NOTE: Content is intended for adults 18 and older only.
“You’re cheating.” Bella shook her head wryly as Myrtle laid down her second straight flush of their weekly poker night. “I haven’t figured out how yet, but I know you’re doing it. Bunch of scam artists.” She softened the accusation with a teasing smile, but before Myrtle, Edna or Alice could answer, chaos erupted in the hallway just outside the nursing home’s community room.
Two firefighters hurried by, followed by paramedics pushing a stretcher, and the room fell silent. That didn’t bode well, and Bella’s heart twisted for the three sitting at the table. They’d each lived at Roseville Manor about six years, and they were close with all the residents.
Caroline Reeves, her friend and an ER nurse who also volunteered there, stuck her head in the door and gave a thumbs-up. “Everyone’s okay. The director said they’re testing emergency response times.”
Sighs of relief rippled across the room, and everyone began talking at once.
Relieved herself, Bella looked at her favorite senior threesome and grinned. She and Alice sat on one side of the table, and Myrtle and Edna sat on the opposite side. Bella tapped her cards on the table. “Wasting playing time, ladies. Are you in?” She tossed some pennies into the bowl in the center of the table. “The bet is five, and I’m telling you, this is my hand.”
She said it, but she knew it wasn’t true. She was losing, and she always lost. Maybe because the wild three were in their nineties, and they’d had more time playing poker than she’d been alive. Or maybe they really did cheat. She didn’t care. She loved them, and just enjoyed spending time with them.
Myrtle snorted. “Humph. We’ll see about that.” She tossed her five pennies into the bowl.
“You should know better than that, dear. You’re toast.” Alice’s sweet tone was completely at odds with her words. She dropped her bet in the pot and anted up.
Bella laughed, waiting to see what would come out of Edna’s mouth. Their usual banter often had her laughing so hard her stomach hurt. But right now, the woman was quiet, her eyes comically wide as she looked across the table between Bella and Alice.
Bella jerked at the sound of the deep, masculine voice, and nearly dropped her cards. There was a hint of roughness to it, enough to send shivers down her spine. To cover her reaction, she turned and looked up. Her heart skipped a long beat. Standing behind them, in a firefighter uniform and holding paramedic gear, was the sexiest, hottest guy she’d ever laid eyes on. Super hot. Heart-attack hot. Five-alarm-fire hot.
His Italian heritage was stamped on every delectable inch of his six-foot-tall muscular body. His dark hair was wavy and thick, and his eyes were the color of dark chocolate, her favorite indulgence. If he’d been a piece of candy, she’d have gobbled him right up. Instead, she picked up her bottle of water and took a sip, trying to quench her sudden thirst.
“I’m Marcus Aiello. What’s the game?” He cast a glance around the table, smiling at each woman as if she were the only one in his sight.
Ninety-three-year-old Myrtle looked him up and down as if she was undressing him in her imagination. “Poker. We play every Wednesday. Want to join us?”
“It depends,” Marcus said with a wink and a devilish grin, not at all taken aback by Myrtle’s obvious once-over. “Is it strip poker?”
Oh, jeez, he was as bad as they were. The hoots of laughter from the elderly women made her shake her head in amused disbelief. These three were the wildest of the bunch she’d met here, and the stories they’d told her of their escapades as young women had made her hair stand on end. The things they’d done with men—hell, to men—were things she’d only fantasized about.
Bella yelped when Myrtle kicked her under the table. Never one to be subtle, Myrtle nodded toward Marcus. “Well? Aren’t you going to say anything? Haven’t we taught you better than to let such a fine specimen of a man go to waste?” She shot Bella a disgusted look. “The shy one here is Bella Massey. She’s single and going to turn into a spinster if we don’t find her a man. Apparently, the cat’s got her tongue. You’re not married, are you? Or gay?”
Bella wanted to fall through the floor, but she laughed anyway, even as her face flamed. What else could she do? It was obvious Myrtle’s comments and question hadn’t embarrassed Marcus at all. He let out an amused chuckle, and a matching sparkle lit his eyes. He was enjoying himself, she was sure, but she doubted she even showed up on his radar. Not that she was putting herself down. She was comfortable in her own skin, and she’d had plenty of dates, but she was being realistic. Men who looked like him? They went for the cover-model type, not the plus-sized librarian next door like her. So when he winked at her, she blinked, rendered speechless.
“No, I’m not married. Or gay. I appreciate the offer, ladies, but I’m still on duty. Can I take a rain check and join you next week?”
“We’re always up for fresh meat, if you think you can keep up with us,” Myrtle answered, deadpan. “Right, ladies?” When the other two nodded, she gave him details. “We’ll expect you here at seven sharp, so don’t be late.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll give it my best shot. Good night.” With that, he turned and started toward the hall.
There were three identical sighs.
“That man has amazing buttocks.” Alice’s voice held a dreamy quality that made Bella turn her head so fast she was surprised she didn’t get whiplash.
Edna gave a sly grin. “I’d like to nibble it.”
“I’d like to spank it,” replied Myrtle tartly. “What about you, Bella? What would you like to do with him?”
Tie him down, lick every inch of him, from top to bottom, spending extra time on that incredible ass. Bella didn’t say that out loud, but she sure thought it. “I’d like to play poker with him. I need help figuring out how you three cheaters manage to win every hand.”
Marcus turned his head and looked over his shoulder just in time to see four women ogle his ass. The first three sets of eyes were a little disconcerting. The women they belonged to were even older than his nonna had been when she’d passed away. But it was that last set of eyes that had him intrigued. Bella Massey was one sexy-looking woman.
She had rich, coffee-brown hair with streaks of cinnamon in it. It hung past her shoulders, thick and wavy. Her eyes were a startling bluish green, like the color of the Caribbean Sea he’d seen on vacation. And those curves. Jesus Christ, those curves of hers had him salivating. This was a woman with the kind of body a man could hold and not be afraid to break. He’d bet his next paycheck she considered herself overweight, but he thought she was built exactly the way a woman should be.
He stepped into the hallway and grabbed his end of the stretcher.
Dave Robinson stared at him in disbelief. “Did that old lady just ask you if you were gay? Seriously?”
Marcus scowled. “Yes. And don’t call them old ladies. It’s rude. Would you talk about your grandmother like that?”
“Jeez, buddy. Take it easy. No disrespect intended.”
Marcus rubbed the back of his neck. Dave was a good guy and a top-notch paramedic, but he wasn’t always the most tactful person. Usually it didn’t bother him, but today it stuck in his craw. “Yeah, sorry. I know. It’s been a hell of a day.”
Dave snorted. “You can say that again.” He glanced back into the community room. “You ask her out?”
“The hot babe sitting with those old—” Dave checked himself and changed his words. “With those women.”
Hot babe? Something that felt a lot like jealousy made him want to sock Dave in the jaw, but it couldn’t be jealousy. He’d just met the woman, for Christ’s sake. He forced himself to laugh, although it was the last thing he wanted to do. “Never mix business with pleasure.”
Dave looked like he was going to say something pithy to that, but for once, he kept his mouth shut.
Wise move. “Come on,” Marcus said. “Let’s head back to the station before we get a call. I need food.”
“Just waiting on you, buddy.”
It took everything Marcus had not to look back at Bella one last time, to take another mental snapshot of her. Not the right time, he reminded himself sternly. Even if he was interested, he couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Not when he was this close to getting his life back together. Not now.
Marcus arrived just before seven, dressed nicely but casually in jeans and a thermal shirt, carrying three bunches of colorful flowers. He handed one each to Alice, Edna and Myrtle, kissing them on their cheeks. “Thank you for inviting me.”
The women blushed like teenagers, and Bella was charmed. Then, with a small smile, he handed her a single calla lily. If she hadn’t had a thing for him before, she had one now. Any man who gave up his free time to play cards with three ninety-something women—and still treated them like beautiful women, not like old ladies—was okay in her book.
Bella felt less tongue-tied around Marcus this time, but she still didn’t say much, preferring to watch her friends interacting with him. They tossed a barrage of personal questions his way, but whatever he thought about the inquisition, he kept it to himself, indulging their curiosity with a smile she found sweet and sexy. So when they excused themselves to get refreshments after two hours of no-holds-barred poker, she wasn’t surprised that Marcus blew out a gusty sigh.
He pushed his chair away from the table, folded his arms over his incredibly wide chest and crossed his impossibly long legs at the ankles. “Jesus. Are they always like this?”
Bella laughed. “Pretty much. But they mean well.”
“Oh, I know they do. They remind me a lot of my late grandmother. I think that’s why I find them so charming. And I don’t mind the grilling.” A cheeky grin appeared on his face. “But if they ask me what size briefs I wear, I’m gone.”
Bella laughed again. “They’re really enjoying the attention. Thanks for coming tonight.”
They sat at the card table for a while, making small talk as they waited for the trio to return. Well, Marcus talked. Bella mostly listened, surprised by how comfortable she felt around him. So much so, that as his low, sexy voice rumbled on, her mind wandered into dangerous territory.
She was a photographer taking pictures for a firefighter calendar. He stood in a shower, his face turned up toward the spray, his hands braced against the tile wall. Water dripped down his back, sliding over his body in a tantalizing show. Unable to take the torture anymore, she set the camera on the vanity and stepped behind him. “Don’t move,” she ordered, and then she sank her teeth into his muscled ass, leaving her mark on him. She licked at the love bite, then lapped up the water with her tongue. When he moaned, she began nibbling her way around his hip to his—
He touched her arm and she jolted back to the present. To cover her lapse in manners—and to give herself a second to get her wayward libido back in check—she shook her head and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
“Nothing important. You feel okay?” He searched her face with sharp, concerned eyes and frowned. “Your face is flushed.”
“I’m f-fine.” Still flustered by the direction her thoughts had taken, she continued without censoring her words. “I was just imagining you in the shower.” With a gasp, she clapped a hand over her mouth. Jesus, Bella. Good going.
Marcus looked away for a moment, then laughed self-consciously. “Well, I’m flattered.”
Her face flamed, and her stomach heaved. His discomfort was obvious, and she owed him an apology. “I’m so sorry. Sometimes the filter between my mouth and my brain shuts off. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” She stood, grabbing for her jacket and purse with trembling hands. “Look, I’m going to head home. Myrtle, Edna and Alice are really enjoying their time with you, and I don’t want to ruin that. Tell them I wasn’t feeling well, and I’ll see them next week.” She raced for the door before she could say anything else stupid.
She barely made it to the hallway before Marcus came up beside her, stopping her with his hand on her arm.
“Wait, Bella.” He looked around, swore under his breath at the curious eyes watching them, then ushered her into a dim, mostly deserted hallway. “I don’t want you thinking you did something wrong.”
She couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes. “Riiiight. The old it’s not you, it’s me thing.”
The corner of his mouth tilted up in a slight grin. “Oh, you’re wrong there. It is all you.”
At her glare, his grin widened. It turned downright wicked as he backed her up against the wall and stepped close. He braced his arms on either side of her head, essentially caging her where she stood. She felt trapped, but for the life of her didn’t know whether she liked it or not.
He leaned in and spoke softly in her ear. “You paying attention?”
She swallowed hard and nodded. Shivered, too, as his breath danced across her skin.
“Good. I wasn’t bothered by what you said. Just surprised. And to be honest, I was embarrassed, but not for the reason you think.” He shifted slightly, bringing his body closer to hers.
He came no closer than two people dancing a first slow dance, but close enough for her to feel the thick, hard ridge of his undeniable arousal behind the button fly of his jeans.
He wasn’t acting like any man she’d ever known. He hadn’t taken advantage of her startling admission by trying to charm his way into her pants. And he hadn’t gotten angry or disgusted. Surprisingly, his actions didn’t make her uncomfortable, either. She didn’t like it when a man pulled rank, acting all macho and I’m the boss. Dominant men did not trip her trigger.
But there it was. She was attracted to him, in all his take-charge glory, although she hadn’t guessed the feeling was mutual. She hadn’t really thought much about it, but the hard proof was there for her to feel. “Oh.”
“Oh. And I’ve got to tell you, the timing sucks.” He stepped back from her and sighed raggedly, scrubbing his face with his hand. “For many reasons.”
Bella bit her lip and stifled her disappointment. “I understand.”
Marcus laughed ruefully. “I don’t think you do. I don’t want to flash an erection around your wild friends, because who knows what they’d say or do.” His handsome face turned serious. “But more than that, I just got out of a relationship, and it didn’t end well. I got distracted at work, and that wasn’t good. I can’t go through that again. I swore off women for a while, yet here I am, looking at you.”
“Why?” The minute the word left Bella’s mouth she wished she could call it back. Hadn’t she put him on the spot enough tonight?
He tucked his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Why not you? Maybe I’ll regret this later, but in spite of the week-long argument I’ve had with myself about my priorities, I’m interested. Go out with me Friday night. On a real date. Dinner and a movie, just the two of us. No chaperones, as wild as they are. What do you say?”
“I should say no, shouldn’t I?” His obvious dominance notwithstanding, she was too tempted by him and his honesty to turn him down. “But I don’t want to. So, yes. It’s a date.”
Text Copyright © 2012 by Jodie Griffin
Cover Art Copyright © 2012 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.