After a divorce from her cheating football player ex, PR whiz Kim Matlock would rather drive a pine tree through her walled-off heart than work at the Seattle Wedding Expo. And the last thing she expects is to be grabbed and kissed breathless by a hot giant of a man looking to fend off a stalker. She doesn’t want emotional entanglements, but she can’t say no to one scorching night with the sexy stranger.
To her shock, she finds out afterward that a) he’s a pro football player, aka her kryptonite, and b) she’s pregnant.
Only a few years ago, she’d been like one of those excited women in the convention hall, visiting the different vendors and ogling the wedding dresses in the fashion show.
But marriage to a cheating football player had obliterated those hopes of happily ever after, boisterous kids, a messy but deliriously happy home, and celebrated anniversaries. Her shit-show of a union had reduced her dreams to just that—dreams.
Now, thirty years old and divorced, she’d rather dance barefoot on a bed of Washington state’s famed prickly pine tree needles than be here among these smiling, foolishly optimistic and naive women. Lambs to the proverbial slaughter.
Her phone vibrated then pinged in her hand, dragging her from her morose, bitter thoughts. Thank God. She was depressing her own self.
“That was fast.” Glancing down at her screen, she expected to see an email notification from Landon, but instead… “Oh, shit,” she muttered, fingers tightening around the cell. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” She narrowed her eyes at the little card-like text notification, but nope. The name stayed the same.
Matt Cooper. Her low-life, cheating, lying ex-husband.
Her ex-husband who obviously couldn’t take a hint about leaving her alone. This was the fourth text he’d sent in as many days.
Apparently, “I hope you die, resurrect, choke on a bag of dicks, and die again,” didn’t mean what it used to.
Swiping her thumb across the screen, she relegated the message to the trash can, unread. On a good day, she had a limited number of fucks to give, and this weekend’s event had drained her of every last one. But even if she’d been home doing her couch potato act, she still wouldn’t waste a single, solitary fuck on him, of all people.
“Damn,” she whispered, shoving her phone in her jacket pocket, hating that her hand trembled. Hating that even though a year had passed since she’d discovered Matt’s infidelity, she still resembled a bombed-out, burned shell of a house after a riot—looted, empty, scarred, abandoned…lonely.
Hated herself for allowing just the sight of his name on her phone screen to affect her.
Get it together, she ordered herself, jerking her chin up in a defiant gesture that was lost on everyone in the lobby except her. Matt, her marriage, the devastation he’d wreaked—they were her past. Her career, this project revamping the hotel—they were her future…
Big, thick arms covered in geometric patterns and swirls of black ink banded her waist, pulling her back against a rock-solid wall of muscle.
Shock whipped through her like wicked, wild lightning, paralyzing every limb. Her lungs seized, trapping her breath but allowing her heart to pound out a rapid, What the living hell? beat.
Do something! Scratch! Stomp a foot! Grab a nut!
The mental shouts reverberated off the walls of her skull like ping-pong balls on speed, but every self-defense technique she’d learned at the YWCA absconded along with her ability to move.
“I think you might have mist—” she began, finally locating her voice.
“Help me.” The deep rumble vibrated against her back before the actual words reached her ears, reminding her of a bear’s growl. Not a Care Bear or Yogi, but a hungry grizzly just waking from hibernation. It was official; she was losing it.
She shook her head, trying to empty it of the inane thoughts. With that voice, she’d have expected him to say a smooth come-on or even something dirty and raw. Definitely not an S.O.S. Apparently taking the gesture as a rejection of his request, he murmured in her ear again with that gravel-and-midnight timbre, his lips brushing her skin.
“Please,” he pleaded. “I’m being hunted. Like big-white-hunter-on-safari hunted. Help me,” he repeated. “I’ll pay you back. A house. Do you need a house? Or maybe a car? Whatever, I got you. I’m desperate…”
Shut up, she mentally hissed at her faceless, flesh-and-blood wrap. And not because he’d just offered to buy her real estate. No, it was because he’d offered to buy her real estate in that voice. That dark, husky growl deserved an aisle in the back room of a sex shop devoted to it. Right next to the nipple vibrators and clamps.
“You know, this smacks of sexual harassment. #MeToo. Ever heard of it?” she asked, injecting a firmness in her tone that was lacking from her resolve not to notice how good. He. Felt.
“Believe me, I’m down with the #MeToo movement. I completely love and respect women. But my virginity is being threatened. Help.”
“Uh…” What the fuck did she say to that? She weakly plucked at a thick wrist. Which was a colossal mistake. Because then she couldn’t help but notice the size of said wrist. Her shock thawed, curiosity creeping in. Jesus. Would her fingers be able to fit around it? As if her hand had seceded from her brain, she could only watch as said fingers sought an answer to the question, circling one of the wrists across her waist. A gap separated the tip of her middle finger and her thumb. Damn. He must be a freaking giant. As if that one thought unlocked a door, a deluge of impressions—of sensations—flooded her.
He surrounded her.
Those heavily tattooed and muscled arms. The wide chest that completely covered her back and shoulders. The thighs that bracketed her legs.
She closed her eyes. Another mistake. His scent—wild like a rain-burdened wind before a storm, and earthy like sunbaked, freshly turned soil—enveloped her in a sensory embrace. The feel of his hard, big body against her smaller, softer frame became even more pronounced, and an image of him holding her the same way in a bed instead of in the middle of a convention center lobby flirted in her head before she could evict it.
Him behind her, his arms still holding her close, thighs spreading her legs wide, hot damp skin branding hers, a cock worthy of the size of those wrists penetrating her, stretching her, setting her on fire…
She shuddered. Had it been so long since she’d been touched that even a stranger whose face she hadn’t even seen could elicit such a strong, visceral reaction? Yep. The answer echoed in her mind as this man nuzzled a spot directly beneath her ear. A spot, coincidentally, directly connected to her nipples. The long-neglected tips hardened as if doing their own happy, it’s about damn time dance. It’d taken Matt a year of dating to discover that particular erogenous zone and this stranger, oh, five-point-two seconds to locate it. Another shiver rippled through her as soft but coarse hair grazed her jaw.
A beard—whoever he was that had her body zooming into hyperdrive sported a beard. She preferred clean-shaven men, not even a five o’clock shadow…didn’t she?
Yes, she firmly—desperately—reminded herself. And no way in hell was she imagining how that hair would feel brushing her inner thighs or her feminine flesh as he lapped at her clit… Aforementioned thighs trembled as heat rolled through her in a long, sinuous wave.
Good God. She was losing her mind along with her control. Scrambling for a tenuous foothold in common sense, she plucked at his wrist again.
“Please. Did I mention I’m desperate?”
“I—” She cleared her throat. Tried again. “Um, fine. But what do—”
He abruptly released her, only to grip her shoulders and turn her around. She just caught a flash of dark eyes with the thickest lashes before a firm, wide mouth settled over hers.
Sank into hers.
Firm? Had she thought firm? No, his lips—his incredibly mobile, talented lips—were soft, sensual. A man with the voice of a grizzly had no business possessing such a lush mouth, capable of delivering the gentle brushes he currently swept over hers. Bristly hair caressed her chin. Strong teeth nipped at the center of her bottom lip seconds before he soothed the tiny sting with a tender lick and slipped inside her.
A moan escaped her. Shivers overtook her, centering in her chest, belly, and knees. Desperate for purchase in this sudden, confusing landscape of shock and lust, she curled her fingers into his T-shirt, her knuckles bumping a rock-solid wall—or his chest. A big hand cradled the back of her head, another cupping her hip, holding her still. And close. So damn close. For an insane moment, a sense of safety swamped her. In that crazy instant, she believed that anything or anyone gunning for her would have to get past the giant plastered to the front of her body. And even more nuts? She suspected he would mow down anyone who tried.
Especially since his stroking, sucking tongue was the most threatening clear-and-present danger to her sanity, her body, her control.
Yet, she didn’t pull away. Instead, she stood there, allowing her mouth to be fucked. She leaned her head into his palm, opened her mouth wider to the increasingly more demanding thrusts and pulls of his mouth. Enjoyed the harder grip of his fingers on her hip. Savored the darker rumble of his groan. It vibrated against her, setting her nipples into peaks so tight, so tender, she barely stopped herself from rubbing against him like a cat in heat.
“Ronin?” an angry falsetto demanded, penetrating the erotic, midnight haze that had wrapped around her. “Are you serious?
The mouth that had become the center of her universe for the last few moments lifted, abandoning hers. She immediately turned so he couldn’t glimpse the shock, and God yes, lust that probably suffused her face. Lifting trembling fingers to her swollen, sensitive lips, she dipped her head because, yeah, maybe she didn’t want to see his face either. Didn’t want to see that maybe the kiss that had rocked her world had left him completely unmoved.
The huge body that had been pressed against hers shifted, aligning against her side. A heavy arm slid over her shoulders, anchoring her to that frame. Good thing. Her knees still hadn’t recuperated from their Jell-O-like state.
She blinked, steadying herself just as a pair of fire-engine red stilettos and endless, slim legs appeared in her line of vision. They were connected to a gorgeous, furious-looking brunette in a halter-style dress with a knee-length, flared skirt. Behind Kim, the handsy, I-kiss-total-strangers giant, who she assumed was Ronin, didn’t drop his embrace, and she couldn’t miss the fine tension that invaded his body. Especially since he was wrapped around her like an anaconda.
“Hey, Marissa.” He greeted the other woman, the amused and relaxed drawl belying the tautness in his giant frame. “I didn’t know you were attending the expo. What a coincidence. Right, sweetheart?”
Kim blinked again. What reality show hell had she just been dumped into the middle of?
“Sweetheart?” he repeated, giving Kim a not-so-gentle squeeze.
“Right. Coincidence,” she blurted, forcing her lips into a smile that felt as fake as the Gucci wallet the street vendor outside had tried to sell her. “I’m Kim. Nice to meet you.”
Marissa glared at Kim’s extended hand as if it were infected with scabies. All righty then. She lowered her arm.
“I thought you didn’t do girlfriends,” the other woman sneered, scanning Kim from head to toe. One corner of her mouth curled into a derisive smirk. “Isn’t she a little…bland for your tastes?”
Bland? Okay, that was uncalled for. So all her lady bits were covered in a perfectly respectable suit jacket and skirt. That didn’t make her boring; it made her professional. Bitch.
“Maybe he just needed something a little”—Kim paused and pursed her lips, tapping them with a fingertip—“different for him to change his mind,” she finished, pouring so much sugar in her tone that diabetic shock was a real possibility. She shrugged, not an easy feat under the weight of that heavy, tatted arm, and turned in his embrace, dismissing the brunette. “Sweetie, we should really get back inside. The fashion show is starting, and you know I wanted…your…opinion… … Oh, fuck.”
A dark, piratical eyebrow arched high at her hoarse curse, and scalding heat poured into her face. But shock had kidnapped her voice once more, and she couldn’t apologize. Because damn.
Ronin was gorgeous.
Like stunning, swashbuckling, shiver-me-timbers gorgeous. Or gleaming bare chest, loincloth, dancing around a roaring fire gorgeous. Black eyebrows with a wicked arch slashed over equally dark eyes that flashed with humor. Strong cheekbones and an elegant blade of a nose that any model would’ve put out a hit for almost drew attention from a sensual…generous mouth that she intimately knew could deliver on every erotic promise it hinted at. The full, but trimmed, beard completely covered his jaw and framed those lips, making them appear lush, more carnal.
And his body. As her very British mother would say, “Oh my giddy aunt.” She’d felt it pressed up against hers. Surmised from how he damn near surrounded her that he was a big guy. Hell, his hand had nearly spanned her head when he’d cradled it. But she hadn’t been prepared for…this. Her ex had been a large man at six-feet-two, but Ronin… He towered even taller, his shoulders wide and straight. The navy-blue Pac-Man T-shirt covering his chest—that rock-solid wall her knuckles had brushed against when she’d been fisting his shirt—and upper arms couldn’t hide the tight muscles that had her fingers itching to pinch and stroke. Lean hips and powerful thighs completed the package of a man who looked as if he felled trees for a living. Single-handed. The vintage shirt and even older-appearing, faded jeans only added to his almost overpowering masculinity.
He wasn’t pretty; he was too powerful, too virile, too raw, too…just too to ever be labeled that. Even the black hair tucked into a loose bun at the nape of his neck couldn’t detract from her impression of him as a fierce warrior. She’d bet her last Michael Kors purse that at least one of his parents or grandparents could boast of a proud Samoan or Polynesian heritage. With his beautiful golden skin and the big body that towered above her?
Oh yeah, last purse and shoes.
“Overly anxious, isn’t she?” The brunette snickered. “I don’t mind sharing you, Ronin. I think it would be kinda…hot,” she purred.
Oh, for the love of… “Can we go? It’s a little crowded out here,” Kim gritted out.
“Of course,” he murmured, finally removing his arm from around her. And no, damn it, that wasn’t a tiny shaft of disappointment sliding through her. “Nice seeing you again, Marissa,” he said to the other woman then, placing a wide palm to the small of Kim’s back, guided her toward the doors leading toward the convention hall. He grabbed the steel bar, glancing back over his shoulder before releasing it. Relief passed over his features. Turning to face her, he heaved a sigh.
“Thank you for that.” He flashed a sheepish, perfect grin. Of course it’s perfect. Why wouldn’t it be? “And I’m sorry for placing you in that position. But I’m not going to lie. I was scared.”
I will not be charmed. I will not be charmed.
“Just be glad I don’t charge for my services by the hour.” She heard the words as soon as she uttered them. And groaned. Damn. “I didn’t mean—”
His bark of laughter cut her off, and hell, even that was sexy. The low timbre of it slid its way down her spine, culminating in a sizzling tingle in her lower back where his hand had touched her. “Sweetheart, for you, I’d pay by the minute. I have the feeling you’d be worth it. Kim.” He stated her name slowly, as if sipping it like a fine wine, savoring it.
Unnerved by the image, and the coiling in her stomach, she snorted. “I’m sure that was a compliment in a Pretty Woman sort of way. Is that the line you used to land Marissa back there?”
“Of course it was a compliment. But to be fair, you introduced hourly rates into the conversation. And since you asked, it was my”—he leaned closer, as if about to impart a deep, dark secret—“wit that landed Marissa.”
She arched an eyebrow. “It’s been a while, but is that what they’re calling dicks these days?”
Another loud burst of laughter escaped him, turning heads in their direction, and she cringed. What was wrong with her mouth? She didn’t banter with strange men—hell, men period. After being with Matt so long, she’d forgotten the art of flirting. And since finding out what a cheating douche the man she’d been married to was, she hadn’t had the desire to flirt, date, or have sex. To say she was rusty in all areas man-related would be like saying the Grand Canyon was a really big pothole.
She should go, return to her booth. Walk away and forget all about this incident and the man who’d incited it…
“Can I ask you a question?” Inside her head, what the hell are you doing? reverberated. “Why don’t you just tell her the truth? If you’re going to such drastic measures to fend her off, you’re clearly not interested. Why not just tell her you don’t want to be bothered and back off?”
“You think I haven’t tried?” He shrugged. “What kind of jerk do you take me for?”
“Umm, one who will plant a kiss on one woman when he doesn’t know her from Tom, Dick, or Harry, just to avoid confrontation with another?”
He gasped. Seriously. Freaking gasped. “I would never kiss Dick. He’s married, and I’m not that kind of person,” he objected, offense coloring his tone. Part of her was surprised he didn’t press a hand to his chest, clutching non-existent pearls.
“Really?” she drawled, holding back a snort. Barely. Who the hell was this guy? “Are you serious right now?”
“Hell, yeah. I respect the institution of marriage,” he added, one of his piratical eyebrows arching, and that already deep, somehow melodic voice lowering. “And if I were less than the gentleman my mother raised me to be, I would gladly point out that your tongue wasn’t exactly trying to evict me from your mouth. It was too busy tangling with mine. And you were definitely”—he paused, his dark gaze dropping to her suddenly sensitive lips—“tangling.”
She cleared her throat and tried to ignore the twist and grind of lust in her stomach. What the hell? Men who had hair longer than hers, who didn’t shave, and whose fashion sense included T-shirts bearing 80s video game icons weren’t even remotely her type. She favored urbane, well-groomed, clean-shaven men. Men who looked like they stepped out of the boardroom, not the bedroom. As in, just rolled out of that bed. And yet… It didn’t take much effort to still feel that mobile, giving mouth on hers. Didn’t stretch her imagination in the least to once more hear that low, hungry growl. Would only require a sweep of her tongue over her bottom lip to savor the lingering taste of his kiss…
“So glad you’re too much of a gentleman to mention it, then,” she said, aiming for wry, but the breathlessness in her voice torpedoed the hell out of her best intentions. “Still, if you’re going to indulge in booty calls, you might want to prepare a good escape plan afterward.”
God, when had she started sounding so prudish and…bitchy. Uh, right. A year ago. When her husband imploded their marriage with his succession of hookups that, according to him, “meant nothing.” Too bad they’d meant everything to her.
“Does anyone even call it a booty call anymore?” he asked.
She snorted, trying to purge the picture of him and the Marissa woman from her brain. Not that it bothered her. Because it didn’t. Much. “I’ll concede your point. It’s as 80s as that shirt.”
“Now look here, woman.” His brows arrowed into a fierce frown, but the amused gleam in his eyes ruined the pretense of affront. “You can talk about my manners, my kissing technique—which we both know is stellar—or my avoidance of potential ugly-cry skirmishes. But my vintage T-shirts? Off-limits. I have to draw a line somewhere.”
Laughter at his inane argument bubbled up inside her chest. But she tamped it down, the sensation…foreign. Which was just fucking sad. Shaking her head, she crossed her arms. And not against the convention center’s air-conditioned breeze, but in self-preservation against his rough charm. “You should’ve drawn the line at the door…of the store you bought it from.”
His laughter seemed to boom off the walls of the large lobby, drawing curious gazes from the people milling about. Not that he seemed to notice. His grin and the twinkle in those bottomless eyes—whose eyes actually twinkled, other than Santa Claus’s?—were pinned on her. As if no one existed for him but her.
Another strange feeling. It’d been a hell of a long time since she’d been anyone’s sole focus.
She shook her head again, harder this time, as if the sharp motion could dislodge the crazy thought.
“I like you,” he said, the soft rumble in his voice sliding over her. Under her suit jacket and shirt. Over bare skin.
Combatting the disconcerting sensation, she scoffed. “Uh-huh. Like Marissa.”
He frowned, and this time, it was barren of amusement. He studied her, and she fought not to fidget or flinch under the piercing inspection. It was startling for all that playfulness to so suddenly disappear, and it left her momentarily reeling.
“Another thing I don’t do to women—lie. I was upfront with her about what I wanted, about what I could give her. And that didn’t include a relationship. Sex. Hot, good, harmless fucking—that’s what I promised. She turned the tables. She tried to make it into something I never wanted or agreed to. But that’s still no reason to be unkind, to treat her like shit.”
Stunned, she stared at him, rocked by his quiet, dignified statement. In that instant, she became the bitter bitch she’d sworn she wouldn’t allow Matt’s betrayal to transform her into. It was one thing to believe football players were walking dicks just waiting for a willing pussy to stick themselves into. But now, she’d judged a man she didn’t know, a regular man who had been attempting to be chivalrous in his own ass-backward way. Or so it seemed.
He very well could be as upfront with other women as he claimed. Yet, he was still here, at a wedding expo, with a woman hunting him down like he sported ivory tusks. Hell, she didn’t know. It would be refreshing if he was as honest as he claimed. Truth be told, she would’ve appreciated honesty from Matt. At least then she would’ve had the choice whether or not to continue in their sham of a marriage.
She lowered her arms, cocking her head to the side. “A word of advice, though?” At his nod, she dipped her head in the direction of the wide doors that led back to the hall. “You might want to keep the kissing of strangers to a minimum if you’re at a wedding expo. I don’t know if you’re here with someone, but—”
A look of absolute horror crossed his face. It would’ve been comical if not for the real terror in it. “Oh shit! Hana.”
Between one moment and the next, he vanished, having disappeared through the doors in a speed that was surprising for such a big man. Bemused, she stared after him. Or rather the place he’d once stood. Shaking her head, she followed him several minutes later.
Kissed by a complete stranger. Confronted by his pissed-off one-night stand. Chatted up about the aforementioned kiss, Pac-Man T-shirts, and booty-call protocol.
This had to be the weirdest wedding expo ever.
I especially appreciated that Ronin, though he wasn’t technically a widower, had had a positive past relationship that ended in death and he was able to move on to another positive one without vilifying or reducing the importance of the first. His guilt over moving on felt spot on, even as his worry about Grace’s family being upset felt a teensy bit over the top (especially since given her situation she and her entire family had to know that the long term dream of marriage and a family were truly a long shot. Of course Ronin deserves a chance to move on and be happy, and they’ll agree with that. Grace would have agreed with that.)
I haven’t read a lot of books from Ms. Simone, but she’s quickly moving toward my list of must-read authors 🙂
She is wife to Superman, or his non-Kryptonian, less bullet proof equivalent, and mother to the most awesome kids ever. They all live in perfect, sometimes domestically-challenged bliss in the southern United States.