Fall

Chapter One

Stella


There is a man following me. I’m 99.5 percent sure of it. Though it should be freaking me out, I’m more intrigued at this point. I slide a glance over the organic apple bin at the stalker in question. Tall, lean, fit—at least judging by the way his coat hugs his broad shoulders—even features, good jawline. Chocolate-brown hair and tan skin. Chocolate and peanut butter. Yum.

I bite back a snort. It’s never a good idea to shop for food when hungry; everything starts to look tasty. And, okay, maybe I’m about 80 percent sure he’s following. Examine, if you will, the facts: Mega Hot Dude has appeared in every aisle that I’ve been in, but he doesn’t seem the type to follow anyone around. There’s something too self-possessed about him, as if he’s actively trying not to be noticed. Good luck with that. The guy has a luster that has nothing to do with looks but is closer to sheer magnetism. It’s so strong that he seems vaguely familiar, which is just ridiculous. If I’d met him before, I’d remember his brand of hotness.

Is he following me? The jury is still out. More study is needed.

Possible stalker guy glances up, his big hand wrapped around a rosy Honeycrisp, the same type of apple I’d put in my basket a moment earlier. I’m snagged by jade-green eyes beneath expressive dark brows before I look away, my heart thudding from being caught in the act.

Nope, he definitely can’t be stalking me. Guys like him never look at girls like me. They favor tall, thin goddesses with perfect bone structure, or diminutive elfin pixies with big eyes and perky smiles. They do not look at girls of average height, average weight, and average looks. I ought to know; I’ve been overlooked by guys like him my whole life. All the way back to first grade when little Peter Bondi chased all the girls for a kiss—except me.

It’s a terrible thing to realize that you’re the only girl whose cooties are so repellent, even the class booger-eater won’t touch you. The memory of watching all the other girls run around screeching while Kissing Peter chased after them during recess still stings a bit.

Not that I have a right to complain. I have my share of good features: clear skin—always a bonus—and decent lips. Mom used to call me Bardot, not because I looked like the ’60s movie star, but because she thought I had a mouth like hers. Bee-stung lips, my mom called them, which sounds really painful and hideous. I have also been blessed with silky, red-gold, softly curling hair.

Now, I love my hair—and it’s taken me to the age of twenty-nine to be able to say that without worrying I sound vain. But some men see the hair and expect more from my face. They expect stunning beauty, not average attractiveness. How do I know? I’ve been told that very thing a few times. Ouch. And of course, the hair comes with the freckles. Men either love them or hate them.

Honestly, I am more likely to attract comic-book geeks. Soft-bodied guys with sharp minds. It works for me. Give me personality over muscles any day. All of which to say, Mr. Smolder is probably wondering why I’m everywhere he is, and is not at all interested.

Shaking my head at my paranoia, I head for the cookie aisle. The shelves are sadly bereft. Snowzilla, as the media is calling it, is headed this way. Since it’s March and New Yorkers were just starting to enjoy spring, no one is particularly happy about the surprise storm. In the true spirit of city dwellers faced with the possibility that stores might actually close, panic has ensued. People have been stockpiling necessities such as toilet paper, bread, water, and junk food.

I never understood the whole bread thing, because no one ever seems to purchase anything to go with the bread. Peanut butter is still stocked, as is jelly. What do these people do with their bread in the event of an emergency? Huddle down beside their piles of toilet paper and eat plain slices of bread until help arrives?

Whatever the case, all that’s left are a few chocolate chip bags and one lonely package of Double Stuf Oreos. Not to worry, my little Double Stuf delights, I’ll find you a good home. I grab the pack and am about to put it in my basket when Mr. Peanut Butter and Chocolate turns the corner. Again?

His long stride stutters as he catches sight of me, and his brow lifts a touch as though he too is thinking, you again? He glances at the Oreos in my hand, and his fine lips flatten. Because they are fine, those lips. Well shaped, wide, not too full, not too thin but just …

Jesus, I’m gawking at his mouth. And he’s staring.

Facing off like gunslingers at the O.K. Corral, the moment holds a beat, one in which heat flares low in my belly and between my legs. Mortified, I turn and flee. Like a wimp. Because a blush is coming on. Bad enough to be caught staring twice. Worse to be caught with my hand in the cookie jar, as it were.

I’m all too aware of my ass and its generous proportions as I hurry away past smirking Keebler Elves. Pissed at my self-consciousness, I decide to slow down and work it, putting a little extra sway into the motion.

Unsettled by the mini showdown, I hustle while getting tampons and some new body wash, then head for the ice cream aisle. I have plans, and they include cookies, fudge sauce, and my favorite mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Rounding the corner, I come to a screeching halt. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Accusatory is opening the ice cream freezer and reaching for the last …

“You are not going for the mint!” It isn’t a question.

He pauses, and again his dark brow lifts, this time a little higher, a little more outraged as well. God, those eyes, green sin surrounded by thick, thick lashes. Girl lashes. Nothing else about him is girly. “And if I am?”

A little shiver runs over my skin that has nothing to do with the icy air billowing out of the freezer. He has a hint of a British accent, faded in spots like a pair of well-worn jeans. And his voice? Gah. It is sex and sweaty sheets, hot fudge over crushed cookies.

I really need to eat before shopping next time. I should head for the checkout and go home.

But mint chip is on the line here. I stomp down the aisle, far too aware of the way my body pushes through space to get closer to him. Shit, this guy is potent, all irresistible pheromones and irate smolder. I brace myself against the onslaught.

“I’ve been looking forward to that ice cream all day.” And it is the only one left. Geesh. What is with this store? Did everyone in the city raid it earlier?

Mr. Smolder shifts his weight, bringing his lean body closer. “I’ve been looking forward to it too.” His hand wraps around on the top of the carton.

No freaking way. Oh, it is on, dude.

I grab the bottom of the carton. “You do not want to get between a woman and her ice cream, bud.”

His eyes narrow. God, he really looks familiar. Not in an, oh, where have you been all my life way. It’s more of a, have you been on the news lately—and please don’t let it be as a possible murder suspect type situation. Sexy beast murderer? Sure. He’s definitely got a bad boy thing going on.

His dark hair is short on the sides but shaggy on top, falling into his eyes to tangle with those crazy long lashes of his. I have the insane urge to brush the locks back. But I don’t.

I’m frozen by his glare. Great gravy, he’s imperious and utterly assured, awash in the kind of arrogance that says he’s used to getting his way in all things. My perception of him shifts again, and I wonder if he’s a rich boy slumming. His gray sweater is cashmere, and though his peacoat and jeans are worn, their cut is too good to be off-the-rack retail. In my line of work, I’ve been around enough wealthy men to know fine clothing when I see it.

He’s either rich or really good at picking up great secondhand bargains. And he’s still oddly familiar. I can’t pin why, and it’s weird not knowing. I’m usually an expert at reading people. But this guy defies basic categories.

His voice takes on a hard tone. “You got the Oreos, sweetheart. I’m taking the ice cream.”

I hold my precious stash closer to my side. “And they need The Mint to be complete.”

“‘The Mint’?” He laughs shortly. “Are you seriously referring to ice cream as though it were some kind of superpower?”

“It certainly has the power to bliss me out.”

That imperious brow of his lifts high again. “And that’s supposed to persuade me to let it go?” Something darkens in his gaze, something that sends an unwanted flash of heat over my skin. “What if I want some bliss too?” he murmurs, all dark sex and hot chocolate.

Oh, he’s good. He probably cons lots of women out of their ice cream with that melting voice.

“Too bad. This ice cream has my name on it, mister.” I tug, but his grip tightens, and the carton won’t budge.

He leans closer, bringing with him the scent of soap and a whiff lemon-honey. “You’ve stepped on the train to La-La Land if you think you’re getting this ice cream, Button.”

“Button?”

“You heard me.” He grins then—all teeth—and gestures toward the other flavors with a nod of his head. “Give up the ghost and grab the Neapolitan over there. Because this ice cream is mine.”

This is ridiculous. I never bicker with strangers. And certainly not with hot guys. Under my normal MO, I would have made a joke about snowstorm-related ice cream shortages, wished the stranger a nice night, and then been on my way. Conflict solves nothing. Yet here I am, acting like an insane woman. The knowledge doesn’t stop me from growling, “I. Want. The. Mint.”

He’s close enough that I see the small scar just under his left eye, half hidden by his girly lashes. Unfair, those lashes. “Not a chance in hell, Button.”

Again with Button. I have no idea what it means, but I’m not backing down now. My honor is at stake.

Neither of us moves. I glare. He glares. In this way, I read him perfectly. As easy as breathing.

Go on, Button. I dare you to try.

You think I can’t take it from you?

I know you can’t.

The arrogance of his little silent rejoinder sets my teeth on edge. Stella Grey might be an average girl, sporting wild hair and possessing a butt that’s seen too many cookies, but she is no wuss. Ignoring the fact that I’ve begun to think of myself in third person, ignoring my sensible side that is screaming, “No! Don’t do it!” I pick up the proverbial gauntlet.

Rising on my toes, I move in for the kill.

And kiss him.

John


I’ve been poleaxed. By a kiss. And it wasn’t even a hot-and-heavy one. Just a peck. Quick and stealthy. I’d barely had time to react before it was over and she was gone. But during that one point of contact, I’d been totally engaged. In that one, strange moment, every muscle in my body tightened, and my heart flipped over within its cage. I felt the soft pillow of her lips—the give and resiliency in them—and the warm burst of her breath as she gasped. Just as I had.

I’d gasped. What. The. Shit?

The strangeness of it settles over me, prickling my skin. It is the end of a shit day, preceded by a shit week, shit month, shit year. Mired in shit, I have become comfortably numb. I exist in a world of neither highs nor lows. It works for me. As does engaging in simple activities that normal people do. For small slices of time, I act like a regular bloke. Tonight, I’m buying groceries before the storm hits. I like the normality of it.

All that is shattered now as I stand, gaping in the direction my kissing bandit has fled, vaguely aware that the ice-cold freezer air is starting to numb my ear and cheek and that I should move. But there’s another sensation holding my attention. One I had thought I’d lost. Of my blood pumping hard and hot through my veins, my breath unsteady and fast, as though I’ve shifted from an intense sprint to a sudden full stop.

My dick is hard. From nothing more than a little peck on the lips by a plain girl. Again … What. The. Shit?

Well, she isn’t entirely plain. In my mind, I can still see the dip and sway of her ass, that plump, rounded ass, nicely molded in a tight black skirt as she walked away from me. Black skirt, black leggings, black combat boots, red hair.

God, that hair. No matter how much of a crazy pill the woman clearly is, her hair is gorgeous. I’d noticed her hair when she first entered the store. A redhead. Crazy Girl’s hair is brilliant red-gold, like a brand-new penny. A lush tumble of shiny, loose curls, spiraling like a starburst around her plain little face.

It had been almost a shock when she’d first turned my way and I caught full sight of her. Hair like that makes a man expect sex and sin. Not wide eyes and freckles. Cute as a button. A sexy Goth girl with a Mary Ann face. Girl next door meets Wednesday Adams.

I shake my head slightly, trying to get it together. Doesn’t matter what she looks like, the girl is an angry bunny out for the kill. Why did she kiss me? What were we arguing about again?

I glance at my freezing, empty hand. Right. “The Mint.”

A grin pulls at my cold cheeks. Point to Button.

Letting the freezer door slam, I take off after my ice cream.

She’s already at the checkout line, trying to tuck a wayward strand of brilliant hair behind one ear. The curve of her cheek sports a nice pink flush, one that grows deeper as I approach. White teeth nibble on a plush bottom lip that I remember all too well.

Seeing her now, I also remember that flash of shock in her eyes when she’d kissed me, like she couldn’t believe what she’d done. I have never met a more easily readable person. I can almost see those crazy little wheels and cogs spinning in her mind when I saunter up behind her and set my basket down on the end of the belt with a thud.

She’s totally expecting a fight. And it clearly freaks her out. Interesting, considering she did not back down before. Earlier, I’d started to wonder if she’d been following me, which is a definite turnoff. I don’t need a stalker on my hands. Except she’d sent me a warning glare in the produce section that had made me reevaluate that theory. No, this girl clearly wants nothing to do with me.

Her nose lifts as if smelling something off. Yet she doesn’t acknowledge me. Oh no, Button gives me her shoulder, her pale hand resting on my mint chocolate chip ice cream like she thinks I might snatch it away. Ha.

My grin returns, and I crowd her space, staring down the back of her neck, at the creamy swath of skin just visible above her battered dark-blue leather bomber jacket. Her eyes are dark blue too. I have the sudden desire to see them again, glaring up at me in challenge.

Come on, Button, give me those defiant eyes. I’ve been so fucking bored. So numb.

I move in closer. Close enough that if she breathes wrong, her pert ass will brush against my crotch. The idea sends all sorts of less pure but much better ideas into my head. Odd that this strange girl even affects me. That hair certainly does. I took one look at that hair and imagined it sliding over my hard dick. But she’s way too baby-cute for me. Not to mention the fact that she’d be more likely to bite my dick than suck it.

With that horrific thought in mind, I shift my weight back a little and glance at the items she’s unloading with sharp, snappish movements. Aside from the feminine products, almost everything she’s picked is identical to mine. Down to the eight Honeycrisp apples, two containers of vanilla Icelandic yogurt, organic granola—with the cranberries—buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, Italian bread, and smoked center-cut bacon. Exactly the same shit. She’d gone for Oreos. I wanted Oreos. And let’s not forget “The Mint.”

What the hell is that all about? If she’s not stalking me, and I can admit, I’d usually been one step behind her, how did we both happen to get the same stuff?

Bloody weird.

I study her again, annoyed, and admittedly baffled by this hyperawareness of her. Is it attraction? I’m not sure. I’m drawn to confident women. The ones who command a room. Okay, I usually go for sex kittens who eye me like candy. I’m shallow when it comes to sex. Sue me.

This woman creeps through a space like she’s trying to blend into it. Until the moment she squared off against me. And then she changed. All her attention had zeroed in on me like a one-two punch. It had been stunning. Electrifying. I haven’t felt that in so long, I almost didn’t recognize the sensation at first.

Strange. And she clearly has no idea who I am. Which I like. A lot. While not everyone recognizes me, most people around my age do. Not Ms. Mint Thief.

I let my gaze slide over her, knowing she feels it, a bonus because it makes her bristle.

Her features are quirky, a nose a bit too big, square chin pared with round cheeks. And then there are the freckles. Freckles sprinkled like cinnamon sugar over her nose and cheeks. They are just dark enough to catch the eye and make you want to count them, maybe trace their patterns. I’ve never liked freckles. Too distracting.

She even has two on her lips. A definite distraction.

It’s her eyes I want to see again. The guilt in them. Because she is guilty. She stands there fidgeting and maintaining her vigilant watch over her food. Completely ignoring me. Cute.

I loom, hovering like a conscience. Her round cheeks flush hot pink, clashing with those cinnamon freckles. I like ruffling her, even though I shouldn’t. Why that is, I can’t really say, but since I’ve always gone on instinct, I follow it now.

The cashier gives me a dirty look. Rightly so. I am a big man breathing down a single girl’s collar.

I smile at the cashier. “We know each other.”

“No, we don’t,” says the little ice cream thief, not bothering to turn around.

I lean in, the scent of girly shampoo and flustered woman filling my lungs. “Ah, now how can you say that, Button? It’s not every day I kiss a woman and give her my cream.”

Button’s whole body seems to vibrate, vacillating between fight-or-flight mode. I’m betting on flight since she’s bolted before. But then that dark-blue glare turns on me. “I kissed you. And it was my ice cream.”

Hers? I lift a brow as she pinks. Try again, you little sneaky thief.

Her brow lifts in retaliation. Who is holding The Mint, chump?

It’s kind of impressive the way she communicates “chump” so clearly with one look. The cashier hands Button her change, and she turns to go. The knowledge that she is about to walk out of my life leaves me unnervingly bereft.

“What’s your name?” I ask, needing to know. It’s probably something cute and perky.

She pauses. “I’m sorry, I don’t talk to strangers.”

I bark out a laugh. “Right, you only kiss them.”

Kiss me again, I’ll get us nice and acquainted.

No. I don’t want to kiss this chick. She’s a cagey Muppet, the type who probably closes her eyes during sex and composes her shopping list—dreaming of another mint chip run. Little thief. An evil goodie thief who has left me with nothing to snack on during the blizzard. Shit, I should go back and get the damn Neapolitan ice cream. But I hate the strawberry part. Why do they even bother with that shit?

I shake my head and focus on Ms. Mint. She’s smirking at me now, knowing full well that I am without any sugary goodness, and I have the sudden childish urge to pull her hair or pinch her ass. It’s a toss-up.

Kinky and weird, Jax.

“You’re really not going to tell me your name, thief?”

“What’s your name?” she lobs back, as if I don’t have one.

“John.” It’s both the truth and a lie. I smile with teeth. “And yours? I’ll need something to put down on the police report.”

Head held high, she grabs her bags but then stops, whips out the Oreos—the last package that she’d managed to snap up before I could get to them—and slaps them on the conveyor belt.

“Feed the cops some cookies. They’ll probably be hungry after hearing you whine on and on.” With that, she stalks off. No sway now, just a militant march that has me wanting to laugh again.

“‘Leave the gun—take the cannoli.’ Is that it?” I call out to her.

The cashier looks at me as though I’m crazy. I have to agree. Because for one thoughtless moment, I consider running after Button and seeing if I can ruffle her some more—despite my suspicions about her being uptight in bed, or maybe it’s because of them. I do like a challenge.

But I can never forget who I am. It’s as unchangeable as the color of my eyes. For better or worse, I’m Jax Blackwood: famous for being the lead singer, and sometimes guitarist, for Kill John, infamous for trying to kill myself two years ago. Any woman I interact with will always know those things about me, and the knowledge will affect everything between us from then on. Fame and infamy are brilliant at keeping relationships on a surface level. I prefer it that way. Sex is sex, fun, easy, mutual pleasure.

Ms. Mint Thief clearly isn’t the quick-hookup type. That much I know. Though bickering with her has been more fun than I’ve had in months, I’d rather this moment stay fresh and pure than sully it by fucking her and rolling out of bed as soon as I’m done.

I watch her go and rub the familiar hollow spot in my chest. Some things aren’t meant to be.