One Night with a Hero
a Heroes novel by Laura Kaye
After growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father, Army Special Forces Sgt. Brady Scott vowed never to marry or have kids. Sent stateside to get his head on straight—and his anger in check—Brady’s looking for a distraction. He finds it in his beautiful new neighbor’s one-night-only offer for hot sex, but her ability to make him forget is addictive. Suddenly, Brady’s not so sure he can stay away.
…what they need is each other.
Orphaned as a child, community center director Joss Daniels swore she’d never put herself in a position to be left behind again, but she can’t deny herself one sizzling night with the sexy soldier who makes her laugh and kisses her senseless. When Joss discovers she’s pregnant, Brady’s rejection leaves her feeling abandoned. Now, they must overcome their fears before they lose the love and security they’ve found in each other, but can they let go of the past to create a future together?
Praise for One Night with a Hero:
“Laura Kaye is synonymous with great, sexy romance.”
- New York Times Bestselling author Jennifer Probst
© 2012 Laura Kaye
Brady Scott ran down the Mount Vernon trail, the breeze off the Potomac River offering little relief from the late afternoon sun. The rush of blood through his ears, the rhythmic dull thud of silenced dog tags against his bare chest, the constant overhead roar of airplanes landing at Reagan National Airport—none of it was any use. He couldn’t get the therapist’s most recent assignment out of his head.
Get closure with your father.
Stationed back in the country three months with orders to get his head on straight if he wanted to go up for promotion, and it all came down to daddy issues.
Son of a bitch.
As if it wasn’t bad enough being forced to see a therapist. There was no making yourself okay with the things Joseph Scott had done. Every mark Brady’s little sister, Alyssa, had worn on her skin, every tear she’d spilled in fright, every wide-eyed help me gaze she’d ever thrown his way had sliced into Brady’s heart until he was certain it lay shredded in his chest. He’d been old enough to fight back and defend himself, but Alyssa never stood a chance against their dad.
His stomach soured and churned at the memories. If that was the shit “love” led to, he wanted no part of it, thank you very much.
The trail dumped him into Old Town Alexandria, which was nicer for the shade the buildings and trees along Union Street provided, but more challenging for the crowds of people that thronged the sidewalks, and the rush of traffic that paid no heed to pedestrians. Brady bit out a curse as he dodged a minivan circling for parking and crossed the street, where the sidewalk brought him along Founders Park, a long strip of green that bordered Alexandria’s waterfront. The park was crowded with groups staking out real estate in the grass with lawn chairs, blankets, and coolers.
Brady slowed to a jog, then to a walk as he came up behind a family pushing a stroller. “What’s going on tonight?”
The father glanced at Brady’s ID tags and gave him a smile. “Labor Day fireworks at sunset.”
“Oh, yeah?” He was halfway through the ten-mile trail he’d sketched out. Maybe he’d come back down after grabbing a quick shower. Assuming he could find towels. And the shower curtain. He hadn’t exactly unpacked after moving in to his new town house last night. And then it had been the ass crack of dawn before he’d gotten home from celebrating his new digs with the guys.
He was about to kick it back into a run when he saw her.
A woman sitting on a blanket removed from the mass of people. Arms around her knees, chin resting on an arm, forgotten book at her side.
She was all long lines and sun-kissed skin, and Brady couldn’t stop looking. Wavy dark hair twisted on top of her head. A wide-necked white shirt exposed a long column of throat and most of one shoulder. Crossed at the ankles, the part of her legs not covered by the long skirt were tanned and toned.
Love, he wanted no part of. Lust, however, was a welcome old friend.
His mind churning on a plan, he braced his hands on his hips and debated how to approach her.
Her gaze swung around. Brady sucked in a breath. He would’ve thought those green eyes the most beautiful he’d ever seen, if they hadn’t been glassy with tears. She blinked and looked away.
His brain shifted gears and he walked toward her before he’d even thought to do it, concern a growing weight on his chest and anger at whoever hurt her searing his gut. Neither made any sense, really, but he never could stand to see a girl cry. Hell, that instinct went way back. “Hey, you all right?”
She cast him a sidelong glance. “Peachy, thanks.”
What’s the attitude for? Caught off guard by the sarcasm in her tone, he dragged a hand through his hair and noticed hers had pink highlights mixed in with the rich brown. “Uh—”
“Look.” Her grip tightened around her knees. “I appreciate the Good Samaritan routine and all, but I’m not looking for a hero today. Capisce?”
The hard edge to her tone was full of stubbornness and challenge. So much for trying to be the good guy. “Capisce? Seriously? Did we just step into The Godfather and I didn’t know it?”
She rose in one fluid movement and brushed at the thin colorful skirt, a wrist full of bracelets jingling as she moved. A cascade of stars tattooed the skin behind a heavily pierced ear. “And what’s wrong with The Godfather? It’s one of the top ten movies of all time.”
He drank in all her details, assessing and weighing her as if she were any other adversary he’d determined to figure out. About his age, he’d guess. “You like The Godfather?”
Standing on the edge of her blanket, she gave him a once-over that made his bare skin go hot. “Yeah. And what of it, sailor?”
He narrowed his gaze, his internal temperature kicking up another few degrees. “I got no beef with The Godfather, but I’m not a sailor.” Fuckin’ A, he couldn’t tell if they were fighting or flirting, but these running shorts were about to make it crystal clear his body believed it was the latter.
She shook her head and looked at him, all hint of those tears long gone, the bright green of her eyes still stunning. In bare feet, she stepped into the grass and closed the four-foot gap between them. Brady’s gaze was torn between watching her curvy body move and reading the ink that decorated the side of her foot. Her body won out, the way the thin cotton shirt shaped around her full breasts capturing his attention. She stopped in front of him, and his body went on alert, shoulders tense and muscles tight—not out of fear, but out of anticipation. The tats, the piercings, the hard wariness in her gaze, and the challenging tilt to her chin gave her a tough edge that was just shy of beautiful, but man was he was more than sold.
She flicked at his ID tags with her fingers and arched a brow. “I can see that.”
The army was the only service that didn’t spell out its acronym on the tags. Someone knew her military trivia. A fact that made her equal parts more interesting and more annoying. “Which is why you said it.”
She licked her lips. “Now you’re getting the picture.”
Jesus, her tongue was pierced. Could this chick get any hotter? He wanted to pull her in and see if that mouth tasted as sweet as it looked. And bonus that it would cut off the stream of sarcasm she’d been dishing out. He tucked his hands in his pockets and chuffed out a humorless laugh. “Why are you messing with me?”
She pressed those ruby reds together, turning the smile he could’ve sworn she’d almost given him into a smirk. “Because you’re an easy target.”
“I’m an easy target? I think you have me confused with some other squid.” Five years in the Army Special Forces, and Brady hadn’t suffered a single injury. An easy target was the last thing he was. Not all his buddies had been so lucky, though, like his best friend, Marco. A good guy through and through, and yet he’d been injured so severely he’d been medically discharged and still struggled with his recovery—all while someone like Brady got off without a scratch. How fucking fair was that? His fists curled and he clamped down on the anger his thoughts unleashed.
“Nope. Just talking about you.” Without a backward glance, she returned to her blanket. Damn if that skirt didn’t hint at the very fine smart-ass beneath.
Brady shifted to hide his body’s reaction to her, sure she was going to look his way again, but she didn’t. She stretched out on her stomach, kicked her ankles up, and crossed them—revealing more leg in the process as her skirt pooled behind her knees—and grabbed her book.
What-the-fuck-ever. He scrubbed his hand over his short hair and after a moment of indecision, made for the brick sidewalk. When was the last time he’d been turned on, pissed off, amused, and embarrassed all at the same time? Being in her presence was like riding a roller coaster in the dark, totally unaware of whether a hill, a sharp turn, or a frickin’ free fall was coming at you next.
“Hey, sailor boy?”
“Son of a…,” he said under his breath, turning despite himself. He met her amused gaze. She freaking knew she had him in knots. “Yeah?”
Her expression changed, grew more serious. “Just…thanks for asking.”
His heart kicked up in his chest. She could be vulnerable, too, and that gave him hope. “You got it, Pinky.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Seriously?”
He smirked and found himself walking toward her again. She’d taken the bait just like he’d hoped she would. “Don’t like the nickname? Gimme your real name instead.” He crossed his arms and watched an array of expressions pass over her face.
She pretended disinterest and returned her focus to her open book, which—ding ding ding, now we’re talking—was upside down in her hands.
He crouched down in front of her and grabbed the book. “It might help”—he made a big show of turning the book right side up and placing it back in her fingers—“if you read it this way.”
Laughter spilled out of her and she dropped her face behind the open pages, shoulders shaking. The sound was deep and throaty, and the tension melted out of Brady’s neck. Finally, she glanced back up, smiling so freely all the toughness fell away, leaving an exotically beautiful woman. If Brady hadn’t been hooked before, wanting to hear that sound and see that smile shape those full, dark red lips reeled him right in. It was an odd reaction for him, which made her a particularly good distraction. She’d kept him guessing more than anyone he’d met in a long time.
He tapped his fingers against the back of the book. “Name.”
The woman grinned up at him for a long moment, then rolled her eyes, which lingered on his bare chest.
Brady arched an eyebrow. “Name.”
She heaved a sigh like she was all put out. “Joss.”
“Joss. Okay. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? I’m Brady.”
Joss pushed into a sitting position and tucked her legs under the pink-and-green tie-dyed skirt. The tattoo on her foot he’d glimpsed earlier read “courage” in elegant script. Now he was not only attracted, but intrigued. This chick was pushing all his buttons.
She tossed her book to the blanket. “Anyone ever tell you you’re kind of a pain in the ass, Brady?”
He managed a rueful grin. “Every damn day.”
“And why is it you sound so proud of that fact?”
He held out his hands and shrugged. “We all have to excel at something.”
She tried to rein in her smile. Failed. “Congratulations, then, I guess?”
“Thanks.” He glanced over his shoulder, toward where the grass was filling with people waiting for the evening’s show, then looked back to her. “You gonna stay for the fireworks?”
“That was the plan.”
“Good. So, pizza, sub sandwiches, or fried chicken?”
“Which one would you prefer I bring back for dinner?”
More of that free laughter spilled from her lips, making a big old show out of her tongue piercing. Man how he’d love a closer inspection of that little silver ball. She shook her head. “You’re not serious.”
“As a heart attack.”
“Okay, well. On the off chance you actually come back, surprise me.”
Brady rose and patted his hand twice over his heart. “Oh, you can count on that. Gimme an hour, ninety minutes tops.”
“Right on, sailor boy.”
He shook his head. “Before the night’s through, we’re gonna cure you of that,” he said, then he turned, hit the sidewalk, and broke into run. All those dark thoughts of his father he hadn’t been able to shake earlier? They were long gone.
Jocelyn Daniels watched the man make his way through the tourists until she couldn’t see him—or his powerful thighs and incredibly well-muscled back—anymore.
Well, that was interesting.
Shaking her head, she stretched out on her blanket. Maybe she should go home. Not because she believed the guy would return, but because her emotions were clearly too close to the surface for public consumption. If only she hadn’t run into Ethan and his freaking new girlfriend at the store this morning.
Apparently it was just her he wasn’t ready to commit to. Because the woman’s round belly and glittering ring finger sure as hell looked like commitment to Jocelyn.
It would be really nice if, just once, someone wanted to keep her.
So not helpful, Joss. Cut it out. But she couldn’t help it. Seeing Ethan happily devoted to another woman seemed further proof that men would always leave her.
She sighed and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
To be honest, though, she felt a lot better after the run-in with Brady. He’d been an unexpected distraction. And it never hurt to be flirted with, especially when the guy was so…really, really freaking hot. And funny. And kind of annoyingly endearing.
Yeah. That definitely explained her lighter mood.
She retrieved her novel, her gaze going unfocused as she remembered the embarrassment of being caught holding it upside down. Thank God he hadn’t noticed what it was about. She hid her growing smile behind the book, her mind going back to the sight of him.
Sailor boy. The nickname tugged at Joss’s cheeks. Tall. Built. Light-brown hair kissed by the sun with a hint of blond. All that lean, bare muscle. The way his running shorts had hung low enough to reveal the cut of his hips. Sex on a freaking stick.
And a soldier to boot. Bet he looked seriously fine in his dress uniform. Panties probably dropped at the mere sight—thongs, too. Maybe even like the one she was currently wearing.
Not that she was actually expecting Brady to return and put her willpower to the test. And that was for the best. Because she suspected he would be a little too much fun to play with and a lot too risky for her fragile ego. Her thong should have nothing to worry about.
Something bumped into her arm, pulling Joss from her thoughts. She glanced up into the smiling eyes of a toddler retrieving a pink plastic ball that had rolled onto her blanket. “Hi, sweetie. Is this yours?”
The little girl with a yellow gingham jumper pointed. “Ball.”
A woman came jogging over. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s all right. Here you go.” She held the ball out and the girl took it in her chubby hands.
“Thanks.” The mom smiled and playfully tugged on the girl’s blond pigtail. “Come on, Emily.”
“Ball!” the girl shouted, holding it up to her mother.
“That’s right,” the woman said.
Joss watched them return to their neighboring blanket, an empty ache forming in her chest. The girl threw the ball in the air and chased it when it bounced.
One day, that would be her. A wife, a mom, having a fun outing with her family. It wasn’t the kind of dream people expected she’d embrace from looking at her. Nothing said June Cleaver like tattoos, piercings, and pink highlights, right? But the two had more in common than was obvious on the surface. When you grew up alone in the world without a family, you had to carve out your own identity. The ink and metal coloring and piercing her skin told the story of that effort, but they didn’t mean she still didn’t yearn for the family.
She sighed and opened her book again. The badass, hard-bodied Navy SEAL in this story rocked her world. Only now, she couldn’t help but imagine a certain flirtatious soldier in the hero’s place. That didn’t hurt one bit.
Soon, the words sucked her in, drew her into a battle scene with a bad guy that made her forget the sun and breeze and growing crowd. Having spent so much time alone, reading had always been her biggest source of escape. When she read, she lost track of what was happening around her. Many times in her life, that had been a damn good thing.
Which is why she didn’t hear him.
“That must be some good book,” a loud—and amused—male voice said.
Joss looked up into Brady’s smiling brown eyes. “Oh,” she said. “Were you…I didn’t…you’re back.”
He smiled, and she shook off the story’s hold on her, surprised to see that the sun was much lower in the sky and park grounds more filled with people. “You doubted me?”
She pushed into a sitting position and drank him in. The gray T-shirt emphasized the hard expanse of his chest and the warmth of his tan, and the khaki cargo shorts allowed her to catch a glimpse of those cut calf muscles again. She worked her gaze up to his face and found him watching her with a smug smile.
Heat roared over her cheeks. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
She eyed the pizza box and brown paper bag in his hands, her heartbeat kicking up in her chest. This guy was ten kinds of damn hot. And he came bearing gifts. Kind of an irresistible combination. “So, what did you bring me?”
“Does that mean I can sit down?”
She bit back a smile. “I suppose.”
Brady placed the food on the blanket and settled himself next to her. He flipped open the box lid. “Half cheese, half pepperoni.” From the bag, he pulled paper plates, two bottles of water, two bags of chips, and two sandwiches wrapped in white butcher paper. “One turkey and cheese, one Italian.”
Forget the food. Joss swallowed the moan she nearly uttered as the breeze kicked up and his scent surrounded her—all fresh soap and clean male. She shook her head and surveyed the feast. “Wow. Thank you. This is enough to feed an army.”
He shrugged and gave her what was almost a sheepish smile, and Joss’s stomach flipped at the appearance of this aw-shucks-good-guy persona, so different from the cocky bad boy he’d mostly shown her so far. “Wanted to be sure there was something here you’d like.”
Oh, she was in so much trouble. This guy was not only handsome and dangerously charming, but considerate, too. And going way out of his way, for her. “Well, I like everything I see,” she said, embracing a bit of brazenness even as her heart fluttered in her chest.
Brady cocked an eyebrow, his brown eyes sparkling with mischief. “Do ya, now?”
She held his gaze for a long moment, heat and competitiveness roaring between them. Finally, she looked away and reached for a bottle of water. He let out an infuriatingly smug chuckle and leaned forward to get it for her. Their hands touched on the bottle. The warmth of his skin sent tingles up her arm and shot her heart into a full-on sprint. His tongue stroked over his lower lip and Joss was suddenly starving, but not for the picnic in front of them.
Wow, this guy was like sexual Red Bull.
Not to mention Ethan had never elicited the wild desire now pounding through Joss’s body, and Brady had barely touched her. Not that there would be touching.
Right. No touching. Absolutely not.
He smirked and grabbed his bottle, taking a long drink that made the knot in his throat bob until she had to look away to restrain the urge to feel the movement with her tongue. Geez, even the chunky black watch on his wrist was sexy. She twisted the cap and tilted the water to her lips. The coolness soothed the heat racking her body.
Get a freaking grip, Joss.
“So, what’s your pleasure?”
She cut her gaze to him, forcing a swallow down. He gestured to the food, but that sparkle was there in his eyes again. Her brain raced on the possible ways she might find pleasure with him. “I’ll start with the pizza,” she managed to say.
They dished out the food, two slices for her, one slice and half of the Italian sandwich for him. As they made small talk, she inhaled the pizza, not realizing how hungry she’d been until she started to eat. The crust had just the right crunch to it, the sauce just the right spice. Delicious.
“There’s something about having a picnic that makes the food taste better,” she said as she took a small third slice of pizza.
“I’ve eaten plenty of meals outside that weren’t as nice as this. I think it’s the company more than the location.” He popped open a bag of chips and extended it toward her.
She reached in and retrieved a handful, not sure why she’d accepted when she was getting so full. Because you can’t say no to him, especially when he’s being all…cute and…charming. You. Are. In. So. Much. Trouble. “Thanks,” she said. Caught in a moment of awkwardness, Joss sipped at her water. “So, uh…” She scrambled for a topic. “Do you run a lot?”
He shrugged. “Most days.”
That sure explained his body, which radiated power and leashed strength even as he relaxed next to her. “I really suck at running.”
Brady gave her the closest thing to a full smile she’d seen. And damn if it wasn’t endearing, especially with the way his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I do. I feel like I’m dying after about five minutes. I don’t know how you do it.”
He wiped his mouth with the napkin, then stuffed it in the bag with the rest of his trash. “I thought I was in shape when I entered basic training. First PT run—what you just said? That was exactly how I felt. I think I only got through it because my buddy hauled my ass the last mile. That and my drill sergeant might’ve been the devil.”
She chuckled, getting reeled in a little bit more by his self-deprecation when undoubtedly he no longer had that problem. And probably never did. “Nothing like the devil to make you haul ass, huh?”
“That’s the damn truth. So, are you sated yet?”
He quirked a crooked grin. “All done?”
He pointed to the spread in front of them, but Joss had enough experience to recognize a smooth talker when she saw one. “You playing with me?”
“No, ma’am.” He nailed her with a serious expression. “Not yet.”
Heat roared over her cheeks. How he managed to infuse that military politeness she loved into something so laden with innuendo she had no idea. But the tingles skittering over her skin sure meant she liked it. She chuffed out a laugh. “Bad, bad news,” she muttered.
“Nothing you need to know, sailor boy.” She looked at him from under her lashes to make sure he knew she was just riding him. Her hands fumbled the trash she was gathering as an arresting image gripped her—her, riding him, as in… Geez, Joss. There will be no riding. Get. A. Grip.
Why not? an insidious little voice whispered.
She released a shaky breath and busied her hands with the trash. “I am done. Thanks a lot for bringing all this. Can I give you some money for it?”
“Not a chance. You provided the blanket. I provided the food. We’re square.” He pushed the leftover food to the side and collected the trash. “Be right back.”
It was damn near impossible to drag her gaze away from his ass as he maneuvered between the blankets and chairs to the trash can, but she needed to do something before he returned. She grabbed her phone and sent her best friend a text message.
Met someone named Brady at fireworks. Just talking. But if you don’t hear from me by midnight have the police look for my body parts at Founders Park.
Brady settled down beside her.
She dropped her phone into her lap. “So, how long are you stationed in the area?”
He braced his forearms on his knees. “Two years, give or take. Working for the Army Staff at the Pentagon.”
“Oh, that sounds interesting. And where were you before here?” Her phoned beeped.
“Stationed out of Okinawa, but lots of places from there.”
“You could tell me but then you’d have to kill me?”
He smirked. “Something like that.”
“How long have you been in?”
“A little over five years.” He fingered a design in the condensation on his bottle of water. “What do you do?”
Her phone beeped again. “I help run a community center for disadvantaged kids.”
“Yeah? Working with kids, that’s…really great. Admirable.”
Joss appreciated the sentiment coming from someone who did what he did. “The kids make it fun,” she said as her cell beeped a third time. She picked up the phone and gave Brady a sheepish smile. “Sorry. Let me reassure my friend you’re not a serial killer.”
He chuckled. “What time did you give her before she should call the police?”
Heat flooded her cheeks. “Well, now, if I told you that, then you’d know how long to wait until you could stuff me in the back of your nondescript van.”
Smiling, he nodded. “Right.”
She opened Christina’s messages.
The first one read: Woman! I need deets!
Then: Ooh, Brady’s a good name.
Finally: Be safe. Use a condom. And don’t forget to call me!!! Also, DEETS!!!
Joss shook her head. In so many ways, she and Christina Flores were total opposites, but they just clicked. She wrote back, TY! Will do!, then set the phone to vibrate and dropped it to the blanket.
When she lifted her gaze, Brady was watching her. “In all seriousness, I’m glad you did that. But, in case it needs to be said, I’m not a serial killer.”
She couldn’t help her smile. “Good to know. Neither am I.”
“You had me worried,” he said, giving her a wink.
“It’s always the quiet ones.”
“Are you quiet, Joss?”
Joss flinched into his side, her heart racing. She’d been so deep into Brady’s scorching gaze that the explosion of the first firework caught her off guard.
He leaned into her and chuckled. “Jumpy?”
“No,” she said, leaning into him so he could hear her over the constant thunder of the colorful firework display. “Just didn’t realize they were starting already.”
He nodded and turned his gaze to the show. But though her surprise faded, her heart rate never returned to normal. And it had nothing to do with the red, white, and blue starbursts lighting up the sky. A mere inch separated her body from Brady’s, and despite the loud splendor of the fireworks, he dominated her senses. The heat from his arm warmed hers, and made her long for the real heat skin-on-skin contact would bring. Sitting so close, that clean scent she’d noticed earlier, like soap and sun and male, was all she could smell now, and she wondered how much more potent it would be if she pressed her nose, her lips, to his throat, his jaw, his mouth and breathed it in from the source.
Even as Brady sat watching something as simple as fireworks, he didn’t seem to relax. Tension clung to the hard set of his jaw, the tight bunching of his shoulders. He was a big man. Obviously strong, apparently deadly, given his profession. She couldn’t decide if his intensity thrilled her, or scared her just a little. Maybe both.
He glanced over and caught her looking. Joss dropped her gaze and hoped the cover of night hid the heat blooming on her face. When she peeked from under her lashes, he was still watching her.
Her stomach flopped and her hand fisted the soft cotton of the blanket. A tingle ran through her center that made her catch her breath against the sudden urge to push him back, crawl on top of him, and kiss him until all that tension melted out of his body. Right here. Right now. No matter the spectators, or the fact he was nearly a stranger.
A very hot, damn sexy, purportedly non-serial-killer stranger.
She saw her own desire mirrored back at her. Brady’s mouth dropped open and his dark eyes narrowed and blazed in the night.
It took everything she had to return her attention to the fireworks. Or at least pretend to. Because her body jangled with awareness of his until her muscles ached from the strain of holding herself in place. This is crazy. Maybe. Probably. But the dampness between her legs wasn’t the result of the early September heat.
His breath ghosted over her ear, erupting ticklish chills on her neck and arms. “I’m going to kiss you here, Joss.” The tip of his finger skimmed her cheek.
Heart in her throat, she nodded.
Brady pressed a lingering kiss to her cheekbone. Her hands fisted as she struggled not to turn her head and offer her lips. She was already throwing her no-touching admonition out the window.
“Here,” he said, touching her jaw.
She nodded and his lips dragged along the line of her jaw.
“Here, too.” His finger pressed against the soft spot right in front of her ear.
She tilted her head and gave him more space to nuzzle her. Surely he could hear her heartbeat over the fireworks, because she could feel her pulse pound under every inch of her skin.
What the hell was she doing? She should really put a stop to this.
He drew an imaginary line beginning at the indent behind her ear and running down her neck. She nodded without him even asking the question. He chuckled in her ear but then his lips were kissing with the lightest suction down her neck.
Applause erupted around them. Joss snapped out of her haze of lust. Brady pulled back and gave her a look that promised a whole helluva lot more where that came from.
Holy crap. She’d never survive it.
Suddenly, the field was in motion, people packing up their belongings and beelining for their cars. Soon, Old Town would be a gridlocked mess. No use fighting it.
He rose and held out a hand to help her up. She accepted, the surrounding heat of his grip reigniting the trembling need inside her. “Thank you,” she said.
He didn’t let go. “Did you enjoy it?”
She gaped up at him.
Brady’s dark eyes filled with humor and he nodded toward the river. “The fireworks.”
She nailed him with a you’re-so-full-of-shit-even-though-you’re-crazy-hot glare. Or, at least, that’s what she was thinking. “Yeah. Fireworks were great. Were they good for you?”
“Spectacular.” He guided Joss to the side, then bent to lift and fold her blanket.
“Here. I’ll do that.” She accepted it from him and quickly reduced the cotton to a thick square.
“Don’t forget your book.” He retrieved it from the grass, then stopped and angled it at the nearest streetlight. His eyebrows flew up as he turned the cover toward her and pointed. “SEALs?” He sighed and shook his head, affecting a long-suffering expression. He tapped his fingers against the picture. “You know, it’s really hard work posing for all these covers.”
She yanked it from his hands, then whacked him in the stomach with it. “Shut up.” Geez. His stomach was like a brick wall, solid and unmoving. She wondered if all of him was that hard.
“I’m just saying,” he said with a chuckle, then grabbed the pizza box, untouched sandwich, and last bag of chips.
“Uh-huh. Pain in the ass.” Bet his ass is hard, too.
He nodded. “So, uh. Where are you parked?”
Joss pointed across the field. “Lot behind that building over there.”
He held out a hand, indicating she should go ahead. “I’ll walk you.”
She thought about protesting, but honestly she wasn’t ready to have them part. What exactly was she ready for? She didn’t know that either.
But would it really be so wrong to indulge a little? Or even a lot? After the day she had, it might be just what the soldier, er, doctor ordered. She ignored the little voice that whispered she was setting herself up to get hurt. As usual.
They moved into the streaming sea of people. The breeze made the thin cotton of her wrap skirt float around her legs and emphasized just how damp her thong was. Despite the crowd, she was struck by how dominating Brady’s presence was beside her. She wasn’t short, but she almost felt it next to him. And whenever approaching walkers necessitated that they proceed single file instead of side by side, he’d place his hand on the small of her back and guide her in front of him. The gesture revealed a man with impressively good manners, but the touch made her muscles jump and her body yearn for more every time.
“Oh, hold up. Can we go this way for a second?” He nodded toward the river.
“Uh, sure. Why?”
He shrugged and looked away. “I just really hate to waste food.”
She nodded, still not sure what he had in mind, and when he held out his hand, she grabbed it. That big, calloused grip around hers made her willing to follow his lead. Again.
Crossing the grass, they approached an old, shabbily dressed man seated under a street lamp on a bench at the park’s edge, a beat-up duffel bag at his feet, and a small, scruffy dog curled beside him. She hadn’t seen him over the heads of the other people, but apparently Brady had. Realization flooded Joss and her heart tripped over itself.
“Hey, man. Can I pet your dog?” Brady asked.
The homeless man grinned and nodded. “You betcha. Just move real slow-like. He’s an attack dog in disguise.”
The dog was old as dirt and, if he’d ever been an attack dog, was long in retirement. He lifted two sagging eyelids and stretched out. Brady released her hand, then crouched down and stroked the mutt’s wiry fur. “Looks like I caught him at a good time.”
“Yeah,” the man said, eyeing the dog with the kind of affection reserved for a best friend. “You a soldier, son?”
With a nod, Brady said, “Army Special Forces.”
Whoa. That was news to Joss. Not just any old soldier, then.
“That right? I was a grunt back in the day. ’Nam.”
“Jungle’s no better than the sandbox, I suspect.” Brady reached out a hand. “Brady Scott.”
Her heart thundered against her breastbone. She’d thought Brady all intense playfulness, but with his kindness and respect to this homeless man he’d just proved himself more compassionate than most. Given how she’d grown up, she’d always been a sucker for a compassionate soul.
“You got that right.” The effort it took for the man to extend his arm and return the handshake was obvious, but the gleam in his eyes said he didn’t mind making it. “Mike McAffey.”
“Nice to meet you.” Brady looked up at the departing crowds. “Well, I guess we best be heading home.” He stood. “Oh, hey. I’ve got half a pizza and an untouched sandwich here. Any chance you might like them? Sure would save me from carrying them home.”
Just like that, Brady let the man retain his dignity, too. Mike’s glance roamed from the items in Brady’s hand to the dog to Joss. “If it would help you out, I’m sure me and Goose wouldn’t mind.”
“Goose?” she asked as Brady settled the food on the bench by the duffel bag.
“You ever seen how mean geese can be?” He nodded at the sleeping dog. “Goose.”
“All right, have a good night, Mike,” Brady said with a wave.
Mike waved back, already unwrapping the sandwich.
Brady grabbed her hand again and led her through the crowd. When they were far enough away from Mike and Goose, she peeked up at him, her chest full of pride. Ridiculous, maybe, since she hardly knew him, but that didn’t stop it from being there. “That was really nice.”
He shrugged. “No sense letting food go to waste.”
“I mean it, Brady. You did a really nice thing.” She squeezed his fingers.
He looked down at the grass, his discomfort with her praise palpable between them.
She knocked her shoulder into his arm. “I might just have to stop calling you ‘sailor boy’ after that.”
He peered down at her. “Really?”
She tapped a finger against her lips. “We’ll see.”
Their need to wind their way through a line of moving cars cut off their conversation, but she could’ve sworn she heard him mumbling something about his balls getting busted and she couldn’t help but chuckle.
They stepped up on the opposite curb and a body crashed into Joss, sending her stumbling. Brady bit out a curse as he caught her and pulled her in against his chest, steadying her. At least, that was his intent. The press of all that hard muscle against the length of her liquefied her insides and melted her knees. She looked up to find a dark scowl on his face at the two teenagers who had run past them. He heaved a breath that was nearly a growl, but his expression eased a little as he met her gaze. “You okay?”
“Yeah, thanks,” she said, hearing the breathlessness of her voice but unable to stop it. Maybe she should’ve been alarmed at the rigid tremble of his muscles and the fierce expression, but all she felt was gratitude for his protectiveness. Given how she grew up, she’d rarely had someone who looked out for her, defended her.
“Come on.” Arm around her shoulders, Brady guided them down the sidewalk, all the while keeping her body tucked tight against his. Her brain said to pull away, that she didn’t know him well enough to allow him to hold her this way, but she couldn’t convince her body to listen. His muscles flexed against her, forcing into her mind’s eye the image of what it would feel like to have all that strength and power moving over her, into her.
What was wrong with her? He’s a freaking stranger! Sorta.
She shivered and felt her nipples press rigid into the soft cups of her bra.
Brady’s hand tightened on her shoulder.
“I’m back there,” she said as they entered the wide gravel parking lot. “In the corner.”
“In the dark spot?” He frowned.
She elbowed him. “Wasn’t dark when I parked, sailor boy.”
“Mm-hmm.” She felt the response rumble from his chest more than she heard it.
Dodging the cars inching toward the exit, she was pleased to see that more than half the cars had already departed the lot. It wouldn’t take as long to get out of here as she feared. Finally, they arrived at her old truck, all she’d been able to afford when she’d started her assistant director job at the center a couple of years ago.
“This is yours?”
“Yeah. Surprised?” The tank of a red pickup wasn’t much to look at, truth be told, but it got around and hauled a ton, which is why she kept it. Came in handy at work all the time.
He rolled his big shoulders, like he was working out a kink. “With you, always.”
She leaned back against the driver’s side door as the cars beside them backed out of their spots. “Is that a bad thing?”
Brady stepped in front of her and pulled the blanket, book, phone, and keys from her hands, then set them on the edge of the truck bed. When his gaze returned to hers, his eyes were filled with heat, wide and penetrating and intense. Erotic tension filled the narrow space between them and made it hard to breathe. His tall, broad body surrounded her and blocked out the rest of the world. All she could see was his open lips and blazing eyes, all she could feel was the quick rise and fall of his chest, and all she knew was the burning desire for something to happen.
He leaned in and his tongue flicked his lip, once, twice.
Her arms froze against her sides. Her hands fisted. Joss’s equilibrium faltered, leaving her body feeling as if she were boneless and floating. Her insides clenched.
He paused a hair’s breadth away from her mouth. His rapid exhales wisped over her lips. “Not a bad thing at all.”
She swallowed hard.
Bad idea. Bad idea. Such a bad idea.
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