When an old friend calls in a favor that sends me to the UK to pose as a nanny, I’m not thrilled. Kids and me? Not a great mix. But Prince Nicholas and his wife, Kyra, turn out to be the most relaxed royal parents ever, and their little girl is actually a sweetheart. Protecting their family turns into something I want to do. Maybe this undercover nanny job will be easier than I thought.
The only problem? The prince’s cousin Milo, the Earl of Ross, is living here, too, and this guy is a huge complication. He’s arrogant, elitist, and haughty. Oh, and he’s also handsome, sexy, and super hot.
I don’t want to feel this attraction to him, but it seems I can’t help it. How can I do my job if I’m more worried about protecting my heart from falling for him?
Tawdra Kandle is the author of over 100 romances that span genres from contemporary through paranormal. Her engaging and realistic characters bring readers back again and again to devour the steamy love stories she spins. Fan favorites include The Anti-Cinderella Chronicles and the Career Soldier series.
Tawdra lives in central Florida with her husband, who is an Anglican priest, a sweet pup, and too many cats. Assorted grown children and two perfect granddaughters live nearby. And yeah, she rocks purple hair.
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How to celebrate a 99-cent sale on a super romantic royal box set? How about a never-before-seen prequel scene??
“This was the best idea ever, Ky.”
My grandmother lifted the bottle of wine toward me just before she took a long swig. Next to me, my best friend Shelby giggled.
“Go, Honey! I’m impressed.”
Honey grinned at her. “Sweetie, never go up against this old hippie in a drinking contest. You’ll always lose.” She passed the bottle to me. “But I’m serious, Kyra. Having a girls’ night to christen your new digs here in Maine was inspired. And I appreciate that you two young ones included this old broad.”
“If you’re an old broad, Honey, I want to be just like you when I grow up.” I took a less-ambitious sip of the bottle.
“Genetics tells us you have a pretty good shot.” My grandmother winked and nudged me. “But you know that old saw about how you’re only as old as you feel? It’s true. I know that to you girls, I probably seem ancient, but in my mind, I’m a spring chicken. Young and spry. Just had my first kiss last night.” She sighed with a reminiscent smile.
“Ooooh, tell us about it!” Shelby leaned forward, her eyes sparkling. “I want to hear all the dirty details. Who did you kiss? Where did it happen?”
“Oh, darlings.” Honey held out her hand for the wine. “Well, it will sound tame and boring to you two, but for me, it was pure magic. ” Her smile broadened. “It was a sock hop, of all things. I went to a private school, but my best friend and I had learned that the local public high school was having a dance one Friday night. I’d been mooning after a boy who was a student there–we’d met at the library, and even though we’d barely spoken more than a word or two, I was positive that it was love at first sight.”
“And was it?” I tilted my head.
“Perhaps,” Honey allowed. “Maybe it was first love, that tender, precious bud that rarely weathers the storms of life. At any rate, Louisa–my best friend–convinced me that we should show up at the dance. So we played that old trick of telling our parents that we were each at the other’s house for the night, and then we snuck off to the dance.”
“You were such bad girls,” I teased. “And was your crush there?”
“Oh, yes, he was. Surrounded by girls, which made me want to turn around and leave. But then he saw me, and it was just like a storybook. He pushed through his crowd of admirers and came to me. He asked me to dance.”
“And you said yes, of course,” Shelby said.
“I don’t remember saying yes, but the next thing I knew, we were holding each other close on the dance floor while the band played Earth Angel.”
“So romantic,” I groaned. “Then what?”
“As the song ended, he drew me even closer, lifted my chin with one finger, and he kissed me right there, in front of all of his friends and classmates.”
“God, I can’t stand it!” Shelby shimmied a little in her chair. “What happened next?”
Honey screwed up her face. “Then suddenly my father was there. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and yanked him away from me before he took me by the arm and dragged me–and Louisa–from the gym. All the way home, we got the tongue lashing of our lives.”
“What about your crush? Did you ever see him again?” I demanded.
“No.” Honey shook her head. “That night was the beginning of a new restlessness in me, a growing resentment of my parents’ restrictiveness and their expectations that I would follow in their footsteps. Six months later, I ran away from home and ended up in San Francisco, where eventually, I met a man who showed me what real love looked like.”
“I hope you’re talking about Handsome.” Shelby raised her eyebrows.
“Of course I am. Once I caught sight of him, he was it for me. No one else existed. I still feel the same way.” Honey sighed. “But I still never forgot that first kiss at the sock hop.”
“That’s so sweet.” I took my turn at the wine and reached for a handful of popcorn. “It’s your turn, Shelby. Tell us about your first kiss.”
“It wasn’t nearly as romantic as Honey’s story,” my friend retorted. “I was with a bunch of friends at the bowling alley, and a guy at the next lane suddenly came over to chat me up . . . and when I got a strike on my next turn, he kissed me.” Shelby rolled her eyes. “I found out later that his friends had bet him he couldn’t get a kiss before our games ended. I was super pissed off.”
“Ugh, that sucks.” I patted her arm. “But you’ve more than made up for it in the years since.”
“It’s true,” she agreed smugly. “I’ve had my share of kisses. But I’m still irritated that the jerk stole my first one.”
“Karma will get him,” Honey assured us. “And doesn’t your sister still write that column about having to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince, Shelby? You just happen to have hit an especially slimy frog first thing.” My grandmother’s gaze slid to me. “Speaking of princes . . . I think it’s your turn to tell us a story, Ky.”
My face heated. The tale of my own first kiss was still a somewhat sensitive memory, and I rarely shared it. But now Shelby was watching me with anticipation and interest, and a small, knowing smile played around Honey’s lips.
“Oh, mine’s . . . it’s actually kind of boring. We used to spend the summers at Honey and Handsome’s house down in Florida when we were growing up. Honey’s best friend Louisa–the one from the sock hop–had a house right next door, and her grandchildren used to come for about a month every summer. One of them was a boy around my age, and one summer night . . .well, he kissed me.” I shrugged. “And that was my first kiss.”
Honey was watching me with an inscrutable eye, and I knew she must have been thinking about what I’d left out of the story–and why. But she didn’t say anything.
“C’mon, Kyra, there’s got to be more to it than that. Give me the deets, babe. You always tell the best stories, and this one was like the Reader’s Digest version. I need more.”
“There isn’t any more,” I replied, my words clipped. “I was fifteen. He was sixteen. We were on the beach, and he was leaving the next day. He kissed me, then he went into his grandmother’s house, and the next morning, he was gone. I never saw him again.”
“Did you have feelings for him?” Shelby pressed.
“I–I mean, I guess–” I tossed up both hands. “I was fifteen, Shel. Any feelings I had would have been shallow and . . . inconsequential.” Grimacing, I added, “And clearly he didn’t feel anything for me since he left without a backward glance and didn’t bother to ever write or call or anything.” All these years later, that pain still twinged just a little.
“But—” Shelby looked from me to Honey, obviously waiting for one of us to break. I caught my grandmother’s eye and telegraphed a plea for rescue.
“Shelby.” Honey snagged the wine and shook the bottle a little. “I think we need to crack open a new bottle. And once we do, I’ll tell you what it was like to be in Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1969 . . .”
As my grandmother and my best friend disappeared into the kitchen to open another bottle, I breathed a silent sigh of relief. There wasn’t much I hid from Shelby; she’d been my best friend since we’d met in college, and now she was also my housemate.
But even so, I wasn’t ready to tell her that the boy who’d given me my first kiss was Nicholas Windsor . . . a prince of the United Kingdom and a grandson of the Queen.
After all, it wasn’t like I was ever going to see Nicky again.
Falling in love with a prince wasn’t something I planned . . .
When I reconnected with the first guy I ever kissed, I never dreamed I’d end up moving to England to be closer to him. But Nicky and I are in love, and living together was the next logical step.
If I thought dating royalty was a tough gig when I was living in the USA, I’m learning that it’s even more challenging now that I’m in London. Every move I make, every word I say, is under the microscope. Becoming part of Nicky’s family while staying true to who I am isn’t easy.
Nicky makes everything worthwhile. The hours when we’re alone together are paradise. And if the press and the pressure are the price I have to pay for him . . . I’ll choose Nicky, every single time.
After all, London’s just another town. Right?
Read the first chapter here!
“Heading home, Kyra?” Serena Kessel turned a bright smile toward me as I passed her desk. Although it was only mid-afternoon, I was on my way out of the brand-new London offices of Honey Bee Juices.
“Actually, I am. I know it’s early, but I’ve found that it’s—ah, easier to avoid—well, it’s better if I vary the time of day that I come and go.” I hated being so vague, but I’d learned the hard way that discretion was the better part of valor—or wisdom, in this case. Being my normal chatty self could potentially put an innocent person into a bad position if she was cornered by the press.
“Of all people, Kyra, you certainly don’t need to explain to anyone why you’re leaving before five. No one would ever question you.” Serena didn’t sound anything but respectful and cheery, but her words struck a nerve.
“Do you mean because my grandparents own the company? Is that why it’s okay for me to cut out early? Or is it because of who I’m . . .” I stopped abruptly. I heard the almost-shrill tone in my own voice, and I hated it. “Serena, I’m sorry. I know you didn’t—well. I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“I understand.” The woman was completely unflappable. Here I’d just insulted her, and she didn’t even lose her smile. “I only meant that you work so hard and put in so much more time than the rest of us that no one doubts your dedication.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.” I was certain my cheeks were red with embarrassment. “That’s very kind of you.”
“Not at all.” Serena inclined her head. “Have a lovely weekend. I’ll see you Monday?” It was more of a question than a statement.
“Yes, of course.” I hiked the strap of my handbag more firmly onto my shoulder. “See you then.”
My heels clicked on the gleaming tile floors as I walked out of the suite of our offices and down the hallway to the elevator. I passed a few people, some of whom greeted me with a nod and smile, and others of whom glanced at me with open curiosity. I worked hard to keep a blank but pleasant expression on my face. The hardest thing, I was finding, was not reacting to anything or anyone around me. I thought I’d perfected that ability back in Maine, when the press had first begun following me, but it turned out to be much more challenging here in London.
The elevator was blessedly empty, and I sagged against the wall, closing my eyes with a long sigh. But once the doors slid open, I was alert and ready again.
“Heading out, Ms. Duncan?” Alfred, our tall and elegant doorman, smiled at me. “Anything I can do for you?”
Alfred asked me the same question each day as I left, as if he might be able to suddenly wave a magic wand and make all of the reporters and photographers waiting for me beyond the frosted glass doors disappear. I only wished he could.
“Thanks, Alfred. I’ll be fine.” I paused to offer him a genuine smile. “I hope you have a nice weekend.”
“You too, Ms. Duncan.” He paused. “Keep your chin up, if you don’t mind me saying it. Everyone here thinks the world of you.”
“Thank you.” I wished I could say something more—I could tell that Alfred, like so many of the people with whom I worked, hoped that I might relax and share a little with him. But I liked him too much to put the dear man into that position.
So I simply gave him a wave and another smile before I braced myself for the onslaught and pushed open the door.
The late-afternoon sun in London in November was anemic at best, but it was shining directly into my eyes, making me blink madly. And it was then the clicking began.
“Kyra! Kyra! Look here. Kyra!”
“Are you joining Prince Nicholas in Africa this weekend? A little pre-engagement honeymoon?”
“Has the Queen given her approval? Have you met Her Majesty, Kyra?”
“Give us a smile, love! One good picture, Kyra!”
They all shouted at once, and the flashes went off, and they crowded around me. The same panic I felt every single time this happened roared to life, making me long to push them out of my way and run. Run far away and escape from their relentless questions, particularly when they were asking about matters that were tender spots just now.
My car was parked just a few yards down the block, and with as much purpose as I could manage, I waded through the hoard of press, my lips pressed together and my jaw clenched. I didn’t make eye-contact with any of them, and I tried not to react when they shouted out my name . . . over and over again.
Once I was finally safe in the driver’s seat, I wasted no time before I started the engine and carefully eased away from the curb. I’d learned my lesson during my first week at Honey Bee London, when, in an effort to make a fast getaway, I’d peeled out without looking over my shoulder and nearly side-swiped a passing car. That had made the newspaper and the internet rounds, with the less-charitable publications christening me ‘Krashpad Kyra’.
Today I managed to get into my lane without any issue. By now, I could make the drive from my office to Kensington Palace with my eyes closed, and it didn’t take long before I was pulling in through the gates at a special residents-only entrance, restricted from public view. The guard waved to me, and I waved back with a quick grin.
I always experienced an odd mix of feelings when I was back here at the Palace. There was relief, of course, because this was one place where I didn’t have to worry about photographers or reporters, provided I stuck to the more secluded sections of the grounds. But at the same time, I felt a pang of sadness, a sense of being stifled, because in all of the small island nation, this was the only place where I could relax. It felt rather like living in a zoo, I thought as I made my way slowly to the cottage that Nicky and I shared. A beautiful, historic zoo with tons of security and lots of benefits—but a zoo, nonetheless.
Since it was Friday, there weren’t many people around the palace grounds. Most of the residents had decamped for the country either yesterday or earlier in the day; Nicky’s cousins, all of whom were ahead of him in the line of succession, owned estates outside of London, where they could indulge in fun things like hunting and riding horses. One of his sisters lived here with her husband, but they too were away now, representing the Queen on a trip to Spain.
I let myself into the cottage and glanced around. We didn’t have a housekeeping staff, although Nicky had had a weekly housekeeper before I’d moved in, and she still came by to dust and sweep every Friday morning. But I knew that with Nicky in Africa, I could stay here in the cottage all weekend and never see another soul.
I wasn’t sure if that idea was appealing or appalling.
But first things first. I glanced at the clock on the wall and gave a happy little hum as I kicked off my heels and settled onto the plush loveseat, retrieving my laptop from the leather bag I’d been carrying. It was just after four here, which meant that in New Mexico, it was . . . I frowned, doing the mental math. Eight in the morning. The perfect time to call a friend.
Within moments, I had the FaceTime app open and was waiting expectantly as the line buzzed. It stopped abruptly, and the screen was suddenly with the sleepy face of my best friend, Shelby.
“Hey,” she croaked. “If it isn’t my favorite princess-to-be.”
A wave of unease slid over me. “Don’t say that. Someone might hear you and think there really are plans in the works.” I paused. “As of right now, I’m still just the girl living at Kensington Palace with Prince Nicholas. His shack-up lady. The cow who’s giving him the milk for free.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Shelby cleared her throat and rolled her eyes at the same time. The woman had talent. “First of all, you know you’re more than just a fling for Nicky. You’re living with him because you both decided you didn’t want to have an ocean between you—and if I remember correctly, darling friend, you’re the one who told Nicky you didn’t want to rush into anything official since you’d never lived in the same time zone. Second, what’s this business about the cow giving away the milk? Are we living in 1955? You aren’t giving anything away—you’re having loads of hot and heavy consensual sex with the man you love.”
“I know you’re right.” I dropped my head to the back cushion of the couch. “It’s just been a long day. A long week, actually. And all of those things I just said are shouted at me daily by the reporters who follow me around. So it’s hard not to internalize some of them.”
“Hmmmm.” Shelby shifted her phone slightly, and I could see that she was still in bed.
“Hey, shouldn’t you be getting ready for work?” After we’d finished our graduate program in Maine, Shelby had received and accepted an offer for an internship at a center for experimental farming in New Mexico. It was quite an honor, since each year, hundreds of applicants vied for those positions.
“Nah, I don’t go in until noon today. I worked a late shift last night.” A shadow passed over her eyes, and I wondered if everything was as great as she’d been claiming. Before I could ask, she spoke again. “So you’re just finishing your workday, right? What do you and Prince Charming have planned for this weekend?”
I blew out a long sigh. “Nicky’s in Africa at a conference for No Hungry Child. He won’t be back until Tuesday.”
“And you didn’t go with him? Why not?”
“Because he’s there in an official capacity.” I lifted one shoulder. “I can only travel with him when we’re going someplace for leisure. Like a vacation or a holiday trip. Because as I’ve been reminded more than once, I don’t have any official standing now.”
“That’s bullshit. You’re the prince’s girlfriend. Can’t he tell them he wants to take you with him?” Shelby was bristling, ready to jump to my defense as always.
“No. I mean, he could, I guess, but it wouldn’t make any difference. There are ways of doing things in this family, and they don’t change on a dime. We’re talking centuries of tradition.” I hesitated. “It’s not easy, though, for either of us. I spend a lot of time here at the cottage by myself.”
“That sucks.” Shelby was still indignant, tradition be damned. “What about Nicky’s sisters? His family? Can’t you do things with them?”
It was all so complicated, a situation mired in potential pitfalls for me, and since I barely understood all the whys and wherefores, I knew it would be difficult to explain to Shelby. “If we’re invited to dinner by his parents or Alex and Jake, his sister and brother-in-law, I can go, as long it’s just a family meal. But they don’t do that very often. Everyone’s busy with their own lives and commitments. And if it’s the larger family, with the Queen and all the aunts and uncles and cousins—then I’m not included. I can’t go with Nicky if he’s going to a party or a movie premiere or a charity benefit if he’s there in his official capacity.”
“But if he’s going as a board member for his charities—the hungry child one and Waste Not—those you can go to with him, right?” Shelby persisted.
“As long as it’s deemed a quiet event, like a lunch or a tea or something at a private home. It’s just the way they do things here, Shel. I’m not mad or anything—I understand it. Only, sometimes I’m a little lonely.”
“Of course, you are.” She was quiet for a few seconds. “Have you made any friends of your own there, so you have people to hang with when Nicky’s occupied?”
I shook my head. “No. I have a working relationship with the people at Honey Bee, but I can’t socialize with them really—not in any genuine way, because I’m constantly worried that one of them might go to the press and share something. I can’t just go to a pub and make friends, either. If I’m not here at the cottage, I’m at the Honey Bee offices. That’s my life.” To my horror, a sob caught in my throat. I backed away a little, hoping Shelby hadn’t heard it.
But no such luck. “Kyra, that’s no way to live. You sound miserable.” Her forehead drew together. “Isn’t there anything you can do to make things better? I mean, the Royal Family can’t make you stay home alone, right? If you’re not official enough to go to public events with Nicky, then they shouldn’t have the power to force you into anything.”
“Nobody is forcing me to do anything.” I pressed my fingers to my temples, where suddenly a headache pounded. “But would you want to go sightseeing if a throng of reporters were following you everywhere? Or if you couldn’t even run to the corner shop without being recognized and having people stare and point?” I shuddered. “Trust me. Staying here is far preferable to that.”
“Oh, Ky.” Shelby bit her lip, her eyes worried. “This isn’t good.” She studied me through the camera. “When’s the next time you’re coming home for a visit?”
“Two weeks.” I was so looking forward to the trip—and dreading it at the same time. “I’m spending Thanksgiving in Florida with the entire family.”
“Florida? Don’t the Duncans usually do Thanksgiving in Maine?” Shelby had been my best friend long enough to know our traditions. “And is Nicky coming with you?
I shook my head. “No. It’s not a holiday for him, you know, and he already had engagements for that week, so it’s just going to be me.” I swallowed over the lump of worry that had risen in my throat at the thought of leaving him behind. It was far too reminiscent of what had happened between us last year, when we’d broken up for six months. Giving myself a little shake, I went on.
“And you’re right about Maine. Usually we do celebrate there, but this year, Honey’s been sick. She was in the hospital with pneumonia for a week in October, and the doctor advised against her traveling this winter.”
“Wait a minute—Honey was sick—in the hospital—and you didn’t tell me?” Shelby scowled at me through the camera. “Is she okay?” Shelby adored my grandparents, who were known as Handsome and Honey by both family and friends. I’d given them those names when I was a toddler, and to their delight, the nicknames had stuck.
“From what I hear, yes, she’s going to be fine.” I crossed my legs and shifted on the cushion of the sofa. “Believe me, I wasn’t any too happy about being all the way over here when she was sick. But my dad promised he’d keep me informed. He was concerned that if I flew to Florida, the press circus might be too disrupting for the family while they were trying to take care of her.”
“I understand.” Shelby tilted her head, sympathy in her eyes. “Not being there must’ve been killing you. But here’s some good news—if you’re going to be in Florida for Thanksgiving, I can come see you. I’m flying home for that week, too.”
I sat up straighter, giving a little squeal of delight. “Oh, my God! That’s awesome. If you can come over to the beach, we can have a girls’ night. Movies and wine and ice cream.” I paused. “Maybe not in that order.”
Shelby laughed. “I’m in. I’m spending the first three days with Vivian and Charlie and the baby, and then I need to fit in a visit with the parentals and Aunt Gail. But by the weekend, I’m sure I’m going to be more than ready for some best friend time.”
“Okay. It’s a date.” I’d been looking forward to going home for the holiday anyway, but now I was even more excited.
“It definitely is.” She glanced at something off-camera and wrinkled her nose. “But right now, I need to get my ass in gear. I want to grab some breakfast before I go to work. So . . . we’ll text about the details, but otherwise, I’ll see you in two weeks.”
“I can’t wait.” I frowned a little. “But Shel, is everything all right there? I feel like we talked about all my problems and you didn’t tell me how things are in New Mexico.”
That same shadow passed over her eyes again. “It’s all good, Ky. Maybe slightly complicated, but—well, I love the work, and the people are mostly nice. I’m learning so much. I just wish . . .” Her voice trailed off. “We’ll talk at Thanksgiving, babe, and I promise, I’ll spill my guts then. You can give me wise counsel over wine.”
“Okay. You know I’m here for you no matter what, right, Shelby?” I had a feeling that she was evading my questions. “Best friends trump everything, even Royal Family orders. That’s not going to change.”
“Of course, it isn’t,” she returned. “I know that. Ciao for now, sweetie. And hang in there. Everything is going to work out for you and Nicky. I just know it.”
I ended the call with a smile, but once I’d shut the computer, the silence of the cottage weighed on me even heavier, and the empty hours of the weekend stretched out before me.
“Well, I guess it’s just me and Netflix once again,” I sighed, reaching for the television remote. “Another glamorous weekend in the life of Prince Nicky’s girlfriend.”
These are the men of the 94th ID. They fight with honor, they defend their nation and their brothers fiercely, and when they love, they do it with single-minded passion.
Kade Braggs grew up wild and free, surfing on a California beach without much ambition until an impulsive decision led him into joining the Army. What started out as a joke turned into a career, and now he’s a company commander, leading several platoons of soldiers. Still, Kade does it all on his own terms; he plays as hard as he works, and having a good time is non-negotiable.
Until he meets Leah Samson.
Leah doesn’t have time to play. On her own for as long as she can remember, she’s driven, focused, and intent on finishing law school at the top of her class. Nothing could distract her from that goal until an unexpected night of passion with a visiting soldier leads to life-changing complications.
But while neither Kade nor Leah planned this bump in the road, the unplanned parenthood that threw these two together may be the best thing that ever happened to either of them. That is, if the heat they both feel doesn’t sizzle out of control first.
Read the first chapter now!
“Dude, you are so fucked. So totally and completely fucked.”
Jake Robinson, one of the other company commanders in my battalion, slapped me on the back as I was on my way into the bachelor officers’ quarters. I’d just arrived here at Fort Davis, and the first order of business was to get settled in my temporary home-away-from-home . . . which would basically be a sterile bedroom in a drab building full of other sterile bedrooms. Welcome to the Army.
“Fine by me if it’s Scarlett Johansson doing the fucking. She’s on my list of undeniables.” I punched his arm and then hesitated. “Wait. Why am I fucked? What’re you talking about?”
“Guess who you’re stuck rooming with for the duration of this class?”
Dread began to creep under my skin. “Don’t even. Not the mule? Say it’s not so.”
Jake chuckled. “Sorry, bro. I saw the list. You’re with Eric Mueller, which means you get the pleasure of his company for the next six weeks. Congratulations.”
I closed my eyes and groaned. “Fuck. How the hell did I draw the short straw on this one?”
“Hey, everyone has to take a turn riding the mule.” He winked at me. “That’s only a figure of speech. He’s so damn full of himself, he’d never think any guy was good enough to screw.”
Grimacing, I shook my head. “Even if I were attracted to dudes, the mule would be at the bottom of the list.” I hefted my duffle bag more securely on my shoulder and began to head for the door of the BOQ before I turned back again. “Robinson, you’ve been on TDY here before, right? What’s around? If I have to share space with Eric Muller for over a month, I already know I’m going to need someplace else to be, or he’ll drive me out of my fucking mind.”
Jake squinted. “Not too much hereabouts. Couple of bars off post, a few restaurants . . . oh, hey, there’s a mall a few miles away. I went there to get a tat when I was here last time.”
I cocked my head. “You got a tattoo in a mall, Jake? I thought only chicks went to places like that.”
He shot me the finger. “Couple of the local guys recommended it, asshole. And don’t be a sexist pig. Try to learn from my example: I’d never assume a woman only got her ink at a mall. You should be all enlightened and shit, like me.”
“Yeah, whatever. I don’t see all your enlightenment getting you laid on the regular.”
Jake pretended to be affronted. “Just because I don’t screw a girl and then blab to all you guys about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I get plenty of action, thanks.”
Laughing as I walked backward, I nodded. “Sure you do, Jakester. Surrrrre you do.”
My humor lasted until I rounded the landing on the first flight of stairs, at which point I remembered the roommate situation. Fuck. I hated Eric Muller. I’d known him since we were both in officer basic together, over ten years before. Jake had been in our class, too, which was why he was all too well acquainted with the mule.
We’d given him that nickname privately after two weeks of OBC. Eric was the kind of guy who was just about impossible to like, no matter how hard we all tried. He couldn’t take criticism or a joke, although he was quick to point it out whenever the rest of us did anything wrong. He showed off in front of instructors, and worse, he was underhanded: although none of us had solid evidence, we were all sure he’d done things to make the rest of us look bad.
And living with him was apparently a real treat. He’d had three roommates during OBC, which was incredible because the Army really wasn’t that concerned with how we soldiers felt about our living situations. But the complaints had been ongoing: Eric threw a fit if a light was left on when he’d decided to go to sleep, no matter how early in the evening that was. He was fastidious to the point of obsession about the cleanliness of the room. He himself complained about all of us all the time, sneering about our lack of discipline.
The truth was that if any of the rest of us had behaved in such a way, we’d have found ourselves shaping up or being tossed out. But Eric Muller was the son of General Ronald Muller, and consequently, the rest of the world had to put up with his shit. We’d had to keep our mouths shut and ignore him until we all finished OBC and moved on. Mercifully, our paths hadn’t crossed often over the course of our careers. But since the Army is much smaller than most people realize, I’d heard things, and I knew that the mule hadn’t made many friends over the course of his tenure.
Rounding the corner of the staircase on the third floor, I trudged down the hallway to my assigned room. The door was closed, but I knew that didn’t mean he wasn’t inside, waiting for me.
Turning the knob, I stepped inside, as cautious as if I expected a snake on the other side instead of a mule. And there he was, sitting at the desk, back straight, hair about a half an inch shorter than regulation . . . his Army-issued T-shirt stretched over his narrow chest without a single wrinkle.
“Braggs.” Muller’s voice was bland and expressionless. “I was surprised to see you were still in. I’d figured you’d quit after your first six years were up.”
That was absolute bullshit because he’d have known if I resigned, and we both realized it. Asshole.
“Why the hell would you think I left?” I tried to keep my voice mild. Eric Muller might aggravate the living crap out of me, but he was still a general’s son, and that general was now part of the joint chiefs of staff.
Eric shrugged. “You always seemed more like a good time surfer boy than a soldier.”
I dropped my bag on the bed that seemed to be mine. “Yeah, it’s good to see you, too, Eric. It’s been too long. How’s life been treating you?”
He watched me, his eyes calculating. “Can’t complain. I’m on the shortlist for promotion. And when that happens, I expect to be assigned to Washington.”
Of course, he did.
“Awesome. Good to hear.” I unzipped the duffel and began unpacking my clothes. “So, you married? Got kids?”
“No,” he snorted. “That’s not part of the plan until I make major.”
“Aha.” I nodded as if that made sense. “Well, if you’re on the shortlist, do you have any potential candidates? For the wife, I mean.”
Something flickered in his eyes. “No. I don’t have time for that yet. Once I’m ready, the right woman will be around. These things work out.”
“Uh-huh.” I opened up a drawer and dropped T-shirts into it. “That’s great, Eric. I’m happy for you.”
I could almost feel his skepticism. “Yeah, I’m sure you.” He frowned as I closed one drawer and opened the other, dumping in socks and boxers. “Aren’t you going to fold those before you put them away?”
“Nah.” I shrugged, getting a little secret amusement at the idea that my unfolded clothes would drive him crazy. “I’m just going to put them on under my BDUs, right? Who cares?”
I wasn’t certain, but I thought he growled.
After that, Eric ignored me for a while. A couple of the other guys who were taking the strategic mobility course with us stopped by to say hello, all of us catching up from the last time we’d seen each other, comparing our current jobs and different assignments. I watched my roommate out of the corner of my eye; I could tell that each time another person opened the door and yelled hello, he tensed up more.
Finally, when our room was crowded, with everyone talking at once, Eric stood up.
“That’s it. Get out, all of you. It’s late, and I need peace and quiet.” He glared my way. “If you want to socialize, go do it somewhere else.”
Jake, who was sitting on the end of my bed, shot me a meaningful look as he stood up. “Okay, then. Hey, why don’t we go down to my room? I’ve got a six-pack, and we can turn on the game.”
Everyone filtered out, the voices echoing in the hall. I sat down on my bed and reached for my laptop.
“Hey, Braggs, you coming with?” Jake lingered in the doorway.
I shook my head. “Nah. I’m just going to kick back and catch up on iZombie eps. You all have a good time.”
He rolled his eyes toward Eric’s stiff back, which was facing us. “Yeah, you, too. See you at PT tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there.” I glanced at the clock. It wasn’t quite seven yet, and here I was on my bed like an old man. I stifled a groan.
“I hope you have headphones for the computer.” Eric’s words were clipped, and he didn’t look my way. “I’m turning off the light in an hour. I had a long trip today to get here from Texas, and I don’t feel like being up half the night.”
I gritted my teeth. “Yeah, I have headphones.”
“And you’ll need to turn it so that the light from the screen can’t be seen from my bed. I like to sleep on my right side, and the room must be completely dark.” He sounded so prim that I wanted to slug him in the face.
“You know what?” I slammed the computer shut, tossing it to the other side of my mattress. “You can have the whole fucking room pitch black. I’m going out so I don’t interfere with your beauty sleep.”
Grabbing a jacket, I shoved my feet back into my sneakers, yanking the laces tight. Across the room, Eric sniffed.
“Make sure you have your key, because I’m not getting up to let you in once I’m asleep. And just what do you think you’re going to do, anyway? It’s Sunday night. Everything’s closed.”
I picked up my keys, wallet, and cell phone. “I’ll find something. But thanks for your concern. I really appreciate it.” When the spirit moved me, I could speak fluent sarcasm.
I managed to make it down the steps and out into the parking lot without running into anyone, which was a good thing since I was now in a pissy mood. Climbing into the driver’s seat of my truck, I headed for the post exit, not really sure about where I was going.
At the guard hut, where I had to slow down anyway, I leaned out my window and called to the corporal on duty. “Hey, is there a mall somewhere around here?”
He nodded. “Yes, sir. If you make a right here, follow this highway for a couple of miles, and then take a left at the first traffic light. The mall is on that same road, about five miles on the right.”
I nodded with a brief smile. “Thanks.”
“Have a good night, sir.”
The roads were dark, and I took them slow. I had nothing but time to kill. Rubbing the back of my neck, I let out a long breath. I’d been looking forward to this course for a while. Fort Davis was only about two hours northeast of Fort Lee, but it was closer to the ocean . . . and thus closer to the beach. It was true what people said: you could take the boy out of the ocean, but you couldn’t take the ocean out of the boy. After growing up on the sands of California beaches, I still had that need to at least see the water every once in a while.
I’d driven up this afternoon, anticipating a little unofficial vacation. I knew I could handle the work involved with the strategic mobility training course, and during the off-hours, I’d have nothing but free, unstructured time. It was why most of us enjoyed TDY: a temporary duty station meant a break from the routine and the stress that came from commanding a company.
Having Eric Muller as a roommate was going to put a crimp in that plan, but I was damned if I would let him ruin my time away, even if it meant I had to stay out of our room as much as possible. I had options, after all. There was this mall that I was turning the truck into now. True, it was on the small side, and the parking lot was pretty barren. The stores I could see weren’t familiar to me. But it probably had to have a food court, didn’t it? And of course, there was the tattoo place Jake had mentioned. Not that I wanted ink, but I could check it out to waste some time.
The mall, like its parking lot, was almost empty, with only a few shoppers wandering past stores, window shopping or munching on crap from the food court. None of it looked good to me until I spotted a kid with a foot-long hot dog, and then that hot dog was all I could think about.
Following my nose, I made my way past the card store, the sunglass cart, and the lingerie shop—though I’ll admit my eyes did sneak a few peeks at the stuff on the mannequins in that window. The shit that chicks wore to be sexy was an endless source of fascination for me. Bras, for instance. They were a mystery I hadn’t yet solved. Racerback, push-up, strapless, T-shirt, enhanced, full-figure support—what did it all mean? Sometimes—scratch that; all of the time—I was grateful to be a guy. All I had to worry about was stepping into my boxer briefs each morning and kicking them off every night.
Two teenagers were working at the Weiner Hut when I stopped to order my food. The one manning the register looked bored to death, and who could blame him? The place was dead. He barely acknowledged my existence beyond mumbling the total I owed for my dog, fries, and drink. The other employee was a girl with a high ponytail and a quick smile. I caught her staring at me with open admiration, and I shot her a little wink before I strolled away with my food. She was jail bait, for sure, and I didn’t want any part of that, but it never hurt to be friendly.
Once at the small table, I made short work of the hotdog and fries. Usually, I’d have sat back and people-watched for a little while, but there just weren’t enough folks to do that tonight. So, after I piled all the trash on my tray and deposited it in the bin, I began to head back toward the exit, retracing my steps. The evening was a bust. There wasn’t anything for me to do but to drive my bored ass back to post and maybe watch something on my laptop, under the blanket, while wearing my earphones, if that didn’t bother his majesty, my roommate.
And then I realized that I was walking by a bookstore. Score! Somehow, I’d missed it on the way in, but there it was: a little piece of nirvana, just waiting for me to wander in and find something to read. I knew at least two of my favorite authors had new releases this month, and I hadn’t had time to pick them up yet. This was the perfect opportunity to catch up on those books and amuse myself since I didn’t always have a lot of time to read.
Like the rest of the mall, the place was deserted. I strolled down the aisle until I hit the mystery area, where I got lost in checking out a bunch of different possibilities for tonight. Looking for the right book was kind of like searching for the perfect chick, I mused. Sometimes the covers were all pretty and promising, but then you opened it up and realized it was a dud.
I was chuckling at my own humor when I caught movement from the corner of my eye. A woman was standing with her back to me, facing the personal growth section. She was tall and thin, with blonde hair that reached nearly to her very fine ass. As I watched, she reached back to lift the strands away from her neck, and a very clear memory screamed across my mind. I saw that same hand brushing that same hair over that same shoulder as she straddled me. Her small, perfect tits bounced slightly and her neck arched, her mouth forming an O as she ground her pussy against me, and my cock was buried deep into her sweet heat—
Holy shit. For a minute I couldn’t breathe, and I wasn’t sure if it was the arousal from that memory flash—‘cause yeah, there was arousal in spades, baby—or surprise as I realized that I knew this girl. I’d met her a while back when I’d driven up from Fort Lee to Richmond to see my friend Cassie. Cassie had been in town visiting from California, and the woman who now tilted her head as she continued to peruse the shelves had been her . . . roommate from college. That was it, wasn’t it? We’d all met up in a bar, but after I’d dragged my ass the whole way up to see my old friend, Cassie had blown me off to hang out with her sorority sisters from college. So instead of talking old times with Cass, I’d gone home with her former roommate, whose name was . . . God. What was it? I should’ve remembered it because I sure as hell remembered what had happened once we’d gotten to where she lived.
We’d gone back to her tiny apartment, and she’d made me dinner . . . we talked non-stop, sharing stories and experiences, and then I’d fucked her so many times, we’d both lost count. Against her bedroom door the minute it was closed behind us. In her bed. Next to her bed. I’d gone down on her while she had writhed on her kitchen counter when we’d paused for a snack. She’d ridden me until I’d gone hoarse, calling out her name. Which was . . .
I didn’t realize I’d spoken it out loud until she turned her head. Those bewitching green eyes I remembered so well went round, and I wasn’t sure if she was more startled that someone was standing behind her at all, or that the someone was me, in particular. Shit, maybe she didn’t recognize me. Maybe I was just one of her many conquests, which would explain why she was looking at me with such a weird expression on her face just now. She probably didn’t remember my name at all—
The relief that flooded through me was only because I was glad that I didn’t look like a loser for remembering someone who’d long forgotten me. Nothing else. Only that.
“Yeah.” I took a step toward her, stopping when her face filled with panic. “Uh, good to see you again. I can’t believe I ran into you here. How’ve you been?”
She still didn’t turn around, which I thought was kind of odd. And when she spoke, her voice was guarded. “What are you doing here?”
I slid my free hand into the front pocket of my jeans. “I’m here at Fort Davis on TDY—uh, temporary duty. I’m taking a six-week-long class. And I’m here in this mall because I was bored, and my roommate in the barracks is a little bit of an asshole. And I’m here in this bookstore because I needed something to read before I have to go back and deal with the asshole.” I spread out my hands. “So that’s my story.”
Leah nodded, and her shoulders seemed to slump a little. “Okay, well . . . sorry about your roommate. I hope it works out. Good to see you.” She faced the shelves again, her back stiff. I got the sense that she was willing me to walk away.
“Hey, do you want to grab some coffee or something with me? I’ve got nothing but time right now, and if you have, say, half an hour free, we could catch up.” I shifted the three books I was holding to my other arm. “There’s got to be someplace around here that’s open, right? It’s not that late. I just have to pay for my books.”
She glanced back at me over her shoulder again, checking out the paperbacks I held. “You’re buying those?”
I nodded. “Yup. I was planning on it. The Army frowns on me just taking stuff out of stores, you know. Paying for it seems like the best option.”
Leah mumbled something under her breath that sounded like either a prayer or a curse. “Okay. Well, I’ll meet you at the register. I’m the only one working tonight, so I’ll ring you up.”
“You work here?” Surprise tinged my voice. “You didn’t use to work in a bookstore, did you? I thought you were in law school and had a job at some big firm. What happened?”
She dropped her head, sighing. “A lot has happened since I met you, Kade. A lot has changed.” Squaring her shoulders, she pivoted around to face me.
Shock rendered me speechless and frozen because I realized now why she’d kept her back to me. While Leah’s frame was still slender, the small tits I’d enjoyed that night had grown much larger. But I couldn’t even look at them, because something else had my attention.
And that would be the high, round baby bump swelling the belly of this woman I’d slept with six months before.