How the heck had he gotten himself into this situation?
Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Grady clenched his fists as he studied the chaotic mess inside the herb shop located a few blocks off the Vegas strip.
He’d lost a bet, that’s how.
And now he had to get a massage from some old gypsy lady who kept voo-doo doodads hanging from the ceiling and bottles of smelly herbs and oils crammed on wall-to-wall shelves. Whatever space wasn’t filled with bottles held candles or plants or...cats.
Ethan looked down at a long-haired black cat winding its way around his leg, and his fists tightened. Now he’d have cat fur on his BDUs.
“Well, buddy,” his fellow airman, Captain Mitch McCabe, shot him an evil grin as he slapped him on the back. “Time to pay up.”
“And you never know,” his buddy Jackson, who’d won the bet, added. “You may like it so much, you become a regular.”
Ethan scowled. Not in this lifetime.
He never gambled. But ever since he’d learned of Jackson’s close call with death something inside Ethan just...felt different. Besides, he’d wanted Jackson’s fifty-year-old bottle of Scotch. And the bet had looked like a sure thing. Who’d have thought the Keno girl would give in to Jackson when she’d turned down every other airman within a hundred mile radius?
Women were illogical.
“Namaste,” a high, sweet voice floated to him from the back of the small shop. “I’m Lily.”
Ethan shook his boot in an attempt to dissuade the black cat from circling his ankles and looked up into huge Caribbean blue eyes as the girl straightened from a bow, her palms still together. Untamed strawberry curls framed a pixie face with an upturned nose. Tiny dimples added the perfect touch to a creamy complexion as she flashed a ready smile from a beautiful mouth.
The neon sign out front read Lily’s. But this was no old gypsy.
The redhead’s smile faded and her curved brows crinkled into a frown. She tilted her head and moved closer. Too close. “Oh, my.” For a minute Ethan thought she was going to cry. “Your aura is black. So dull, so...heavy.” Her arms rose and she held up her hands, one over his stomach, and the other over his crotch.
She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them to stare into his again. “Several of your Chakras are completely blocked. This makes your Chi rough, and chaotic.” Her eyes closed and her head fell back as she flattened her palms against his chest and moved them down and around.
The instant she touched him his body sizzled and stirred. Ethan grabbed her wrists, removed her hands, and stepped back.
McCabe chuckled and exchanged stupid grins with Jackson. “Sounds like Grady’s got himself a real unhealthy Chi, there. Lily, maybe you can unstick that poker up his a--”
“Shut it, McCabe.” Ethan threw him his fiercest glare.
Jackson stepped between them. “Our friend here has an appointment for a massage.”
The hippie woman swept her attention back to Ethan, her eyes even wider. “Another Air Force pilot. So that’s what the cards were trying to tell me.”
Cards? Enough of this new age crap. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Lieutenant Colonel...Grady, isn’t it?” She put her finger to her tiny chin and began studying his body as she circled him.
Ethan purposely unclenched his fists and tried to relax. But he couldn’t do it with her gaze burning into him. Then he felt her hands touch his shoulders and he flinched. She made a Hmm sound and then crooned an Oooh as her hands moved down his arms. Ethan stifled a shiver.
“This will take more than a massage.” Her serious tone was at odds with her soft high voice.
“Oh, he wants to take Yoga lessons too,” Jackson supplied.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Ethan growled.
“All right. All right. I think you’re in good hands.” Jackson turned to the herb lady. “Take care of our buddy, Ma’am.”
“Do you have a girlfriend, Lieutenant Colonel? A lover?” She moved around in front of him and narrowed her eyes.
“He’s as free as a cocktail in a casino, sweetheart,” McCabe said, and winked at her.
“You’re done here, McCabe.” Ethan crossed his arms and jerked his head toward the exit.
The redhead dimpled at McCabe and then gestured to a doorway covered by hanging beads. “This way, Lieutenant Colonel.”
Ethan waited until the shop door had shut behind Jackson and McCabe, and then followed the woman through the doorway, careful to hold the strings of beads out of his way.
He stopped short inside the back room. It was cramped and lit only with more burning candles. His nose was assaulted by a sweet yet spicy scent. A red and yellow tie-dyed scarf was draped over the only window. A miniature fountain surrounded by river rocks and plants gurgled in the corner. But the main feature in the center of the room was the massage table. He’d rather face combat than lay on that thing.
“Just strip down to whatever you’re comfortable in.” She turned to leave the room.
“I’m comfortable now.”
She laughed, a light tinkling sound, and swiveled to smile at him. Her brows rose with skepticism and he clenched his teeth together.
“Why is that funny?”
“I don’t think you’ve been ‘comfortable’ in years. Perhaps decades.”
“Look, you don’t know me, so you can stop with the whoo-whoo weirdo act and just get on with it.”
She blinked up at him, her full lips pouting, and he felt as if he’d just kicked a puppy.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at your rudeness with an aura like that,” she said, shaking her head. “Who wouldn’t be grumpy with their Chi in such a state? I need to find just the right aroma for you.” She spun and left the room.
Ethan could hear her light voice out front chattering, he assumed, to herself. “Let’s see...patchouli? No, no. Too stimulating. Maybe Lavender. No, too weak. Something powerful, yet relaxing.”
Rude? Grumpy? She was right. He normally prided himself on his even-keeled nature. And his honorable treatment of females. He’d let this whole situation get under his skin.
Stop being such a wuss. He’d spent more than half his life in the Air Force. He’d faced down enemy bombers in the first Gulf war at the tender age of twenty-three. Witnessed kids younger than him shot or blown up in land mines.
He drew in a deep breath and with it, regained control. This would be over in an hour, tops. He could endure anything for an hour. Then he’d carry on with life as usual.
“Oh, you’re still dressed.”
Ethan blinked at the girl in her flowing rainbow-striped robe. She’d tied back her hair and held a small strange-shaped bottle filled with clear liquid. “Have you changed your mind?”
She put her finger to her chin again, staring at him. “Have you ever had a massage before?”
“Never? Oooh, a massage virgin.” She grinned and her dimples teased his libido. And for some weird reason, so did the word virgin. “You’re going to love it,” she continued, clasping the bottle to her stomach with both hands. “It’s so relaxing and I can tell by the set of your shoulders how tense you are. I’ve only had one other massage virgin, and she was--”
Ethan stopped listening. No, he wasn’t going to love it. He didn’t want to be touched. He didn’t like physical contact. Even when— He thought back to the arrangement he’d had with a lady he’d met in town. Every Friday night he’d pick her up, take her to dinner, then go back to her place. Excessive touching had never been part of the deal. She hadn’t voiced any objections. Not in two years. But then she had cancelled their standing date without a qualm.
“Okay then, remove everything except your undershorts, get on the table, and lay on your stomach.” She peeled the robe off her shoulders, spun and hung it on the tail of a brass kitty cat wall hook.
Ethan barely contained his slack-jawed reaction. The robe had hidden a trim figure in cut-off shorts and a tight tank top. Gorgeous legs. Tiny waist. Slim hips. Good-sized...she wasn’t wearing a bra.
And he had to strip down to his skivvies.
She set the bottle on the windowsill and headed out front again. “Call me when you’re ready.”
Heat surged through his body. Every part. Dragging his thoughts away from the woman’s breasts, Ethan pictured the icy winter days of his childhood in South Dakota. He sat on a chair by the door to pull off his boots and socks and envisioned himself at Thule air base in Greenland staring at the Arctic tundra. As he unbuttoned his uniform shirt, pulled it off one sleeve at a time, and folded it carefully, he remembered the freezing snow on the Afghani mountaintops. Closing his eyes, he unzipped his camo pants, stepped out of them and folded them just as neatly.
“Are you ready back there, Lieutenant Colonel Grady?”
Ethan almost snarled. She’d broken his concentration. He snapped off his undershirt, wrapped a towel over his boxer briefs, and lay down on his stomach.
Beads tinkled as she entered the room. “Close your eyes and take a deep, slow breath.”
Ethan gritted his teeth and complied.
With a click the sound of waves crashing against a shore filled the room. “To achieve Zen, one must be in total peace with oneself and nature.” Her warm, oil-soaked hands landed on his shoulders, and he instantly stiffened. But then she began a soft caress along either side of his neck while her thumbs slid up his nape into his hairline.
He inhaled again and the light scent of coconut aroused his senses. The arctic was gone, replaced with a balmy beach, palm trees, and a bikini-clad— Her. The wacky herb lady. Lily.
He was picturing her in a bikini. In an instant his make-believe self had joined her on the sand and his hands were gripping her waist, then sliding up— Discipline, Grady.
“Whoa. What just happened? You were just starting to relax when your shoulders tightened up again.” Her fingers massaged his temples in slow circles, then combed through his hair to knead his scalp. “Empty your mind of thoughts,” she said in a low voice. “Negative thoughts create negative energy. Breathe in slowly, deeply. Then release impurities as you exhale.”
Since he was here and committed to this, he might as well try to gain some benefit from it. He blew out the breath he’d been holding and tried to concentrate on fighting his intense aversion to physical contact.
“That’s it, Ethan. Very good.” The praise lightened something inside him. Her voice seemed to be whispering right into his soul, its soft entreaty arousing.
With his eyes closed his other senses sharpened. The evocative scent of coconut. The repetitive waves crashing and retreating. The touch of skin against skin. Her hands worked their way down his spine; stroking, rubbing, deep into his flesh. As she reached the small of his back, he felt her strokes change from the broader heel of her hand to pointed knuckles making quick circles.
Her knuckles worked their way up his back again and then she started massaging his shoulders, and down his arms, her fingers kneading the muscles. All the while she talked. “Feel your heart rate slow,” she crooned. “Listen to each breath you take.”
Her voice soothed him as she performed miracles on his feet and calves, spreading oil as she caressed up his thighs. Maybe there was something to this massage thing. He was feeling more relaxed...
Before he knew it, she had him turn over. When he raised his arms to clasp his hands beneath his head he brushed against her breast. The breast that wasn’t covered with a bra. The breast that was the most perfect shape. And whose nipple had hardened to a bead against his forearm. Suddenly he realized he’d lost control of his arousal.
She froze. Time seemed suspended. All he could hear was her breathing, quick and ragged. He closed his eyes, barely stifling a groan. To his horror his dick hardened even more.
No way she didn’t notice his wood.
Surely this was a common physical reaction to a massage. Wasn’t it?
Her hands resumed their caressing, working their way slowly down to his stomach and continued on to the edge of the towel. When she moved to his thighs, she brushed against his out of control erection and he jack-knifed up and bolted off the table. But he lost his footing, stumbled into the windowsill and knocked over several candles. Flames instantly ignited the silk scarf.
Staring in disbelief, he turned to the woman. “Go get your fire extinguisher.”
She blinked at the spreading flames. “I’m not sure... I don’t think I have one.”
“Don’t have one? How could you—” Looking around, he grabbed the fountain and splashed water onto the fire, which had reached the shelves full of bottles of—crap, of oil. The flames leapt higher. The cord from the fountain knocked over several bottles when he yanked it from the wall, and the water pushed the flames closer to the spilled oil. Great.
The fire popped and crackled. Smoke swirled thick and black in the tiny room. His eyes stung. He coughed and turned to tell Lily to get out and call 911, but she’d disappeared. Good. She was ahead of him. He probably only had time for one more chance before the fire engulfed the room, if not the entire premises.
Think Grady! Oil fires. Baking soda. He needed something to smother it with. Of course. He headed back to the front room, grabbed up the largest potted plant, ripped out the plant and tried to get back in to dump the damp soil on the flames, but the fire had all but consumed the room.
One small planter of soil wouldn’t even slow it down.
As he ran for the front door Lily appeared in his path carrying the black cat, a tan and white guinea pig, and a bird cage containing a plump white cockatoo. She thrust them into his arms, her face soot-coated but determined. “Take Ingrid, Scarlett, and Bette. I’ve got to get Humphrey and Rhett.” She spun on her heel, heading back into the fog of smoke.
What the hell?
“Wait.” He set the birdcage down, tightened his hold on the squirming animals, and lunged forward to block her way. “You’re not going anywhere except out. I’ll get Humphrey and Rhett.” He handed her the cat and the guinea pig back. “Who are Humphrey and Rhett?”
Her face crumpled even as she coughed. “Humphrey’s my basset hound. He’s old and almost blind and I couldn’t find him. He always sleeps in front of the TV, but he wasn’t there.” She pointed to a set of stairs behind the counter he hadn’t noticed before. “And Rhett’s a big orange tabby. He won’t come willingly.”
“I’ll find them. Now get out of here.” More animals? Was she insane? He took the stairs three at a time and opened the door into a relatively smoke-free, one-room apartment. If he was lucky he had maybe two minutes before the fire burned through the ceiling.
Now, if he were a dog, where would he hide? Crossing the room in two strides he dropped to his knees beside the bed and lifted the bedcovers. Sure enough, the stupid mutt was lying sprawled on his side as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
Ethan swept the solid lump of dog into his arms, stopped to grab up an orange, hissing, scratching tabby, and then bolted down the stairs just as ceiling snapped and a falling two-by-four cracked across his shoulder blades, knocking him to his knees. Pain shot down his spine and the room spun around him.