It was fate. It had to be. A slow warmth unfurled inside him as the doctor he could not get out of his head looked up at him, her cheeks flushing pink.
She was all buttoned up at work. Tonight, she looked different. Looser. Unbound.
Compelling. That’s what she was. Her fire at work. Her refusal to let him bully her. He’d admired her backbone before.
Tonight, he admired her in an entirely new light. Her hair framed her face in careless curls. He hadn’t expected to see her outside of work. He damn sure hadn’t expected to see her here. An old familiar need rose inside him. A need for touch, human and warm. A need to lose himself for an interlude in sweat and sex and stunning pleasure. He’d given up drinking but women had apparently fallen into that category as well.
It had been months since he’d felt a woman’s hands on his body.
This woman was not someone he needed to be talking to at the bar tonight but he found himself walking toward her anyway.
After the week of confrontation they’d had, he’d be lucky if she didn’t slap him the minute he approached her.
He could do this. He could talk to a woman without drinking. Right?
Emily met his gaze as he approached. He almost smiled.
“Not your usual scene?” he asked, leaning against the bar.
She shifted, putting a little space between them. That slight reclamation of power. He made a noise of approval in his throat. “I’m surprised you’re talking to me.”
“I’m surprised you’re here. Shouldn’t you be home reading medical journals or something?” Her cheeks flushed deep pink and he wondered how far down her body that color went.
She tipped her chin then and looked at him. “Have you been drinking?”
He looked down at the bottle in his hand. “I don’t drink anymore,” he said quietly. No reason to delve into his abusive history with alcohol. “You?”
“Glass of wine,” she said.
Reza shrugged and leaned on the bar, taking another pull off his water and being careful not to lean too close. She looked like she’d bolt if he pushed her. “That would explain why you’re talking to me. We haven’t exactly been friendly.”
Her hair reflected the fading sunlight that filled the room from the wide-open patio doors. He wanted to fist it between his fingers, watch her neck arch for his mouth.
She motioned toward his bottle with her glass. “‘Anymore’?”
He simply took another pull off his water. He was going to be damn good and hydrated after tonight. He wondered what she’d do if he leaned a little closer. “Long story.”
“One you’re not keen on sharing?” she asked. She leaned her cheek on one palm. The sun glinted across her cheek.
“Let’s just say alcohol and I aren’t on speaking terms. Bad things happen when I drink.” It was nothing to be ashamed of but there it was. Shame wound up his spine and squeezed the air from his lungs. He was just like his dad after all.
“You say that like giving up alcohol is a bad thing,” Emily said quietly.
Reza snorted softly. He should have guessed she wouldn’t let it alone. She had stubbornness that could last for days. “It’s not something I’m proud of.”
Her hand on his forearm startled him. Soft and strong, her fingers pressed into his skin. “But stopping is something to be proud of.”
Reza stared down at her hand, pale against the dark shadows of his own skin. A long silence hung between them.
He lifted his gaze to hers.
“It takes a lot of strength to break with the past,” she said softly.
“What are you doing?” Her eyes glittered in the setting sun and he thought he caught the sight of the tiniest edge of her lip curling.
Her fingers slipped from his skin. “Offering my professional support?”
His lips quirked. “Was that a joke?”
“Maybe,” she said. “I’m working on developing a biting sense of humor. Defense mechanism against raging asshole commanders.”
Reza barked out a laugh. “You look different out of uniform,” he said lightly, pressing his advantage at this unexpected truce.
“So do you.”
He angled his body toward hers. “You like my makeup?” he asked.
Her lips parting as she tried to figure out if he was kidding or not. Finally, she cracked the barest hint of a smile.
Something powerful woke inside him and he moved before he thought about it. He reached for her, brushing a strand of hair from her cheek. The simple gesture was crushing in its intimacy. Her lips froze in a partial gasp, as though her breath had caught in her throat.
“Sergeant Iaconelli,” she said quietly, her voice husky. But she didn’t move away. Didn’t flinch from his touch.
“Reza.” He swallowed the sharp bite of arousal in his blood, more powerful without the haze of alcohol that usually clouded his reactions. “My name is Reza.”
His breath was locked in his lungs, the sound of his name on her lips triggering something dark and powerful and overwhelming.
He wanted this woman. The woman who’d stood in opposition to him this week. The woman who lifted her chin and stood steadfast between him and his soldiers.
There was strength in this woman. Strength and courage.
“I’m Emily.” Her words a rushed breath.
He lowered his hand, unwilling to push any further than he’d already gone. This was new territory for him. Unfamiliar and strange and filled with potential and fear.
“It was nice talking to you tonight, Emily,” he said when he could speak.
He waited for her acknowledgment that she’d heard him. Some slight movement of her head or tip of her chin.
Instead her throat moved as she swallowed and she blinked quickly, shattering the spell between them.
He left her then because to push further would challenge the limits of his restraint. He wasn’t ready to fall into bed with someone. No matter how compelling Emily might be.
He waited and he watched for the rest of the evening. Watched her slip out with her friend, leaving an empty space at the bar.
Leaving him alone with the fear that included the empty loneliness as well as the cold silence of sobriety.
His thoughts raced as he made sure his troopers all got home that night, and Teague crashed on his couch.
He fell into bed later, need and desire twisted up, filling the cold dead space left inside him by the lack of alcohol. A dead space he usually filled with work while deployed. Tonight, though, unfamiliar pleasure hunted his thoughts, whispering that he could still love a woman, that he didn’t have to be drunk to climb into bed with someone.
But Emily wasn’t a random someone.
And she was so far out of his league, it wasn’t even funny. Even if there was some sexual attraction there, she wasn’t likely to go slumming with a burned-out infantryman like him.
He lay there in the darkness, waiting, clinging to the single, simple pleasure of her touch, hoping that maybe tonight he could sleep, avoiding the nightmares that reminded him of the monster he’d become.
A beast who had lost his compassion somewhere on the road to Baghdad.