Billionaire Aviators - Book One
Size: 8.20 x 5.50 in
Tires squealed as a sleek, silver Jaguar shot out onto the highway. An unsuspecting car cruising along slammed on its brakes just in time to avoid a wreck with the Jag. The four brothers sitting in the Jaguar didn’t give a damn about the commotion they were causing.
This wasn’t unusual.
They continued speeding along, trying to outrun the demons chasing them as they flew down the highway, hitting over a hundred miles an hour and continuing on, faster and faster.
It wasn’t quick enough. They kept on going until they hit the edge of town in Bay Harbor, Washington, where they found a dilapidated bar with a blinking neon sign that had some of the letters burned out.READ MORE
Cooper, who was driving, jerked the steering wheel and came to an abrupt halt outside the run-down building. “Good enough,” he said. His fists clenched with the urge to hit something, or better yet, someone.
“Yep,” his brother replied from the backseat.
Getting out of the car, they made their way to the entrance, an undeniable swagger in their gait—a swagger that made people turn and watch them wherever they went. Though young, the Armstrong brothers already had a reputation in their small community for stirring up trouble.
When they entered a room, patrons would turn away, glancing back at them with a wary eye. The brothers were the first in for a fight and the last ones standing.
They were wealthy, and not above flashing their fat wallets, Rolex watches, and extravagant cars. They were also arrogant and hot-tempered, a foursome to both be leery of and look at with awe. Cooper was the oldest at twenty-four, each of his brothers one year, almost to the date, behind him: Nick at twenty-three, Maverick at twenty-two, and Ace, the baby, at twenty-one.
On this night, though, they were looking for more than just the usual trouble. They were out for blood, but the demon chasing them was relentless, and no matter how fast they moved, this was something they couldn’t outrun.
Their father was dying.
Maybe it was the feeling of helplessness or maybe, for once, it was not being the strongest ones in a room. Whatever it was, Cooper, Nick, Maverick, and Ace were scared, and because they wouldn’t admit that, they were trouble to anyone in their path.
This band of brothers had always been revered as much as they’d been feared. They were tall, lean, and had distinct green eyes that hid their innermost thoughts but shone with a sparkle that most couldn’t resist.
Walking indoors, Cooper sighed in anticipation. Smoke filled the air as loud music echoed off the walls. A few heads turned in their direction, and Cooper scoped them out, looking for a potential boxing partner.
The nervous energy rising off him in waves needed an outlet, so the first person that gave him the slightest reason would feel the wrath of his heartbreak, denial, and feeling of helplessness.
As if the patrons knew this group was up to no good, they cast their eyes downward, particularly annoying Cooper in their weakness to accept the challenge radiating off his entire body.
The boys ordered beers, then leaned against the bar, facing out as they scanned the crowd. None of them spoke for several moments, each lost in thought.
Cooper was thinking they might just have to give up on this place and find a new location when his gaze captured the angry look of a man shooting pool. Cooper smirked at the guy and practically saw steam rise from the man’s ears. The stranger began making his way toward them. Cooper’s fists clenched with the need to punch.
“You’re the Armstrong boys, right?”
The man was swaying as he stepped closer to them, his glazed-over eyes narrowed. Cooper stood at full attention. This just might be the huckleberry he’d been in search of.
“Yep,” Coop said, not altering his stance at all.
“I hear your daddy’s on his deathbed.” The man said the cold words with glee.
Maybe the man was too drunk to know exactly what he was doing, but instantly the four brothers stepped a bit closer to one another, their knuckles cracking, their collective breath hissing out.
“Maybe you shouldn’t listen to gossip,” Maverick said in a low growl.
“Oh, I don’t think it’s gossip. You see, your daddy has run over many real workingmen to get to the top of that mountain he’s built for himself. And now he’s getting the early death he deserves.”
Nick instantly stepped away from the bar, but Cooper shot his hand out and stopped him. “He was looking at me, Nick,” he said, his tone deathly low.
His brothers shot him a look, but then they stepped back, letting Cooper deal with his demons, and the drunken bastard before them, at the same time.
“Dave, come on. You’ve had too much to drink,” a woman said, placing her hand on his arm.
“Get the hell off of me. I know what I’m doing,” Dave snarled at the woman, pushing her away.
Cooper’s fingers twitched in anticipation. He wanted to deck this asshole even more now. It was okay to fight with a man, but to push a lady around was never acceptable.
“Maybe you should lay off the lady,” Maverick said. He wanted to push forward and take Cooper’s place. Cooper looked at him and Maverick stepped back, though it was costing him to do so.
“Maybe you should keep your damn mouth shut,” Dave said to Mav.
“This is Cooper’s fight,” Nick reminded Maverick when he began to shake with the need to hit this piece of scum.
Dave turned away from Maverick, his beady eyes focused again on Cooper. “Are you just like your daddy, boy? Do you like living off the men busting their asses for your family in those crap factories?”
“At least our daddy provides trash like you a job,” Cooper said.
“Not that you would know. You haven’t worked a damn day in your life,” Dave snapped.
“Nope. And I have a hell of a lot more than you, don’t I?” Cooper taunted him, making sure the man could see the gold Rolex he was sporting.
The man spit as he tried to get words out. He was furious. When Cooper pulled out his wallet and slapped a hundred-dollar bill on the bar and told the waitress to take care of the man’s tab since he probably couldn’t, Dave’s face turned beet-red with fury and embarrassment.
“I don’t need the likes of you taking care of anything for me,” he finally managed to sputter.
Finishing his beer in a long swallow, Cooper took his time before putting the glass down on the counter. The bar was strangely quiet as the patrons watched this scene unfold before them.
“So you’re one of those guys who blames his lot in life on the big man in the top office instead of doing a day’s hard work, huh?” Cooper said, a taunting smile on his lips.
“I like my damn life. I don’t need some rich kid who doesn’t know what work is telling me he’s better than me,” the man blustered.
“I am better than you,” Coop told him with a wink he was sure would enrage the man. Just to add fuel to the fire, he pulled out a wad of cash and threw it at the man’s feet. “Here’s some spending money for you. Obviously you need the cash more than I do since I have a mountain of it back home.”
“I’m going to enjoy kicking your ass, boy,” Dave said, tossing his beer bottle behind him in his rage. Though he did look down at the cash longingly. Cooper would have laughed, if he had been capable of it at that moment.
His brothers didn’t even flinch at the hundreds lying on the filthy floor, money that would be swallowed up the second the boys stepped away.
“I’d like to see you try,” Cooper said with just enough of a mocking glow to his eyes to really infuriate the man. “Follow me.”
His muscles were coiled and he was more than ready. He headed toward the door. He could do it in the bar or flatten this guy outside. Either way was good with him.
“You gonna leave the convoy behind, or do you need your brothers to save your ass?” the man taunted.
The fact that this piece of garbage was questioning his honor infuriated Cooper even more. He took a second before answering, not even turning around to face the drunkard.
“You obviously don’t know me at all if you think I need any help kicking your flabby ass,” Cooper told him. “Chicken ass,” he then mumbled, knowing it would push this piece of trash over the limit.
The air stirred against his ears, alerting Cooper of the attack coming toward him. They’d barely made it out the front doors before the man swung, thinking that because Cooper was ahead of him he would get a cheap shot from behind.
He wasn’t counting on Cooper’s rage, or his soberness.
Spinning around, Coop threw all his weight behind a punishing blow that made brutal contact with the drunk’s face. The resounding crack of Coop’s knuckles breaking the man’s nose echoed across the parking lot.
The man spit blood as he tried to get up before falling back to the ground. Cooper didn’t give him a chance. In half a heartbeat, he was on the ground, slugging the man again and again.
“Should we stop this?” Maverick asked, leaning against the outside wall of the bar as patrons poured out to watch the fistfight.
“Not a chance. Hell, I’m hoping someone else mouths off so I can get a punch or two thrown in,” Nick mumbled, looking around.
“It’s my turn next,” Ace grumbled.
Maverick held his brother back. “You’ll get your turn,” Maverick promised him.
No one was paying the least attention to the other brothers as the fight in front of them continued on the ground and Dave got in a good punch to Cooper’s face.
Within a couple minutes, though, the fight was over. Dave was knocked out on the ground, and with the show over, the patrons of the bar lost interest and went back inside to their cold beer and stale peanuts. The brothers watched as Cooper slowly stood while spitting out a stream of saliva and touching his swollen lip.
A couple of men picked up Dave and quietly hauled him away. The brothers didn’t even bother watching them go.
“Should we go back in?” Maverick asked.
“Yeah. I’m done with this trash. Maybe there’s another idiot inside looking for a reason to get a nose job,” Cooper said.
Before Nick or Ace could respond, Nick’s phone rang. He looked at the caller ID and sighed. It rang twice more before he answered.
He was silent for a moment as the caller spoke. Then he nodded, though the person couldn’t see him. “Yes, Mom. We’ll be there.”
He hung up. “We have to go back home,” Nick told them. Even without the call, Nick was always the voice of reason.
“I’m not ready to go back there,” Ace said, his eyes downcast.
“I can’t,” Cooper admitted. He couldn’t allow the adrenaline high to stop, because then . . . then, he might actually feel real pain instead of anger.
“It’s time,” Nick said again.
They didn’t want to listen, but they knew their brother was right.
It was like a parade down the green mile as they moved back to the car and piled in. They drove much more slowly toward home than they’d driven away from it, taking their time, none of them speaking.
When they pulled up in front of the large mansion they’d grown up in, they remained in the Jag, none of them wanting to be the first to open their car door. Finally, though, Nick got out, and the others followed. Their passage into the mansion was quiet, their shoulders hunched.
“Where have you been?”
They stopped in the foyer as their uncle Sherman busted down the stairs glaring at them. The urgency in his voice had them terrified. They knew time was running out.
“We had to blow off some steam,” Maverick said, his hands tucked into his pockets as he rocked back and forth on his heels.
“Your father’s been asking for you,” Sherman scolded. “And there isn’t much time left. Your mother will need all of you.”
“We’re sorry,” Cooper said. The others seemed incapable of speech and just nodded their apologies.
Sherman sighed, not one to stay angry for long.
They followed their uncle up the stairs. None of them wanted to walk through that bedroom door. But they did it. Their father, who had once been so strong, was frail and weak now, the cancer taking everything from him, leaving him a shadow of the man he’d always been.
“Come here,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
Slowly, the four boys surrounded the bed, facing the man they would soon lose.
“Time is running out so I can’t mince words,” their father started.
“Dad . . .” Cooper tried to interrupt, but his mother put her hand on his arm.
“Let him speak, son.”
Her voice was so sad that the boys turned to look at her for a moment, their shoulders stiffening before they turned back to their father and waited.
“I’ve done wrong by all of you,” he told them, disappointment on his face. He looked extra long at the blood on Cooper’s eye and sadly shook his head. “All of you.”
“No you haven’t, Dad,” Maverick insisted.
“Yes, I have. You’re men now, but you have no plans for the future. I wanted to give you the world, but you’ve only learned how to take because you haven’t learned how to earn anything. I know you’ll grow into fine men. I have no doubt about it. But please don’t hate me when I’m gone,” he said before he began coughing.
“We would never hate you, Dad,” Nick quickly said.
“You might for a while,” their father told them. “But someday you will thank me. I’m doing what I’ve done because I love you.”
“What are you saying?” Ace asked.
“You’ll know soon, son,” their father said.
“Dad . . .” Maverick began, but their father shut his eyes.
Cooper willed himself to say something, anything to break this awful silence. But he just stood there, anger, sadness, fear flowing through him.
And then it was too late.
Not a sound could be heard in the room when their father stopped breathing. For the last time in each of their lives, the boys shed a tear as they looked down at their deceased father.
Then Cooper turned and walked out. He didn’t stop at the front door. He didn’t stop at the end of the driveway. He kept moving, faster and faster until he was in a full-blown sprint with his gut and sides burning. He tried to outrun the fact that he was a disappointment, that he’d failed his father. What if the man was right? What if he never became half the man his father was? He ran faster.
Still, he wasn’t able to outrun his father’s last words of disappointment . . .
“. . . And for my boys, I leave each of you, Cooper, Nick, Maverick, and Ace, a quarter of my assets, but there is a stipulation . . .”
It had only been a day since the funeral, and none of the boys wanted to be sitting in this uptight lawyer’s office while he read a stupid will. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know what it was going to say anyway.
Their father, of course, had left his fortune to them; that is, what he hadn’t already given them in their enormous trust funds, and to their mother and his brother, Uncle Sherman. They were the only living relatives—well, the only ones they knew about, at least. So this was a waste of all their time.
“Can you get on with this? I have things to do,” Cooper snapped.
“You will learn some respect by the end of this,” Sherman warned Coop.
“Yeah, I get it,” Coop said. “Can I go now? I don’t want to hear the rest.”
“I think you do,” their mother said.
Her sweet voice instantly calmed the boys. They did love their mother, had a great deal of respect for her, and listened when she spoke. But they had hardened through the years, taking for granted what had been given to them.
That was about to change.
“You won’t receive a dime of your inheritance until you’ve proven that you will actually better not only your lives, but the lives of others.”
Cooper spoke first. “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?” He was up on his feet, his chair flying backward with the momentum. His brothers were right behind him.
The world was suddenly spinning and none of them knew how to deal with this latest news.
“If you will shut up and listen, then you will hear the rest,” Sherman told them.
The four young men were obviously upset, but slowly they resumed their seats, all of them except for Cooper, who stood there with his arms crossed, daggers coming from his eyes.
“You have ten years to turn your lives around. At the end of that ten years, if you haven’t proven yourselves self-sufficient, by working hard, being respectful to your mother and your uncle, and bringing something to the society that you live in, then your inheritance will be donated to charity.”
The attorney paused as if he were reluctant to read whatever else was coming next.
“Get on with it,” Ace growled.
“Your mother and I shared a wonderful, beautiful, exciting life together. A man isn’t meant to be alone. He’s meant to love, to share, to grow with a woman who will help guide him through the hardest parts of his life,” the attorney began.
“What in the world are you speaking about?” Maverick snapped.
“Son, this is in your father’s own words, so I would pay attention,” Uncle Sherman said, his tone sad.
Maverick leaned forward, but he didn’t seem to be hearing anything that was being spoken at that moment.
“Shall I continue?” the attorney asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” Cooper said with a wave of his hand.
“You will receive your full inheritance once you marry.”
Dead silence greeted those words as the boys looked at one another, and then at their mother, who had a serene smile on her face.
Finally, Cooper was the one to speak again. “Mom? What in the hell is going on?”
She gave her son a sad smile. “Your father and I have watched the four of you lose your way these past several years. He knew he was dying and he’d run out of time to guide you, shape you. He didn’t want to lose you forever, as I don’t. So he changed the will.”
The boys waited for her to go on, but she sat there silently.
“We’re rich without his money,” Nick pointed out.
She was quiet for several moments. “Yes, Nick, you are,” she finally said.
“Are you going to take away what we already have?” Maverick asked.
“No, I’m not,” Evelyn Armstrong told them all. “You don’t have to get your inheritance, though it makes your trust funds look like pennies, as you know. But getting the money isn’t the point,” she said with a sigh.
“What is the point?” Cooper asked, trying desperately not to yell, but only because his mother was in the room.
“The point is to grow up. You need to grow up,” Evelyn said as she looked each of the boys in the eyes before turning to Sherman.
“Your father wants you to be good men. He’s asking you to show your mother that you are,” Sherman added.
“So, even in death, Father wants us to jump through hoops?” Ace snapped.
“No, son, even in death your father wants you to grow into the men you are meant to be,” Evelyn told them.
“I don’t need his stupid money. I have plenty of it that he’s already given me and besides that I have my own plans. If he thinks I’m such a screwup, then he can keep it all,” Cooper thundered.
“Agreed,” Nick snapped.
“I’m not doing anything because someone is trying to force it upon me,” Maverick said, joining his brothers.
“If he thinks we’re such screwups, he can go to hell,” Ace said, pushing it a bit too far.
“Ace . . .” Coop whispered.
“Save it, Cooper. You’re always trying to be the leader, but this is crap. Yeah, I’m the baby of the family, but that just means that I’ve had to try to make up for every mistake that you guys have already made. I’m done with it,” Ace bellowed.
“Calm down, son,” Sherman said, rising and resting a hand on Ace’s shoulder.
Ace yanked away from Sherman and then moved toward the door.
“I love you all no matter what you choose, but I hope you’ll listen to your father’s last words and know he does this because he loves you,” Evelyn said quietly, stopping Ace for a moment. Then his eyes hardened.
“I’m out of here.”
Ace was the first to leave. He rushed from the attorney’s office, fury heating the very air around him.
Cooper stood there dumfounded. What was happening? They’d not only lost their father, but they’d all just found out that they had never been good enough in his eyes.
“To hell with Dad—and to hell with this place.”
Cooper followed his brother, though Ace was already long gone. It didn’t matter. Cooper would prove himself, but he’d do it because he wanted to. He would never be someone’s puppet—not even his father’s.
What in the world was he doing at the lavish Anderson wedding of Crew Storm and his bride, Haley?
He didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be around anyone, actually, but he feared his friends were going to call in the National Guard at any minute if he didn’t come out and at least pretend he was still somewhat normal.
It had only been six months since his father’s passing. There’d been zero word from Ace, and though he talked to his other two brothers, the conversations were short. All of them were dealing with their demons and the final words of their father.
He hadn’t spoken more than a few words to his mother, which he knew was terrible, but he couldn’t see her while he was like this.
“It’s really good to see you out, Coop.”
Mark Anderson stood next to him as they scanned the merry crowd celebrating all around them. Cooper couldn’t even try to smile. His lips just weren’t turning up.
“I haven’t felt much like celebrating lately,” Cooper admitted to his friend.
“I understand that. I don’t know how I would survive it if my dad died. The man’s meddling and always in my face, but I love him. I think the old guy is too damn ornery to let go anyway. He’s gonna outlive us all,” Mark said with a chuckle.
“Yes, I agree with you. Joseph is a force to be reckoned with,” Cooper said, his lips twitching the slightest bit. It was almost a smile.
“Are you enjoying your new job?” Mark asked.
Cooper paused as he thought about the question. He was doing exactly what his father had wanted, even if he was doing it in spite of his dad. He was working for a small airline, using the skill that had been nothing but a hobby for him up until recently.
“I don’t know about enjoying the actual job and the paperwork that comes with it, but yes, flying is what I love. I can’t seem to get enough of it. Who knew that playing with planes my whole life would turn into a career,” Cooper said.
“Even without your inheritance, you’re a very wealthy man, Cooper. It isn’t as if you have to work. But before you say something, I know it isn’t about a paycheck. I don’t have to work myself. But choosing to work despite my fortune is a matter of pride,” Mark told him.
“I didn’t have much pride,” Cooper said with a shrug. “Or at least I didn’t think I did. Not until that reading of my father’s will. I guess he was right in the sense that we have all sort of skated through life. But he raised us that way. I don’t know what he expected.”
“I think when people know their time is coming to a close, they start to get scared,” Mark said. “Not that I would know from personal experience, but now that I’m a father, I get scared. I want my kids to grow into fine men and women. They work on the ranch, and they even go into the Anderson offices and are learning there.”
“Aren’t your kids really young?” Cooper asked.
“Yeah, but I was a bit spoiled myself. I don’t want that for my kids,” Mark told him.
“Well, I don’t know what earning only a couple grand a month proves, but my father seemed to think that would make me a man, so now instead of flying for fun, I fly for an airline. It’s not so bad. It just all pisses me off a little,” Cooper said.
“The anger will eventually drain,” Mark told him.
“I don’t know . . .”
Cooper stopped talking as he scanned the crowd. Coming to the party had been a very bad idea. Maybe it was time for him to take his leave. He wasn’t fit company to be around at the moment.
Just as his scan was almost finished, something caught his eye. He stopped and zeroed in on a woman in the corner, sitting by herself.
Mark continued to speak, but Cooper didn’t hear what his friend was saying. He was too focused on the blonde woman in the tight red dress who was holding her drink close to her like it was a lifeline.
She nervously glanced around the room, not meeting his gaze, before she looked back down again. Cooper was shocked at the stirring he felt.
It had been a long time since he’d felt any emotion other than anger.
“Who is that?” he asked Mark, interrupting his friend mid-sentence.
Mark followed his gaze and looked at the woman for several moments.
“I have no idea. Haven’t seen her before,” Mark said. Then he smiled. “But I have a feeling you’re about to find out.”
“Don’t overanalyze this, Mark. I’m just curious who she is,” Cooper snapped.
“No judgments here,” Mark assured him with a pat on the shoulder.
“I might like to screw the ladies, but I won’t give my father the pleasure of marrying one,” he said with a little growl.
“What does that mean?” Mark asked, looking a little lost.
“My father seemed to think a man’s life isn’t complete without a wife. I think all women search for a man with the deepest pockets,” he said.
Mark gave him a sad look and shook his head. “Not all women are like that. I married a good one.”
“Then you got the last,” Cooper said with conviction. Then he walked away.
He didn’t know why, but he had to meet this woman who was trying to hide away.
It was sex—that was all. And sex was worth throwing down a few dollars for, he thought with a cynical smile.
Stormy Halifax would have given anything for the ability to fade into the background. She tried in vain to squeeze herself back even farther into the corner as she watched the designer-clad couples swirling around on the dance floor, all of them laughing and completely at home surrounded by the glamour and glitz of the night.
Only American royalty like the Andersons could afford to pull off a wedding like this one. Stormy would bet her entire bank account, which actually wasn’t that much, that she couldn’t have afforded even a single flower among the many placed so elegantly in the hundreds of exquisitely designed centerpieces.
She eyed the door longingly. Just a few more hours . . . How had she ever let Lindsey convince her it was a good idea to crash the society wedding of the century? If Stormy made it through the evening undetected, she swore she would never listen to her best friend again.
Of course, how many times in her life had she had that same thought? Too many times to count.
At least she sort of looked like she fit in with the crowd—or somewhat fit in. That meant she looked nothing like herself on this beautiful summer night in Seattle.
Lindsey had insisted she wear the ridiculously tight red dress she currently felt plastered to her skin, and her friend had layered on so much makeup that Stormy felt like a clown. With the dyed blonde hair taking the place of her naturally brown hair, she barely recognized herself. When she had gotten a look at herself in one of the gilded mirrors hanging on the walls of the banquet hall, Stormy could hardly believe she was staring at her own reflection. The girl in the mirror almost looked like she belonged at the lavish wedding. Almost.
At least she looked old enough to drink. Even if she wouldn’t be for a few more weeks. She reached up and clasped the chain around her neck, feeling more secure, if only slightly. She never left home without the simple piece of jewelry she’d designed herself.
Stormy scanned the room for Lindsey. Only the flies on the wall would know what excitement her friend was off having. Lindsey certainly wasn’t hiding in a corner somewhere.
Enough was enough. With or without Lindsey, Stormy needed an exit strategy. She gathered up her glittering clutch, slipped her feet back into the ridiculously high stiletto heels she had borrowed from Lindsey, and then covertly tried to make her way to the door.
She was mere inches from freedom when she felt a solid, masculine hand touch her bare shoulder. Her breath caught in her throat and she froze. Busted. Okay, play it cool, Stormy. Just smile, pretend like you belong here for five more seconds, and then make a run for it.
“Are you lost?”
The deep baritone of the voice sent a shiver down her spine. She really wanted to turn and look at him, but at the same time she didn’t. Cowardice wasn’t normally one of her traits, but she was in uncharted territory and she was trying to flee.
“No. But thank you.” She took another step.
“Are you refusing to have a conversation with me?”
Now she seemed rude. His voice didn’t change, but she could swear there was a challenge in it. Dammit! Stormy couldn’t resist a challenge.
Stormy finally turned, and when she looked up, she found herself gazing into a set of sea-green eyes with the longest eyelashes she’d ever witnessed on a man before. She found herself speechless.
“Let’s dance,” he said, holding out a hand, not concerned by her lack of vocal abilities.
This wasn’t a good idea.
“I don’t think so. I really need to go,” she told him. But he didn’t remove his outstretched hand, and she didn’t want to pull away and call attention to them having this conversation.
What if the people standing around realized she was crashing this wedding? She was going to murder her best friend if she ever found her again.
“One dance won’t take long.” The deep timbre of his voice made her stomach stir. Uh-oh.
His dark hair was rumpled, and his stark white shirt, unbuttoned at the top, showed a nice view of his tanned chest. And those shoulders—oh, those shoulders—looked as if they could carry a roof trestle on them. There was a bit of youthfulness in his face, but he had to be a few years older than she was.
What was one dance going to hurt? The racing of her blood proved she wouldn’t dislike it. Heck, even if she were caught, it might just be worth it to have this man’s arms around her for a few minutes.
He said nothing else as he waited, confident she would cave. He was right. She watched a smile lift the corners of his mouth as he moved a little closer, and she knew she was a goner. His smell was wafting over her, a mixture of spice and leather. She almost giggled as the verse Sugar and spice and everything nice flitted through her frazzled brain cells. Wait! That was for girls, not for drool-worthy men.
“I guess one dance wouldn’t hurt,” she finally said.
The shiver that rushed through her had nothing to do with the warm evening air. She wished she could say it was chilly out.
Without saying anything more, the stranger leaned down and took her hand in his slightly work-roughened fingers. He pulled her toward him, casually wrapping his arm around her waist, his hand resting on her now trembling rib cage as he led her toward the overflowing dance floor. Without hesitation, he turned her, pulled her tightly against his hard body, and began swaying to the music.
She couldn’t even concentrate on the song that was playing, he was holding her so close. Her heart was beating out of control. Wasn’t this something she’d fantasized about many times on those lonely nights that she lay in bed after putting aside her favorite romance book?
She’d close her eyes and picture a handsome man finding her sitting alone somewhere. He’d have a smile that could light up a darkened room, but his gleaming eyes would look no farther than her.
As she began to relax and enjoy the moment, a woman’s laughter made her tense all over again. Panic flooded her. What if this really was a dream—the dream she wanted to come true so bad? Maybe someone had even spiked that second glass of champagne she knew she should have turned down? This was too unbelievable to be real. After all, men like this man didn’t dance with wallflowers like her.
As her arms rested around the back of his neck, she reached for her own hand and gave it a quick pinch. She knew she looked ridiculous, but she had to be sure this was real. The little jolt of pain drew a quiet squeak from her lips. Oh yes, she was awake. She didn’t know whether to be elated or terrified by that fact.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, leaning back, those green eyes gazing into hers, just as she’d always imagined.
“Yes.” The word was barely a whisper. Her cheeks flamed as he looked at her, a knowing gleam in his eyes. She was busted and she knew it, but there was nothing else she could do, so she continued to sway in his arms.
“I’ve been watching you for the past ten minutes. I couldn’t keep my eyes off you,” he told her.
Oh my! This man was either incredibly smooth, or she really had conjured up her dream man. Either way, she decided to enjoy this moment to its fullest. She found herself gazing at his lips as he spoke. He had beautiful lips—strong, firm, masculine, and turned up in the most appealing way.
“Thank you,” she told him, feeling like a fool as she uttered the words.
“Are you here for the bride or the groom?” he asked.
The dreaded question should have panicked her, but she was almost in a trance now and couldn’t help but answer honestly. “Neither. I snuck in with my friend. I can’t find her now.”
His eyes crinkled, though still, there was something restless about him that she couldn’t quite interpret. Something was wrong, but before she could analyze that, the feel of him pressing against her wiped anything other than desire away from her thoughts. Stormy didn’t have a clue who in the world she was right now. She certainly wasn’t this woman dancing with this man.
She’d had sex once before, two years prior with her high school sweetheart. That had been a disaster and she’d never tried it again.
Dancing with this man was making her think maybe another try wouldn’t be so bad. Did that make her an awful person? She didn’t know.
When he stopped moving, she felt her throat close. She wasn’t ready for him to release her. But he pulled back anyway, and where she’d felt his warmth down her entire front, she now felt cold. Then she noticed the music had stopped.
Maybe it was midnight and time for Cinderella to go home.
“Let’s take a walk.”
He began leading her away from the dance floor before she responded. His confidence was overwhelming her, but it didn’t matter. There was no hesitation on her part as joy filled her. Later, she might ask herself why that was, but for now, she was in her dream world.
The sounds of the party began fading as they moved away from the tents and lights and then down a trail.
As he slowly walked next to her, with trees on either side of them and the moonlight barely filtering through, Stormy wondered if she should be afraid. As his hand caressed her lower back, though, all she felt was an overwhelming sense of desire and . . . rightness. Not knowing why it felt right didn’t matter.
She soon found herself on a sandy beach, her shoes dangling from her fingers as she looked out at Puget Sound, the waves splashing gently against the shore. There was very little breeze and the full moon gave everything a soft light.
“This is incredible. I can’t imagine being so lucky as to live here,” she told the man. That’s when she realized she didn’t even know his name. Should she ask him? Or would that break their moment together? She sort of liked the mystery of it all.
“I think Joseph’s place is a little too close to the hustle and bustle of Seattle. But I do love the Sound. It’s a great waterway.”
“Are you here very often?” Was she being nosy now?
“Yes. I don’t live too far away.” He stopped walking and she stood next to him, enjoying the clasp of his fingers in hers. “Sit with me.”
He again didn’t wait for a response, simply led her to a log and then sat down, pulling her to his side as they gazed out at the water. He put an arm around her and the feel of his hard muscles enveloping her gave her both a sense of peace and panic at the same time.
She tried to remember a time she’d ever felt so much agitation at just the mere touch of a man, but she couldn’t think of a single moment. Only this man—only right now.
“I don’t live far away either,” she finally said, the silence too intimate. Should they exchange information? Was that what she wanted? Or what he wanted?
When he was silent for several moments, her brain spun. She began wondering if she was being a fool. This could be simply a case of a man trying to hook up at a wedding. It happened all the time, didn’t it? Did she really want to be that girl the guys laughed about in the morning?
She realized she didn’t actually care what gossip might spur from this.
Maybe she should be more worried. But how often in her life had she done something reckless? Not very often at all. What this man was stirring up inside of her she couldn’t understand and didn’t want to stop feeling.
“Where exactly are you from?” he asked.
The question helped slow her racing heart. “I’ve lived all over the world—in my youth, mostly third world kind of accommodations.”
That had the man silent for a moment. Then he raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
“You can’t just leave me like that. Go on,” he told her.
“My mom and dad were missionaries until I was about ten, then they worked modest jobs after that,” she began. “I was born in Portland, Oregon, but I lived abroad with my parents for half of my life, then in the Portland area after that. After I turned eighteen, I decided to move to Seattle.”
“Now you have me curious of all the places you’ve been.”
“Gosh, let me think,” she said. “Africa, South America, Asia for a short time, and a few more places.” Noticing she had his undivided attention bolstered her confidence and made her want to keep sharing. It was sort of nice.
“Of all the places you’ve lived, which one was your favorite?” His fingers were playing with her hair, making little flutters in her stomach.
“I can honestly say I’ve loved every place I’ve lived, save maybe a few apartments I’ve had in the city. But of all the places . . .” Stormy looked up at the starry sky to recall the fondness of a distant place in her memory. “I’d have to say it was Kosovo.”
“Kosovo? Where exactly is that? In the Mediterranean somewhere, right?”
“No, it’s not exactly in the Mediterranean, as it’s landlocked on all sides, but it’s right next door to Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania. It’s a fantastic place. Incredibly dangerous at the time, but it was cool,” she began. “I mean, one minute you’d be drinking Turkish coffee at a café and hear a car driving by playing Euro dance pop on the stereo, while the next car to pass would be blasting dance music in Arabic. The country was a collision of Western and Eastern European culture, with distinct flavors from Turkey and the Middle East. Being a Westerner, of course, gave me instant celebrity status, which as a preteen, I didn’t mind so much.”
“That’s always nice for a teen,” he said as he pulled her even closer. The thing was, for Stormy, it felt right. Somehow she was connecting more with this stranger than any other person she’d ever been with before. “What do you do, Cinderella?”
She smiled at the name. Hadn’t she been thinking about how this all felt like a dream, like she was going to disappear when the clock struck twelve? His words fit how she was feeling.
“My job isn’t interesting,” she hedged, and then she found herself playing with the locket hanging around her neck. “But I love to design jewelry,” she admitted while her cheeks flamed the tiniest bit. Why had she told him that?
His fingers clasped the locket she’d been clutching as he moved to study it. “This is beautiful,” he told her. “Did you make it?”
“Yes,” she shyly admitted.
“You have a real talent,” he told her, making her more nervous. Why did this man’s opinion matter at all? It shouldn’t. But somehow it did.
“It’s just a silly dream of mine. It can’t lead anywhere,” she told him with a laugh.
He let go of the locket and gripped her chin, forcing her to look at him. She was voiceless as his gaze held hers captive.
“Dreams are meant to become reality. Don’t ever think you can’t do something just because it’s difficult.”
She knew there was a story behind his words. She desperately wanted to know what that story was. “I think it’s time for you to share something about yourself.” she said, very aware of how close his lips were to hers.
“No. I think we’ve talked enough for now,” he said with a slow smile that melted her from the inside out.
Then she was moving. Effortlessly, he lifted her and sat her across his lap as he gazed down into her eyes. She was lost as his head slowly lowered, the moonlight glinting in his sparkling eyes.
“I’m going to kiss you,” he said, waiting only a moment to give her a chance to say no.
Maybe she should refuse. After all, she didn’t even know the guy’s name. But she didn’t want to refuse him or deny herself. She wanted to see if his kiss was going to be even better than his touch.
His head descended and then those exquisite lips of his were on hers, and she couldn’t think anymore. The kiss was better than she could have ever expected. Her mouth opened to his, and he was caressing her in a way no one had ever done before. She felt the gentle touch of his tongue trace the edges of her lips before surging forward and commanding her mouth.
Shivers traveled through her frame as she rubbed her body against this man, trying to relieve the ache she didn’t quite understand. When he pulled away, she leaned against him, not wanting the connection to end.
“My boat is right over there against the dock. Say the word and we can go and have . . . a drink or . . . something more.”
His fingers were lightly trailing up and down her back and his eyes shone down at her clearly, the full moon making it seem more like dusk instead of closer to midnight.
This is where she should tell him thank you, but no thank you. Instead she felt herself nodding as she looked up at him. “I’d like . . . a drink,” she said.
He hesitated a moment longer, and Stormy couldn’t read the look in his eyes. But right then, she knew that she didn’t want him to change his mind. Because if he continued walking her to the boat, she was going to do the first seriously reckless thing of her life—she was going to sleep with a stranger.
Then he smiled.
“Right this way.” He stood with her still in his arms, and then he let her go so that her feet touched the sand. She hadn’t realized she’d risen to her toes in an effort to taste even more of his kiss.
Excitement and a feeling of trepidation warred within her. But as her fingers remained tightly bound with his, the excitement won out. They made their way down a dock lined with several beautiful watercrafts. Her sexy mystery man led her to one of the boats and she stood before it and gasped.
“This is what you call a boat?” she asked, hesitating before stepping to the plank that led onto it.
“Yes.” He seemed confused.
She suddenly giggled. Who in the world was this man?
“This is bigger than my place,” she told him. If her night ended because he realized she wasn’t one of the rich and famous, then so be it. She could only fake so much about herself and being impressed with the giant yacht in front of her was out of her control.
“Yeah, I got this several years ago. I guess it’s a bit extreme,” he said with a shrug as he shifted on his feet.
He wasn’t running away from her yet. That was good.
The sleek yacht spanned at least a hundred feet, and it wasn’t even the biggest at the massive docks. That’s what was scary about this world of wealth she’d stumbled upon. But the part above the water appeared to have two floors. She didn’t know what was below the water’s line.
Finally, she allowed him to lead her on board, where she looked at the red hardwood floors and lush furniture. Once inside the cabin she couldn’t even tell they were on a boat anymore, unless she concentrated on the gentle rocking motion she could barely feel.
“I didn’t know boats had such large rooms,” she said nervously as he led her to a living area.
He guided her to a comfortable chair and then stepped over to a big walnut bar with a giant mirror and shelves behind it.
“I don’t like to feel closed in,” he said before chuckling.
She had to wonder what he found so funny. But she wasn’t going to ask.
“I noticed you with champagne earlier. I’ll get you another,” he told her.
In only moments, Green Eyes was sitting next to her, handing her a beautiful crystal champagne flute. She clutched its long stem and immediately took a swallow. She’d had a few glasses at the wedding reception, but the effects were wearing off, and she didn’t want to chicken out on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
They sat together and she sipped her champagne, enjoying the quiet of the boat. Her eyes to roamed the yacht’s opulent cabin and occasionally stole a glance at the man who’d brought her there. When she’d emptied her glass, he refilled it. She leaned back and smiled at him. She wasn’t sure what to do next, so her lips were probably twitching a little.
“Maybe it’s time we exchanged names,” he said after the long silence.
She was feeling a nice buzz now and decided to play it bold. “I don’t think so,” she told him.
He turned his head to the side and his brow wrinkled. “Why not?”
“Because I’m enjoying the mystery of all this. I’ve never done anything like it before.” She clutched her hands in her lap and twisted her fingers, but then forced herself to stop. She didn’t want him to see how unsophisticated she truly was.
“Done what before?” he asked.
“Gone off with a man I’ve just met.”
“There’s nothing wrong with taking a walk or having a drink together.” He scooted closer to her, his fingers rubbing along her bare knee. She was grateful she wasn’t wearing stockings. She wanted nothing between his touch and her flesh.
“Ah, but that’s not all we’re going to do—is it, Green Eyes?” she said. Damn. Her cheeks instantly flushed after she threw those saucy words at him.
She was playing with fire, and she hoped to get burned.
“I hope not,” he said after a moment’s silence. And then he was smiling wider than the Cheshire Cat.
Stormy sensed the atmosphere change in the room, and she felt a little lightheaded as the sexual tension swirled around her. Green Eyes set down his glass, took the empty one from her fingers, and then stood up, pulling her straight into his arms.
This time he didn’t hesitate when he kissed her—this time, it was fast and hard, and her knees gave out on her, but he was right there to catch her.
And she knew she’d made the right decision.
As the yacht slowly rocked on the water, Cooper Armstrong looked over at the beautiful woman sleeping naked beside him—perfection on his bed. Just an hour before, they’d had the best sex of his entire life. That was certainly saying something since he hadn’t exactly been a saint in his days.
His Cinderella had tried to insist on leaving right after, but it had already been four in the morning. He’d promised to get her a taxi at dawn. Yet, he was reconsidering her leaving so soon. He was even harder now than he’d been an hour ago and he wanted her again. He wasn’t even sure one more time would be enough.
From the moment he’d spotted this woman at the wedding, he’d been feeling all sorts of emotions other than rage from his father’s passing and the reading of the will. He wasn’t quite ready to have her depart and let the good feeling end. Who was this woman? And more importantly, what was she doing to him?
From that very first glance into her somewhat terrified deep brown eyes and at the moue of her sensual pink lips, he’d had to walk over to her, had to see how she’d feel in his arms. Maybe the two of them would make love one more time, and then he’d be able to let her go. He didn’t have time for a relationship, and he sure as hell didn’t want one. Women couldn’t be trusted—not when he had a bank account that made him more attractive in their eyes.
He knew he was a catch. It wasn’t arrogance, it was fact. When a person had his looks, his wallet, and his ambition, it made him the perfect target. But the women of the world didn’t know that he wasn’t taking the bait. His goal was always to get what he wanted from a woman, give her the pleasure of his masterful bedroom skills, and then quickly slip away before the hook could slide into his flesh and snare him.
Even as he had this thought, he began running his hand lightly down his mystery woman’s sleek body, the span of his fingers almost covering the width of her back.
She began to stir, but didn’t quite wake, not even when he turned her so her luscious breasts were fully available to his touch. Running his finger over each one in turn, he smiled as they instantly hardened for him. She shifted, and he knew the best way to rouse her from her sleep.
He bent down and licked one nipple before sucking it into his mouth and gently clamping his teeth over it. She groaned, making his erection pulse painfully. As Cooper kissed his way back up to her neck, she reached for him, and he took her red lips with his. He could worship this woman’s body night and day and still never have enough of her.
That was a sobering thought. And he didn’t want to sober up—not yet.
When she trailed her hand down his abs and cupped his manhood, he lurched upward into a sitting position. He was so close to releasing right then and there. How had that happened?
“It’s almost morning,” he mumbled.
“Um . . . morning,” she replied somewhat shyly.
“I know I promised you a taxi when you woke up, but I had another idea first,” he told her, his fingers whispering along her skin.
She moaned again, and he was hopeful she would agree.
“I need a few minutes,” she told him, and he nearly panicked as she sat up. He wasn’t ready for this to end yet.
“Okay,” he told her, and he was the one wanting to whimper when she climbed from his bed and walked into his bathroom.
He lay back on the bed and reached down to squeeze his erection, trying to lessen the infernal pulsing. It didn’t help. When he heard the shower come on, he sat back up. Should he follow her or not?
When he couldn’t stand it anymore, he jumped up from the bed, opened the bathroom door, and grinned as steam hit him full in the face. She obviously enjoyed very hot showers. But he could make it even hotter.
The mirror had already fogged up, and when he drew the curtain aside, the sight of this woman, with water glistening off her body, had him dripping in excitement. He just stood there for a moment as she rubbed her slim fingers down her breasts, across the flat plane of her stomach, and dipped into the folds of her womanhood while cleaning herself.
Enough of this watching!
Cooper stepped inside the shower with her, and when she opened those dark eyes of hers, which were already filled with wanton delight, he nearly fell to his knees.
“You are so damn sexy,” he groaned, pushing her back against the coolness of the tile wall and making her gasp.
“Only with you,” she admitted.
That knowledge was the most intense aphrodisiac ever. He moved his hands oh so slowly from her hips, up her sides, and around the edges of her breasts. His magic fingers came close to her swollen nipples, but not close enough. She groaned her displeasure at the way he was teasing her.
After looking into her expressive eyes, he finally let his thumbs glance over those hard peaks before sliding his hands to her stomach and circling them behind her to squeeze the cheeks of her firm ass.
“Kiss me,” she said, and she reached behind his head and pulled him to her.
He was more than happy to oblige.
Running his tongue over her lips, he quickly parted them and thrust inside, in just the way he wanted to thrust into her heat. She drew him more tightly to her and returned his kiss with the same intense passion.
A cry of pleasure escaped her beautiful lips when he slid a hand back around and rubbed his fingers against her wet heat, and then pinched her little bundle of nerves, making her shake.
“I need to taste you,” he said, after ripping his mouth away from her lips. He licked his way down her chest and dropped to his knees.
Gripping her thighs, he pushed them apart and looked up at her smooth perfection, her sweet folds gleaming with water and pleasure. He ran his hand up and didn’t stop until he’d buried two fingers deep within her.
Only then did he lean forward to suck the most sensitive part of her into his mouth, flicking his tongue repeatedly against it as his fingers found a perfect rhythm of pumping in and out of her.
His midnight woman clutched his head tightly, and her cries told him she was coming closer and closer to release. Yes, he wanted to give her pleasure—over and over and over again.
So he didn’t stop pleasing her with his fingers and tongue until she screamed and almost crumpled right there in front of him.
Cooper stood up quickly, more than ready to be inside this woman. Bracing his foot on the tiled shower bench, he lifted one of her legs and draped it over his so his hardness was poised at her entrance, her thighs spread wide. He gripped himself and rubbed his arousal along the open seam of her pink core.
“Ohh, that’s so good. Please . . . more,” she moaned, leaning her head against the shower wall.
Moving his manhood up and down over her swollen nub a few times more, he waited until he was coated in her juices, then he poised himself for entry.
“Open your eyes,” he commanded her.
She opened them just a little, and, after pulling her up, he slid all the way inside her tight heat.
Her mouth opened in a gasp and he took the opportunity to thrust his tongue inside in perfect rhythm with the way he was plunging into her body, all while gripping her delectable derrière.
The sound of their wet bodies slapping against each other was driving Cooper wild. He sped up and almost poured his seed into her when she tightened around him again. She gave another long and impassioned cry.
He stopped thrusting and held her as she shuddered in ecstasy, and he gently caressed her mouth and squeezed her buttocks. When she slumped against him again, he pulled from her. An act of amazing willpower.
“I’m so worn out,” she said, leaning her head against his shoulder.
“It’s not over, beautiful, not yet,” he whispered into her ear.
“I can’t do any more,” she told him.
“Oh, yes, yes, you can,” he assured her.
Her eyes flew up, and he smiled at her before he turned her around and pressed his arousal against the exquisite cushion of her ass.
“Grip the edge of the bench,” he told her as he pushed against her upper back.
She leaned down, leaving her derrière up in the air. Dropping to his knees, he bit each of those cheeks in turn before soothing the red spots with his tongue, and then he stood again and rested his pulsing erection in the valley she was presenting to him, enjoying how perfect the deep red looked against her light skin.
With his foot, he pushed her legs apart—wider—wider—even wider. When she was fully opened up to him, he reached around and found her still-swollen nub, which he stroked a few times, making her twitch against him.
With his other hand he guided himself down the middle of her ass until he reached her core, and then he thrust back inside her. Now it was time for them both to feel pleasure.
She groaned as he moved his hand between her folds, up her belly to her tender nipples, and then back again. He continued caressing her with one hand while gripping her hip with the other, thrusting and thrusting.
“Come for me one more time, baby,” he told her as he felt his release drawing nearer.
He flicked his fingers against her bud and she screamed as she convulsed around him so intensely that he almost reached orgasm without any movement at all. But he had to move. Pushing deep inside her, he released a hot stream of pleasure, pulsing over and over again until he was entirely drained.
When he could finally take a step back, Cooper felt lost pulling away from her heat. And she nearly collapsed before him, but he was able to catch her.
“That was . . . it was . . . I don’t even know how . . .” She was clearly at a loss for words.
“It was perfect,” he told her as he lifted her in his arms and then stepped from the shower. He grabbed a couple of towels before carrying her back to his room.
He dried her off before laying her down gently on the bed, and he quickly dried himself. Then he joined her, pulling her back into his arms. He wasn’t willing to let her go just yet. Or anytime soon, for that matter.
He’d be careful, he assured himself. This was only sex—just really, really good sex. The thought didn’t appease him like it should have as he finally closed his eyes and fell into an exhausted slumber.
Never before had Stormy had to do the walk of shame, but as she grabbed her tiny handbag and slowly crept away from Green Eyes’ bedroom, she glanced back over her shoulder and took in a deep breath.
Dang, the man was good-looking—beyond good-looking, actually, especially now, with stubble on his strong jawline and his muscled arm thrown up above his head, the blankets resting very low on his beautiful hips. Just a few more inches . . .
No, she didn’t need to entertain that thought. This was a man she would never see again. Their only connection was the Anderson wedding—a wedding she’d crashed. Her one night of debauchery couldn’t cause any repercussions.
When she was on the upper deck of his boat, she peeked out to see whether anyone was around. How paranoid was that? It was about eight in the morning and the wedding reception had gone on long into the night. Everyone was most likely asleep and cruising for a champagne bruising.
Still, she was going to have to trek back up the trail they’d come down the night before, sneak out to the front gate—which had seemed to be a mile from the Anderson castle—and then pray that it was open. The last thing she wanted to do was trudge back to the house and beg someone to let her out.
They’d know exactly what she’d been doing. And even though they had no idea who she was and she would never see them again, her embarrassment would be incalculable. She knew it shouldn’t matter, but she cared about what people thought of her.
Stormy made it to the top of the trail and then peered out at the house, surprised to see activity in the backyard. Trucks were there hauling things away and the yard was almost back to normal, or what she assumed was normal, after that enormous party. Wow! These Anderson people moved really fast.
Putting her head down, she walked as quickly as her body-hugging little red dress would allow. She made no eye contact with anyone as she hurried along.
The boisterous voice startled her so much, she dropped her purse and jumped into the air. As she came back down, off balance, the heel on her shoe snapped, and after wobbling for a moment, she landed hard on her rear end.
“I’m so sorry, darling,” the man said—a freaking giant.
He approached quickly, moving far faster than she would think a man his age could. Bending down, he reached for her hand and easily tugged her back to her feet, where she teetered on the broken shoe.
She had no doubt that this was the famous Joseph Anderson, and she fully understood his reputation as a man to whom no one could ever say no.
“Don’t worry about it. I was in my own world,” she said, looking way up at his concerned expression. He had to be many,many inches over six feet. She only stood five feet six—in heels, and she was now short one of those. His silver hair only made him more distinguished in her opinion, and the twinkle in his surprisingly sharp blue eyes made her instantly inclined to trust him.
“Come on inside and we’ll get you fixed up,” he insisted as he pulled her toward the house. She stumbled behind him.
Uh-oh, maybe she could imagine telling him no after all. She wasn’t going into his house. Not a chance. She had to get away before Green Eyes awoke.
“Oh, no. I was just getting ready to leave,” she said, trying without success to tug against the beast of a man.
“I can’t send you off without making sure you’re all right, not after causing you to fall,” Joseph said.
“I promise you, I’m okay. I really just want to get going now,” she said as she continued to stumble along after him.
He stopped and looked at her, and Stormy’s cheeks flushed at what he must be thinking. He had to know she’d just walked away from someone’s bed. He must be wondering which guy it had been. Maybe he was worried about it being one of his kin. For all she knew, Green Eyes was related to Joseph. The man had sported a really nice boat that was docked on the Anderson pier.
“I’m Joseph Anderson, by the way,” he said, releasing his protective grip on her hand. It seemed as though he expected her to now introduce herself. Something she absolutely didn’t want to do.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Anderson. As I said, I’m doing just fine, so I’ll be on my way,” she said as she retreated. The first thing she did was remove her shoes and grip them tightly in one hand.
“Where’s your car parked, Miss . . . ?” He trailed off, obviously waiting for her to give her name again.
“I rode here with a friend. I’ve called a cab, and it’s picking me up at the gate, so I’d best hurry,” she said. She hadn’t yet called the damned cab, but she was planning to as soon as she escaped from the intimidating Anderson patriarch.
“Then I’ll walk you to the gate,” Joseph said.
This walk of shame just kept on getting worse and worse. Now the man was going to catch her in a lie. Her humiliation was complete.
“Well, I haven’t actually called the cab yet. I was just getting ready to when I ran into you. So I had best get going and do that. By the time I get to the gate, the cab will be waiting for me,” she said with a sheepish laugh.
“Nonsense, young lady. If you were a guest at the party, I insist on having my driver give you a ride home,” Joseph said, once again tugging on her arm.
Stormy gasped. “I couldn’t have you do that.”
“I won’t take no for an answer.”
And that was why the man always got his way, she decided.
Within a minute, a black car pulled up; a man emerged from the driver’s side and opened the back door for her. Stormy found herself practically pushed into the car, and the only relief she felt was when the car pulled away from the Anderson mansion.
She didn’t look back to see Joseph reach down and pick up the locket that had dropped from her neck, or the smile he wore as he held it.
All fairy tales must come to an end, and when she got home and walked inside, she was cruelly thrust back into the real world—her carriage was now a pumpkin again, and her glass slipper left behind . . .
Six Years Later
Sitting on the deck of his favorite café in the old neighborhood, Sherman Armstrong leaned back as another roar of thunder sounded high in the sky. He knew he was the very image of the old grandfather resting in his favorite chair while children ran by wondering about him.
He liked that mystery about himself.
He was a stout man, though his body was a bit older and weaker now, and he was forced to use a cane while walking. He had a square jaw, bit too big of a nose, and had sometimes been called Dumbo because of the size of his ears. Yet one thing that was fully working, and sharp as ever, were his bright blue eyes, which showed an inextinguishable youthfulness and a lot of hard-learned wisdom. Life had taught him things that no one and nothing could ever take away.
Though Sherman was an incredibly wealthy man, he didn’t have a large wardrobe. He sat on the café’s deck wearing his favorite blue cardigan. Tomorrow he’d most likely wear the brown one. Those were the only colors he ever selected for his warm, wool sweaters. Of course, he did have a variety of plaid shirts that he mixed with the cardigans. Today he was wearing a green-and-blue one under his sweater.
He’d lived in the house across the street, where apartments now stood, when he was a young buck right out of the military in the sixties. This neighborhood was worn down and sometimes unsafe, but it was where he’d made a life for himself and for his beautiful bride, Betty Sue.
It was the place where he’d raised his family, and it was the place he would continue to visit until he took his last breath. His family had told him it was time to move on, but it never would be—not in his opinion.
“Do you think this storm will hang around for a while?” Sherman asked Joseph. He and Joseph Anderson had been friends since they were in grade school . . . and Sherman valued that friendship more than all the money in his bank account.
“I sure hope so,” Joseph told him.
“Then maybe I will accept your offer for brunch after we finish our coffee. You have a hell of a view from your place,” Sherman said with a laugh.
“That is very true, my friend. Say the word, and my driver will get us out of here,” Joseph told him. Katherine wasn’t allowing him to drive in bad weather anymore, not with his need for speed, and the accident that had almost cost him his life.
Looking across the street, he caught a glimpse of Stormy Halifax as she struggled to push open the doors to the apartment complex she lived in—the wind fighting her each step of the way. He had begun to stand to assist her when she managed to push through to the sidewalk.
She didn’t pause, looking to be in a hurry as she splashed her nice clean work clothes while rushing through the puddles of water to get to her waiting taxi.
Sitting back down, Sherman smiled and lifted his hand. A frown marred his forehead when she didn’t look over. He watched her bend to open the car door, but suddenly she popped back up and then smiled and waved.
It was a tradition. She’d been living across the street for three years, and if she came down early enough before she had to rush off to work, she would dash over and chat with him for a few minutes. But even if she couldn’t do that, she always left him with a wave and a smile.
Sherman had grown very fond of the young woman. As she pulled away, a sad smile flitted across his lips. The young girl was trying to make it on her own, but sometimes a person was stronger not weaker for asking for a helping hand in times of need. She was a stubborn one, though, and wouldn’t allow him to help her.
Well, he thought, as her cab drove down the street on her way to a job that wouldn’t take her anywhere, he was going to help her—one way or another. His spreading smile took years away from his wrinkled face. It was a good thing Joseph was with him to brainstorm.
“She’s such a fine young woman. I’ve been trying to help her for quite some time, but she’s determined to do everything on her own. That girl isn’t someone who even cares to utter the word defeat,” Sherman told Joseph.
“She looks familiar,” Joseph said as he stared after her, searching his memory. “What’s her story?”
“Her parents were missionaries for a lot of years and then working-class folk, didn’t have a whole lot. Her father died when she was twenty, and it was real hard on her. Her mom was sick so she dropped out of school to take care of her, and then her mother passed last year. She hasn’t managed to get back on her feet quite yet. But she will. She was taught young not to complain in life, and she lives by that motto,” Sherman said.
“There’s nothing wrong with asking for help once in a while,” Joseph said as the two of them watched the cab disappear. “But I’ve always admired a woman with a strong backbone. That’s the kind of girl who won’t be led easily astray.”
“Yes, I agree with you there,” Sherman said. “I was sort of hoping to set her up with one of my nephews, but I can’t seem to get them in the same room with her. She’s always so busy . . .”
“Well, my dear friend, you should have come to me sooner,” Joseph boomed with a laugh, making Sherman, who was used to his boisterous friend, jump.
“Why is that, Joseph?”
“Because if there’s one thing I know about, it’s matchmaking,” Joseph said as he sat back. He pulled out two deliciously scented cigars. “We’ll need these. This will take a while.”
“I sure won’t turn one down,” Sherman said, accepting the fragrant tobacco.
The two men lit up and then leaned back as the thunder moved further north but still gave them a good show to behold.
“Tell me more about this girl,” Joseph said.
“Stormy is kind. I visit my old friend Penny in those apartments quite often, and if Stormy sees that I’m carrying anything, she’ll insist on helping me. And on days like this, when the weather takes a turn for the worse, I guarantee you, she’ll swing by after work to make sure everything is okay with Penny, who isn’t remembering things so easily these days. Stormy’s become like a granddaughter to me and a few other people in that old apartment building, and I just adore her beautiful heart and her sweet words. I miss her when a few days pass that I don’t get to chat,” Sherman said.
“It sounds like she’s made of the good stuff,” Joseph said, disappointed he didn’t have any sons left to set her up with. Of course, he loved Sherman’s nephews like his own, so he’d be happy to see this Stormy with one of Sherman’s boys.
“Yep, she is. I hate seeing her living all alone. She should be settled down, having a nice young lad to help carry some of her burden. The forty years I spent with my beautiful wife before the Lord decided she needed to be elsewhere were the best years of my life,” Sherman said.
“I can’t imagine what would happen to me if I lost my Katherine,” Joseph said.
“I still miss Betty every single moment of each day. Now, I find joy with other people, but it’s never going to be the same. She was my soul mate and there’s no replacement for her. Everyone should have that at least once in their lifetime.”
“I agree, Sherman. I fully agree,” Joseph told his friend.
The storm began to clear and the two men heard a jet fly over them. Sherman looked up at the sky with a bit of envy.
“You still miss it, don’t you?” Joseph asked, completely understanding.
“Oh, I miss it each morning I wake up,” Sherman assured his friend.
What felt like many years before, Sherman had been a pilot for the military, and then privately, crop dusting fields and eventually flying jetliners. He’d soared high above the clouds, leaving all his cares on the ground as he sat behind the controls of a powerful jet engine.
There were days he’d give just about anything to be up there again, trying to beat the morning sun as he rushed down a runway at one hundred plus miles per hour.
Pulling a keychain out of his pocket, he handed the faded blue ring to his friend. The scratched letters of Pan American were still printed on the face.
“I remember this,” Joseph said with a laugh.
“I spent a lot of years with them. It’s the keepsake I refuse to let go of,” Sherman said.
“We all need to have keepsakes from the good old days. But Sherman, when your nephews are married and bringing more family home to you, then you won’t look so much at the past anymore. I love my present and I look forward to the future,” Joseph assured him.
“I think you are absolutely right, Joseph,” Sherman said. He put the keychain away and smiled. And then he grabbed a pen and paper and smiled even more broadly.
Let the matchmaking begin.