“Wanna join the Mile High Club?”
Been there, done that, Cole Novak thought. Lounging back in his first class seat, he grinned at the redhead who’d issued the seductive invitation. She was all big hair, plump lips, and eye-popping curves. A tad overdone but gorgeous nonetheless, with exotic green eyes and ample cleavage on display.
She’d introduced herself as Jessica about an hour ago. When she placed her hand on his thigh, her fingertips mere centimeters from his pants zipper, Cole held his breath, wondering… Hoping. Hell, a small part of him even praying…
But nope. Zip. Nada. Nothing. Zilch.
As had been the case when the pretty blond flight attendant had flirted with him earlier, Cole’s body—and more importantly his heart—just wasn’t interested. Jessica eyed him like he was her last meal, and Cole almost squirmed under her ravenous gaze. What the hell was wrong with him?
He sighed, covered her wandering hand with his, gave it a friendly squeeze, then gently pushed it away. “Thanks, darlin’, but I have to pass.” He could have lied. Made up some kind of excuse to ease the rejection, but this woman seemed worldly enough to take it.
Disappointment flickered in her eyes, and she shrugged, turning toward the window. “Your loss.”
Maybe, he thought. But all he wanted was to get home and fall into bed—alone—and given the fact that Cole was a single, twenty-nine-year-old red-blooded man who loved bedding beautiful women, that just wasn’t right.
Then again, things hadn’t been right for a while now. It had been six long months since he’d gotten laid. At first it had been because his mother had been ill and he’d been busy splitting time between his job and taking care of her. And now it was because his mother was dead and he was just…tired.
Bone deep exhausted.
And apparently suffering from a limp dick condition that not even this redhead’s considerable assets were capable of curing.
Thirty minutes later, they landed at LAX. Cole made his way to baggage claim, and was picking up his duffle bag when he heard a familiar male voice call his name.
Cole turned to see Luke Indigo, his friend and business partner at Frontline Security. Though it was Saturday, Luke wore a snazzy suit, still managing to look more brawler than banker. His face was all hard angles with steel-colored eyes, features that complemented his career as a bodyguard just as much as Cole’s six-foot-four muscled frame.
“Hey, man. Thanks for picking me up.” Cole hated flying. Normally, he’d have taken his Harley to San Francisco, but the time he had available to meet with clients and visit with his friend Ryan Hennessey had been brief, so he’d flown instead.
They made their way outside and to short-term parking. When they got to Luke’s SUV, Cole tossed his bag into the back seat.
“So how’s Ryan?” Luke asked.
“He’s in love.”
Luke laughed. “He’s been in love for years. He’s also been in denial.”
“Yeah, the boy’s got a thick skull.”
Cole and Luke climbed into the car.
Ryan, a college buddy of theirs, fought fires for a living. He spent most of his downtime with his best friend, Annie, and despite the sparks that sizzled between them whenever they were together, both were too scared of messing up their friendship to do anything about it. Although…
“I think little Annie’s finally ready for things to change between them,” Cole said. “They should be in Vegas right about now.”
“A whole weekend in Sin City.” Luke started the car and pulled out. “Interesting.”
Cole stared out the window, enjoying the sunny June day. Good ol’ LA. “Anything I should know before Monday?”
“Only that we don’t need you to come in.”
Cole stiffened. “Excuse me?”
Luke sighed. “I know it sucks, Cole, but you need to clean out your mom’s house. Talk to the tenants about selling the rental next door. And then…”
“And then what?”
“Take some time off.” Luke waved a hand around. “See the world the way you always wanted to but never could because of your mom’s illness. Get on your bike, ride cross-country. Backpack across Europe. Business is booming. I can hire a few more men and—”
“I’ve traveled plenty, Luke.” Maybe too much, Cole thought. He’d been on a trip—not even one for business, but leisure—the day his mother died. Granted, she’d seemed completely fine when he’d left, so he hadn’t known it was coming. But he should have. And because he hadn’t, his mother had died alone.
Tense silence filled the car for several long minutes while Luke merged onto the freeway toward Cole’s apartment.
“Look, Cole, I’m worried about you. I know you feel guilty for not being with your mom at the end. I get it. But it’s been over three months since she died. At least start with the houses. Your mom would want you to begin the healing process, and dealing with her things seems the best way.”
A tight band wrapped around Cole’s throat as he imagined going through his mother’s belongings or signing papers to sell her houses. “I’m not sure I’m ready.”
Luke was probably the only person in Cole’s life he could be that honest with. They’d been friends since high school, even longer than the rest of their group of buddies who met in college. Luke had witnessed the battle Cole’s mother had faced, from the time she was first diagnosed with cancer thirteen years ago to the very end, plus every remission and relapse in between.
Cole’s mother had been his only family. His so-called father had been a sperm-donor as far as Cole was concerned. His birth had been the result of a short affair his mother had with a man she later told him was someone “high-profile.” She’d raised Cole herself, and although his “father” had sent him multiple anonymous letters in her care over the past five years, Cole had ripped up every single one.
Except for the one he’d gotten right after his mom died, addressed directly to him this time. Again with no return address but the same slanted handwriting on the front. He’d ripped it in half and tossed it on his kitchen counter, where it had sat for the last three months.
He knew why he hadn’t thrown the letter away. Because he was tempted to read it. Part of him wanted to know, now that his mother was gone, if he had another parent he might be able to develop a relationship with. And that pissed him the hell off.
His mother had been his only parent. His birth father wasn’t going to get a pass for abandoning them. Not even if that’s what his mother had wanted.
“I miss her, too, you know,” Luke said quietly.
“I know you do.”
They rode in silence the rest of the way to Cole’s apartment. It was a slick building in a trendy neighborhood. Nothing like his mom’s little track home in a generic suburb on the outskirts of LA. He liked his apartment, but it didn’t feel like home. Not the way Mom’s house always had. Made sense since he’d spent most of his childhood there. But he knew the best thing to do would be to put the past behind him and start fresh—beginning with selling his mother’s houses and investing the money into expanding the business.
Luke pulled up to the curb and put the car into park, then just sat there. Expectant. Waiting. Letting Cole breathe.
“You’re right about Mom,” Cole said with a heavy sigh. “I’ll start working on getting the houses sold as soon as possible. It was always in the plan anyway, since we need the money to start things rolling in San Francisco.”
“I’ve already cleared your schedule for the week. I’ll come by after work on Monday and we can—”
Cole quickly held up a hand and shook his head. “I appreciate the offer. But this…” He took a deep breath. “This is something I need to do alone. Plus, you’re already swamped. Maybe if you have some spare time, you can talk some damn sense into Eric.”
Luke pressed his lips into a grim line. “He’s not responding to texts or email anymore.”
“Shit.” Last week, another college friend of theirs, Eric Davenport, had left his fiancée, Brianne Whitcomb, at the altar. Eric had texted and emailed them that he was okay but he needed space, and he’d been off the grid ever since. Cole and Eric’s other close friends had decided to give Eric until the end of the month to get his shit together, then they were tracking him down. “He’s got a few more weeks.”
“Agreed. Take it easy, Cole. If you need anything, call me.”
“I will.” He opened the car door and got out, then lifted his bag from the back. Before shutting the passenger’s side door, he peered back into the car. “Thanks for the ride.”
Luke gave him a grim smile and nod. When Cole slammed the car door shut, Luke took off.
Upstairs, Cole’s airy apartment greeted him: wood floors, open plan, not much furniture. A complete weight set took up the majority of the living room—he still had the black, leather couch pushed back to the wall from when he’d caught a football game on TV. The kitchen was tiny but suited him. His place was sparse, he admitted, but most of the time, the lack of amenities didn’t bother him. The only art in the place was a painting he’d bought at ArtWalk downtown. It was propped against a wall, not even hung up yet. Bright colors splattered out from the center where a young woman leaned over a little table, her dark hair sweeping forward to cover her face. Mysterious…kinda racy in an innocent way. It was that mixture of sexy and sweet that drew Cole in, and sometimes he’d stop with a beer in his hand and stare at it for minutes on end.
He checked his phone, hoping Eric had called back. Nothing. After carrying his bag into the bedroom, he dropped it on the bed and started unpacking, but as he did, his conversation with Luke about his mom, her houses, and his own transparent effort to push away his grief ate at him. He swiped a hand over his face and closed his eyes, mentally counting to five before he opened them back up.
Then he saw it, and a sick sensation entered his stomach.
Over the years, he’d bought his mother countless snow globes for her collection. When he’d spotted this one in San Francisco a few days ago, complete with a miniature Golden Gate Bridge, he hadn’t been able to resist picking it up. Then buying it. Even though his mother was dead and would never see it.
He lifted the small package, which had been wrapped in paper and stuffed into the corner of his bag, and opened it. He stared at the tiny snow globe, its trapped iridescent flakes of shiny plastic swirling in a slow, wintry dance. Mom would have loved it.
What the hell was he going to do with a cheesy-assed snow globe now?
“Fuck!” He flung the snow globe across the room, and glass exploded everywhere. Water dripped down the wall into a sad puddle on the floor.
Luke was right. He wasn’t dealing with things. He wasn’t sleeping. He wasn’t interested in anything other than getting from one meal to the next while maybe doing something halfway productive in between.
He stared at the mess he’d made, then at the meager contents of his bedroom. There were still sealed boxes from when he’d moved in, sitting and waiting for him to open. This apartment would never be his true home. Home wasn’t a place; it was family.
And his only family was dead.
Unwillingly, the memory of the torn letter in his kitchen flickered through his mind and—
Leaving the bedroom, he grabbed his helmet and the keys to his Harley Sportster 883, parked inside his apartment complex garage. He’d take a drive to clear his head.
Five minutes later, he was speeding down the highway, his bike rumbling beneath him in a way that never failed to make him feel at ease. The air felt cool and refreshing, even more so the closer he got to the beach. About an hour later, he recognized the turnoff to his mother’s house and veered left. In minutes, he was parked out front but didn’t get off his bike.
The house was a three-bedroom ranch-style home accented by a small oak tree in the grassy front yard. At one point it had been painted yellow, but now, it barely reflected a pale cream. He’d been meaning to take care of that for his mom but never got around to hiring a painter. The grass had grown tall with a few bursts of feathery weeds sprouting out. For a woman who’d once loved to garden as much as she had, who loved a clean, she’d have been mortified to see it this way.
He hadn’t set foot in her house since she died, not even after her funeral. He knew it was stupid, but part of him felt if he avoided going inside, it would be like she wasn’t really gone.
He glanced at the house next door, the one his mother owned and rented out. She’d be happy to know it was being carefully kept. Since he’d last seen it, someone had added white shutters to the ’70s style jalousie windows and a gated white picket fence around the yard, giving the light gray house a magazine cover appearance. Artfully placed around the porch were terra cotta planters in all sizes, displaying a variety of cacti and bougainvillea.
Before getting sick this last time Mom had purchased her former neighbor’s home, figuring that if she rented it out, the money might become a good investment that she could use to supplement her retirement and travel the globe someday. She’d told Cole, though, that she wouldn’t rent it forever. Her secret hope was that once he was ready to marry—after he’d done all the traveling he’d dreamed of doing but had never gotten around to—he’d want to move in and start a family.
She’d even tried to play matchmaker between him and her tenant. A sweet girl, she’d called her. Beautiful and smart, too. Said they’d be perfect together. Cole had just hugged her and laughed it off. Wasn’t like he’d been in the market for anything permanent. He’d had enough on his plate with work and caring for his mom. He’d wanted to give her all the attention he could in the time they’d had left together. And he’d known after his mom was gone, the last thing he’d want was a committed relationship to tie him down. He’d have the freedom to do whatever he wanted. And a sweet woman who enjoyed suburban life wasn’t going to be part of the picture.
Finally, Cole started up the Harley again and pulled away from the curb. He’d come back first thing in the morning to start going through his mom’s things, he promised himself. Then he’d sell both houses and use the money to expand Frontline. It wouldn’t be easy, but right now he was just making things harder on himself.
He drove a few blocks and stopped at a red light, glancing at Metro Pub, a posh bar to his left. He’d been there before, knew it mostly catered to businessmen and women. It was nothing like Liquid Cooled, the dive Cole and his biker buddies liked to hang out in, but maybe a drink in a place filled with strangers was what his restless soul needed right now. It was worth a shot.
Cole pulled his bike into the parking lot, then walked inside, his eyes adjusting to the semi-darkness. He made his way to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender—a young guy fresh off campus—sat the bottle in front of him and popped off the cap. Cole spun on his stool and surveyed the crowd as he took a drink.
Just as he suspected, the bar was filled with people dressed predominantly in business suits even on a Saturday night. With his leather vest, jeans, and tats on full display, he stuck out like a sore thumb, as evidenced by the awkward glances flying his way from a few patrons.
His gaze fell on two women sitting at a high table not far away. One of the women was partially blocked by two people, but he could see the one closest to him. She was probably in her mid-forties, nice-looking with light brown hair, dressed casually in jeans and a cotton tank top. Nearby, a couple of guys whooped and hollered as they played darts, their lack of coordination indicating they were well on their way to wasted.
Movement caught his eye, and he brought his gaze back around to the first high table. The people blocking it had moved, and this time, Cole got a clear look at the second woman, also dressed casually in jeans and a cap-sleeved fitted T-shirt.
He paused the bottle of beer en route to his mouth so quickly, it sloshed around inside.
She was petite and dark-haired, with big eyes. Light eyes. Not a flashy woman. In fact, some might say she was on the plain side, but that was only if you were stupid enough to discount her delicate, perfectly symmetrical features. She had prominent cheekbones and a long, graceful neck that reminded him of a ballerina, and there was something about the way she talked to her friend—her eyes bright and her hands gesturing wildly—that made him think sweet and wild.
Staring at her, something stirred in his chest. As if she sensed him watching, she glanced over. As their eyes connected across the room, something in Cole’s jeans stirred too, something that hadn’t stirred in a good long time. Just like that, he felt a tug low in his belly, and red-hot need surged through him. His cock twitched and came to life, throbbing in a way that made him catch his breath.
It was a good kind of breathlessness, like the exhilarating rush he experienced while surfing, riding his cruiser, or having fabulous sex. It hadn’t taken a redhead or blonde or the promise of sex in an airplane to remind him of those things, only a lovely, unassuming brunette watching him over her drink with those big, light eyes of hers.
As his body worked overtime, so did his mind—from two different points of view. One urged him not to delay—stop wasting time and go to her, you dick.
But another part of his brain cautioned him—stop being ridiculous, you’re just tired. She didn’t seem the type of woman a guy casually picked up in a bar unless he wanted more from her than one night in bed.
And he didn’t have more to give any woman right now.
Certainly not anytime soon.
Probably not ever.
He had to focus on taking care of his mom’s things. Selling the houses. Expanding his business. And maybe finding out what the fuck was going on with Eric.
That was enough for anyone to handle at the moment.
Deliberately, he turned away and signaled the bartender. He’d have one more drink. Then he’d get the hell out of there.