Ravenous hordes of people crowded the vendor tents set up on the Arch grounds. Whether spurred by the introduction of Dr. Pepper and hot dogs at the 1904 World’s Fair or a citywide cultural preference, St. Louisans took their food very seriously. Tantalizing smells wafted through the sultry night air, and the boom of the first round of fireworks drowned out the cacophony of voices. What was left of the lawn had been crushed to yellow fuzz beneath the flip-flops of fairgoers.
Ashton wished she had a clothespin for her nose. The scent of Pappy’s Smokehouse BBQ was more than her frail willpower could take. She’d been determined not to overindulge this Fourth of July. She’d gained almost five pounds eating Ted Drewes Frozen Yogurt and Gus’s Pretzels during last year’s Fair St. Louis.
I am not hungry. I am not hungry.
A family of four carrying waffle cones filled with melting chocolate ice cream passed her by. Ash kept striding resolutely away from the food in search of her friends. Luce and their usual crew were supposed to have grabbed the perfect vantage point on the steps overlooking the river. Her friend had texted Ash a picture of their spot near the center railing. She would have already joined them had she not needed to take a desperate trip to the porta johns set up on the other side of the Arch.
An instrumental patriotic medley filled the air as the fireworks got underway. Ash slowed to a stop. She couldn’t resist watching the brilliant colors sparkle through the sky over the river. The rockets were shot from a fleet of six barges in the central canal of the Mississippi River below.
The faint odor of burned gunpowder triggered memories of the sparklers, jumping jacks, and Roman candles Ash and her father had always lit off to celebrate the Fourth. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear and rubbed her sweaty palms against her denim skirt. Even dressed in a tank top with her long hair up in a ponytail, she felt grimy and overheated after a day at the fair. Luckily the coconut-scented sunscreen she constantly slathered over her pale skin to protect her “redheaded” complexion kept her smelling tolerable.
A scuffle broke out to her left. “Hey, dickhead, watch where you’re stepping.”
Ash attempted a hasty step backward, but she stumbled into a throng of strange men. All were on the large side with close-cropped hair. They were most likely military men from the air base across the river. The first guy grabbed the second one and shoved him in her direction. The impact sent her sprawling.
“What’s your problem?” The guy who’d accidentally run her over didn’t seem concerned that she was collateral damage. He was too distracted by whoever had pushed him.
The ground was hard beneath Ash’s rump. She tried to scramble to her feet, but someone stomped her hand. “Ow!” The blow brought tears to her eyes.
“Stand down, Airman.” A commanding baritone sliced through the fracas. “You’re trampling this poor lady to death. If you can’t behave, I’ll ship your ass back to the base before curfew. Is that clear?”
“Yessir. Crystal clear, sir.”
A hand reached down and plucked Ash off the ground. It was warm and firm with a gentle grip that promised the owner knew how to handle a woman. Her nerves sang from her fingers all the way to her toes. She felt like a schoolgirl who’d just discovered the difference between girls and boys.
“Are you all right?” The impromptu rescuer led her a slight distance from the crowd of airmen. “Some of us military types forget that not everyone is trying to stab us in the back.”
“I’m fine, really.” Ash stared up at the tall, broad-shouldered man in khaki cargo shorts and a plain gray T-shirt. It was too dim on the lawn to see what color his eyes were, although his short hair was dark. Was it possible to tell by someone’s aura whether or not they were hot? Because this guy’s aura was screaming gorgeous.
Gorgeous, provocative, seductive, alluring—how many other words can I come up with for yummy?
“Are you out here by yourself, ma’am?” He hadn’t let go of her hand and was now scanning the people milling about as if he was determined to find somewhere to put her.
She had to swallow a few times before her voice would work. “I’m meeting my friends by the steps.”
“Your boyfriend shouldn’t let you walk around the fair alone, ma’am. It’s dark, and there are a thousand lowlifes skulking around out here.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend at the moment.” Ash couldn’t help it. She laughed. “And skulking lowlifes? Really?”
“Sorry, was that a little too dramatic?” Even in the reflected light of the fireworks, she could see the smile on his face. His features were bold, especially his strong jawline. “My name is Trip, by the way.”
“Well that’s ironic.” She wondered who’d given him the nickname and why. Surely that wasn’t his real name. “I’m Ashton.”
“Nice to meet you, Ashton.”
He brought her fingers up to his lips in a gesture that made the bottom drop out of her stomach. The delicate sensation of his lips brushing over her skin sent tendrils of warmth licking silkily over her entire body. She’d never been attracted to someone like this. Never.
He kept hold of her fingers as if reluctant to let go. “Can I walk you over to find your friends?”
He smelled good. In an aromatic world of spicy food and flocks of people, how could she possibly pick out his scent? Oh, but she had. It was amazing. Sandalwood, mint, and something utterly male, it had lingered below her radar until she tried to grab a breath in order to speak.
Trip had asked her something, and she still hadn’t answered. He was going to think she was an idiot. Forcing her brain to function, she hoped she wouldn’t come off sounding too eager. “You’re more than welcome to come with me. My friend Luce promised she grabbed a great spot to watch from. You can join us if you’d like.”
The offer had seemed like a good one, in theory. Ashton’s heart sank when she realized she was taking this hot specimen of manliness to meet a hot specimen of femininity. Once Trip met Luce, he’d instantly forget Ash.
Trip set a leisurely pace, heading down the hill and away from the thickest of the crowd that littered the lawn with blankets and picnic baskets. “Are you from around here, Ashton?”
“I live in Soulard.” Ash paused when he did to watch a particularly bright flash of blue explode into burning white stars that sprinkled the sky.
In the light of the explosion, she could see his teeth flash in a smile. “So practically right down the street then.”
“What about you? You bossed those testosterone-loaded partiers like a pro. So I’m assuming you’re military something or another.” Ash wondered if it would be better or worse for him to be from St. Louis, stationed nearby, or just passing through.
He chuckled, reaching up and rubbing a hand across his short hair. “Funny how that works, actually. I’m not even stationed over at the base, and I don’t have a clue who those guys were.”
“And they listened to you anyway? That’s sort of bizarre.” Ash could have launched into an entire conversation about preconditioned responses, but she refrained. There was no need to make this guy think she was some kind of freak.
“Honestly, they’re conditioned to follow orders. I’m an air force captain, so I’m conditioned to give orders.” He shrugged. “Its just habit.”
Ash couldn’t hide her fascination. “So basically the training you guys receive makes it possible for anyone with authority to assume command. That way, if there’s an emergency, you don’t have to go through all that proving crap just to give a few basic orders and get something done quick.”
He gave her a strange look. He probably thought she was a total geek. Ash sighed. Why did guys always want some giggling, vapid beauty queen who said her fondest wish for humanity was “whirled peas”?
“Are you in psychology or something?” Trip asked.
Here it was. The inevitable brush-off. “Actually, I’m an office manager for a dentist. People are really interesting to me. Sorry. I didn’t mean to talk your ear off.”
“No, I like it,” he said.
Something undeniably sad touched his face. Ash wished she could see more clearly, but the erratic flashes from the overhead fireworks weren’t enough to see detail. He seemed almost wistful.
Trip lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a real two-sided conversation about something other than ordnance, who’s sleeping with whom, or why so-and-so didn’t do what he or she said they would.”
Ashton’s insides clenched at the contact. Who was this guy, and how had she managed to find him in the madness of Fair St. Louis? She tried to find something she could say that would encourage him to keep talking without making her sound pushy. “That sounds as if it might get tedious after a while.”
“It is. I’m home on leave from Afghanistan. My air force unit has been deployed for the last nineteen months.” He gazed at the sky, the vivid display of rockets reflected off the metallic Arch. “I’ve only been home ten days, but I leave again tomorrow.”
Ash forgot her petty war against calories and fretting about being less attractive than Luce. This nice guy was about to leave for an uncertain world Ash could not possibly imagine. Compared to his, her problems didn’t even register on the scale.
He glanced back down, and one corner of his mouth lifted in a wry smile. “I’m sorry. It doesn’t do any good to be a big wet blanket. I’ve had a great time while I’ve been on leave, and that’s what matters.”
“What have you done for ten days?” Ash was determined to be upbeat and positive. “What do airmen do when they’re on vacation?”
She couldn’t miss the pure mischief on his face. Not even in the near dark. “Depends on the airman.”
“What have you
“I spent a lot of time with my family.” He wandered a little farther across the grounds. She could see the outline of the steps crowded with fairgoers.
It wouldn’t be long, and their oddly private walk would be over. Ash was sad at the prospect. “Was there a woman waiting to spend time with you while you were home?”
“Nope. I’m single.” He stopped and turned to face her. “That’s what you were getting at, right?”
She could’ve happily sunk right into the hillside. Instead, she scrambled for a pithy comeback. “I was, actually. Kind of like when you asked why my boyfriend
let me wander around the fair by myself.”
“Guilty as charged.” His gaze felt like a physical caress. “Can’t slip anything past you, can I?”
“I hope not.”
He paused, and she could feel his gaze lingering over every inch of her. “Your hair is really beautiful.”
Her breath stuck in her throat as he twirled a stray curl around his index finger. Nobody ever called her hair beautiful. It had to be the funky light. Her hair was six shades of red. Not auburn, not cinnamon, just plain in-your-face red. Worse, it was curly. She’d been Little Orphan Annie every Halloween for ten years because it was the only costume her poor dad could come up with.
“Can I kiss you, Ashton?” Trip took her other hand. “I’m being pushier than I normally would be, but I’m leaving tomorrow. You’re…different…in a way I didn’t think existed. Everything lately has been so heavy.” He stopped talking as if he didn’t want to think about the overwhelming portions of his life. Seconds later, his face eased into a warm smile. “You make me think life hasn’t really gone to hell. I’d like to have that memory to take with me when I go back.”
Oh. My. God.
“You want to remember me?” She was melting inside, and it had nothing to do with the hot, muggy air.
“God, yes.” He drew her arms upward until her hands were locked around his neck and she was stretched full length against his hard body. “In fact, I’d like to have a lot more to remember. But a kiss is a good start, and I’ll take whatever you’re comfortable giving.”
She squeaked when his mouth descended to hers. It was like sinking into velvet. He tasted spicy and male, like his scent, only better. He kissed like a master, something that should’ve scared her but didn’t. Somehow the shadowy specters of his past lovers didn’t matter any more than her lack of experience.
His tongue slid along the seam of her lips, begging entrance. She opened, and he pushed inside her mouth. He didn’t dominate. He coaxed, drawing her deeper. She moved against him, eagerly taking what he gave before sliding her tongue into his mouth in return.
It was hot and carnal, the raw sensation of two people exploring the scent and taste of each other. The kiss left her squirming with an ache between her legs. She arched up on tiptoes and felt a bulge between them. Instead of making her back off, it excited her. She’d never felt so wanted, so powerful and feminine all at once. It was heady, and she wanted more.
He finally broke away, his breath ragged. “I think I need to stop before I can’t.”
“Don’t.” She nipped his lower lip. “Stop, I mean. You said you wanted more. I want to give it to you.”
Trip groaned and pressed his forehead against hers. “Darlin’, don’t say things like that. I’m leaving tomorrow, and I might never come back. You’re not the kind of girl who goes around having one-night stands. I can tell that from one kiss.”
“You’re right, normally, but even if I never see you again—I won’t regret this.” She looked up at a purple-and-red burst of shooting stars. How could it be wrong when it felt so right? “I think this is probably the most romantic moment of my whole life. Why stop now?”