Pain played in my ribs, and I groaned.
“Easy there,” someone male murmured.
I struggled out of a deep sleep to find myself bouncing rather uncomfortably. And upside down. “What?”
“It’s okay, honey,” the male replied.
Then I remembered. Baird. Abandonment. Tripp. Kissing Tripp.
I was slung over someone’s shoulder as he climbed narrow stairs. Tripp. The T-shirt had ridden up, exposing the backs of my thighs to the night air. He fumbled a bit when we reached the top of the stairs, and then the colorful living room flashed into view. He carefully placed me on the pale yellow leather sofa.
He plopped next to me. “How are you holding up?” he asked.
I rubbed my eyes, remembering too late I was probably smearing black mascara over my face. “Okay. What time is it?”
“Three a.m.,” he replied. “It was a great night. We had so many Hall of Famers in tonight—it was fantastic.”
He sounded excited. Enthusiastic. Awake.
Maybe he would drive me home.
“It’s everything Penn and I thought about when we decided to open the place.” His tone darkened. “And damn Baird McKechnie stole it from him.”
I knew all about Baird McKechnie spoiling dreams.
I started to point out that Penn was a big boy and that no one had forced him to take off with Baird, but then, I was kind of irritated with Baird too. The jerk had ditched me. What had I ever done to him? Nothing. I did not deserve to be abandoned like a stinky sneaker. Plus he had my espadrilles in his car. I might have been able to fix the broken ankle strap, but I needed the stupid shoe in order to do it.
“God,” Tripp continued. “I love hanging out with other ballplayers. And the stories! And they really seemed to like the food, even if Penn himself wasn’t here to cook it.”
He plucked my uninjured foot from the floor and rested it in his lap. His thumbs worked some kind of magic as he rambled on about the stories in the bar. It was that touching thing again. He touched me, and every moral I ever had dissolved along with the components of my body.
His stories were amusing, even if I didn’t know the players, and some of the humor was way over my nonsporting head. I studied him, trying to pinpoint where I might have seen him before. I wished I wasn’t so tired. But I was as comfortable as I could be in the circumstances. And Tripp’s foot massage only added to my lethargy.
I yawned. “I’m so sorry!” I said, mortified that I’d done it practically in his face.
“It’s okay, honey. You’ve had a long day, and here I am keeping you awake talking.”
Honey? Had Tripp Shaneybrook just called me honey?
I was having a difficult time remembering that he was a professional athlete and practiced in charming fans.
“You probably want to take a shower, get some sleep—”
“Go home,” I interjected.
He looked stricken, as if I’d sucker punched him or something. “It’s kind of late,” he pointed out. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to camp out here?”
He sounded so sincere. So sweet.
“I’m kind of beat too.” His smile deepened his dimples. His eyes glowed like honey-colored flames. The pressure of his thumbs on my good foot increased.
It was all I could do to keep from moaning.
“You and I can shower here. Separately if you insist,” he continued. “I keep clothes in the spare bedroom in case I need them. You can borrow another one of my shirts. If you insist.”
I ignored the blatant come-on. “You don’t live here?”
“This is Penn’s place. I have a cottage on the other end of the lake,” he said. “But I stay here sometimes, when I’m too tired or otherwise incapacitated and shouldn’t be driving.”
He didn’t say it aloud, but the thought was there. It was
late. And he’d probably had a drink or two with his baseball buddies. It wasn’t his fault Baird was a jerk.
“Besides, I rented out my cottage for the weekend.”
But I didn’t want to be beholden to Tripp. I barely knew him.
I yawned again. It was too late to do anything. Frankly, I could have fallen asleep on the wonderfully buttery-soft leather sofa.
“Okay,” I said.
Danger, Chelsea Lyndon, danger.
I pulled my foot out of his lap. “I’ll take my shower now, so if you’ll find me another shirt—”
“I don’t think you should shower alone. Your ankle. You’re supposed to stay off it.” His delivery was pure innocence.
I blinked at him.
My body was going, Fun!
while the brain kept saying, You don’t know this man. He could be a serial killer. He could be riddled with STDs, and you mean nothing to him. You’re handy. That’s it.
the body shrieked. He’s handy. Use him!
“All you’d need to do is kiss me again,” I admitted. Okay, I handed him a weapon. Not very bright on my part, sabotaging myself like that. My only excuse was I was tired.
“Is that all?” His smile broadened. “That could very easily be arranged.”
“You said you would lend me something to sleep in.”
His exaggerated sigh nearly had me giggling like a tipsy schoolgirl. “I suppose,” he said. “But I’m staying in the bathroom with you.”
“No.” Even I had standards.
“What if you fall? Most fatal falls occur in the bathroom. Something like ninety-nine percent,” he said. “With your gimpy ankle—”
“You can stand outside the closed bathroom door.”
“But I won’t be able to see you,” he protested.
“That’s the point.”
“I bet you look real nice without my shirt.”
“Do you sweet talk every female you meet?” I asked.
He seemed startled by the question. His teasing grin faded. “I’m not sweet talking you. I’m one hundred percent honest here.”
I hadn’t seen him with any other women except the nurse at the health center, so maybe I was out of line. But I didn’t think so. Besides, no one ever said sweet talk had to be dishonest.
“I need my privacy,” I said. I wanted to appease him, but I was not taking a community shower with a man I’d met mere hours earlier. A girl had to draw the line somewhere, and that was mine.
“All right,” he conceded. “But I’m right outside the unlocked door in case you fall or something.”
I could compromise with an unlocked door. I nodded.
“Let me find you a clean shirt and a towel.”
Ten minutes later had me wishing I wasn’t quite such a prude. My ankle hurt like crazy, and I was so tired that I felt drunk. The room didn’t exactly spin. It was more like a wavering, like old movie depictions of a mirage in the desert. But I was careful. I struggled to keep my head dry, because I didn’t want to sleep with wet hair. The hot water sluicing down my body felt fantastic. I’m not a big fan of manly scented cosmetics, but one of the bars of soap in the shower was pretty good. Cypress. Maybe cedar. It seemed to have some kind of exfoliating agent in it too, which was heaven after being sweaty, sticky, muddy, and awful.
I rinsed out my bra and panties, but the dress—still where I’d left it on the floor—needed something bigger than a bathroom sink. I really didn’t want to drape my lingerie in the bathroom, but didn’t have much of a choice. I just hoped Tripp didn’t get weird about it. I was certain he’d seen plenty of women’s under things.
Tripp had given me a mango-colored T-shirt to wear, and I was a little hurt. That afternoon, he’d been adamant that I wouldn’t wear anything of his brother’s. Only his. These fruit colors, to me, were gay guy colors. Maybe it was payback for refusing to shower with him.
I hobbled to the door, opened it, and sure enough, he was sitting on the floor in front of it.
“Honey, you look great in my shirt,” he said as he scrambled to his feet.
“Yours?” I plucked the fabric away from my still-damp skin.
“Christmas gift from Penn, but yeah, mine. I told you. You’re wearing my clothes, not my brother’s and certainly not Baird’s.”
Something stilled inside me. “Baird’s?”
Tripp shrugged. “He keeps stuff here. In Penn’s room.”
I didn’t want to know about this. Really.
I must have swayed or something—that wavering-room thing again—because Tripp picked me up as if I weighed no more than his shirt and carried me across the living room into a dark room. Then I was on a bed. A big bed.
Tripp sprawled next to me.
“You want me to crash on the sofa?” he whispered. “I will, if you want.”
How could I do that to the man? He’d been so considerate of me. We could sleep in the same bed and not… And just sleep. He was exhausted. I had seen it in the circles under his eyes and the fine lines etched around his facial features. He’d been kind. He’d taken time out of his hectic day to drive me to the health center, had tried to pay for an X-ray (I had health insurance, thank you very much), had fed me, and had pampered me as much as I had let him.
I couldn’t kick him out of his own bed.
“Stay,” I whispered.
“Thanks.” He kissed my cheek, then rolled away from me. “I’ll be back in a second.”
I fell asleep listening to him moving around the apartment.
* * * *
The room was dark and strange. Something much larger than Foggy stretched along my side.
I jerked awake, completely disoriented. A soft snoring told me that I was in bed with a man. Tripp
But what had awakened me?
I lay very still, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the unfamiliar building. Creaking. Like footsteps on old floorboards. Plush rugs couldn’t muffle that sound.
Voices, low and urgent. A sliver of light glimmered between the closed door and the carpet. It was like the nightmares before I went to live with Grandma Judy.
Tripp let out a loud snuffle and then turned over, reaching for me—or for the body of whatever woman happened to be in his bed that night—and cuddled against me. He nuzzled the crook of my neck.
The voices grew louder. The door slammed open, and the overhead light flashed on.
I screamed, Tripp sat up, and Baird and Tripp’s brother, Penn-the-chef, stood in the doorway.
“What is that skank still doing here?” Penn demanded.
“How should I know?” Baird retorted.
Tripp leaped from the bed and pinned his brother against the wall. “She is not a skank, and you’d better apologize to her right now.”
The sight of Tripp’s bare shoulders and back distracted me from the insult.
Dear Lord, the man was ripped. Muscles corded every inch of flesh I could see. And his tan. He was lightly, goldenly tanned, like a trophy. Silvery raised ridges marred the perfection of his skin on his right shoulder. He wore navy-blue boxer shorts that clung to his backside in an intriguing manner. Golden curls dusted his powerful-looking calf muscles.
“Then why is Baird’s date in bed with you?” Penn sounded smug.
Tripp increased his grip on Penn, who made a gagging sound. “Because you’re the skank who stole her date.”
“Penn can have Baird,” I said, finally finding my voice.
Looking at Tripp was much nicer than arguing about Baird McKechnie.
Baird made some kind of noise, which was probably rude, but I really didn’t care. I wanted to watch Tripp. Good grief, the man was defending my honor. He didn’t even know me, but he wasn’t letting his brother insult me.
I got all warm and fuzzy about then.
“You want her, you can have her,” Baird told Tripp. “Now let go of Penn and go back to bed.” He barely spared me a glance.
“I don’t need your permission.” Tripp’s tone was cold. He released his brother. “Get out of here.”
“It’s my apartment,” Penn said.
“Yeah, well, it’s your restaurant too, but that didn’t stop you from taking off on the busiest weekend of the year.” Tripp stayed close to Penn, as if he were waiting for an excuse to grab him again, maybe do some damage.
Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part.
“And I’m backing you because I thought you were a good investment, not because you’re my brother. Today’s shenanigans have me thinking maybe you’re not such a sound risk after all.”
Penn blanched. Like Baird, he was dressed in khaki cargo pants and a tight black T-shirt. His dark blond hair was slicked off his face with a lot of gel. It looked greasy to me. His coloring was similar to Tripp’s, but he lacked Tripp’s glow and golden aura. Looking at him didn’t turn me molten.
“Do you have any idea what happened here tonight?” Tripp continued. “What you missed? Who you could have impressed with your culinary art?” He sneered the last two words.
“This is all your fault!” Penn turned on Baird. “And you did it on purpose. You brought your floozy with you this weekend on purpose. You want me to fail!”
Tripp lunged for Penn again, gripping the front of his shirt this time. “Damn it, I told you to apologize.”
Penn looked at me and rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry Baird used you to get to me.”
Yeah, well, that part sucked. “Me too,” I said. “But that doesn’t give you the right to call me names. He’s the one you should be mad at.”
“Hey!” Baird said.
Tripp released Penn again. “Go kiss and make up or something, before I really get mad.”
“Why are you even here?” Penn asked, straightening his shirt.
“Because I rented out my cabin for the weekend. Remember? And Willie and Frank didn’t want to leave.”
“Willie Mays?” Penn sounded weak.
“Yeah, the Say Hey Kid himself was sitting in your dining room and eating food off your menu. Food you didn’t cook.”
“Shit,” Penn said. He turned to Baird again. “I will never forgive you for this.” He stalked out of the room without hurling another insult at me.
Baird closed the door on his way out of the room.
Tripp turned and looked at me. His chest was even better than his back. Reddish curls formed an inverted triangle in the middle of his chest, tapering down to a very narrow treasure trail that disappeared into the waistband of his boxers. His massive thighs were as solid and golden as oak.
I was still in bed with the navy-and-white pin-striped sheet pulled up to my waist. I was definitely decent. There was no way he could tell my T-shirt—his T-shirt—had ridden up, baring my backside. At least, not until he crawled between the sheets again.
He stayed where he was.
“I’m sorry you had to be exposed to that,” he said. “Baird brings out the worst in Penn. I hope you’re not too disappointed that things won’t work out with him.”
“I told you before, there was no attraction.”
A slow smile slid across his face. “Yeah, you did. Well, now I’m awake, thanks to them. Not tired at all.”
I never should have let my gaze drift off his face. No, he certainly wasn’t tired—at least parts of him weren’t. One part. One really impressive part.
I wasn’t tired anymore either. My mouth was dry, because all the fluid in my body drained a lot lower. Like a guy, when all the blood left his brain to pool below his waist.
Other parts of me, like my breasts and girl stuff, tingled.
, whispered the brain.
Go for it!
shouted all the dry, wet, and tingling parts.
Tripp finally stepped to the side of the bed. “Chelsea?” His hand hovered over my right cheek, as if he were afraid touch me.
I swallowed. Hard. “Turn off the light,” I whispered.
Some emotion skittered across his face, and then he nodded.
What was wrong with me? Did I think that if I couldn’t see what was happening, it wasn’t real?
He left me and turned off the overhead, plunging the room into absolute darkness. Even the light under the crack of door was gone. I didn’t want to think about Baird and Penn sharing a room.
The mattress sank beneath Tripp’s weight when he joined me. I rolled toward him.
“Hello,” he said, pulling me closer.
His body was like a blast furnace. Heat poured off him in waves. If the room hadn’t been air-conditioned, I doubt I would have enjoyed being as close to him as much as I did. Because I really, really liked being near him.
“You gonna get upset if I kiss you again?” he asked.
my body screamed.
“No,” I whispered.
“Good.” The word was almost a sigh, and broken off as he found my mouth with his. In the dark. One hundred percent accurate.
Lights burst behind my closed eyes. He tasted exactly the way he had that afternoon the first time he’d kissed me. When I’d fallen in love with him.
Oh. Impossible. I’d fallen in lust with him, not love. I didn’t know him. How could I love him? Besides, I knew there was no such thing as love. Happily ever after didn’t exist.
On the other hand, did it matter? He was holding me. He was kissing me. Again. And if he never touched me in any other way as long as I lived, as long as he kissed me, it was enough.