a Take a Chance novel by Diane Alberts
It took one wild night for Sergeant Jeremy Addison to realize that Vegas? Was a bad idea.
Bloody. Bruised. Dehydrated. Abandoned in the desert, and left to stagger down the road. The only way this leave could get worse was if his savior was his ex-best friend’s sister…and the girl he’d loved since childhood.
The last person Erica expected to find on the roadside was her high school crush. She hadn’t seen Jeremy in seven years—ever since the night he said he loved her, and she ran away. Losing him then had been a mistake, but wanting him now could be catastrophic if he discovered the secret that chased every other man from her life. But with a tall, tattooed Marine determined to prove he’s always been faithful, can Erica resist his advances…or will she surrender ground and give love a try?
© 2012 Diane Alberts
Jeremy stumbled along a deserted road just outside Vegas. At least…he thought he was outside Vegas. The heatwave-shimmer of darkness on the horizon could be Pittsburgh. Reno. Aliens. It depended on whether this was dehydration or a really bad hangover. With the April sun beating down on his head, Jeremy was leaning toward dehydration. He felt like an egg in a frying pan, sizzled and broken.
Though he was pretty sure the sunlight wasn’t to blame for how he’d gotten here.
He’d come to Vegas for a little fun. That was what leave was about, right? Fast times, cheap booze, plenty of gambling. He was pretty sure people only ended up bruised and stranded in the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere, in the movies. He blamed the damned squid for his own personal reenactment of The Hangover. Jeremy had kept his cool until the sailor had called him a coward and a jarhead.
Then he’d lost it.
He wished he could blame the alcohol, but he’d been sober at that point. It wasn’t until after the fight, his eye black and his lip swollen, that he’d nursed his wounded pride with a visit from Johnny Walker. His own temper, built up over the months of a high-tension deployment, had gotten him into this mess. The liquor had just made his bruises hurt a little less.
Though he’d sure as hell like to know what happened between the bottom of the bottle and the side of the road.
He fingered the split in his lower lip and let out a bitter laugh. Idiot. At twenty-seven, he should know better than to drink until he dropped. He never lost control like that. Never let himself. Not after what his father had done to his mother. His father had blamed the bottle, too.
Yeah. Right. Even sober, his father was an asshole.
Jeremy wouldn’t let himself follow in his father’s footsteps: a loser behind bars, with no hope for a future and no one who loved him enough to bother visiting. Jeremy was a Marine. He made his own life, did his best to look after people.
And if he roughed up one squid on leave, well…Jeremy hadn’t thrown the first punch. Sure, he’d lost the fight and ended up as desert road kill—but at least he could claim self-defense.
With a snort, he ducked his head against the sunlight and trudged along the road. At least he’d get to work on his tan.
That tan was turning into the beginning of a sunburn before he finally heard a car engine rumbling behind him. It was the first sign of life he’d seen since he stumbled out of the desert. Finally. He’d started to think he’d slept through the end of the world. Zombies optional.
He turned to walk backward, facing the wavering silver gleam that sped toward him. His mouth was too dry to even try shouting, his tongue swollen. He waved his arms over his head like a madman and stepped into the road. The late afternoon sun reflected off the hood, blinding him.
Please don’t run me over.
Not that it wouldn’t be a fitting end to this hellish day.
Brakes screeched. Jeremy stumbled off the road and landed on his ass in the sand. Grit stung his reddened skin. A cactus decided to fuck with him just a little more and poked into his back. Son of a bitch. He rubbed at his eyes; negative-image floaters swam against the insides of his eyelids.
A car door opened with a k-chnk. Footsteps pounded the pavement, their noise drawing closer. Jeremy cracked his eyelids open enough to squint at the driver. Short. Female. That was all he could make out.
She dropped to her knees at his side. “Are you all right?”
Her voice was soft. Sweet. Melodious. Familiar. He thought of warm summer nights by the pool, watching the stars.
With his best friend’s sister at his side.
“…Erica?” Please, God, no. Anyone but Erica. He rubbed at his eyes and blinked at her. Same brown hair. Same brown eyes. Same soft, sweet face. It was Erica, all right.
“Do I know you…?” She eyed him warily, her eyes empty of recognition.
Any moment now she’d remember him. Jeremy Addison. The fool who’d confessed his love to her. The idiot who’d driven her away with his stupid mouth. She’d run before he’d even finished the you in I love you. It had been years, but she’d remember.
And it would all go downhill from there.
“…Jeremy? Is that you?”
“Yep,” he croaked. The only way this day could get worse was if her brother was in the car. Tommy. His ex-best friend. That would dropkick things from downhill to straight into the shitter pretty fast.
Jeremy cleared his throat and tried to force something resembling a human voice past his lips. “Uh. How are you?”
“How am I?” Her eyes widened. “How are you? What the hell happened? You look like a POW.”
Her soft, cool hands pressed to his shoulders, then slid over him. He knew she was only checking for injuries, but his heart stumbled nonetheless. Maybe if his skin didn’t feel like an overcooked hot dog, he’d actually enjoy her touch.
“I don’t remember,” he mumbled.
What he really meant was I drank myself into a drunken stupor. And I think now I’ll go do it again, thank you. Go ahead and run away now. This time, I won’t blame you. And this time, he thought, he’d try tequila. Anything to erase the memory of humiliating himself in front of the girl he’d been in love with since the first grade.
He sighed. “The last I remember, I was hanging around the Bellagio. Hadn’t even cracked my first beer.. Some Navy jackass called me out. Picked a fight with ten of his buddies. Next thing I know, I’m waking up with a mouthful of sand.”
“How long have you been out here?” She felt his forehead. He could’ve told her without checking; he was running somewhere between fricasseed and hot as hell, Fahrenheit.
He gritted his teeth. “No clue.”
“Come on.” She slung an arm under his and gave him her shoulder. “In the car. You’re probably dehydrated. I have some bottled water.”
He’d have laughed if it didn’t hurt so much. Jeremy had a good foot or more on Erica. She’d hit five foot one when they were eleven, and hadn’t grown an inch since. He still remembered her marking off her height on the doorframe of her family’s antique frame house, and finally giving up after it didn’t change for six straight months. Sad that he still remembered that—her pretty, slim fingers curled around the marker, the way she pouted.
But he always remembered things like that. Story of his life.
It was more stubbornness than strength that got him back on his feet. She wrapped her arm around his hips, as if she had even half a chance of supporting him. His heart gave a painful lurch, and his gut tightened. He ignored it. His body and heart never could be objective where Erica was concerned.
She was only helping him, he told himself. Taking pity on him after finding him in a pathetic heap on the side of the road. She didn’t care about him. She hadn’t then. She didn’t now. She was just a good person…and to her, he was practically a stranger. Too many years had passed, and too much had changed.
One grueling step at a time, they dragged back to her silver Porsche Cayenne. Of course she had a classy car. She’d always had the best taste in…well, everything. Probably why she’d never dated him, even after his confession. She’d never stoop so low as the son of a lowlife, no-account, good-for-nothing criminal. He couldn’t blame her. She deserved a prince, not a knuckleheaded piece of shit Marine.
He still remembered the look on her face when he’d told her. She’d turned ghostly white, and her pretty little mouth had tightened. Then she’d run away. Just like that—run away from him as if he were diseased. He’d never been able to face her, after that. Her or her brother, after things had turned sour between them. Maybe it was better that way, but his self-esteem sure as hell didn’t agree.
And his self-esteem wasn’t too happy about seeing her now. He looked like a damned bum, and he was getting sand all over her elegant business suit.
Brilliant, Jeremy. Absolutely brilliant. Next you can puke on her shoes.
Come to think of it, he might have done something like that last night, somewhere between the fight and the second bottle of hooch. That might account for two or three of the fresher bruises throbbing on his chest.
Erica helped him wedge into the passenger’s-side seat, strapped him in, then slipped in on the driver’s side and passed him a large water bottle. The condensation on the sides almost froze his palms, and he had to stop himself from rubbing the damned thing all over his body. He was tempted, but her pretty brown eyes stopped him, concern written all over her face.
“God, Jeremy, you look like shit.”
“I know.” He groaned, twisted the cap off the bottle, and took a deep draught. The dry stinging in his throat eased, and he let out a heavy sigh. “Thanks.”
She started the car and cranked up the air conditioning. Cold air blasted him in the face, and he closed his eyes and sank against the seat. Thank God. The last time he’d been this hot, he’d been stationed in Afghanistan, camped out in the hellish desert and dodging a hell of a lot of unfriendly fire.
Still more comfortable than sitting here with Erica, sweating all over the plush upholstery of her car.
“Are you on leave?” she asked.
He watched her from the corner of his eye. How did she know he was in the Marines? He’d kept up with her life now and then, but had she cared enough to follow his?
Her eyes dropped to the dog tags currently burning into his chest like branding irons, and his face heated. No. Of course not. He needed to get his wayward emotions under control.
He shrugged and took another sip of water. “Yeah. Took a month. Though I could use some R&R.”
“Relax?” She raised a brow. “This is what you call relaxing?”
He stiffened. Of course she’d look at him like that. Like the loser he was. He wanted to tell her she had no right to judge him—that she’d given up what power she held over him long ago—but he’d be lying. One look and he still felt that same desperate, agonizing emptiness; the hollow knowledge that he loved her, and she’d never love him. Never even consider it. She was a different Erica now, grown up after seven years.
But he was still unworthy of her, and no amount of commendations or medals would change that.
Jeremy’s hand tightened against the bottle, until he forced himself to let go. “It was plenty relaxing, until a fist got up close and personal with my face.”
She snorted. “Sounds like you got what you deserved.”
Erica strapped in, shifted into gear, and pulled onto the road. Uncomfortable silence descended. Jeremy relaxed against the seat and tried to focus on the cool air and refreshing water—not the woman at his side. He might as well try to forget his own name. He was grateful when she slid on her sunglasses; they hid her dark, unreadable eyes behind an equally impenetrable barrier.
She fidgeted at the gearshift. “What’s your MOS?”
“Since when do you know military lingo?” he countered. “I’m a mortar man.”
“Oh.” Her brows wrinkled. “So you get shot at. You’re not on a ship somewhere, or safe at the base.”
“’Safe’ is relative in Afghanistan. But yeah, I get shot at.”
Her knuckles went white against the gearshift. Her motions were tense when she changed gear. “Oh,” she said again.
“Don’t worry. I’m too ornery for anyone to hit me.”
Her lips quirked and she glanced at him. “Someone hit you pretty hard last night.”
“Funny. You know what I meant.” He snapped a mock salute. “Sergeant Jeremy Addison, at your service. Too proud and determined to get shot.”
She laughed. “You mean too stubborn and bullheaded.”
She chuckled and fell silent. Jeremy turned his attention out the window. Before long they passed the first straggling outskirts of civilization, which quickly blended into lushly groomed lawns and houses that seemed to get larger with every block. Posh. Luxurious. Somewhere he didn’t belong. He’d never have a house like these, or a wife like Erica. Both were as far out of his reach as the stars, and just as untouchable.
“Where are you staying?” She nibbled at her lower lip. “I can take you back, or to my place. It’s only five minutes away.”
Of course it was.
“Depends. I am still in Vegas, right? A little fuzzy on that detail.”
Her lips compressed. Past her sunglasses, he caught one sharp brown eye watching him. “Still in Vegas. You didn’t walk that far in your drunken stupor.”
“I’ve done worse.”
No, he hadn’t. But a perverse and hurting part of him wanted to disappoint her. If she was going to look at him like that, she might as well have good reason to.
“Besides,” he said. “Last I heard, you were in California.”
“It’s been seven years. I moved. How did you know I was in California?”
Great. Now you think I’m a creepy stalker. “Old classmates,” he fumbled. He drained the water a little too fast; the sudden cold rush left him dizzy, and he gasped and dropped the empty bottle into the cup holder. “So. Yeah. Could we hit your place? I could use a shower sooner rather than later.”
“Sure.” Her hands tightened against the steering wheel, and she fidgeted in her seat. “So. Besides getting drunk, beaten up, and left for dead…how’s life?”
He laughed, harsh and humorless. “When you put it that way, pretty shitty. But otherwise, not bad. Enjoying being back in the States.”
She flashed him a small smile. The dimple in her right cheek made him want to kiss it. She only had the one, but he loved it. “Maybe things will get better after last night.”
“They can’t possibly get any worse.” He idly toyed with his dog tags. “Sorry you had to find me like that.”
“It’s okay.” She patted his knee. His thigh tensed. “I’m glad I did. Who knows how much longer you’d have lasted? You looked like death. You’re lucky it’s only April. In July, you’d be dead.”
“Instead of just a little dry and crispy?”
“Thanks. Now I want fried chicken.”
It was on his lips to offer to take her to dinner. Maybe sate a few more cravings than food. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “Uh. How’s Tommy?”
“He’s good.” She paused, then swallowed. “Divorced.”
“About damned time,” Jeremy snarled, then took another breath. And another. And another, until the heated wash of anger began to cool. That lying whore had destroyed the only friendship that had ever mattered to Jeremy—and had been destroying Tommy for far longer than that. Erica’s brother deserved better, but he hadn’t wanted to listen when Jeremy said so. And then when Nicole had…
He forced the thought away. No point in reliving the past. Especially not when he could feel Erica watching him, after his little outburst.
“He tried to find you,” she said. “Once he came to his senses. When he realized Nicole was lying, he wanted to apologize. You really didn’t sleep with her, did you?”
“Of course I didn’t. She wasn’t my type.” You are. “And I wouldn’t do that. Not to Tommy. Not to anyone.”
“Ah,” she said softly. “So it was just a game, to her.”
“Something like that.” Jeremy turned his glare out the window, rather than on her. Looking at her did nothing for his peace of mind. “I told both of you I didn’t do it. I don’t lie. I hated Nicole. And you of all people—”
—should know who I loved.
He shut his mouth. That night loomed between them, large and stifling. He’d poured his heart out into her hands, and she’d thrown it away.
“Jeremy, I’m sorry.” This time the steering wheel squeaked under her tightening grip. She pried one hand away and ran it back through her hair. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just—”
“Can we not talk about this?” He folded his arms uncomfortably over his chest. “It’s been seven years. We’ve both moved on.”
“Of course,” she bit off with a jerky nod. “So are you…married? Kids?”
Married? Him? Yeah, right. As if he’d ever find someone who could even compare to her memory.
Not that he’d ever tell her that again.
“I’m not the marrying type,” he said with a chuckle that left his mouth tasting bitter. Especially when a horrible thought struck him. “Are you?”
“No.” Her voice went flat. “I was engaged once. I’m not anymore.”
Everything in her tone warned him not to ask. Not to push. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. Maybe the right guy will come along soon.”
Again that flicker of brown, just past the sunglasses. He thought he saw…he didn’t know what he saw. It was there, then gone again. Something like yearning. Wistful. Sad. He knew the feeling. And he was probably projecting his feelings onto her, just like every other idiot man who didn’t know when to let go.
“Maybe,” she said. Her voice broke, then steadied again. “Maybe not. I’m not really focused on that right now. Hard to get married when you don’t even have a boyfriend.”
So she was single. Hope flared, then died. It didn’t matter. She wanted someone. He could tell that. She was so miserable her every word made him ache. But lonely didn’t mean desperate enough to want Jeremy.
“I have a hard time believing you can’t find a date,” he said.
She darted another glance at him and worried at her lower lip again. She always did that when she was nervous. “You’d be surprised.”
“Maybe you were looking in all the wrong places.”
She said nothing, and he cursed himself for a fool.
He clenched his jaw and studied his hands. They were covered in dirt and blood. His knuckles were split. They hadn’t been during the first fight. Apparently he’d fought back when he’d been left in the desert to die. Good. He was a Marine, and Marines always fought back. Fought for what they believed in. Fought for what was theirs.
He glanced at Erica from the corner of his eye. Like I’d fight for you.
The car slowed and turned. Jeremy dragged his gaze from her and onto the curving drive leading up to a massive house. It was elegant, perfect, a terraced adobe affair with open construction and arched doorways. Stylish. Tasteful. Entirely out of his league. Big surprise.
“Nice place,” he murmured. “I guess being a lawyer is paying off.”
She tugged off her sunglasses and dropped them into the second cup holder. “Did old classmates tell you I’m a lawyer, too?”
“Uh.” Shit. So much for detachment. “I. Uh. I saw it somewhere. I forgot where.”
“Right.” She raised a brow. Her lips twitched at the corners. “Well, come on inside.”
She slid from the car with grace and poise. Jeremy, not so much—but he managed to get out under his own power, which was more than he’d been able to manage before the water. He was walking like a ninety-year-old man, but he was walking.
She closed the car door and looked at him. He straightened his shoulders.
“I’m okay. I feel better already.” He grinned—and immediately regretted it when his split lower lip stung. He felt something wet and warm trickle down his chin. Genius.
She winced. “I’ll believe that when you aren’t bleeding.”
She led him up the walk and inside. The carved, heavy oak door opened on hardwood floors. A crystal chandelier hung from the arched ceiling of the broad foyer. Expensive paintings lined the walls. Jeremy kept far away from them. He didn’t want to risk touching anything, and dirtying or damaging it irreparably. It was bad enough he was tracking sand into the polish on her floors.
He smoothed his shirt and tried to straighten it, then rubbed at a stain on his sleeve. Useless. If this were a restaurant, he’d be out on his ass. “Maybe I should go to my hotel after all. I’m going to leave dirt all over your house.”
“Please. I don’t care about that.
She rested one soft hand on his chest. Her touch tore through him like a gunshot and radiated all over his body. He swallowed.
“If you say so.”
She looked up at him. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking. It was what made her such a good lawyer, he thought, and what drove him mad. She could be on the verge of tears, and she’d never show it. He should be grateful, he thought. At least when she’d rejected him, she’d suppressed her disgust.
She abruptly drew back, dropped her gaze, and tossed her purse on a table just past the door. “Come on up. I’ll show you where the bathroom is.”
“Shit. I don’t have any clothes. I’m a dumbass. Maybe we should head back to—”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were trying to run away.” She sighed. “I have some of Tommy’s clothes here. Stop worrying, okay? You always did worry too much.”
She turned and walked toward the curving stairs, her heels clicking on the hardwood floor. Jeremy followed, but stopped at the foot of the stairs, curling his hand against the cool wrought-iron railing. He shouldn’t wear Tommy’s clothing. They weren’t friends anymore. Not after Tommy had believed Nicole’s lies about Jeremy seducing her. Not after Tommy had kicked his ass and spat on a bond that, to Jeremy, had been like family.
The only real family he’d ever had, and the only reason he’d let Tommy beat him bloody without ever once fighting back. Nothing could have hurt worse than what he’d lost that night.
He swallowed. “I don’t know.”
“He really won’t mind.”
“But I will.” He found his dog tags and gripped them tight, their pressure a familiar comfort against his palm. “He took her word over mine. He should have known better.”
She stiffened. “I know you’re upset, but this isn’t about that. It’s about getting you into a shower and clean clothes. Nothing else. So suck it up.”
“Suck it up?” He mounted the stairs until he stood at her side, looking down at her. “Did you really just tell me to suck it up?”
Her eyes narrowed. She tossed her head and lifted her chin. “Yes. I did.”
“You realize I’m a Marine, right?”
“Like that means anything? You’d never hurt me. I know that. I know you.”
Her eyes met his without wavering. “Better than you think. Even if I’ve tried to forget.”
He stepped closer. Close enough to touch her, close enough to wrap her in his arms and kiss her until she clung to him. Everything he’d dreamed of doing for years, and more. Everything her body heat begged him to do, teasing him with her nearness.
“Why do you want to forget me, Erica?”
She bit her lip. That luscious lower lip, that one little tic that gave her away like a poker player’s tell no matter how steady her voice might be. “You don’t get to ask me that, Jeremy.” She turned away, her back stiff. “Come on. The bathroom’s this way.”
She took the stairs quickly, her heels a sharp and almost accusatory staccato. With a sigh, Jeremy followed. Him and his big mouth.