Sharp, painful jabs of sunlight forced open Claudia Stuart’s eyelids. She squinted against her pillow, trying to focus on her surroundings through bleary eyes. Why the hell did I leave the drapes open? She closed them every night, her protection against the world.
“Oh my God.”
Her soft mewl of agony felt like a shout. Wincing, she fought against the pounding beat of a headache reverberating throughout her aching body. She tried to center herself by focusing on any one part of her anatomy that wasn’t sore. None existed.
A faint, persistent sound filtered through her pain. The foghorns from San Francisco Bay had never seemed this close before. Her senses slowly emerged from the blanketing haze. She wasn’t in San Francisco. She was in Las Vegas. And there was an odd noise coming from the far side of the king-size bed.
Stretching out a shaky hand to balance herself against the spinning room, Claudia brushed against something warm, solid and most definitely male. She held her breath and twisted around to see a dark head partially buried in a mass of tangled covers. Horror clenched her gut.
The very idea churned her stomach. Franklin had made his intentions clear. She’d made hers even clearer—no. If he’d slipped something in her drink and taken advantage, she’d see him behind bars.
Claudia shook her head. Not possible. Franklin was in San Francisco. He had no idea she’d gone to Vegas. He thought she was on vacation, visiting her brother in Twentynine Palms, California.
So, who am I in bed with and why the hell can’t I remember how I wound up like this?
She squinted at the waves of dark hair.
Wavy? With growing horror, she realized that the hair was clipped military-style—sides cut tight and the top allowed to grow a little longer, permitting the errant waves.
“Oh my God!”
The loud croak of disbelief aggravated her headache. Claudia didn’t care. This was too horrible to believe. It can’t be. It just can’t. Of all the men in the world, why this one? The one who did things to her insides she would deny to her last breath. The one who made her want what she refused to allow again…ever.
She lashed out under the covers with her foot, whacking Zach Taylor squarely in the ass. “Get out! What are you doing in my bed?”
A muffled ‘oomph’ and a string of curses emerged from the pile of bedding. “What the hell?”
Zach bolted upright, clutching the edge of the sheet to his chest like a maiden bride. It did little to cover his naked body.
Make that gorgeously naked body.
Claudia shut down the fuzzy image of running her fingers over his carved chest. What is he doing here—in my hotel room, in my bed? More to the point, why is he naked? And she, too, for that matter. But if the tingle between her legs was any indication, she already knew the answer.
What have I done?
Scowling, Zach pushed himself upright.
Nothing made sense and all her thoughts were a jumble. She dredged up her only defense—the one that had failed her last night—control.
“I said get out.”
She reared her foot for another attack against his oh-so-fine ass. With a lithe twist, Zach avoided the kick and pinioned her leg under his arm. Electricity zinged up her thigh, aiming to roost in the warmth at the top.
His quick jerk pulled her off-balance. She flopped back down onto the bed. The sudden movement brought waves of nausea.
Her distress must have been plainly written on her face. He jackknifed over the edge of the bed, scooped up a nearby trashcan and shoved it under her nose. Two used condoms stared back at her. It was all her stomach needed to tip it over the edge. Ignoring the trashcan, she dashed to the bathroom, trying and failing to drag a blanket with her.
She fell to her knees before the toilet with images of those condoms etched in her brain and threw up, naked and puking in a hotel toilet, fighting her hair. Humiliation overwhelmed her. Zach would never let her live down this moment.
Kill me now.
“Here… I got you.”
Zach wrapped the blanket around her then pulled back her hair.
Claudia clutched the edges of the soft cover in one hand as another wave overcame her.
“Why are you being so nice to me?” she asked when she recovered.
“I’m thinking I might have a masochistic streak in me,” he replied.
After what seemed like hours of wrenching heaves, she levered herself upright, still shaking.
“Do you want to go lie down or stay here for a while?” He combed his finger through her hair—petting her, soothing her, breaking down her defenses.
She shrugged his hand away. “Bed.”
He helped her stand. “Rinse and spit first. You’ll feel better.” He ran a glass of water for her then held it to her mouth. She complied with his suggestion, ignoring their reflections in the wall-sized mirror. Zach cupped her elbow and helped her back to the other room. Once she caught sight of it, Claudia wished she’d remained in the bathroom.
The room was an unholy mess. Clothes—hers and his—were strewn from one corner to the other. A pair of panty hose was draped over the lampshade. A bottle of champagne was upside down in the ice bucket. Another rested unopened on the desk. Room service trays were piled with dirty dishes. Money in denominations ranging from twenty to one-hundred-dollar bills lay scattered over the bed and on the floor.
She sank to the edge of the bed and buried her head in her hands. Zach left her, only to return and press a cool, damp washcloth into her hand. She ran the cloth over her face and tried to gather her wits.
“Here.” He held out a glass of water and a handful of aspirin. “I think you could use these.”
She glanced up. He’d pulled on a pair of white boxers but hadn’t bothered with a shirt or shoes. His muscular chest was bare. A sprinkling of hair that narrowed to a distracting line leading down into his waistband grabbed her attention. More hazy images intruded—wandering her tongue down the bunny trail while she divested him of his boxers. At least she’d maintained some measure of power and control last night, but how much had she lost?
Claudia accepted the glass and the pills with shaking hands. She drank, darting surreptitious glances toward her unwanted companion.
Captain Zach Taylor, attorney and United States Marine, epitomized everything she distrusted in a man. Darkly handsome with full, sensuous lips and a flashing dimple, he represented to her the typical carefree philanderer—the kind of man who could break a woman’s heart and never think twice about it. She’d already had her heart broken once and that was enough to last a lifetime. Her older brother Phillip had introduced them years ago, and ever since, the antagonism had been mutual.
Yet that was nothing compared to the lust-filled fantasies of him dancing through her head every time she made herself come. Her first glance at the man had sent her heart and stomach somersaulting with glee. All her hard-won control had sifted away. Zach was the one in charge and she’d done everything in her power to keep him from realizing that.
‘You need to loosen up, Claudia Stuart, and stop being such a prude.’
Zach’s teasing remark had been made in front of a crowd of friends at a Christmas party in Phillip’s home—mostly fellow attorneys from the Judge Advocate’s Office at Camp Pendleton. The jibe had drawn a big laugh from the Marines. Zach had been one of them, and his personality was in a league of its own.
She recalled that he had wanted her to give him a simple kiss under the mistletoe. Cold rejection had been her answer, delivered publicly to humiliate and discourage further interest. In retaliation, he’d dubbed her Ice Princess. The nickname had stuck—and so had the animosity and that damnable unrelenting want for him.
She’d let him egg her on at that party. There’d been a stupid bet. She’d lost. The price? That blasted mistletoe kiss. But there hadn’t been anything simple about it. Claudia would never forget the fire, the raw sensuality that had engulfed her, threatening her carefully erected defenses. She swore the heat from his erection that had been wedged between them had branded her. There were times she could still feel it throbbing against her. She’d done her best to avoid a repeat incident. The only time Zach had ever been in her bed was in her fantasies. Until now…
Claudia put down the glass, forcing a calmness she didn’t feel. “It looks like we robbed a bank.”
“Hit the jackpot, as I recall.”
“I remember something like that, but it’s about all.” She rubbed at the ache in her head. “God, this is my worst nightmare.”
Zach leaned against the dresser and stared at his toes. “I’ve never had a woman complain before, but in this case, I’d have to agree.”
Claudia soaked in the sight of him, standing there unguarded. Her focus wandered to the scar on his left biceps from a bullet wound. Old fear gripped her heart. He’d been injured trying to protect Phillip and Rowan’s son the previous year. The news had brought her to her knees. She cared for him more than she’d ever admit, making her more determined than ever to never let him near her heart.
He lifted his gaze to hers, nailing her in place with its dark brown intensity. “We’re married.”
Claudia’s jaw worked, but it seemed an eternity before she could push out the single word. “Impossible.”
“But true,” he replied.
He shoved away from his perch and walked to the desk. With a flick of his wrist, he dragged out a paper from underneath the champagne bottle. Thrusting it at her, he said, “I found this when I got the aspirin from my ditty bag.”
Claudia craned her neck at the paper but refused to touch it. A different wave of nausea engulfed her.
United this day in Holy Matrimony, Zachary Stephen Taylor and Claudia Marie Stuart…
Their signatures were sprawled with untidy abandon at the bottom of the document. Two of the people who had accompanied them to Vegas had signed as witnesses.
“This has to be a joke,” she muttered, although the document and the evidence throughout the room left no doubt.
“Oh, how I wish that were so.”
A little melodramatic, but it certainly echoed her feelings.
“Listen—” he began.
Claudia held up her hand. “Put on a shirt or something. I don’t need you walking around here half naked.”
“What’s wrong? Too tempting for you?”
There it was, that killer smile guaranteed to make a woman’s heart stutter and her lady parts stand up and take notice—Claudia’s included. She narrowed her eyes. “Why, you self-serving—”
“You’re pretty tempting yourself.” He waved a finger at her.
Claudia glanced down. She’d let the blanket fall, exposing her nudity. Nothing was left to the imagination. Embarrassment burned her from head to toe. With as much nonchalance as she could muster, she tugged up the blanket.
Zach half-grinned. “Pity. I was rather enjoying the view.”
His grin widened. “That’s a fine way to speak to your new husband.”
She rubbed her forehead and tried to control the laughter that was threatening to turn hysterical. “You would be the last person I’d consider marrying.”
“But, to put it bluntly, that’s what we did. We’re husband and wife.” He waved the certificate once more then tossed it to the rumpled bed. “Legally married by Reverend Thompson at the Vegas Chapel, wherever the hell that is.” Any humor his voice had held was gone.
Claudia tugged the edges of the blanket closer. “I didn’t think they were allowed to marry people who were drunk.”
“Maybe they didn’t realize how far gone we were”—he clutched his hands to his heart—“or maybe our boundless love and devotion for each other was too much to deny and they married us without delay.”
“Cut the melodrama,” she snapped. “In any event, it’s something I plan to rectify at the earliest opportunity. I’m sure I won’t hurt your feelings when I tell you I’ll be filing for divorce as soon as possible.”
“Summary dissolution,” he corrected.
Here they were in this lousy predicament and he wanted to debate technicalities. “I need a lawyer.”
“You just married one, remember?”
Claudia wanted to screech at him. Instead, she kept her voice level, maintaining her control, speaking in cold, clear tones that even a moron would have no trouble understanding. “I don’t care what you call it or how it’s done. I want out of this alcohol-induced nightmare. Do you understand me?”
“Loud and clear.” The ice in his voice matched her own.
Good. At least there’s something we agree on. Although, from the looks of the room, they’d found other mutually agreeable matters during the night.
Zach sighed. “Despite us being drunk, it appears we were careful. There are two condoms in this trash can, two more in the bathroom. I know you think I’m a sex-starved animal, but believe me, I have my limits. Frankly, I’m surprised to find more than two. But on the off chance we weren’t and you discover you’re—”
“I’m on the pill.” Her body, her rules. She trusted no man—and certainly not a flimsy piece of rubber.
He sounded disappointed.
Trying to ignore her aching stomach and pounding head, she wrapped her blanket around her rigid body and headed for the bathroom to change. His silence followed her
Shutting the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her platinum-blonde hair was flying out in all directions and her skin had a tinge best described as pasty in the overhead lighting. Her blue eyes were almost black in her pinched face. They were bloodshot, as well.
A stunning sight. She dropped the blanket and stepped into the shower.
“If you can’t remember it then it never happened,” she whispered into the biting chill of the spray.
But it had happened. If she wanted to deny the evidence around her, that was one thing, but her aching muscles and soreness were quite another.
Was it as wonderful as I’d fantasized? Damn, I wish I remembered.
Claudia laughed at the contradiction. She didn’t want him, yet she wanted it to have been a night she’d remember forever? More input for those fantasies.
She warmed up the spray and let the water beat life into her system. Sinking into the bottom of the tub, she hugged her knees to her chest. She tried to focus on the last twenty-four hours and figure out where she’d faltered, where her defenses had been breached.
Her sister-in-law Rowan had talked her into going to a wedding. Phillip had been the best man. Zach had been a groomsman. Immediately following the ceremony, Rowan delivered a son, after successfully hiding the fact she was in labor during the ceremony.
Then there had been the wedding reception. Drink had flowed. Claudia had abstained. At some point, the wedding party had decided to take a road trip to Vegas. They’d wanted to borrow Phillip’s brand-new minivan. He’d agreed, on one condition—Claudia must drive. She’d been the only sober one. She’d agreed as a favor for her brother.
They’d arrived at midnight with Zach and six other people. All Claudia had wanted to do was find a room and go to sleep. But, as usual, she’d allowed Zach to bait her.
‘Just one slot. Play just one. I’ll even give you the dollar.’
Anything to shut him up and put much-needed distance between them so the buzz he always gave her would die. She’d fed the dollar in…and had gotten a thousand back. The cocktail waitress had brought one drink after another. She and Zach had gambled and kept winning. Champagne, wine and beer had mixed with lethal intensity.
She dropped her head to her knees. A vague memory of one hell of a kiss with both of them plastered against the slot machine drifted into her foggy senses. A glint of gold and diamonds caught her eye. He’d even bought her a beautiful ring. None of it made any sense.
They didn’t get along. Their constant sniping at each other proved that. Hell, she’d fueled it to save her heart. How in the world could we have gotten married?
A knocking at the bathroom door startled her from her thoughts. She tensed, afraid he might barge in.
“What do you want?” she shouted.
“I have to pee,” he snapped back.
“Can’t you wait?”
“You’ve been in here for half an hour already. I can’t wait much longer. If you don’t come out, I’m coming in whether you like it or not. I’m giving you another five minutes.”
Claudia balled her hands into fists and stood. It was going to be a long drive back to Twentynine Palms.