Authors: Meredith Wild
This book is an original publication of Meredith Wild.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not assume any responsibility for third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2016 Waterhouse Press, LLC
Cover Design by Waterhouse Press
Cover photographs: Dreamstime & Shutterstock
All Rights Reserved.
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“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”
et the hell off me
Pauly’s eyes had shot open seconds earlier, thanks to the Narcan and the bag of oxygen he’d shoved away. A slew of curses and violent thrashing was our reward for bringing him back to consciousness too abruptly. We’d fucked up his high, and he wasn’t pleased.
“Bridge, hold him down.”
Before I could, Pauly whacked Ian in the face with his angry flailing. Ian shoved him down on the sidewalk harder than he needed to. We were on the twenty-third hour of a double shift, and my patience was growing thin too. Pauly was a frequent flier, and as long as he was conscious and in a decent mood, the medics would usually crate him off to the hospital where they’d monitor his vitals until he came out of it. Today, we weren’t that lucky.
“Try that again, Pauly, and next time you’re getting the Narcan no matter how good you’re feeling,” Ian ground out.
It was an empty threat, but one that no doubt felt very real to Pauly under the current circumstances. Narrowing his eyes, he shifted his bleary gaze to me.
I shook my head, keeping my hold firm on his arms, which were unexpectedly strong considering how thin he’d recently become. “Don’t look at me for sympathy, man. You can’t hit us when we’re trying to help you. You going to calm down now?”
Pauly was a junkie, one of thousands in the city. We were two of a few dozen guys on the fire department who periodically made sure he was breathing after someone found him unresponsive on the streets, again.
We seemed to care more about Pauly staying alive than he did sometimes.
The harrowing truth of it would eat away at someone else. I couldn’t let his story or the hundreds of others I’d seen play out over the years get under my skin though. Not in this line of work. I just wanted to get back to the station. We’d been toned out all night long. Back to sleep just long enough to get jolted awake again. Nothing meant more to me right now than the promise of a few hours of uninterrupted rest. The sooner Pauly and I saw eye to eye, the sooner I could get my relief and go home.
After a moment, he seemed to relent, his muscles going lax.
“Good man.” I let out a sigh, equal parts relief and exhaustion. I nodded toward the medics who’d just arrived with a stretcher. “These guys are going to take care of you now. You going to be nice to them?”
“Yeah.” He closed his eyes with a grimace.
Until next time, Pauly.
A couple of hours later, I was walking through the glass doors of Bridge Fitness. The gym that my brother owned and I helped manage had become a second home for me. Cameron had been working his ass off for weeks in anticipation of taking time off for his wedding. I came in every shift I could to help lighten the load, but I was grateful today wasn’t one of them. I needed to burn off just enough energy to crash back at my apartment.
I entered the main gym room, and Cameron’s fiancée, Maya Jacobs, was on the treadmill, earbuds in, oblivious to my presence. The pretty blonde had had my brother twisted up for years, and as much as I’d hated to see him go through it, he seemed happier than I’d ever seen him now that they were together again. I gave her a wave when I passed and headed toward the office in the back where I’d likely find Cameron.
As expected, he was at his desk. But he wasn’t alone. Raina, our resident yoga instructor, leaned her hip against the side of the desk. She flickered her lascivious gaze from his uneasy expression down his body and edged closer. Damn, the woman was an inch away from climbing into his lap. When she licked her lips suggestively, Cameron looked away.
“Hey, guys,” I said loudly.
Raina straightened and moved off the desk. “Hey, Darren.”
She shrugged, pushing her chest out a fraction as she passed by. “Not much. I was just leaving.”
“See ya,” I said, taking in an eyeful of her swaying ass on her way out.
Cameron frowned and turned back to the paperwork in front of him. I leaned against the doorjamb and tried to gauge his mood.
“What’s up with Raina? She didn’t get the hint when you proposed to Maya?”
He scratched his pen along his jaw. “I think that’s just how she is. I’m trying not to read too much into it.”
I laughed. “Picking up on those signals and using them to my advantage is like my second job. She’s hitting on you, old man. Maya’s going to catch her making moves one of these days, and I’m guessing it won’t be pretty. Better for you to shut her down before Maya does.”
He sighed and leaned back in the office chair that squeaked with every recline. He pushed a handful of dark hair off his forehead. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Like I don’t have enough shit to deal with right now. We’re leaving for Grand Cayman in a couple of days, and I’m up to my eyeballs in this proposal for the investors.”
I nodded, sizing up the paperwork that always seemed to make its way to his desktop, more so now that he was trying to expand the empire by opening a new gym. “How about I talk to her?”
Cam shot me a wary look. I could read him like a book. I was the oldest, but for some reason Cameron always wanted to shoulder the burdens of life alone.
“Seriously, it’ll be less awkward if I do it,” I said. “I’ll keep it light but make sure she gets the message.”
A few seconds passed before the worried wrinkle in his forehead faded. “Fine. Just don’t piss her off. I need her here while we’re gone. I can’t be short-staffed right now.”
“I get it.” I moved to the locker where I stashed my bag and jacket. I’d gotten my third or fourth wave of energy on the way home from work. Sleep wasn’t going to be happening for a few more hours. At least I didn’t have to deal with more guys like Pauly or run into any burning buildings for a while.
Leaving Cameron to his work, I headed toward the yoga studio farther down the hall. I expected to find Raina there. She didn’t have class until midmorning.
The large studio was cool and empty. Raina was straightening out a stack of rolled-up mats a few feet away. When the door latched behind me, she looked up.
I flashed her a smile. “How’s it going?”
“Good. How about yourself?”
“Wiped from work. Long shift. I came in to unwind for a few before I crash.”
She smirked, looking down at her mats again. “Private yoga lesson?”
The smile I wore wasn’t forced this time. When our gazes met again, her eyelids were a little lower.
I let out a soft chuckle. “Hmm, sounds relaxing. If I hit the floor though, I may never get back up.”
She shrugged, going about her business, letting the invitation linger in the air between us. Cameron didn’t know, but she’d given me a “private yoga lesson” after work a few weeks ago. I’d had a weak moment.
The guy in me who rarely said no to a proposition let the possibilities tumble around in my tired head for a bit. No, I was here for a reason, and that was not it.
I cleared my throat and prepared to dive in. “So what’s up with you and Cam?”
Raina stilled, her expression more alert now. “What do you mean?”
“I mean…you’ve got a thing for him, right?”
She stopped what she was doing, the lines of her body becoming hard and tense. Defensiveness quickly took over her pleasant countenance. “What are you implying?”
“Listen, I saw you in his office earlier. Your body language… I mean, call me crazy, but it seems like you’re attracted to him too.”
Her mouth opened but no words came. She was flustered.
Taking slow strides toward her, I looked her up and down. No doubt, she had a nice body. Fit and lean, not an inch of fat on her. Plain to see when she wore only a sports bra and tight-fitting yoga pants. As hard as I worked on my own body, she just wasn’t my type. I wanted the girls who came to the gym to firm up but left a little meat on their bones.
I stopped when I was a couple of feet away from her. “Are you trying to tell me that you wouldn’t sleep with Cameron the first chance you got? Tell me the truth.”
“I am not
attracted to your brother,” she said forcefully.
“Yeah?” I cocked my head, challenging her. I took in all the subtle cues of her body—the shallow breath, the flush of pink across her chest—that told me I could win this round.
“Yeah.” She released the word with a sigh. The anger in her voice had faded.
When she swayed toward me, my tired brain worked to catch up with where this was going.
“Prove it.” My voice was low, laced with challenge. I took a step closer, bringing us a breath apart.
She flashed her eyes to the door and then back to me. I knew that look. She had to make a decision. Didn’t matter because whatever she decided I could change her mind. Cameron was a good guy. That’s why she wanted him. I wasn’t, and that’s why, at this particular moment, she wanted me.
She proved it when she curved her hand around the back of my neck and rose on her toes, bringing our lips together. She wasn’t hesitant or shy. She dove right in, and I kissed her back. Not because I cared about how she tasted, but because I knew that was what she wanted. I was never much for the act.
She pushed forward, pressing her whole body along mine, and my cock stirred to life. Yeah. Fucking was definitely in the cards.
Breaking the kiss I didn’t want, I turned her around and pushed her against the wall. She was naked beneath her yoga pants, which I’d shoved down her thighs, giving me just enough access to get what I did want.
Don’t do this.
I slid my palms along her hips, contemplating what I was about to do. “Are you sure you want to do this?” As if her answer made it any more right.
“Yes,” she moaned, tilting her ass back to me, taunting my cock even more.
Every time she made a sound, I envisioned Cam walking in on this atrocity that was happening in our shared workplace. Goddamn, this was stupid. And wrong. The mirrors on three sides of us reminded me every time I dared open my eyes. Screwing around the first time had been a mistake. If I kept going with her this way, I could have a real problem on my hands.
I palmed my growing erection, my partner in crime and the thought leader when it came to who and when to fuck.
Then I froze. “I don’t have a condom on me.”
An awkward silence fell on the room.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly.
No, it sure as hell wasn’t okay. I never fucked without one, and the way Raina made eyes at half the guys in the gym wasn’t exactly confidence inspiring.
I yanked her yoga pants back up and turned her around.
“Not here. Not like this.” Maybe not ever.
Her chest moved under her panting breaths. She was wound up, and I could have had her in an instant. That wasn’t why I was here, though.
“Raina. You need to back off Cameron. We can fuck around, but he’s about to marry Maya.”
I couldn’t rein the words back in, regretting the matter-of-fact way they’d flown out of my mouth. Her soft flush noticeably cooled.
“Sure thing, Darren. You never struck me as the jealous type.”
I ground my teeth. I wasn’t jealous, but if that thought was enough to get her to back off, I’d let it go.
I hesitated a moment longer, looking her over one last time. At least she’d leave Cam alone now. I came close and kissed her once more. Mechanically, like it was my job, deriving no pleasure from it.
“I’ll catch you later, Raina.”
I hummed along to the pop tune that played through the speakers in the ceiling, singing along just low enough not to be heard in the busy coffee shop.
“Veronica!” the barista shouted across the café.
I jolted back into reality. I edged my way toward the front and took the tray from him. “Vanessa,” I corrected.
He didn’t linger long enough to acknowledge his mistake, disappearing as my phone rang in my pocket. I fished it out and recognized my mom’s number.
“Mom, hey.” I pressed the phone to my ear and juggled the tray of coffees as I left the cafe.
“How are you doing, honey? Is everything all right?” The sweetness of her light Southern accent tightened a bit with worry.
We’d started so many conversations this way, as if she’d caught me in the middle of a disaster every time I picked up the phone. I rolled my eyes and released an annoyed sigh.
Everything was always fine. Even when it wasn’t. Even when life felt a little disastrous, I didn’t want to give her any reason to believe this move had been all the terrible things she’d imagined and worried about. A gust of wind tunneled up the street as I passed through crowds and people’s loud conversations.
“Where are you?” Her voice seemed small and unimportant in the nonstop buzz and noise of my surroundings.
“New York City, Mom. It’s loud here.”
She was silent a moment, and I could imagine the look on her face as she shook her head. She’d never understand why I lived here. How it was the extreme opposite of where I’d come from and that’s precisely why I loved it. She’d kept me cloistered in my hometown long enough, but my future wasn’t in Callaway.
In that little Florida town, I was someone different—the smart girl with big freckles, secondhand clothes, and a single mom. Mom had held her place in the community for years, serving everyone and their cousin coffee and greasy breakfast at the local diner. I had no secrets in Callaway and no way to escape the story that other people threw around like social currency, whitewashing their own secrets.
According to the whispers back home, I’d moved to the big city to work on Wall Street. That was all I wanted anyone to know. And here, I was anonymous. I could reinvent myself a thousand times and only a handful of people would ever know I had. And God knew I was in good company in a city this vast.
“Are you ready for your trip?” my mom asked.
I kept a steady pace up the street. The exhaust from the crawl of cabs up the street tainted the air. If I missed anything about home, it was the fresh air. Fresh ocean air that I was so close to enjoying again.
She sighed again. “I don’t like the idea of you traveling by yourself.”