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