“What the fuck are you doing in my bed?”
Karla Paxton smiled. Adam Montague had always been so careful not to drop the f-bomb around her before—although she’d certainly heard him say it enough times to everyone else, when he didn’t think she could hear. Were his walls coming down enough for him to see her as an adult for the first time since they’d met?
“I needed to be close to you. Do you remember what happened?”
As if just coming to his senses, he glanced up at the IV pole and took in his surroundings. “Where am I?”
“At the medical center in Denver. You were attacked by a cougar.”
Realization dawned and he cupped her cheek, searching her face. “Are you okay? It didn’t hurt you? You’ve got circles under your eyes. God, you’ve lost so much weight.”
Adam, Adam, Adam. Always thinking about everyone else.
She didn’t want to think how awful she must look. If she’d known he would wake up today, she’d have at least put on a little makeup and brushed her hair. She needed to reassure him before he became any more agitated. “I’m fine, Adam. You got the cougar to chase after you and…” Her throat constricted as she pictured Adam lying on the ground with the large cat ripping at his neck and back. She closed her eyes and laid her forehead on his chest, but the image was seared into her memory. “I was so scared, Adam,” she whispered.
He stroked the back of her head and she wished they could stay like this forever. Intimate. Sharing. Close. But the walls wouldn’t stay down forever. She pressed her face against him, comforted by his heart beating against her cheek and the rising and falling of his chest.
His hand brushed a tendril of hair away from her face. “Thank God you weren’t hurt, Karla.”
“You saved my life. Again.” She stroked his neck, her head nestled in the crook of his shoulder, feeling as if she’d come home at last. Her hand traced a path down one of his pecs, which she’d ached to touch for so many years. She let her fingertip circle the hard nip.
Adam’s hand caught and stilled hers, his body tensing.
He pushed her away.
“You need to get out of this bed, Karla. Now.”
* * *
What the fuck was he doing touching Karla like that? When her body had stretched out against him, before the cobwebs had cleared, he’d thought perhaps he’d done something unforgivable—like taken advantage of an innocent girl. But wouldn’t he remember doing something like that?
His head pounded. Okay, one head pounded—the other throbbed, just as it had been doing whenever he was around Karla since the July day in his office when she’d come back into his life after almost nine years. Only now she was all grown up. If she didn’t get out of this bed soon, he was going to do something they’d both regret. His resistance had been lowered, but damn it, she felt so good lying against him.
“I have to tell you something.”
Oh, fuck. The last time she’d said that, she was sixteen and had declared her love to his forty-one year old self. Not ready for another such declaration, Adam tried to move her off his chest, but she wouldn’t budge and he didn’t have the strength to lift her. He hated being physically compromised. “Look, Karla…”
She giggled. His dick grew stiff. What was it about a woman’s giggle that turned him on?
“Don’t worry. It’s nothing like what I said on my parents’ front porch.”
He relaxed and she grinned.
“What is it, hon?” Don’t call her “hon.”She may get the wrong idea—again. Why didn’t she do as he’d told her and get out of this tiny fucking bed? Don’t mention fucking and bed while you’re holding Karla in your arms.
Her hand stroked his chest almost absently, although she certainly had his undivided attention. Her touch was tentative, gentle. He hadn’t let a woman get this close since Joni. Even with Grant, his friend-with-benefits partner at the Masters at Arms Club he co-owned, sex had been rough, hard, and sometimes even brutal. A physical release for them both, nothing more. Neither had ever wanted anything more.
But Karla was more fragile both physically and emotionally. She’d just lost her brother, who had meant the world to her. That grief was what had brought her to his club in the first place. Adam had cared about her since he’d rescued her nine years earlier in the Chicago bus station, not that he’d shown her much support these past few months. Hell, no. He’d been too busy running in the opposite direction. Adam didn’t know what it was that scared him the most—their age difference of twenty-five years, the thought of his corrupting her any more than he’d already done by bringing her onto the payroll at his kink club last July, or that she might get under his skin and expect more from him than he could give.
Hell, he’d lay odds she was still a virgin, or damned close to being one. She didn’t have any interest in BDSM and had no place in a club where she had to witness so many things that obviously freaked her out. He’d seen her cringe as she watched Damián Orlando, one of the club’s co-owners, wield the whip or heard one of Grant’s subs screaming at the center post as the female Marine delivered a public and painful punishment.
“When I saw you lying there on the ground…” Karla cleared her throat. “The cougar was so big. You were bleeding. So much blood. I thought you’d been killed.”
He pulled her close to him. Just this once. He needed to reassure her that he was going to be fine. “I’m pretty ornery. No cat is going to get the best of me.”
“Well, I’ll give you ornery.”
He chuckled. “Ah, glad my secret’s out. Keeping up appearances can be exhausting.” She felt so good lying in his arms, even though he was too weak to keep his arms around her much longer. His biceps were feeling the strain. Damn, he was getting old.
“Worst-kept secret around. You’ve been very ornery lately.” She paused, stroking his chest. He wished she’d get the fuck out of this bed. His dick was throbbing to the point of pain. Having her in his arms was totally wrong.
“I’m sorry about whatever I did to upset you…” Her voice broke, along with his resolve.
Oh, shit. He’d made her cry. “Hon, you didn’t do anything.” Except look so fucking sexy you drive me insane. “I just have some shit going on in my head. I never meant to make you feel bad.” So why are you about to make her feel worse?“But I think it might be good for you to think about moving back to Chicago. You don’t belong in a kink club.”
She pushed herself up and looked him in the face, her blue eyes steely as she glared at him.
“Adam, you will not send me away—not until you’re better, at least. I know you’re too stubborn to see it, but you need me. I’m going to take care of you, just like you took care of me when I first got here. This is all my fault. If you hadn’t distracted that cougar…”
He pressed a finger over her lips and then pulled back. He didn’t need to be thinking about touching her sexy pink lips at the moment. The dark circles under her eyes and her thin, pale face worried him. But if she’d been attacked…
“If I hadn’t distracted that cougar, you’d be the one hooked to the IV. Or worse.” He stroked her cheek, unable to help himself. The thought of that dangerous cat marring any part of her beautiful body tore at his gut worse than the animal’s claws had torn up his back. She wouldn’t have survived. He shuddered. “I did what anyone would do. Besides, my hide’s tougher than yours. Damned cat didn’t stand a chance.” He grinned. When she reciprocated, he stared at her lips for the longest time, wondering what it would be like to kiss them.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
“Get out of this bed, Karla. Now.”
* * *
Eleven days later, Karla waited in the hallway outside Adam’s bedroom, pacing. When she heard the door, she turned and watched Marc D’Alessio come out, carrying his first-aid bag. Adam had been home nine days and seemed to be healing, but he was still recovering, first from the infection and then the deep injuries to his muscles. She hated watching him suffer in pain every day. He’d always been such a vital force.
Adam would take the antibiotics from her, but sometimes refused his pain pills and absolutely refused to let her see his back. Marc had stopped by twice a day since Adam had come home to change the dressings and apply analgesics to try to keep Adam comfortable. Karla was secretly glad Marc didn’t mind re-dressing his wounds, because he—having served as a corpsman with Adam’s Marine unit in Iraq—certainly had more expertise in the area than she did.
She didn’t want to fail Adam now.
“Whatever you’re doing, Karla, keep it up. I can see a huge improvement from one day to the next. Now he’s getting cantankerous, too. Should be back to his old self again in no time.”
Some of the tension left her body. “Thank you.” The words were barely spoken above a whisper. Exhausted, she wondered how she managed to remain upright anymore. Word that Adam was doing better overloaded her with emotion and her upper lip began to quiver. Marc held his arms out and she walked into his embrace. Really needing a hug right now, she let him bear her weight for a moment. If only it were Adam holding her.
“Where the stitches were removed, there’s no sign of re-injury. We just need to try and keep him from overdoing it when he gets up and about more. He’s chomping at the bit to get out of bed. I gave him one of the pain pills, though, after I treated the wounds and bandaged him up again. He’ll sleep for a while. Come down and have lunch. Angelina’s cooking up something good, I’m sure. Cassie’s downstairs, too.”
He placed his hands on her upper arms and pushed her away from him, waiting until she looked up into his eyes. “Apparently, you misunderstood me, Karla. You are coming downstairs to have lunch with us. Now.” Without waiting for her to respond, he took her elbow in his firm grip and steered her toward the stairs. “You know you aren’t going to do him any good if you don’t take care of yourself. You need to remember to eat and sleep, too.”
He was right, but the guilt that plagued her every waking moment wouldn’t release its hold. Adam had been injured trying to save her when the cougar threatened her, and he had suffered terribly in her place.
They reached the bottom of the stairs and he motioned for her to precede him down the narrow hallway and into the kitchen. Cassie sat at the table with her sketchpad, lost in her drawing.
Angie turned around, left the stove, and came toward her. “Oh, sweetie, you look exhausted. Didn’t get any sleep last night either?”
“Not much. It’s hard to sleep in a chair.” And I don’t want to miss it if Adam needs me during the night.
Angie wrapped her arms around her and Karla’s already shaky rein on her emotions evaporated. She held on for dear life, too exhausted to fight the tears off anymore. God, she despised being so powerless. She imagined Adam must feel equally frustrated, though, and shouldn’t complain.
“I hate seeing him lying there. He’s always been so strong. Invincible. I know he’s getting stronger, but he still has so far to go…”
Angie stroked her hair. “He’ll get there, thanks to how well you’re taking care of him. You just let me know what you need. I’m here for you, day or night.”
Karla was so glad she’d met this woman, despite the circumstances. When the man who had brought Angie to the Masters at Arms Club in late August had become abusive toward her in one of the club’s theme rooms, Marc rescued her. When he’d had to go back to his duties at the club, Adam gave Karla the rest of the night off from singing so she could watch over Angie.
Karla had dropped her off at her home about three hours away the next morning, battered and disheartened. Karla had never expected to see her anywhere near the club again. But Angie and Marc had somehow reconnected in her hometown a month later. Out of the blue, Karla had gotten a call from Angie saying she was on her way back to the club with Marc and his SAR partner, Luke. There were some tense moments, but thank goodness Marc and Angie worked things out. They’d been together since the night before Adam had been attacked on the mountain.
Since Angie returned to Denver, she and Karla had become good friends in a short time, removing some of the loneliness Karla had experienced since arriving at the club in July reeling from Ian’s death.
Karla glanced over at the table. Cassie López, whom she’d known since college, looked up from her sketch and smiled sadly.
“Kitty, let me sit with him tonight so you can get some sleep. I feel like a fifth wheel around here.”
Karla had rarely left Adam’s side since he was in the hospital. After he’d come home, Cassie stayed on to support her friend, helping with meals, laundry, and watching over Adam while Karla showered or napped.
“Just having you here has helped me so much, Cassie.”
Cassie stood and came across the room. Her exotic Peruvian heritage, with her lustrous long dark hair and beautiful olive complexion, was something fair-skinned Karla envied. Her best friend wrapped her in a big hug, the scent of freesia surrounding her. Karla wished her friend hadn’t gotten caught up in all this drama. She avoided drama almost as much as she avoided men.
She remembered how they’d all come to be together that fateful night that had almost taken Adam away from her. Karla picked Cassie up at her remote mountain cabin home during the first week of October to go on the annual overnight camping trip she and Cassie had been taking since Cassie moved out here. The campout always included some kind of cathartic ritual ceremony and Karla needed that more than ever this year. They’d invited Angie to join them, because she needed to release some painful shit, too.
But soon after they’d arrived at their camping spot, all hell broke loose. Karla shuddered. She didn’t want to think about how close Angie had come to being hurt even worse by her abusive ex-boyfriend. Because of that bastard, Adam, Marc, Luke, and Damián had wound up on the mountain that night. Tears pricked her eyes. When Karla had been threatened by a cougar, Adam enticed the big cat away from her only to be attacked by it himself. Karla cringed, forcing herself to block out the image of the animal clawing and biting Adam.
Since the cougar attack, Cassie had stayed here with Karla until she could get a ride home. Angie was staying at Marc’s house—well, when they weren’t here, too, helping out. Marc was one of the co-owners of the club, along with Damián. They both were like family to Adam.
The kitchen door opened and in walked Marc’s partner, Luke. “Something smelled good all the way out on the porch.” He walked over to Angie, placed a hand on her back, and started to kiss her on the cheek, then halted and turned to Marc. “Permission to kiss the cook.” Marc’s gaze homed in on Luke’s hand on Angie and the newest Dom at the club removed his hand as if burned.
“Granted—but only on the cheek.”
The two Doms exchanged an amicable grin and Karla relaxed. She had to wonder if there hadn’t been something between Luke and Angie at some point. These days, however, the woman clearly had no interest in anyone but Marc. “I think I might need to do a better job of explaining some protocols to you, Baby Dom—like teaching you to ask before you touch—not just before you kiss—another Dom’s sub.”
“Oh, behave, you two,” Angie said, walking over to the refrigerator. “Too much testosterone in here. Besides, we’re not in the club right now, so protocols don’t apply.”
Angie had told Karla she and Marc were strictly Dom/sub in the bedroom and while playing at the club. Since Karla had gotten the job singing at the club, Karla had been surprised to learn about the range of commitment available to people in the BDSM lifestyle—everything from a single night to a lifetime commitment.
There was still so much she didn’t understand about this stuff.
Marc watched as Angie placed the salad dressing on the counter. “Some protocols always apply, cara, such as respecting another Dom’s property. Maybe we need to renegotiate our agreement.”
“But you promised…” Karla saw a flash of uncertainty cross Angie’s eyes and Marc chuckled.
“I’m not saying I want less Dom/sub time, cara, but maybe more.” When he held his arms open, she smiled and walked into his embrace.
Karla looked away, tears stinging her eyes again. She was happy for them, but wished she and Adam could have a relationship like theirs. Hell, she’d be happy to have any kind of relationship with Adam. Period.
Luke turned his attention to her. “Karla, how are you doing, darlin’?”
She shrugged. “Hanging in there.”
“Hope you don’t mind my dropping by.” Adam and his friends pretty much had run of the building, which included the club and now even Adam’s private living quarters. She’d become used to people dropping by whenever they wanted.
“Marc promised food.” Luke placed his hand against his stomach. “I can’t cook worth shit.”
“Join the club. Angie’s tried to teach me, but…well…”
“Don’t worry, Karla,” Angie chimed in. “We’ll get back to lessons when things settle down again. You were coming along great.”
Karla couldn’t believe a local restaurant hadn’t snatched up Angie with her amazing culinary skills. Angie wanted her financial independence, which Karla understood. Singing at the club part-time didn’t pay a lot, but Karla hadn’t been sure she’d be staying here, so she hadn’t looked for anything to supplement her income. Adam provided for so many of her personal needs—room, board, clothing. It made her feel guilty. She’d been independent while working at the Goth club in New York City for a couple of years, until she’d gotten fired a couple months after Ian had been killed.
And, while she’d never admit this to her liberated mother or friends, she liked the way Adam took care of those physical needs at least. If that was the only role Adam wanted to play in her life, then she’d be content.
Or try to be, at least.
When Luke’s attention homed in on Cassie, focused on her sketchpad again, Karla wished her friend would at least give him a chance. His shy, self-deprecating grin and that Texan drawl were endearing. In the hospital waiting room almost two weeks ago, Karla had first realized there might be some cosmic connection between Cassie and Luke. Something definitely had brought them together, based on the sketch Cassie made of Luke’s dead wife and baby. Needless to say, Luke had been understandably moved by the haunting image, but Cassie retreated into her internal world again.
Karla would like to help her friend find love and happiness, even if those emotions weren’t possible for Karla—at least not with the man she wanted to enjoy them with.
Karla walked closer to the table. “Cassie, I know you probably need to get back home soon. There must be any number of artist commissions you need to be working on.”
Right on cue, Luke offered, “If you need a ride, Cassie, I’d be happy to run you home.”
Cassie’s pencil stilled and her hand hovered over the sketchpad. Okay, it was too soon for that. Karla went over and stroked her friend’s back. With her history, of course Cassie wouldn’t be comfortable alone with him, even if he didn’t pose an actual threat to her, by Karla’s estimation.
Luckily, Angie came to her rescue. “Cassie, I need to go back to my house in a few days and pack up some more things. I could take you home then.” Cassie was only about thirty minutes from Aspen Corners.
Cassie’s face relaxed. Gentle Luke wouldn’t hurt a soul, though, nor would any of the Doms at the Masters at Arms. She wished her friend wasn’t afraid of all men, but certainly understood why. Perhaps if Cassie wasn’t alone so much, she could become more comfortable around men.
“Thanks, Angie. I’d like that, but only when Kitty’s ready to kick me out.”
Thinking about anything other than Adam right now was more than Karla could manage, but knowing Cassie had a way back to her cabin was a relief for her, if his recovery stretched out too long. There were plenty of people around to help, even though she’d miss Cassie.
Marc came over and stroked Karla’s arm. “You’re going to take a nap after lunch while one of us sits with Adam.”
Karla pulled away and wiped her suddenly damp eyes with the sleeves of her black T-shirt. Time to change the subject before she started sobbing and embarrassed herself—again.
Looking at the stove, Karla asked, “What smells so good?”
“I’ve got penne pasta with roasted red peppers and garlic in the oven.”
“God, Angie, you make cooking seem so simple. Will I ever…” Oh, what was the use learning how to cook for Adam now? Karla wouldn’t be here long enough to make anything for him. Once he was stronger, he’d be sending her home to Chicago. Her eyes burned again and she blinked rapidly. “What can I do to help?”
“Nothing,” Marc said, taking her elbow and steering her to a chair. “Table’s all set. Come, sit down.”
He pulled out Adam’s chair at the head of the table. Seeing it empty reminded her that Adam wasn’t able to join them. A lump lodged in Karla’s throat, and she took the one beside it instead. Angie carried a baking dish to the table and Marc went over to the counter to retrieve the bread, wine, and salad dressing. Seeing them so in sync together just made her feel even sadder, which, in turn, made her feel more guilt. Why begrudge them happiness, just because she could never have it herself?
Luke sat beside Karla, with Cassie on his other side at the end of the table. Oh, dear. She probably should have sat closer to her friend. Marc and Angelina sat close to each other across from Karla and Luke. The meal began in silence with them eating their salads, and then Angie dished out the main course and passed a plate to each of them.
Karla’s eyes were drawn to her as Angie reached out and touched Marc’s hand. Even a simple gesture like that was more than she could have with Adam, more than Adam would let her have, anyway.
Angie held onto his hand and squeezed. “Marc, the sheriff’s office called. Allen’s bail request was denied. Looks like we won’t have to worry about him getting out for a while. Apparently, they take kidnapping a whole lot more seriously than battery.”
A look of pain flickered in Marc’s eyes. Angie had suffered at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, Allen Martin. Karla had seen the fear on Marc’s face that evening on Mount Evans when they’d gone to rescue Angie, no doubt thinking the worst had happened. He cared a lot about Angie.
Karla’s hand began to tremble and she rested it on the table so no one else would see the fork shaking in her fingers. Too late. Luke reached out and squeezed her hand until the shaking stopped. When she looked over at him, he smiled.
“Adam would want you to eat more than that.”
“I know. I just…”
He picked up the fork and stabbed some pasta holding it up to her mouth until she parted her lips and accepted the offering. Everyone was taking such good care of her, so she could take care of their friend, Adam. This rag-tag family Adam had brought together would be lost without him.
Visions of the blood pooling beside Adam’s neck as he lay motionless curdled her stomach. Karla couldn’t block the horrific images from her mind. Everything had happened so quickly. Adam running toward her to try and calm her fears. His distracting the cougar, which chased and attacked him. She’d tried to wrestle the cat off him, until Marc had pulled her away so Damián could shoot the beast.
The graphic memories led to a roiling stomach and, after a couple more forkfuls, Karla took the utensil from Luke, fearing she’d get sick if she ate another bite. But she smiled at him, appreciating his support.
“Just remember, cara, he’s still strong or he wouldn’t be here,” Marc said, using one of his native Italian endearments. “You just wait. He’ll be back to his old self again, ordering everyone around and running his tight ship, same as always.”
Yes, but without me.
Karla was pleased when Luke took advantage of the lull in the table talk and struck up a conversation with Cassie, trying to draw her out of her silence. His knowledge on the subject of fine art surprised Karla. He worked as a carpenter and woodworker. Of course, he’d shown a knack for designing some of the unique pieces of equipment used in the club.
Cassie seemed equally surprised. “How do you know so much about art?”
“Art major in college.” When Cassie’s eyes opened wider, he explained. “The University of Texas, where I went on a football scholarship, didn’t have the industrial arts major I wanted. But I’m really glad I chose studio art instead. It’s helped me a lot with my work.”
Cassie gave him a hesitant smile, then her brow furrowed and she retreated again, focusing on her food. Well, it was a start. At least the two of them had found common ground to build on.
Karla’s eyelids burned. She wished she and Adam could find common ground. Karla laid her fork on the table, no longer able to eat for the anxious churning in her stomach.