Authors: Christie Ridgway
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
And she’d already paid once, hadn’t she? Ten years ago she’d lost her head and then effectively lost her family home.
In the corner of the office was the shabby leather recliner that had been her father’s favorite. Approaching it, she had to smile, imagining her mother insisting to Dad as they prepared to move to Provence that the recliner belonged at the cove. Mom had detested that chair the moment her father had brought it home from an estate sale, but since he’d been so delighted with the find, she’d never said a word against it.
Her parents had been married for thirty-plus years. Any mature person knew it couldn’t have been a happy-fest 24/7 for all that time, but they were still together. He brought her flowers every Friday. She never grimaced when he practiced the saxophone each afternoon. Starr—the girl she’d been—had considered both proof of connubial bliss and lasting love.
Meg didn’t have an opinion of or an explanation for their continued devotion. Her brain couldn’t conjure one. There was an empty place in her chest where her heart—which might have weighed in—had once resided. If forced to guess why her parents’ togetherness worked, she’d say blind faith. But the scales had fallen from Meg’s eyes long ago.
Just something else to dodge mulling over. Settling into Dad’s old chair, she closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep.
The cracked leather creaked as she wiggled against it. Breathing deep, she listened to the surf, hoping its ceaseless ebb and flow would sweep her consciousness away.
It didn’t work.
Long minutes passed.
Then she heard a strange scratching against the front door. Nothing human. Something…canine. She popped out of her chair, certainty making another smile break across her face. No surprise, it was Bitzer on the other side of the entrance. That summer ten years ago he’d shown up at her door just like this, signaling his arrival in the very same way.
She went to her knees, her arms wrapping around his neck. “Bitz! Do you remember me, you adorable dog?” Burying her face in his ruff, she reveled in his furry warmth. He accepted her embrace, body writhing in delight.
His doggy grin was wide as he trotted into the office. Then he wandered about the room, nose peeking into the attached bathroom, then nudging the items on the bookshelf opposite the desk.
Meg watched him, a little buzz of joy rolling through her. Something had survived of that summer. Bitzer was his outgoing, all-accepting self. Sliding onto the leather seat, she rested her head against its back and closed her eyes again, hearing the clack-clack-clack of his nails against the floor. With the dog as company, sleep seemed possible now.
Then something sharp prodded her arm. Meg’s eyes popped open. “Bitzer?”
He had a plastic DVD case in his mouth, which he then dropped in her lap.
“Where did you find this, boy?”
While he didn’t answer, she figured he’d discovered it during his explorations. On the bookshelves, perhaps, or in the oversize reed basket beside it that held a collection of magazines and DVDs that guests were welcome to borrow.
Turning it over in her hands, she determined it wasn’t labeled. Her father was an avid amateur “filmmaker”—translation, he loved his video cam almost as much as his sax—so it could be a Crescent Cove sunset or perhaps several minutes of cavorting seals.
On a whim, she popped out of the chair and crossed to the computer on the desk. A moment later, an image bloomed on the screen. “Bitzer,” she breathed, casting a glance toward him. It was the dog, racing along the sand and then plunging into the surf after a Frisbee. Not a gray hair in sight.
Then the image changed. Meg tensed, her hand jerking away from the keyboard as if it burned. The monitor showed a girl and boy walking on the beach, coming toward the camera, but oblivious to it. Peter, lean and smiling, his long hair ruffled by the breeze. The girl that was once Meg—Starr—her arm hugging his waist, her face turned up to his. Smiling, too.
Bitzer raced toward them, and Peter took the Frisbee from his mouth, flung it again. The dog leaped into the water, splashing Starr with cool drops, and she squealed a little, following that up with a laugh.
Peter turned her to him for a kiss.
They looked so young, Meg thought. So young and carefree.
Without thinking, she reached toward the screen, tracing the teenager’s bright hair, following the young man’s grin with her fingertip. She was smiling, too, she realized, appreciating their happiness. Then the couple continued strolling. The camera followed them and Meg noted the golden stretch of sand, the waves rolling in, the bright-colored beach cottages that had been her childhood playground.
How beautiful it all was, she thought, from those delighted lovers to that cloudless sky.
For the first time in a decade, gratitude rose like a warm tide in her chest, displacing the cool bitterness of disillusionment and grief. She’d grown up in this wonderful place. Starr and Peter had enjoyed a spectacular summer. Nothing, not even his death, could take the reality of that away.
She still ached that Peter was gone, but the rush of good memories of her life here, and of that golden summer, was unstoppable. She saw bonfires in her mind’s eye, smelled the delicious blend of coconut oil and roasting corn on the cob, could almost taste the salty flavor of the ocean on her lips.
Meg didn’t try warding off the recollections as was her usual practice. Instead, she let them roll through as she continued watching the home movie—an assortment of moments from that last summer—taking in each scene of the visual playlist. Her dad trying to catch a fish in the ocean, her mother at her easel on the bluff, Skye still turning cartwheels at seventeen. And always Peter and Starr, smiling into each other’s eyes like the rest of the world and the future didn’t matter.
Maybe they didn’t. Maybe the fact that their present had existed once upon a time was enough.
Nobody got forever. That couple, Peter and Starr—they seemed like old friends to Meg’s fond gaze now—had lived large for three glorious months.
Let them go now,
a voice inside her said.
Let them continue on their walk down that sunny beach
Meg, let go.
When the screen finally faded out, she rose from the chair, her legs almost weightless. Everything about her felt lighter, and she drifted out of the office, then drifted up the sand, Bitzer at her side. Fog lingered over the beach, and strains of music carried toward her on the breeze, the sound of Happy Hour cranking up at Captain Crow’s.
She could use a drink.
Her timing couldn’t be better, she realized. A tradition went back to the 1950s when the same group of families summered at the cove year after year. They celebrated the arrival of 5 p.m., cocktail hour, with a special ceremony that was still carried on at Captain Crow’s today.
As she approached the restaurant’s deck, many of those crowded at the tables cleared out, gathering around a flagpole at the base of the steps that led to the sand. Meg stood at the periphery of the ragged circle, watching as a man in low-slung shorts and a faded sweatshirt lifted a conch shell to his lips. A loud blast from it caused the people around him to cheer, then they saluted as a blue flag was run up to flutter in the breeze.
“The martini symbol,” an amused voice said near her ear.
She didn’t need to look behind her to know it was Caleb’s warm breath that stirred the hair at her temple. “All hail revelry.”
“The cove’s a place for good times,” he said, as the others tromped back up the steps to their seats.
“I’m starting to remember that,” Meg admitted.
Caleb’s fingers curled around her upper arm and he turned her, his gaze searching her face. “You look…relaxed.”
She shrugged, trying not to show how something as simple as his sure touch made her belly quiver. His thumb caressed the vulnerable flesh of her inner arm and she had to put some starch in her knees to keep from leaning into him. “Thanks to Bitzer.”
“Yeah?” He slanted a glance at his dog. “I’ve been looking for you, buddy—but you’re forgiven for running off if you’ve been doing good works.”
The dog responded with waving tail and toothy grin.
Then Caleb’s palm slid lower to take Meg’s hand. “I can do good things, too,” he told her, the corners of his mouth curving up. “You should give me a chance.”
She considered it, trying to drum up all the reasons it was wrong. But they were hardly a match against that weightless feeling she still enjoyed and Caleb’s potent physical presence. He was so damn good-looking, with his hair falling over his brow and the intriguing dichotomy of his serious eyes and smiling lips.
His warm hand clasping hers—when had a man last held her hand?—was irresistible. “I’ll give you a chance to buy me a drink,” Meg said.
The sun broke from behind the clouds.
Really. Not that it was uncommon for it to finally shine after being held back for most of the day, but the warm, yellow blast of it against her face felt like a benediction. Caleb grinned, correctly interpreting her wonder. “The universe is on my side.”
Oh, arrogant man. But it was hard to disagree as they were given the best table on the deck, in a corner close to the railing. It was an intimate two-top, and she angled her chair so that the ocean wasn’t in her line of sight. The move brought her closer to Caleb, who didn’t seem to mind the quick, innocent bump of her knee against his. Instead, he moved his leg so the denim of his jeans was pressed lightly against her bare calf.
Bad man. Because he left it there, a reminder of his male heat, and even played with her fingers, as they waited for his beer and her margarita. In her veins, her blood started chugging hot and heavy, and her skin turned ultra-sensitive, the breeze blowing against it feeling like a caress. On her other side, Bitzer leaned against her knee, caging her against his owner—though she no longer felt inclined to move away. As her icy glass was set in front of her, she sighed a little.
Picking up his beer, Caleb cocked a brow. “Problem?”
She lifted her drink and tapped the rim to the lip of his bottle. “I’m just thinking about the futility of delaying the inevitable.”
“I should have gone to bed with you last night.” She smiled when she saw him freeze, relishing the surprise crossing his face. But really, hadn’t the conclusion felt foregone? It seemed the only answer to this helpless, girlish flutter she felt just looking upon his face. The only way to manage it. “What have we wasted? Twenty-four hours?”
With a deliberate movement, he set down his beer. “Believe me, sweetheart. We’re not going to waste another second.”
s much as Caleb would have liked to throw down some bills and drag Meg to his bed, the time-appreciater in him wasn’t going to act so rashly. Especially as he was aware that she’d pulled out a metaphorical stun gun by announcing her sudden willingness for sex. She thought to get the upper hand on what was going on between them by taking it down to its basest level.
Hell yeah, he wanted to kiss her, touch her, taste her, take her, but he was in this for a much longer game. That weird dream during surgery had intrigued him enough that he’d made the trip here, but it was Meg herself who held him now. Her beautiful face, her rare smile, that empty place inside her that made him want to pull her close, to fill her up, to treasure her forever.
Tearing off her clothes and driving himself inside her was not the way to make that happen. So he sat back in his chair, picked up his beer again to take a swallow, then caught the server’s eye and asked for a couple of menus.
Meg shot him a suspicious glance.
He hid his smile behind his bottle. “Got to fuel us up, you know,” he explained. “Want to have plenty of energy to deplete.”
She twitched. “Maybe I’m not hungry.”
Oh, yeah, now that she’d made a decision, she was desperate to race forward. Caleb caught her hand in his and brought it to his mouth. He kissed the back of it, then tickled her knuckles with his tongue.
With a low noise, she snatched it away.
He gave her a lazy grin as the menus were laid in front of them. Taking his time, he reviewed the food offerings. She didn’t give them a look. “Shall I order for you?” he asked politely.
“God, no,” she said, and opened the folder.
Caleb bit back another smile, knowing he was on the right track with her. No doubt she wanted to maintain control of the situation and of herself. But he thought he needed to force her to release the reins. Only that way could she reclaim the missing stars in her eyes. Meg would never be Starr again and that was fine with him, because he was after the woman she was now, not the girl she’d been—but first she needed to trust that a man could care for her without leaving her unhappy.
She had to let go in order to love again.
That’s what he wanted…her love.
He ordered a full meal, from appetizer to salad to entree and he even said he might leave room for dessert. Meg stared at him, then tossed back the rest of her margarita and fidgeted while waiting for the second she ordered.
“Relax,” he said.
Her green eyes glared at him. “Let me tell you something. ‘Relax’ is the worst word a man can say to a woman. It can put her right out of the mood.”
Her second margarita was delivered and he pushed it closer to her. “You’ll be in the mood.”
The shrimp cocktail he’d requested came on a bed of crushed ice. He dipped one piece of seafood in sauce, then held it to Meg’s mouth. Pressing her lips together, she snatched it from his hand then bit into it with furious relish. “Yikes,” he said, his voice mild. “I hope you’ll be more gentle with me.”
A reluctant smile dug a dimple in her left cheek and he saw a little of her tenseness fade. “You’re trying to make me crazy, aren’t you?”
“I want to,” he admitted. “Because I’m crazy for you back.”
She didn’t fight so hard after that. When he pushed the appetizer to the center of the table, she dug in alongside him. When their salads came, she shared a taste of her field greens and heirloom tomatoes. He offered a forkful of spinach and red onion and she took it with good grace.
They were almost mellow companions as they slowly worked their way through a steak—him—and a serving of grilled swordfish—her. At the end, as the plates were removed, she flopped back against her seat. “Maybe,” she said, sliding him a look from beneath her long, curly lashes, “I’m too full for sex.”
“We’ll have to work off some of the food then,” he answered, and tugged her up by the hand. Bitzer tried to follow, but a soft command settled him back onto the deck. Then Caleb drew Meg away from the railing and toward a parquet dance floor where a few couples were swaying to something slow and sultry.
She tried hanging back. “I don’t dance.”
The fingers of her free hand wiggled. “It’s too…”
Yeah, he knew. Personal. Private. Intimate.
To her mind, dangerous.
His chest aching, he pulled her close and pressed his forehead to hers. “I’ve got to learn how your body moves, honey, if I’m going to do my best work.”
“You can learn that in bed.”
But he didn’t want her just in bed.
“C’mon,” she whispered in a seductive tone, her palms traveling up his chest to circle his neck. She laid a kiss on his chin, and then she gave it a little nip. “I’m ready. I’m…wet.”
Caleb’s pulse rate and his dick both shot up. He’d already been semi-hard, and now the lower half of him was screaming for relief. But he gritted his teeth and slid his arms around her waist, then started to sway back and forth. “Look,” he said, twirling her in a small circle, “it’s just this easy.”
But it wasn’t easy to ignore how right she felt against him. He pressed a palm to that sweet curve of her lower spine, bringing her against his hips. She glanced up, a glint in her eyes. “Why Grandma, what a big—”
His kiss took the last word from her mouth. It seemed to settle her a little, and when it was over, she pressed her cheek against his shoulder. The song changed, Steve Goodman crooning the heartbreaker “California Promises,” and they kept dancing.
God, this was good, Caleb thought, stroking her wealth of hair. All those hours he’d spent on his business had meant not enough time for dancing with a woman in his arms.
Though it wouldn’t have been
Steve’s final guitar note rang out. Meg lifted her head from Caleb’s shoulder to look into his face. “Have you made your point?”
Probably not, but his patience was gone.
He paid the bill. Maybe. The act of it didn’t sink into his consciousness, which was preoccupied with her scent, the feel of her curves under his hands, the absolute carnality of what came next.
, she’d said.
He should have hauled her off then!
Their arms around each other’s waists, they walked toward his rental. Bitzer ran ahead and ran back, then circled them, clearly happy they were all moving in the same direction.
It was full dark when Caleb unlocked the front door, the porch light casting shadows on Meg’s face. Her eyes were pools of darkness as she hesitated to cross the threshold. “It will be all right,” he whispered to her.
“Of course it will,” she snapped back, then marched briskly into the cottage. Stifling a grin, he followed behind her, noting the smart sway of her hips as she moved toward the bedroom.
The only light came from the half-open door to the attached bath. Meg approached the bed, then, glancing over her shoulder, began to undress with her back to him. Fascinated by her quick movements, he leaned against the doorjamb. “In a hurry?”
Her perfume scented the air as she whipped the T-shirt over her head, displaying the supple line of her spine and the delicate angles of her shoulder blades. Next, her bra fell to the floor with a soft plop. Anxious for her to turn and face him, Caleb felt his breath catch in his chest. Just then, Bitzer’s nose nudged his knee, making him jump a little, and he turned to direct the dog back down the hall. “Sleep,” he told his furry best friend, pointing toward the living room where one doggy mattress waited. There was another in the corner of the bedroom, but now wasn’t the time for canine company.
Bitzer, bless his brilliant heart, took the hint and trotted away. When Caleb turned back, there was a naked woman a foot from him.
Lust burned through his bloodstream like a gasoline fire. He reached for her, fascinated by the sleek expanses of creamy skin. She went into his arms, her body fragrant, her flesh warm, the feel of her breasts against his chest making his balls tighten and his dick go even steelier.
He took her mouth, his hands sliding around her narrow back, then down to her hips, tilting them into his aching stiffness. She moaned, her lips opening so his tongue slid inside. His palm cupped one rounded ass cheek, his fingers kneading the sweet flesh of it.
Crazy for her. Yes. There was no other term for it.
Her hands slid beneath the hem of his shirt, her fingers moving over his belly and his chest. He lifted one arm and gripped the back of his shirt at the neck, breaking the kiss so he could lift it over his head. Then he returned to kissing her, grinding their mouths together, helpless not to, because she was rubbing her breasts against him, going on tiptoe so that her taut nipples brushed his.
He groaned, then held her away so he could look at her breasts, cupping the round weight of one before bending his head to the crest. His tongue licked it first, then he gave in to desire and sucked, sucked it strongly, reveling in the way her fingers bit into his scalp to hold him there.
Yeah, he thought, this was what he wanted. Meg needing him, holding him closer, realizing he had what it took to please her. He moved his mouth to the other nipple, tasting her sweet flesh while his hand toyed with the one he’d already dampened. Her moan was louder as he squeezed the little nub then released it, torturing her with a tiny bite of pain even as he worked the other with a hot yet easy suction.
He took his free hand from her ass, working it around her hip toward heaven. Her belly twitched as his fingertips brushed across the velvet skin there, and she whimpered, a needy, ego-boosting noise. “Shh,” he said against her breast, then ran his tongue around the areola. “I’ve got you. I’ll take care of you.”
He should have known it was too soon for sentiments like that. Instead of cooperating with the next step in her seduction, she stepped back, giving herself room to work on the fly of his jeans. “Meg, no,” he protested, groaning, but she pushed his hands away when they tried to manacle her wrists.
“I want to see you,” she said, then dropped to her knees to work his pants and boxers toward his knees.
“Oh, hell,” Caleb said, his head falling back. He knew he should be intent on unraveling her, but with her pretty face at the level of his cock, she had him at her mercy.
The wet slide of her tongue tasting him from crown to balls made him groan again. Her hands cupped his hips and then her tongue was on the move once more, sliding up before she took the head into the hot cavern of her mouth. The top of his skull took off for parts unknown.
She played with him, sucking, sliding, tasting, teasing. One of his hands was curled in a fist, the other found its way into her Rapunzel hair. His fingers were deep in the soft, wavy stuff as she continued ratcheting his need until he was gritting his teeth and writing pieces of Java programming code in his head to keep control.
It was no use. Pulling away, he looked into her face, her lips swollen and wet. “Get on the bed,” he said, his voice guttural. “Get on the bed now.”
Instead of being alarmed by his harsh command, instead of damn doing what he said, she licked her lips and then took him once more into her mouth. Her big eyes stayed trained on his face as she went back to her sensual torment. His breath was stuck in his lungs and he felt the climax rolling up from his heels.
At the very last second, though, he remembered his mission.
This was about her. This was about Caleb making Meg let go.
Gritting his teeth, he wrenched from her, and bent down to pull her up by the arms. Half-hobbled by his clothes, he had to toss her onto the mattress, then step out of them. She was rising up as he reached the bed, but he pushed her back with one hand on her shoulder.
Triumph rose in him as she settled on the mattress. He took advantage of her acquiescence, catching her mouth in an aggressive kiss as he lay down beside her, slinging his thigh over hers. She wiggled a little, testing the bond, and he continued restricting her movement as he slid his tongue deep between her lips.
Her hands came up and he shackled both wrists with the fingers of one of his. “Keep still,” he murmured.
Her hips rose, however, tilting up in blatant request. He tore his mouth from hers and looked down into slumberous eyes.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “You watch what I can do to you.”
What nobody else can. What nobody else will ever give you but me.
Then, still clasping her wrists, he slid down her body. Her thighs parted for him, and she made a helpless sound as he used the span of his shoulders to open them wide. His free hand pushed them even farther apart. “Put your heels on the bed, baby,” Caleb coaxed. “You gotta let me in.”
She made a little sound of embarrassed distress, but he ignored it, licking at the seam of flesh in front of him, pushing his tongue into her until the softness bloomed open to reveal all the delicious wetness awaiting him. He lapped at it, studiously avoiding the knot of nerves at the top of her sex, feeling his own desire burn as he felt her skin heat and heard her panting breaths. His mouth moved lower and he licked into her. On either side of his shoulders, her thighs went rigid. So he did it again, sinking his tongue deeper into her slick, smooth channel.
“Oh, God,” Meg said, and then again as he withdrew and flattened his tongue to bathe all the sensitive, aroused flesh.
He continued exploring her, his pulse loud in his ears as he stoked her fire. She was whimpering nonstop now, wordless, sexy pleas that he could live on like food. Glancing up, he saw her watching him, her bottom lip caught between her front teeth. Her gaze snared by his, he lifted his head to slide his first two fingers in his mouth, wetting them with his saliva.
She stilled, tension in every muscle. “Caleb,” she breathed.
Then he brought them to the entrance of her body, speared deep. Her hips bowed. He withdrew, pushed inside her again.
Desperate now to assuage the neediness in the one word, he dropped his head, finding the knot of her clitoris. He gave it a glancing lick, then another, then he held it between his teeth and flicked it with the tip of his tongue. Her knees pressed against his shoulders, then she started to shake, and Caleb plunged his fingers deeper yet and sucked her into his mouth with a tender yet insistent rhythm, coaxing out every tremulous pulse.