Sloane Bishop sighed and sank deeper into the steaming hot tub’s swirling waters. “This is the life,” she said, closing her eyes. Too bad it’s not really mine. She shooed the negative thought away with a quick glance at the infinity tattoo on her left wrist. She read her black scrolled mantra… Live the life you want to love the life you live. She’d recoup her lost savings and rebuild her world one brick at a time. Meanwhile, she’d enjoy the gift of staying rent-free in Delaney Lawson’s fabulous mountain house while she finished the screenplay for the star’s next movie project.
When Sloane confessed to the Hollywood icon why she’d fallen behind on the screenplay, Delaney had suggested Sloane use her place in Eagle Rock to complete the project and regroup. Delaney was on a publicity tour and wouldn’t be using it. After a week of banging away on her laptop, Sloane had gotten back on track and now, on this chilly December Saturday evening, she gave herself a well-deserved break.
She moved her hands back and forth over the jets of water, letting the heat and streams massage her tired fingers. The Top Hits playlist she’d selected played full-blast through the deck’s outdoor speakers and effectively drowned out any worries about how she’d recover from her ex-fiancé’s total wipeout of her bank accounts. Gavin made a mint every week, but he’d managed to squander every penny he earned and gotten into debt to loan sharks who’d threatened him if he didn’t pay up pronto. He’d drained her finances to protect his ass… and she’d worked years to build her portfolio.
Now she had to start again.
I’ll get back on my feet—one screenplay at a time. This one will…
“Who the hell are you and what the fuck are you doing in my sister’s hot tub?”
Sloane snapped her gaze open and locked her eyes on a man she recognized only from the pictures on the mantle in the living room. “No one was supposed to be here,” she blurted, scooting to the back corner of the tub where she’d draped her towel before submerging butt naked into the steaming water. But how could she have anticipated one belligerent Marine showing up unannounced at her little birthday suit party for one? Belligerent and quite possibly the most incredible specimen of a tough, muscular male she’d ever encountered.
Her nipples puckered despite her predicament.
“Excuse me? You’re squatting in my sister’s place.” He closed the remaining distance between them. “If anyone isn’t supposed to be here, it’s you.”
Moonlight illuminated his dark brown, military-cut hair and the handsome planes of his striking features. And the glow suffusing the air highlighted a hint of weariness in his hazel eyes, which stayed locked onto hers, searing her with their smoldering intensity.
Sloane's mouth dried. Oh boy. Instant attraction to her financial angel’s older brother hadn’t been on her radar. Not when she’d vowed to remain single, independent, and in full control of her life and all her bank accounts.
She sank deeper into the water. “Look,” Sloane said. “I’ve been here for over a week at Delaney’s invitation. I couldn’t have broken into this place. The security is tighter than Fort Knox’s.” She raised her chin a bit and injected more bravado into her voice. “If you don’t believe me, go ahead and contact her.”
He scrubbed his palm over his face but relaxed his stance. “Point made,” he said. “Shit. When’s a guy supposed to catch a break these days?”
“That makes two of us,” she said. “But here we are, and I need you to give me some privacy so I can get out of here without embarrassing myself.”
He rubbed his eyes and shook his head. “You’re naked?” He took a step back and looked north, east, south… anywhere but directly at her.
“Of course I am,” she said. “I didn’t expect uninvited company during my down time.” No. She’d planned on soaking away her doubts so she could get up the following day to once more lay words down on the page until she typed The End.
His breath misted in the air, joining the bubbling hot tub’s rising steam. “I understand,” he said. “I’ll give you time to get decent.” He turned around and walked to the French doors that led to the house’s expansive open living room and kitchen.
More than steam heated Sloane's blood as his exit gave her an extremely excellent view of his black jeans and how they perfectly molded his chiseled butt.
Unfortunately, having super sexy Ben Lawson rattling around Delaney’s house would undermine Sloane’s ability to complete her project. “Good thing I got a ton of words written before he showed up,” she said to the churning waters, then she turned the vents off and clicked the remote to shut down the music.
After moving to the hot tub’s steps, she reached for her towel and… branches cracked, sounding like someone stepped on them while walking in the woods located several yards away from the mountain house’s deck. Metal clicked like the sound of a gun loading in the distance and a sudden intake of sharp breath echoed in the air. Her adrenaline spiked and a wave of dizziness washed through her. Who the hell could be out there? No one. Too dark, too late, and too cold… She gulped in air to squash the rising fear before she made a complete fool of herself. Still, she searched the pine trees and skeletal Aspens just in case.
Never assume. She remembered all too well the consequences of believing her ex’s lies. Gavin Chandler’s star appeal had blinded her to the truth about his insecurities and excessive gambling addiction.
Then, as if conjuring him out of thin air, she caught the scent of his cloying, expensive cologne. Thousands of invisible insects seemed to crawl over her scalp. Black spots floated in her vision and her throat closed, making it hard to take in oxygen. No. God. No. He’s in rehab. But anyone can check themselves out, and he’s the King of Charm.
She touched her cheek where Gavin had hit her during their argument about the money he’d stolen. If only the judge hadn’t denied her restraining order. But then Gavin had entered rehab, and she’d backed off filing again.
Now she questioned her decision. If Gavin lurked in the woods, she needed help. Ben Lawson might have been an unexpected intrusion, but who better than a strong Marine to go to for protection?
Her heart skittering, she quickly scooted out of the hot tub and wrapped the towel around herself, then she rushed toward the patio doors only to run smack into her would-be hero.
* * *
“Whoa.” Ben wrapped his arms around Sloane to steady her. “What’s got you in such a hurry?”
“Someone’s out there. My ex fiancé. I smelled his awful cologne… heard weird noises too… He’s supposed to be in rehab but I… I…”
Quickly, Ben spun her away from the glass doors and moved her into the kitchen’s shadows. “Get down,” he said, lowering them both to the floor.
“He’s not big. I know you can take him… but… what if he’s armed?”
He registered the fear clouding her chocolate brown eyes and lurking in the white line rimming her shivering lips. “He any good with a gun?” Ben had already confirmed Sloane’s presence with Delaney, and he recalled briefly glimpsing her douchebag ex in a shooting scene in a show his sister liked to watch, Montana Mavericks. He could be good with guns, or he could be just good enough for the big screen. Still a douchebag, though.
“He’s practiced shooting at gun ranges for research. So he knows how to shoot well enough,” she said. “I’ll never forgive myself if something happens to you after everything Delaney’s done for me.”
“Don’t worry about me. I bet the jerk’s never taken on enemy fire overseas.” Or been ambushed by an informant only to be placed on involuntary leave while the powers that be in Washington investigated the sensitive mission’s fucked-up outcome. “I’ll handle Gavin Chandler if the bastard comes after you.”
“Thank you. Sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about,” Ben said gently. “He’s the one who should be apologizing.”
She blinked, and a sheen of unshed tears gleamed in her eyes. “You’re right.”
Resisting the urge to brush one of the wild curls of brown hair from her brow, Ben withdrew his concealed Glock and reached up to flip the light switch off to submerge them in darkness. “Don’t get up until I make sure the coast is clear.”
She nodded. “I won’t move an inch.”
He pulled out his cell phone and gave it to her. Her hand trembled beneath his touch. “I’ve got a few bars showing coverage. Call the sheriff while I’m gone.” Hopefully, she’d only imagined the smell and the noises she’d heard had been caused by an animal.
Ben edged away from the glass doors, made his way to the front door, turned off the alarm, and reset it before easing into the frigid night air.
Every cell, every muscle, every part of him remained focused on one thing: find the source behind the noise, anything out of the ordinary, and neutralize it if necessary. Damn, he’d kill for his night-vision goggles right about now. He pressed against the exterior wall, waited, and listened for any sign of an intruder lurking in the woods.
Only the sound of pine needles rustling in the breeze and the still beat of winter silence filtered through the air.
But he wouldn’t be satisfied until he searched the property’s perimeter. Carefully, he continued edging his way around the house until he reached the west corner. Gun in hand and ready to fire, he rounded it and discovered nothing wrong. Whoever or whatever had spooked Sloane had vanished.
Fifteen minutes later, he had confirmed his conclusion and returned to the kitchen. “All clear.”
Sloane bowed her head and released a huge breath. “Thank goodness.” She tucked her towel tighter around her torso and stood. “Because the sheriff’s swamped with a tracker trailer going off the rails just past Eagle Rock.”
The towel barely covered her body, skimming to just above the tops of her thighs—her super-long, muscular legs seemed to go on for miles. Damn. He’d always been a leg and ass man. He figured with legs like hers, she had to have a fine butt. His blood ran south and his brain snapped a picture of her fully naked, making him hard.
Good thing his jacket covered most of his pelvis. He iced himself down with a vat of mental Montana snow and conjured up his last Meal Ready-to-Eat to kill his appetite for her.
“He’s a good man, but the department is understaffed and underfunded,” Ben said when his cock stopped doing all the thinking. “If it weren’t for Hank Patterson and the Brotherhood Protectors, we’d have a world of trouble in these mountains.”
“Too bad I can’t afford them.”
“You don’t need them.” Ben forced himself to look her square in the eyes instead of letting his gaze drift to her mouth-watering breasts. “You’ve got me while I’m here on leave.”
“I won’t say no to your offer,” Sloane said. “How long are you on leave for?”
Indefinitely. He drop-kicked the thought out of his mind. He’d be cleared of any potential wrongdoing in the fucked-up mission that had claimed his buddies’ lives. “Long enough to stick around and make sure your idiot ex-fiancé won’t be a problem.”
“I appreciate it,” she said while holding her towel in place. “I should get some clothes on.”
“I don’t know. You’re rocking the towel.” Fuck. Why the hell did that slip out of his sex-starved brain? Plus, he’d promised himself no more hookups with women who didn’t get his profession’s demands.
She flushed all the way from the top of her cleavage to the roots of her hair. The air between them crackled with electricity, and desire transformed her brown eyes to ebony. “Like I said, I should get changed.”
“I’m still a little spooked.”
“I’ll be outside your bedroom door, sleeping across the hall from you. You’ll be fine.”
“You’re a good man. I’ll figure out a way to even the score while you’re looking out for me,” Sloane said. “And I won’t cramp your style or ruin your leave while you’re here. Chances are Gavin’s still in rehab and I’m freaking out about a bear in the woods.”
She stepped around him and moved toward the hallway leading to the guest suites.
Ben followed her and leaned against the wall next to her door after she closed it behind her. He’d come to his sister’s place to regroup, catch up with some friends, and pretend his entire future hadn’t blown to smithereens only a few weeks ago. Hell, he didn’t even know if he wanted to return to the Marine Corps.
Protecting a gorgeous screenwriter hadn’t factored into his plans. Not that he minded hanging around with a beautiful woman, but she’d been right to put the brakes on doing anything. They only had two things in common: his sister and using her place to regroup.
Once they managed to get their lives back on track, they’d go their separate ways.
Suddenly, the door opened, jarring him out of his thoughts as he registered Sloane’s pale and frightened face. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
She showed him her cell phone’s screen. “It’s Gavin. He’s left multiple voicemails and texts. He wants another chance.” Sloane shoved the phone into her sweatshirt’s kangaroo pocket. “I changed the number. He’s not supposed to know this one.”
She hugged herself, and Ben struggled not to bring her into his arms. If anyone needed a friend right now, Sloane did. But he didn’t dare hold her when he wanted to do so much more than give her comfort. He refused to take advantage of her vulnerability, but his cock definitely wasn’t getting the memo to stand down.