Tempted by the Soldier ONLY
a Falling for You novel by Nicolette Day
Road trips are supposed to be fun. Or, at least, full of hot sex. For photographer Lilly Grayson, the fifteen-hour drive to her friend’s wedding with Nate Jennings will be neither. Not that Nate isn’t sexy—the man is six-foot-three-inches of mouth-watering Marine. But Lilly’s been there, done that…and he walked away. Now it’s time for a little payback. The kind that’ll make a man desperate for a taste of what he can’t have.
And Nate wants a taste—so badly that he can barely keep his hands on the wheel. But the scars and ghosts of his last tour still haunt him. He can’t give into temptation, not this time. Lilly deserves a whole man—one who can love her the way she deserves to be loved, even if she doesn’t believe it can happen. And that can’t be Nate. Not when he’s leaving again in two weeks, and this time, he’s not sure he’ll return…
Title: Tempted by the Soldier
Series: Falling for You, #2
Author: Nicolette Day
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 210 pages
Listening Length: 5 hours and 39 minutes
Release Date: February 2014
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
An Excerpt from:
Tempted by the Soldier
by Nicolette Day
Copyright © 2014 by Nicolette Day. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Charlotte, North Carolina
“I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Lilly Grayson tapped her heel against the floor under the Starbucks table and sipped on her third cup of coffee that morning. Across the table her roommate, Paige, gave an answering grimace.
A nauseating mixture of caffeine and apprehension buzzed through Lilly’s veins as she watched the glass door to the coffee shop. Any minute the bane of her existence was going to walk through that door, and she was going to be expected to play nice and rely on him for help. Walking on broken glass sounded more appealing. In her experience, the only thing you could rely on Nate Jennings for was a mind-melting orgasm. Expecting anything more only led to disappointment.
Outside, the source of her current crisis was whipping the trees into a frenzy and filling the sky with ominous-looking clouds.
Tropical Storm Cindy.
More like Tropical Storm Pain-In-My-Ass.
Didn’t Mother Nature know Lilly was not to be screwed with this weekend? She had a wedding to get to. And not just any wedding. This was Hayden’s wedding. Her former boss was going to annihilate her if she didn’t get her camera to Vermont by Saturday to document the Jace Jennings saying the big “I do.” An event like this deserved a spot in National Geographic, for God’s sake. She could see the headline now.
Wild Jennings Brother Tamed and Wed!
And her neurotic, obsessive-compulsive friend trusted Lilly to be her wedding photographer. When that friend was a photographer herself, an award-winning Time Magazine photographer, that meant something. This wasn’t just any job. This was a job that neither tropical storms, canceled flights, nor douchebag ex-Marines could get in the way of. Hayden hadn’t just been a boss to Lilly for three years. Somehow she’d wormed her way past the barriers Lilly kept around her heart and become one of her closest friends. Which meant letting her down wasn’t an option. Even if that meant she was going to be stuck with the jackass half of the Jennings brothers.
For fifteen hours.
In the cab of his truck.
Honestly, she couldn’t believe he’d even agreed to it. Especially since every time they’d been forced into the same room together for the past year, all they’d managed to do was exchange heated glares and cutting insults. Not that she understood what he had to be pissy about. She was the one who’d been left a wad of cash on the dresser in lieu of a good-bye after what she had interpreted—clearly mistakenly—as a bone-deep connection and night of life-altering sex. Then, after she’d shown up at the club he co-owned with his brother to tell him what she thought of him and his cash, he’d had the balls to tell her she’d been nothing more than a convenient distraction on a shitty night. And that he’d thought a girl like her would understand a night of casual sex.
Excuse me? A girl like her?
The asshat was lucky she hadn’t introduced his nuts to her spike heels and ruined his chances at procreation right then and there. In that fatal declaration, Nate had done the one thing she could never forgive. He’d made her feel like a whore. And she was hell-bent on never letting it happen again.
She ripped apart a helpless Sweet’N Low packet, envisioning Nate’s smug, too-handsome face. If she didn’t find a way to rein in her emotions, this road trip was doomed to end in disaster. Or death. Nate’s, to be exact. And there was no way she could go to prison. She looked terrible in orange. Guess she’d just have to get creative when hiding the body.
“I can’t believe I dragged my ass to the airport at four a.m. during a tropical storm only to find out your flight was canceled,” Paige said. “I told you we should have checked before we left.”
Lilly tapped the shredded packet against the table and cast a withering look at her roommate. “I was hoping for a miracle.”
Hell, it didn’t even have to be a full-blown miracle. Just a helping hand from the Big Man upstairs. An available car at the rental desk. For Super Storm Cindy to get her panties out of a twist and go wreak havoc anywhere other than the east coast. Anything to avoid being stuck in a vehicle for fifteen hours with the one man she couldn’t stand.
She nearly groaned at the memory of Hayden’s words.
It’s just a ride, Lilly. One day out of your life. Besides, it’ll be good for you two to work out your issues. You’re both going to be in Jace’s and my lives. You have to find a way to coexist.
The only issue to work out was that Nate Jennings suffered from a severe case of assholeitis. Unless they’d found a miracle cure, she didn’t see a future that included her playing nice with soldier boy.
Paige checked her watch. “Private Panty-Melter better show up in the next five minutes. I’ve got to get to work.”
Lilly set her coffee down and raised a brow. “Private Panty-Melter? Really?”
Paige yawned and tucked a few strands of the long dark hair that was piled on top of her head back into her messy bun. “Better than your names for him.”
Lilly flipped through the mental directory of colorful names she had reserved for Nate. Colonel Cranky. Sergeant Douchebag. General Jerk.
“Nope. I still like mine better.” She pushed aside her coffee and groaned. “Maybe I could fake an illness. Tell Hayden I came down with the Ebola virus.”
“Sounds like a good plan. I’m sure you won’t have a problem telling an award-winning Time Magazine photographer that she’s going to have to hire Photos-Are-Us to do her wedding portraits. You want me to try to find a coupon in the paper? It might soften the blow.”
Lilly emptied another tattered Sweet’N Low packet into her coffee and stirred. “Very funny. I pull that, and Hayden will go all bridezilla on a tiny unsuspecting town in Vermont. Think of the carnage.”
“You do realize that your problems are my fantasies,” Paige said with a sigh. “You get offered a road trip with a sex-on-a-stick ex-Marine with deeply repressed emotional issues who is just waiting for some lucky girl to kiss it and make it better. And you actually expect me to feel sorry for you?”
“I don’t care if he is an American hero, or on the verge of being related to one of my best friends, or hot enough to melt steel.” Lilly’s heart stopped when the door dinged and she looked up to find an elderly man with a cane strolling in. She blew out a frustrated breath. “He’s still a complete jerk.”
Paige shrugged. “Maybe you should try again. People change.”
The fact that he was an hour late proved he hadn’t. He didn’t respect her time any more than he’d respected her as a person.
“No. They don’t.” Once an unreliable asshole, always an unreliable asshole. She’d been subjected to too many to count. Her mother had paraded enough of them through their home to last a freaking lifetime. All just meaningless substitutes for the one man who had never wanted her for more than a quick lay. Her father.
Lilly quickly put the lid back on that depressing box and blinked the memory of her mother’s face away. “Why do you care so much, anyway?”
Paige folded her arms across the table, concern crinkling the space between her brows. “Because you ate like two tubs of Ben & Jerry’s over this guy, Lil.”
“My point is you’ve never stuffed your face with ice cream over a guy,” she said. “I’ve never seen you let someone in like that. I’m just saying, I think that says something.”
“It’s not happening, Paige. Get over your sexy soldier fantasy. Trust me, I have.”
Another round of people poured through the door, none of them her ride.
Paige was right. Lilly had let Nate in. She’d let him in because for the first time in a very long time, she’d actually found someone she liked. And in return, he’d proven that he was just like every other male on the planet—who thought with his dick instead of his brain. Lilly followed Paige’s interested gaze to two men standing in line. Cute. But neither sparked even a flicker of interest inside her. No one had since her night with Nate.
Yet another reason to hate him. The bastard had broken her libido with his wonder penis. Jerk.
Without permission, her mind wandered to the memory of Nate’s mouth against hers, his shoulders bunching under her fingertips. No one had ever kissed her that thoroughly. Touched her like he couldn’t get enough. Made her pulse pound and her panties wet with nothing more than the perfectly placed rumble of his voice against her ear.
She squirmed and rubbed her thighs together. Damn Hayden for doing this to her! She’d put all that behind her. Moved on. She was perfectly happy hating Nate from afar. But she feared that being with him in such close quarters for that long with no escape was going to put a serious chink in her self-control.
“At least tell me you packed the clothes I laid out for you,” Paige said as she sat up straight and tightened the red bandanna keeping her hair in place. As if she needed the touch-up to grab any man’s attention. She was a yoga instructor, for God’s sake. The woman could bounce a quarter off of her abdomen. Or anywhere else, for that matter. “I had to dig through your boxes for an hour just to find them. Which brings me to my next point. You are a terrible packer.”
As if Lilly needed the reminder that in three short weeks she was going to be out of a home. With Paige moving across town to open her new yoga studio, there was no way Lilly could afford the rent on their apartment alone. If she didn’t find something soon, she was going to end up on her brother’s sofa. God help her.
“Hey, I have a system,” she said. “And you better have packed those boxes back the way I had them.”
“Stop changing the subject. Did you bring the outfits or not?”
“You mean the groomsman bait?” Lilly raised a brow. “You know I can’t show up to this wedding looking like I’m headed to a nightclub. There may actually be some opportunities to do some networking. I need to make a good impression.”
Paige tore her attention away from a guy with a sleeve tattoo who was returning her smile, and faced Lilly. “Who said you have to wear it at the wedding? Why not now?”
Lilly frowned down at her leggings and off-the-shoulder pink shirt. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
Paige shrugged and sipped her latte. “Nothing. Unless you were interested in dishing out a little torture on Private Panty-Melter. He is an hour late. It’s not like he doesn’t deserve to be messed with.”
Lilly tapped her coffee cup, considering. Paige had a point. While she may not be interested in giving him any more ammunition, the idea of giving Nate a set of blue balls to match those bedroom eyes of his sounded too good to pass up. She couldn’t let him get away with making her wait. Not after the way he’d treated her this past year. If she let him have the upper hand this early in the trip, she’d never live it down. With Nate it always felt like a battle, and she was in no mood to lose. The door dinged and Lilly looked up. Not Nate. Again. As a woman in head-to-toe floral-print scrubs walked past their table, Paige met Lilly’s gaze and raised a questioning brow.
She took a deep breath and grabbed her cup, purposely sloshing a few drops of coffee onto her shirt. “Oh! Would you look at that? I guess I’m going to have to change, after all.”
Paige grinned. “Wear the white one. He won’t know what hit him.”
Lilly stood and rolled her carry-on toward the bathroom. When she emerged, she was clad in a wispy white dress that brushed the back of her thighs, a snug military-green jacket and a pair of sky-high heels that she knew made her legs look phenomenal. Not exactly the most comfortable ensemble for a long road trip, but hey, everyone had to make sacrifices in war. Right?
She sank back down on her seat and pulled a tube of lip gloss out of her purse and swiped it across her mouth. Paige gathered up her purse and coat, watching her with a little smirk.
“Are we going to talk about the possibility of you screwing your archnemesis six ways to Sunday by the time you get to Vermont? Because in that outfit, I can’t see this trip ending any other way.”
Lilly’s mouth dropped open and her face flushed with unwanted heat. “That is not going to happen!”
Paige shrugged as she stood up to leave for work. “Never say never. Those words will always come back to bite you in the ass.”
Lilly checked her watch, severe irritation chasing away the last vestiges of doubt in her mind. Seventy-two minutes late. She folded her arms across her chest and glared at the entry door. “This isn’t a seduction, Paige. It’s a war. And you can bet your last dollar that I’m going to win.”
You’re so fine and you’re mine. I’ll be yours till the end of time…
Nate Jennings swept his arm across the messy nightstand on a search-and-destroy mission. Whichever electronic device he owned that was dragging him back into consciousness was going to die a slow and painful death. Was that…Madonna?
He slammed his fist down on what he guessed was his phone and the music ceased. With a groan he collapsed back onto his sweat-drenched pillow. He was in the ninth circle of hell. Or maybe that was just the hangover he’d inflicted on himself beating the shit out of his brain. Jesus H. Christ. How much had he drunk last night?
He cracked an eye open and the empty fifth of whiskey sitting next to his bed answered his question.
Note to self: Whiskey is not our friend.
However much he’d had to drink, it hadn’t been enough. Despite the black fog that the alcohol had created, the nightmares had still found a way through. They always did.
He closed his eyes, trying to ignore how cold and wrong the dog tags around his neck felt against his bare chest—especially with the memory of charred flesh and death still fresh in his mind. He wanted to rip off the damned metal tags…but even that felt like a betrayal. The weight of them around his neck kept him grounded. Made sure he never forgot—I’m the one who survived, and this is my fucked-up life.
An empty fifth of whiskey. An empty bed. Everything just…empty.
He felt sick.
Like a virgin. Touched for the very first time.
The music had started up again from the floor beside his bed. Motherfucker. Nate leaned over the mattress and grabbed his cell phone off the floor. A picture of his brother flipping him off with a shit-eating grin on his face flashed across the screen.
“You’ve been fucking with my phone again,” Nate snapped into the receiver.
“It could have been worse. I could have gone with Miley Cyrus.”
He sat up and threw his legs over the edge of the bed, pinching the bridge of his nose. His head throbbed, pinpricks of pain that mimicked the steady beat of helicopter blades slicing through his thoughts.
“You’re a sick bastard. You know that, right?” he muttered.
“I’ve been trying to call you all morning. I thought I was going to have to send a search party.”
“I was sleeping.” Nate pushed himself off the bed and lumbered to the bathroom where he put the phone on speaker and set it on the counter. Jesus. Couldn’t he have one night of getting shit-faced and sleeping away his demons without the rest of the world beating down his door? He twisted on the cold water and splashed his face in an effort to wash away the remnants of his nightmare.
“Why do I get the feeling ‘passed out’ is the more appropriate term here? You sound like crap,” Jace observed. “You okay?”
Okay? Nate braced his hands on the counter and stared at his dripping reflection in the mirror. His scars were on full display, the ridges of white flesh a cold reminder of the crash that had turned his life upside down and inside out. He ran a hand over the tattoo on his bicep that had once been the marine insignia his father had worn on his skin. Now the ink was broken up and unrecognizable where hot metal and flames had licked his flesh. The nerve endings were long gone, leaving the area numb, but days like today, he could still feel the burn.
His hands shook against the counter and he clenched them into fists to calm them. The haunted eyes that stared back at him in the mirror made him feel like he was looking at a stranger. A stranger who was pissing away a second chance at life. A chance he didn’t deserve. He grabbed the dog tags around his neck and gritted his teeth, painful pressure pressing against his ribs, his heart, his skull.
Hale. Clemmons. Keller. Puckett. Rivera. Hanson. Lopez.
He blinked, and turned the water off. “I’m fine.”
Jace paused and blew out a breath on the other line. “You know…it’s okay if you’re not. You could talk to me about it. God knows, it would be nice to talk about something other than fucking flower arrangements and seating charts.”
Nate scrubbed a towel over his face and bit his tongue. Lashing out wasn’t going to help. It would just make Jace feel like shit and make Nate feel even worse. They’d done this dance too many times to count in the beginning…back when he hadn’t yet figured out how to hide just how fucked-up he was inside. Since then he’d learned. Smile. Nod. Give Jace shit at appropriate times and keep a tight lid on the darkness that was eating him alive. Most days he felt like he was on autopilot. But at night, inside the quiet confines of his apartment, he crashed. Over and over again. Jace didn’t know that. Couldn’t know that. Nate refused to drag his brother down with him. Especially when he’d finally found the happiness he deserved. The less Jace knew, the better.
“Did you call just to bust my balls or are you getting cold feet? If you’re looking for a getaway driver, you’ll have to look somewhere else. I’m suddenly not feeling very brotherly.”
Jace hesitated. That was always a bad sign. His brother was usually pretty straightforward…unless he was about to drop a bomb that he knew would piss him off. Nate tensed, wondering if he’d found out he was leaving again. God, he hoped not. That shit was something that needed to be dealt with face to face. Man to man. And definitely not a few days before his wedding.
“I need a favor.”
“Am I supposed to be surprised?” Nate tossed his towel in the hamper, feeling awash in guilty relief. A favor, he could handle. In fact, he’d become all too familiar with the I-need-a-favor call from Jace over the past eight months. But then, it was a probably a real bitch trying to run a business from the Sudan. Nate had been doing everything from slinging drinks to handling payroll at the club they owned together while his brother was jet-setting across the globe. Nate couldn’t complain. He had encouraged him to go after Hayden, after all. He’d just expected him to bring their girl back home a little sooner.
“You need me to swing by the bar on my way out of town?” he asked.
“No. Nothing like that.” Jace paused. “I need you to go home.”
“I am home, jackass.”
“No…I need you to stop by Mom and Dad’s on your way to Vermont. I want to give Hayden the necklace Grandma left to Mom. I know we never discussed how everything was going to be divided up, but…”
Discussed? They never even mentioned it. That old house in Cedar Springs, Virginia, was like a museum—everything they’d known from their childhood locked up, frozen, and forgotten. Neither of them had ever had the heart to sell the place. To pick apart and pack away what was left of their parents.
Nate stared at the floor, hating the crushing pressure in his chest. “It’s yours,” he finally said. “Mom always loved Hayden. She would have wanted her to have it.”
Silence stretched across the line before Jace cleared his throat. “Yeah. I think so, too. I left all of the stuff in Mom’s room the way it was, so it should be in her jewelry box. The wooden one with the blue doves on it.”
“Consider it done.” Just the thought of setting foot in their hometown again made his stomach roil, but he owed his brother at least this much.
“I know I’m pushing my luck here, but I need one more favor,” Jace said. “I need you to give Lilly a ride to the wedding.”
Just hearing Lilly’s name caused Nate’s stomach to clench even harder. Memories of strawberry-flavored lips doused the awful flames in his mind with desire and his cock stirred with interest.
No. He wasn’t going there. Cedar Springs and Lilly? Make that a hell, no. He had enough shit to deal with at the moment without that particular walk down memory lane. Like finding out a way to tell his brother he’d been recommissioned…
He glanced over at the official papers taunting him from the dresser across the room. Everything was done. The date was set. He had two weeks left in civilian life, and then his ass belonged to the United States Marine Corps again. He could still see the look on his former commander’s face when he’d told him he wanted back on active duty. Who would have blamed him for thinking Nate was off his rocker for wanting back in when he had the safety net of his own business and a supportive family? Not to mention the disability checks they’d started sending him after he’d been med boarded out. Most men would have moved on, taken the money and started a new life. But Nate couldn’t do it. Getting those checks in the mail every month was like a slap in the face. Men were in the ground and he was getting paid to sit on his ass.
“You have a good thing going for you, Nate. Your whole life ahead of you. Why the hell would you want to take this kind of risk again?”
Because it was time to make things right.
He wasn’t delusional. Search-and-rescue pilots had the shit end of the stick. Nine times out of ten you were flying into conditions that could go from bad to cluster-fuck in the blink of an eye. None of that mattered. He needed this chance for redemption. He needed this chance…to escape.
There was nothing for him left here. He was done pretending that he wasn’t completely fucking ruined inside. He’d led a civilian life best he could. But in the end…he didn’t fit into this world anymore. He never would. Not until the world he’d left behind stopped haunting him. Not until he stopped running from the ghosts on his heels.
It was time to go back.
Time he started to sort out the shit tying his head into knots.
He may not be able to bring back the men he lost, but he could, at the very least, go back and do his part to save the lives of the rest of his brothers who were out there risking their lives every day. And if he didn’t make it back alive this time, at least the torment would be over. At least he would have died doing something that would make his father proud.
Being stuck with a woman who did nothing but remind him of everything he couldn’t have…well, that would do nothing but hinder his progress. He had a plan. And Lilly was a detour he didn’t have the time or energy for. He’d already said good-bye. Put her out of his head. Buried the undeniable attraction to her so deep it would never see the light of day.
“I can’t do that,” he finally said.
“I already told her you would.”
“Are you high?” Nate choked out. “Why would you do that?”
“Because her flight got canceled due to the storm. She’s stranded with no way to get here,” Jace said, and pushed out a breath. “I guess I was foolish enough to think you’d man up and do the right thing.”
“Trust me. I am doing the right thing,” Nate said. “Neither of us would survive the trip.”
He squeezed his eyes shut trying to quell the pounding inside his skull. He couldn’t deal with this. Hell, they couldn’t even be in the same room together for five minutes without pissing each other off. And Jace expected them to take a road trip together?
Worse, seeing Lilly again would lead to wanting her. And wanting her would lead to kissing her, touching her, ripping her panties off with his damn teeth. Things Nate had no business even dreaming about when he had a countdown clock to departure hanging over his head.
That was the problem with Lilly. She pushed him, tempted him, challenged him, until he was ready to break. She had from the first time Hayden brought her into the bar. She’d given him that sultry smile around the mouth of her beer bottle, called him Soldier Boy, and then spent the next two hours shaking her perfectly sculpted ass on the dance floor until he was sure his hard-on was going to rip through his jeans. His intense reaction to her only served to make him angry. To feel out of control. He’d never had a problem refusing the women who teased and flirted with him across the bar. He’d never had a problem, because none of them had ever so much as stirred his interest. But not Lilly. She had managed to awaken something inside him that he didn’t have the right to feel. Men were in the ground because of him, and all she had to do was run her smart mouth and flaunt her body, and he was ready to drag her into the back room and slake a lust that hadn’t been quenched in years.
Finally he had. He’d brought her to his apartment and proceeded to have the most mind-blowing sex he’d ever experienced. Afterward, he’d known he fucked up. He’d known because instead of wanting to throttle her as he normally did, he’d wanted to hold her. He’d actually wanted her to stay. And that spelled nothing but trouble.
So, he’d done what he thought was the decent thing. He’d left her cab money on the dresser and gotten the hell out of Dodge before she could wake up.
Unfortunately, she took the cash to mean something else altogether.
“Look, are you sure she even wants to do this?” he asked. “I really can’t see Lilly agreeing to go anywhere with me. The last time I saw her she all but threatened to castrate me if I came within twenty feet of her again.”
“I think you’re being a little dramatic,” Jace drawled.
“Dramatic?” Nate barked out a laugh. “Her exact words were ‘Come near me again and I’ll put your nuts in a wood chipper.’ It’s going to be kind of hard to keep that kind of distance if she’s sitting in the cab of my truck.”
“Only because you’ve been a complete dick to her since whatever happened between you two last year. If you could get over your shit and be civil, be the guy the rest of us know and love, then it wouldn’t be an issue. She used to actually like you.”
“She doesn’t need to like me.” Which was exactly why he’d had to be a cold bastard to her every time they’d run into each other since that night. Pushing her away was the only way she’d escape him unscathed.
That night had been a cold splash of reality to the heat she’d sparked within him. He couldn’t give her what she wanted. Deep down, even then, he’d known his stay stateside would only be temporary. It was just a matter of time before the chaos in his head won out. Whatever part of him that might once have allowed him to love and commit to a woman…that fragile part of him had been seared away with the layers of his skin when that helicopter had crashed. Walking away from her had been his best—his only—move. She may have been hurt, but it was better than letting her be destroyed later.
“You’re my best man,” Jace said. “Which means making my bride happy is your responsibility as much as it is mine. This falls into your line of duty.”
Nate snorted. “That’s funny. I thought all I had to do was show up and look better than you in a tux. ”
“Joke all you want, but when I’m the one kissing the pretty girl in white, you might want to reevaluate who the more alluring brother is.”
“Right. It only took you, what, fifteen years to close that deal?” He smiled, picturing the irritated look scrunching up his little brother’s face. Despite all the ink on his skin and the cash in his bank account, Jace would always be a kid to Nate. The same kid he’d taught to throw a curveball. The same kid he used to find asleep on his bedroom floor in the middle of the night for months after their father died.
The same kid he’d left alone when he’d needed him the most…
Nate brushed off the memory, laden with guilt, when he heard Hayden’s voice in the background. Half Pint didn’t get upset too often, but by her tone, she sounded primed and pissed now. Something covered the phone, muffling their voices, and Nate rolled his eyes. He would have been annoyed by his brother’s pussy-whipped behavior if it hadn’t been like this ever since they were in middle school. Jace had been trailing after Hayden since they were kids. It wasn’t until last year that his brother had pulled his head out of his ass and realized he was in love with the girl he’d called his best friend since before puberty.
“What did you do to piss Hayden off this time?” Nate grabbed his well-worn duffel with the USMC logo and tossed it on the bed. “Leave the toilet seat up? Forget to use a coaster? Leave the throw pillows on the wrong side of the couch?”
Jace uncovered the phone and sighed. “She’s not pissed at me. She’s pissed at you.”
Nate halted his packing and raised a brow. “What the hell for?”
“Oh, nothing,” Jace said. “You were just supposed to pick up Lilly. Two hours ago.”
When Lilly spotted Nate’s truck screeching into the parking lot, two hours late, a fresh wave of anger shattered her momentary relief. If it hadn’t been for the fact that she was wearing her favorite pair of knockoff Louboutins she’d scored off eBay, she would have walked her ass home, torrential downpour or not. Some things in life you just didn’t risk, and Louboutins, imitation or not, topped that list.
She should have swallowed her pride and called Paige back to pick her up, but the truth was, she was humiliated. Sitting in a public café waiting on some arrogant, unreliable prick to save the day was something her mother would have done. Following in her mother’s footsteps went against everything Lilly had worked so hard to become. Everything she’d spent the past eleven years trying to escape. If she hadn’t exhausted every other option, no way would she have lowered herself to Nate’s level. But as much as she hated to admit it, Hayden was right. This wasn’t only the most logical option, it was her only option if she wanted to get to the wedding.
The door dinged and, clenching her jaw, Lilly looked up to find Nate brushing rain off his black leather jacket. Six foot three of Marine-made muscle filled the entry door, looking like the shiny new toy most mothers warned their daughters not to touch. And Lilly wasn’t the only one to notice. She ground her teeth in annoyance as half the women in the café stopped talking to stare. The only one who didn’t seem to notice was Nate.
The last time she’d seen him, his hair had been buzzed military-style, so close she could’ve traced the exact path of the long white scar on his scalp. But now his hair had grown just long enough to mask the evidence of the hell he’d survived overseas. His electric-blue eyes looked up, doing a quick scan over the room, only taking two seconds to find her.
At least the bastard had the decency to look guilty. Not that it helped the violent urge she had to pick up the nearest blunt object and pound him with it. He started across the crowded space, and Lilly’s grip nearly crushed the to-go cup that held her Frappuccino. She couldn’t help but wonder if he was taking his sweet time on purpose, or if his snail-like pace was just a product of her imagination and the five cups of coffee she’d consumed waiting on him.
At last he ambled up and braced his hands on the back of the chair across from her. “Hey. Need a ride, Princess?”
She tensed at the mention of the nickname he’d saddled her with the day they met. He’d taken one look at her polished exterior and assumed she was just some spoiled brat who’d never experienced a hard day’s work for fear of breaking a nail. If only he knew how far he was from the truth. She’d done everything from work as a professional pooper scooper in an animal shelter to sweeping floors in an auto body shop just to survive after her mother had died. Lilly was as far from a princess as you could get. Unless you counted Cinderella and her floor-scrubbing days…
“Well, look who finally decided to show up.” Lilly stood, smoothing her dress over her thighs. “Sergeant Unreliable is alive and kicking, after all. And here I was hoping you’d fallen down a well or something.”
“You know, Lil, when I think about fifteen hours of you busting my balls,” Nate said, “I gotta say, the well sounds tempting.”
Lilly took a deep breath and plastered on a fake smile. “You can rest easy, Nate. I have absolutely no interest in your balls. Just your truck.”
Ignoring the dangerous glint in his eyes, she turned and bent over at the waist to grab her suitcase, knowing exactly what he would see. She felt immensely gratified when she heard the choked sound behind her. Her lips twitched with a satisfied smile as she slowly stood, deliberately giving him a good look at the body he’d never have the pleasure of touching again. When she turned around, luggage in hand, his eyes blazed, still lingering on the hem of her dress.
“Enjoying the view?” She raised a brow.
He lifted his gaze unapologetically, and anger lined the hard edge of his clenched jaw. “The view is a little hard to miss in that dress, Princess. I wasn’t aware Kleenex had come out with a women’s fashion line.”
Lilly inhaled, silently counted to ten, and gave him a tight-lipped smile. “As much as I’ve missed your uncanny talent to insult me, I’d really like to get on the road, if it’s all the same to you. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can part ways and never see each other again.”
“For once we can actually agree on something,” he muttered.
She turned her back on him before she did something extreme. Like pour her Frappuccino over his head. He followed, reaching out to grab the handle of her suitcase. She tightened her grip, refusing to let go.
“Come on, Lil.” He held the door open for her as she struggled through to the parking lot, hands full. “I’m not a total dick. Let me take your bag.”
“First of all, yes, you are.” She stopped and turned to face him. “And second, the only way you’re getting my bag is if I shove it up—”
His hard chest collided with hers and her coffee cup exploded between them. She screamed and jumped back, allowing him to take the brunt of the Frappuccino eruption.
He looked up, eyes wide, and held his dripping hands out to his sides. “What the hell?”
“Seriously?” She shook her fingers, splattering him with more of the sticky-sweet excuse for coffee, and scowled at him. “Weren’t you in the army? Didn’t they teach you grunts to look forward when walking?”
Tension stiffened his big frame and a muscle in his jaw ticked. “Marines.”
“Yeah, well the Marines must have skipped the watching-where-you-walk chapter along with the lesson on punctuality. Or maybe you just bailed that day. You seem to be good at that.”
Anger flashed in his eyes like a storm warning. He took a slow step forward, and without thinking, she took a step back on the asphalt and into the rain, cringing when her heels landed in a puddle. Damn it. Less than ten minutes in his presence and already he had her tripping all over herself. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She was supposed to be teaching him a lesson. She needed to take control of this situation, and fast.
A few more steps and her back hit the side of a truck. His, thankfully. He stopped in front of her and stripped off his coffee-soaked shirt, tossing it in the bed of the truck without taking his eyes off her. She froze, the sight of his chiseled bare chest enough to make her brain short-circuit. What in God’s name was he doing, stripping in a parking lot? If Paige could see this, her panties would be melting all the way over on Fifth Avenue.
“W-what are you doing?” Who the hell did he think he was? Matthew McConaughey?
Nate braced his hands on the truck roof above her and leaned in, his jaw tight, his gaze intense. “Setting some ground rules.”
Heart racing, she tilted her head back to look up at the man towering over her, blinking away the light rain falling from the sky. This close, she could see every speck of gray in his cobalt eyes. His gaze darted down to her mouth and heat sparked low in her belly, igniting the need to give in to the white-hot connection burning between them. She didn’t know what she wanted more. To douse that connection with ice water and extinguish it forever, or keep it burning bright just to torture him for pretending it didn’t exist.
Being this close to him felt too familiar. Too intimate. Too…good. She swallowed, knowing she should tell him to back the hell off, but she couldn’t seem to find her voice through the tangle of emotions clogging her throat.
Her gaze dropped to the dog tags dangling on his chest and a flash of her gripping the chain as he dragged her in for a hot, wet kiss flashed across her mind. She wriggled against the truck, wanting, no, needing to put some space between them. His heat, his fresh-from-the-shower masculine scent, it was all over her, making her stomach tighten with want.
Wait…want? No. She did not want Nate Jennings.
What she wanted was to give him a swift kick in the family jewels to get him to back the hell off.
“Does this rule-setting require you to be shirtless?” she said in an unsteady voice.
“What’s the matter, Princess?” Nate smirked. “Afraid you can’t control yourself around me?”
“If you’re referring to my burning desire to physically harm you, then yes. That is something I’m concerned about.”
His gaze drifted over her dress, which was slowly but surely going nearly transparent from the rain. “First rule. No more smart-ass commentary. I was late. I apologize. I want to get to Vermont with my sanity intact. That’s not going to happen if I have to listen to you run your mouth for fifteen hours.”
She shrugged. “I make no promises.”
His nostrils flared and she could hear his hands ball into fists against the truck. “Fine. But know that every time that pretty little mouth pisses me off, I’m going to retaliate.”
She raised a brow. “I might actually feel threatened if I thought you’d keep your word,” she said. “But I think we both know how good you are at that.”
“I think I might be motivated enough to follow through this time.”
“Oh yeah? And what exactly do you plan to do? Spank me?”
His smirk curled. “As tempting as that sounds…” He leaned in close enough to share the air touching her lips. “I’ll do the one thing I know terrifies you the most.”
She lifted her chin a fraction, refusing to be intimidated. “And what is that?”
“I’ll kiss you.”
Her lips parted without permission and she sucked in a breath. “You wouldn’t.”
“Princess, I’d do just about anything to shut you up.” His voice lowered, the sound sending delicious vibrations down her spine. “If memory serves correctly, the last time I shut you up, you liked it.”
“I was faking it,” she snapped.
Fire lit behind his eyes and he pressed her into the side of the truck, his gaze raking over her suddenly trembling body. “Well, since you hated it so much, it should be decent motivation for you to keep quiet.”
Her pulse kicked up a notch as she tilted her head back to look him in the eye. This was the first time they’d been this close in a year. Hell, this was the first time they’d been alone without Hayden, Jace, or a bar full of people to create a buffer between them. She straightened her spine, refusing to let the arrogant bastard know how much he affected her.
His palm pressed into the truck door above her and he closed his eyes as if he were fighting for control.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Lil?” he whispered.
“Take this ride. With me.”
He opened his eyes and the deep timbre of his voice sent a shock wave of unwanted heat through her. Anger burned right behind the desire, determined to snuff it out.
“Trust me, if I had another option, I’d take it,” she said.
“You remember what happened last time you got into my truck, don’t you?” he said. “Do you really want to risk that happening again?”
He dropped one hand to wipe a tiny smear of whipped cream from her collarbone that the rain hadn’t managed to wash away. Her body’s reaction to that simple touch was unreal. An ache bloomed between her thighs, and her nipples strained against the thin lace cups of her bra.
No. Her body was not reacting this strongly because of him. If it was, what did that say about her? She could barely stand to hear his freaking name. She blamed it on her sexual drought. She hadn’t been with a man in a really long time. That was all. Her body was just starved for any kind of attention. By this point, a bum could probably have elicited this same reaction.
She swallowed the lie and sucked in a breath. “You know, I don’t remember that,” she said. “Must have been too underwhelming to leave an impression.”
His eyes narrowed and one of his fingers lifted a lock of her hair. “I don’t remember you complaining. If anything, I remember you begging for it.”
Her spine stiffened. With all the back-and-forth sniping between them over the past year, neither of them had ever mentioned that night. And now a year later, he was using it against her?
“You didn’t stick around long enough to hear the complaints,” she gritted out. “Maybe next time you decide to do a fuck-and-dash, you should leave a comment box next to your bed instead of a wad of cash. I have a feeling the feedback would be helpful to an inconsiderate tool like you.”
She gave his chest a firm shove, pushing him back a few steps, then pulled the truck door open, climbed in, and shut it in his face, before he could retaliate.
She rolled the window down a smidge. Just enough to get a good look at the dangerous glint in his eyes and the erection filling out his jeans.
“So. Are you going to stand out there all day, or are you going to get this rig on the road?” She flashed him a satisfied smile. “Clock’s ticking and Vermont’s waiting, Solider Boy”.