Tattoo artist Nancy Burke likes her life fine the way it is. She has her art and her friends, and has worked hard to recover from the abuse of her dead ex-husband. So what if it’s a little lonely? It’s peaceful. One man challenges that peace and makes her long to let loose. For one night. And one night only.
Disabled war veteran Brad Moore knows he’s damaged goods, but that’s not enough to stop him from pursuing Nancy. She’s the exact opposite of the kind of woman he usually goes for, but maybe that’s exactly what they both need.
AUTHOR NOTE: This is a 14,000 word short story that was previously published as my other penname, Loribelle Hunt. It is intended for audiences 18+ and includes an excerpt of my short novel Defending Serenity.
Two A.M and the wedding reception is finally winding down. Thank God, the torture is almost over. I only have one thing on my mind: escape. Well, there might be a man on my mind, too. An impossibly dark and hot and enigmatic man that scares me as much as he excites me.
There are only a few stragglers left, and I motion to the bartender to issue the last call. He does and hands me a glass of champagne. I shouldn’t accept it. I’ve already had a couple more than is prudent, since I don’t drink much. But I’m not driving so what the hell? My head might protest in the morning, but I’ll survive it. I frown into the glass before taking a long swallow. There are other things in my life that haven’t been nearly as easy to survive as a hangover.
After taking another swallow, I set the half-empty glass down and smile my thanks to the barkeep. I’ve smiled so much tonight my face feels frozen into that position. I walk into the remaining crowd, subtly but clearly letting it be known the party is over.
About an hour’s drive east of Panama City, Bank’s Crossing is a small beach community in the Florida Panhandle. Most of the reception’s guests will walk home, and a couple of the gutsier men ask if I need someone to walk me. I decline those offers with a smile and shake of my head, and they leave quickly. Much as I want to take credit, I know it belongs to the man watching from the shadows.
Silent. Impossibly still. And always, always expressionless. Except when he meets my gaze, as he does now. I can’t repress a shiver. His face doesn’t change, but his eyes… I’m not sure what I’m reading in them, only know that it scares me as much as it excites me. Hot, territorial, possessive. How can those black eyes be described? The only thing I know for sure is I am not getting involved with another man like that.
Jessalyn thinks I’m overreacting. She thinks that Brad Moore, her new brother-in-law, is harmless. I snort. Jessalyn is out of her ever lovin’ mind. But I can’t blame my old friend. Earlier tonight she married the man she’s been in love with for years, stayed one hour at her own reception, and then left with her new husband to catch a flight to Jamaica. She’d left the remainder of the reception in the hands of the maid of honor—me—and best man Brad Moore, her husband’s recently returned brother.
Brad is a mystery I don’t want to delve into. I know more than I want to already. He went to college before going into the Army. He’s been gone sixteen years, not long enough to get retirement, I think, but the rumor is he’d been badly injured in Iraq. Bad enough to justify an early retirement in the Army’s eyes, I wonder? That makes him what? Thirty-eight? Something like that. Five years older than me. I’ve done the older man thing before too, though I have to concede five years isn’t a difference worth noting. It just gives me another handy excuse to ignore him.
He’s still watching me, and I can’t stand it. My skin feels hot. Tight. The satin bodice of my dress should be cool and soft against my nipples. Instead the fabric rasps over me the way I imagine his calloused hands would. The rings aren’t helping. When he looks at me, my nipples harden into painful points, and the metal that pierces and circles them seems tighter each time. He’s making me crazy and he hasn’t done a damned thing.
I feel like I’m going to combust. The bad thing is, as much as I try to keep my distance, I’m drawn to him. I can admit that to myself. Privately at least. But it is definitely time to get the hell out of Dodge before I get crazy and act on the impulse to approach him. To beg him to take me to bed and fuck me with the same intensity he looks at me with. No, no, no. Been there. Done that. Ended badly.
I have to get out quick. My dress came with a three-quarter-sleeved jacket, cut off under my breasts, that hid most of my tattoos during the ceremony. I took it off a few hours ago when the older residents, the ones most likely to find body art tacky or offensive, left. I’m a walking advertisement for my profession as a tattoo artist. I’m not ashamed of my body or art, but I don’t see much point in causing unnecessary conflict with it, especially at my best friend’s wedding. Anyway, I retrieve the jacket and my tiny purse—the caterers will take care of the cleanup—and hurry for the door. I almost make it. I don’t have to turn around to know the big tanned hand that snakes around me and presses against my stomach, freezing me in place, is Brad’s. I’ve spent weeks fascinated by his hands.
“Where are you going?” he asks in a deep, masculine voice that unnerves me as much as the heat from his palm. He stands right behind me, his broad chest barely touching my back. I don’t turn around.
“Home. It’s been a long day.” One that had started early in the morning then gone late into the night, and I have to go to work in a few hours.
“Dance with me first,” he demands.
I suck in a breath. I shouldn’t do it. Let him pull me close, press his body against mine. How could I resist then? Hasn’t he been pursuing me subtly, with a truckload of restraint, for weeks? Like he’s afraid of scaring me off? Is that really what is going on? I could be completely, totally wrong. The attraction I feel, the crazy pull I feel towards him, is probably one sided, but even if it isn’t, I can’t take the risk. There is something so resolute about him. He’d never let a woman he wanted go, and I don’t ever want to be with a man like that again. I try to inner ignore the inner voice claiming he wouldn’t a woman. I hardly know the man.
“There’s no music,” I answer when I finally find my voice again.
He shifts closer to me. I can feel the heat of his body against me, his warm breath blowing against the back of my neck. “Who needs it?”
I want to say no. I almost say no. But there is the faintest hint of nakedness in his voice that I find impossible to resist. I nod and he takes my hand, pulls me back towards the center of the room. I watch the floor as we walk, wary and excited at the same time. A man I’ve barely spoken to shouldn’t make me feel this way. It has been years since anyone has. Two years since I’ve had sex or wanted to. I shove that thought away. I’m not doing that tonight either, and definitely not with this guy. It’s just a dance. One dance and I’ll be on my way.
He must have made a deal with the band, because as soon as we reach the dance floor and he pulls me into his arms, they strike up a slow, sultry ballad. He holds me close when I would have preferred distance, but I lay my head against his chest anyway, over his heart. Hear it hammering fast and remember what it is like to trust a man. He doesn’t touch me suggestively, keeps his hands on the center of my back, but there is no ignoring the erection pressed against my belly. There is no ignoring the desire that twists me up into knots. I sigh. I am so screwed. Well, hopefully. If he propositions me now, I know I won’t say no. The song ends and another doesn’t start up. He keeps me close, still swaying to music only imagined, and whispers in my ear.
“Come home with me.”
Here it is. Decision time. Go? Run? Ignore the only man who’s turned me on in forever, or take one night? Because surely it can be only one night. He looks at me with that hot something in his eyes, but he treats me with cool reserve. We are not compatible. We both know it. My decision is already made, though. I just hope it doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass. Nodding, I retreat from the warmth of his arms.
“Let’s go then.”