She has two men, two identities, one choice…
Rain Meyers has been in a suffocating relationship for five years, engaged to a man who sees only what he wants to see in her. When Rain finally escapes, she meets a man she can make beautiful music with. Justin Pascal is a songwriter with a past that haunts him. Together they discover common aspirations, a future, love and, ultimately, healing.
But Bryan isn’t about to give up the glass bottle world he’s tried to trap Rain into…even if it means destroying everyone in his path.
GENRE: Contemporary Romance Suspense ISBN: 978-1-921636-92-9 ASIN: B00889WIPK Word Count: 63, 689
You dress me up like a little doll,
and I play the role
so you’ll never have to know
that the face you so desperately want to find
is no longer mine.
Oh, your world is so fragile.
All that you love and call your own
is dead and gone,
washed away by the flood.
But you still see the angel
as if she was flesh and blood…
It doesn’t mean I’m leaving him, Vikki Meyers told herself again, hoisting the tote bag up on her shoulder more securely as she followed a line of people up the boarding ramp to the plane. She’d never been in an airplane before. No urge compelled her to look back at all she was leaving behind her, yet her chest felt strangely expanded. Until she stowed her bag over the seat, she wasn’t aware of holding her breath. In her seat near the window, she exhaled deeply, feeling like it’d been years since the air was so clear and clean. I can breathe again.
How could a person go through five years of her life without knowing she was suffocating? Until yesterday morning, Vikki had never felt such a desperate need to escape everything her life had become. That one phone call hadn’t been much different from any other she’d received from her foster sister since Mallory had moved to Los Angeles following high school graduation. Yet that call became all the incentive Vikki had needed to create an elaborate fabrication to convince her fiancé to let her go.
The worst part was facing that yesterday hadn’t been the first time she’d lied to Bryan. It was simply the first time she’d done it deliberately. When she thought now of how calculated her plan had been, how persuasively unwavering she’d played the part… She had to wonder if she knew herself any better than Bryan did. She hadn’t been his sweet, submissive, loving Vikki yesterday. The independence was inappropriately sensual, and she shivered as breathtaking power rippled beneath her skin.
It doesn’t mean I’m leaving him, she repeated firmly again. I’m just…getting my priorities in line. Just visiting my sister indefinitely. Nothing wrong with that.
Unselfconsciously, she found herself smiling. She’d cried her tears last night and felt the guilt mingled with regret. They would return. Later, when the relief wasn’t so profound, they’d undeniably return.
Wisconsin became a speck as the plane rose above it, gliding effortlessly south. Though she assured herself she wasn’t leaving the man she was engaged to, she was leaving Vikki behind. Vikki–the woman Bryan Larson could manipulate with his gentleness, the woman who’d needed to belong to someone, the woman who’d given up trying to make him see her for who she really was. That woman was not coming along. Because that woman wasn’t real and never had been, despite the years she’d tried to believe in her, too. She’d known that for a while, but Bryan always got his way. Except this one time.
After deboarding at O’Hare, Vikki waited in line ten minutes to use a pay phone, then dialed her sister’s work phone number using her charge card.
“Rain, please don’t tell me tight-ass talked you out of it,” were Mallory’s first words.
The nickname ‘Rain’ had become as familiar to Vikki as the name on her birth certificate. Mallory had started calling her Rain only a few days after Vikki had been placed in the Novak home when she was sixteen. Mallory’s reason for the nickname was: “You know when it rains–one of those warm summer showers? They’re so quiet, but the air is heavier? Like it’s charged? Like it’s restless for more? That’s what you’re like. You’re like the rain.” She’d called her Rain ever since.
“I’m in Chicago. My flight to L.A. is supposedly on schedule. So I’ll be there at two-fifteen.” The words came out breathlessly, as if she’d run around in circles for ten minutes instead of waiting patiently in a line to use the phone.
“I can’t wait to see you, hon. I’m sorry I’ve got that meeting I mentioned last night, but you have to meet Carmine anyway. I really want you to like each other.”
Carmine Saxon was a man Mallory had met about two months ago yet hadn’t called to tell Vikki about until yesterday. From the little her sister had revealed on the phone, Carmine was the man of her dreams.
“How will I know him?” Vikki asked, glancing around when she heard an impatient sigh plainly in the airport cacophony. The woman behind her stood so close she could have been a parachute strapped to Vikki’s back.
“Oh… Well, he looks like a wild man. But don’t worry. I gave him a picture of you. He’ll find you.”
Vikki heard another, more exaggerated sigh behind her. “Mallory, what did you tell him about me?” She bit her lip, trying to ignore any impression sent by the people lined up behind her that she had to rush through her phone call.
“The usual,” Mallory said, sounding a little confused. “Who you are, your name, what you mean to me.”
“Nothing else? You didn’t tell him about Bryan or what I do?”
Mallory made a ‘hah!’ noise. “Why would I mention old tight-ass? I want to forget he exists, and I think you should, too.”
Bryan and Mallory’s dislike of one another had been immediate and total. As opposites to the nth degree, they’d both wanted to draw Vikki away from the other.
“And I didn’t tell him that you’re a songwriter or anything about how you want to team up with Justin.”
One thing had made the decision for Vikki to go to California. When Mallory had mentioned in her phone call yesterday morning that Carmine’s best friend was a songwriter and was looking for a partner, there’d no longer been any question of if she could leave Bryan temporarily. It’d become a matter of how to do it. Mallory had known that the casual bit of information would be as tempting to her as the forbidden apple to Eve.
Vikki’s creativity had begun as a way to escape her bitter childhood. Music had been her hiding place. Nothing had changed since then. As hard as Bryan had tried to suppress it over the years, her need to create hadn’t gone away.
The woman behind her muttered, “Well, it’s about time!” when Vikki ended her phone call. Vikki smiled at her as she picked up her suitcase. Nothing could get her down today. Soon she’d be with her sister and best friend, and she’d be free. To be herself again. To have a future other than the one Bryan had planned to the letter–without bothering to ask her if it met with her approval.
Cinching her tote bag tighter over her shoulder, she made her way to the ladies’ restroom. All she’d brought with her was her music–in the largest case–a change of clothes and makeup in the tote.
As she waited for a stall, she looked at herself in the full-length mirror only inches from her. Bryan’s Vikki. He’d chosen her clothes. He’d dictated how she wore her hair and makeup. She’d never felt comfortable with any of it because, when she looked at herself, she saw Bryan’s mother Neve–the utterly feminine, subservient shadow of her husband.
Oh, what people allowed themselves to believe. When Bryan had given her a dress for the first time, she’d been flattered at the gift. His sweet demand that she tone down her makeup and tame her dark hair had been male possessiveness, she’d assumed. He hadn’t wanted any other man to look at her because she belonged to him. She’d wanted to belong to him. No one had ever told her she could no longer belong to herself if she surrendered. Actually, someone had–Mallory. But Vikki had been too infatuated to realize what she was getting into. The way she’d left had been deceitful, but all that mattered now was that she was free. She was in control of her life again, even if only temporarily.
When a stall opened up, she pushed inside. The lock was broken, so she set her large suitcase against it to keep it closed. Then she opened her tote.
The change of clothes was something she’d gone through boxes and boxes in the storage bedroom of Bryan’s house to find. A simple pair of jeans and a top from her teenage years. She still fit in the old jeans. They were torn and faded, but so comfortable compared to the dress she’d had to wear to get out of the house that morning.
She removed her shoes and dress, reaching for the jeans but realized she didn’t want to wear any of the clothes Bryan had bought her. Quickly, she slipped the white cotton underwear down her legs and removed the strangling bra. Now she could truly breathe. She rolled the undergarments inside the dress, then eased into the jeans and top in the cramped space the stall offered. The shirt was scoop-necked and tighter than it’d been five years before. She stared down at her chest, wondering if she should put the bra back on. The top would have sent Bryan into a panic. It stretched tightly over her front and left a few inches of her stomach bare to compensate for a bust that hadn’t ripened yet at eighteen. The thought of putting that torture device back on was pure agony. Who would be looking at her anyway?
She sat on the toilet lid to pull on the suede boots she’d unburied yesterday, too. When she leaned forward, she saw how lascivious the top was as it gaped open. Her embarrassment was twofold as she recalled the times she hadn’t been able to refuse Bryan’s sexual overtures. His touch only made her feel more unfulfilled. So many times she’d wished he’d never touch her again, she no longer felt guilty for it. She no longer held any hope that this time would be different. In the end, they’d turn away from each other, both knowing she couldn’t forgive him, he couldn’t forgive her; he couldn’t blame her and she couldn’t blame him.
With the stain of all-too-tangible memories in her cheeks, she gathered her things into the tote and gave up the stall to the next in line. She had plenty of time to apply a little more makeup than she usually wore and to let her hair out of one of the many decorative bows she kept it back in to please Bryan.
The women coming and going watched her curiously, some without an ounce of self-consciousness, others suspiciously, as if she might be a prostitute getting ready to do business. Their stares didn’t bother Vikki. She was used to being under the scrutinizing eye of Bryan’s mother. After that, this was a piece of cake.
While she worked on her face, she thought of all the things she and Mallory would be doing soon. Staying up all night, talking, shopping, cooking, exercising, lounging out on the beach, listening to music. It sounded like heaven for all its ordinary packaging. She hadn’t done any of those things with someone in years.
At last she achieved the look she’d strived to attain. A stranger to Vikki, this was Rain. This was the woman no one except Mallory would recognize in California. No one knew anything about her, only what she chose to reveal.
As she reloaded her cosmetics in her tote, her gaze was drawn to the engagement ring Bryan gave her. Very little existed that Vikki could argue with Bryan over, but he hadn’t railroaded her into marriage. He’d tried repeatedly, but she’d never been able to give in to him, just as she hadn’t allowed him to get her pregnant and force her into marriage. She hadn’t stopped taking the pill three years ago at his demand. Her reasons were unknown even to her. She just couldn’t. Sometimes it seemed those choices were the only freedom she had.
Allowing someone else to take her place at the mirror, she moved back against the wall, opened her pocketbook and placed the ring inside the coin purse.
She was temporarily free.
* * * *
Justin Pascal didn’t know what annoyed him more: That he’d been conned into picking up his best friend’s girlfriend’s sister…or that the skinny blond waiting a few feet away from him was coming on to him with all the finesse of a ten-dollar hooker. He planned to kill Carmine when he got back to the club with his charge.
Justin watched the blond lick her lips in–what he supposed was intended to be–a seductive gesture. Without a word, he told her it wasn’t going to happen and looked away.
The photograph Carmine had showed Justin was the opposite of Mallory’s claims. Her sister was not a “knockout”. The photo revealed a mouse: standard brown eyes, black hair, uptight clothes. No doubt about it–Carmine was trying to fix him up again. And Justin wasn’t interested in the mouse any more than he was in the easy blond. He’d bring Mallory’s sister to Carmine, ending his part of the bargain for good.
The flight Rain was supposed to be coming in on arrived on time. When the terminal cleared enough to point out those who were still waiting, he was left with two possibilities. One of the women looking around anxiously had short black hair, couldn’t tell about the eyes, and she wore a seriously uptight sundress. This one was definitely a mouse.
The other woman was a knockout. Dressed in a little top and a pair of jeans that were sexier than the miniskirt the skinny blond wore, she turned around and spotted him. Nothing mousy about this lady. Her eyes were so big, dark and beautiful, he could see them just fine from where he stood. Nothing standard there. The interest rising in him was corroded from inactivity but familiar all the same. But he was here to pick up that mouse in the sundress. Propelling himself off the wall he’d been leaning against, he was surprised to see the knockout headed in his direction.
He almost groaned out loud when she stood in front of him. Her face was the most exquisite array of features he’d ever seen. On anyone else, those eyes would have been too black, too exotically shaped to be so soft and beautiful. Her nose was unusually small, her mouth unusually large and shapely. Lush– that was the word for it.
She adjusted the strap of her tote bag on her shoulder. “Carmine?”
Her voice was erotic sandpaper to his senses, husky yet smoothly melodic. It took him almost a full minute to acknowledge what she’d said. This was the one–the knockout/mouse. She didn’t look anything like that photograph. “Rain?”
She smiled suddenly, in relief, and he knew he’d have to forget any ideas he had pursuing anything, superficial or otherwise. What had he been thinking anyway? He hadn’t had–or wanted–a woman in two years. Not even for a meaningless, don’t-look-her-in-the-eyes quickie.
“I’m a friend of Carmine’s. Justin Pascal,” he said, pulling his sunglasses out of the collar of his tank top to cover his eyes.
“You’re the songwriter?” she asked, her expression resembling an excited little kid’s.
“Depends on who you’re asking, but I’d have to say you’ve got the right tiger by the tail.”
She laughed, and it did nothing to relieve his response to her. “Well, tiger, I just need to get my suitcase and then hopefully I’ve seen my last airport for a while.”
“First plane trip?” he guessed.
“First time I’ve ever been out of Wisconsin period. I’m a hick. I admit it.”
The word ‘hick’ conjured many impressions. Overalls, red handkerchief hanging out a back pocket, chewing tobacco. This woman was the exact opposite. She made worn and torn jeans sophisticated. He walked side by side with her to baggage claim, where they had to wait for the luggage to come through.
“What made you think I was Carmine?” he asked, studying her profile. Her skin looked like rich satin. She didn’t wear enough makeup for him to think it wasn’t real. He wondered what she smelled like.
“Oh. Well, the only thing Mallory gave me to go by was that he looked like a wild man. You were the only one nearby who did.”
The sweep of her gaze over him was electric. At thirty, he’d had enough women interested in him to know the signs. The only difference this time was that most of the women had no shame in letting him know it. Rain obviously liked what she saw, but the dull red in her cheeks told him she didn’t feel comfortable checking him out.
“So what happened to Carmine?” she asked. The luggage started coming through finally.
“Last minute change.” Yeah, last minute change that fit under the heading, ‘Hey, it’s been two years. Maybe you’re getting so desperate it doesn’t matter who.’ Carmine didn’t try to fix him up often. Most of the time, he lectured and made him see how great it was to have a steady woman. Justin had had one of his own. Letting her go had been so easy, his biggest regret was wondering if something was wrong with him.
When Rain made a grab at her suitcase, the need to touch her overwhelmed him. His opportunity came when she straightened and the tote bag on her shoulder slid down her arm. Automatically, his hand went there, easing it back where it belonged.
The glide of his fingers over her skin fueled his need to touch her even more. But the look on her face–shock, arousal–warned him not to step over the line. She was Mallory’s sister. Chances were, he’d run into her often enough to make it uncomfortable if he gave into temptation once.
“Here, let me get that for you.” His hand covered hers on the large suitcase she’d retrieved. When she didn’t let go, he glanced at her. The red in her cheeks blazed, as obvious as the desire in her eyes. She was an open book, and the shock of that slammed him in the gut. How could anyone exist without walls? He’d known a single person in his life who didn’t have the natural guards that protected a person from getting hurt. He’d shoved Tracey out of his life trying to escape her sympathy. He didn’t want anything to do with that kind of vulnerability again.
“I’ve got it. It’s not heavy,” Rain said, trying to smile reassuringly.
While he wanted to do anything to escape the tension, he’d been raised to be a gentleman, despite what he looked like. “Did I mention I’m being paid for this?”
Her expression was wry. “I’m sure. But I’m quite capable of carrying my own luggage.”
She was, maybe, two inches shorter than him and her body was extremely well toned. No doubt she was capable of anything she set her mind to.
“You could do me one favor though. I hope it doesn’t offend you. Just say no if it does.”
Justin straightened, letting go of his need to be chivalrous. The idea of anything about this woman offending him… No way. “What do you need?”
Sheepishly, she admitted, “If we get separated in this airport, I might as well head back to Wisconsin because I don’t know my way to a restroom in L.A.” She brushed back the wild fall of her hair. “Would you mind holding my hand? Just until we get outside?”
What she expected, he couldn’t guess. Did she think she was admitting her attraction to him by asking him to hold her hand?
Well, she was right if she thought it meant more now than it should. When he offered her his hand, he had the feeling he gave her more than reassurance. She took more than that, too. He watched her place her palm against his. Their fingers laced, locking together and closing to form an unbreakable bond.
Why did he want to kiss her? What would make him need to get his arms around her, like they were being reunited? He didn’t know the first thing about this woman. All he knew, insane or not, was that she fit him like a missing part. Maybe Carmine was right. He was so desperate for a woman, he fell for the first one who’d interested him in two years.
As they made their way out of the airport, dodging people, they were pushed together, pulled apart, held only by their hands. Neither of them was willing to be separated. When their bodies collided, he felt her heat, and his mouth watered at the temptation it posed. He suppressed a groan once they were out of the airport. Their eyes met for a too-intimate moment. “Truck’s that way.”
Without another word, they started in the direction he’d indicated. Justin was positive she was aware they still held hands. Also aware that neither seemed willing to sever the contact. Her fingers were long and slim, the nails clipped neatly but unadorned. Imagining how those fingertips, those nails, would feel on his skin was no stretch.
At his truck, she set down her suitcase as he unlocked the passenger door. He didn’t like letting go of her or even looking away. But she hadn’t come to L.A. for him. As long as he kept reminding himself of that, he’d know his place.
She allowed him to put her suitcase in the extended cab of the truck. He lost his cool when she brushed past him to get inside. That, combined with the sight of her hoisting herself into the cab, all but shattered him. A hole had worn through the back of the denim. And she wasn’t wearing anything beneath those jeans.
He walked around to the back of the truck, stopping on the pretense of lighting a cigarette. In the past few years, he’d grown annoyed at the sensation of becoming aroused. Casual sex turned into something personal and with too much meaning if it wasn’t indulged in often. One night stands were, in ways, more intimate than making love with your heart involved. Justin had avoided intimacy to avoid life. Avoiding it now seemed impossible. The hell of it was, he enjoyed it.
That was the difference, he realized. Reaction was just a physical need–like hunger. It wasn’t pleasant any more than a growling stomach. This time what he felt stemmed from direct contact and stimulation. From looking at Rain, touching her and wanting her. He didn’t want to want her, but he couldn’t deny it felt good to want her. It felt good to be alive again, to feel pleasure and pain. Just as long as he didn’t fall in love, he could allow himself a little freedom.
* * * *
Vikki didn’t really have any plans once she got to L.A. With Mallory’s appointments all day, she had no choice but to agree with Justin’s suggestion that she “hang out with him” for a few hours.
She’d come to California for Mallory of course, but, more than that, for Justin Pascal. At the time, she couldn’t have known what she was getting into. The truth was, Bryan was the only man she’d ever been attracted to. Finding another man attractive wouldn’t have occurred to her–especially one the complete opposite of Bryan. Bryan was blond, blue-eyed, clean-cut. Conservative. A single glance at Justin confirmed that Bryan wasn’t her type at all. Justin was a beautiful, sleek animal. Primal, natural, rough. She could hardly take her eyes off him. When she did, his raw male scent was enough to bring out an all-consuming hunger deep inside her.
Justin took her to a restaurant/bar called Saxons, telling her that Carmine’s aunt and uncle owned it and the two of them lived above it. The inside revealed fairly new facilities despite the outer appearance. Dark wood, bistro tables in the bar, regular ones in the dining area, a bar, stage, low lighting, and romantic jazz music. All of it put her at ease immediately, as if she’d been here before.
Justin introduced her to Carmine’s uncle, who was so friendly Vikki liked him instantly. When he asked her if she was hungry, she couldn’t say no. Her stomach had growled repeatedly on the ride over. Justin had to have heard it. With all the subterfuge she’d mired herself into to get here, she hadn’t had much of an appetite lately. She ordered a dish of strawberries as she and Justin took seats at one of the bistro tables.
In the near emptiness of the place, she was drawn to look at him. As with the first time, focusing on him had way too much impact. It wasn’t right to be attracted to anyone except Bryan. She was engaged, ring or no ring. Yet she was helpless to stop herself. Justin was looking at her, too, his deep blue eyes brooding and sexy. What was he thinking? The urge to get inside him to discover what he wouldn’t reveal overpowered her imagination, if not her willpower.
She couldn’t make sense of her own emotions. It didn’t make sense that she felt this strange familiarity to him. As surely as he put her body on edge, he put her mind at ease. She was comfortable with him. So comfortable that the jolt of pleasure she got surprised her each time they touched. How could it feel natural to touch him? How could it seem natural in a way that made her half-convinced they’d touched each other before and often? Because it also made no sense that they were strangers.
Just looking at him and being looked at by him turned her inside out. Reacting to him the way she did embarrassed her. Even after the act of sex was over with Bryan, she hadn’t felt this much. Although they didn’t speak, she was intensely aware of Justin. Beneath the brown leather jacket, he wore a tight tank top. The fabric stretched across a chest that was all muscle. She liked the way the eagle necklace he wore lay against his skin, nestled in the crisp hair.
Inadvertently, she’d touched that chest. How could an accidental collision at the airport be so arousing? Maybe it had something to do with how easy imagining their bare chests meeting became now that they’d touched.
Even thinking about any of this was wrong! Bad enough she’d lied atrociously to get here. Being attracted to another man was out and out treachery. She had to stop this.
When Carmine’s uncle delivered a small glass bowl of strawberries, Justin asked him, “Where’s Bobby?”
Vikki watched Justin as he talked with Carmine’s uncle. While his hair wasn’t as long as hers, it looked longer than it actually was. It touched his shoulders, burnished sable against leather. Not every hair was in place, the way Bryan’s always was, yet Justin’s way fit him. Along with the rough hair on his face, his aura suggested something untamed. She wondered what it would feel like to be in his arms. She’d believed he’d have an innate gentleness, one that warred with the rough edges.
She had to look away from him. Doubtless, vast amounts of women wanted him. She was acting like a girl with a crush. She’d come here wanting to become his partner in songwriting. He certainly wouldn’t want any more, if he even wanted that much. She was an uninteresting girl from Wisconsin, one with a fiancé, marriage and babies ahead of her.
Picking up one of the large strawberries, she bit into it, letting out a little moan as the flavor exploded on her tongue. Her appetite was back full-force. She smiled at Mr. Saxon gratefully, then glanced at Justin again as the older man walked away.
Justin’s smile was barely there, feral almost, framing his white teeth. She offered him a strawberry, but he shook his head.
“What kind of songs do you write?” she asked, because she couldn’t hedonistically enjoy the strawberries in silence.
She didn’t want to question him too much about the subject. If she did, it might seem like she’d come to California on a huge presumption–that she was good enough to drop everything in Wisconsin to be his partner. Truthfully, she wasn’t one hundred percent confident he’d want her. She thought her songs were better than good, but what did she know? He might have different standards, might prefer working with a man, might have different goals.
She really didn’t have any goals. When she’d decided to take a chance and come here, she’d come with no plans for the future. No plan other than getting away and doing something she wanted to do. She’d consider herself miraculously lucky if Justin even conceded to listen to a single song she’d written.
“Depends. I write whatever comes to me. Whatever’s good. If I had to classify it, hard rock, rough or smooth.”
She liked the way he said that. Not just the way his mouth formed the words. She liked the words he chose. Another musician might have said love/sex/breakup songs. He said ‘smooth’ and ‘rough.’ She liked to write the same.
“So you work better with a writing partner?” she asked, glancing away casually. At least what she hoped was casual. She couldn’t make him suspicious because she didn’t want to admit anything yet. Not until it was clear to him she was here to visit her sister. Maybe they’d become friends and he’d request to see her work before she could ask him to take a look at it.
Justin gave her a crooked grin, one that heated her blood when she brought her gaze back to him. “Actually, I haven’t had much luck with writing partners. They don’t wanna collaborate if it means taking only half the credit, or if it means I change something they wrote. That kinda thing. And then there’s the other thing.”
“What other thing?” Vikki asked, hearing the strain in her own voice. Mallory had told her Justin was looking for a partner. He made it sound like he wasn’t at all.
“Well, the first guy committed suicide before we ever got anything down. With Dean, we had a pretty good thing going, despite the problems I mentioned. But he had a real jealous girlfriend. She killed him when she found him with another girl–”
“Are you serious?” Vikki wasn’t totally naïve. She knew murder happened everywhere. Even in the tame little town of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where she came from. This just sounded unbelievable.
“Yeah. I’m serious. The last partner I worked with had cancer. We did some work together, but it’s not the quality I want.”
Vikki brought a strawberry to her mouth, drawing the narrow end over her bottom lip. “I guess anybody who works with you has to go into it with a death wish,” she said, making sure he’d take it as teasing, nothing offensive.
Thankfully, he took it in stride, nodding as he murmured, “I guess so.”
Biting into the strawberry, she watched him light a cigarette. “So if you’ve had such problems with writing partners, why do you bother with them?” Asking seemed the easiest way to find out if he actually was looking for a partner.
With his thumb and index finger, he took the cigarette from his mouth, blowing a thin line of smoke away from her. “I’m no good at lyrics. No matter how good the music is, in hard rock you gotta have both lyrics and music. I figure, with a partner, there’s some place I can go.”
His confession amazed her. The reason she wasn’t a hundred percent sure of her talent was because lyrics were her strength. She could play piano exceptionally well, but writing music didn’t come as easily to her as lyrics. Most of the songs she’d written sounded better a cappella than with accompaniment. And her skills with the guitar…well, they didn’t exist. She’d been worried because someone of Justin’s certain caliber had to be looking for a partner with equal talent. She couldn’t imagine Justin not being good at something, despite his claims. But maybe she had a shot.
She finished the last strawberry in the dish. “I need to wash my hands. Where’s the–?”
He pointed to the restrooms across the bar.
The need to look back at him after she got up and started toward the bathroom was overwhelming. Only force of will kept her from it.
He was easy to get attached to. Letting go hand at the airport had been difficult. The way he’d held her hand then made her think his gentleness would match the roughness in an embrace. When they’d been together and not about to be separated, he’d held onto her like he would something fragile. When there’d been a chance they could be torn apart, his hold had become fierce.
While washing her hands, she wondered if he had a girlfriend. Was lovemaking the I-want-you-so-bad-I-don’t-care-where variety? Or was it in bed, in the dark, under the covers, I-hate-you-for-loving-me…
She turned and yanked a few towels out of the dispenser. No reason in the world was good enough for her to speculate about whether he had a girlfriend or on how he made love to that girlfriend.
Taking a deep breath, she went out to the bar again. Justin wasn’t at their little table anymore. He was leaning with one arm on the bar, his back to her, talking to Carmine’s uncle. Her reaction was intense enough to make her legs feel like water. His black jeans hugged his honed body like they were made of paint.
His voice was deep; her mind surely made the tone sensual. He couldn’t mean…but she couldn’t deny she wanted him to.
“I’ll introduce you to Carmine.”
She couldn’t look at him. The heat in her face had to be obvious to him, but if she met his eyes he’d know her thoughts were impure and totally inappropriate. Instead, she concentrated on slinging her tote bag over her shoulder. He took her suitcase, and she didn’t bother exerting her independence this time.
When she got a handful of bills from her pocketbook to pay for the strawberries, Justin stopped her. “Your money’s no good here.”
Money was something of an issue for her. Bryan never allowed her to pay for anything with her own money if they went shopping together. While she hadn’t “earned” the inheritance bestowed upon her by Mallory’s parents’ death, legally it belonged to her. She didn’t want charity, especially from Justin.
“It’s only a few bucks–”
He silenced her with a finger to her lips. Leaning closer, close enough her entire body strained toward him like a magnet, he glanced down her mouth. “You said to tell you if I’m offended. I will be if you don’t accept. You don’t wanna offend me, do you?”
This close to him was something like easing into a hot bubble bath. She shook her head, murmuring, “No. I don’t wanna offend you.” I wanna go down you like sweet cream.
He removed his finger, and her tongue went instinctively to lick her lips, to taste him there. He caught her action but turned away before she could see his reaction.
Justin indicated the direction the restrooms had been in, and she walked ahead of him toward them. Beside the rooms was a pay phone. Justin’s hand touched the small of her back to steer her across the way from the phone, to a door marked Private.
The door closed behind them, shutting out the music and the other people. They were alone. “Right up the stairs.” His voice seemed to echo in the little foyer preceding the unbelievably narrow stairwell that had a door at the top. Until they reached that door, they’d be closed into this little stairwell together. Breathing became difficult. Maybe the heat affected her. Maybe knowing he followed directly behind her, so close, if she stopped, he’d be plastered to her back.
At the top of the stairs, she turned sideways to let him pass. Unconsciously she realized he couldn’t pass by without touching her. The stairwell was meant for one at a time. He turned sideways, too, facing her and obliterating any space between them. Her back pressed against the wall, her front molded firmly to his. When he looked down at her, she what he must think of her. But then he was moving through the doorway, the door closed behind him, and she let it.
Nothing like this had ever happened to her before. Even her first love for Bryan had been innocent. She’d wanted tenderness, understanding. Somewhere along the line, she’d realized what he gave her wasn’t enough. She’d stopped wanting him. He’d disappointed her as much as she’d disappointed him.
She had no idea how long she stood there, trying to catch her breath and cool the raging needs Justin brought to life so effortlessly. But, miraculously, he didn’t seem to have noticed her straying behind. He was just opening one of the apartment doors when she emerged from the stairwell. The upstairs was divided in half with a door on each side. Carmine’s aunt and uncle probably lived in the apartment opposite the one Justin went into.
She heard another man’s voice as she walked down the hall and into the apartment. “Ah, man, Mallory’s pissed at me. Where is she? Did you find her? ‘Cause if you didn’t, I’m in a dog house without a door–”
So this was the man her sister had staked her claim on. Carmine was the same height as Justin with black hair he’d tried to comb back from the sides and top despite a few rebellious locks. He didn’t seem to have a relationship with his razor any more than Justin. He had the same untamed, scruffy look his friend had.
Vikki’s first instinct was that she couldn’t imagine her sister with this man. His eyes were narrow, though a beautiful green, his eyebrows thick, giving him a cruel expression. Mallory was much too soft for someone like this.
Carmine examined her the same way she did him. He spoke first. “Man alive. You don’t look anything like your picture.”
His honesty unnerved her, adding to the conviction that he wasn’t right for Mallory at all.
“We haven’t seen each other in five years,” she mumbled, wondering how well she could lie to her sister. She didn’t want to disappoint Mallory if she couldn’t like her boyfriend. Not that Mallory had ever held back about Bryan for her sake.
Carmine set the cordless phone he held on the window sill, then walked over to her. A sudden smile lit his face, one that completely transformed him. Sweetness replaced the cruelty that made Vikki instantly forget it’d ever been anything else.
“I feel like I already know you, Rain. Mallory talks about you so much. She’s crazy about you.”
Vikki smiled. “I hear the same goes for you.”
He hugged her, so brotherly she welcomed it. Once he smiled she couldn’t help but like him.
“So how did you two find each other?” Carmine asked when he stepped back from her.
“She found me,” Justin told him. He sat on one of the window sills–which, as far as Vikki could tell, was the only place in the room to sit besides the floor. Other than musical instruments, electric cords and ashtrays, the room was empty.
“So, what’d you think of each other?” Carmine asked point-blank. He glanced from one to the other of them.
Vikki looked at Justin immediately with the question, only to find him locked on to her, too. Saying out loud what she thought of him was redundant. After being in that stairwell with him, he knew she had very little to hide. Everything had been on the surface.
The cordless phone jingled after eternal moments of silence.
“That’ll be Mallory again,” Carmine said.
Vikki turned away on the pretense of checking out the room. Her relief was so profound, a single sigh would have given her away.