Piper Thomas gripped the steering wheel of her seen-better-days car and took a couple of deep breaths. It didn’t help the nerves tying her stomach into knots. It’s only for one hour. One hour, once a year, for the last five years. How many more years do I have to go through this?
She peered along the tree-lined avenue, in one of the quieter London suburbs, at the house where she was expected in exactly two minutes time. Agonizing over it wasn’t going to make this any easier. Gerald and Barbara Hunter, the parents of her long-dead boyfriend, Colton, were waiting for her.
The mid-January weather was dull, windy and froze the marrow in her bones as she trudged through the melting snow. Her sister had told her a thousand times she needed to end this, and Piper knew that. She just couldn’t. As far as Gerald and Barbara were concerned, Piper was their future daughter-in-law that Fate, one black winter’s night, had snatched from them when Colton had wrapped a motorbike around a tree.
It hadn’t even been his bike. But instead of blaming their golden-haired, blue-eyed boy for stealing it, they’d blamed Colton’s brother, Mason, because the bike belonged to him.
She hesitated at the front gate, with its overhead arbor of winter-dead roses. Don’t think about Mason. He was everything Colton had never been. Their parents thought that was a bad thing. She knew different.
And it was something she’d take to the grave.
Sixty minutes. Of reliving those fleeting months when she’d been seventeen and dated Colton. Sixty minutes when she pretended she agreed with every glowing word they said about him. When inside her head, she was screaming you didn’t know what he was like.
And then the guilt would eat through her again.
The door opened. She steeled her nerves and pasted on her fake smile before looking up.
Jesus, no. Her heart slammed against her ribs as Mason stood there, looking just like he had the last time she’d seen him three years ago. No, he doesn’t look the same. He was bigger. His hair was shorter, like he’d been in the military and his black t-shirt stretched across his shoulders and pecs as though one false move and his muscles would come ripping through the fabric.
“Hey, Piper.” His sexy rumble reached deep inside, heating her way down low, in the way only he’d ever managed. He didn’t smile, didn’t look especially pleased to see her, but then he never had.
“Mason.” She dredged up her fake smile from somewhere, relieved her voice sounded cool and collected even if she was falling apart inside. “How are you?”
Bloody hot. She ignored that thought and tried not to stare at his powerful biceps, or the intricate tattoos that had fascinated her from the first moment they’d met more than five years ago.
“I’m okay.” He stepped back to let her into the house and for one panicked second she almost turned tail and ran back to her car. An hour with his parents was bad enough. If Mason was there, it was going to be sheer torture.
“Piper, dear, is that you?” Barbara came into the hallway and opened her arms. There was nothing else for it. Piper stepped into the house and Mason’s body heat wrapped around her, stealing her breath, and her legs wobbled.
For fuck’s sake…
Barbara hugged her and she heard the door shut behind her. But it wasn’t the cloying sweetness of the older woman’s perfume that filled her head. It was Mason’s woodsy cologne that invaded her senses and caused her nipples to tighten.
Barbara chatted away as she led Piper into the front room. Mason didn’t say a word, but Piper knew he followed them. She could feel his gaze boring into her back, as though his green eyes were lasers that could see right through the lie she showed the world.
She shrugged off her coat and Mason took it, his fingers brushing against hers. Electric sparks sizzled along her arm from the brief contact and she only just stopped herself from rubbing her hand over her black pants. Focus.
“Thanks.” She offered him another fake smile. It was either that or drool all over his boots. He gave her another of his unsmiling looks and combined with the dark stubble that shadowed his jaw, it was a miracle her knees didn’t give way.
Barbara ushered her onto the sofa and, while Gerald brought in a tray of tea things, Piper surreptitiously glanced around the room. Nothing had changed. It was still a shrine to Colton, with framed photos of him accepting prizes at school, captaining the football team, and being accepted in his top choice university to study law.
She stole a sideways glance at Mason, who leaned against the doorframe like a malignant shadow. How can he stand it? There weren’t any photos of him in the room other than a couple from when he was a toddler.
Gerald handed out the tea cups, even giving one to Mason who accepted it as though it was a snake. From nowhere, she remembered the first time she’d seen him. In this very room; and he’d been leaning against the doorframe, staring at her, while he tipped a bottle of beer down his throat.
A shiver inched over her arms and she took a hasty sip of tea. Why could she remember that so clearly, when it was hard to recall the very first time she’d met his older brother?
Barbara and Gerald droned on. She even felt guilty thinking that. But she’d heard all this so many times before. Her sister was right. She needed to finish this.
“What’re you up to now, Piper?” Mason’s voice cut through his parents’ reminiscences.
For several seconds, a shocked silence hung in the air, as though he’d just performed an unspeakable act. In a way he had. Piper couldn’t think of a single occasion when his parents had ever asked her that question since the night Colton had died.
“I—” She cleared her throat and resisted the urge to squirm.
Mason’s undivided attention had always had that affect on her. No way was she telling him that even after five years she still hadn’t managed to pick up all the pieces of her life.
“Oh, you know. Pretty busy. Nothing very exciting.”
Mason watched Piper take a sip of tea after she’d basically told him to fuck off and mind his own. So why the hell don’t I?
He knew why. It was because seeing Piper again knocked all his dirty nighttime fantasies about her into the dust. In his dreams, she was fucking hot. In real life she took his breath away.
Just like the first time I ever saw her. With Colton.
It’d been a mistake coming here today. Every year, his parents asked him, and every year he made some goddamn excuse to stay away. Not just because he couldn’t stomach going over every minute of the night his brother died, or the glaring fact that the accident was his fault. It was because she was here.
Today was all about getting Piper Thomas out of his head. It wasn’t working.
His mother continued her monologue about Colton as though she hadn’t been interrupted and he let out a silent sigh. His brother and Piper had been the perfect couple as far as his parents were concerned. Colton was going places, and a girl like Piper with her wealthy family and prestigious connections could help him get there. When she finished school she’d planned on going to university because she wanted to be a vet, whereas he’d skipped school whenever he could to hang out with his mates.
Just leave them to it. They wouldn’t notice that he’d gone. But he couldn’t drag his gaze away from Piper’s face. Her attention was focused on his mother, as though she wanted to drink in every word about her sainted Colton.
Christ, she was beautiful. It hurt his chest to look at her. Always had. She had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen, and a smile that stopped traffic.
Stopped him, anyway.
She’d pulled her hair back into a tight plait. He’d called her hair brown once, and Colton had damn near bust a gut. Chestnut with honey highlights his brother had told him, and then, with a smirk, added the highlights were natural if you know what I mean.
“A terrible tragedy,” Piper murmured, placing her cup on the tray. She crossed her legs and clasped her hands around her knees.
He had to get out of here. His plan hadn’t worked, so there was no point staying any longer. Instead of going into the kitchen, he strode across the room and placed his cup next to Piper’s. Then he sat on the sofa next to her.
What the hell am I doing?
She noticeably stiffened, but she didn’t look at him. He sprawled back and stretched out his legs, his boots knocking against the stubby feet of the table. His dad shot him a frown. No surprises there. He hooked his arm over the back of the sofa. All Piper had to do was lean back, and he’d be able to wrap that sexy plait around his fist.
In his dreams. She remained ramrod straight and tension spiked from her.
She does this every year? It would drive him batshit crazy. It was bad enough having to live with the guilt every day of his life, without an annual dissection.
Exactly one hour after she arrived, Piper stood up. “It’s been lovely catching up,” she said in her soft upper-crust voice that only reinforced the massive difference between them. She kissed his mum and then his dad and then glanced at him before quickly looking away.
Yeah, no way would Piper Thomas ever kiss him. Didn’t stop him thinking about it though. He watched her leave the room and heard his parents in the hall telling her to drive safely and that she was welcome to pop by and see them anytime she wanted.
Did she ever visit them, other than this once a year ritual? That hadn’t occurred to him before. He followed them into the hall, grabbing his leather jacket from off the back of a chair.
“Oh, are you off, too, Mason?” His mum made a good show of looking disappointed, when he knew damn well she was only too glad to see the back of him.
“Yeah. Got stuff to do.”
“Drive carefully.” That was his dad’s usual dismissal and Mason gave him the nod before escaping.
It was only five and already dark, but the light from the street lamps showed Piper was halfway down the road. Where the hell had she parked? There was plenty of room right outside the house. He took a couple of steps toward his own car then couldn’t help it. He followed her. Sure, the neighborhood wasn’t as rough as the ones he’d hung out in over the years, but he was still going to make sure she reached her car safely.
She stopped by a beaten-up looking Volkswagen. No way was that her car. It was at least ten years old, and girls like Piper only drove the latest models.
He reached her side as she pulled open the door. She stared at him as though he was her worst nightmare.
“You startled me.” Her voice was breathless.
She gripped her keys like they were some kind of weapon. He should back off. Instead, he leaned his forearm across the top of her door.
“You’ve got a flat.”
She blinked. “I’ve got a what—oh.” Comprehension dawned and she stepped back and scanned her tires. “Well, shit.”
He laughed. He’d never heard her swear before. “You got a spare? I can change it for you.”
She muttered under her breath and glanced along the road as though she expected her shining knight to come rescue her. His flash of amusement faded. He’d never claimed to be anyone’s knight. Definitely not Piper’s.
Finally she let out a heavy sigh and met his gaze. “My spare’s flat as well. I meant to get it fixed but…didn’t get around to it.”
She drove a wreck and her tires were shit. It didn’t make sense. Don’t say it. “Do you want me to give you a ride home?”
“Oh, that’s—” She hesitated and the tip of her tongue peeked between her lips for one tempting moment. Obviously she was thinking up an excuse to refuse his offer. “I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble.”
Was that a refusal? “It’s no trouble. Saves you waiting in the cold until they send out a tow truck.”
She looked up the road again. Who the hell was she looking for? “It’s good of you to offer. But I’m not really dressed for biking.”
Had she been looking for his bike? “I’ve not had a bike in five years.”
That got her attention. “I didn’t know that.”
She sounded as though she should. But why would she? They’d hardly seen each other since Colton had died, and on the few occasions they had, his bike was the last thing he’d ever talk about with her.
“Is that a yes?” Could he sound any more desperate for her company? He offered her what he hoped was a sardonic smile. “Or don’t you trust me?” I sure as hell don’t trust me around you.
So why had he offered her a ride? Because I’m a fucking masochist.