Lilly Rush should come with a warning label, Scotty decided as he kissed her long and deep in their deserted hotel hallway. Because she was the most addictive thing he'd ever encountered. One kiss, and he was hooked. It was as though he was wired to want her.
Somehow, they'd managed to stop kissing long enough to leave the bar and get on the elevator with at least a moderate sense of decorum. But as soon as those steel doors slid shut, she'd attacked him, undoing the rest of the buttons of his shirt and kissing him with a fervor he'd have never in his wildest dreams imagined the Ice Queen would possess. For sixteen floors, she kissed him and touched him and set every atom of his body alight with need for her. When the elevator dinged and the doors slid open, they'd stumbled their way down the hall, legs tangling, half tripping, almost falling, though neither of them cared.
He wasn't even sure whose hotel room they were stopped in front of, nor was he inclined to find out, because Lilly's nimble fingers were slipping down his side and darting into his pockets. First the right, then the left, all the while her kisses continued, so delicious that his knees went weak. He wasn't sure what she was after, but he didn't care about that, either. Those tantalizing touches had wiped his brain clean of everything but her and them and now.
Whatever she was looking for, she must not have found it yet. Her hand, near-scorching through the thin fabric of his T-shirt, skimmed over his torso. Paused briefly over his pounding heart. Then, seemingly inspired, it darted into the pocket of his shirt.
"Mmmm. There it is," she murmured against his lips, then pulled away from him. His eyes snapped open to reveal her grinning lustily, with—mother of God—his key card dangling between two teasing fingers.
Scotty let out a strangled groan, the desire so thick it almost choked him. Untold ecstasies lay just beyond that door, but he couldn't stand this much separation from her. Not yet. Just a few more kisses. A few more moments, and he'd have had enough of a hit that he could let her unlock his room.
If it was, in fact, his.
Screw it. Figuring that out could wait. She couldn't. His lips returned to hers with all the joy of a long-delayed homecoming. His hands tangled in her hair with untamed eagerness, trying to touch all of it at once. Oh, God, it was just as soft as he remembered. Softer. It was strands of heaven.
With a delirious moan, he tore his lips from hers and started to move downward, to explore the curve of her chin. The firm line of her jaw. That long, lily-white throat. Her scent pooled at the base of it, normally some light, fresh combination of flowers and air and woman, but now it was heated and heady. Her pulse pounded against his lips; his name floated from her mouth to caress his left ear.
Something cold and hard scraped the tender, tingling flesh of his upper lip; he slid his fingers down to push the obstacle out of his way. Too sharp to be a button. A necklace, maybe? Yeah, definitely a necklace. Pretty, no doubt, but right now, an irritating intrusion. He swept it aside easily, then pressed another kiss to her luscious, satiny skin. And another. And another. And—
He knew that necklace.
And with that, the little bubble of illusion he'd built around himself, around them, shattered to smithereens, allowing all the reasons they shouldn't do what they were doing, what they were about to do, back into his life.
She was his friend. She was his partner.
And…she wasn't his.
Scotty's lips froze on her flesh. Every cell in his need-filled body screamed at him to ignore his brain, ignore his conscience, ignore those shattered illusions and get the hell back into that blissful bubble.
But he couldn't. Not and be able to look himself in the mirror in the morning.
Lilly pulled back and searched his face, her lips wet and cherry-red from their madness, her eyes indigo pools of unabashed desire.
Oh, he hated himself. Hated himself for what he was about to do.
But he'd hate himself more if he didn't.
"Lil," he rasped. "We can't."
"Why not?" It was practically a whine, and he groaned again. What kind of idiot would walk away from something this amazing, this wonderful, this perfect?
"We can't," he ground out, her delicate diamond necklace shimmering in his shaking fingertips.
Those beautiful blue eyes grew wide with realization. Frantic breathing slowed. It was clear she'd forgotten Saccardo's existence entirely, and Scotty didn't know whether to whoop with joy or bang his head against the wall.
Slowly, reluctantly, he released her and stepped back. Cold air seeped in between their bodies and sucked away what little breath remained in his lungs. Icy palm prints replaced the heat of her hands where they'd gripped his shoulder and the back of his neck. And the sick chill of guilt settled like lead in his stomach.
"Dammit," she whispered, her eyes on the black and gold swirls in the carpet. Bending down, she retrieved the key that had apparently slipped from her fingers. Her hair fell over her flushed cheeks and full lips like a curtain at the end of a play. Trembling hands slipped the key into the lock and turned the handle.
The door opened.
It was his room after all.
She looked back at him just long enough for him to see the tears pooling in her eyes, the look of terrified regret, and then she was brushing past him, hurrying down the hall toward her own room. The soft rattle of the lock and the quiet click of the door in an otherwise silent hallway was the final nail in the coffin of what might have been.
And that was how Scotty found himself a few minutes later, still sitting in the floor just inside his room, his head leaning against the back of the door.
What was he thinking? What the hell was he thinking, taking advantage of her like that? It—it was stupid, and cruel, and wrong for so many reasons he wasn't sure he could remember them all. But just in case, he decided to list them again, the soft thumps of his head on the door punctuating each one.
She was his partner.
She was his friend.
She was with Saccardo.
And she was at least half-drunk; the cherry on top of his self-flagellation sundae. That alone should've been enough to bring him to a screeching halt after that first kiss. Should've kept him from doing what he did.
Kept them from doing what they did. Because she was anything but a passive participant. She'd started it. Not that he didn't want to, or wasn't trying like hell not to. But she was the one who'd gotten that look in her eyes while they were dancing. She was the one whose gaze had wandered to his lips this time. And she was the one whose restraint was torn to ribbons out there in the hall. Incredibly, he was the one who'd put on the brakes. She would've kept on speeding down the freeway.
And—and what the hell was that all about, anyway? Was it purely the alcohol? Would she have done that with anyone, and he just happened to be there, saying something she needed to hear? Or did she actually feel something for him?
Well, whatever was going on with her, Scotty knew beyond the shadow of a doubt what was going on with him. He had feelings for her. No point in denying it. Nor was there any point in trying to figure out what label to put on them or how deep they ran. It was too terrifying to think about, and in the end it didn't matter. Whatever name they had, whatever form they took, they were there, lodged in his heart, and he had no idea how the hell to get them out.
He'd fallen. Hard. For the last woman in the world he should fall for.
She was his partner.
She was his friend.
She was with Saccardo.
No way would this end in anything but heartache.
And that was when Scotty got to his feet, muttered a few choice words, and opened up the mini-bar.
Screw the high prices. He was definitely entitled to a drink.
Lilly awoke the next morning to a pounding headache, a cottony mouth, and the incessant ringing of her phone. Grabbing it to answer, she was startled to see that it was past nine.
The phone call was Miller. Through the pre-coffee fog, Lilly was able to determine that Rick Rodgers' alibi for the night of Ellie's disappearance checked out. Rodgers had left the law office at the time he claimed, and a woman in her nineties who'd worked at the train station remembered 'that handsome young devil' waiting there until well past midnight, looking more and more agitated the later it got.
Convinced, and more than a little relieved, that Rodgers wasn't their man, Lilly knew they had no further reason to stay in New York. She rose, dressed, and packed up her things, filled with a strange mixture of dread and anticipation at the three hours looming before her. Hours in which she'd be sealed in a car with Scotty.
God. Scotty. She couldn't believe she'd done what she'd done with him last night. That wasn't her. She didn't go around making out with co-workers. Especially not when she was dating someone else.
She had to apologize. Plead temporary insanity. She was weak, she was sad, she'd been drinking, he said those nice things, and the combination had momentarily robbed her of her senses. Scotty would understand. God knew he'd made his share of mistakes in this department, and he was probably just as embarrassed and eager to put the whole thing in the past as she was. So she'd apologize, beg him to forget it ever happened, and they'd go back to being partners. Friends.
Friends. She punctuated the declaration with a zip of her suitcase,strode down the hall, and stepped into the elevator, satisfied that she'd found a way to minimize the damage.
But then the elevator doors slid open to reveal the white tile floors of the lobby, the brass planters full of artificial greenery...and Scotty just turning away from the check-out desk.
"Mornin', Lil," he said over the rim of his cardboard coffee cup as they headed for the double glass doors.
And it all came rushing back.
She'd said he was gorgeous last night—fucking gorgeous, if she recalled correctly—but he seemed even more so this morning. His hair was still damp from his shower; she remembered the feel of those ebony strands under her fingers. His face was smooth and freshly shaven; she knew how it felt with a slight dusting of stubble. He smelled warm and delicious, a bit more artificially-fragranced than last night, when most of his trademark aftershave had melted into the comforting scent of just him. But, as he took her suitcase and loaded it into the trunk of the Taurus, she closed her eyes and took a deep whiff anyway.
Oh, good Lord, what was wrong with her? She'd expected to feel awkward around him, which she did. Humiliated and guilty, which she also did. But she hadn't expected to feel so much want.
Now that they were in the car, so close she could feel the heat from his body, it was even worse. She wanted to trail her fingers up the exposed skin of his muscled forearm, past the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt, up and over his shoulder to play at the back of his neck, as she had last night on the dance floor. Her blood heated at the memory of the low, throaty groan he'd given in response. She wondered if he'd do that again.
His eyes were fixed straight ahead, focused on navigating through the taxi-clogged Manhattan streets. She'd seen those eyes last night, dark and glittering with desire, sultry and smoldering with the promise of what he was capable of. But despite the look in his eyes, the passion in his kisses, the heat of his hands as they'd roamed feverishly over her…he'd stopped. Stopped.
And that stupid reckless part of her was dying to know what would've happened if he hadn't.
Forcing her attention away from him, she fumbled inside the collar of her shirt, where the necklace Saccardo gave her still rested against her breastbone. She squeezed the diamond hard, hard enough to make a painful impression in the pad of her thumb. Saccardo was who she should be thinking these things about. Eddie. Not Scotty. Eddie.
Was she really that cheap? That easy? Did their relationship really mean so little to her that she'd kiss the first available guy at the first available opportunity, just because Eddie wasn't around? Was she really so stupid as to jeopardize her partnership—her friendship—with Scotty, just because she was feeling a little lonely?
She dug the pendant into her thumb so deep she feared its imprint would be permanent.
Next to her, Scotty cleared his throat. "Lil…about last night…"
Her stomach churned. "Yeah…"
"It was a mistake."
Dark eyes darted in her direction, eyes that made her start to melt…to remember…
"Yes." She forced the word out. "Yes. It was. And—and it didn't…mean anything. Did it?" Panic surged through her.
"No," he replied quickly, his eyes firmly on the road ahead. "No, of course not. It was just…"
"Yeah." The memories made her feel hot all over.
He slowed the car to a stop at a red light, then kneaded the steering wheel beneath his palms. "Look, I need to apologize. You were drunk, you were sad, and I—I had no right to do what I did, to take advantage of you…"
She threw a startled glance in his direction. He was apologizing?
Wait, of course he was. She should've known he'd play the guilt card. And it was ironic, really. The person who had no reason to feel guilty did, whereas the one who had a flannel-clad, appletini-loving reason to feel guilt was, at the moment, feeling shockingly less of that emotion than she should.
Her hand darted out with the intention of resting on Scotty's arm, of reassuring him. She yanked it back. "You didn't take advantage of me. I kissed you, too, remember?"
Desire flared in his eyes. He remembered, all right.
The light turned green, and he tore his gaze from hers and turned his attention back to the road.
Full to overflowing with emotions she didn't even know how to identify, Lilly sighed and fiddled with her necklace. "Scotty, kissing you was…" Amazing. Breathtaking. Unbelievable. Earth-shattering. "Nice."
"Nice. Yeah." The glance with which he graced her suggested that he, too, was settling for far less than the word he wanted to use.
"But we can't." She had to throw cold water on the fire crackling between them.
"No." His agreement was quick and sharp. "Absolutely not."
"Lots of reasons."
"Exactly. We're partners."
"You're seein' someone." Was it her imagination, or had he said that through gritted teeth?
It didn't matter. It couldn't matter. She squeezed the diamond into her thumb again, hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. She was with Saccardo. Who was sweet, and funny, and kept her on her toes, and—and she wanted to be with him. She liked him. He was fun. She hadn't smiled this much since…well, she couldn't remember. Too long.
"And, y'know, this doesn't have to change anything," Scotty was saying. "We're still friends, right?"
The hope in his eyes as he looked over at her brought a smile to her lips.`
"Yeah. Definitely. Friends."
He grinned his satisfaction, and damn those appealing twinkles in his dark eyes. Damn that deep dimple in his right cheek. Damn her for being so susceptible to it. Damn, damn, damn.
"Friends…who don't kiss," she made herself say.
That grin widened. "Well, yeah."
"What happens in New York stays in New York."
"Exactly that." His dazzling smile dissolved some of the awkwardness between them. "Anyway. I'm sorry."
Once more, she resisted the temptation of a reassuring touch. "Yeah. I'm…I'm sorry, too."
"So we're good?"
"Yeah, Scotty. We're good."
And then they lapsed into silence. A silence that stretched too long. It just sat there, thickening. Congealing. Scotty cleared his throat a time or two. Drummed his fingers against the steering wheel as he inched forward in traffic. And Lilly tried not to watch those fingers. Tried not to remember how they felt running through her hair, caressing her cheek, her neck, her collarbone…
A horn honked, startling her from her reverie, and she glanced around, looking for some distraction. Any distraction.
Suddenly, she remembered her freshly-autographed copy of Rifles and Rings and leaned forward to grab her purse off the floor. "Hey, ever since I got my book signed, I've been dyin' to reread it. You mind?"
Scotty looked a little relieved. "Long as you don't get carsick."
She smiled. "Deal."
"Okay if I turn on the radio?" His hand was already halfway to the button.
"Go ahead." She suppressed the sigh that longed to escape as a toothpaste commercial filled the air and she dug in her bag for the comfort of her favorite novel.
It was better this way. Really. It was. The more miles she and Scotty put between themselves and New York and that dimly-lit hotel hallway, the closer things would be to normal. And they would get back to normal. They would. She was sure. Nothing had changed. Not really. And nothing had to.
But she couldn't fight a nagging feeling, as the commercial ended and the familiar guitar intro to "Hotel California" filled the air, that maybe everything already had.