“I heard a rumor,” Raina Gibson blurted out as she watched her best friend, Liam Prescott, who was sitting next to her. One would have thought he would flinch from her tone or from the sudden blast her voice shot out into the quiet living room, but he continued reading the Firehouse
magazine he seemed to love so much. She’d bought the subscription for his birthday and always wondered when he was going to ask why it was delivered to her house and not his. Talking to him when he was reading about fire-retardant information or the latest in gadgets was her brilliant plan. When his mind was otherwise occupied, she felt could get answers to questions she wouldn’t normally get.
“You did…? About what?” he asked absently.
Yep, he’s seriously into the article.
She could tell by the intent expression on his face and the way his brows furrowed in concentration.
“About you.” Raina bit her lip, casting a furtive glance at Liam’s body in repose and feeling the warmth of arousal start deep in her belly. She was stuck. She’d set it up so that this would be a perfect time to approach him with her proposition. They usually got together once a week or so, but she knew he’d be busy with his new magazine, and they’d already eaten his favorite pizza—Chicago style with pepperoni and extra cheese—but now that the time was here, she didn’t know if she could go through with it. What if this ruined the friendship they’d built over the last four years?
Liam glanced up, his left brow lifted inquisitively. “Did you want me to verify some information, or did you just want to let me know someone was talking about me?” He shook his head and returned his attention to the magazine. “’Cause I gotta tell you…I don’t care much about what people say.”
“Is it true that you bring every woman you’re with to completion?” Great! She hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that. She’d wanted to be smooth and unruffled, like the women she’d always seen with him. She was clearly going to have to work on that.
“Completion?” He was still reading, seemingly engrossed in an article on thermal imaging. Hopefully she could get this all out before she got the attention that came with his focused, forest-green eyes.
“Yes…completion…orgasm…whatever. Is it true?” Her stomach felt like she was on a roller coaster, and she hoped she sounded calmer than she felt. The slight breathiness of her voice was a sign of her anxiety she could only hope he didn’t hear. She knew she should have skipped the cola and had green tea instead.
He still appeared to be into the article, but she could see he was clenching his jaw, and his grip on the magazine wasn’t as relaxed as it was before. Watching the subtle changes in him made her think he was paying more attention to what she was talking about than to the magazine he was reading.
“Why do you ask?” He kept his eyes on the magazine, but now he was stroking the page with his index finger. That was a signature move, and he was now in detective mode.
“I told you. I heard a rumor.” How many times would he make her say this? She tried not to fidget, but now she could feel the apprehension starting a slow boil in her stomach.
“A rumor, huh?”
She should have known the topic of sex and orgasms would not be something she could sneak past him in conversation.
He sat back on the couch, closed the magazine, tossed it on the cherry wood coffee table…and gave her his full attention. He tilted his head slightly to the left, as though trying to figure out where all the pieces of this puzzle fit.
Damn it, this wasn’t what she wanted. Now she was going to look at his beautiful green eyes while she asked her questions. She had no idea if she’d be able to get through it.
“I guess what I’m asking is, why do you want to know? What difference does that make to you?” He hadn’t moved any closer, but somehow the atmosphere felt different…unsettled. Or maybe it was just her.
“I just thought it was interesting. Especially since every time we go out, you have so many women who just”—she waved her hands around as she spoke—“…randomly walk up to us and ignore me but then later corner me with questions about you.” She leaned forward, picked up the magazine, and started flipping through it, hoping he wouldn’t see how important his answer was to her.
“After I heard that rumor, it made me wonder. Is that the reason so many women bother me about you the second your back is turned?” She looked up to see why he was so silent.
He didn’t appear to be any closer to answering her than he was when gave up his magazine. In fact, he seemed amused, although his eyebrow was no longer quirked up at her. He had a small smile on his full lips, and she didn’t like that expression on his face in response to her question.
“Have you been with all of those women?” She lowered her voice as she continued. “Have you satisfied them all?”
He was still sitting there studying her, and her stomach was balling up in a tight knot. He didn’t say anything. Just sat there looking at her.
“I’m not ignoring you. I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to answer the question. I’m also trying to rationalize why you would ask in the first place.”
“What’s to figure out? It’s clear-cut. Do you satisfy every woman you’re with or not?”
“I try my best.”
The deep voice she knew so well was scraping nerves she hadn’t even known she had before initiating this conversation.
“Nice try.” She tried to adjust her tone to friendly and playful. “Come on…a straight answer.”
He shrugged casually and appeared to keep a close watch on her every move. She knew he was good at figuring out people from their body language. Right now he was taking in every detail of her movement and mannerisms. She knew he was.
“Every woman is different, but I try to make sure that the woman I’m with leaves…happy.”
“Has there ever been anyone who wasn’t…happy?”
“There are always women who are harder to please than others,” he said, stroking his bottom lip with the pad of his thumb. Her very favorite “Liam’s thinking” move.
She picked up his discarded magazine and skimmed an article explaining the importance of wireless broadband for first responders while waiting for him to continue. She quickly tired of the absolute silence in the room and looked over at him.
“How about a question for you?”
“But I’m not done yet.” She looked back at the magazine and flipped a few pages.
“Well, you asked a few questions, and I answered them. Now I’ll ask, and you answer.”
She was wary, but he was nothing if not a negotiator. “Do I have a choice?”
“You always have a choice.” Why did it constantly sound like he was saying something sexual, even when he wasn’t? It was probably because his voice was so sexy. It could be she had gotten herself all worked up when she found out Liam was coming over tonight and decided it was now or never.
“Okay…what’s the question?” She could be fair and tell him what he wanted to know.
“What makes you interested in this information?”
“You’re my friend, but I feel like there is a whole other part of you I don’t know.”
“And that bothers you?”
“Umm…that’s another question. Now it’s my turn. Is it true you don’t do sleepovers, breakfast, or cuddling?”
“Who told you that?” His tone didn’t change, but she could hear he didn’t like what was being said about him. He was getting irritated—that deep frown was legendary. He probably didn’t want her knowing this secret side of him. Too bad she found him so fascinating.
“You can’t answer a question with another question.”
He was trying to think of a way out of answering that one—she thought she could see it in his eyes—but he shocked her and gave her an answer. “That’s typically true.”
“Liam, that’s so hard to believe. Why?”
“I think that’s a second question. If we’re going to play, then we both have to play by the rules.” The expression on his face was one she’d wanted to see for as long as she’d known him—interest. Man-attracted-to-a-woman interest. Who knew all she’d have to do was to ask a few questions about his after-hours activities, and he would see beyond what he normally saw in her? “I’d like to know who would say all of this to you.”
She honestly didn’t want to get into who because she knew that would probably tick him off. They were getting into the meat of this conversation, but there was no way around naming her source. He had that look that said there would be no movement until this question was answered.
“Elaine asked me why you spend so much time with me. When I explained that we were friends, she said, ‘I guess he hasn’t slept with you yet.’ She just went on from there.”
The breath he blew out was her second indication that he was getting pissed off, but in for a penny, in for a pound.
“I thought that was a pretty personal question, but she said she knew we hadn’t. Because if we had, you would have gotten rid of me by now like you had everyone else.”
His face became a blank mask. She’d seen that look before. She’d ask about his family or his childhood, and bam
, there it was. Cool blankness. She didn’t know how he could do it, but somehow he could just turn it all off.
Once, after he’d saved a woman from a burning car, he’d been traumatized and had attempted to dull the pain with alcohol. It was that one night he’d told her more than he ever had. His father didn’t sound like the most caring of men, and he’d lost his mother when he was eight—something else they shared. Her mother had passed away when she was the same age, so she knew how he must feel about that.
She looked at her best friend of four years and wanted behind that mask. She slid a bit closer to him to return to the warmth that they’d had a few minutes ago and get the answer to the current question.
“Is that true? If we had gotten together and hooked up, would our friendship be a thing of the past?”
“Umm…I’d like to think not.” He took the magazine out of her hands and opened it to a random page in the middle.
“You’d like to think not,” she repeated dully. This was not how she had anticipated this conversation going, although since he’d never seemed interested, she probably should have. She’d figured she’d ask the question and he’d figure out the rest.
“Raina, you know I don’t do romantic relationships, but any woman I’m with knows and is all right with that. I’m sorry someone loaded you full of unwanted information. Just forget about it.”
“We’ve shared a lot, and I know you don’t really want to be in a committed relationship, but I never knew you limited yourself like you do. I thought we had a friendship nothing could tear apart.”
He was flipping through his magazine but not actually looking at the pages.
“When I met you all those years ago, you were so sweet, but you never came on to me. Why? Am I not your type?” She knew she should stop, but you might as well call her butter ’cause she was on a roll.
“What?” He looked at her like she was a foreign being or at least speaking a foreign language. “You’re in a weird mood today.”
She got up and slid onto Liam’s lap, displacing his magazine. Was she coming on a bit strong? Abso-freakin-lutely, but she had thrown this idea out into the light, and there was nothing to do but give it all she had. Thank goodness she was wearing a long, gauzy skirt that was light and made moving around easy. She leaned back a little, thrilled at the confusion on his face as he tried to figure out what was going on. He was calm under fire, she knew that, and not just because he was the lieutenant of his crew. She’d seen him deal with many situations that would have reduced the average man to swearing and shouting. He was able to handle everything with a calm detachment that was just Liam. She didn’t know where she was getting the courage to flirt with the master, but she was enjoying it. She had no idea what he would do.
She hoped he’d help her. She had her whole life planned out—marriage at twenty-six, babies before thirty. She’d almost had all of that until an ultimatum given by her almost-fiancé had made her rethink what her priorities were.
“I wasn’t aware that you wanted our relationship to progress to anything other than what it is. Have I misread our situation?”
She’d never seen Liam this close before, and it was both intimidating and exhilarating. “I just didn’t know you were so dominating in the bedroom or how many fans you have. Makes me wonder what I’m missing. Here I am, having fun with the mild-mannered Clark Kent, and there’s a Superman in there I had no idea about. Although some of Superman’s rules are a bit rigid for my liking.”
“Which rule is the most problematic for you?” He looked like this closeness wasn’t doing anything for him. She could have been one of the fire dogs he’d been certified to train and his response would probably be the same—friendly and understanding, but no fire. That was disappointing since she couldn’t get her heart rate to calm down or her breathing to remain normal.
“Well, there’s the no-cuddling rule. I don’t like that. Who wouldn’t like to cuddle up to your hot body? That seems like an extraordinarily bad rule. How do you expect women to resist?”
“They have to make do… What other rule?”
“The ‘If you want to play in my bed, you have to play by my rules’ rule. That doesn’t seem like you at all.”
“For the record, I’ve never said anything like that to anyone.” His tone was calm like still waters, but a storm was brewing in his eyes.
She continued like he hadn’t added that tidbit. “You are nothing if not diplomatic. Where is that guy?”
“That guy is not the bedroom guy or the anything-else guy. Your guy is the diplomat.”
“My guy is the doormat. Most of the time you let me have my way with everything. I guess it’s hard for me to put this phantom guy with the fella that I know, because you don’t seem to care or take control of anything around me. ‘What movie do you want to see, Liam?’ ‘Any one you’d like.’ ‘What would you like to eat tonight?’ ‘Whatever you’re in the mood for.’ I guess I should have asked for a cuddle and watched you perk up… So tell me, if someone wanted to cuddle up to your cock, are you up for that?”
“Who are you, and what have you done with Raina?”
The look on his face was shocked and confused, and she was overjoyed. He was finally seeing her as something more than her regular boring self. Any reaction from him made her feel sexy and powerful. Now she just had to get the right reaction, one that would suit what she wanted.
“I’m still me. I’m just wondering how I’m sitting with you and how much I don’t really know about you.”
“You know me… It’s the women I sleep with who don’t know me, and I don’t know them, and that’s how I like it.”
“That seems so sad. Why is it that I am sitting on your lap, and you aren’t telling me to get off? Or is it that you aren’t attracted to me, so I can do whatever I want?”
“Tell me… What is it that has you so worked up? It can’t be that I have a one-night-stand rule. You’ve never shown much interest in me, so you can’t be jealous. Are you just trying to prove a point? And if so, what is it, because I’m busy and want to finish my magazine.” He tapped her butt to get her moving.
“Hmm…so you do have a bit of bark you’re willing to share with a friend.”
“Looking for a bit of bark? Go find a tree.” The stern voice and cold eyes should have scared her, but somehow they did the opposite. “Get off my lap.”
“Can I have a kiss, Liam?”
“What?” He rested his head on the back of the couch and closed his eyes. He seemed to be trying to pull himself together or just blocking her out. She didn’t know if she was torturing him because she wanted to see the beast or if she just didn’t believe it was in there. “Why?”
She’d seen him with his fire crew, and he undoubtedly was the one shouting the orders, but it was hard for her to reconcile what Elaine, one of the buckle bunnies at the club, had told her about Liam—her intense, discreet friend.
“I just want one.”
“I kiss you all the time, and you haven’t moved yet,” he said in the most authoritative tone he’d never used with her.
Damn, where had that come from? It begged her to be defiant.
“You kiss me good-bye like my grandma…on the cheek or the forehead. I want a real kiss.”
He moved his hands to cup her bottom, and she didn’t know if he was going to push her off or pull her closer.
“I want to see what has all those women stopping me in line at the market or as I wait to use the restroom, whenever your back is turned. They ask me about your daily habits and how they can get you. In their words, you’re so exciting and seductive. With me, you’re like my cousin Billy.”
His gaze was filled with something she hoped wasn’t pity, but she wasn’t going to look too closely at him in case it was.
The puppy-dog twist of his head was back, and suddenly she felt foolish for even starting this. She wished she could turn back time and talk about something else. Fire-hose water pressure or the safest way to fireproof your house. That always got him off on a tangent.
Leela Lou Dahlin