Cannon, p.16
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       Cannon, p.16

         Part #3 of A Step Brother Romance series by Sabrina Paige
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  Afterward, he runs his hand down my back and over my hips.   "Let's get the fuck out of here, Addy," he says.

  "Where?"  I'm not sure if he's talking about today or permanently, and I'm not sure I care.

  "Road trip?"

  I grin.   "You have the schedule.   You're the boss.   Can we?"

  "Say it again. "

  "Say what?"

  "Say I'm the boss. "

  I laugh and try to slap him from where I stand, but I can't reach him, bent over like this, and Hendrix chuckles.   "I'm not saying it again.   I think you misheard me the first time. "

  "Come on," he says, slapping my ass.   "Say it and I'll tell you the schedule. "

  "Fine," I say, with a mock-exasperated sigh.   "You're the boss.   But only when it comes to the schedule. "

  "What-the-fuck-ever," he says.   "Screw everybody.   We have a couple days before the awards show.   Let's road trip. "

  I agree, caught up in the afterglow of sex.   I don't know if it's the sex, or it's being with Hendrix that's making me giddy and reckless, but I don't care about dropping everything and taking off with him.

  That fact alone should scare me.

  ONE YEAR AGO

  I stand in front of the door to the house, paralyzed by fear and sadness and guilt and rage and a thousand other emotions I can't possibly articulate, swirling around in my head.   Fear grips my heart, worse even than it was when I was in that hellhole in Afghanistan.

  Page 63

  Why did I come here?  What the hell am I going to say, to her of all people?

  Mandy opens the door.   She looks older than she did in the photos Watson was always showing me, dark circles under her eyes.   But I guess that's what a husband's death will do to you.   She's holding a baby on her hip -- Amy.   The baby is older now, too, and she stares at me with wide eyes like she doesn't know what the hell I'm doing here, either.

  Mandy's eyes take me in, the dress uniform I wear out of respect for what I'm doing here, even though it's not official.   She's had this visit before, the official one, the one where they show up on your door with a flag.   I should have been the one to do it, the only surviving member of my squad.

  I chicken-shitted out before.

  Now I'm making up for it.

  It's been three months.   Three months before I could face this.   Two weeks since I've been able to get behind the wheel of a fucking car at all.   I drove to Kentucky, my fingers white-knuckled around the steering wheel, my heart racing so fast I was sure I was near having a heart attack.

  And now I stand here, wearing the uniform, presenting her with a flag, my pathetic attempt to give her something that makes up for her loss.   My pathetic attempt to assuage the guilt I feel for surviving the blast that should have killed me too.

  An older woman comes to the door behind her, and stops when she sees me, taking the baby wordlessly from Mandy's hands.   Watson's wife reaches for the flag, her expression unchanging until she touches the fabric.   Then she falls to her knees, her hands still on it, letting out a cry that rips me to my core.

  I touch her hand, intending to pull her to her feet, to say something meaningful that will take away the pain.   But when I put my hand on hers, I lose it.   A dam opens, and I can't stop the tears that stream down my face.   So we stand there, her and I, sobbing together for the life of her husband, and the lives of my friends, that were lost.

  PRESENT DAY

  "So where are we going?" Addy asks as she slides into the front seat and puts her bare feet on the dashboard of my shitty car.

  "Really?  You're asking me that question?  Where do you think we're going?"

  Addy smiles.   "To the beach. "

  Just like when she was sixteen.

  And it is, just like we're teenagers again, Addy laughing at something stupid I say and swatting my arm from the passenger seat as we drive the seven hours to Hilton Head.   Away from all the bullshit in Nashville, Addy starts to open up.   The wrinkle that I thought was permanently etched in her forehead is gone, and she seems content and at ease.   She seems happy.

  I think of the last time I took a road trip, the one to Kentucky to see Watson's wife Mandy.   The trip that tore me in two, left me broken.   I made the same trip four more times, my version of a pilgrimage, doing the thing I feared doing the most, that I thought would destroy me.   But in the end, it didn't.   Doing it kept me together.

  She looks over at me while we're driving.   "You're staring at me. "

  I shrug.   "No reason. "

  "What?" she asks, her voice higher.   But she's smiling.

  "You just look…happy," I say.   But it's not only her that's happy.   It's a strange feeling, being content.   It creeps up on you when you least expect it.   It's a lot like love in that respect.

  "I don't usually look happy?"

  I laugh.   "Fuck, no you don't. "

  "Well, maybe I am happy, Hendrix," she says.   "I think I might be. "

  I think I might be, too.

  Addy covers her mouth, her shoulders shaking as she giggles behind her hand at the three college girls singing karaoke, a drunken rendition of "Don't Stop Believing. "  We're sitting at a little dive bar on the beach, Addy in a cutoff jean skirt and a tank top, wearing a baseball hat.   Before we left the hotel, she worried someone might recognize her, but no one has, which leaves me relieved.   She looks like a regular college chick.   Except a lot hotter.

  "Oh, you think you can do Journey better?" I ask, taking a swig of my beer.

  "I do an excellent rendition of that song, thank you very much.   You go up there. "  Addy runs her finger along the salted rim of her margarita class, and when she puts her finger in her mouth I think it's the most unintentionally sexy thing she's ever done.

  I raise my eyebrows.   "I'd put you to shame, hot stuff," I say.   "You've never heard me sing. "

  Page 64

  Two tequila shots later, and there's a break in the songs.   Addy nods at the stage.   "There's your chance, hot stuff," she says, winking.   She thinks I'm not going to take her bait, but I down the rest of my beer and stand up.   "Where are you going?"

  "You wanted me to serenade you, didn't you?"

  Addy laughs.   "I didn't mean it," she says.   "Sit down. "

  "Not on your life, sweet cheeks," I say as she covers her face in mock embarrassment.   "Don't worry, I'll dedicate it to you. "

  "Hendrix, no!" she protests, but she's laughing, and she leans back in her chair with her legs kicked out in front of her, teal flip-flops on her feet, and tucks the brim of her hat down over her face.   I watch her flag down the waitress and get another shot of tequila, that she hold up at me in a "cheers" gesture.

  When the music starts, I can practically hear her groan from the stage.   Okay, I can't really, but her reaction is priceless.   She buries her face in her hands as I take the microphone.   "This is for my best friend, who should just admit that my voice is much more amazing than hers will ever be. "

  I belt out the lyrics to Addy's first hit, "Country Sweetheart," the candy-coated pop country song that made her famous.   And by "belt out," I mean I do my version of singing, which falls somewhere on the tolerability scale between nails on a chalkboard and the most annoying sound in the world.   But I know all those goddamned lyrics, even though I wasn't into that bullshit when I was in high school.   That damn song worked its way into my brain and took up residence there, way back then.

  Just like Addy did.

  The other people in the bar think it's funny, that I'm doing some kind of serenade for my girlfriend, and Addy covers her face with the brim of her hat as people clap along.   When I get back to the table, I'm pretty sure Addy is going to say we need to get the hell out of there before she's recognized, since we're skating on thin ice, but she doesn't
.   She doesn't touch me either, doesn't make any public display of affection that would wind up on one of the gossip sites, just laughs and shakes her head.   "Nice song choice. "

  "Thought you'd like it. "

  "I'd rather every copy of that song were just burned," she says.   "If I never have to sing it again, I'll be more than happy with my life. "

  "What would you rather sing?"

  Addy traces her finger absently around her glass again and shrugs, not looking at me.   "I don't know. "

  "Bullshit," I say, my voice just a little too loud.   "I know you.   You haven't stopped writing songs. "

  Addy looks at me.   "Maybe I haven't," she says.   "But the label will never let me sing them. "

  I nod at the stage.   "You should go up there and sing one of them. "

  "It's for karaoke. "

  "So?" I ask.   "They have a band here.   There's a guitar right over there. "

  "They're personal," she says.

  I shrug.   "Suit yourself," I say.   "But the old Addy would have grown a pair and gone up there. "

  "You're trying to bait me. "

  "Is it working?"

  Addy sighs heavily.   "Not at all. "

  Between songs, the silence is suddenly deafening and Addy looks up.   "Fine," she says.   "Fuck it. "

  "That's what I like to hear. "

  "Me growing a pair?" she asks, standing up.   I want to reach out and grab her, pull her onto my lap, but I don't, conscious of being in public with her.

  "Nah, you saying 'fuck'," I say.

  Addy leans close, her hair spilling down around her face, and whispers in my ear.   "Fuck fuck fuck," she says.   "That's what I want to do to you later. "  Then she walks up to the stage, leaving me with the biggest raging boner in the history of the world.

  She talks to someone beside the stage, who nods a lot and then rushes to grab her the guitar.   Then she pulls a barstool to the middle of the stage where the microphone is.   The bar is filled with conversation that doesn't quiet even when Addy starts to play the first few notes on the guitar.   The low rumble of drunk conversations rolls through the room, refusing to be silenced.   Until Addy opens her mouth and sings the first note.

  And then, it's like everything in the place stops.   People pause, conversations go mute, and it's like the way it is every time Addy sings.   She's got that thing, that special-ness, that tells you you're in the presence of greatness.   She sings softly, her voice lower and breathier than when I've heard her sing in the studio.

  Page 65

  I think I stop breathing, listening to her sing one of her songs.   I tell myself that they're just lyrics, words she's singing and nothing more, that they're not directed at me in any way.   But it's hard to think that when she's looking the way she is, at me no less, singing the way she is.

  ELEVEN MONTHS AGO

  "How could you?" I scream.   The tears well up in my eyes, and I blink furiously, attempting to keep calm, trying to keep from picking up the nearby vase and throwing it across the room at my mother, letting it shatter into a million pieces all over the marble floors.

  "I don't understand what you're so upset about," she says.   "Hendrix is fine.   He came through the hospital, but he's in one piece.   He wasn't even injured.   It was ages ago, anyway.   You had a tour, and you didn't need to be bothered with that kind of news.   What a downer, right?"

  I clench my hands, my fingernails digging into my skin, and focus on the pain.   I count, taking deep breaths to steady myself even though I feel like I'm falling apart, fragmenting into a thousand little pieces right here in front of her.

  "You two aren't even close," she says.   "I fail to see what the big deal is. "

  "Hendrix was in the hospital," I say.   "You don't think I might want to know that?"

  "He was fine," she says.   "We called him on the phone.   He was doing some -- I don't know -- Marine stuff, and had to travel somewhere or something.   He did not want us to visit. "

  "He -- he said that?"

  "He specifically mentioned you by name, Addison," she says.   "I was trying not to be mean. "

  "I don't believe you," I say, my voice breaking.   Hendrix was back in the United States.   Hendrix was in the hospital.   He was in an explosion in Afghanistan.   The pieces of news come flying at me, one at a time.

  Hendrix didn't want to see me.

  Me, specifically.

  My mother shrugs and flips a page in her planner.   "I don't know what kind of bad blood the two of you have between you, but you really need to start acting like adults," she says.   "Now, we need to talk about the interview tomorrow.   The label wants you to plug the tour and. . . "

  Her voice drifts away, becoming quieter and quieter as the thoughts swirl in my head.

  Hendrix was back.

  He could have died.

  He didn't want to see me.

  I hear my mother protest as I stand up, stumbling to the bathroom and barely closing the door before I collapse into tears, a mixture of anger and sadness and overwhelming relief.

  Anger that Hendrix didn't want to see me.

  Sadness that his squad was killed.

  Relief that he's alive.

  PRESENT DAY

  "Do you think anyone knew it was me?"  I ask.   Hendrix has my hand and he's pulling me down the beach until we're far away from the bar, the only ones out on the sand at this time of night.

  Hendrix laughs.   "Yes," he says.   "You're lucky we got out of there quickly.   That video is going to be everywhere tomorrow.   And we are going to be fucked, you know. "

  The tequila in my belly makes me warm and brave and foolish and I know, but I don't care.   I spin around in circles on the beach, my arms wide.   I'm spinning because I'm half-drunk, on tequila or love, I'm not sure which.   And because I'm happy.   And, most of all, because Hendrix is here.   He's here, with me, on a beach in South Carolina, after I thought I'd never see him again.   And that is something.   "But tonight, we're going to fuck," I say.

  Hendrix laughs.   "You're practically cursing like a Marine now," he says.   "I'm afraid I'm rubbing off on you. "  He pulls me against his hardness, and slides his hands over my ass.

  "We could go back to the hotel and you could really rub off on me," I say.

  "Or, we could stay out here," Hendrix says, reaching for the button on my pants.   I laugh and smack his hands away.

  "Out here?" I ask, thinking of photographers and tabloid photos of us on the beach.   "That's just what I need. "

  Hendrix's mouth is against my ear, and then on my neck, and when I tilt my head, my mouth finds his.   "Maybe that is just what you need, Addy-girl. "

  "Sex on the beach?"  It makes me giggle, until he slides his hand underneath my tank top and inside my bra.   His thumb finds my nipple, and his touch makes me moan, the way it always does.

  Page 66

  "Remember the last time we were here?" he asks, his finger running circles around my nipple until I'm practically begging for him.

  Like it was yesterday.

  I have to shake off the feeling, that sense of deja vu that comes over me, being out here together.   "I haven't been to the beach in a while. "

  "You know what I thought about doing when we were here before?" he asks.   He slides his hand down lower.

  "What?" I ask, glancing around in the dark.

  "I thought about pulling those little bikini bottoms you wore right down over that tight little ass of yours and riding you, right out here in the middle of everything, where anyone could see us. "

  "That's what you thought about, back then?" I ask.   He's said he fantasized about me before, but hearing him say it again now sends a thrill of arousal through my body.

  "Yep. "

  "Anyone cou
ld see, you know," I say.   But I slide my hand over his chest and down the front of his jeans anyway.

  Hendrix shrugs.   "I guess they could. "

  "You're a bad influence. "

  "The worst. "  He pulls me down on top of him in the sand, and I laugh as I collapse on him, then glance around at the deserted beach again, straddling him.

  "This isn't a good idea," I say as he cups my breast through my shirt.   "I'm famous, you know. "

  "Are you?"

  "I am.   And there are photographers.   Paparazzi. "

  "Well," he says, lifting my shirt over my head.   "Maybe we should give them a show. "

  I slap his arm, hard.   "You'd better not be serious. "

  "Relax," he says, laughing.   "There's no one fucking out here. "  He pauses for a beat.   "Except us, soon. "

  I hover over him, feeling his hardness underneath me.   "I want you now," I breathe softly, between kisses.

  Hendrix slides my skirt up around my waist and reaches between my legs.   His hand grazes my pussy, and he makes a growling sound under his breath.   "No panties," he says.   "And you're wet. "

  "I told you I wanted you. "  I pull at his jeans, helping him slide them quickly over his ass before I wrap my hand around his cock, guiding him toward my entrance.

  "Don't fucking tease me like that, Addy," he warns.

  "You're clean?" I ask.   I don't know why I'm doing this.   I've never done something like this, completely unprotected.   I'm always safe.   I don't take risks.

  "Addy," he says.   "I'm clean.   But I have condoms and -- "

  "I'm on the pill, and I'm clean. "

  "Shit, Addy," he groans as I touch his head against my wetness.   He reaches up to kiss me.   "I've never had sex unprotected. "

  The thought of both of us doing it like this for the first time, with no barrier between us, makes me even more certain.   "Neither have I," I say.

  "Are you sure?" he asks.   Am I sure?  No, I'm not sure. I'm in the middle of the beach and I have my stepbrother's cock in my hand and I'm rubbing the tip of it all over my pussy like he's my own personal sex toy.

  I'm positive I've lost my mind.

  "I want you inside me," I whisper.   "I want to feel you. "

 
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