiot. “I’m fine. Really. See?” She pointed to her mouth as the corners turned into a smile. Faith giggled. “Take it from me, doubt is your worst enemy during deployments.” “What do you mean?” “He’s over there. You’re over here, And you have all of this empty time to yourself. You start wondering if he’s thinking and feeling the same things you are. You wonder if you made up the whole relationship in your head. If things were really as connected and as serious as you thought they were before he left. Because I know, right before a deployment things are intense. You connect on every level and can’t imagine breathing without him.” “You are reading my mind right now.” Skye reached for the wine bottle and topped off her glass. She tucked her feet behind her. “When he was here I knew exactly what we had. I had no doubts. But now that he’s gone I’m questioning everything.” “And I just made it ten times worse by that stupid comment. I’m sorry. Don’t let what I said take away from Ben’s feelings for you. It definitely is real. He wouldn’t have wanted me to call you and invite you over if he wasn’t worried and thinking about you.” “He did that?” Skye assumed the call was Faith’s idea. “Mmm…hmm. He called me a few days ago worried that you would spend all your time working at your office if I didn’t intervene.” She winked. “Trust me. He is thinking about you too.” Skye felt her shoulders slide down her back. Wine with Faith was exactly what she needed. “Thanks, I do feel better.” “Good. Just remember any time you start to doubt it you can call me. I’m happy to remind you how crazy he is about you.” “Thank you, I’m afraid I might have to take you up on it.” Skye wondered how much harder the deployment would be. She was barely surviving the first week. She didn’t have time to think through it. Ben threw it at her. She had two choices: either end everything with him and let him go to Japan, knowing she wouldn’t be there when he got home or follow what her body and soul were telling her. Body and soul won. “Anytime.” Faith’s expression turned playful. “You know I have a feeling you might end up with a ring on your finger.” “What?” Skye clutched at her wine glass. “I just know these things. You’re crazy in love with him right?” Skye didn’t think that even came close to capturing how she felt about Ben. There weren’t enough sonnets or love songs to describe how her heart soared when he looked at her. Everything faded to a blurry haze and all she could see were his eyes. Eyes that she wanted to wake up to everyday. Eyes that told her she had found home with him. Eyes that said he loved her. Skye knew it sounded insane to say that after knowing him only a month she wanted a future with him, but it felt so natural and right to be with him. This moment, these months ahead of them, felt as unnatural as anything. They weren’t supposed to be apart. “Yes. I’m one hundred percent in love with him.” She hung her head. “But I was afraid to tell him before he left. I should have told him. Everything happened so quickly. It was like all of a sudden we found each other and then I had a week to say goodbye.” “You can still tell him. It’s never too late to say ‘I love you’.” “It’s not, is it?” Skye started imagining all the ways she could tell Ben how she was feeling.


“Never too late. Now let’s go eat.” Faith wrapped her in a hug before they headed inside. Skye knew she had a friend in Faith like no other.

One Month Later

“Have any packages arrived from me yet?” Ben sounded excited on the other end of the phone. “You sent me something?” “Yes, want to know what it is?” “No, I want it to be a surprise.” Skye hugged her knees to her chest. With the time difference they didn’t talk nearly as often as she wanted. “I love your kind of surprises. Especially ones with black lace and—” “I hope no one can hear you right now.” Skye giggled. What she wouldn’t do to slip on that naughty piece of lingerie and parade around in front of him. She’d even throw in a can of whipped cream. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.” Skye sat forward. His voice had changed from playful to serious. “What is it?” “I didn’t know how all of this would work out until I got here, that’s why I haven’t mentioned it before.” He paused. “But, a lot of the guys over here are putting in for their two weeks of leave. We can take time off during the deployment. So, I was thinking I could spend my two weeks with you.” Skye wanted to leap off the bed. Her hands started shaking. “Skye, you still there?” “Yes, yes I’m here. I’m just surprised.” He laughed. “Well, I was worried it couldn’t happen so I was afraid to mention it before. I didn’t want to get your hopes up and then have to disappoint you. So, here are your choices: Japan, Australia, Alaska, Hawaii, or…” “Wait, you want me to meet you somewhere?” “Yes, baby. I’ll fly you almost anywhere in the world. Where do you want to go for two weeks? I’ll cover the entire trip.” “I can’t let you do that. It’s too much. I can afford it.” “Skye,” his voice darkened. “I know you can afford it. I know you make tons of money, and you’re a successful businesswoman. I want do this for you. Let me.” “Ok. In that case, where do you want to go?” She couldn’t believe he was on the phone asking her to meet him on the other side of the world. The butterflies were in rocket mode in her stomach. “With you? I don’t give a damn. Two weeks with you in a prison would be awesome. You pick. Every place over here is beautiful.” “When can you take leave? What are you thinking?” Skye would pack tonight if she could fly to him tomorrow. “I need to put in for my leave about a month ahead of time, so sometime in June. How does that sound?” Another month without his strong hands and rock-hard chest was going to be tough to bear, but it was better than five more months. Seeing each other during the summer would break up the deployment. This was the best gift he could ever give her.


“Maui. I’ve always wanted to go to Maui.” Secretly, it’s where she always wanted to have her honeymoon, but she wasn’t about to spill that tidbit. “Done. I’ll work on the tickets this week. Better start buying lots of bikinis and more of that lingerie I like.” Skye imagined if she could see his face he would wink at her. “You got it.” She suppressed a squeal. “I can’t believe it.” “I have to go, but I’ll call you in a few days. Bye, baby.” “Bye.” She sighed as she tossed the phone on the bed. She hopped to her feet and started jumping on the mattress until all the pillows on her bed had been jostled to the floor. “I’m going to Maui. I’m going to Maui.” She started a hula dance and fell in a heap of giggles on the bed.


27

BOLT TRIED NOT TO CLUTCH THE LEI MADE OF ORCHIDS IN HIS FIST, BUT HE WAS SO DAMN NERVOUS. IT HAD BEEN over two months since he had seen Skye. Talking on the phone and emails weren’t enough. He thought about her when he was running, when he was in the shower, when he was flying. She had crept into every part of his life. He had to tell her what he was feeling. The only problem was that he was terrified. He waited next to baggage claim. He had taken a commercial flight the day before, wanting to make sure he was there to greet her when she stepped off the plane. The shells that were looped around his neck were starting to itch, but he didn’t want to take them off. He thought Skye would want the entire Hawaiian experience. It seemed like every couple that passed him was in Hawaii on their honeymoon. He recognized the look they were wearing. It was the same one he saw on Skye’s face when they woke up together, when they sipped coffee together, or bet on baseball games. It was pure, devoted love. He straightened his shoulders. The baggage carousel lights started to flash. Skye’s plane had arrived. A line of passengers walked toward him. He dodged the newlyweds, searching the crowd for Skye. Then he saw her. Her raven hair, flowing around her shoulders. A white halter was tied around her neck, showing off her bronzed shoulders. Bolt couldn’t stand it. Humility be damned. He ran toward her, scooping her in his arms. She hopped forward, wrapping her legs around him. “Hey, you.” She smiled before his mouth claimed hers. She tasted like cinnamon and smelled like vanilla. He inhaled every part of her, his hands tangling through her hair. His chest surged with an aching that was eased as her fingers clasped around his neck. “I missed you, baby.” He whispered in her neck. “Me too.” She planted her feet on the airport floor. “I can’t believe I’m here. That you’re here.” “Damn it,” he mumbled. “What’s wrong?” He held up the lei, some of the orchids were bent. “I had this whole ‘aloha’ thing planned, but when I saw you, I couldn’t think of anything else.” Skye giggled. “It was the best aloha a girl could ask for.” She pointed toward the revolving carousel. “There’s my bag. The flowered one.” Bolt wedged himself between another set of newlyweds and grabbed her bag, pulling it to the floor so they could wheel it out of the airport.


“Did you pack all my special requests?” He winked. “I guess you’ll just have to wait and see if I have any surprises for you.” He couldn’t keep his lips off of her. He stole a kiss along her neck as they walked into the warm Hawaiian sun. “I have a rental car in the visitor lot.” He led her across the lanes of baggage claim pickup. “This is cute.” Skye admired the red two-door convertible. “I figured we’re on a Hawaiian vacation. I have to do this right.” He tossed her luggage in the trunk and rushed to open the passenger door for her. “Thanks.” She lingered long enough for him to kiss her again. He couldn’t wait to get back to the resort. He had champagne, Hawaiian music, the whole thing ready to go. Now that she was here, they could finally get started.

Bolt held a cup of pineapple toward Skye. “Want some?” “Sure.” She leaned across the lounge and he slipped a piece of the white fruit in her mouth. It was the third day in a row they had rented a cabana on the beach. Skye returned to her book, her skin glistening in the sun. Neither one of them had adjusted to the time difference. Bolt was still trying to get over Japanese time, and Skye was off a few hours from her California schedule. They had no problem agreeing the best way to remedy it was to spend as much time in bed as humanly possible. “Did you know that you can only eat this kind of pineapple in Hawaii?” Bolt pointed to the cup. “It’s delicious.” Skye pulled her shades to the edge of her nose. “No, I didn’t know that.” She turned another page. “What do you think about snorkeling? Do you want to try it?” He sat in his chair, watching a few of the swimmers bob up and down with their flippers helping them stay buoyant. “Why don’t you go?” Skye rested the book next to her. “I think I’ll read some more, but you should try it.” He looked skeptical. “You sure?” He didn’t like the idea of leaving her on the beach, but he was ready to get some exercise. “Yes, have fun.” She pulled the book back to her nose. “Ok, but I’ll be right over there if need me.” He nodded to the low area of coral along the beach. Bolt stood from the chaise and walked to the rental stand on the boardwalk. “Aloha. How is your stay in Maui so far?” A round man with sunscreen all over his face smiled. “Aloha. It’s going great.” Bolt glanced back at Skye in the chair. “What did you want to rent today? Paddle board? Surfboard?” “Just a snorkel set.” Bolt noticed they were already packaged in mesh bags. “Do you need one for your wife?” A confused look must have appeared on his face. The clerk corrected himself. “That pretty girl isn’t your wife?” Bolt struggled with the words. “No, she isn’t.” The man handed him a blue set. “I don’t know why not. You two look like a perfect match.” Bolt handed him a twenty-dollar bill and took the bag. “Thanks, man.” He turned to see if Skye was watching him. He threw the snorkel set over his shoulder, but he didn’t head for the waves, instead he took a right turn into Whaler’s Village and headed straight to the Cartier store.


“Ben, this is incredible.” Skye gushed over the private dining table he had reserved. They were the only ones on the beach. Gas torches flickered inside their tent, and the table was filled with orchids. Bright fucia and purple petals were scattered along the sand. Bolt admitted he wasn’t much for flowers unless he was giving them as a gift, but there was something about the Hawaiian blooms that were stunning. They grew in the courtyards, donned all parts of the resort, and the staff handed them out like candy. Their first night in the suite Bolt laid Skye down on a bed sprinkled with white orchids. His entire perspective on the flowers changed after that night. “When did you make this reservation?” She inhaled the flower arrangement. He loved that she tucked one behind her ear. “This afternoon. When you were reading on the beach.” She looked skeptical. “It’s a great surprise.” She slid into her seat. Bolt sat next to her. He was nervous. He kicked back the glass of wine their private server had just poured. He needed every ounce of magic in that glass. The sun began to sink behind the clouds on the horizon. The sky around them glowed pink and orange. “I can’t believe you planned all this and didn’t tell me.” She grinned. “You’re not the only one with surprises.” He held the glass for the waiter to refill. He wasn’t going to get drunk, but the wine had a way of calming the queasiness he was dealing with. Skye looked on the horizon. “Are we celebrating something tonight?” “Why do you say that?” He shifted in his seat. The rock was burning a hole in his pocket. “I don’t know. The sunset dinner like Coronado, the wine, the flowers, it’s all so surreal.” Bolt realized then that this wasn’t as original as he thought. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t special enough. Someone like Skye deserved all the ‘sweep her off her feet’ moments he could muster. He curbed the speech he had prepared. “I wanted to do something for you, that’s all. We’re on vacation. I say we enjoy every second of it.” He held his glass toward her. “I can toast to that.” Skye’s wine glass clinked against his. “Now let’s see what this private chef has prepared for us.”

Bolt tucked the picnic basket in the backseat, securing it with one of the seatbelts. It would be disastrous if their entire lunch, including the bottle of champagne spilled while they took the sharp curves of the Hawaiian island. Today they were taking the road to Hana. Bolt asked the concierge about what activities she recommended for two people who had never been to Maui. Other than a luau, the first thing she uttered was, “You have to take the road to Hana.” She promised scenic waterfalls, beautiful landscapes, and an adventure that they would never forget. The hotel even provided picnic baskets for the trip. They made planning romance that much easier. Skye laughed as she tossed a beach bag on the floor. “I have sunscreen, a blanket, and towels. Do you think that’s enough?” “I think that’s plenty.” He tapped his shorts pocket for the tenth time that morning. He had managed to conceal the ring last night when they got back from dinner, but there was no way he could continue living in the same room with Skye keeping that kind of secret. Today was the day.


“You ready?” He was excited enough to jump over the side of the convertible and into the driver’s seat, but instead he opened the door and slid behind the wheel. “You bet. I can’t wait to do this.” Skye pulled out a map from her purse. “I grabbed this from the front desk. It shows where all the waterfalls are along the way.” He eyed her tan legs as she slipped into the seat next to him. In the few days they had been in Maui, her olive skin had been sun kissed to a deep bronze. She looked more gorgeous than he ever remembered seeing her. “Waterfalls it is.” He threw the car in drive and peeled out of the resort drive. The top was down, Hawaiian music was on the radio, and the woman he loved was next to him. It was going to be the best day of his life. The first stop they made was an hour into the trip. Skye squealed at the first waterfall marker. “I know there are a hundred of these on the way, but can we stop at this one?” Bolt pulled over on the mulch shoulder and they walked through thick brush. On the other side of the path was a trickling stream and waterfall. “Ok, take my picture. It’s the first one.” She handed him her phone. He laughed. He had never seen her this excited. “Ok. Got it. Let’s keep driving towards the big ones.” He wrapped his hand around her waist and led her back up the path. Two hours later Bolt pulled off the main road and rolled along a gravel path. “Where are we going? This isn’t on my map.” Skye pulled her sunglasses down to study the blue triangles on the foldout in her lap. “Secret.” He grinned. They passed fields of sugar cane and a few cottages tucked under tropical foliage. The farther they went off the path, the more worried Bolt became that he had his directions all wrong. He wanted privacy, but he didn’t want to drive off a cliff. They emerged in a clearing and he parked near a banyan tree. This was the place. It was the perfect spot. With the engine quiet, they could hear the roar and splash of a nearby waterfall. This wasn’t a little trickle of water. This was a powerful surge of water tumbling into clear blue-green pools. “Ben, this is amazing.” Skye pulled the beach bag over her shoulder while he unclipped the picnic basket from its safe seat. “Yeah, it’s even better than I imagined.” He walked toward a grassy spot where they could see the ocean on one side and still be close enough to the waterfall to watch its majestic cascade into the pool below. Skye spread the blanket over the grass and tugged at the corners. “After we eat I want to take a hundred pictures of this place. I can’t believe we’re on the only ones here.” Bolt realized their alone time might be limited. They were off the beaten path, but they were a part of the most popular day trips in Maui. Some other helpful concierge likely doled out the same advice. He tapped his pocket before sitting on the blanket. “Skye, I can’t. I can’t do this.” He stood from his seat. “What’s going on?” Her eyes darted to his. “I had a plan. I think it was a good plan, but I can’t do the plan.” He kneeled beside her, his knee sinking into the Hawaiian quilt Skye packed. Skye’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God. Are you? Is this?” It all flew from his mouth, none of it rehearsed. “I love you. I’ve never loved anyone, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I love you. I want all the things I swore I never wanted—a house,


and kids, and you. I want you in my life every single day.” He wasn’t sure how proposals were supposed to go. He didn’t know how this one would go, but he smiled as he saw the tear trickle along Skye’s cheek. “Baby, don’t cry.” “They’re not sad tears.” She choked on the words. “I love you too. I have loved you.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Don’t you want to see the ring?” He laughed, as he pulled the stone from his pocket. The sun caught specs of the shimmering diamond. “You don’t like it?” He held it toward her, worried from her expression that he had guessed wrong when he selected the emerald cut. “No, no. It’s perfect. I love it. I adore it. I still can’t believe this is happening.” She studied the ring. “Is this really happening? I just don’t know what to say.” “Say yes. Say you want to get married and do the white picket fence thing with me.” He slipped the ring on her finger. “Yes, yes, and yes.” Bolt pulled her with him as he collapsed on the quilt. The warm Hawaiian sun shining on then, lighting the moment with tenderness. They lay there in a sphere of love, bound by the words exchanged, words their hearts had already known. “I was afraid you were going to say no.” He hadn’t realized until he heard her say ‘yes’ how his heart had been on pause, waiting to beat until he knew there was a future with the one woman he couldn’t live without. “Are you crazy?” Her lips brushed against his mouth. “And miss waking up to these lips and those eyes? No way I’m turning that down.” “You know I have no idea what I’m doing. Absolutely no clue.” She nodded. “I know. But that’s why we’re doing it together.” He sighed as she kissed him until they were both breathless. Their bodies melting together, their hands roaming with a new hunger. “Together.” He liked the sound of that. He didn’t know holding someone else in his arms could make him feel so whole and so alive. That was until he met Skye, and she taught him what it meant to fly.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Every writer needs a fact-checking expert in his or her corner. For me, I’m lucky that expert is my husband. Fly is not our story, but there are certainly elements that came from our life together. Without you, Shane, I wouldn’t have all the right acronyms or flight terms in place that make Bolt’s job accurate. Thank you for reading, listening, and weighing in when Bolt needed your help. I can’t imagine our life any other way. Jennifer and Mary-Kathryn, as usual you helped me every step of the way. Thank you for always being in my corner. I can’t say enough about Sommer Stein at Perfect Pear Creative Covers. The cover is gorgeous and sexy. Thank you! Thank you to the bloggers who share my work. I appreciate all that you do. The biggest of thank yous to the readers! I write for you.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

T.A. Foster met, fell in love with, and married her own Marine fighter pilot. Through deployments, trainings, and sometimes living oceans apart, their own love story continues every day.

She grew up catching rays and waves along the North Carolina Outer Banks and now resides in the state with her husband, three children, and canine kiddo.

T.A. has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a graduate degree in Educational Psychology from Texas A&M University. When she’s not chasing her two-legged and four-legged children or trying to escape for date night, you can find her reading, writing, or planning her next beach trip. You can follow the latest on T.A. Foster’s upcoming news and events: Amazon Page www.tafosterauthor.com

Violet paige sidelined, a sports romance  
Violet paige sidelined, a sports romance  
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