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Take Me if You Dare

By:Nina Crespo

Take Me if You Dare (Entangled Brazen) - Nina Crespo
Chapter One

“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven? Why don’t you let me buy you a drink, and you can tell me all about it?”

Jasmine took a long sip of chardonnay and prepared to give her sixth refusal of the night to what was beginning to feel like a contest for the worst pickup lines ever.

“No, I’m fine.” She set her wineglass down on the tall table where she was sitting on the outdoor deck of the beachside lounge and swiveled her barstool more toward the ocean.

“You’re more than fine, baby. You’re an angel.” Mr. Can’t-Take-a-Hint stepped back into view and flashed a knowing smile. “We should go someplace where you can examine me for bruises, because I’ve been falling for you all night.”

He eased farther into her personal space, and her eyes watered from the overpowering scent of his cologne. As she moved back, he moved in. If he came any closer, she would tumble right out of her seat.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said, fanning him and his cologne away. She gave him an up-and-down look, but he didn’t budge. Turning her body farther away from him, she stared pointedly out at the crashing waves, but he still hung around like a thick, humid fog unmoved by the breeze.

Was he really that clueless?

The voice in her head huffed out a laugh. She should have celebrated her twenty-seventh birthday upstairs in her hotel room with a bubble bath, room service, and a movie, but instead, she’d gone all-in on her best friend Tabitha’s stupid birthday dare.

I can’t believe I agreed to do this. Have a one-night stand. What was I thinking?

Ironically, she was the one who’d started the dare tradition when she’d challenged Tab to kiss her playground crush on her eighth birthday. Since then, the dare had instigated purple hair, a tattoo, a well-hidden body piercing, and a college spring break incident in Acapulco that had landed them just short of jail.

During the past few years, mainly because her cheating ex-fiancé had insisted upon it, she and Tab had toned things down a bit, and the dare had mellowed to the pleasures they’d often denied themselves because of their busy schedules. Things like Latin dancing lessons, wine tasting in Napa, hiring a gourmet chef for a week, or pampering at an expensive spa. This year, as a way to help her get over the ending of her doomed engagement to Greg, Tab had insisted on giving her something more…challenging.

She shot a look at the guy standing next to her and his grin widened.

Once she’d agreed to take the restrictions off, she should have known that Tab would head straight down the path of flat-out crazy. I mean, really? Where had this idea come from? Before this night was over, she was going to think of seven—no, make that eight—ways for Tab to pay for this brilliant plan.

In the midst of drawing up her mental payback list, the guy brushed his hand over Jasmine’s thigh, and her game-over meter tipped into the red zone. In the past hour, she’d tolerated a sloppy drunk, two guys who’d spent their whole conversation tag-teaming stares at her breasts, another one who’d needed to make friends with a toothbrush, and one guy who’d just plain given her the creeps. This was a total disaster. Dare or not, she was done.

She moved her leg out of range and glared at the guy standing next to her. “Touch me again, and you’ll draw back nubs for fingers.”



Ethan stood at the bar and watched the exchange with amused interest. The guy must have figured out by now that he was destined to go down in flames just like the other five ahead of him. That is, unless she preferred the type of guy who was addicted to hair gel and orange tans.

Turning to get a better view, he leaned his elbow against the bar and continued to enjoy his beer along with the profile of the woman dressed in a peach halter dress that enhanced her light golden-brown skin. A light ocean breeze played in her dark curly hair, providing glimpses of her slim cheekbones, full lips, and the promise of it all fitting together beautifully.

She crossed her shapely legs, and his gaze moved from the strappy stiletto heels on her feet to where the hem of her dress ended at mid-thigh. The woman’s slow, unconscious movement of flipping her hair over her bare shoulder brought his attention back up to the curves of her breasts. When she raised her wineglass, his gaze followed it all the way up to her plum-colored lips.

Sexy, sophisticated…tempting.

No wonder every guy in the bar had his eye on her. The way she carried herself made a man want to find out more about her scent, her touch, the softness of her skin, and what she preferred to wear next to it—silk, lace, satin, or maybe nothing at all.

His money was on lace.

Ethan’s cock stirred in interest, and he adjusted his stance. Maybe he would reconsider calling it an early night.

A familiar laugh rose from the middle of the lounge, and he looked over at his friend, Mitch, standing at a table between a long-haired platinum blonde and a wavy-haired brunette. The blonde laughed and ran her fingers over his shaved head while the brunette on the other side rested her ample cleavage on his arm.

Ethan breathed out a chuckle.

He’d agreed to come to the bar to be Mitch’s wingman tonight, but the tipsy brunette making a grab for his crotch less than two minutes after they’d met wasn’t a part of the deal. At thirty-two, like most red-blooded males, he wasn’t averse to an invitation, but he appreciated sobriety and a small amount of subtlety. When the opportunity had come up, he’d volunteered to go to the bar and order more drinks but had sent them back with a server.

He returned his attention to the woman sitting across the deck.

Was she secretly getting off on busting the chops of every guy she turned down or did she really want to sit there alone tonight? He couldn’t stand the type who enjoyed verbally kicking a guy in the balls as a power trip, but if her thing was about not settling for less, especially considering the yahoos who’d shown up at her table, he understood. Lately, he’d grown tired of dragging ass to some tired bar, drinking the usual, and running the same usual tired lines that brought the usual to his bed.

Hell, not that he was ready to settle into a recliner or twirl around on a riding lawn mower anytime soon. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army when he was eighteen. Nine of those twelve years he’d spent with Mitch in Special Forces, keeping pace and living to serve his country. Making the transition two years ago from full-time soldier to civilian security specialist suited him, but with the long stretches of travel, that still meant no long-term relationships. At the most, he could give a woman a few weeks or a couple of months.

Ethan ran the scenario of spending time with someone like the mystery woman through his mind. She didn’t look like the constant club and party type, which meant they would probably stay in most of the time. That was fine with him. They could kick back and watch a game or a movie. He’d even cook. As an only child and a latchkey kid, his mom had made sure he’d known how to do more than just boil water. Partly because she refused to raise a lazy son, but she also wanted to make sure he knew how to take care of himself.

His thoughts drifted back to the memory of his mom working two jobs after losing his dad. She’d focused all her time and energy on raising him. Joining the army right after high school was his gift to her so she could have more time for herself. Of course, she was proud of him, but she also worried. He hated that part. Guilt had almost burned a hole in his gut, but it lessened somewhat after she’d remarried. If something happened to him, she wouldn’t be left alone.

Personally, he could never put the woman he swore to love for the rest of his life through the grief of losing him. Life was hard enough without having someone leave you to live through that kind of pain, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself or be a little more discerning about his short-term prospects.

Ethan took a slow pull from his beer and glanced over at Mitch. Maybe he should make a play for the blonde and leave his buddy with Boozehound Betty. He brought up a visual of that plan in his mind, but the only image that made him hard was of a certain ebony-haired woman, lying naked and tangled in his sheets.

As he took another drink from his beer, he surreptitiously scanned the area, noting the location and disposition of every man in the lounge. If her plans really were to enjoy a quiet drink, she was going to end up greatly disappointed. The sharks were circling and ready to move in as soon as the current guy cut his losses.

Suddenly, the woman quickly swiveled her chair around, and her knee bumped into the guy’s crotch. She stood up and a string of angry words passed between the two of them. Ethan put his beer down and stopped leaning against the bar. The guy’s expression morphed into ugly, and it didn’t take a lip-reader to interpret the man’s spat-out response. Her back visibly stiffened. Ethan cut through the crowd.

If two guys were going at it for some stupid reason, he’d mind his own business, but some dickhead giving a woman shit over a rejection was a whole different story. Once he reached her table, he took a balanced opened-legged stance, ready for anything, including having misread the situation. Then he did what naturally came to him having been trained to face unknown odds with undeterred determination.

He improvised.

“Sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to keep you waiting. I got held up by a phone call.”

Two sets of eyes turned in his direction; one dark and obviously pissed off, the other a deep hazel-chestnut with the longest lashes he’d ever seen. He sucked in a breath. The earlier promise of beauty did not disappoint.

Just then, the DJ cued up a spicy Latin number, and the couples around them headed for the small dance floor on the other side of the deck.

She offered him her hand. “I believe that’s our song.”



Her rescuer took his cue.

Hallelujah! Jasmine let out a breath and latched onto his hand like it was the last life preserver on a rapidly sinking cruise ship.

Just before they walked away, her rescuer gave the guy she’d nearly tossed her wine on a warning look, and the jerk raised his hands in surrender.

On their way to the dance floor, she glanced up at the man leading the way.

His closely cropped black hair was cut into a military-style fade, and his face bore enough of life’s experiences to just barely remove him from the realm of cover-model handsome. He transmitted the message of confident and fit for duty, and any doubts about that were easily resolved by his wide shoulders, solid chest, and well-formed biceps hugged comfortably by a dark shirt.

Not bad…

As they weaved through the crowd, other men moved out of his way in deference to his size, while women stepped aside to get a better look. She couldn’t blame them. The black jeans he wore nicely cupped the essentials, especially his firm-looking butt. Once they reached the dance floor, he pulled her into the circle of his arms, and she followed his lead into a basic, uncomplicated salsa step.

“You can breathe now. Romeo has moved on to other prey.” The deep timbre of his voice easily reached her over the music. “Are you okay?”

She leaned back to get past his jawline and looked up into blue-green eyes as clear and beautiful as the Atlantic on a sunny day.

“Now I am,” she said. “And thank you.”

A slow smile tipped up the corners of his mouth. “You’re welcome,” he said and expertly guided her into a fast spin.

After twirling around on her toes, she went back into his arms. Each step they took was in perfect sync through the masculine-feminine maze of the dance. She relaxed, and by the end of the song, Tab had regained most of her bestfriend status for daring her to take Latin dance lessons two years ago.

They moved right into a sensual bachata and kept dancing into the next song. It was a slow one. Surprisingly, without the awkwardness of a new couple, they came together with her palms sliding over his shoulders and his hands curving around her waist. Heat and awareness radiated in the small space between them.

Maybe Tab was right and she was in sexual drought. How many long, lonely months had passed since she’d felt anything as wonderful as this? Before she could come up with an answer, his hands moved low on her waist. One small guided step forward fit her lower body tightly to his, and sways merged with the unhurried roll of their hips. His erection pressed against her belly, and Jasmine’s sex clenched. Sinking her teeth into her lower lip, she stifled a moan, but the vibration of a heavy bass line teased out more of the ache between her thighs.

His forehead rested against hers, and he released a ragged breath. Relieved that she wasn’t the only one affected, she allowed herself to get lost in the feel of his strong hands holding her, his warm, masculine scent, and the image in her thoughts of them satisfying the requirements of the dare. Yeah, she could definitely see it happening with him.

If he could only read my mind…

She looked at him, and his eyes zeroed in on her lips, his intentions clear, but he waited, giving her time to move away. The slip of his arm around her waist, the glide of his hand through the hair at the nape of her neck, the slow lean in, all brought out her soft sigh. His mouth pressed to hers, and she fell into a kiss that uncoiled need. All common sense about time and place was lost in the glide of his tongue stroking, teasing, and testing how far she was willing to go…all the way and back if he was taking her there. Dancers, caught up in the fast beat of the next song, bumped into them, and they took a step back. As she blinked away the haze of desire, she saw matching want in his eyes.

He took hold of her hand, and in silent agreement, they walked off the packed dance floor, headed for the bar. When they got there, she settled into the last empty seat fanning her face, warm from the humidity and the lingering effects of the kiss.

“Would you like a drink?” he asked.

She allowed herself an extra second to study him, taking in the slight bump on his nose, the masculine angles of his face, and the hint of her gloss still on his lips. His eyes, like the pull of gravity, brought her attention back up to his steady gaze.

“Chardonnay,” she said.

He signaled the bartender, placed the order for her wine, and added on a beer.

As she dabbed away the light sheen of moisture on her forehead with a napkin, he leaned down, and the light stubble on his face brushed against her cheek. “By the way,” he said, “my name is Ethan.”





Chapter Two

She looked at him, and once again, she got all tangled up in the pull of attraction still buzzing between them. His puzzled stare reminded her he was waiting for a response, and she gave herself a mental shake.

“I’m Jasmine.”

The bartender showed up with their drinks, and while Ethan paid for them, she took a sip from her glass. The cold, crisp, fruity taste of the wine brought her temperature down and washed away some of the dryness from her throat.

“So tell me, Jasmine.” He placed his hand on the back of her chair, a proprietary gesture, claiming her and their space at the bar. “You had to have known every knuckleheaded guy in this place was going to hit on you, so why are you here alone?”

She debated among the coy, the cute, and the utterly clueless, and opted for a slice of the truth.

“I was attending a conference this week, and I didn’t get a chance to relax. It’s my last night in Miami, and a friend suggested this place so…” She shrugged out the last part of her answer behind another sip of wine.

He chuckled, and the deep timbre of his laugh stroked over her in all the right places.

“Relax?” He eyed her over the beer bottle as he took a drink. “Your friend doesn’t know Miami very well. This bar is one of the hottest spots in the city on a Saturday night.”

Jasmine sputtered, nearly choking on her wine. “Ah—no, she must have missed that part.”

Tab had actually said the lounge was boring, more of a place for business than pleasure, and had suggested she go to a trendier club downtown.

Sneaky witch…

She’d agreed to Tab’s dare to get over her dry spell, like a batter finally taking a swing to get out of a slump, that’s all. No flirting, no partying, no long-term expectations. She wasn’t doing this for fun. No doubt Tab was betting on her choosing the hotel lounge as the safest place to find a guy, get the deed done, and still get in a good night’s sleep, alone, before her flight out in the morning.

Ethan regarded her quizzically for a moment, and then he gave her a sexy smile so lethal it obliterated every trace of embarrassment.

Turning the tables, she asked, “So tell me, Ethan, do you normally come here on a Saturday night to rescue women from knuckleheaded men?”

His widening smile deepened the dimple in his left cheek.

“Honestly, I’m here because it’s convenient. My buddy and I are on vacation. We’re staying at his condo farther up the beach.” He leaned down near her ear. “And as far as rescuing a woman in this place goes, you’re my first.”

The way he said the words was like an intimate caress, and her fingers tightened around the stem of the wineglass. She’d never felt this attracted to a man, not even Greg. Another image of her and Ethan settling Tab’s challenge vividly came to mind.

She peered up at him through her lashes, and his gaze met hers.

Oh, who was she kidding? As if she needed Tab’s birthday dare as a reason to twist her arm into any kind of temptation with him.

He moved back and propped his booted foot on the rung of her barstool. His knee brushed her thigh and tingles radiated over her skin.

“I’m also playing chaperone tonight.” He gestured with his beer bottle toward an equally impressive man standing at a table with a blonde and a brunette. Both of the women’s perfectly proportioned bodies were poured into skintight dresses, and they balanced on six-inch fuck-me heels.

His buddy spotted him, and the two men exchanged a “bro nod” while the brunette licked her lips and sent Ethan a blatant look of invitation.

What the…?

A group of women let out collective a yell of encouragement, and Jasmine looked over at a woman with a tissue bridal veil partying with her friends on the dance floor.

Memories of her own failed engagement came to mind, and a chill washed over her skin. Greg had wanted her to fight for him when she’d found out what happened. News flash. He’d cheated on her, not the other way around!

She took a sip of chardonnay and swallowed the wine along with the bitterness rising in her throat. Tab was wrong. She wasn’t ready for this. If this guy thought she was going to get into some kind of a silly catfight to stop another woman from claiming him, his ego was about to take a serious hit.

“Well, thank you for the drink and the save,” she said, setting the half-empty wineglass down on the bar. “I have to go.”

“What? You’re leaving?” He frowned. “It’s not even eight o’clock yet.”

“Yes, I’m leaving.” She gestured lightly over to the trio. “You should probably get back to your chaperoning duties.”

“Mitch has things under control.”

“Oh, really? Well, I don’t think the brunette got that message.” The words slipped out before she could rein in the hint of angry wasp in her tone.

Ethan leaned down and looked directly in her eyes. “I don’t care what the brunette did or didn’t get, as long as you get the message that I’m here with you for as long as you want me to be.”

He slanted his lips to hers and coaxed her into a slow, unhurried exploration of her mouth that made her greedy for more, but once the kiss ended, doubt crept back into her thoughts. She shoved it aside.

What she wanted was simple. No promises, no investments, just a man willing to make a dare a reality.

She eased off the barstool, braced her hands on the side of his waist for balance, and found herself in the perfect position—up close and personal with his chest. As she formulated a plan, her hand wandered, almost of its own accord, past his waistband and pressed against the zipper of his jeans.

Rising up on her toes near his ear she whispered, “And what if I want you next to me all night?”

He lightly closed his fingers around her wrist, and she leaned back to look at him.

Uh-oh—too bold?

Ethan lifted his other hand to tip up her chin, looking into her eyes in a way that almost made her believe he could see straight into her thoughts.

He stroked his thumb over her bottom lip, and then brushed an unhurried kiss over the same spot. “Stick close to me. Romeo’s still on the prowl. He’s had enough drinks to make stupid feel courageous, and I’m not in the mood to educate him on the difference.”

She followed his gaze to a nearby table where the poor guy sat with three women, still not taking the hint as they ignored his presence.

Tugging her gently by the wrist, he urged her in front of him, and they walked toward the connecting restaurant. Once they were inside, they moved through the crowd and the maze of tables. Every time she stopped, his front bumped into her rear, a nice, hard reminder of what they were about to carry out.

What type of lover was he? Greedy, generous, unhurried…demanding?

The thrill of something new, something different, made her heart pound faster in anticipation.

And worry.

Greg hadn’t been her first lover, but like most long-term couples, they’d slid into a comfortable routine.

A near collision with one of the servers carrying a tray caused Jasmine to lose her balance, but Ethan wrapped his arm securely around her waist. He held her upright and his arousal nudged against her hip. Warmth pooled low in her middle and quickly replaced her worries of looking like a klutz.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Absolutely. All she wanted to do was lie back in the firm cradle of his chest. Pulling herself together, she nodded and willed her legs to move toward the exit. They walked out of the restaurant into the far less populated hallway of the hotel, and a rush of cold air reoriented her senses. She slipped her hand into the hidden pocket in the folds of her skirt, and her fingers brushed against the small leather holder with the key card to her room. Her heartbeat kicked up another notch, and words of invitation hovered on the tip of her tongue.

“When do you leave town?” Ethan slowed down, and she had to match his stride or risk coming off as desperate. They stopped just short of the elevator, and she wondered about the sudden hesitation.

She cleared her throat. “Tomorrow afternoon. What about you?”

“Me too.” He moved in front of her, inches away, leaving her no choice but to look up.

A waterfall…

That’s what his eyes reminded her of—a cool, sparkling waterfall she wanted to step under and let rain down all over her body.

“What happened?” he asked.

Geared up for any other question but that one, her mind went blank. “Wh-what?”

He skimmed his hands up and down her arms, warming away the chill from her skin. “A woman like you doesn’t make the choice to get under a man this way unless she’s trying to get over someone.”

Her cheeks scalded with heat. Was she that obvious?

“Don’t get me wrong.” Another one of his wickedly handsome smiles formed on his mouth. “I don’t mind being used, but I just have one small requirement.”

Wariness slithered through her mind. “Like what?” she asked, cautiously.





“Dinner.”





Chapter Three

The doorbell rang, and Ethan took one last glance around the condo. He and Mitch were good about keeping up the place, but a quick check through the couch cushions had unearthed a high heel from a woman’s shoe, a tube of lipstick, and a condom wrapper. Hopefully, there weren’t any more hidden surprises that could potentially kill the mood.

Just sex…

He knew the drill. Some asshole betrays a woman, and she hooks up with another guy to get over the past. Honestly, he didn’t mind being used. What guy would with a woman who looked like Jasmine? But after keeping up with Mitch on the partying end of things this week, he needed a break. Slowing things down with dinner instead of just a hit-and-run would actually give him a chance to relax and enjoy the moment for once.

Ethan opened the door, and his gaze wandered over Jasmine and the short strapless burgundy sheath she’d changed into that fit her like a second skin.

“Hey,” she said.

She smiled but he picked up on the slight quiver in her voice.

Stepping back, he welcomed her into the condo, and as she passed by, a light, fresh powdery perfume wafted through the air. He filled his lungs with it, the simple function of breathing rating second to holding on to her scent. He shut the door and clicked the lock into place.

“I didn’t want to come empty-handed so I brought dessert.” She turned around and held out a white boutique bag with a gold emblem stamped on it. “I think I’ve developed an addiction to the hotel’s chocolate mousse pie.”

Pulling his gaze away from her legs, he walked over to her, took the bag with one hand, and slid the other around her waist. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said. “Thank you for trusting me.”

“Well, you did leave your phone number and a copy of your driver’s license with the concierge. The women at the front desk were impressed.” She laughed, but the casualness she was striving for wasn’t quite there.

“Well, since your adopted guardians trusted me enough to let you come out tonight, do me a favor?”

She gave him a quizzical look.

“Relax. Whatever happens tonight is at your speed, your pace.”

Her lips curved into an honest smile, and she rested her hand lightly on his chest. “Okay. I think I can handle that.”

“Good,” he said, and then he gave in to his own new addiction—her lips, drowning in the flavor of mint, something that tasted like berries, and her low moan humming into his chest.

She pressed her warm, supple body against him, and he was tempted to take things further, but he dragged himself away. At this rate, they wouldn’t make it to dinner, but he was on a mission—a relaxing meal, maybe dessert, and then sampling every delicious part of Jasmine.

He let her go with a final lingering kiss and tamped down the urge to trail his lips to the pulse he saw beating wildly in her throat.

Releasing a shaky breath, she turned away from him and put her purse down on the arm of the couch.

“Wow, this is a great view.” She walked toward the wall of glass that ran the entire length of the first-floor vacation condo facing the beach and sighed. “If I was staying here, I wouldn’t have made it to the conference.”

Ethan’s gaze traveled down her body and rested on the firm curves of her ass. “I agree.”

She looked over her shoulder, and her gaze moved down past his waist. “You should do something with that.” Her tongue darted quickly over her lower lip, and his cock took notice. Her eyes widened a bit, but she didn’t turn away. Long seconds later, she looked back up. “You don’t want that to get too hot.” A flustered look passed over her face. “I mean the dessert… It needs to stay cold. You should put it in the refrigerator.”

He suppressed a smile. She was the real deal. Honest, open, sexy, no games to play, no hoops to jump through. How often had he come across that in a woman? Try almost never. Most of them were like the brunette Mitch had tried to hook him up with.

Following her advice about dessert, he retrieved a chilled bottle of white wine. After he poured two glasses, he joined her by the kitchen window. Satisfaction spread over him knowing he was spending the night with the right woman. He handed her the glass and smiled. “I hope you like steak.”



Jasmine ate the last bite of tender rib eye and released a contented sigh.

Ethan lifted up the bottle of wine. “More?”

“No, I’m good.”

She was already swayed way too much by the soft breeze, the low candlelight, and how he gave her his full attention. Just like on the dance floor, he’d put her at ease, and the conversation had flowed through a variety of topics from her week at the conference, her home back in Dallas compared to where he lived in Greenville, South Carolina, to what type of music she listened to during her morning workouts. She’d even shared some of her crazy escapades with Tab.

And what about the birthday dare?

Even though he’d guessed part of the reason for her proposition, how could she tell him about that, especially after all of this?

You know Tab, my best friend I just told you about? Well, today’s my birthday, and she dared me to have a one-night stand to officially get back into the swing of things.

Right—there was no way on earth that tawdry little confession was coming out of her mouth. She’d already hogged up most of the conversation. Slightly embarrassed she hadn’t taken any interest in him, beyond the physical, she asked a question.

“So what type of work do you do?”

“I work for a contracting firm as a security specialist.”

She waited, but he didn’t elaborate any further. “Is it security as in technology, risk management, guarding a bank?”

He took a sip of wine and placed his glass back on the table. “I protect corporate VIPs and government officials. At times I work downrange with the military.”

“Downrange?”

“Sorry,” he released a low chuckle. “Sometimes I forget that not everyone has a military background. I guess the easiest way to put it is that at times we assist the military.”

She read between the lines. The word “easiest” meant how to say it without giving away too much. In his line of work, it was probably considered an important skill.

“So, I guess you travel a lot?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, but sometimes I’m stateside for extended periods of time. It depends on the job.”

A small pang of disappointment tugged in the middle of her chest. She breathed it away. It didn’t matter. He was off her good-man prospect list anyway because he didn’t live in Texas.

“What about you?” He leaned in and rested his forearms on the table. “You mentioned that the company you work for sets up wellness programs. Does your job require you to travel?”

She forced a smile. “It used to…when I was a program coordinator for the company. I loved it, but I resigned last year when I thought I was moving to Virginia.” She fiddled with the stem of her wineglass. “That plan didn’t work out.”

He reached across the table for her hand. “That must have been tough.”

The soft stroke of his thumb against the center of her palm took away most of the sting from the memory of how she’d ended up jobless, homeless, and heartbroken. To add insult to injury, Myra, a coworker who’d consistently gone out of her way to undermine her projects, was promoted into her position.

“Yeah, it was, but Ted, my old boss, helped me get a job as a member representative in the call center. In the end, it all worked out.”

“And in time, you’ll be able to work your way back up?” He intertwined their fingers, and the slightly rough texture of the calluses on his hand sent tingles zipping across her skin.

She nodded, but her mind had already wandered from climbing the corporate ladder to advancing things along with Ethan.

Was his chest smooth? Were his long legs as muscular as they looked? Was that a six- or eight-pack of abs she’d felt earlier?

Imagination kicked in, and she was lost in the fantasy of slowly pushing up his shirt and letting her fingers skim over every dip and rise of muscle on his stomach all the way up to his chest. He’d have to take over then because she’d be too busy unfastening his jeans. In her mind, she saw a light sprinkling of hair way low on his abdomen. It would tickle her fingers as she slipped her hand into the vee of his zipper. The slow reveal kept unfolding in Jasmine’s mind, and her breathing grew shallow. Her dress started to feel uncomfortably tight as she imagined him as the type who went commando, making it easier for her to wrap her fingers around—

“Are you finished?” he asked.

Not even close.

Reluctantly, she ended the fantasy and brought her attention back to the present. “Yes. That was great.”

After they cleared the table, they went inside, and she helped him tidy the kitchen…well, at least she tried. Who knew watching a man rinse a few dishes could turn into a near orgasm-inducing experience? Every time he squeezed out the sponge, her nipples ached more and more with the image of her sitting on the counter and him stroking and kneading her breasts with his hands. After almost maiming her fingers with a steak knife, she excused herself and went into the bathroom. On her way back, her knees shook with anticipation.

When she walked into the kitchen, Ethan was cutting generous slices of chocolate mousse pie, and she released a groan, partly out of sexual frustration. “I don’t think I can handle another bite.”

“But you said you were addicted to this stuff.”

“I am—and that’s why I’m breaking the habit, starting now.” Knowing that was a hard promise to keep, especially as her mind ventured into thoughts of licking chocolate right off his chest, she stayed on the other side of the kitchen.

“No deal, woman.” His brow lifted with a chuckle. “If it’s as good as you claim there’s no way you’re leaving me with all of it.” He spooned up a healthy bite and moved toward her.

Seeing the mischievous sense of purpose glittering in his eyes, she tried to sidestep him but found herself effectively backed up against the counter. “But it’s a thank-you gift for dinner,” she pleaded.

He shook his head. “But nothing—open up.”

Despite her objections, she opened her mouth and took in the rich bite of goodness. Once she recovered from complete food ecstasy, she narrowed her eyes on him. “That wasn’t fair.”

He chuckled and handed her a napkin. “Maybe not, but I know you enjoyed it.”

Laughing, she dabbed at her mouth, trying not to disturb her freshly applied tinted gloss. “Wait a minute.” He took the napkin out of her hand. “You missed a spot.”

As he started to lift the napkin toward her mouth, he stopped. Leaning in, he lazily flicked his tongue against the corner of her mouth.

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s very addictive.”

Ethan slanted his lips over hers, and the firm strokes of his tongue whipped up a decadent mix of chocolate and desire. She’d never had anything so delicious in her life, and the more she took in, the more she wanted. The need for oxygen finally forced her away, and she rested her forehead on his chest.

He swore softly. “Yeah, that is one hell of a dessert.” As he moved his hands up and down her back, he lowered his head and brushed his lips along the sensitive skin of her throat. “All I’ve thought about since you walked in the door is touching you, tasting you, and being inside of you.” He punctuated his words with more soft kisses before capturing her mouth with his and delivering a message so blatantly sexual it made her slightly dizzy. Ethan moved his lips a hairbreadth away. “Are you sure?”

Jasmine closed her eyes, hardly able to breathe, let alone explain her state of mind. She wasn’t foolish enough to believe one night could magically erase or fix anything, but it could give what she’d denied herself for a very long time. Simple pleasure.

Gripping the front of his shirt, she pulled him down and let the slow drag and curl of her tongue in his mouth convey what she craved for just one night. Ethan’s deep groan hummed into her mouth, and he grabbed hold of her butt, anchoring her against him. The solid ridge pressing through his jeans short-circuited her mind in place with one single repeating thought.

She wanted him.





Chapter Four

Ethan scrunched Jasmine’s dress up to her hips, and his fingers traced over the edges of her bikinis. A long, rumbling groan of approval vibrated from his chest. “Lace…I knew it.”

He moved his hands to the middle of her back, and anticipation mixed with self-doubt sapped moisture from her mouth, but resolve nudged her forward. She’d spent her entire engagement politely accepting the bullshit Greg and his family handed out to her, and she’d ended up hating not standing up for herself. No more. This was about fulfilling her desires with Ethan. Not just sex with any man. Him. And she was going to do this without regret.

The zipper that had given her so much trouble earlier in her hotel room yielded easily under his adept fingers, and he peeled the dress away. A small shiver ran through her body from the cool air and the look in his eyes.

He swallowed, and the angles of his jawline sharpened. “You’re so damn beautiful.”

Ethan continued to gaze down at her as if he was captivated in a spell. Knowing she possessed him in that moment made her want to show him more. She eased the dress down to let it puddle at her feet, and his chest rose and fell with a ragged breath.

“Jasmine.” The way he said her name was like an actual caress. He stepped forward and smoothed his palms over her hips and into the curves of her waist. “Tell me what you want.”

Everything. Every little thing that would make her hot and flushed whenever she remembered how they’d spent the night. She struggled to say it, but her internal war was instantly lost in the feel of his hands skimming up past her rib cage. Moaning, she arched her back, so needy for his mouth on her breasts, she almost begged for it. But you don’t have to… For once, she just had to ask.

“I want your mouth…on my breasts.”

She’d barely spoken the words and his lips were there laving each breast. The pull of her nipples into his hot mouth made her cry out, and Jasmine gripped his shoulders as she started to tremble. Her knees weakened with each firm suck of his lips and rapid flick of his tongue. If he kept going he’d make her come with his mouth alone, but the throbbing ache between her thighs demanded so much more.

“Take this off.” She clawed at his shirt.

In one swift movement, Ethan stepped back and pulled it over his head. When he tossed it aside, she stared in awe at perfection. Every dip of his deeply muscled chest, every valley in his sculpted abdomen, the silken arrow of hair low on his lean hips, it was all there, just like in her fantasy. Where did she start? Before she could make up her mind, Ethan claimed her mouth.

Jasmine ran her hands over his chest, arms, and back. He was strong, solid, and with each pass of her hands over him, strength rippled underneath her palms. As she glided her hands down his taut stomach, he took in a sharp breath and each tiny muscle grew more pronounced under her fingertips. She moved down to unfasten his jeans and struggled to get the zipper past the bulging fabric.

Ethan released a breath that feathered along her temple. “Easy, baby, that’s all me.”

His impressive cock spilled out from the copper vee of his zipper, and a shudder of anticipation made her shake even more. She closed her hand tightly around him, steel wrapped in satiny skin, and all hers for the night.

Breathing out a low curse, Ethan stepped back and hurriedly pushed down his jeans. No waiting. No demands, just a beautiful man ready to deliver what she asked without question.

He reached out and lifted her effortlessly by the hips. “Hold on to me.”

As he headed for the staircase, she grabbed on to his shoulders and wrapped her legs around his waist. Each step he took grazed her aching clit against the heat of his shaft, and she canted her hips up against him searching for relief. Ethan released a husky groan and stumbled over to the side of the staircase. Pressing her back against the wall, he threaded his fingers through her hair and guided her mouth down for a hard kiss that mimicked the thrusting of his hips.

Holding tightly to his shoulders, she wound her legs further around him and matched his rhythm. Each deep press of his hard, thick length caused her beaded nipples to lightly scrape against his chest and her need intensified. She wanted him inside of her so badly it almost hurt. Momentary panic in losing control so completely and desperately wrenched out a sob that escaped into an openmouthed kiss. Ethan took hold of her hips, covered her lips with his, and consumed her next sobbing breath. Her orgasm teased along her senses just out of reach. If she wanted it, she had to let him take there. She had to let go.

Tingles moved up from the bottom of her feet, her legs trembled, and her hips pitched forward. She held on to him, unable to stop her nails from digging into his back or the keening cry that scorched her throat. Ethan tunneled his fingers past the edge of her panties and glided into her clenching sex. Whimpering into his mouth, she shamelessly rode out her climax on his thrusting fingers. When the erotic storm was over, she sagged in the cradle of his arms.

“Damn,” he breathed out.

After he adjusted her boneless weight against him, he carried her up the stairs to his bedroom. Her body still vibrated with aftershocks as he slid her bikinis down her legs, but the glide of his palms up her thighs jolted her body to full awareness.

Ethan kissed her hard and backed her up until she fell onto the bed. He covered her with his big body, and his fully aroused cock pressed into her lower belly. Thoughts of him spearing into her with the primary goal of delivering pleasure made her squirm under him, but aroused as he was, Ethan didn’t hurry. Instead, he leaned in for a long, slow kiss before trailing his lips down her neck to her breasts.

More kisses brushed along her belly to the tattoo of butterflies intertwined with tribal scrolling just above her hip. He nudged her thighs apart, and she widened her legs. Her deep sigh turned into a moan as his talented fingers found the right spot. She clutched the sheets, ruled by the hand pleasuring her in front but dying in anticipation of what was to come.

“Please,” she panted out.

But he continued to drive her mad, replacing his hand with his lapping tongue. Her core grew slick with liquid heat, and she held on for each coveted flick and stroke. Just when she thought she would splinter apart, he moved away for a brief moment, covered his length with a condom, and then sheathed himself slowly inside her inch by glorious inch. His gaze held hers as he rolled his hips, controlling the pace, bringing her close to her peak, and then easing her down only to take her back up again.

Caught in a spin of erotic sensations, she existed only to meet each thrust. She bowed up underneath him, meeting his powerful surges until she was overcome by an orgasm that shattered her from the inside out; every emotion, every feeling and thought, bonded to that moment.

She hung on as he continued longer and harder, seemingly driven by a single-minded mission to give her more of what she wanted…pleasure. His whole body stiffened, and Jasmine felt a violent shudder shake through him at the same time he released a guttural moan. As the warmth of contentment wrapped around her, she held on to him, wanting to capture the feel of his body connected with hers in her mind.

Long moments later, he lifted up his weight and brushed kisses to her throat. “I like your tat.” He traced his fingers over the design on her hip. “What does it mean?”

It took a few seconds for her brain to hear his compliment and then decipher the question. Greg had criticized her for having a tattoo, and she’d always made an effort to keep it covered when they were together. The memory of the day she’d chosen to ink her body came back, and she smiled softly. It was on her twenty-first birthday as part of a birthday dare. It was a road map for what she’d vowed she wanted to experience more of in her life.

“Truth, love, and transformation.”

As she heard herself say the words, a heady excitement bloomed at the thought of starting that journey once again.





Chapter Five

The next morning, Jasmine awoke to soft kisses along the nape of her neck. She kept her eyes closed as flashes from the past night wove into her consciousness along with the scent of freshly brewed heaven. Her mouth suddenly watered for caffeine and more of the gentle caresses that slowly coaxed her awake.

“I brought you coffee.” Ethan brushed another light kiss along her temple. “I’m going for a run, but I’ll be back in forty-five minutes to make you breakfast.”

Breakfast…

The meaning of the word hit her like a slap of ice water, and she squeezed her eyes shut.

She was not that woman—the one who stayed too long, assumed too much, and got her feelings hurt after exposing herself to the harsh, unforgiving light of morning-after reality. Another hard lesson she’d learned from Greg. Still keeping her eyes closed, she buried her face into the pillow and inhaled the smell of laundry soap and the lingering musk of sex. Lots of really good, hot, sweaty, eyes-rolling-in-the-back-of-her-head sex.

He stroked over the curves of her butt, and her body automatically arched up for more of his touch. Stifling a moan, she mumbled vague words and pretended to be asleep.

He kissed her on the cheek near her ear. “I’ll wake you up when I get back.”

The mattress lifted with the loss of his weight, and a moment later, the bedroom door clicked shut. Jasmine shoved back the covers, fully awake, and scrambled out of the bed.

As she searched the floor for her bra and bikinis, her eyes strayed over to the steaming cup on the bedside table. She’d read in magazine once about the perfect guy being the one who knew just how to make your coffee. No matter how often she’d told Greg what she’d wanted, he’d never gotten it right.

She stared at the cup. How would it taste—too strong, too weak, too sweet?

Giving herself a mental shake, she focused on finding her underwear. What she and Ethan shared last night was the perfect encounter. Why ruin it by letting him come back to find her with bedhead and clumpy mascara eyes, with her bare butt in the air searching for her clothes?

She found her underwear and worked to untangle the lace that had suddenly turned into a set of intricate puzzles in her hands. She managed to put them on without ripping them to shreds, but panic seized her when she couldn’t find her dress. The memory of Ethan taking it off sped up her heart rate and her exit from the bedroom. Pausing on her way down the staircase, she stopped to listen for Mitch in the house. No soft snores, no squeaky beds, no movement from the kitchen, just the waves crashing in the ocean.

As she hurried down to the living room, a part of her felt like Cinderella’s vampy twin running from the prince’s bed at sunrise. She stumbled over her high-heeled sandals next to the gray couch and saw her dress lain out neatly over the cushioned arm near her purse.

Coffee, an offer of breakfast, and he’d taken care of her clothes? He wasn’t making this easy.

Dressing quickly in the dawn light, she grabbed her things, and worked to banish the memories of dinner, chocolate dessert, and ecstasy. She also prayed Ethan, or worse, Mitch, wouldn’t walk through the door.

He did bring you coffee…

As she passed by the stairs, guilt and a healthy dose of curiosity nudged at her conscience. Turning back around, she ran up the stairs into the bedroom and hurried over to the bedside table. She picked up the cup and blew away the steam before taking a careful sip.

Damn it.

It was so perfect, if her purse were waterproof, she’d have tossed out everything and filled it with the rich, creamy brew.

Taking one last lingering sip, she set the cup back down on the bedside table and opened her purse. Riffling through the contents, she found a pen and the only piece of paper she could find—the hotel receipt for the chocolate mousse pie. Using the back of it, she scribbled out a note, and then looked it over. Short, cute, but not annoyingly sweet. Leaving it propped against the cup in plain view, she jogged back down the stairs.

Another completed birthday dare to check off her list.

Where was the rush of excitement? Why wasn’t she eager to call Tab?

As she drove away in her rental car, a pang of guilt made her look in her rearview mirror, but she set it aside. He hadn’t wanted her to stay, not really. It was just one night of fantastic sex, nothing more. Before she turned the corner at the end of the block, Jasmine looked back in her rearview one more time, half expecting to see Ethan’s blue-eyed gaze following her retreat.



Ethan barely acknowledged the opening of the front door, focusing instead on the early-morning beach view from the kitchen’s picture window. Sweat cooled as he refueled with a protein shake, body still humming with the energy from his workout and his frustration. He looked over his shoulder at Mitch ambling into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and rumpled, in the same pullover and jeans he’d worn last night.

His friend scrubbed his hand down his face and leaned wearily back against the edge of the counter. “How was the run?”

“Fine.” Ethan flicked his eyes over him. “I’d ask how you are, but from the way you look, it was one hell of a night.”

“And morning.” Mitch grimaced as he cautiously rotated his neck and shoulders. “I barely made it home in one piece. That blonde has moves that could put an Olympic gymnast to shame, not to mention the brunette…” He let out a low whistle. “What about you? I got your text message.” He tilted his head toward the stairs and gave him an inquiring look.

Ethan took a long sip from his cup and swallowed. “She’s not here.”

“Too bad, but I’m not surprised though.” Mitch righted himself from leaning on the counter. “She didn’t seem like your usual type.”

Ethan paused with the cup in midair and frowned. “Exactly what do call my type?”

Mitch went over to the refrigerator. He rummaged around inside of it and came back out with an energy drink and the leftover chocolate mousse pie. “I don’t know, one that doesn’t look so”—he frowned as if he had a sour taste in his mouth—”permanent.”

Ethan filtered the word through his mind.

He hadn’t gone into last night with any long-term expectations, but he’d wanted more when he’d awakened that morning. More time to explore Jasmine’s soft curves. More time to find out what else she was addicted to besides chocolate mousse pie. More time to see how many times he could change that teasing little smile on her face into a laugh.

Get over it.

He let out a derisive snort. You got one night just like you said you wanted.

“No—really. There are certain things we just have to accept,” Mitch said, obviously interpreting his response as part of the conversation.

“Oh yeah, like what?” Ethan turned to look at Mitch. His friend looked like he was about to spout world philosophy instead of his usual grand theories about women.

“There are women, like the blonde and brunette, who clearly make it known it’s about the moment.” Mitch moved the can from right to left, further emphasizing his point. “There are others, like the one you met last night, who have more of that tomorrow, day after, day after that feel.” He pointed at him. “You, my friend, like me and everyone like us, are a man of the moment, and with the jobs we do, we have more than enough good reasons behind it. Look what happened in South America.”

South America.

Ethan released a grim breath as he thought about his friend Dario Ortiz. The fact that he’d left a wife and kid behind only solidified why they shouldn’t get involved in serious relationships, but he also knew from experience. When his father, a Green Beret, hadn’t returned home from a mission, he’d watched his mom fall apart from the loss. It had taken a long time for her to recover.

More memories about what happened six months ago started to fill up his headspace, but he shut them down.

Whatever shit happens on the mission, ends with the mission.

Mitch lifted his shoulders in a loose shrug and continued with his point. “The blonde and brunette love the mystery, but women like the one you almost hooked up with last night want promises. Trust me, if you would have slept with her, she would still be hanging around here waiting for you to offer her a cup of coffee, or worse, trying to cook you breakfast. Next thing you know, you feel obligated to exchange phone numbers, and then you end up feeling like a dick for the next few weeks when you don’t follow through on your promise to call.”

Ethan huffed out a short laugh. “And you’re completely sure about that?” Mitch wouldn’t know how to handle it if he found out Jasmine went against type.

“Absolutely, so congratulations, you’re lucky.” Mitch toasted him with the can. “You dodged another bullet by keeping your distance from that one. Speaking of distance, what time are we rolling out of here?”

“I want to be on the road by fourteen hundred.”

Mitch glanced over at the digital clock on the microwave. “In five hours, huh? Wake me up at noon.” Yawning, he headed for the stairs, carrying the drink and the pie.

Lucky?

Ethan mulled over the word. Mitch was right. He had to keep things in perspective. His encounter with Jasmine last night easily fit into the life he’d chosen, and no matter how good it was, dragging things out with her would have been a huge mistake. He downed the rest of his protein shake in one long swallow. But if he had dodged the proverbial bullet, why did he feel like he’d taken one instead?





Chapter Six

“So—who is he?” Tab asked over the phone.

“Who is who?”

“Stop stalling and spill the details. Who did you meet last night?”

Slightly perplexed, Jasmine juggled her cell phone and fought with her wobbly suitcase as she rolled it through the airport terminal. “His name is Ethan. I met him at the hotel lounge. Oh—and thank you for setting me up like a chew toy for a bunch of horny guys.”

“Considering how it turned out, it must have paid off. What were you wearing?”

It was too easy to imagine Tab grinning with two dainty dimples sunk into her cheeks. Her friend’s Texas charm fooled most people, but she was really a green-eyed con artist in disguise.

Jasmine checked the electronic display for the gate of her two o’clock flight. “If you start talking dirty to me, I’m hanging up.”

“Dirty is the only way to go, and I have a right to ask. I give you my stylist services for free.”

“Using the key I gave you for emergencies to go through my closet doesn’t qualify as a service.”

Tab snorted a laugh. “Half the time your closet is an emergency. Now did you wear the sheath dress or not?”

“If you’re talking about the one you included with the boatload of condoms you sent me for my birthday, yes.”

“Learn to count, missy. I sent you twenty-seven. Now quit complaining and tell me more about Ethan.”

“Well…” While Jasmine weaved through the crowd, she took a moment to think. “He saved me from some jerk at the hotel bar. We danced, and then after that, he wanted to make me dinner. I said, yes, and then—” A vision of Ethan’s naked torso rising above her flashed into her mind. Suddenly, the sweatshirt she’d worn to ward off the chill of the plane felt overly warm.

“Oh, you can’t stop there. How was he?”

“He was charming, intelligent…handsome.” She reached her gate and double-checked that she had at least fifteen more minutes before having to board the plane.

“And…?” Tab prompted. “Come on, get to the good stuff. How was he in bed?”

Jasmine sighed. “You’re so nosy. I had a good time, and he was a dream in the sack. Is that what you want me to tell you?”

“Only if it’s true.” Tab, undoubtedly, had a gloating smile on her face.

Jasmine hurried over to an empty seat next to the window facing the runway. She sat down and rolled her bags near her feet. “Yeah, Tab. That’s the truth.” A small smile nudged up the corners of her mouth. “He knew when to let me have my way and when to take control. I don’t know. I felt taken care of. Worshipped. He even brought me coffee in bed this morning and offered to make me breakfast.”

She caught the glance from the woman sitting next to her. Crossing her legs, Jasmine angled her body more toward the window.

“You lucky bitch,” Tab said. “Now I’m jealous. When are you going to see him again?”

“I’m not.”

“What? I know the way you met him isn’t your usual thing, but it sounds like the two of you had chemistry. What did he say when you were having breakfast?”

Jasmine focused her eyes on the plane pulling up to the gate. “I didn’t talk to him this morning.”

“But you said he brought you coffee and made you breakfast.”

“No.” A twinge of remorse made her breastbone tingle. “I said he brought me coffee, and he offered to make me breakfast. He went out for a run before I got up.”

“And when he got back what happened?” Tab asked. “Or did he not come back?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Tab was silent, and then she gasped. “You didn’t.”

“Just let it go. It’s not what you think.”

“Think?” Tab’s tone rose in irritation. “What is there to think about? He brought you coffee. He told you he was coming back to make you breakfast. You don’t need Einstein to figure it out. Did you at least leave him your phone number?”

Jasmine looked down, feeling just as squeezed as the wad of gum stuck between her chair and the wall. “No, but I did leave him a note.”

“Without your phone number—well, what the hell did it say? ‘Thanks for a fantastic time and the great f—’?”

“Don’t you dare say it, and lower your voice. I don’t even have you on speakerphone and half the airport can hear you. You don’t have to be so crude.”

“I’m crude?” Tab’s voice grew louder. “Well, I’m not the one who ran out after a night of mind-blowing —”

“I never said it was mind-blowing.”

“Well, it must have been, because you have completely lost your good-man instincts. He fed you dinner. He delivered great sex. He made you coffee. He even planned on serving you breakfast.”

“But I —”

Tab ignored her and kept right on going without taking a breath. “He’s gorgeous and probably has a body to die for. Not to mention he saved you from some desperate pervert in a bar, but what do you do?” Her soft lilt changed into a full Texas twang. “You hike up your skirt and run like a hooker from a priest.”

Jasmine opened her mouth but held back her first snappy comeback. “You know what, Tab? I wasn’t going to stick around and embarrass myself over your birthday dare booty call. That’s what made it awkward in the first place.”

“Oh, now you want to blame me? I don’t think so, sister. This isn’t about Ethan or the dare. It’s about Greg leaving you for some woman he knocked up, and you not giving any other guy a chance because of it. There. Glare at me all you want. Yes, I said it.”

Jasmine stared at her own reflection in the window. She was actually glaring.

“Just because I learned from my past mistakes and refuse to be some silly woman who won’t face facts doesn’t make me wrong. I accept that what happened last night meant nothing to him, just like the engagement meant nothing to Greg.”

“Oh—it was just a fling to him? I didn’t know you had a crystal ball rolling around in your suitcase,” Tab fumed, “but let’s not forget who left whom the kiss-off note this morning, and for the record, I didn’t go there. You did, when you slunk out the window instead of having a face-to-face conversation with the man who probably gave you the best night of sex since before your engagement to asshat Greg. Face it, sweetie, you’re a coward.”

“I’m not a coward.” Frustration kicked Jasmine’s voice up an octave. “I’m a realist, and if you’re going to accuse me of something, get your facts straight. I didn’t slink out a window. I snuck out the front door!”

Shit.

Had she really just said that?

She could feel people looking at her and heat smoldered in her cheeks. Jasmine closed her eyes and rubbed the middle of her forehead. “I hate you so much right now.”

“Hate me all you want, but I’m not the one who screwed up eight ways to Sunday.”

“Tab, give me a break. The only thing I hate more than you right now is your silly colloquialisms. Why hold back? Just say what you really mean.”

“All right, fine, well let’s see if you can parlez-vous this one,” Tab said tartly. “Karma is a bitch.”



Five minutes later, the gate attendant called for her flight. Jasmine stood and avoided the curious glances of the people who “parlez-voused” most of her conversation, including the part where she’d hung up on Tab in the midst of another rant.

Honestly, she was tired of running things she couldn’t change through her mind. She’d completed the stupid dare. She was never going to see Ethan again. Why couldn’t Tab just leave it alone?

Rolling her suitcase toward the gate, she joined the line of passengers boarding the flight. As she glanced around, her gaze halted on a guy standing at the other gate near the waiting area.

Same dark hair, same broad shoulders…

Her gaze dropped to his butt, and she gulped. He’d said he was leaving today.

No…not possible.

The man turned around and relief drained through her so fast it almost made her light-headed. Her eyes flitted over the Ethan look-alike. If it had been him, would she have wanted to apologize or make up some excuse to explain?

Jasmine sighed in frustration and faced the other direction.

She couldn’t get caught up in what happened last night. It was done. At another time or maybe on a different planet, where there had been no Greg in her life, she might have taken a chance on trying to see Ethan again, but now she was a whole lot smarter about relationships. She loved her best friend, but Tab was just going to have to get over her birthday dare not being the magic happy pill for her love life.

Her cell phone rang, and she dug it out of her bag to answer it.

“Jasmine, it’s Ted. We need you to stay in Florida for an extra day.”

“Stay?” The line started moving toward the gate. “Why?”

“We’ve got a problem with a potential client near Cape Canaveral, and I need you to make a presentation.”

“What?” She mouthed “excuse me’s” to the people waiting behind her as she fought with her suitcase to get back out of line. “I’m a member representative now. I don’t deliver contract proposals or make presentations to clients.”

The director of Sales and Relations released a long breath. “Myra messed up the proposal, but I talked the head of the company into giving us another shot at the contract. This is a disaster that can’t happen. Bode-Wynn International is a major government contractor with a lot of influence.”

She read between the lines. Money wasn’t the only issue. Reputation was important, and Bode-Wynn’s recommendation, or lack of one, could affect future business.

“Why doesn’t she just get help from one of the other coordinators?”

“That’s where we have a problem,” Ted said. “Hold on a sec.”

She heard a door shut in the background, but before he came back to the phone, she’d already figured it out.

“You see, Jasmine—”

“Don’t tell me. Let me guess. None of the other coordinators want to help her out because she’s been doing her usual magic trick of stealing other people’s ideas and sticking her name on them?” She looked up to the ceiling and sighed. “Whose project did she steal from this time?”

“Yours…the one for the hospital in Chicago.”

“What?” That program was some of her best work. It had even received industry recognition. As much as she wanted the best for her former boss, Myra finally falling flat on her face gave her a perverse thrill.

“Myra has stepped on a lot of toes,” Ted said, “but you know she’s the niece of the chairman of the board. Look at the bigger picture. If you nail this contract, it could get you out of the bullpen. When the next coordinator position opens up, you’ll be in a prime position to slide right into it.”

She snorted. “And if it doesn’t go well, this could get me benched permanently.”

“I’ve already talked to the higher-ups. They won’t hold it against you if Bode-Wynn still turns us down.”

“But it’s the principle of it, Ted. Myra got herself into this mess, and she should reap the consequences, the same as any other program coordinator.”

“It’s not just a matter of her facing the consequences. Bode-Wynn wants the presentation in person by close of business today, and you’re already there.” A moment of silence followed. She could easily imagine Ted raking his fingers through his blond hair and loosening his tie.

“Jasmine, if you’re refusing to do this, I understand. Myra did her best to undermine you when you were in client relations, and then she gloated about it when she was promoted into your spot. If someone asked me to clean up her mess, under those circumstances, I’d be pissed, too, but I’m asking you to do this as a personal favor to me.”

She looked up at the ceiling and closed her eyes for a moment. Great—he was resorting to the one thing she had to consider. When her engagement had fallen through, Ted was there for her. She wouldn’t have her present job without him. He’d even found a way to reinstate her benefits, and he’d talked her new manager into giving her time off to look for another apartment.

She started walking from the gate and swerved around a girls’ softball team mobbing the walkway. Her suitcase toppled over near a large sign touting the glories of sunny Miami. She looked up and stared at the picture of a couple enjoying an intimate dinner near the beach.

Karma…

“Jasmine, are you still there?” Ted asked.

“Yes.” She turned her back to the sign. “Just email me whatever you have.”

“Thanks, Jasmine.” He breathed in relief. “I’ll have my assistant book you a seat on the next available flight to Orlando, and then you’ll drive the rest of the way.”

She righted her suitcase and continued down the hall, half listening to Ted.

Tab and her big mouth.

Because of her wish, bad luck was probably headed in her direction, but at least she wasn’t staying in Miami.



Jasmine turned off the laser pointer and tucked it into the pocket of her blazer. During her hour-long presentation, the body language of most executives in the conference room had changed from resistant to more favorable except for one—the dark-haired man sitting at the head of the table.

Andrew Bode, impeccably dressed in a dark blue business suit and red power tie, leaned back in his chair with a speculative expression. Questions came from everyone in the conference room except for him. She chose her words carefully and made notes on the questions she would let Ted answer directly while reassuring them about Regency Health’s commitment to Bode-Wynn International.

“That was a great presentation, Ms. Stewart, but then I expected nothing less from a company trying to convince me to hire them.” Andrew Bode leaned his elbows on the table and formed his fingers into a steeple. “I would guess from your presentation that, unlike your predecessor, you’ve actually read over my bio?”

“Yes, I have,” she said.

Andrew Bode had gained recognition in his late twenties by building a successful weapons technology and security firm with his partner, Devin Wynn. He was at the top of his game when, four years ago, he’d almost died in a car accident. Since then, health and fitness had become another one of his passions. After months of physical therapy, he’d honed his body back into shape with a no-nonsense diet plan and trained intensely to compete in triathlons. In the last three he’d completed, he’d finished no less than third.

“Then you know I don’t consider this wellness program just a perk for my employees. I also don’t have to be convinced on how it will benefit my company’s bottom line, but what I do have to be convinced about is Regency Health’s ability to handle the job. I never doubted it until I got that first shoddy proposal. Whoever wrote it clearly hadn’t done their research on my company.”

At the mention of her stolen proposal, Jasmine’s teeth clamped together with a polite smile. The proposal she’d written for Chicago was sound. It just wasn’t appropriate for Bode-Wynn.

“Your first impressions are understandable,” she said.

“If I decide to give Regency Health a second chance to submit their proposal, there will be no more delays. I want someone who knows what they’re talking about, knows what they’re doing, and someone one who will give me a proposal that works.” He leaned back in his chair. “I also want someone to talk directly to my employees to find out what they want. I’m not interested in some cookie-cutter program that looks good on paper. I want something customized to their needs.”

She nodded. “I’ll make sure to alert Ted about your concerns. I’m sure he’ll send the right person to get it done.” She picked up her pen and added to her notes. “Is there anything else?”

“You bet there is. As far as I’m concerned, I know who I want to deal with from now on. The right person is already here.” He pointed across the table. “Tell Ted I want you.”





Chapter Seven

Refusing to make two trips from her rental car, Jasmine juggled her suitcase, her carry-on, and a bag of Thai fusion takeout as she walked up to the entrance of Bode-Wynn’s corporate guest apartment.

It had taken less than fifteen minutes for her to receive approval to stay and to receive approval for a project bonus. A favor for Ted was one thing, but she wasn’t crazy enough to bust her butt for less than what Myra was paid to screw things up. What she’d negotiated through Ted was more than enough to put a smile on her face, but the whole situation still felt so surreal. Just last night, she’d been talking to Ethan, and he’d said she’d get another chance.

She cut the thought off in mid-stride. That was weird. Why would she think about him now? She snorted a laugh. Tab. What a mouthy pain in the ass. Her mind had been free and clear until she’d started harping on it…well, almost clear, but Tab was wrong. Even if she and Ethan had traded phone numbers, what would they have called each other to talk about?

Sure, he’d looked totally sincere holding her hand and telling her she’d get another chance at her job, but phone calls would only lead to wanting more of what they’d shared last night, fantastic sex, and that equaled…drumroll please…the one mistake that had put her in the position of having to fight to get her old job back in the first place. Her being dumb enough to do the whole long-distance relationship thing again—now that would be some kind of screwed-up karma.

As soon as she walked into the apartment, Jasmine dropped everything except her food. Her last meal during the drive down had consisted of a breakfast bar she’d found in the bottom of her bag along with a package of trail mix she hadn’t eaten during the flight.

On her way to the kitchen, she took off her blazer and heels, and glanced around the modernly furnished apartment. When she’d picked up the keys, Devin Wynn’s assistant had mentioned the place was newly redecorated. It felt like pure luxury after having just spent a week in a basic hotel room.

Not wasting time to find a plate or to sit down at the breakfast bar, she took her dinner out of the bag and peeled back the foil cover on the container.

Just as she dug her plastic fork into the steaming hibachi chicken, someone rang the doorbell. She ignored it. Nothing was worth interrupting dinner. If it was one of her neighbors, they would just have to wait until tomorrow to get acquainted.

The doorbell rang, again, and she released a breath of frustration. Digging back into the takeout bag, she pulled out a napkin and wiped her fingers. “Someone better be on the verge of dying.”

When she reached the door, she looked out the peephole and saw a dark-haired man wearing a blue baseball cap.

“Guys, it’s Jax,” he shouted. “Hurry up and open the damn door; my hands are full.”

While he looked innocuous, she still opened the door with caution.

“Thanks.” His charming smile amped up his boyishly handsome face. “And to show my appreciation, pretty lady, you get the first cold one.” He took a step forward.

Jasmine registered the cases of beer he was carrying at the same time her confusion kicked in. “Whoa—wait. You’re at the wrong apartment.” She placed her hands on the doorjamb to protect her space.

He frowned. “What? Aren’t we watching the fight tonight?”

The guy’s sincerely confused expression was too adorable to blow off with a snide remark. She shook her head. “You have the wrong apartment. What number—”

A sharp whistle cut her off.

“Hey, Jax, up here.”

He took a couple of steps back and looked up. “You asshole, you gave me the wrong apartment number.”

“Whatever,” the guy said from upstairs. “Hurry up. The prelim fights start in twenty minutes.”

Jax looked back at her and gave her an apologetic smile. “Sorry, but hey, if you’re not doing anything tonight, you should come upstairs and watch the boxing match.”

He was cute, but in her mind, she automatically compared him to Ethan and came up short.

She offered him a polite smile. “Thanks for the invite, but it’s been a long day, and I just want to relax.”

“All right,” he said, backing up, “but if you change your mind, come on up. We’re in the apartment right above yours.” He gave her another disarming grin and headed up the stairs.

Jasmine shut the door and went back into the kitchen. As she stood near the counter nibbling on a piece of chicken, she thought, I hope they don’t plan on partying all night.

The doorbell rang again, followed by continuous knocking. She set her fork down on the counter.

Really?

She walked back to the front door and looked through the peephole at two women. One of them went back to knocking loudly while the other leaned insistently on the doorbell.

Releasing a long-suffering sigh, she opened the door and rested one of her hands on her hip. “Let me guess, you’re looking for the fight.”

The dark-haired twins, dressed alike in high-heeled sandals and tight jeans, gave her an assessing look, making her painfully aware of her rumpled appearance.

“Yeah,” they answered in unison.

She pointed up. “Next floor, and can you tell whoever invited you to make sure the rest of his guests know where to go? This is the second time someone’s knocked on my door.”

“Sure.” The twin dressed in aqua flashed a semi-polite smile and they walked away.

Jasmine shut the door and headed back to the kitchen, but after a few steps, the doorbell rang again. Irritation flooding through her system, she marched back to the front door and flung it open. “Upstairs.”

The pizza guy standing in front of her looked hot, sweaty, and even more harassed than she felt. He juggled the six pizza boxes he was holding and looked at the ticket in his hand. “Nope, it says two ham and pineapple, one sausage with extra cheese, one veggie deluxe, and two pepperoni pizzas with olives, green peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes for apartment one-oh-one. That’s you.”

“No, it’s a mistake.” She held her hands up in frustration. “I didn’t order them. They probably belong to the guys upstairs. They’re planning on watching a boxing match.”

The delivery guy snorted. “Yeah, them and everyone else—that fight is the hottest thing on cable tonight. Look, the order was placed early this afternoon, and they tipped extra to make sure we delivered them before the fight to this apartment number.” He shoved the boxes into her hands. “Enjoy.”

“No— Wait.”

The pizza guy hurried away without a backward look.

Jasmine stared down at the boxes in her hands and silently fumed. Who was this guy? No way was she spending the night playing traffic director. He was going to have to make a few phone calls or send out a text message, pronto, to straighten this out.

Shifting the pizza boxes, she freed up a hand and snatched the apartment key ring from the hall table. Jasmine stared down at her pumps. This was going to hurt. Sucking in a breath, she sank her teeth into her bottom lip and almost drew blood as she slid her sore feet back into her shoes. She stepped out the apartment and shut the door behind her. Each throbbing step to the third floor kicked her anger up a notch, and by the time she rapped on the door to apartment 201, Jasmine was ready to let words fly out of her mouth like daggers.

She heard people laughing and shouting behind the door. A male voice called out. “I’m so confident you’re going to lose this bet, I’m going in for twenty more, so either put up or shut up.”

The voice…no, it couldn’t be…

She was more tired than she thought.

The door opened and the pizza boxes nearly slipped out of her hands as the lights directly outside of the apartment illuminated Ethan’s face. Jasmine’s heartbeat accelerated, and waves of tingling heat crept up into her face. He looked good. Blue jeans encased his muscular legs, and the blue button-down shirt he wore brought out the unusual coloring of his eyes.

“I…”

His cool appraisal froze the words on her tongue.

She swallowed. “Things got screwed up.”

Eight ways to Sunday.

His brow rose in question.

“Pizzas.” She held out the boxes. “They were delivered downstairs by mistake. I—”

“Worth, what’s the holdup?” Jax walked up next to Ethan, and his mouth widened with a big smile. “Hey, pretty lady, you came after all, and you brought pizza. I knew I liked you for a reason, and if I remember correctly, I owe you a beer.” He held up the unopened bottle in his hand. “Come on in.”

The angles in Ethan’s jawline sharpened. “She’s not staying.”

A sense of hurt rushed in with her next breath, but he had a right to be upset about the note and her flimsy excuse.

“What the hell’s going on with the food?” Mitch came up behind Ethan and Jax. He saw her and his eyes widened.

“You should take these before they get cold.” She held the pizzas out to Ethan.

He reached for them and when his fingers lightly grazed hers, they both sucked in a breath. She quickly let go of the boxes. Luckily, Ethan was prepared to take them.

“Oh, come on, you have to stay,” Jax insisted. “I’ll give you blow-by-blow commentary on the fight. It’ll be fun.” He moved to take a step forward and the expression that passed over Ethan’s face should have shattered glass.

“Cease-fire.” Mitch reached around Ethan and grabbed Jax’s shoulder. “This one’s an unauthorized target.”

Ethan shoved the boxes against Jax’s chest. “I think Savannah and Sierra are hungry.”

Needing to free up both hands to hold on to the pizzas, Jax juggled them around and offered her the beer. “Here, take this one for the road. Maybe we can—”

“No, you can’t.” Mitch plucked the bottle out of Jax’s hand and pulled him back inside, leaving her and Ethan at the door.

“Sorry about the mix-up. Mitch gave out the wrong apartment number.” Ethan put his hand on the doorknob. “No one else will bother you tonight.”

“I should explain about this morning.” A hint of desperation spurred the words along. If she’d known they were going to end up in the same place twelve hours later she would have…

What?

“No need.” A faint sardonic smile tipped up the corner of his mouth. “You were clear up front about what you wanted and you got it.”

“Ethan…where’s the wine bottle opener? We can’t find it.” The twin wearing the yellow shirt walked up to him and rested her hand on his shoulder. Shifting her weight, she leaned her hip and most of her side against him. “If we’re going to watch men beating up on each other for the next couple of hours, Savannah and I are going to need wine to help us through it.” She smiled at Jasmine. “You understand—don’t you?”

Jasmine’s gaze dropped down to Ethan’s hand curving around the woman’s tiny waist, and she looked up into his eyes. Something unreadable moved through his gaze, but then it faded into his neutral expression.

Tab’s warning during their phone conversation at the airport mocked Jasmine in her thoughts, and she started backing away from the door.

Karma…

“Yeah,” she said. “I understand completely.”



Ethan shut the door and looked at Mitch’s cousin, trying to figure out the innocent look on her face. “What the hell was that about? You guys popped the cork on a bottle as soon as you walked in the door.”

Sierra stepped away from him and shrugged. “Mitch said you needed a save. Who was she, an old girlfriend?”

“No, I just met her last night.”

“Last night?” Sierra gave him a speculative look. “Considering you’re pissed and she’s hurt, I take it whatever happened between the two of you wasn’t exactly casual.”

Hurt? She’s the one who left the damn note. “I’m not pissed and it was casual.”

“Are you sure about that?” She chuckled. “Mitch said Jax almost lost his ability to breathe a minute ago because he offered her a beer.”

Yeah, he’d considered grabbing Jax by the throat, but that was only for a second. Jax, a former Marine sniper, was the new guy, and because he was such an asset to the team he was willing to cut him a break…this time. “Mitch exaggerates.”

“Oh.” Sierra gave him a wide-eyed look. “Then you’re all good with Jax going downstairs and getting her phone number. I’ll let him know.”

Jax keeping watch over his six in the field—absolutely. Pissed at Jax for making a pass at Jasmine—definitely. Jax cozying up to Jasmine in his place—fuck no.

Sierra turned to walk away, and he snagged her by the arm. “Hold on, that’s not what I said.”

She batted her eyelashes at him and waited. He wasn’t fooled. If someone was stupid enough to assume she and her sister were all looks and no common sense, they weren’t averse to playing on it. That mistake usually ended with some poor guy receiving a verbal can of whoop-ass.

“Okay,” he said. “Maybe things aren’t that simple, and maybe I am a little pissed off, but trust me, I have a right to be.”

But he didn’t have a claim on Jasmine. No rights whatsoever and he shouldn’t care, but Jax was only in town for the night, and like any other man out there, he’d make a play to sleep with her. What was he supposed to do? Pat the guy on the back and tell him to go for it? What if, for some crazy reason he didn’t even want to think about, she decided to have another one-nighter? His gut clenched with the thought of Jax kissing her, Jax touching her, Jax experiencing that first stroke of heaven he’d felt when he’d glided into her body.

Ethan closed his eyes for long second. “Just do me a favor and don’t ask.”

Sierra pursed her lips in thought. “Well, can I at least give you some sisterly advice?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“No, because you’re all caught up in male ego, and you’re not thinking straight.” Sierra looped her arm through his and led him toward the living room. “I saw the way the two of you looked at each other, and it’s obvious that whatever went on in Miami isn’t done.” She squeezed his arm. “I heard her say she wanted to explain what happened. If you like her as much as I think you do, maybe you should give her a chance.”





Chapter Eight

Jasmine stared at the flat tire on her rental car. “Oh, come on.” Why was this happening? Couldn’t fate, bad luck, or whatever this was have waited until she’d had a decent cup of coffee?

Glancing down at her wrap dress, she debated between calling the rental car company and trying to change it on her own. Opting for the latter, she put her things in the car, and after trading her pumps for gym shoes, she went to the trunk.

Lug wrench, jack, spare tire, they were all there. At least something was going right. A replay of running into Ethan went through her mind, but she wasn’t in the mood to commiserate with misery. She didn’t have time. The tire wasn’t going to change itself, and she had a full day.

Within seconds of trying to maneuver the spare out of the trunk, her skin warmed from the exertion and the sun radiating on her back. It was wedged in tight. Leaning farther in, she rose up on her toes and got a good grasp on it.

“Can I help?”

Startled, she rose up and smacked her head. Her vision blurred as she swayed, and Ethan grabbed her around the waist. He held her close, and the solid feel of his chest under her palms lulled her into staying there, but the faint brush of his lips near her temple jolted her back to her senses.

She pushed away from him. “I’m fine. Let me go.”

“You’re not fine.” He raised his hand and stroked over a spot near her hairline.

She flinched and gingerly touched her forehead. “Stop, that hurts. Why did you sneak up on me like that?”

“I didn’t. I was over there and I called out to you twice.” She followed to where he pointed directly across the parking lot to a sleek dark gray truck.

Irritated, Jasmine turned back and looked up at him. All the moisture dried from her mouth. Nighttime Ethan was handsome. Daytime Ethan was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. His dark hair was still a little damp and curled in waves her fingers itched to run through, and the scent of freshly showered man with a hint of aftershave marinated pleasantly in her lungs. Embarrassed for staring, she looked away, and her gaze skittered over the dark shirt stretching over his chest, and the tan cargo pants tucked cleanly into a pair of military-style boots.

“Come on.” He took hold of her arm and led her away from her car.

“No. I have to change the tire. I’m going to be late for work.” And she needed space, lots of it, so she could stay focused on what she’d drilled into her head during the wee hours of the morning when she was staring at the ceiling. She was there for the job, not Ethan.

Ignoring her objections, he guided her over to his truck. “I’ll take care of it.”

“I’ll call the rental company.”

“Like you were planning to do before I walked up?” He pulled her along, not giving her a chance to dig in her heels. Opening the passenger-side door, he lifted her by the waist and set her down on the seat.

As he braced his hands on the doorframe, his shirt expanded across his chest with a deep breath. “You just said you needed to get to work, and it doesn’t make sense for you to wait for the rental company or for you to keep struggling with the tire in that tight dress. I’m changing it.”

He’d noticed her dress?

After giving herself a mental kick, she squared her shoulders. “I know how to change a flat tire.”

“Look, this isn’t about whether you can handle it.” He took the keys from her hand and raked his fingers through his hair. “I’m just doing for you what I would do for anyone else.” Reaching over her legs, he took a small first aid kit out of the glove compartment and dropped it in her lap. “Take care of your head,” he said and walked away.

Jasmine unsnapped the first aid kit and found an alcohol pad. As she leaned in toward the mirror on the visor, she allowed herself the luxury of a prolonged stare as Ethan walked toward her rental car.

For a man who’d spent most of the night partying, he looked well rested. Things hadn’t settled down upstairs until well after midnight, and then she’d heard people leaving around four-thirty in the morning. Was it the twins? She swiped the pad over her forehead and winced from the sting. Stop. What he did and who he did it with was none of her business. If anything, this situation was an incentive to finish things at Bode-Wynn even faster.

After she took care of the cut, she rearranged her hair over it and returned the first aid kit to the glove compartment. She got out of Ethan’s truck and watched him easily heft the spare tire into place. Her gaze settled on the muscles flexing in his arms and back, and a memory, elusive and quick, passed through her mind about being on the stairs and all that strength pinning her back against the wall.

When he was done, Ethan tossed everything into the trunk of the rental car and walked over to her. “That spare is a little low on air, but it should get you to work. Make sure you call the company this morning so they can bring you another car.”

He handed over the keys, and the gentle glide of his fingers over hers made Jasmine grip the key ring until it bit into her palm. Something flashed across his face, something she couldn’t define in a, but it conjured up images of roaming hands, openmouthed kisses on damp skin, and her rising up and down on his cock.

Her skin flushed hot under her dress, and she shook her head, trying to clear it, but the memory of his naked body, the smell of sex, and each sensation he’d unleashed during their night together imprinted on her thoughts.

No…no…no! He wasn’t supposed to be here. This wasn’t supposed to happen. One of her silent moans of distress escaped past from her mouth.

He frowned. “Are you all right?”

No. She couldn’t handle this. She had to go.

Backing up to the driver-side door, she gave him an awkward, one-handed wave. “Thanks. See you later.” Not waiting for his response, she got inside the car and started the engine.

She drove out of the parking lot, and his truck remained in her rearview mirror at every traffic light and stop sign along the way. Was he following her? She wasn’t helpless. If something happened, she had her cell phone.

A few blocks later, she pulled into the parking lot of Bode-Wynn International, but instead of driving past, he pulled in behind her and backed into the spot right next to hers.

Her stomach dropped. “No way,” she muttered, turning off the engine. While she exchanged her tennis shoes for her pumps, she glanced over at him, still sitting in his truck.

They got out of their cars at the same time, but not wanting to believe it, she tested the waters. “You didn’t have to follow me.”

“I know.” He removed a small black duffel bag from the backseat of his double-cab truck.

“So why aren’t you going to work?”

His lips tipped up with a sexy smile that should have been classified as an illegal weapon. “I am,” he said, and then he turned and strolled away.



Ethan stepped out of the simulator room and removed the goggles that created the virtual reality of combat. Accustomed to the drill, he handed one of the research engineers in the monitoring lab the goggles and the prototype of the semiautomatic weapon he was holding. As he held his arms out to his sides, two technicians carefully removed the electrodes attached to his arms and legs, and unfastened the mock-up of an armored vest also in the early stages of development. When they finished, he exhaled a long breath, welcoming the chill of the air-conditioned room.

“Well, if it’s not the infamous Ethan Worth in the flesh.” Andrew Bode walked through the door.

“Drew.” Ethan peeled back the Velcro on his black tactical gloves, and as he took them off, he rolled away the tension that had built up in his shoulders. “I didn’t know you were back in town. They told me Devin was going to be the one keeping watch this week.”

He and Drew shook hands.

“We’re trying to buy an old law enforcement training facility in Southern California.” Drew smoothed his hand down his tie. “We’re short on votes with the city council, so he flew out there yesterday to work the Wynn charm.”

Ethan huffed out a knowing chuckle. He’d first met Devin, a former Army Ranger, five years ago during a joint special operations mission in Afghanistan. Drew may have called him infamous, but Devin Wynn’s charm was legendary for everything from getting out of a sticky ambush to procuring premium beer in the middle of the desert. Devin was also the one who had convinced him to join Bode-Wynn.

“Thanks again for coming out of the field to test the new equipment.” Drew glanced over at the prototypes the technicians carried away. “So how did it go?”

“Not bad. The Kevlar vest still feels a little heavy, and the sight on the prototype leads a little to the left, but they’re getting there.”

“Good.” Drew nodded. “And make sure you don’t hold back on the criticism. We have to get this right if we’re going to gain any interest from the Department of Defense.” He slid back the sleeve of his navy suit jacket to look at his watch. “We’ll talk later. I’m trying to catch up with the representative from Regency Health. She’s here for the next two weeks working on a proposal for our new wellness program, but for some reason, she was late.”

“You mean Jasmine?”

“You’ve met her?” Drew waved off his answer. “That’s right. Both of you are staying in the corporate guest apartments.”

“Yeah, we met.” Just like in Miami, he couldn’t stop himself from coming to her rescue. “She had a flat tire on her rental car this morning. That’s probably why she was running behind.”

“Oh?” Drew’s brow lowered in concern. “Is she okay?”

Ethan nodded. “She’s fine. I helped her change it.”

“Good to know. What’s your impression of her?”

In his thoughts, Ethan compared the Jasmine he’d met in Miami with her, today, in the parking lot. She was all business in her tailored dress, but underneath she was still the beautiful, sexy woman who’d shared his bed. He needed to get her out of his mind, and his friends hadn’t helped with all of their crazy ideas about what was going on.

Jax had woken up ready to take a punch for supposedly treading into his territory, but the one he’d really wanted to hit was Mitch. His sorry ass had given him the phone number to one of his recent hookups in town like he was handing him a prescription to cure a deadly disease, and then there was Sierra. She’d given him The Look before she’d left with her sister to take Mitch and Jax to the airport, which meant if he didn’t quash her little theory about what was going on between him and Jasmine, he’d never hear the end of it, but they were all wrong. He was just surprised to see her last night.

But that wasn’t what Drew wanted to hear.

He shrugged. “Professional, dedicated—she was anxious to get started this morning.”

“Yeah, that was my first impression, too.” Drew clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m glad you were nearby to help.”

Drew went to consult with the engineers, and Ethan walked over to the water cooler in the corner of the room.

Help? Jasmine had acted as if she was irritated with him for stepping up this morning. What she’d pulled on him in Miami justified him not helping her out, but he didn’t treat the women he slept with like crap. He also wasn’t in the habit of making them dinner, coffee, or breakfast. Trying to make it more than a night with her was a mistake, but why couldn’t he get her out of his mind?

Last night, the empty space next to him on the couch had made him imagine her there more than once, tucked in beside him, laughing and sharing pizza and beer with him and his friends. This morning, in the parking lot, he’d stood there for a full minute getting harder by the second watching her cute little butt wiggle around trying to get that spare out of the trunk. Then there was the way she’d looked at him before she’d left—like they had no business going to work and every reason to go back upstairs and get thoroughly reacquainted.

He finished his water in one long gulp and then tossed the empty cup into the trash. Okay, Sierra said to give Jasmine a chance to explain, so he’d start with that, and as far as things not being over between them, he’d handle that too. He had two weeks. That was more than enough time to get her out of his system and move on, just as he always had.

As he continued to work the plan, a confident smile crooked up the corner of his mouth. And if she tried to deny and run before they got things straightened out, this time, she wasn’t getting away.





Chapter Nine

Satisfied the information was correct, Jasmine saved the spreadsheet on her laptop and leaned back in the chair. It was after six and all of the staff on the second floor had already left, but her day wasn’t over. She was still two hours shy of the time she’d planned on putting in to make up for running late.

I’d better get used to long hours…

She still had stacks of files to read, surveys to get out, and employee roundtables to conduct over the next several days. Lots of coffee would be the norm until she was done, but it was all worthwhile if it helped her to get her old job back. She’d actually been on the short list for one of the division management positions before she’d resigned.

“Jasmine?”

She focused on Ethan standing in the doorway. He’d changed into a white shirt and pair of faded jeans, and as much as she resisted, she couldn’t help but take him all in.

She cleared her throat. “What are you doing here?”

He walked into her office and held up a large thermal bag. “I brought you dinner.”

The word triggered a domino effect of cascading memories—the scent on his skin, the taste of his mouth, every single sensation as he’d taken her to bliss.

Damn it! This couldn’t keep happening. She was a professional. But the more she stared at him, the more her body remembered, and from the way he looked at her, he remembered, too.

No. Her being in the same room with him wouldn’t work. He had to go. She had a contract to land, and he was one big, wonderful distraction, but still, the delicious smells filling the room piqued her curiosity.

She looked between him and the bag. “You brought me dinner? Why?”

He offered up a careless shrug. “Why not?”

“Ethan, I don’t have time for this, and I’m not—”

Her growling stomach ratted her out.

“You need to take a break.” He tilted his head over toward the seating area in the middle of her office. “We’ll eat over there.”

More and more layers of flavor saturated the air with each box he set out on the coffee table. Her mouth watered. What was he up to? Last night he was all angry man-pride, this morning he was playing Good Samaritan. But now? Rolling her chair away from the desk, she stood and slowly strolled over to him. “So is this your thing?”

“That depends on what you mean.” His gaze swept leisurely over her from head to high heels.

“Is dinner how you try to impress a woman?”

“Is it working?”

Her mind conjured up the image of him on that nice, sturdy couch and her riding every glorious inch of him. “Maybe.” Ignoring the teasing glint in his eye, she walked past him and sat down.

He turned his attention back to the feast he’d set out on the table. “In Miami, you’d mentioned you didn’t get a chance to go out for Cuban food, so I brought you ropa vieja, roasted chicken, yellow rice, black beans, and plátanos maduros. Unless you have a preference, I thought we could share. Sound good to you?”

Cuban food and Ethan in the same room—that sounded more than good.

He fixed her a plate and set it in front of her on the table. Scooting forward to the edge of the couch, she picked up her fork and dug right in. She sampled the ropa vieja first and almost moaned as the flavors of green peppers, onion, and seasoned shredded beef in tomato sauce glided over her tongue.

How had he known this dish was one of her favorites?

His brows lowered with a contemplative expression, and then he snapped his fingers. “Drinks—I knew I forgot something. Do you want a soda? I can get one from the vending machine.”

“No, water is fine. There’s a six-pack in the fridge.” She stared after him as he walked over near her desk and opened the refrigerator. Curiosity and a hint of jealousy prompted her to ask, “Why aren’t you back at the apartment catching up on your sleep?”

He came back with the bottled waters and held one out to her, but when she reached for it, he didn’t let go. “Why don’t you just ask me what you really want to know?”

She shrugged in exaggerated innocence. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Shaking his head, he let go of the bottle and sat next to her on the couch. The clean scent of soap and his spicy cologne added another appealing layer to the delicious smells in the room.

“The twins are Mitch’s cousins, and they’re like sisters to me.” He opened his water and set it on the table. “Sierra, the one who came to the door while you were upstairs, is dating a pro football player. The guy’s cocky, but Mitch and I are giving him a pass for now because she’s so crazy about him.”

“Oh…” With one leg hiked up on her proverbial high horse, she lost her footing, and the rest of her words.

“Oh,” Ethan echoed, and then he gave her a knowing smile.

She shifted in her seat and turned her attention to her plate. Just because he wasn’t with the twins didn’t mean there wasn’t someone else. Anxiety bundled knots in her stomach, but she forced herself to take another bite. At some point, hunger started to rule over her thoughts.

Several minutes later, Ethan set his empty plate aside. “So, how are things going with your work?”

She picked up her water and sat back against the cushions. “It’s going to be a bit of a push to finish, but it’s not impossible.” Remembering how she’d so easily spilled the details of her life in Miami, she asked, “So how did you end up working for Bode-Wynn?”

“I’m good friends with Devin. Two years ago, I was about to sign my reenlistment papers for the army, but he and Drew made me a counteroffer.”

She shifted her body more in his direction. “In Miami, you said you protect VIPs and worked with the military. Are you and Mitch here for some sort of training?”

“No.” He sat back and rested his arm behind her along the back of the couch. “Mitch and Jax flew out this morning. They’re the instructors for the urban warfare course at Bode-Wynn’s training facility in Montana. I’ll be here for the next two weeks working in the sims to help test new equipment.”

“You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what?”

“Jargon.”

His brow crinkled with a puzzled look.

“Sims?”

He chuckled. “Simulators. You know, if you plan on hanging around here for a while, you might want to brush up on your jargon.”

She playfully rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “Like I don’t have enough things to read.”

“You don’t have to read it. I’ll teach you.”

Leaning over, she set her water back on the coffee table. “Ethan, what’s this about? Why did you bring me dinner? “

He studied her for a moment. “To convince you we should take advantage of a second opportunity to spend time together.”

“No.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s not a good idea.”

“Why?”

“Why?” He’d fired the question back at her so rapidly it took a few seconds to come up with a plausible answer. “Because I’m only going to be here for two weeks.”

He shrugged. “So am I.”

“We’re working for the same company.”

“And we’re staying in the same apartment building.”

Leaning over, he placed the pad of his index finger on her lips, and that one barely there touch sent sparks of awareness traveling over her skin. She reached up to take it away, but he caught her hands and gently pushed them aside.

“Hold on for a minute. Nod yes or no. Did you enjoy the time we spent together in Miami?”

Common sense said to make it easier and shake her head, but the way he looked at her screwed up any rational thoughts, and she nodded.

“Then why did you leave before I got back?”

She gestured to his finger on her lips, and he dropped his hand.

“I didn’t want things to get complicated. I wanted to leave it at us having a good time together.”

He reached over and interlaced their fingers, and before she even realized it, her hand had tightened around his.

“And now that we’re here, we can have more of the same.”

Temptation perked up her thoughts, but memories of Greg quickly ground it into dust.

“It’s not that simple. You guessed right in Miami. Someone did hurt me.” She looked down at their joined hands. “I found out a month before I was supposed to get married that my fiancé had gotten another woman pregnant.”

It felt strange, but in a good way, to actually tell her story to someone who didn’t already know all of the sordid details.

“It’s been almost a year since it happened, and I don’t regret breaking the engagement, but I’m not ready for another relationship.”

He squeezed her hand. “You do realize your ex-fiancé is a jackass.”

She laughed ruefully and disentangled her hand from his. “That’s what most people say about him.”

Desperate for something to do with her hands, she reached for her water, but Ethan caught her arm and gently tugged her around to face him. “I’m not saying that just to be polite. He should have respected you enough to be honest, just like I’m being with you now. It doesn’t have to be complicated with us. I enjoyed spending time with you in Miami, and I mean all of it—not just the sex. Neither one of us is interested in a relationship, but we’re here now, so why pass up the opportunity?”

But just spending time together during a business trip to Virginia was how things had started with her and Greg. She’d been skittish about getting into a long-distance relationship back then, but after she’d returned to Dallas, he’d pulled out all the stops, from surprise visits to Texas to private jets whisking her off for unexpected romantic weekends. Eventually, her reservations about the physical distance between them had disappeared, and two years later, she’d accepted his marriage proposal. All along, she’d believed in the fairy tale while Greg was keeping another woman on the side in Virginia.

She stared at Ethan, and the sincerity in his eyes started to pull down the wall of doubt, allowing memories from that one night to grow clearer in her mind. She’d wanted pleasure and he’d given that to her. If she agreed, she could have more of it, over and over again, for a little while longer with nothing to lose or any risks to take.

“Don’t overthink it, Jasmine. It’s not complicated. I want us to spend the next two weeks together.” He stroked the pad of his thumb softly along her cheek. “And I think you want that, too.”





Chapter Ten

Ethan easily read the emotions playing across her face: doubt, hints of maybe, and something that hit him squarely in the chest …want. He’d never had to convince a woman with that look in her eyes to say yes to him, but the challenge she presented turned him on even more.

He stroked his thumb over her cheek again, that one small touch providing a window into his memories of her silky smooth skin. “Just ask yourself one question. If we could have had one more night in Miami, would you have spent it with me?”

She shook her head. “The contract I’m working on is important, Ethan. I can’t let my personal life get in the way of—”

He pressed his thumb against her lips. “We’ll always keep it professional, especially when we’re in front of people at work, and I won’t get in the way of your schedule, but you still haven’t answered my question. Do you want to spend more time with me?”

He tamped down anxiety more than once during the silence. He hadn’t even considered she might say no. Finally, she nodded.

“So, is that a yes, that you’ll officially date me for two weeks?”

She laughed. “Yes, for a whole two weeks.”

“Good.” Things were working out according to plan. He couldn’t stop the huge grin pushing up the corners of his mouth. He leaned in and she met him halfway for a kiss, but he wanted to hold her and feel her close. Even though tonight, he’d have this, and more, he couldn’t wait. Moving his hands around her waist, he urged her onto his lap, and she obliged him, kicking off her shoes and hiking up her skirt as one kiss rolled into the next. He stroked his palms up her bare thighs, and she repositioned herself over the hard-on pushing against his zipper.

Why had he said always when it came to them keeping things professional at work?

Groaning, he pulled a fraction away from her lips. “How much longer are you planning to work tonight?”

“Why?”

It killed him to know the promise of pleasure was just a zipper away, and from the way she smiled against his lips, she knew it. He smoothed his hands around to cup her ass and rocked his hips upward. His balls tightened, heightening his ache, and he sucked in a breath.

“I just promised not to distract you from your work, but you’re playing with fire. All that’s missing right now is a condom.”

She laid her forehead against his. “Condoms aren’t the problem. We just can’t do this here.”

He raised his brow. Maybe she just meant no sex in her office.

“Tab sent me these crazy condoms for my birthday, and I didn’t remember they were still in my purse until this morning. The security guards started doing random bag searches and I nearly had a heart attack.”

“Trust me, they’ve seen worse.”

“Oh, no, these are hideous. They have the words ‘Show Me Your Package’ stamped on them, and they’re in these bright neon colors. Some of them even glow in the dark.”

The thought flashed into his mind of watching his cock light up as Jasmine rolled one of those condoms on him.

Hell yeah.

In one fluid movement, he lifted her off of his lap and got up from the couch.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to see them.”

Jasmine sprang up and followed. “No—”

But by the time she made it behind the desk, he’d already found them.

“Jackpot!” He choked back a laugh as a string of condoms, one after the other, kept coming out of her purse.

“Okay, you’ve seen them, so put them back.” She went for the condoms, but he angled his body away from her.

“Hold on. I want to turn off the lights.”

“No.”

“Oh, come on.” She made a jump for them, but he held them out of reach. “Four of them are purple, and that’s my favorite color.”

“Ethan, stop.” She was trying to be serious, but her eyes gleamed with laughter.

She made another grab for the condoms, and two of the packages ripped off and sailed through the air.

Before she toppled over, he wrapped his arm around her waist. “I’ll put these back, but only if you promise not to work too late. I have to be here at five tomorrow morning. You can ride in with me.” He took in the shadows underneath her eyes. “Come on, think about it. No one will be here yet, so you’ll get lots of work done, and you’ll be fresh from a good night’s sleep.”

She stared up at him for a long moment and then lifted up on her toes to press a quick kiss to his lips. “Okay. Thirty more minutes, and then I’m out of here.”

A knock brought their attention to the door. Jasmine’s expression morphed from startled to panic, and she pointed to the condoms. Even flustered, she was so damn cute, but he resisted the urge to tease her more and handed them over. He walked back to the couch, stifling a laugh at the sight of her fumbling with the packages as she shoved them back into her purse.

A few seconds later, she blew out a breath and slammed the desk drawer shut. “Come in.”

Drew opened the door and looked between him and Jasmine. “Am I interrupting?” he asked.

Good thing she had an honest day job, because illegal activity wasn’t in her future. She looked guilty as hell.

“No, of course not, come on in.” She smoothed her hands over her hair. “Ethan stopped by to make sure I wasn’t having any more problems with my rental car, and he brought dinner.”

She started to step around the desk but a crunching sound froze her in place. Her face practically screamed out the word.

Condom!

A chuckle almost made it past Ethan’s lips before he covered it with a cough. “Hey, Drew, would you like a plate?”

Drew looked down at the food, and Ethan glanced over at Jasmine. She kicked the condoms closer to the desk before Drew looked back up.

“I wish I could.” Drew eyed the containers on the table. “But I’m on my way to Orlando for a charity dinner. With Devin out of town, I’m forced to do all the shake-and-grins this week.” He turned his attention back to Jasmine. “I stopped by because I wanted to see if you had a minute to talk about our other two facilities.”

“Of course.” She walked over to the couch and gestured for Drew to take a seat in one of the side chairs.

Fun and games aside, that was his cue to leave. Ethan got up from the couch. “I’ll get going so the two of you can talk.”

“No,” Drew said. “Take a seat. This actually involves the security contractors.”

Ethan settled back on the couch a respectable distance away from Jasmine, who was surreptitiously slipping her feet back into her pumps.

“As you know, we have a training facility in Montana,” Drew said to Jasmine, “and if all goes well, we’ll be opening another one in California. With our training facilities, the staff is minimal, and the bulk of the people in-house are only there for a few weeks or a couple of months of intense training. A standard wellness program wouldn’t apply, but I think stress management is a big concern. What do you think, Ethan?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “but for most of us, stress management is putting in time at the gym.” Wearing himself out with weights or a hard run always did the trick for him.

He caught Jasmine’s gaze drifting over him, and the unconscious gesture of her moistening her bottom lip with her tongue made him imagine her taking him into her lush, warm mouth. Well, maybe the gym wasn’t his only stress management technique.

“Which is why I want to give staff members like our security specialists more tools than just a physical activity outlet.” Drew, as usual, was full steam ahead into planning mode. “The last time I spoke with Ted, he mentioned Regency Health was interested in developing a program focused on mental well-being. Bode-Wynn might be a good fit for a pilot program.”

“What are some of the staff’s concerns?” she asked.

“With the security specialists, I’d say a big one is being in a state of high alert and staying in crisis management mode for long periods of time. Ethan can fill you in on all of that. We already have mental health professionals on our payroll to handle the more complicated issues. We also require all of our security specialists to have at least two weeks of basic duty in Montana or here after they’ve been away on an extended job. That’s why Ethan is here now. Whatever you come up with should work hand in hand with what we already have in place.”

In the midst of the conversation, Ethan got up for more water. When he bent down to reach into the refrigerator, a glow of purple caught his attention just under the desk. Smiling to himself, he picked up the condoms and stood.

They were definitely using these.

Drew’s back was toward him, but Jasmine could clearly see what was in his hands. Her eyes widened slightly before her gaze quickly moved away from him. Grinning, he tucked the condoms into the back pocket of his jeans. On his way back to the couch, he handed one of bottles to Drew and studiously avoided her gaze.

Jasmine commented on something in the conversation, and as she casually uncrossed her legs, she hit him in the ankle with sharp heel of her shoe. “Oh, sorry.” She arched her brow innocently and kept talking to Drew.

Almost thirty minutes after Drew had arrived, he finally stood to leave, and they walked him to the door.

As soon as the door shut, Jasmine moaned and dropped her head in hands. “I can’t believe how close that was.”

“I can’t believe you kicked me.”

“What? You deserved it.” She stared at him incredulously but didn’t resist when he tugged her forward by her belt. “What if Drew had caught you waving those condoms around?”

“Hey, I wasn’t the one who was playing kick the condom in the first place.” He tried to get his arms around her, but she batted his hands away.

“I wouldn’t have been playing at all if you wouldn’t have been so nosy.” She punched him in the arm, but there was mischief in her eyes.

Holding up his hands, he easily defended himself from the rest of her blows. “Don’t worry. I had you covered. I was even willing to let you ruin my reputation by telling him they were mine.”

“Oh please,” she snorted. “Reputation my ass.”

“This coming from a woman who has two dozen neon-colored condoms in her purse.” He finally subdued her and got in a kiss.

Her lips twitched under his with a smile that broke into a laugh. “I only have twelve.”

“And that’s way over the legal limit of dangerous.”

“What?”

“No, really, think about it.” He leaned in and brushed kisses down her throat. “We can’t have you running around town flashing condoms everywhere.”

“Oh, yeah, that would be a real crime.” She smoothed her hands over his shoulders and around his neck.

“And because I’m such a good citizen, I’m going to help you get rid of them.”

As he captured her mouth in a kiss, he skimmed his hands up her waist to her breasts, relearning every taut line and supple curve.

She pulled back a fraction from his lips and murmured, “Well, considering I have fifteen more of them in my suitcase, I guess I do need somebody to help me out.”

He pressed the hard ridge of his erection between her legs, torturing himself with her closeness. The good news was that he had positions and places in mind for every single one of those condoms she was carrying around.

Ethan lifted his head, pleased to see desire strong as his darkening her eyes. “Consider your problem taken care of—you have me.”





Chapter Eleven

Ethan walked out of the elevator of Bode-Wynn and spotted Jasmine standing near the reception desk. He grinned. She was done by six, as promised. That left plenty of time for them to go back to her apartment and get ready for the surprise he’d been planning all week—their first real date. Actually, it was an entire weekend, but they’d start tonight with dinner in Orlando and the late-night comedy show at the Improv. After that, they’d stay the night and then on Saturday, they’d spend the day exploring. He wasn’t sure what she liked to do, but he was up for whatever she wanted.

As he walked closer, she didn’t move to join him. She met his gaze and he knew. His smile faded.

“I can’t leave.” She frowned. “I have a conference call with Ted and his boss tonight.”

Plans started to disintegrate in his mind. He switched his bag from his left hand to his right and looked at his watch. “What time?”

“In two hours.” She looked down and her high heels scraped on the tile as she shifted her weight. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll probably be here until ten or eleven.”

Ten or eleven? A frisson of irritation heated the nape of his neck. Couldn’t she at least say she’d try to finish earlier? A comment about all their ruined plans started to come out, but he held back. Causing her to feel bad would make him into a prick. Ethan took in a breath of cool air and let it sit in his lungs a few seconds before he let it out.

Just sex…

That’s what their time together was about, and things were good between them. Sure, he was going to lose a few bucks over this, but he’d promised not to get in the way of her work. So get over it. He glanced around the empty lobby, preparing to leave, but uncertainty about where to go or what to do with the rest of the night rooted his boots to the spot.

Jasmine sighed. “Well, I guess I’d better head back upstairs and get ready for the inquisition.”

The sadness in her eyes completely melted through his frustration. “Hey, are you okay?

“I—” Her gaze dropped.

She reached out for his chest and he went still. Seconds ticked by and the longer her hand hovered in the air, the more it felt like he was stretching out of his skin. She was so close, he could smell the light scent of her perfume warming on the skin exposed by the open collar of her blouse, see where she was worrying away the deep red coloring from her bottom lip with her teeth. Then it registered that she was a lot closer than the usual two feet or more she seemed to require when they were at work. Something was very wrong.

“No, I’m not okay.” She stepped forward and dropped her forehead to his chest. “This is the third time this week my bosses have called for an update. I know I haven’t been a program coordinator for a while, but they’re the ones who asked me to do this.”

Without a second thought, he dropped his gear to the ground and wrapped both arms around her. He braced for resistance, but she stayed there. His heart jumped with each slow creep of her hands around his waist.

“It’s like they don’t trust me anymore.” Her voice broke and her body vibrated with a slight tremor that dug into him. “But I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong.”

A strange sensation, something close to sexual need but layered with protectiveness, made him tighten his embrace. What could he do? In his past encounters, flowers, a stuffed animal, or something chocolate usually covered it, but this wasn’t that type of a moment.

She let him go and backed up, clearly forcing a smile. “Maybe we can watch a movie or something when I get back to my apartment. I’ll have to stay up late anyway. I have a ton of laundry to do.”

A sense of uselessness washed over him. He couldn’t just stand there like an idiot and not say anything. He had to do something.

“Hold on a minute.” He reached for her hand and stopped her from walking away. “Do you have to go upstairs right away?”

“No.” She gave him a perplexed look. “Why?”

He picked up his gear, the idea still coming to light in his mind. He looked to the security guard at the desk. “Danny, can you put this in the chief’s office?”

“Sure thing, Ethan.”

After giving his bag to the guard, he led Jasmine to a corridor at the other end of the lobby.

She still looked puzzled. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

They walked to a door at the end of the hall where he punched his security code into a keypad on the wall.

“But they told me I couldn’t go into any high-security areas.”

“You’re not allowed into where I work, but where we’re going, it’s okay as long as you’re with me.”

With a short beep, the lock disengaged, and he pushed open the entrance to one of his sanctuaries…the indoor gun range.

“Ethan?” She gave him a dubious look as she followed him over to the check-in desk. Except for the attendant, the place was empty.

“Stay here a sec. I’ll be right back.” Taking advantage of her bewilderment, he stole a quick kiss before going into the locker area to retrieve the case that held his gun.

After he secured a station along with protective gear at the desk, he led her over to one of the lanes.

“Here, put these on.” He handed her a pair of thick clear glasses and earmuffs.

She put them on and said, “I don’t understand. You brought me here to watch you shoot?”

He put on his own protective gear and took his pistol out of the case. “No, you are.”

“Me?” Her brow rose with a hint of excitement. “What do I get to shoot?”

“A target.” He reached over to a dial in the station and turned up the light, which better illuminated the paper silhouette of a man’s torso at the end of the lane.

“But I’ve never shot a gun before.”

“I’ll teach you,” he said, gesturing for Jasmine to stand beside him. He picked up the gun and slapped the magazine into place. “This is a Glock 17. Right now, I just want you to get used to the weight. The safety’s on, but you still need to keep the business end pointed downrange toward the target.”

She held still as he transferred the gun into her hands. “It’s not as heavy as I thought it would be.”

“Good. Now let’s get you some confidence in handling it.” He showed her how to hold the Glock in firing position with her right hand, while supporting the weight of it with her left. Then he went through the basics of breathing and lining up the sights, before he had her cock the weapon and take off the safety.

“Okay. You’re almost ready.” As he stepped closely behind her, the scent of her perfume muted the lingering smells of gunpowder, oil, and heated metal.

Taking hold of her hips, he adjusted her stance to square her off with the target, and the feel of her soft flesh beneath the fabric of her dark slacks flooded his mind with the memory of what she was wearing underneath. Scraps of red lace that barely managed to pass as underwear. He nudged her feet a little wider apart with his foot, and when she wiggled her hips, her butt brushed against him. His shaft instantly hardened.

“Is this where I should be?” She pushed back against him.

He nearly drew blood from his bottom lip as he stifled a groan. “Yeah, that’s perfect.”

“Handling a pistol is a whole lot easier than I thought.”

Ethan glanced down just in time to see Jasmine’s lips twitch. He tapped her firmly on the butt. “Cut it out.”

She giggled. “Ooh, do that again, baby.”

He leaned down and brushed his lips near her ear. “If I had my way, I’d bend you over this counter, sink my cock into you, and make it so good, you’d beg me not to stop, but there’s a video camera behind us, and I don’t want to give the attendant a show.”

The pulse in her neck ticked harder. “Oh, come on.” A slightly mischievous smile played on her lips. “Make his day and give the guy a little free porn.”

“Jasmine, be serious. You’ve got a loaded gun in your hand.”

She snickered. “In my hand? Then what’s that on my—”

“Jasmine…” he warned, curling his fingers into her hips to keep her still.

“All right, I’ll stop, but give a girl a break and back up.”

Chuckling, he gave her some room. “Now remember what I told you. Let out a nice calm breath, sight the weapon, and then slowly squeeze the trigger.”

She fired the gun, and the recoil made her take an involuntary step back. She grinned. “I hit it.”

He looked downrange and winced at the bullet hole at crotch level on the silhouette. “Let’s see if we can get your rounds a little higher on the target.”

Once she’d emptied the magazine, he reeled in the silhouette. “Not bad for your first try.” He unclipped the sheet and handed it to her.

“Yeah, but none of my shots are in the middle.”

He set up a new target sheet and sent it back down the lane. “It takes practice.”

In a flow of movements that he’d done more times than he could count, Ethan slammed the magazine into the weapon, cocked it, and fired ten rapid shots, dead center, into the target.

He looked at Jasmine.

Her mouth was shaped into a small O. “Wow,” she breathed out. “I guess it’s safe to say you’ve had lots of practice.”

Yeah, he’d wanted to impress her, but he also had a point. After placing the gun safely on the counter in the stall, he went over to her. “Yeah, I have, and it’s a part of me that will never go away. If I didn’t pick up a gun for a year, I’d still know what I’m doing, just like you know what you’re doing on this project.”

Jasmine offered him a rueful smile. “Tell that to my bosses.”

“No, you tell them.” He lightly gripped her shoulders. “Sure, you haven’t been a project coordinator for a year, but it’s still a part of you, otherwise you would have never been able to convince Drew to give your company a second chance. If you want your bosses to trust you, you have to stop doubting yourself.”

She grazed her bottom lip with her teeth. “But it’s just not about me getting my old job back. I have to make sure Drew gets the type of program he wants.”

“You will, and when it happens, the only thing Ted and his boss will ask you is what color to paint your corner office.”

She gave him a soft smile and stared up into his eyes. “That’s easy…blue.”

Ethan leaned in, but the flashing red light on the video camera made him stop short. He pointedly dropped his gaze to her lips. “When you get home, we can sample a few things just to be sure.”

She started to laugh but her knowing smile froze woodenly on her face. He followed her gaze over his shoulder to the big man walking toward them.

Larson, one of the newest security specialists, was all shoulders and hard muscle. He gave Ethan a curt nod and kept walking past their station.

“Whoa, he’s scary,” Jasmine whispered.

“Yeah, he’s a big guy.”

“I’m not talking about his size.” She shivered. “I mean the look in his eyes. What’s wrong with him?

Larson was a man who’d seen a lot, done too much, and didn’t want to talk about it, but Jasmine wouldn’t understand. Ethan dropped his hands from her shoulders and turned back to the counter. “He’s a former Navy SEAL. He’s gone through a lot.”

“But you have, too, right?”

Ethan stared down the lane at the paper silhouette with the perfect cluster of bullet holes. Over the years, he’d become a master of diversionary tactics. Whenever a woman he was seeing tried to tread into this territory, he’d always let other parts of him do the talking, but he’d opened the door to this when he’d made the choice of bringing her in here…a place he’d never shared with a woman, until now.

Making up his mind, he faced her. “We all handle it differently.”

“But if you guys have seen bad things, doesn’t being a security specialist make it worse? The other day, you mentioned going into countries to assess the political climate. A lot of those places are where you went on missions in the military. That has to have an effect on you.”

At the time he’d shared that little insight with her, she’d had her legs wrapped around his waist while he was on his own private mission of sinking into her balls-deep. He didn’t know if he should be hurt or impressed she’d even heard a word he’d said.

Shrugging off some of the tension building in his shoulders, he debated his response. “When you come back, you don’t see the world the same way anymore. Some people choose this job because they can’t function doing anything else. For others, it’s about accepting the reality of a fucked-up world and using what they know to keep people safe.”

He braced for more questions, but instead, Jasmine rose up on her toes and kissed him softly on the lips.

Surprise drained through him. “What’s that for?”

“For wanting to keep me safe.”

He exhaled against the tightness in his chest. He’d given her two reasons for doing the job, and without hesitation, she’d thought of him and chosen the second.

“How do you know that’s why I do this?”

He hadn’t realized he’d asked the question aloud until she looked up at him and curved her hand against his cheek. “Because when I look into your eyes, Ethan, I don’t see what you’ve been through. I just see you.”





Chapter Twelve

An hour later, Ethan walked out of the lobby to his truck, his mind still reeling over what Jasmine had said to him. She hadn’t pried or poked. She’d stated the obvious, accepted what he’d said, and moved on. And then there was the way she’d looked at him—as if she could see all his wounds, every hurt and regret he kept locked up in his mind, and he’d actually wanted her to see them.

He opened the back door to his truck and tossed his gear inside. As he drove to the apartment, he still couldn’t reason it out.

Did she really understand, or was he just caught up in some fantasy? Even as he asked the question, his mind started to toy with the scenario of coming home to her at his house in Greenville or her greeting him at the airport in Dallas, but he quickly dismantled the images in his mind.

What was wrong with him? She’d made it clear she wasn’t interested in any type of a relationship, especially a long-distance one, and with his job, it was nothing but distance. No, it wasn’t always as dangerous as it had been when he was in the military, but it still had its risks. Only a twisted bastard would wish that type of relationship on her.

But Dario wasn’t a twisted bastard…

And his mother would kick his ass if she ever heard him say that about his dad. His parents had loved each other, and anybody who knew Dario could see how much he’d loved Elaina and Gabriel. His friend had been prouder of the baby drool on his uniform than any medal pinned to his chest, but how fair was it for Elaina to have to raise her son without a father? It wasn’t. He’d watched his mom go through it for over seven years.

He made it back to the apartments, but instead of going upstairs to his place, he went to Jasmine’s. She’d mentioned laundry, and considering he stayed with her most of the time, it was a good bet part of the laundry pile was his. He changed into sweats and a T-shirt, ate a quick meal of leftovers, and then started the laundry.

While he waited for the clothes to finish, thoughts about Elaina, his mom, and Jasmine still buzzed like a live wire in his mind. Suddenly, in the midst of his thoughts, he remembered all of the reservations he’d made for that night.

Shit! It was too late to do anything about the restaurant, and the Improv tickets were already paid for, but he still needed to do something about the hotel suite.

As he was looking for the contact info he’d stored on his phone, he scrolled past Elaina’s name and number. A hit of guilt moved through him. He hadn’t called her in months. After he canceled the reservation, he went back to laundry and straightened up the apartment. On his way to the bathroom with a stack of folded towels, his gaze strayed to his laptop sitting on the table. On impulse, he sat down and opened a browser. He wasn’t ready to call Elaina yet, but at least she would know he was thinking about her.

When he finished on the computer, his mind still wouldn’t rest. Things he didn’t want to remember hung in the shadows of his mind.The door to the apartment opened, and Jasmine walked inside. A sense of lightness immediately moved over him, and most of what weighed down on him went away.

“I’m home,” she said.

Home…

For the first time, he really looked around the apartment. His bag was on the couch and the tennis shoes he wore for his morning jogs were a permanent fixture by the door. His favorite cereal was in the pantry, and they’d stood side by side in the kitchen making meals and doing the dishes. His clothes were in the closet with hers, and when he lay in bed at night, if she wasn’t around, the lingering scent of her perfume always made him miss her more. As he put it all together in his mind, he swallowed hard. In one short week, they’d managed to create the illusion of a life together.

He forced a smile on his face and walked over to give her a hug. He took in a breath filled with her scent, and the sense of heaviness returned. Someday, she’d have a real home with another man who could give her a normal life that didn’t involve always worrying about the future.

Later that night, while they lay in bed, he’d planned on letting her sleep, but he couldn’t stop himself from reaching out for her. As if sensing his need, she guided him by the hips straight between her legs. He kissed her softly, and groaned when he found her ready for the glide of his cock into her welcoming heat. They moved together, her gaze never leaving his, until her lids floated closed with a moan that feathered over his senses. She arched her beautiful body up and wrapped her legs tightly around his hips, urging him to go deeper. Soon her moans and soft cries drove him like a wild man possessed with one thought that kept repeating in his mind with each sure stroke. She. Was. His.

But she wasn’t.

He wouldn’t be the last man who held her like this, found his place between her thighs like this. Someday, she’d cry out someone else’s name, but no matter who took his place, he’d make sure a part of her would always be his. Heat seared down his spine, and the sweet pull of release reached out for him, but he held it back, focusing on the need to brand himself there in a way that would never let her forget him. She reached her climax, and the slick, heated folds of her pussy gripped him like a silken vise. Release, raw and explosive, raged through him, and as he shouted out her name, a realization he couldn’t deny held him still. Jasmine had beaten him to it. She had a claim on him.





Chapter Thirteen

“What’s your pleasure?”

Ethan eyed Jasmine warily. “You can’t be serious.”

“Totally,” she responded with absolute certainty. It felt right, too right to just pass up.

“But what about the odds?” He wrapped an arm around her and slid his hand into the back pocket of her pink denim shorts.

“I don’t care.” Smiling, Jasmine mirrored his actions and slid her hand into his back pocket, enjoying the feel of his tight butt through the fabric of his khaki shorts. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little risk. After all, this was your idea.”

“But some things aren’t worth the risk.” He held up the horse racing program. “The odds on that one are terrible. What about number four?”

“Nope.” She shook her head and pointed at the program. “I want to bet all of our money on that one.”

“You’re a pitiful gambler.” He chuckled and moved his hand up from the back pocket of her shorts to stroke the small strip of skin exposed just underneath the hem of her cropped T-shirt. “But you’re too damn cute to refuse.” He gave her a quick kiss and left her in the open-air grandstand to place their bet.

It was a warm day, but she’d wanted to be closer to the action instead of in the air-conditioned building. All around her, the eclectic crowd of novice, tourist, and seasoned gamblers strategized their bets, and excitement buzzed in the air in anticipation of the upcoming race.

Sighing happily, she flipped through the pages of the program. Driving out to the horse track was an unexpected twist for a Saturday afternoon date, and she was having a good time. Too bad they didn’t have another couple of weeks to explore more places together. It still surprised her how they enjoyed a lot of the same things, and how well they got along.

Ethan was an early riser, and she’d gotten in the habit of joining him for his morning jog. She was usually at her desk by six, unless they ended up pleasantly distracted in the shower, and then it was six thirty. At the end of the day, if she didn’t have to bring work home, they curled up on the couch or in bed to watch something on TV she rarely made it all the way through before falling asleep.

Her mind started to wander down the path of them playing tourist in Texas and revisiting a few places she hadn’t been to in a while, and there had to be some great places to see in South Carolina. Out of habit, from years of travel, she calculated airline routes in her head. Dallas to Greenville was a straight shot, less than three hours nonstop.

Wait a minute. She pulled her thoughts back to the present and closed the program.

Been there, done that, and burned every single last one of those T-shirts. She needed the reassurance of someone being there for her every day, and that meant no long-distance relationships.

But what if…

No. Just because they got along, and things were good in bed, didn’t mean they could build a relationship. She wasn’t going mess up what they had by trying to find a way to bridge the distance.

“Here you go.”

She looked up at Ethan and took the betting receipts and the bottle of water he offered. His lopsided smile deepened the dimple in his cheek, and as she allowed herself a good long stare, an idea came to mind.

“Hurry up and sit down.”

“Why?”

“I want to take a picture of us.” She set aside her water and reached for her cell.

He sat down and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Okay, ready.”

She held out the phone and put a camera-ready smile on her face, but just as she took the picture, Ethan tickled her.

A laugh burst past her lips. “Hey!”

He chuckled and kissed her cheek. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Do you want to take another one?”

“No.” It was perfect. It captured what their relationship was all about…fun.

She switched the phone from camera mode and went online. Smiling, she posted the picture for her friends with a caption.

Luckiest girl on the track, greatest guy in the world, best day ever!

Now maybe they’d all stop bugging her about going out and having a good time. On impulse, she also emailed it to Ethan, but as soon as she sent it, reservations set in. What if he didn’t feel the same about what was going on between them? She glanced over at him and he smiled.

“What?” he asked.

She shook off her doubts and returned his smile. “Nothing,”

The race was announced, and they looked out at the track where grooms along with the jockeys were getting ready for their walk-through before the race. She sat on the edge of her seat. “There he goes, see him, number five.” She pointed to a horse parading by with the rest on the way to the gate.

“Yeah, there he goes,” Ethan said wryly. “Along with all of our money,” he added under his breath.

She elbowed him playfully in the ribs. “Have a little faith and stop killing the mood.”

Minutes later, the horses were settled in at the starting gate, and at the signal the race began. Jasmine jumped to her feet with the rest of the crowd as the horses ran swiftly around the track. When they rounded the curves into the final straightaway, horse number five was almost in the lead, and she yelled louder. As the horse started to pull ahead of the others, Ethan also jumped to his feet and cheered her favorite all the way to the finish line.

“He did it! He won! We won!” Jumping up in excitement, she threw her arms around his neck and delivered a sound kiss to his lips, which were still open in astonishment.

In the midst of her descent back to the ground, he caught her around the waist and held her in place.

His smile added warmth to his eyes. “Do you know you’re nothing short of amazing?”

She tightened her arms around his neck and laughed. “You better believe it, baby.”

“Trust me, I do.” His gaze held hers, and then he captured her mouth in a bone-melting kiss that spread a slow, burning fire through her blood.

The excitement of the win, the tightening grasp of his hands on her bare waist, the slow draw of his tongue gliding over hers, it all left her holding on for the ride. When he finally set her away from him, she was breathless and slightly stunned.

“Are you in for another race?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No. I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.” She rose up on her toes and gently sank her teeth into his earlobe. “I think we should go home and celebrate.”

He gave her a lazy smile. “I like the way you think. Come on. Let’s go.”

They headed inside, and while he picked up their winnings, she went to the ladies’ room. When she came back out, he was still in line. Catching his eye, she motioned to him that she would wait near the main corridor leading to the exit.

Her phone blared out the new ringtone Tab had taken the liberty of programming in as hers, the latest from P!nk, the last time they’d gone out for drinks in Dallas. They were way past their little phone tiff in Miami, but of course, once Tab had found out about her and Ethan’s plan for a fling, she’d taken every expected jab and gloating opportunity available.

Jasmine answered the phone. “Hey, Tab—”

“Tell me you haven’t seen it?”

Spotting a clear space of wall nearby, she hurried over to it and turned her body away from the crowd. “Haven’t seen what?”

“I can’t believe Brenda pulled this crap, but it makes total sense because she’s such a miserable —”

“Slow down, Tab.” The mention of Greg’s sister never brought good news. “What are you talking about?”

“Someone must have shared the picture you took with Ethan because Brenda just included you in a group text she just sent out with a picture of her brother at the baby’s christening.” Tab released an irritated breath. “I bet she’ll try to play it off as an accident, but she knew exactly what she was doing. She even sent it from someone else’s phone number so you wouldn’t recognize who it was from and delete it.”

A text message? She was so into the races, she’d missed hearing it come in. It took Jasmine another moment to process the news and a few seconds longer to remember why she should care. She’d distanced herself from Greg and the entire situation after she’d ended the engagement. The baby was how old? She calculated time in her mind. At least three months, maybe four.

“Are you all right?” Tab asked quietly. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No, I don’t, and yes, I’m fine.” She took a long, cleansing breath, determined to clear it all away. “I don’t have time to worry about Greg or the evil Brenda.”

“Good,” Tab said. “Stay busy, don’t dwell on it, and wear something bright. It’ll cheer you up, but if you need to talk later, call me, okay?”

“Tab, I’m fine, just promise you won’t call and get into it with Brenda.”

“Uh-huh,” Tab drawled out her response.

Translation—fat chance. Once Tab got a hold of Brenda, drama was bound to start.

“Just make sure you delete that text. It’s the one with the heading ‘Baby Felicia,’” Tab said, and hung up.

They named the baby Felicia? The words swatted Jasmine like a slap to the face.

An emotional ache crushed her ribs as she took the phone down from her ear. That was the name Greg had chosen for a girl when they’d talked about having children. The name Felicia meant happiness. He’d said that he couldn’t imagine anything happier than being married to her and sharing their life together, and she’d fallen for it—love, marriage, babies, and forever.

She stared down at the text icon on the view screen and her heart started to pound. Oh yeah, this was definitely Brenda. She’d always tried to make her feel like she wasn’t good enough, hadn’t done enough, but she’d given up everything for Greg—her home, her career, two years of her life. What had he given her? Not a damn thing. Even when it was all out in the open, he couldn’t even give her the truth.

“Jasmine?”

She spun around and stumbled right into Ethan’s chest.

“What’s wrong? Are you crying?” His brow lowered with a concerned expression. “What happened?”

She swiped her hand under her eyes and was startled by the unexpected moisture on her cheeks.

Still crying over Greg? How wrong is that?

She looked up at Ethan and opened her mouth, planning to share what happen, but reason intervened.

And ruin the first full day the two of you have had together since you met? No way.

Her having some sort of an emotional episode was exactly the result Brenda was aiming for with her text message.

“Nothing.” She forced out a cough. “Sorry.” She pressed hand to her chest. “I was on the phone with Tab and all of a sudden I got choked up. I don’t know what happened.”

“Do you want me to get you some water?”

“No.” She waved away the offer and shut off her phone. “I’m fine now.”

He gently grasped her shoulders and studied her for a long second. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes.” She managed to lift her mouth into what she hoped was a convincing smile and slipped her arm through his, leading him down the corridor. “Let’s go. I want to stop by the mall and buy a new dress for our date tonight.”

“Sergeant Worth,” someone called out.

Ethan stopped and turned around.

Jasmine looked over her shoulder and saw a man with salt-and-pepper hair, dressed casually in a yellow golf shirt and tan slacks with knife-edge creases, walking toward them with a slight limp. He had the same air of confidence she’d noticed in Ethan, and the hard, slim build of someone who’d spent more than a few good days in the gym. When the man reached them, he and Ethan shook hands.

“Colonel Ellis.” Ethan’s tone held a clear note of respect. “Good to see you, and it’s just Ethan now, sir. I got out two years ago.”

“Same here.” Colonel Ellis gestured to his left leg. “Humvee accident in Afghanistan. I officially became a civilian nine months ago.”

Ethan and Colonel Ellis stared at each other in silence for a moment.

“I’m glad you made it home,” Ethan said. He turned to her. “Jasmine, this is Colonel Bill Ellis. He was one of my commanding officers.”

She offered Bill her hand, and he shook it with a firm grip. “Hello, Jasmine, and please, call me Bill. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” His sharp gray gaze looked between her and Ethan. “I wondered when this guy would finally get smart and settle down. He’s a good man. I know you’re proud of him.”

“Uh…yes. I am,” she said, politely, returning his smile.

She waited for Ethan to correct Bill about the status of their relationship, but he didn’t say a word.

Bill turned back to Ethan. “What are you doing these days?”

“I’m with Bode-Wynn.”

The man’s face lit up in recognition. “That’s a good outfit. If you’re going to stay in the action, they’re the ones to go with.” He lowered his voice. “One of my golf buddies was a part of that delegation you guys escorted to Colombia six months ago. I heard it was rough, but the way your team handled the situation kept it from turning ugly.” Another long silent look passed between the two men. “I know it’s hard to take the losses, but don’t forget. You saved a lot of lives that day.”

For a fleeting moment, a haunted look passed over Ethan’s face. He cleared his throat. “Will do, sir.”

A woman farther down the corridor called out Bill’s name and gestured for him to join her.

“Well, that’s the wife,” Bill said. “I guess she and her parents are ready for the buffet. She’s kept me on the run.” He chuckled. “Well, more accurately, a fast walk ever since I got back. I don’t know what I would have done without her these last few months. That’s the advantage of having someone to come home to”—he looked at Ethan—”but I guess you know that now.”

He tipped his head in Jasmine’s direction and smiled. “Keep him in line and don’t let him get away with too much.” He turned to Ethan, and the two of them shook hands again. Bill clapped Ethan on the shoulder. “Good to see you. Make sure you keep your head down out there.”

Bill walked down the corridor and joined his waiting family.

As she and Ethan walked out to the parking lot, she couldn’t get one of the things Bill had said out of her mind. Losses. How many times had Ethan gone through something like Colombia? Any time he’d given her insight into his job or what he used to do, she’d realized he’d given her a sanitized version of things, but the pain she’d spotted in his eyes at the range and just now was real. Did he ever talk about it or did he just bottle it up inside? He didn’t have the same bottomless look in his eyes as the other contractor at the range, but how many more Colombias would it take before Ethan stopped being Ethan?

The thought of him not being the man she knew tore at her heart.

“Jasmine, where are you going?”

She surfaced from her thoughts and looked up at his puzzled expression. He gestured toward his truck.

“Oh.” She’d almost walked right past it.

He followed her to the front passenger-side door, but instead of putting his key into the lock, he backed her up against the truck, braced his hands near the sides of her head, and trapped her in.

“What’s going on?” He looked almost angry as his gaze searched over her face.

“Nothing —”

“Don’t.” He placed his finger against her lips for a brief moment. “We may not have been together for that long, but I know when something is up with you. Is it about the call you got earlier from Tab?”

“No. It’s nothing.” She shrugged it off.

“Is it because of what Bill thought about us being a couple?”

“No, of course not.” She met Ethan’s hard stare and it took her a minute to figure out. They’d never fought the whole time they’d been together, but for some reason, leashed tension rolled off of him in waves. “Knowing your job is dangerous is one thing, hearing someone actually say it made it real.”

“But a lot of the times, it isn’t. I told you that.” He leaned down until they were eye level. “What’s really going on? You were happy until you got that phone call.”

She didn’t want to lie to him, but raking up the whole Brenda and Greg issue was out of the question. If he wanted to scrap it out, they’d do it over what was truly bothering him. She held up her chin. “And you were happy until we saw Bill. What happened in Colombia?”





Chapter Fourteen

Anger simmered down to confusion. Maybe he hadn’t heard it right. Ethan moved his hands from the truck and stood up straight. “You want to know about Colombia?”

“Andrew said you would fill me in on what you do, but you never talked about what Bill mentioned. Is it classified?”

“That’s where you want this conversation to go.”

“Yes.”

Fuck. Ethan resisted punching the side of the truck. Promises from Drew or not, she didn’t have a right to ask him this. He didn’t owe her anything, but she was asking him, and he wouldn’t lie. That’s what her ex had done, and no way in hell was he going down in history compared to that bastard in her mind. No. This was a good thing. She needed to hear what was real. He needed to hear what was real. Then, he could finally put an end to the fairy tale he’d been spinning in his mind for the past week about the two of them.

“A little over six months ago, I was on a security detail assigned to escort the secretary of commerce in Latin America. We were taking his delegation to a meeting at a hotel in Bogotá when Jax spotted a suspicious guy walking away from a delivery van parked near the hotel. When we checked it out, we found enough explosives inside of it to level half of a city block.”

“I don’t understand.” Her brow crinkled in confusion. “What you guys did is a good thing, right? You stopped a major catastrophe.”

He looked past her shoulder. “Yeah, but that’s not the whole story. Evidence from the van led us to a terrorist cell in the city. We went in with the Colombian strike force when they raided the apartment. The strike force lost someone. Dario Ortiz.” Ethan released a ragged breath. “And he was my friend.”

A breeze blew over them and moisture cooled in his eyes. Looking up, he squeezed his lids shut, and memories, vivid and clear, came back to him. Raiding the apartment, taking down the targets, hearing the words “man down” in his com set, and looking back to see Dario lying on the ground. As they’d tried to keep him stable until the ambulance arrived, Dario had kept reaching for his pocket. He’d known what he’d wanted, and he’d found it for him—a picture of Elaina and Gabriel. Dario had died clutching it in his hand.

“Ethan, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pressed the issue.” She laid her hand on his chest. “I didn’t realize what I was asking.”

He focused back on her face. “No, you needed to hear it. That’s why Drew and Devin don’t write off mental well-being as some sort of a perk that’s included in the benefit package.” He shook his head, and drew from the new sense of irritation rising up in him to clear away the rest of the memory. “What happened to Dario is just a good reminder for me about why I’ve never committed to someone. It’s too much to ask.”

Her eyes widened with a look of shock. “Wait, no, you can’t do that. You can’t just assume what’s too much for someone else.”

Assume? He’d lived through watching his mom hide her grief every anniversary, birthday, and holiday after his dad died. No, he wasn’t making some half-ass assumption. He knew.

Jasmine lifted her other hand to his chest. She had tears in his eyes…for him?

He shook his head. Pity never helped anybody. Reality always set things straight.

“Would you want to be in a committed relationship with someone who’s gone half the time to who knows where, on assignments like the one in Colombia?” She recoiled from the snap in his voice. “Would you want to spend your life worrying about if he’s coming home or dealing with what you’ve lost when he doesn’t?”

“You can’t ask me that question.”

“That’s what I thought.”

He started to back away, and she grabbed fistfuls of his shirt. “No, you can’t ask me that question because I’m the wrong woman to ask, and we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you making stupid assumptions because you’re scared.”

Scared? The word threatened to spark his anger to the next level, but he held it in check…barely. He didn’t want to be a dick to her, but they both needed to stop dancing around the truth.

“The same way you’re scared about being hurt again?” He huffed out a derisive laugh and her shoulders stiffened. The vulnerable look in her eyes almost got to him, but he kept going.

“A lot of people are scared about the same things you are, and most of them get over it. What I’m scared of is leaving someone behind. Look at what Dario did to Elaina. He knew the risks, but he still got married, and now she’s going through hell. She may never get over it.”

“How do you know what she’s going through?” She gripped his shirt tighter. “Have you even asked her how she feels about it? Because if you did, I’m sure if you gave her the choice of having a life with Dario or not being with him at all, she’d choose reliving every day she had with him despite knowing the outcome.”

He snorted. “You honestly believe that?”

“Yes, I do.” Determination lit up her eyes. “We can’t predict what’s going to happen, but having love is worth the risk. If you don’t believe me, I dare you to go back inside and ask Bill and his wife.”

Ethan clamped his mouth shut. He didn’t have to ask. If anybody understood risk, he did, and he’d survived this long because he knew when to take a risk and when to walk away to save his life or to spare the people he cared about unnecessary pain. And who was she to talk about risk? Didn’t she realize that because of her experience with Greg, she’d created her own set of rules to live by when it came to relationships?

He moved in closer. “And what about you, Jasmine? What type of risks are you willing to take?”

She visibly swallowed and some of the light went out of her eyes. “I’m willing to risk another wonderful week with you.” She’d probably meant it to sound like a gift, but instead it came out like more of a loss.

He could argue with her about it, but just as she felt like she was the wrong woman to answer his question, he was the wrong man to pass judgment over her decision. None of it was fair, but he didn’t want to spend the short time they had left together debating about it.

He took her by the hips and pulled her flush against him. “I’ll take it.”

She wound her arms around his neck, and as soon as his mouth touched hers, need spiked through him. He ground his lower body into hers, torturing himself as his cock hardened almost to the point of pain, but he welcomed it. He deserved to ache for bringing up the memory that put that haunted look in her eyes. She wasn’t spending two weeks with him to deal with his personal shit. He’d offered her more of what they’d shared in Miami.

One more week…

A different kind of ache opened up in his chest, and he mentally dodged it. Threading his fingers into her hair, he held Jasmine even more firmly in place, and glided his tongue through every space, curve, and hollow of her mouth.

No, he couldn’t have her forever, but for now, she was his. He’d find a way to make up for hurting her and give her all the happiness he could for one more week.





Chapter Fifteen

Ethan jerked awake at the sound of explosions and squealing tires. He tensed and sat up, quickly orienting himself to the surroundings. He was in Jasmine’s apartment, in bed, alone, and he didn’t like it one bit. Searching around on the comforter, he found the remote and turned off the flat screen hanging on the wall across from him. Jasmine was putting the final touches on her report and had needed space. Right after dinner, he’d left her working at the table. The boredom of Tuesday night reruns must have finally knocked him out.

Yawning, he reached for his phone on the nightstand to check the time, and an icon on the view screen caught his attention. Blinking away the haze of sleep, he sat up on the side of the bed, staring at the number of the call he’d missed a half hour ago.

Elaina?

He hit the call back button and by the third ring, he’d realized he hadn’t worked out what to say. Just then, she answered the phone.

“Elaina, it’s Ethan. Are you all right? Did I wake you? You didn’t leave a message, but I thought I should call. I’ve been meaning to call.” He smoothed his palm down the leg of his sweatpants. Damn, he sounded like an idiot.

“No, Ethan, it’s okay.” He heard joy in her lightly accented voice. “I was going to call you back in a little while. I didn’t leave a message because I wanted to talk to you and say thank you for Gabriel’s gifts.”

The gifts… When he’d placed the order, one of the items wasn’t in stock. He hadn’t expected them to arrive this soon.

“He loves the trike.” She chuckled. “I have to watch him, though. His legs don’t touch the ground when he’s on it, but once he starts peddling, he’s fast.”

“Is he still too young for it?” Shit, he’d blown it. He should have asked Jasmine’s opinion before buying it.

“No, no, it’s perfect. He’s growing so fast. You should see him, and the stuffed sports balls you sent, guess what? The first one he grabbed was the football. No, wait; you call it a soccer ball.”

Ethan breathed out a laugh remembering how his friend kept up with his favorite teams. “Dario would have loved that.”

He listened as she went on to tell him more about Gabriel and the birthday party she and Dario’s family had for him two weeks ago. He was one now. It sounded like the perfect day.

During an extended silence, he got up his courage and asked, “How are you doing, Elaina?”

“Well”—she paused—”I have good days and bad days, more good days now, like on Gabriel’s birthday. Of course, I wished Dario had been there, but at the same time I feel blessed.”

“Blessed?” The word, flavored with doubt, was out of his mouth before he realized. “I mean…I know how it is. My dad was killed in action, and it was hard on my mom when we lost him. You don’t have to hide how you feel. You can be straight with me.”

Elaina sighed. “I hate that his job took him away from us.” She sniffed as if she were crying. “Right after Dario died, I was so angry at him for leaving me alone.”

Ethan closed his eyes. He was such an ass. She didn’t need him to remind her how hard things were.

“But when I married him, I knew the risks,” she added, “but I didn’t want to take the chance of missing out on something wonderful with him, and it was.” Her voice softened as she continued to cry. “And even though he’s gone, I’m not alone. I’m able to see him in Gabriel. Oh, I’m so sorry.” She sniffed loudly. “I called to say thank you, not get all weepy on you.”

Ethan cleared his throat, but the tightness didn’t go away. “It’s all right.”

They talked a few minutes longer, and when the call ended, Elaina promised to email him pictures of Gabriel while he promised to visit. He set the phone on the nightstand and lay back down on the bed.

In his mind, he weighed Jasmine’s argument about love against Elaina’s confession. Maybe he could see their perspective, but he’d also witnessed the emotions that had passed over Dario’s face when he’d realized he wasn’t going to make it—pain, anger, disbelief…regret.

Was it so wrong not to want regrets about hurting someone?

Tired of running it through his mind, he got up to check on Jasmine. It was late, she needed to get a good night’s sleep, and honestly, he just needed to hold her.

He walked down the hallway and stopped just short of the living room. Jasmine was still at the table, wearing one of his army-logo T-shirts, pen in hand, her head resting on her folded arms in front of her laptop.

Walking quietly next to the chair, he squatted down and stared at her face, relaxed with the peace of sleep. Her nose wrinkled, and she made a soft snuffling sound.

He grinned and slid the pen out of her fingers. She didn’t move. He saved the document he saw on the screen and gently shook her by the shoulder.

“Jasmine.”

“Mmm, tired.” She snuggled her head into the crook of her arm and mumbled out more unintelligible words.

“I know, baby. Come to bed.” He slid his arms under her and eased her toward his chest.

More asleep than awake, she moved obediently into his arms and rested her head on his shoulder. Carefully, adjusting her weight, he looked around to make sure the apartment was still secure, and shut off the lights.

She snuggled her head into the side of his neck and sighed. “Ethan…”

As he held her closer to him, a fierce protectiveness, along with a rush of emotions he didn’t fully understand, swelled in his chest. He’d defended hills and valleys in foreign countries, laid his life on the line for his brothers and sisters downrange, but the way she whispered his name, trusting him, holding on to him, made him feel weak and strong all at the same time.

He carried her down the hallway into the bedroom and tucked her in bed. When he crawled into the other side, she immediately curled her body against his and used his chest as a pillow. Wrapping his arm around her, he pressed a light kiss to the top of her head and breathed in the faint scent of her perfume. She felt so right in his arms, too right to let go.

I’ll miss this…

Before he knew it, a list started forming in his mind of all the things he liked about her…loved about her. All the things he could have never known would start to matter to him when he’d stated his case to her for two more weeks so he could get her out of his system.

Elaina’s words took root in his mind. I didn’t want to take the chance of missing out on something…

When he and Jasmine walked away from each other, is that what they’d be doing, missing out on something?

She stretched against him in her sleep, and her hand smoothed down his stomach. His cock stood up in anticipation, but he stalled her hand underneath his before it reached its destination.

Okay, that was one of the obvious things he’d miss, but she was the type of woman who deserved more than just sex. She deserved what Greg had promised but hadn’t delivered, but he wasn’t ready to give her a ring, a home, and a family, either. On the other hand, he also wasn’t ready to just drop her off at the airport at the end of the week and watch her walk out of his life.

He released a heavy breath. What if Jasmine and Elaina were right and having someone special around was worth the risk? If that were true, Jasmine could be the one. A thought flitted into his mind about calling his mom, but he nixed it. Calling her about Jasmine would just get her hopes up about him settling down.

Another thought drifted in of introducing Jasmine to his mom and stepdad. No doubt, they’d like her, but doing something as serious as that would mean they were in a relationship. But did it have to be a relationship right off the bat? Couldn’t it just be an experiment for both of them to see what happened? They could take it slow, really, really slow and just focus on doing more of what they’d been doing for the past two weeks—enjoying each other.

He rolled over on the mattress and spooned her against him. The same jittery sensation he often felt before a risky assignment flooded through him but he shoved it aside. No, this was right. They were too good together. They had to try, and she had to see that, too. Ethan closed his eyes, willed his heart to slow down, and let the gentle rise and fall of Jasmine’s breathing guide his own. He wasn’t asking her for forever, just a chance.



Jasmine balanced the toes of her high-heeled pumps on the bottom rung of the counter stool she was sitting on and bit her thumbnail as she reviewed the final page of the report.

She’d made all the last-minute changes the bosses had insisted upon and updated her slides on the computer. The report was a sound analysis of Bode-Wynn and presented workable options for a great wellness program.

“Hey.” Ethan walked through the kitchen, eyes heavy from sleep as he scrubbed a hand over the shadow of his morning beard. The waistband of his sweatpants rode low on his abdomen and drew attention to the dusting of hair arrowing down to the hints of an erection he didn’t bother to hide.

“Hey yourself, sleepyhead.” She took a sip of coffee from her mug and set it back down on the counter.

Walking up behind the chair, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and nuzzled the collar of her blouse aside to press a kiss to her neck. “I’m entitled. I didn’t sleep well.” Ethan inhaled deeply and rocked her gently. “I missed you not being in bed.”

“Poor baby,” she crooned, reaching up and combing her fingers through his short hair. “I guess my tough guy has limits.”

“And so do you, but after today, you can relax.” He stood and hugged her back against his bare chest. “Did you finish it?”

“Yes,” she sighed, staring at the pages in the binder in front of her. “I just hope it meets all of Andrew’s requirements. I know Ted said no one will hold it against me, but if Andrew doesn’t give us the contract, I’ll feel terrible.”

Ethan turned the stool around until she faced him. Bracing his hands on the countertop, he trapped her in and leaned over. “He will.” The angles of his jawline matched the look of determination in his eyes. “You’ve got talent and a lot of great ideas. If Drew doesn’t see that in your report, he’s blind.”

Bemused, she stared at him, slightly stunned by the intensity in his expression. He and Andrew were strong acquaintances; he and Devin Wynn were friends. She’d never expected him to take sides, but apparently he had. Hers.

He leaned in and kissed her with a passion that made it hard to resist not hanging around. Opening her legs as far as her narrow skirt would allow, she drew him closer, and glided her fingers over the hard ridges of muscle on his abdomen. As she savored the tastes of cool minty toothpaste and coffee, her breasts grew heavy with a needy ache, and she moaned in frustration.

Now wasn’t the time. She had an important meeting to think about.

She pulled back, but he kept his hands in place on the counter behind her and remained a few inches away.

“Leave early or at least come home on time tonight,” he said. “I want us to have a full evening together.” He started to say more but stopped.

“All right.” She searched his face, trying to gauge his mood. “Any special reason?”

His mouth tilted upward with a slow smile. “Other than missing you and wanting to spend more time with you, no.”

“Okay, I’ll try.” She rested her hands on his bare chest and pressed a couple of quick kisses to his lips.

Ethan moved back to let her stand, and she picked up the report along with her portfolio from the counter and walked over to the sofa.

He sat down on the stool she’d vacated and watched her zip her portfolio and the binder into the side pocket of her laptop bag and shrug into her blazer.

“Call me right after your meeting,” he said.

She frowned. “But won’t you be in the sim lab this morning? You won’t have your phone.”

“True, but I think I can engineer a reason to sneak out to my desk and check it.”

She feigned a chastising look. “That isn’t fair to the lab techs. You know the rules about not interrupting the sim tests.” His brow rose with a pleased look in her using one of the terms he’d taught her during the past week.

He grinned. “A few free lunches will cover it.”

Jasmine laughed as she picked up her purse and slipped the strap of her bag over her shoulder. “So, I’ll see you tonight?”

“I’ll be here.” He gave her a lopsided smile and blew her a kiss.

She caught the invisible kiss in her hand and paused. Over the past few years she’d received flowers, fancy trips, and jewelry as gifts, but Ethan had given her so much better. He’d given her his encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, reasons to laugh, and he’d made love to her in all the ways that made her knees weak.

And I don’t want to give him up.

But she had to. A pang of sadness tugged in her heart, and she blinked back a sudden rush of moisture in her eyes. Smiling wistfully, she blew her kiss back to him and walked out the door.





Chapter Sixteen

Andrew sat behind his desk, his expression unreadable as he flipped through the binder one more time. Jasmine stopped herself from bouncing her foot, crossed her legs, and casually rearranged her skirt back over her thighs. He flipped back to the budget and timetable sections of the report, again, and her heart thudded and stuttered in her chest.

Finally, he closed the binder, smoothed his hand over his tie, and sat back in his chair. “I’m impressed. It’s a good plan.” He stared at her a moment and said, “Regency Health has the contract.”

Yes!

Curbing her inner cheerleader, she pasted on her most professional, pleased smile. “Thank you, Andrew. That’s great news. I’ll call Ted. I’m sure he’s anxious to get this moving forward.” She moved to stand up from the chair, but he stalled her with his raised hand.

“I have one more request. I’d like for Regency Health to finalize the plans for the other two facilities in Montana and California as soon as possible.”

“Of course, I’ll make sure Ted is aware of that.” She rose from the chair, glad he couldn’t see her legs trembling on the other side. He stood as well and they shook hands. His hazel gaze held hers with a direct look.

“Tell him to give me a call this morning, and just so you know, when I talk to him, I’m going to request that you assess our other two facilities and write up the plan. I also want you to oversee our account, personally. Is that something you’re interested in?”

Cartwheels turned into backflips in her mind. Ted was right. This was her ticket out of the call center.

Her smile widened. “I’m very interested, Andrew. Thank you.”

“Good.” He released her hand and sat back down in his chair. “I’m leaving on the corporate jet at one o’clock today for Montana. If Ted agrees, I’d like you to join me so I can show you the facility and introduce you to our managers and site director. They’ll be helpful in giving you a preliminary needs assessment. After that, you’ll fly out to California to meet with Devin, and he’ll walk you through the plans for our new facility.”

“This afternoon?” Her portfolio almost slipped from her fingers.

His brow rose in question. “Is that a problem?”

The multiple cups of coffee she’d drunk to get her started that morning churned into acid in her stomach. That left her a little over an hour to clear out her office and go home to pack.

“No, it’s not. I’ll be ready.”

She walked out of Andrew’s office and closed the door, but her fingers remained clutched around the doorknob. What about Ethan? They were supposed to spend the next four days together.

Andrew’s assistant, Margot, was sitting at her desk, and she gave Jasmine a quizzical look. Offering up a tight smile, Jasmine walked out of the reception area and headed down the hall.

Maybe she could talk Ted into delaying the trip.

No—bad idea.

Seeing her as a professional would go right out the window if she stayed in town to be with Ethan.

Her cell phone buzzed, and she fished it out of her blazer pocket.

Ted.

She answered the call.

“What’s the verdict?” he asked.

As she walked into her office and closed the door, she gave him the good news and relayed Andrew’s request about her traveling to Montana and California.

Ted whooped out a laugh. “Didn’t I tell you this was it? I knew you could pull it off. Consider it a given that you’ll be on that plane with Andrew this afternoon. You can give us a full briefing when you finish in California. I may as well tell you that the decision was already made that if you nailed this, you would get your old job back. Congratulations! You did it.”

“That’s great,” she said, but her enthusiasm floundered.

“Being a program coordinator again, that is what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“Yes, absolutely, Ted.” She leaned against the door to her office. “Things just moved faster than I expected, but I’m ready.”

“I’m happy for you, Jasmine. You deserve it. In no time at all, you’ll be back on track for a manager’s position. When you get back, we’ll start working out your game plan. Let me get back to Andrew so we can firm things up. Call me or my assistant, directly, if you need anything.”

“All right, Ted. Thanks.”

The call ended, and she let her head fall back against the door. What was she supposed to tell Ethan? As she walked over to her desk, she pulled up his number but stopped the call before it went through. He was expecting good news about the contract. How was she supposed to tell him this?

Her desk phone rang, and she picked it up. Margot was on the line. During their two-minute conversation, Jasmine started packing up her desk, laughed when expected, wrote a note about the car service picking her up at the apartment in less than an hour, and tried not to cry when she hung up the phone. She couldn’t leave Ethan like this.

A force stronger than reason prompted her out the door of her office to the elevator. She reached the floor where Ethan worked, and when the doors slid open, her heart sank. Security instead of one the interns she’d come to know during the past few days manned the reception area.

As she squared her shoulders, she masked her desperation with professionalism and walked up to the counter. “Hello. I need to reach someone in the lab.” She gestured over to the secure entrance down the hall. “His name is Ethan Worth. He’s a contractor.”

The guard’s stern expression didn’t waver. “If you don’t have an authorization badge, I can’t let you in.”

“I don’t want to go in. I just need someone to see if Ethan can step out for a minute. I’m—”

The phone at the desk rang, and the guard turned away to answer it. While she waited, the elevator doors opened and she studied the people walking out of it, looking for a familiar face. When they scanned their badges to open the lab entrance, she peered in praying she’d see Ethan. The door closed and sense of hopelessness opened up in her chest. Her cell dinged the arrival of a text message, and she glanced at the screen. It was Tab. FYI—Straightened out Brenda’s text messaging etiquette.

A reminder came into her thoughts. She’d never deleted Brenda’s text. As her finger hovered over the list of messages, warnings flooded into her mind but she ignored them. She clicked on it and stared at the photo of Greg and his girlfriend smiling down at their baby girl. For the past year, she’d fortified herself with thoughts of him being unhappy. Clearly, she was the only one left with losses and regrets. Jasmine closed her eyes for a moment and they stung with unshed tears.

Damn it, I’m not going to cry over this again! I have to move on.

“Look,” the guard said. His expression was slightly sympathetic. “VIPs from Washington are in the lab today. Unless it’s an emergency, he’s probably not going to be able to come out and talk to you.” The man laid a pen and pad in front of her. “Write him a note, and as soon as things settle down, I’ll make sure he gets it.”

A collage of memories from her past flowed through her mind. Ted was right. This was it. This was her second chance, and as much as she cared about Ethan, she couldn’t let her heart get broken again because of unrealistic dreams about a relationship that wouldn’t work.

Swallowing past the large lump forming in her throat, she picked up the pen and started to write.



Ethan stepped out of the simulation room into the lab and blew out an irritated breath. Doing his best to control his impatience, he handed over the test weapon and held his arms out to his sides, giving the techs and engineers access to the closures on the body armor covering his chest and legs. The last-minute VIP visit had added a demonstration to the schedule and messed up his entire morning.

Damn it.

Now that he only had forty-five minutes for lunch, he didn’t have enough time to work on the plans he’d come up with that morning for his talk with Jasmine. Flowers, wine, that chocolate dessert she’d fallen in love with at the bakery up the street, and of course the one move she couldn’t resist.

Dinner.

He smiled. Why mess with perfection?

If he pushed the speed limit, he could make it to the bakery, but the rest would have to wait until after work.

As soon as the techs finished removing the equipment, he jogged out of the room and went down the hall to “cube land” where he shared office space with the tech division staff.

After retrieving his phone and keys from his desk, he hurried out the lab. As he walked toward the elevator, he checked for a voicemail message. There wasn’t one.

“Hey Ethan, I got something for you.” The guard at the reception station laid a folded piece of paper on the counter.

Wariness started to seep into his thoughts as he walked over and picked it up. He unfolded the paper and immediately recognized Jasmine’s handwriting.

I’m sorry, but…

He skimmed over the rest of the note and stalled on a sentence toward the bottom of the page. He started to feel sick.

It’s best we end things here and call this week what it was…

Anger started settling in his gut. He’d set himself up for this. Sex was sex, he knew that, and her note had just made that understanding crystal.

He released a bitter laugh and raked his fingers through his hair.

Isn’t this a kick in the ass? He’d let all that crap about love being worth the risk and having someone special get inside his head. They didn’t need to have a long, honest talk about anything. They weren’t Bill and his wife or Dario and Elaina. They weren’t in love.

A strange feeling close to pain spread through his chest.

But he cared about her, and he’d honestly thought she cared about him.

A mix of emotions started to funnel through him, things that would tear him to the ground right then and there if he let them. He closed his eyes and focused on the one he understood. Anger. It was time for him to get his head out of the fantasy world he’d let himself live in for the past week and get back to reality. He spun on his heels and headed back for the lab. Right now, the best place for that to happen was in the simulator blasting away at virtual targets.



Ethan walked into the guest apartment he’d been assigned and dropped his bag on the floor. He inhaled deeply and took in the scent he’d come to welcome over the past two days—nothing, just a functionally furnished, squared-away place with no memories of Jasmine. He should have been downstairs clearing his things out of the apartment she’d stayed in, but every time he thought about the tidy little arrangement Jasmine had made with Vanessa about where and how to hand off the apartment key, he got ticked all over again. She’d made a clean getaway and didn’t have a reason to talk to him.

A simple damn conversation. Was that too much to ask? Leaving him a message to say she was taking a last-minute trip for her job, okay, he could handle that. But they’d practically lived together for over a week. Didn’t sharing a closet and bathroom space at least rate a phone call to tell him how she felt instead of writing it in a note?

The same answer that had plagued him for the past two days popped into his mind. Call her.

And say what? Thank you for making me feel stupid for wanting to be with you?

Disgusted with the chatter in his head, he went out on the deck for a talk with a few shots of whiskey. The first shot went down ugly, the second a bit easier. By the third, his throat was numb from the sting of the alcohol, and warmth pooled low in his belly. His thoughts slowed, but only total obliteration would take them away. He leaned back in the chair and looked up at the darkened sky. As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t get drunk. He still had one last wake-up and a few hours of work in the morning before he could point his truck north to South Carolina.

And then what would he do? Go home and feel sorry for himself over the weekend? That definitely didn’t sit right. He had to get back to normal. Mitch always had something going. Hadn’t he sent him an email about something happening this weekend? Needing a wider view than the screen on his phone, he went inside and dug his laptop out of his bag. He sat down at the dining room table, and moments later, he was in his email account. He hadn’t checked it in a while and as he scrolled through, he deleted the ones he wasn’t interested in along the way.

Horse track. He stared at the email header, and his heart bumped hard against the middle of his chest. The email address was obviously Jasmine’s, and it was dated the day before she’d left. Not giving himself time to think, he clicked on it, glanced at the photo of them at the horse track, and dropped his gaze to the words she’d written underneath.

Luckiest girl on the track, greatest guy in the world, best day ever!

He sank back in the chair, numbed by shock and alcohol. He just stared, but then something sparked inside him, and it all burned away. He shot up from his chair and paced. Each glance at the photo as he passed by the table made him madder by the second.

Luckiest girl…greatest guy in the world, best day ever—and then she’d left him that fucked-up note the next day? His skin grew so hot the top of his head tingled.

Oh, hell no! He wasn’t giving her a pass on this one. She couldn’t say that, and then pack up and leave like it didn’t matter.

He unclipped his phone from his side and as he tapped in the security code, he paused.

No, it wasn’t going down like this. Notes, text messages, emails, he was tired of it. A phone call would be just another way for her to hide. Greatest guy in the world…he had a right to know if she felt that way about him, because if she did, she’d pretty much lied in her note to him. He wanted to know why, and he wanted that explanation face-to-face.





Chapter Seventeen

Jasmine stirred a third packet of sugar into her iced tea and watched the tiny white granules turn her glass into the equivalent of a snow globe featuring ice and lemon peels. What she would give right now for a straight-up glass of Southern-style sweet tea. It was almost as much as she would give to be on a plane flying out of the airport in San Diego instead of cooling her heels at a nearby restaurant due to another canceled flight.

Her whirlwind tour of Bode-Wynn’s facilities had left her exhausted. When the opportunity had presented itself to leave a day early, she’d jumped at it, but a freak thunderstorm was conspiring against the plan.

“And then, this big ol’ hunk of a green Martian said he’d spare my life if I slept with him.”

She shot a look across the table at Tab, her only saving grace from boredom during the past three hours.

“And of course you agreed.” She took a sip of tea and grimaced. Glancing down at the sugar caddy in the middle of the small table, she debated between more sugar or adding in artificial sweetener. She decided against both.

“Very funny, but don’t even try it,” Tab said. “You’ve been distracted ever since I picked you up curbside thirty minutes ago at the airport.”

“I’m just tired. It’s been a long three weeks and I just want to go home.”

“I have to agree you do look like hell on heels.” Tab’s gaze dropped from her face to the wrinkled white button-down shirt she’d paired with her skinny jeans. “Your hair needs a good conditioning treatment, and out of all the cute shirts I personally stocked in your closet, that’s the one you chose to put on?” She shook her head. “Well, at least you got the shoes right. You can’t be my best friend and run around looking like that. You’ll hurt my reputation as a stylist.”

A fact Tab never let her forget.

It was hard to believe the energetic redhead dressed in a fashionable blue pantsuit was once a sickly pale, awkwardly skinny kid with wild hair and braces. One thing hadn’t changed, though; she was still a mouthy, opinionated pain in the butt.

Jasmine took a long sip of iced tea and set her glass back on the table. “You know as well as I do my hair frizzes up in the rain, and this is my last clean outfit so give me a break.”

“So this is how you pay me back for taking a day away from one of my top clients to drive all the way from San Clemente to see you off?” Tab released a long sigh and sampled a few grapes from the fruit plate sitting in the middle of the table. “Not to mention I’m buying you that turkey sandwich you just turned into bird food.”

Jasmine glanced down at the picked-apart sandwich sitting in front of her on the plate. Just like with her tea, she’d debated whether to eat both slices of bread or just one, to use mayo or spicy Dijon, or adding on lettuce and tomato. In the end, she’d just lost her appetite altogether. What was wrong with her? Ever since she’d left Florida, she couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around the simplest decisions.

“Come on, you can’t fool me any more than I can fool you.” Tab plucked another grape from the cluster, but before bringing it to her mouth, she pointed at her. “You have the look of a woman suffering from man troubles. What happened?”

Jasmine opened her mouth but balked at saying the words. When she was in Montana, she’d run into Jax and when he’d asked her about Ethan, it had opened up an awkward conversation she’d barely managed to limp through. Then, when Devin had taken her around the new facility in California, she’d brought out her phone to take pictures and saw the one of her and Ethan at the track in the saved file. She’d almost fallen apart. While she loved Tab, she wasn’t going to risk turning into a bawling mess in public.

“I landed the contract and had to leave, that’s what happened.”

“So?” Tab shrugged. “No big deal. Just call Ethan and invite him to Dallas.” Her face lit up with an idea and a smile. “The two of you should plan a rendezvous in Miami. One of my clients has a vacation home that’s right on the water.” She reached for her purse. “I’ll call him right now, and we can set something up for a weekend. What about two weeks from now?”

“No, that won’t work.” Jasmine looked down and started tearing one of the small hunks of whole-grain bread into even tinier pieces.

“Okay, what about next month?”

“No.”

“Well, when?” Tab insisted. “Why don’t you send Ethan a text or better yet call him and find out when he can meet you?”

“He won’t.”

“Sure he can.”

Shit…not this again.

Jasmine closed her eyes for a moment and fortified herself with a deep breath. She looked across the table at Tab. “I didn’t say he can’t. I said he won’t.”

She held Tab’s gaze and willed her to understand. She didn’t want to think about him, didn’t want see his face in her mind or deal with the questions that kept her awake at night since she’d left him. When she saw him again, which according to Bode-Wynn’s training schedules was more than a strong possibility, what would happen? Did he hate her? Did he miss her? Would he ever forgive her? How could she see him again and not want another night, another week…another chance?

Tab reached across the table and laid her hand on Jasmine’s. “Relax and stop being all paranoid about it. It’s just a weekend. I’m sure you can convince him to squeeze one in someplace.”

When she didn’t respond, Tab’s expression grew quizzical; then her laughter died away as her perfectly shaped brows arched in surprise, and her green eyes went wide with shock. She snatched her hand back and her mouth fell open. After an uncharacteristic silence, she finally spoke. “Tell me you didn’t…not again.”

Jasmine raised her chin. “I just got promoted. I have a career to think about. It was the right thing to do.”

“What could possibly be right about you walking away from Ethan for the second time?”

Jasmine opened her mouth to speak, but she stumbled over the words. That small hesitation left room for something she’d run away from for days…doubt. She pushed it aside. What was the point? She had her old job back. She didn’t want or need anything else. She’d done what was right, smart…safe.

She met Tab’s accusatory stare and big emotion pushed out angry words. “I know what I’m doing, so butt the hell out.”

Conversations lulled around them and silence spread beyond the private bubble of their table.

Tab’s eyes grew bright, and two red spots bloomed in her cheeks. “Fine.” She grabbed her purse from the back of her chair and pulled out her wallet. “Let’s go. You don’t want to miss your flight.”

Regret washed over Jasmine in icy tingles. “Wait, I’m sorry. That came out wrong.”

“Forget it.” Tab shook her head jerkily. Fishing out money to cover the bill plus tip, she tossed it next to the sugar caddy and got up from the table without a backward glance.

Tension lay in the space between them during the short, rainy ride back to the airport. Jasmine started to protest when Tab eased the four-door rental sedan in the lane for short-term parking but changed her mind. Disagreements weren’t new to their relationship, but her snapping like that, and Tab’s silence, wasn’t the norm. They’d been friends too long to let what happened ride and not talk it out.

Tab didn’t give her a chance. She parked the car, abruptly got out, and shut the door. Jasmine followed and joined her at the back of the car where she was taking her bags out of the trunk.

“I’m sorry.” She tried to catch Tab’s eye but her friend avoided her gaze. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that, but I made the right decision about Ethan. Long-distance relationships aren’t for me.”

“Okay, I get it.” Tab shrugged and handed her the carry-on bag. “You have to do what’s best for you.” Suddenly, she slammed down the door to the trunk and water on the surface of the car spattered against Jasmine’s shirt. “Damn it, I can’t do it! I can’t stand here and pretend I’m okay with you lying to yourself!”

Tab whirled to face her, and Jasmine rocked back on her high heels. “I’m not lying about anything. I’m being practical.”

“Practical?” Tab’s voice rose to a higher pitch and cracked. “No, you’re not.” The movements of her hands punctuated her words. “It’s okay to be cautious after what Greg did to you. It’s even okay to scream and cry about it, and it’s definitely okay to call him and his sister every shitty name in the book, but it’s not okay for you to let what happened a year ago stop you from getting all giddy and girlie about Ethan. It’s not okay that you won’t think about the possibility of a week from now or six months from now with him.” Tears welled up in Tab’s eyes as she pointed at Jasmine. “And it’s not okay for you to keep running away from the good things you deserve because you’re too scared to take a risk.”

“No, you’re wrong.” Jasmine slung the strap of her bag over her shoulder. “I’m not scared to be with…” She tried to bring in more air but there wasn’t room inside her chest.

Ethan.

Something twisted inside her almost to the point of pain, and her bottom lip trembled. Being with him was the best she’d felt in a long time.

“Oh, sweetie.” Tab pulled her into a tight hug. “It’s okay.”

That’s all it took for the tears to fall in earnest for both of them. Cars weaved through the curves of the parking garage, rain drummed down on the pavement outside, footsteps hurried past them while they gripped each other in a sisterly hug. It was the type of uncontrollable ugly-cry they both hated. It guaranteed swollen red eyes, snotty noses, and flushes of heat that melted off every scrap of makeup faster than a blowtorch.

They stepped apart, and Tab carefully swiped her fingers underneath her eyes. She looked at Jasmine and laughed. “Oh man, we have got to get back in the car and fix your face. If you go inside looking like that, you’re practically screaming for airport security to pat you down.”

“Thanks a lot.” Jasmine sniffed and searched through the side pocket of her bag for tissues. “That’s why I don’t like it when you make me cry. It’s always the most dramatic experience on earth.” She found the tissues and handed several of them to Tab before using one to blow her nose.

“Are you going to be okay?” Tab asked.

Jasmine nodded. More tears threatened and she looked away. “I really messed up this time. I left him a note before I left and said things to push him away.” She sighed ruefully. “I guess it worked. He hasn’t tried to call me.”

“Of course not.” Tab snorted. “If the tables were turned we would have deleted his information and any associated photos within the first five minutes. Hell, I might have even changed my phone number.”

“Ouch, thanks a lot.”

Tab gave her a sympathetic smile and dabbed Jasmine’s cheeks with a clean tissue. “Do you really care about this guy?”

“What do you think?”

“Then I have the perfect solution.”

“What?”

Tab’s dimples sank into her cheeks with an impish grin. “I double-dog-dare you to get him back.”



“I’m sorry.” The blond ticket agent shook her head. “All flights to anywhere in the Southwest are grounded tonight because of severe thunderstorms.”

Jasmine dropped her head in defeat. Another flight canceled. The agent efficiently typed information into the computer, and her brows closed together with a small frown. “Let’s see, I can put you on standby for our morning flight, or I have an opening on our four o’clock flight tomorrow afternoon.”

Inwardly, Jasmine groaned. “Is that the best you can do?” The sooner she got back to Dallas, the sooner she could arrange for a few days off to visit Ethan. She still hadn’t figured out the tricky part—how to convince him to listen to what she had to say.

“The only flight open is going to Minneapolis, and then I’d have to route you through Orlando with a really long layover before we could get you to Dallas.” The ticket agent chuckled. “Well, I guess you could take an unexpected side trip to Disney World. The way the weather is looking, a vacation in a sunny place doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”

Startled out of her thoughts, Jasmine looked at the woman. “Orlando?”

The agent smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, bad joke. I know that’s not what you want to hear right now. Let me keep looking.”

Orlando… Only an hour away from Ethan.

Karma, fate, she’d never put much stock in Tab’s claims about some cosmic balance sheet in the universe, but could she ignore the signs?

As she thought of Tab’s last dare, a tremulous smile tugged at her lips with a collage of memories. The way Ethan had waded right in to save her at the club, their one night together, their week living together at the apartment, the way he knew how she liked her coffee.

Two sugars with a hint of cream.

From day one, somehow, he’d just known.

She swallowed. The double-dog dare was officially on. “No, hold that seat. I want to go to Orlando.”

“Are you sure?” the woman asked. “It’s leaving in less than thirty minutes, and it’s going to take you more than seven hours to get there, and then you’ve got an extended layover until your flight leaves for Dallas.”

A laugh bubbled past her lips, and the agent looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.

Jasmine nodded her head. “Yes—absolutely.”



Twelve hours later, she drove into the apartment complex and parked next to Ethan’s truck. Letting out a relieved breath, she got out of her rental car and looked up at a gray afternoon sky spitting down intermittent rain.

Not exactly a hopeful sign.

Flipping up the collar of her raincoat, she jumped over the larger puddles, and her raincoat swirled around her legs. Water splashed up and trickled down her ankles, but she was more than willing to ruin her blue designer pumps for the cause. When she reached the sidewalk, she tightened the belt around her waist, ducked her head against a rush of wind, and hurried toward the stairs.

Footsteps and a flash of a red jacket in her peripheral vision caused her to stop short of running into someone. She looked up and recognized the logo from the local pizzeria on the delivery guy’s cap.

“Sorry.” He did a double-take as he recognized her from the night of the fight. His face reddened.

Spotting Ethan’s guest apartment number on the tag attached to the thermal pizza bag he was carrying, she caught his arm before he hurried past her up the stairs.

“Great, our pizza is here. I’ll take it.” She quickly reached into her pocket for her wallet and slipped out an amount based on the previous two times she and Ethan had ordered his favorite from the same restaurant.

She held out the money, but the guy hesitated.

“Don’t worry. Ethan Worth is my boyfriend. He ordered the pizza, right—pepperoni, olives, green peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes?” She added in an extra twenty dollars. “Keep the change.”

A large smile broke out on the delivery guy’s face. “Thanks.” Taking the money, he handed over the pizza and jogged away.





Chapter Eighteen

Ethan dropped his second duffel bag next to the larger one he’d already put near the front door. A call to Devin had given him the information he’d needed. Jasmine was done with all of the tours and briefings at Bode-Wynn’s other facilities and was on her way home to Dallas. If the weather held out on this end, he’d beat her there.

Anger wasn’t pushing him as hard anymore, but he still wanted an explanation. She’d deliberately tried to hurt him with that note. No, not tried…had. It had taken a lot of manning up to admit, and it was probably going to take a lot for her to admit why. But if what she’d written under that photo was the truth, and she did care, then they needed to talk things out.

He reached for his cell phone lying on the arm of the couch and rechecked the time. He still had four hours until his flight. Anticipation gnawed at him. Before he put the phone down, he pulled up the picture of him and Jasmine. The honest smile on her face made her even more beautiful and he looked completely taken by her, but most of all they looked happy.

The doorbell rang.

Ethan tossed the phone on the sofa cushions and went for his wallet lying on the kitchen counter. On the way to the door, he counted out enough money for the bill and a generous tip, and then shoved his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. When he opened the door, the scent of hot pepperoni wafted in along with the fresh scent of rain and a light, feminine fragrance. He stared at Jasmine standing in his doorway wrapped in a blue raincoat and froze.

She offered him the box and a tentative smile. “Pizza delivery.”

He accepted it, and the heat seeping through the cardboard box confirmed she was there. Irritation, happiness, wanting to pull her in and kiss her until they had to stop or pass out from lack of oxygen, it all warred inside him along with the uncertainty tightening his throat. He found his words just as her smile started to slip away.

“Are you coming in?”

“Yeah, if it’s okay.” A small frown creased the middle of her forehead and he resisted the urge to reach out and smooth it away.

He turned and took the pizza to the kitchen. As he took down plates and glasses from the upper cabinet, he kept his back toward her. “Should I even bother to offer you a plate or should I just wrap up a slice in some foil so you can take it and go on your merry little way?”

A long silence followed and heat prickled on his nape as he resisted looking back.

“I’d like to stay if that’s all right.”

The door clicked shut and his heart rate kicked up more than just a notch. His cock also perked up, clearly ready to skip the formalities. He blew out a frustrated breath. How was he supposed to keep his head straight when his brain was fighting against the hard-on from hell? Calling upon every mind and body tactic he’d ever been trained to use, he stood his ground. “I have water and one bottle of cola left in the fridge. I don’t care which one you choose. Just pick one.”

Fabric rustled behind him. “Can I choose you, instead?”

He flatted his hands on the counter. No. She couldn’t show back up and expect things to be the same. He whipped his head around, planning to give her his take on things, but most of the blood in his veins pumped furiously past his waist. Jasmine sauntered forward in nothing but her high heels and a lingerie set that was little more than a whisper against her skin.

Damn…and she’d even remembered his favorite color.

That was the only thought he could form for a good long second. “Jasmine, why are you here?”

As she walked into the kitchen, he took in every delectable part of her, starting from her smooth, toned bare legs up to the triangle of lace held up by satin bows on each of her hips. His mouth grew dry at the sight of the dark, shadowed line between her thighs.

She stood a few short inches away from him. “I’m here to tell you I’m sorry,” she whispered, “and to ask you to forgive me.”

It was as if the plea in her soft voice wrapped around his length and squeezed.

He gripped her shoulders, finding it hard to believe that he was holding her away from him. “It’s not that easy, Jasmine. You can’t just waltz in here with a pizza, ask for my forgiveness, and think that makes your little repeat disappearing act okay.”

“I know it’s not okay.” She laid one of her hands on his chest, and he diverted the pleasure it brought him into the tension gathered in his shoulders. “It’s just that…” She paused. “When I agreed to Tab’s dare in Miami, I didn’t think I’d meet someone and develop such a strong connection.”

“Dare?” A spark of irritation hit him. He couldn’t have heard that right. “What dare?” Her soft skin cushioned his fingers as he gripped her harder, and he reminded himself to loosen his hold.

“No—wait, it’s not what you think.” She laid her other hand on his chest as words rushed out of her mouth. “When Tab and I were eight years old, I dared her to kiss Teddy Gibson on her birthday because she had a crush on him, and then on my birthday she dared me to eat a cupcake with hot sauce sprinkled on top of it.”

Seeing her so flustered eased some of his doubts, but it wasn’t enough.

“Jasmine, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”

“Tab and I have dared each other to do something on every birthday, and she thought me having a one-night stand would help me get past Greg.” She sighed and as much as he tried, he couldn’t stop his gaze from straying down to the swell of her breasts. “I was just about to give up on the dare when I met you.”

The sincerity in her eyes almost melted him.

“But we didn’t have just one night,” he said. “We lived together for eight days and it wasn’t just about sex.”

“I know.”

“So why did you leave me a note saying that’s all it was to you?” Remembering what she’d written fired him up again and he tightened his hold. “Why would you send an email with the picture we took at the track the day before saying the exact opposite? It can’t be both. Which is it?”

“I meant what I wrote in my email. It was the best day ever, best week ever.” Her expression grew even softer. “And to me you are the most wonderful guy in world.”

Hearing her say that eased some of the tension from him. “Then why did you write that note?

She started to look away, but then she met his gaze. “I left it because I was afraid. When it stopped being just sex between us, the lines got blurred.” She offered up a delicate shrug. “I knew if we kept going, we were headed toward what scares me the most, a long-distance relationship.”

“And now?”

She audibly swallowed. “I’m still scared, but I want us to find a way to work it out.”

Ethan gazed down at her, wishing he could tell her something to ease her fears, but all he had was the truth. “Jasmine, you have to understand. I can’t be in Bumfuck, Nowhere, on assignment worried if the woman I care about is still going to be there when I get home. In my line of work, distractions get people hurt.” He felt her fingers curl slightly into his chest, but she didn’t back away. “I know you’re scared—hell, I am too—but I think what we have is worth something, and I’m willing to try. I know not having me around won’t be easy for you, but even though I won’t always physically be with you, you have to trust that I’m always here for you, and when it gets hard, you have to be tough enough to fight for us and not run away.”

“I understand.”

He released an unsteady breath. “Are you sure you’re ready to commit to that? Because if you’re not, you can’t stay.”

She dropped her head and stepped forward until she molded against him from full breasts to luscious hips. “I’m sure.”

His thin line of control was almost breached, but he wanted to see her face, needed to see more than just physical desire for him in her eyes.

Testing his sanity, he skimmed his hands up her arms and gently held her away again.

“Jasmine?”

She raised her head and looked at him with hope in her eyes. “I want us to try a long-distance relationship. I know it won’t be easy, but —”

Breathing in relief, he pulled her to him and devoured the rest of her words. His hands roamed over skin and came to an abrupt halt when his fingers brushed over two condom packages folded over the start of a satin G-string threaded down the center of the sweet globes of her ass. He picked her straight up, moving fast, and headed for the bedroom.

Laughing, she fell over his shoulder and hit him on the butt. “Put me down.”

He smacked her back.

“Hey,” she squealed out. “What was that for?”

“Running away again, leaving that tacky note, driving around Florida half naked—take your pick,” he growled out.

They reached the bedroom, and he lowered her onto the bed. As she lay across the mattress, she skimmed her hands between her thighs and over the triangles barely covering her breasts.

More blood rushed from his head, and Ethan pulled off his clothes in record time.

When he lay down beside her on the bed, she reached for his cock, and her touch made him lift up from the bed. He was hard and aching with the need for release, for the ease only she could provide him. Sweet agony built up inside him with the stroke of her fingers, pumping slowly at first, and then harder and faster with each rise and fall of her hand. She leaned over, torturing him with kisses and soft bites to his neck and chest. Her lips closed over his nipple and his balls tightened. As she continued downward and traced her tongue along his abdomen, his cock pulsed and leaped in anticipation.

But as much as he wanted her warm mouth wrapped around him, burying himself inside her called to him even more. He pushed himself up and rolled Jasmine under him.

As he crushed his mouth to hers, too many hours believing he might not see her again fueled his kiss. He moved his hand to the front clasp of her bra, his whole body shaking as he fought to slow down, but Jasmine’s moans spurred him on. He tugged impatiently on the front clasp of her bra, and his fingers tore into the fragile lace, but she didn’t seem to care. She kissed him harder, sucking his tongue into her mouth, and ground her hips up against him.

Once he freed her breasts, he trailed kisses down her neck and pulled her nipple into his mouth. He pressed his length against the barrier that kept him just short of paradise.

“Condom,” she panted out, rising up her hips to give him access to the packages still tucked in the back of her G-string.

He tore one of the packages open, took out the condom, and tossed the remaining one aside. He rolled it on and turned to Jasmine. Her eyes met his, soft and slumberous with desire, as she took his hand and guided it to the bow at her hips. He tugged the end of the ribbon and it slid apart. Reaching for the other side, he did the same and slowly peeled away the sheer lace triangle revealing a sight that made his heart beat so hard it echoed in his ears.

As he glided his palm over the thin strip of hair covering her sex, Jasmine’s belly quivered with uneven breaths. Mesmerized, he slid one finger, then two, into her silky heat and grazed her clit with his thumb. He continued stroking inside her until she cried out her orgasm, eyes closed, her small hands fisting tighter and tighter into the comforter as dewy wetness bathed his hand.

She was sweet and generous, and seeing her come apart in front of him heightened his need to be inside her, loving her. He stretched his body over hers and let her guide him home. His brain went numb for a second with the feel of her silky channel surrounding him. She moved underneath him, and he grasped her hips, setting the pace at a pounding rhythm that she matched with each quick rise and fall of her hips.

Thighs gripping around his waist, she clung to him in the midst of another orgasm. Her nails raked his skin; her high heels spurred him low on his back, her pussy clenched around him like a vise. Ethan willingly endured all of it in exchange for the sweet pleasure mounting up inside him until his release blinded him with sensations that stole the breath from his lungs.

The rush subsided, and he collapsed down but saved her from taking most of his weight. The air conditioner kicked on and cold air dried the sweat from his back, while her palms soothed away the chill. He rose up to his elbows, and she looked up at him from underneath her long lashes. He watched as her mouth, still swollen from his kisses, curved up into a contented smile.

Spotting her bra lying next to them on the bed, he reached for it and held it up by one of the straps. “Tell me where you bought it, and I’ll buy you another one.”

Hell, maybe he’d buy her a dozen of them.

She plucked it from his fingers and tossed it aside. “Don’t worry about it.” Her smile eased something open in his heart. “It was just a little something I picked up on a dare.”

As he looked down at her, a sense of realization brought a strong swell of emotion into his chest. He’d thought he saw regret in Dario’s eyes that day, but he’d gotten it wrong. His friend had found a sense of peace in that final moment because he’d been looking at all he’d loved. Ethan blinked back the moisture in his eyes. And if there was a chance for him to find that type of love with Jasmine, he was willing to take the risk.



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