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The room was a sea of red cups and intoxicated twenty-somethings. Part of the crowd moved to the trendy hip-hop music blaring from the speaker system, while others tried to hold conversations by yelling.
Blake tightened his grip on his cup, its near emptiness evident in the distinct crunch of ice, and slid his gaze around the crowd.
This wasn’t his scene. Not anymore. Ten years ago, when he’d been in full throttle frat-boy mode, it had been his life. Until the day it abruptly hadn’t, then he’d avoided these parties at any cost.
But he’d made a promise to drop by a friend’s twenty-eighth birthday bash tonight, and so here he was.
Fifty minutes to go.
Then he could bail without guilt.
“I’m having trouble believing it. You actually came.”
Blake turned at the deep voice and smiled at his approaching friend, the birthday boy himself.
“Wasn’t about to miss your party.”
“Right.” Jack shook his head, his brows furrowed. “You just don’t come to these things.”
“Not really my scene.”
“Yeah, I know.” Jack gave a slow, knowing grin, one considered lethal to the female population. “How’s your new place going, anyway?”
“It’s good.” Blake nodded, jamming his hands into the pockets of his jeans, thinking about his apartment just out of Seattle. “Real good.”
And real quiet. Before he’d gotten his own place three months ago, Blake had lived with three other guys. They’d first met in the fraternity but had bailed on the frat after their sophomore year to rent a house together. Calling those guys his friends was an understatement. They were like brothers.
“Yeah, I bet it must be nice having a honey pad all to yourself.”
“It’s pretty sweet.”
Blake rolled with the friendly dig that he was popular with the women since it would be hard to dispute it. There hadn’t been a whole lot of honeys coming and going lately, though. Not while he’d been finishing up training as a paramedic at Harborview.
“I’m looking into my own place, too,” Jack admitted. “Need my own space.”
A flash of tan skin and red dress caught the corner of Blake’s eye, but he kept his attention on his friend. There were half-naked women all over this party, and he’d already checked out more than a few. So far, no one had drawn his interest.
The sound of a husky, feminine laugh had Blake’s ears pricking.
While still trying to listen to Jack talk about his new job, he turned nonchalantly to glance behind him and found the girl in the red dress. A tall, curvy brunette with legs a mile long and a smile that screamed confidence. A legit goddess that half the guys at the party were clustering around.
The laugh sounded again, and Blake realized abruptly it hadn’t come from her. Puzzled, he shifted his gaze, and that’s when he discovered the woman standing next to the goddess.
It was the word that came to mind when he checked her out. Much shorter than her friend, almost scrawny, with blonde—almost brown—hair, and arms that were folded over a pair of small breasts. No sexy dress for this one but a pink-checkered flannel, skinny jeans, and brown leather boots that hugged up her calves. Unlike her friend, she didn’t ooze sensuality. Instead, she embodied the image of “girl next door.”
She and her friend seemed young. Maybe still in college, even. Which wasn’t all that weird since most of the crowd seemed to range from their early to late twenties.
As if sensing his stare, she lifted her head, and their gazes locked. She seemed to trail off from whatever she’d been saying to the guy standing next to her, and her lips parted slightly.
Her gaze slid from Blake’s head to his toes, and those dark-brown eyes took on a considering look.
“Pretty sure you haven’t heard a damn thing I’ve said in the last minute.”
Blake winced and turned back to his friend. Jack had a brow lifted before he cast a glance to where the women were.
“Ah, I see what happened there. She’s superhot.”
It only took a second to realize his friend was talking about the brunette. She was gorgeous. No man with a dick and a heartbeat would disagree. And Blake couldn’t deny that at some point in the past few years, he probably would’ve tried to get her to go home with him.
Tonight, there wasn’t the slightest temptation. Checking her out had almost felt clinical. Somewhere, somehow, it had all gotten a little stale. Boring. Getting the hot girl had never been a novelty for him. It was a given. They were drawn to him like a magnet.
Especially when they realized his career choice. Or maybe because of it. Before he’d gotten certified to be a paramedic, he’d been strictly a firefighter.
Either way, the girls went a little nuts over it. And being a guy who didn’t like to get too serious, they always assumed they could change him. Fix him. They were always wrong.
Another husky laugh—almost bawdy now—rang out, and he felt his gaze drawn to the plainer girl again. It was usually girls like her, the one standing in the shadow of the goddess, who had enough sense to stay clear of him, seemed to realize right off the bat that he was a player and no woman would ever change him.
So, it was a little surprising when she slid another considering glance his way and then gave him a slow smile.
Kristen could sense the commitment-phobe in the man from across the room. From the lazy grip on his beer to the calculating look in his gaze as it slid over the women in the room.
Oh, this guy was hot as hell, and he knew it.
He looked closer to thirty than twenty. His biceps appeared as if he spent every free minute lifting weights. He had an angular face that was sexy and rugged and dark hair just a tad longer than conventional. The kind of a hair that a girl wanted to slide her fingers into her while being kissed senseless.
While she now had his attention, those blue eyes had initially been on her friend, Tori. Pretty standard given Tori was the hot one. But she’d caught him glancing her way more than once now. Kind of cool and surprising.
Her heart quickened, and an idea she’d been playing with gained momentum.
Could he be the one?
She lifted her cup and took another sip of the lukewarm beer. It tasted like piss. Whoever had been in charge of the alcohol had definitely gone for cheap instead of quality. It wasn’t making her want to drink much for courage.
Sidling closer to her friend, Kristen nudged her in the side and whispered, “Bathroom.”
Tori glanced down at her in surprise, and understanding flickered in her eyes. She gave a nod and moved away from the group of men surrounding her.
They found a bathroom, slipped inside, and locked the door.
“I found him.” Kristen’s confession came out on a nervous rush.
Tori arched a brow in clear skepticism. “I haven’t seen you talk to anyone yet.”
“Well, I haven’t, but he’s incredibly hot.”
“And that’s a requirement?”
Kristen bit her lip and considered that question for a moment, then gave a little nod. “If I’m going to do it like this? Then yeah, absolutely it is.”
Her friend made a nearly silent harrumph. “Okay. Point him out.”
Kristen grabbed the door handle, opened it, and peeked her head out. He was exactly where he’d been a few minutes ago.
Tori peeked her head out, too. “Not the one in the gray T-shirt with the amazing biceps?”
“Totally that one.”
Tori ducked back in and closed the door. She placed her palms on the bathroom counter and leaned back, giving Kristen a narrow-eyed look.
“Well, you nailed picking the hottest guy here.”
“Nailed being the key word. Or it will be later tonight.” Kristen’s lips twitched in amusement, even as her stomach swirled with nerves. “Go big or go home, right?”
Tori gave a soft snort. “Yeah, but if his dick is anything like his biceps, I think you may regret that ‘go big’ part.”
Just the imagery of those words had Kristen’s knees going weak.
What the hell am I doing?
She clenched her fists and drew in a deep breath. She knew exactly what she was doing.
“So, what’s your plan?”
Kristen gave a slight shrug at the question. “Go out and talk to him. Flirt. Make it clear I’m interested in having some fun. I’m sure it’s not that hard.”
“It shouldn’t be. Men are ridiculously easy. Just be careful, okay? Guys like that eat girls like you for dinner.”
“I’m counting on that.”
Tori gave a choked laugh. “You have an incredibly dirty mind for a virgin—you realize that, right?”
“I do realize that. And it’s going to waste.” Playing with a strand of hair, Kristen gave a slight smile.
Her dirty mind was the result of hanging with mostly guys and having two brothers. She’d met Tori in high school biology, and they’d become best friends while dry heaving during dissections.
“Are you going to tell him?”
“About my lack of experience? No way.” Kristen shoved a hand through her hair. “Going by Paul’s reaction, virgins are the antichrist.”
“Right. Paul. The whole reason you’re doing this. Your guy friend at UNLV you’ve been crushing on since your junior year.”
“He likes me. I really think he does.” Kristen’s pulse quickened as she mentally brought up the image of his smiling face. “But when I suggested we try going out, he shut me down. He was so sweet and said asking me out had crossed his mind, but he won’t date a virgin—”
“Can I just add that’s, like, the lamest thing to say? But I guess I understand. Some people get weird or clingy.”
“Stop it. I wouldn’t be like that.”
“You never know. Happened with a guy I slept with who was a virgin. He followed me around like a damn puppy after.” Tori shrugged. “Anyway, how did he even know you were a virgin?”
“It just came up one night while we were partying with a group of friends.”
Just the memory of how he’d so casually rejected her, with his reasoning basically being a hymen, sent a wave of embarrassment through her.
Being a virgin had never seemed like a stigma until that moment.
“So, you sleep with the hot guy at this party and lose the virginity. Then this Paul guy will be all over you like white on rice?”
“In theory. Or my theory.”
“And what if you do get attached? It’s not a groundless assumption.”
She met her friend’s pensive gaze. “Get attached to the guy who’s going to help me lose the hymen? He’ll be a pawn. A means to an end.”
“Super romantic analogy right there. Maybe don’t spell it out to him like that. And just a side note, your hymen is probably gone by now. You are twenty-two.”
“I know.” Kristen sighed. “And I’m not going to tell him any of this stuff. It’ll just be a one-night stand where we basically know nothing about each other.”
Tori rolled her eyes. “This has got to be the most screwed-up, convoluted way of getting together with a crush.”
“You’re not wrong, so I’m not even going to try and argue with that.”
“Okay, well, promise me this. If there’s no chemistry between you and Mr. Biceps out there, you’ll walk away.”
Kristen remembered the way she’d felt a rush of warmth as his gaze had slid over her. The way she’d gotten a little breathless when she’d imagined kissing him.
Chemistry wasn’t likely to be a problem. “I promise.”
Tori slid away from the counter and squeezed Kristen’s shoulder. “Well then, let’s get another beer in you for liquid courage and do this already.”
Had it been an hour yet? Surely, he could duck out early?
Blake dug his phone out of the pocket of his jeans and checked the time. Not even nine-thirty. He’d only made it thirty minutes.
He looked around the room, searching for a way out of the conversation with the genetic engineer who’d been talking his ear off for the last ten minutes.
Getting to hang out with Jack was always a win, but not being big on the party scene meant moments like these bordered on uncomfortable.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you. You said you’d dance with me.”
The soft, feminine voice behind him had the hairs on the back of his neck lifting. The engineer’s voice became a muffled drone as Blake slowly turned his head.
The short blonde smiled up at him, offering him the lifeline he desperately needed.
“I did.” He turned back to the engineer and gave him a friendly smile. “Good talking with you, man.”
Blake caught the blonde’s hand in his own and tugged her toward the portion of the living room that had been deemed the dance area.
The music seemed to be on some kind of ’80s playlist, and a Madonna ballad currently played. Kristen didn’t shy away when he slid an arm around her waist and pulled her close.
He drew in the scent of her perfume, some kind of subtle tropical-fruit smell.
“Thanks for that.”
She smiled. “You looked pretty miserable, and rescuing people is kind of my hobby.”
He arched a brow, lips twitching in amusement. “You don’t say. It’s my job.”
Eyes that were a deep shade of coffee widened in surprise. “Oh yeah? What job is that exactly?”
“Firefighter slash paramedic. Though mostly doing the paramedic side lately.”
She gave another low, husky laugh. “Of course. And why wouldn’t the sexiest guy in the room be a firefighting paramedic?”
If there was any doubt that she’d been hitting on him, she erased it with that last comment.
He took in every detail about her again. Usually, she wouldn’t have been his type. Too petite when he liked them taller. Blonde when he had a thing for brunettes. Minimal makeup when his usual type didn’t leave the house without being fully made up.
But none of that seemed to matter. Cute in an understated way, and not a damn thing about her screamed high maintenance. It was refreshing.
“What’s your name, hero?”
“Blake. And you are…?”
She seemed to hesitate, maybe not quite sure she wanted to divulge that info, but then she softly said, “Kristen.”
Cute name. It fit her. “Are you a student?”
“Was. I just graduated.”
“No. Tori is finishing up there, though.” She nodded toward the goddess, once again back in the corner surrounded by men. “I went to University of Nevada. I’m just out here for vacation before I start looking for a job.”
Another puzzle piece slid into place. She was coming out swinging with the flirting. Maybe looking for a vacation hookup?
He moved his hand lower on her back, fanning his fingers out so they settled on the up curve of her ass.
She tensed just the tiniest bit.
He traced his fingers back up to the small of her back where she seemed more comfortable.
“So, you left Las Vegas to spend your vacation in Seattle?” He gave a slow smile. “Sounds a little backward.”
She relaxed again with a soft grunt. “I live in Vegas. Partying got old fast. So, spending my vacation hiking Rattlesnake Ridge with friends had more appeal than getting lit at a crowded nightclub.”
Burned out of partying at around twenty-two? Seemed pretty rare. And she knew the local hiking spots, so clearly she’d been up to the Pacific Northwest before.
“What kind of job are you looking for?”
“I’m a social worker. Child and family specialist.”
“Is it?” She gave him a searching glance, as if she weren’t quite sure he was actually impressed or just blowing smoke up her ass.
“I think so.”
“Some call me crazy to go into this field.” She gave a slight smile and then glanced away. “So, what brings you to this party? Are you friends with the birthday guy?”
“Yeah.” He took a slow breath in and admitted, “We were in the same fraternity for a while.”
Her lips parted, and she gave a small nod. “Ah, so you were a frat boy.”
Memories slammed into him, leaving his throat tight, but he forced a slight smile. “That was a long time ago.”
“Well, I won’t hold it against you.” Her eyes sparkled with blatant flirtation now. “One of my brothers joined one for a while back in the day.”
The song ended, and an upbeat dance song came on. What was with the ’80s music? With a grimace, Blake came to a standstill. “Sorry, I can barely manage the slow stuff. I’m out when this type of shit comes on.”
She laughed and met his gaze.
Damn, she had great eyes. And that laugh. Husky and feminine. Sexy. It made him want to make her laugh more.
“Maybe we should try the game room?” she suggested. “Have you been in there yet?”
“Didn’t even know there was one.”
“Well now, that’s your downfall. If it’s offered, a cutthroat game of Mario Party is usually where you’ll find me at these things. I have my gamer moments.”
Kristen was somewhat of a gamer? He suspected this girl had more layers than a snowboarder on Snoqualmie Pass.
“And I’m not much for dancing either,” she confessed while leading him toward another room, “but I’ve gotta say you made it kind of enjoyable.”
End of Excerpt