Penny slipped inside Lieutenant Commander Montgomery's front door and shut it quietly behind her. Not only was the foyer as dark as pitch, but his house was bigger than hers, the layout unfamiliar. She pocketed his key alongside her own and waded into shadow.
A light, shining from deep within the recesses of the home, was her only beacon. As she felt her way past a flight of stairs, something silky rubbed against her calf, emitting a yowl. "Felix!" she breathed, her heart hammering.
The hardwood under her slippers transitioned into steps that descended to a sunken family room, a room scantily illumined by the light, which she now saw was coming from the kitchen. Across the distance, she spied broken bits of glass glinting on the countertops amid a spattering of blood. The potent scent of whisky reached her nostrils. "Commander?" she called in consternation.
A shackle seemed to close around her right ankle. It startled a hoarse screech from her throat as it yanked her off her feet. She threw out her arms out to break her fall and landed across the hard body of a man lying concealed in shadow.
He wasn't content to bring her down, either. He grappled and rolled her to the floor. In the next instant, she was lying on her stomach with her right cheek embedded in the carpet and her left arm locked behind her back. A heavy weight pressured her spine. Her legs were immobilized.
"Who're you?" he growled in her ear, his words slurring together.
Something warm and wet plopped upon her cheek.
"Lieutenant Penny Price, sir," she said breathlessly, "from next door." He was bleeding on her, she realized, catching the scent of blood.
"Penny." Some of the pressure eased from her spine. "Copper penny," he mused on a strange note. "Never knew your eyes were blue."
There was no way he could see her eyes in the dark, which meant he'd noticed them the other day. "Sir, I believe you're hurt. I'm in the medical profession. I can help you," she added in a no-nonsense voice.
"Cut my hand on glass," he corroborated. He grew abruptly heavier, and she feared he was passing out on top of her, in which case, she might never get out from under him.
"Commander!" she said sharply.
He lurched to attention. "Hmmm?"
"You're hurting me. Do you mind getting off me, sir?"
"Sorry." He withdrew his weight, and she rolled to one side where she made him out, struggling to sit back on his heels. A dark stain streaked down one side of his face, coming from a cut above his right eye. He hadn't gotten that by picking up glass.
"Let me help you," she repeated. Clambering to her feet, she sought to help him rise. "Up you go, sir, before you bleed all over your carpet."
He went up easily enough, but then he nearly pitched over again, and she had to muscle him upright, propping herself beneath his armpit. "Which way to a bathroom, sir?" she asked, wanting to avoid the kitchen and all that broken glass.
Sure enough, there was a door in the opposite wall. "Okay, let's get you cleaned up."
She half-dragged, half-carried him toward the opening in the wall. It was impossible not to notice how hot, how big and lean his body felt, draped heavily over hers. "Watch your eyes," she warned, fumbling inside the door for a light.
As he flinched and groaned, she took in the room beyond her with second thoughts.
Oh, dear, this was his bedroom.
And what a bed he had, she marveled, her gaze momentarily glued to the California king. It was covered with a thick black comforter that reflected the rest of the room's décor--black and khaki geometric patterns. His dressers and bed were of Scandinavian design, with clean, uncluttered surfaces.
He started toward the wide, inviting bed.
"Oh, no, in here," she urged, tugging him toward what had to be the bathroom.
As she wrestled him into the room and flicked on the light, she noticed more blood dripping from his right hand. So he had cut himself picking up glass. Was that before or after he cut his brow ridge?
She positioned him in front of the vanity, noting through her peripheral vision the burgundy wallpaper and handsome brass-and-marble fixtures. "Let's have a look at you."
Propping him against the sink, she craned her neck to assess the cut just beneath his eyebrow. Blood still pulsed in a sluggish trickle. Meanwhile, two fingers on his right hand were bleeding all over the tiled floor.
"We're going to treat your hand first," she decided, cranking on the water.
"What happened?" he wondered, squinting at his reflection. He touched the cut. "Ow!"
"Help me out here, Commander," she said crisply. Pulling his hand under the water, she lathered him with the liquid soap found in the dispenser, noting the number of scabs and calluses. Could he have damaged his hands like this in a car accident? How, trying to pull someone from the wreckage? "Do you feel any residual glass in your fingers?" she asked, patting him dry.
She grabbed up a handful of tissues and applied pressure.
"Feel stupid," he admitted. Closing his eyes, he swayed on his feet.
She threw an arm around his waist. "Don't fall again, sir. Here, do you want to sit down?"
She helped him settle onto the closed toilet seat. "Keep pressure on your fingers while I take a look at your eye."
His whisky-laced breath could have lit a fire if she'd had a match. Oddly the scent of it was not unpleasant as it rose into her nostrils. If anything, it made her feel a little intoxicated, herself.
She wet a clean washcloth and gently dabbed the blood from his face while he sat in a silent stupor. "You really ought to get a stitch or two," she commented, stifling her awareness of him. "This cut is deep."
"No medic," he insisted, coherent enough to make his wishes known.
She pursed her lips in disapproval, but she didn't argue. The cut would leave a scar if it went unattended, but compared to the virulent burn on his left cheek, who was going to notice?
"I don't suppose you have a first-aid kit--"
Her request was cut short by the sudden weight of his head against her breasts. He'd nodded off, burrowing his nose into the deep V of her bathrobe.
Her heart leapt. Only in her wildest fantasies had she imagined her neighbor nuzzling her breasts. She cupped his face and forcibly brought his head up. "Do you have a first aid kit?" she inquired firmly.
His deep green gaze tried to focus on her mouth. "Under the sink," he said.
"Sit still," she told him. "Don't move." She took her hands off him long enough to locate the box beneath his sink, marked with a red cross. "This is good," she praised, finding it well stocked. From the corner of her eye, she noticed the SEAL assessing her figure in the frumpy, velour robe.
"How'd you get in here?" he asked her, sounding suddenly more sober.
"Let's not worry about that now," she said in her best bed-side voice. "Hold still while I put this bandage on you." As she affixed it across his handsome eyebrow she examined the wound on his cheek. "How did you burn your face?" she asked him casually.
"Shrapnel," he said, without giving it much thought.
"Not a car accident?" she queried. It wasn't any of her business, she knew. But the only way to really comfort him was to know what he'd been through.
"No," he said, his eyes growing glassy.
She sensed dark memories rising up inside of him and wondered if there was anything she could do to dispel them. Perhaps if he talked it through... "Let me see your fingers." As she taped bandages over his cuts she dared to ask him, "I take it you had a pretty tough day, huh?"
Moisture put a glitter in his bloodshot eyes. "Yeah," he rasped.
"Where'd you go this morning?" she asked, keeping her tone light.
He was quiet so long, she thought he wouldn't answer. "Funeral," he said at last.
Her breath caught at his pain-laced admission. "Who died?" she asked with gentle concern.
"One of my men," he said in a hollow voice.
"I'm so sorry. That must have been awful for you."
His Adams 's apple bobbed. To her dismay, tears flooded his eyes, only he was too drunk to care or notice. But the sight of them tore at her heartstrings. She should have realized that Mighty Joe would be the kind of leader to take the loss of a junior SEAL seriously. "How old was he?" she asked, encouraging him to unburden himself.
"Like...twenty," he answered as tears streaked his face.
Penny found herself smoothing a curl on the top of his head. Soft and silky, it was the color of maturing oak leaves. "He was just a baby," she commiserated.
"Yeah." With a start, he noticed that his face was wet. He wiped the tears with an impatient swipe of his hand. "Shit," he swore, clearly perturbed that she'd caught him crying.
"Why don't you get some sleep?" Penny recommended. "Maybe you'll feel better in the morning. Where do you keep your pajamas?" she asked, eyeing his blood-stained, button-up shirt.
The question seemed to confuse him. "My what?"
"Pajamas," she repeated, checking the hook on the back of the door.
"I don't wear any," he said, preparing to push to his feet.
"Oh. Well, you can't sleep in that." She tackled his shirt buttons with efficiency, steeling herself against the thrill of baring his shoulders. He wore a sleeveless T-shirt that highlighted the breadth of his torso, making him look like a superhero, or every girl's wet dream.
She filled his sink with cold water and left his shirt and washcloth soaking. "Would you like some privacy?"
He was squinting at her. "What for?"
"Never mind," she said, hot in the face. "Let's get you into bed."
She helped him to his feet and, keeping a firm grip on his elbow, steered him toward his mammoth-sized bed. He'd lapsed into silence-embarrassed, no doubt. She pulled back the covers and moved him closer. "In you go."
He put one hand on the mattress, but with his world still reeling, he lost his balance and grabbed her to slow his descent.
Penny ended up sprawled on top of him for the second time that night. Only he didn't wrestle her down. Instead, he groaned with pain, his grip on her arm almost painful.
"Are you okay?" she asked in consternation.
"Don't move," he begged with his eyes squeezed shut.
She did, loath to cause him any more discomfort, but she couldn't help but note that she was sprawled across his dense body like they were lovers.
Bit by bit, the grip on her arm eased, and then he gave a sigh, as if a spasm had passed.
"Go to sleep, sir," she whispered, thinking he'd just passed out.
He rolled without warning, causing her to slip into his embrace as he turned onto his side, captured her face in one hand, and lowered his mouth.
Penny's adrenaline skyrocketed. She let it happen, stealing a purely selfish moment to gauge whether her fascination with this man was warranted. With stealth that made her gasp, he swept his tongue between her lips and kissed her, with one purpose only. Penny's adrenaline skyrocketed. She told herself she would pull back shortly.
But the whiskey-laced kiss intoxicated her. It went on and on until the encroachment of his palm on her breast roused her to reality. "Good night, Commander," she muttered, squirming away from him.
To her relief, he let her go. She slipped off the bed and scuttled to the door. Snapping off the light, she shut it behind her.
He didn't say a word back. Perhaps he'd passed out already.
Penny tottered into his family room. Mercy! No wonder women flocked to his door in droves! The man had skills that would make the devil jealous. Too bad that would never happen again; she was sure he hadn't known he was kissing the lieutenant next door.