Authors: Susan Connell
"I'm not talking about the committee. I'm talking about you," he said, reaching to cover one of her hands with his to keep her from moving away. His voice suddenly gentled. "And me." With her lips parting to take in more air and her breasts straining against her blouse, he noted with guilty pleasure the difficult time she was having holding herself together. Slipping her hand from under his, she reached toward the table to place an empty salsa bowl and one of the pies on a tray. Beneath her lowered lids and those incredible sable fans that passed for her lashes, her gaze moved away from him.
"What about us?" she asked in a whisper. With a deliciously slow sweep of her lashes, she cautiously looked up his arm to his mouth and then his eyes.
His heart pounded with pleasure and pain; the inevitable moment was upon him. He had to get into it and out of it without her touching any part of his soul. He smiled, knowing he could manage it. After all, he'd been
with Sharon Burke for two years and that hadn't altered anything of importance in the secret recesses of his heart. He was simply going to kiss her. "I have this theory."
"I'm willing to listen."
Running the backs of his fingers under her chin, he lifted it as he lowered his head. From the corner of his eye he could see her curl her fingers into the key lime pie, then lift a delicious-looking gob out of the plate.
Shifting his weight, he leaned closer and suggested the wrong thing.
As her hand arced through the air, he caught her wrist hard, sending a splatter of pie filling onto the sleeve of his blazer. Ignoring the mess, he brought her hand to his mouth and began licking her fingers. After trying to pull her hand away once, she gave up, her gaze riveted on his lips and tongue.
"We're going to have to deal with this underlying tension," he said, moving on to her palm.
Her eyelids lifted suddenly. "What are you suggesting?"
Their gazes locked as he took one of her fingers into his mouth and gave it a warm tongue bath before he answered her. "Getting a few of the kinks worked out of our systems."
"How do you intend to—" she began mumbling.
Letting go of her, he stepped back to strip off his blazer. "I think it would be better if I showed you," he said, slipping his hands around to the back of her neck and his fingers up into her hair. "Open your mouth. It'll be easier that way."
"I don't know—"
Her lips parted at his whispered command.
He started the kiss with a deft stroke of his tongue along the roof of her mouth. Instantly he sensed a new tension in her. Or was it just a surprise reaction to his boldness? Either way, she was holding back. But she wouldn't be for long. He wanted one hint, one move, one shiver of invitation. Cradling the back of her head, he rotated his fingers in the soft, thick mass as he pressed himself against her breasts and belly. Like a storming pirate, he led her through the kiss, plundering her senses until he controlled them all. With each stroke of his tongue, soft nibble from his teeth, and tender brush of his lips, she responded with a broken sigh low in her throat. Victory along with a sense of relief filled his brain; this was exactly the way he wanted to experience her. Nothing complicated about it, just a bit of primal need being assuaged by a willing female.
Then something unexpected began happening. Curiosity stole quietly into the moment. A growing desire to claim more than momentary possession of her hot, sweet mouth taunted his resolve. With each of her breathy sighs he sensed a fusing of the physical and the cerebral. The effect was staggering. Dammit, he only meant to get her out of his system, but the more he kissed her, the more he wanted... more.
Bryn had wanted a hard, brusque, impersonal meeting of their flesh to finally put to rest the wildly erotic images filling her mind. She needed this kiss to be a resounding disappointment. She could deal with disappointment because in these matters she always had.
Disappointment was not what Rick delivered. From the moment his lips brushed hers, the kiss rode the line between deeply personal and purely seductive. With his solid being filling her arms, his maleness stirring her, and the way he moved against her, she chose the reality of the moment over the frustrating confusion of the recent past. She was tired of trying to figure out the mixed messages Rick had been sending her in the last week. Instead of stopping this, instead of pushing him away, she gave it all she had in a slow barrage of passion-evoking moves. Trying not to think about the deepening intimacy between them, she told herself their purpose was to clear the air. There would be no more kisses. Embracing the explanation, she poured her heart into the kiss, enjoying it for all it was worth. Suddenly he pulled back swearing, and by his guttural tone, she knew she was turning him on a lot faster than he wanted to be.
Lowering his forehead to hers, he got his breathing under control before he spoke. "Think we've cleared the air yet?" he asked, his hands curving confidently at her waist.
Here at last was the disappointment she'd wanted. And it had come just in time. One more stroke of his tongue, one more stroke of hers, and she would have followed him to the floor or pulled him onto the table. She was about to take the coward's way out and tell him yes, the air was now clear, when a slight trembling in his hands betrayed the discipline in his voice. The almost imperceptible vibration spoke volumes. Once again Rick Parrish thought he could keep his passionate nature hidden behind the experienced maneuvers of his mouth and tongue, and his flippant remark, but what began as an arrogant gesture had turned into a wet and hungry search for fulfillment. And it wasn't over yet.
"No, Captain Parrish, we have not cleared the air," she said, her feminine confidence brought to life in an epiphanous flash.
"You think you could do better?"
"I'll give it my best shot," she said, tracing circles on the faint shadow of his beard. She stopped. "With your permission, of course."
"I'm all yours," he said, when he was capable of speaking.
She gave him her most enigmatic smile.
Not yet, but you will be, Captain.
Sliding a fingertip over his lips, she followed the tender exploration with her tongue. His quiet struggle to remain unaffected moved her, but not enough to make her stop. Her words were a hot whisper against his lips. "I read somewhere this works a lot better if both parties are willing participants."
"Where'd you read tha—"
She cut him off with a delicate bite to his lower lip. He sucked in half a breath and held on to it like a drowning man.
"I'll lend you that book later," she said, plunging her fingers into his sun-streaked hair and giving his head a soft shake. "Right now let's get to the bottom of this 'underlying tension.' Let's get these 'kinks worked out.' "
His dead-serious expression lasted no more than a second. Maybe two. And then her world suddenly tilted on its axis. Drawing her against him, he took her mouth with heart-searing possession. Through her wanton actions she'd asked for the kiss, teased him for it, craved it, and now there was nothing to do but surrender to his wild show of passion. The determined way he was holding her, stroking her backside, molding his hands along the curves of her hips, made her want to caress the length of him. One last shred of sanity had her locking her knees to fight gravity. Or was it to fight the inexorable desire to open her body to Rick? She didn't know. She didn't care. He was tugging her blouse from the waistband and pushing up the delicate material as he lowered himself down the front of her. Just as quickly, their dance of seduction stopped when he looked up into her face. Without a word from his lips, she understood what he was asking. Poising her fingertips on his shoulders, she directed him closer with whisper-soft pressure. Rubbing his thumbs beneath her rib cage, he said her name on a sigh that sent shivers to her core. Drawing his tongue over the satin smoothness of her middle, he veered south, lavishing her navel with quick, wet licks. Tiny darts of pleasure penetrated her most sensitive places—places he wasn't touching. Yet. Moving his fingers over the moist trail he'd made with his tongue, he deepened the pleasure already there.
Alarms were going off inside her head. As sure as she was about their shared desire for each other, the idea was still brand new. She needed a little more time with it. Any second now she wouldn't have the strength to pull away. "Rick," she whispered, barely holding on to the last of her will. Slipping his hand between her legs he caressed the inside of her knee before moving higher up her thigh. And higher still. When he brushed his fingers over the material between her legs, she felt her knees beginning to give.
"How're we doing?" he whispered, standing again.
She tried saying his name again, but gave in to a gasp when he slipped fingers inside the elastic waistband and slid them down the flat plane of her belly. When he stirred the curls at the apex of her thighs she sank her fingers into his hair. She gasped again as wave after wave of need swirled through her. If he continued his teasing strokes a bit farther and a moment longer, she would give up thinking about anything remotely rational. On the next sound, they both froze.
Ohhh! Baby, baby, baby!"
Biting back a stream of curses, Rick withdrew his hand, took a steadying breath, and carefully stepped back. The first thing that struck him was her wide-eyed look and the way she was wiping her mouth.
He smiled. "Are you brushing off my kisses or rubbing them in?"
Blinking the dazed expression from her eyes, she began tucking her blouse back into her waistband. Another squawking salvo brought her back to her senses. "Does it matter, as long as we cleared the air?"
Dropping his head back, he laughed softly, thinking that he liked her unpredictableness, her ability to hold her own with him, and most of all, the sheer pleasure of her womanly reactions. The undeniable truth was, he liked it too damned much. Shaking his head, he was once again himself and fully aware of the reality of his life. A life where he didn't take chances with matters of the heart. "What
that all about?" he asked, not bothering to keep annoyance out of his voice.
"I believe we were dealing with underlying tension and working the kinks out of our systems," she said, twisting a small opal ring on her middle finger. That soft, almost lonely look began returning to her face before she had a chance to turn away. "Anyway, we gave it our best shot," she added, busily piling the rest of the refreshments onto the tray.
"Well, we blew it," he said in a storm of emotions he wanted to be rid of. Just because he was suddenly and madly consumed with having her didn't mean he couldn't control the rampant desire continuing to fire through his body. Especially if he stopped staring at her backside while she was leaning over the table.
God, how he hated this feeling of being torn between the old ways he loved and wanting Bryn. There, he'd finally been honest with himself. And it wasn't helping a thing. Rolling his eyes in frustration, he sat down in a new chair, not even bothering to look for his battered captain's chair. By now she'd probably pitched that relic along with the rest of the Crab Shack's furnishings.
For the first time since arriving, he made himself look carefully at the changes she'd made in the restaurant. That she had a flair for pulling together the perfect pieces for a first-class restaurant was obvious. The beautifully framed copies of Monets and van Goghs propped against the bar would look perfect on the banana-yellow walls of Chez Madison. But never between the beer signs at Pappy's Crab Shack.
Their eyes met in silent understanding.
"It's not like it used to be, is it?" she asked, offering a benign smile.
Shaking his head slowly, he said, "I hardly recognize the place."
Stepping away from the table, she began rubbing her palms together in that awkward yet endearing way of hers. "That's about what the others said." Rick's continued silence prickled over her skin. Clearing her throat, she walked over to the rail. Forcing a false cheerfulness into her voice, she continued. "The louvered shutters are supposed to be delivered in the next few days, but the work on the walls has to be finished before they're installed. And, uh, the saltwater aquarium is being delivered on Tuesday." When he still didn't respond, her voice faltered, then rushed on. "I-I keep having second thoughts on the chairs. These are samples my contacts in Miami sent down for me to see. That's usually not done, but I've been doing business with them for several years. Anyway, I couldn't have chosen a more appropriate pattern. Muted plaid is much less threatening than a floral to male clientele." She knew she was talking about things that couldn't possibly interest him, but in the most maddening way she wanted his approval. And he wasn't giving it to her. "I've always believed classic styles could work well anywhere, but..." Trailing off, she turned to face him.
"But not for Malabar Key," he said, standing up.
Lowering her gaze to the tassels on his shoes, she tried ignoring the way he ended her sentence, then realized how foolish that would be. She couldn't erase what he'd said, especially since she'd led him into saying it. Misgivings about the future success of Chez Madison churned in her heart. Maybe she hadn't researched the demographics as thoroughly as she should have. Maybe she had ignored her usual review procedures in order to speed up the project, but there was a reasonable explanation for her actions. This was for her beloved grandfather, the man she'd missed all those years when she was growing up. She wanted the restaurant ready for Pappy Madison as quickly as possible. She glanced up at Rick as he ran his hand along the refinished bar. None of this had anything to do with him.