Authors: Christie Ridgway
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
It was sexual awareness, of course. Sexual tension.
An exhausting state of being, truth be told. By the time she stretched foil across the cooled, leftover casserole so he could return with it to his cottage, she felt as if she’d spent the last couple of hours on the narrow ledge of a high building. During heavy winds.
Yes, he was a charming companion in many respects, but she was glad the evening was coming to an end as she walked him to the door. Bitzer pressed against Meg’s knees as she stood in the entryway with his master. She patted his warm head in goodbye, then gave in to impulse and knelt down beside him to place a kiss on his soft doggy cheek.
Rising, she met Caleb’s smiling eyes. He held the casserole dish in one hand and gestured toward Bitzer with the other. “Do I get one of those, too?” he asked.
“Uh…” Oh, why not? that voice inside her asked. It was impulse again, or perhaps curiosity that brought Meg up on her toes. What woman wouldn’t want to get a little closer to such a perfect specimen of male-in-his-prime?
She leaned in, prepared to buss his lean cheek.
His large hand speared through the mass of hair at the back of her head, bringing her mouth to his. He didn’t go for a simple peck, or a gentle lips-to-lips brush, either. This was a full-on, fiery kiss, his mouth firm on hers, his tongue sliding inside without hesitation.
A sound came from low in her throat—surprise, appreciation, wonder—and she clutched at his shoulders. Her body flushed hot and she moved closer to his as if pressure could assuage the sudden ache between her legs and the tender heaviness of her breasts.
Caleb’s kiss continued until her head dropped back. Murmuring something, he slid his mouth along her cheek and down her neck. Goose bumps broke out on that thin skin and then shivered down her spine. The sensation jolted her back to reality and she took a hasty step away, staring at him as she inhaled great gulps of air.
Caleb stared back, then he shook his head, a rueful smile curving his lips. “Wow. I didn’t expect it to be quite all that.”
Meg, part-embarrassed, part-pleased, felt her face heat. Now there was a distinct throbbing between her thighs and her nipples were so tight they almost stung. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say we can try that again,” Caleb answered, then wrapped his free hand around her upper arm to pull her close again.
She went willingly, her mouth already parted, eager for his tongue, his taste. Why not this? she thought, her mind going woozy as he licked her bottom lip. Maybe one of those quick, physical releases she’d claimed were her thing was in order. A reward for doing her sister a good turn.
Caleb’s tongue slid against hers and she moaned. Yes,
. A casual fling. Nothing worrisome, because didn’t he look just like a casual kind of man?
Moving nearer, she accidentally jostled the hand that held the casserole and felt him stiffen. “Oh, no,” she cried, shifting back. “Did it burn you?” She could see the splash of tomato sauce on his shirt, where he’d held the dish against his side.
“No, it just surprised me,” he said, looking down at himself, his expression sheepish. “I completely forgot about the eggplant parmesan.”
She took it out of his hand and hurried toward the kitchen. “Take off the shirt and I’ll run it under cold water. Maybe it won’t stain.”
“It’s an old shirt,” he protested, trailing her.
“Take it off, anyway,” she said, letting her smile bloom, because she knew he couldn’t see it. Her blood was still thrumming in her veins and with his chest bare, she’d be one step closer to the possibility of a doesn’t-have-to-mean-anything hookup with a beautiful, casual man.
Lucky Meg, she told herself. Though she wasn’t usually so impetuous, being with Caleb just felt right. And, after all, didn’t she deserve some good fortune?
Setting the dish on the counter, she whirled around.
Caleb had his T-shirt in hand, leaving for her appreciation a wealth of tanned skin and muscled chest.
In the middle of which was a clearly new, very serious-looking, four-inch scar.
aleb McCall didn’t waste time anymore. Actually, he’d never been much of a time-waster, but now he was a definite time-
. As he walked southward along the beach of Crescent Cove, that’s what he did—appreciate. The fresh, fog-laden air was almost intoxicating. Not that he needed a buzz; he’d had one since kissing Starr—
—the night before.
Yeah, a buzz and a hard-on, he thought, grimacing. It wasn’t his most comfortable night, but he’d had worse, and he held hope that last night’s frustration was a temporary circumstance. Though he figured she’d need some persuading to explore this…this situation between them.
He couldn’t blame her for being gun-shy. Losing Peter had affected them all in ways big and small. His cousin had been open-minded and bighearted, the kind of person who had friends of all kinds, from tech geeks to varsity jocks. It was Peter who had given confidence to his scrawny younger cousin, encouraging Caleb’s interests in both sports and computers that had come together in the successful business he’d now built. But upon hearing the news of Peter’s death, for a long time Caleb had felt as if nothing could go right with the world again.
Meg must have experienced something similar. After all, she’d actually left this beautiful place. No wonder seeing his scar—that four-inch symbol of man’s mortality—had shut her down. Oh, she’d gone through the motions of rinsing out his shirt, but she’d used the activity to avoid looking him in the eye. Short minutes later, he, Bitzer and the casserole dish had found themselves on the other side of her front door.
But Caleb wasn’t acceding defeat, not yet.
Because even before that explosive kiss, he’d been drawn to Crescent Cove—drawn to
—and he was a very determined man. To that end he’d developed a plan in the long, sleepless hours of the night. He was going to get past her newly erected guard, get her into bed and then figure out if what seemed more certain all the time was really destined to be.
Looking death in the face had a way of making a man believe in such a thing.
The property management office was a one-room clapboard building with a white picket fence surrounding it and a small plot of grass. The gate was cocked open as was the front door, and Caleb assumed the occupant couldn’t hear him approach over the crash-and-sizzle sound of the waves hitting the sand.
He halted in the doorway and, just like yesterday when he’d seen her in Beach House No. 9, was struck dumb by her beauty. Ten years ago, Caleb had liked the view, too. Despite the fact that she’d been his cousin’s girlfriend, despite the fact that he could tell his skinny teen self didn’t make a blip on her consciousness, he’d looked. A blond girl, a skimpy bikini—what guy wouldn’t?
But now…now the sight of her struck him in the solar plexus, a fateful blow over newly healed skin. She looked just as he remembered from that odd dream he’d had while in the hospital. Not like the girl she’d been a decade before, but like this woman, with a Rapunzel-ish fall of wavy golden-brown hair and eyes that were an otherworldly green. Dressed in knee-length shorts and a T-shirt that read “Tax Season Rocks,” she scrutinized a piece of paper on the desk. Then she half-turned, revealing the slenderness of her back and the sweet curve of her ass.
He studied her profile then, too, noting her high brow, the curl of dark brown lashes, a straight nose and the full pink curves of her lips. He’d kissed them—
—and the lush softness had nearly blown off the top of his head. His heart had pounded so hard against his ribs that if he hadn’t already known he was completely well, the fact that he’d survived his tongue in her mouth would have convinced him.
He wanted to taste her again.
Crossing the threshold, his determined footstep sounded loud on the hardwood. Meg startled, her hand catching a box on the desk, toppling it. Keys spilled like doubloons from a treasure chest, clattering against the floor.
“Sorry,” he said, hurrying over to kneel beside her. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
She scooped up some of the metal pieces and tossed them back into the box. “I’m not afraid,” she scoffed. “I just didn’t expect to see you again.”
Sending her a quizzical glance, Caleb let a stream of keys trickle out of his palm and into the container. “Meg.” He waited until she glanced his way. “You thought I’d just go away and leave you alone after that?”
Pink color suffused her cheeks, a contrast to her deep green eyes. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“After last night.” He knew she didn’t need further illumination, because her gaze slid away from his. Still… “After those incredible, incendiary kisses.” Let her try and deny just how incendiary.
“You…you asked for one,” she said, clambering to her feet and plunking the key-laden box back onto the desk. Then she stomped around to the chair behind it, putting distance and a solid piece of furniture between herself and Caleb. “It was just a friendly ‘thanks for dinner.’”
He crossed his arms over his chest, watching as she fiddled with a pad of paper, centering it with precise movements. Denial, not just a river in Africa.
She darted a quick glance at him, then returned her focus to the desktop. “Can I help you with something?”
My aching hard-on
, he almost said, just to provoke her. Her discomfort in the aftermath of their passionate embrace didn’t bode well for his plans. Seeking inspiration, he took a moment to glance around the room. There was a large, impressionistic painting on one wall that was quite well-done, in his very uninformed opinion, and clearly depicted the cove. On a set of shelves sat photographs—the Alexander family, he presumed—as well as jars of beach glass and seashells. None of them gave a clue as to how he could pierce Meg’s armor.
He swallowed a sigh. “I thought you’d like to know the repairman came and went. Oven works fine now.”
Her shoulders relaxed and she lifted her gaze to his, this time letting it linger. “Yes, he stopped by afterward to deliver his invoice. I hope it wasn’t an inconvenience.”
“Not at all.”
“Good. Well.” Her gaze dropped when he continued to stand there. “If there isn’t anything else…” She swept her hands over the desk as if to point out the multitude of tasks facing her. Too bad it was nearly empty.
He ignored the hint and took the chair on the other side of the desk. All his instincts told him now was not the time to back off. She peeped at him again, her mouth pursing in a way that made him think more of kissing than of disapproval.
“You didn’t ask about my scar,” he said in a conversational tone.
A moment of charged silence passed. “Well…you know, it’s none of my business.”
“I’m not sure about that. It’s what brought me here, after all.”
It’s what brought me to you.
Her eyebrows rose and she gave him her full attention for the first time. “How is that?”
So cautious was Meg, so different than the Starr of ten years before, who had seemed to welcome life and love as if they were her due. He remembered her racing into the surf, dolphin-diving into the face of an oncoming wave. Would she even let the water wet her feet now?
, Caleb thought, and it took everything he had not to reach out for her, to grab her hand and tug her into his lap where he could whisper in her ear, assuring her he would always be her safe harbor.
But he knew she wasn’t ready for that. Hell, he wasn’t even sure he was ready, though it didn’t seem he had much choice in the matter. Those kisses last night had proved that ready didn’t mean squat. When something so bright, so sure, came your way, you just grabbed for it with all you had, and held on.
Looking death in the face made that Lesson Number One.
Right. He was supposed to be explaining his impetus for renting a beach cottage, though he’d better keep the exact details to himself for the moment. “I was in the hospital when Crescent Cove…uh, the idea of it just popped into my head. I knew I had to visit as soon as I was well.”
When he didn’t continue, she threw him a disgruntled look. “Fine, I’ll ask. Why were you in the hospital?”
“How much do you know about hearts?”
“Are we talking physical or metaphorical?”
Both were important when it came to the two of them, but Caleb would address that later. “Physical.”
“Size of a fist,” she said, placing hers against her breastbone. “Four chambers. Blood pumps in, and it sends the de-oxygenated stuff through the lungs to pick up O² before being sent back out to the body.”
“Right. The blood returning from the lungs goes into the left atrium—one of the chambers of the heart. From there, a valve, the mitral valve, opens to let that blood flow into the main pumping chamber, the left ventricle. I had a wonky valve, causing mitral stenosis.”
Her fisted hand dropped to the desktop. “Sounds serious.”
“It made some of my blood flow backward to my lungs, meaning my heart had to pump harder to get the necessary volume through my veins. Provided the leak is slow and only gets worse progressively, your body can compensate for years.”
She covered her fist with her other hand, as if to comfort it. “And when it can no longer compensate?”
“Then you experience shortness of breath and extreme fatigue.”
“You knew this when you were a competing triathlete?” she asked, frowning at him.
You say that as if you cared.
I was a competing triathlete I caught on to something being not quite right. Turns out the bad case of strep throat I had as a kid likely developed into undiagnosed rheumatic fever that caused the damage. So I had surgery to fix me up, all right and tight.”
She tilted her head, that glorious hair falling over one shoulder. “What kind of surgery makes you ‘all right and tight?’”
“Open heart,” he said. “I have a mechanical valve now, and take a blood thinner every day, but that’s it. My long-term prognosis is the same as for any other thirty-year-old.”
A moment passed, then she slapped her palms on the desktop. “Well. Congratulations.” She rose to her feet. “I’m glad to hear you’re in good shape.”
“Excellent shape,” Caleb said, standing as well. She was in that hurry-him-out mode, just as she’d been last night. “Meg—”
“Sorry, but I don’t have any more time to chat right now.” She snatched up her purse and looked ready to push him out the door.
He rooted his feet to the ground. “Let me take you out to dinner tonight.”
“I don’t see why you’d want to.”
His eyebrows rose. Stubborn woman! “Let’s start with that we both need to eat.”
“We don’t need to eat together. We already did that.”
Caleb rocked back on his heels. “I really do scare you.”
She frowned. “Of course not. But you recall what happened last night.”
He damn sure would remember it for the rest of his life. “Didn’t you enjoy yourself?”
Her cheeks turned pink again and her green eyes narrowed. “Can’t you take ‘no’ for an answer?”
“I haven’t actually heard you say that word,” Caleb pointed out, rubbing his knuckles along his jaw. “Not last night. Not now.”
Meg looked down at her feet, then inhaled a long breath. “All right. Here’s the deal. Last night…last night was nice. You’re fun. You’re funny. I’m sure I’m not the first woman to let you know you’re attractive. After those kisses, I even considered sleeping with you.”
Now why didn’t that sound like a victory?
Her gaze lifted to his, and a hint of a smile curved her lips. “Now
“Hardly. Setting the sheets on fire does not inspire fear in me.” He thought of his hands fisted in her hair, of his mouth on hers, his tongue stroking deep. “When can we make that happen?”
“We won’t. I considered it, but decided it’s not in my best interest.”
“Why don’t you give me a chance to change your mind?” he asked, taking a step toward her.
Meg held him off with a hand. “No. Really.”
Caleb could see the tension in her body. She was worried about him getting close, and he thought he could understand why. “I realize that after what happened to Peter you might not want to take a chance—”
“Don’t bring Peter into this.”
“But he’s here,” Caleb said. “Because he was your first love.” Though if destiny played out the way he hoped, the way he thought it should, he planned on being her last one.
“Love.” Meg shook her head. “It wasn’t that. What we had was a potent mix of young adult hormones and summer sun. I was more than ready to drink the pre-sweetened Kool-Aid after a childhood overstocked with Disney princess movies and long hours of pretend.”
Caleb stilled. “You don’t think you fell in love with him.”
“I don’t believe in falling in love,” Meg said. “I don’t ever want to.”
It was only later, after she’d once again put him on the other side of her door and he was taking a long walk on the beach, that Caleb absorbed her last words. Then grasped their inherent contradiction. If you truly didn’t believe in the phenomenon of falling in love, there was no reason not to want that to happen.
Looking toward the water, he grinned. “I’m not giving up on her, cousin,” he promised.
* * *
At about 4 p.m., behind the closed and locked door of the property management office, Meg decided she needed a nap. Sure, it was classic avoidance of issues she’d prefer not to face, but it was also…a nap. Rarely did she allow herself one of those and she thought a prize was in order. She’d checked in everyone expected to arrive at the cove that day. More important, she’d held out against Caleb’s still-smokin’ sex appeal.
He’d strolled in, wearing that confidence of his like a second shirt. When she’d clearly been trying to get rid of him, he’d made himself at home in her visitor’s chair. What perversity inside of her thrilled to that obstinate quality of his? It was almost as if he was bone-certain she enjoyed being with him. That she was supposed to
Someone as sensible as Meg shouldn’t be swayed by such persistence. Didn’t she know there was nothing to be gained by a roll in the sack with him? Yes, scratching an itch could provide temporary pleasure, but good sense warned her that being with Caleb would come with a price.