“Are you hiding?”
The unexpected question startled me, and I opened my eyes to see a woman regarding me with a tilted head. My first thought was that she was gorgeous. Her long hair was chestnut blonde, and her eyes were huge and brown, surrounded by a fringe of lashes. The flowered dress she wore was short, showing off miles of tanned leg. The neckline wasn’t too low, but the material clung to a pair of tits that made my mouth water.
Her eyes narrowed as she studied me. “Don’t you like weddings?”
“Um . . .” I cleared my throat. “Yeah, they’re okay, I guess. I just needed a little air.” I pushed against the tree to stand up. “Plus, the music was really loud. Also, there was a bridesmaid who was determined to corral me into a dance. So maybe I am hiding.”
“Ah.” She nodded. “I needed a little escape, too. So many people.” She shrugged, and then from behind her back, she produced a bottle of wine. “I just happen to have liberated some provisions when I ran away. If I were willing to share my wine, could I share your hiding spot?” She smiled, and suddenly, my body went onto full alert, every nerve ending singing hallelujah and screaming YES.
“Uh.” I swallowed, cursing my temporary inability to form a coherent word. “Sure. I think we can work out a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
She laughed. “I was hoping you’d say that.” Pulling the cork from the bottle, she took a healthy slug of wine, her lips wrapping around the opening in a way that made my dick go instantly hard.
Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she passed the bottle to me. “Cheers.” One eyebrow quirked upward. “Here’s to new friends.”
I closed my fingers over her smaller ones, not missing how warm they were. “New friends. Yeah, that works.” I gripped the neck and lifted the wine. The glass of the bottle’s mouth tasted like something sweet and slippery even before the liquid slid over my tongue. Her lipstick, I guessed, and somehow, it felt intimate to taste her this way.
“You’re a friend of the groom’s, I’m guessing.” She tucked her hair behind one ear, smiling up at me.
“Guilty. Was it the haircut or the uniform that clued you in?” I brushed a hand over the front of my dress blues.
“Let’s say it was a combo, plus the fact that you were sitting at the head table with the rest of the wedding party. I know groomsmen are sometimes the friends or family of the bride, but in this case, knowing what I do about Sam, I doubted it.”
I frowned. “You saw me at the table?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course, I did. I also saw the bridesmaid who had herself plastered all over you, and I saw you make your getaway.” She chugged the wine and held it up for me. “That’s when I stole the libations and followed you.”
Her frankness was surprising. I was used to women who played games, who flirted and then pretended to be indifferent or acted surprised when I paid attention to them. This girl was straightforward, and I decided I kind of liked it.
“If I ask you to come sit with me on the grass over there by the wall, will you tell me that you’re afraid of getting grass stains on your dress?” I swirled the wine in the bottle. Yeah, it was sort of a test; if she was too prissy to sit on the ground with me, it said something about her.
She laughed. “Hell, no. I’m not that precious. And my feet are killing me, so sitting down sounds like heaven.”
“Okay, then.” I pushed myself off the tree and offered her my hand. “Let’s go.”
The lights that surrounded the tent area didn’t extend quite this far, and we were both quiet as we watched our steps, careful not to stumble on the uneven ground. Her hand inside mine felt oddly familiar as if my fingers were perfectly suited for closing over hers.
The wall I’d indicated was low, made of large, round field stones. I braced myself on the top of it and lowered my body to the ground. My new friend settled herself next to me, crossing her legs while making sure her dress didn’t reveal too much. I liked that; sure, I enjoyed sneaking a peek at a dip into cleavage or a little glance when the wind lifted skirts, but women who were too eager to show me the goods made me uncomfortable.
Once she was leaning against the stone wall, I offered her the wine again. “Here you go. By the way, if we’re going to share both booze and a hiding place, we should probably introduce ourselves. I’m Owen Hughes.”
She tilted back the bottle and drank deep, running her thumb over her bottom lip afterward to wipe off the wine. “Nice to meet you, Owen. I’m . . . Jacqueline.”
I noticed both the brief hesitation and the fact that she didn’t give me her last name. That wasn’t too surprising; sometimes girls were cautious about giving away too much. I didn’t blame her. It was a dangerous world out there, and with social media, if she offered up her full name, there was nothing to stop me from stalking her online.
So I only nodded. “Nice to meet you, Jacqueline. You already know I’m here for the groom. What about you? Bride or groom?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Well . . . kind of both. I met Max and Sam at the same time through, um, mutual friends. I just moved here from California, and Samantha was nice enough to invite me to come today with my friends.”
“She’s pretty cool.” Settling the bottle on the grass between us, I rested my head against the cold stones and closed my eyes. “What brought you out here from the West Coast? New job?”
“Not really.” I heard something in her tone, a mix of hesitation and uncertainty. “I’m sort of between jobs right now. Between careers, I guess you could say.” She snorted. “I’m twenty-six years old, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. How pathetic is that?”
“Not at all pathetic.” I opened one eye and turned my head a little so I could see her better. Jacqueline was staring straight ahead into the velvet darkness, her brows drawn together. Before I thought about what I was doing, I reached one finger over to smooth the wrinkles on her forehead. “Hey. Seriously. There’s no rule about having to plan out the rest of your life when you hit a certain age. I think there’s something to be said for taking it slow and seeing what you really enjoy before you commit to something.”
“Maybe,” she sighed. “But it’s not so easy when the rest of your family—and the rest of the world—seems like they have it all together. I feel like the perpetual screw-up, the one who’s always flitting from idea to idea.”
“You’re trying out your wings.” I lifted one shoulder. “That’s what being young is all about.”
“Are you speaking from your vantage point of wise old age?” She nudged me with her elbow. “You hide it well. I wouldn’t have guessed you to be more than . . .” She squinted at me, pretending to think. “Oh, forty or so.”
“Forty, huh?” I chuckled. “Sometimes I feel like it, but no. I just turned thirty-two last week.”
“Hmmm. And just what have you done to try out your wings, Captain Hughes? I’m no mind reader, but I can hazard a guess about you.” She brought her knees together, folding her legs against her stomach, and linked her fingers around her shins. “I bet you were ROTC and went into active duty after you graduated from college. You’ve been Army proud and gung-ho every single day you’ve been serving Uncle Sam, and you never even thought about any other way of life. You plan to stick it out until you hit retirement age, or even longer if your career really takes off.” She side-eyed me. “How close am I?”
“Not that far off,” I admitted, shifting so that I was facing her. “Except I wasn’t ROTC. I went to the Academy. I’m a West Point grad.”
“Really?” Jacqueline cocked her head. “That’s kind of a big deal, isn’t it? A girl who was a year ahead of me in high school got an appointment to West Point. They wrote an article about her in the local paper and everything.”
I shrugged. “I guess.” The truth was that I’d never made a big deal about being a West Pointer. It was something I’d gotten through, but unlike some of my classmates, I didn’t feel that it made me any more special than the other officers who served with me now. “What it means to me is that I graduated without any student debt, I never had more than a few weeks off in the summer during college, and I got this pretty ring.” I lifted my left hand, where the hunk of gold sat. “Other than that—and during football season, when I’m a crazy fan of Army football—I’m no different than any other guy in the service.”
“I don’t know.” She smiled, and her entire face transformed. I caught my breath, utterly captivated. She was beautiful in an almost-otherworldly way, and I was so mesmerized that I nearly forgot to listen to what she was saying. “You seem a little different. You’re not in the middle of the action, getting your dance on with all the eligible women who would love to get their . . . hands on you. You’re not taking advantage of the free liquor and getting wasted, all in the name of having a good time.”
“Maybe that’s because I don’t see the point. Not when the most gorgeous woman at the party brought a bottle of wine over and is sitting here with me in the dark.” Taking a chance that she wouldn’t pull back, I slid my hand into her hair, cupping the back of her head.