HINGED * Only $2.99 for ebook!
SHE'S NOT HER
SHE'S NOT HER … the thought resonated in my mind as disappointment clawed my heart. The woman’s arm lay draped across my abs. A hint of sex mingled in the air with the scent of her floral perfume. A column candle flickered a buttery glow on the bedside table, adding its faint scent of vanilla. Music playing softly over the sound system segued from Sinatra to “On Every Street” by Dire Straits. My heart nearly stopped as it always did when I heard that damn song. The haunting baritone voice along with an equally haunting solo piano filled the room. A soulful alto sax melody joined in, followed by the emotional sound of a steel guitar. And those poetic, yet bone grinding lyrics got me every damn time. Yes, I looked for her face on every goddamn street. Always. The saddest song ever. Nevertheless, another reminder that no matter the perfect setting of lovemaking, I, Cooper Baron, no longer made love.
Usually good with names, it bugged me I couldn’t remember my current bedmate’s. Teresa? Tessa? Whatever. She was the type who didn’t want a lover’s CV. She wanted orgasms and I’d given them. Damn good ones, too. At the peak of pleasure, she screamed a shocking string of obscenities, and I didn’t shock easily. Then she caught her breath and showed me a trick with her mouth that made me momentarily confirm my belief in God. Quite the spiritual experience fucking this woman—Tina? Trish? Dammit, what was her name?
Still, these sexual revival meetings never completely satisfied me.
Same old morning-after story: no matter how beautiful the woman or how mind-blowing the sex, I invariably woke up feeling I’d forgotten something. Not merely my partner’s name. I’d misplaced a part of myself while fucking and now I couldn’t find it.
I missed lovemaking—feeling the all-consuming pleasure and satisfaction of giving heart, soul, and body. The peacefulness afterward—so different from tonight’s smug afterglow. This woman’s arm across my body was victorious, like a flag planted after battle. A statement of ownership: not me but the fact she’d had me. I was the pillaged spoils of war she would ride off with.
After making love, the weight of a woman’s arm would be soulful. Not just across my body, but part of my body. As much my arm as hers. Not I had you, but I am you.
I turned my head to better see the woman claiming me. She slept on her stomach with her head turned away. Long, honey blonde hair spilled down her back and fell over her shoulders, making my heart skip a beat. Her honey blonde hair had fallen much the same way.
The cruel similarity couldn’t prevent me from being cast back long ago, to a small airfield, where I’d passed gut-wrenching hours waiting for her. She never showed. My stomach clenched, a sharp stabbing pain that cut right to the center of me as I relived the agony of being told she was gone. I rubbed my chest; the half-hinged tattoo inked over my heart tingled. I often wondered if her matching half-hinge tattoo tingled when she thought of me, if she lived.
Seven years ago, my fiancée, Robin Ann Finch, was declared legally dead. Police found her car at the bottom of the river. The window open, her purse and cell phone still inside. No proof of life. No proof of death. She walked off the face of the earth and obliterated her tracks.
Since they never found her body, the hope she lived constantly blazed inside me. Hard, concrete evidence stoked the flames. Her so-called accident happened on the road to her parents’ mountain cabin. I shadowed the investigator’s inspection of the roadway and surrounding area. The investigator found tire marks on the surface of the roadway, acceleration scuff marks, which showed her car started from a stopped position on the road. It accelerated to a high rate of speed, and the absence of skid marks on the pavement meant no brakes were applied to stop the car from flying over the side of the mountain road into the river.
I believed someone drove her car deliberately into the water, bailing out at the last minute. Someone other than Robin. Someone wanting the authorities to believe she’d had an accident.
But then what? She’d been kidnapped? Not for ransom but some other mysterious, nefarious reason?
I didn’t know the answers, but I doggedly worked to learn them. Seven heart-wrenching years I searched for her. Everywhere. First, in that fucking river. Every hospital and local morgue. Every Jane Doe file around the country. On every street. In every woman’s face. I viewed innumerable data and CCTV footage from the video surveillance cameras of small towns, large cities, airports, train and bus stations. I went on too many wild goose chases, tracking down women I’d seen in the footage who bore a striking resemblance to Robin, my beautiful sweet Bird. Every lead turned up empty.
I saw her countless times, only to be gutted when the woman turned around and it wasn’t her. Still I searched. For seven years, I’d been looking for her in too many women’s bodies, trying to make them into the woman who haunted me.
Would I ever accept the fact she was gone forever? Finally stop this longing and searching? Move on already?
I’m trying, goddammit.
I left the Navy SEALS when she disappeared and started my own security business to have the resources to search for her. I traveled constantly, flying my own helicopter and airplane from my headquarters in Atlanta to Nashville, Dallas, Miami, and D.C. I found women in each city, easily picking them up in meetings, bars, restaurants, lobbies, and elevators. A few hours in bed. A few minutes in a bathroom stall. Once it was all of thirty seconds in an elevator. The encounters scratched my sexual itch, but only gave a finite amount of relief.
My sister kept harping on me to find a good woman I could love. Stop my womanizing. Settle down and make some babies. Find another I could trust with my heart.
Problem was, my heart had disappeared with Robin. Life now vacillated between passively waiting for her to bring it back, and actively looking for her so I could take it back.
I’d been on a good roll the past two months—neither looking nor waiting. Working hard, eating right, sleeping well. Then, tonight, one glance across the room at a party and the streak was broken. I saw her. Standing in a circle of people, her back to me, but I was sure of it. I’d know her anywhere.
Reluctance and anxiety churned in my stomach as my feet carried me across the room. I’d done this walk countless times before, only to arrive at disappointment. But this time I was positive. The anxiety was too keen for this to be a false alarm. It was her. And she was turning around now, and...
It wasn’t her. Just another woman with Robin’s hair, her figure, and her posture. Just another decoy to throw off the hunt.
Now I lay in the lovely impostor’s bed. Last night, I couldn’t make her into the woman haunting my life. This morning, I couldn’t remember her name. Tara? Tillie? Tamar?
Dammit . . . I placed a gentle hand around the woman’s wrist, easing her arm from across my stomach. Her arm transformed into a vice, gripping my abs.
“I hope you’re only planning to go to the bathroom.” Her head turned on the pillow to face me. Sleepy eyes, tousled hair, and a voice still thick with sexual satisfaction. “Or are you sneaking out after rocking my world?”
Now that you’re awake, it’s not sneaking, is it? I touched a fingertip to her nose, ran it down to her full lips. “You were so beautiful sleeping, Champ. Didn’t want to disturb your rest.”
“Champ?” She sat up, the sheet wrapped around her breasts and arms folded on top. “What’s up with calling me Champ all night?”
“We went three rounds in the ring?”
“Four. And I’m fully recovered.” She leaned toward me, brushing her lips against the stubble on my jaw. “You called me Champ last night before we entered this ring. Round five?”
She threw the sheet aside and moved on top of me. I rose up and rolled her down on her back. I needed to end this rendezvous without hurting her feelings, but naturally my favorite body part had a different game plan. Hard as granite. Damn thing was relentless when a naked woman was around.
“Well, Champ, you were the champion of Cornhole last night,” I said.
She laughed. “Yeah, after you practically held me upside down over the board so I had a clear shot. No easy feat when the woman’s wearing a tight dress and five-inch heels.”
“It wasn’t difficult. And it ended the stupid game.”
“Well, your little stunt worked, and your ability to preserve my modesty won my admiration,” she said. “I’d never heard of a game called Cornhole. When I saw it on the program, my mind ventured on the erotic side. Who knew we’d be tossing bean bags into a hole on a board at such a swanky event? You made it fun, though. So, were you going to the bathroom or sneaking out?”
I rolled off her on to my side, “Now that you mention it, I need to hit the head before I leave.”
“How unfortunate,” she said, throwing an arm around me in a suffocating embrace. “You’ll miss the lovely breakfast I planned for us.” Her sensuous lips pushed out a petulant moment then melted into a sly smile. “I think I know a way to change your mind.”
She reached for my all-too-eager-to-oblige cock, but I caught her hand and brought it up to my lips, kissing it. “I gotta go, Champ.” I gently pushed her away, threw my feet over the side of the bed and stood up.
Self-restraint: 1. Cock: 0.
“Why?” she asked, batting her long, exotic eyelash extensions and sticking out her bottom lip in a sexy little pout she’d probably perfected over the years, as I grabbed my tux trousers from the floor.
“I have a meeting with my real estate agent,” I said, dressing quickly. “And a lot to do beforehand.”
I buttoned my shirt, reviewing the purpose of the meeting. Owning my high-rise home in Buckhead, the affluent financial center of Atlanta, no longer made sense. I hardly stayed there, so I placed it—fully furnished— on the market. It sold quickly. Today was moving day.
I left my sulking companion (Tori? Terri?) with a brushed kiss on her forehead and a promise to call. Maybe. I got into my car, pushed the ignition button. I had a hand on the gearshift and a foot on the brake when I froze. Then I slammed the other fist on the steering wheel and yelled, “Tiffany.”
IF I WANNA, I’m gonna.
I once saw those words on an Instagram post and thought, Yeah, right, who has that kind of freedom? To do whatever they want, whenever or wherever they please? I’d never known that kind of freedom until now.
I paused for a moment on the sunny dock to survey my surroundings as the cool morning breeze washed over me. The gentle sound of waves lapping at the marina pilings, the distant roar of motorboats plowing through the lake water, and the fragmented chatter and laughter of adults and excited squeals of children filled the air. A delightful whiff of bacon and coffee floated by—someone’s morning breakfast being cooked over an open fire at the nearby campground. The dewy air laden with boat fuel, fish, lake water, and pine-sweet smells enhanced the sounds and aromas of the lake marina on a busy summer holiday.
What had gotten into Ram? His suggestion that I go on this little excursion alone, dumbfounded me. The twenty-dollar bill I carried in my pocket felt like a million bucks with my revelry of being unshackled from him. Well, he never physically shackled me, but he never left my side when we were out in public, especially in a crowd.
I drew in a heady breath, looking out the small window of independence and readied myself to take on this new experience. I headed down the dock toward the marina store, with the singular goal of going in, alone, and buying whatever I wanted with my twenty bucks.
The blue skies and hot weather of this Father’s Day weekend drew large crowds to the lake. A laughing family slowed my progress. They were weighted down with excited children and baskets of food, handing both off to two men in a pontoon boat. Identical twins, from the look of them. The way they swung kids and provisions onboard while cracking jokes, they had to be the favorite uncles of the clan.
At the end of the dock, a lone couple leaned against a pillar, picnic basket and open beach bag of towels at their feet. Oblivious to the day as they kissed, his hand cupping her face. As his thumb ran softly across her cheekbone, I watched wistfully, my own face tingling where I imagined the man’s thumb dragged across. My mouth tasted the salty sweet of his tongue and my palm felt the coarse texture of his beard growth and the firmness of his strong jaw. I envied the lovers. I wanted that. I wanted those bone-deep feelings of love, the oblivion to the world, the all-consuming need to touch. I wanted to be someone’s polar opposite at a soulful level and feel the pull toward him.
I almost sighed with relief when I entered the store, not sparing the romantic couple a second glance. The cold blast of air inside the air-conditioned store felt good on my heated skin. The place was packed. Ram had told me to be quick while he gassed up the boat. Through the plate-glass windows, I could see him replacing the pump and pulling cash from his cargo shorts to pay the marina worker. His head kept looking back to the store, expression impatient. But I craved Peanut M&Ms and a Diet Dr. Pepper, and Ram be damned, I was getting them.
As the line shuffled forward, my gaze shifted beyond Ram to a tall, blond man stepping out of a sleek, expensive-looking boat. His thick hair was cut short on the sides, long and windblown on top and his swim trunks rode low on his hips. He offered his hand to a pretty blonde in a blue bikini and a sheer wrap sarong, helping her step from the boat onto the dock. When he turned toward the store, I got a better look. He had a tattoo on his chest over his heart that I couldn’t make out from the distance. The man was a walking cliché of gorgeousness. Every woman’s checklist of perfection. Six pack abs, check. Broad shoulders, check. Defined arms, check. Obligatory Adonis belt like a pair of inverted parenthesis, pointing due south: check, check, and check. My brain shook its head while my eyes gave a standing ovation.
He smiled, leaned down, and said something in the blonde’s ear. She laughed and slapped him playfully on his arm. His grin widened, and he returned to his full height, taking her by the elbow to lead her into the store.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the guy. It wasn’t just his looks—I lived with a hot, sexy man and had plenty of eye candy. This attraction felt deeper. It felt weighted. Heavy on my skin and in my bones, my whole being riveted to this man as he entered the store. His laughter sent a thrilling tingle down my spine, my ears lifting to the sound and finding it familiar.
Did I know him?
“Next. Ma’am?” I spun around to see the cashier forcing a smile and waving me forward. I quickly paid for my candy and soda. I turned to go and walked straight into a wall. At least it felt like a wall. It was a man’s bare chest. He grunted with the impact, and as he grabbed my shoulders to steady me, my eyes zeroed in on the tattoo over his heart.
What the—? I didn’t think I’d banged my face into his rock-solid chest so hard that I hallucinated. I blinked to be sure.
A half-hinge tattoo. The hair on the back of my neck rose, and I curled my fingers into my palms to stop them from reaching to touch. It was beautiful. Unique. I’d only ever seen one like it once before—on me.
The other half of the hinge was inked under my left breast. And it was tingling. I jerked my gaze up from his chest. Silver eyes, wide with surprise, looked down at me. His face drained of color as if he saw a ghost. It was the mouthwatering man from the boat, now standing with his large hands gripping my shoulders, holding me in place, an electrical current where his warm callused fingers touched my bare skin.
“Bird?” he asked, his voice deep and hesitant. The air became too thick to breathe. Whatever I could inhale got trapped in my lungs, unable to escape around the lump in my throat. I pulled out of his grasp and stepped back. His hands dropped to his sides and he straightened to his full height. His liquid-silver eyes narrowed, guarded and heedful, seeking answers.
“Bird,” he said again, more confidence in his voice. The intense gaze softened, became liquid at the edges.
Bird? Something scraped like tiny fingernails on the edges of my mind—a need to throw myself into his arms, hold him tight, and never let go. I stood still, stunned and braced against the frightening impulse.
Why did he call me Bird? His beautiful eyes pleaded with mine. I gathered my confused senses, shoved my candy and drink into his chest, and like that bird, flew out of the store into the bright sunlight.
Standing on the dock next to our boat, Ram looked first at me, then wide-eyed over my shoulder. He went pale and jumped down into the boat.
“Bird!” the man from the store shouted. The boat’s engine roared to life. Ram reached for my hand and pulled me in.
Feet pounded the boards of the dock. The tattooed man’s voice coming close. “Bird. Please. Stop! Wait . . .” The roar of the engine drowned out his last words, but I thought I heard him call my name, Robin.
Ram punched the boat to full maximum speed, paying no attention to the marina’s Idle Speed and No Wake signs as we sped through the inland waterway. Docked boats, big and small, bobbed violently up and down in our wake.
Looking back to the dock, I saw the blonde woman run up to the tattooed man. He pointed out at the waterway, waving his arms, then took off to the other side of the building—most likely to his boat. The blonde sprinted behind and they disappeared around the marina store while we sped further out into the lake. With the throttle wide-open, we disappeared easily around the next bend and into the straightaway. Only then did Ram look back.
“I don’t see him,” I yelled over the rushing wind and roar of the motor.
“He’s coming,” Ram said. He glanced down at me with furrowed eyebrows. Eyes determined. Then he focused forward and veered into a cove and rounded behind a small island. He cut the engine and we waited.
My heart beat frantically as the sleek speedboat raced past us, the blond man at its wheel.
I looked at Ram. His jaw rigid, perspiration dotted his forehead, and he breathed heavily as he continued to stare in the direction of the boat, now gone. I’d never seen him frightened of anything or anyone, but the wild, taut emotion lining his pale face couldn’t be anything but fear. Ram knew that man. I could read it in his body language, his squinting eyes calculating our next move.
“Who was he?” I asked, my hands gripping the seat cushions on each side.
Ram broke his concentration and turned his ice blue gaze on me. “I think he’s one of them. I need to get to my computer and find out.”
I stared at Ram, looking for truth in his eyes and finding none. I was certain he had just lied to me. Even more certain we’d be moving to a new location.