“Me?” I clunk down my glass, acutely aware of my tipsy state now that everyone is looking at me. “Why, sure…”
I walk to the front of the room and hop up onto the crate indicated by Keith. He drops a leather apron over my head and almost knocks me off balance, but I recover, returning a thumbs up from the Elbow Queen of Tuscaloosa. I’m handed a large wooden paddle roughly the same size as an oar and begin stirring the contents of a steel turbine. The clockwise circling of liquid and barley is so hypnotic, I don’t realize right away that Keith has joined me on the crate. A quick glance over my shoulder tells me he’s at the borderline of being too close, but I don’t want to interrupt him while he’s addressing the room, so I keep stirring. When his body heat moves closer, though, I start to weigh the merits of clocking him with the paddle. A thought that makes me giggle.
Keith’s warm breath tickles my ear. “Care to share the joke—”
Hands clasp me around the waist and I’m lifted off the crate, my feet dangling in midair until they land on the ground. At first, I think it’s Keith manhandling me, and I freeze in shock, but I twist around to find—Jason?
“What are you doing here?”
My question emerges sounding more like What’reyoudoonhere?
Not that Jason notices. He’s too busy glaring at Keith.
And now that I’ve been discovered drunk in the middle of the afternoon on a workday, I’m too busy wondering if my new boss will make a big or small scene while firing me.
Let me be plain. The only one with a motive the kill was the ex-fiancé.
He’s not even trying to hide his “new” lover. Case closed.
What the hell am I doing here?
It’s not normal behavior to ignore a startled receptionist and waltz into a tour-in-progress, like the rules don’t apply to me. But to my mind…they don’t. I’ve been back on US soil for six months and still, the world around me doesn’t make sense. Rules seem arbitrary. I don’t want my sister’s pageant coach drinking beer with other men, so here I am to collect her. There. Done. Special Forces has conditioned me to follow gut feelings—red tape be damned. Once you’ve set explosives in the desert or slipped silently into the ocean and swum five miles in the pitch black to do recon, a flimsy gate that says next tour at four o’clock is laughable.
I don’t have answers to the questions that are sure to follow, though. Naomi is looking up at me with clear confusion. The whole room is staring at me the same way, in fact, and it’s making the back of my neck sweat, little winks of light going off in front of my eyes. How many times have I told myself to stop acting without thinking? Is this how a civilian behaves? Is this behavior out of the ordinary? Those are the questions I’m supposed to ask myself.
I’m not supposed to cancel a lucrative, corporate personnel dive at the last minute and drive like a bat out of hell across town to put a claim on a woman who hasn’t asked for it. Hell, I don’t want to claim her. Do I? My blood is pumping hot, my pulse shaking like a pissed off rattlesnake from seeing the guide standing too close. I barely know the first thing about Naomi.
What I do know is she’s…gorgeous. So fucking gorgeous and sexy in this afternoon sunshine, her eyes a little glassy from the beer she’s definitely been drinking. Nothing can detract from the stunning cornflower coloring of them, though. They match her coordinated outfit, starting with the T-shirt-looking dress and ending at her shoes. As usual, her hair is pulled back in a smooth ponytail, and my fingers itch to loosen the knot, let it fall into my palms. Drag it down my lap while she gasps at the growing sight of me.
Much as I’d like this attraction to begin and end with a chemical reaction, it doesn’t. I liked having her at my dinner table last night. Liked it way too much. She spun some kind of magic and made me forget for a couple hours that those four walls are missing parents and a sister. That nothing is the same as I remember it and I don’t have battle to escape into. Her laughter made it okay not to dwell on the wrong last night. Made things feel okay.
Better than okay.
But this? Me showing up here uninvited is not normal. I can’t just stand here in front of the crowded room and stare at this woman, but it’s what I do, despite the whispering. Despite the hushed conference between guide and receptionist happening at the entrance. Rules and correct behaviors are lost on me, and I don’t know how to get them back. I just know I don’t want this woman here right now. Most of the time when this sense of not belonging strikes, I can laugh my way out of it. Or walk away pretending I don’t give a damn. I do what I want. Deal with it.