COUGAR FROM HELL by Marika Ray: Chapter Reveal, Pre-Order Links & Teasers
Daxon gently pulling my hand away from my face was what woke me up. I let out a soft groan that had absolutely nothing to do with the pain radiating from my forehead and everything to do with the beast of a man sitting right beside me, taking care of me like he was my personal nursemaid instead of the biggest irritant in my life at the moment. Sadly, he’d put a fresh shirt on at some point while I slept.
“Please tell me you haven’t been sitting there watching me sleep like some creep,” I croaked. Man, he hadn’t been kidding about the adrenaline crash.
Daxon snorted and let go of my hand, more’s the pity. “No, of course not. But you were snoring so loudly you interrupted my work. Figured I’d wake you up and make you lunch. Anything to stop that incessant racket.”
I shoved myself up to sitting, ignoring the way that made my head pulse painfully. “I don’t snore. Just admit you have a protective streak a mile wide.”
The side of Daxon’s mouth threatened to pull up into a smile. “I do not.”
While he was in such a good mood—normally he’d be crossing his arms over his massive chest and snapping at me by now—I wanted to address the thing that had been bothering me.
“Daxon, I have to clear up something.”
He stilled, his expression instantly guarded. “You hate that ridiculous G-wagon too?”
I slapped his arm, mostly just to have a reason to touch him. “No! I love that car.”
He looked on the verge of smiling again, which might have been a record for almost-smiles in a conversation with him. “I always thought you had much better taste.”
“My late husband and I had a business arrangement.”
Welp, that wasn’t how I meant to address things, just blurting it out like that.
Daxon blinked, his jaw hardening. Clearly he didn’t want to discuss this, but I had to get it all out. I couldn’t have him believing that I’d cheated on my husband. That Daxon was just a convenient male. Like I did that sort of thing all the time. Like what happened between us meant nothing to me.
“We were never in love. We married as a business deal, agreeing that it would be an open marriage. He was always discreet and respectful about it, which I appreciated, especially after Ruby was born. We became friends, building a life together, but also separately. The night I slept with you was the day after he went into hospice care and we knew it was just a matter of time before he was gone. My world was being flipped upside down and I just needed to feel something other than lost.”
Daxon sat there staring at me, his face devoid of any emotion. I could feel waves of tension pouring off his body. I wanted to explain more while also snatching back every word I’d already said. This didn’t appear to be helping things between us. By being truthful, I’d somehow made things worse.
“We didn’t sleep together.”
I…was not expecting that response. “No? I could have sworn we did.”
“We fucked, kitten. There’s a big difference,” Daxon growled.
He stood abruptly, the movement of the couch cushions jarring my head. I swung my legs off the couch and tried to stand too. The room got fuzzy around the edges and I sagged backward.
With a bit-back curse, Daxon grabbed my arms and guided me back to sitting. He followed, settling next to me on the couch with at least a foot of space between us.
“For fuck’s sake. Take it slow. You know what, let’s take you to urgent care. You probably have a concussion.”
I waited until the black dots faded from my vision. “I don’t have a concussion. Callan already ran me through some tests for that and said I was all clear.”
Daxon frowned harder. “He could be wrong.”
I huffed. This man was infuriating. One minute he’s sweet and protective. The next he’s growling at me, demeaning that night two years ago. The same one that had stayed with me through the hard months that followed.
“I just haven’t eaten anything yet. My bagel is back in the car at the base of my driveway.”
More curses flowed as he stood again. “Stay there.”
I rolled my eyes. He sure loved barking orders. But he still didn’t get what I was trying to say. Maybe I didn’t even know what I was trying to say.
“I’ve only slept with two people in my whole life, so I’m sorry if I use the wrong terms.” Apparently I’d become a blurter. The blurtiest of blurters.
Daxon froze. Every single muscle the man possessed—and good gravy did Mother Nature gift him with so much of it—locked tight. I lifted my hand to pull him back, but left it there hovering in the air between us. For half a second I had the fanciful thought that if I touched him, he’d surely break.
He spun around finally, ignoring my hand in the air. His eyes were snapping, devouring my face. “You what?”
Oh, so now he wanted to have this conversation.
I pulled my hand back in my lap so quickly it sounded like I clapped for his ridiculously short question. “I slept with Anthony once. It was not long after we got married. We both thought we’d try it out and see if there was any chemistry there.” I grimaced. “There was not. We went back to being friends immediately, putting that little experiment behind us. And then…then there was you.”
Daxon scrubbed both his hands over his face. I wanted to reach up and smooth the dark slashes of eyebrows back down. Why did he have to look like a male model posing as a lumberjack? It was an unfair advantage when a woman was trying to think around him.
“I don’t understand any of this. You’ve had two one-night stands in your whole life? You were married, but kind of not really?”
I wobbled my head back and forth. That was about right. Crazy and crazier. That had been my life, which was why I’d sought out a small town I could sink into with Ruby. A place I could be normal for once. “Will you sit down for a second and just let me explain?”
He sighed and moved to sit back down.
“And not bark one-word questions at me?”
“I don’t do that.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I— You know what? I’m just going to sit here and let you talk. How about that?” Daxon leaned sideways against the armrest, about as far away from me as he could get and still be on the same piece of furniture.
“Thank you,” I said with no small measure of sarcasm. “I know our marriage wasn’t conventional, but it worked for us. I was a small-town girl with absolutely no money but a stubborn insistence that I’d make it in a big city. Anthony needed someone to go to awards shows with and business dinners. Our pairing made more sense than most Hollywood marriages. He was my friend, and I grieved when he died.”
I hadn’t meant for my voice to shake when I got to that last part, but I hadn’t been able to talk about Anthony’s death. I’d tried to be there for Ruby, but no one had been there for me.
Daxon reached across the couch cushions and grabbed my hands where they’d been twisting the blanket. His hand was warm, fully enveloping both of mine. He gave me a squeeze and held on.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said, his voice scraping across the inches that separated us. “Thank you for explaining. I, uh, have a bit of a hang-up about married women.”
I tried not to smile too hard. “I could tell. You looked ready to find your nail gun and nail my toes to the foundation.”
“Definitely wanted to nail you…”
My gaze shot over to his. “Are you flirting with me, Daxon?”
“I’m hurt it was subtle enough you had to ask.” His lips were doing that thing again. What would it take to make the man smile fully?
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
Daxon winced. “Ouch. That’s even worse. The pity excuse.”
I talked around the giggle. “No, it’s true. I’ve slept with two men, had one orgasm, and somehow mother a preteen with more attitude than me. I wouldn’t recognize flirting if the dick pic slapped me in the face.”
Daxon huffed what could have been the start of a laugh. “First of all, a dick pic is not part of flirting. And secondly, one orgasm? I’ll be forever wounded if you say that one wasn’t from me.”
Was it getting hot in here? Or maybe it was the low blood sugar combined with the blow to the head making me woozy. “It was definitely you.”
“Of course it was,” he said smugly.
I tried to pull my hands out from under his. “Jeez, ego much, Daxon?”
He held on tighter, somehow inching closer to me on the couch. “Not ego. Confidence. Maybe you need a refresher?”
He was so close I could pick up on the soap he used and the smell of wood. That combination would forever make my stomach swoop. And not because I was hungry. “Daxon!”
He shrugged, his thumb sweeping out a rhythm against the back of my hand. I could feel that touch everywhere. I really was pathetic, finding a simple thumb touch a source of pleasure.
“Would it be so bad? At least you wouldn’t be married this time.”
I was shaking my head before I’d even catalogued all the ways that would be a very bad move to make. Without even putting sex on the table, I was overwhelmed by this man. I could barely be around him without tripping, or putting my foot in my mouth, or having to come home and seek out my trusty vibrator. One drunken encounter in a dirty bathroom had made me obsessed with him for months. Sober, intentional sex might break me.
“Absolutely not. No. Nuh-uh.”
Daxon smiled then, the kind of slow smile you feel across your skin. Like the sun rising over the mountains and heating up your whole body inch by inch. “So what you’re saying is you’ll think about it?”
“No!” I shook my head so hard it started being a heartbeat again along my cut. “That’s not at all what I’m saying!”
Good God, the man could smile. I could be ruined by that smile.
Daxon squeezed my hands one last time and let go, getting to his feet. “Let’s go make some lunch and then we need to get Ruby from school.”
I stood, taking slow deep breaths this time so I didn’t pass out. “I can get her on my own. I just need you to drop me off at my car.”
Daxon led the way to his tiny kitchen. “Can’t.”
I sighed, trying to keep myself from eyeing his backside. He had a really lovely backside. “There you go with the one-word answers again.”
He stopped at the refrigerator and pulled it open to peer inside. “Can’t take you to your car because it’s already been towed to the shop. I texted Clyde while you were sleeping, in case you were worried all I did was watch you sleep.”
Well, shit. There he went again, doing something nice. “I assume Clyde is a tow truck driver and not a car thief?”
Daxon shot me a deadpan glare.
“In that case, thank you. Maybe you could drop me off at a car rental place so I can get a loaner?”
I threw my hands out to the side. “For fuck’s sake, Daxon!”
And that’s when I heard it.
A real live laugh from Daxon Hellman.
And it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.