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Under the Hood

Janie couldn’t believe she had to wait for a tow. Not today of all days. She was supposed to be at an audition. A once in a lifetime opportunity. A tryout for the lead role in a revival of Sweet Charity. And it wasn’t a cattle call. She was asked for by name.

But they wouldn’t accept excuses. And they wouldn’t give her a second chance. She blew it. Well, her car blew it to be exact.

“Piece of shit!” she exclaimed as she kicked the front tire with her five inch stiletto, scuffing the patent leather finish and hurting her toe in the process.

She didn’t normally drive in heels, but she decided to change into her audition outfit in the stalled car just in case the tow truck arrived with enough time for her to make it to the theatre.

But that wasn’t going to happen. Looking at her phone, she saw that she was scheduled to perform in five minutes and the theatre was over twenty minutes away. She let out a blood curdling scream of frustration and rage and began to rail on her car in earnest. No sense worrying about her carefully applied makeup or perfectly coifed hair anymore.

And no need for her to be careful of her pristinely manicured nails. The polish was already chipped and two of her nails were broken from pounding her fists against the driver’s side door.

Classic car my ass, she thought. Who even gives a crap about a Plymouth Barracuda? In piss yellow no lessWhy the hell didn’t I sell it when I had the chance?

“Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid piece of shit!” she screamed once again as she vented her frustration against the now heavily dented door. A door that was not holding up well under the assault it was receiving from the myriad of kicks and punches she rained down upon it. If she ever forgave the car enough to want to drive it again, she would probably have to take it to the body shop.

She supposed this was all her fault. She didn’t have to hang on to this car, the pride and joy of her ex, Mitch, who kept it “cherry” as he liked to boast. She inherited it from him right before she dumped his ass. Right before he was sent to prison for grand larceny. Yeah. A real winner.

Although maybe “inherited” wasn’t quite the right word. He owed it to her.

For sleeping with her best friend. For letting her support them both bartending seven nights a week for three years while he slept in, ate the food that she bought and smoked the cigarettes and drank the beer that she had paid for out of her earnings. She didn’t even like beer and she’d never smoke. Not if she ever wanted to succeed as a dancer. These were his vices. And she paid for them.

She felt like a total ass for putting up with his crap for so long. And finally she had enough. Two years too late, but at least she wasn’t involved with him when he got carted off to jail. That was his new girlfriend’s problem. Her ex-best friend, Alicia. Serves her right. Karma is one seriously big and totally ugly bitch.

When she said goodbye, by unceremoniously dumping his clothes and shoes into a trash bag and leaving them outside the apartment they shared, she decided the car was rightfully hers. She had paid for fuel, parts and service for the Plymouth ‘Cuda for practically their entire five year relationship. His claim of ownership was flimsy at best.

So when he came begging at the door, more for the car than for her forgiveness, she reminded him of his debt to her. And she reminded him of the secret she was keeping that would not only keep him out of jail, but would keep him safe. Borrowing money from loan sharks was bad enough. But stealing from them? Yeah, Mitch was an idiot. A lucky idiot. At least until he got caught for breaking into his parents’ house and robbing their safe. His father never tolerated idiots.

But she should have sold this damn car. Even without proper title she knew people who would buy it. If it just didn’t feel so good to be riding around, flaunting the fact that his beloved vehicle was now hers, she would have. Serves her right for being smug.

Panting heavily, sweat coursing down her face, surely leaving tracks in the heavy layer of foundation she used when she was performing, she let out a banshee’s wail and landed one final kick to the door. A kick that snapped the heel right off her boot, surprising her so much that even with her great sense of balance and her cat-like ability to land on her feet, she felt herself falling.

She expected pavement. She was waiting for the hard jolt her body would take as it connected with the road. It never came.

Instead she felt herself cradled in a pair of arms. Correction. A pair of heavily muscled arms. Felt her back come to rest against what seemed like a wall, but what she could only assume was the solid wall of muscle that was the chest of whomever caught her before she gave herself a pretty bad case of road rash, if not worse.

“Hey there,” this mound of muscle said right next to her ear. She startled, still trying to process the fact that she was, at the moment, safe and should now begin to worry about just how someone managed to creep up on her without her hearing their approach. And even more, worry about whether she was safe enfolded in some stranger’s arms.

As she struggled to right herself, she felt his powerful arms release her and felt his callused hands trail down her bare arms and move to grip her waist as he helped steady her.

She turned to see who this savior was that kept her from becoming a victim of her own anger and was met with a more than pleasant surprise.

“Hey yourself,” she said after a quick assessment of the man standing before her with a humorous glint in his eyes.

Make those stunning hazel eyes that were offset by his caramel skin tone and the inky black hair that escaped the baseball cap perched on his head to hang just above those eyes. Eyes that were set in an incredibly handsome, chiseled face with high cheekbones, a strong jaw and nose and a set of full, pouting lips.

Eyes that were so distracting that for just one brief moment she forgot her anger at missing her audition.

She blinked, breaking the connection that held her captive. “So… Juan,” she began, after reading the name stitched onto the shirt across his left pec. A shirt that fit snugly against the straining muscles beneath. “I take it you’re here to pick me up?”

His response was simply one raised eyebrow.

She rolled her eyes. Sighed. “You’re my ride.”

This time he grinned, revealing a mouth filled with perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” she said. “Are you done yet? I’m having a crap day, this piece of junk decided to quit on me, I missed out on a chance at possibly the best gig I could ever have hoped for, I broke a heel and I am quite sure I look like something a cat threw up.”

“It’s not that bad,” he said.

“Not that bad? Are you seriously telling me….” Her tirade instantly cut off when he placed his finger against her lips. An intimate gesture that silenced her more surely than anything else could possibly have done.

“I meant that you don’t look that bad.”

“Oh,” Janie responded. She could feel the heat rising into her face. Hopefully her foundation – what little of it remained – would hide the blush that resulted from his compliment.

“Let’s start over,” she said after a moment’s pause to regroup. She needed to get things back on track. The entire exchange left her feeling off-balance, which was not where she liked to be. “Thank you, Juan, you’re a lifesaver. First you save me from falling and now, hopefully, you’ll be able to either get my car started or give the both of us a lift back to your shop, so I can eventually get home and get out of these clothes.”

Ugh. She did not just say that.

Thankfully Juan decided to ignore that last bit when he responded, “Well, let me just get a look under the hood. Keys, please?”

“They’re still in the ignition.”

Juan grasped the handle of the door and gave it a tug. The door remained firmly shut.

Huh. She had done some damage after all. She smiled.

He gave it another pull. She could see his muscles straining with the effort. This time she could hear a groan, the squeal of metal on metal, and the door opened. Though she wasn’t sure it would close again. And she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to open it on her own.

Juan leaned in to pop the hood and to turn the key in the ignition to check if the car was running. It wasn’t. And she took that moment to check out the view.

Nice, she thought. Very nice. A small smile formed on her lips as she wondered just how tight those muscles were. Lost in the daydream, she almost didn’t notice as her hand moved of its own accord as if to touch him.

Almost. Fortunately she caught herself. Before it was too late.

She shook herself out of her reverie and snatched her hand back from its traitorous journey to the part of Juan’s body that she had absolutely no reason to grope. Well, there was a reason. She wouldn’t mind knowing just how rock hard every muscle in his body was. But there was no explanation she could give him for touching him there.

Oops, sorry, my hand just happened to fall on your ass, didn’t exactly sound believable.

Only moments had passed, but by the time he stood up and turned around to move to the front of her car, she had regained her sanity and pulled herself together. Though she could see that it was going to be tough for her to keep it.

Struggling with the door had taken more of an effort than it had appeared from her vantage point. Juan’s face and the small triangle of bare chest his shirt exposed, were now coated with a sheen of sweat. Glistening against his light-brown skin. It was mouth-watering.

Literally. She was practically drooling. No. She was drooling. What the hell was wrong with her?

She wanted to lick her lips to remove the pools of moisture that had formed in each corner, but that would reveal to him just what she thought of him. Just how delectable he looked.

She turned slightly and quickly swiped the back of her hand across her mouth before the drool could escape. What she succeeded in doing was smearing her lipstick, most probably across her cheek.

She needed a mirror. Probably a hairbrush. And definitely a stack of tissues and a bottle of water so she could wash her face. Her bag was in the car. And she was sure she had some water left in the bottle she’d been drinking from while she waited for the tow.

Juan had closed the door. Great. Really smart. She glared at his retreating back. If opening the door had caused someone as built as he was to sweat, there was no way she’d get that door open.

She limped over to the car on her unevenly-heeled boots and leaned in through the open window to reach into the passenger’s seat to grab what she needed. It was a bit of a stretch. But she could just reach it if she lifted herself up a little, balanced herself on the doorframe and shimmied herself forward.

She froze. Duh. She was clearly operating on zero brain cells. “It must be the heat,” she mumbled to herself. It would have been a hell of a lot easier to just walk around the car and open the passenger’s side door. “And I’m thinking he’s the one that’s not smart. Idiot,” she berated herself.

She got what she needed and backed herself out of the window to turn and find Juan mere inches from her body.

“Jesus!” she exclaimed.

“Nope, it’s just me, Juan,” he said with a grin. Prompting another eye roll from her.

“You are incredibly stealthy, you know that? What are you doing here? And why did you shut the door?” she asked.

“I’m not stealthy. Really,” he added when she gave him a skeptical look. “When I first drove up, I don’t think you would have heard me if I honked my horn. Besides, it was fun to watch you. You looked so cute going to town on that door. Though I have to say it was painful to see such a beauty get the crap beat out of her.”

Janie smirked. Guys and their cars, she thought. “And now?” she asked him.

“And now, I didn’t want to interrupt. I hoped that by shutting the door you’d eventually reach in for something. You did. Sooner than I thought, so I’m glad I didn’t miss it,” he said.

“Miss what exactly?” Janie asked warily.

“You’re not the only one that should be allowed to admire the view. And by the way, I really love that short little skirt,” he said with a deep, throaty chuckle.

To the Beat of His Own Drum

There is something just so undeniably sexy about drummers.

Maybe it’s their powerful forearms or the way they could beat out a rhythm with just two thin wooden sticks that would whip a crowd into a frenzy or set a girl’s heart to racing.

Or maybe it was the boys who chose to master this instrument. Boys who knew what kind of control it took to keep a steady rhythm, lead a band, make this instrument produce more than just a cacophony of noise. Boys who knew exactly how to let loose their power without losing control. Boys like Xander.

It was the battle of the bands week at school and Xander spent all his free time practicing. And Hayley liked to watch. Watch as the rhythmic pounding got stronger. As the pace quickened. As the feeling intensified.

She could feel the vibrations through the floor underneath her seat. She could feel the current of energy in the air she breathed. It was alive. It made her feel alive.

She could feel the passion in the beat he laid out. She could see the muscles in his forearms straining as he alternately gripped the sticks tightly and then loosely. Creating patterns of sound. Strong. Then soft. Then strong again. Building. Increasing in intensity. Quickening. Like the beat of her heart. Like the shallow breaths she now took.

As he tapped out the rhythms in each bar of the music, moving at a breakneck pace, she could only gaze at him in awe. His forearms, his drum sticks were just a blur. There was incredible power behind each movement. It was intense. He was intense.

His dedication to and focus on the piece he was playing was utterly captivating. One slip in his concentration would spell disaster. One twitch of his muscles would turn this frenetic, frenzied, rhythmic, beautiful music into an earsplitting nightmare of sound.

But she knew that would never happen. Xander would never lose focus. His concentration was sure, his forearms were strong, his grip was oh so tight.

She felt a blush rise to her cheeks as she realized how intense her stare was. But she couldn’t look away from him. She tried. Oh how she tried. But she just couldn’t break the hold he had over her as he pounded those drums. He was in control. Total control. Of the drums. Of the music. Of her.

As the song reached its crescendo, she could see the sweat beading on his forehead and glistening along his forearms. Captivated as she was by the delectable sight before her, her mouth felt suddenly dry. She licked her lips. She could see the muscles in his biceps straining against his shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled up to the elbow allowing her eyes total access to his forearms.

She let her eyes feast on the beauty of his body while she let the music carry her away. He was the snake charmer and she was most definitely the snake.

As he furiously beat on the drums arranged before him, swiveling in his seat to capture each one of them, master them, beat them into submission, she couldn’t help but wish she were one of the sticks caught in his tight grip. Wish it was she that he was using to create those rhythms. She wanted to be used by him. Played by him in the same way he played those drums.

And what she wanted more than anything else was to get up and move closer to him. But she was trapped. Held captive in her seat. Unable to approach. Each beat against the drum skin another link in the chain that kept her bound to where she sat.

She could tell the song was nearly done, the beats getting softer, less forceful and she felt herself relax. The tension slowly beginning to leave her body.

She could sense his gaze land on her. She didn’t even need to raise her eyes to know this. No longer lost in the music, he could now focus on the world around him and he chose to train his midnight blue eyes on her.

She looked up slowly. Tearing her eyes away from his forearms was a near impossibility. But she wanted to meet his eyes with her own. He stared at her from beneath the dark, damp bangs that now hung in front of his eyes. His lips slightly parted, his chest rising and falling in rhythm with the slowing pace of the drumbeats.

She could see the sharpness of his gaze. The challenge it held. Daring her to look away. Daring her to deny just how affected she was by the music. By his forearms. And while deep inside she was afraid. Embarrassed by just how strong her attraction was to him. She couldn’t help but rise to the challenge. To stare back unashamedly.

She wanted unobstructed access to his eyes, though. She wanted to close the distance between them so that she could brush aside his bangs, make their connection even stronger. She wanted their gaze to deepen. She wanted to be able to shut out the entire world and create one of their own. Just her and Xander.

But he wasn’t hers to touch. And this wasn’t the time or place to do any of that. He was still winding down the piece he was performing. He still had a number of pieces left to master. If he wanted to win the drum solo competition, he couldn’t afford to be distracted. And she would never want to be the cause of his downfall.

She sighed. And was the first to break the stare. When she quickly glanced back, she saw him smirk as he twirled the drumstick in his left hand before bringing it crashing down for the final note.

She wanted to applaud. She wanted to leap from her seat. To cheer. She wanted to release what was left of the tension in her body with a shout. But instead she just sighed again. And smiled.

Drummers.

Some girls were into guitarists, with their calloused fingertips and the sexy stance they had while strumming out a melody or picking out the bass, dreaming they were the pick trapped between the guitarists adept fingers, held softly between the guitarists lips. Not her.

Hayley was a drummer girl through and through. Looking up at Xander as he mopped the sweat from his brow, she sighed once more. Everything about him exuded sex. From his broad shoulders, to his lean, muscled biceps, to his muscular forearms, to his tapered waist. He was arrogant. He was confident. He was cocky. He was beautiful.

She couldn’t help but watch as he clenched and released his fists after setting the sticks down and stretched his arms above his head, releasing the tension in his shoulders, relaxing his taut muscles. And taut they were. As tight as one of his drums.

It was only for a moment, a quick peek, but she could not help but stare, transfixed, at his abs as his shirt rode up during his stretch. It was just a sliver, but the view was even more delectable than she could ever have imagined. The years of drumming kept not only his arms and thighs in shape, but his abs, too. She may not have seen the entire pack, but it was unquestionably a six-pack.

She averted her gaze when he turned around to face his audience once again. Being caught up in the music was one thing. Ogling his body when he wasn’t performing was an entirely different thing altogether.

She cast furtive glances around the room at the rest of the boys and girls there to watch this rockstar of a drummer perform. There was a mix of awe and envy on each of the boys faces as they gazed at him. Even a few with longing in their eyes. For what exactly, she didn’t know. But if she looked in a mirror she was sure that the image staring at her would reflect back exactly the same expression.

And the girls. They were enrapt. Spellbound. Intoxicated. If she hadn’t known already, the dropped jaws, the glazed eyes, the moist, bitten lips let her know that he had an effect on each and every one in his captive audience. That she was not alone in meeting his eyes with her lust-filled gaze.

But she knew that. He was a drummer. And even when he was not performing, when the drum sticks weren’t gripped in his hands, but tucked into his back pocket, or resting on the drums as they were now, he was marked. He was revered. He was the center of this small universe that was McKinley High School.

As he readied himself for the next solo he looked out at all his adoring fans and smiled. A wide open smile that nearly split his face. An infectious grin that immediately broke through the tension, animosity and lust that filled the air.

“Are you ready for more?” he asked quietly.

Oh yes. Yes she was. She would always be ready for more of what he had to give.

The room around him erupted. Everyone cheered wildly, whistled, stomped their feet in answer. Of course the answer would be a resounding yes. Of course they wanted more.

And with one more heart-stopping smile, and a quick glance around the room only briefly pausing on her, he turned his gaze inward. He shifted his body on the stool. He placed his foot on the drum pedal, he picked up his sticks, adjusted them in his grip, he lifted his arms.

And as drum sticks met skin yet again, he showed them just how much more he could give them. And they showed him just how ready they were.

Date Night

There was probably nothing worse than spending Friday night at home. Alone. Not when your best friend was going out with your very recently ex, ex-boyfriend Mikael. Not when it was their first date and he was taking her on the same first date he took you on – watch the sunset, drive up the PCH to Malibu, romantic dinner. The works.

Okay, sure, the dinner would probably not be that romantic. Or that expensive. But there is just something about sitting together, watching the sun set, that makes everything seem so perfect. It adds a magical quality to the entire night.

So what if the Mexican food was greasy. Or the food was served on trays you had to carry back to a sticky table. All you could remember at that point was the feeling of sitting next to each other on the beach, watching the colors light up the sky. Leaning in for that first kiss as the world disappeared into darkness.

It’s why I fell for Mike, who was nothing like the boys I typically dated. And it’s why it made it that much more painful when he left me for my friend Chrystal.

Mikael was a musician. And my typical rule was to never date musicians. Yeah, even at the age of sixteen I already knew that musicians were trouble. But Mike was different. He wasn’t that loud, obnoxious, full of himself kind of boy. He was quiet. Thoughtful. Sexy.

He played electric guitar, but preferred to play classical tunes instead of whatever was popular. He said he liked the challenge. I just liked watching his fingers run up and down the fretboard at lightning speed. His long fingers delicately pressing against the strings and making the most beautiful sounds come out of a glorified hunk of wood.

I never would have ended things with him. But Mike was a free spirit. I think he got bored of me. Or just the sameness of being with just one person. He told me he loved me. That he always would, but that he needed a change.

Unfortunately that change happened to be to my best friend. I don’t think Mike was trying to be mean. I actually don’t even think he knew Chrys and I were even friends. When we were together, he preferred to spend time alone. He didn’t really like hanging out in groups and bailed whenever I suggested meeting up with a bunch of people. Always some excuse about practicing.

But it hurt that my friend, who knew exactly how I felt about the breakup, could just jump on him – and I mean literally, as Chrys was just that willing to do the things that I wasn’t – within a week of us being over.

If I was the type of girl that sought vengeance, or if Chrystal was the type of girl who cared about any of the guys she hooked up with, I probably would have tried to make something happen with one of her castaways. But I wasn’t. And she didn’t.

So, here I sat. Feeling sorry for myself. At home. Alone. With only my computer screen to keep me company. Everyone would be out. Doing something. With someone. Somewhere.

I did not have a lot of friends. Well, I had enough friends. But most of them were guys. And none of them were single. Chrystal was typically my favorite person to hang out with because she didn’t care about the boys she dated. I was never a third wheel. And she always seemed to like having me around in case she found someone better.

And for the brief three-week period I was dating Mikael, which felt like a lifetime to me, I had someone. I didn’t need to be anyone’s wanted or unwanted extra.

I just knew if I ended up sitting at home tonight, though, I’d be watching the clock. Checking for the precise moment the sun would set. Knowing exactly what would be happening between Mike and Chrystal when it did. And it would drive me crazy.

I knew that a bunch of people were going to some party in the Valley. And while I always swore to myself I’d never hit one of those, it sounded better than the pity party of one I was at right now.

I texted my friend Dave who I knew was going and would have plenty of room in his Hummer to fit me in. I was tiny, so I could squeeze in on the floor if I absolutely had to. It wouldn’t be the first time.

He said he’d be around in about an hour. They planned on getting something to eat and go bowling beforehand in Studio City. Wow, an entire evening in the Valley. You’d think we were heading to another planet instead of just going over the hill. Though, I suppose that being in the Valley was like being in a foreign land.

I figured I had just enough time to shower and straighten my hair. If I tried to flatiron it without blowing it out semi-straight, it wouldn’t look right. My hair fought me every time I tried to make it look semi-decent. Having tangled, wavy hair in theory sounded sexy. In reality it sucked.

When I got out of the shower, I heard my phone beep signaling a missed text. Dave was going to be about twenty minutes early. He had someone to pick up down in the Marina and he didn’t want to have to come back just for me when it was easier to swing by and pick me up first.

Crap. There wouldn’t be enough time to blow dry and straighten my hair. I did not want to risk having half a head of perfectly straight hair and the rest be crazy wild. The blow dry would have to do. It didn’t really matter anyway. It’s not like I was looking for a hookup. I just wanted to take my mind off of things.

I tackled my hair as best as I could, though it was still slightly damp. That’s the problem with long, thick hair. It doesn’t dry fast enough. I grabbed a hair tie and looped my hair into a loose knot and ran back to my room to find something to change into.

What the hell do I wear to a party in the Valley? I figured jeans and a graphic tee would be fine. But, honestly, I didn’t really care who I didn’t impress. And if I was going to be riding on the floor, or sitting in someone’s lap for the ride, jeans would be the safest option.

Dave buzzed at the gate just as I was pulling on my boots. I buzzed him in, grabbed my purse and ran out the front door, making sure the alarm system was engaged. You never can be too careful in a gated community on the Westside. Yeah right.

As I expected the car was pretty full, but there was enough room, at least until the next pickup, for me to squeeze in on the seat.

Everyone shifted over a bit to let me in, said hi, and got back to an argument which my arrival had clearly interrupted. Something about basketball. The Lakers, maybe?

“Hey Stacie,” Dave said over his shoulder as he peeled out of the driveway and back down the hill to Sunset so we could head south.

“Thanks for letting me tag along,” I answered, leaning forward a little so he’d be able to hear me over the argument, which was getting more heated by the second.

“The invite is always open. You know that.”

“Well, thanks anyway. Even if it’s a trip to the Valley.”

He grinned. “It should be fun. Apparently the dude throwing the party just landed a regular part on some new sitcom and he’s going all out.”

“So, who are we picking up in the Marina?” I asked.

“Not sure. A friend of the guy throwing the party maybe? But he asked for the favor, and since I’m bringing along everyone to crash his shindig, I figured I could deal with the inconvenience.”

“Well, hopefully he’s a small guy. I like not having to ride on the floor, especially with how long it will take to go up and over.”

“I’d say you can sit on my lap, Stace, but I don’t think that would be the best way to make it there in one piece.” He winked in the rearview.

I blushed.

***

While it was only a few miles from where I lived to the Marina, the ride took forever. Even taking the back way and avoiding the highway.

It didn’t mind being squished into the back seat, listening to everyone debating about whether our school’s basketball team stood any chance of making it into the playoffs. While I wasn’t that into sports, I knew that Dave was. That his friends were. I was happy to sit quietly and just listen.

I must have eventually dozed off. Because I woke up to the feeling of falling. And not like that feeling you get during a dream that jolts you awake. I mean actually falling. Right out of the car.

I had apparently fallen asleep against the door and when Dave stopped to let in our mystery guest, the door opened and out I tumbled. And not very gracefully.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. Completely mortified as I lay sprawled out on the ground at the feet of this boy. This amazing looking boy. He looked tall. But from my vantage point a pre-schooler would have seemed tall. He had dark hair, an inky black. Long enough that it hung in front of his eyes as he leaned forward to… inspect me? No, that can’t be right, I thought to myself.

But it seemed almost as if he was inspecting me. Trying to figure out who, or what, I could possibly be, aside from a girl who ungraciously fell out of a car. Sport utility vehicle, rather.

Instead of reaching out a hand, he leaned even more forward to stare at me. His dark eyes boring into mine. Almost as if he were trying to read something in them, other than the shock and embarrassment I felt from waking up and falling. I wondered if I had any sleep drool on my face. Or those disgusting crusties in my eyes. UghMortifying.

I tried to inch myself back so that I could sit up without smacking into his forehead. He just moved closer.

“Do you mind?” I asked. “Trying to get up here. You’re not helping things.”

At my words, he seemed to pull himself together. Realizing that his behavior might have seemed odd. Uh, yeah. Before he did, he sniffed at me. Ewwww.

Then he reached out his hand, as if finally discovering his manners, to help me up.

No thanks.

As I tried to stand on my own, a sharp pain pierced my side, causing me to sit back down. Hard. Which didn’t help. At all. Whatever was going on with my right side, the pain was excruciating. Worsening with every breath I took.

I lay down on my back, carefully. Trying to mimic the position I was in before I tried to stand, the one that didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t working. The stabbing pain in my side seemed to intensify.

I couldn’t stop the tears from forming in my eyes or from escaping to slip down the sides of my face. The last time I felt this kind of pain was when I broke my leg skiing in the third grade. I may not be a doctor, but it felt like the same kind of agony. Except this time it might have been a rib.

By this point everyone seemed to notice that my little fall might have been something more. Those closest to my side of the vehicle leaned out to see what could be wrong. Although I had gasped from the pain, I must not have cried out. But when they noticed me still lying there, with this boy hovering above me, they stopped smiling and motioned for Dave to get out and check on me.

“What the hell?” Dave asked. “Are you okay?”

I shook my head no. The tears were still streaming down my face, and I’m sure by now they were leaving dark tracks of mascara in their wake. Normally I would have cared. With the amount of pain I was feeling, and the problem I was having sucking in each breath, I just didn’t give a crap.

Holy wow, I thought. There is actually something worse than sitting home crying over Mike.

“Can you move? Should I move you? Do you need to go to the hospital?” he asked, then came to a decision without awaiting my response. “I’m going to call an ambulance.”

“Okay,” I gasped. I closed my eyes. Dave looked scared. He was making me scared.

“Don’t be.” I heard a deep voice whisper in my ear. One I didn’t recognize.

Huh? I opened my eyes to see this new boy crouching down next to me. I knew I was out of it, but I didn’t think I said anything that would merit his response. Maybe he just knew I needed reassurance. I guess I must have looked scared or something. I know I felt scared.

“You do,” he said. “Look scared, I mean.”

Again, he answered a statement that I hadn’t made aloud. One of my thoughts. Unless, of course I was delirious and I didn’t even realize I was speaking aloud. Which was highly possible. With each breath getting shallower, more painful, I was starting to feel like I might pass out.

“Let me help,” he said.

I really couldn’t figure out how he could possibly help. Besides, after his lack of an offer to help before, I wasn’t sure just why he was offering to help out now.

“You’re in pain. I can help. Trust me,” he said.

I looked at him again. And he did look concerned. Whatever strangeness that was in his gaze before was gone. Now, all I could see were his beautiful dark eyes looking back at me. Mesmerizing me. Calming me.

I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his. Even as I heard Dave call my name. It’s as if his eyes were magnets, pulling me in. As I stared at him, I couldn’t see anything else but him. The rest of the world dissolved around us. It’s as if there was just the two of us.

“I can help you,” I thought I heard him say. But it almost seemed as if it was coming from inside of my head. I didn’t see his lips move, but it wasn’t his lips that I was transfixed by. It was his eyes. Which seemed to have a fiery glow from deep within.

I could have sworn his eyes were the darkest of browns, black maybe. But now I could see red within their depths. And they were deep. Endless pools of darkness illuminated by this dancing, flickering red light. I felt as if I were drowning in them. But it might have been simply that I was losing my battle to breathe and my hold on life that made me feel that way.

And yet, now that I was staring at him, locked in his gaze, I didn’t feel any pain. The burning, stabbing, intense pain I had felt in my side was gone. Had he hypnotized me? Was I dead? Or was I simply too far gone that I couldn’t feel my body any longer.

“I can help you,” he said again. “But I don’t have much time. You don’t have much time.” He tore his gaze away from mine, as he said this, looking almost as if it was as difficult for him to do it as it would have been for me.

He shifted from his crouch, at first kneeling next to me, then lying down beside me. Curling his body next to my uninjured left side.

“What the f–” Dave started to say, but was interrupted by whoever he was speaking to on the other end of the line. “No, I’m still here. I said we need an ambulance, now, at the corner of Via Dolce and Lighthouse.”

This strange boy, who had somehow maneuvered himself so that he was completely pressed up against my side, his body contoured to mine, brought his lips to my ear and whispered, “Make your choice. You only have a moment. Choose to let me help you or choose to say goodbye.”

If I hadn’t been fighting so hard to take in each spoonful of air that let me live for just a fraction of a minute longer, I might have asked him how he planned on helping. How he could help. But I knew I had little time left. And now that I wasn’t enchanted by his eyes, lost in his stare, all the pain I thought had left me for good, was back, full-force.

I tried to answer to tell him, Yes. Yes I want you to help. But I couldn’t even gasp the words out. Yet he heard me anyway. He heard my thoughts.

I could feel his lips move from my ear, to a place just beneath my jaw, along my neck. I could feel them part as he kissed me. I could feel the beat of my pulse beneath his lips, once strong and slow, but now fast and fluttery as I struggled to remain conscious.

Yet even through my pain I could feel just how soft his lips were as they pressed firmly against that tender spot on my neck. Incredibly soft. Incredibly cold.

I vaguely wondered how a kiss would keep me from dying. But then I felt his teeth pierce the skin along that sensitive part of my neck and I felt my pulse quicken from fluttery to erratic as my life’s blood began to flow out of the puncture wounds he’d made.

Oh, was all I could think. And then nothing else mattered.

Demon Ryder and her Ab-man Aximander

Ryder knew she was a demon. Once Ax possessed her body, mind and soul she felt darker. More mature. As she stared at her reflection in the mirror she knew that she was no longer the young girl she once was. She was now a woman. Controlled by a demon. Possessed by him.

In life, Ax was everything she could have hoped for in a man. Before he turned demon, went to hell and came back to possess her.

He was tall. With wavy, dark hair and the brightest blue eyes. He was a man who knew what a woman wanted. And he was a man that every woman desired. Strong, muscular forearms, a lean waistline and tight, sculpted abs.

It’s what drew her to him in the first place. When she spotted him atop that mounted steed, charging toward her as if he wanted to own her even then, long before he turned demon. Long before he controlled her from within.

As he rode up to her, his tight abs glistening under the fine layer of sweat that covered his shirtless chest, she could barely find her breath. His eyes were penetrating. She knew what he wanted. She knew what she wanted to give him. And that was herself. Completely. Right there. Right then. With the whole world as their audience.

But it wasn’t because of his piercing blue eyes. It wasn’t because of those strong hands that could rein that horse in, the fiery beast that held him aloft. It was his abs.

As she cautiously approached him, mounted so high above her, she could barely contain the trembling in her body. She knew he saw this. This weakness in her knees, the lust in her gaze.

When he reached down and with one swift motion pulled her onto the horse behind him, and began to ride off, she had no questions. She just knew she was right where she wanted to be. Pressed tightly against his back. With her arms wrapped around his hairless chest, her fingers playing lightly across his tight, tight abs.

She wanted him like she wanted no other man. She removed her arms from around his waist, mindful of the fact that she could easily tumble off the speeding horse beneath her. But she didn’t care. She would rather risk death than wrap her arms around his slick waist and touch the rippling and dancing abs as he pressed the horse onward.

Because she knew that if she were to grip him for even one second longer she couldn’t restrain herself. She would lose complete control. Her hands would act of their own accord. Pressing and kneading and testing the hard muscles just beneath the skin. Tracing each indentation between each bulging muscle of those flexing abs.

With each stride of the horse, his abs would flex. She knew it without even touching him. She could see them even with her eyes closed. She was lost. Captivated. Forever bound to him because of his abs.

He quickly noticed the absence of her hands and he reached back with one arm and pulled her heaving bosom against his back, wrapping first one, then the other arm back around him. He used his large strong fist to capture both of her hands in his, and he pressed them tightly against his six pack.

He flattened her fingers and moved her hands up and down his slippery skin, forcing her to feel his rippling muscles. And soon her hands moved of their own desire, wanting to memorize each line, each muscle, each movement.

He turned his head and whispered quietly, a whisper that almost disappeared in the wind with the speed at which they rode – “My abs are yours. Forever. I want you to feel them. Touch them.”

Ryder and the Ab-tastic Aximander

Ryder couldn’t believe she had gotten herself into this predicament. Again. The council was not going to give her another chance after the last demon managed to possess her and cause more than a little havoc. So, what if the leader of the council had to be replaced? He was a complete jerk. No one really liked him anyway. She was sorry he had to die… but, it wasn’t really her fault.

Just like getting possessed by the demon Aximander wasn’t her fault. She wasn’t supposed to be sent out on that call alone. If her partner, Finn, had bothered to show up on time, none of this would have happened. She wouldn’t now be fighting against the complete control that Ax wanted over her body and her mind. And no, it wasn’t nearly as tantalizing as it might sound.

She could feel him there, struggling against her will, wearing down her resistance. She knew that the moment she fell asleep he would be in complete control and that when she woke up, if she woke up, she’d wake up in Hell.

So she had to get rid of him. Fast. But she was only just human and short of killing herself, there wasn’t much she could do to make him leave. Hurting herself wouldn’t matter. Demons liked pain. And Ax was no exception.

She even tried to do things she knew would repulse him, like visiting the maternity ward at the hospital. But that wasn’t one of her best ideas. Newborns may be cute, but they’re smarter than they look. And the screams that went up upon her arrival, well… her ears were still ringing. And Ax’s deep, rumbling laughter that echoed inside her head as she fled the hospital only added insult to injury, making this one seriously epic fail of a bad idea.

If she had just waited for Finn, she’d be in class right now, learning about how the long sword was used in Medieval times to vanquish demons. Like she didn’t already know that one. Sheesh. But still, it was way better than being possessed.

She’d like to say that it could have happened to anyone. But it couldn’t. It was because of her green eyes. Green-eyed people were at least sixty times more likely to be possessed than people with any other colored eyes. She wasn’t exactly sure why and she didn’t really care to know what turned a demon on. Would anyone?

Most of the other demon hunters were green-eyed. It made finding demons a hell of a lot easier. But her eyes weren’t the normal deep, emerald green like most of her fellow hunters. No. She got freaky green eyes. Hers were the brightest of greens, Harlequin green – yeah, don’t go there – a color that could not possibly have been made in nature, but one that drove demons wild.

So, even though she was only a junior hunter – she couldn’t get senior status until she was at least eighteen – she was the most popular to take on scouting missions to use as demon bait. Being used to lure demons wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t a forever thing. She knew that someday she’d be where Finn was, or maybe even have a seat on the council – that is, if she could get rid of this whole Ax problem without another council member’s early demise.

Being short and cute, with her crazy eyes made her the perfect temptation, one that no demon could resist. And having the mad skills that she did with almost every single weapon that could take a demon down, made her the perfect huntress. She expected to go far in this organization.

But all of this only worked if she had backup. Which she didn’t. Because, as usual, Finn was late. And she was impatient.

As she headed, alone, to the nightclub where they were supposed to find Ax, who was currently possessing one of the bouncers, she already knew it wasn’t one of her best ideas. From the intel, Ax was supposed to be one of the more charismatic demons. Yep, not all of them were charmers. Some just preferred to possess, destroy and kill, just like the last one that had taken her over.

But Aximander had once been human, and so he somehow managed to retain some of his original personality before he was sent to Hell to become the demon he was today. Something that apparently worked very well for him, as no one was able to capture him yet.

So, it was with way too much confidence that she went after him alone. Not bothering to wait until Finn decided to make an appearance. If she could just bag this demon, she was sure she’d be able to make things right with the council.

When she got to the nightclub, it was already dark. And there were two bouncers at the door. Until she got closer she wouldn’t be able to tell which one was Ax. Not until she looked into his eyes. That whole line about eyes being the windows to the soul wasn’t just some Hallmark card bull, a demons eyes were soulless and depthless, an endless blackness that you couldn’t stare at for too long or you would be a gonner.

She hesitated for only a moment, making sure her knife was within easy reach should she be forced to kill the vessel. If the reports were true, Ax was close to needing a new body to occupy, as the life-force of the one he was currently residing in was just about drained.

A human could only play host to a demon for so long before their will was broken and once that happened they were as good as dead. Nothing more than an empty shell where once there was a person.

Sad stuff, blah, blah, blah, but they were suckers for getting possessed in the first place and not figuring out how to get un-possessed in time.

She approached the club as if she were any one of the many people trying to be admitted for a night of dancing and drinking and more…. But she stood out. At only five feet four inches, with brown hair streaked with blue highlights, jeans and a T-shirt, she looked every bit the teenager she was. Great for faking vulnerability for the hunt. Not ideal to blend into a swank nightclub crowd.

With only just a few feet separating her and the two bouncers, when they both looked her way, she quickly avoided their gaze. She didn’t want to feel the pull of Ax’s desire when he saw her eyes. But turning away so fast made her look guilty. And it made her trip.

As she tried to stand up, feeling slightly mortified, but also glad that Finn wasn’t there to see it happen, someone was there to give her a hand. She was no damsel in distress, so she ignored it and attempted to get up as gracefully as possible.

But whoever he was, he was way too close and she needed his arm to steady her when it looked like she was about to take another spill. It must have been one of the bouncers, because the grip that held her in place was a strong one. And she could see the muscles straining in his powerful forearm as he held onto her until she got her balance.

She allowed her gaze to travel slowly up his body, lingering as they took in the firm, hard planes of his abs that were clearly visible through the taut black T-shirt he wore. She wanted to run her fingers along the lines that marked their definition and she wanted to feel the solid muscle beneath her fingertips as she delicately traced every inch of them.

She had never been quite so close to any boy – or man, because this was definitely a man – with a body quite as rock hard and muscular as his. All the hunters were lean and wiry. But this man, this possible demon, was tall, broad and very solid. His arms looked like they could crush her in their embrace, without even meaning to.

But it was his abs that kept drawing her gaze. She was transfixed. Powerless to look away. Powerless to move or breathe or speak. She could see them ripple with each breath he took. And she hoped, against all hope, that this was the other bouncer. Not the demon called Ax. And that this wasn’t the vessel she might have to kill.

She quietly slipped the knife out from its hiding place at her back, and stepped in closer so that she could move it next to his body, those abs, without him noticing its existence. She would hate to have to mar his perfect form, but if it meant her life versus his she would do it. Reluctantly. Oh so reluctantly.

She took one last glance at his abs, admiring the way the T-shirt hugged the six pack, and slowly met his gaze. She knew that it was a risk. If he was the demon and she lost herself in his eyes, much the way she lost herself in those abs, she knew it would all be over for her. And that there would be no one to stop him from possessing her.

What calmly and coldly stared back at her were two of the blackest eyes she had ever seen. Dark and empty and devoid of all light and humanity. They were the eyes of the demon. And she was lost.

***

Aximander was amused. He knew from the moment she approached the club that this was the demon hunter Ryder that everyone warned him about. She was just some young little thing. Acting all tough and covert as she walked toward him and Shay. But he saw the knife. And he was on guard.

When she fell, trying to avoid his stare, he nearly burst out laughing. This little nothing was the demon bait that felled so many of his kind? Please. It was just too easy. He would be the one that possessed her and took away any threat that she supposedly held.

When he reached out his hand and she tried to stand on her own, he stepped in closer, making her lose her balance on purpose. He knew that being this close to her would mess with her head. He knew just what power that he had over human females. Especially in this body he was currently in possession of.

The broad shoulders that could dwarf a woman, making her feel vulnerable and protected. The heavily muscled arms that could enfold her into an embrace he knew she’d never want to leave. And the tight, toned abs, that even he enjoyed running his calloused fingers over as they flexed during his nightly workouts.

He enjoyed this form he was currently occupying. The man who once lived there was weak and easy to possess, but he could feel its usefulness coming to an end. And so this girl, this feisty huntress called Ryder, would be his next conquest.

He wanted to possess her. He liked a challenge, and although this man fit his demon lifestyle, abs and all, in all the right ways, possessing this girl would be much more fun.

So what if had to lose this body and occupy her much smaller, perkier one? A body is only a temporary thing for a demon. But oh how he’d miss those abs. Abs that caused women much older, much more experienced than this young girl, to be nothing more than putty in his hands.

And so he’d use them one last time to give him power over this huntress.

He could already see just how captivated she was by them, as they strained against the T-shirt. He saw how she couldn’t tear her eyes away to meet his. He timed each breath to make sure that their movements would hypnotize her. And he knew that it was working.

This six-pack would get him what he wanted. Again.

He could see her fight to keep herself from reaching out, to keep from touching them. And he knew he was the victor in this contest of wills. Even with the knife that trembled in her hand close enough to end his existence, close enough to twist into his side, or into his abs.

But just seeing how she stared, with her half-lidded eyes, as he caused his abs to ripple right before them, he knew that the only thing that remained to own her completely was to have her look into his eyes. And after what seemed like a brief struggle, she looked up.

***

Ryder knew she was possessed. She may have lost a few moments, but being possessed wasn’t something you could not be aware of. The last thing she recalled was staring at those beautiful abs on the bouncer. But she could now feel his darkness inside of her, shifting her around to make room for him.

She knew that she had powers that she didn’t have as a human. She could hear everything for miles around her. She felt stronger. She still felt like herself, but better. But she knew it wouldn’t last.

She still wanted to be her. Even if she could now teleport – apparently one skill that Ax possessed that the council wasn’t aware of. As easy as it would be to let go, to allow him complete control of her mind and body, she wasn’t ready to let him take over.

She felt how much stronger he was than the demon who last shared her body, so she wasn’t sure just how she’d get rid of him, but she had to try.

She took one last, longing glance at the collapsed form of the bouncer that formerly contained Aximander. While he was still technically alive, he was now completely empty. Devoid of anything. A shell. But a beautiful, ab-tastic shell.

In the fall, his shirt had lifted, bunching around his solar plexus, exposing his ripped abs to her greedy gaze. She allowed her bright green eyes their fill, as his abs raised and lowered with each breath he took in the prone position he was now in, moving slowly and even more seductively than they had when he’d been standing. When it was Ax taking those breaths, causing those subtle, tantalizing movements that landed her in this nightmare situation she was in.

Such a shame. She knew that if she made it out of this alive, if she were to live to old age, she’d never see a set of abs so perfect, so delectable as the ones she was looking at right this moment. She took a mental picture, because she had forgotten her camera phone in her haste to bag a demon on her own, sighed and wiped away the solitary tear that managed to escape from the corner of her eye.

Now she just had to figure out how to get Aximander out of her before she ended up in a worse hell than the one she was currently in.

Stay tuned [not really] for the next chapter.