LAYLA TAYLOR WASN'T DRUNK enough to be hallucinating, which meant that Justin Tremont was not a figment of her imagination. Her childhood nemesis and the sworn enemy of all she held dear was indeed standing in the doorway of the Lake Tahoe lounge, scanning the room.
She ducked her head, hoping he wouldn't see her drowning her sorrows, alone, as she waited for her sister to come pick her up. The lounge was dimly lit and crowded. There was no reason he should notice her, but less than a minute later she felt the vinyl bench give way beneath his weight as he sat beside her.
This evening just kept getting better.
"Hi, Layla," he said, when she cut him a sideways glance. "I'm here to take you home."
"Over my dead body."
Layla leaned her head back against the black vinyl booth cushion, noting with some alarm that when she closed her eyes, the room began to spin.
"Why are you here?" she asked without opening her eyes, certain that if she concentrated hard enough, she could make the spinning stop. Besides, she didn't need to see to know exactly what Justin was doing—smirking at her. Just as he'd smirked at her for her entire life. Well,not all of it. Only the ten years they'd lived down the street from each other, and her younger brothers and Justin, who were all a year behind her in school, had enjoyed some kind of an outlaw bond. The three ofthem had made her life miserable whenever possible.
"Sam called," Justin said, bringing her back to her very realproblem at hand—him. "She asked me to take you home when I got off shift."
She'd called her sister to rescue her, and Sam had got Justin to come. Was no one in her entire family responsible? Easy answer there. No.
She was going to kill her sister.
Layla opened her eyes to find Justin studying her with a slight frown, as if assessing her condition. She didn't like being assessed by Justin.
"Go home," she said, the last word slurring slightly. She wasn't going to tolerate any more smirking or misery at his hands. If he thought for one blinking second that she was going to allow him to be party to yet another of her humiliations, and drive her back to Reno…well, he could kiss her ass.
"I fully intend to do just that. Once I deliver you home as per Sam's orders."
Sam could kiss her ass, too.
Layla attempted to fix him with her teacher stare, the one that could melt a kid at twenty paces. Big mistake, because in doing so she had to focus, and that caused a dull pain to shoot through the front of her forehead, and her vision to waver. She clamped a hand to her head before she realized what she was doing.
"You know Sam wouldn't have asked me to give you a ride unless it was an emergency."
What in Sam's life wasn't an emergency? That was how her siblings—and her parents, for that matter—seemed to live, rebounding between emergencies. As if it energized them, for Pete's sake. She was, without a doubt, adopted. There was no way she shared DNA with her family.
"You want to help? Call me a cab."
"Are you kidding? From the lake to Reno? You don't make that kind of money." He stretched his arm out along the back of the booth, his fingertips making light contact with her shoulder.
Layla let out a breath. The connection actually felt kind of good. As if she wasn't alone in all this. But she was halfway drunk and her perceptions were not to be trusted. She didn't move any farther away, though, because that would have meant she cared.
"What happened with Sam?" she asked resignedly. Hopefully, not something that would require Layla to bail her out.
"It's snowing pretty hard. Didn't you know? There's no way her little car will make it up here and back unless she's right on a snowplow's ass."
Spring in the Sierras. Great.
"There wasn't much coming down when we drove up," Layla muttered. The wet flakes had melted off the pavement as rapidly as they'd fallen. But if it was snowing hard now, then Sam's small Ford Escort wouldn't be safe on the road, and Justin probably had some kind of vehicle that could handle icy conditions. A vehicle she would not be getting into.
"I'm fine here," she said. "I'll just get a room."
"Sold out. The Mind Breakers. Remember?"
"Trying to forget." The concert was the reason she was there. Layla took the stem of the empty martini glass between her thumb and forefinger, spinning it slowly as she thought. "Robert had a room for us," she muttered. Robert the blackheart.
"What happened with Robert?"
"He's sleeping with some trollop who works with me." Layla couldn't believe she'd just said that. That was it for martinis. The room was spinning. Her mouth was out of control. She shoved the glass across the table. Justin picked it up and set it on the tray of a passing bar server, who smiled at him and asked if he wanted another.
"We'll pass," Justin said, easing his hip up to pull out his wallet. He set a bill on the tray.
"Thanks," the woman said, with a pert smile that made Layla want to smack her for some reason. "See you around, Tremont."
Layla half turned in the booth to face Justin. She was going to try a new tactic. "I do appreciate you offering to take me home, but I'm just going to sit here for a while. My head will clear and then I'll figure out how I want to handle this. It's really none of your business." It took her longer to make the speech than expected, since some of the words tangled her tongue. But she got it out, and Justin, to her relief, slid from the booth.
Really? Oh, please let it be that easy.
"Remember how Derek used to practice for his fireman test?"
Layla's eyes widened. "You wouldn't…."
Justin simply tilted his head.
How could she have even asked such a stupid question? Of course he would. Justin loved nothing more than a dare. "Leave me alone!" she said with sudden venom. "I don't want you to rescue me."
"Why?" he asked with a touch of weariness.
"Why? Because of all the crummy things you've done to me."
His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "Name one."
He looked as if he didn't think she could. He was so wrong. Layla drew a deep breath and fought the fog in her brain. "You…picked on me as a kid."
He appeared unimpressed by the generic description of his actions, so she searched her brain for the perfect representative incident. There were so many to choose from. Finally, she stabbed a finger at him. "You talked my date out of going to the prom with me."
Justin gave a soft snort. "He was a jerk."
Maybe so. She pointed at him again. "You put a frog in my lunch bag." The lunchroom had been packed when she'd let out a bloodcurdling scream as her bag started to move.
Another stab of the finger. "You ran my bra up the ROTC flagpole.You glued my English comp book shut. You put pudding in my slippers. You…you…" Had done so many small things she couldn't remember them all.
"Do you want an apology?" he asked quietly. "For all the many wrongs you've suffered at my hands? Then would you come with me?"
"An apology wouldn't suffice."
"Good. Because I'm not sorry for most of it." He placed one palm flat on the table and leaned his face close to hers, so close that she could see tiny flecks of navy blue in his green eyes. "Now get your stuff so we can start home before the real blizzard hits."
"If you don't leave," Layla said between clenched teeth, "I'm going to call security." Or someone.
"Go ahead," Justin replied. "No, wait. I'll do it." He straightened and glanced across the lobby to the uniformed man standing near the slot machines. When Justin raised a hand and gestured, the security guard started toward them.
"You will regret this," Layla said with a slight smile. Because she was not as drunk as he seemed to think.
"Hey, how's it going," the guard said, breaking into a smile as he clapped Justin on the arm.
"The wife was so happy with the anniversary party," Mr. Security continued. "She told me she was glad we went with you guys instead of the other caterer she'd chosen. For once I was right."
"Great," Justin said, smiling back. "I was wondering if you have any of the emergency hotel rooms available."
"Robert has a room," Layla muttered. "But I am not staying there." Justin touched her back reassuringly as the guard shook his head.
"Not one. Mind Breakers are big."
"So," Justin continued smoothly, "if Ms. Taylor here is feeling a bit…ill, it'd be best if I took her home?"
The guard's dark eyebrows drew together. "As opposed to…"
"Her hanging out somewhere in the hotel waiting to sober up?"
Oh, great mental picture. Layla stood abruptly, hitting her thigh on the edge of the table. It scooted sideways with a screech of metal on tile, and the room swam once she was vertical. She automatically reached out and clutched Justin's shoulder. It was either that or go down. All her arguments about being fine and not needing him to butt into her life evaporated when the guard's face wavered in front of her. Oh, boy.
"Take her home, Justin," the man said. Layla kept her mouth shut as she fought to regain her balance.
Justin settled a hand on her waist to help steady her, and she felt the warmth of his fingers through the thin silk of her black dress. But she didn't move away, because she couldn't.
Robert-1. Justin-1. Layla-0
Triple-teamed in the worst way. Hell, if she counted the gin, she'dvbeen quadruple-teamed.
"Hey, Miss Taylor!" A teenage voice penetrated the fog and she moved her head to the left, focusing on the group of people passing in the hall, headed toward the concert venue. Students. Her students. Sheforced the corners of her mouth up, but was not so foolish as to try to speak. Or wave, since she was still hanging on to Justin.
She glanced down at the bench, wondering how a few feet of altitude could make her head spin so nastily. She had to do something. Mind Breakers were big and several of her rather privileged students were likely here in the hotel. Along with their deep-pocketed parents.
"Get me out of here," she muttered to Justin, without looking at him. "Please," she added, just to make her humiliation total and complete.
LAYLA WAS TRYING HARD to walk without leaning on him. She was losing the battle. Justin didn't know how many martinis she'd downed after receiving the happy news that her boyfriend was sleeping around, but he knew from experience that the bartenders at this particular hotel didn't play coy with the booze. They charged a lot for a drink and they delivered.
What Justin wanted to know was whether Robert had abandoned her at the bar after she'd found out he was sleeping with the "trollop," or if she'd stormed out of their room and taken refuge in the bar while waiting for Sam. Because if Robert had abandoned her, drunk as she was…well, Justin might have to do something about that.
They stepped out the front doors onto the freshly shoveled sidewalk. The snow had let up a little since he'd come into the hotel, but it wasn't done. Not by a long shot. Just a lull. Layla clamped a hand to her stomach, and Justin stopped walking. If she was going to be sick, he'd prefer it wasn't in his car.
"I'm fine," she said in a brittle voice as she took a resolute step forward. Justin moved with her, only to have her stop dead a few seconds later and look around wildly. He steered her off the sidewalk, through the snow and as far around the giant juniper bush flanking the walkway as he could before she heaved. She swung at him when he tried to get hold of her hair, so he let go of her and stepped aside, allowing her to commune with the bush. When she sat back on her heels and drew in a shaky breath, he held out a hand. She clutched his fingers, allowed him to help her up, but she didn't look at him.
"I…feel a little better."
Justin shook his head and, after brushing the wet snow off her knees and the front of her black wool coat, helped her back to the sidewalk. People had paused to watch the spectacle, but now moved on.
Show's over, folks. Nothing to see here.
He and Layla started for the car again, which was parked in the employee lot, even though Justin wasn't an employee of this particular hotel. Layla was walking better now that she'd emptied her stomach, and Justin hoped she had no memory of puking in the bush in front of a crowd, because, tight-ass that she was, she wouldn't be able to handle it.
She stopped dead, her entire body going stiff at the sound of the man's voice calling her name. Then she turned with what sounded like a growl to face the guy jogging lightly toward them through the snow. He stopped a few feet away, eyeing Justin suspiciously. "Who are you?"
"Old family friend. Here to help pick up the pieces. You must be the Robert I've heard so much about."
"Is he?" Robert asked Layla. "A family friend?"
"Who he is…is none of your business," she said with an air of dignity and only the slightest slur.
Robert grimaced. "How much have you had to drink?"
Justin's jaw slid sideways and he took a step toward the guy.
"Since you walked out on her, you mean?"
"I'm not talking to you."
"But I can't help hearing the conversation."
"I'm not going to have her driving off this mountain in a snowstorm with someone I don't know." Robert fished in his pocket. "I hadn't realized you didn't have the room key," he said to Layla, holding it out to her. "Take it. You can spend the night as planned. Your overnight bag is in the room."
Layla stared down at the plastic card, then slowly raised her eyes to Robert's face. He continued to hold the key, giving it a slight shake as if encouraging her to take it. She pulled in a breath that made her shoulders rise a good inch, then drew back her arm and punched him square in the jaw.
He stumbled backward as she lost her balance and went down. Justin made a grab for her, grunting when her elbow smacked into his cheekbone with a healthy crack.
"Oh, shit…" Tears sprang to his eyes as Layla slowly struggled to her hands and knees, and finally, her feet. She stared at Justin in horror as he stood with his hand over his eye. Five yards away, Robert held a hand to his nose.
"Oh, I'm sorry. So sorry." She continued to stare at Justin, a dazed expression on her face.
"Get out of here," he said to Robert, keeping his full attention on Layla, half afraid of what she might do next. "Leave her bag in the room and I'll take care of it."
"I honestly am a family friend. I know her middle name andeverything."
"What is it?" Robert asked through his fingers, and Justin had to give him points for not abandoning her.
"Sunshine. Layla Sunshine Taylor."
"Twins—Eric and Derek. Sister is Sam. Formerly Belle Blue, from the song "Bell Bottom Blues." She renamed herself when she was five because the kids called her Ding Dong."
"Good enough." Robert turned and walked away without another word, still holding his nose.
"You didn't have to tell him all that," Layla said as Justin put a hand under her arm and steered her the last few feet to the car.
"I think he already knew." Justin held the door open and she got into the passenger seat, then carefully arranged her coat over her knees. "Where do you live?"
She muttered an address on Bannock Drive. He made her repeat it, since it wouldn't be cool to drag her up the sidewalk of someone else's house. Then he asked for her keys.
"So that you have them when we get to your place."
With a deep sigh she spilled the contents of her purse onto her lap, then pulled the keys out of the jumble. She slapped them into his outstretched hand before haphazardly shoving stuff back into her bag.
Justin closed the door and walked around to his side of the car. By the time he got the beast started, Layla was leaning against the leather headrest and her eyes were closed. Good. He hoped she stayed that way during the entire trip.
It wasn't to be. She got sick again at the top of the grade leading down to Carson City, where, thankfully, it wasn't snowing. She was still a bit green when she collapsed back into the passenger seat and fell asleep.
Justin couldn't say he was unhappy about that because he wanted to focus on the road, not on his passenger. Nearly a year ago, he'd had a close call on this road, when fellow employees at his hotel deduced that he was a narc, due to his association with his current brother-in-law, a drug task force member. About a mile past the summit, Justin had been hit from behind, and his car sent plummeting down the ravine. He was so damned lucky to be alive, and he'd never felt the same, driving this road.
Forty-five minutes after passing the spot where his car had been wrecked, Justin pulled into Layla's drive. He roused her and helped her out, then put an arm around her as they made their way through the slushy spring snow to the front door. Not a bad place. In fact, it was very much what he'd expected from Layla. An efficient box of a house, with neat little shutters, a sturdy fence in front, a no-nonsense white and-navy-blue color scheme. The bushes were all trimmed into submission, even though it was the middle of winter.
There were only three keys on the ring, so he had her inside within a matter of seconds. Once the door was closed, she attempted to focus on him. The way her forehead wrinkled, it must have hurt. She started to say something, but got only as far as opening her mouth before she shrugged out of her coat, letting it fall behind her in a heap. Then she headed down the hall.
Justin hesitated, then followed. By the time he reached her bedroom, she was sprawled on her stomach over the purple duvet on her bed. It looked like something that would need an expensive dry-cleaning if she were ill again, so Justin carefully peeled it back and rolled her onto her side on the sheets.
He stood for a moment then, his thumbs hooked in his pockets, staring down at her. He hadn't seen her in several years—not since her folks had sold the house down the street from his family's. She'd put on some weight. In a good way. And her straight dark hair was longer. But she was still Layla. Only not so perfect now. He hoped she could deal with it.
With a slight shrug of his shoulders, he set her keys on the dresser and headed out the bedroom door.
LAYLA DIDN'T WANT TO wake up. Her head was pounding. Her mouth was dry. So dry! And why was she drowning in a sense of impending doom?
The memories started to drift in, each more cringe-worthy than the one before. Had she thrown up outside the hotel? Worse than that, had Justin been there?
And then the biggie hit her. Robert. Robert and Melinda. Layla's insides roiled as a wave of depression mixed with pain, betrayal and disgust washed over her.
"You need anything?"
Layla shrieked at the unexpected masculine voice, and scrambled to her knees, ready to defend herself with the pillow she'd grabbed.
She lowered the pillow and sat back on her heels as a surge of nausea welled up. But her stomach was too empty to do anything about it.
"Let me get you some aspirin. Where do you keep it?"
She simply stared at him. "Why are you here?"
"You can't leave a drunk person unattended. Remember what happened to all those rock stars that drowned in their own—"
Layla held up a hand. "Stop. No more." She dropped her head on the pillow she held in her lap. It made sense, really. Justin had been part of so many of the humiliating moments of her life that perhaps he was on call. He sensed "Layla devastation" and showed up to add to the misery.
"It was too late for Sam to come and stay with you."
Layla nodded, her head bobbing into the pillow. He had a point. He'd done the safe and logical thing.
"Thank you for bringing me home." She vaguely recalled trying to stay in the hotel until she sobered up. And students. She remembered seeing her students. Her stomach flip-flopped at the thought. Hopefully, she hadn't appeared too out of it. Private schools were not very keen on their staff being seen drunk in public.
Layla lifted her head. "I'll get it." She steeled herself for the trauma of going vertical. "What happened to your eye?" Another dim recollection was taking form in her brain.
"You punched Robert when he tried to give you the room key."
"Did I…punch you, too?" Had all her pent-up frustrations burst forth? Culminating in a brawl?
"No. You accidentally hit me when you fell."
Layla swallowed hard and looked down at her hands. Well, now she knew why her knuckles were bruised and her knees felt skinned.
"You can go home now, Justin." She was certain he probably couldn't wait to get out of there, even though seeing her like this was probably entertaining as could be. "Thanks for everything."
"All right." He stayed where he was, though, and for once he wasn't smirking. He looked tired.
"Where'd you sleep?" she finally asked, after a few beats of silence. For some reason, he wasn't leaving.
"In one of those baskets you call a chair." He leaned his shoulder against the door frame. "How many drinks did you have?"
"Three." Layla closed her eyes for a second, hugging the pillow to her chest, fighting the urge to topple over. "And a half," she added, for the sake of honesty.
"How many after Robert dropped the bomb?"
"I told you about that?" Had she no pride when intoxicated? Heat rose in her face, scalding her cheeks.
"I'm not a mind reader."
Layla felt like melting into a puddle on the bed. "He told me in the room when we were getting ready to go down to dinner." Actually, that wasn't quite true. She'd guessed and then he'd confessed. "I hid out in the lounge and called Sam."
"Just wondering if I need to hook up with this Robert guy for leaving you drunk and alone in a hotel lounge."
The last thing she wanted was for Justin, of all people, to defend her honor. That would be so wrong.
"Justin…I'd really like to be alone now."
"If you're sure you're okay."
"I'm okay." He cocked his head, and she added, "Physically." Obviously, she had some other nonphysical issues to deal with. That seemed to satisfy him, and a few seconds later the front door closed. She heard the purr of a powerful engine coming to life.
What had they driven home in?
She couldn't for the life of her remember. Perhaps because her memory was so jumbled with other more humiliating images. The bush outside the hotel came to mind. And…oh yeah. She'd tossed her cookies once again along a road somewhere.
What did they put in those drinks?
Lots and lots of alcohol. And she was a lightweight.
She gingerly crawled off the bed, realizing only then that she still had on her slightly damp T-strap high heels. Justin hadn't taken off her shoes, although he had removed the duvet cover. Well, they were buckle shoes, perhaps too complicated for him.
She'd started for the bathroom when the doorbell rang. What on earth had Justin forgotten? She glanced at the domed mantel clock on her way to the door. Ten-thirty? Criminy. She'd lost twelve hours of her life.
The doorbell rang again, the sound reverberating through her skull. Must disconnect that thing. She pulled the door open, about to ask, "What did you forget?", and then almost slammed it shut again as