Authors: Jackie Ashenden
To Christa, best editor ever. For encouraging me and pushing the writing even to the really difficult places. I’ve learned so much.
Kara strode out of the run-down apartment block, heavy biker boots resounding on the cracked lino floor then scraping harsh concrete as she stepped out the front door.
Don’t cry. Don’t fucking cry.
She blinked furiously. No, she wouldn’t. Third time in as many months she’d chickened out of a one-night stand, but she’d damn well never cried about it before. She never cried about anything. Despite the shitty things the guy had thrown at her as she’d escaped out of his apartment.
Tease. Slut. Bitch.
At least he hadn’t called her a scared little virgin. She didn’t mind being a tease or a bitch or a slut. But she couldn’t handle being called a scared virgin.
Mainly because that’s exactly what she was.
She came to a stop on the footpath outside the building and took a couple of deep breaths. Closed her eyes and put a hand over them.
God, what was she doing? She’d picked up the guy—Wayne. And he’d been semi-okay. Looked normal at least, so that was a start. Could string words together and had no piercings that she could see. No tattoos. Standard white bread dude. Her polar opposite which made him perfect. And yet…
When the time had come to get her clothes off, she couldn’t seem to go through with it. He’d sat on his couch, lasciviousness written all over his moderately handsome face. Waiting. And she knew he was waiting for her to do something and probably something naughty. Dirty. Except she couldn’t. A thousand things had run through her head—she was a virgin but she wasn’t ignorant—yet she really hadn’t wanted to do any of them. Something about the guy’s passivity had made her doubt herself.
Jesus, sex was way more difficult than she’d ever imagined it would be. She’d thought she’d be overcome with a wave of lust and getting down to business would be easy. But it hadn’t been. She’d just stood there feeling cold and vulnerable and awkward. And definitely not sexy.
Kara’s hand dropped. Would it be this way all the time? Shit, it was just bodies meeting, no big deal. So what was it about sex that made her want to run and hide?
Man, if she couldn’t get over this she was going to remain a virgin her entire bloody life, and she was already a big enough freak without still being a virgin at twenty-five.
Sometimes she liked being a freak. And sometimes all she wanted was normal.
Digging around in the cavernous interior of her messenger bag, she brought out her phone. Checked the time. Eleven p.m. Not late enough for Ellie to be asleep, please God, and perhaps not late enough to beg a lift home. She couldn’t face the bus and she didn’t have the money for a cab.
Dialing, she waited for her best friend to answer.
“Kara?” The voice was not Ellie. The voice was deep, male, and with that familiar rough edge to it that always had the ability to make her shiver.
It was Ellie’s brother. Vin.
Oh. Great. She’d never got on with him. The guy was a complete control-freak, arrogant, and the most patronizing bastard she’d ever had the misfortune to come across.
He was also possibly the most beautiful man she’d ever met. A fact that never ceased to annoy the shit out of her.
“Vincent,” she said, using his full name to irritate him. “You’re answering Ellie’s phone now? Why not put her in a room, lock the door, throw away the key and be done with it?”
“If I could, I would, believe me.”
Yeah, that she had no trouble believing. “You’re a jerk, you know that?”
“Of course I know that.”
Kara nudged a cigarette butt on the pavement with the toe of her boot. “So where’s Ellie and why are you answering her phone?”
“At home presumably. She left her phone here in the office.” Down the other end of the line a chair squeaked, the sound of him moving.
“You’re still at work? At this time of night?”
“Someone has to be.” The rough edge in his voice had deepened. He sounded tired.
“Oh…well…” She stopped, not really sure what else to say.
“Did you need something, Kara?”
“No. I just rang Ellie to see if she could give me a lift home but it’s okay, I’ll get a cab or something.” Goddammit, it would have to be the bus.
“Why? Where are you?”
“In the city. Fort Street.”
“Stay there. I’ll come and get you.”
Oh man. That was Vin. Always with the instructions. She was sure he must have been a dictator in another life. “Don’t be stupid,” she said, irritated. “I can find my own way home.”
“If you could do that, then why were you phoning Ellie to come and get you?”
“Because I wanted a girly chat, okay?” She paused. “But y’know, if you wanted to put on a dress and—”
“Stop wasting time and tell me exactly where you are.”
Kara rolled her eyes. “No way, dude. If you’re going to be a grumpy bastard about it, I’ll take the bloody bus.”
At that point a car full of guys cruised down the road, the bass from the stereo thumping like the pulse of some giant beast. One of them spotted her on the sidewalk and leaned out the window. “Hey, how much?” he shouted, the rest of his mates laughing.
Kara pushed her glasses determinedly up her nose then gave him the finger. More laughter, the car moving on up ahead.
Then it stopped. Began to turn around again.
Shit. That was the last thing she needed. Being harassed by a group of dickheads.
“Kara?” The sharp sound of Vin’s voice made her blink. “What’s happening?”
The car was definitely turning, coming back down her way. A chill slowly settled in the pit of her stomach. It was late, dark, and there was no one else around. Just a car full of drunken louts.
She should have thought this through instead of running blindly from the apartment. She should have had some back-up plan. God, what an idiot.
“Nothing,” she snapped, looking back over her shoulder to the apartment building. Perhaps she could wait in there until they’d gone? “Just some guys being pricks.”
“Where are you?” There was no tiredness now in his tone, just his usual note of command, the one that always had her grinding her teeth with irritation.
But for once she didn’t argue. Having to suffer Vin picking her up and no doubt his normal third degree about what she was doing out here so late by herself, was way better than risking possible sexual assault.
“You know the tacky red apartment building where all the Uni students hang out? I’m there.”
“Yeah, I know it. Go wait inside the foyer. I’ll be five minutes.”
She was already inside by the time he hung up. As much as she hated doing anything Vincent Fox told her to do, it was common sense. Especially with that car full of idiots still cruising up and down the street outside.
Kara glared at them through the windows of the foyer. Really, this was the perfect ending to an extremely shitty evening. All she needed now was Wayne from upstairs to come down and find her still lurking around.
Outside, the car full of drunks had pulled up to the curb. Fear twisted low down inside her as a couple of them got out. Clearly they’d seen her go into the building and were now in the process of coming to find her.
Kara’s jaw set. She had no self-defense skills whatsoever, but she could be pretty mean and sarcastic when she wanted to be. Perhaps that would work?
As the guys approached the building, laughing and catcalling, another car pulled up. A cherry red vintage Corvette Stingray.
The twist of fear became relief. Jesus, she’d never been so glad to see Vin’s pretentious car in all her life.
The Corvette’s door opened and Vin got out, striding toward the building. The men in the other car made some sort of comment, but Vin ignored them as if they didn’t exist.
Bloody hell, some days the confidence of the guy made even God look like he had self-esteem issues.
Kara let out a breath, put back her shoulders and went out of the apartment building for the second time that evening.
Vin stopped as she approached, dark winged brows pulled down, and her heart sped up like it always did whenever he was around. Man, she hated how hot he was and how she responded to it like every other chick.
He had the most perfect bone-structure of anyone she knew, his looks saved from prettiness by the hard, uncompromising cast of his jaw and a pair of dark blue-gray eyes that somehow reminded her of the color of the clouds before a particularly vicious thunderstorm.
Whenever she saw him she wanted to reach for her pencil, aching to draw another panel of the superhero comic she’d been drawing since forever. Make him the villain.
The sexy, hot, fascinating villain.
“Jesus, Kara, are you seriously looking for trouble?” he demanded before she’d even had a chance to speak. “Because you’re going to find it wearing that.”
She glanced down at the skin-tight black dress she wore. “What’s wrong with it?” It had been perfect for her purposes. It had got the guy and nearly got her laid.
Vin opened his mouth to respond only to be interrupted by the drunk guys who’d been looking for her.
“Yo dude. We were here first!” one of them said in a stupid attempt to sound tough and gangster.
Vin turned his head and stared the guy down. “Fuck off,” he said in a low, cold voice.
The other man took a couple of aggressive steps toward him only to be grabbed by his friend who murmured something in his ear. Both men, obviously seeing something mean in Vin’s gaze, shrugged and moved off, hurling abuse as they did so.
Vin didn’t bother looking at them as they got into their car and drove away; his dark, stormy blue eyes were firmly focused on her.
“What the hell were you thinking being out here by yourself at this time of night?”
“Chill with the judgmental attitude.” She pushed her glasses back up her nose, scowling at him. “You really don’t want to know what I was thinking.”
“Look, Vincent, I’m not Ellie. I don’t have to explain myself to you. So you can take your testosterone elsewhere, okay?”
Blue eyes gave her a cold sweep up and down. “You didn’t seem to mind it just now.”
“Well, duh, obviously not. I’m not stupid.”
“Your dress would beg to differ.”
Kara shut her mouth before something really dumb came out of it. If there was one thing she hated it was male judgment about her clothing choices and Vin was nothing if not judgmental. It was all part of his “protective”, AKA oppressive, shtick.
“Are you going to give me a lift home or are you going to stand around making stupid comments about my dress? Because if it’s the second option, I think I’ll take the bus.”
Vin didn’t reply. Just stared at her. She stared back, feeling a little like a rebellious teenager being told off by her father.
Was this what Ellie had to deal with every day? No wonder the poor girl was desperate to take up the new job she’d just scored with a fantastic computer game design studio in Tokyo. So would Kara if she had to deal with Vin on a daily basis.
After a moment, the line of Vin’s impressive jaw hardened. “Don’t play games with me tonight, Kara. I’m not in the mood.”
Yeah, she had to say, he didn’t look in the mood. Then again, when was he ever in the mood? Back when she and Ellie had first met, in their first year of high school, Vin had been a remote, stern figure, seeming far older than his twenty years. She’d supposed he’d had to be, what with having to look after a much younger sister and a seriously mentally ill mother. Not much to smile about there.
Still. Would it kill him to be pleasant for a change?
She wanted to tell him where to stick his stupid lift but given that the chance of drunken lunatics appearing again was fairly high, she wasn’t
much of an idiot.
Kara gave him what she hoped was a sarcastic smile. “Play games? With you, Vincent? Wouldn’t dream of it.”
She walked past him to where the Corvette was parked, pulling open the door and getting in.
Yeah, pretentious as hell this car, but actually she liked it. Liked the curvy shape, the smell of the leather seats Vin must have spent serious cash in restoring, the mirror-like red paintwork.