Drunk On You ONLY
$2.99

a Bourbon Boys story by Teri Anne Stanley


Undiluted desire, served straight up.

Justin Morgan would happily drown the pain of his injured leg-and the guilt he brought back from Afghanistan-in bourbon. Except, there won’t be any booze if he doesn’t rescue his family’s century-old distillery from financial ruin. The problem? Allie McGrath-youngest daughter of the distillery’s co-owners, and the one woman he can’t have.

Allie has been in love with Justin since…well, she’s always been in love with him. Now he’s home, broken up over the death of her brother, and he needs help. She can fix the distillery-she’s sure of it-but no one’s taking her or her sweet new idea seriously. Convincing Justin is her only hope.

Allie is more tempting than Justin expected, threatening a promise he swore he’d never break. If he can’t keep their attraction under control, there’s a solid chance they’ll send the whole enterprise crumbling to the ground…if he doesn’t crash and burn first.

 

Information:

Title: Drunk On You
Series: Bourbon Boys, #1
Author: Teri Anne Stanley
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 218 pages
ISBN: 978-1-63375-260-3
Release Date: July 2015
Imprint: Lovestruck
 
 
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
 

 
 
 

Praise for DRUNK ON YOU:

“With fast-paced, clever writing, strong heroines and to-die-for heroes, Teri Anne Stanley is definitely one to watch!” – NYT and USA TODAY bestselling author Ruthie Knox

 
 
 

An Excerpt from:

Drunk On You
by Teri Anne Stanley

Copyright © 2015 by Teri Anne Stanley. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

 

Today

Crockett County, Kentucky

“I’ve got it, Grandma,” Justin promised, hoisting the ancient fur coat from where she’d dropped it in the valet parking lane before the furry abomination was mistaken for roadkill.

“You make sure you get a ticket from that coat check girl. She screws it up otherwise.” Grandma shook her finger. “We always wind up standing an extra half hour while she looks for my wrap.”

“That’s because she wants to get in my pants,” Grandpa said, wiggling his eyebrows.

“It’s a wonder I’ve stayed married to you long enough to have this ridiculous anniversary party.” Grandma smacked Gramps on the shoulder, but they held hands as they made their way toward the ballroom of the Crockett County Country Club.

Justin sighed and turned toward the cloakroom. The generous shot of bourbon he drank before leaving home hadn’t been quite enough.

He’d spent part of his youth here at “the club”—lifeguarding at the pool and caddying at the golf course—because even though they might be an old bourbon family, their dad was determined that his boys would learn to work for their money. He’d also brought his prom date to dinner here and learned to play tennis and to schmooze with the good old boys—but now he felt like an alien from planet Armageddon among these civilians with their happy, normal lives.

He was just here for this anniversary party and to say hello to his family—and the McGraths—whom he’d been avoiding since Dave died. Not that it was hard to be too busy to call from a war zone, but it was rude, and he’d promised Dave…

Yeah, he’d promised Dave he’d look in on his sisters, especially Allie. Little redheaded Allie with the funny cards and packages. That had dried up a few years ago, even before Dave died, but she must have discovered boys and forgotten about his crusty old soul. Just as well. Someone as sweet and innocent as Allie didn’t need to be worrying about him and his toxic world. He went to war so people like her didn’t have to live through it. Except he didn’t do that anymore, did he? He was a civilian now.

Maybe he needed, as his brother, Brandon, had suggested, to go out and meet a girl and have a good time. He was going to be in town for only a few days, and he wasn’t sure he could dig out the Justin Morgan charm he’d once been infamous for. But a distraction would be nice…for a while.

The half door stood open. The four hundred-year-old coat check woman wasn’t at her post, so Justin walked into the dim room to stash Grandma’s coat. He stepped around the end of the coatrack and plowed crotch-first into the finest backside he’d encountered, ass-up, in quite some time—possibly ever.

“Yeep!” The voice attached to the perfect ass squealed and the rest of the body straightened and turned to face him.

Damn.

“Excuse me. Er, didn’t see you there.” Justin reached out to steady the woman as she wobbled on high heels. She was a blonde, he could see that much, but her features were backlit by the setting sun shining through the window. Her perfume seemed almost familiar. He breathed deeply of…home and…peace.

She slid the coat hanger she held onto the rack.

He wondered what color her eyes were. And if those glossy lips tasted as juicy as they looked. Shaking it off, he released his hold on her smooth arm and backed up a step, admiring the silky red dress she wore. Not tight or revealing, but definitely clingy. Subtle, yet…obvious.

“Ah…” She shook her head and asked, “Do you need help with your fine mink coat, sir?”

He held up Grandma’s ridiculous fur. It was heavy enough for an Eskimo, even though it was late spring. “You don’t look like the coat check lady I remember.”

“Really? People tell me I’m the spitting image of her.”

“Interesting,” Justin said. “I didn’t know there was anyone here old enough to have been around during the Civil War, who’d have known her in her youth.”

The woman giggled, and Justin realized he was actually flirting. And enjoying himself. He’d drunk just enough to wonder… Would it be tacky to hit on the coat check girl? She seemed familiar. Maybe they’d worked together at the pool back in their younger days?

“You’re a flatterer, aren’t you? You know she was born during the Renaissance.”

Those lips curled, making Justin want to lean forward and taste them. Damn. Okay, Brandon, you win. I’ll ask her out.

“Well, it’s clear you haven’t been around nearly that long. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking that maybe you’d sneak away from here after a while and dance with me.”

“Hmm… Are we talking the Macarena, or the Electric Slide?”

“I was thinking something slower and closer.”

“Ah. Well, then. I guess I’ll have to think about that.”

Well, don’t think too long.” He wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to stand it here among the normal people. He summoned a chuckle then and held out his hand. “I’m Justin Morgan. And you are…?”

“Seriously?” She didn’t take his hand, but put hers on her hips.

“Yeah? Come on, babe, give me a shot.” He dusted off his trademarked crooked smile. “It’s not my best pickup line, but you get the idea, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, unfortunately, I do.” She handed him the hanger she’d just put away as she brushed past. “Get your grandma a ticket, Justin, otherwise she’ll bitch about the coat check lady flirting with Gramps.”

The dust left Justin’s brain with an artillery blast as he realized whom he was trying to pick up in the coatroom. He stuck his head through the door in time to see her walk down the hall. Holy shit. “Hey, Allie. When did you go blond?”

***

“Come on, Allie, you’re going to have to go out there and see him sooner or later,” Eve said.

Allie wrinkled her brow in her best, “What are you talking about?” expression, running a finger under her eye to remove a mascara smudge. She tugged at her new blond highlights. Maybe she’d gone too far? Nah, she was still definitely ginger. To everyone but certain buttface jerkheads.

It was clear that Eve wasn’t buying what she was trying to sell, but the most awesome sister ever wasn’t going to call her on her bullshit—yet.

“You know Justin’s out there.”

“Really? I’d forgotten he was back in town.”

Eve rolled her eyes.

Okay, maybe that was taking it a little too far. Eve had seen Allie slam into the bathroom, and Allie had heard Eve say, “Hi, Justin,” right before she followed her in.

She’d managed to live a well-rounded, boyfriend-filled life without being ego-bashed by Justin Morgan for the past seven years, ten months, three days, and fourteen hours—give or take—apparently biding her time until she could make a fool of herself. Again.

“What happened when you saw him?” Eve pressed.

Allie sighed, giving in. “He flirted with me in the coatroom when I was hanging up our stuff.”

“Really?” Eve’s big dark eyes widened, her perfect red lips forming an O.

“And I bought it. It was like he waved his magic wang, and I totally forgot how I’m not a gullible teenager anymore. Right up until I realized that he had no idea who I was.”

“Oh.” Now Eve had on her best indignant-sister face. If she weren’t so sincere, Allie would hate her for always having the right sympathetic emotion to toss out there when needed. Allie shrugged.

“Come on, we’ve got to go out there sometime. Might as well get it over with,” Eve coaxed.

Allie’s laugh sounded forced, even to her own ears—and her sister was a million and seven times more perceptive than anyone else Allie knew. But she persisted. “It’s fine. God, I can’t believe you think I’m still twisted up over that…that…airport thing.”

“You did cry for three weeks straight, eat your weight—and mine—in Cherry Garcia ice cream, and play Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits until the CD melted. I think we both know you were crushed when he came home to Merilee.”

It hadn’t helped when Allie realized that it had been Merilee—Justin’s high school sweetheart and psycho bitch from hell—to whom Eve had been speaking in the restroom that day, and when the beyotch finished trying to swallow Justin’s tongue, she’d turned and winked at Allie.

“But then I turned up the Miranda Lambert and moved on.” Or at least, learned to pretend Justin’s non-betrayal—because he’d never considered her his girl at all—hadn’t meant anything. But the truth was, she had been devastated. And embarrassed. And mortified. And heartbroken.

Gah! Enough. It totally didn’t matter that Justin Morgan had broken her heart eight long years ago. That was water under the bridge. She was fine now. She’d had boyfriends—lots of boyfriends—and she was way past being the naive teenager who’d taken the casual words of a far-off, lonely soldier to heart.

Allie couldn’t care less that Justin Morgan was in the same state, same county—or even the same room—as her because her give-a-damn had broken a long time ago.

“Let’s go sample the moonshine.”

Eve laughed and opened the door for Allie to lead the way to the ballroom. “Don’t let Mother hear you compare Blue Mountain bourbon to moonshine. She’ll make you sleep in the rickhouse.”

“If she’d get her head out of the seventies, she might appreciate what I’m trying to tell her about Blue Mountain and white dog.”

“Not tonight, Allie, please?”

“Fine.” But she’d find a way to get her baby whiskey to market with or without the support of Blue Mountain.

“I think Justin’s dad’s about to make his toast,” Eve said, pulling Allie toward their table near the dance floor. Lorena pursed her lips when her daughters approached. As they took their seats and apologized to their mother for their tardiness, Justin’s father, the current CEO of Blue Mountain Bourbon , stood and tapped the microphone.

Damn. She’d known this was coming, and she appreciated it—her whole family did—but… Allie took a deep breath and let it out slowly, keeping her eyes wide so that any tears might pool in her lower lids but not spill.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to thank you all for being here tonight to celebrate the love my parents have for each other. We’ve already toasted their anniversary, and we’re going to get to the dancing here in just a minute, but I’d like to take a minute to honor another family member who isn’t with us tonight.”

The crowd, seated at banquet tables around the room, quieted. They knew what was coming, too.

From the corner of her eye, Allie saw Justin make his way to the back of the room, toward the bar. She couldn’t have missed him, even though she might have pretended to try. She turned to look at him fully. He was, impossibly, more handsome than he’d ever been. Still tall, still muscular, light brown hair a little longer than he’d worn it before. Tonight, his broad shoulders seemed more rigid than straight. Even through the mud-colored glasses of her own hurt feelings, she recognized that his carefree flirting in the coatroom hadn’t been the natural reflex she remembered. War had changed him. As she stared, he looked straight at her.

She smiled, saucily. Or at least, that’s what she tried for.

He held her eyes for a long moment, and though she knew he’d always been a player, that he didn’t really see her any differently from any other woman he’d ever known, her blood heated when he carried that gaze to body parts her dress was supposed to keep hidden.

Then he gave the briefest of nods and turned away.

His father continued, “Ten years ago, my son Brandon graduated from Crockett County High School. He was followed a year later by his brother, Justin, and their best friend, David McGrath. As you know, Brandon went to UK and then came home to take his place at Blue Mountain, right at a time we needed him most.”

Lorena stiffened at the reminder of how Eve and Allie’s dad had died and left the BMB’s finances in precarious shape.

But Clyde had never blamed Lorena for what was in the past, the business was recovering, and he went on with his speech. “Justin and David took another path.”

Everyone turned to look at Justin, who, shoulders tense, kept his gaze fixed on the parquet floor, waiting for his drink.

“The Morgans and McGraths have a long tradition, of not only making the finest bourbon in Kentucky, but of serving our country with honor. Our boys always came home, usually with a chest full of medals and a wealth of stories.”

Allie gave up, relaxed her face, and accepted the Kleenex that Eve handed to her. She resisted the urge to turn and see if Justin was still there or if he’d escaped. Waiters were making their way through the room, putting small red, white, and blue gift bags on every table.

“Two years ago, however, we learned that United States Marine Corps Sergeant David Sean McGrath had been killed in Afghanistan.”

Next to her, Eve sniffled. Allie reached out a hand, which her sister took. A gentle touch sent a warm shiver through her. She jerked to see Justin brush past. Had that been on purpose? He didn’t look back at her as he sat down two tables away.

“So in honor of the life of Sergeant Dave McGrath, I’d like to introduce our newest bourbon, Dangerous Dave’s 8-Ball, which is from the last batch David was home to distill, from a small pot still that he and Justin set up and ran while they were both here on leave. We’re incredibly grateful to have Justin home to keep the brand alive, and look forward to his future contributions to Blue Mountain Bourbon.”

Allie turned her head in time to see Justin straighten, reaching for the bag at the table next to him. He pulled out the half-pint bottle that all the guests would take home, a miniature of the fifth that his father held up at the front of the room.

“So without further ado, here’s to you, Sergeant McGrath!” Clyde held up his glass, and everyone else in the room did the same.

Except Justin. Allie watched as Justin unscrewed the top of the little bottle and poured half of it straight down his throat.

Then he lowered the bottle, watching Allie, and put the lid back on. She felt the heat in her belly spreading through her limbs, as though she’d downed her own shot. He didn’t look away until Clara Horvath stopped next to his chair and groped his arm, clearly admiring his impressive muscles. He grinned at the over-perfumed old lady and opened up a can of the famous Morgan family charm, complete with that grin. He said something that Allie couldn’t hear, but it made the old woman purse her lips, then smile and smack him on the shoulder.

As Allie’s mother claimed her attention, she thought she saw Justin look over at her again.

Allie poured her own generous slug of Dangerous Dave into a glass before she drank it.

***

“You could just ask her to dance,” Brandon said, dropping into a chair at the big round table.

Justin leaned back and drained his third—or maybe it was his fourth, it didn’t really matter, it wouldn’t be his last—shot of Blue Mountain bourbon of the night. Not counting the two or three ounces of 8-Ball he’d chugged. He watched the “her” in question—or rather, he watched her hips—doing some sort of intricate sway and wiggle as she danced with his second cousin’s boyfriend’s four-year-old. “I don’t think so,” he finally said.

He was considering it, an hour ago, before he realized she was Dave’s little sister. Allie Fucking McGrath? No way.

“What’s the problem?” Brandon asked. “It’s just Allie. She doesn’t bite.”

The legs of his chair hit the ground with a thud. “Oh, hell no.”

“Why not? She’s single.”

“She’s…hot.”

Brandon looked at Justin like he’d sprouted an extra pair of eyes. “Why is that a problem? You knew this, right?”

“I never… I mean, I saw pictures on Facebook a few years ago, but after Dave died, I just didn’t…” He couldn’t bear to see what was going on at home. So he never looked. He figured he’d see sorrow and accusation staring back at him.

But he couldn’t ignore her anymore, because he’d made a promise. He was home now, so he had to man up and follow through.

They ignore her, treat her like she’s a little kid, Dave had said. Make sure she’s gonna be okay.

From where Justin was sitting, she was more than okay. And she certainly wasn’t the little kid he remembered. Little Allie McGrath had followed Dave and him around, complaining that all Eve wanted to do was play Barbies. Allie wanted in on their football, video, or God help him, war games. Or she needed help with her latest scheme to earn a million dollars. He’d somehow always gotten suckered into playing along with those—but who wouldn’t have agreed to help hold a car wash for horses? It’s not like anyone ever showed up to get their horse washed, and he’d get to sit in a lawn chair and avoid yard work while he “helped” Allie.

When the hell had she grown up? She’d been sweet when she was in high school, writing to him and sending him packages. But then she must have gotten interested in some boy here in Crockett County, because the mail dried up. By then, the war had taken all of his attention and energy. And then it had taken his soul.

And now, here he was. Nothing to offer but his own nightmares, so maybe if he fulfilled his promise to Dave…maybe he could get some sleep. He hoped she needed something easy…wallpaper, paint, hell—he’d even donate a kidney. As long as he could do it and get the hell out of Crockett County before he lost his shit.

But there she was, just a few feet away on the dance floor, distracting him from the ever-present rumble of military vehicles and explosions that lived behind his eyes.

Damn. Curves dipping, swaying—and occasionally jiggling—setting a kid down, laughing when he kissed her cheek and ran back to his mom.

He nodded to another family friend, here to drink a toast or three for Gran and Grandpa Morgan’s anniversary. What could have been a pleasant evening, with flowing booze and a decent band, had been wrecked with the kick in the balls that was the introduction of Dave’s memorial bourbon brand—and gee, Dad, thanks for adding on the little dig about how he was expected to stick around and work at the fucking miserable booze factory.

There wasn’t a chance in hell that he’d stay in Crockett County long enough to help bottle a case of bourbon, much less run an entire division, which was what his father wanted—had wanted for him since he was old enough to walk. Nope, he was out of here and on the next flight to smoke-jumper school as soon as the rest of the family left for Grandma and Gramps’s anniversary cruise.

Until the band started playing Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us,” and Allie danced. Then the previously sedate evening went from party to par-tay, and Justin’s night got a lot more complicated. How the hell was he supposed to look out for this girl? She was supposed to still be an awkward teenager. Not this…this poster girl for dirty thoughts. He had to get out of town. Sooner rather than later. He ordered another drink from a passing waiter, but it didn’t cool him off or in any other way stop him from wanting to pick Allie up and drag her out of the reception hall to see if she wore a thong under that dress, as he suspected. There was no panty line at the leg, but maybe something at her waist… He groaned when she turned toward him, and he was able to confirm that whatever she had on the bottom, she couldn’t possibly be wearing a bra.

“Where’s your girlfriend?” Justin asked Brandon, trying to divert his attention elsewhere.

“Ah, that’s over,” Brandon said, pulling his phone out and tapping the screen in an obvious attempt to close the subject.

“Whoa, what happened? I thought you were hot and heavy with…um…Cheryl?”

“Charlene. And I thought we were, too. But apparently my idea of hot and heavy and hers don’t mesh. It seems I’m boring.”

Justin looked at his older brother. They shared the same parents, the same basic genes, but where Justin was the meathead, muscle-bound oaf, Brandon was the long, lean brainiac. From his medium-short brown hair to his tidy but not obsessively neat attire, Brandon was…pretty average.

“Buddy,” Justin finally said, “you’re not boring, you just haven’t met the perfect woman yet.”

“You mean the perfectly dull girl?” Brandon gestured at Allie. “I’m not seeing someone like Allie for me. Now, you, on the other hand—you could handle all that energy.”

“Not in a million years.” Although it might just happen in his fantasies, if he wasn’t careful.

A couple stopped by his chair to shake his hand and welcome him home. He managed to “Hey-how-ya-doin’-good-ta-see-ya” them without getting stuck hearing about the man’s own Semper Fi memories.

Then Grandpa attempted something that might have been a geriatric version of twerking and backed into Allie, whose four-inch heels went out from under her. Her legs flew into the air, and she landed on her luscious backside, sprawled in front of Justin.

Laughing, she looked up. Her green eyes sparkled in the light from the disco ball, wild strawberry-blond hair winning the battle against whatever hairdo thing she’d used to hold it all twisted up on her head. She was, indeed, wearing a thong. A red one. “Um, oops.” She tugged her skirt down, but not quite far enough.

Justin’s bourbon-marinated reflexes were a little slow, but he still beat Brandon to the punch and helped Allie to her feet. He ignored his brother’s smirk.

And Allie’s smile. He understood that it had been too sad at Blue Mountain for too long. But he had no business being on the receiving end of that sweet, hot gaze.

Once she was steady on her feet, he grabbed his suit jacket from the back of his chair and escaped through a nearby door onto the patio.

The cool April night allowed his presence. Not welcoming, but not a cold tolerance, either. Justin stared out over the gently rolling hills of the golf course to the McMansions beyond, at warm, lighted windows protecting the families inside from weather and reality. Through the picture window of the nearest house, lights of a giant flat screen TV flickered. From where he stood, it looked like a video game with a lot of explosions was in progress.

He thought of his brothers-in-arms who would be freezing their asses off somewhere on patrol, if it was night in Afghanistan—or sweating their balls off if it wasn’t—so those kids could play World of Warcraft on leather couches while their Botoxed, siliconed soccer moms fed them healthy snacks and Ritalin.

He thought of Dave, who wasn’t sweating or freezing anywhere anymore.

The door behind Justin opened, letting out a wedge of light chased with music and conversation. He didn’t turn to see who it was, but a faint herbal scent preceded the appearance of Allie a few feet away. Think of the devil, and his sister appears.

The clip of her footsteps slowed, as though she was uncertain about the wisdom of speaking to him. He didn’t blame her.

Warmth seeped through his suit coat and shirtsleeve as she neared. “Are you okay?” She entered his field of view, and the visions of Afghanistan faded from his memory.

She wasn’t wearing anything over that curve-hugging dress, and she shivered a little, making him want to put an arm around her shoulder. Just to keep her warm.

“Sure, Sneezy, just thinking about finding a cigar.” He used the nickname they’d saddled Allegra with when she was a kid on purpose, to remind himself that this was his dead best friend’s baby sister and not his own personal siren.

Her vaguely husky laugh wound through his buzz, stirring his blood. “You’ll have to sneak farther than the patio for a smoke. The Ladies Who Lunch have forbidden tobacco products within a hundred yards of the clubhouse.”

“You’re kidding. Half their membership dues have been paid by tobacco money.”

Allie shrugged, a move that drew his eye to her cleavage. He couldn’t help himself—he was conditioned to pay attention to danger, and those breasts were a hazard to his sanity.

She caught his glance and blushed as she tugged self-consciously at the neckline.

“Are you okay after that fall inside?” he asked. To have something to do besides ogle her, he pulled a flask from his jacket pocket.

“More or less.” She took the flask from his hand and tipped it to soft pink lips. Her nipples would be the same color, he realized. She poured a healthy shot of bourbon down her throat and swallowed without a grimace.

Atta girl.

“That toast your dad made was nice,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“David would have thought it was wack, but I bet he would have liked the name of the bourbon.”

“Yeah.” He should say something more, but his tongue felt thick. The subject of Dave paralyzed his vocal cords.

“Brandon said you’re leaving in a few days to start training as a smoke jumper or something out West?”

“Yep.” That was a better subject. Almost. “One of my buddies has a cousin who contracts with the Forest Service.”

One perfect eyebrow rose. “It’s gonna be hard to be the brand manager for Dangerous Dave’s if you’re putting out forest fires, isn’t it?”

He took the flask back and capped it, sliding it into his jacket. “My dad’s making assumptions I’m going to work here. I didn’t agree to that.” Which was an understatement, but that was a battle for another day.

She put her hands on her hips. “No one bothered to ask me if I was interested in the job, but I guess that’s ’cause they were saving it for you.”

“Maybe they will now.” Maybe he could make that happen for her, get her the job, and then his “look out for Allie” promise would be fulfilled. “Anyway, I have the job out West all lined up, so…”

“Why?” Her sweet nose wrinkled in confusion. “Why would you get out of one war just to go back into another crazy, dangerous job?”

He thought about telling her the truth. That it was all he was good at. That everything here—all this quiet comfort and normality—would strangle him if he stayed. Or he would explode all over and tarnish it. Instead, he said, “Eh, I guess I’ve developed a taste for adrenaline. Big money, big adventure…” Her soft green eyes told him she wasn’t buying it.

They were both quiet then, glances meeting and then caroming away. Awkwardness began to settle through the night air. Justin shuffled his foot, and a loose pebble rolled down the steps. He cleared his throat, wanting to ask what she needed, what he had to do to fulfill his promise to Dave to look out for her. The strains of some old Barry Manilow song drifted from the dance floor. Instead of turning to go back inside, she stepped closer and twined long, slender arms around his neck.

***

Allie wasn’t sure what had made her follow Justin outside. Testing herself, she supposed. The extra shot of bourbon after his father’s toast might have something to do with her compulsion to make a fool of herself, too. And the slug from the flask was definitely responsible for her current position, pressed against the hard planes of his chest.

His hands came up to curve around her waist.

This was crazy. But… “I believe you invited me to dance.”

“Probably not a good idea,” he murmured, as he pulled her closer and slid his hands farther over her hips, up her back. He didn’t sway to the music, but his body was a solid column of heat, and somehow their feet moved them in a slow circle.

The sound of the party inside was faint against the sound of her own sigh. She was slow dancing with Justin Morgan. His shoulders were hard curves beneath her hands, shifting slightly as he moved. “I should have recognized you earlier,” he said.

“Would that have been good or bad?” Did she really want to know? Did he see past the dorky teenager she’d been to the hopefully more sophisticated woman she wanted the world to see?

“I don’t know, babe.” His low chuckle sent a thrill through her. “You’re probably safer if I remember you’re off-limits.”

“Why am I off-limits?”

Her heel caught in a space between two stones, but she thought she heard him say something about “difficult promises” while she wobbled and tipped forward, her body pressing more fully against his and her face tipping up. “Whoa!” She was caught by his gaze, direct and deep.

His eyes reflected the midnight sky, and something else…desire. But was it just a mirror of her own want? Off-limits, he’d said…

They weren’t turning to the music anymore. Standing still, breath foggy in the dark, bodies aligned, his lips were close. Too close. She shifted, and felt—oh God—his erection, pressing against her belly.

And he was still looking at her.

Her lips parted, tongue darting out to touch her suddenly hypersensitive lower lip. His eyes telegraphed his intent before he bent his head toward her, brushing his lips against hers, lighting a fire in the cold spring night. A small kiss, barely a touch, but she felt it all the way to her core—not just between her legs, but somewhere farther inside, deeper, somewhere not on any anatomy chart.

She gasped as he took the kiss deeper, his lips coaxing hers apart, his tongue sliding in against her own. He tasted of Blue Mountain bourbon, heat, and need.

Allie felt a wall at her back; somehow they’d maneuvered themselves close to the building. Rough brick caught at her skirt when he pulled at the silky fabric, sliding his thigh between hers.

Moaning, she leaned into his leg, the firm muscle only increasing her need to press against him. The ache rose, fast and high, and her legs began to tremble, to tighten.

She reached between them and ran her hand over the front of his pants, feeling him hard under her stroking fingers. He groaned and thrust into her hand. She wanted to reach for his belt buckle to release all that power, but there was a roomful of family just a few feet away. If they took the time to find somewhere more private, this moment would end—this moment that had been a lifetime in the making.

He whispered something against her skin and she clutched him tighter.

“Oh my God, Justin, I’m going to— I’m about to—”

“You’re so fucking hot. Jesus.” His kiss traveled away from her mouth, over her jaw to her neck, muttering, “That’s my girl, ride my leg.”

The words hit Allie like a burning glass of rotgut, sending remembered shame and humiliation coursing through her veins. She’d misconstrued those words—“my girl”—once before, and then heard them directed toward someone else.

“No!” She pushed him away.

“What the hell?” Confusion was quickly replaced by horror. “Oh, fuck. I’m sorry. That was so out of line. I can’t believe I—we—”

She held up a palm to forestall any more discussion.

He ran a hand down his face, then rubbed the back of his neck, staring at the ground. He didn’t look at her, panting.

Pulling at her clothes, she straightened her skirt and tucked a few bits of hair behind her ear. There was no way she was going back into the party like this. A stairway led to a lower-level terrace and the parking lot beyond that. She was too tipsy to drive home, but one of the valets would call her a cab. She just needed to get away right now.

“I’ve got to go,” she said, starting for the stairs.

“Wait. Babe, I’m sorry.”

She stopped and looked at him for a moment.

“I just got carried away—it’s been so long since—and I’ve had a lot to drink, so—”

“Yeah, Justin, that’s not helping. Go back to the party.” She reached the top step and her damned heel caught again, pitching her forward. Just before she toppled over the top step, Justin caught her arm, pulling her back. She regained her footing, but he began to fall forward.

He twisted partially around in midair, but not far enough. His right shoulder slammed against the railing before he bounced headfirst toward the landing below.

It was surreal—this was completely different from Afghanistan. There was no gunfire, no screams of pain from burned marines, no fucking dust—not a speck. The ambulance was clean and white and everyone called him “sir.” But that patch—MEDIC—and those gloves—those blue plastic gloves. Justin was afraid to look at the empty cot on the other side of the aisle, afraid to see Dave’s bloodied remains still beneath a white sheet.

Through a haze of pain, Justin saw his mother hike her fancy dress up to her knees and clamber into the back of the ambulance. He tried to smile at her, but was afraid he’d only produced a grimace. She didn’t smile back, but sat down in the seat indicated by the EMT and took the hand that didn’t have an IV needle embedded in it.

His leg throbbed—okay, sent daggers of excruciating pain through him—steadily, and there was some concern about a head injury, he thought someone said. It was more likely that his confusion and slurred speech were a side effect of booze, but he wasn’t going to beg for pain relief, knowing that might lead him to do something stupid. Like call out to Allie.

Before the doors shut, Justin noticed her standing a few feet away. She was pale and trembling, lips pressed together as she stared at him. He forced his lips into something closer to a real smile for her, because the sight of her furrowed brow—over him—did something to his insides that he couldn’t bear to examine. A combination of shame at his own behavior and a desire to touch her again—and to go further next time.

Brandon appeared behind her, raising his chin in Justin’s direction, indicating that he’d take care of her. Of course he would; Brandon was the big brother. The responsible one. But as the ambulance ground into gear and the siren began to wail, Justin wondered what vibe he’d given off that made his brother think he needed to take care of Allie for him. But that’s what Brandon did. Took care of the things everyone else couldn’t, wouldn’t, or just plain didn’t do.

As soon as they were under way, Justin’s mother pulled her hand from his and smacked him on the arm. “What were you thinking?”

Oh, shit. Had his mother seen him molesting Allie on the patio? He’d thought they’d been in the shadows before he kissed her, but—

“I can’t believe you drank so much. I hope you have a hangover that hurts more than your leg.”

Oh. Well. Overindulgence was something he was well acquainted with. “Sorry, Mom.”

“Yeah. Well…” She started to cry.

The EMT handed her a tissue and went back to writing something on a clipboard. Crying mothers were probably just part of a day’s work for him.

“Ah, hell, Mom. Don’t cry. I’m sorry. I just…I didn’t eat any lunch today, and—”

She smacked him again. “Don’t bullshit me. I saw how much you drank. I just wish…I wish you would talk to me instead of trying to self-anesthetize. Or, if you can’t talk to me, because I just don’t ‘get it,’ talk to your dad. Or your brother. Or one of those veterans support groups.”

Oh, fuck. This wasn’t about getting drunk at Grandma and Grandpa’s anniversary party. And there was nothing he was going to say that would satisfy her belief in the power of the all-knowing psychotherapist.

So he just took her hand, and said, “I love you too, Ma. I’ll be okay.” Somehow. At least, he’d learn to fake it better.

“You can talk to your dad, you know. He loves you very much, and it hurts him that you won’t give him a chance.”

Justin couldn’t suppress the snort that rose from somewhere below his pancreas. “I’m pretty sure Dad would’ve been much happier with identical Brandons.”

“That’s absolutely not true. He pushed you more when you were younger because he knows how much you’re capable of. Brandon…pushed himself.”

“See? It would have been easier to have two Brandons.” Justin was rethinking that plan to forgo begging for morphine. Where had that medic gone?

“If only you had a special someone here to settle down with,” Mom said. “I suspect you noticed what a lovely young lady Allie’s grown into.”

If she only knew how much he’d noticed, how much Allie was already fucking with his drive to get the hell away from Blue Mountain and everything about this place that fed his personal hell.

Mom smiled. “Maybe you should spend some time with her before you decide definitively about your future.”