“Haven’t you had enough of that?” The words burst out of her before she could stop them. It wasn’t her business, but really. If he spent every night drinking to avoid all the ghosts that tormented him, he was going to end up completely pickled by the time he was thirty-five.
He arched a brow at her. “That seems an awful lot like the pot calling the kettle black. If I remember correctly, you’re the one who got so drunk she took three shots of Patron, went out to dance, and ended up blacking out in my arms.”
She felt heat creeping into her cheeks. “I’m so sorry. It’s been a crappy week, but that’s no excuse. I was completely irresponsible.”
“It happens to the best of us.” He saluted her with his shot of Patron before knocking it back. “Besides, I’m not the one you need to be apologizing to. You really freaked out Jared.”
She could only imagine. “Yet he had you put me in your bed.”
“I don’t sleep much. It made sense.”
She bet. With nightmares like the one she’d seen haunting him, it was a wonder he got any sleep at all. With that realization, the last of her anger at him drained away. Of course he wanted to blame himself for what had happened between them on the couch. He blamed himself for everything else.
“Do you want to try to get some more sleep?” she asked. “It’s barely dawn.”
“Nah.” He didn’t bother to glance at the clock. “I’m good. But feel free to go back to bed. You’re probably wiped.”
She was, completely. But he looked so forlorn standing there, that damn bottle of tequila clutched in his hand like some kind of pacifier, that she couldn’t just walk away from him. No matter how stupid that made her.
“Actually, I’m good,” she told him. “But I am starving. How about we order room service and watch a movie?”
“Don’t you have to go to work in a couple hours?”
“Nope. I don’t have work today.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie, she told herself. She did, after all, have the day off. And the one after that and the one after that and the one— She stopped herself before she ended up taking another shot of tequila herself.
“So? What do you say?” She slipped the Patron bottle from between his hands, tucked it back under the bar. He watched her with a cross between amusement and exasperation, but he didn’t say a word about the booze. “Eggs?”
“You obviously don’t get drunk often enough,” he said. “The proper early-morning-after-a-bender breakfast is waffles. Heavy on the syrup with extra bacon.”
“Extra bacon, huh?”
She reached for the phone, turning her back so he couldn’t see her grin. “Then extra bacon it is.”
They ended up watching The Avengers and eating waffles drenched in syrup, with strawberries and whipped cream. It felt a little surreal after what had almost happened, but Ryder couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed himself more.
Sure, he had a blast when he was onstage, singing, dueling with Jared, electrifying the crowd. But his performances were loaded with expectations—from the fans, from the other members of Shaken Dirty, from the concert promoters, their managementand the record label. And from himself most of all. The worst part was that he felt like he rarely met those expectations. How could he when he spent so much time wondering how and when and where he was going to fuck everything up? It was his legacy from his father, and from Carrie.
But being with Jamison wasn’t like that. At least not after she’d made it clear he hadn’t screwed anything up with his little escapade on the couch. That he hadn’t hurt her or scared her or… He shut his mind off before it could go where he didn’t want it to. There was no need to dredge up all the things he couldn’t change. Not here. Not now.
“Okay, so I have a very serious question for you,” Jamison told him as she twisted her crazy mess of hair into a makeshift bun at the top of her head. She secured it with a couple of pencils she’d found in her purse, but within seconds it started to break free of the confinement, locks tumbling with abandon over her cheeks and the back of her neck.
With a sound of exasperation, she started to tuck them back into the bun. She hadn’t gotten very far when he reached over and plucked all three pencils out of her hair. He threw them across the room before she could demand them back, then watched as all that glorious hair came tumbling down around her shoulders. It was like a flame, beckoning him, and for a second—just a second—he imagined what it would feel like to fist his hands in those curls while he was inside her. To have them sliding over his shoulders, his chest, his cock—
“Are you kidding me?” she exclaimed in obvious exasperation. “Now I have to start all over again.” Her hands were back in her hair, this time twisting it into some kind of knot at the base of her neck.
“Leave it.” He brushed her fingers away, tucked a few errant curls behind her ear. “It looks good the way it is.”
He was playing with fire. He knew he was. Just like he knew he was going to get burned—this was Jared’s sister, after all. Little Jamison, the same girl he’d helped teach self-defense to before her first date and how to drive a car when she turned sixteen.
Only she hadn’t felt so little when she’d been on top of him, her glorious body pressed to his. She’d felt like a beautiful, sexy woman he wanted more than he wanted his next breath. Even now, part of him desired nothing more than to pull her beneath him and make love to her the way his cock was screaming for him to.
If she had been any other woman, he would have taken what she was offering without a second thought. It wasn’t like he was in the habit of self-denial and he wanted her, badly. He wanted to hold her. To touch her. To kiss her right now, with nothing between them but the desire that throbbed in the air like the final notes of a love song.
He wanted to pull her body against his and explore the sweet recesses of her mouth without worrying about his past or her brother or any of the other things that were just waiting to ambush them.
But this was Jamison and she deserved more, better, than anything he had to offer her. No matter what she thought.
“Ryder.” Her breath broke on his name and heat flooded his cock.
He closed his eyes for a few seconds, deliberately severing the forbidden connection between them. Then he forced an easy smile, forked up his last piece of waffle, and offered it to her like he had a million other times through the years. For a moment, she looked like she wouldn’t accept it. As if she knew doing so was one more step away from the strange and unsteady ground where they currently found themselves.
But in the end, she must have known he needed her to make that step, because she leaned forward to take the bite, her soft pink lips closing around the fork with a low hum of appreciation.
He looked away quickly, told himself he wasn’t imagining her lush mouth closing over his dick with the same enjoyment. Of course he wasn’t. That would be wrong, so wrong. But then her hand brushed his upper thigh as she reached for a napkin and he nearly went through the roof.
Desperate for something to take his mind off Jamison—and the sex they absolutely couldn’t have—Ryder turned back toward the TV. Watched as the Hulk destroyed whole sections of the S.H.I.E.L.D. hovership just as Loki’s forces attacked. Nothing like cinematic death and destruction to take a guy’s mind off the lust crawling around in his belly.
It almost worked. At least until Jamison got up to push the room service cart into the hall. When she came back, she settled right next to him on the couch, and her lush peach scent wrapping itself around him like a blanket. He tensed, tried to pretend like he cared whether or not the huge centrifuge of the ship’s engine crushed Iron Man.
He must not have been very convincing, though, because it only took Jamison a minute before she commented, “You know, I never got the chance to ask you my question.”
Had he thought he was tense before? After that statement he was clenching his jaw so tightly that it was a miracle he didn’t break a molar…or three.
He didn’t want to have this discussion, couldn’t have this discussion. His nightmares were off limits to everyone, even the guys in Shaken Dirty, and he hated that she’d seen him like that.
Out of control.
He ran a hand over his face. “Look, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
“This whole…” He wagged a finger back and forth between them. “Thing.”
“This whole what?” She looked baffled. “Conversation?”
“Yeah.” He looked away, relieved that she got it. Sure, it made him look like a total candy ass, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Not when it meant he escaped unscathed.
For long seconds, she didn’t say anything. Then she lifted a brow, sniffed disdainfully. “I wasn’t aware that picking a superhero was such an emotional thing. I mean, I’m an Iron Man girl myself, but if it’s that big a deal to you, we can talk about something else.”
“That was your big question?” He felt like he’d missed a step or nine in the conversation. At least until he got a glimpse of her eyes and realized she’d known…and she’d tossed him a lifeline. The tension drained from his shoulders. “Which Avenger I like?”
“It’s an important question. Iron Man is clearly superior, but each of the others has his or her good points so—”
“Are you kidding me?” he said with a smirk. “Who says Iron Man is superior?”
“Who doesn’t? Seriously, who’s better than Tony freaking Stark?”
“Uh, the Hulk? Obviously.”
“Are you nuts?” she demanded, incredulous. “Iron Man risks everything to save people in this movie. He nearly dies. Plus he’s smart, hot, and rich.”
“Hulk’s willing to die for people, too. And he’s very smart.”
She scoffed. “Oh, please. Dr. Banner’s smart. Hulk is a giant green rage monster.”
It was his turn to scoff. “Like wearing a metal suit automatically makes a guy a hero?”
“It is if he uses it for good. Being a hero is about a lot more than just smashing up the bad guys. It’s about choosing to do something to make the world a better place, even if you die doing it.”
Her words hit a little too close to home, and he felt them deep in the pit of his stomach. But he didn’t want her to know how much she’d disconcerted him, so he snorted. Rolled his eyes. Worked up a decent sneer as he finally said, “Heroism is highly overrated. No one can stop something from happening, Jamison. The best anyone can hope for is to postpone the inevitable.”
“That’s not true. You saved me from Max. You didn’t let him hurt me.”
“That was sheer, dumb luck. If I hadn’t walked out when I did—”
“But you did. You did walk out then, Ryder. And you stopped him. No one else did that.”
Her eyes were shiny with gratitude and something else he couldn’t—wouldn’t—name. He looked away so he didn’t have to see it. “Yeah, well, I won’t be there the next time some asshole tries to mess with you.”
“Maybe there won’t be a next time.”
“Yeah, right.” He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Because the world is made up of gumdrops and unicorns.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to. It’s like you live in a different universe, Jamison. One where it doesn’t even occur to you that you aren’t the first one—and probably won’t be the last.”
Rage filled him all over again at the reminder of how he’d found her earlier. He wasn’t happy about not calling the police, but he’d known it wouldn’t do much good. No real damage had been done to Jamison—or so Max’s side would argue—and Ryder had no doubt that Max would end up weaseling out of everything.
He was going to have a talk with Max later today. Make sure the singer thought twice before he ever pulled any shit like that again. Make sure he understood that it would be detrimental to his health.
“You don’t know that he’ll hurt anyone else.”
Bullshit. If all he wanted was to get laid, why didn’t Max go for one of the many available girls backstage? He wanted to hurt you, because he could.” Ryder’s hands clenched into fists of their own volition. “How many times has that happened on this tour alone, right under my nose? I played poker with that asshole. Jammed with him more than once. And all this time he was—”
“Damn it, Ryder! You can’t keep doing this to yourself.” Jamison laid a hand on top of his, squeezed tightly. “You’ve been beating yourself up for nearly a decade. It has to stop.” She tried to put her arms around him, to hug him, but he wouldn’t let her. He couldn’t. Not when a lump was trying to form in the back of his throat. He swallowed it down, refused to give in to the emotions swamping him like a tsunami.