Saturday, January 17, 2015

Valentine from a Soldier: Chapter 1

The second novella in my steamy soldier series takes place during the week of Valentine's Day.  Read about Sarah and Ryan's relationship in this exclusive excerpt of Valentine from a Soldier

Event planner Sarah Cooper is stuck in San Francisco the weekend before Valentine’s Day, missing her best friend’s bachelorette party.  Special Forces officer Ryan Bradley is just passing through.  After a chance encounter, their evening together leads to a night of red-hot passion.

When Sarah finally returns home, she discovers a secret from Ryan’s past that makes her question everything.  Does their love stand a chance?  Or was her night with him just one big mistake?

I walked into the bar of my hotel, finding it packed with Friday night revelers.  I was a little surprised since it had been virtually empty earlier in the week, but then again, I was staying in the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco.  There was nothing like a group of happy vacationers here for the weekend to keep the alcohol flowing.  Low rock music thumped from the stereo, but it was almost impossible to hear over the din of the crowd.  Oddly enough, the loud noise and all the people crammed inside gave the entire place a warm and cozy feel—maybe because it was easier to be enveloped into the crowd and disappear this way.  Nothing was worse than sitting in an empty bar and having some creepy guy hit on you because you were the only chick there.  I could hopefully enjoy my dinner tucked away into a corner somewhere and then slip back upstairs to my room.
I traveled a lot for work and was used to finding myself alone in a new city.  Monday through Friday I’d be in airports, on planes, and in strange hotels all over the country finalizing the details of the conferences I organized.  Vendor agreements, menu selection, transportation to-and-from airports, even floral arrangements—it was all second nature to me.  I had good attention to detail and was a people person, so the job was a perfect fit.  Finding myself stranded in a strange city over the weekend, however, was not something that I was accustomed to.  Although the weather here in California was perfect, my flight back home to Chicago was cancelled due to the snowstorm descending on the city.  I probably wouldn’t be able to fly out for another day or two, which meant losing my precious weekend to catch up on things at home, and more importantly, missing my best friend’s bachelorette party tonight.
Morgan and I had been best friends since college.  We’d been roommates our freshman year and inseparable ever since—well, until her fiancĂ© Josh came along at least.  I was thrilled for them but disappointed to miss out on our last weekend together as single girls.  Morgan was a free spirit and hopeless at getting the details of something like wedding planning nailed down, so I’d happily agreed to the role of being both her maid of honor and wedding planner.  The wedding next Saturday, which also happened to be Valentine’s Day, was the type of thing I hoped to plan for myself one day.  It didn’t have to necessarily be on February 14, but a wedding with lush bouquets of red roses and an intimate dinner with plenty of warm candlelight filling the room sounded just about right.  All I needed was for the right guy to come along.  I’d also planned a kick-ass bachelorette party for tonight, which right about now, Morgan and all of our girlfriends would be enjoying without me.
The hostess told me there were no tables available, and I negotiated my way through the crowd until I found a seat at the bar.  I was even dressed for our girl’s night out: my shoulder-length brown hair silky smooth, my makeup done just so, and my slinky black dress and black patent heels perfect for a night on the town.  I’d had high hopes earlier today of jetting off to Chicago and taking the cab straight to our first destination of the evening.  Unfortunately, after staring in frustration at the “cancelled” sign on the airport arrivals and departures board, I’d reluctantly taken a cab back to the hotel I’d just checked out of here in San Francisco.  Because I’d been in charge of the large conference here this week and had brought in tons of business for them, the front desk was more than willing to find me a room.  I’d just dropped my bags off and was now down at the bar to drown my sorrows and grab a quick bite to eat.
Sinking down onto my barstool, I glanced around.  The group of middle-aged women to my left didn’t pose any threat.  They certainly wouldn’t be hitting on me and hopefully wouldn’t attract much male attention since they all appeared to be married.  One of the women was giving a loud toast to their weekend getaway sans husbands and kids.  The older couple to my right was also unlikely to cause me any problems.  The woman was happily sipping a glass of red wine and the man enjoying a beer.  Maybe I’d be able to order a quick meal and eat in peace after all.
The bartender took my drink order, and I glanced down at my phone, looking at the flurry of text messages coming in from my friends.
Noooo, you can’t miss it!
What?!  How can we have the bachelorette party without you?
I can’t believe the weather is ruining our night out!!!
I sighed, knowing there was nothing that could be done.  On my way back from the airport I’d sent a text en masse to my friends, telling them I wouldn’t be home in time for the bachelorette party.  I’d already warned Morgan this morning after watching the weather report.  Being a complete optimist, she blew off my worries and said that she’d see me tonight.  But since contingency planning is something I do best, I went ahead and lined everything up so that the evening could go off without a hitch in my absence.  She was getting married in one week, so it’s not exactly like we could reschedule the bachelorette party for next Friday night.  We’d be busy with the rehearsal dinner and other last-minute wedding details then.  I’d have to just make the best of it.
The bartender placed my glass of Merlot down on the counter, and I was dismayed to see the couple beside me leaving.  Hopefully someone looking to chit-chat wouldn’t sit down beside me.  After the three-day conference I’d just pulled off, I was getting a little tired of making small talk with strangers.  Even if I didn’t bat an eye at chatting up clients and conference attendees Monday through Friday, by the time the weekend rolled around I just wanted to relax and unwind.  Since going out with my girlfriends tonight wasn’t an option, I at least deserved to enjoy my wine in peace and quiet.
The barstool beside me was suddenly yanked back, and a guy in his early thirties sat down.  He had short dark hair, cut in a military style, and a chiseled, masculine face.  He shrugged out of his black leather jacket, and I saw that he had on a black v-neck tee shirt and well-fitting jeans that hung perfectly from his hips.  Normally I didn’t like v-neck shirts on men, thinking they were too feminine, but there was no mistaking he was all male.  Taking in his strong biceps, broad shoulders, and muscular chest, I noticed that he certainly filled it out in all the right places.  I couldn’t help but wonder what lied beneath it and then found myself blushing and turning away before he caught me watching him.  It wasn’t like me at all to go undressing a man in my mind.
He sat close since the bar was crammed full of people, and I could smell the clean scent of his soap and aftershave.  When he ordered a beer, his deep, sexy voice had my mind spinning in circles.  Could this guy be any hotter?  And why tonight of all nights, when I just needed a break and desperately wanted to be left alone, had he sat down beside me?  I took a sip of my wine, wishing that I’d ordered a shot of tequila instead.  Then I could have quickly thrown back my drink and gone.  If I stayed to finish my glass of Merlot, I’d almost certainly have to say something to him.  We were, after all, the only two people seated at the bar who seemed to be here alone.  Was I supposed to sit by his side and ignore him all evening?
The stranger beside me finally glanced over my way, and I looked up into his piercing blue eyes.  “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hit on you,” he said in his deep voice.
I laughed, thinking that was in fact the cheesiest pick-up line I’d ever heard, but he had a look of complete seriousness about him.  He wasn’t leaning closer to me, invading my personal space; he didn’t have a twinkle of mischief in those blue eyes.  If he was trying to pick me up he wasn’t even very good at it.  Well, aside from the devastatingly handsome part.  “Okay,” I said with a shrug, glancing down at my phone as it beeped again.
No worries, Sar.  Get back as soon as you can!
I sighed.  Even though I hated that nickname and always went by Sarah, Morgan was the only one who could get away with calling me that.
“Been stood up?” the guy next to me asked.
“As a matter of fact, I’m the one standing someone up.”
He raised his eyebrows, probably wondering why I was sitting here talking to him when I obviously had other plans.
“My best friend,” I explained, trying not to stare as my eyes traveled over his features—full lips, strong jaw.  Yes, this guy was attractive and certainly knew it.
“What, did you two get in a fight or something?” he asked, taking a swig of his beer.
“No,” I said with a laugh.  “I just shouldn’t even be here right now.”
“So what are you doing sitting by yourself at a bar?  Go grab a cab and meet her.”
Yeah, he definitely couldn’t be hitting on me if he was already encouraging me to leave.  Maybe he really wasn’t looking to meet anyone either.  “It’d be a long ride to Chicago,” I said wistfully.
He laughed, catching on that there was more to the story.  “That does complicate things,” he mused, a friendly smile finally reaching his blue eyes.  I liked seeing the twinkle in them and wondered what his story was.  If he wasn’t here to hit on women, then what was he doing at a popular touristy bar?  Certainly the locals had their own hangouts that didn’t involve hotels filled with vacationers.  Was he just traveling around by himself?  He looked like he was in the military with his short haircut and chiseled physique.  Maybe he was on leave or something, just passing through.
He was still gazing at me with those baby blues, so I finally replied.  “Yeah, it’s kind of ruining my evening.”
“I can see how that would be a problem,” he agreed.  “Snowstorm, right?”
“So you’ve been watching the news.”
“Afraid so.”
Thankfully he was about as chatty as I felt right now—not peppering me with questions or awful one-liners, just making casual conversation.  I liked that about him—he seemed in no hurry to get to know me better, like it didn’t matter to him if we talked or not.  I could probably ask him to leave me alone and he’d be more than happy to sit there nursing his beer without so much as another word.
I suddenly wanted to get to know him though.  A guy who’s mysterious, tall, dark, and handsome does that to a girl.  “Are you here on vacation?” I asked.  “I assume if you lived in San Francisco, you wouldn’t be hanging around in this tourist trap.”
He smiled and glanced over at me again.  “I’m on leave,” he replied.
“Oh, like military leave?  Are you in the Marines or something?”
“Special Forces.”
I nodded, realizing he wasn’t really willing to give me any more information.  Maybe he was just on vacation and needed a break as much as I did.  Here I didn’t want to be bothered and now I was the one asking all the annoying questions.  I took a sip of my wine and looked around.  The group of women to my left was growing louder and louder, but as I tried to focus on them, I could feel his eyes on me.
“How about you?” he asked.  “You seem awfully dressed up for an evening with your best friend.”
“Oh,” I said, looking back over at him.  “Bachelorette party.”  I gestured to my dress as if it were something only worn for that type of occasion.
“Yours?” he asked, glancing down at my left hand.
“No,” I said, laughing again.  “My best friend’s.  She’s getting married next weekend.”
“Valentine’s Day,” he said knowingly.
“Yep.  I’m the maid of honor and her wedding planner—that’s just a one-time gig though.”
“You’re a good friend.  My sister went crazy planning her wedding; I don’t know how you women do it.”
“I think that’s why Morgan put me in charge,” I said with a grin.  “She didn’t want to deal with all the stress of it either.”
“Are you bringing a date?”
“To the wedding?” I asked, puzzled.
“Is that a roundabout way of asking if I have a boyfriend?”
“Maybe,” he said with a sheepish grin.  As I looked over at him again I couldn’t help but think that if I was looking to meet someone tonight, he was just my type.  And for someone who claimed he wasn’t even hitting on me, he was certainly making my heart pitter-patter an awful lot.
“Nope, no boyfriend,” I answered, and it looked like he relaxed somewhat.
“Of course not,” he teased.
Now I raised my eyebrows at him, waiting for an explanation.
“It just figures that now that I’ve sworn off women forever, the perfect woman shows up.”
“Now that was a cheesy pick-up line,” I protested.  “Besides, I was here first.  You’re the one who showed up.”
“I’m kind of glad that I did,” he said, eyeing me again with that smoldering gaze.
“Just kind of glad,” I mused.
“Well, I don’t want to come on too strong.”
I smiled, thinking how easy this guy was to talk to.  I didn’t even know his name; maybe that’s what made our entire conversation feel so effortless.  I could pick up and leave right now, a warm feeling inside of me thanks to his flattering attention, and not have risked a thing.  We’d had a few laughs, exchanged a few glances.  The safest thing to do would be to go on my way and ignore that pounding feeling in my chest each time I looked at him.  I didn’t want to leave though, despite my earlier hopes to sneak in and out without having to talk to anyone.  I’d come down for a drink expecting a lot of things, but certainly not him.
“I’m Sarah Cooper,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Ryan Bradley,” he replied, his muscular hand enveloping mine.  A warmth surged through me at his touch, and I didn’t want him to let go.  In fact as soon as he did, I was imagining him touching me again—maybe accidently brushing up against me as he leaned closer, or reaching out and affectionately caressing my arm.  Or better yet, wrapping those muscular arms right around me, which certainly wasn’t about to happen, but a girl can dream, right?
“So you still didn’t tell me what you were doing in San Francisco,” I hinted, hoping to get him to open up a little more.
“I was in California a few years ago,” he said with a shrug.  “I’d planned to come back, so here I am.”  He took a swig of his beer, and I sensed there was more to the story.  He didn’t seem to want to share though, and I didn’t see any need to press the issue.  I swirled the remaining wine around in my glass, and he glanced down at it.  “Can I buy you another drink?”
“Sure, why not?” I agreed.  I never let men I didn’t know buy me drinks, but despite my being undeniably attracted to him, he felt more like a friend or proper date than a stranger I’d run into at a bar.  He wasn’t leering at me or making suggestive come-ons.  We were having an actual conversation.
“Another glass of wine?”
“Yes, thanks.”  He gestured to the bartender, who came over to refill my glass and bring him a second beer.  My phone beeped, and I glanced down at the screen, seeing a picture of my friends perched on barstools at the beginning of their big night out.  It looked like the snowstorm hadn’t put a dent in their plans.  They were all wearing skimpy cocktail dresses with huge smiles on their faces and drinks in their hands.  Morgan had a little veil and tiara atop her head, with the words “Bride to Be!” jumping out in glittery hot pink letters.  I’d found it at a party shop near my apartment back in Chicago and knew she’d enjoy being the center of attention for one evening.  I showed the picture to Ryan, and he grinned.
“Yep, you’re definitely the prettiest of the bunch.”
I shook my head and smiled.  “Flattery won’t get you anywhere.”
“I’m not hitting on you, remember?”
“Right,” I said, with a knowing look.
“So you planned this big bachelorette party for tonight, but you’re stuck here in California.  I’m guessing you’re not on vacation.  Were you here on business or something?”
“Actually, yes.  I’m a conference planner, and I was here all week for the big conference going on at the hotel.”
“Right, I saw a bunch of medical types wandering around a few days ago.  Was it a medical convention or something?”
“Yep.  It ended this morning, so I thought I’d have plenty of time to get home.  I wasn’t taking into account Mother Nature when I booked my flight months ago though.  It sucks, but I’d rather miss this than the actual wedding.”
“That’s a good way of looking at it,” he said thoughtfully.
“So you said you’re in the military.  Where are you stationed?”
“I’m back stateside now.  I just returned from my third tour in Iraq, so I’m spending my R&R traveling up and down the west coast.”
I nodded, thinking it was a little strange that he wanted to vacation alone.  Didn’t he have friends or family to spend time with?  A girlfriend?  Okay, he probably didn’t have a girlfriend judging from the way he’d been looking at me, but if I’d been stationed overseas, I couldn’t imagine wanting to go anywhere but home.  Or if I was going to travel, I’d at least bring some of my girlfriends along with me.
“So what about you?” he asked.  “You must travel a lot for work.”
“All the time,” I agreed.  “I think I’d get bored being stuck in an office all day.  I mean, I do spend my fair share of time at a desk organizing all the details for the events that I plan, but seeing new places is one of the reasons I love my job so much.  It’s definitely more fun when a conference I’m running is somewhere other than Chicago.”
“I know what you mean.  I’ve moved around a lot being in the military and all.  It suits me though,” he said with an easy shrug.
I finished my second glass of wine and decided to quit while I was ahead.  We’d had a nice chat, but I should probably just head back up to my room and let each of us go our separate way.  Maybe I’d call my friends, and they could put me on speakerphone so I could pretend I was there with them.  I at least wanted to find out what Morgan thought of all the activities I’d arranged for the evening: drinks at a swanky bar, dinner at a top-rated restaurant on the other side of town, and then dancing at one of our favorite clubs.  I’d arranged for a limo service so we didn’t need to worry about finding cabs after each stop, and I imagined my friends laughing and giggling, sipping champagne, as they went from one venue to the next.  We didn’t usually have a big night out like that, so I’d wanted to pull all the stops for Morgan’s last night out as a single girl.
I grabbed my purse and opened it up, pulling out a twenty.
“No, I got it,” Ryan said, holding his hand up in protest.  “I would’ve been lonely sitting here all by myself.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” he said easily.
“If you insist,” I said with a shrug.  “Thanks.  Maybe I’ll see you around,” I continued, sliding off my barstool.  “You know, if I can’t get a flight out of here soon.”  I was gazing directly into Ryan’s eyes now, standing between my barstool and his, and I felt an unexpected feeling of sadness that I was about to walk away and probably wouldn’t ever see him again.  Why couldn’t I meet a nice guy like this when I was back home in Chicago?
“Hopefully so,” he said.  “Well, of course I don’t want you to be stuck here,” he added with a grin.  “But if you are, then hopefully we’ll run into each other again.”
I was about to say goodbye when a drunk guy bumped into me, pushing me even closer to Ryan.  Ryan reached out to steady me, the touch of his warm fingers on my bare arm burning into my skin.  Our eyes locked for a moment at our sudden closeness before we were interrupted again.
“Can I buy you a drink?” the newcomer slurred.
I turned slightly to face him, puzzled as to why he’d decided to approach me now.  I was getting ready to leave and was obviously already having a conversation with someone else.  “No,” I said, shaking my head.
“Just one drink,” he insisted, reaching out like he was going to touch my hair.
I took a step back, ending up nestled between Ryan’s legs where he remained perched on the barstool.  His broad chest pressed up against my back, and I felt his muscular arms come protectively around me.  I felt safe with him and wondered if he noticed that I was shivering slightly, taken aback by the drunk guy’s attempt to touch me.  “She’s not interested,” he said in a deep, authoritative voice, holding up one hand to indicate the guy should back off.
“Sorry man, I didn’t realize you guys were together.”
Neither of us corrected him, and Ryan draped his leather jacket over me.  “Come on,” he said, resting his hands on my shoulders as he got to his feet.  He towered above me, able to rest his chin atop of my head if he wanted to.  “I’ll walk you to your room.”
“Thanks,” I replied, warily giving the creepy guy a once over before we walked away.  Ryan kept one hand lightly on my shoulder as he let me lead the way out of the crowded bar, almost as if just to reassure me he was still there.  I hadn’t exactly planned to leave the bar with anyone, but Ryan was definitely the lesser of the two evils.  Although I wasn’t completely sure that I wanted him to know where my room was either.  The potential of spending time alone together outside of the crowded bar and in my hotel room sounded enticing, and somehow I sensed that it might lead to nothing but trouble.  Trouble in the best sense of the word.
We walked into the elevator, and I pressed the button for my floor.  Ryan hovered close to me but in more of a protective manner.  Not that it mattered because the creepy guy from the bar was long gone.  I was relieved to have him by my side though, still feeling slightly shaken up.  We got off at my floor and silently walked down the hall to my room, Ryan slowing his long stride to match my pace.  I stopped when we reached the door.  “So,” I said, turning to face him.
“So,” he echoed, seeming unsure himself.
I kept his jacket over my shoulders, making no move to take it off.  He stood gazing down at me, making no move to leave.  Suddenly feeling bold, I met his blue eyes.  “I still haven’t eaten.  Want to order room service?”
“That sounds great,” he said.  “I’m starving.”  He flashed me a quick grin, and for a moment he looked like he was hungry for much more than just a good meal.  I knew nothing would happen between us unless I wanted it too though, and I slid my card into the door, gesturing for him to come inside.

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