“What the hell are you doing in my bed?”
The voice was pissed and achingly familiar, but the haze of painkillers kept him from immediately responding.
Definitely not a demand he’d heard from a woman before.
Kadan winced and rolled fully onto his back, careful of his left ankle and foot. Of course he would have had to take off his boot to sleep. Even though he’d elevated his trashed ankle and foot on several pillows, pain shot up all the way through his hip. He hissed a curse and then using his elbows and triceps started to prop himself into a sitting position.
“Kadan Carson, why the hell are you sleeping in my bed? In my beach cottage?”
Wasn’t that something from the three bears? Only she was no goldilocks. Red. Deep, burned, auburn red to her soul. He grinned at her fury even though it hurt to look at her. God, she was still so effortlessly beautiful. She flamed like a torch. Seared him. So bursting with life and sensuality and gorgeous and utterly unaware of it.
“What’s so funny?”
“Definitely lost my touch. You never asked me that before. Come to think of it, no woman….”
“Asshole.” She interrupted his memory stroll and grabbed the pillow from under his foot and swung it over his head.
The pain shot through his body like dozens of flaming arrows. He fell back, already sweating and his vision darkening.
He felt her hands touch his hips and then run down his body in a cool professional way, and that hurt almost as much as the jarring his ankle and foot had received.
Through the crashing waves of pain he heard her curse again. He bit back bile. He would not hurl on her or anywhere near her. Hollis Remington, once his Hollis deserved so much better than that.
“What happened? When? Why the hell aren’t you wearing a boot? How bad?” she demanded through clenched teeth.
He shouldn’t have to answer that. It wasn’t as if the surfing world didn’t know he’d been injured, that he’d possibly thrashed his left ankle. Again. The surfing world and his sponsors didn’t know he’d crushed his foot. Broken his ankle in four places. That it had more pins than a porcupine. That amputation had been discussed. No one knew how bad and he intended to keep it that way.
“Everybody knows.” He yawned and pushed himself up to sitting again.
Hollis straightened up, arms crossed. He recognized her skeptical, defensive posture. He’d seen enough of it for a lifetime.
“Enlighten me. I am not one of your pumped full of plastic fans stalking you online, reading every surfing article and blog extolling your fabulousness.” She rolled her eyes and tossed her long ponytail back like she was still sixteen.
He used to love to grab that sassy ponytail, wrap it around and around his fist, and reel her in for a kiss, trapping her against his body so he could devour her endlessly. Her hair had always done something to him. Twisted something inside him that could only respond to her. She still wore it long. And the deep copper color still punched him in the gut and, damn her, of course lower. Made it hard to breathe. Made his body go liquid. And all the blood expressed to his cock leaving him light-headed and stupid. Incapable of resisting her many charms. Giving in to the viscous and soul-sucking cycle again.
A different pain shot through him. This one lodged in his chest. Six years later, and all she had to do was stroll in the door like she’d just gone out for a basket of fruit to make him a smoothie “to keep your strength up.” By strength, she meant one specific part of his anatomy, and he’d always been so eager to please her that he’d felt like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Instead of a bell or a buzzer she would just breeze in the door.
Still did. Since his wipeout nearly a month ago, he’d felt dead to everything but the endless, bone-burning pain. Two minutes in her presence, and he was alive. And in a different, but too familiar pain.
“Tell me,” she said. “How bad?”
Shit. She still had a husky catch in her voice that had always mushed his brain and tied him in so many knots he didn’t know where he began or ended.
“Kadan,” her voice whispered along every nerve, and her beautiful honey gold eyes flared almost to amber. “How bad?” She stepped back away from the bed. “You’d better be mobile because I’m staying here for a while. You need to get out of here. Tonight.”
“Good to see you too, Hollis.” He taunted. “Nice to know you care enough to come to visit and express your undying love and sympathy and nurse me back to health.” The sarcasm rolled off his tongue automatically.
He could not lie down and look at her and live with himself. He had some pride left and broken was not how he wanted her to see him, ever.
“As if.” She huffed then jumped back as he swung his good leg off the bed. “Tell me you’re wearing clothes,” she squeaked and scrunched her eyes shut.
“As if.” He parried and forced his hip to pivot so he could swing his other leg off the bed even though it hurt like hell, and he had like a minute until he had the dry heaves. Again. “Like you haven’t seen it all before, and begged for more.”
Okay, so now he was reduced to being a dick. He waited for her snappy come back.
“You weren’t even close to squeamish when you were a virgin.” He had to fill the silence or his head would explode. Pain and resentment rode him hard. “So if my nakedness repulses you so much, leave or make yourself useful and get me my crutches. And my fucking boot.”
She still didn’t answer.
He thought it was because he hadn’t said please. His duchess had always gone on about manners as if that would have made their differences disappear and their on again off again relationship magically work.
Still, what the hell?
“Please.” He angled his body so he could see her.
It killed him to ask but this time there was no way to fake it. No way to smile and hop to the bathroom. Pretend he could fly. Be her hero.
She stared at the ground, her face, even for her, ghostly pale. She lifted her impossibly large, golden eyes, swimming in tears. He felt himself recoil as if he’d been kicked. He’d made her cry. Again.
“I hurt you,” she whispered. “With the pillow. I’m so, so sorry.”
She’d hurt him with a hell of a lot more than a pillow over the years. It would be laughable if it didn’t gut him so much.
‘As if,’ danced on his tongue but his usual flippancy deserted him. He tried to breathe through the pain. Swallow the bile and think of something less explosive to say. Nothing. Not surprising. Between the pain and the surprise of seeing her here and the disgust that she should see him so broken, he had nothing.
He tried to be analytical about the pain. Rise above. Definitely seeing her hurt worse that his foot. Maybe if he didn’t look at her.
Mutely, she retrieved them from the floor where they’d fallen when she’d entered in the dark. She handed them to him, her eyes ping-ponging around the room. It was probably unrecognizable, since he’d paid someone to pull the king size bed into the middle of the beach cottage’s main room before his surgery and push the other furniture back into the one bedroom.
He got himself up, barely made it to the bathroom, and slammed the door with his crutch.
Even through the door she could hear him puking. Hollis balled up her fist and pressed it against her mouth to keep herself from saying anything stupid. He’d never handled pain meds well. She dragged in a shaky breath and looked around the room feeling helpless. This was so not what she’d expected.
Water. Tea. He didn’t drink tea but her grandmother did. She had every loose leaf tea ever grown in India or Bangledesh or wherever else they grew tea. Tonight, Kadan would drink tea. And she hoped that her grandmother had something to spike it with because even if Kadan hurled up all his pain meds and refused to take more, she had no intention of being stoic.
Why was he here? Why, why, why here? She couldn’t have him here. Not here. Not now. Not when she needed to regroup and plan for her, what was it now, third or fourth act? He had his own house in San Clemente. Just two blocks up from the beach. Why the hell was he in her grandmother’s beach guest house? Her grandmother wasn’t even here this spring and summer. She was remodeling her house. Seriously. Again. And that was why Hollis dared to make the trip. Slinking home to buy herself time. Secretly.
Except not so secretly apparently.
She bit her lower lip hard and measured out the tea leaves, filled the kettle, turned on the gas stove. Like she was a normal woman home for a visit. A visit that might not really end.
“Don’t think.” She admonished herself tightly.
Thinking was all she’d been doing and a fat lot of good it had done her over her life.
He hobbled back and for some reason she couldn’t stand to look at him on the crutches. Not Kadan. Her Kadan moved like a panther, all long and lean and muscled and flowing like a predator across any room, any beach, anywhere. Her Kadan moved like liquid sex and menace. A deadly, sexy swagger that always made her feel faint and combustibly hot. Even when he’d been briefly hers, she’d been mesmerized by his walk. Just struck dumb every time. And then when he’d lock eyes with her and smile. Oh, God, she’d been unable to keep her clothes on. But every woman within his sphere had had the same challenge. Definitely still did. So why was he here alone? Kadan had rarely been alone.
She reminded herself of that—that she’d been one of many. That he had been a more prolific lover than many rock stars. More popular than most movie stars. She couldn’t count how many times when they’d been out, they’d been joined by others—friends, acquaintances, fans, and women, always women, touching him, flirting with him, asking him to sign their barely covered by their bikini top breasts, ignoring her like she didn’t exist. Like she wasn’t there. He had never been her Kadan. Not even in bed. She’d just been stupid enough to pretend.
She could hear the water about to boil so she distracted her careening thoughts by bringing out two mugs, pouring the water into the clay pot with the tea leaves. Then she rummaged through her shopping bag of fresh produce, fruit, almond milk, and gluten-free bagels for the ginger. She peeled a small amount, diced it, and ground it down in the mortar.
She added the pulp to one mug then strained the tea into it, the whole time not looking at him.
“So, I’ve had a surgery.” He stretched his long, tanned, supremely muscled arm along the headboard of the bed.
She had to keep her eyes off of him that was all. She would not look to see if he’d added any new ink on the story of his arms. Not look at the defined muscles on his chest or his abs, not think about how she had memorized them with her fingers, her lips, her tongue.
“Ditch the tea. I’m not eighty.”
That was the problem. And if he were really going to be laid up, he could at least have the decency to look sick or feeble, but nooooooo not Kadan Carson. Even gimpy, deteriorating and wracked with pain, he looked infinitely jumpable. She was totally soaked. She hated herself and her stupid body.
And the way his hooded eyes bore into her back, she could feel him sizing her up—her mood, her body, her level of discomfort in his presence. She’d never been able to play it cool in his presence. Not at twelve or sixteen or twenty or twenty-two, and it looked like staring down the barrel of thirty offered her no emotional Kevlar to resist him. She might as well be naked under a bright light for his analysis. A high school biology frog had never felt this exposed.
She hesitated, then at the last minute, squiggled a little agave on top of the tea, added a curl of candied ginger and took a deep breath.
“No way am I drinking that.” He eyed her approach. “And what’s with the nice girl routine? Last time I saw you, you cursed me out in front of dozens of friends and the press and then hurled a Corona bottle at my head.”
“That can be arranged.”
It wasn’t as if she expected him to forget her jealous tirade, but he didn’t need to bring it up when he was flat on his ass in her refuge. And he definitely didn’t need to sound so amused.
“And I missed on purpose.”
“Thanks,” he said drily and she felt another surge of heat race through her blood, damn him.
“Or?” One dark brow angled at her.
Her stomach flipped, and she could swear her heart missed a beat before beating a double time tattoo.
How did he do that?
She handed him the tea and was surprised when he palmed it and stared at the light green contents before he took a sip. “Thank you.”
Her knees went and she whooshed onto the side of the bed. She closed her eyes. She had to get a grip. She had to get on with her life, and she definitely had to get over him. How could her body and her stupid, stupid heart still even tolerate this smug, arrogant sex on two legs. Or one leg now, she reminded herself bitterly.
She dragged in a shaky breath. She was just surprised, that was all. She hadn’t expected him. She figured he’d be in Thailand now. Or Hawaii. Or anywhere but here.
“You look good, Hollis.”
Hollis. Not the hated “duchess.” Or worse yet “Ivy,” when she’d been young because she’d been so “invasive.” “Clingy” was another word he’d lobbed at her. She should be thrilled. They were adults. Acquaintances. No stupid, half-insulting, half-friendly nicknames. He’d moved on. She would, too. She had moved on.
“The ginger will help with the nausea.” She marveled at her calm voice.
“Great, actually,” he continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “But tired.” With a finger he reached out and traced the freckles sprinkled along her cheekbones. “Thin.”
Women spent their lives starving themselves and beating themselves up to get thin so men would love them and this asshole was criticizing. Her cheek tingled where he’d touched her and her breath tangled.
“What meds do they have you on?”
He sipped the tea, shrugged his shoulders as eloquently as a lion would going into stalk mode. She would not look at him. She wouldn’t.
“Which ones?” She asked again.
“Vic, but that makes me itch. Perc, which makes me sick.” He shrugged.
“I would have thought they’d give you oxy.”
He shook his head. “Too addicting. We sound like dealers.” He grinned.
The full treatment. Wide smile all the way to his sparkling blue-black eyes, lit with amusement, laugh lines, teeth whiter than the Pacific’s white caps, inviting her to dive in and swim.
Hollis stared at her tea as if it contained answers. Only pale liquid gleamed at her. No leaves pointing the way to her future. The words she’d wanted to say to him so many years ago were all gone.
They would be like strangers.
He leaned back against the black, cushioned headboard, eyes closed, tea cradled in one large, perfectly sculpted hand. God, it hurt to look at him. Still. All these years later, and it was like she was fourteen again, doodling his name in her school spiral-bound notebooks. Sixteen, spying on him every morning when he would surf with her twin brother, making them both late to school. Eighteen, wearing ridiculously short skirts or shorts and tiny tanks ‘Just happening to walk by him’ back and forth, back and forth.
“Tell me you’re taking something for the pain,” she whispered into the silence, knowing that it had to hurt like hell.
He shook his head.
“Can’t keep it down. But you know that.”
“Just one surgery?”
Her breath seeped out and her body sank in on itself as if the years of ballet as a child and teen and the years of yoga now had never happened.
“We could get you a drip.”
“Not worth it.
“If I’d known that, I would have spiked your tea with—” She broke off. What did one spike tea with? Tequila was all she’d brought because she loved margaritas, and staying alone at the beach trying to figure out the rest of her life after she’d dropped out of her surgery residency and tanked on her two other career attempts definitely required margaritas. Maybe even shots. A lot of shots. And limes and salt.
But she wasn’t alone. Hollis swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the sorrow permanently lodged in her throat.
“Planning to stay awhile, duchess?” He challenged.
End of Excerpt