NOT ANOTHER NEW YEAR’S With much love for the men in my life:
Rob, Jesse, and Taylor.
Contents FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 1 Hannah Davis stood on the wide sidewalk outside San Diego… 2 The most beautiful man Hannah had ever seen in her… 3 Women had always been a weakness of his, Tanner Hart… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 4 Perched on a corduroy-covered couch, with a half-downed tumbler of… 5 Hannah awakened, and information sank slowly into her muddled brain,… 6 If Tanner had thought his luck would change with the… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 7 Her head doing a rerun of the woozy spins from… 8 Tanner tipped back his favorite chair at his favorite table…
9 Despite himself, Troy admired the princess’s courage. When faced with… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 10 The next morning, Hannah tiptoed out of the suite, aware… 11 The lost puppy was him, Tanner thought later. Lost, sick,… 12 What? After her long speech about being capable of handling… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 13 Desirée discovered that even sleepy Coronado could suffer from traffic… 14 Tanner knew the world wasn’t fair. There was that damn… 15 Hannah shared a late breakfast set up by room service… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 16 Desirée arrived for her shift at Hart’s smelling of lemongrass… 17 After playing hooky the day before, Hannah had promised herself…
18 With Hannah in tow, Tanner sprinted toward the parking lot… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 19 Tanner decided he would have to distract Hannah from the… 20 The bar wouldn’t open for at least half an hour,… 21 Hannah lifted a languid hand to her nose and sniffed… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 22 “I don’t know why you’re so angry,” Hannah said, her… 23 Never having had anyone to count upon, Desirée didn’t expect… 24 Troy trudged out of the surf, his longboard under his… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 25 At midday, Hannah’s small collection of belongings was packed in… 26 After lunch, Tanner drove to his house, telling Hannah they…
27 Stunned by the revelation of Tanner’s bargain with her uncle… FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS 28 Hannah was gone and it was too quiet in Tanner’s… 29 Ignoring despair, Hannah nurtured her anger as she hoofed it… 30 Days ago Tanner had told Hannah that a Secret Ser… Author’s Note About the Author Other Books by Christie Ridgway Copyright About the Publisher
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New Year’s Finding last year’s list of resolutions and realizing that it might as well serve as this year’s list too.
annah Davis stood on the wide sidewalk outside San Diego Airport’s Baggage Claim and tried
convincing herself she hadn’t just lost everything. After all, she had her health (which was actually saying quite a lot for a second grade teacher during flu season) and she had relative youth, though she was on the downhill slide to thirty. But she no longer had her luggage and she didn’t have her purse. Meaning she had no clothes, no shoes, no undies, no toiletries, no ID, no credit card, not even a ChapStick. She glanced down at her scraped and nicked palms and tested the flex of her bruised knees. Maybe running after the person she’d seen hurrying out the sliding doors pushing her purloined baggage cart—purse perched on top—hadn’t been such a smart idea. But she’d only turned away for a moment to offer aid to a “mama”-wailing toddler, and when she’d turned back it was to see the backside of a stranger shoving her stuff outside. In her immediate pursuit, she’d tripped in her new black pumps, losing precious minutes. By the time she’d gotten upright again, the stranger and all her things had disappeared. Airport security had been as helpful as any busy law enforcement entity would be as night fell on New Year’s Eve. They’d taken her statement and said they’d be in touch. Given that her cell phone had been stolen along with everything else, and since she didn’t know where to say she’d be staying because she had no way to pay for accommodations, she’d told them one of the two addresses on nearby Coronado Island that she’d committed to memory. “Ma’am?” Hannah’s head jerked around to meet the brown-eyed gaze of a young Marine dressed in sand-colored desert camouflage. His companion was garbed the same and had a set of freckles stretched across his baby face. “Ma’am, we saw you fall a while back. Are you all right?” Hannah’s heart squeezed. She’d seen dozens of members of the military in her travels through airports that day. Young men and women sacrificing for their country. A trio had been in line at the Starbucks in Sacramento. The man in front of her had paid for their macchiatos. When a dozen had debarked the plane at the gate next to hers, spontaneous applause broke out all over the concourse. In the airport bookstore a motherly looking woman had given a young soldier a spontaneous hug. Obviously, to most people the sight of them spurred patriotism and pride. Her heart squeezing hard once again, Hannah looked at the pair beside her and could only wonder if either one of them was a bigamist. “I’m fine,” she said, clearing the bitterness from her throat. “Thanks.” For the fifth time she considered running back inside to the bank of pay phones by the escalator. One collect call and her overprotective parents would breathe a sigh of relief that they could make the arrangements to straightaway return her to the family fold and their small, Northern California farm town. She could be home before this year ended. Only to ring in the next without any relief from all the unanswered questions, the sticky pity, the hot cheeked shame she’d been living with during the last one. Returning home would also mean returning without the vacation—the adventure!—she’d claimed she wanted to everyone who would listen. And without achieving the real desire that was in her heart. That thought was enough to turn her toward the nearby taxi stand. She couldn’t go back without seeing these ten days through and learning just how her right choices had turned out to be so very, very
wrong. Without finding out what was wrong with her. So she’d stick it out without resorting to any kind of bailout from Mom and Dad. On the slick vinyl seat of a cab that smelled like pine air freshener and Armor All, Hannah sat back, straightening the legs of her new black jeans, a necessary purchase after the I’ve-been-dumped her to drop fifteen pounds in the last eight months. Then she surreptitiously fished beneath her pressed overshirt and satiny camisole to locate the three twenties she’d slipped into the left cup of the built-in shelf bra (which was roomy anyway, thanks to the weight loss, a sure sign that God was a man). Finding the folded bills, Hannah blessed the travel savvy of Paula, the woman who taught third grade in the room beside hers at Harold Mott Elementary School. During the weekly meeting of their Potluck Club, she’d shared some of her expertise. Spare cash in the bra. Check. Memorize the address of your destination. Check. Never leave your purse anywhere but slung across your chest. Ooops. “Big date to night?” Hannah met the gaze of the cabbie in the rearview mirror. She pushed her straight dark hair off her face and behind her ears to get a better look at him in the dashboard’s glow. With his bald pate and wattly neck, he bore a strong resemblance to her boss, Harold Mott Elementary School’s principal. It had initially reassured her, always a bit nervous in a car, and now the similarity compelled a certain obedience. Hannah had always tried to do what was expected of her. “No big date,” she said, her gaze shifting toward the side window. “Not long ago I was…uh…” How should she put this? Jilted? Ditched? Humiliated by the man whose engagement ring I wore? Picturing Duncan in her mind, a little fire kindled to life in her belly, but she instantly stamped it out. She shouldn’t nurture bad thoughts about him. Clearing her throat, she looked toward the driver and started again. “You see,” she said in an apologetic tone, “it’s just that—” Wait. Apologetic tone? Why was she apologizing? The answer was almost as embarrassing as what had happened to her several months back. The truth was, she was sounding sorry because Hannah Davis didn’t like to disappoint. Since six, Hannah Davis had always wanted to please. Need someone to review the policies and procedures manual? Need someone to permanently take over the cold and damp early-morning yard duty? Need someone to soothe little Timmy’s manic mother who couldn’t accept that at seven he wasn’t yet prepared for matriculation at Stanford University? Hannah Davis had always been your (wo)man. “I ask,” the cabbie said, as he took the exit leading to the Coronado Bridge, “because if you don’t have a New Year’s date, the address you gave me—of Hart’s bar—well, it might not be the best place for a woman like yourself to find one.” A woman like myself? Hannah’s forehead pleated, then the question flew from her mind as they ascended the upward sweep of the bridge. Her breath caught at the view. The overhead lights rimming
the curving span looked like suspended lanterns, leading directly to a diamond-strewn patch of carpet floating on dark Pacific waters. Beneath the bridge was a bay dotted with illuminated boats that appeared more like pretty toys than real modes of transportation. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the bristling skyscrapers of downtown San Diego, and while that view was spectacular too, what was ahead mattered so much more. For a country girl like herself, straight from inland farmlands, Coronado appeared beautiful and tempting and exotic. Like the adventure she’d claimed to everyone at home she wanted. Her heartbeat sped up and she let herself imagine that was all she was after on this trip. The island truly looked like an opportunity to see and do new things. A chance to be someone other than dependable Hannah Davis who had been so easy to dupe. Who was such, as her students would say, a dope. The cab driver turned out to be even more like Hannah’s paternal principal than she’d first thought, she realized, listening to his grumbles as they reached their destination. She took a swift glance at the anonymous-looking, innocuous-appearing, stucco store front that was the entrance to Hart’s. To be honest—and to some comfort—it appeared a lot less foreign and exotic than her first glimpse of Coronado itself. The establishment took up one end of a small, utilitarian strip mall. There was a darkened nail place next door and a filled parking lot out front. “Should I really be worrying?” she asked, looking over at the older man. “I don’t like to see any young lady traipsing into a bar alone,” he said. “But I know people in there,” she assured him. Not really. Her uncle knew people in there. A man who used to work for him, a man named Tanner Hart, had returned to his hometown of Coronado and was employed at the bar. Uncle Geoff had given this Tanner the heads-up and she’d been told to meet him there the next morning. To keep the family off her back about her solo vacation, she’d agreed to a little face time with a Coronado native. Now she hoped she’d find Tanner Hart here tonight. Maybe he could help her solve her no luggage, no ID, not-much-money dilemma. “Still,” her self-appointed protector muttered from the front seat of the cab as he put together her change. “You look so…so…I don’t know. Wholesome.” Hannah wanted to cry. Wholesome were cows in the pasture. Wheat fields. Women who patiently waited for their playing around fiancé. Her fingers went to the first button of her staid, starched shirt and flicked it open to reveal the notch at her throat. “I don’t know how you could tell such a thing about me during a short car ride,” she declared. “I don’t know either,” the cabbie replied, handing some bills over the seat. “But you sure do seem like a schoolteacher.” Hannah crumpled the money in her hand. Having grown up, gone to college, and got employed within a forty-mile radius, she’d always assumed people knew she was a teacher because…because they knew she was a teacher. They knew her. But now she lifted her left wrist and gave a tentative sniff. Was there Crayola in her pores? Did she smell like construction paper and glue sticks? Yes, she had precise D’Nealian handwriting, but that didn’t show on her face, did it? Giving up on the depressing analysis, she climbed out of the car. Then she stood on the empty walkway outside the bar and waved as the cab drove away. She took a moment to breathe in the damp,
salty air, so different from the earthy alfalfa and manure scents of home. After another minute she turned toward Hart’s no-nonsense storefront. And stalled some more. She had the oddest feeling that once she opened the metal door in front of her she would never be the same again. Silly. That was part of the plan, wasn’t it? Still, she hesitated, until the darkness of the parking lot seemed to creep toward her. Her scalp prickled and she moved forward as if some unseen hand approached from behind— The bar’s door popped open. Light shot out. Music swamped the sidewalk. That reaching hand she’d sensed at her back was real. It caught her shirt between her shoulder blades. Pulse jolting, Hannah gasped. Wrenched away. Fell to her hands and knees for the second time that night. Looked up and between legs—male, female, and those belonging to the bar’s chairs and tables— glimpsed the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her life.
he most beautiful man Hannah had ever seen in her life didn’t notice her. But another pair of men
did—they’d nearly tripped over her on their way out of the bar—and after lifting her to her feet with a hand under each elbow, they’d changed their minds about leaving. What sweet guys, she thought half an hour later, her mind a little muzzy as one of them placed yet another mojito in front of her on the small table they’d commandeered in the crowded space. She eyed the glass with some suspicion, though. Was it moving or was there something wrong with her, um, equilibrium? After a blink or two she decided that the dancing going on in the far corner of the bar was causing some Jurassic Park/T-Rex ripples, and thus it was safe to take another swallow of her second—third? —drink. It went down sweet and smooth and she wondered what was in it. The word “mojito” sounded as exotic as “Coronado,” and the beverage tasted as forbidden as her vacation would have been if she’d told anyone her true reason for the trip. Another swallow warmed her from the throat down, and she smiled at her escorts. Usually she didn’t take up with strange men, but in her surprised and bruised-for-the-second-time state, she’d gone along with the harmless-looking fellows. They were twins, and reminded her of her varsity football coach of an older brother, “Little” Ricky Davis, the biggest but kindest man in two counties. So she hadn’t protested when they’d helped her to a seat and bought her the first drink and then the second (third?). “Thanks again for helping me,” she told them. “New high heels.” The shoes were certainly at fault for her first fall at the airport, but what about the one outside the bar? For a moment the mojito haze cleared and she remembered the premonitory chill rippling down her spine and that hand at her back. Now she wasn’t sure it had been real. Her eyebrows crimped together. “Did you see someone out there with me?” “What?” Twin A could be forgiven for not understanding a word she said. Not only was the bar
dimly lit, but it was louder than the school lunchroom on a rainy day, and there was a DJ working the sound system in the corner. His tip jar overflowed, benefited by the apparent dueling camps in the establishment—those that wanted Garth and Toby, with a little Gretchen mixed in, and others whose tastes ran more to Ludacris, Nelly, and the odd Green Day here or there. It was like Saturday mornings in the gym she had a birthday membership to, thanks to her second older brother, Tom. This particular combination of music presumably acted like a nonbanned supplement to natural testosterone. Which made her think of her beautiful man again. Sipping at her drink, Hannah let her gaze roam the room. Found him. Alone at a tiny table, he sat with his chair tipped back and his head propped against the wall behind him. His too-long blond hair and stubbled chin gave a hard edge to his golden good looks. Part surfer, part gunslinger, his eyes were at half-mast and there was a wry set to his mouth, as if he was amused. Maybe even by himself and the unfriendly chip she could practically see balanced on the ledge of his wide shoulder. No one approached him, and he looked as if that was the way he liked it. A gorgeous, spoiled boy, she decided. One who’d grown up into a beautiful but brooding man. Okay, call her a woman with an overactive imagination, but as someone who had been taming wild beasts every day for the past six years, she could size up the opposition pretty darn quick. If a twenty-years-younger version of this man walked into her classroom, she would assign him the desk closest to hers. Because no doubt about it, despite the very pretty package, he was trouble. Someone bumped the back of her chair, jostling her glass so that she spilled mojito over her wrist. Hannah’s attention was forced away from the sexy, simmering guy as Twin B made a growling sound and handed her a cocktail napkin. “I’ll get you another drink,” Twin A said, looking around for the waitress who had served them before. “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t,” Hannah protested. She remembered she was supposed to be making contact with Tanner Hart, and her gaze moved to the bar. But there were so many people bellied up there, she couldn’t make out those working behind it. “You’ve already been so nice, though I can’t imagine why.” “At first we thought you were Desirée,” Twin B explained, his expression serious. “Desirée?” Maybe it was the mojito, but Hannah wanted to preen a little at the idea of being mistaken for someone with a name as glamorous as “Desirée.” “Yeah,” Twin A agreed. “Dark hair, nice bod.” “Oh.” Hannah mentally preened a little more. She loved these guys. “But then we saw that you weren’t,” he continued. Twin B nodded. “No, up close you don’t look so much like Desirée, you look like—” “A schoolteacher,” his twin and he said together. “Mrs. Robertson—” “We had her for fourth grade.” In an instant deflated, Hannah slumped in her chair. Was this what had gone wrong with her life? Had the blue liquid starch they used for tissue paper art projects replaced the blood in her veins? Did no one want her because she looked ready to blow a recess whistle at any moment?
Depression darkening her mood, she drained the dregs in her glass and banged it onto the table. “Boys, it’s New Year’s Eve and I need another one.” She needed something all right. She needed to prove something. But what, exactly? That she still knew how to have fun. As the third (fourth?) mojito chased away the blues, it occurred to her that she hadn’t been to an honest-to-goodness New Year’s party in four years. With her fiancé away for training or away fighting terrorism, she’d always spent December thirty-first putting together yet another care package and writing yet another long letter. She truly did deserve a good time, right? By the fifth (sixth?) drink—oh, why count?—she was grinning from ear to ear and having herself one. She danced with Twin A. She danced with Twin B. She danced with both Twin A and Twin B (there were more guys than dolls at this New Year’s celebration, wahoo!) and almost forgot about being dumped. As a matter of fact, Hannah was feeling pretty darn pleased, not only with the way the night was going, but also with the cardboard tiara someone had slid over her hair. It was made like a headband, and there was lots of glitter and some red boa feathers gracing the top. When she made a restroom stop, in the mirror over the sink she noted that her cheeks and lips were flushed a matching color. No schoolteacher, this. To ensure that, she recklessly unfastened another button of her overshirt. A quarter inch of camisole lace showed. She unfastened another. Hah! Back out in the bar, she didn’t see the twins right away, so like everyone else, she focused on the big screen TV and the New Year’s countdown. Her head spinning a little with the uh, excitement, she stood on the crowded dance floor, chiming in with everyone else. “…three…two…one…Happy New Year!” A wild cheer went up. “Auld Lang Syne” started playing over the sound system. Couples around her began kissing. Hannah smiled at the hedonistic, antischoolteacher atmosphere, and then a finger tapped her shoulder. She spun. A swarthy, sweaty-looking man was standing too close. “Happy New Year!” he said, though he didn’t look happy about anything. He reached out to grip her upper arms. His fingers closed too tight. Did he want a kiss? No. She didn’t want to kiss him, as schoolmarmish as that sounded on a night like this one. Her feet backed up, but there was nowhere to go in the mass of bodies around her. She jerked her head back and forth, her gaze seeking her huge saviors, but there was only a wall of strangers on every side. “Come with me,” the swarthy one said, pulling her closer, his fingers biting into her arms. “No, thank you!” Hannah tried digging her heels into the sticky wooden dance surface beneath her feet. “I’m—I’m—I’m…here with someone.” She was supposed to be finding someone, she remembered, hours late and many dollars short. And surely that someone was not this man with the sweat in the folds of his heavy neck and the dark— malice? or was that just the mojitos talking?—in his narrowed gaze. Where was Tanner Hart when she needed him? The man holding her dragged her closer until she felt his breath on her face and the hot dampness
of his shirt against hers. Okay, fine, she thought, going into pleaser mode again. What was the big deal? If it was just a meaningless New Year’s peck he wanted, it would be easier to surrender. But her body wasn’t as resigned to the idea as her brain. With a strangely desperate strength, she found herself wrenching back. Her high heels cursed her again, and she tripped, careening backward through the crowd on the dance floor. People parted at her out-of-control retreat and her heart hammered as she saw Swarthy Man come after her. She felt behind her for something to stop her precipitous stumble. Her hands waved air. Then her heel caught and her legs folded. New hands found her waist. Her butt came to rest on hard thighs. On a gasp, she looked up. It was the blond man. The beautiful one she’d pegged as hard-edged and probably trouble. But odd, she thought, as his arm came around her midsection, she’d never felt so safe. From the corner of her eye she saw the swarthy stranger melt back into the crowd. Relieved, Hannah glanced down at the gold-dusted forearm clasping her close. She saw the long muscle there flex to pull her even tighter against him. His fingers splayed across her hip bone, and she stared at the strong veins that ran across the back of his wide hand. Every hot finger felt like a brand against her pelvis. “I was planning to forego a New Year’s kiss…” the man who held her on his lap said in a deep, bemused voice. His breath tickled the warm flesh of her cheek, and as Hannah looked up, she felt goose bumps flee down her neck for safer climes. Hannah herself didn’t want to go anywhere. She heard her heart pulsing in her ears, and her breathing sounded loud inside her head, but she didn’t want to move from her spot between the rock of his steely arm and the hard place of his thighs covered by soft, worn jeans. She really should move, of course. But this close the beautiful man wasn’t any less tempting than from afar. The nostrils of his straight nose flared as if he could smell her attraction to him. His blue eyes stared into hers and she felt a flush of heat wash away the goose bumps just in time for another set to prickle over her sensitive skin. Mesmerized, she tried telling herself that she was too old to feel such an instant, hormonal pull. Or at least too sensible to do anything about it. She should get up right now, even before he could kiss her, if that’s what he indeed intended. Even if that’s all he wanted. Because, God, it wasn’t all she wanted. The fact was, she’d sacrificed more than holidays and her heart to Duncan. She’d lost her self-esteem and she knew, without reason but without a doubt, that this man could fill the holes in her soul. It might only be with tinsel and flash—he was that beautiful—but she’d come to Coronado because home left her so empty. Anything would be better. Who was she kidding? This man wore sex like cologne. Unless she was very mistaken, he would be better than anything she’d ever dreamed. Though maybe Duncan had found her lacking in that department, she suddenly thought, tensing. Maybe that explained— The stranger slid his free hand down the fall of her hair, as if sensing she needed soothing. “Yeah, I wasn’t go to seek anyone out to night,” he continued in that slow voice, and she not only heard the words but felt them as a rumble against her body that was resting against his. Crackling awareness filled up the little distance between their mouths and eyes. Then it expanded into a bubble around them, and she thought if she waved her fingers, the electric static would set off sparks. Between her thighs, a location she’d considered all-but-forgotten, tingled with life. A tightness at the tips of her breasts said they were awakening too.
The man leaned closer and his sandpapery cheek gave hers a slow caress. She wanted to moan with the goodness of it. Her head was dizzy, maybe with mojitos, maybe with the sudden disappearance of her normal inhibitions. Was he the good time she’d been seeking? His whisper sounded like seduction in her ear. “But since you came to me, sweetheart…”
omen had always been a weakness of his, Tanner Hart admitted to himself, looking down at the
flushed, long-legged beauty in his lap. When he’d spied her careening toward him out of the crowd, he’d had a gut-churning moment of foreboding when he thought she was his bad luck charm, Desirée, but one breath of her scent, one second of her resting in the cradle of his body, and he’d known she was someone else entirely. Funny, though. The foreboding wasn’t fully gone. And because of that, and because he’d given his vow, he knew he should set her back on her feet. But hell, it was New Year’s Eve and how could one little kiss hurt? He was just drunk enough to forget that it was one little kiss that had fried his ass in hellfire to begin with. So Tanner bent his head toward her, his gaze on her lips, flushed such a pretty red. He smiled a little, appreciating the passionate color. In his experience, a woman’s mouth reddened to the exact same shade as her ni— “Here’s your drinks,” a no-nonsense voice grated out. Tanner’s head jerked up. His eyes met those of his brother, Troy, as the other man clacked down another beer and some girly drink on the table. “I was this close to tossing her butt out,” Troy said, nodding toward the figure in his arms. That was Troy, all right, out to save Tanner, his Marine medals always invisibly pinned to his T-shirt. “But now I realize…” His brother’s voice trailed off. “Yeah,” Tanner agreed, reading Troy’s mind. His arms tightened possessively on the flushed beauty, even though he figured the other man’s presence had ruined the moment. Now that most of the midnight kissing in the bar was complete, his chance of getting a second shot at the dark-haired female he held was probably remote. Too bad, he thought, but it was probably for the best. After all, he was sworn off the opposite sex until he got his career problems straightened out and his life back under his control. “She’s not her,” he told Troy. “She’s…” He tilted his head to study the woman in his arms. While her hair was silky darkness like his bad luck charm’s, and what he could tell of her body claimed the same stellar curves, instead of possessing the slight exotic cast of the big D’s features, this woman’s were of the apple-cheeked, cute-nosed variety. Lovely in the extreme, but one hundred percent American rose. Long-stemmed. Dewy. Velvety. Sweet. In that paper crown, she looked like a princess who should be reigning over the American Legion’ s parade float on the Fourth of July.
“…definitely not Desirée,” he finished. The girl’s face flushed deeper and the inside points of her arched brows slammed together. Her big brown eyes went from soft to stone. “Why is everyone saying that?” she hissed. Tanner glanced at Troy for help. “Uh…” The strange woman scooped up the girly drink and jerked straight in his lap. Tanner bit back a yelp as her offended tailbone connected with the bone on his body that had reacted like a pointer’s tail on the opening day of duck hunting season the instant the American rose had landed against him. And okay, so the dog meta phor fit, because yes, he was already hard. Horny. Sue him. He’d been celibate for eleven months and counting. It was supposed to make him a better person, maybe not a bona fide white hat like the other men in his famous family, but at least someone who could be known for something other than screwing up. The girl tossed back the booze, slammed the glass to the table again, and glared at him. Then she grabbed the sides of his hair and yanked his face close. Kissed him. Desirée had done that once too. Except American Rose didn’t taste like Desirée. Well, he couldn’t remember what damn Desirée had tasted like. But certainly not tangy-sweet like this, with a little bite of mint. Mojito, he thought. Mojito and her own unique flavor. He liked it. He liked it a hell of a lot. Now she really went after the kiss, mashing her lips against his, more function than form, and he drew back, not just because he could sense her desperation, but because it was surging weirdly through him too. “Whoa,” he said, fighting her pull on the ends of his hair and trying to sound amused and casual and not hornier than ever. “Whoa whoa whoa. Where’s the fire, sweetheart?” Troy snickered and walked off, while American Rose froze. Then her hands dropped, her shoulders slumped, and a long sigh fluttered the ends of his hair. He thought she might cry. “God,” she moaned instead. “I read this all wrong too, didn’t I? You don’t want me either, do you?” Maybe they were both a little tipsy, because she continued to sit on his thighs, though wilted now. “I haven’t looked at a man in four years,” she continued. “And then I have to be attracted to one who doesn’t find me—” She broke off, brightened a little. “Are you by any chance gay?” Definitely both tipsy, he decided, not just because she’d asked such a question, but because he felt so instantly compelled to answer it. With his mouth against hers. Bending to her again, he licked his tongue across her pillowy bottom lip. Once. Twice. Felt her startled sip of air and the way her belly tensed against his inner forearm. “Sweetheart, does that seem like gay to you?” he whispered, letting the words play across her wet mouth. She made a muffled sound, then gave a tiny shake of her head, causing little blurry kisses between them. Now it was his belly that tightened, going almost as hard as the poor part of him trapped inside his
jeans. He cleared his throat, his lips still whisper-close to hers. “What’s your name?” She stilled for a moment. “Deborah,” she said, then stiffened, as if surprised at what she’d chosen to dub herself. “Yours?” “Deborah” was such an obvious nom de party that he smiled and let the anonymity go both ways. If she didn’t recognize him from all the media play of the last year, who was he to complain? “I’m Finn,” he replied, not feeling the least remorse for using his best friend’s first name. Hey, the guy had found his happiness just days ago with his former flame, Bailey Sullivan, and so wasn’t around much to complain. “You can call me Finn.” “Finn…” She tried it out, her long black lashes sweeping the apple curves of her pretty cheeks. He took the opportunity to look lower. Between the gap in her cotton shirt he could see seductive black lace, and in the gap of that, creamy cleavage. Enticing creamy cleavage. Despite the sight, he really should get rid of her, his good sense warned him. Even with the Finn mask in place, there were reasons— Tanner jolted against the straight back of his chair to stare down at her. “Did you say something about four years?” “Deborah” half turned to wind one arm around his neck, snuggling her closest breast against his chest. He liked that a hell of a lot too. His jeans tightened like a vise. “It’s a long, sad story,” she said. With her other hand she toyed with the fastenings on his old button-down shirt. Whoa whoa whoa all over again. Her absent fiddling was way too close to undressing for someone like himself, made stupid by lack of sex. He caught at her fingers, his eyes widening when she winced. Frowning, Tanner turned over the slim hand. Her palm was scraped and cut, the wounds fresh. Oh, God. Here it came, roiling up from his toes, over his knees, filling his chest. He took a breath, hoping there was still room to be found in his lungs. His protective streak was as wide as the Pacific Ocean, and ten years in the Secret Ser vice had only deepened all the instincts he’d been born with and then been raised to uphold. Heroism might have skipped this Hart so far, but not the drive to protect and serve. “What happened here?” snapped out of his mouth, in true agent style—clipped and commanding. “How’d your hands come to look like this? Who hurt you?” “I—I fell. Twice,” she said, her eyes all big on his face. Ooooh, great, Hart. Now you’re scaring the ladies. Shit. He gentled his hold. Lifted her palm so he could press a butterfly kiss on the worst of the damage. “Did someone cause you to fall?” Her gaze still glued to his, she shrugged. He took it for a negative. “Okay. Good. Fine.” Touching his mouth to her hand again, he tried to relax, but the adrenaline was still in him, stiffening him…everywhere. God, just when he thought he couldn’t get any harder. “Um…uh…” she started, her gaze still glued to his face. He held himself still, waiting for her to finish her thought. Maybe she wanted to know if there were Band-Aids on the premises. Or if he ever planned on letting her up from the little love nest he’d created with his body. At the thought, for some stupid reason his senses, his urges, his damn dumb brain screamed in protest. But really, it was for the best, right? He’d held on to celibacy for eleven months, and once he
completed this little favor he was starting for his former boss tomorrow, he’d be able to get back to his old job. Finally, he’d be in charge of his own life again. There was no sense in taking the chance of fucking that up to night with a woman. He couldn’t afford to be late, distracted, or even smelling like some other chick’s perfume when he met Hannah Davis the next day. For the sake of his future, it was imperative he make a stellar first impression on her. Tanner released an inward sigh. “Deborah” looked too Goody Two Shoes for a one-night bang anyway, and that’s all he had the time or inclination for. “Uh, Finn?” She appeared to be steeling herself for the big, Get lost, handsome. So he steeled himself to grin and hear it. “Yeah?” “Is there someplace we could…uh, go? You know…” She ducked her head. “…just for tonight?” The American Rose peeked at him through lashes with a look that was half innocence, half seduction. And Tanner was already more than half a goner, just with that. Then he remembered more. God, had she really said it had been four years for her? That clinched the decision. To hell with everything, he decided, pushing her off his lap, but keeping his tender hold on her hand. To hell with his good intentions, his vow of celibacy, tomorrow’s important meeting. After all, what could one night hurt? And anyway, the whole goddamn world knew that Tanner Hart was no hero.
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New year’s My noisemaker never goes off.
erched on a corduroy-covered couch, with a half-downed tumbler of white wine in her hand,
Hannah realized that if someone made a movie of this episode of her life, they’d run a warning across the top: Do Not Try this at Home. But that was the whole point, she reminded herself. She wasn’t at home. She was hundreds of miles from there, and from the Hannah who had never made an unapproved choice, let alone released a single inhibition. She was also a little drunk (more than a little?), but she wasn’t going to use that as an excuse…or as an excuse to leave. Though without a doubt she would have advised a friend against going to bed with a stranger— Just then her stranger walked back into the living room of his small bungalow and her stomach jumped up and down like a preteen presented with her very own pony. —there was this undeniable, absolutely exciting reaction she had to this man. He sat beside her on the couch, and heat crawled up her arm as he took the wine from her fingers and set it on the small side table. He turned over her freed hand to expose her palm, and then she realized he had with him a cool, damp cloth. He used it to bathe the abraded flesh on the heel of one hand, and then on the other.
She stared at the varied strands of blond in his hair—sand, honey, gold—fascinated by the colors and his gentle touch. Back at the bar his concern over her minor wounds had evaporated the last of her doubts about him. It seemed to her that Duncan had never cared as much about her feelings. But she wasn’t going to think about Duncan. She couldn’t hate him even if she wanted to. And anyway, to night was about Hannah. The Hannah who had come to Coronado for so many reasons—this New Year’s Eve fling apparently being one of them. “It’s antiseptic,” her stranger said, but she didn’t feel any sting, nor could she manage to make a word in response. His eyes flicked toward her face, and a half smile quirked the corners of his mouth. “Breathe, sweetheart.” Hannah tried it once. Her throat was so tight that the air wheezed in, then caught in her chest. Her stranger looked up again. Maybe this gunslinging surfer had X-ray vision too, because his gaze focused on the place where all that oxygen was trapped. Hannah’s breasts swelled and she squirmed in her seat at the idea that he could tell. His mouth compressing to a tight line, he tossed the cloth away and dropped to his knees at her feet. She squeaked. “Wh-What are you doing?” His gaze lifted to hers. The lights were dim in the room, but she knew they were a cool blue. Laugh lines etched the corners, fanning from his high cheekbones and lifting toward his sandy brows. Remembering his lonely seat at the bar, though, she wondered if he hadn’t found much to laugh about recently. That would make two of them. His long fingers settled on her bare ankle, just beneath the bottom of her black jeans. Then his thumb stroked over the top of her foot. “On our short walk over here you said your knees were sore from your falls.” He began to roll up her right hem. “I want to see.” Oh. Okay. She swallowed. More first aid. He folded one pants leg above her kneecap and then went to work on the other. In moments her calves were bared, her skin looking very pale in contrast to the dark denim of her jeans and the black leather of her high heels. He scooted between her feet and she had to widen her legs to make room for him. Was she the only one who thought it looked a little…kinky with her thighs splayed and her feet still wearing those seduce-me shoes? His warm hand squeezed her ankle, and her gaze jolted to meet his. His cool eyes looked hot now, and his nostrils flared again as his palm slid up the back of her calf. “Pretty shoes. Pretty girl.” His hand moved slowly back down to her ankle and then he cupped it to lift and straighten her leg. Looking away from her face to focus on her knee, he watched it move as he tested the joint in a clinical fashion. “We’re going to be good together,” he suddenly said. Hannah jumped. Could he mean…? He moved to check her other knee without looking up at her. “I’m talking about the sex. You know the sex is going to be explosive between us, right?” Explosive? Suddenly she worried that he was setting himself up for disappointment. Both of them.
It had been almost four years for her, and she could barely remember what the act was like. Surely it had never been explosive. “Um…uh…how can you be so, um, sure?” He bent closer to inspect her bare knee, his thumb brushing against a bruise beginning to darken. The ends of his hair tickled her skin. “It’s been a long time for me too.” “Oh. Well.” But really, how long could a “long time” be for a man who looked like this? And still…she didn’t know if she had “explosive” in her. Just hours ago a cabbie had called her “wholesome.” She reached for that nearby tumbler of wine and took a deep swallow, even though she was already dizzier than she’d ever been, thanks to the mojitos and the breathless effect this man had on her. “And I know,” he added, “because I’ve never been compelled to do this.” He ran his tongue in a wet line down the thin skin of her shinbone. Hannah gasped. Goose bumps raced up the back of her thighs and curled inward. Her hand reached toward the gleaming top of his head and then fell to her lap when his teeth grazed her ankle. Did legs have erogenous zones? But it was the old ankle-bone’s-connected-to-the-shin-bone’s-connected-to-the-knee-bone thing, she realized, her head taking a long woozy spin as he popped off her shoe and then moved to her other leg. No matter what spot he touched, she felt it somewhere else—as heat on the nape of her neck, as an aching pressure building in her breasts, as a plump swelling at the juncture of her thighs. “I want to eat you all up,” he said, proving it with his tongue to her left shin. The wetness on her legs made her wet between them. Her hands shaking, her whole body shaking, she downed the rest of the wine, then plopped the glass back on the table. “I think…I think…” Her head against the cushions behind her, she realized she couldn’t think at all. He straightened, still on his knees, and moved forward so his hips widened her legs even farther. His palms flattened on the couch on either side of her head. His long hair swung forward as his mouth descended. He slanted his lips against hers, immediately pressing them open. He’d said he wanted to eat her up, but instead the first thing he did was feed her a long, hot kiss. Her hands found his hair again, tangling in its cool weight as he slid his tongue inside her. He flicked it against the tip of hers, and tingles shot from the tender skin beneath her arms to the tips of her breasts. She arched, trying to lift them to his chest. Needing more contact. Wanting more of him. His tongue flickered again, and she felt the moan at the back of her throat, trying to escape. When he changed the slant of his mouth, it did find its way out, and he froze. “I told you,” he whispered against her mouth. “I told you it would be like this.” She didn’t know what “this” was. There had never been anything like this. Ever. Her skin felt too tight on her bones and her nipples were hurting, hurting, with the need for friction, touch, this man. He slid his tongue once again between her lips and she trembled. When he tried to draw it away, she caught at it with her teeth. He groaned, his chest dropping as she held his mouth to hers with her palms at the back of his head. She felt his hand come between them, and she moaned at even that brief loss of torso-to-torso contact, but then she realized he was unfastening the buttons of his shirt. With a soothing sound, he pulled his mouth away, and she panted, dizzy again, as she watched him straighten. In a wholly male move, he reached behind him one-handed to grab the back of his
half-unbuttoned shirt and draw it over his head. Her gaze followed the rising material as it revealed a golden wealth of skin. Belly button, rippled abdomen, a broad chest dusted with more golden hair. Between his two copper nipples lay a medal on a chain, and she reached for it, as if that was what she wanted to touch. He jerked at the contact, his skin hot beneath her fingertips. “Yeah, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Do that.” She wanted to do everything, Hannah thought with a sudden flash of raw desire. Good God, Hannah Davis wanted to do everything. Everything she’d seen in R-rated movies, everything she’d read about in the raciest books, everything an audacious friend had ever whispered to her behind her hand. Half of that stuff she had written off as urban legend or at the very least awkward and uncomfortable…but now she wanted to give them all a try. “Don’t look at me like that,” he whispered, his nostrils flaring as if scenting her shameless thoughts. “I’m not going to last this first time if you keep looking at me like that.” “I…I don’t know how not to,” Hannah whispered back. She hooked her fingers around the chain on his neck and drew him back down to her mouth. “I don’t know how to do a lot of the things I want either.” One corner of his mouth kicked up, and then the other. For the first time, he smiled at her, he really smiled, and she felt another liquid rush between her legs. Oh, God, this was bad. Just his smile made her want him more. But the thought fled as his mouth settled once again against hers. Kissing. More kissing. A dozen kisses that were everything from the swipe of his tongue against her bottom lip to its dominating penetration of her mouth. She was trembling all over, as if she was cold, but she was hot, hot, hot. He moved away from her again and she chased him, biting down on his bottom lip to keep him close. He grunted in surprise, then nipped her back, and she jerked her head away. Scared by the excitement she felt at the tiny sting. They stared at each other, both breathing hard. Her tongue reached out to test the throbbing place, and his eyes focused on it as his hand reached for the top of her jeans. She jolted as his knuckles brushed her bare belly, and it was only then she realized he’d unbuttoned her shirt and that her camisole had ridden up to half reveal her abdomen. She watched his long fingers make quick work of the snap and zipper, then he was drawing the dark material down and off her feet. His jean-clad hips refused to let her bare thighs come back together, and he stared down at her pale blue satiny pan ties. His forefinger traced the triangle of fabric, running first along her quivering stomach and then down the crease of each leg. By instinct, her thighs tried clamping closed, but instead of each other they found soft denim—just more wonderful friction against her sensitive skin. He put his hot palms on the top of her legs, his thumbs wrapping inside so he could open her wider. He smiled, then looked up, satisfaction gleaming in his eyes. “You’re already wet. Nice.” Oh, God. He could tell? He could see? Modesty made her want to curl up like a shell, but then he slid his right thumb up the inside of her thigh so he could stroke the heated furrow of her sex. Hannah’s head fell back at the firm, knowing touch. She went woozy again, desire doing its job and allowing her to think of nothing else. She’d worry about modesty tomorrow. He didn’t appear as if he would worry about it at any time, not the way he played with her there, investigating all the contours, all the bumps and curves, yet still over the pan ties that were getting damper
by the second. “Finn,” she moaned. “Finn.” She knew she was drunk now for certain, because she thought she heard him mutter under his breath, “What was I thinking? Do I want her calling his name when she comes?” even as he dragged her up from the couch. She stumbled as he tugged her toward what she assumed was the bedroom. He slid his hard arm around her waist, and even that small contact made her buttocks contract and the skin over her spine shiver in anticipation. He was moving fast, and her head was making those woozy spins again, so many of them that she was happy when he guided her to a stop beside the bed. It was unmade, and he yanked the rumpled covers back before she dropped to the mattress. Sitting next to her, he kissed her again as he brushed her shirt off her shoulders. The action unbalanced her, and she reached out a hand to steady herself. He froze. Groaned. She’d steadied herself on his…his…She squeezed it beneath the soft denim, just to be sure she’d made the correct identification. He groaned again. “That’s it,” he said, pushing against her shoulders so she fell to her back on the sheets. For a moment she stared at the ceiling fan that appeared to be moving in weirdly elliptical circles. So was the bed, for that matter. In the distance she heard him curse. Then his hard body was on top of hers and he cradled her head in his hands. “You’re so gorgeous,” she said, blurting out the foremost thought in her head. “This must be my lucky day.” He grimaced. “Hold onto that, sweetheart. We’ve got a small problem. I need condoms. Unless you…?” She shook her head, trying to clear it. Condoms. Oh, of course. Condoms. He sighed, obviously taking her silence as a negative. “Don’t worry. I’ll just be a second, okay? There’s a place around the corner.” His mouth turned up in another smile. “I’ll run.” His face seemed to be wiggling, but maybe that was because the mattress was wobbling as he sprang to his feet. His last kiss was fierce. “Don’t forget about me while I’m gone.” “Can’t,” she assured his back as he left the lazily spinning room. “Explosive.”
annah awakened, and information sank slowly into her muddled brain, like marbles into
half-chilled Jell-O (part of an extra credit science experiment performed by one of her students the previous year). Just like those weedies had descended into the thick, lime-colored quasiliquid, she gradually took in these facts: It was morning. It was morning and she’d slept in her underwear.
It was morning and she’d slept in her underwear and she was inside some kind of tent. It was morning and she’d slept in her underwear and she was inside some kind of tent and she had a raging headache. It was morning and she’d slept in her underwear and she was inside some kind of tent and she had a raging headache and when she turned her cheek on the pillow it was to see that… She was inside the tent with a man. A man. It took another second for that last fact to hit bottom. A man. Oh. My. God. She’d really gone through with the one-night stand. That’s when it all came back to her. Not all of it, not everything that had happened the night before, because, unfortunately, there seemed to be some gaps in her recollection. But enough memories presented themselves to explain how she happened to have a sheet pulled over her head (the mistaken tent) that still allowed enough light through for her to detect the golden-skinned, muscled arm and side of an almost-stranger. She’d seen that body last night. Hannah swallowed, remembered feeling it too, his hot chest beneath her fingertips, the hard press of it against her own as he cradled her face and said he’d be right back. He’d gone out for condoms, and then… Well, obviously he’d returned. Through the sheet came the sound of knocking—from the distant sound of it, likely against the front door. Hannah grimaced, unsure what she should do, only knowing most certainly that she didn’t want the man beside her to awaken. The knocks sounded again, and she froze as he turned to his side. His limbs relaxed and she watched his chest—now facing her—rise up and down on a drowsy sigh. Still asleep. Apparently the person at the front door gave up, because minutes went by without another disturbance. Which left Hannah free to dash away without confronting the man in the bed or the person at the door. A good idea, that. A no muss, no fuss, no regrets ending to an anonymous one-night stand. Not to mention all the other reasons she had to get going. There were things she had to do today. She had to make her meeting with Tanner Hart, and then begin what ever necessary procedures to get new ID, credit cards, money, and clothes. Yes, it was time to get moving. She sent the toes of her feet crawling toward the edge of the mattress and stared at her bedmate’s chest, alert for any signs of awakening. Her gaze followed the naked curve of one pectoral and then focused on the long silver chain he wore around his neck. Slung across the ridge of muscle, it tangled in dark golden hair. A couple of links had caught on his light brown nipple. Hannah’s scalp prickled and her pulse started to skitter as she was struck by the sudden desire to release that metal chain. To brush it aside and touch that copper nub with the tip of her tongue. Her belly quivered and her reconnoitering toes halted their original mission to instead curl toward the soles of her feet. Had she done that last night? Had she licked that wedge of muscle and then tongued the satiny-looking circle of skin? Explosive, he’d said. It was going to be explosive between them.
Her neck and face flushed with heat as she remembered how certain he’d been. Had it really been explosive and she’d forgotten all about it? She hated mojitos. Except without them she wouldn’t have dared get this close to the gorgeous man to begin with. She loved mojitos. The internal debate was still going strong when she heard another noise from outside the bedroom. Her stomach clenched. It was the squeak of a door opening. The click of it closing shut. Swallowing hard, Hannah stared at the slow rise and fall of Finn’s chest. He still wasn’t awake and someone was coming through his house toward them. She could make out the quick footsteps. And then, since she was holding her own, she could hear the intruder take a long indrawn breath from his or her place at the threshold of the bedroom. “I’m sorry to wake you up,” a female voice said. “But we have to talk.” A female voice. Hannah’s muscles tensed, even as she wished she could melt into the mattress like Hershey squares on a summer sidewalk. She hoped to God it wasn’t an ex. Wouldn’t that just cap off her first foray into Sexventureland? Hannah Davis, unwilling witness to a confrontation between parted lovers. “Are you awake?” the voice demanded. The man across the sheets from Hannah twitched. As his head wasn’t under the covers like hers, she couldn’t see anything above his collarbone, but there was an alertness about his body that hinted he was no longer sleeping. “Go away,” he mumbled, guaranteeing he was no longer sleeping. And making it pretty clear that whoever had interrupted his beauty rest wasn’t welcome. Whew. Maybe it was his sister or something. “I won’t,” the female replied, sounding stubborn. “Wake up and talk to me.” “Make an appointment with my secretary.” Her bedmate didn’t sound the least willing to cooperate. “Maybe I have an opening sometime in the next century.” Hannah tried to be as still and small as possible. Maybe if she was really quiet, the intruder would take the hint and then the man she was in bed with would go back to sleep without recalling her presence. It could happen, right? There was still hope to get out of here without muss, fuss, or regrets. Well, maybe not without regrets, she admitted, as the man rolled onto his back again. He must have scooted up on the headboard at the same time, because now she was looking at his navel and the elastic line of silky boxers instead of his chest. Surely she’d regret never recalling what was beneath that slick material and exactly how skilled he was with it. “I’m not going anywhere,” the per sis tent female declared. The man beside Hannah released a frustrated sigh. “All right, then. What the hell is it that you want?” “I’ve come to a decision.” There was a note of triumph in the other woman’s voice. “Something I should have considered a long time ago.” “Yeah? What’s that?” From her own sibling life, Hannah recognized his surly tone. Surely it signaled her bedmate was talking to his sister.
“We can’t go on like this,” the other woman said. “You’re going to have to marry me.” Hannah jerked in shock. This wasn’t a sister. This wasn’t an ex. This was his current woman, and he’d just taken another—her, Hannah!—to bed. The new pregnant silence in the room made clear her muscle spasm had given her away. “You have someone there with you.” The other female sounded more surprised than accusing. “Not that it’s any of your business,” her bedmate replied in agreement. Then he whipped the sheet down from Hannah’s head to expose her, blinking, to the full morning light and the speculative gaze of a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman. A woman who, oddly enough, looked as if she was trying not to laugh. “Your secretary, I presume?” Hannah slowly sat up, clutching the sheet to her camisole-covered breasts. Her glance skittered toward Finn and then jumped back to the exotic-looking female standing at the end of the bed. She was tall and leggy, about the same height as Hannah and with hair the same shade and length. In a pair of painted-on canary jeans, a flowered tunic, and tall stilettos, though, her sartorial style was the antithesis of a schoolteacher’s. With the fingers of one hand, Hannah tried combing some order into her sleep-tangled hair. “I…um…I didn’t know,” she told Finn’s girlfriend. “You have to believe me.” The girlfriend blinked. She didn’t appear distraught, or devastated, or any of the dozen other degrading emotions Hannah had experienced when she’d learned what Duncan had done behind her back. But Hannah had tried to put a good public face on it too. She’d done all her cringing and crying in private. Her hand left the mess of her hair to wave in mute apology. “You see, it was midnight, and—and —” She glanced over at the man in the middle of all this. Why was he so quiet? He could try helping her out here. It wasn’t as if he was dead or anything. She heated her glance to a glare when he didn’t jump in with a word or an explanation of his own. He was pretty, and she remembered his gentle touch on her battered hands and knees, but now she figured him for a two-timing jerk. “Well?” she said, still staring at him. He was staring at her too. He started, as if coming back to the present. “Well, uh…what?” Maybe he had a subzero IQ as well. So much for her sense that he was someone worth her very first single-again sexual exploit. “Well, don’t you have anything to say?” “Good morning?” She squinted at him. “That’s it?” He crossed his arms over his (still impressive, despite his other lacks) chest. “Look, sorry. It’s pretty early.” “Maybe she means an introduction,” the other woman said. “Right.” He ran his hands through his hair. The golden mass settled into straighter lines. “Deborah, Dez. Dez, Deborah.” “Oh.” The word popped out of Hannah’s mouth. Deborah. She’d forgotten she’d given him a different name. Heat rose on her cheeks. She’d forgotten she’d given him that name. The other woman strode around the bed to hold out her hand. “Desirée,” she said. “Or Dezi or Dez. What ever. It’s nice to meet you.” Hannah found herself in the strange position of shaking hands with the woman whose almost-fiancé she’d just spent the night with. Looking into Desirée’s—so this was the famous Desirée—
friendly face, she opened her mouth to get the situation back on a more honest footing. “It’s really Hannah,” she said. “What?” This from the man she’d shared sheets with. He was looking at her with alarm, his body suddenly tense. “What did you say?” Confession time. “I gave you the wrong name, Finn. I’m Hannah. Hannah Davis.” His horrified expression sent a chill down her spine. She scooted away from him, sliding half off the bed in one move. “I’ll be going now. No muss. No fuss. No regrets. Sounds good, right?” He pounced like a tiger. One moment he was on his side of the bed, the next he had his right hand wrapped around her wrist. “Don’t even think about going anywhere,” he commanded, pointing his left forefinger at her. “You park your pretty ass right where it is.”
f Tanner had thought his luck would change with the change in the calendar, he was already proved
wrong. Of all the gin joints in all the world for her to walk into a night early, of all the women in all the world for him to break his eleven-month-long vow with, he’d selected the one woman he was charged with looking after. He’d taken to his sheets the one woman who held his career in the palm of her hand. Christ, and the bed hadn’t even been made. “Look, I’ve got an appointment this morning,” she said now, tugging on the arm he held. “There’s someone I’m supposed to see. You need to let go of me, Finn.” “Yes, Finn,” Dez, the brat, said with a smirk. “Don’t you think, Finn, that you should let her go, Finn?” Hannah Davis’s attention turned toward Desirée. Her head tilted. “Do I…do I know you?” Dez’s head tilted the same way, and Tanner remembered how at first sight he’d mistaken Hannah for his bad luck charm. They did have a more than passing resemblance, which should have scared him off from the get-go. What an idiot he was. “Do you watch much television?” Desirée asked. “Entertainment shows, gossip TV, that kind of thing?” Hannah shook her head. “I’m a teacher and I make a deal with my students every September. No more than five hours of television a week and I throw a pizza party in class at the end of every month. I spend mine on crime dramas and the occasional sitcom rerun.” Dez nodded. “But do you ever skim a copy of US Weekly? People? The Enquirer?” Hannah shrugged. “I live alone. The fifteen-or-less line at my grocery store goes pretty quick.” Tanner remembered what his former boss, Geoff Brooks, had told him about his niece. An elementary school teacher from the same small town from whence Geoff hailed. This young woman had been going through some “rough times,” and though the older man hadn’t specified exactly what kind, he’ d made it just short of an order that Tanner take good care of Hannah while she was in Coronado. “Show her the sights. Make sure she doesn’t have to sit at restaurants alone,” Geoff had said. “Keep the hounds away from her.” Christ. Tanner knew what that meant, didn’t he? He was supposed to protect her from himself
and what they’d almost done last night. What he’d wanted to do when he unveiled her a few minutes ago. Flushed and tousled, her warm body had spoken to his without any words necessary. He’d just stared at her, fascinated by all her pink and creamy skin, his gaze snagging on the cute pillow crease that ran across her cheek and arrowed his attention onto her puffy, blush-colored mouth. Her lips were naturally red, the reddest, sexiest he’d ever seen. To disguise his reaction to his wayward thoughts, he gathered the sheet around him and piled it in his lap. He needed to boot Dez out the door so that he and Hannah could— Damn it! Damn it! His mind should be off her. Off her and off her mouth and off how he wanted to touch it, taste it, have it. Geoff would skin Tanner alive—or worse, ban him from the Ser vice for life—if he didn’t do right by his precious niece, and a one-night stand or even a ten-day fling certainly wasn’t “By the Book” Brooks’s idea of “doing right.” What the hell was Tanner supposed to do now? Suddenly aware that both the women were staring at him, he frowned. “What?” Then, realizing he still held Hannah’s slender wrist in his hand, he dropped it like a hot potato. His gaze met hers. “What?” Oh, shit. She was doing it again, just with a look from her warm brown eyes. It was some sort of apple-pie and American Legion voodoo, which made him think of hay rides and picnics and having sex outdoors. He could see her standing naked in a sunlit mountain pool. Shadows from the leaves of the surrounding trees would dapple the sleek surface of her wet thighs and rounded ass, focusing his attention on the palm-sized curve at the small of her back and the sweet dimples above her butt. Her nipples would be raspberry hard and he’d wade through the cool water to taste them, only to halt, mesmerized, as she lifted her face to a waterfall and let it drench her hair and from there run in clear rivulets over all that sun-warmed flesh. “Are you all right?” she said from her half-dressed and full-dry, nonimaginary place on the bed, a frown wrinkling the spot between her dark brows. “No, I’m not all right,” he snapped, yanking himself back to reality and his gaze away from her. This was all her fault, wasn’t it? Hadn’t she landed on his lap? Hadn’t she come on to him? Desirée’s eyes went wide. “Gee, your bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired, pal. Maybe I don’t want to marry you after all…Finn.” He shot her a look. “Cut it out, Dez. We’re not getting married. Not even if you subject me to that special sand-and-scorpions desert torture you’re always claiming as your birthright.” Then, with a sigh, he let his glance fall back on Hannah. “I gave you the wrong name too. I’m really Tanner. Tanner Hart.” “Oh.” Her hand, still holding the sheet to her silk-covered breasts, flexed, squeezing the cotton with white knuckles. “Oooh.” “Yeah.” Desirée perked up, her gaze darting between their two faces. “This sounds intriguing. What’s a schoolteacher have in common with a disgraced Secret Service agent? Besides the same mattress, that is?” Hannah looked a little green about the gills. “You won’t…you can’t…Uncle Geoff…” Her free hand made a little gesture. “My family would—”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said abruptly. “No one will ever be the wiser that you got any closer to a guy like me than my tour guide duties demand.” “No, no. You don’t understand. My family worries—” “Oh, but I do understand. I’m sure my family’s not too proud of the ‘disgraced’ part either.” Desirée grimaced. “Tanner. That’s just me and my big mouth. I was teasing. You know—” He cut her off too. “Don’t mention your mouth to me ever again, Dez.” She pressed her lips together. But only for a second, naturally. “Fine. But my marriage proposal still stands.” “I’ll try to stop myself from rushing Hannah to Tiffany’s as her first stop on her Southern California tour.” The woman in question squirmed against the mattress. “I know Uncle Geoff asked you to give me some vacation tips, but I don’t want to impose.” “It’s no imposition,” he replied. “Now, whenever you’re ready, I’ll drive you to your hotel—or did you rent a car at the airport?” Hannah looked down at her lap. “Believe it or not, I don’t drive.” He blinked. “You don’t drive?” “Nope.” Her fingertip drew a pattern on her knee. “I bike to work and live close to the grocery store. Then there’s my family…well, I never lack for rides anywhere I want to go.” Still, it was weird. Tanner remembered Geoff telling him she was in her late twenties, and her looks confirmed it. But he shrugged. “No problem. I can drop you off where you’re staying.” “That actually is a problem. I have several of them, as a matter of fact.” Then she proceeded to tell him as well as the apparently around-for-the-duration Desirée how she’d come to lose her purse and her luggage at the airport the previous evening. “You poor kid,” Dez commiserated, though she figured she was younger than the other woman by two or three years. “I lost everything in Istanbul once. In Buenos Aires, it was just my makeup case, but my father moved heaven and earth until someone found it.” Tanner doubted whether Desirée’s father, Prince al-Maddah, had ever moved a finger to help his daughter with anything. Maybe he’d commanded some minion to track down her stuff, though even that was suspect. More often that not, the child the Middle Eastern royal had created during his brief union with a famous American model was completely forgotten or ignored. Both Tanner and Dez had paid the price for that. Dez more, of course, though he only acknowledged that in his more charitable moments. “We’ll figure out something,” Tanner said to Hannah. “The banks won’t be open until tomorrow, but I’m sure we can find you some clothes—” “I don’t have any money at the moment either,” she reminded him. He waved that away. “Don’t you worry. I’ll—” “Hey, don’t anybody worry!” Dez suddenly declared. “I know exactly what we’ll do.” Tanner and Hannah looked at her. She was beaming. “I’ve got that big suite at the Hotel Del Coronado. Not to mention two closets full of clothes there. Hannah and I look near the same size. She can stay with me as long as she wants and borrow my wardrobe to boot.” “Oh, I couldn’t,” Hannah said, shaking her head.
“Yes, you could. Because then I’d be doing Tanner a favor, and he’ll be the first to tell you I owe him. I owe him big.” “There’s that,” he agreed. And it would be a hell of a lot easier to accept Desiree’s temporary help than marry the poor little brat. Plus, it would get him out of clothes shopping. “Hannah?” He cocked an eyebrow her way. “It’ll be fun!” Dez declared. “Like an adventure.” It was that last word that seemed to sway Hannah. Though still sounding uncertain, she agreed. So he boogied off to the bathroom in the hallway, leaving her to get dressed in the master bath. When he came out, she was decent again, all buttoned up in her black jeans and her starched—though wrinkled— shirt. “Desirée’s waiting for me in the car,” she said, not looking him straight in the eye. He narrowed his gaze. “Are you going to be okay? Dez said she’d bring you over to Hart’s once you’re settled in and freshened up. She’s rich, but she’s not dangerous.” Hannah gave him a small smile, still hesitating. Moving forward, he put a finger under her chin and lifted her face to his. Big mistake. With their bodies aligned, it reminded him of being in bed with her again. He’d found her passed out beneath his sheets after his quick condom run. Staring down at her flushed cheeks and sleep-softened mouth, he couldn’t decide if he should wake her and take her home, or wake her and work to get her motor revving again. Option one was sensible, option two infinitely more desirable. Deciding his half-inebriated state rendered him too conflicted to make a decision, he’d fallen onto the mattress beside her to sleep off the dilemma. Instead, he’d stayed awake for hours, watching her. He’d stared at the perfect arch of her dark brows, at the feathery fullness of her eyelashes, at the creamy round of one shoulder peeking over the edge of the sheet. And then he’d stared at her mouth. Like he stared at it now, fascinated by the deep curve of her upper lip and the plump cushion of the bottom one. She made a little sound in the back of her throat, and he shifted his gaze to her eyes. She cast her damn spell again. Just like that, he was once more consumed by lust. But it wasn’t her, he told himself quickly. His damn vow was more likely to blame. Eleven months without a woman. Eleven months without kisses, without the sweet stab of a tight nipple against his palm, without that breathless moment of aching want and carnal discovery when he first opened the naked petals of a woman’s sex and touched her wet heat. Hannah had been turned on last night, and Christ, that was the ultimate turn-on for him. On the outside, she looked starched and prim, like someone who required coaxing for a response. But then he’d knelt at her feet, and the tremble of her limbs and the stuttered sound of her breath told him different. He was an idiot. If he’d remembered the need for condoms on their short walk from the bar to his house, or if he’d taken less time playing with her before recalling that there wasn’t a foil packet anywhere to be found on the premises, then now he’d know what it was like to feel the clasp of her body around his finger. He would know the way she liked her nipples sucked—soft and gentle, or strong and demanding. He would know the sounds she made when she came. He would have screwed Geoff Brooks’s beloved niece.
Shit! It made him mad at her all over again. Deborah, she’d called herself. Fuck. Yeah, he’d renamed himself Finn, but she’d started it, right? Dropping his hand from her chin, he stepped back. “Go on now,” he grated out. “Dez’s waiting.” Hannah bit her bottom lip. He closed his eyes, remembering doing that himself the night before, and the way her pupils had gone wide as she made a shocked sound of yearning. “Go on,” he said again, opening his eyes to make sure she obeyed. She did, half turning, but then spun back. “So…was it as explosive as you, uh, imagined?” Tanner stared at her. What? She couldn’t…She didn’t… Oh, but looking at her blushing face, he knew she could, she did. She didn’t remember passing out. She thought they’d done the nasty. Great. Did he look like a necrophiliac? His temper heated all over again. He could set her straight, of course, or he could serve up a sweet little bite of revenge. No contest. “You know as well as I do it was explosive, sweetheart,” he said, relishing the deception. “It was freakin’ Armageddon.” He watched her swallow. Nod. Turn around and scurry away. That would keep her up nights, he hoped. She’d be staring at the ceiling, trying to recall what they had done in his bed. It was only fair. He’d be awake too, tortured by everything they hadn’t.
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New year’s: Being forced to stay up past midnight.
er head doing a rerun of the woozy spins from the night before, Hannah ducked under the black
top of the white convertible BMW parked outside Fi—Tanner’s bungalow. She shut the passenger door, then kept her grip on the handle, trying to find an anchor in her once-again reeling world. “Ready?” Desirée asked from behind the wheel. “For what?” Hannah muttered, her gaze trained on Tanner’s front door. Behind it was the man who’d uttered “explosive,” and with that one word had relit a fuse inside her she hadn’t known about before last night. Her skin tingled with an echo of shivery heat and she rubbed her palms against her arms to get rid of the goose bumps. “Ready for anything.” With a grin, Desirée shifted the car into gear and shot out into the street, gaily waving as another vehicle honked in protest at being cut off. They sped through quiet, New Year’s morning streets. To distract herself from the other woman’s nerve-wracking driving style, Hannah focused on the passing neighborhoods. Instead of noting the car’s speed, she studied the variety of suburban houses crowded so closely together, some of them small stucco bungalows like the one where she’d spent the night, others well-tended Craftsman cottages, and others Victorians with all the
prerequisite fancy edgings and fanciful paint colors. Here and there a modern glass-and-angles home had been wedged into a narrow lot. The result might have been an odd mismatch if not for the lush landscaping that flowed between and around the houses, unifying them all. Tall and stubby palm trees, tropical-looking hedges, and flowering plants created a harmony between the diversely styled domiciles. “Shall we stop for coffee?” Desirée asked, and without waiting for an answer, took a two-wheeled right at the next intersection. Hannah braced her free hand on the dashboard and squeezed her eyes tight as the BMW just missed clipping a parked truck. What had she gotten herself into? she wondered as she prayed for her life. It wasn’t too late to get Dorothy back to Kansas. Then Desirée took a second turn and they left suburbia for another, wider street. As Hannah chanced a cautious peek, she saw something spectacular out the windshield. Sand. Ocean. A wide expanse of gray-blue dotted by pockets of gold and silver sunshine. A frothy wave crashed onto shore, and she stared at it, fascinated. Oz’d. Thanks to more of her companion’s aggressive driving tactics, they made it to a take-out place— Junie’s Java—and into a corner of a parking lot beside the sand in what seemed like seconds. As they sat, blowing across the tops of their triple-shot lattes (Hannah’s heartbeat finally slowing from its survival race with the BMW), Desirée hit a button and the convertible’s top peeled back. The smell of saltwater mixed with the steamy scent of the coffee. Sun warmed the top of Hannah’s dark hair and washed over her cotton-clad shoulders. She felt her hangover loosen its hold and a sigh of delight drew up from her toes and out her mouth. “It’s January,” she said to Desirée. “How warm must it be?” The other woman shrugged, her gaze straying to a pair of surfers who walked in from the beach toward a decrepit Volkswagen bus on the other side of the lot. They had boards under their arms, and while their black wet suits still clung to their legs, the top halves were unzipped at the back and dangled from their waists, leaving their chests and arms bare and the neoprene sleeves bouncing against their knees. “Watch this,” Desirée whispered, still looking at the men. “It’s why God invented Southern California surfing.” Bemused, Hannah obeyed, giving them her attention as she sipped at her cup. The men opened the back of the van and slid their boards inside. Then they produced two striped beach towels. One rubbed his over his wet hair; the other, bigger man didn’t bother. His head was shaved as clean as a baby’s butt. After a minute, both men wrapped their towels around their waists and, half bending, reached beneath the fabric to shimmy out of their clinging wet suits. “Look at the way the tall one’s butt wiggles when he does that,” Desirée pointed out. “I don’t think he realizes how hot he makes me.” An odd note in the woman’s voice pulled Hannah’s gaze her way. “Do you know him?” She glanced back at the big guy and narrowed her eyes. “I think I know him.” The man lifted his head as if about to peruse the parking lot, and Desirée slid lower in her seat. “You probably saw him at the bar last night. That’s Troy, Tanner’s older brother.” Tanner. At that man’s name on this woman’s lips, Hannah stilled. She’d been putting off the inevitable, but now that she had coffee, fresh air, and a segue into the subject, she couldn’t avoid it any longer. While she’d sort of agreed to be Desirée’s temporary guest, and had gone along with Tanner’s plans when it came to the rest of her day, she’d done it because it seemed the fastest way out of his bed.
The option of leaving town ASAP, however, was still open. And at the moment, she was leaning toward doing it. This conversation would likely topple her right over. “Listen, Desirée,” she said. “I suppose it’s time we, uh, talked about Tanner and me.” The other woman tore her gaze off the surfers. “Tanner and you?” Hannah inspected the seam of her cardboard cup. “Or maybe we should start there instead. Tanner and you.” “Tanner and me?” Hannah knew her laugh sounded as jittery as her stomach. “I’m getting us all confused.” “Why don’t you just spit it out.” Honesty again. After what Duncan did, she should know how important it was to be forthright. She looked up into the other woman’s eyes. “You asked him to marry you. So I assume there’s something between you, and I wanted to assure you that…that…” Good Lord, how was she supposed to get through this? If she was being honest and forthright, she would tell this exotic-looking female that Hannah had apparently had explosive sex with her almost-fiancé and one mention of it this morning and she’d wanted to have it all over again. Heat flooded Hannah’s face and she took a breath. “You see, things like what happened last night are really out of character for me. A few months back I learned the man I was engaged to dumped me after I’d been wearing his ring for years. I found out that not only had he been cheating on me, but—” “What was his name?” Startled, Hannah blinked. “Duncan.” “Duncan the stinkin’ dog.” “Oh, but we can’t say bad things—” “No wonder you were looking for some nookie last night,” Desirée said over her protest. “I say, you go, sister.” Hannah stared at her. “But…but…that nookie was with the man you’re almost engaged to.” She fluttered a hand, nails manicured to perfection. “Didn’t you listen? He turned me down, the dumbass.” And Desirée didn’t look all that upset over the rejection. Hannah clunked the back of her skull against the leather headrest and felt her hangover headache sink its claws into her again. Seagulls swooped overhead, turning circles that were less tangled than the thoughts running through her brain. “But…but don’t you want to be his wife?” Desirée’s glance shot toward the tall man now climbing into the beat-up van on the other side of the parking area. “I was just trying to think of some way to make it up to him. Marrying me would mean lots and lots of money for him. I come with a muy grande trust fund.” “Make up for what?” Desirée stared into her coffee. “Well, I made him famous. Or, more accurately, infamous.” She took a sip of her drink. “Even if you don’t watch too much TV, I bet you read the newspaper.” “Ye-es.” “Remember the assassination attempt on Prince al-Maddah eleven-plus months ago?” Hannah nodded. “The Secret Ser vice prevented it, though.”
“They have something called the Dignitary Protective Division. My father—that’s the prince—was in the States for some meetings and charity events. I met him here in Southern California so we could spend time together.” “But he’s okay, right? They stopped the person who was after him.” Desirée nodded. “Thank God. But in saving my father an agent was killed.” Hannah’s heart jolted. Her uncle Geoff was a supervising agent in the Secret Ser vice. Tanner had worked for him. Oh my God, had Tanner—but then, she realized, of course, that Desirée couldn’t have been talking about him. He was alive. “The whole episode got a lot of global press.” Hannah recalled the story with more clarity now. A young female agent had been killed taking a bullet meant for the prince. “The Secret Ser vice came out as heroes.” Desirée wrinkled her nose. “All except one.” At that moment the Volkswagen bus on the other side of the parking lot rattled to life, then swung around to motor toward the BMW. Desirée slunk lower in her seat, but then shot straight up as the bus braked beside the convertible. Troy Hart stared through the windshield, giving Desirée the evil eye. His animosity traveled through glass and space, but Desirée seemed not to notice. She lifted her coffee in a little toast to him, smiling all the while. His mouth tightening, he popped the clutch in his hurry to get out of the lot. Watching the Volkswagen pull away, Desirée released a little sigh. “There’s more to the story than was covered on page one,” she went on to say. “While my father was leaving the ballroom where the charity event was taking place, while his life was threatened and then defended by the agents of the Secret Ser vice, Tanner was inside watching over me. There was plenty of press there too, and I’d had a bit of champagne and I was a little miffed that my father had left without me and I…I didn’t think of anything but getting some male attention. When I kissed the cute agent who was my bodyguard for the evening, camera shutters clicked all over the room.” She grimaced, looking older than Hannah had first thought her. “There’s a segment of the media obsessed with the rich and spoiled and their inevitable unsavory doings. All the available Internet sex tapes were old news eleven months ago, and so the celebutante and the Secret Ser vice agent became the big story all over the world. Tabloids from New York to Nice are still speculating about us.” Hannah didn’t watch much TV, but she didn’t live in a box either. She knew the kind of attention the other woman was talking about. “So Tanner lost his job because you kissed him?” Desirée shook her head. “More like Tanner resigned from his job because I kissed him. There’s a reason why they call it the Secret Ser vice. His face was too recognizable. And, of course, he blames himself for all of it—including what happened to the other agent.” But it appeared that a different Hart—Troy Hart—blamed Desirée. “My uncle is Tanner’s old boss,” Hannah said slowly, putting the pieces together. No wonder he’d looked at her with such horror. Kissing women hadn’t been going well for him lately. Desirée let out a little laugh, then shook her head. “Poor Tanner. Just can’t catch a lucky break.” Poor Hannah too, she thought. Because the more she knew about her one-night stand, the more she couldn’t stop thinking about him. Last night was supposed to be a liberating sexcapade, an experience-it-now, forget-about-it-after event, but instead it had become a complication to her supposedly healing, supposedly relaxing, vacation. The best thing for her to do was give up and go home, she decided. She could forego the relaxing, she supposed. It had never been her priority anyway.
But the healing? Hannah closed her eyes, imagining herself back in her small town, with the pitying glances and speculative stares. And those were just the ones she saw in the reflection in her own mirror. Damn. She didn’t know whether she wished she could question Duncan or curse him—but both ambitions were out of her reach. There was, though, still a way left to salvage some of what she’d come to Coronado for. She’d given herself ten days to work up her nerve, but if she went ahead and took care of that one particular task today, she could get on a return flight and be back in Northern California by nightfall. Maybe it would be enough to make this next year a different one for Hannah Davis. She sent Desirée a sidelong look. “Do you happen to know where Taft Street is?” Desirée did know where Taft Street was. Coronado Island, she told Hannah, was really not an island at all, but a peninsula, connected to the mainland by the bridge or a narrow strip of land called the Silver Strand. And in terms of landmass, the “island” was only 7.4 square miles, so it didn’t take much to become familiar with the layout. At the turn of the century two visionary businessmen had taken what had once been a whaling station and then a wheat farm and established it as a vacation paradise. From what Hannah had seen so far—from sugary sand beaches to charming homes and shops— they’d done a fine job. Taft Street was a curve and a corner past the municipal golf course that clung to the San Diego Bay side of the peninsula. She saw bright-sailed boats and cigar-shaped kayaks glide through the waters beyond the lush greens before Desirée turned inland onto the narrow, dead-end avenue that was their destination. The homes were smaller here than some others they’d passed, more like beach shacks, and the BMW pulled up to the smallest one. “Here’s the address you wanted,” Desirée said, studying the house. “Do you think your friend is home? It looks pretty quiet.” Now that they’d reached the place, Hannah’s heart felt as if it was pounding in her throat. She looked over the house and yard, noting the overgrown grass, the peeling sections of faded yellow paint, the old newspaper stuck in one corner of the cement porch, its pages brown and brittle as autumn leaves. Her own house in her hometown wasn’t much bigger than this. It was even a mellow yellow too. But her little cottage’s paint was tight and the white trim fresh—she’d done the job herself last July, wishing all the while she could overhaul herself just as easily. “Aren’t you going to get out and knock on the door?” Desirée asked as Hannah didn’t stir from her seat. She swallowed around that great lump that was threatening to strangle her. Confronting the person on the other side was her secret desire and the real motivation behind her solo trip. “I…I want to.” “Well, then do it.” Hannah sighed. Desirée made it sound so simple, when knocking on that door was something that she’d been fantasizing about for months, ever since one of her friends happened to let slip the name of the town. Though she’d tried to talk herself out of it for a solid week, eight days after hearing “Coronado,” she’d been Googling with the limited information she had. Some mouse clicks later, and with the Taft Street address tattooed on her brain, she’d known what she had to do. What she had to do right now. Taking a deep breath, she popped open the door and stepped onto the cracked sidewalk. The
short front walk felt as long as a church aisle, and she was more nervous than any bride. Her fingers were so cold they felt stiff as she curled them into a fist to knock on the front door. She couldn’t hear footsteps on the other side over the loud wump-wump-wump of her heart. The wait for a response seemed interminable. Maybe it truly was interminable, because Desirée tooted her horn, and when Hannah looked around, the other woman mimed knocking again. Hannah did. But it was the door of the small house next door that opened. A little old man peered out at her, cracking his rusted screen to get a better look. “You need something?” he croaked. A new year, a new me, so many things, Hannah thought. She said, “I’m, uh, looking for Caroline?” “Oh.” He shook his head. “She doesn’t live there anymore.” “She moved?” “Yep. A month or so back.” Disappointment churned the coffee in her stomach. Hannah placed her hand over her belly. “You don’t happen to know where she went, do you?” She still had time off before school started again. If she could get a location, and then ID and credit cards and clothes, she could still track down the other woman. It was that important. “I don’t know her new address,” the man said. “I’m sorry.” Hannah smiled—because that’s what pleasers like her did, even when they wanted to cry. “Don’t worry about it. Thanks anyway.” Shoving her fingers in the pockets of her jeans, she turned toward Desirée and the waiting car. “But she’s somewhere nearby,” the old man called out. Hannah spun back. “What?” “She’s somewhere around town. I’ve seen her at the park a few times since she moved. I saw her there just two days ago, as a matter of fact. I think she goes early in the mornings.” “The park. In the mornings.” “That’s right,” the man said. “The park on Orange.” Hannah gave him another smile—a genuine one this time—and waved at him as she settled into the passenger seat of the BMW. “She’s moved,” she reported to Desirée. “But she’s somewhere in town. Her old neighbor saw her just days ago.” “Then you’ll find her,” Desirée said, jumping on the gas so that the BMW leaped back into the street. “You can’t let the opportunity go by.” No, Hannah couldn’t, she realized. Despite the disasters of the last fifteen or so hours, she couldn’t leave just yet. Confronting Caroline—inspecting, comparing, coming to some sort of understanding of where Hannah had gone wrong and what special power the other woman possessed (at least in Duncan’s eyes)—had become even more important than getting on with her life.
anner tipped back his favorite chair at his favorite table in his favorite corner of Hart’s. Though the
front door was unlocked, the sign posted on it still read closed, and he followed suit with his eyes, allowing himself to absorb the peace and quiet. Though he’d been bored out of his gourd these last months working for his brother, at the moment he welcomed the stillness. He needed it to come up with a plan. Though he might be out of practice, he didn’t doubt that he would. Secret Ser vice duty wasn’t all dark suits, dark glasses, and taking down dangerous guys. They spent hours on advance work, scrutinizing the where and the how of potential threats to a protectee. Then there were the AOPs—“attack on the principal” drills—to prepare and rehearse. Security ran from the sublime to the mundane. When the Secret Ser vice was charged with someone’s protection, there were hundreds of details to attend to, including coordinating and securing all the protectee’s transportation, mail, and luggage. Hannah Davis wasn’t the president of the United States, but Tanner couldn’t afford to give her any less attention than he would the person who held the highest office in America. When he and Finn had been assigned the White House detail, they’d watched with stoic calm as the president did everything from eating ice cream with his kids, to screaming at his staff, to taking catnaps at his desk. Surely, Tanner could retain that same professional detachment when dealing with one farm-fresh schoolteacher. He pictured Hannah with a spoon and a hot fudge sundae. She’d pluck the cherry from the mountain of whipped cream first, opening her mouth to suck off a smear of fluffy white. It would leave a dab of cream on the deep bow of her upper lip, and from his position in the corner he’d see her pink, wet tongue curl out to— “There he is!” His eyes popped open and his chair wobbled on two legs a second before crashing down on all four. He grabbed the edge of the small table sliding away from him and yanked it back to cover the half-hard result of his little impromptu fantasy. “Christ, Dez,” he grumbled, narrowing his eyes at the two women who’d entered the bar. “That’s twice in one day. Haven’t you heard of knocking first?” Desirée looked unrepentant, Hannah a bit anxious. Tanner was struck by their superficial similarity again, especially with Hannah in obvious Desirée-wear: a pair of white sailor-type pants, tight at the hip and wide at the ankle, worn with flat red shoes and a blue, hooded jacket on top. Lust flared inside him again, and he nearly groaned out loud. What was it about her? Or maybe it was that outfit. During his formative adolescent years he’d hidden a Playboy pinup beneath the American flag tacked to the wall opposite his bed. No wonder red, white, and blue got a rise out of him. In a nervous movement, Hannah smoothed her palms down the front of her thighs. Just like that, he remembered the flowery scent of her skin as he ran his tongue down her long legs. Christ. Here he went again, hardening into that one-gun salute. Clearing his throat, he forced his gaze off her and onto Dez. “Everything all right?” he asked. “Sure.” But she looked a little twitchy now too. “Where’s, um, Troy?” “Troy is right here,” his brother boomed out, swinging shut the bar’s front door. “The real question is, why are you?” Her chin jerked up. “I—” “How many times do I have to throw you out, princess, before you get the message you’re not wanted?”
Dez flinched. “I hear you loud and clear, Troy.” “She’s doing me a favor, bro,” Tanner interjected. “Lay off, all right?” Troy stalked farther into the room, his eyes only for Desirée. Hannah backed off to give him space, and her movement caught his gaze. He halted, blinking. “Hello.” He sent Tanner a puzzled look. “Why don’t you serve yourself and Hannah a soft drink or something, Dez,” Tanner suggested. Maybe he’d have better luck uncovering that plan he needed if he talked it over with Troy. “Groovy,” the woman answered. “Come with me, Hannah.” She headed toward the bar on the other side of the room. “Don’t mess with anything,” Troy called out. She smiled sweetly at him over her shoulder. “Just your mind, big man. Just your mind.” Tanner kicked out a chair. “Sit down.” His brother obeyed, dropping heavily into place, then adjusting his position so he could keep an eye on the women. “What the hell are you doing, Tanner? Isn’t that the honey you waltzed out of here with last night on the way to a New Year’s shagathon?” Honey. Yeah. She’d tasted so damn sweet. He cleared his throat again. “More like she’s my carrot.” Troy frowned. “Say what?” “I made a little mistake in my choice of anonymous, one-night shagees. I didn’t discover until this morning she’s the niece of Geoff Brooks.” Troy looked blank. “You know, the Secret Ser vice’s Special Agent in Charge of the San Diego office, Geoff Brooks? My former boss?” “Ouch,” Troy said. “But—” The television over the bar blared to life, shifting his attention from Tanner. At the other side of the room Desirée had filled a couple of glasses with ice and liquid and she now was using the controls to switch the TV station from ESPN. Basketball lost out to some soap opera, complete with soaring violin music and entwined limbs on satin sheets. “Who gave you permission to touch the remote?” Troy yelled over the noise. Dez gave him another of her saccharine smiles and raised her voice as the music climaxed. “We’ll make a deal, okay? Next time you’re over at my place, I’ll let you play with my vibrator.” Tanner shot his brother a look. “Next time?” Troy’s face was ruddy, though it wasn’t clear whether it was in reaction to the pointed question or Desirée’s mention of the personal appliance. “Forget that,” he responded in a gruff voice. “I gave her a ride once. And we were talking about you. What does it matter that your honey—” “Hannah.” “—Hannah is something to Brooks?” Tanner pretended he could smile about it. “Before he left on his ski vacation last week, he asked me to do him a favor while he’s gone. I agreed to be her tour guide.” His gaze wandered to the bar again. Standing with her back to him, Hannah had her elbows on the bar and her head tilted toward the overhead TV. Her long dark hair hung low on her back, halfway to that tempting—forbidden—peach of her ass.
“Then grab a cocktail napkin and draw her a map,” Troy suggested. “It’s not like she can get herself lost on Coronado.” Tanner grimaced. “She already lost her luggage and her purse.” He explained to his brother what had happened to her at the airport, and made a mental note to check in with the Lindbergh Field authorities the next day. “Dez offered her clothes and a temporary place to stay.” “So your obligation’s complete.” “It’s not quite so easy as that.” Nothing had been in months. His life used to be how he liked it— interesting, meaningful work, a woman when he had the itch, family around when he had time for a home-cooked meal or when he felt like kicking back and drinking beers with his brothers. Then, in the blink of a camera’s eye, he’d lost control of it. “I told you Hannah’s my carrot. If I take good care of the female package Geoff left in my trust, then he’ll take good care of me.” Though unspoken, he and his boss had made that agreement. With Tanner’s penance almost a year old, if he made Hannah Davis’s trip successful, then he would get his heart’s desire. Troy narrowed his gaze and his eyes gleamed like his shaved head in the overhead lights. “Brooks is finally letting you back in the Secret Ser vice, then. It’s about time.” “Give him some credit. He could have accepted my resignation right after the assassination attempt.” “Instead he put you on indefinite leave, when we both know who was at fault for that kiss seen ’ round the world.” Troy sent a look toward Desirée that should have scorched the linoleum. “Hey, that could be my wife you’re setting on fire with your glare,” Tanner said, then tried not to laugh at his brother’s classic double take. “Huh?” “Desirée asked me to marry her this morning.” Now that he thought about it, maybe he could use Dez’s guilt to get him something he really wanted—that how-to-handle-Hannah plan. If he demanded, surely Dez would be his partner in the tour business for the next ten days. If he was never alone with Hannah’s pouty red mouth and those incredible long legs, then maybe he could forget about his hunger to have them both wrapped around certain of his body parts. “Well?” Tanner blinked at his brother, who was red-faced again. Was that steam coming out of his ears? “Well, what?” “Are you marrying the princess?” “Am I—no!” For God’s sake, he was just days away from getting his life back under his own control. He wouldn’t screw up that in dependence for Desirée, or any woman, for that matter. “This isn’t the time in my life for romance, that’s shit for sure.” Troy sat back in his chair with a satisfied air. “Just checking.” “Do I look stupid? She’s beautiful and rich, but—” “Also shallow and spoiled and in need of some discipline.” Troy nodded to himself, and Tanner didn’t forget that his older brother had spent years drilling brand-new Marines. He cleared his throat. “Troy. Bro. Dez is not one of your raw recruits. You can’t—” A crash jerked both their heads toward the bar. Beside it had stood a six-foot stack of plastic racks holding clean barware, ready to be put away. Now half were knocked over, and dozens of broken glasses were shattered at Desirée’s feet.
She looked up, her eyes wide and fastened on Troy’s face. “I’m sorry. I was demonstrating to Hannah a new dance move I saw at a club the other night and…” Her shoulders shrugged. Troy shot up, his chair legs screeching against the clean floor like fingernails on a chalkboard. He flicked a glance toward Tanner. “What were you about to say? That I can’t whip her into shape? Well, I sure as hell can try.” Then he stalked toward the bar, the room heating up as he approached. Tanner followed his brother, taking in Hannah’s expression, which looked as wary as his might be if he didn’t know his brother so well. Crossing his arms over his wide chest, Troy came to a halt before the mess of broken barware, his legs splayed wide, his burning gaze trained on Desirée. She swallowed hard but stood her ground. “I can pay for the damage,” she said quickly. “Oh, you will, princess,” Troy said, his voice deadly soft. Hannah looked up in some alarm as Tanner reached her. He tried to reassure her with a smile as he wrapped his hand around her wrist. His orders via her uncle, showing her a good time in good ol’ Coronado, certainly shouldn’t start off with what ever knockdown, drag-out Troy had in mind for Desirée. It wasn’t going to be physical, of course, but it probably wasn’t going to be pretty either. “I think that’s our cue to leave,” he said. And only once they were out the bar’s door and into the January Southern California sunshine did he remember he’d already blown his plan. They were alone again. And he was going to have to keep control of himself if he was going to regain control of his life.
espite himself, Troy admired the princess’s courage. When faced with his wrath, many a Marine
“boot”—new recruit—had looked like they were one second away from screaming for Mommy. Desirée, on the other hand, looked like she had steel in her spine and ice in her heart. Then he remembered that her mother would be unlikely to come to Dez’s aid anyway. The once-supermodel, now famous only for her numerous addictions and nearly as many ex-husbands, had never cared a rat’s ass for the daughter she’d given birth to twenty-four years before. When “the Kiss” had first become big news almost a year ago, Troy had read every article and watched each of the tabloid TV stories, wincing for his younger brother all the while. But remembering the quotes from Desirée’s mother, his gut gave a twist for the girl now facing him down. “I never wanted a child,” the beauteous but dissipated Maureen was quoted as saying. “Her father insisted, though, and then we were both disappointed that the baby was a girl.” Stupid-shit people. Both of them. If Troy ruled the world, parenting would be strictly licensed and heavily regulated. He reached out to grab Desirée’s upper arms and pluck her from the tumble of broken glass around her feet. She gasped in surprise, squirming in his hold. The silky ends of her dark hair waved across the top of his hands, and prickles rose along his skin, tickling everywhere. He dumped her a few feet away and then rubbed a hand over his shaven head. “Are you hurt?” he ground out, sounding meaner than he meant to.
Her wide-eyed gaze dropped from his face to her arms, bared by this tiny, distracting, diabolical T-shirt she was wearing. It was yellow, thin as a handkerchief, and lopped off across her belly button, leaving inches of golden skin between the hem and the waistband of her low-riding scarlet jeans. “I’ll let you know if I have bruises tomorrow,” she said. Aghast, he took a quick step forward. “Did I—” He stopped, noticing her too innocent look. “I was talking about the broken glass, as you very well know,” he said. “Were you cut?” She shook her head, not even bothering to glance down at her feet, clad in turquoise suede boots, with heels higher than a Manhattan skyscraper. “I’m fine.” But she wasn’t. For months she’d been hanging around town, making life hell for his little brother and Tanner’s friend Finn. Finn called her the “Mad Gift Giver” because she kept trying to come up with appropriate thank-yous for the way the other man had saved her father’s life. She’d yet to find a way to pay back Tanner for the havoc she’d wreaked on his. “You’re nuts,” he told her, remembering what Tanner had said a few minutes ago. “Thinking my brother would even for a minute consider marrying you.” Her expression didn’t change. A beat passed, and then she shrugged. “It was just an idea.” “An idea for what?” he threw out. “What the hell goes on inside your bratty, puny brain?” That seemed to pierce her cool hide. “Magna cum laude.” Her eyes glittered as she tapped her chest. Her tits were maybe the best he’d ever seen. Round, and her bra must have been flimsy because he could see her hard little nipples poking against the fabric of her shirt. He swung his gaze back to her face, hoping she hadn’t noticed what he’d been noticing. “That’s graduated with high honors,” she said, her lip curling in a sneer. “Semper fidelis,” he shot back. “That’s Marine talk for I can kick your butt into Monday.” Her sneer made way for a smile. “Troy, it is Monday.” He wanted to strangle her. Embrace her. Kill her. Kiss her. From the moment they’d met through every moment since, she’d gotten on his very last nerve…and somehow still wrapped his libido around her dainty little finger. Even now he could feel that pooling heaviness in his groin, and it only made him angrier. It was time someone taught her a lesson. She couldn’t go around making messes in other people’s lives and expect that a gift, a smile, or a marriage proposal, for God-frickin’-sake, would make up for it. He jerked his thumb toward the dozens of glasses now turned into thousands of shards. “Well, Ms. Magna Cum Laude, what are you prepared to do about that?” Her smile fell away. She stepped toward him and put her hand on his arm. “I am sorry. It was an accident.” His muscle hardened beneath her soft touch. This close, he could smell her too, and it was sandalwood and some other exotic spice. A mysterious scent, and for a moment Desirée reminded him of the women he’d glimpsed in Afghanistan, almost completely hidden except through the latticed screens of their voluminous robes. But she wasn’t camouflaging any of her body. All the curves and planes were out there for him— for anyone—to see. And he already knew who she was inside—spoiled and selfish. He shook her hand off his arm. “Still, princess,” he said. “You’re going to have to make reparation.” She tucked the hand that had been touching him underneath the other arm. “Of course. I can do
that.” Her hair slid over her shoulder as she glanced around the bar. “Let me get my purse. Do you take American Express, or would Visa work better for you?” “I don’t take credit cards at all.” “Yes, you do,” she answered, sounding annoyed. “On the few occasions I’ve been in here before you saw me and ordered me out, plenty of people have used plastic.” “That’s one of your problems, Desirée. You think money—plastic money, no less—can solve everything.” She rolled her eyes. “There’s an ATM a block over. Tell me how much you want for the damage and I’ll be back with it in a flash.” Troy shook his head. “That’s not good enough either.” Now there was a little wild look about her. “What the heck is it you want, Troy?” To scare her off. To finally get her to go away. For months she’d been worming her cute little ass into his world. She’d made it too far already. His own mother had wanted to invite her to the family home at Christmas, for God’s sake. Yeah, he’d known Desirée had no one and likely nowhere to go for the holidays, but she was the enemy, wasn’t she? Sneaky like them too. It was a different kind of war they were fighting these days, war in which the combatants didn’t wear traditional uniforms or fight with traditional weapons. And Desirée could slay him, if she only knew, with her body in those jeans and T-shirt. With a kiss like the one she’d given his brother in front of all the world. He had to find a way to stop it! Troy Hart had medals for bravery, but she made them all seem a sham. It was much too easy for her to make him weak. “I want you to work, really work, to pay off the debt,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. Her mouth pursed in suspicion. “What do you mean? You want me to go find a job?” “I’ll give you the job. Right here. Starting right now.” She would run, of course. He sensed that inside that poised shell of hers she was as scared of him as he refused to be of her. She propped one fist on one sweetly rounded hip. “Doing what?” “What ever I say.” He shrugged. “Swabbing the deck, cleaning the heads, the kind of real grunt work that will ruin your manicure as well as your mood.” “And if I refuse?” “Then you leave town, princess. Find yourself another kingdom in which to play.” He watched her mull his proposal over. There was her pride to consider, but he didn’t think it was any match for the idea of true labor. Labor supervised by him. Crossing his arms over his chest, he held his breath so he wouldn’t take in another lungful of that bewitching scent of hers. He was just a couple of seconds from finding peace, he figured, and he deserved that after all the sound and fury he’d experienced during war. “So, uh, well,” Tanner said, looking down at Hannah. The late afternoon sunlight bounced off her dark hair, finding threads of red and gold he hadn’t noticed before. “Did you do all right with Desirée?” “She’s very generous. With her clothes, with her space.” Hannah sucked her bottom lip into her mouth and Tanner pretended not to see it. “But she seems, I don’t know—lonely?” “Well…yeah.” Hell. Tanner hated thinking sympathetic thoughts about Dez, but the longer she
hung around Coronado, the harder it was not to. “I’d say you’re a quick study of character.” Hannah suddenly smiled, rounding her blush-apple cheeks. “When you get up every morning to face twenty or more students with just as many different family situations, scholastic strengths, and personality traits, being a quick study is called survival.” Tanner nodded. “Secret Ser vice work is like that too. Minute to minute a new situation that needs to be recognized, assessed, and then dealt with.” “So you’re a quick study as well.” “I suppose I am.” Tanner watched the breeze toss the ends of Hannah’s hair, sending one strand across her mouth. It caught in the corner of her lips, and he shoved his hands in his pockets so he wouldn ’t be tempted to take care of it himself. When the urge still itched at his palms, he tilted his head to study the pale blue of the sky. Which brought back instant thoughts of her panties. The pale blue ones she’d been wearing last night. They’d felt sleek beneath his fingers and— Hell! Desperate for distraction, he jerked his gaze to the gray, pitted sidewalk and asked the first question that popped into his head. “So what did you think when you first saw me?” “That’s not fair.” He could hear the frown in her voice. “You tell me what you thought first.” He looked up, a smile tugging at his mouth. “Truth?” “Yes.” “I wondered about the color of your nipples.” There was a shocked moment of silence, and then she let out a startled laugh. “No!” Her hand swatted his chest, even as pink color crawled up her neck. He caught her hand and held it flush against his sternum. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought. Don ’t kid yourself about the domesticity of the XY half of the world, sweetheart.” “I know men—” “When you haven’t gone to bed with one in four years?” The color on her face deepened and she pulled her hand away from him. “I said that when I thought that…that…” “That we were going to bed and then never see each other again? Well surprise, surprise, we were both wrong there. And I just want you to realize that any other male you meet over this vacation has brain patterns the same as mine.” God, it was smart of him to hit her with the truth. Because now that he thought about it, if Hannah was out looking for jollies that had been on hold for four years—and since he was out of the running to provide such jollies—then she might go searching farther afield, never realizing what rough country she could wander into. Out of nowhere, that urge to protect her was rising inside him again. But hell, it wasn’t out of nowhere, right? She was Brooks’s niece, and as such, Tanner’s ticket to life the way it should be again. He had an important stake in this. If she hooked up with the wrong guy or got hurt by some jerk while she was here, Geoff Brooks was going to blame it on the man he had assigned to protect her. The Secret Ser vice motto was “Worthy of Trust and Confidence,” and Tanner knew he needed to prove to his former and future boss that he was still a credible source of both.
“Obviously I wasn’t looking for hearts and flowers last night,” Hannah said, now starting to look irritated. “But that doesn’t mean every man I meet—” “There will be no men you meet while you’re here. Got it?” Perhaps he’d grown another head. She looked at him as if he had. “I don’t even know you,” she said, her eyes wide, her tone incredulous. “You’re not in charge of my life.” He didn’t like the stubbornness. He was helping her, for God’s sake! “I’m in charge of your good time,” he replied from between clenched teeth. “I’m supposed to make sure you have a hassle-free, photo-worthy vacation.” She started sputtering, and the air between them heated with their rising tempers. Her breasts were moving in and out with her annoyed breaths, and he found himself staring at the smooth skin of her chest and the quarter inch of cleavage showing above the zipper of her jacket. “Look,” he said, waving his hand in her direction. “Just so you know, we’re both mad, and I’m still thinking about your breasts.” “What?” “Don’t get any more pissed, I’m trying to make a point here.” She glared at him. “The point is you’re a Neanderthal.” “Yeah.” He nodded. “I resemble that remark, and so will every other guy you meet to whom you confess you haven’t had sex in the past four years.” She looked ready to spit or slap or stomp, but just then the door to the bar was flung open and Desirée marched out. Tanner could kiss—no, God, no, not that—but he could think of something nice to thank her for interrupting the moment. He needed to cool this conversation with Hannah. She hadn’t quite accepted the way their situation was yet, but he’d take the heat off now and come back to it again later. “Dez!” he said in a hearty voice. “Do you have a few minutes? I thought we could talk over itineraries. You have some time to do sightseeing and stuff with Hannah and me, right?” The smile he sent her was supposed to make her feel both guilty and cooperative. She didn’t seem to notice he was alive. Glancing over her shoulder at the bar door, she continued advancing toward the gleaming Beemer parked nearby. “Do you want to go back to the hotel now, Hannah?” she asked the other woman. “I sure do.” She shot Tanner a look full of displeasure. He ignored a bite of panic. “But Dez, Dez. First just say you can help me show Hannah around.” She dug keys out of the tiny yellow purse in her hand. “No can do, Tanner. I’ve got other plans that are going to keep me pretty busy.” “No—” “Yep. I’ve got a job working for your big, ignorant, insulting, insufferable, butthead of a brother.” He blinked. Dez was going to be working for Troy? Speechless at the thought, Tanner could only watch as this year’s trouble climbed into a car with last year’s trouble. Though the car pulled away, Tanner knew it was a pretty sure bet that neither one of them was done with him. Or his brother, either, which made him feel only marginally better.
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS
Things I Hate about New year’s Writing the wrong date on my checks until June.
he next morning, Hannah tiptoed out of the suite, aware that her hostess was still sleeping in one of
the two bedrooms. Before shutting the front door behind her, she cast a last glance out the sliding glass leading to the living area’s attached balcony. The incredible view of broad beach and foaming surfline only added to her reluctance to leave the place. It would be so much easier to step out into the salty air and let the forever stretch of water and that endless wash of waves on sand hypnotize her into somnolent inaction. But it was time to wake up and smell the coffee! she told herself, shutting the door and forcing her feet along the path leading toward the Hotel Del Coronado’s lobby. The resort was magnificent, a Victorian dream palace stretching wide along the beach and reaching high into the sky with red-roofed cupolas and towers. While yesterday the weather had been almost summer magnificent, showing it off to perfection, today the early-morning sky was heavy with clouds. Suiting her mood, Hannah thought, as she lined up at a coffee cart set up in the corner of the sumptuous lobby, across from a King Kong–sized Christmas tree. Maybe a little caffeine would lighten her heart, but she doubted it. While she’d been mentally preparing for this morning’s meeting a long time, her physical body seemed to protest the idea of carrying through with her plan. What was she? she fumed to herself. A woman or a mouse? She’d been the latter for much too long, and today she was going to change that. Today she was going to get answers to the questions that had been plaguing her for months. The person at the front of the coffee line was served, and the rest of them shuffled forward as he stepped away. He. Tanner Hart. Her future fled from her thoughts and his footsteps halted as he caught sight of her. From three feet away she let herself look at him again, forgetting for a moment he was the same man who’d made her so furious yesterday afternoon, with his presumption and his orders. God, he was beautiful. His long hair brushed the collar of his white Henley shirt, which was tucked into ancient blue jeans. Despite the casual attire, her imagination could easily morph him to secret agent— Secret Ser vice agent—wearing a Men in Black dark suit and sunglasses. Surely he’d have had a different haircut too, right? And she could see that as well, those straight golden strands sheared close to his head, leaving nothing to soften the lean planes of his cheeks and his hard, square jaw. Suddenly she remembered the bristly caress of his chin along the line of her calf. Her whole body flushed, her breasts swelling to push against the cups of Desirée’s decadent, demicut bra. Why couldn’t she remember more of New Year’s night? Every time she convinced herself he’d dished her up a plate of baloney, that in truth nothing more intimate had happened between them than what she could recall, she would hear the word “explosive” whispering in her head and…she’d wonder. Surely she would have felt the echo of any, uh, activity between her thighs? But God, she’d been so aroused, so surprisingly and incredibly ready for sex, that he could have slipped right inside— “Jesus,” Tanner said now, striding forward to shove one of the two coffees he held into her hand.
“I should have ordered it iced.” She cleared her throat and pretended intense interest in the plastic top. Had her thoughts been so clear on her face? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “It’s the way you—” He broke off, shaking his head. “Never mind.” Then he muttered something about the American flag and grabbed her hand to tow her away from the line. “Hey, wait,” she protested. “What do you think you’re doing?” He glanced over at her, still walking. “I’m getting going on our day. I pegged you for an early riser and I can see that I was right.” “Our day?” It would be bad enough without a witness. “Nuh-uh. I thought I made it clear to you yesterday I don’t need or want a babysitter.” He’d managed to drag her outside, to the portico and steps that led to the parking lot and then to the street. “What about a driver? Don’t you need one of those?” Hannah had already asked for directions, and knew it didn’t require a car to get where she was going. She freed her hand from his. “I have feet. I’m walking.” “To where?” She shrugged. “Nowhere in particular.” Lie. The park on Orange. “I’m going to explore.” Deal with the woman who had done her wrong. Tanner frowned, eyeing her and then glancing up at the sky. “Looks like it might be a wet morning.” “Everybody knows it never rains in Southern California.” Oh, she hoped it didn’t anyway. The last thing she needed today was wet weather. She’d hated it for over twenty years. “Hannah…” It was time to get firm with him—though hadn’t she already? She narrowed her eyes, pretending he was seven years old and trying to take cuts in line. “Tanner Hart, that will be enough.” He stared at her a moment, then burst out laughing. “Or what, you’ll take away my hall pass?” Her neck burned, and then the flush rose higher. How often in how short a time could one person make it so clear to her? She was truly no good with men. (Or if not “no” good, at least woefully out of practice.) God. Face it, Duncan’s long absence had turned her into the proverbial old maid schoolteacher —albeit one who’d worn an engagement ring on her finger. She could hate him— No. She couldn’t really hate Duncan. Instead she silently swore at Tanner and started to move past him. He caught her around the upper arm, just as a bellhop trundled out the entrance with a brass rack filled with luggage. Tanner released his grip, only to slide his arm around her shoulder and pull her near, out of the other man’s way. They were chest to breast, the light jacket she wore brushing the long-sleeved cotton shirt he had on. This close, she breathed him in, smelling coffee, the tang of something citrus—his shampoo?—then a deeper note that reminded her of his sheets—and his skin. Swallowing hard, she stared at the clean line of his tan throat and silently swore again. Why did he have to smell so good? Why did he have to feel so strong and firm against her body? For years she’d figured her romantic life was set—though lacking a precise “I do” date. In all that time, loyal little Do Bee that she was, she had never looked at another man, let alone gotten close enough to lick one’s neck. And now she wanted to. God, she so wanted to run her tongue along Tanner’s skin. She wanted to trail the tips of her breasts along his hard chest and feel the hot, thick evidence that he desired her
against her thigh. She wanted to take him in her hand and have him take her in his hand, filling that aching place inside her. Her scalp prickled and she looked up to catch him gazing down at her with the same kind of burn that was flickering low in her belly. It was like being hungry, this want that she felt, except the emptiness wasn’t only inside. It was outside of her body too, in inches, yards, miles of sensitized skin that demanded a man’s hand. A man’s mouth. Tanner’s touch. His arm abruptly fell away. He stepped back and a flick of his lashes doused the fire she thought she’d seen in his eyes. “You go on, then.” Now there was even more distance between them, and she had to doubt whether there’d ever been any heat on his side at all. “Have a good morning.” Before she could gather enough of her pride to make clear to the man how extremely glad she was he’d finally taken the hint and was leaving her on her own, he was gone. There was nothing to do but suck in a few calming breaths and set off in the opposite direction. Walking past blocks of shops and cafés while sipping at her coffee, she tried putting Tanner and her unprecedented, inconvenient reaction to him out of her mind. Not that she blamed herself exactly. For sure he was overbearing and overconfident. But he was also sexy and gorgeous (admit it, movie star beautiful), and she wasn’t dead. Suddenly, a little shiver tracked down her back. Hannah glanced around, wondering what had spooked her. There were people on the sidewalk around her, people with coffees or cell phones who didn’t seem to be paying attention to a twenty-seven-year-old woman carrying her own cardboard cup. But she felt someone’s eyes on her. Another chill skulked down her spine. Glancing around again, her attention was caught by a man’s figure across the street. Her heart crashed against the inside wall of her chest and her feet stuttered to a halt. With a dry mouth she watched him duck into a small juice bar, but not before she’d registered his dark hair in its military cut, the crisp lines of his khaki uniform, the heavy diving watch on his right wrist that she’d wrapped and sent to his FPO address two Christmases before. Without thinking, she darted across the four-lane street. Horns honked, but she didn’t blink or hesitate at the noise. Could it…Oh, God, could it be? Even as she reached the opposite curb, the juice bar’s door opened again. The man reemerged and she stared— —only to recognize it wasn’t Duncan. This was some other naval officer, striding past her without a second look. Some other naval officer who was likely the object of some other woman’s dreams. Maybe also a man who had made promises he didn’t have the guts to rescind. But he wasn’t Duncan. Her heart restarted, and after a minute she was calm enough to continue on her way. How silly she was. She knew it couldn’t have been Duncan At the thought, tears stung her eyes. Damn. Hadn’t she cried enough for him? And hadn’t she figured out after six weeks and approximately six hundred boxes of Kleenex that what she was mourning wasn’t just the loss of someone she’d seen as the focus of her future, but also the loss of the little fantasy she’d been living? The one in which she went along with everything everyone else thought was right for her and that then her life would turn out just perfect. Caroline had taken that away from her too.
Hannah turned a corner and saw the park up ahead. Her feet slowed of their own accord. They even backtracked half a block to find a trash receptacle where she could dump her now empty cardboard cup. Squinting, she staked it out from that safe distance. Against the backdrop of the dark gray clouds overhead, the grounds looked vibrant. Green grass broken up by tall trees, a white, Disneyesque bandstand, parking, picnic tables, a playground. In one corner, a group was practicing tai chi. At the concrete tables, older people were perusing newspapers. A handful of mothers trailed toddlers through the sand between swings and slides. It shouldn’t be too difficult to locate Caroline in the small crowd. Duncan’s parents had a photo of her—of the two of them, actually. When Hannah had dropped by their house, three blocks from where she’d grown up, to return the heirloom engagement ring, she’d seen it atop the piano. If his mother had remembered it was there, Hannah felt sure she would have hidden it away, but her unexpected arrival had flustered both of his parents. She’d always known them, always loved them, so she’d pretended not to notice the framed shot. Until they’d left her alone as they went for coffee and the ever-present Kleenex. Dry-eyed and maybe clear-headed for the first time in her life, Hannah had used the minutes alone to examine the fuzzy photo. And sow the seed that led her to this moment. Hauling in a last deep breath, she reminded herself that she needed to do this. She needed to do this for herself and maybe for every woman in the world whose man and whose future she’d depended upon had been stolen. At the crosswalk on the corner she pressed the button to wait for the light. The vehicle traffic was heavy—no wonder those cars had honked a few blocks back—and she waited for the little stick man to come to life and send her on her way. A rotund senior citizen wearing Easter egg colors came to wait beside her. He smiled, tipping his compact umbrella at her in friendly greeting. “My knees are telling me it’s going to be a gully-washer,” he confided. “You’d better get indoors before the clouds start crying.” Hannah smiled. “It never rains in Southern California,” she said for the second time that morning, her gaze shifting upward just as a fat drop fell—splat!—onto her nose. Her jaw dropped and another landed square on her tongue. In the next second it was as if someone had overturned a giant watering can. Cold, fat raindrops landed on her shoulders and the top of her head. Between one breath and the next, car tires were hissing on dark pavement that was turning even blacker with the wet. She smelled that distinctive mix of rain and petroleum products and tamped down the unpleasant memories it evoked. Her companion unfurled his umbrella, and as the light turned green for them, he offered to share his little island of dry as they crossed the street. Glancing ahead, Hannah groaned out loud. “Are you all right?” her friendly man asked. “I’m fine.” Frustrated. Out of luck. The visitors in the park were already scattered, running down the street and into cars. By the time she made it to the other sidewalk, they’d all be gone. “But I won’t be crossing after all. Thanks, anyway.” With a little shrug he left her high and dry (well, wet, of course). Drenched, actually. And she experienced again that creepy sense that someone was watching. It made her jump back when an old but pristine Mercedes sedan pulled up to the curb in front of her, though too late to prevent a rooster tail of gutter water from spraying over the top of her borrowed black boots. Then the passenger window rolled down to frame a familiar face on the driver’s side.
“Hey, little girl,” Tanner said. “Can you help me find my lost puppy?”
he lost puppy was him, Tanner thought later. Lost, sick, out of his stinkin’ mind. Because he was
thinking about sex while sitting in a molded plastic chair at the Department of Motor Vehicles. He didn’t want to be thinking about sex. That whole “every seven seconds” thing was a stupid, lousy magazine-article myth, and he knew this because he’d been able to not think about sex for eleven freak in’ months. He’d considered it the best way to keep his dumb ass out of trouble, and he’d been right. Look what happened the instant he let down his guard. He’d gotten himself tangled up with the most dangerous female in his galaxy. Maybe he should take Desirée up on the marriage offer after all. Then he could get himself a camel from one of her al-Maddah uncles or cousins and set off into the desert, a lone nomad for the rest of his life. He was really feeling sorry for himself, he realized, but he intended to keep right on wallowing in that self-pity. It was a hell of a lot better than dwelling instead on the occasional brush of Hannah’s arm against his as she sat in the chair beside him, or staring at the perfect curve of her profiled cheek, or recalling in vivid detail the way she’d looked at him at the Hotel Del Coronado that morning…as if she wanted to crawl inside his clothes. He was consumed by the way she appeared in hers—well, Dez’s. Hannah had the sweetest damn ass he’d ever seen in his life, round in all the right places, and accentuated by the way the jeans she wore were strategically bleached—two palm marks right where a man’s hands would like to play. She probably considered the black sweater she’d teamed with the pants conservative, but Dez had a sexy fashion sense that came from having a model mother and too much spending money. Instead of being your average pullover-type garment, this little number laced up the front, and when Hannah moved, between the grommets it revealed distracting bits of creamy skin. And just the tiniest peek of a black bra. Lace. He was really obsessed about that. Hannah and all her long legs and luscious curves in black lace underwear. It was a conventional turn-on, he knew, but still the fantasy made him want to stand up and sing the national anthem in enthusiastic appreciation. Christ, what was it about him, her, and this patriotic imagery? He glanced at the flag in the corner of the large room. Being stuck in this goddamn government building wasn’t helping. Blowing out his air, he shifted in the uncomfortable seat and then leaned over—almost impaling himself on his own half-hard cock—to reach for some reading material left beneath Hannah’s chair. He dropped a three-day-old financial page over his lap and the smaller tabloid magazine into hers. She looked down at the wrinkled, glossy cover, then over at him. “Thank you.” He grimaced. “You’re easy.” She jerked in her chair. “What?” “No, no. That came out wrong.” Her face was already pink. “I meant in regards to thanking me for that likely outdated and definitely trashy rag I just dumped on you.”
She gave it a cursory glance. “And I meant thanks again for the ride here.” He knew that, standing on the sidewalk in the rain, she’d been ready to reject his company again until he’d drummed up a practical reason. Now what would have been more practical was to keep running from her as he had at the hotel, but there was still that promise he’d made to his boss, and there was Hannah herself, looking so dejected, not to mention half drowned, by the sudden deluge. “Getting a duplicate ID is one thing I could do from my end,” she continued. “My mom will overnight my replacement ATM and credit cards as soon as they’re delivered to my house. One of my brothers volunteered to drive them down along with more of my own clothes, but I managed to head that off, thank God.” “You don’t get along?” “It’s not that. My brothers are great, my parents are great, everyone in my whole small town is great, but…” She shrugged. He let her Pleasantville depiction go unchallenged, because he remembered he didn’t need to know any more about her than he already did. He was supposed to be thinking of himself, poor Tanner. Poor Tanner, stuck in a windowless bureaucratic office building beside a woman he wanted to bed in the worst way. And shouldn’t. Couldn’t. Would not. Her number was finally called and he watched her walk to the counter, keeping his eyes off those pseudohandprints on her cute butt cheeks. He looked at her silky hair instead, and her delicate shoulders, and the graceful length of her fingers, the left ones still wrapped around the tabloid he’d found. In mere minutes she turned around, the new ID in hand. He stood up and couldn’t help himself from stretching out his palm, curious to get a gander at her plastic card. Frowning, she whipped it behind her back. “Everybody lies about their weight,” she said, defensive. “And everybody looks like crap in their photo too.” He tugged on her elbow. “C’mon, let me see. I’m searching for clues as to why you’ve gone four years without a date.” Her full mouth tightened. “Forget it. I signed up to give away my organs, not donate to your quota of daily laughs.” Shrugging, he stepped back to let her precede him toward the exit. Then, as she relaxed and fell for the trap, he leaned forward to snatch away the card. “Hey!” She whirled on him. Tanner closed his fingers over the ID and smiled. “What’ll you give me if I don’t check it out?” “You should worry about what I’ll give you if you do check it out. Did I mention my older brothers? They taught me how to fight dirty.” He smiled wider, leaning close to chuck her under the chin. “Mine too, sweetheart. See how much we have in common.” His hand lingered on her soft skin. That was a mistake. That and knowing what else they had in common. Desire. Christ, in the middle of the DMV of all places, it was acting like some kind of hot air machine, heating the inches of space between them and causing his cock to stir to life. Again. The gaggle of other people receded into the far distance, and instead of being aware of the babble of voices and hum of computers in the cavernous room, his senses fine-tuned to her. Her reaction. His hearing picked up Hannah’s startled hiccup of concern, and he saw her eyes flare wide. Her whole body trembled beneath his fingertips. Her skin started to burn against his, and he knew he could
have her. Right now. Right this minute. Tanner snatched his hand away. Then he cleared his throat and flipped her the plastic card. She caught it out of the air in one hand, and then they both swallowed, both broke their joined gazes, both moved on. He kept silent until they were back in his Mercedes and he was waiting for her to buckle her seat belt. She lifted her butt from the bottom cushion so she could slide the new ID into her front jeans pocket. “I didn’t look closely, but isn’t that a regular license? I thought you said you didn’t drive.” And he’d noticed on their journey to the DMV what a tense passenger she was too. She’d braced one hand on the dash and strangled the door handle with the other. Her tongue came out to moisten her lips. “I took the classes.” The rain drummed against the roof of the car, and she stared out the windshield, as if fascinated by the rivulets of water washing down. “I took the test and passed. But I’m not confident behind the wheel.” “It can take some practice.” Her head bobbed in a jerky nod. “I ride a bike to work. I live close enough to stores and anything else I need that I can use my two wheels or my two feet. It’s good exercise and I don’t need to rely on anyone’s charity.” “Sure. Gotcha.” Of course there was more to the story—that fact was staring him in the face in foot-high neon—but getting it out would mean focusing on Hannah when he kept remembering he shouldn’t. Think about yourself, Hart. Poor Tanner. Poor Tanner. Poor Tanner. It was once more time to run. He turned the key and the car purred to life. Hannah started at the sudden sound. She shot him a swift glance. “There was an accident.” Without thinking, he switched the engine off. Nothing would compete now with the sound of their voices and the muffled drum of the rain. “Car accident?” Damn his curiosity. Another nod. “It was a day like this.” Ah. He glanced away from her face to take in the dark clouds and the heavy rain. “Were you hurt?” “No, no. It was my sister. My sister died.” “What?” His belly cramped, twisting and squeezing into a knot. “What did you say?” “She was sixteen. The oldest of us kids. She’d had her license about a week and I had dance class that afternoon. I was six and wanted my big sister to collect me. She wanted to drive whenever she could. My mom was up to her eyebrows in my brothers’ science projects and they lobbied for her to stay home with them and continue helping. In the end, when my sister didn’t make it to the dance studio, there was plenty of guilt to go around the Davis family. I’m pretty sure my dad figures he should have been able to stop the rain.” She laughed a little at that. The sad sound tightened the half-hitch in his abdomen. “Jeez,” he whispered. “Jeez, Hannah.” He’ d seen death and he had his own guilt, but if he could, he’d take over the memories and the regrets he could read in the deep brown depths of her eyes. “I’m so sorry.” “Thanks. I don’t usually tell people about it.” A frown drew her eyebrows together. “I don’t usually have to…it’s a small town and word gets around.” He could understand. For all its Southern California trappings, Coronado was a small town too. And hell, no one knew better than he how TV, tabloids, not to mention the gossip websites and the scandal blogs, could make the least scrap of news go global by sundown.
Her uncle’s admonition to him now made perfect sense. He’d warned that Hannah had been going through some rough times, and Tanner could see what those were and why the other man was so protective of her. Except… Except Geoff Brooks had said she’d been going through some rough times recently. That car accident had to be more than twenty years ago. In his former job he’d been trained to listen to his instincts and he’d been schooled in always assuming the worst. Now the hairs on the back of his neck were rising as he shifted in his seat to more fully look at her face. “Do you have any other secrets I should know about?” Her eyes cut to his, then jumped away. He saw her palm press against the pocket that held her new ID and he could practically read the indecision in her mind. A blush of color rose along her neck. “A clarification, more like. It’s not that I’ve been ‘dateless’ for the last four years. Not exactly.” “How not exactly?” She was silent, her front teeth pressing deep into the pillow of her bottom lip. Poor Tanner, he thought again. Poor Tanner who can’t look away from her mouth. Poor Tanner, who can’t turn away from knowing more about this woman who was shredding his good intentions with her pretty face and her pregnant pauses. “I was engaged to be married for three of them. My fiancé, Duncan, was either across the country in military training or across the ocean fighting for all that time. Then a few months back, I…I was dumped.” She made a face. “Not dumped—that was really what made things worse. He didn’t actually ever even break our engagement. I was still wearing his ring when I found out he’d married someone else.” “Fuck.” She sent him a quick glance from underneath her lashes. “So, now you see.” Her hand made a little wave. Tanner had sworn off women for eleven months, but before that he’d had plenty of experience. When a woman said something like “now you see” in that bright, isn’t-this-all-logical voice, it was a 99.9 percent chance that he was blind as a bat. “See, uh, what?” “That what happened on New Year’s…that was just a reaction to my circumstances. Not a reaction to you in particular.” He stared at her. Did she really believe that bullshit? “While changing into dry clothes before we headed for the DMV, I thought about Uncle Geoff and the kind of man he is. When I came to Coronado, I thought you were only going to give me a few vacation tips, but I can see him twisting your arm into taking on the favor of watching out for me while I’ m here.” “Hannah—” She put up her hand. “Let me finish. Because of New Year’s, because I came on to you like…like a desperate house wife or something, I don’t blame you for coming to your own conclusion that I need a keeper more than anything else. But now…” “Now?” “Now that I’ve explained about Duncan, you can appreciate that it was just an odd response to New Year’s Eve, and mojitos, and…and…” She made that little hand flip again. “Now you can feel confident that I’m perfectly able to handle myself. By myself.”
Is that right? She thought now he should feel free to let loose a woman who’d been without sex in four years and probably doubted her desirability to boot? Not to mention that she was someone who was so out of touch with her sexuality that she thought it was her circumstances that had drawn them together. Her circumstances, and not a this-particular-man, this-particular-woman, particular to him and Hannah, particularly red hot, take-your-panties-off-right-now chemistry? Of course, he’d vowed he wasn’t going to be participating in any further science experiments himself, not with his Secret Ser vice career on the line, but he couldn’t let a woman this dangerous to mankind out of his sight. Who knew what trouble she might get into? He only knew who would be getting the blame if she did. He gave her his best smile. “Neither one of us has anything to worry about, then. It’s not as if we’ re about to fall into bed again.” “Right.” She sat back, obviously relieved. He noticed she still had that tabloid he’d found. Her fingers tightened on it when he reached over to pat the back of her hand. “And so there’s no reason you can’t go out to dinner with me to night.”
hat? After her long speech about being capable of handling herself and of no longer being in her
New Year’s Eve, uh, “state,” could she possibly have said no to Tanner’s invitation to dinner? Refusal would have made her look foolish, and that particular fashion was so last year on Hannah. With that firmly in mind, she’d let Desirée raid her overstuffed closet once again, and out had come this beautiful and bold red silk chiffon strapless dress. The bodice curved over the tops of her breasts and cupped under them, creating an empire waistline. From there, more layers of fabric fell to her knees in soft pleats and folds. Desirée pulled out a pair of sharp-toed red pumps to match, as well as a lipstick in the same exact shade. The other woman had apparently absorbed makeup tips through the umbilical chord. Although it didn’t seem she was close to her former-model mother, Desirée was positive about what Hannah should do with her face. “A brush of powder in a naked-skin shade,” Desirée declared, sweeping sable hairs over Hannah’ s forehead, nose, and across her eyelids. “Then just the red mouth and gobs and gobs of mascara.” “This isn’t like a real date or anything,” Hannah hastened to assure them both, as she followed directions and looked at the ceiling while Desirée wielded the black wand on her upper and then her lower lashes. “What ever you say,” Desirée agreed. “But when a woman goes out with a man—for what ever reason—she needs all the armor she can get.” “So that’s why you’re wearing the jeans that you complained to me yesterday are a size and a half too tight,” Hannah said. “Because you’re going to be with Troy to night.” Instead of answering, her suite mate started humming as she left off with the mascara and then performed girl-magic with a hairbrush and a light hair spray that made Hannah’s long hair fall across one eye in a sexy side part. “Voilà!” Desirée finally said, drawing Hannah to the full-length mirror mounted on the closet door. “Helmet, shield, spear.” No schoolteacher in sight. Hannah swallowed, bemused by her unfamiliar reflection. Her eyes looked bigger, though her red mouth was the focal point of her face. After that, there seemed to be yards
of skin, all of it looking decidedly bare in the room’s soft light. She appeared almost as bold as the crimson color of the dress. Surely the strange woman in the mirror could win what ever battle Tanner might bring her way. When he knocked on the front door of the suite, she was ready for him. Desirée, before taking off for her shift at Hart’s (in full modern female warrior gear of those sprayed-on jeans and a see-through top over a lung-hugging camisole), had caught sight of the tabloid Hannah inadvertently brought home from the DMV. Flipping it open to an article in the middle, she’d given Hannah yet another weapon in her arsenal. Thanks to the almost year-old magazine, she now knew enough about the Hart family to manage some dinner table small talk. But when she turned the knob and swung open the door, her mouth couldn’t form a single word. It hit her immediately—that Tanner must know something about weapons too. It wasn’t the well-polished preppy loafers on his feet that gave it away. Nor the charcoal-colored flannel wool pleated slacks. No, props went to the collared, three-button, had-to-be-cashmere sweater he was wearing. It was pushed up casually on his forearms and was the exact same straw honey, old gold shade of his incredible hair. It made his eyes stand out like blue jewels in his tan face. She wondered about that winter tan, then wondered if he surfed like Troy too. From there her mind leaped to the fantasy of his butt wiggling beneath a beach towel. Heat burned the back of her neck, and her hand rose to fan her face. Tanner cleared his throat. “You all right?” “Sure. Yes.” Had he dressed to impress? Was this more like a real date than she’d been telling herself? The thought set the back of her neck on fire again, and nerves started pushing each other around in her stomach, like her second-grade students in the ice cream line. Tanner’s sexual interest in her had seemed to switch off the morning of January 1, the instant he’d learned her real name. Though she thought she’d caught flickers of it coming to life once or twice, she’d dismissed the idea each time—until now. Might he truly feel the same hormonal pull she did? She rubbed her palms on her thighs and tried to cover up her uncertainty with good manners. “You look nice. I like your sweater.” He frowned down at it. “Yeah? It was a Christmas present, so it was on top of all the other stuff in my drawer.” The grappling nerves in her stomach fell apart and metaphorical cold water was dashed across the nape of her neck. So much for him selecting that sweater to create a tactical advantage. So much for this maybe being a real date. The sweater he’d chosen was the one on top of all the other stuff in his drawer. And Hannah—or getting any closer to Hannah—wasn’t at the top of his thoughts after all. Releasing an inward sigh, she gathered up Desirée’s trench coat and a tiny purse she’d also borrowed. Then, reminding herself that the last thing she needed was to want another man who didn’t want her, Hannah left the suite and walked with Tanner to his car. It was a meal and nothing more. His Mercedes waited under the portico roof, safe from the raindrops still coming down. He opened the passenger door for her and she dropped onto the seat, then half turned to toss the coat into the backseat. Tanner’s big hand touched her thigh. She yelped and whipped her head toward him. He was staring down at the length of sheer stocking revealed by her ruched-up dress. His hand was trying to smooth the hem from its place a few
inches north of her knees to a more modest position. Yelping again, she lifted her behind off the seat and readjusted the layers of silk. “Thanks,” she said, not looking at him, but instead continuing to fuss with the hemline. “Thank you.” The sexy note in his voice sent her gaze flying to his, but his face didn’t give anything away. “And I should also say you look, uh…” He cleared his throat. “Very patriotic.” Patriotic? Of course, the dress was red, but patriotic? Was that some sort of hip Southern California term she didn’t know? Figuring she’d only look dumb if she asked, she kept her questions to herself as he ducked into the driver’s side and accelerated the car away from the hotel. Silence descended and she forced herself not to squirm on her seat, even though the quiet felt more tense than a clenched fist. As a matter of fact, Tanner’s ten-and-two grip looked brutal on the leather cover of the steering wheel. Maybe he had a headache or something. “Are you feeling well?” she asked. There was another moment of that heavy silence, then she heard him let out a long breath. “I’m feeling okay,” he said. His white-knuckled grip on the wheel seemed to relax. “Never better. Terrific.” Patriotic? she almost suggested, but stopped herself just in time. After another moment he slowed the car to point out a Coronado landmark. It was a store owned by a longtime friend of his. It had been called The Perfect Christmas, though a recent fire had destroyed the old Victorian home that had housed it. Bailey had vowed to rebuild. Bailey was a woman, Hannah surmised, and she was about to pry along those lines—out of friendly curiosity, nothing more—when he pulled up to the restaurant’s valet parking. In minutes they were seated at a table covered with a white cloth beside a window. Droplets of rain streaked down the glass, but beyond it was that fascinating, relentless surf. Hannah couldn’t have chosen a better seat herself, and it became clear as time wore on that Tanner was doing his best to be an exemplary dinner companion as well. During their meal, his conversation was smooth but impersonal, his manner cool yet friendly. She relaxed, feeling safe with the fact that they had nothing more in common than his former boss and one night of hazily recollected passion. Her heartbeat was steady and her hormones stayed quiet— until he said the one thing guaranteed to shake everything inside of her awake. Tanner Hart told her he liked to read. She could only stare as he explained that his years in the Secret Ser vice had meant a lot of time on planes and in hotel rooms. His best solution to the long waits and the jet-lag insomnia was an ever-present paperback. He liked Harlan Coben. “Me too,” she croaked, her gaze drinking in the lean lines of Tanner’s cheeks and the solid strength of his square jaw. She shifted on her chair, sliding closer to the edge of the table. It turned out that Tanner was a big fan of Coben’s sports agent mysteries, while she liked the stand-alone thrillers. They’d both read Lisa Gardner, Tami Hoag, and Dan Brown (though who hadn’t been Da Vinci’d?). He didn’t sneer when she said the bulk of her reading list was contemporary and historical romances. The minute he told her his current to-be-read pile contained the latest Harry Potter, a book about the world’s worst dog, and one by Christopher Moore, the room heated and her pulse started pounding at her wrists. His interest in books wasn’t just talk. This was a man who read.
For an elementary school teacher, one who’d dressed up as Martha Washington, a bunny rabbit, not to mention a bookworm, all to foster her students’ love of reading—well, Tanner’s conversation was as arousing as a French kiss from George Clooney. Better. Because she’d recently uncovered her latent hankering for blond men. She was watching his forefinger trace designs in the condensation on his water glass when he moved on to television. Hannah’s chest loosened a little, even as they discovered a mutual love of Law & Order. Tanner liked the “Criminal Intent” incarnation. Hannah admitted “SVU” too often crossed her squick boundary. They both enjoyed the original best. “And your favorite character?” Hannah asked. “Lenny,” Tanner replied without hesitation. “Who does a New York detective better than Lenny?” Hannah sighed. “When didn’t Jerry Orbach just rock? Not only Law & Order, but—” “‘Nobody puts Baby into a corner,’” Tanner interjected, grinning. “Johnny told that to Jerry when he played Jennifer Grey’s father in Dirty Dancing.” Hannah stared, dumbstruck. Once again her heart started up like a bongo in her chest and she swallowed hard, looking for her disappearing voice. “I didn’t know men admitted to seeing that movie. I think my brothers would put their eyes out with barbecue tools before they’d confess to watching Patrick Swayze do the mashed potato.” Tanner leaned forward, his elbows on the table and his fingers laced. There was a votive candle to his right and its light flickered like gold and amusement in his eyes. “I’m the youngest of four sons. My mom had given up on her girl, so she brownie-bribed me into viewing the whole pantheon of chick flicks with her: Dirty Dancing, His Girl Friday, When Harry Met Sally, to name but a few.” Hannah tried to imagine a young Tanner. She thought she could see him: towhead, skateboard, a pair of jeans and a clean white T-shirt. “Though don’t think my brothers didn’t make me pay for it. According to the male majority of the Hart house, a real movie only stars Rambo, Schwarzenegger, and weapons that shoot, slice, or decimate.” “They were mean to you?” Hannah amended her vision. Now his jeans were ripped and there was a scrape on one gorgeous cheekbone. “Only until I got big enough to be mean back. And anyway, those scabs and bruises made for tough skin.” Something the Hart family was known for. She thought of the ten-month-old tabloid article that Desirée had directed her to. Triggered by the “Big Kiss,” as it had been headlined, the paragraphs had told Tanner’s full family legend. “There was a story about you in that magazine from the DMV,” she said. “Is it true there’s a street in San Diego named after your grandfather?” He stilled, then shrugged. “Sure. He was a WW Two naval hero. His brother was awarded medals in Korea.” “Like your dad and your uncle in Vietnam—” “And my brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq.” There was a half smile on his face, but his eyes had lost their light and cooled to blue ice. “A whole family of heroes except yours truly, of course, the lone black sheep.” While he continued to sit across the tiny table, it was as if he’d left the room. His gaze strayed off
into the distance, unseeing, and one hand fisted on the pristine cloth. Her schoolteacher instincts kicked in, sensing trouble as they did when the boy assigned the desk closest to hers was simmering with emotional turmoil. In the case of her students, its source could be one of several problems: uncaring parents, bad nutrition, a learning deficit yet to be diagnosed or corrected, or a combination of any of the above. For Tanner, the source was her. Bringing up his family had brought up a past he found painful. Her fingers tightened on the stem of her water glass. It was her fault, which meant it was also up to her to find a way to distract him. Of course, here in the restaurant she didn’t have a flannel board or sock puppets or math puzzle cards to whip from her bag of teacher tricks. They’d already covered favorite books, TV, and movies. Without a clear plan in her head, she slid her arm slowly across the table. Leaning forward, she placed her palm over his fist. His gaze shifted from faraway to her fingers. Hannah swallowed. “I’ve just got to ask…” His expression hardened. “I didn’t have the faintest idea Dez was going to kiss me,” he said in a low voice, not looking at her. “And yes, I did know the agent who was killed in my place.” Guilt jabbed Hannah again. She had meant to ask something banal about his meal or his work at the bar or something dull but distracting like that. Oh, why had she brought up his family? And how had that segued into a rehash of the night of the assassination attempt? Of course, no one had been taking his “place.” The article had been quite detailed about the entire event. The agent, Ayesha Spencer, had been new to that particular Secret Ser vice team, but there wasn’t the hint of an accusation that her death had anything to do with Tanner. Except, obviously, in his own mind. Her heart gave a painful squeeze. “That’s not the question I had.” His fist hadn’t relaxed beneath her touch. “Oh yeah? Then what is your question?” “I…I…” She was feeling a bit reckless in her determination to turn his dark mood. But how to do it? “I was wondering about New Year’s Eve,” she suddenly said, surprising herself. “About us.” His gaze flicked up. Now she had his attention. And he no longer looked angry or sad either. Hah. Triumph filled her, making her even more rash. “Tell me, Tanner. Was it…was it really that explosive?” Heat flooded her face, and she hurried to make clear she wasn’t fishing for compliments. “You see, I have to confess. I…I had those mojitos and I can’t quite remember…” He was remembering something, because his eyes were alive again. Hot. Focused on her, and her alone. It occurred to Hannah that maybe, just maybe, he’d been covering his ongoing attraction for her too. “Hannah.” His voice was low, with a hint of a hoarse note. “It was Armageddon, just like I said. Explosive.” Oh, God. Explosive. Why did that single word set fire to the fuse of every one of her tinder-dry nerve endings? Her skin went hot all over and the flames seemed to suck the oxygen from her lungs. Why couldn’t she remember? It wasn’t fair that the memory of sexual explosion had been taken from her along with so much else. She licked her lips, the fire inside of her making her more reckless and rash than before. “Oh, well, um…” His hand relaxed beneath hers and turned. His fingers slid against the inside of her own. Oh, God,
she was suddenly beyond burning. “‘Oh, well,’ what?” He was most definitely in a different mood now. His gaze drifted from her face to her chest, and she followed his glance. Her position against the table had pushed her breasts even higher than already achieved by the wonder garment she was wearing beneath Desirée’s dress. Her skin started to tingle. “I know we said we wouldn’t, um, do that again,” she whispered, not daring to move. “But I’m thinking…” Could she do this? Could she convince her conscience that the suggestion on the tip of her tongue was just for him? “You’re thinking what?” “Since I don’t remember that first, um, explosion, if we did it again, it wouldn’t actually be again, right?” She said the words as fast as she could. “It would still just be the one time, just a little New Year’ s Eve naughtiness.” He stared at her. Any lingering thoughts of her students, school teaching, sock puppets, fled from her mind. Her proposition wasn’t meant to distract him, no kidding herself about that anymore. Looking at his golden-god features and glittering eyes, she knew it was all for her, for Hannah, for the downtrodden part of her that needed to feel like a real, desirable woman again. For the part of her that knew this was the man who could make that happen. His fingers tightened on her hand. His gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth, and it started to tingle too. Her heart pounded harder, reminding her that Tanner Hart was no boy. And that in the war between the sexes, she’d just surrendered all her weapons.
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New year’s: Gym overcrowded with new members who won’t make it through March.
esirée discovered that even sleepy Coronado could suffer from traffic jams. She tried swallowing
her impatience and waited out the delay, drumming the heel of her hand on her steering wheel in time to Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude.” That’s what she needed, she decided, a fresh way of dealing with Troy and the always-on-his-sleeve disapproval. She turned her wrist to check her Tiffany watch and muttered a pithy French curse as she noted the time. Let’s get this show on the road, she mind-ordered the backup of cars in front of her. To night, she couldn’t be late. She couldn’t screw up the job. She refused to give Troy reason to toss her out on her ear. The traffic cleared and she jumped on the accelerator, the back end of her BMW wiggling like perhaps she should do to night in her just-like-lipo jeans. Troy was a man, wasn’t he? Though he might dislike her personally, if she twitched her butt enough times, surely she could make him sweat. It would be a sweet little payback for all the times he’d made her do the same.
But was that smart? she questioned herself, pulling into the parking lot at Hart’s. Frowning, she steered her car to a far space, leaving free the convenient up-front ones for the customers. Then she slid out of the seat, her frown going to a grimace as tight denim adjusted to her new upright position. She’d chosen to wear these pants as part of some half-thought-through Make Troy Crazy plan, but again she had to wonder. It was obvious he already considered her an overprivileged, underscrupled, spoiled sexpot. Maybe she should keep her butt-wiggling to a minimum. Because if she could change the way he thought about her, then maybe, just maybe… She could change the way she thought about him. Which was often. In terms that had started her worrying she’d inherited more from her man-manic mother than long legs and a love of lipstick. Checking her watch again, Desirée hurried to the front door of the bar. Her hand touching the cool metal, she paused, second-guessing once again. Maybe she should forget all about this. She could pack her clothes and her iPod, tuck her laptop under her arm, and be off to…where? Despite the nomadic DNA downloaded on her paternal side, she didn’t really like moving from place to place. And she didn’t have that many places she was free to explore anyway, what with her mother flitting between Chicago and New York, and her father having staked out Europe and the Middle East. In practical terms, that left Desirée with the western half of the United States, which meant she might as well stay here. In Coronado and with her new employment, for the first time since college graduation two and a half years before, at least she had a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Okay, so that reason took her back to Troy again, but she pushed the worry out of her mind and pulled the door open. Music was already blasting from the speakers hung throughout the large space. A heavy-on-electric-guitar, light-on-melody rock screech had a guy behind the bar head-banging the oxygen around him. Troy was at the far end of the room, his back to her as he lifted chairs off the tabletops and positioned them onto the floor without any visible effort. Thanks to her occasional surf-stalking, she could easily imagine the bunch and pull of every muscle underneath his faded T-shirt. He was six-five, and she had no idea how many pounds it required to create such a broad and rippled physique. As usual, she couldn’t tear her gaze away—and she didn’t want to. Instead she let it run over him, warm and liquidy like she was starting to feel inside, moving from his shaved head to his feet and then back up again, absorbing each detail from the heels of his work boots, to his long calves, to his tight butt, to his wide shoulders. Without warning, he turned, catching her, and she gave a little start, ashamed of her stare. But why should she be? It was only nature, she told herself, swallowing hard. Nature’s insidious yet undeniable influence. It was pure biology and not her fault that she’d been wired at the cellular level to feel a physical attraction to a man who looked prepared to protect her and her offspring. As a matter of fact, it was no different from the gimme-gimme desire she felt looking at a particularly scrumptious pair of stilettos. Nature had set up that hankering too. Obviously, if you were ready to slide your feet into a pair of five-inch patent leather high heels, you weren’t worrying about the tribe from down the valley sending out their warriors to rape and pillage you and yours. As she walked toward him, her pulse beating like a wild thing at her throat, she told herself it was exactly the same way she felt walking into the Neiman Marcus shoe department. He had dark gold eyebrows and blue eyes, so she figured he was a blond like his brother, but his
hairstyle—or lack thereof, rather—suited him. Here I am, his shaved head announced. This is what I am. Nothing soft. Hard to the bone. A couple feet away from him, she stopped. “Reporting for duty, sir,” she said, lifting her hand in a crisp salute. He grunted. Desirée’s arm dropped. See, that just went to prove she didn’t have any kind of dangerous attachment to him beyond the biology thing. How could she fall for a man who grunted? All that over-the-top, tough-guy stuff was not for her. Plenty of her boarding schoolmates had harbored sheikh fantasies, but she knew secondhand—as a child her mother had refused to allow her to set foot in her father’s country, and apparently he didn’t care enough about his daughter meeting his family to insist—what a culture clash and soul smother a macho man would be in real life. From the beginning she’d decided she didn’t want some swashbuckling warrior who would die before acknowledging a softer side. So her ideal mate had always been cut from different cloth. A poet, an artist, a teacher. Someone tender and sensitive who could be counted upon to hold her heart in the soft cage of his gentle hands forever. Troy pulled a pair of squishy pieces of neon foam out of his ears and frowned up at the speakers before turning that same expression on Desirée. “What did you say?” Her hand snapped up again. “Reporting for duty, sir.” “Your salute sucks.” He shoved the earplugs in the front pocket of his jeans and then reached over with his callused hand to adjust the cant of her fingers, his touch hard and impersonal. Yet she felt it in some very personal places. She dropped her arm again and rubbed her palm on her thigh, ignoring the fluttering in her belly. Troy’s gaze followed the movement, lingering on her jeans for a moment before trailing upward again. Her knit camisole had ridden high on her belly, but her skin was still covered by her gauzy overblouse. Still, when he stared at the large amber drop that was hanging from a long gold chain and bumping against her belly button, the jewel seemed to heat up, almost burning her skin. Just when she thought she’d have to grab it to put out the fire, he turned away. “Get the rest of the chairs to the floor,” he ground out, then marched off. He left her alone for the first couple of hours as she tried making herself useful, unsure what her exact job description might be. But he must have been keeping a pretty close watch on her, because when this one skinny yucktard in saggy jeans and a beanie caught her bending over and thought it was an invitation for him to slide his hand over her rear cheek and then down along the inside of her thigh—well, she’d never seen a big man move so fast. The skinny yucktard moved pretty quick too. One moment he was standing there grinning like a twelve-year-old, the next he was sailing through the front door like a grown man getting his ass kicked. Desirée fluttered her eyelashes at Troy and clasped her hands together over her heart. “My hero,” she cooed. He shook his head, eyeing her with something that bordered on distaste. “My mistake.” After that incident, Troy took to barking orders at her. “Bus that four-top in the corner.” She figured out that “bus” meant clear and wipe a table. “Four-top” referred to how many people said table could seat. “Tell the bartender to pull another couple of drafts for the pair playing Stripes and Solids.” Two beers on tap for the man and woman at one of the pool tables.
“Check on the state of the alpha whiskey in the women’s head.” Neither the twenty-something dude behind the bar or the two thirtyish cocktail servers wandering the floor could decipher “alpha whiskey,” though they all knew the women’s head was the women’s restroom. Stymied, she decided that rather than giving Troy cause to criticize her by missing the point of the command, she should return to the source. And she found him in the narrow hallway that led to the office. His back to her, he was in a comfortable pose, one shoulder propped against the wall. She thought perhaps he was half napping. “Troy?” He turned, and she saw he wore a warm, lazy smile on his face. Then he shifted and she saw who he’d been smiling at: a little dainty ballerina of a woman, with feathery blond hair and her own kittenish smile. She looked kind of familiar, but that didn’t stop Desirée from wanting to drop a scorpion in the ballerina’s tiny shoe. Both her tiny shoes. The urge shocked her. She was supposed to be cooling this thing she had for Troy. She was not supposed to let it reduce her to these primitive impulses. Still, in the old days in her father’s country, enemies were covered with sweet syrup and staked out near ant hills. Narrowing her eyes, she imagined Dainty Chick drenched in Mrs. Butterworth’s. Troy started forward. “What’s got your ire up, Dez? Is someone bothering you again?” “I could handle it if they were,” she said, still thinking evil ant thoughts. “I didn’t need your help then.” She flicked her gaze toward the other woman. “But I need it now, that is, unless you’re too busy to answer a question.” He frowned. “What is it?” She thought he sounded impatient, so she walked past him to stick out her hand toward Little Miss. Okay, so the other woman made her feel about ten feet tall and as graceful as a giraffe, but she needed to know her name so she’d know who and where to send that candy box filled with tarantulas if she didn’t get over this annoying jealousy. “I’m Desirée. And if I were you I wouldn’t get too chummy with Neanderthal Marine here. I let him into my bed because he looks like a macho stud, but he’s just a big dumb dud.” Dainty Ballerina stared up at her, an—amused?—light in her eyes. “I believe we’ve met once before. I’m Bailey Sullivan,” she said. “And always glad to be kept up-to-date on which men are lacking in, uh, prowess.” Desirée glanced over her shoulder to see how Troy was taking all this, when the woman’s name— and familiarity—finally sank in. “Oh.” Her head whipped back. “Bailey. Finn’s Bailey. We met in the parking lot one night a few weeks ago?” She smiled. “That’s right.” Embarrassment flushed over Desirée’s body. Between her shoulder blades, she could feel Troy’s stare. She supposed he might be a little mad about the dud thing. Damn, what was wrong with her? She backed up so she wouldn’t have to face him. “Nice to meet you again. Sorry to interrupt. I was just needing to know—” Her backside bumped a pair of iron thighs and she froze, still not turning. “ —what alpha whiskey refers to?” Bailey’s eyebrows rose. She shrugged. “Haven’t a clue.” Two massive hands landed on her shoulders. They gave a not quite gentle squeeze. “Toilet paper, princess.”
“Right. Groovy. Okay.” She twisted away from his touch and scurried back down the hall, though she wasn’t moving quick enough to miss this final exchange. Bailey, with laughter in her voice: “I think she likes you, dud.” Though of course she didn’t care, Desirée held her breath so she wouldn’t miss his response. Troy, with no expression whatsoever: grunted. Natch. Her shift was scheduled to end at midnight. Though the bar was open until one A.M., the crowd had thinned considerably by the time both hands of the clock pointed straight up. The cocktail servers had gone home a few minutes before, leaving Troy and the bartender to handle the customers’ orders for the next hour. Her feet hurt, her hair felt gummy with perspiration around the edges, her hands were cramping from gripping the round plastic trays and wiping with the red bar rags. As predicted, her manicure was demolished. Gathering up her purse from the break room, she looked around for the boss. Heaven forbid he get the wrong idea and think that she’d left a minute too early. He wasn’t behind the bar, around the tables, or in the side room that hadn’t been opened that night. She finally found him in the office, behind the desk, his attention focused on a laptop computer placed on top. Loud rock music was drifting in from the bar, so he could be excused for having missed her approach. Desirée leaned against the doorjamb and just looked at him again. Golden grit sanded the edges of his jaw, and his stubby lashes shielded the blue of his eyes. At this time of night he looked harder, tougher, than ever, and for the hundredth time she told herself it was simple biology that made her so susceptible to him. He, on the other hand, would never be susceptible to anyone or anything. “Troy?” she said. When he didn’t answer, she raised her voice. “Troy?” Still absorbed in what ever was on the screen, the man didn’t move one hard, well-developed muscle. Desirée raised her fist. In the bar, someone turned the music up even louder, and she pounded on the door to get his attention. Once. In a blink he fell to the ground behind his desk. She gasped. Had she somehow killed him? Did heart attacks go that fast? Breathless, she leaped into the room to see him poke his head over the desk. He was scowling at her as he rose to his feet and removed his earplugs again. “Christ Almighty. I thought a bomb had gone off in here.” She swallowed. The truth was, she hadn’t banged on the door that hard. “I’m sorry.” She didn’t know what else to say. “I came in to tell you I’m leaving.” The expression on his face responded Good riddance, but then he sighed. “Wait a minute.” He turned to a shelf, took down a jar and handed it across the desk to her. “Your tips.” “My tips?” She stared at the bills curled in the glass. Her job description had remained hazy and she’d never actually served any drinks. “The waitresses share with those who bus the tables and pour the booze. That’s your take.” Desirée dumped the money out into her hand. She fingered the bills, now hardly aware of her ruined manicure, and appreciated the crisp texture of paper money for the first time in her life. Folded in half, they made a thick bundle. Rolled, an even more gratifying wad.
Money. Money that she’d made. Gazing down at it, she decided that short of soaking in a hot bathtub, right now nothing could make her feel better. “You did a good job to night.” Except that. She managed to look up at him and hoped he didn’t see the stars in her eyes. “I’ve never actually earned any money before.” “I doubt you’ll develop a taste for it,” Troy said, coming around from behind his desk. “Let’s go. I ’ll walk you to your car.” She might too develop a taste for it, Desirée thought, glaring at his back, stars extinguished by his rough tone. But as they walked out into the night, she wasn’t so sure he wasn’t right. Exhaustion seemed to swamp her all at once: the accumulation of an evening’s worth of noise, activity, and the ever-present tension she felt around Troy. When they reached her car, she leaned back against it as she fished her keys out of her fist-sized purse. “So what’s that degree of yours in?” he asked. Startled by the sudden question, she bobbled her purse. They both tried to save it from hitting the ground, and ended up gripping it together, their fingers entwined around the soft leather and around each other. Desirée looked up at him. “Art history.” The rain was gone and the sky was scudded with moving clouds, just like the one in the Pirates of the Ca rib be an ride at Disneyland. Moonlight washed over his wide shoulders and limned the strong shape of his skull. Her jittery insides felt like they used to on Disney trips too. As if something wonderful and magical was about to happen. “Meaning you’re educated to do what, exactly?” She couldn’t tear her gaze away from him. It’s Nature, she consoled herself. “Well?” She licked her lips. “I was taught how to recognize beautiful things.” The next words flowed out of her mouth without a second of forethought. “Beautiful things like you.” His eyes widened. Then his hands squeezed hers and yanked her close. His head bent, blocking her view of the moon and the sky. Letting her only see him. And then he was gone as her eyes drifted closed and his mouth found hers. They both grunted, maybe in protest at the instant spark when lips met lips. She gulped air to cool the heat, but instead he filled her with a smooth thrust of his tongue. Her body swayed toward his as he deepened the kiss, and he wrapped one arm around her waist to draw her closer. The buckle of her purse pressed hard against her chest. The fingers of his hand, still entwined with hers, tightened. She was losing circulation. She was losing air. She didn’t care, not with Troy’s mouth on hers, not with his tongue sliding along hers. Her breasts swelled, aching and tight, her tight jeans didn’t press tight enough in the right places. She shuffled closer to him. His grip on her firmed.
A car honked loudly. Troy jolted back. “Hey, get a room!” a voice yelled out of the darkness. Troy half turned, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth. “Assholes,” he muttered. “Yucktards.” She didn’t move. She liked her lips still damp from his. She wanted to keep his kiss right where it was. Forever. “I’ve got to get back inside,” he said. “Get your keys out and get going.” Desirée almost saluted again. She almost cried at the tone of unfeeling command in his voice. Of course she did neither, even as she realized the kiss meant nothing to him. It was probably punishment for that “dud” crack she’d made earlier. In seconds she was inside her car. Another couple and she had it started and was driving away. In her rearview mirror she saw that Troy was watching her go. Probably thanking his lucky stars that she was finally gone. What a difference a few hours could make, she thought. When she’d arrived, she’d been pleased with the sense of purpose her new job had given her. But now…now it was clear she had a whole new task ahead—to make sure Troy didn’t break her heart.
anner knew the world wasn’t fair. There was that damn stupid Desirée kiss. Ayesha’s death. The
past year of twiddling his thumbs instead of doing the job he’d been trained for. Still, he hadn’t foreseen Hannah’s request. His life had turned into a Roadrunner episode, that’s what had happened, and the Acme bird trap that he, as Coyote, arranged on the railroad tracks had just collapsed on his back. Yeah, collapsed on him, leaving him stomach down and staring at the glaring headlight of an oncoming train. But this wasn’t a cartoon, and the headlight of the oncoming train was the warm light in Hannah’s velvety brown eyes. He’d told her the sex between them was explosive as petty payback, and now it was paying him back. He managed to signal for the check without giving her a direct answer. He managed to bundle her into his car and then drive away from the restaurant. He hadn’t yet managed to control the reckless direction of his thoughts. She already thinks you’ve done it with her, so where’s the harm? You haven’t had sex in eleven months and Hannah hasn’t had a man in four years. Pow. Boom. Bang. It really could be explosive. Then she put her hand on his thigh and he stopped thinking altogether. Instead he whipped into a beachside parking lot, turned off the car, and stared out the wet windshield into the black night. It was raining again, the water drumming on the roof like his heart inside his chest.
And Hannah’s hand was two inches above his knee and ten inches from his other inches, which were growing longer and harder by the second. “Look…” He turned toward her. His mouth dried, as it had when she’d first opened the door of the hotel suite. Patriotic, he’d said like an idiot, but it was true. In that flame-red dress she woke up everything inside him like a John Philip Sousa march. His cock had risen like a trumpet toward the sky and his imagination had gone wacko again. This time he’d seen her in his mind’s eye in a flaming hot majorette costume, cut high on her ass to reveal black fishnet stockings and with white tasseled boots on her feet. He’d wanted to push her inside, throw her down on the nearest bed, and introduce her to his ready, randy baton. Jesus. The Secret Ser vice psych team could have a dandy day figuring out just what that all meant, if he shared it with them. If he still was an agent with the Ser vice. Which he wasn’t. The thought should chill him. “Just forget I brought it up,” Hannah was saying now, the hand on his knee patting the muscle that was tight with lust. He wasn’t in the least bit cold. She took her hand back and placed it with the other in her lap, folded together like an honor student hoping for an extra credit mark. Her face was directed toward the window, so he could trace her profile with his gaze and think of all the ways men had screwed her: Fiancé leaving her alone with a ring on her finger for three years, then marrying someone else behind her back. Tanner lying about their mutual explosion. Then there were all the ways men hadn’t screwed her: That fiancé. Tanner when she’d asked so nicely. “Hannah,” he said softly. For the first time he realized her voice was like an exhalation. Just her name, Hannah, like that breathless moment of anticipation before a man saw a woman’s naked breasts or touched a woman’s wet, naked sex. He made up his mind. “Hannah.” She continued staring out the window. “Yes?” There was a wealth of information in that syllable. Her throat was tight. Her nerves were shot. She was braced for rejection, or, more likely, already thought he’d given her his answer. “Hannah, this time when I touch you, you’re never going to be able to forget it.” Her head whipped toward him. And one look at her tender mouth, parted in surprise, and he couldn’t figure out how he’d lasted this long without tasting it. They’d find a bed later. But now, now there was only this. He slid from under the steering wheel and down the leather bench seat until he could pull her into his arms and onto his lap. Her sweet little ass nestled onto his thighs and her hip pressed against his aching cock. The position yanked high the hem of that cinnamon-candy dress, and at the top of her endless legs he could see the tabs of a garter belt. His heart slammed to a stop, colliding against his chest wall. One of his forefingers—Christ, was it trembling?—traced the stretch of matching crimson tape. Hannah jerked at his touch, her little gasp of desire reminding him of how it had been between them on New Year’s Eve.
Instantaneous. Undeniable. She’d been so turned on, she trembled as he took off her shoes. “I like garter belts,” he murmured against her ear, fingering the little piece again. She ducked her head, a bit shy, he supposed, yet jerked again as he dipped his finger under the strap to stroke her bare thigh with his fingertip. “I—I’ve never worn one before.” “Never?” He traced the top of the stocking, and licked the delicate rim of her curved ear at the same time. Now he felt that telltale quiver in her body and he smiled against her cheek. He ran his mouth toward her lips and felt her little sigh. He lifted his head. “Okay?” “I only wished I remembered,” she said, a seductive little pout in her voice. “It isn’t fair.” But it was getting fairer by the second, Tanner thought, because Hannah felt so right in his arms. He grasped her chin and turned her face to meet his kiss. So right. Her lips opened beneath the pressure of his. He slid his tongue inside, just brushing the tip of hers with the tip of his in the smallest greeting. She pressed closer, but he retreated, even though she made an impatient noise in the back of her throat. He soothed her by first kissing one corner of her mouth and then the other. When he lifted his head again, she chased his mouth and he let her do what she wanted. It was like that kiss at the bar on New Year’s Eve—desperate. Stroking his hand over her bare shoulder, he pulled away from her again. “I’ll give you what you need, sweetheart, don’t worry.” Her hands tangled in his hair and brought his mouth back down. “It’s just so good to have someone want me,” she said against his lips. Oh, Hannah. “Your ex,” he muttered, anger and sympathy mixing inside him. “I could kill—” “Shh.” She pressed her fingers to his mouth to stop his threat. “Don’t say that.” “But—” “Think about me.” She snuggled closer, her hip pressing tighter against the base of his erection. He groaned. “You said explosive. That’s what I want. I want that again. I want that now.” No, no. He needed to warm her up, start slow, get her worked up— But then she thrust her tongue in his mouth and he remembered this was Hannah, his New Year’s Eve surprise of a prize, who had been so ready for him her pan ties had been wet before he’d done so much as look at her breasts. Which made him remember. He’d never looked at her bare breasts. He had to see her breasts. Sliding his tongue along hers, he ran his palm around the back of her dress, searching for a
fastening. Please God, make this not one of those wiggle-in garments. He knew he wasn’t capable of letting go of her for that long. When he deepened the kiss, she wrapped her arms around his neck and— bingo!—he found the side zipper. Her mouth was wet as he lifted his away again. They were both breathing hard and her eyes were as dark and intimate as the rainy night. Fingering the zipper tab, he heard her suck in a breath. “You should know this about me, Hannah.” Sound grated as he took the zipper down, one tooth at a time. “I’m a breast man.” The dress had enough form to it that once he’d unzipped her to the waist, it stayed up on its own. But he liked that, because it made the anticipation greater, made it coil at the base of his spine and send arrows of heat up his back as he hooked a finger at the point of cleavage and drew down the garment so it pooled at her hips. Revealing—oh God. Flames streaked up his back. He brushed Hannah’s long hair off her shoulders so he could take in the beautiful sight of her breasts, encased in strapless, low-cut, peekaboo red lace that wasn’t a bra, it went lower than that, it went—who could tell? “It’s a Merry Widow,” Hannah said, glancing down at the place where her breasts were served up like two delectable scoops of ice cream. “Desirée has some pretty amazing underwear.” He didn’t want to think about Dez. “The pretty amazing part is all you.” He let his fingertips trace the tops of the cups and felt her shiver. Leaning down, he kissed the top of one plump form and then the other. “I want to get you out of this too.” He looked up, catching the flare of her nostrils and the way her lips were parted again. It wasn’t mere hot talk that turned her on, he realized, though that wouldn’t have surprised him in a teacher. A teacher would like words. It was the particular words he used that unlocked her desire. I want, he’d said to her, and those were magic. The key that released her inhibitions. Oh, yeah. He rubbed his thumb over first one lace-covered peak and then the other, his gaze on her face. “I want to take your nipples in my mouth and I want to hear the sounds you make when I suck on them.” From the back of her throat came a half moan, half squeak. He smiled at the sound, loving it. “How do we get this thing off you?” She swallowed. “It’s kind of…kind of complicated.” But he was already pushing the dress down farther, and she lifted up so he could slide it over her hips. The red fabric pooled on the Mercedes’s carpet, leaving Hannah— Tanner choked. The Merry Widow was merry as hell, all right. Not only did it prop up her breasts, but it curved along her torso and over her hips where it served as garter belt too. A matching scrap of red lace pan ties were worn over the garter tapes. She was wrapped in red. On fire. Devilish fire that he wanted to take into his mouth without cautious thought to safety or the burn. Giving up on getting her out of the corset—hell, hoping she never wore anything other than that corset ever again—he took the expedient route by reaching his hand in one bra cup to enclose smooth, heated flesh. Pushing down the lace, he drew out Hannah’s breast. Hannah’s perfect breast, full and round. He glanced up at her face, then back. Her nipple was tight with desire and was as berry-red as her swollen lips.
As he moved toward it, her fingers speared through his hair. Her back bowed as his wet mouth closed over her. His eyes closed. With one hand gently kneading the plump curve, Tanner curled his tongue around her hard nipple, then sucked. She swallowed a sound and he sucked harder. He wanted her wild with sensation. Four years, he remembered. He wanted her beyond wild. His nose was pressed into her fragrant flesh and he drew in her scent, that rose-and-aroused perfume that he’d noticed the first time she sat on his lap. His All-American Rose. But he wasn’t thinking of flowers when he lifted her other breast free of the corset. Now he was only thinking of how he was going to hang on so he could wring out every drop of Hannah’s plea sure. She wiggled on his lap and he sucked her second breast harder and brought his palm over the triangle of lace that covered her mound. He opened his mouth wider over her nipple, taking in more of her hot flesh, and then he sucked again, pressing the heel of his hand against her mons in the same rhythm. She was trembling, saying his name, a litany of girl-lust, and he was digging it, God so digging it, that he almost missed what happened next. Her hips rose toward his insistent hand and her back arched to his mouth. Her body gave three little tremors, then one hard jolt. Hannah’s personal little earthquake. He couldn’t believe it. He lifted his head. She was blinking, and another little tremor took her as he watched. His hands shaking, he lifted one to brush her hair away from her face. “Did you just come?” Her head bobbed in a tiny nod. “Oh, yeah,” he murmured, glancing up toward God. “Life is getting fairer by the minute.” His hand had just been near her switch. He hadn’t even touched her there and she’d still gone off like one of Troy’ s Marine incendiary devices. Watching her face closely, Tanner drew one palm down her throat, over her damp breasts, and then down the center of her belly until he could slide his fingers under those red-hot pan ties. “Open your legs, sweetheart,” he said. “I want to touch your sweet heat.” Her head fell back against his shoulder as her legs splayed wider. Then he found her, and it was sweet, and so freakin’ hot that he almost singed his hand. And wet. So wet. He pushed two fingers into her tight channel, then drew them up, to catch her clit between his knuckles. He gave it a friendly squeeze, then went back inside her again. Back out. Another squeeze. With a cry, she came again. Tanner froze. God. Oh, God. Locker rooms didn’t cover this. Playboy or Pent house neither— not in any believable manner anyway. Did she have four years of orgasm stored up inside that sweet body just screaming to get out, or was she merely the most responsive woman he’d ever played with in the front seat of a car? Car. Shit. They were parked in a car in a public lot. “Sweetheart. Hannah.” He brushed her hair back again and kissed her slack mouth. She was awake, but looked as shell shocked as he felt. He kissed her again, and groaned as he felt her return to life. Her tongue licked his bottom lip and then bit there. She was getting aroused again already, but he for damn sure didn’t want to do the deed here. The
first time with a man inside her in four years shouldn’t be in a public place in a car that had been someone ’s grandmother’s before he’d bought it and its ridiculously low mileage after leaving the Secret Ser vice. “We’re going to leave now, sweetheart. We’re going to go to my place.” Somehow he managed to scoop up her dress and get her zipped back into it, even as she found places on him to kiss. His chin. The side of his neck. His shoulder, which he felt even through the thick sweater. Then he buckled her into her seat, thankful for the wide space between them because he was hard and hurting and so damn horny that he might just pull over and pull her over on top of him. It took him too long to get to his place. Oh, God, really too long. “Hell!” he said, slamming the side of his fist on the steering wheel as he came to a stop in the middle of the street in front of his house. He glanced over at Hannah. “One of my brothers is crashing here. That’s Terry’s truck in my driveway, which means his girlfriend has been throwing house hold goods at him again.” She bit her swollen bottom lip, all big eyes. “I…I don’t know about bringing you to Desirée’s suite. She’s been so generous, but…” “I’m with you there. That hotel is not an option.” A dozen possibilities rushed through his yet unsatisfied brain—from finding a motel room to flipping her into the Mercedes back seat—but none of them sounded right. None right enough for Hannah’s first time in four years. For their first time together. With a sigh, he turned the car around and headed toward the Del. “Where are we going?” “I’m leaving you off at your hotel,” he said. “Tanner…” There was uncertainty in her voice and he hated hearing it. He grabbed her hand and pulled it to his crotch, fixing her palm over his rock-hard erection. “Don ’t you dare think I don’t want you.” Her palm moved in a soft caress. “But then—” He pressed his ass into the leather instead of thrusting into that sweet touch. He was a saint. A saint! “I have my New Year’s Eve memory to sustain me, sweetheart,” he lied. “Until a time when we can be together alone.” Hadn’t he said it from the beginning? The world just wasn’t freakin’ fair.
annah shared a late breakfast set up by room service on the balcony of Desirée’s suite. Even a
woman from California’s farmlands was awed by the bounty: creamsicle-colored pieces of succulent cantaloupe, chunks of watermelon as juicy as a kiss, strawberries as red as a woman’s love-swollen mouth. Her mouth. The fruit looked like Hannah felt: succulent, juicy, swollen by a man’s kiss, a man’s touch.
“I guess we both needed our sleep, huh?” Desirée asked, lifting her cup of coffee to her mouth. “I guess.” Though the truth was, Hannah had woken at her normal time—early—between the warm sheets, her toes seeking cool corners, her hands grabbing the headboard so she could stretch out the body that had come alive the night before. After four years she was awake. So she couldn’t be ashamed of what she’d experienced with Tanner in his car the night before. Shame was the way she’d felt for months in her hometown, as the whispers and the pitying looks followed her from school, to grocery store, to gym. To her own mirror. What had she done wrong? How had she not been enough? And then later, as she was forced to reexamine her life: How could she have allowed herself to follow choices everyone else made for her? She’d bowed to the pressure of her loving family, going along with decisions that made them feel happy and safe. With decisions they thought made her safe. But just as she couldn’t be angry with Duncan, she couldn’t be angry with them. “So your date was successful?” Desirée asked. Hannah stuck to the party line, though she was a lousy actress. “I told you it wasn’t a real date.” Desirée smiled, the kind of smile that women who hadn’t sat around for years waiting for a fiancé could smile. “It was a real red dress.” “I had fun.” There was an understatement. She’d been slayed with plea sure, bowled over by sticky, yummy desire and then extravagant release. Hungover with the memories, she’d spent hours since awakening reliving every one. “Tanner’s a nice guy.” Desirée speared a section of pink, peeled grapefruit. Hannah’s gaze fixed on the plump, glistening slice. It looked wet and wicked, luscious and ripe. A shiver rippled over her skin. Was everything going to remind her of sex for the rest of her life? “Tanner’s a very nice guy.” That was the bittersweet aftertaste to the delicious evening. While she’d been thrilled to prove to herself she wasn’t a dried-up prune of an old maid schoolteacher, her schoolteacher sensibilities had still scolded her. She taught the students in her class to treat others as they would like to be treated. She’d treated Tanner with nothing. She owed him. Desirée leaned across the table to fill Hannah’s cup from the carafe of piping hot coffee she’d ordered. Hannah owed her, too. “I’m going to move out,” she said. “Tomorrow at the latest.” Desirée stilled, then carefully set the carafe back on the white tablecloth. She turned her head to look out at the incomparable view. Wide stretch of sand, blue-gray ocean, blue sky. The rain was definitely gone. “Do you need to go?” the other woman asked, her face still turned toward the surf. “I’ve imposed—” “No.” Desirée looked at her now. “I’ve enjoyed the company. Do you have sisters?” Hannah shook her head. Her sister had been gone a long time. “Two older brothers.” “I don’t have anyone.” Desirée made a face. “That sounds pitiful.”
“No.” “You’re kind.” Desirée gave a little shrug. “It’s just that this is nice. Eating breakfast together. Choosing clothes for a date. Talking things over.” Hannah’s schoolteacher instincts were screaming at her again. “What do you want to talk over, Dezi?” The other woman’s gaze drifted off toward the surf again. “Maybe this is better than having a sister, now that I think about it. There could be competition with a same-sex sibling, right? You’d wonder which one was loved the most?” You’d wonder if anyone ever loved you, for you. Hannah jerked her mind away from the thought. “What do you want to talk over?” “Last night I made money for the first time in my whole life.” Hannah wondered what that would be like. Weird, she figured, looking around at the banquet of food on the table and the banquet for the senses that was the view from the balcony, just two of the things that were Desirée’s accustomed lot. “It was the second best thing that ever happened to me,” the other woman whispered. “And the first?” Desirée ignored the question to ask another. “Should I back off or go forward?” It was obvious there was more to the story. Hannah didn’t dig for it, though. How could she? Her ability to offer advice on such a subject was absolutely nil. She was twenty-seven years old and had only “gone forward” once in her life—with this trip to Coronado. And even now she was already late if she thought to confront Caroline today in the park. “Oh, never mind,” Desirée said. “Let’s forget all that. How about a spa day?” “Spa day?” “Mmm.” Desirée picked a strawberry from the bowl and held it out by its green stem. With its plump size and ruby red perfection, it looked more like Eden’s apple. “You know. We’ll get massages. Have them slather something gooey and sweet-smelling all over our skin so it glows.” Hannah figured she was already glowing. The look of the strawberry, the sound of the words— slathering, sweet, gooey—sent her mind reeling back to the night before. Tanner’s mouth, his touch, had burned away that cool blue starch from her veins, and all that was running inside of her now was hot and vital and alive. “What’s Tanner doing today?” She had to clear her throat. “He’s working with Troy in the bar all day, he said. Inventory?” Desirée smiled, then dropped the luscious fruit to her plate in order to rub her palms together. “Then come with me, my pretty, and we’ll have the masseuse melt the very marrow in your bones.” As long as they wouldn’t remove her spine, Hannah thought. If she gave in to Desirée and her yearning not to do anything today but dream about last night, she’d be needing it to face down Caroline tomorrow.
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New year’s: Brother already reminiscing about his frat’s infamous “Burp or Barf” Super Bowl party.
esirée arrived for her shift at Hart’s smelling of lemongrass and tea tree oil. Unlike the night
before, Troy strode toward her as she opened the door, as if he’d been anticipating her arrival. Instead of feeling weird or annoyed or standoffish after the kiss as she’d feared he would, seeing him hurrying in her direction told her maybe, just maybe, she’d been wrong. Maybe he’d liked the lip-to-lip too. Maybe he liked her. She smiled as he came closer, trying to look as if she’d just thrown on the tight white T-shirt, teensy burnt-orange denim skirt, and a pair of wildly embroidered stilettos. The bar was already pumping, it was a special microbrewery night, and the scent of chili and fries wafted from the small kitchen. At the moment, the music was twangy and country and, as usual, loud. Troy stopped in front of her and she rose on tiptoe to check out his ears. Yep. There were those telltale neon plugs. Her grin made him frown. “What?” “I can’t explain it exactly,” she said. “I guess you seem less Terminator and more human to me knowing you have a weakness such as disliking loud music.” “I don’t have any weaknesses,” he refuted, crossing his arms over his chest. Desirée rolled her eyes. “Oh, please—” “And I also don’t have time to argue with you about it.” He shoved one hand in the front pocket of his jeans and withdrew a set of keys. “I need you to go pick something up at my house.” “Oh?” Plea sure swirled inside of her. Not only might he like her, but he trusted her. You didn’t give just anybody access to your home. He looked around the packed floor, gesturing toward Tanner behind the bar and the cocktail servers moving between the tables. “Yeah. Everyone else is too busy.” The plea sure swirled right down the drain. “Right.” She wasn’t so much trustworthy as she was expendable. Grabbing the keys out of his hand, she matched her tone to his businesslike one. “What am I retrieving?” “A clipboard with my order sheets. I can’t remember exactly where I left it, though. Maybe on the chest of drawers in the bedroom. Maybe on the table in the living room.” Groovy. Permission to snoop. “I’ll find it.” She spun on the sharp toes of her high heels, then felt a long finger slide inside one of the back pockets of her skirt. It jerked her back. His knees bumped the back of her thighs and she could feel his solid chest against her shoulder blades. “About last night…” he said, his voice low. His breath brushed across her left ear and she could have sworn goose bumps raced inside, tickling the sensitive skin. Her heart expanded in a big whoosh, squeezing out the air in her lungs. “About last night?” Her voice sounded a tiny bit squeaky, but who could blame her? “About last night” made her think about last night. About Troy’s possessive arm around her. About the way his mouth had landed on hers, hard, and then the strong thrust of his tongue. Hard and strong, that was the entire kiss. That was Troy himself. He cleared his throat. “Listen, Desirée. I don’t want you to think…”
At his second hesitation, she glanced up and over her shoulder. His face was hard too, intently expressionless, if that made any sense. It did to her. It was sending a message, and okay, she got it. This was more than hard and strong. This was Troy as the Terminator again, pure robot, and not a man who wanted her rehashing their kiss. It didn’t mean a thing to him. Yeah, she got it. Loud and clear. “Are you trying to say you don’t want me to think I’ll miss out on any tips while I’m gone?” She tossed her hair over her shoulder and hoped the ends slapped him right across his cold but handsome face. “Just remember to stuff what you owe me into my jar.” “Oh, you’re going to get what I owe you all right.” Now that sounded more promising. As she broke away from his finger hold and moved toward the door, she threw him another glance. Same expressionless expression. Geez. What did a woman have to do around here to feel the love? “And Dez,” he growled—yes, growled, there was no other way to describe it. “Don’t take all day.” She put a sassy swing in her walk and an Austrian accent in her voice. “I’ll be back.” Her usual style of driving got her to his place in minutes. She noted he hadn’t bothered giving her the address or directions. Her stomach twisted. Had he caught her cruising his place before, driving by like a teenager crushing on a boy? Troy lived in a small, beachy-looking bungalow, similar to the one that Tanner owned a few blocks away. Next door there was a yellow, top-heavy two-story resembling a dumb blonde with a double D-cup boob job. The house on the other side made Desirée pause. She hadn’t noticed it the times she’d driven this street, probably because she did her looky-looing in the wee dark hours of the night. Now Troy’s neighbor’s place was well-lit, from the lamp post at the sidewalk, to the front porch fixtures, to the mullioned windows. That home was two stories as well, but looked as if it had started life out that way. It was painted a pale blue with white trim, with a tub of flowers on the brick porch and a flag flying from a brass pole, and the whole picture was so welcoming that she wanted to step inside the Dutch front door and take a place at their dining room table. Mom and Dad would be seated there, she imagined, with the kids crowded around. There’d be roast for dinner—or roast chicken, heck, this place looked as if it was Thanksgiving every day, so maybe even roast turkey. Of course there’d be all the trimmings. The important ones. Laughter. Love. There wouldn’t be a corner left free for loneliness. For the rest of your life you’d be able to count on the support and care of the ones who lived inside. Smiling at her fancies, Desirée parked in front of the pretty place, then walked past to go up the walkway of Troy’s house. She quickly let herself inside. Her first inhalation of Troy air was slow. She figured her customary disregard of the posted speed limits had bought her some extra time, even though she was under orders not to linger. Troy’s house smelled…good.
She didn’t know what she’d expected. Sweat socks? Motor oil? Moldy beach towels? It was like none of those. His house smelled like…like sage or rosemary or basil or something. She didn’t cook, so she couldn’t quite pinpoint which herb or herbs she was sniffing, but it was a clean, green scent. The house was clean and green too. Pale celery-colored walls, a darker green trim, natural fiber carpet covering bare wood floors. Plain, Shaker-style furniture. Wow. Given the chance, she would have predicted shag carpeting and a Bow-Flex serving as both sculpture and clothes hanger. Instead the living room was in those quiet colors, and making it even more quiet, there was no tele vision or stereo in sight. The adjoining small dining area held a simple table. A framed scroll covered with Chinese characters hung on the wall. A nearby switch plate allowed her to light up more of the house. It illuminated the overhead fixture in the dining room and pointed the way to the kitchen. Desirée made it there in seven steps, and again noticed how clean it looked and smelled. White tile sans pizza boxes and crushed beer cans. Across the kitchen there was another doorway, leading out past the refrigerator to a short hallway. From there a quick left revealed a bathroom that appeared unused. To the right, an office with phone, computer, fax. In the free floor space stretched a black yoga mat. Hmm. She kept going, and located a nice-size master bedroom suite. Big bed. Troy’s bed. It was covered by a pristine comforter that was crisply spread like icing over a king-size petit four. Enlarged photographs were framed and hung in an interesting pattern on the wall. Most of them appeared to be of family—black-and-whites of kids living the surreal life—well, surreal to her eyes, since there was always an adult participating in the shot. Mother leaning over to help blow out birthday candles. Dad’s arm curled around a little boy’s waist as he sat on a pony. The scattered results of a messy sled overturn, with a passel of kids laughing as hard as the parents pictured in the shot. Surreal. There were families who really had a life like that? The darkened door of the attached bath beckoned. Bad, Desirée, bad! She didn’t listen to the half-scolding voice, though she did accommodate her guilty conscience by tiptoeing into the room, her feet clicking with subdued taps on the tiled floor. Troy’s soapy spice-and-lime scent lingered in this room. Neatly hung on a rack was a towel, still damp, and she ran her fingertips over it, then drew them along her cheek. Inside the shower was a squat bottle of liquid soap. No shampoo. Hah. Shaved heads didn’t need such a thing. There was toilet paper in the holder. She was impressed. A roommate she’d had in college claimed that men never bothered replacing a used roll. “They just prop it on the spool, or maybe set it on the ledge of the bathtub, or on the tank behind the toilet. What—are they animals?” Surprise, surprise, the Terminator was at least semitamed. Without a qualm, she opened the medicine cabinet. Regular first aid stuff. Boring. The cabinet under the sink had lots of shaving cream—made sense—and a big box of condoms.
Desirée stared at them. Where did he buy such a big box? Why did he need such a big box? It was open. Before she could stop herself, she’d yanked it out and set it on the tile counter. At purchase, it held forty-four. It would be her secret until the day she died, but she counted how many remained. Twice. Six were missing. She began picturing humiliating moments for half a dozen faceless women. Stuff like wearing two different colored shoes, a skirt tucked into panty hose, a toilet paper streamer stuck to a heel. She was still trying to come up with three more scenarios when she heard a noise. From the front of the house. Someone turning the doorknob. Desirée froze. Had she locked it behind her? Who could it be? Probably Troy, she thought, come to check up on her. As silent as a ghost, she placed the condoms back in the cabinet and shut the door. Now he wouldn’t know what she’d done. But he’d known she’d come to his house, so why hadn’t he called out her name? Prickles of warning shot up her spine. In a flash of alarm, she remembered the call she’d received from her father’s assistant, Ameer, just a week before. The royal family had heard a rumor implying that the assassination attempt on her father hadn’t been the act of one random crazy, disgruntled at some imagined maltreatment. The gunman killed by the Secret Ser vice almost a year ago had perhaps been part of an organized group, one with the possible intent of revenge that went beyond the prince. If she had any security concerns, Ameer had said, she should contact the local authorities. Imply. Perhaps. Possible. Desirée had dismissed the idea altogether. Her father and the rest of the royal family never bothered to pay attention to her. Why would anyone else? But now…now… The front door squealed as it opened wider. Two sets of footsteps marched in. They weren’t stealthy steps, so maybe she shouldn’t be afraid. Or maybe the intruders weren’t afraid of her—a lone woman without anyone to give a hoot what happened to her. Still, she couldn’t stay trapped in the bathroom like flaked tuna in a can. Hoping no one could detect the knocking sound of her heart in her chest, she bent to slip off her shoes. Carrying them in one hand—the ice-pick heels might come in handy as a weapon—she slinked out of the bathroom and into Troy’s bedroom. Wouldn’t you know, he didn’t have a phone beside his bed like a normal person. Okay, her cell phone. Where was her cell phone? In her purse, which she’d left in her car because this was just a quick errand that she’d made longer due to snoopiness. She drew closer to the bedroom door, straining to hear what was going on at the front of the house. The intruders were talking to each other. They weren’t trying to quiet their voices. They were a man and a woman, and they were talking about… The merits of tricycles over bicycles with training wheels? Desirée’s heart settled into a more normal rhythm. She almost thought it was safe to breathe. Unwilling to completely abandon her wariness, however, she crept down the hallway, pressing close to
the wall so her shoulder brushed more framed photos. Just a couple more feet and— A man’s meaty hand appeared through the kitchen doorway to grab her arm. She shrieked, jerking away to smack against one of the frames. It fell to the floor, the glass shattering. “Hank!” A woman gasped from around the corner. “What is it?” The big hand on her let go, and she knocked against the wall again, this time her sleeve catching on the protruding picture hanger. When she straightened, the sleeve pulled, ripping at the seam. Desirée looked at the long tear, then looked up, her gaze catching the surprised ones of two strangers. Strangers, except she had a stomach-shrinking idea she knew exactly who they were. Sometimes she hated being right. The man and woman who had slipped into Troy’s house were none other than his mother and father. They apologized for frightening her when she produced his keys and explained that, as one of Troy’s employees, she had been sent to his house on an errand. “I’m Ann, and this is Hank, Troy’s father,” the pretty, fifty-something woman said. Her hair was a wavy mix of gray and blond and her tan told of year-round outdoor activities. Golf, Desirée guessed, or maybe tennis. “I hope I didn’t hurt you,” Hank said, shaking his head. He was a big, burly man with a silver brush cut and a commanding voice. “I never expected to find a woman at Troy’s.” “Oh?” So then where had he used those six condoms, pray tell? His mother was back to unloading the bags of groceries sitting on the kitchen countertop they’d been in the process of delivering when they startled Desirée. “Now, Hank, don’t be giving the wrong idea to…” She paused and threw an innocent glance over her shoulder. “What did you say your name was?” Desirée grimaced. There was no getting out of this one. “I’m guessing you already know who I am, Mrs. Hart. Your son Tanner and I have shared a lot of screen and print space over the last year.” Her bare toes curled into the cool tile beneath her feet. “You…you and Mr. Hart have my profound apology for the publicity and all the trouble it’s caused you and your family.” Desirée braced, prepared for the well-deserved blast. Ann Hart turned around, a carton of eggs in her hand. “Oh, Desirée.” Her voice and eyes were soft. “I’ll accept, of course, but Hank and I also accept that what happened to the two of you wasn’t your fault.” “That’s nice of you to say, but—” “Tanner doesn’t blame you either, not really.” Ann opened the refrigerator and slid the carton inside. “Troy does,” Desirée said. Hank pulled a plastic package from another bag. “What does he know?” he boomed out. “The boy eats tofu. What’s wrong with steak, I want to know? Or a nice bucket of the Colonel’s Extra Crispy? Hell’s bells, ladies, what’s wrong with the other white meat?” Shaking her head, Ann took the package from her husband and then turned back to the refrigerator. “Hank, I don’t think we should be talking about—” “You’re the one who told me not to be ashamed of the way he eats! So I don’t think it’s unmanly
anymore. I tell myself he’s going to live to be a hundred or at least long enough to take care of my aging, meat-fed carcass when you up and leave me for one of those pretty-boy tennis instructors you’re always eyeing.” Ann sent a conspiratorial look in Desirée’s direction. “Don’t believe a word he says,” she stage-whispered. “It’s the studly golf pros I’m really after.” Desirée grinned, watching as they put groceries away, teasing and play-grousing the entire time. The couple had something real here, she could see that. It was in the way they managed to move around each other without colliding in the small room, even though the limited space made Hank Hart look like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It was in the pat of a wide palm against his wife’s hip as he opened a narrow pantry door and in the way she handed over a piece of paper towel before he could even ask after he washed his hands. It was a love as palpable as…as the animosity she could feel radiating off Troy despite their one, incendiary kiss. Speaking of Troy… Desirée started, remembering she’d been sent here to do a job. “I really should be getting back to the bar.” Ann Hart threw the paper towel she’d been using to dry her own hands in the garbage can beneath the sink. “A clipboard, you said? I think I saw it—” She broke off, her gaze snagging on Desirée ’s arm. “You ripped your pretty top.” She glanced down at the tear. “It’s no big deal. I don’t think the Hart’s customers will even notice.” “Still, I can repair that for you.” “Oh, no—” But Ann had already made up her mind. “Go put a T-shirt of Troy’s on and bring the blouse back to me. Hank, find Troy’s house wife.” House wife? Surely not… It was only after Desirée returned to the kitchen, wearing a USMC T-shirt that hung to her knees, that she discovered house wife meant “sewing kit.” “I didn’t think he’d been married,” Desirée said. Ann laughed. “My dad was in the Marines too. It’s what we always called it around our house.” “Troy married? Hah!” was Hank’s blustering response. He opened the refrigerator as his wife went to work on Desirée’s clothing. “What do you see in here but vegetarian stuff that looks moldy even when it’s fresh? Who would sign on with a man who makes pancakes out of barley instead of drinking it in a beer like any other self-respecting leatherneck? And do you know he practices that weird hoda stuff too?” Desirée looked at Ann for interpretation. “Yoga,” she said, wearing a pained expression. “He knows it’s hatha yoga.” Hank shut the refrigerator with a flourish. “Hoda, yoda, yoga. What ever. I’m telling you, I worry about him.” Desirée tried to hide her smile, even though it amused her to no end. Not just Mr. Hart’s reaction to his son’s health-conscious activities, but the idea that granite-faced, macho-man Troy was also a practitioner of holistic arts. “Say…” Hank Hart narrowed his eyes, looking at her more closely. Desirée’s eyebrows rose. “Say…what?”
“You should get him to invite you over for dinner.” “Dinner here?” She liked tofu okay, she supposed. And being alone with Troy— “To our house,” Mr. Hart explained. “We live right next door.” “Oh.” She glanced over at Troy’s mother and knew, just knew, that Ann Hart was the one at the imaginary dining room table Desirée had set at that pretty blue-and-white house. “The one with the flag and the tire swing out front?” Ann smiled, as if she read in the question all Desirée’s admiration and all her yearning. “That’s right. We have a vacation house in the desert too, but we spend a lot of time here and there’s always room for another guest at the table. Though they’re all grown up, one of my four boys and a friend or two often show up for dinner.” “Except Troy,” Hank grumbled, dragging a pottery canister toward him to inspect its contents. “Why do you think we had to bring the groceries over? Ann’s convinced something’s bothering him. She ’s sure he isn’t eating enough.” “And I was right, wasn’t I?” His wife neatly clipped the ends of the thread with a tiny pair of scissors. “The cupboard was nearly bare.” As she handed Desirée the repaired garment, she smiled again. “You’re welcome to come over any time, you know. As a matter of fact, I almost invited you to Christmas dinner—” The rest of her remark was lost in a crash and another loud “Hell’s bells.” Hank Hart had finally succumbed to the curse of a large man in a small room and knocked the canister to the floor, spewing a cloud of flour over himself and the tile in the process. As Ann Hart rushed to help clear the mess, Hank propped his hands on his hips and glared down at his now dusty-looking pants in mild disgust. “What do you want to bet this is some Buddha-blessed whole wheat stuff?” Desirée had to grin. And then she realized again that she had to get back to the bar. Troy’s parents excused her from clean up, she changed back into her own shirt, located the errant clipboard, then drove double-time back to Hart’s. She was still smiling over her encounter with Troy’s parents when she strode through the door of the bar. The place was still busy, but her boss immediately looked up as she came inside. The glower he gave her couldn’t smother her chipper mood. No way. Hoda. Yoda. Yoga. She snickered right in Troy’s face as he stomped up to confront her. “What are you laughing about?” he demanded. In her imagination he executed the move downward facing dog while balancing a bucket of KFC on his butt. She snickered a second time. Troy Hart was never going to intimidate her again. He really wasn’t so tough. “I ran into your parents at your house,” she said. “So I heard.” He narrowed his gaze at her. “I called over there when you didn’t pick up your cell.” “Sorry, left it in the car.” She handed over the clipboard and still couldn’t keep the wattage down on her grin. It gave her the confidence to take a step closer, then spider-walk her fingers up the center of his solid chest. “I have to tell you, I really like your folks.” He frowned. “Were you rubbing up against my dad like you do me? He’s pretty easy that way.”
“Hah.” She flicked the center of his solar plexus, and he winced. “Your mother likes me too.” And maybe you like me, Troy. Maybe you’re not as invulnerable to me as you try to make it appear. She let her fingertips rest over his heartbeat a moment and could feel its steady rhythm echoing through to her bones. She looked up into his inscrutable eyes, but this time she didn’t let them frighten her away. If there was a place for her at that dining room table in that pretty house, maybe there was a place for her in his life too. “As a matter of fact, Troy,” she said, “your mother told me she’d meant to invite me to Christmas dinner.” An expression flitted across his face, changing for an instant that flat stare of his eyes. It was as if an ice cube had run down her spine. Her hand dropped, she took a step back. She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. Of course she had to ask. “Why didn’t she invite me for Christmas?” His expression said it all. He was as immovable as Mount Rushmore. A man too mean, too hard, too cold to be vulnerable to her. Too tough-guy, despite the tofu, to ever feel something soft or ever to be as weak as one could be made by love. God, she should know how weak that was. Desirée raised her voice, because she wanted to hear him say it out loud. “Why didn’t your mother invite me to Christmas, Troy?” He didn’t blink. He didn’t even have the grace or the ounce of feeling necessary to flinch. “Because I told her that if there was a chair for you at the table, then I would leave mine empty.”
fter playing hooky the day before, Hannah had promised herself an early departure from the hotel
so she could arrive at the park in plenty of time to find Caroline. But little things kept holding her up. First, she had to chat with Desirée in an effort to cheer her mood. Clearly, the younger woman was down in the dumps following her latest shift at Hart’s—and her latest clash with Troy. When she’d broken down and told her everything, Hannah had suggested that perhaps a full retreat was in order, which put a fire in Desirée’s midnight eyes. “He might knock me down,” she declared, her spine jerking straight. “But I won’t let him walk all over me.” Next, there was the incredible ocean view to admire with her coffee. After she finally left the suite, she took a wrong turn and found herself in front of a magical ice skating rink. Bordered by palm trees and a long stretch of beach, it appeared to have been plucked from the South Pole and then dropped in sunny California by serendipitous mistake. No one was skating, however, and a sign stated that the rink was closed for the season. Even as she stood there, a crew arrived, ready to dismantle the miracle. It was too much like watching Toto pull the curtain aside on the great and wondrous Oz, so she hurried away, preferring to keep the pretty mirage intact in her memory. In the hotel’s paneled lobby, though, were more signs of changing times. There, the gargantuan Christmas tree was being undressed of all its holiday splendor of fantastical ornaments and sparkling lights. Illusions were disappearing everywhere. Outside on the street, it was hard to believe that the weather wasn’t just another lovely trick. Sun shone down, its yellow heat warming Hannah’s hair and shoulders like summer. The smell of saltwater
and sand drifted by, driven by the same soft breeze that shook the palm fronds over her head. It was the kind of day you strolled into. And so, despite the urgency of her errand, she did, in a pair of Dez’s wedge-and-turquoise leather sandals, a khaki dirndl skirt with an eyelet-edged hem, and a turquoise T-shirt with tiny cap sleeves. The outfit was trendy and casual yet probably cost a billion bucks. Counting the incredible underwear beneath, two billion. Hannah smiled to herself. Returning to her own Ross, Marshall’s, and Macy’s on-sale wardrobe was going to be a big wake-up call. Her mother had put together a package of things that Hannah expected any day. Then it would be good-bye to designer wear. But playing double to a wealthy heiress was something she was happy she hadn’t passed up. She’ d wanted an adventure, right? And every moment since stepping off the plane in San Diego had certainly been that. Stolen luggage… Strange bar… Sex with a strange man… That strange sense of being watched. The last thought cut coldly into her reminiscences. Hannah quickened her pace and crossed her hands over her arms to frisk her suddenly cold flesh. A brief glance around didn’t reveal any likely source of the creepy feeling, but still she felt a sharp urge to turn around and run back to the security—and the security guards—of the hotel. Then she remembered Desirée and her never-say-die attitude. Dezi wouldn’t cut and run. Dezi would call this for what it was—Hannah’s psyche searching for a way out of making this trip to the park. Dezi would recognize that the go-along, what ever you-think-is-right pleaser inside of Hannah was dredging up fake fears in order to get out of doing the uncomfortable. To get out of making anyone uncomfortable—the prime person being Hannah herself. She dropped her hands to her sides and increased her stride, letting her arms swing like a woman who had places to go. Other women to see. She was going to finally confront Caroline. Her skin crawled again, but now Hannah dismissed the sensation and turned the corner. The park was in sight. On this sunny morning, she realized with dismay, there was a larger crowd enjoying the park. Her gaze took in the scene as she waited with a small group for the signal to cross the street. Never mind. It might take her some time to look over all of them, but she’d find her quarry. The light turned green. Her gaze focused ahead, Hannah leaped off the curb. In the same instant, a dark shape sped like a shark in her peripheral vision. A car, making a sharp right—right into her path. One wedged sandal on the road, one wedged sandal on the sidewalk, Hannah threw her balance back to her trailing foot. She wobbled on the heel, her arms flailing, as she experienced a weird slow-mo moment. Her front leg still hanging out in the street, bobbing up and down, side to side. The bumper of the black car just a bad breath away, ready to clip her knee and send her into the street and under its ravenous wheels. Desperation and adrenaline made her jerk backward again, and the movement jerked her out of the time warp too. Her left leg lost the equilibrium battle and she fell to the sidewalk, with a big bonk of
tailbone to cement. The black shark paused, as if regretting its loss of a meal, then sped on. Horns honked. An angry man yelled, “Arizona driver!” Hands reached under Hannah’s elbows and helped her to her feet. “Are you all right?” a young woman asked. She gripped the handle of a baby stroller but used her other hand to brush the back of Hannah’s skirt. “You could have been killed!” Pulse beating too fast, Hannah looked off after the dark sedan. “I’m okay. Thanks for the help.” She tore her gaze from the retreating car to direct a smile at the woman, who had a girl-next-door face, streaky hair short as a boy’s, and a small diaper bag over her shoulder. “And I’m glad your little one is safe too,” Hannah added, glancing into the stroller and the snoozing infant. Then the light changed in their favor again. Their small group craned their necks for oncoming turners, and reassured, stepped into the street. Noting how high the curb was, Hannah grabbed the bottom of the stroller and helped the young mother ease it off the sidewalk. Stomach shrinking at the thought of what could have happened to the innocent baby, Hannah walked alongside the stroller, putting herself between it and any careless drivers. On the other side, she helped the mother again. They parted with smiles, the other woman heading toward the playground and Hannah turning in the direction of the grassy area where people were stretched out on blankets, sitting against trees, or standing in small clusters anchoring their leashed dogs. Though the photograph at Duncan’s parents had been fuzzy, there was no doubt about Caroline’s long, wavy blond hair (yes, it would have to be a blonde, wouldn’t it?) and her penchant for cheap-looking dark eye makeup (said a nasty judgmental voice). She had appeared to be somewhere around Desirée’s age or maybe Hannah’s, so all she had to do was locate a twenty-something woman with bleached hair and spiky black lashes. Her first canvass turned up no one to fit the mold, with the exception of a butterscotch-colored, standardsize poodle wearing a Hawaiian print visor. Shaking herself, Hannah sharpened her focus and attempted to make a more methodical search. From the grassy area’s center, she walked outward in a box pattern, taking care to look over each and every likely face. Today it seemed as if all the blondes were over forty or under twenty. She gave a second look at a woman with light brown hair and lots of makeup, but had to dismiss her when she was joined by a skinny man in Bermuda shorts who gave her a voluptuous kiss. The kiss distracted her a little, because kissing made her thoughts jump to Tanner. Pausing in the dappled sunshine, she watched the couple kiss again, and it made her smile. Yesterday, everything from the pink grapefruit slices at breakfast to the papaya-coconut lotion used during her massage had made her think about sex. About sex and Tanner. Today’s spotlight on meeting Caroline had cast him in the shadows of her mind. But now, watching that couple entwine in a PG-13 embrace, he stepped once again into the center of her attention. He’d called her from the bar the night before, making some vague promise about seeing her today, and she’d gone to sleep with his deep, lazy voice in her mind. In the night, turning on the soft sheets, she’d pretended instead to be turning against his body, first pressing her shoulder blades to his chest, and then her breasts. Nothing could mimic the skin-jittering touch of his callused hand against her inner thigh, so she’d finally clenched them hard together and willed herself to sleep. That only led to dreams of what must have happened on New Year’s Eve, and she’d woken up overheated and with the weird thought that she owed an apology—or maybe a morning kiss—to her pillow.
She smiled. Perhaps she’d get Tanner to tell her in exquisite detail exactly how their night together had been…right before they reenacted it. A flag of bright hair color caught her eye, and her smile died. Her eyes narrowed and she assessed the woman now walking into the park. Approximate age, mid-twenties. No male currently attached. She couldn’t tell about the makeup from this distance, but the hair color and length were about right. Maybe it had more red to it than she’d expected, but it surely was the closest yet. Drifting nearer, Hannah noticed the woman had a beach blanket under her arm. She unfurled it at a spot near the edge of the park, beside a rough-edged hedge that separated the grass from the sidewalk. Hannah watched the woman sit down and flip open a magazine. Taking a deep breath, she moved even closer. Was this it? Was this the moment when she looked into the face of the woman who had stolen Duncan? That thought sent her five more steps forward. Her heart moving in her chest like a rocking chair, she looked down at Duncan’s wife. The other woman had golden freckles across her nose. Was that it? Were freckles the secret? Was that what she lacked? “Caroline?” The name came out of her throat like a hushed croak. Hannah’s hands started to shake as the woman didn’t look up from her magazine. Had her schoolteacher life and her pleaser personality made her that invisible to the world? “Caroline?” she said again, raising her voice, her stomach seeming to rise as well. The other woman glanced up, then lifted her chin. “Pardon me?” “Are you…are you Caroline?” Hannah felt as unbalanced as she had on the street, facing that dark shark of a car. “My name is Patty.” “Oh. Oh.” Her belly fell like a weight and she flushed. “I’m sorry to bother you.” Hating how relieved she felt, Hannah turned. “Wait. Do you happen to be looking for Caroline Griffen?” Hannah spun back, her stomach preparing for another nervous maneuver. “Yes, yes I am. Do you know her? Do you, uh, see her?” Her gesture encompassed the grass. Patty leaned, so she could look around Hannah. “No. No, I don’t.” Hannah wilted again. “All right. Thanks.” “But I saw her earlier in the week. She told me she has a new job on Amstead Avenue.” “A new job? What kind of new job?” Hannah took it as testament that she continued to look like everyone’s favorite schoolteacher, because the other woman didn’t hesitate or even ask why she wanted to know. “At a restaurant, I think? I’m sorry, I don’t know any more than that.” “Thank you. Thank you so much.” She didn’t bother asking directions to Amstead Avenue. Desirée had made clear how truly small Coronado was. Heck, meeting Patty who knew Caroline was evidence enough. So she headed toward the sidewalk, ready to reward herself with a cup of coffee on her way to
locating Amstead and Caroline. A coffee stop was another little stall tactic, and of course Hannah knew that, but still, today she was making progress toward her goal. “Hannah!” Her head whipped around. A man was walking toward her, sunlight flaming his hair to a golden halo. Her heart, which had been rocking a few minutes ago, went crazy now, pitching back and forth like a ship on rugged seas. Tanner. God. Just like that, she was thinking about sex again. It was in every one of his slow, loose-limbed steps. Sex. She saw it in the magic triangle of his wide shoulders and lean hips. Sex. Her gaze dropped to his square palms and long fingers. Sex. He’d injected her with it, she decided. Infused it in her bones during those moments the night before last, and now stirred it again with one look from his flame-blue eyes. Sex. He slid his hand in the crook of her elbow. Her skin quivered, just like her heart. His free palm caught her cheek and turned her face toward his. His mouth was hot. He murmured something against her lips (surely not a protest!) and she ignored it to melt against him and lose herself in… Sex. Rational thought disappeared. She didn’t think of coffee or of Caroline or of what she was supposed to be doing this morning other than basking in the warmth of the man kissing her with such toe-curling relish. “Tanner!” A voice yelled. “Dezi!” They stumbled apart, startled by the shouting. A man broke through the bushes by the sidewalk, a big camera in his hands. He rushed them, nearly leaping over Patty in his eagerness. Tanner was already drawing her backward. “Get the hell away from us,” he told the man. His hand found Hannah’s, squeezed. “Run, sweetheart. Run run run.”
ith Hannah in tow, Tanner sprinted toward the parking lot at the other end of the block.
“What is it?” Her breathless voice made him slow his pace. “Who is it?” “Later.” He zigged around a couple stretched out on a blanket, then zagged around two dogs tangled in their own leashes. Glancing behind him, he saw the fat clown with the camera getting hung up on the pooches. Yeah, good, go down on your intrusive, ugly face. With his Mercedes in sight, he poured on a little more speed. Hannah tripped, and he tightened his grip and tightened his arm, keeping her upright. They had to get in the car and get out of here. More tabloid attention would only further screw his chances with the Secret Ser vice. He could read the goddamn screaming headlines now: Agent Dumps Dez For Different Darling! How he’d hate to see Hannah’s lovely face front-paged on a tabloid. Continuing to move, he fished in his front pocket for his keys. They didn’t cooperate, so he slowed as he neared his back bumper. His fingertips found metal. Yanking his ring free, he stepped
toward the passenger side. “Come on, sweetheart.” A car shrieked to a stop behind his. Focused on fitting key to lock, Tanner only then realized Hannah wasn’t right beside him. He yanked open the door, cursing as he saw her leaning against the back bumper, one shoe in her hand, her startled gaze fixed on the dark sedan and the second paparazzo sliding his torso out the window to get a photo. “Head down,” he ordered her, then leaped forward and pushed against her neck so the guy wouldn’t get a clear shot of her face. With her hair hanging down toward her knees, she let him pull her to the passenger seat and shove her inside. Then he slammed her in and rolled across the hood of the Mercedes to get to the driver’s door. Hannah unlocked it for him and he dove in, relocking it behind him. “Get down, get down,” he told her. “Pull your hair over your face.” The car hummed to life and he jerked it into Reverse. Hannah gasped. “Head down,” he ordered again. “They’ll move, don’t worry.” He gunned the engine, letting the assholes know he meant business. Then he let off the brake and shot back, just as the dark sedan jolted forward with mere inches to spare. Tanner spun the wheel left and then threw the car into Drive. It jumped at his command, avoiding the last-minute cutoff maneuver of an open Jeep in which Paparazzo Clown Number One was riding shotgun. Christ. They always hunted in packs, like jackals. He turned onto Orange and then made another quick right, then left, intent on losing any who dared follow. Two turns later he glanced at his companion. Curled over her knees, she had her hands on top of her head in a classic duck-and-cover position. He remembered her fear of car accidents. His adrenaline high crashed. “Sweetheart. Hannah.” He spoke in a calm, sure tone, though inside he suddenly felt as shaky as his fingers as they reached over to touch her hair. “It’s okay now. You can sit up and buckle your seat belt.” He checked in the rearview mirror and took yet another turn. In seconds they were traveling eastward across the Coronado Bridge. Some days the island was just too small. “We’ve lost them.” She slowly sat up and reached for the seat belt harness. “Lost who?” “Tabloid photographers. Freelance guys. They show up every few months, trying to catch Dezi and me together.” “Then maybe you should have let them take our photo. It could’ve squelched the rumors about you two.” “No. Not only would you like being the center of attention a lot less than you’re thinking, but…but…just no.” She was his private woman. His. Alarmed at the thought, he shook it out of his head. Her little sigh had him glancing over again. “Damn,” he muttered, hating the paleness of her features. On the other side of the bay he whipped into the first fast food drive-through he spotted and ordered a supersized, sugar-laden Coke. He shoved it at her and then pulled into a parking space so she could drink and not stress about his driving. “Swallow that down, sweetheart. It will make you feel better.” But what was going to make him feel better?
He’d spent twenty-four hours Hannah-free the day before and thought during that time he’d solved everything. Away from her, he’d put his lust in perspective and reminded himself that further intimacy could only cause trouble for him and his Secret Service aspirations. So he’d made the decision for them both—there would be no more “explosions.” With his mind on the future, he was certain he’d be able to keep his hands off of her. He remembered their kiss in the park. And now… Leaning over, he cupped his palms around her face and turned her mouth for his kiss. Her cool lips tasted sugary. Carbonation detonated throughout his bloodstream. He sizzled for her. An image went Technicolor in his mind. Her dark hair, her red lingerie, the silvery rain all around them like a star-spun cocoon. Hannah’s sexy mouth and sexy nipples and the sexy shudder as her body came apart under his touch. He should have done what he’d wanted then, pressed the back of her legs toward those pretty breasts and—no! He jerked away, leaving her to blink at him in surprise. “Tanner?” Gritting his teeth, he ignored the question in her voice and placed his hands back on the wheel. They had to get out of here. Away from the confines of the car and its Merry Widow memories, but not back to Coronado where the bottom feeder photographers would be trolling for dirt. With the flip of his wrist, he started the car and headed up the coast. “I know of a place where photographers are off limits,” he said. Where they could both take big gulps of fresh air. “Tanner—” “I promised to take you sightseeing, right? You wouldn’t want to miss this, I promise.” A few miles north a paved side road dead-ended at a locked, wide-grated metal gate surrounded by twenty or so cars—only some with surf racks. Hannah climbed out of the Mercedes with her soft drink and her purse, and Tanner snagged a blanket from the trunk and the package that had been delivered to her in care of the bar that morning. She eyed the overnight package, then was distracted by the view as she turned toward the west. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, Tanner.” Unlike flat Coronado with its wide white beaches and calm waves, this coastline was rough, scrub and sandstone bluffs that dropped in a steep fall to grayer sand and heavier swells. Out on the break, a half-dozen surf vets bobbed on the water, sitting up with their boards between their legs as they waited for the next set. From Hannah’s expression, she liked the view. She turned to him with such a pretty smile that he would have paid the damn paparazzi himself for a single close-up shot. “I love the beach.” Hitching the blanket under his arm, he headed for the narrow dirt path on the other side of the fence that wound down the steep hillside. She followed, and he let her alone until he heard her gasp, then heard the slide of her soles on the gritty surface. Without a word, he reached back. Without a word, she put her hand in his. When they reached the bottom, she gasped again. He glanced down at her, trying to hold back his smile. “You couldn’t go back home without seeing everything Southern California has to offer.” Her gaze was fixed on his face, yet her pink cheeks gave away the fact that she’d noticed what else was on the beach besides the surfers’ flipflops and their piles of outer wear. He lowered his voice. “This is a notorious nude beach.”
Not everyone was naked, but it was seventy-something degrees if you were flat on the sand, and that’s all it took to bring out the sun worshippers. Hannah sucked on the straw of her Coke and let her gaze dart here and there, then back to his face. “Uh, Tanner.” “Yeah?” Her voice was a whisper. “These aren’t, um, attractive nude people.” He bent over to spread out the blanket and to hide his laughter. “I know.” It’s why he’d thought of the place. There was nothing arousing about the nakedness of the dozen or so people around them baring their all. Coming out here with a raging libido could work on cooling a person down like a field trip to visit lifer cons could scare juvenile delinquents straight. Dropping to the blanket, he looked up at Hannah, then patted the space beside him. “Think of it as an adventure.” At her doubtful expression, he held up the package. “And a chance to get some of your life back.” That got her down to his level. She arranged herself on the blanket cross-legged, using the full folds of her skirt to cover her gorgeous long legs. Her head ducked as she reached for the package he held. “Tanner, that man over there is checking me out.” The man over there was about seven and a half decades old, the average age of the nudists who hung it all out at Bentley’s Beach. The oldster’s whole body looked like a frankfurter left too long on the grill. “Let me know if he expresses an interest,” Tanner said, giving her a grin. “You know what to look for, right?” One slim finger picked at the envelope’s seal. “Hardy har har.” “Your ripostes overwhelm me with their intellectual substance and mature style. You must practice that.” “You’d think, wouldn’t you?” She dumped the contents of the overnight package on the blanket between them. “Yet it’s just another perk of spending the day with seven- and eight-year-olds that I can chalk up in my favor.” “Points for mentioning chalk too. You being a schoolteacher and all.” Her mouth twitched, and she glanced up at him through her lashes in that innocent-sexy way that slayed him. Except it glanced right off his chest this time, because he’d decided it behooved them both to chill their relationship. They had their memories, baby. Except the ones he’d lied about. From the piles of papers, Hannah pulled out two envelopes. “Credit card and ATM card. Thank you, Mom,” she said, first opening one, then the other. “And even a wallet to put them in.” Tanner brushed more paper aside to completely uncover a slim leather square. She picked it up. One snap unfolded the sides and Hannah looked down at the open wallet, shaking her head. “My mother,” she explained, fingering the bills in the money slot and then poking a finger through the handful of change stashed in the coin area. She grimaced as she flipped a piece of leather over to reveal the plastic photo sleeves. “And my family,” she said, tapping the picture that was inside. He craned his neck, and she obligingly turned it upside down to give him a better view. “She really takes care of you, doesn’t she?” he said. The shot was a candid one, a good-looking matriarch and patriarch and their three grown
offspring—Hannah posing as the filling in the middle of the Davis family sandwich. “They all take care of me,” she said. “Too much.” She rummaged through the other items on the blanket. “Letter from Mom. Note from Dad. Oh, this is fun. A newspaper clipping about one of my friends from high school who got a promotion at the bank.” A breeze fluttered the papers and one kicked up, eager to fly. Tanner clapped it against his chest, then turned it over. “Here’s your birth certificate.” “They must have thought I’d need it for identification.” Hannah held out her hand. He frowned down at the listed name. “Deborah Davis?” The woman across from him froze a moment, then snatched the paper from him and inspected it herself. “Who are you?” Tanner asked. A red flush flagged her cheeks. “This is a mistake. My mother sent me my sister’s birth certificate instead of mine.” “Ah.” Except he remembered that “Deborah” was the name she’d called herself that first night at the bar. She must have been remembering that too. “It just popped out,” she said. “On New Year’s Eve. Kinda Freudian, huh?” “I couldn’t say.” “I can.” Hannah shoved the certificate into the padded envelope and then started gathering up the rest of the items too. “In a lot of ways I’ve lived Deborah’s life. She wanted to be a teacher. She loved our little town and wanted to stay there forever. She would have loved Duncan too, and would have thought he was the perfect person to marry.” Tanner blew out a breath. “Are you saying you didn’t want those for yourself?” “Sometimes I’m not sure,” Hannah admitted. “I’ve been so busy doing what everyone else was deciding for me that I’m not entirely sure when a choice has been mine and mine alone. Pretty lame, huh?” Guilt gave Tanner a little stab. Hadn’t he been doing the very same when it came to her? Making decisions for her? And he of all people should understand how lousy that could be. His life hadn’t been his own for the last eleven-plus months, and he’d resented every breath of it. She stowed all the items back into their packaging, then held the envelope in her lap, her attention directed out to sea, where she stared past the bobbing surfers toward the horizon. “I love it,” she said, gesturing toward the water. “It looks endless. It tells me there are endless possibilities in the world.” He stared at the dips and curves of her profile, struck by her pretty face and the open yearning in her voice. Hannah had missed out on so much. The ocean breeze kicked up, catching her hair, and the long ends flew his way and tickled his cheek. Without thinking, he wrapped them in his fist and then used them to gently tug her closer. A smile curved her lips as she obligingly scooted until they were hip-to-hip. His arm circled her shoulders. Hannah fit there so well. He inhaled, taking in the smell of her sun-heated shampoo and saltwater and the coconut oil that was basting one of the nearby nudists. “Maybe you’ve been thinking too long-term,” he told her. Christ, he was, because he could imagine a hundred thousand moments like this one, with Hannah in the curve of his arm and her mouth just a kiss away.
She turned her head toward him, and that mouth—those soft, red lips—was even closer. “What do you mean?” She was so close that her warm breath reached his face before the breeze could snatch it away. Clearing his throat, he tried to clear his head of thoughts of her mouth, breath, kissing. Sex. “I mean, just answer this. Hannah Davis, what do you want to do right now? Right this moment?” She stilled. Then that little smile curved the corners of her lips again and her gaze dropped. “That’s easy, Tanner. Right now I want to take care of some unfinished business. I want to make love with you.”
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New year’s Subjecting self to Uncle Simon’s surefire hangover cure taste test.
anner decided he would have to distract Hannah from the whole idea. What was she thinking?
Why didn’t she realize, as he did, that the two of them making love was a very bad idea? There was his future and the deal he’d made with Geoff Brooks and that whole “worthy of trust and confidence” thing to remember, but more, more, was just how easy she was to like, to laugh with, to want to lay out on a deserted stretch of sand somewhere. The image was damn hard to deflate, and it continued to hover like a bubble on the edges of his mind. Hannah, her clothes melting away with the heat of his thoughts. Tanner, pressing open her thighs, thumbing open her sex, discovering her every secret while she wore that crown and patriotic songs played in the background. But he was just days away from getting his life back, and it would be pure dumbass stupidity to risk that for sex. Even sex with Hannah. Of course, the easiest solution would be to drive her back to Coronado and drop her back at the Del, but there were those photographers on the hunt. Which gave him an inspiration. He drove Hannah toward the San Diego Zoo. Yeah. He’d wear her out with animals, he decided. And with hiking its hills and canyons. And with telling her every story he’d ever heard or could make up about the place. Hah. It worked. She loved it. She loved everything from the pink flamingos at the entrance to the goofy polar bears playing like big dogs in their deep pool. He took her to see the orangutans and watched her amazement when one of the mature females sauntered close to the glass and made clear with stares and hand gestures she wanted to see what Hannah had inside her purse. Encouraged by the other spectators and the animal’s clear fascination, Hannah lifted things out, one item at a time, displaying her new wallet, a wide-toothed comb, a lipstick. The event made Hannah laugh all the way to the bonobos, where Tanner showed her how the little chimps would respond if you put your palm on the glass and repeatedly tapped it, creating a low vibration. One ran over and presented his shoulders to her, obviously as happy as if she was giving him a two-hundred-dollar-an-hour spa massage. At the pygmy hippos she did what all the children were doing: She put her face against the glass that looked into their clear lagoon. The pygmy hippo didn’t resist her. He swam over to place his
whiskered snout right against her turned-up nose. That’s when Tanner realized he couldn’t resist her either. With her hair breeze-blown, that nose and her cheeks showing signs of sunburn, her hand in his as she walked backward, towing him uphill to the next exhibit, he gave up listening to sense or conscience. One minute he was walking along, the next he yanked on her hand, tumbling her against his chest to kiss her silly. The meerkat sentinels watched with wide-eyed interest from their enclosure, those nosy, furry voyeurs, but he didn’t care. As winter dark descended, they left the zoo. He fed her, ushering her into a place he remembered from some long ago date, a narrow dark bistro that smelled like rosemary and apples. Once seated, she shivered a little in the air-conditioning, and beneath the table he captured her bare legs between his jeaned ones. She stilled, then her gaze flew to his and he knew she understood where she’d be spending the night. They ate their dinner like that, his legs clasping hers, and it might as well have been double desserts or, for that matter, dirt. He didn’t taste anything. They said little more. After paying the bill, he steered them back across the bridge to Coronado. As the concrete roadway lowered them onto the island, Hannah straightened in her seat. “Those photographers…” “Have most likely gone back to Hollywood. I don’t think Dez and I are much of a draw after all this time, so I assume some other poor celebrity schmuck was sighted in the area and they were hoping to get a twofer. Believe it or not, they pay employees at the best hotels and restaurants in town to rat out the customers.” That was the extent of the conversation until he pulled into the single car garage at his place. As the automatic door lowered, he looked over at her in the dim light. Maybe she’d thought better of all this. Maybe she’d say no. Hannah licked her lips. Those red lips. Juicy now. Wet like her mouth, wet like he wanted to make her between her legs so it would be an easy, smooth slide inside. He’d slip right into her heat, her need, her soul. Oh, hell. Now he hoped to God she wouldn’t say no. “Please, Tanner. Please.” Then it was he who hesitated. For more than eleven months he’d been waiting for his life to restart…For more than eleven months he’d thought abstinence from the job he’d loved and from the pleasures of his body would dissolve the guilt he felt about the death of Ayesha Spencer, the agent who had died while he was babysitting the poor little rich girl in the ballroom. He cupped Hannah’s warm cheek in his palm. “I’m not sure I deserve this,” he admitted. There’d been some hope inside him all these months that there would be an electrifying moment of absolution, but if he took Hannah to bed, then there would be no forgiveness for him, would there? He’d be taking his plea sure without finding his pardon first. Without completing his penance. “I know I deserve this,” she said. “So you let me worry about you.” And of course, it was so much easier to dismiss the larger, philosophical issues when a man had those words echoing in his head. Not to mention the whole wild underwear thing to think about. And a math problem, too: 365 times four years minus two orgasms sat right there in his very own front seat. There was a whole lotta lovin’ stored up from the top of Hannah’s silky dark head to the bottom of her slim, female toes. Three hundred sixty-five times four years minus two that were all his. Yeah, he was going to focus on that and forget all the rest.
She had her own agenda, though. While he would have been perfectly content to walk to his bedroom like a half-civilized sex hound, she barely waited for the door from the garage to the kitchen to shut behind them before she pushed his back against the wood and climbed him like one of the monkeys they’d seen at the zoo. A model-long leg wound around his hip. Her arms twined his neck and pulled down his head so she could kiss him as if he was the treat she’d given up for Lent. He went down for the count, hitting the proverbial mat as lust punched him in the gut and fanned outward in waves of heat. Already his balls were tightening, pulling upward, getting everything primed for the big event. Her hips pressed closer to his, her mound pressing against his raging-hard dick, and shit! the big event almost happened before the opening curtain. He gripped her waist and held her a couple of inches away, trying to cope with a new spike of murderous want even as her tongue surged into his mouth on a search and destroy mission. Her heart beat hard against his chest as she kissed his cheek, his upper lip, his chin, frantic little kisses that confessed she was coping with her own clamoring desire. Her leg hitched higher on his hip, trying to bring him close again. He ran his hand along her bare thigh until it was under her skirt. She froze, her lashes drifting over her eyes as he palmed one perfect cheek of her perfect ass. He could feel her scrap of underwear and started making bets with himself as to style and color. Green? No. Passion purple. “Tanner…” “Mmm.” He squeezed her little butt and ran his tongue over her bottom lip. “What is it? What is it you want, sweetheart?” “Can we…” Her head fell back as he kissed the soft skin between her jaw and her ear. “I want to use kitchen products.” He jerked, yanking his head back so it thwonked against the door. “Ouch.” Kitchen products? His lust pumped higher. “Poor you.” One of her hands speared through his hair to rub the pain. Breathing hard, he gazed at her through narrowed eyes. “When you say ‘kitchen products,’ I hope you don’t mean things like silicon baking pans or fireproof oven mitts because that’s way too kinky for a simple guy like me.” Confusion clouded her face. He could see the gears turning in her schoolmarm gray matter as she tried to figure out how such things figured in with sex. Not that he thought they did either, he’d just pulled them out of the air. When he couldn’t sleep he had this bad habit of turning on the two A.M. Hot Cooking Hour of the GetTV shopping network. “I’ve just missed out on so much.” “I know, sweetheart.” He’d been doing the math, right? Three hundred sixty-five times four years minus two orgasms. “But don’t you think we could work up to the honey and whipped cream?” Just saying the words with his hand on her sleek skin made his cock jerk against his belly. “Does that mean bondage and blindfolds come first?” His cock jerked again. His temperature spiked. Man, he was going to need a doctor if this continued. His fingers tightened on her ass. “You know that Van Halen song ‘Hot for Teacher’?” She pulled his mouth closer to hers. “You think I’m hot?” she whispered against his mouth. “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.” And as she melted against him in another kiss, he managed to melt the skirt
off her. His fingers found the zipper without a stumble, then he pressed down on her bent knee. When she straightened her leg, the fabric slid with a plop to the kitchen floor. Hannah glanced down at herself. He took his own time looking. Oh, gone was the red Merry Widow. And in its place wasn’t green or purple. Between the strappy sandals and the T-shirt she was still wearing was a tiny pair of white lace bikini underwear that tied with two perfect little bows on each side of her hips. They were girly and sexy, she was girly and sexy, and without a second thought Tanner reached out for those little bows and tugged them loose. Hannah gasped as her pan ties hit the ground. He took his time looking at what was revealed. There wasn’t much else he could do but look at the moment, because the view had hit him like an anvil to the head. God, his tongue had gone dry along with the rest of his mouth. Her feet were still in those sexy sandals, and then there were the miles of skin that were ankles, calves, knees, thighs. And then, and then… Why did women have to be so pretty there? Why did Hannah have to be so pretty there? Such an enticing little triangle she presented a man, with a siren’s arrow of curls pointing him straight toward heaven. Hannah made a little sound and he looked up to see her clutching the hem of the waist-length T-shirt she still wore, as if preparing to tug it down to her knees. He smiled at her, trying to keep the wolf out of it, and pried her fingers from the cotton cloth. “Did I tell you I’m a leg man?” he asked, flicking his glance southward to take in the long, lovely sight once again. A frown wrinkled her forehead. “You said you were a breast man.” “That too.” He slid his hands under her shirt to trace the sweet curve of her waist as he drew the fabric up, then over her head. With a flick of his wrist, it sailed to the counter. Hannah’s breasts quivered over the little lace cups of her matching white bra. He released the front clasp and then swept that bit of fabric away too. Tanner went down on his knees in pure appreciation for the sight of her uncovered skin. Then he leaned forward and put his mouth on her. She jolted, and he reached up to cup her ass again and hold her against his face so he could sample the flavor he’d been craving. Oh, God. He groaned at the perfect balance of salty and sweet, loving the taste of her on his tongue. Shifting one hand to her inner thigh to widen her stance, lust nearly knocked him over again. His Hannah was slick here too, already so ready she was overflowing. His tongue delved deeper, driven by his escalating hunger. It bumped over her hard button and he stroked her clitoris a happy hello. “T-Tanner?” Her voice broke in a breathless hitch. “T-Tanner?” He looked up, licked once, twice, and watched the orgasm break across her face just as it broke over his tongue. Three hundred sixty-five times four minus three. Somehow he found the strength to stand. She was pliable, her mouth tender and soft, and when he took it she immediately opened to him, not shying away from the taste of herself on his lips. Yeah. Good. Excellent. He didn’t want Hannah shying away from anything.
He wanted her loving everything they could share. Every taste, every touch, every intimate act that he could think of and others he was sure that would come to mind. The kiss lasted them all the way to his bedroom. When he lifted his mouth from hers, she blinked, looking around as if not remembering their short walk from the kitchen. Then she focused on him. “You’re wearing too many clothes.” “Uh-huh.” He reached behind him to grab his T-shirt between the shoulder blades. As he yanked it off, he felt her fingers at the snap on his jeans. It both froze him and set him on fire, and he stood under the onslaught of sensations, stupid with need. He heard his zipper slide down with a hiss, and then her warm hand was under his boxers and on him, warm and gentle. Not gentle enough. He stripped off his shirt and threw it to the floor. “Hannah. God, Hannah.” His hand covered hers, and he couldn’t help but guide it in a couple of torturous strokes before he plucked it away. “I’ll never make it if you touch me like that, sweetheart,” he said, trying to smile. She could smile, sweet and hot, like the way she’d tasted. God, just like that he wanted her in his mouth again, pulsing against his tongue, her orgasm flowing into him like a magic potion that could keep him hard all night long. “I want you again,” he said, dragging her toward his bed. It was unmade as usual, but he didn’t care this time, he only cared to get her on the sheets, on her back, his head between those beautiful silken thighs, where he belonged. This time he held her open with his thumbs and went straight for the goods, ignoring the way her head thrashed against his pillow and the way she cried his name, over and over, all girly and shaken, and then… …gone gone gone. The condoms were four days old and right where he’d left them New Year’s Eve. He ripped the packet open with his teeth and rolled the latex over himself, watching her watch him with half-mast eyes. Her legs were splayed and everything between was glistening, such a pretty sight that it caught his breath. But then he couldn’t merely admire any longer. He needed to feel, slide, possess. Despite her slick arousal, she gasped as he pushed forward the first inch. Four years, he remembered, gasping too, the hold of her body was just that tight. “Easy, easy, sweetheart,” he whispered, twining their fingers on either side of her head. “Let me in, just relax and I’ll slowly come in.” The next inch was excruciating. Hannah moaned. “Shh, shh,” he crooned, holding there so she could get used to him. “You know I’ll never hurt you.” She bit her plump bottom lip, creating white marks in all that pretty red. Her fingers tightened on his. “Tanner…” “I’ll go slow, I promise,” he reassured her, making promises he hoped to God he could keep. “No, no.” She lifted up, her mouth latching onto the pad of his pec, and bit. At the small sting, his shoulders jerked back, his hips jerked forward. Hannah’s body opened to him and he was fully seated, clasped in burning, yielding heat.
They both groaned. It wasn’t supposed to feel this good. Sure, it had been eleven months, but he was over thirty and remembered quite well what a woman’s body was like. But this was Hannah’s body. Hannah’s demand, then…then Hannah’s surrender. “It’s so good,” she whispered, a touch of awe in her voice. “It’s so good that you’re filling me.” Hannah who had been celibate much longer than he had. So that’s what made the difference, Tanner told himself, flexing his hips to slide yet another, excruciating, spine-tingling inch. She groaned again, her thick lashes drifting down on her sunburned cheeks. Celibacy accounted for how different sex seemed to him this time. Yeah, that had to be it, he decided, pulling halfway out so he could thrust home again. That had to be it. Hannah’s hips tilted, and this time when he slid inside, her ankles crossed at the small of his back and urged him deeper. Deeper. Faster. More. More. More. One of them was saying the words aloud, or maybe they were just in his head…and in his blood…and in his cock that was going wild. She was going wild too, arching up, grinding, demanding that he give her everything he had. His mouth found hers, and when he thrust his tongue inside, she sucked on it, messing with his rhythm, sending his body even deeper than before as that tingle started at the base of his spine and moved down and up. He hoped to God she was close, because he was seconds away from imploding. Lifting his mouth, he stared down at her, noticing the flush on her chest, the rosy tightness of her nipples, the way her breath was heaving in and out. “Tanner Tanner Tanner.” “Right here.” On his latest thrust he held himself still, inside of her, trying to delay the inevitable, desperate to detain the orgasm from breaking free. She squirmed, the roll of her hips making him nuts. “Hannah…no…” He closed his eyes as she did it again. “Have to,” she said, her voice broken. “Have to…Tanner. Need…” He knew what she needed. “Hold on, sweetheart, hold on.” Ignoring her little moan of protest and every demand of his own lust, he broke the clasp of her legs. Then he sat back on his heels, his thighs splayed wide, and draped her thighs over them. The thrust was shallower this way, but he could touch her too, and he did, pushing inside even as he rolled her clitoris with his thumb. She gasped, arched, and the look on her face was almost as good as the clench of her inner muscles around his cock. He made the dual move again, and her body arched again, her breasts and their hard, reddened nipples rising in invitation. His free hand was shaking as he reached out toward one rigid peak. “Sweetheart,” he said, catching it between the scissor of two fingers. His balls felt swollen and hot. “Sweetheart, sweetheart, now.” He pulled back, thrust forward, and used his hand to finesse the climax out of her. She cried out. As her explosion rippled around his cock, his own orgasm detonated. He grunted, falling forward and catching himself with his palms against the mattress, helpless to do anything but let himself have his way with her.
Apparently she didn’t mind, because her legs came around him again and her arms tugged down his head, and as the last throes of fiery bliss shook him, she made love to his mouth like he was doing to her body. It was the most erotic moment of his life, because even as his orgasm was winding down, her tongue was inside him like they were already on a second round. Finally, though, finally, his hips collapsed against hers, his skin twitching in reaction. She broke the kiss so they could both draw in a breath. They stared into each other’s eyes. “Wow,” Hannah said. “Yeah.” Another tremor shook him, and her body clamped down on his dick in reaction. They both shuddered this time. Her tongue came out of her mouth to swipe against her bottom lip. He couldn’t look away. “Tanner.” There was a note in her voice he couldn’t decipher. On sudden alert, he glanced up. In the dim light, her eyes were dark pools. “We’ve never had sex before, have we?” “What do you mean? In my car—” “We’ve never had sex before, have we?” He still couldn’t read her take on the revelation. “I could never have forgotten that, I don’t care how many mojitos I downed.” “Well,” he said, wary, but knowing he couldn’t lie. “No.” There was a moment of silence. Then, “Okay,” she said, nodding her head. “How soon can we do it again?”
he bar wouldn’t open for at least half an hour, but Bartender Jack had the music already blaring.
Troy wore his earplugs and had turned off the lights in his office, but the relative quiet and the half shadows didn’t dull the clamor inside his head. Guilt, anger at himself, the nauseating throb that signaled the beginning of one of his recurrent headaches, all three pounded on the inside walls of his skull. Unfortunately, not one of them was breaking free. He folded his arms on the desk and dropped his aching head on top of them, cursing his weakness. Cursing himself. He deserved the pain, he supposed. The last time he’d seen Desirée, he’d crushed her like a boot heel crushing a delicate flower. “And you call me lazy,” said a voice from the doorway. “Here’s my butthead of a boss, snoozing when he should be stacking glassware or something.” Desirée, the delicate flower. Her belligerent sass would have made him grin if he dared risk moving the muscles of his face. Instead he lifted his hand and gestured with it, shooing her away. As if that would work. He heard her stomp farther into the room, each of her footsteps seeming to vibrate through the
floor and into his head, adding more chaos to what was already tumbling inside his brain. She halted on the other side of the desk. “Troy?” Her voice sounded uncertain this time and had lost its waspish edge. “Troy?” “Go ’way, Dez,” he mumbled. He didn’t want to deal with her right now, and he damn well didn’t want her to see him like this. He wanted her dislike, not her pity. Her fingertips touched his bare scalp. His skin jittered and he cursed her, and what ever impulse that had caused him to shave his head in the first place. Funny, he often jabbed at Tanner by laughing at his long “sissy” hair, but now it was obvious his own big bad baldness didn’t render him more macho. At least not where Desirée was concerned. Hell. He had to be strong around her, he had to stay strong around her. “Go ’way,” he said again, trying to put a Marine-like bark in his voice. “You get migraines.” “Not migraines.” He made himself lift his head and squint at her, even though the movement sent shafts of pain to his belly, where they knotted and writhed. “I’m fine. Get back to work.” “One of my roommates at boarding school got migraines. She looked like you do when they came on. Mean, and her eyes squinched.” He was glad he looked mean, he told himself. “My eyes aren’t squinching.” Squinching. Yucktard. What kind of woman made up words like those? They made his head hurt even more. “Squinching isn’t even in the dictionary.” She ignored the criticism and lifted the receiver from the phone on the desk, and then, after glancing at the speed-dial list, pressed a number. Troy didn’t know what number. He was directing the gaze of his squinching eyes off to the side. It seemed to help the pain. “Tanner?” That’s who she’d called, then. Troy wondered if his brother was coherent now. He’d called him that morning and Tanner had mumbled something about Hannah and sleep, which sounded more like “Go away, I’m having great sex.” “Tanner, this is Desirée. Troy’s got a blazing headache and I’m driving him home. You need to get over to the bar and take his place…Yes. Yes. Can do.” “Can do what?” Troy muttered. “I told him I can seduce you to a quivering mass of jelly.” “Honey, right now a harem full of girls who look like you couldn’t seduce me.” Christ, now the pain was causing him to spit out truths. “That sounds like a challenge.” She walked around the desk and tried lifting him by the arm. He didn’t budge. “I’m not going anywhere. And if I did want to go anywhere, I could drive myself. I know how to get anywhere I want, any time I want.” “You’re babbling. And you couldn’t drive half a block, not with that squinching. So stop being an idiot.” That was the problem. Being an idiot around Dez was one of his only defenses. Act the idiot, act the mean, unrelenting bastard, and she’d get tired of him and his abuse and take herself away for good. Forever.
He wanted that. “Troy.” Putting her weight into it, she pulled on his arm again. “Let’s get you back to your den of Zen. You’ll feel better there.” “Den of Zen?” “Sure, I expected more of a stinky, sticky bachelor pad, but now that I know you’re a yoga-practicing vegetarian—” “Vegetarian!” Shit, the syllables only made his head pound more. “I don’t know who told you that but it isn’t—” “It is too true, and if you don’t get your stubborn butt out of that chair, I’m going to announce to everyone in the bar that your famous Macho Marine chili recipe is vegetarian too.” He groaned. “You’ll ruin my rep.” This was blackmail. “And laugh uproariously while I do it.” Desirée considerately turned off her car stereo as she drove him home. Nothing could turn off his alarm, however, at the reckless way she drove. Gritting his teeth, he braced his arm on the dash as she whipped into each turn. The first time it was a left one, and she pulled directly in front of an oncoming vehicle, sending his heart to somewhere near his nasal passages. When she almost overshot a stop sign and had to stand on the brakes, he lost his cool. “Slow the hell down!” he shouted, the words pounding like another hammer in his skull. “You’re going to kill yourself like this. Or someone’s going to do it for you in an act of road rage.” “What do you care? Then I’d be out of your hair for good.” It was such a childish response that he wanted to strangle her. “In case you haven’t noticed, Dez, I ’m in the car at the moment too.” “Always looking out for number one.” Flippant brat. How she goaded him beyond belief. “Believe me, Desirée. A beautiful woman doesn’t make a beautiful corpse. Severed arms and legs are pretty ugly no matter how fucking sexy they were when they were part of a package.” “Hey.” She pulled into his driveway and turned to him with a bright smile. “So you think I’m fucking sexy?” He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. Instead he opened the car door. “Thanks for the lift.” She was out faster than he was. “I promised Tanner I’d get you all tucked in and make sure you took your medication too.” Oh, crap. When he felt better he was going to take his little brother to the mat for this one. “He explained the lycanthropy, did he?” “Yeah, Wolf Man, he did. And he told me sometimes you try to sweat it out through the full moon rather than taking your prescription like a good little puppy.” “It makes me woozy.” Now he sounded like a child. “That’s while I’ll be here to catch you.” “My folks…” He gestured to the house next door. “Are at their desert place, Tanner said.” His head was hurting too bad to come up with another argument. She didn’t rub it in, though, and he was grateful for her silence as they entered his house. He went immediately to the kitchen and located his bottle of pills, then shook out a couple.
Dez was ready with a glass of water, and he took it with a grunt of thanks. Then he set it on the counter. “I’m going to take a shower now and go to bed. You can assure Tanner you’ve done your duty.” He turned toward the hallway. “Show yourself out, all right?” Lukewarm water sluiced away some of the tension. The medication was starting to do its thing too. As usual, it seemed to work on him from the outside in—fuzzing the edges of his brain first, then moving toward the middle. He was working on a full fuzz when he walked out of the bathroom and into his bedroom, naked. Desirée was sitting in the easy chair beside the bed. Her shoes were off and she had her bare feet stretched out in front of her. The headaches played havoc with his vision, but thanks to the pills, it cleared even as his thought processes got muddy. So what he thought he was seeing came to him in sharp detail. Dez’s bare toes dabbled in the pool of light from the bedside lamp. Each nail was painted a pale green, like a spring field, and tiny, multicolored flowers were scattered across them too. On each big toe was a perfect butterfly, the tips of their antennae glittering like jewels. He knew it was a hallucination, of course. Not just because of those fantastical toenails, but because Desirée was silent, big-eyed, her mouth soft and unmoving instead of spewing her usual vinegar. Troy didn’t worry too much about the vision. It was sure as hell better than some of his nightmares, though he supposed he’d have to tell the doc what the pills were doing at his next appointment. For now he was planning to enjoy the pretty picture. His gaze still on the delusion, he pulled back his sheets and slid into bed. Then he folded one arm behind his head and smiled at the daydream just a few feet away. Drowsiness was starting to descend like a curtain, just another of the medication’s side effects, but he didn’t mind it so much this time. “Why don’t you come right here?” he whispered, patting the expanse of bedspread beside him. “Over there you’re too far away.” His fantasy blinked slowly, then rose and walked toward the bed. It was so real that he felt her weight dip the mattress, and he turned on his side the better to watch her stretch out beside him. “Are you all right?” she whispered back. “I’m tired. You know the pills knock me out.” “You don’t like the feeling.” The dreamgirl Dez reached over to trail her fingertips along his cheek. “You want to always be in control. Why’s that?” He would have shrugged if he could make his shoulder muscles respond to his command. But they were beyond him now. “Marine officer training,” he mumbled. “Leadership principles. Knowledge. Decisiveness. Dependability.” “You can always be depended upon to think you know everything, I’ll decisively give you that.” Troy tried lifting his heavy eyelids. His fantasy Desirée, the one he’d often brought into the shower with him along with a fistful of liquid soap, didn’t talk in that caustic tone. “Where’s my Dez?” Her fingertips traced over his face again. “Shh. Right here. But how did you hurt your head, Troy? What happened?” Without trying to open his eyes again, he frowned. She was a product of his brain, right? Then she should know what happened to his brain. “It was that ambush. On the highway in Afghanistan. Remember?” “Mmmm.” “The truck. I was up on the hill, and I saw the Marines down below who had the wire stretched
out across to stop traffic. That truck didn’t stop. Got all tangled up. ’Course now know they meant to.” “That’s right.” Her fingers traced his face again. “Then our guys approached the driver. Two guys shot up from beneath tarps in the truck bed holding assault rifles. The checkpoint guys let ’em have it, but the bad guys had it too, RPGs, ammunition, fuel. Yeah, all that stuff went up in a blaze of glory. One of those sizzlin’ RPGs our guys blew up blew in just a little too close to my position. Concussion.” “That would give me nightmares,” she whispered. “Nah. That part was like the big finale at a Fourth fireworks celebration. But then another of those RPGs hit one of ours who was positioned nearby. Blew him the hell up, then his body parts rained down on me. That’s the nightmare, Dream Dez.” “Troy.” “That’s why the real Dez has gotta slow down in that damn car. Can’t lose her. Can’t take another nightmare.” Dream Dez sniffled. With effort, he reached out and pulled her closer. “C’mon.” By feel, he managed to turn her in his arms so he could spoon her body and cup one breast in his hand. Those damn pills. His pecker was soft, when wouldn’t it be so much nicer to be pressed hard and randy against the cleft of her perfect, fantasy ass? With a sigh, he settled his cheek against the sandalwood scent of her long, silky hair. On a tide of medicated calm, he floated away. Troy woke with full-on morning wood. For a moment he tried to ignore the sensation and fall back asleep, but then other sensations crowded in. He had a woman in his arms, and not just any woman. One breath and he knew that scent. Desirée. Opening his eyes, he lifted onto one elbow. Sure enough, she was asleep on top of the covers beside him. He was still cupping her perfect breast in his other hand. His hard pecker was pressed against her round butt. He should be in heaven. Of course, he was in hell. Last night he’d revealed his weakness to her. It came back to him in an unpleasant flash: In his memory he heard himself tell her about Afghanistan and then, worse, that he didn’t want to lose her. Between one breath and the next, Desirée’s eyes popped opened. Her body didn’t move, only her eyes swiveled, so that her gaze met his. It appeared neither one of them knew what to say. He should be finding some way to recoup all he’d set free. He should be kicking her out of his bed or leaping from it himself, faking disgust or distaste or at the very least dismay. But then something happened to put all that from his mind. Her nipple hardened against his palm. Her pupils went wide too, and he saw her lips part. Without thinking, he leaned close. She pushed her head deeper into her pillow. “What are you doing?”
What he shouldn’t, of course. What he really shouldn’t after that kiss in the parking lot. Desirée was a boiling pot, always at the bubble and ready to burn him, her little spits and splashes stinging his skin, her steam fogging his brain. She wasn’t the peace he’d been seeking since that horrific night in Afghanistan of brain-popping blasts and blood-and-body-parts rain. “Troy…” Peace or no, though, he leaned closer. Along the lines of the best defense being a good offense, Marines were trained as predators. And with Dez in his arms, with his cock ready for battle and his adrenaline now pouring like gasoline onto the flames of lust starting to pump in his blood, there was no going back from this moment. “It’s another one of those leadership traits I learned in OTS—Officer Training School,” he murmured. “Initiative.” His mouth found hers. This kiss was nothing like the one at the parking lot. He’d been prepared for another fight of fire to fire. But this time she didn’t spark in his arms. Instead she sighed against his mouth, and rather than straining to meet his desire, she sank farther into the mattress, as if she wanted to make herself part of his bed. It disconcerted him. Troy lifted his head, trying to get a bead on this new game of hers, but her lashes hid her eyes, and then he had to bend his mouth to them too, brushing kisses against her eyelids with a touch more gentle than he knew he had in him. His lips found hers again, and she made another soundless sigh, her tongue venturing out to graze the tip of his. At the contact, his muscles hardened in one quick squeeze…mimicked by a new tightening of the stiff bead of her nipple. He almost lost it. Sinking back to his side, he buried his face in the curve of her neck and shoulder. He shifted his hand from its place covering her breast to slide under her open-necked blouse. His fingertips found warm, bare skin, the cup of her bra, then the silky flesh beneath it. She arched into his touch, like a cat stretching toward a hand, and he opened his mouth over her skin to bite. Except he licked instead, ignoring the circling meat eater that was his hungry lust to tenderly savor her exotic, spicy taste. His fingers wanted to pluck and squeeze that hard little nipple between his fingers, to give her a taste of the sensual pain she’d shown him every time she swished her ass in his presence. But he found himself soothing her with his touch instead, brushing his thumb over her, back and forth, forth and back, until she was pushing her hips into the cradle of his. She turned her face toward him. The honey skin was flushed like a dawn sky, and her kiss was like the morning too, a glimmer of fiery sun rising, spreading, turning from delicate warmth to full heat. They broke the kiss, both panting. She twisted on the covers, dragging the sheet down to his waist. Now they were nose-to-nose, staring into each other’s gaze. He flashed to those mysterious eyes beneath their lattice webbings in Afghanistan, and again wondered what Desirée was hiding. “What are your secrets, baby?” he whispered, half to himself. It should have scared the shit out of him that he wanted to know them, but there would be days, months, years to regret all this later. Her cheeks flushed a deeper red and her eyelashes swept over them, concealing her thoughts. One hand still cupping her sweet breast, he tucked his free fingers beneath her chin, lifted it. “Dez?” She smiled. Gave him one of those saucy, flirty glances that made him want to beat his chest and
howl like the Wolf Man he’d claimed to be the night before. “I love your body,” she confessed. Oh, yeah, he was ready to howl all right. “I’ve been stalking your surfing places just to catch you seminaked.” She might as well have plugged him into an electric socket. Everything inside of him lit up, buzzed, whistled. His hand tightened on her warm breast and then he slid it away. Pretending calm was something else he’d learned on the battlefield. He used the ability now, rolling to his back and stacking his hands behind his head. “I’m more than seminaked now, baby, and all yours.” Her gaze on his chest, she licked her lips. For the first time in his warrior life, he actually thought he might die. Then, oh God, then, she reached out to catch the sheet bunched at his waist. Her fingernails lightly scratched through the hair of one rock-hard thigh as she drew the covers down. She stared at the package between his legs, her eyes flaring wide. Oh Christ, oh Christ. This had been a really bad idea, he thought. Not that he was a physical freak, but he was a big man, built with big man proportions. He twitched, then reached down to yank the sheet back up. Quick as a snake, she moved, staying his hand. “You’re not…embarrassed, are you?” she asked, her dark chocolate eyes darting toward his. This was a test question, damn it. “I’m not the one still dressed,” he told her, trying to play it cool again. He even managed to arch a brow. Her tongue swiped her bottom lip. And while her hand rose to toy with a button, she looked ready to bolt. Damn it! She’d flirted with him in a thousand different ways and he’d resisted a thousand different times. Now that he’d decided to give in to raging lust, she couldn’t, couldn’t refuse to engage! “I’ve got a confession too. I’ve seen plenty of you, Dez. I’ve seen your long, honey-colored legs. You’ve made me crazy showing off that intriguing slice of your little belly between your too-high shirts and your too-low pants. Fact is, baby, you’ve made me hard staring at the small of your back. So don’t tell me now you’re afraid to show me the rest.” A challenge would get her every time. She was buck-bare in fifteen seconds flat. Maybe he had died on that mountain in Afghanistan and just now finally found his way to heaven. She was perfect. Honey skin. Nipples a light cinnamon color. A postage stamp of dark curls that did nothing to conceal the fruit-juicy sections of her sex. And her string bikini tan line was enough to make him sweat. “Come here, baby,” he whispered, holding his arms out to her. She flung herself down on him, as if to hide all those inches of skin. The head of his cock kissed the taut skin of her belly. Stilling, she glanced down, then glanced up at him. “You’re, uh, wet.” Yeah, watching her undress had primed his pump. He grinned at her. “You too, I bet.” With one hand on her hip, he shifted her higher on his body. The other snuck between her legs. With a shallow thrust he slid his long middle finger inside. Her back arched, her breasts lifting toward his mouth. Troy raised his head to latch onto one cinnamon-pink nipple. His finger pushed deeper. She moaned as he sucked on the tight peak of her breast, her body writhing on his simple, single
impalement. She was tight there, clenching him hard, and he tried to soothe her by palming her hip. “Troy,” she said as he moved to take her other nipple into his mouth. He sucked gently, in time with the shallow thrusts of his finger. She pressed harder against him, grinding against his belly. Her breath panted against his temple and her fingers dug half-moons into his biceps. If she hadn’t been moaning so sweetly too, he would have thought her panicked. Concerned, he gentled his suction on her breast, then let it slip free of his mouth, lapping it in temporary good-bye. Then he rolled, changing their positions so he was between her thighs and resting most of his weight on his elbows. “Baby, take it easy. Take it easy. We’ve got all the time we need, don’t worry.” Her hands squeezed his shoulders. Her eyes flashed with nervous fire. “You won’t go? You won’t leave me? You promise?” Troy narrowed his gaze. “I swear I’m not letting you out of this bed until we both can’t walk.” “Good. Good. So then…so then I can tell you that I’ve never done this before.” “Never done wh—” His jaw dropped. Christ. No. No? The celebutante who had made his brother’s life hell with a simple kiss was claiming she was a…a…He couldn’t even say the word. “You’re kidding.” “No.” “Good God in the morning. Get real here. Tell me you’re kidding.” “Do you hate it?” Her voice was anxious. “Do you hate me?” Yeah, he’d hated her for months. First, when he’d heard about what had happened to Tanner. Second, there was the day she’d walked into his bar and he’d glimpsed that sweet, exotic face of hers. In the dim light he’d thought she was fifteen years too young for him, and had hated her for that. Then he’d hated that she wasn’t jail bait, and hated himself for being so susceptible to her brand of impudent sass. He’d hated her for being spoiled, and vain—she had to know what her tight pants and tiny tops did to him and every other male in her vicinity—and he’d hated it when he found out she was hardworking and funny and compassionate enough to take care of his hard, aching head. He didn’t hate her virginity. It didn’t matter to him—who the hell was he kidding! Of course it mattered to him. But only in that he was determined to make it good for her. And shit, please God he wouldn’t hurt her. Wasn’t he going to hurt her? Oh, hell. He dropped his forehead against hers and tried to sound reassuring and gentle. “I’m glad you told me, Dez.” Him! Trying to sound gentle! “I wasn’t going to,” she grumbled. “But then I figured if somehow you found out you’d be really mad at me.” “I spend a lot of time in that state, huh?” The best defense is a good offense. Obviously that plan had worked for shit, because here they were, naked to naked. But how that had happened didn’t matter now. Now Dez mattered. Making love to Dez. He started all over again.
More kisses to that sweet mouth of hers, curling his tongue against hers, stroking her softly on the roof of her mouth, then moving on to caress her nipples with the very same moves. Gentle was the word of the morning, and he wondered if he’d somehow sensed her inexperience before. The predator would have to save his bite for another day. His mouth roamed from her breasts down over her stomach. He flicked his tongue in the little pool of her belly button, and smiled against her bikini-bottom line when she squirmed and opened her legs in silent supplication. His thumbs caressed the inside curve of her thighs, then moved higher to pull open the plump sections of her sex so he could take her in his hot mouth. She gasped, her hips rising to meet him, and his heart pounded with lust and care and a bone-deep excitement. He wanted this to be perfect for her. So perfect that this morning would color every single other morning to come. He fumbled with one hand to open the drawer on the bedside table. Without taking his mouth from its sweet task, he plucked one of the condoms from the small pile and dropped it on her flat belly. He glanced up between her bent thighs, saw the flush flagging her cheeks, and slid his tongue up the swollen slide of her sex. He found the hard nub playing sentry there, and overtook it, catching it in a light grasp of his teeth and then using his tongue to flick it toward her little death. She put up no resistance. Her heels dug into the mattress, she cried out in a surrender as clear as a white flag and gave him everything she had. He didn’t show her any mercy. Her body writhed and jerked, but he held her hips steady, absorbing every last spasm of her climax. When she finally quieted, he grabbed up the condom, rolled it over himself and dropped the empty foil to the mattress. Once again he came over her body. Desirée looked lush and languorous, like a woman who’d been waiting for him beside a decadent oasis all her life. He touched the tip of himself to the soft and wet notch between her legs. She caught her breath, one hand clutching his shoulder, the other falling to the sheet. Her face changed and she lifted that hand, frowning at the condom wrapper. “Where did this come from?” she said. “In the bedside table.” He nodded to the half-open drawer. “And tell me you wouldn’t let me do this without one.” He pushed, sliding the head just inside her body. She gasped. Then her face softened and her hips rolled up, taking another inch. He gritted his teeth, denying himself the deep thrust he desired. “Let me do this, witch.” “Fine. What ever.” Smiling a witchy smile, she made a careless gesture with her hand. Then her gaze snagged on that condom package again, still between her fingers. “Do you have more of these in the drawer?” “I guess.” He was trying to go slow, he would go slow, no matter what it took out of him. “How many more?” “What? I don’t know.” He pushed another inch and they both gasped. His head dropped and he kissed her collarbone, the side of her neck, the puffy surface of her bottom lip. “Tell me how many more,” Desirée said, her voice breathless. Good God. Who could figure out women? Shifting his elbow, he leaned over to peer inside the half-open drawer. “Five. Are you satisfied now?” “Five? As in five plus one equals six?” She smiled in delight. He shook his head. “I’m not doing my job if you can still count, baby.”
She tossed the empty foil wrapper into the air and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Magna cum laude, remember?” “Semper fi, remember?” He gave her a little more of his weight. There was slight resistance, then it gave way. Desirée’s eyes widened, squeezed tight, opened again. “Okay?” Each breath was taking him deeper. “Oh. Kay.” Air stuttered into her lungs, then eased out. “I’d say, um, groovy, Semper Fi. Now I think it’s time for you to kick my butt into Monday.” “How ’bout if I kiss you there instead?” And then he bent his head to her, and bent his body to hers, and bent both their wills so that together the warrior and the witch found a common cadence that pleased them both. “Troy Troy Troy.” Desirée was pleading as the rhythm ratcheted them higher. He lifted his hips and put his hand between them, stroking her on each upstroke. She continued calling his name, her body rising toward his. “Look at me, Dez. Look at me.” Her dark gaze focused on his face. He stared into her eyes, trying to understand why she was here and why this moment belonged to him. But before he could figure out all her mysteries, she cried out one last time. Her body milked his, drawing the climax straight from his soul, straight through him, straight toward Desirée’s heart.
annah lifted a languid hand to her nose and sniffed the back of it. Her gaze cut toward Tanner.
“Do I smell like honey?” He groaned, and glanced away from the Mercedes windshield to her face. “You promised.” She swallowed canary feathers as she smiled. “I promised what?” “I knew I shouldn’t have picked up the phone,” he muttered. “I knew I should have pretended I wasn’t home.” “We were a little busy at the time.” Hannah’s smile widened as she remembered. He’d been making them a meal to serve as a late breakfast/early lunch, and she’d been doing her best to make him take her back to bed by sliding her arms around his waist and unbuttoning his shirt from behind. “But Uncle Geoff was glad to track me down.” Tanner sent her another sidelong look. “You’re sure you didn’t give anything away over the phone?” “You heard my half of the conversation. I was mostly giving out sympathy that his broken leg had cut his ski vacation short. He asked if you were showing me a good time, and well, you know what I said to that.” “It was the way you said I was showing you a ‘great’ time that has me worried,” Tanner muttered again. “I could swear you were purring.” She didn’t refute the idea. How could she? She felt like a happy, purring cat—warm, well-fed, well-petted. Tanner was an affectionate, attentive lover. Even when he’d gone to the bar to fill in for
Troy, he’d woken her when he’d arrived home. She loved sex. But it was more than that. She had never lived with a man, including Duncan, and to turn over in sleep and find another body beside her, to wake up and have the plea sure of a lover’s skin just inches away… All these years, she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed a man’s touch. And Tanner knew, so well, how to touch her. “What are you thinking about now?” he demanded. “No, don’t tell me, not when we’re minutes away from your uncle’s place.” She laughed. “What, you’re reading my brain waves now?” During the phone call, she’d agreed to her laid-up uncle’s suggestion to bring Tanner and Chinese food over to his place for dinner. Tanner had gone piano-wire on her at the idea. He had some misbegotten notion that Uncle Geoff might guess what was going on between them, and he wanted to keep that private, he said. His tension had only drawn tighter the closer it came to the appointed hour. Poor man. But nothing was going to tarnish her shining mood. She loved sex! Tanner’s expression was grim as they pulled in front of Uncle Geoff ’s home. He lived in San Diego itself, in an executive town home in a new Mediterranean-style development. Between the sidewalk and the front door was a hanky-sized front lawn, an ornamental tree, a couple of bushes, and a fake-looking boulder. When she rang the bell—Tanner’s arms were full of Chinese carry-out bags—Uncle Geoff called out that they should let themselves in. She put her hand on the knob. “Hannah,” Tanner said, his voice so urgent it halted her. “What?” She glanced over her shoulder. “This is between us, remember?” Mesmerized, she stared at him. The porch light made a halo of his blond hair, but she knew he was no angel. Oh, thank God he was no angel. Nothing had seemed too earthy for him. He seemed obsessed with her skin—all her skin—and he touched and tasted her everywhere, from the obvious places to the less obvious ones. Upon awakening this morning, he’d placed a delicious, sucking kiss over the pulse at her wrist. His tongue had flicked the sensitive web of flesh at the base of her fingers, sending shivers to her elbow. He’d bitten the pad of flesh at the base of her thumb and her womb had clenched. Like that, sexually ready. Now, he closed his eyes on a groan. “Hannah, damn it, Hannah.” She blinked, mind coming back to the present. “Yes? What?” “If you look at me like that all night, I’m not going to last, sweetheart.” That made her smile. He groaned again. “Hannah, be serious. What happened last night and the night before…Okay, and yesterday and this morning—” “Tanner…” “Okay, and this afternoon, well…” “I told you, I don’t want Uncle Geoff in my business any more than you do.” She wasn’t
interested in examining what had happened over the last two days with Tanner, not yet anyway, and she wasn’t going to let any member of her meddling family do it either. Right now it was enough to be near him, smell him, recall exactly how his hands had fisted in her hair as he brought her mouth down to his when she—Hannah Davis!—had been riding him like a brazen cowgirl. Her face heated at the thought, her body following suit. In a good way. A very good way. Tanner shook his head. “This is going to be a disaster.” She made a face, then tiptoed to reach over the bags of fragrant food and kiss his chin. “Don’t be such a worrier. I won’t let anything bad happen.” To be honest, though, once inside and facing her uncle Geoff, she experienced her own little jitter of nerves. Not only did he look an awful lot like her mother (they were siblings, after all), but Secret Service supervising agent Geoff Brooks had eyes as sharp as her mother’s too. They darted between Hannah and Tanner as he sat on an easy chair beside the gas-powered fireplace. His casted leg was propped on a pillow placed atop an ottoman. “You’re sure your vacation has been going well? Your mom filled me in about the loss of your baggage and purse.” She had found a tray in the kitchen and continued to serve him a plate from the cardboard boxes they’d brought. “I’ve got new ID and a credit card and ATM card now, Uncle Geoff. I’m good.” The older man shot a look at Tanner. “Did you check with the authorities at the airport?” “Yes, sir,” he answered. After shaking hands with his former boss, he’d staked out a spot on the sofa. Despite all his dire predictions on their way in, he looked as relaxed as if he was sitting in front of his own TV. “I’ve called every day to see if there’s any word on Hannah’s things.” Frowning, she turned to face him. “You didn’t tell me that. And you don’t need to make any calls for me. I’ve taken care of that myself.” “Good job, Hart,” her uncle said. “I suppose they don’t have any leads?” Tanner shook his head. “She’s not the first person this has ever happened to, of course, particularly during the holiday season. But they’re keeping their eyes open. They’ll let me know if anything develops.” Hannah continued staring at him. “I expect them to let me know about any developments. I can handle this.” “Hannah…” her uncle started, his tone placating. She turned her frown on him. “Uncle Geoff, I’m not six years old.” They both froze at her choice of words. Six years old. The age she’d been when Deborah had died. That time in their lives was indelibly etched on their communal family memory and had a lot to do with why she didn’t drive, why she didn’t question, why she always tried to please. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, of course you’re a grown woman. It’s just hard for your old bachelor uncle to remember that.” “Old bachelor uncle,” she scoffed, shaking her head at him as she arranged his tray over his lap. “Don’t try that sympathy stuff on me. Didn’t you just tell me you broke your leg on a double black diamond run at Mammoth?” How a hard as nails, fifty-something man thought he could look pitiful was beyond her, still, he tried it. “Hannah, there’s my point. I broke it—” “After some hotdogger cut you off. I have my sources too, you know.” He laughed. “Why I thought I could put something over on a member of this family—” “You know Mom can sniff bread going bad from a thousand miles away.” She turned back to the
food and the dinnerware she’d brought out for Tanner and herself. He had picked up a plate and a serving spoon already. Tanner prepared her plate before his own, lifting his eyebrow and pointing to each selection before doling out a spoonful. Then he handed the food over with a napkin and a paper sleeve of chopsticks as she sat beside him on the couch. Instead of telling him she was a fork kind of girl, she decided to try the wooden utensils in a continued spirit of adventure. She waited to begin until Tanner dished up his own plate and watched as he pulled the chopsticks from the paper and then took them between his long fingers. In a flash she remembered him taking her nipples between them too, plucking at her hardened, sensitive buds of flesh until she writhed on the sheets, and all the while his gaze had watched her face, taking in each desperate response— “Hannah,” he said from between his teeth. Coming to the present—Uncle Geoff ’s living room sofa!—she started, and glanced up at Tanner’ s face. “What? What?” What had she missed? “Do you need help with your chopsticks?” he asked. The question sounded innocent, but she could hear the edginess in his voice. “Are you feeling all right?” Uncle Geoff chimed in. “You’re not eating.” “I’m fine. Fine.” She smiled at her uncle and tried relaxing against the cushions. Hadn’t she promised this meal would go well? She could feel Tanner’s glare on her face, but she pretended not to notice and applied herself to her meal and the new-to-her utensils. The task was enough to distract her attention from her earlier preoccupation. Though she was aware she was supposed to hold one stick steady and the other like a pencil to make the tweezing action, she couldn’t get the hang of it. Laughing, she looked up at the two men. “I have a whole new appreciation for my students with handwriting issues.” She tried again, but the piece of shrimp was more slippery than an eel and slid right back to the plate. “Let me demonstrate,” Tanner said. He reached over, plucked the errant shellfish from her plate, and held the savory food up to his own mouth. Her gaze met his as his lips opened. Oh, no. She was thinking about sex again. The soft pink fish, the slick sauce that she knew was slightly salty, the way his tongue curled out to take the first taste— Uncle Geoff cleared his throat. “Speaking of your mother—” Hannah choked on nothing but air. In a flash, Tanner’s hand was on her back, giving it a sharp thwack so that the bubble was dislodged from her throat. Tears stinging her eyes, she then took a long breath and chanced a peek at her uncle. Oh, terrific. His eyes were narrowed and there was a small frown between his brows. Hannah pasted on a smile. “Speaking of my mother…what?” Her uncle shook his head. “Never mind. Tell me what you’ve been doing on your vacation.” Careful not to look at Tanner, she gave the bright and breezy censored version: Desirée’s suite, the spa, sand, ocean, zoo. Uncle Geoff seemed satisfied, and when she hopped up to take his tray away, he asked her to fetch his pain medication from the bathroom. He said he was going to take a couple of capsules and then go to bed. “Leg’s aching like a son of a gun,” he said, grimacing. Taking that as their cue to leave, Hannah rounded up the few dishes and put them in the dishwasher, then stashed the leftovers in Uncle Geoff ’s fridge. As she ventured down the hall to find the
pills, she heard the men’s voices murmuring in the other room. She didn’t worry about it, though. Tanner had shown himself to be far more in control than she was. It was annoying as all get out that while her imagination had been going wild as he fed himself that piece of shrimp, he’d looked cool and unaffected. Bottle in hand, she nearly skipped back down the hall. If she had her way, though, as soon as they were alone she was going to do her best to shatter his unruffled facade. He didn’t stand a chance against her, she told herself, casting all doubts aside. He wouldn’t turn away from her now, not yet. She reentered the living room, her mood as bright as it had been all day. Tanner was on his feet. He swung toward her, his eyes glittering, that tension he must have been smothering now radiating from every cell. Unable to look away from his tight face, she blindly handed the pills to her uncle. “Tanner? What’s the matter?” “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” he bit out. “Tell you what?” It felt as if an icy hand had grabbed the back of her neck, though Tanner wasn’t touching her. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me that Duncan, your errant ex-fiancé, is dead.”
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New year’s all the holiday decorations come down.
don’t know why you’re so angry,” Hannah said, her voice calm and reasonable.
Tanner clenched the steering wheel and stared out the windshield into the dark night as he drove them back to Coronado. Hell. He didn’t know why he was so angry either. But for some goddamn reason, Geoff Brooks’s offhand remark about Hannah’s dead ex had stung like a slap in the face. “Your uncle assumed you’d told me all about him,” he muttered. “I felt like an idiot when I found out the guy was no longer with us.” “Uncle Geoff shouldn’t have assumed I’d tell you anything about Duncan,” she said, still in that annoying, rational voice. “You’re merely my tour guide, right?” Christ. Her tour guide. Tanner thanked the darkness, because it hid his aghast expression. How had he let this get so out of hand? As she pointed out, he was supposed to be her “mere” tour guide, and yet over the past couple of days they’d taken to exploring lands they should have left well enough alone. “We both know I’ve become more than that, Hannah,” he said, aware of the bitterness in his voice. “So what? It’s a vacation fling.” And wasn’t that just another smack. But maybe those metaphorical slaps had a purpose to serve, he told himself, trying to think
through the blows. Maybe they were supposed to refocus his attention on the risk he was taking getting involved with Hannah. Warning smacks, then, telling him to back away, and that he didn’t need to know any more about her past, her pain, that ex. Telling him to make it clear to her that the fun and games—excuse me, that fling—was over between them. But before he could bring up the subject, Hannah released a resigned sigh. “So you think you should know about Duncan.” He’d changed his mind about that. “Not real—” “He was my childhood sweetheart. He was going off to war. End of story.” Off to war? Tanner lost his grip on the steering wheel and the Mercedes nearly plowed into a fire hydrant. At the last minute he jerked it away from disaster. Hannah swallowed a shriek, and he remembered again she was a nervous passenger. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said. God, he needed to get her out of this car and away from him before they both came to grief. He gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes, focusing on the road ahead and putting everything else from his mind. Get her to Coronado. Drop her off at the hotel. Regain your distance. “What the hell do you mean, going off to war?” Tanner had no idea who spoke the words in his voice. “I told you he was in the military. That day at the DMV.” That day at the DMV he’d been caught up in weird fantasies that involved the flag, and he struggled to keep them from marching back into his thoughts now. “All right. Yeah.” “He asked me to marry him just before he shipped out to Iraq the first time.” She said this in the same colorless, rational tone she’d been using since leaving her uncle’s place. What had happened to the purring sex kitten sitting beside him a couple of hours ago? Not that he wanted to know. “Over the next three years I didn’t see him. He was either in Iraq or briefly back in the U.S. for special training. When he was stateside, he told me he would be too busy for a visit, so we kept in touch through letters, phone calls, and e-mails.” “Jesus, Hannah.” Tanner shook his head, his blood starting to boil again. “What kind of man is too busy for a visit from his fiancée? Didn’t you wonder about that?” In contrast to his hot mood, she sounded as chilly as the January ocean temperature. “Maybe I should have figured something was up. But I went along with his wishes because…because I usually go along with other people’s wishes.” Except when it came to him, Tanner thought. He’d been wishing she didn’t tempt him so damn much, and so far the wishing hadn’t been working. Taking the exit for the bridge, he tried loosening the coil of hot frustration twisting inside his gut. But at the moment, his willpower wasn’t working either. “Tell me the rest,” he grated out. “Tell me all of it.” Call him curious, call him crazy, but now he figured that until he heard it all he wasn’t going to be able to let go. To let her go, and it appeared to be definitely the time to do that. “What rest?” He ground his back teeth. Was she being deliberately obtuse? Was she trying to drive him straight up a wall? Because that calm, collected voice of hers just might do it.
“I remember you said he never broke the engagement. That you found out he was married while you were still wearing his engagement ring.” “Oh, that.” Oh, that. Christ. “His parents were notified of his death. They, in turn, told me. We were in the middle of planning his memorial service—funny, I remember now I was sitting down with a paper and pencil, trying to write out what I planned to say, when Duncan’s parents came by again a couple of days later. With the, uh, other news.” The uh, other news. Tanner shook his head. “The news that he was married.” “Yes. Apparently he’d met someone and married her during that last training session back in the States. He didn’t get a chance to tell his parents or me, I guess, before he was killed.” Tanner turned his head to stare at her. They’d made it over the bridge and he turned right instead of left, choosing to take a longer route to her hotel. “What? How much time after his ‘I do’ until…?” “Oh, I don’t know. Six weeks? Five months?” His temper surged again. “Which is it? Six weeks? Or five months?” She hesitated, but then spoke again in that unaffected tone. “He was in the U.S. for six more weeks following his wedding. Then another five months in Iraq.” Tanner felt his eyeballs popping out of his head. “So he kept you hanging for over six months? What a bastard.” “Don’t—” “Don’t what? For God’s sake, Hannah, why the whitewash?” Did she still love the SOB? Was that what was pissing him off so much? But how could she? “He treated you like shit.” “Don’t say that about him!” For the first time since leaving her uncle’s there was some real, honest-to-God emotion in her voice. Yet he hated that it only came out in her ex’s defense. Spurred by an impulse he couldn’t define, Tanner pulled to the curb and shut off the car. A streetlight illuminated her profile: the stubborn thrust of her chin, the tight set of her mouth. “Admit it, Hannah.” Maybe he was the bastard, but he wanted to hear her say it. His voice turned lower. Harder. “Admit the truth. Admit that he screwed you over.” “That’s not right. He didn’t—” “Admit it.” “He—” “Admit it.” Her hand flew up. Crack! She’d slapped his face. Tanner reared back, and they stared at each other, both of them breathing hard. His third stinging smack of the night, though this one literal instead of metaphorical, and all his own fault. He’d pushed her to it, just more proof that when it came to Hannah, he was getting out of control. And the last thing he wanted was to feel more powerlessness in his life. He reached for the key. Get her to the hotel. Regain your distance. “I can’t believe I did that,” she whispered. Her hand covered her mouth, her fingers trembling.
“But you can’t make me say something bad about Duncan. He died a hero, did you know that? Tw-Twenty-seven men are alive thanks to his actions on the day he died. His…his wife was given his posthumous medals.” Tanner’s hand fisted and dropped to his thigh. His eyes squeezed shut. A hero. Hannah’s SOB fiancé had died a hero. Didn’t that just make the story freakin’ more fabulous? A fucking hero. His jaw throbbed like a bitch, but it was nothing compared to his temper. It was alive inside of him again, pumping in time with his heart, filling his belly, his chest, his head. “Now I know why I’m angry,” he whipped out. “Now I know exactly why I’m angry. Before I took you to bed, you should have told me I was replacing a ghost—worse, a fucking hero ghost. I might have done a better job, knowing how great the expectation.” He braced for her to slap him again. Instead she surprised him by throwing up her hands. “So this is about you,” she said, her voice rising with each word. “Isn’t that just like a man? Thinking only of yourself. Thinking only about what will make you happy and not considering anyone else or anyone else’s feelings. Well, then damn you. Damn you, damn you, damn you, Duncan—” Her voice halted. Damn you, Duncan. It echoed in the sudden silence. Damn you, Duncan. And then tears were running down her cheeks, the streetlight turning them silver like the raindrops that had flowed down the windshield that first time she’d melted in his arms. And then she was there again—as he stripped her of the seat belt in record time and hauled her up against him. So much for distance. “Shh shh shh,” he said against her hair. How could he have pushed her to this? Why had he pushed her to this? “Don’t cry. Don’t cry. There’s no reason to cry.” “I’m not crying,” she said, her wet face pressed against his neck. “I’m just sorry. Sorry about…about…” “Shh, shh.” She ducked her head tighter against him. “Tanner, I’m so sorry I slapped you.” “We’ll give you a time-out later.” He pulled her into his lap and stroked his palm down the length of her silky hair as more of her tears made a stain over his heart. “I have an empty corner in the bedroom.” There was no longer any doubt of where she would be sleeping to night. And there was no question of him letting her go now—he wouldn’t, at least not yet. Dawn’s pink light softened the stark white of Tanner’s sheets and added a tinge of rosy color to the tan of his broad naked back and muscled shoulders. Sitting up against the headboard, Hannah studied his blond head, those shoulders, the shallow valley of his spine. Last night she’d run her tongue along the groove, her hands curved around his straining biceps to hold him against the mattress. He’d groaned and made delicious promises under his breath if only she would let him go, let him up, let him have his way with her. She’d had her way first—using touch as an apology and as a distraction from the tense emotions in the car as they’d left her uncle’s. She hadn’t wanted to talk about the past or about Duncan anymore. Still, that distraction had been her plea sure, exploring all Tanner’s masculine territory of spine and scapula and muscled curve of his butt before turning him over to map the front with her hands. She’d
stroked over his pectoral muscles with her palms, bumping over his small nipples and the soft fur of his golden hair. Kissing her way down from his heart to his navel, she’d found her mouth a breath away from his erection and flushed hot as she licked the round head with her tongue. Tanner had been whispering to her again, more hoarse entreaties, but she’d blocked out the voice, only listening to the tone as it deepened when she sucked the sleek skin into her mouth. Her hand had drifted lower, finding other textures, cooler temperatures, feeling the way he held his breath as she cupped him and then rolled her tongue around and around and around. It had been for him. Not. It had been for her. Her heart had been pumping like crazy, her skin sensitized to the merest touch of his, her nipples as tight as if he’d squeezed them with his fingers. But she refused to let him touch her, instead bathing in the pool of her own sexuality. Reveling in how awake and alive she was when she was with him. How safe he made her feel during her discoveries. From the moment she’d landed on his lap at Hart’s on New Year’s Eve, he’d made her feel so safe. So glad to be a woman. She ran her finger over the stack of books on his bedside table and smiled at the memory of their dinner date when he’d turned her on by talking books. And movies. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” he’d said, quoting Dirty Dancing, and she realized now that Tanner was her very own Johnny Castle. Like “Baby” in the movie, she had gone on vacation and found the man who pulled her onto the dance floor and encouraged her to fly. Like the heroine in the movie, Hannah had shed her shell and— Oh, God. She’d shed her shell and fallen in love. Her fingers gripped the sheet over her breasts and tightened, pulling the fabric toward her throat, where her heart was banging like a fist on a door. Getting her attention. Letting her know this feeling wasn’t going away. It had to go away. A wave of heat swamped her, then a second wave, cold, icy cold, like the Pacific Ocean, but it wasn’t cold enough to numb. It wasn’t cold enough to freeze the certainty of what had happened to her. So this was it. This was love. Part admiration, part fascination. A sense of safety compromised by a frightening sense of risk. Of loss… She’d lost her heart. Her one-night stand had morphed into her vacation fling had morphed into the biggest mistake in her life. Getting engaged to Duncan, the boy with whom she’d grown up, had ended in colossal, public failure and humiliating pain, but falling for Tanner was so much worse. Now that she was truly alive, it was going to hurt so much more to lose him. And she would lose him. He’d only signed on for the few days she was here, and even then he’d been reluctant. Not because he didn’t like her in his bed—she knew he didn’t fake that—but because he wasn’t looking for
forever. And she’d thought she was done with wanting men who didn’t want her. How fickle fate could be. Still, she could put some distance between them. If she insisted, Tanner would relinquish his role of tour guide. Away from him she could catch her breath. Lick her wounds. She had practice at that. Swallowing hard, she lifted the phone on the bedside table. Tanner didn’t stir. She’d call information, then call a cab. The numbered buttons peeped as she pressed them. He jackknifed up. Hannah gasped, holding the receiver against her thudding heart. His blue eyes, all at once awake and alert, narrowed as his gaze focused on her face. “Are you all right?” His hand shot out and grasped her wrist. “I was dreaming…tell me you’re all right.” She tried on a reassuring smile. “I’m fine. I was just calling, um, calling Desirée. I think I should get back to the hotel and, um, see her.” “Desirée.” He ran his hand through his hair and sat taller, the sheet sliding farther down his torso. “Shit.” Hannah stared at the band of muscle that curved over his hip and wrapped inward toward his belly. Maybe this wasn’t love after all. Maybe it was pure lust, because she couldn’t snap her gaze away from that intriguing sight. “Shit. Desirée. I meant to check on her last night. Warn her.” “Hmm?” Hannah sounded dreamy to her own ears. “Don’t worry. I’ll meet up with her this morning. Soon.” Tanner lifted her chin and forced her gaze to meet his. “You stay away from her, you hear me, sweetheart?” Hannah blinked. “What? Why?” He forked his fingers through his hair again. “Another bit of info your uncle laid on me last night. There’s chatter out there about Dez.” “Chatter?” “The kind of chatter the intelligence community is listening to. There’s an outside chance—remote, but still—that the assassination attempt on her father last year was the work of a group that has a new plan and a new target in the al-Maddah family.” Hannah’s mouth went dry. For some reason her mind leaped back to that predator sedan that had nearly run her over a few days back. “Someone might hurt Desirée?” Tanner grabbed the phone out of her hand and punched in a number. “You burned the thought right out of my head last night, Hannah.” A smile flitted across his face, and he tapped her nose with his forefinger. “Don’t look so worried.” She crossed her arms over her chest and tried thinking warm happy thoughts even as Tanner had no luck reaching Desirée in the hotel suite or on her cell phone. The line of his mouth turned grim. “Tanner, what are we going to do?” He glanced at her again, punching yet another number. “First, we put Troy on the case.” “And second?”
“Once we find Dez, we’ll check you out of the Del and move you in with me.”
ever having had anyone to count upon, Desirée didn’t expect to rely on Troy. After he’d drifted
off to sleep that morning in his bed, she’d slipped away. She hadn’t seen or heard from him since. Only twenty-four hours had passed, of course, but it was enough time to send her the message. Though he’d been a gentle and generous lover, he wasn’t applying for a permanent position. She accepted that. However, she couldn’t stay in Coronado. It was no longer a place she could pretend was hers. So she’d slipped out of her bed today as the sun started to rise and took a dawn drive, not only to say good-bye to the beaches and the salty breezes, but to figure out where she’d go next. With the BMW‘s top down and the wind whipping through her hair, she told herself she was lucky. Independent means. Independent woman. She didn’t need anyone else for anything. Well, she needed someone to make her morning cup of coffee, so she steered in the direction of Junie’s Java, her fave place for an extra-hot skinny latte. The drive-through line was already snaking out the parking lot, so she pulled into a spot. Counter service would be faster, and since she wasn’t a commuter, she didn’t see a reason to clog their line. Striding between the cars, she checked out the people behind the wheels. One read the newspaper, two were on cell phones, a man ran an electric razor over his jaw. Each of them looked already preoccupied—occupied—and it reminded her of her brief employment at Hart’s. Even now, her arms still ached from the trays she’d carried three days ago. And then her heart ached too, remembering what it was like to look up and push the damp bangs out of her eyes to see Troy on the other side of the bar. To know what it was like to be bone-tired and yet feel the day had gone well. That settled it. Wherever she went, she was going to get a job. The pride she’d felt in working, in earning, wasn’t something she could give up as well as this place and that man. She smiled to herself, thinking of Troy’s reaction when some other bar called him for a reference. What would he say? The best virgin I ever had and then gave up. Ignoring the thought, she pushed through the plate-glass doors and approached the counter to make her order. Manning the register was a young woman with red-streaked hair, apparently styled by a cruel tornado. She’d half tamed it with a headband and some gel, but the effect was startling, especially when teamed with her earlobes—stretched to the point of, well, ick, by a pair of nickel-diameter plugs. No wonder there was no one in the walk-up line. Still, she had a friendly smile that turned puzzled as she looked up into Desirée’s face. “Hey, do I know you?” she said. “No, I don’t think so.” The other woman’s gaze narrowed. “Did we go to school together?”
Desirée shrugged, playing along. “Eastman in Illinois for a few years, then Hall-Peterson’s in Arizona, high school years at a different boarding school in Virginia. Ring any bells?” “Wow. No.” She rang up Desirée’s order. “Boarding school. That sucks, I guess.” “It was no day at the beach in Coronado.” Maybe if it had been, she would have met Troy there. He was eight years older than she, but she could picture herself a decade ago, prancing around in her bikini and doing anything she could to get the older guy to notice her. Would he have? The other woman handed over a tall cardboard cup, and Desirée smiled in thanks. Turned. A man was standing there. Too close. Her heart jumped. Out of instinct she jerked back, her hips banging against the counter. He was olive-skinned and stocky, and though it was morning and cool inside the store, there was sweat collected in the creases of his thick neck and beads of it dotting the edges of his hairline. He was staring at her, or maybe through her, but either way… Ducking her head, Desirée stepped around him and then rushed back to her car. She settled in the BMW, but nerves still jittering, she locked her door and pressed the button to lift the top in place. Feeling marginally more protected, she took a sip of coffee and blew out a slow breath as she set it in the cup holder on the dash. She needed more sleep. Closing her eyes, she blew out another breath. Then something made them flick open. A dark shadow—a man’s body—was standing beside her car, blocking the driver’s side window. Heart jolting again, Dez reached for the ignition, shoved in the key, and started the car with a vroom that was wild, even for her. Then she shifted the car into reverse and got the hell out of there, nearly clipping another car’s bumper in her race to make it to the street. The other vehicle gave an angry squawk with its horn, but she ignored it to accelerate, zooming in front of yet another less-than-happy driver. HONK HONK HONK. She made a couple more risky maneuvers, getting herself farther away from that unsettling moment at Junie’s Java. Then she was out of the congested section of Coronado’s small downtown and flying free along the road that led south. It was a narrow causeway that was the only other connection besides the bridge to the mainland, and she let her foot go heavy on the accelerator as she put more distance between herself and that unsettling man. On an open section of road she forced herself to take in and then let out a long, calming breath. Reaching for her coffee, she made a casual glance in her rearview mirror. Her hand fell to her lap. There was a black sedan riding her ass. Though she couldn’t clearly see the driver through the windshield, she had an impression of dark hair, sweaty neck, malevolent eyes. Tightening her grip on the steering wheel, she pressed harder on the gas, trying to break farther away. But the dark car stuck with her, and Desirée made a little sound of panic deep in her throat. Calm down, Dez. Calm down. There was no reason to feel hunted, even with the big car on her tail. It was a rude driver, or someone she’d pissed off with her less-than-considerate maneuvers getting out of the coffee place’s parking lot. But good God, it was deserted on this section of road. Commuters took the bridge over to San Diego proper, and this was a skinny, flat stretch that was a much longer route leading to the southern part of the county. On weekends there were bicyclists and kids on skateboards in the parallel recreational lane. Today, this early in the morning, there was only her and the evil-looking dark sedan breathing down
her neck. She glanced in the rearview mirror again and saw the other car drawing closer—close enough for a kiss. Gritting her teeth, Desirée forced away another wash of panic, instead digging deep for the kind of bravado she’d brought every night to her shift at the bar. The bravado that she’d used to face down her attraction to Troy. Go ahead and kiss my ass, she telegraphed to the person in the car behind her. Then you’ll see what happens. Then what would happen? What did the other driver want? Thump. Bumped by the black car, Desirée’s BMW jerked forward. Her foot slipped off the gas and the car was again jolted from behind. Shocked, she shrieked, but every instinct warned her not to stop. Her trembling leg shifted her foot back to the pedal and she pressed down, heedless of the speed limit. Heedless now of anything but getting away from the other vehicle. Her memory flashed on Troy’s warning from the other night. You’re going to kill yourself like this. Or someone’s going to do it for you in an act of road rage. Was that what this was? Road rage? She glanced in the rearview mirror just as the car came at her again, bumping harder this time, causing her to swerve into the opposite lane as she tried to stay in control. It hit her a fourth time, glancing off the corner of her back bumper as she slid across the asphalt. Shrieking didn’t seem to help, but she did it a few more times anyway, as if someone, somewhere, could hear her. As if someone, somewhere, would care. Terror ratcheting higher, she pressed harder on the gas pedal, trying to outrun the enemy. She didn ’t dare check the speedometer, but she knew she was going fast, faster. Ahead she saw a widening, to the side of the road a flat scrabble of gravel and dirt that could be used as a turnaround. That she could use as a turnaround. If she dared. If she wasn’t going too fast. But if she made it, she would be heading back toward Coronado. Toward Troy. That was the destination she’d been searching for this morning. For forever. Troy. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she saw the car was gaining on her again. Her cell phone started to ring but she ignored it. Up ahead was her chance. Lucky for her she was the kind of driver who’d made a career out of risky moves. But God, if she survived this, she promised she’d drive like a grandma for the rest of her life. Knuckles white on the wheel, and with the sound of her cell phone still singing, Desirée took a breath and took what seemed like her only chance.
roy trudged out of the surf, his longboard under his arm. This morning the waves weren’t bad, but
his mood was. Surfing usually provided him with the peace he’d craved since his tour in Afghanistan, but not this time. This time he couldn’t get out of his head how he’d awoken yesterday morning. He couldn’t get out of his head the chaos of his pumping heart and the image of the beautiful woman who was trying so hard to turn his life upside down. His old VW van was one of the few in the beach parking lot. As he headed for it, he grabbed the long tail attached to the back zipper of his wet suit and drew it down. Then he propped his board against the side of the van and stripped his arms out of the black neoprene. Looking down at his own naked chest made him think of Dezi again. She’d been stalking his surfing places. His chin jerked up and his gaze searched the lot, but there was no flashy BMW, and no even flashier Desirée in another of her outfits designed to get him hard. She always looked as bright as a butterfly, and yesterday morning she’d flown away from him, as he’d always suspected she would. He’d never had anything to offer her except rough edges and hard muscles anyway, and it was why he’d kept his distance to begin with. There was nothing to keep someone as vital as Dez beside him, and he should be glad for it. Ever since she’d high-heeled it into his world she’d been shaking things up, shaking him up, and he’d had enough of loud noises and rockin’ and rollin’ to last his lifetime. He unlocked the hatch and slid his surfboard inside, then heard the tinny flourish of his cell phone ringing from its place at the front of the car. With a slam, he shut the hatch and hurried to the driver’s door to reach the phone, but it stopped pealing just as he pulled it open. To hell with it, he thought. There wasn’t anyone he wanted to talk to anyhow. As he started the slow process of peeling off his wet suit, the phone rang again. Grimacing, he started to hobble forward, then thought better of it and dismissed the sound as he finished stripping out of his suit. In a pair of old sweats and a T-shirt, he slid, dry, into the driver’s seat. The phone went off again, and this time he managed to get it to his ear. Tanner didn’t begin with a greeting. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling for half an hour.” “I’ve been out surfing. What do you need?” “Desirée.” A cold itch tickled the back of Troy’s neck. “Why do you need her?” “Is she with you?” “Why the hell would you think that?” His brother’s sigh sounded impatient. “Hell, Troy. I’m hoping she’s with you.” He couldn’t figure out why. And he didn’t want to acknowledge that icy premonition playing footsie along the flesh of his back. “There’s nothing between me and Dez.” “Shit, Troy, you practically fracture when she gets within ten feet.” Fracture. See, that was the problem. Desirée made him weak, and that was the whole damn reason he hadn’t wanted to get involved with her. “What is it you’re calling for, Tanner?” “I saw my old boss Geoff Brooks last night. There’s chatter about Desirée.”
The chilly feet were doing a full-on Gene Kelly tap dance now. “What? What kind of chatter? Intelligence chatter?” “It’s a lot of supposition and innuendo, but I’d feel better if I heard her voice.” “What kind of chatter?” “About the possibility of another assassination attempt, this time targeting an al-Maddah family member, not the prince himself.” Troy’s eyes squeezed shut. Dezi. Oh my God, Dezi. “You called the hotel. You called her cell.” There was a telling moment of silence on the line. Of course he’d called the hotel and called her cell. That was why Tanner was calling him at o’brink of dawn. “Christ,” Troy groaned out. “I don’t know where to start looking.” A female voice sounded in the background. “Coffee. Junie’s Java.” “Did you hear that?” Tanner asked. “We’ll head straight to the hotel, see if she’s hanging around there. You check the coffee place and anywhere else you can think of. Don’t worry, she’s probably shopping or something.” At six-thirty in the morning? But he didn’t bother voicing the question, and instead clicked off. Then, starting the VW with his right hand, he used his left to try Dezi’s number himself. Voice mail. “It’s me. Leave a message.” Then she smacked a kiss. He squeezed his phone until he swore he heard the plastic shell crack. When the beep arrived, he managed to speak even as he was bumping out of the parking lot. “Dez. Dez. God, baby. God.” His voice sounded strangled. Then more words tumbled out and he couldn’t even wish them back. “I miss you. And I’m God damn in love with you!” He knew he sounded angry, but hell, he was angry. “Call me. Call me right this minute.” But yelling had never worked with Desirée. His cell phone stayed silent and he cursed loudly as he sped from the parking lot and toward the center of town. Her cell phone isn’t charged. She’s sleeping with the pillow over her head or she’s in the shower or she’s having breakfast in the hotel dining room. None of those explanations quieted the voiceless scream caught in his chest. The van lurched and clattered through the gears as he tried getting it up to a decent speed. Finally going about forty, with the beach on his right, he barely noticed the white flash of car racing in the opposite direction. Half a heartbeat passed, and then he hit the brakes, the van shuddering to a halt. He heard another screech of tire on asphalt, and craning his neck out his window, he saw the white car come to its own stop. Pulse pounding, he put the van in reverse and hit the gas. The BMW did the same, and then, God, finally, he was looking at Desirée’s beloved face. There were streaks of tears on her cheeks and he didn’t miss the BMW’s bashed back bumper. They stared at each other for a beat of silence, and then she was opening her door and he was opening his door and they met in the middle of the road. Two hearts pressed together. Two pairs of lips pressed together too. She broke away before he had his fill. “We have to get out of here,” she said, her head whipping south, the ends of her hair flicking against his wet mouth. “I think he might still be after me. I spun into a turn and then drove away as fast as I could before he could make his own turn, but—” He grabbed her up against him again. “Nobody’s getting you.” Nobody but me.
She pushed him away. “You don’t understand. You don’t know…” Her story stuttered out as Troy’s stomach turned and churned. He leaned against the side of the van to keep himself upright. She was doing it again. Shaking him up, rocking him off his very foundation, and he felt seasick with the unbalanced motion. “We’ll call Tanner, the police, the FBI.” She blinked. “Tanner? The FBI?” He didn’t want to terrify her anymore. They’d talk about it when he had her safely…somewhere. “Get in the van. We’re leaving your car here, on the side of the road.” She didn’t obey, of course, but stood wringing her hands as he wedged himself behind the wheel of the BMW and steered it over to the shoulder. Then he bundled her into his vehicle and started driving. “Call Tanner,” he instructed her. She reached inside her purse for her cell phone. His heart froze. The message he’d left. “No,” he barked out. “My phone.” “No! Not yours. I can—” He grabbed her phone from her hand and made the call to his brother himself. Facts were sparse. Black sedan, with possible front damage. The impression of a young, swarthy man. But that was the guy she’d seen in the coffee place, and not a for sure on the driver of the assault car. “Christ,” he said, feeling sick all over again. Desirée was vibrating with nerves and she was half turned in her seat, staring at the road behind them. “Bro, can you handle the authorities end?” “I’ll call Geoff,” Tanner said, and assured him they’d be in touch. Troy clicked off the phone and Dezi darted a quick glance his way before returning to her rear survey. “What did he say?” He glanced over at her pale face. “Dezi. Dez, I hate having to tell you this, but Tanner heard some talk that there might be another…another assassination attempt. But this time on—” “Me.” He almost pitched them both through the windshield when his foot trod on the brake. “What? You knew?” “I heard a rumor too.” Appalled, he continued to stare at her, while his belly rolled like a cement mixer. “And you didn’t say anything?” “Say anything to who?” She sent him an impatient glance. “Turn around. Take me back to the hotel.” “Forget it.” He stomped his foot on the gas pedal again. Why did she do this to him? How could one woman make such chaos? “That’s likely where the bad guy was staked out and found you.” “I’ll be safe enough in my room—” “Like hell!” She rolled her eyes. “Until I make some calls. Then I’m leaving town. With a bodyguard.” Someone was going to be guarding her body, all right. “You’re with me. Get used to it.” He was going to be the one to keep her safe. “Your Marine streak is showing, Troy, but I don’t need your pity.” “Pity!”
“I can afford to hire someone to—” “You make me nuts!” Goaded beyond reason, he threw her phone in her lap. “Check your messages. Then tell me you can ‘hire’ someone to give you that.” He was nuts. A sane man would snatch the phone back and throw it as far as his long arm could reach. A sane man wouldn’t pull into the same parking lot he’d pulled out of just a few minutes ago. But everything inside him was a mess, with emotions making their noisy demands, and common sense trying to offer up its two pennies too. Never let her leave you! Get away before she shakes you to pieces! His own voice suddenly pierced the cacophony of inner turmoil, sounding tinny but urgent as his words replayed through her cell. “Dez. Dez. God, baby. God.” Troy stared out the windshield, watching a wave make its way to shore. “I miss you.” Desirée made a hiccup of sound. From the corner of his eye he saw her cover her mouth with her palm. The rat’s nest that was his gut roiled and boiled. “And I’m God damn in love with you!” He closed his eyes, ready to splinter into a million pieces, and unwilling to watch her face as she broke him, as he’d always known she would. He’d been a warrior, but there was no defense, no armor or weapon, against this. “Call me. Call me right this minute.” As if on cue, Troy’s own phone let out its distinctive peal. Certain it was Tanner, he fumbled for it blindly, then brought it to his ear. “You should check your messages,” a soft voice said. Through the phone. From the seat beside him. He opened his eyes, but he didn’t look at Desirée. His heart was pounding, the noise inside of him getting louder and louder as he pressed the buttons to access his phone mail. Then he lifted his phone to his ear again, uncertain if he’d be able to hear anything over the chaotic thumping of his heart. But there was her voice. Dezi’s voice, breathless, thinned by fear. His belly clenched. “I’m being followed. A car…it bashed into me. I think I lost him, but…but if I didn’t…Troy, just so you know…oh, I’m sure you won’t want to know, but I have to tell you. I have to tell you I love you. ’Bye.” The phone went quiet. In a quick swoosh, the noise inside Troy did the same, going from scream, to yell, to murmur, to silence. He turned to the woman beside him, his voice sounding loud in his ears. “‘’Bye’? That’s it?” “What?” Her face looked tired, but her smile was radiant. “You’ve already forgotten all the mushy stuff before that?” “No,” he admitted. “I’ll never forget that mushy stuff. Not for the rest of my life, Dez. But ‘ ’Bye’? I’m not letting you get away now, you know.” “I’ve never had anyone before.” A flush took away some of her pallor. “Not just in bed, but never anyone who didn’t want me to get away. Never anyone to…to depend upon. Like that. Like you.” And then it happened. All his fears came true. In his old beat-up van, in front of the beach where he’d spent the happiest years of his life, macho Marine Troy Hart’s heart split. His palm flew up, but that didn’t help. Nothing kept that rent in his chest
from opening wider—and letting Desirée further in. Funny, though, that even as he despaired about the break, it started healing over again, all the rifts and cracks he’d been worrying about since meeting her mending, leaving him harder on the outside. Softer within. But strong. Strong and at peace. He’d been a warrior. And now, now he was a lover. Whole. Without looking away from Dezi’s face, he thumbed the buttons on his phone and left a message for Tanner. “If you need us, we’ll be at the desert house with Mom and Dad.” She’d be safe there, with something else that he could give to her besides himself—his family. Troy smiled, wondering if it was tears that were making her eyes so bright. “No flirting with my dad, now.” Her lips twitched. “Oh, you can count on it.” He laughed. His gruff, louder-than-life father was going to melt into a puddle of whatever-Dezi-wants goo, just the way he did with Troy’s mother. Then he sobered. “And you can count on me too, don’t you ever doubt that, Ms. Magna Cum Laude.” “Or you’ll kick my butt into Monday, Mr. Semper Fi?” “That’s right.” He reached for her, pulling her into his lap. “Just remember it. Semper fidelis, baby. You know what that means, right? Always faithful.”
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New year’s agreeing with my mother that it’s shaping up to be yet another year without her getting a grandchild.
t midday, Hannah’s small collection of belongings was packed in a new duffel bag and stashed in
the trunk of Tanner’s Mercedes, and the two of them were headed out of the Hotel Del Coronado parking lot. She looked back over her shoulder, mentally pinkie-waving it good-bye. “We could have packed up Desirée’s things and checked her out too,” she said. “And waste the rest of your vacation days? I’ve never seen so much female stuff in all my life. My mother will jump for joy to have such a girly-girl in the family, but Troy’s going to have to add on to his house.” “Really?” Hannah glanced over at Tanner. “Do you really think Troy and Desirée—” “Oh, yeah. I’ve seen it coming for a while. They’re lifers now.” The prison-sentence reference only underscored the importance of what she had to do next. “Tanner, I want you to take me to a hotel.” There was a long pause. “I thought we talked about this.” “No, we didn’t talk about it.” “You only have a few more days here. You’re welcome at my place.”
A few more days. That was all. And that was already too much. “I couldn’t impose—” “You imposed on Dezi.” She grimaced. “That was slightly different.” “Glad to hear it. Not that the thought of you and Dez sharing a bed and doing the girl-on-girl thing isn’t interesting, but—” “Tanner…” He was trying to distract her for some reason. Blowing out a breath, she looked out the window and tried to think of an easy way out without going into the “I’ve done something stupid and fallen in love with you” explanation. Her gaze caught on an upcoming street sign. Amstead Avenue. “Wait. Stop.” “What?” Slowing the car, he glanced over at her again. “What is it?” “I’m…I’m hungry. And I heard this was a great street for restaurants.” He frowned at her. So she pasted on her best smile. “Please, Tanner. Let me buy you lunch.” The parking gods were kind to him, so she didn’t have a chance to rethink her lunch suggestion until they were out of the car and he slid an arm around her shoulder and hugged her close to his side. They fit perfectly together, she thought. And every minute more they spent as a couple was only going to make not seeing him that much harder. He brushed a kiss on her temple. “What do you feel like eating? We have several options.” How could he be so casual about the affection and the doling out of kisses when the end of both was right in sight? She should have insisted on going to a hotel immediately. “Maybe we shouldn’t—” “No wiggling out of the lunch offer now, sweetheart. This is on you, remember? Should we do Italian? Or the sandwich place over there?” Hannah bit her lip. She’d seen the street sign and impulsively called for him to stop, but it wasn’t as if she could confront Caroline with Tanner at her elbow. “Let’s, um, check over the different menus.” If she saw the other woman, she’d make note of the restaurant and come back alone later. But soon. She was running out of vacation, having spent most of it letting her heart run away with her. There was no one obviously Caroline at the sandwich shop, or at the Italian restaurant, the yogurt and salads café, or The Eggcellent Stop on the corner. “Picky, picky, picky,” Tanner murmured as they crossed to check out the places on the other side of the street. He threaded his fingers through hers and slanted her a lazy, oh-too-sexual glance. “If we get take-out, we can eat lunch in bed.” Her knees softened, picturing it in her mind—no. She primmed her mouth like the schoolmarm she needed to remember she was. “I told you, after lunch you’re taking me to a hotel.” “Is that any way to end your vacation? With maids and nosy front desk people? Especially when we have my private little house just waiting—the perfect place to finish off our fling.” Finish off our fling. Hannah’s feet stopped moving, but Tanner’s didn’t, and their linked arms stretched across the sidewalk. She had to finish this now. Right this minute. “Tanner—” “Hart!” someone called. “Tanner Hart!” They both looked around. Down the block, a couple was waving at them from a sidewalk table outside a Mexican café.
“Hey!” Tanner grinned and tugged on her hand. “C’mon. There’re some people I want you to meet.” The other couple was Finn Jacobson and Bailey Sullivan. Finn, a former coworker of Tanner’s, had a pirate vibe going with his dark hair and eye patch, while Bailey was a blue-eyed blonde who looked small enough to fit in her escort’s back pocket. The way he was snuggled next to her, that might not be close enough to satisfy him. “Join us,” the pirate said, sitting again, then scooting his chair even closer to Bailey’s. “We haven’t ordered yet.” Tanner pulled out one of the empty chairs for Hannah. What could she do but sit? Finn released a long whistle. “Manners, Hart? You must be spending time with your mama.” Bailey picked up the roll of architectural drawings on the table in front of them and bopped him on the head. “Leave him alone. Not everyone grew up with the grand ambition of joining the Hell’s Angels.” “But then I joined the Secret Ser vice instead. And found myself an angel, GND.” Bailey smiled, obviously pleased, and glanced over at Hannah. “GND. Girl Next Door. I fell in love with this hunka hunka burning love when I was eleven.” “She means she made me miserable until Christmas Day, just two weeks ago,” Finn confided. “But now we’re engaged.” There was an interesting ring on Bailey’s left hand. Instead of a traditional diamond, it was a looped design of gold and silver. As if she couldn’t help herself, the blonde ran her forefinger over the metal, wearing a small, secret smile. Watching her, envy jabbed at Hannah’s heart. Wouldn’t it be nice if— “Engaged?” Tanner echoed, then groaned. “Good God. What’s wrong with you men? You’re falling like dead flies around me.” Bailey frowned at him. “I think that makes me spoiled meat.” Finn patted her shoulder. “Only spoiled for any man that’s not your hunka hunka burning love, GND. But what other flies are you talking about, Tanner?” “Dez bagged Troy. Or Troy bagged Dez. Whatever.” Bailey hooted, then bopped Finn over the head again with the roll of drawings. “Didn’t I tell you? I saw the way they were looking at each other at Hart’s the other night and knew what was happening, while you, on the other hand, thought I was so bedazzled by romance that I was finding love in all the wrong places.” “You’re always right,” he answered, his expression pious, then looked over at Hannah and winked. “I’m practicing for marriage.” Bailey sent him a sidelong look, then half turned to give him her shoulder and to smile at Hannah. “So how do you know Tanner?” She didn’t like the speculation in the other woman’s eyes. From what Hannah could see, Bailey really was bedazzled by her engagement, and she didn’t want her to get the wrong idea about what was going on between her and the man on her left. “He’s my tour guide,” she said. “My uncle is Geoff Brooks and he asked Tanner to do him a favor and show me around a little.” “Oh.” Bailey’s gaze dropped to Hannah’s hand, which rested on the table—enclosed in Tanner’s. Though Hannah quickly drew it away to grab her water glass, it was too late to escape the other woman’ s notice. Bailey looked up at Finn, and then over at Tanner. “Nice work if you can get it.”
“A favor, huh?” Finn’s eyes narrowed at Tanner too, and then he shifted his gaze to smile at Hannah. “I know your uncle. He’s a good man. He’s my former boss now too.” Tanner leaned forward. “You quit.” Finn nodded. “You knew it was coming. Without the eye…” He gestured to the patch. “…It was only desk work for me.” Tanner sighed. “But—” “But nothing. I already have a new job. There’s a firm in town with a fat Department of Homeland Security contract and a lot of work to be done. There’s room on my team.” “There’s room on the Secret Ser vice team too,” Tanner said quietly. “With you gone, and me, and Ayesha…” “Yeah.” Both the men went quiet. Bailey jumped into the sudden, strangely heavy silence. “Look, before our plates come, I should show off what the architect has planned for The Perfect Christmas.” She looked at Hannah as she started to unroll the paper. “My family’s store.” Smiling, Hannah nodded in cheery agreement. “Yes. Great. I’d love to see them.” Neither man looked up or acted as if they heard the women. Tanner shifted his chair closer to Finn ’s. “Speaking of Dez…I should tell you what’s happened.” The two of them engaged in a low-voiced conversation, leaving Bailey and Hannah to look over the architectural plans alone. “Hell,” said the blonde under her breath. “I was kinda sorta big-time hoping we were going to get through the anniversary without any painful reminders.” “Anniversary?” Bailey lifted one page of the plans and held it up as a curtain between them and the conversing men. “You know about the assassination attempt?” she asked, her voice a near whisper. “Yes.” “You know that night that Finn lost his eye and Secret Ser vice agent Ayesha Spencer lost her life?” Finn’s eye patch. Probably something else Tanner thought he could have prevented. “And Tanner lost his reputation…or so he believes.” “Right.” Bailey blew out a gusty sigh. “It was a year ago to night.” To night, when Hannah was leaving Tanner to sleep alone in his bed with nothing and no one between him and his bad memories and undeserved guilt. The waitress arrived with the food they’d ordered, breaking up the separate conversations. Bailey rolled up her plans, and then they all exclaimed as mountains of fragrant Mexican food were placed in front of them. Tanner declined the waitress’s offer to bring him a beer instead of another glass of water as he’d asked. “Nope. I have to keep sharp. Have to run Hart’s tonight since Troy and Dez are in Palm Springs.” He glanced over at Hannah. “I was hoping to think of some way of bribing you to help me out, Ms. Davis.” “Oh, I—” “Owe me. You owe me boatloads for my…service to you these past few days.” Under the table his hand found one of hers, resting in her lap.
Ser vice. As his fingers closed over hers, she could feel the blush crawling up her neck at the way he’d said the word and the way he was looking at her. At the way he was touching her. Goose bumps broke out over her skin, fueled by all the memories of all the other touches. And whispers. And moans. “Now that she’s checked out of the Del,” he said, “she’s going to be staying at my place. Isn’t that right, Hannah?” She looked up, her gaze meeting Bailey’s. Hannah remembered the anniversary again. Suddenly she couldn’t think of anything but the anniversary. And Tanner needing her help. At the bar, and as a buffer against what would surely arise. “That’s right,” she heard herself say. “I’m staying with Tanner until my plane leaves San Diego.”
fter lunch, Tanner drove to his house, telling Hannah they had a few hours to relax before going to
Hart’s for the evening shift. But relaxing didn’t feel like an option for Hannah at the moment, not with the walls seeming to shrink around her as if unwilling to let her go. If only Tanner’s arms would do the same. As he puttered with something in the garage, she walked out the sliding French doors that led from his living room to the backyard. On her previous visits she’d merely registered the presence of flagstone patio, potted plants, plot of well-manicured grass from the other side of the glass. Now she stepped into the fresh air and took in a long breath. The yard was small, but perfect. Two chaise lounges were positioned on the patio, flanking a small fountain that bubbled gently. Terra-cotta pots of red and white geraniums basked in the sunshine here and there, while to the left, on the rectangular section of grass, a hammock was stretched between a sycamore and a thick-fronded palm tree. Tall hedges shielded the property from the neighbors. With only the burbling fountain and the calls and twitters of birds, it was like stumbling upon a secret garden. Folded at one end of the hammock was a red, white, and blue afghan. She ran her palm over the soft, crocheted threads, then sat down beside it and pushed against the ground with her feet to start a gentle sway. A salty-scented breeze scattered the warmth of the sunshine, and she picked up the afghan—she noticed now it was styled like an American flag—and wrapped it around her shoulders. Then she closed her eyes and tried to breathe in the moment. For so long she’d lived for some future date when Duncan came home, or she’d lived in the past trying to make herself in Deborah’s image. But now, in Tanner’s secret garden, she just wanted to be herself. “There you are.” She turned her head to see him coming toward her, walking through sunshine and shade, one minute his hair a blaze of gold, the next his face hidden by shadows. She didn’t need to read his expression to feel the dark moodiness radiating from him. It had been brooding since they’d left the Mexican restaurant, and she suspected that one of those memories she was supposed to be guarding him against had already taken hold. Now she remembered her first thoughts about him at the bar on New Year’s Eve. Now she understood the source of that unfriendly, maybe even angry, chip on his shoulder. It had been with him for the last year, she suspected, a constant reminder of his impotence on the
night when so much had happened: the death of a Secret Ser vice comrade-in-arms, the loss of his best friend Finn’s eye. The demise of his own career. He stopped a few feet away from her and shook his head. “You’re doing that patriotic thing again. I’m never going to be able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance after this without thinking of you.” She tried to smile at that, but there was no amusement in Tanner’s voice. He took a step closer. “Take off your clothes, Hannah.” Her whole body twitched, shocked by the grim, urgent note in his voice. “Please, Hannah.” But there was only command in his voice, no plea. “I need you.” There was no doubting that. Her glance flicked down and she couldn’t miss the thick ridge underneath his jeans. His hand went to the first button, popping it open. “I need you right now.” Goose bumps washed over Hannah’s skin, followed by a flush of heat. No man had ever needed her. Obviously not Duncan. “I have to have you.” Tanner had released the buttons of his fly, and she could see the jut of his sex pushing against his boxers through the open vee of fabric. He stripped off his T-shirt and threw it down, then gestured toward her. “Take off your clothes,” he said again. “I have to have you now, Hannah.” Hannah. He had to have Hannah, he said. There it was again. Before Tanner, no one had ever desired her like this. Desired her without family pressure or approval, without a future to be thinking about or plan for. This was a man wanting her for nothing more (and nothing less) than herself. For right now, in this moment. It was an aphrodisiac to surpass all others, slowing her pulse to a heavy, primitive beat. Holding the afghan around her with one fist, she managed to undress one-handed. Her clothes made a pile at her feet on top of her kitten-heeled sandals, and then she stood, bare soles tickled by the cool grass. “Come here,” he ordered again, his voice as hard as the agate-blue of his eyes. Still blanketed by the flag afghan, she approached, shivering with breathless excitement. God, he was beautiful. His golden hair, his lean face, the etched muscles of his arms and torso. His nostrils flared, and she saw his fingers curl into fists, as if he dared himself not to reach for her. As if his need for her was something he was fighting himself against. Ah. But that made her so much stronger. No longer passive, pleaser Hannah. But Hannah who could own her own desire and who was not afraid to inflame his. She knew, now, that she had it in her to make him forget everything but the two of them like this, together. Toes to Tanner’s, she dropped the afghan. Then dropped to her knees. He made a choked sound, and she ignored it, focusing instead on releasing his erection from the silky confines of his boxers. She pushed the elastic to his thighs and slid her palms to cup the hard, round muscles of his butt. A little pressure there brought him to her mouth. He made that choked-off sound again, and from the periphery of her vision she saw his fists clench as she ran her tongue over the head of his hot flesh. Another burning flush wafted over her skin and she gloried in the new spike of desire and took him deeper into her mouth.
As she drew closer to take more, her nipples rubbed against his jean-covered thighs. She gasped at the delicious friction, drawing cool air against his wet flesh, and he grunted, then grunted again as she deliberately moved to chafe the peaks of her aching breasts against the denim while she tasted and tongue-stroked the hard muscle that proved Tanner wanted her. Needed her. “God. Hannah. Oh, God.” His head dropped back and his fists uncurled to bury in her hair. He guided her movements on him and she reveled in the trembling of his body and the bite of his fingers against his scalp. He was helpless against her touch. She was strong in their mutual desire. “Sweetheart, no, stop. Christ, Hannah. Stop. Stop.” Closing her ears to his groans, she sucked him deeper, trying to take him into herself so she would never forget this man, this moment, this chance to play out her desires. One moment she had her eyes squeezed shut, the next he lifted her up. “No,” she protested. “I want—” “I want. I want. I want. I want you.” She’d thought she was strong, but he proved himself powerful too, gently manhandling her down to the grass, stretching them out on the afghan she’d dropped. He came down between her thighs and cradled her head in his hands. “Mine,” he said to her mouth, then took it. Closing her eyes, she opened for the deep thrust of his tongue and pressed up against his weight, rubbing her breasts against his chest, grinding her hips against his pelvis, feeling the heaviness of his erection against her belly. On New Year’s morning she’d imagined herself melting into Tanner’s mattress, but now she wanted to melt into Tanner himself, and to take him into her as well. She opened her eyes, and the hard glitter in his made her shiver with another jolt of desire. He bit her bottom lip and she jerked in his arms, the sting making the desire only sharper, sweeter, more intense. He groaned again and flipped her over, his mouth roaming the skin of her shoulders, her spine, sucking hard on the small of her back. She moaned, half rising on her knees to arch into the exciting sensation. Tanner slid his arm beneath her hips and dragged her up all the way, getting behind her so he could run his palms along the curve of her bottom. “I’m an ass man,” he said. “And yours is so damned beautiful.” The harsh tone in his voice pierced the fog of lust swirling through her head and pulsing thickly through her veins. She looked over her shoulder at him, her heartbeat quickening at the intractable expression on his face. “You said that about my legs.” “Yeah.” His palms slid down to caress the back of her thighs. “And about your breasts.” He continued his strokes up, then curled his hands inside to cover her breasts. His knees came between hers, pushing them outward. He caressed her nipples and she arched her back, her bottom meeting his arousal. He pressed the length of himself against her there, and she gasped. “I’m a Hannah man.” A Hannah man. Then he dipped, and slid his erection between her thighs. She was slick—always so ready for him —and he squeezed her nipples as he pressed into her.
Deep. Slow. Sure. Her head dropped back and she moaned. Tanner fisted one hand in the long strands of her hair and pushed even deeper. His chest dropped over her back and he tugged on her hair, urging her to turn her head so their mouths could fuse like their bodies. Her arms trembled, sun heated one hip, and she smelled Tanner and the scent of green grass as she sucked on his tongue. He filled her deeper, filled her to overflowing, as her senses banked every nuance of the raw, beautiful act. Heat. Strength. Weakness. Take. Give. Sun. Darkness. Gold. Shadow. Man. Woman. Sex. Wanton sex. Shameless desire. Wanton. Shameless. Love. Tanner broke the kiss to lay his cheek against her back. His hand released her hair to drag her hips tighter to his, then he reached lower and circled, stroked, coaxed with a gentle finger that was delicious counterpoint to the heavy, aggressive thrusts that drove deeper into her. Harder. Drove her on. Until she shattered. She writhed against him as she climaxed and he straightened on his knees, holding tight to her hips as he pumped to his release. His weight fell against her again and they both collapsed on the afghan. Tanner rolled to his side and took Hannah with him. Sated in every way, he sighed. Everything was going his way, right? She’d just let him fuck his brains out, and mindlessness was what he needed more than anything else today. One year ago. Ayesha had lost her life. Finn had lost an eye. He’d lost his job. He stroked his palm from Hannah’s shoulder, down her arm, and along her warm, perfect flank. She shuddered, and he curled his arm around her waist to spoon her deeper against the curve of his body. “Cold?” he whispered in her ear. She shook her head, but he could see a trail of goose bumps rush down her neck, her skin reacting to his breath. His cock twitched and he thought of what had just happened between them. All else was pushed from his mind as he thought of her kneeling in front of him, of the soft weight of her breasts in his palms, of the tender softness of her mouth opening to the thrust of his tongue. Yeah, that’s right. Think of sex. Nothing less, nothing more. He ran his hand along that pretty set of Hannah’s curves, shoulder, hip, thigh. All was right with his world.
“Are you still in love?” he heard himself ask. She stiffened. “Wh-What?” He had no idea where the question had come from. One moment he was basking in afterglow, and the next…“Duncan.” Damn deceiving, war hero Duncan. “Are you still in love with Duncan?” “Why are you asking?” Did he need a reason? Because he didn’t have one to offer up. He felt his mood darken all over again and start to smolder around the edges. “It’s a simple question, Hannah.” “Tanner, you don’t understand…” “Then explain it to me. I want to understand.” Why? Why the hell was he giving her this line? Because it was true. Because each time he and Hannah were naked and doing the wild thing, it felt less wild and more intense. Less a “thing” than a…something more intimate. So intimate that he felt as if he was losing layers of himself each time. Soon she’d be able to see right through the thin skin that was the only protection he had left. Turnabout was fair play. He needed to be able to see inside her in order to keep the balance. Keep him balanced. Brushing away her hair, he kissed the side of her neck. “Is your heart broken, sweetheart?” He hated the idea. He heard her let out a breath. Then, still turned away from him, she spoke. “Sometimes I wonder if our parents forced us to get engaged.” “What?” He blinked, going up on one elbow to try and make out her expression. “Did we travel back in time? Are you telling me this still isn’t the twenty-first century?” “Oh, forget about it.” She tried to roll away, but he slid his arm around her waist again. Her mouth turned down as he confined her against him. “I knew you wouldn’t understand family pressure.” “I wanted to enlist after 9/11. My mother cried, because my brothers were already serving in the military and she couldn’t bear the idea of all of us in harm’s way like that at one time.” “So you didn’t join because of your mom?” “No. I didn’t join because your uncle convinced me that what I was doing in the Secret Ser vice was an important job for our nation too. But the pressure thing, I do get that. I’m just not clear on why you’d marry some guy because of it.” “But we didn’t get married, remember?” “Engaged, then. Why’d you go along, Hannah?” He didn’t know what he’d expected to hear, but he still couldn’t swallow his surprise. “He was my childhood sweetheart, remember? I…I had a love for him. And he was going off to war and I think his parents thought it would give him another layer of support and my parents thought…thought…” He tried to hold out against the ensuing silence, but he was a man used to answers. “Your parents thought what?” “I don’t know.” Then her eyes squeezed shut. “Oh, I’m lying. I do know. They were thinking about Deborah. They’re always thinking about Deborah. I don’t blame them for it, but I can always see it going through their minds. ‘Deborah would have married a man like Duncan.’ So then it seemed like a good idea for me too.” Which sounded to him as if Hannah had waited years for a man who had never held her heart.
Tanner was a nice guy, when all was said and done. He had his dark moods and his frustrated desires, but in the end he was capable of sympathy for others. Now, looking at Hannah’s pretty, pensive face, he waited for it to fill him. After a few moments he amended his expectations and waited for a trickle. Okay, he’d settle for a drop. Finally he gave up, pushed her flat on her back and applied himself to kissing her into his same, mindless state. Because he wasn’t thinking of unpleasant things again. All was right with his world. Things were still going his way. He sailed through the remainder of the afternoon. A shower, fresh clothes, and some food later, he and Hannah unlocked the door to Hart’s. Pumping music through the speakers, smelling the oil starting to heat in the deep fryer, watching Hannah do what she could to help out before opening time, Tanner relaxed into the rhythm of work. He didn’t think about what day it was or what happened a year ago on this same date. All was right with his world. They’d advertised a special on draft beer, so the place was crowded. That helped too, keeping him, Hannah, and the rest of the staff running ragged. Longtime friends showed up, and if he’d had the time, he might have been more suspicious—or grateful—about that. As it was, he had his hands full keeping everyone in beers and what ever else. As closing time neared, the place started to clear out. Hannah took a break on the last stool at the bar, moaning something about her sore feet while Tanner took over from Bartender Jack, who had a late night/early morning date. He slid a glass of chardonnay in front of the dark-haired babe who was going home with him that night. She took a grateful sip and then he took it away from her again to take a swallow himself, turning the glass so his lips touched the same place as hers. Her eyes widened. His probably did too. It was an unpremeditated, gag-him-if-some-other-guy-had-done-it gesture, and totally out of character. Except anniversary night was almost over, and he was still floating on a tide of well-being. Or mind-blowing sex. Take your pick. A half hour before they were scheduled to lock the front door, Finn and Bailey walked in. His one-eyed buddy was walking loose-hipped and wearing a smug smile, so Tanner figured Bailey had worked a little girl magic on him too. They plopped onto the stools next to Hannah’s and he passed around drinks and baskets of pretzels. Then the front door opened again and Geoff Brooks hobbled in on crutches. Hannah rushed over to help him, looking as surprised as the rest of them. “What are you doing here?” she asked, settling him at a table and propping his casted leg on a second chair. Finn and Bailey moved from the bar to the table, and after Tanner brought over a whiskey for his old boss, he joined the rest of them. The group quieted as Geoff lifted his drink. Finn raised his coffee cup. Bailey her wineglass. Hannah handed off her goblet to Tanner. He squeezed the stem, his stomach starting to churn, then found himself distracted as Hannah folded her fingers over his free hand. Glancing over at her, he saw her knuckle away a tear.
Finn’s face was hard as a mask. Bailey’s eyes were big, and trained on her man’s face. Geoff cleared his throat. A year ago they’d lost a comrade, Finn had lost his eye and his ability to do his job, Tanner had lost hope that he’d ever mea sure up to the rest of his family. “To missing friends, old friends, and a new year of new beginnings,” Geoff said. Glasses met, clacked, and they all sipped. Then silence fell over them like a shroud. Awkward glances chased around the table. What had happened to Finn’s confident swagger? Tanner wondered. Or his own unflagging feeling of well-being? He looked over at Hannah, desperate to fight clear of the dark, descending mood. She scooted closer and rubbed his forearm with her free hand. “It’s going to be all right,” she whispered. His chest loosened. It would be all right. To night, with her in bed next to him, it was going to be all right again. She stood up, releasing his hand to pat his shoulder. “I’ll get Finn some more coffee,” she said, and started to walk behind her uncle in the direction of the bar. One foot caught on something—probably a sticky spill on the linoleum—and she bent down to adjust the back strap of her black high heel. Geoff flicked his wrist and polished off the rest of his whiskey. The empty glass landed with a hollow click against the tabletop. “Well, Hart,” he said, shifting his gaze toward Tanner. “It looks as if being my niece’s tour guide didn’t do you any harm.” Oh, hell, Tanner thought, his sixth sense suddenly smelling trouble. He sat straight in his chair and his eyes darted to Hannah who was rising out of her crouch just a few feet away. “Sir—” “And since she looks happy, I’m happy.” Hannah stood behind her uncle, frozen in place. “Sir—” “I consider our deal done. Your ten days of TLC places you back on the team. I know you’ve been chomping at the bit to return, so as soon as you get Hannah on a plane back home, then get your butt back into the San Diego office.” “Sure. Great. Thank you. I will, sir.” The words tumbled out, but he only had eyes for Hannah. She was staring at his face while all the color left hers. Though she didn’t make a sound, he could read the single word running through her head, souring what should have been a happy moment for him. Making all that was right, wrong. That one word she was so familiar with. Betrayal.
tunned by the revelation of Tanner’s bargain with her uncle Geoff—apparently making a pitiful,
dumped old maid euphemistically “happy” bought him back a place in the Secret Service—Hannah didn’ t recover quickly enough to get herself a ride away from the bar with Finn and Bailey or even with her
uncle. So she was stuck with Tanner as they completed the closing tasks, though neither one of them said a word to the other. She didn’t think she needed to say anything to him. The wary way he gave her a wide berth made it clear that he knew she was aware of what he’d done. Gone behind her back. Pretended an interest he didn’t feel. Duped her. Been there, done that, had been wearing the engagement ring the first time it happened. This time…oh, God. This time she was wild in love with the man who did her wrong. The warmth and affection she’d had for Duncan was a matchstick compared to this firestorm that burned inside her for Tanner. No. Stop. Of course there was no firestorm. She didn’t love Tanner! A woman couldn’t love a man who’d used her for his own ends, right? She’d just imagined herself in love with him, thanks to mojitos and New Year’s and the new beginning she needed to her life. It had been a bad combination that temporarily addled her. Now that she remembered she was still a sensible, inhibited, schoolmarm of a woman, she had come to her senses. Schoolmarms never fell in love with scoundrels. So there it was. A small mistake in the diagnosis of her feelings, but she’d already dragged out the red pencil and made the necessary correction. Good to go. Drying her hands on a paper towel, she glanced at Tanner, who she suspected had been stalling. Probably afraid to climb inside the confined space of his car with her. “I’m done,” she said briskly. “Are you ready?” He was looking at her from the corner of his eye. “Sure. Yeah. Let’s leave.” It was no more than four minutes back to his house. To Hannah, who was never comfortable riding in a car anyway, it seemed more like forty. As they pulled into the garage, she put her hand on the passenger door handle, eager to make her escape. “Hannah.” Tanner curled his fingers on her other arm. She wished he wouldn’t touch her. “Look,” he said. “It’s not what you think.” “Think? It’s been a long day, and I’m not thinking of anything but going to bed.” Oh, God. Bed. The word clunked between them like a hammer hitting cement. She couldn’t go to bed with him to night. But he’d suspect something, wouldn’t he? He’d jump to the wrong conclusion that he had hurt her if she tried taking a blanket and a pillow to the living room couch. He’d be wrong, but he might even get the impression she cared about him, despite the smarmy tactics he’d used to get back in the Secret Ser vice. Boy, she must be really tired, she thought, because there was a sting of exhausted tears pricking the corners of her eyes. But she knew she just couldn’t lie beside him ever again, not when the memory of the last time was still so fresh in her mind. She closed her eyes and could still feel the play of sun on her bare skin and the deep, searing way that Tanner had invaded her…her soul. No. Her soul was still her own, thank you very much. Intact, and like her heart, hard as a second-grader’s glazed-clay pencil cup fired overnight in the Harold Mott Elementary School kiln.
“Hannah, I know you suppose what happened between us was a…a ploy on my part.” She was going to keep her cool. “Don’t be silly. I don’t suppose anything. I know what happened between us was a ploy on your part.” Whoops. That didn’t sound so cool. Wrapping her dignity around her, she wrenched her arm from Tanner’s hold and scrambled out of the car. Then she stumbled into the kitchen and tried to think what to do next. Where did they keep the lesson plans for moments like this? Behind her, he slammed the door to the garage as she busied herself at the sink, pretending she needed water. “I’m going to take a shower, then I’m going to sleep,” he said. She brought her glass to her mouth so she didn’t have to answer. Then he was gone, and while the shower ran, she rushed around, gathering up her belongings and stashing them by the front door. As soon as it was light, she would leave for good. Maybe she could even manage to depart without facing Tanner one last time, she realized. He’d done as he’d said, showered, and gone to bed, leaving her to huddle alone on the couch in the living room. Reading didn’t work this time. For a few hours she watched television, her gaze shifting every few minutes to the windows, alert for the first glimmers of dawn. She had an appointment to keep in the morning before she left Coronado for home. The sky was going from night to the gray-blue of almost-sunrise when Tanner stalked into the living room, a towel wrapped around his hips. She supposed he’d been sleeping naked. The infomercial on the big screen was fascinating. As soon as she got home, she was going to order herself one of these 350-piece kits that you could use to set crystal rhinestones and metal studs onto any surface. “What the hell are you doing?” Tanner grated out. “Why haven’t you come to bed?” “Did you know that you can embellish ordinary wax candles and give them as stunning Christmas gifts?” she asked from her place on the couch. It was the corduroy one he’d shown her to on New Year’ s Eve. It was long and wide, with about half a dozen plaid pillows piled in one corner. “Or you can use the winky-blinky little doodads to make inexpensive sheet sets look more classy, like something you’d find at a boutique hotel.” That’s where she’d gone wrong. Moving in with Desirée at the luxurious Hotel Del Coronado, then moving to Tanner’s. She should have found herself a plain old Motel 6, like the plain old maid she was. Everyone knew they left the light on for you there. Here, Tanner had lit the fuse on hers, then smothered it out. He sat down on the coffee table in front of the couch, blocking her view of the info-hostess using the special portable tool to put glittering stars on hanging draperies. “Your uncle asked, and I agreed to show you around town. You know that. You knew that from the beginning.” She noted that the towel was still damp from his earlier shower and the coffee table had a lovely wood finish. “I know you need a coaster under your butt.” “Hannah.” He pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Don’t do this. We’ve had fun, right? Don’t make it less than that.” “Less than ‘fun’?” She straightened, her temper kindling, then grabbed one of the pillows and sat back, holding it tight against her stomach. Holding in anything that would give the (mistaken) impression she was hurt. “Well, I’ll give you that it wasn’t anything more than fun, does that work for you?” “All right.” His voice was weary. “I’m going back to bed. Please come with me and get some shut-eye.”
“I need to see this segment they’re doing with feathers and lamp shades. I’m not sure how the stud-setter comes into play.” As she spoke, his gaze drifted over her head, toward the front door. It narrowed, then jerked back to her face. “Where are you going?” “Home.” “I was with you when you picked up your replacement ticket, remember? It doesn’t leave for two more days.” She glanced out the window, noting the pale color of the sky. “I’m leaving earlier. I’m leaving today.” “Damn it, Hannah—” “I’m sorry to end our ‘fun’ early, but I need to get back.” As soon as she tracked down Caroline. “You mean you need to get away from me. Hell, Hannah! I did not plan this…this…” His hand waved between them. “If you want to know the truth, I resisted like hell. It was absolutely the wrong time for me and for this…this…” “Fun?” she supplied sweetly. A muscle in his jaw throbbed. “I told your uncle I would show you around. I did not plan on that including a tour of my bed. That just happened.” “But it made Uncle Geoff ’s niece especially happy, right? And you’d do anything for the cause? Your personal cause?” “Hannah—” “Admit you never really cared about me. It was always about something else.” She hated the way her voice was rising and threatening to break. All the red pencils in the world couldn’t correct the wrong impression she was giving him, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. “It was about the sex or about the job, or maybe some of both. But it was never about me.” He shook his head. “I would kill Duncan if that valiant asshole wasn’t already dead.” “Duncan?” “It’s his fault or maybe your wrap-you-in-Deborah’s-cotton-wool parents. Why do you think so little of yourself, Hannah? How can you immediately leap to the conclusion that I wasn’t with you for you? That I’m just another man ready to betray you like that? When this started, I was trying to help you.” “‘Help’ me?” “Wait, that didn’t come out right. I—” “‘Help me’?” She was on her feet too. She didn’t know how that had happened, but her soles were flat on the hardwood floor, her knees were locked, and she was pulsing with an anger that filled her veins—evaporating any last vestiges of the blue starch that she would welcome now. “That’s what you call what you’ve done—helping me?” Her heart, which was supposed to be so strong, now felt like flimsy paper that someone had cut into a dozen pieces with dull, kindergarten-style scissors. “Then you, Tanner, have leaped to a conclusion too—that you’re some sort of hero.” He stepped back. The tension left his shoulders and his eyes dulled. “So it’s me you think so little of then,” he said. “And you’re right. So goddamn right. Everyone knows I’m no hero.” Without another word he stalked toward the bedroom at the back of the house. Anger and despair warred inside of her. With a thousand words dancing on the tip of her tongue,
too many of them desperate to call him back, she rushed in the opposite direction. At the front door she gathered her duffel bag and hurried away from Tanner and into the now sunny morning.
FROM THE DESK OF HANNAH DAVIS Things I Hate about New year’s It means that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner!
annah was gone and it was too quiet in Tanner’s house for him to fall back to sleep. The morning
light was too strong as well. Not to mention that his guilt was as goddamn loud as a brass band and that his will was weak, weak, weak. But he knew he should have stayed away from Hannah before, and he should stay away from her now. After all, she knew what he was like. She’d said it straight to his face. No hero. Tanner avoided the mirror as he pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. His feet slid into his running shoes and his keys slid off the dresser even as he kept telling himself he wasn’t going after her. After all, she could be anywhere. Another inner voice reminded him that Coronado was 7.4 square miles and there was only so far a woman on foot could go. Another wave of guilt coiled his stomach as his protective instincts rose up to greet the day as well. Hannah didn’t have a car; she didn’t drive. He’d promised her uncle to look after her until she left the San Diego area, and yet Tanner had allowed the woman he loved—that is, who Geoff loved—to wander the early A.M. streets humping her belongings on her back like a hermit crab. Of course he must go after her. On his way out of the kitchen he saw her water glass sitting on the counter. It reminded him of the past few days, when she’d left her brush by his bathroom sink, her watch on his bedside table, the imprint of her head in the pillow beside his. Somehow she’d left her mark on him too. Shaking off the thought, he jogged to his car and then backed out of the driveway. Where would she go? To her uncle’s? To a pay phone to call a taxi? To find coffee. Even if she hadn’t gone after it herself, he definitely needed a sixteen-ouncer to clear his head. But it wasn’t any sissified Starbucks stuff for him. He pulled into the nearest gas station and went into the attached convenience store. It was his and Troy’s favorite stomping grounds. Just about every morning since leaving the Secret Ser vice, he’d run into his brother right about now. Inside, the high-octane combination of scents—refined crude oil, candy bars, and coffee—was enough, Troy said, to focus a man’s mind. It worked like his brother claimed, honing Tanner’s thoughts. He was on a fool’s errand, he told himself as he filled his foam cup with a brew strong enough to fuel his Mercedes on a run to Mexico. Hannah was a grown woman, and he would be the last person she
’d want tracking her down. No hero, he reminded himself again. So he wasn’t going after her. Even knowing the coffee was hot enough to scald the top of his mouth, as usual he sipped it anyway—ooowww—on his path to the cash register. Standing in line behind a twelve-year-old buying his daily requirement of CornNuts, pork rinds, and Snickers, Tanner considered purchasing his own nutritious breakfast. He could go for a couple of Hostess cupcakes about now. Maybe the fluffy filling would take his mind off Hannah and the sweetness of having her in his arms, his bed, his life. His gaze drifted from the empty calories in the racks to the racks of magazines and tabloids. Fuck. He strode forward and yanked a pulpy publication from its holder. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Fuck fuck fuck.” DEZ & SECRET AGENT MAN STILL SIZZLIN’, read the headline above the picture of him and Desirée. They’d recycled and/or doctored some old shot, he decided, squinting at the grainy rendition. Because that looked like the park on Orange, and he’d never met Dez there, and had never kissed his bad luck charm any time other than that night a year ago when she’d kissed him…
He brought the tabloid closer, then held it farther away. Christ, that wasn’t Dez. That was Hannah, and it was a real kiss, the one that he’d laid on her just a couple days ago, before they dashed away from the paparazzi. Even now he could taste the heat and feel the tender softness of those lips. God, she’d gotten to him. He shook his head as he stuffed the pages back into the rack. No wonder he’d first thought she was Dez on New Year’s Eve as she’d been reeling toward him. From a distance they could be twins. Twins. The hairs on the back of his neck leaped to attention. His fingers tightened on his coffee. Oh, God. Oh, God. No. His hands shaking, he reached out to set his cup on the counter and then drew his cell phone from his pocket. Troy answered on the first ring. “Yo, bro.” At any other time Tanner would have grinned at the carefree sound of his brother’s voice. “Where are you?” he asked. “At that 7-Eleven near the desert house,” Troy replied. “You know I can’t stand that vanilla bean crap Mom calls coffee.” “Yeah, I thought you might be there.” He’d counted on it. Troy was a closet vegetarian and took his health seriously—except when it came to coffee. His brewed caffeine had to come in the junkyard dog category—black, muscled, and mean. “Check out the tabloid racks.” There was a moment of silence, then a rustle, then Troy’s outraged voice. “I’m going to kick your ass!” Tanner held the phone away from his head to save his eardrum, then brought it cautiously back. His heart was pounding and his stomach churned with cold dread. “Why do you say that?” “What the hell were you doing kissing my Dez in the park?” Tanner closed his eyes. “That’s not Dez, that’s Hannah.” There was another moment of silence. “Hell, from a distance, Hannah could be a ringer for my
heiress.” “What about from even closer,” Tanner said slowly, wishing he didn’t have to voice the question. “And what if you didn’t know them well?” Troy didn’t hesitate. “Even then, a dead ringer.” Tanner’s sixth sense was starting to wail at him like a police siren. “I wish you hadn’t just said that.” “Where is she, bro? Where’s Hannah?” “I’ve lost her.” Oh, God, Tanner thought, I wish I hadn’t just said that.
gnoring despair, Hannah nurtured her anger as she hoofed it toward the center of town. The object
of her resentment varied as she strode through the quiet streets, but narrowed to one person as she found herself staring down Amstead Avenue. The one person who had been in her sights for months. Caroline. All roads led back to her, Hannah realized, from Duncan’s defection to Tanner’s seduction. Caroline, the bad apple in what had been Hannah’s sweet, cinnamon-flavored life. Platinum blond Caroline, with her heavy-handed mascara and her sticky fingers on Hannah’s man. How come Duncan had been so easy to steal? What predator traits did the woman possess that had made him turn away? And so turn Hannah’s life inside out. Only a few of the restaurants on Amstead were open for breakfast. Filled with equal parts determination and ire, she shoved open the door of each one, ready to confront the person who had upended her well-ordered life. Instead she startled a John, a Lupita, and some guy with dreadlocks, a pierced upper lip, and a nametag that read GARK. Each denied knowing a Caroline in their professional or personal lives. Hannah was back on the sidewalk in no time, stymied again. She ground her molars as she marched back up the street. This time, damn it, she was going to find the other woman. This time she wasn’t going to take the easy, passive, pleaser route and forget the whole idea. Today she was going to unearth Caroline and demand some answers and accountability. Who would blame Hannah? Wasn’t it natural to want to see how she stacked up against the blonde who’d taken her fiancé away? It was instinct, right? From the first birthday bash a little girl attended in a frou-frou party dress, she automatically cataloged the competition. Who had the cutest face, who had the prettiest hair bow, who was best at prancing up to the little boys—particularly the ones with slicked-back blond hair, blue eyes, and three older brothers? She shoved Tanner out of her thoughts as she tried deciding what to do next. Today was about Caroline. And Duncan. His betrayal had been when things had started to go wrong for her. Why had his head been turned by the other woman? She must be something special in bed, Hannah decided.
Maybe I should have read Cosmo more often. Or rented XXX-rated porn movies. But Tanner hadn’t had any complaints. Him again. “Unh!” she said out loud, smacking her sole against the sidewalk in frustration. A woman walking past started, almost losing her hold on her coffee cup and her folded newspaper. “Sorry,” Hannah mumbled, then watched as the woman gave her a cautious sidelong glance and hurried off in the direction of… The park on Orange. That’s where she needed to go next. It was the last place she’d found a definite Caroline lead. Sure, it had turned into a dead end on Amstead Avenue, but it was the only other clue she had. Tightening her grip on her lightweight duffel bag, Hannah stepped into the flow of morning foot traffic. It was the earliest hour yet that she’d visited the popular park. As she waited once again to cross the street, she didn’t see sign of either raindrops or sharkish sedan, but when she got the green light she ran to the other side anyway, her duffel bag banging against her hip. Then she stood at the park entrance, breathing harder than the short sprint warranted, and took in the people on the close-cropped, emerald grass. This time she would meet with success. Except once again no platinum blonde caught her eye. There was the tai chi crowd, the newspaper-reading, coffee-sipping group, the dog walkers with their yet empty doggy-do bags waving like white flags out of their jacket pockets. In the playground on the other end a few mothers and strollers were already in evidence. But no platinum blonde, engagement-wrecking, happiness-harpooning future stealer. Hannah stalked around the perimeter of the grassy area, ticking off each visitor who didn’t meet her criteria. She’d dismissed yet another of the geriatric set when a voice behind her made her turn. “Young lady?” A few feet away a little old man clutched a skinny leash attached to a skinny creature that had the size and bright, protruding eyeballs of a squirrel. As its master drew closer to Hannah, the furred animal darted forward to sniff her shoes. “Were you…were you talking to me?” she asked, eyeing the curious squirrel-thing and hoping it wouldn’t decide to run up her pants leg (a fear left over from an unscheduled visit by Pamster the hamster from Room 3 at Mott Elementary). “I wondered if you’d caught up with Caroline.” Hannah’s gaze jolted back to the senior citizen. His pet had distracted her, but now she recognized him as Caroline’s former neighbor—and the man she’d met the day Desirée had driven her to Taft Street. “No,” Hannah replied. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t run across her yet.” “Oh, that’s too bad. Did she leave already?” Hannah frowned. “Leave? Leave already?” He made a vague gesture. “I saw her a few minutes ago.” “You did?” Her spine snapped straighter and she looked over his gray-and-liver-spotted head. “Where?” The Pamster the hamster wannabe bristled, then started to yap. Straining at its kite-string leash, it caused its owner to be dragged a foot to the right.
“Got to go,” the old man wheezed out as the squirrel thing took off, its beady gaze focused on the stubby tail of a passing rottweiler. “But where?” Hannah called. “That way!” He made another vague gesture and was gone. Hannah turned a circle on the grass. She was here, she repeated to herself. Caroline was here. Any minute now she would confront the woman and show her the face, the person, the real human, hurting emotions behind the engagement ring Hannah had still been wearing when the couple exchanged their I do’s. She would demand…demand… Acknowledgment. Consideration. Respect. She would demand that Caroline see Hannah. And maybe Hannah would see why she was never enough. But reapplying herself to the search didn’t produce the woman Hannah sought. Frustrated again, she looked around for the little old man, but he was gone too. With a shrug, she moved away from the grass to start checking over the visitors in the playground. Maybe Caroline was with a friend and the friend’s children. The only blondes in the sand area were a pair of towheads on the swings and a sleeping infant in a stroller parked beside a mother who was reading on a park bench. When she looked at the woman’s face, the woman glanced up, and Hannah noted she was the one who had brushed dirt from her clothes after she fell in the street a few days before. They exchanged little smiles, saluting the shared memory, then Hannah turned away. Only to remember the woman from that previous visit to the park who had known Caroline and passed along the Amstead Avenue tip. It was a long shot, but maybe this new mom was acquainted with Caroline too. Hannah turned back and pasted an apologetic smile on her face. “Excuse me?” The young woman looked up from her parenting magazine. “Yes?” “Would you happen to know a Caroline? Caroline Griffen?” “No.” The stranger shook her head and laughed a little. Hannah laughed a little too. It had been a long shot. “I don’t know Caroline Griffen,” the young mom went on. “I am Caroline Griffen.” Hannah’s knees gave out. She stumbled to the park bench and managed to find a seat on the green-painted slats before her butt hit cement again. Finally. Caroline. Caroline and her baby. Duncan’s baby. Oh, God. Not only had Duncan and Caroline married behind Hannah’s back, but they’d made a child. Bending at the waist, she put her elbows on her knees and buried her face in her hands. Her lungs expanded on one long breath, followed by another. Then she turned her head and looked into the other woman’s alarmed face. “Your hair isn’t platinum. Or long. You’re not wearing mascara.” Caroline slid down the bench, closer to the stroller, and put her hand on her baby’s
blanket-covered legs. “Who are you?” Hannah took in the other woman’s clipped nails, her ratty jeans, the ragged sweatshirt she wore and its raveled cuffs. She had nice skin, but it looked as if she hadn’t yet learned how to style her new, shorter cut. Her lips were chapped. What of that had lured Duncan away? How was all that better than she? Her dry tongue ventured out to lick her own bottom lip. “I’m Hannah,” she said, suddenly not sure if the other woman would know the name. Did “Hannah” mean anything to Caroline? Had she not even cared enough to learn the name of the fiancée left in the dust? Had Duncan never bothered to tell her the name? Months ago the shame and disillusionment over Duncan’s behind-Hannah’s-back marriage had joined with the shock and grief over his death to form a tight ball of anger inside of her. All this time it had lived there, pulsing like a black heart, waiting until the day it could break open and spit fire on the piranhalike predator named Caroline. It was supposed to then free Hannah from her pain. And yet here was the piranha, in old jeans and without mascara, who was staring at her as if she didn’t recognize her name, let alone understand about that darkness Hannah had been harboring. “Who are you?” the woman asked again. “I’m Hannah Davis.” Caroline pressed her back against the slats of the bench. “Hannah.” Now it sounded as if she recognized it. The baby—Duncan’s baby—started crying. Its mother instantly moved to lift the child into her arms. “Shh, shh,” she said, patting the baby’s back. “Shh, Davy.” Davy. Hannah didn’t want to hear it, but it was impossible to ignore. Caroline and Duncan’s child was a boy named Davy. The boy named Davy should have been Hannah’s baby. But that didn’t seem real, just as this Caroline didn’t seem like the Caroline she’d been outlining and then coloring in with her hurt and angry crayon set all these months. “Hannah.” The short-haired, chapped-lipped stranger beside her looked over her quieting child’s head. “I’m so sorry.” Hannah’s black, pulsing heart of anger beat harder. “Sorry? Sorry for what?” “That he didn’t tell you. That you had to find out the way you did. That…oh, God, I’m sorry that he was killed before you had a chance to kick his ass.” Hannah blinked. “Wh-What?” The other woman smiled, but bright tears glistened in her eyes. “Maybe we could have done it together.” Hannah stared. “Kick his ass?” “I didn’t know about your engagement, you know. Not until after we were married did he tell me about you. Imagine how I felt.” “Imagine,” Hannah echoed. She’d been imagining for months that Caroline had felt empowered by the way she’d knowingly appropriated Hannah’s man and Hannah’s future. The idea of that had tortured her.
“He promised he was going to tell you.” “He didn’t.” Her voice held a note of the caustic anger she’d been holding back. “He didn’t tell his parents either.” Caroline swallowed. “I know that now.” “And they didn’t tell me Duncan had a child.” The mother rested her cheek on the baby’s downy head for a moment. His hair was the color of corn silk and glinted like polyester threads in the sunlight. When Duncan was a boy, he’d had hair like that, Hannah recalled. “He’s Davy,” Caroline said. “David Duncan Griffen.” Hannah looked away from the child. This wasn’t right! This was too hard. Putting Davy in the mix, looking at the reality of Caroline who wasn’t the gorgeous, femme fatale Hannah had written into the story she’d told herself, the one titled “How Duncan Could Do This to Me,” gave her no place to put all her anger. She’d thought Caroline had robbed her—not just of her fiancé, but of her future and her idea that if she made the approved, favored choices, she would have a charmed, favored life. Now, though, now looking at the young widow beside her, with shadows under her eyes and a fatherless baby in her arms, Hannah could only think that…that… Nothing had been stolen. Not really. It had just been lost. Still… “I don’t understand,” she said, the words bursting out of her mouth. “This isn’t right.” Who was she if she wasn’t the victim? Duncan was dead, so who could she blame if it wasn’t Caroline? Hannah, the good girl, the pleaser, the one who’d always gone along to get along, had nowhere to go with all that dark emotion inside of her. Caroline nestled her child closer to her chest. “I know. I’ve felt that exact same way since the day I heard that knock on my door.” Hannah’s belly clenched. She stood up, shaking her head, not knowing what to do. “Good-bye.” “Wait.” Despite her reluctance, Hannah turned back. “I really would like to kick his ass, you know.” “He’s dead,” Hannah said. It was why she could never bring herself to blame him or hate him for how she’d been hurt. “I’d like to kick his ass for that most of all,” Caroline admitted. “But you should know that he agonized over what he’d done to you.” Hannah shrugged. “He could have told me the truth.” “Duncan, for all his warrior aspirations, was still a softie at heart. He still found it so hard to tell something that he knew would hurt you, your parents, his parents. You know what I mean. You knew him.” And, oh, God. Hannah did. She’d known him her whole life, and one of the reasons they’d been so compatible was that, like her, he’d often been eager (too eager?) to please. They’d both gone along with the engagement because so many people had told them it was their right next step.
But that had been wrong, she saw now. The right next step for Duncan was this woman. This woman who had guts enough to want to kick his ass even when he was in the grave. This woman who had guts enough to raise their child alone. Hannah felt that dark ball of pain inside of her begin to break up, dissolving under the cathartic power of the truth. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been enough for Duncan, she realized. They…they hadn’t been enough together. Tanner had hinted at it, but she’d refused to listen. She’d wanted to accept none of the blame. But the truth was, between Duncan and herself there had not been enough honesty or passion. There had not been enough of what she felt with, and for…Tanner. Oh, God. Tanner. Tanner. Saying good-bye to Caroline was like saying good bye to an anchor that had been chained to her ankle for the past eight months. She strolled away from the playground, lighter, yet now with another obligation to meet before she left Coronado forever. She owed Tanner an apology. Or maybe it was that she owed herself one, and she had to say it in front of him. All this time, as he’d pointed out, she hadn’t been thinking enough of herself. But she could do that now. Not only because she understood what had happened between herself and Duncan, but because when she’d finally confronted Caroline to force the other woman to see her, what she’d finally seen was herself. Now she knew. Hannah knew she was desirable and valuable and beautiful and in de pen dent. She could recognize things she wanted and go after them. Tanner had shown her that (Tanner had been that), and though he might not love her, he still deserved to know that she didn’t believe he’d used her anymore. That, at least in her eyes, he’d always be a hero for helping her discover this new and improved vision of herself. Taking a shortcut through the parking area would get her back to Tanner’s quicker. It was a rectangular lot, with a U-shaped travel lane, with the only entrance at the end of one of the legs of the U, and the exit on the other leg. She didn’t pay much attention to the sedan cruising the lot until it stopped beside her. A window rolled down. “Desirée!” a voice called from the dim interior. Stifling a sigh, Hannah looked over. She was a damn fine person in her own right and she was more than slightly annoyed at again being taken for someone else. Then those last words sank in. As did the black car’s damaged front bumper. As did the threatening demeanor of the swarthy, thick-necked man now climbing out of the backseat. He made a grab for her. “Let’s go, Desirée.”
ays ago Tanner had told Hannah that a Secret Ser vice agent was required to think on his feet.
But as he cruised through the streets of Coronado, he couldn’t seem to think at all. Panic tasted like copper on his tongue—until he realized he’d bit the inside of his cheek and the flavor in his mouth was his own blood. Thank God his blood, not Hannah’s.
The jangling anxiety was borrowing trouble, of course. Big trouble. But he’d been trained to imagine worst-case scenarios, and with Dezi having been the undisputed target of someone out to harm her, and with her “dead ringer,” Hannah, wandering around the same vicinity all alone now… He wouldn’t be able to breathe until he had her next to him. Always. That was a weird thought. He shook it away, but it came back, sitting primly like a schoolteacher at her desk in his brain, burrowing like a wanton lover under sheets in his heart. Like Hannah. Hannah for always. But it was the completely wrong time for him! He was hours away from returning to the Secret Ser vice and getting his life back under his own control. Conceding anything to anyone else—God, giving his love away to Hannah—was just not what he was looking for at the moment. He caught a glimpse of a slim, dark-haired figure and his head snapped around. Was it her? No, too young. His pulse, ratcheted high in anticipation, didn’t sink back down, instead staying at a fevered thrum. He’d considered calling the police, but what could he say? The girl in my bed walked out on me? There’s outside odds she might be spotted by some foreign national or foreign-paid-for goons who’ll mistake her for someone else? He didn’t want to believe there was a reason to believe that might be true. His other option had been phoning Geoff Brooks. But Tanner couldn’t think how sharing with Hannah’s incapacitated uncle his own far-fetched fears—oh, God, he so hoped they were far-fetched—would do anyone good. Turning a corner, he scanned the sidewalks of the downtown area. Most likely he’d find her picking up souvenirs in a shop or sipping take-out coffee in the park. The park. He made the next right, retracing his route. The last time he’d gone looking for her, he’d found her at the park on Orange. Damn, but the place was crowded. The kids in Coronado were back in school, and people should be back at work after their holiday breaks, but there were enough retirees and mothers with strollers to make it hard to pick out a lone woman with a duffel bag, a killer bod, and maybe some tears in her eyes because of how she regretted leaving him rejected and dejected. Is that how he felt? Dejected? Rejected? Wasn’t this the wrong time for that too? With a light foot on the gas, he circled the block to take another pass. If he didn’t find her this time, he’d have to accept that she’d hailed a cab or called a shuttle and was already on her way to the airport and away from him. As he turned the corner, he had to brake for traffic, and he used the time to peer up ahead, looking beyond the parking lot since Hannah was on foot and not behind a wheel. Then an arc of movement caught his eye. There! In the parking lot that was still a dozen car lengths away. A dark sedan was stopped in the aisle, one door open, one man outside it trying to pull a woman toward him by her… Duffel bag. Trying to pull Hannah toward him and the yawning mouth of that car. Like it had in hundreds of assault-on-principal training sessions, time stopped, Tanner’s heartbeat slowing down with a single whoosh. Adrenaline flowed into his bloodstream, tightening his focus and
every muscle in his body. He heard a distant, high whine in his head and his sense of smell heightened— he could pick out the diesel exhaust from a nearby bus, the sticky sweetness of a grape Slurpee in the hand of a five-year-old on the adjacent sidewalk, the scent of his own soap as he broke out in a light sweat. Now biologically prepared, time moved again, but slowly, like a succession of freeze frames. Convenient, that, because it gave him the opportunity to take everything in. Hannah was still resisting the man trying to yank her into the sedan. The sedan was pointed toward the exit, ready to speed off once its prey was captured. Now the man let go of Hannah’s duffel strap to grab her arm. Her face registered more alarm, probably realizing this wasn’t another robbery, but a kidnapping, or worse. Her mouth was moving as if she was yelling, but no one was heeding her cries. Her gaze darted around, as if she was looking for… Oh, God, he hoped she was looking for him. He hoped she knew he was here and would never let anyone, ever, hurt her again. The traffic in front of him moved, and he edged the car—though the world was still moving at that anti-warp speed—to block the parking lot’s exit. Then he was out of the Mercedes, its keys in his hand, his attention on Hannah, his sole ambition to show himself worthy of her trust and confidence, the Secret Ser vice motto. Not that he gave a shit about the Ser vice now. What an ignorant, shallow asshole he’d been, whining for a year inside his own head about how he wasn’t a hero. Even being jealous of Hannah’s dead Duncan because he wore medals on his ghostly uniform while he himself had nothing but his life. And Hannah. He’d had Hannah and almost lost her to his ego, which didn’t want anyone or anything coming between it and fulfilling some ridiculous family rep that no one with a brain would care about over having her alive and in his arms. “Hannah!” he shouted. Her head swung toward him. At the fear in her eyes, time jump-started. He raced toward her. In one move he wrenched her out of the goon’s clutches and leaped toward the enemy. The man was taller and more solid than he was, but the goon wasn’t in love. The man went down on his back with a grunt, and Tanner shoved his forearm against his throat. Then he threw his keys at Hannah. “Get out of here, sweetheart. Get away and call 911.” Glancing back to make sure she obeyed, his peripheral vision only caught the brief glint of sun against the blade of the knife. Hannah couldn’t catch her breath. It didn’t matter, she didn’t think she needed it, because panic was fueling her body as she dove for the passenger door of Tanner’s car. The damn thing was locked, so she practically high-jumped over the hood and dropped into the driver’s seat. Now what? Now what? The keys were in one of her shaking hands. Get out of here, sweetheart, he’d yelled. Get away and call 911. She was going to leave him? The front passenger door of the bad guy’s sedan was open now too, hiding from her the action between Tanner and the man who had tried to…to…what ever it was he’d wanted. Get out of here, sweetheart. Get away and call 911. Her gaze jumped to the keys in her hand. She was supposed to drive? He knew she didn’t drive. Deborah’s death had understandably spooked her parents, and when it came to their youngest, their remaining daughter, they’d encouraged her reluctance not to get behind the
wheel after the required driver’s training stuff. With their cooperation, she’d been a passenger all her adult life. But Tanner had asked her to drive. Tanner, who had shown up to rescue her just as she was screaming his name with every cell in her body. Gritting her teeth, Hannah shoved the key toward the ignition. She missed, had to make another stab, then started the car. It purred. But she couldn’t put it into gear. The stupid duffel bag was in the way of the gear shift. With a quick movement she ducked her head under the strap and chucked it away from her. Then she put the car into Drive. She looked over at the parking lot again. She still couldn’t see Tanner. Her heart was slamming against her breastbone so loud she couldn’t hear anything but that echo of the last words he’d spoken to her. Get out of here, sweetheart. Get away and call 911. Swallowing the huge lump of fear in her throat, she pressed her foot against the gas. The car leaped forward, someone honked, she shifted her foot to the brake pedal and pressed so hard the tires shrieked and her neck whiplashed. Her wet palms slid on the steering wheel, but gritting her teeth, she tightened her fingers on the leather and moved her foot once again to the accelerator. This time she was able to edge somewhat smoothly into traffic. She accelerated only a few feet before she had to stomp on the brakes again in response to the car abruptly stopping in front of her. Hannah peered anxiously over her shoulder. Her heart thundered even louder when she saw that Tanner was on his feet, blood running down his arm, his mouth a grim line. The first thug was a lump on the ground at his feet, another guy was backing away, his hands half up, his gaze directed on the— Oh, God. The knife in Tanner’s hand. She made a strangled sound of distress just as another car cut through the traffic behind her. It was one of those big, black, mile-high things that rappers drove in hip-hop videos. Except it didn’t look like that was Nelly, Fifty Cent, and Ludacris pouring out as it braked, blocking the parking lot exit. The three who were heading toward Tanner and the three who were getting out on the other side to follow behind them didn’t look like they were ready to make a music video either. They looked ready for murder. Hannah emitted that panicked, strangled sound again. What should she do? Should she leave Tanner behind? Get out of here, sweetheart. He’d said that, hadn’t he? Get away and call 911. But…but…no. She couldn’t follow orders this time. She wasn’t passive pleaser Hannah anymore, taking suggestions as if they were commands. It was time to get out of that damned passenger seat and be the real driver of her own life. She shifted the car into Reverse. Pushed down on the accelerator. The car shot back, and she jerked the wheel left at the same time, jackknifing the back end toward the curb. Crunch. Ooops. Jackknifing the back end toward the curb and directly into that big black car’s front bumper.
Except that might be good. Because all the major players looked over at the crashing sound. And Tanner saw his chance. He tore through the wall of bodies between him and the Mercedes, taking advantage of their distraction. At the last instant she remembered the lock and leaned over, pulling it up just as his fingers wrenched open the door. He threw himself inside. She stared at him, stunned at her own success. Then she opened her mouth to say something (declare her love?) and— The rear window of the Mercedes shattered. Her body jerked in shock. “Shit,” Tanner said. He pushed down on her shoulders. “Get down, get down, they’ve got guns. And for God’s sake, drive!” Sirens were sounding in the distance, but Tanner didn’t want to wait for the cavalry. Not when the black hats had knives, guns, and an unnatural fixation on his woman. “Drive, Hannah!” he urged her again. “But I can’t see.” He didn’t ease up on her shoulders, even as he reached over to put the car into gear himself. “Press the gas and turn the wheel left.” Horns honked, he felt the Mercedes bounce off another vehicle as if they were playing bumper cars, and then he risked another peek over the dashboard. “Left, left, left!” he yelled. “Hit the gas and go left!” Hannah’s inner Mario Andretti complied to his order and she accelerated, whipping them onto a side street. Then, her eyes barely peeking over the steering wheel, she took another turn. And another. “Good, good.” His tongue had thickened and his right arm was going cold. A police car passed them, sirens blazing, heading in the opposite direction. Grimacing at the clumsy heaviness of his torso, he half turned so he could watch the road behind them. “No one’s following.” Hannah had a death grip on the steering wheel. “Do you think the police have caught them?” “Yeah.” He had no idea. Holding back a groan, he used his left hand to fish inside his front pocket. Then he dropped his cell phone in Hannah’s lap, hoping she wouldn’t notice he had blood on that hand too. “Look, if you get back on Orange at the next intersection and head toward the bridge, you’ll find the hospital. There are signs that lead you to the emergency room.” Black dots were doing water gymnastics on the inner surface of his eyelids. “Call…call 911 if you get lost.” And then he was lost to the black dots as they coalesced into complete darkness. Tanner came awake to the smell and sounds of hospital. He was too tired to open his eyes, so his other senses registered what they could: that plastic, puke, and paperwork scent, the muted clap of rubber soles on squeaky linoleum, the raspy texture of hospital linens beneath his hand, the disgusting taste of old saliva in his mouth. He needed a piece of gum or a breath mint, he thought. Maybe Finn— No. He wasn’t in the hospital to visit Finn. That was last year and Finn had been released months
ago. So who was he visiting and why had he fallen asleep in a hospital bed? Someone was going to be mad… Hannah. Hannah. His mouth was too dry to speak, so he gathered his will and peeled open his eyes. It was daylight and damn bright in the hospital room. He had to squint as the sun moved through the windows, dazzling him, yet illuminating a standing figure looking out through the glass. Hannah. His pulse settled back and he let his eyelids fall to half-mast. It was all right, then. She was all right. They’d both made it. He worked his tongue around, trying to loosen it up as fresh saliva flooded his mouth and he swallowed to lubricate his throat. Hannah continued standing at the window, and he let his eyes close again, drifting for a moment. He’d been doing that for the last year, drifting on the tide of last January’s calamity, feeling powerless and resentful and as if he should have been able to stop Ayesha from being killed, from Finn losing his eye, from he himself being looked upon as a fool. “Somebody should have taken a big pin and popped my ego months ago, Hannah,” he said, his voice a croak at first, but then getting stronger. “It was after the assassination attempt that I became the real fool.” He’d thought what happened last year was the big, defining moment of his life, and it was a tragic moment—but not his tragedy. He took in a breath, and then realized his shoulder was tightly bandaged. The knife wound, he remembered. No wonder he could see it all so clearly now. “Do you know what my defining moment was? Meeting you. Falling in love with you so that I could learn to put my life in real perspective.” He wasn’t some hero who should—or could—have saved the day a year ago. And even though he’d helped Hannah today, in the end she’d saved them both. “I’m just a man, doing a job, in love with a woman.” It all made so much sense now. “What do you think about that?” There was a pregnant silence, then a surprising voice. “I think I feel really bad that you told all that to me instead of telling it to Hannah.” His eyes flew open. The woman at the window approached the bed. “Damn it, Desirée. How could you—” Then another thought struck. “Is Hannah all right? Is she— ” “She’s fine, she just walked out to—oh, she’s back.” And then she was, his Hannah, all disheveled and concerned and nearly crying when she saw he was awake. She grabbed hold of the hand of his uninjured arm and squeezed it like a blood pressure cuff. “Ouch ouch ouch,” he said, but he thought he was smiling. “Next time you could tell the woman who loves you that you need thirty-seven stitches,” she said, her voice tight. Uh-oh. He’d known someone was going to be mad. “I didn’t—” “Next time you could warn the woman who loves you that you have a couple of cracked ribs from
your fight with that ugly creep.” “How could I—” “I’m sending your mother in here. She’s waiting to straighten you out.” Hannah dropped his hand. “No, wait, wait, wait.” He grabbed for her fingers, found them. “Don’t go. Don’t go until I tell you…ask you…” She’d said she loved him. He’d heard that, right? Now he should tell her he loved her back. But hell. The first time he’d said it—by mistake to damn Desirée—he hadn’t been thinking as clearly as he was this minute. Now he realized that once the words were spoken, he would have ceded control. To that prim schoolteacher at her desk in his head. To that wanton seductress burrowed under the sheets in his heart. God. His world would never be the same. But while he might know he wasn’t any kind of hero, he’d never been a coward. “Hannah. Hannah Davis, I love you with everything I am. Will you marry me?” And then, ah, and then he remembered how he’d been waiting this past year for some electrifying moment, some instant of heraldic, heavenly fanfare that would be the signal that he could restart his life. And it was electrifying, but awesomely quiet when Hannah stared at him, apparently stunned, and then apparently very happy, and then apparently without power over her voice, meaning she could only mouth her enthusiastic and very definite, “Yes.” It was all the fanfare Tanner needed. Let the new year, he thought, and their new life together, begin.
Author’s Note Winter in Southern California can be as warm as an ideal summer day or wet and cold, just like the weather Hannah experiences in Coronado (yes, it does rain in Southern California!). Although the weather and general descriptions are true to the “island” and surrounding parts of San Diego, this is still a work of fiction and I took liberties (okay, just plain made stuff up) for the sake of the story. So while you shouldn’t waste time looking for Bentley’s Beach, do enjoy a lovely day at the San Diego Zoo if you ever make a visit to the area. Please visit my website, www.christieridgway.com, for more about Southern California, including cute surfer hang-outs. But wherever you are this new year, I hope it finds you healthy and happy.
About the Author CHRISTIE RIDGWAY has never lived east of the Pacific Ocean, north of San Francisco, or south of San Diego. To put it simply, she’s a California native who loves to travel but is happy to make the Golden State her home. She began her writing career in fifth grade when she penned a volume of love stories featuring herself and a teen idol who will probably be thrilled to remain nameless. Later, though, after marrying her college sweetheart, Christie again took up writing romances, this time with imaginary heroes and heroines. In a house full of males—one terrific husband, two school-age sons, a yellow dog, and tankfuls of fish, reptiles, and amphibians—Christie makes her own place (and peace) writing the kinds of stories she
loves best. Christie enjoys hearing from readers. You may write to her at PO Box 3803, La Mesa, CA 91944, or visit her website at www.christieridgway.com. Visit www.AuthorTracker.com for exclusive information on your favorite HarperCollins author.
Avon Romances by Christie Ridgway NOT ANOTHER NEW YEAR’S MUST LOVE MISTLETOE THE CARE AND FEEDING OF UNMARRIED MEN AN OFFER HE CAN’T REFUSE THE THRILL OF IT ALL DO NOT DISTURB THEN COMES MARRIAGE FIRST COMES LOVE THIS PERFECT KISS WISH YOU WERE HERE
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