Everything was wrong, and I wanted to blame Ricky. He was flirting with a woman who kept trying to tug down the hem of her white dress. The cheap scrap of fabric was too tight, and it kept slipping further up her thighs every time she shifted on her too-high heels. She didn’t belong here. Probably some farm girl transplant trying to make it as a model or actress or whatever else people came to LA to do. Too bad.
I checked my reflection in the full wall window of the LA Hills mansion. The short beaded fringe on my designer dress brushed the tops of my thighs just the way I liked it, showing off my slender legs. The narrow chevron pattern of the dress accentuated the tight silhouette, and the dark colors drew attention to my flame red curls. My hair had always drawn enough attention in and of itself, but the newest addition of black streaks added even more. Ricky hated the black, said it made me look damaged. I was just happy it pissed off my grandfather.
I spun easily on my six-inch heels and strode across the room to the patio door. Ricky moved on to flirting with the hostess, a mousy, brown-haired girl who was wearing a green dress from last season. Her father was rich, and the only reason she had friends.
The mean thoughts burned in my stomach. My father. I would give anything to see his green eyes smiling at me again. My mother had called them shamrock green. Mine weren’t like his. They were bright blue, like hers. Like my grandfather’s. My hair color was all dad, though. I dropped down to sit on the wide steps leading to the pool. The memory of them was like a punch in the stomach.
They’d died a year ago.
I checked the time on my phone. In two hours, it would be exactly the time I’d gotten the phone call telling me that they were both dead. That my little brother and I were orphans.
“Hoping Gramps is demanding you come home?” my best friend Paris asked, tossing her wavy dark brown hair over her shoulder. “Checkers with him would beat this party any day.”
“Chess,” I said, rolling my eyes. “We play chess.”
“I’d play Hangman with your grandfather if it got us out of here. Have you seen Ricky?” Paris asked.
My on-again-off-again boyfriend was not hard to spot. At six foot three he towered over most of the guests. He’d hit his growth spurt a couple months ago and enjoyed towering over people. I watched him ruffle his sandy brown hair, a sign he was about to move on from the bottle-blonde he was flirting with at that moment to someone else. He caught my gaze and his light blue eyes flashed as he smiled.
The trouble with Ricky was his effortless good looks. He hardly made it five feet toward me before another girl stepped in front of him, a hopeful expression on her face. He couldn’t resist stopping so his eyes could rove over every inch of her.
“Poor little cater-waiter,” Paris said. “As if Ricky would ever touch her.”
I said nothing, glad to still have a few minutes to bury my grief before my this-time-on-again boyfriend expected me to have fun with him. Compassion wasn’t Ricky’s strongest personality trait. That was okay, though. I hadn’t picked Ricky because I’d wanted a shoulder to cry on. I’d picked him because I’d wanted someone to make me forget.
“Leighton?” Paris asked, nudging me. “Are you okay? Something seems really off with you tonight.”
“Bad night, lame party.” I stood abruptly.
Paris stepped around me so that we were face-to-face. I tried to avoid her ice green eyes, but my best friend won out. I’d never been one for eye contact, even less since it had happened.
“Bad night, the worst.” Paris pitched her voice low, the expression on her face uncharacteristically serious. “This is it, right? One year?”
“One year? What is it an anniversary or something? Let’s celebrate,” Ricky said, snaking an arm around my waist. He reeked of alcohol.
“Let’s leave,” Paris said, her eyes still on me.
“Leave? No way, honey. This party is just getting started,” Ricky said. “How about we do some shots. Something’s gotta liven up my ball and chain here.”
“I’m not slowing you down, Ricky,” I said, the words coming out more harshly than I intended. I hated when he called me that. “Who’s it going to be tonight? The one in the white dress or the hostess?”
Ricky snorted. “Model wannabes from Iowa aren’t really my thing.”
“What about the hostess? Her bank accounts measure up to your high standards,” I said, twisting out of his hold. It would be just like him to take off so he could fuck some other girl on the anniversary of my parents’ death. I wasn’t even surprised that he hadn’t remembered what today was.
“And I’ve seen cuter gophers than her. What’s gotten into you?” Ricky asked, his eyes narrowing. He didn’t like this version of me. I wasn’t fun like this. And Ricky liked fun.
The memory of my parents’ death flashed over me, twisting the knife in my heart. “Me? Nothing’s wrong with me.” I drew myself up to my full, heeled height. “In fact, I think I’ll go flirt with a half dozen guys to prove it.”
“Not my girl,” Ricky said, grabbing my waist again.
He twirled me around and dipped me low, his light blue eyes laughing in my face. He pulled me back against him, his mouth finding the sensitive skin of my neck. The kisses were sloppy, and I could feel him sucking at my neck. Shit. The last thing I needed right now was a hickey. My grandfather would go through the roof.
“Ricky, stop it. Let me go,” I said, pushing against his chest.
“Come on, Leighton, you wanted my attention. Now you’ve got it,” he said, moving in for my mouth.
“I don’t want you or your attention,” I said, turning my face away. Was it really expecting too much for him to not act like an ass?
“Fine,” Ricky snapped.
He spun me away, letting go as his arm extended. I stumbled a few steps, and was just starting to right myself when my heel caught on a crack in the sidewalk. I reached back for Ricky’s hand but he just looked at me as I fell. At first, I thought I was going to face plant right into the concrete, but my momentum kept me turning. My head hit the edge of a hibiscus-filled planter, and I heard a splash as my world went dark.
Two black bags on the canyon road.
My grandfather standing next to them. Nodding at the sheriff, neither letting me get close enough to look.
My parents’ car, hanging from chains as the crane dragged it from the lake.
Water dripped from it, heavy splashes that hit me over and over again.
Cold water. Splashing on me.
“You’re getting her all wet.” Paris’s voice came through the darkness.
“She fell in the pool,” a strange voice said. It was deep and rough, sounding annoyed and concerned at the same time.
I opened my eyes, and the world spun around me. When it finally settled, I saw Paris standing over me, a worried expression on her face. The only other person was a stranger whose presence only partially registered as I looked for Ricky. It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to realize it was only Paris and the stranger on the pool deck with me. The party had cleared out, and Ricky had gone with it.
I heard sirens and groaned. No wonder everyone had fled. Aside from the free-flowing alcohol to anyone and everyone regardless of age, I knew of at least four different illegal substances that were making the rounds, and I was sure there were more.
“Leighton?” The man’s voice spoke my name, drawing my attention to him at last.
I blinked before I could focus. Chocolate brown eyes looked deep into mine, and for a moment I held his gaze. I’d never seen such depth in a pair of eyes before. Concern. Aggravation. And a few other things that I probably could’ve recognized if everything around me hadn’t been lurching and rolling.
“Over here!” Paris called.
Shit. The sirens hadn’t been cops called on the party. They were paramedics. For me.
“No hospital,” I said, trying to roll over. I had to get up.
A sharp spike of pain went through my head, and I gagged against the wet pool deck.
“You probably have a concussion,” the stranger said.
I saw him reach out like he was going to touch me, then pull back as paramedics surrounded me. I was poked and prodded, questions asked and answered. Within a few minutes they’d come to the same conclusion as the mysterious stranger had. I’d suffered a concussion and needed to go to the hospital for overnight observation.
“No hospital,” I insisted.
Grandfather couldn’t find out about this. I’d told him I was staying with Paris, and while I knew he wasn’t dumb enough to believe that we weren’t going to a party, it was something completely different to flaunt it with a hospital stay. I didn’t even want to think about what would happen if the press got ahold of it. I wasn’t drunk or high, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t write it that way.
“You need someone to stay with you tonight and keep an eye on you,” the paramedic said.
“No.” I glared at him.
“Do you have any idea who she is?” Paris whirled on the paramedic. “And my father is the best lawyer in LA. Should I call him?”
To his credit, the paramedic didn’t even bat an eyelash. I supposed anyone who’d worked this job for very long would be used to getting threats.
“If she refuses to go to the hospital and get a CT scan, she needs to have someone stay with her and wake her up every couple hours for the next six hours or so.” The paramedic stood his ground. “That’s not to cover my ass, that’s for her own good.”
I looked up at Paris.
Her shoulders slumped. “I’m leaving for Hong Kong in two hours, remember? Forced field trip with Mother. You were going to stay with Ricky tonight.”
Ricky. Right. My asshole of a boyfriend who was probably banging some other woman right now. I scowled. We were so off-again.
“Does she have any family?”
I looked over at the stranger and realized, for the first time, that he was in army fatigue pants, not the tailored soft version but a real camouflage pair. His shirt was tan and metal gleamed against it. Dog tags. He was a soldier.
And he was dripping wet.
He’d pulled me out of the pool.
“She has a brother and a grandfather.” Paris answered the question. Despite the circumstances, I could see her eyes gleaming as she looked at the muscular physique made obvious by the wet cloth clinging to him.
He glanced at me, his gaze sharp enough to make me want to squirm. “I’m guessing the grandfather is why she doesn’t want to go to the hospital?”
Paris nodded. “And her brother’s only fifteen. I can’t ask him to watch her.”
“I’m sitting right here,” I said, all to aware of the petulant tone in my voice. “I’m not a baby. I can take care of myself.”
They both ignored me.
“I have a flight to catch or I’d stay with her myself,” Paris said.
The man looked down at me again, then up at the paramedic. “I’ll take it from here.”
There was a tone in his voice that immediately made me think that he was the kind of man people listened to. He didn’t look more than a couple years older than me, but it didn’t matter. The paramedics nodded and started gathering up their equipment.
“What about…” Paris started to say.
“Do you have a car here?” he interrupted.
She nodded. “My driver’s waiting to take me to the airport.”
“He’ll make a stop first.” It was said as a statement, not a request.
To my surprise, Paris didn’t argue. Maybe she was just as stunned as I was that this total stranger was taking charge.
He frowned down at me for a moment, and then, in a sharp decisive move, bent and scooped me up off the pool deck. Dizzy with the sudden movement, my cheek fell against his rock-hard chest. He smelled good. He held me firmly, but carefully, as he followed Paris back through the too-bright interior of the mansion and out to the driveway. She opened the door of her chauffeured town car, giving a start of surprise when the stranger tucked me inside.
“Ride up front.”
Again, it wasn’t a request. I could only imagine the expression on Paris’s face, but I didn’t think about it long. My head was still fuzzy. I heard the front door close as he climbed into the back seat with me.
“I’m not staying at the Hilton,” he said as he put his arm around me and pulled me close enough for me to rest my head on his shoulder. “But I’ll sit with you until morning.”
“Who are you?” Paris asked from the front seat.
“Haze.” His tone was abrupt enough that neither of us asked if that was his first or last name, or an alias.
“And you really think I’m going to leave my friend with you in some sleazy motel room?” She turned in the seat, eyes snapping.
“I think you only have a couple of choices,” he countered. “Take her home. Take her to a hospital. Cancel your flight…or leave her with me. I’ve had some medical training. I know what I’m doing.”
Paris glared at him for a minute and then looked at me. “What do you think?”
I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the way my stomach was rolling as we went over a series of bumps. “You go with your mom. I’ll be fine with him.”
The weird thing was, I was pretty sure it was true.
My mind was in a fog. I barely registered Paris saying good-bye and telling me that she’d text me as soon as she got to Hong Kong, but I must’ve given her some sort of indication that I was still fine, because she left me with Haze. He didn’t say anything during the rest of the ride, only giving the address of his hotel to the driver before settling back into silence. Every so often, I felt him watching me, but I kept my eyes on the back of the seat in front of me.
When we reached the hotel, Haze opened his door, got out, and then came around to my side to open my door, too. Before I could even attempt to walk, he was picking me up again. He was easily as tall as Ricky, but broader. Stronger. Ricky had the sort of build that came from being naturally athletic, but there really wasn’t any power to him. Haze, however…every bit of him exuded power.
He set me down in the lone chair by the door before flipping on the main light. I looked around at what it revealed. A small table to the right of the chair I was sitting in. A bed made with military precision and a cheap-looking comforter. A TV on top of a faux wood dresser. A door I assumed led to a bathroom.
The entire room could’ve fit inside my bathroom at home.
“You were right, military man Haze,” I said with a dry smile. “This isn’t the Hilton.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me, but didn’t respond defensively. If anything, there was a glint of humor in those dark eyes of his. “All I promised was to keep an eye on you until morning. And it’s clean. That’s pretty much all I have to offer.”
He leaned forward, and I held my breath. My entire body felt like a live wire. I waited for his lips to touch mine, for his hands to caress my skin. Instead, he reached behind and undid the zipper of my soaked dress, the chevron stripes peeling away as it came undone.
“And I’m not offering anything?” I stood and stepped out of the dress as I tried to hide my disappointment.
I shouldn’t have been disappointed, I knew. He was a stranger. Hot, yes, but still a stranger. I might have indulged in my fair share of partying in the last year, and Ricky was no prize, but I’d never been the one-night-hook-up kind of girl. But, dammit, if Haze didn’t make me want to change that.
He laughed, but it wasn’t a mean sound. “No offense, you sort of look like a drowned rat.”
“No offense?” I tried to sound indignant, but it was difficult with my teeth chattering.
His expression softened. “Go take a hot shower. Warm up. There’s a clean shirt in there you can use while you wait for your clothes to dry.”
I gave him one final glare before I stomped off. In the bathroom, I checked the throbbing cut on my head while I waited for the water to heat up. I sighed as I stepped under it, shivering as the hot drops hit my chilled skin. I washed up with the soap the hotel had provided and realized that Haze had been using it too. I recognized the scent from when he’d picked me up. I used one of the towels hanging next to the shower and hoped that it wasn’t one he’d used. My body flushed with a different sort of heat at the thought of him rubbing the same rough cloth across his naked body.
I pushed the thought aside as I swallowed a couple of the pain pills Paris had slipped me before the party. I’d intended to use them to get high later on with Ricky. Now I used them for their intended purpose, even if I hadn’t been the intended recipient.
They didn’t, however, do anything to take the edge off of my anger. Not anger at Haze’s dismissal, not at Paris or even at Ricky for having been an idiot, but at myself. After a year, all I could feel was a corroding loneliness, and I was reaching the point where I had to find some sort of outlet, or I was going to end up screaming.
I grabbed the shirt that was hanging on the back of the door. I wondered if he’d washed it in the sink. It smelled of the hotel soap. I pulled it over my head, the material soft against my skin. It hit me mid-thigh which wasn’t surprising. He was at least ten inches taller than me and twice as wide, so I was practically swimming in the shirt. That was good though, since my underwear was currently hanging over the towel rack to dry.
I came out of the bathroom and paused in the doorway for a minute, letting myself get a good look at him for the first time.
He sat on the bed, wearing black boxer shorts and a clean white t-shirt that stretched across that broad chest. His hair was short, not quite as closely buzzed as it probably had been when he’d first joined up. It was blond, matching the faint scruff I could see on his cheeks. He didn’t have Ricky’s pretty-boy looks, but rather the sort of rugged good looks that fit with the rest of his tough-guy persona.
“I figured we could watch a movie since it’s easier to keep an eye on you if we’re both awake.” He didn’t look at me as he flipped through channels. “Any requests?”
“Just one,” I said, suddenly deciding on what I wanted.
He looked up, his eyes widening slightly as he saw me in his shirt. I didn’t give him – or me – the chance to overthink things. I crossed the short space and crawled onto the bed, keeping my eyes locked with his. He sucked in a sharp breath when I climbed onto his lap, my knees settling on either side of his thighs.
“Make me forget,” I whispered as I leaned forward and pressed my lips against his.
The flash of heat that went through me at the contact surprised me, and I pushed myself closer. A moment later, he pulled away, and I waited for him to shove me aside, to tell me that I was just some foolish little girl, and I should go. Instead, his hand drifted to my cheek, the rough fingers gentle as they trailed down to cup my chin. His gaze was steady, searching, seeing too much, seeing everything that I was too tired to hide.
Finally, I dropped my eyes to his left arm where a tattoo peeked out from under his sleeve. Two arrows crossed above a dagger. I wondered if it had to do with the sort of work he did in the military. He pulled his shirt over his head, exposing the delicious expanse of muscles and tanned skin. And another tattoo. It was one of those design styles that they called Celtic and it was a sun. Around his right nipple.
I had the sudden urge to lick it.
Who was this man? I had a name. Knew he was military. But that was it. One thing I did know for certain, he was everything I was not: purpose and training, focus and selfless ambition.
“Leighton.” His voice was rough, his eyes nearly black. “I don’t think this is a…”
“Shh.” I ran my fingers down his stomach. “I want this. I need this.”
He looked at me for a moment more, and then his wide hand curved around the back of my neck, pulling me to him for a searing kiss that I felt in every cell. My fingernails bit into his iron muscles as I opened my lips, welcoming the hot strokes of his tongue. I ground down on him, building a charge between us that almost exploded when he pulled his shirt over my head, leaving me naked underneath. His hands swept up my spine, then slid around to my front. My breasts weren’t small, but his hands were large, covering them completely. He didn’t seem to mind though, his thumbs rubbing up and over my nipples until I had to break the kiss and arch back in ecstasy.
When his hot mouth followed his thumbs and closed over my right breast, I rocked against him. His throbbing erection strained against the thin material of his boxer shorts and we both shuddered as it pressed against my wet apex. I made a mewling sound as his teeth scraped against my sensitive skin. He dragged his head from my taut nipple and caught me in a harder, deeper kiss, his tongue plundering my mouth.
I needed him inside me. Now.
“Condom?” I tore my mouth from his to ask the important question.
For one heart-stopping moment, I thought he was going to say he didn’t have any, and that wouldn’t have been good because I didn’t either.
He reached over to the side table, one arm sliding around my waist to hold me in place as he used his free hand to work open his wallet and pull out a foil square. I rose up on my knees as he tore the packet open and reached between us, freeing himself from his boxers and putting on the condom.
I put my hand on his shoulder, balancing as I lowered myself onto him. I was wet, but tight. He was bigger than Ricky, both in length and width, stretching me with even the slightest movement. His hands slipped to my thighs and tugged me open, the pressure of him sending a wash of desire through me as I dropped further down.
“Fuck,” he groaned.
He hands tightened on my hips and, suddenly, he pushed all the way inside me, burying himself deep. I cried out as I rode that line of pleasure and pain. He was hard all over, thrumming with restrained power that melted me, turned me liquid, hot, and wet around him. I rocked, my nipples rubbing the granite expanse of his chest as I slipped up and down. The pressure built, his fingers digging into my thighs, his hips thrusting up.
“Leighton,” he moaned my name.
I wrapped my arms around his neck, my body rocking against his, every cell burning with the need to come. I was so close, and I could feel that he was too. And, suddenly, it wasn’t only about my pleasure. I wanted to feel him let go too.
I pressed my mouth against his ear. “Come, Haze.” I flicked out my tongue against his earlobe. “Come with me.”
I heard him swear, and then I was coming. I quaked around him, the release more shattering than I’d ever felt before. He folded me tight in the iron circle of his arms, holding me against him as he came. He kept himself deep inside me, the pulsing aftershocks ravaging us both, until, slowly, the room came back into focus.
Still, I didn’t want to let him go. His hand stroked up and down my spine as I settled against his chest. My leg muscles were aching, and his boxers rubbed against my skin. I wasn’t exactly comfortable, but I still didn’t want to move.
“Can I ask you something?” I finally broke the silence.
The movement of his hand paused, then resumed the soothing motion. “I won’t promise that I’ll answer.”
“Fair enough.” I traced the tip of my finger around the sun tattoo. His nipple was tight. “You’re in the army, right?”
I felt him tense slightly, but he still kept his fingers moving up and down my spine.
“And you’re on leave?”
“Am I…I mean…have you…” I suddenly felt childish. Immature.
I sat up and started to move off him.
“Leighton.” His voice was gentle, and I looked at him. Our eyes met for a moment, and then his slid over to the window.
A faint pink light shone under the edge of the curtain.
“It’s morning.” He shifted, easing me off of him onto the bed. “Why don’t you go get cleaned up? It’s time to get you home.”
When I came back, there was a piece of paper with the number of a taxi company on the bed, a fifty-dollar bill…
And Haze was gone.