“Sergeant? Stay with me. Come on. Look at me.” More distant, urgent: “Where’s the fucking evac?”
Gwen jerked fully awake, gritting her teeth against the pain in her shoulder. Her throat burned with acrid smoke that wasn’t there, and her ears thudded with small-arms fire. The heat of flames from months ago warmed her skin. The smell of blood was so strong she checked her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t bleeding.
She sat up in an unfamiliar bed, blinking to clear her eyes. The voices of other soldiers yelling for help, for her to stay awake, still sounded in her ears.
Her breath slowed; she was in Los Angeles, in her sister, Sam’s, guest room. The images and voices faded like mist. She swung her legs around the edge of the narrow bed, scrubbing her face and looking at the time: four thirty AM. It was already afternoon in London, and her body’s clock hadn’t adjusted yet. Sleep was gone for now, but she lay back down with one arm across her forehead. Out of the corner of her eye, the Royal Army Medical Corps tattoo on her upper arm—Aesculapius’s staff with a wreath and crown with the words “In Arduis Fidelis” inked underneath—seemed to mock her. She turned her face away.
Her physical therapist said the pain would eventually go away completely. The scarring never would. When they’d first taken off the dressings, she’d asked for a mirror. Sam had been there, trying to be reassuring. Gwen had smiled and said, “Well, I won’t have to worry about bikini season for a while, anyway.” The exit wound was the worst: a red-purple starburst nearly the size of Gwen’s palm to the left of her collarbone. The nurse holding the mirror said something about the scar fading, about possible plastic surgery. Gwen looked at it and thought, I survived you, you bastard.
When she went before the Medical Board, Major Woolston had declared her unfit for duty thanks to her injuries and the results of her psych evaluation and gave her extended medical leave. He’d pulled her aside afterward.
“Take some time to recover,” he’d said. “After that, well, even if you’re discharged, we could still use you and your skills, Tennison. The TA can always use instructors of your caliber.”
“As a civilian,” she’d said. Training weekend warriors.
Woolston had nodded. “Think about it. You have my number.”
That was when she knew this leave was a precursor to a medical discharge. The Territorial Army wouldn’t be enough. Nothing would be enough. She wouldn’t even properly be part of the TA either; just another civilian working for the Crown. Thirty-four years old, and the one career she’d wanted more than anything was over.
But she was alive. Turner would still be alive too, if Gwen had moved faster. Janet, whose kids would never see their mother again, who used to try to set Gwen up with her brother-in-law. Janet had been looking forward to going home. She’d had a reason to leave the service.
Damn it. Gwen pushed herself up off the bed with more force than was strictly necessary and pulled the nearest pair of jeans and T-shirt on. Even though it was still dark outside, she couldn’t bear to lie there anymore. It would do her some good to go for a walk anyway.
And if she was really lucky, someone might try to mug her. Punching something sounded like just what the doctor ordered.
The television was blaring with some afternoon talk show or another, and Gwen was curled on the sofa staring at it. The days had become a gray routine: wake up, do physical therapy exercises, shower, work on halfhearted job search, watch telly. When had she last left the flat? She’d walked to check the mailbox two days ago. There’d been a letter from Mark Turner, Janet’s husband. She hadn’t opened it yet, but left it sitting on her dresser.
The sound of Sam’s key scraping in the lock pulled her from her reverie. Sam came in with a smile on her face and a bag of Chinese takeaway. Gwen reached for the remote and snapped off the telly. “What’s happened?”
Sam set the food down on the kitchen counter and started pulling out cartons and plastic bowls. “Come lay the table,” she said. “We’ll eat first. Then we’ll talk.”
Suspicions raised, Gwen went into the kitchen to do as she was asked. She pulled down plates from the cupboard and brought them to the table. “That sounds . . . like trouble.”
“It’s not,” Sam said, taking a plate and dishing out a pile of noodles and vegetables. “It’s brilliant. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before.”
“Oh Christ.” Gwen snagged a bottle of mineral water out of the fridge—no booze in the house, not anymore. “You’re not trying to set me up again, are you?”
For some reason, Sam’s grin twitched. “No. Not like you’re thinking, anyway.” She didn’t say anything at first, paying attention to her dumplings and rice for a few minutes. Finally she took a deep breath and said, “I may have a job for you. And you’re perfect for it.”
Gwen raised her eyebrows and spoke around a mouthful of noodles. “I don’t need you to give me a job. Besides, I don’t know a damn thing about the music business. What are you going to have me do, haul boxes around? File paperwork?”
“Better. Eat first.” Sam refused to say another word until they’d finished dinner and done the washing up. She steered them back into the living room and sat them down on the couch.
Sam settled cross-legged on the couch, which did nothing to dispel the image of her as a mischievous ten-year-old. “How much do you know about Lucas Wheeler?”
Gwen frowned. The name was familiar, vaguely. “Musician, yeah? One of yours?” Sam nodded. Gwen thought again. “In trouble of some sort? That’s all I’ve got, really.”
“That’s him,” Sam said. “Rising star, could be huge if he could get his shit together. He’s about to go on an American tour and he’s missing a tour manager.”
“Missing. Did you lose them?”
“We had to let him go.”
“No,” Gwen said. “Absolutely not.”
“You’re perfect for it. All you have to do is keep things organized. Keep people on schedule and in line, make arrangements. It’s a lot of logistics, but you could do it. You used to tell me all the time about how you kept up with inventory, dealt with some transport issues . . .”
“Sam.” Gwen shook her head. “I’m not taking a job from you.”
“Then what are you going to do? Tell me that. You’ve been sitting around here for weeks now. I wanted you to have some time to recover, but now you’re not recovering, you’re getting worse.” She reached across and touched Gwen’s hand. “Look, I talked to Mum—”
“Oh, I’m sure that was enlightening. How drunk was she this time?”
“She’s doing better.” Sam’s voice was quiet and defensive. “She’s worried about you too.”
“Too late.” Gwen pulled her hand away, folded her arms, and leaned back.
Sam drew a deep breath. “Gwen. I know about the nightmares. I hear you, every night. I need you to do this for me. Not just because we need somebody we can trust—because God knows we do—but because I need you to do it.” Gwen started to protest, and Sam cut her off with a hand-wave. “You need to get back on your feet, and you’re not going to do that camped out on my sofa. I’m asking you to either take this job, or go back to England. I can’t watch you self-destruct here.”
“I can’t believe this. You’re giving me an ultimatum?” Gwen had to bite back harsher words. This wasn’t fair, and Sam was the last person she’d ever expected to do this to her.
“I love you,” Sam said. “But you’re frozen here. I know you; you’re meant to be helping people, out doing things. When you come back, you’ll have some interesting stories to tell. And then you can decide what you want to do from there.”
“Why are you doing this?”
There was a long pause before Sam answered. “Because when I was drowning, you dropped everything to come out here and throw me a line. I want to return the favor.” She smiled. “Call it step twelve, if you want.”
Gwen met her eyes, which was a mistake. Sam needed her, so how could she say no? “Fifteen years in Her Majesty’s army—I have my fill of interesting stories,” she muttered.
“Oh, but not like this.” Sam grinned. “This is rock and roll, Gwen. Come on. You know you want a chance to boss people around.”
Gwen snorted. “I’m not saying yes. But tell me about it.”
“Right.” Sam swung her legs down and leaned forward, all but rubbing her hands together. “Travel around the United States. Hang out with a group of close-knit but dysfunctional individuals and get to know them far too well. Deal with the money, keep everyone on schedule. Keep things going.”
Gwen pulled a face. “Sounds like me on our last family holiday as kids.”
“All right, what’s the catch?”
“You’re right about Lucas being in trouble. He’s just out of rehab. We—well, we hope it took this time, for lack of a better word, but we’re not sure.”
Gwen rubbed her forehead. “You want me to babysit an addict.”
“Maybe a little.”
“It’s not like you haven’t done it before.” Her voice was soft enough that Gwen looked up at her.
“That was different.”
“Yeah, I know,” Sam said with a faint grin. “That time you wasted your entire leave getting me sober. This time it’ll be your job. Gwen . . . he can be difficult. I won’t lie.” Gwen gestured for her sister to continue. “The Wheeler family, they’re pretty posh. Lucas has a brother who is both protective and well-connected. He’s spoilt.”
“This just sounds better and better.” Gwen leaned back against the couch cushions. “Anything else you need to spring on me?”
Sam found the edges of the couch cushions very interesting all of a sudden. “He likes to push buttons, especially with women. He can be a cad. We’ve lost some good people from this tour because they couldn’t cope.”
“I thought he was gay.”
Sam gave her a wry grin. “He doesn’t like to limit himself.”
“Right, so you’re saying he’ll hit on me?”
“Likely. He can be very . . . charismatic.”
“And I’m guessing petulant and arrogant and rude,” Gwen said. “Not in my top ten list of traits I look for in a shag.”
“No,” said Sam with a twist of her mouth, “but drop-dead gorgeous and needy are.”
“I’ll think about it. I mean, with a recommendation like that, how could I say no?”
“Great. Tomorrow night we’ll go out and I’ll start introducing you around.” Sam grinned, and Gwen tried not to wince. She knew that look. That was the look Sam wore when she’d just got her way.
“Are you sure this is necessary?” Gwen leaned in the doorway to Sam’s room. “I’m really not in the mood.” She was in sweatpants and slippers and had every intention of staying that way. “And I don’t have anything to wear.”
“I’ve got things you can borrow,” Sam said. “You can’t stay cooped up in my flat all the time.” She bent towards her mirror, jaw dropped as she tilted her head and applied mascara, her burnt orange minidress threatening to ride up her thighs. “Come on. Just for an hour. I want to introduce you to some people you might be working with.”
“I haven’t said yes yet.”
“Just for an hour.” Sam capped her mascara and turned to her. “If you’re not having fun, we can leave.”
That was how Gwen wound up waiting in a line outside of a busy LA club wearing her sister’s slinky white dress. The dress’s neckline hid her scar, but its sides had cutouts and it was frighteningly short. Between that and the heels—which she was woefully out of practice wearing—Gwen watched each step. She’d let Sam mess about with her makeup and her hair—shaggy as it was, growing out of her short desert haircut. In the end, Gwen was forced to confess that she looked pretty cute.
The bouncers knew Sam—as a junior vice president for R & E Music’s tour management division Sam knew a lot of people—and they got to bypass the main area of the club for the VIP lounge.
Gwen had never seen such a collection of beautiful people. Sam walked right in like she owned the place, but Gwen hung back, watching in awe as her little sister led her through the room, waving and yelling greetings at people left and right. If she took this tour manager job, this might become her world too. There was no way. She’d never fit in.
The music thumped in her chest, and every breath she took was tinged with the heat and scent of so many people drinking and dancing. Sam pulled her through the crowded dance floor, looking back at her with an encouraging smile. She stopped at one of the seating areas, a set of low-slung chairs.
“I’ll get us some drinks,” Sam said in her ear. When Gwen arched an eyebrow, she said, “Just club soda for me, I promise.”
Gwen considered how best to sit down in the low seats without flashing anyone. She perched on the edge of a seat and glanced around.
“Is this seat taken?” Gwen looked up and it was like a punch to the solar plexus. The man standing there was stunning: long dark hair falling in messy waves just past his shoulders, pale skin. His features were clean and masculine, a sharp nose and strong jawline, a slightly pouty mouth. He wore deep tan leather trousers so tight Gwen was surprised they hadn’t split open and knee-high black boots laced three-quarters of the way up his calves. With that and the loose, billowy white shirt and short leather jacket, he looked almost . . . piratical. Wordlessly, she shook her head, hoping her mouth wasn’t hanging open.
He sat down and leaned over to close some of the space between them. “Haven’t seen you here before.”
“I’m just—visiting,” said Gwen.
His eyes widened, and at this distance she could see they were deep blue. He smiled. “So I hear. Are you staying long?”
“It’s . . . up in the air for right now.” She’d never be able to go back to the RAMC, much less Afghanistan, and the thought of spending the rest of her life teaching part-time soldiers how to bandage a wound was hard to bear.
“Well, as much as I’d love to listen to that accent of yours all night, that wasn’t why I came over here. Want to dance?”
As if on cue, the song changed, a little slower—the steady, undulating pulse of drums with an overlay of bass and a low growling voice. Oh what the hell. Gwen nodded, and he held out his hand and helped her to her feet. Even in heels, she barely came up to his shoulder. God, she was probably grinning like an idiot, but the back of her neck prickled at his touch.
The beat of the drums got louder, and a second voice joined the first in a hollow harmony. Other couples formed around them as they found a spot on the dance floor. He kept his eyes on hers and they started circling together, not touching.
Slowly Gwen got pulled into the music. She closed her eyes and raised her arms overhead, letting the beat carry her. When she opened them again, her partner was closer than before, the warmth of his body radiating against hers. He wrapped an arm around her back and pulled her in. She hesitated before slotting her body against his, hip to chest. He was taut and lean, muscled but not bulky. Gwen had to resist the urge to bury her face against his chest.
They were moving in slow, steady circles, hips pressing tight. He dipped her backward, and caught by something she didn’t understand, Gwen tangled her hands in his sweat-damp hair. She could feel his breath against her throat, so close she thought his lips might be barely brushing against her skin. As he bent her over further, his hair spilled around her, caressing her arms.
He lifted her back to an upright position, and her hands slid away from his scalp to rest on his shoulders. Gwen’s heart raced, her blood roaring in her ears. His eyes, dark and wide, made him look almost as dazed as she felt.
He lowered his mouth to her ear and took a deep breath. “Come back to my hotel with me. Right now.” His voice rumbled in her ear, and she couldn’t hide the shiver. She didn’t do this—she didn’t pick up strangers in clubs—but she wanted to say yes.
She backed off and shook her head. “I came with my sister, and I should—”
He growled and buried his face against her neck, brushing his lips over her skin as he murmured, “I’d rather you came with me. Screaming.”
Gwen whimpered, the sound buried under pulsing bass and drums. Her heart was pounding hard enough that it must be about to crack her ribs. This was bloody mad. She needed to put a stop to it. His lips dragged up the side of her neck, brushing hot and wet against her earlobe. “Well?” he purred.
“I can’t.” She shivered as she shrugged away his mouth so it couldn’t tempt her further.
“Sure you can.” He trailed one finger down the side of her face.
It felt like blood running from her scalp. “No, sorry, I really can’t.” The music was too loud. It thudded in her ears like artillery fire. A woman’s high-pitched laughter prickled her scalp like a scream. She backed away from him, disoriented. Faces blurred, too many, too much sound, too much everything. She turned and fled, heart hammering in her chest and in her temples now, sweat making her skin clammy. The sensation of a thousand ants marching over her skin made her want to run screaming.
She found Sam and a small group of other women tucked in a quiet corner. “There you are!” Sam said. “I was starting to get worried. I didn’t know what you wanted, so I got—”
Gwen took the drink out of her hand and swallowed half of it at a gulp, welcoming the burn in her throat. She smiled at Sam’s friends then leaned down and murmured in Sam’s ear, “I have to get out.”
Sam gave her a worried look, then smiled at her friends. “We’ll be back.”
Everything was a blur until they made it outside. Sam pulled her down the street to a quieter area. “Are you okay?”
The tightness in Gwen’s chest was starting to ease, making it possible to take a breath deeper than a shallow gasp. “I’m sorry. I just—the noise.”
“Your hands are ice-cold.” Sam rubbed them between hers. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
“Sorry I ruined your night.”
Sam steered them towards the parking attendant. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Just as well.” Gwen let Sam guide her, leaning on her a bit. “I made an arse of myself in front of the guy I was dancing with.”
“It’s fine. It’s not like you’ll ever see him again, right?”
Thank God for that.
Gwen got to Sam’s office early for her first meeting with Lucas Wheeler and his entourage. She was surprised to discover that not only was the star already there but he’d only brought one other person with him. When he stood and turned around, Gwen wanted to sink into the ground.
Oh bloody hell, it’s him, the man from the club. He still looked to die for, in artfully ripped jeans and a T-shirt about a size too small under a leather jacket. His eyes widened, and she knew he recognized her as well. What was he thinking? Was he remembering the way she’d slithered against him, or was he remembering the way she’d made a fool of herself when she panicked and ran? Her body tingled at the memory of his arms around her, of his mouth against her ear. She was certain she was blushing brightly enough for anyone to see.
Before either of them could say anything, Sam came around her desk. “Lucas Wheeler, this is Gwen Tennison, your new tour manager. Gwen, Lucas Wheeler.”
Gwen stepped up and extended her hand, and another prickle rushed up her spine at the warmth of his fingers against hers. Shit. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wheeler.”
“After our first meeting you should probably call me Lucas,” he said. “Or was I so forgettable?”
Damn it, couldn’t he have at least pretended he didn’t know her? “Ah, right! The club the other night.” Gwen saw Sam twitch out of the corner of her eye. “That was you, wasn’t it?”
He smiled thinly in return, unamused. “So, I hear you’re a sergeant.” He looked at Sam. “We need military involvement now? Are you expecting to lead a charge, Sergeant Tennison?”
“Ahh, no,” Gwen said. “If I’m to call you Lucas, you must call me Gwen.” She tried on another smile and it almost fit.
“Got a lot of experience with the music business, Gwen?” He was looking at her so intently she felt like he was crawling around inside her skull. He would have to be a bastard about this.
“Sergeant Tennison comes highly recommended from her superiors,” Sam said, stepping in. “She’s got experience in most of the major areas we look for in a tour manager. I think you’ll find she’s a woman of many talents.”
“Is she.” Gwen recognized appraisal in Lucas’s eyes as he looked her up and down. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ll bet she is.”
Gwen kept her smile nice and neutral, the way she would have under fire from a superior officer. “At any rate, I’m quite accustomed to making order out of chaos. Which I understand was a primary job requirement.” Lucas gave her the same neutral smile, and they stood watching each other until Sam broke the silence.
“And this is Craig Davies.” She indicated the other man, dashing and handsome with silver hair. He was on his feet extending a hand. “Craig is staying on as the front-of-house engineer,” explained Sam. “He was filling in as tour manager for a while, but that sort of double duty is too much to expect of anyone.”
Craig grimaced, raising a question in Gwen’s mind. Some history there, then.
Sam cleared her throat. “Now, we’ve got some details to work out. Shall we?” She gestured at the chairs around the desk. The four of them settled in and got to work.
When Samantha Tennison told him she’d hired her sister, Gwen, to be his new tour manager, it didn’t occur to him to connect her with the Englishwoman he’d met at the club. And Gwen had looked just as surprised to see him.
In the light of day, he might have overlooked her. Her short dark blond hair was cut in wispy layers, and she wore just a trace of mascara and lipstick and no jewelry, aside from a simple pair of gold earrings. Between that and the cut of her dark blue suit, she may as well still have been in uniform. Cute, he would’ve said, but nothing more. He’d seen a secret side to her on that dance floor though, a side he wanted to see again, and soon. It had been going so well, but then she’d taken off.
Going to the club in the first place had probably been a terrible idea, but the boredom was driving him crazy. Nobody warned him that the craving for cocaine wasn’t the worst part; it was the comparative gray bleakness of everyday life without it. He’d gone home alone that night because no one else he’d met had half her spark. No one else had broken through the layer of dullness induced by constant sobriety.
He was alone a lot these days, unless you counted the people who were watching him like a hawk so he didn’t fuck up. The constant piece of advice he’d gotten in rehab was to dump the people he used to use with, which meant most of his friends. Pretty much everybody except for Craig, and thank God he had stuck around after the fiasco in London. It was no wonder he’d gone looking for company the other night. It was a goddamn shame she’d run out. The more he listened to her talk, with that delicious accent of hers, the more he was reconsidering his initial assessment of “cute.” She was gorgeous.
And if that weren’t enough, she was smart. He was right that she didn’t know much about the music business, but she caught on quick, and she definitely had a good handle on the other organizational aspects, the ones he usually ignored. Craig had made a joke at Lucas’s expense, and she’d relaxed enough by then to laugh, tilting her head back. Lucas wanted to kick Craig beneath the table, but he couldn’t stop looking at the fine line of her throat, remembering how her skin had tasted . . . Then Craig kicked him, and he realized he’d been staring.
The meeting ended, and he was at a loss. She’d warmed up to him while they talked, but she still didn’t seem to like him much. Clearly a more long-term plan was required. He was going to be spending a lot of time with Gwen Tennison over the next twelve weeks, but he wasn’t ready to say good-bye yet. As they walked out of Sam’s office, he considered his options.
Before he had a chance to say anything else, he heard Craig say, “Lee! What are you doing here?” Lucas groaned while his brother shook hands with Craig. Lee was his mirror image—if his mirror-self wore three-piece suits and cut his hair less than an inch away from high and tight.
“Oh, just coming by to give my baby brother a lift back to his hotel,” Lee said. He was four minutes older than Lucas, and he took the big brother role very seriously. “Make sure he doesn’t get lost on the way.” Between Lee and Craig, Lucas had barely been able to take a piss since leaving rehab without someone checking in. He didn’t blame them.
Lee was eying Gwen in a way Lucas recognized all too well. He unclenched his teeth and said, “Gwen, this is my brother, Leighton.”
As expected, Lee wrinkled his nose. “Call me Lee, please.” He shook Gwen’s hand with a little too much warmth for Lucas’s liking. “You must be the new tour manager.”
“No one told me that Lucas had a brother.” She looked between them twice, and Lucas was conscious as always of the striking contrasts between the two of them—but for the first time he worried that he was getting the short end of the stick in comparison with his staid twin.
“He likes to keep me a secret,” Lee said. “I hear you were with the British Army. Where did you serve?”
Lucas clasped his hands behind his back and turned away as if uninterested. Of course Lee had done his homework on Gwen. He probably knew more about her than Lucas did. He made a show of inspecting the tour posters that decorated the outside office.
“I was with the 16 CS Medical Regiment, attached to the 16 Air Assault Brigade outside Kandahar,” she said. “A combat med tech.” That tidbit Lucas hadn’t heard. He adjusted his estimation of Gwen once more, taking a closer look at the way she stood and carried herself.
“Lee will be quick to tell you that your unit was no doubt inferior to the US Marines,” Lucas said, rocking back on his heels. “He has a superiority complex.”
Gwen flashed him a grin, mischievous and friendly, that made the pulse beat harder in his throat. “I’ve met a fair few of your Marines, and yes, I imagine he would.”
“Not at all,” Lee protested. “CMT, that’s a dangerous job.”
“. . . for a woman?” Gwen lifted her chin, a hint of shadow falling across her eyes.
“For anybody,” said Lee. “It’s not a job I could have done.”
Gwen looked away with her ready-to-be-defiant stare, her expression softening. “Are you still on active duty, then?”
“No, I’m a private security contractor,” Lee said, and Lucas cut him off with a snort.
“Glorified bodyguard,” Lucas said.
Lee turned to Gwen, who was looking at him quizzically. “What my brother means to say is that he doesn’t actually know what I do.”
She grinned at him. “I think your brother was about to suggest coffee, Lee. Did you want to join us?”
Lucas tried to glare at Lee subtly enough to make him say no. It didn’t work.
“That would be great,” Lee said. “I’d like to get to know the woman who’s going to be keeping my brother in line for the next few months.”
“Actually,” Lucas said, “we should probably do it another time. I forgot I was supposed to call Emma and arrange some pre-tour publicity.” Emma Hansen had been his manager for years. She made a reputation for herself by looking like someone’s sweet old grandmother and kicking ass like the bully next door. “And I believe someone said something about me not getting lost on the way.”
Gwen looked from one brother to the other, then nodded. Lucas would have sworn she was disappointed. Was it at not being able to spend more time with him, or because it meant she wouldn’t get to spend more time with Lee? “I’ll let you gentlemen get on with it then. A pleasure to meet you all. I’ll see you next week.” She shook hands with each of them, and Lucas had to force himself to let go when it was his turn.
He couldn’t help but watch her walk away toward the bank of elevators. Next week his brother would be out of the picture, and then Lucas would have twelve weeks to try and get behind that cool, brisk facade and find out more about the woman he’d danced with.