The hotel restaurant was open for room service for two more hours. While Sassy cleaned up, Bryan ordered food and looked through his own luggage for something she could wear. The best he had was a collared shirt that would probably come to her knees.
The shops downstairs in the hotel were closed, but the night manager had assured Bryan that they would be open first thing in the morning and Sassy could find some clothes there that would do.
For now he needed to figure out how to get her out of town. He could smuggle her out. Just like the women on that truck, but he’d rather do this legally. It would make for fewer problems later, particularly with all the issues surrounding the investigation of AEGIS and Gavin.
Anything that would make this easier in the long run and enable him to get back over here to Africa with ease was preferable. He heard the shower switch on and flashed on an image of Sassy under the water’s spray. He immediately fought to turn his wayward imagination off. Those thoughts would only lead to madness.
Marissa could get them out of here fast, or he hoped to God she could. He called her and was surprised when she picked up on the third ring.
“It’s me, Hollywood. Can you talk?”
“Yes, did you find the girl?”
“I did. We’re in the Hotel Novotel Constantine, but she’s got no passport.” And barely any clothes. But he kept that information to himself. “Can you get us out of here?”
“Probably, but it’ll take a few hours. I’ll have to go through back channels to do it. All my embassy contacts are burned for now.”
“Can Leland help?” asked Bryan.
“If his confidential informant is available, yes. If not, you’re stuck with me.”
“I’ll call him,” said Bryan. The quicker he got Sassy out of here, the better.
“Touch base with me in a few hours. What time is it there now?”
“I probably won’t have anything for you till the morning— Wait, it’s Christmas. It’ll be tomorrow night. I’m sorry I can’t work any faster than that.”
Bryan didn’t curse out loud, but in his head he was screaming profanities. That one bed was going to put him right over the edge. He swallowed hard before answering.
“’S okay, we can hole up here. That’s not a problem.” Yeah, he could lie with the best of them. “I’ll talk to you then.”
He ended the call and tried Leland to see if his contact could get them out of the country any faster, but there was no answer. As he hung up, Bryan heard the shower turn off and again tried not to imagine Sassy standing less than ten feet away—wet, warm, naked.
Jesus. He stood up and walked to the hall door. He was going to go crazy in the next twenty-four hours here with her. And he felt like a complete ass for even thinking that way right now considering what she’d just been through.
He had to figure out how to get them out of here while keeping his hands off her. That had been a problem ever since she’d hit puberty. More than anything else, Sassy was why he’d left town two weeks after he’d graduated from high school and joined the Marines.
Bryan’s grandmother couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he’d let the government educate him. That had turned out to be a very good plan. He’d seen the world and gotten quite the education.
And he’d put thoughts of Sassy behind him, or he thought he had, until he’d seen her again last summer. Since then, staying away from her had continued to be the wisest course of action. Whenever they met, he always made sure it was in a public place, or, if they were alone, he made sure it wasn’t for long.
He assured himself that after Sassy’s ordeal earlier tonight, their instant-combustion chemistry and keeping his hands off her wouldn’t be an issue. She’d try to flatten his ass if he got too close, even by accident. He certainly hoped so. Otherwise, the next twenty-four hours would be his downfall.
Sassy turned off the shower and stood in the steamy enclosure for a moment. She’d considered soaking in the tub, but the steam made her feel cleaner. She hadn’t felt this way since high school. The shaking had stopped on the outside, but inside she was still unstable and jumpy. If she focused for too long on how close she’d come to being raped or worse …
Those jitters weren’t going away.
How had Bryan found her? God, did she even care? She was just grateful.
When he’d held her in that alley, she’d wanted him to never let her go. But she’d had to step away or risk him seeing how much he affected her. It was embarrassing how long she’d had a crush on him, but he was oblivious, thanks in part to her acting skills.
Sassy had learned a long time ago that her size and stature would work against her unless she used it to her advantage. Men would always think of her as someone they could use and take advantage of unless she turned the tables on them. So she automatically used an over-the-top sexual bravado and disdain to keep them at arm’s length. And it worked surprisingly well, with everyone except Bryan.
Most men didn’t know how to deal with it when she came on strong then used insults and sexual scorn about their not being able to handle her. It helped keep her would-be predators off balance. They didn’t mess with her once she used what she liked to think of as the “Jessica Rabbit” persona. She wasn’t really bad; she just acted that way.
Men she’d known over the years would laugh like mad if they knew her brazen innuendos and scoffing were all an act. “Sexy Sassy” was really “Scared Silly Sassy” just playing a part to keep the wolves at bay. But with Bryan, she didn’t know what she was doing. Turning on her usual ego-crushing dialogue after flirting with him was next to impossible because Bryan knocked Sassy herself off balance.
Not because he’d ever come on to her, but because she had been attracted to him for as long as she could remember. What was real and what was pretend was a jumbled mess, and her “bad girl” act was even more pronounced whenever he was around. She flirted like mad but couldn’t seem to flip the switch to the withering sarcasm that she used to keep other men at a distance.
Part of her would love to see Bryan’s face if she just walked into the bedroom and whipped off her bathrobe, but that wasn’t happening. God, if he really knew the extent of her play-acting, he’d either laugh his butt off, or run for the hills.
Still, her experience—or lack thereof—wasn’t going to be an issue tonight, even if there was only one bed. Right now, she just wanted out of Africa, and on a plane headed home. Surely that would keep her emotions on an even keel.
She squeezed a small dollop of complimentary hotel toothpaste on her finger. The minty smell mixed with the lemon verbena scent of the soaps, lotion, and hair products she’d used earlier in the shower. She brushed her teeth and took a moment to study her face. She didn’t usually go without makeup. The purple shadows under her eyes were so dark they were practically bruises.
Lovely. She looked like death warmed over. She gave the mirror a final glance and decided she’d stalled long enough. Tightening the belt on her robe, she opened the bathroom door.
Bryan sat at a desk across the room from the bed. He was still struggling with how he was going to survive the next twenty-four hours with Sassy in a hotel room when he heard the bathroom door open. The citrusy smell of the hotel toiletries wafted into the room ahead of her. The scent of warm, clean woman wrapped around his head and his balls and squeezed. Jesus. He was a sick son of a bitch for even thinking of her this way, and he was never going to survive this.
She was wearing an oversized hotel robe, or rather it was wearing her. The thick terry cloth fell to her ankles, and the sleeves hung below her fingertips. Her wet hair was slicked back, with a couple of blonde curls springing loose around her temples. There was a Band-Aid on her neck.
She should have looked like she was twelve, but her blue eyes were distinctly older. Wiser. And despite the exhaustion shadowing her face, she looked like every wet dream he’d ever had since that summer he’d understood he had to get out of Springwater or do the unthinkable.
He needed to say something to establish some distance here, but the lump in his throat made that impossible.
She drifted into the room and plopped down on the bed in front of him. “So have you ordered us anything to eat?”
“Didn’t know what you’d like,” he mumbled. “I ordered a little of everything.”
She opened the spiral-bound menu on the bedside table and perused the mostly Algerian and French dishes. “Ohh, yum. Did you get oysters on the half shell with champagne?”
She looked up at him with that sly, flirty glint and a lilt in her voice, but something about this wasn’t ringing true. He wondered again if that off-the-charts sexuality she oozed was real or some kind of performance. Instead of wanting to nail her to the wall, he found he wanted to cradle her in his arms.
“Stop it. Just stop it. I can’t do this with you.” His throat felt as if he’d been gargling gravel.
Her smile dimmed a bit. “You’re not ‘doing’ anything,” retorted Sassy, but there was a definite shudder in her voice, too.
He stood and started toward her. “That’s just it. I can’t … Shit.” And there it was, the reaction he always had to Sassy. Cussing and lust combined.
Now that he knew what he was looking at, he recognized her sex-kitten act for what it was—an act. As much a self-defense mechanism as the left hook he’d taught her with Trey years ago.
“Was there some sort of injury you sustained?” Her tone was low and sultry, but he heard another distinct tremor as well.
She was deliberately misunderstanding; he knew she was. But he didn’t know why. The woman had almost been raped tonight. Why was she doing this?
His confusion combined with her exasperating words stung just enough to make his tone change. “No, I wasn’t injured in Afghanistan. But I’m not going to screw my best friend’s little sister, either. It wouldn’t be right.”
He sank down to the mattress beside her, so irritated at her that he was no longer worried about touching her. He’d never thought he’d be quite so crass about it. But this conversation was long overdue.
She stared back at him a moment, the defiance in her face the first real emotion he’d witnessed since her meltdown in the alleyway. “Well, maybe it wouldn’t have been right when I was fourteen. But what’s wrong with me now?”
He glowered at her a moment more before what she was saying registered. She looked almost as surprised at her words as he did.
“God, woman, absolutely nothing. I just—”
“Then why did you leave home like that? It was so quick you hardly said goodbye. You abandoned Trey, your Gran, and me so fast, it made our heads spin.” Tears welled in her eyes as she stuttered over the words, and he was lost.
He knew it even as his palms itched to hold her. He’d left them because he was eighteen and on the verge of doing something that would have destroyed his relationship with the three people he cared about most in the world. He’d been so mixed up about his feelings for Sassy; he couldn’t stay. Leaving had been the right thing to do—the only thing to do—but he’d never considered how it had made Sassy feel.
“Nothing’s wrong with you. I just didn’t realize till now that you’d really grown up.”
Inwardly he groaned as Sassy leaned back to look down her nose at him. How ridiculous did that excuse sound?
“What I meant to say was that, um … I didn’t understand that you …” He clamped his mouth closed because while he was babbling like an idiot, he was at least smart enough to see that he was also digging a hole with a backhoe.
She narrowed her eyes at him, and he stared back. Everything that had happened earlier tonight faded as he did the thing he’d wanted to do for the past six months. He reached for her, pulling her into his arms and cradling her to his chest.
She melted against him without hesitation, and the feel of her body against his was better than he’d imagined. Her soft curves, in all the right places, registered with his brain and everything below his belt as she tucked her head into his shoulder.
He shouldn’t be doing this. He knew it. She’d been traumatized earlier.
She sighed against him and tilted her head up. He looked into her midnight-blue eyes and saw a vulnerability there that had been shadowed before with all the sexual bravado she’d been throwing his way since last summer.
Still, he hesitated.
She looped her hands behind his neck and pushed his head down toward her. She smelled … different than he remembered. Her scent, which normally had him so mixed up, had been washed away with the shower. She kissed him, carefully moving her mouth against his, and he froze.
He was kissing Trey’s sister. She moved her hand down his back and pressed closer against him. Her breasts were soft against the firm wall of his chest.
Her tongue was in his mouth and he stopped thinking—about everything, about Trey, about why they shouldn’t be doing this, about where they were. His hands were in her robe and he moved them up her sides along her ribcage. She moaned into his mouth as her palms slid to his waistband. The robe slipped from her shoulders, catching at her elbows.
He looked down. Her breasts were the perfect size, with nipples a dusty rose that had pebbled with the cool temperature of the air conditioning. Her waist and hips were covered with the white terry cloth, but he caught a glimpse of blonde curls between her legs. His cock throbbed against the back of his zipper.
He gently tugged the robe from her arms and she slid one of her hands under his shirt, brushing one of her fingertips across his stomach along the way to his belt buckle. He kissed the side of her neck, then pulled back to slip his T-shirt off.
The gray cotton tee fluttered to the floor. The feel of her satiny bare skin pressing into his chest had him almost coming right there, but he took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and put his hands on her waist. His fingers rested on either side of her hips, and he moved his thumbs down across her belly lower and lower, finally lifting her up so that she could swing her leg over his lap to straddle him.
Her robe puddled over his hands, leaving her completely exposed. When he touched the top of her pubic bone with his fingertips, she startled, and her eyes focused on his for the first time since she’d kissed him. But the expression there was completely different from what he’d been expecting.
Instead of being in the throes of passion, she looked … scared? He pulled back and was about to ask her what was going on when there was a brisk knock at the door.
Copyright © 2015 by Kay Thomas. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
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Click here for Chapter Two
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ebook release June 2015 / print release July 2015 / audiobook April 19, 2016