The Party Girl (Getting Physical #3)

Kendra Khuso isn’t looking for long-term. Her traditional Indian family believes it’s time she settled down with a parent-approved husband. Instead, she’s focused on building her business by day and then enjoying all the nightlife has to offer…until she meets Noah.

Noah Walker is happy with a solitary, sustainable life on a plot of land outside of town. He left a high-maintenance relationship behind him and he just wants to keep his head down and his hands busy, living off the grid and making no plans…until he falls for Kendra.

The attraction is mutual and their chemistry is electric. There’s just one problem: Noah’s best friend, Lincoln, is head-over-heels in love with Kendra even though she’s keeping him firmly in the friend zone. Noah refuses to break the bro code by pursuing a woman his best friend professes to love—but Kendra is determined to get her man, even if it means giving up the social scene for the simple life.



Chapter One

Kendra had just managed to get Derek’s pants off when the doorbell rang.

It wasn’t that the act of removing a man’s pants was terribly difficult. From a logistical standpoint, one button and a short zipper were easy enough to maneuver. Even easier was convincing a man to shed his clothing at the earliest available opportunity. She wasn’t saying she could close every deal that swaggered her way, but her success rate lodged somewhere at the ninetieth percentile.

She’d always been an overachiever.

“Are you expecting someone?” Derek lay sprawled on her bed, looking up at her through his overlong crop of dark hair. Younger than her by a few years, and unemployed save for his twice-weekly band gig a few towns over, he presented a delicious picture of youthful debauchery. “A girlfriend? Maybe two?”

“Cute, but misguided. I don’t tag team.” She held up a finger as a muffled bang followed another cheerful chime of the doorbell. “Shoot. I better get that. Can we hold this thought?”

As Derek had a generally thought-free item in his hands at that moment, he groaned and dropped his head to her pillow. “Someone better be dying out there. I don’t think any woman has gotten me this hot this fast before.”

Kendra smiled as she wrapped herself in an orange floral satin robe and cinched the belt. Guys in their twenties were so much fun to rile up. Most of them were so grateful to have a woman do all the heavy lifting they sort of rolled over and lay there, eager and panting. A dog and his bone.

“Just close your eyes and squeeze every few seconds. I’ll be right back.”

Another thump sounded, louder this time, and Kendra gave in to a quick moment of alarm as she made her way to the front door. It was late—booty-call late—and she wasn’t accustomed to visitors stopping by unannounced. Once upon a time, she’d had guests filing in at all hours of the night to chat and hang out, drinking too much wine and regretting it in the morning, but those visits had become a rarity as of late. Since moving to Pleasant Park to open a medical spa practice, most of her close friends had become happily bound by relationships. She was officially the last woman standing.

Or, you know, lying down. Naked. With a virtual stranger.

Of course, such activities did have their benefits. As there was a capable young man in her bedroom with an excess of testosterone pumping through his veins right now, it seemed safe enough to open the door.

Thump. Groan.

Or not.

“Lincoln?” Her hand stopped on the knob. A familiar body slumped forward, pushing the door the rest of the way open. “What are you doing here?”

The man moaned and pulled his hand out from the flap of his jacket, flashing her the white and red of a towel pressed to his midsection. The white was fabric. The red was not. “I need your help. I can’t drive anymore.”

Kendra didn’t move, though there was plenty of activity going on inside her head. Her first thought—admittedly selfish—was that Lincoln couldn’t have shown up at a worse possible moment. Her second thought was one of shaky, adrenaline-infused alarm. That was an awfully large proportion of red.

“Stay right there. I’ll call 9-1-1.”

“No.”

Some of that alarm faded to be replaced by an equally dangerous sense of foreboding. “Then you want me to drive you to the emergency room?” Her voice wavered. “Please tell me this is you asking me to take you to the hospital.”

Lincoln grimaced. “C’mon, Kendra. Can’t you see I’ve been stabbed? I can’t take this to the hospital.”

She closed her eyes and bit back a sharp retort. That statement made much more sense than it should have, given the situation. She knew all too well that hospitals followed strict procedures for wounds inflicted in violence—and Lincoln was very much an off-the-paper-trail sort of man. He wouldn’t want a record of this showing up.

Left with no other choice, she pulled the door the rest of the way open, Derek and his guitar-strumming hands all but forgotten. “You better come in and lie down. I’ll call Whitney.”

Lincoln shook his head in protest, unwilling to cross the threshold despite the fact that his stance was hunched and he had to brace himself with an arm on her doorjamb in order to remain standing. He was clearly in pain, but there was no doubt in her mind that Lincoln’s tenacity would win out over pain every time. Kendra had yet to meet any other person on the face of the planet whose stubbornness came close to touching his. And she knew a lot of stubborn people.

“It’s Whitney or an ambulance. You can’t play around with this—you look seriously hurt.”

“She’ll tell Matt. You know she will.”

For a full ten seconds, Kendra considered shutting the door in Lincoln’s face. She’d never wish bodily harm on another human being. She’d call a thousand ambulances if she thought it might curb this man’s penchant for trouble. But this wasn’t the first time Lincoln had asked her to skirt the line of morality for him. It wasn’t even the first time he’d shown up at her house bleeding.

“Maybe Matt should be told. Someone clearly needs to be keeping tabs on you—and your brother is a much better candidate than me.”

“Is everything okay out here?” The gruff, cigarette-sucking rasp of Derek’s voice approached from the rear. She could just make out the sight of him, all lean and pale and wrapped up in her favorite sheet, out of the corner of her eye.

All that lean, pale skin. Such a soft, slinky sheet.

“What the hell, Kendra? Why is there some naked dude in your living room?” Lincoln straightened in a clear move of manly posturing, but its efficacy was cut short for several reasons. For one, he had no right to question her choice of nighttime companions. For another, he let out a cry and grabbed his side again.

“Thanks, Derek, but everything is fine.” She looked back and forth between her two companions, knowing full well who was about to win the bid for her attention. “I’m sorry to leave you hanging like this, but there’s a bit of an emergency situation on my hands. I don’t suppose you could, uh…”

“Another time,” he said easily. “It’s cool. Mind if I unload in your shower before I go?”

“Sure. Whatever. Enjoy yourself.” She waved a hand his direction, dismissing him from her mind and her loins in one easy gesture.

“You’re just going to let that guy wank in your bathroom?” Lincoln hissed.

She stared at him with a composure she was far from feeling. Nothing was likely to get her hackles up faster than Lincoln trying to tell her what she could or could not do with her time—and her body. “The alternative is for you to sit here and wait while I finish the job myself. You pick.”

Pain flashed across his face, grown pale underneath the orangeish synthetic tan he bore regardless of the season. That pain carried with it the very last of all her straws. “Come on. Let’s get you somewhere with good morphine and better sterilization.”

Not willing to wait for his affirmative answer, she shoved her feet into a pair of sparkly Ugg boots and grabbed her keys, which hung on an efficient hook in the foyer. With one hand gripping Lincoln’s elbow to keep him aloft, she guided him down the front steps of her townhouse.

They didn’t have far to go. Lincoln’s car, a slightly pimped-out Honda Civic, was parked at an awkward angle, tire marks clearly depicting his haphazard path around the corner.

“And we’re taking your car,” Kendra added, seeing the trail of blood drops that led from the driver’s side door to their feet. “You’re not bleeding all over mine.”

“You’re too good to me.” He turned his head her way, his eyes—a childlike, icy blue—staring deeply into hers. “Leaving your date like that. Coming to my rescue.”

“I know I am,” she said, not inviting further discussion. It would only lead to places neither one of them wanted to go. “But I don’t care how many times you get stabbed from here on out. This is the absolute last time I’m doing this.”

She helped him into the passenger seat and moved the seat belt buckle into place, doing her best not to hover any longer than necessary. Of course, that didn’t stop Lincoln from accidentallybrushing her boobs with his arm. Looking down, she realized she had pretty much nothing on except undergarments of maximum appeal and questionable support. As a petite woman, the hem of her robe extended below her knees, providing a modicum of modesty. As a busty woman—courtesy of her plastic surgeon best friend and an amazing set of silicone implants she’d gotten for cost—that modesty was little more than an illusion.

“Stay here. I’m going to put on pants.”

Lincoln groaned and rolled his head against the headrest, eyes closed. She wasn’t fooled by his overdrawn antics. He’d live long enough for her to get dressed—he was still talking, and the smug grin on his face was too triumphant for a man on death’s door.

Although that was an awful lot of blood all over the driver’s seat…

“Goddammit, Lincoln.” Ignoring her better judgment, she slid into the seat and started the engine, trying to ignore the damp seepage of blood through the silk at her back. “Okay. Where are we going? I’m warning you right now—if I decide it’s not sanitary, I reserve the right to take you to the nearest medical facility. I want bright lights. Antiseptic handwash. A medical license would be a plus. And absolutely no back-alley vet offices or drunk frat boys with a sewing kit.”

“I’m not stupid.”

She didn’t answer. Lincoln was several adjectives listed under stupid in the thesaurus. As the older brother of her best friend’s fiancé, he should have been some kind of adorable setup for a romantic comedy. She and Whitney, on perpetual double dates with the Fuller brothers. Family gatherings full of laughter and discreet groping.

Wrong. As it turned out, Whitney got the good brother and a lifetime of blissful, sex-filled happiness. Kendra was left with the bleeding remains of a one-night stand she couldn’t seem to shake. Almost a whole year had passed since she and Lincoln had enjoyed relations of any sort, but he’d sort of…attached to her. Like a puppy. Or a leech.

“I’m not,” he insisted again. When it was clear she had no intention of believing him or soothing his hurt pride, he sighed and added, “Head west out of town.”

She swiveled her head to peer at him. “Just how far am I taking you?”

“It’s only a few miles. Out by Miller Pond.”

She wasn’t terribly familiar with that area, but she followed his directions all the same. Hoping to distract him as they pulled away from the lights of the borough and onto a back road, Kendra flicked on the CD player. She could feel the shift in the air as the bass kicked on and Bruno Mars promised she was amazing just the way she was.

“Really?” She flicked the music back off. “Are you a twelve-year-old girl now?”

Lincoln rolled his head toward her and groaned. “What are you talking about? I know lots of people who like this song.”

“And I know lots of people who visit hospitals when they’re bleeding out their abdomens. I don’t see you following that trend.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lincoln’s jaw tighten, and panic seized her. Lincoln was never quiet. If he didn’t have enough strength to argue with her, things were worse than she thought.

“Hanging in there okay?” she asked softly. She didn’t know a whole lot about lifesaving medical techniques—beauty-saving medical techniques were more her style—but it seemed important to keep him talking. “On a scale of one to dumbass, how are you feeling right now?”

He managed a small grin. “I’m a solid five.”

Ha. That was a matter of opinion. “Are you at least going to tell me what happened? And please don’t say this was another one of your sure things. Remember what happened the last time? I told you that guy wasn’t really a bookie.”

He attempted a feeble shrug. “It’s not a big deal. Just a bar fight.”

Nothing was ever just a bar fight with Lincoln. Even though he was technically a police officer, upholding the law and protecting the good citizens of Lakewood County, he had to be one of the most corrupt people she’d ever known, always on the lookout for a shortcut or a good deal. He bought and sold cars at police auctions before they went up on the block. Made clandestine arrangements with people she’d have been afraid to meet in the full light of day.

As far as she could tell, he never actually broke any laws. But he sure did bend the hell out of them.

“So, is this where you tell me I should see what happened to the other guy?” she joked, allowing none of those concerns to show.

This time, she was rewarded with a slight smile that did much to improve his appearance. Lincoln was an attractive man in the most straightforward way possible—by which she meant that all the pieces were in place, exactly where they should be. Clip any random man out of any random magazine, and there you had Lincoln, right down to the spiked hair, carefully maintained abs and perfectly white teeth.

The problem was, he had nowhere to go from there but down. Once you’d already appreciated said abs—which she had—and been the recipient of those blinding smiles—which she was—Lincoln sort of lost his appeal.

“I didn’t stick around to see whether or not the guy went down.” Lincoln held up his fist, which, in addition to his own blood, bore the unmistakable signs of having recently landed on someone’s face. “He had big friends. Oh, you want to go right here.”

Kendra stopped the car but didn’t turn the wheel. “Really? That’s your saving grace?”

In this part of upstate Pennsylvania, the countryside was dotted with upscale neighborhoods, which swelled from the rolling green hills in awe of their own importance, often appearing as if out of nowhere. This was clearly not one of those places. The road Lincoln indicated was not only dark and deserted, it wasn’t even paved. People around here liked the rustic look, sure, but not enough to damage their paint jobs. This place had back-alley vet written all over it.

She cast him an anxious look and made one final plea. “And you’re one hundred percent sure the hospital is out of the question?”

“Don’t worry. My friend is very good. His house is about two miles that way. Be sure to tell him…”

“Be sure to tell him what?” she asked. But whatever ominous warning Lincoln intended to impart was lost—along with his consciousness. With a leap of her heart and a heavy foot on the gas, she whipped down the dirt road, pausing only to reach a hand out and check for his pulse.

“I knew I should have called an ambulance,” she muttered, more grateful to feel the movement of blood through his veins than she cared to admit. “If you die over this, I’m never speaking to you again.”

She continued down the unlit road with nothing but trees to guide her way, contemplating a quick turnaround at every bend. She was about to give up and do just that when she broke into a clearing that bore signs of human use. There was no vehicle or driveway—not even a house in the strictest sense of the word—but warm yellow lights emitted from a door that seemed embedded into the hillside.

Okay, so it wasn’t as seedy as she’d anticipated, but it also wasn’t the bright, sterile office she’d hoped was awaiting at the end of the rainbow. After checking to make sure Lincoln was still breathing, Kendra ran to the door and pounded.

Dressed in a slinky robe, soaked in blood that wasn’t her own and standing on a stranger’s doorstep—she wished she could say this was the most bizarre moment of her life, but that would have been a lie. It was definitely one of the top five, though. Top three if you didn’t count that time she and Whitney had done spring break in Cancún.

“Hello?” she called, pounding harder. Let there be someone home. Let there be a well-trained paramedic who understands the unfortunate plight of an acquaintance with Lincoln Fuller.

So concentrated was she on that chant in her head, she barely had time to register her shock at seeing the backwoodsman who eventually answered the door. Used to people—especially male people—towering over her, it wasn’t his size so much as the fact that he looked like he’d stepped into the present straight from the American Frontier that alarmed her. Reddish-gold beard trimmed to scuff neatly along his jawline, work-faded jeans, the crinkly-eyed look of a man who squinted in the sun—all he was missing was a rifle and leather chaps to make the picture complete.

And Kendra would know. That was her favorite kind of picture. She had twelve of them posted above her desk, one for every month of the year.

She shook herself off. Now was not the time to get swoony over a mountain man in the woods. Of more immediate importance was whether or not he could repair bodily harm wrought at the hands of barroom thugs. “Do you know Lincoln? Lincoln Fuller?”

“Is something wrong?” Although surprise at the sight of her lifted a pair of heavy brows above frank, appraising brown eyes, he looked past her to the car. Whether by recognizing the make and model, or by understanding Kendra’s feeble hand gestures, he picked up on the situation and moved quickly to the passenger side door. “Gunshot?”

She trotted after him, not noticing until she was by his side that he stood barefoot, somehow impervious to the pointed edges of the gravel and the layer of dust coating everything around them. Oh, man. She really hoped his woodsy shack was clean enough for this. “Knife wound. I have no idea how long ago. I wanted to take him to a hospital, but…”

There should have been no but in there—and she was definitely regretting its existence. Kendra wasn’t normally a woman given to indecision. She liked making hard choices, enjoyed cutting through emotional drama and ambiguity to reach the meaty center. That was what people counted on her for—an integral part of the personality so many people, in their less-than-complimentary moments, termed controlling.

This momentary lapse had to be Lincoln’s fault. She didn’t know how he did it, but he always seemed to slip past her defenses, weaseling his way in with the kind of persistence normally reserved for the IRS. She’d swear that nine-tenths of his dates were acquired by dint of that persistence. Probably most of his sexual conquests too. She shuddered to think what else had been given up at the altar of Lincoln, simply to keep him from asking one more time.

“He insisted I bring him here,” she finished lamely.

“Yeah. He would.”

No further explanation was required. Without saying anything more than keys, arm and door, the man managed to get Lincoln out of the car and into his house, Kendra little more than a witness to the strength required to carry all hundred and eighty pounds of spray-tanned folly to safety.

“What can I do?” she asked as she closed the door behind her.

Now that she was inside, she realized she was facing quite a bit of square footage. What looked like a floating door was actually the entrance to some kind of half-underground hobbit house. There was no other way to describe it. The house literally extended back into the hillside, a long wooden cabin trapped on three sides by earth, the peaty smell of dirt and pine whispering at her nostrils.

“Medical kit under the sink,” the man said, and slapped Lincoln firmly on the cheek to rouse him to consciousness. It wasn’t exactly the kind of technique they employed at their medical spa, New Leaf—and it definitely wasn’t the kind of treatment Lincoln would have received at the hands of an ER doctor—but it worked. Lincoln grunted, his eyelids fluttering.

“The kit should be to the right,” the man added when she didn’t move right away.

“Unfair.” Kendra went to search under the sink—a big farmhouse-style cistern with the pipes showing. Sure enough, a serviceable metal box sat neatly aligned under one side. “Next time one of the options involves hitting Lincoln, I pick that one.”

Falling into a laugh, the man cast a look over his shoulder. “Are you the one who stabbed him?”

“No,” she said. “But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never been tempted before. You?”

“Once or twice,” he admitted. “But I managed to restrain myself.”

There was something so capable and soothing about the mountain man that she felt immediately at ease. The shaky anxiety that had taken over during the car ride began to ebb away, leaving mostly curiosity in its place. Where exactly were they? And who was this guy with a military-grade medical kit under his sink?

Lincoln groaned again, now alert enough to help as the man urged him to lay himself out on the roughly hewn table taking up most of the kitchen. “I’m glad you both find this so amusing. I could be dying.”

“You’re not.” With those incredibly welcome words, the man took the first-aid kit from Kendra, opened it and pulled out a pair of scissors. He placed a large hand flat on Lincoln’s chest and held him down as he cut away the shirt, which, even covered in blood, Kendra could tell was made of cashmere.

Now, she wasn’t against cashmere T-shirts on principle. She might have even owned one or two herself. But seeing the two men next to one another, one prostrate and bleeding in his expensive fabrics, the other looking as though he might enjoy wrestling alligators in the delicious, oiled-down nude, she couldn’t help but feel that some goat prancing through the Tibetan Plateaus had been sheared in waste.

The man looked up, vision obscured by a lock a few shades darker than his facial hair. “I’m Noah, by the way.”

Solid. Capable. Bearded. Built an ark with his own two hands.

That seemed about right.

“There’s a bathroom through the back,” he added. “In case you want to, uh, clean up.”

She looked down and did her best not to cringe at the picture she presented. All her lady lumps were still covered, but her right side was splotched with patches of crimson, and the flimsy material seemed unsuitable in this man palace of hardwoods. Glistening woodwork shone pretty much everywhere—floor, ceiling, walls, the frames for most of the furniture—all of it the same burnished gold of Noah’s beard. Illumination was provided by recessed fixtures that were almost hidden from the naked eye, everything else efficiently sparse and neat.

Except, you know, her. And her bloody lingerie.

“Thanks, but I didn’t have time to pack a spare outfit.” She made light of the situation with a grin and a shrug. “Lincoln’s timing leaves something to be desired.”

Noah’s brows—by far the most expressive part of him—rose at the clear implication of her words, but he didn’t comment. He was either unfailingly polite or shocked. Probably shocked. Kendra had that effect on men sometimes—it accounted for her failed ten percent.

“This is a nice place, by the way.”

“Thank you,” he said simply, his eyes meeting hers. Warm and rich, they too glittered with a hidden glow. What was it about this place? Despite the fact that they were all burrowed underground like moles, she felt almost as though she’d walked into the sun.

“If you two are done making small talk and sharing recipes, can we please get on with this?” Lincoln made a feeble gesture over his midsection.

Chastened, Noah resumed his attention to Lincoln’s wound, focusing on getting the blood flow to stop. He wasn’t accustomed to having an audience while he worked on any sort of project, but the beautiful, half-naked woman stood aside, not asking questions or interfering in the process other than to take Lincoln’s hand and squeeze it tightly.

Either she was familiar enough with Lincoln’s antics to know that a midnight stab wound was par for the course, or she was accustomed to the sight of blood. Noah suspected the former. Everything about her appearance gave her away as one of Lincoln’s friends—the fluttering robe, which seemed to showcase flashes of her body only to cover them back up again, a pierced nose with a glittering diamond stud, the sparkly boots, the heavily made-up eyes set against gorgeous dusky skin.

And the goddamn robe. Did he mention the robe?

If her state of undress was anything to go by, this woman had literally tumbled out of bed to come to Lincoln’s rescue. Whether she made it a habit to lounge alone in this kind of getup—or if she’d left some poor guy panting between the sheets—didn’t seem to matter one bit to Noah’s concentration. All he knew was that he harbored a deep, highly inappropriate curiosity about what, if anything, she had on underneath.

He felt like even more of a jerk when she proved adept at keeping his patient occupied while he set to work, diverting Lincoln’s attention with a long, involved story about a friend of hers and a misunderstanding at a petting zoo. Noah listened with only half an ear, much more focused on the flow of blood than the conversation. About an inch long and located along the outer portion of his lower abdomen, the wound looked nasty but didn’t appear to have touched anything vital. Noah’s first aid training didn’t go much beyond the basics, but there wasn’t nearly enough swelling or discomfort to alarm him. What Lincoln needed was to be cleaned, stitched up and bandaged—all things he could do fairly easily.

Lincoln also desperately needed someone to stop him from continuing this path of self-destruction. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t quite as simple.

“You’re staying here tonight,” he said as he finished the last stitch. The topical anesthetic he’d applied had long since worn off, and Lincoln’s upper body glistened with a sheen of sweat Noah attributed mostly to his trying not to pass out in front of his lady friend. “I want to be able to keep an eye on you.”

He tied off the knot and clipped the dark thread, satisfied with his handiwork, as he always was with any activity he’d learned and perfected on his own. His stitches would leave a nasty mark, no doubt about it, but Lincoln took perverse pleasure in that sort of thing. Scar tissue was his own version of teardrop tattoos—misguided and grotesque and unfortunately permanent.

“Nah. I’m fine. I think I’ll just head home.” As if to demonstrate his improved state of health, Lincoln swung his legs from the table and hopped down. Only by the woman’s quick thinking—and firm shoulder propping him up—did he manage to stay standing.

“You won’t do anything of the sort.” With widened eyes, she tilted her head toward Noah’s living area, where a serviceable futon functioned as both a couch and his guest bed.

Noah shook his head and thumbed over his shoulder toward the back of his house. The place wasn’t grand by any stretch of the imagination, but he did have a separate bedroom. Some luxuries a man refused to do without—and as Noah was in the habit of sleeping naked, he’d discovered early on that a little privacy went a long way when the rare guest came to call.

“In fact, unless you follow Noah’s orders, I’m going to pick up the phone and tell Matt exactly what happened tonight.” Understanding Noah’s gesture, she began leading Lincoln toward the back, their movements hobbled and slow. “I’m kind of pissed off right now, and you know how I get when my temper spins out of control. There’s no telling what I might say to him. Tonight’s stabbing. The black eye two months ago. The one time you asked me to hold that mysterious packa—”

“Fine.” Lincoln muttered something more, but the sound was absorbed as the pair of them passed into the bedroom. Noah assumed she could figure the rest of it out and busied himself cleaning up the mess left on his makeshift operating table. As he was in the habit of efficiency, the task didn’t take long to complete, so he put a kettle on the wood stove and took a seat, waiting for the woman to return from the bedroom.

She emerged about ten minutes later, shutting the door behind her with a soft click. Her gently tiptoeing movements indicated that she’d not only tucked Lincoln in, but also ensured he’d fallen asleep. Noah felt a swelling gratitude for the woman’s careful ministrations where Lincoln was concerned.

Yeah. Gratitude. That was what was swelling.

“He’s out cold,” she said, indicating the door.

“I’m not surprised.”

“I gave him some ibuprofen to help with the pain.”

“Probably wise.”

An anxious furrow marred her otherwise flawless brow. “And you think he’ll be okay?”

“He’ll live,” Noah amended. Okay, in this situation, was an entirely different question—one he unfortunately didn’t have the power to control.

She nodded once, and he got the impression that despite his reticence, she’d picked up on both sides of his answer. It felt good, sharing this burden with someone else. Hell—who was he kidding? It felt good sharing anything with a woman like this one.

He’d been out of the world a long time, but not so long he’d forgotten what attraction felt like. If anything, isolation had sharpened his senses, made him keenly aware of the interest he felt and what kind of damage it could cause. In his experience, women in sparkling shoes spelled trouble. Women in sparkling shoes who also moved in Lincoln’s circles?

He didn’t even want to think about it.

“Thank you for taking care of him so quickly,” she said. “For a while there, I thought he might be in real trouble.”

Knowing Lincoln, he still was. But Noah just inclined his head in what he hoped was an acknowledgment of her thanks.

It must have worked, because she smiled softly and changed the subject. “By the way, is that a real tree in there making the frame for your bed? I’ve never seen anything like that outside of a magazine before.”

Noah stood and pulled out a chair for her, waiting until she seated herself before answering. “It’s not a living tree anymore, but it’s real enough. If you go up to the roof, you can see what remains of the stump. I was going to pull the roots out to clear the room, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It seemed like such a waste of natural wood.”

“Oh, I’m with you there. I never waste good wood.”

He thought for a moment she was making fun of him, but her gray-green eyes—already such large, expressive things—were widened in a challenge. She was making fun of him, but not as a woman finding fault with a man. Unless his ability to read the signals was way off, she was finding the exact opposite.

More of his, uh, gratitude swelled in response. At this rate, he’d be nothing but rushing blood and poor judgment before the sun came up.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” he asked, suddenly all too aware of his hands and a burning desire to place them somewhere inappropriate. In his case, idle hands really were the devil’s plaything. Part of the reason he’d gotten so interested in woodworking in the first place was his incessant need to be moving, flexing, doing something with them.

The woman’s hands, he noted, were smooth. Dainty. Carefully manicured. He could only imagine what they would feel like pulling open that robe, skimming over the surface of his skin, grabbing him by the…

“Tea sounds perfect, actually. I hope you don’t mind, but I pulled a few extra blankets from your linen cupboard for Lincoln. I think a little bit of shock might have been settling in. He felt clammy.”

Lincoln. There was a bleeding man the next room over. Now was not the time to be thinking about this woman’s hands and what they might be capable of.

“You take good care of him.” Noah busied himself scooping homegrown tea from a tin into two tiny cheesecloth squares. “You’re not like his usual friends.”

She released a short laugh, a burst of merriment that disappeared as quickly as it came. “I was just about to say the same thing about you. You, for one, appear to have actual common sense.”

“And you held his hand while I stitched him up.”

“You’ve probably never seen the inside of a spray-tanning booth.”

“You came all the way out here without asking any questions.”

“You’re helpful in the kitchen.”

“You probably saved his life.”

She paused, appraising him. “Your answers are a lot nicer than mine.”

Unsure how to respond, he set a steaming mug on the table and waited for her to sip. She nodded her thanks, and he relaxed. Why the approval of an underdressed, overly made-up city girl mattered, he had yet to determine.

All he knew was that it did.

Kendra wished Noah would sit down, but he seemed content to stare at her from his position at the stove. She also wished he’d talk more—she wasn’t used to people being so unnecessarily quiet. Her friends were the sort to never let a good piece of sarcasm go unsaid, and Lincoln was one of those guys who felt silence to be a personal shortcoming. Noah’s oppressive calm was unnerving.

“So what just happened?” she asked, hoping to prod him into conversation.

“I imagine you know more than me.”

“Well, you imagine wrong.” She took a sip of the too-hot-but-otherwise-amazing tea, which tasted like some sort of floral mix. She didn’t know men were aware that tea existed outside of the bleached, mass-produced bags of carcinogens at the store. “I was enjoying an evening in with a friend when he showed up, bleeding, on my doorstep. As you can imagine, my friend wasn’t pleased at the interruption.”

She snuck a peek at Noah over the top of her cup, all too attuned to the fact that he’d noticed her attire—or lack of it—and seemed to be having a difficult time pretending the opposite. It was cruel of her to taunt him, she knew. There was nothing fair about showing up in lingerie at a stranger’s house and casually discussing natural woods. But she was shaky with the remaining dregs of adrenaline, she’d left a very attractive young man at home, and there were far too many silky pieces pressed against her undercarriage for her to forget that fact entirely.

She was feeling flirtatious. So sue her.

“And he’s probably gone home to his own bed by now,” she added leadingly.

“It is pretty late.”

She’d had conversations about the weather more engaging than this. “Which of course means I need to head back, toss this robe into the fire and scrub down my porch before the sun comes up. I live in a very strict housing association. No bloody handprints. We like to keep things upscale.”

Nothing. Not a laugh, not a chuckle, nary a twinkle in Noah’s eye. His scruff hid the complexities of his expression, but she understood the thin line of lips well enough. Now that the crisis was over, he seemed to have shut down, harboring a formal reserve she couldn’t quite place. He moved cautiously, carefully, never quite allowing them to touch—almost as though he didn’t trust himself around her now that the buffer of Lincoln’s bleeding body had been removed.

Though that could have been wishful thinking.

“Do you think I should call his brother?” she asked, dropping the one-sided flirtation with a sigh.

“That depends. Is it your decision to make?”

As his words sounded an awful lot like a reprimand, she bristled and sat up straighter. “Matt’s going to marry my best friend, so it’s not like I’m in a great position here. I don’t know what kind of an understanding you and Lincoln have, but I didn’t sign on for bloodshed and secret stitches.”

“What did you sign on for?”

Nothing. None of it. Not one tiny bit. She knew feuding divorced couples who dealt with less crap than she did. She splayed her hands helplessly. “He’s like a stray dog I can’t stop feeding. I think about shutting the door in his face all the time, but he’d just press his sad little nose against my window until he starved.”

This time she recognized a glimmer of a smile. “I never did get your name, by the way,” he said.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She extended her hand across the table and held it there, dying to see what his palm felt like against her own. Although he hesitated, he eventually slipped his hand into hers.

Gah. Hot and heavy, rough with work, so large it practically engulfed her own. Those were man hands. Big, throbby man hands. Not even the long, deft musician fingers she’d left at home could compare.

“I’m Kendra. Kendra Khuso.”

His grip tightened, sending a jolt up her arm before he let go. As if she really had electrocuted him, he tucked his hand under the table, as far from her touch as humanly possible. “You’reKendra? Lincoln’s Kendra?”

She pushed her tea carefully away. There was enough incredulity and horror in Noah’s tone that she could fill in the rest of the blanks. And the words doing the filling? They weren’t polite ones.

“What did he say? Has he been going around again, telling people we’re together when he knows very well we’re not?” She kept her voice at a dangerously level tone. “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to go back into your bedroom and rip out every one of his stitches with my bare hands.”

Noah put both hands up, warding her off. “No, no—it’s not like that. It’s nothing bad.”

She waited.

“He just… You know. You’re Kendra.”

One wouldn’t think that a single name, uttered dispassionately, could contain so much meaning, but there it was. Kendra was pretty good at reading the subtext, and enough of it was crammed in there to fill a whole phone book.

“We went out once. One time.” She waved one finger, just in case there was any doubt. “And that was over a year ago. Never did I promise him anything more than a good time. Never since then have we revisited a continuation of our relationship in anything but a platonic manner. He knowsthis.”

There was no chance for her to say more—and there was plenty she could have added on the subject—since Noah used her outburst as an opportunity to grab a jacket hanging from a hook near his front door and hold it out to her. The material wasn’t flannel, but it might as well have been for all it smelled of buffed wood and evergreen trees and the hefty promise of man.

She glanced over her robe—still flimsy, still inappropriate, now a kind of test. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?”

“It gets cold here late at night.”

“I’m plenty warm.”

Her robe was cut to showcase a generous supply of cleavage at all times, and she didn’t miss the flare of interest that lit Noah’s eyes or the heavy lump of a robust Adam’s apple working his throat as he took her in. She fought the urge to pull the silk tighter around her, determined to let things stand as they were. Bloody and disheveled and inappropriately attired she might be, but she wasn’t alone in the attraction pulsating between them. She was sure of it.

But not even the telltale signs of Noah’s interest were enough to pull him out of his self-imposed distance. He shook the jacket, holding it aloft until she slipped her arms inside, swimming in the coarse fabric, closing herself off from his view. Only then did he relax enough to say, “I’ll look after Lincoln tonight. You should get home to your friend.”

She wrapped her arms around herself. “I told you. He wasn’t planning on sticking around. He’s not that kind of friend.”

“Then you should get home and see to your porch.”

Which, sadly enough, was what she’d most likely end up doing. Even though she recognized, on a cognitive level, that the evening’s turn of events could have resulted in a much worse outcome, she had just enough overwhelmed emotion left in her to rise up on a wave of irritation. “You know, it’s a pretty unfortunate state of affairs when two sane adults are forced to cater to the whims of a fully grown, irresponsible man-child intent on getting himself killed.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“You must not know him as well as you think.”

“I know him better than anyone.” Noah’s words were a challenge, his stance even more so.

Unable to stop herself, she reached out to touch his arm. He immediately tensed, a twitch of muscle under her fingertips and then…nothing. He didn’t move, didn’t breathe, a statue until she lifted her hand away again.

“I’ll clean up the car before you go,” he said, as if nothing bizarre had just passed through them. “It’s late. You should relax. Drink more tea. Make yourself at home.”

She was going to protest, to encourage Noah to do his own relaxing and let a professional detailer soak up the rivers of blood in the upholstery, but something about the firm set of his mouth stopped her.

He was right, of course. It was late and she was exhausted. Besides—who was she to complain when someone else was offering to clean up after Lincoln? It wasn’t a task she relished by any stretch of the imagination, and the sooner she could get home, the sooner she could turn her ringer off and pretend this strange night had never happened.

“That’s sweet,” she said. “But I feel I should warn you—I’m the sort who pokes around in medicine cabinets the second you let your guard down.”

He turned and studied her carefully. “What do you look for?”

“Oh, you know.” She waved her hand airily. “Expired prescriptions. Rash creams. Secret sex paraphernalia.”

She held his gaze steadily for that last bit, wondering if perhaps she’d finally pushed too far. She often did. Years of trying to suppress her true nature in her twenties—and to impress men, of all terrible, clichéd reasons—had led to an outpouring of the opposite now that she was in her thirties. As it turned out, her true nature was a wily, aggressive thing.

“Still willing to leave me alone in here?” she asked when he didn’t respond.

“Of course. If Lincoln trusts you, then so do I.” His simple words did much to unseat her, though not nearly as much as what came next. “Besides—the bathroom isn’t where I keep my secret sex paraphernalia.”