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Authors: Christie Ridgway

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction

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BOOK: Beach House Beginnings
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Giggling. The realization stunned her for a moment. When was the last time she’d made such a sound? A little alarmed by it, she twisted from beneath him, squirming away so she could jump to her feet. Then she started sprinting for home.

“Don’t think you’ll get away from me!” he called out.

Her legs churned faster. Bitzer started barking, a joyous sound, and Meg took that to mean Caleb was in hot pursuit. More laughter bubbled up in her throat as she put on the afterburners.

He pounced twelve feet from her front door. When his hands gripped either side of her waist, she shrieked, then felt herself going down. Caleb saved her, though, landing first and then rolling them both to their sides. He grinned at her, and she could feel an answering smile stretch across her face.

“I win,” he crowed.

“And I suppose you’ve already picked out a prize,” she said, trying to look stern and standoffish, even though her pulse was a flurry in her throat and at her wrists. She tried pulling in her smile, pursing her lips in a prudish gesture.

He made a noise—a sort of groan—then swooped close for a kiss. “That mouth of yours is going to do me in,” he said upon coming up for air. “You’ve ruined me for any other lady’s lips.”

Absurdly pleased, she allowed herself to touch him as she wanted, pushing those boyish locks of hair off his forehead. “You’re funny.”

“I’m serious.” His smile died then, as his gaze searched her face. “Meg, where do you see yourself in five years?”

She considered the question, then gave him an honest answer, she who hadn’t wanted to give him anything beyond a one-night stand. “I see myself visiting here. I haven’t been back, you know, not ever, and now I think I’d like to return every once in a while. Maybe more often than that.”

“You don’t want to stay?”

“No. I like where I live. I like my job.”

“Me, too,” Caleb answered. “Though I’m mending the worst of my workaholic ways. Coming here has been very good for cementing in me the notion that there’s more to life than my business. I don’t plan to forget that.”

Meg nodded. “Being at the cove has been good for me, too. I was feeling a little ‘meh’ lately, but I think I have the bounce back in my step.”

Mischief sparked again in his eyes. “Is that what we’re calling it now?” She felt his hand creep under her T-shirt at the small of her back. His forefinger moved in circles and curlicues, some kind of pattern, she thought.

“What are you doing?”

“A game from my childhood,” he answered. “I’m spelling out a word.” His finger moved again. “This is what I want to do to you.”

She sat up in faux outrage. “I know that word!”

He yanked her back down. “You’re going to get it before I’m through.”

They did make it to his house while they were fully clothed. But the garments came flying off once the door was shut behind them. Then they tussled on the bed, laughing and kissing and writing words on each other’s skin with fingers and tongues until there was no teasing left in them and the desire had to be sated through a more serious touch.

They lay on their sides again, and he drew her thigh on top of his as he opened her with his fingers. Then his erection was there, the thick knob of it rubbing against her clitoris, making her gasp, before he began to push inside. One of his hands was curled over her hip, his fingers steadying her as he penetrated.

Hot chills flashed across her flesh as he entered her, the possession so achingly sweet that she moaned. Her breasts were tender, heavy, and the nipples, still wet from his mouth, tightened impossibly more.

“Caleb…” she breathed.

His gaze was on her face as he continued moving into her. “You feel so good. So wet and hot, sticky and sweet, like honey.”

She slid her knee farther up his flank, allowing him further entry. He kept coming inside, heavy and so thick it stung just a little, and the shuddering pleasure of it made an ache of tears start behind her eyes.

When he was seated inside he did the same maddening, wonderful thing he’d done the night before…he didn’t move for long, long moments. She felt full and possessed and needy and desperate and her fingers clutched at his shoulders. She wanted to urge him to move, to insist he start rocking inside her, but this was so good, too, as if they were two interlocking pieces of one whole.

“So right,” she whispered.

And then Caleb smiled, as if she’d uttered the words he’d been waiting to hear. His hips began to move in time with the pulse of the ocean. Meg gasped, the ebb and release a rhythm that she’d been born hearing, that she’d absorbed to her marrow during the first two-thirds of her life. Now she moved, too, the counterpoint second nature to her, as they stared into each other’s eyes and rode each wave toward final bliss.

When it was over, they lay together, still tangled. Caleb stroked her hair, then her cheek. “You said it feels so right.”

Meg felt tension infuse her lax muscles. “I—”

“No.” He put his fingers over her mouth. “It feels right to me, too.
You
feel right.”

“Caleb, I can’t—”

“I know. Just don’t run on me again, okay?”

“You don’t understand. I thought something was right before.” Panic robbed her lungs of air. “‘Right’ doesn’t always lead to a good place.”

“I understand why you’d think that.” He brushed another soothing hand over her hair. “It’s because you lost something. You lost what belongs right here.” His fingertips touched the center of her chest.

She couldn’t say he was wrong.

“Give me a chance to get it back for you,” he said. “I have two more full days at the cove. Let me spend them with you.”

And Meg, who had woken up that morning with a one-night stand behind her, couldn’t make any promises…but she didn’t refuse Caleb, either.

Chapter Four

M
eg told herself it wasn’t because she was superstitious. After all, she’d learned a decade before not to believe in irrational ideas like fated mates and forever-afters. Still, that didn’t stop her from hedging her bets and steering clear of Beach House No. 9 while Caleb continued as a cove visitor—just in case there was a kernel of truth to the idea it was some sort of architectural love potion.

No sense in risking infection.

It was bad enough, she realized, just spending time with him at his rental or at her family home, or anywhere for that matter…even in the car on the twenty-minute ride to the nearest grocery store—by SoCal standards, a near-epic distance—because everywhere they went he slipped in mentions of the future. “I’ve got to take you to this great fish market I found in Tiburon,” he said, as they perused the butcher section and the packaged selections offered there.

When they peeked into the small gallery at the cove, he insisted on buying her a pair of earrings, tiers of tiny shells strung on multicolored silk thread, that she adored so much she swallowed her third round of protests. “Have you ever poked around the jewelry stalls along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco?” he asked as he watched her don his gift. Without even waiting for a response, he tacked on a “We’ll have to do that this summer.”

Meg found it exasperating and bewildering at the same time. He seemed like an intelligent human being, and one with adequate hearing, too, but each time she demurred or even flat-out ignored his comments, it didn’t give him pause.

Maybe, she thought with a stab of guilt as they cleaned up the dinner dishes on his last night at the cove, that was because she also didn’t hesitate to let him kiss her, touch her, hug her whenever he wanted. And she kissed, touched and hugged him whenever she wanted, too. They were in the small kitchen of his rental, and their hips kept bumping and their shoulders kept rubbing as they moved about, putting everything to rights.

His warm palms circled either side of her waist as she dried her hands on a towel. Drawing her back against his chest, he whispered in her ear. “Are you too sore for sex? I’ve been giving you quite the workout.”

Heat flared over her face and then spread down her body. Between her thighs, she
was
tender, but the minute he talked to her in that rough-soft voice, she felt herself going soft there, and wet. Turning her head, she pressed her lips to his. “I wouldn’t want to deny either one of us on our last night together.”

He stilled a moment, then smiled and swept her along to the bedroom. There, he undressed her with a staggering gentleness that would make a more emotional woman weep. Next, he slid her under the cool sheets and before they’d even warmed up, he was beside her, his body a furnace, his mouth scalding the side of her neck, the fragile skin inside her hipbone, the drenched tissues between her legs. Except there was no pain in the burn, only the deepest, farthest-reaching pleasure.

When they’d both climaxed, he held her against him, her head in the hollow of his shoulder.
This is it
, she thought, closing her eyes against the stinging ache behind them.
Tonight is our last.

“What’s a good evening for you next week?” Caleb asked, his fingers sifting through her hair. “I leave the office at five o’clock these days, which means I could make it to you by…what? 5:45? 6:00?”

Instead of being alarmed by the question, Meg realized she was…was…tempted.

Oh, God.

How he tempted her.

The realization was enough to goad her into sitting up. Clutching the sheet to her throat, she glared at him. “Caleb, I told you. Really, I was clear. I’ve been very clear. There’s no future—”

“Of course there is,” he said, in that calm, certain manner of his.

“There’s no reason—”

“There’s no reason why not.”

“I don’t do this,” Meg protested. “A…a relationship is not what I want.”

Caleb reached over and turned on the bedside light. “Because you’re afraid.”

She blinked against the sudden brightness. “Because I don’t believe in happy endings…only endings.”

Sitting up, too, Caleb took her free hand in his. “Sweetheart. Believe me—”

“Why should I?” Meg said, tugging even as his hold tightened. “Why should I believe this thing we have would turn out any better than what I had with Peter?”

Caleb stared into her eyes for a long minute. “For the simple—or maybe not so simple—reason that I already died, Meg. Three months ago, on the operating table, they lost me.”

Her skin went cold. “No.”

“Yes.” He brought their joined hands together and kissed the back of hers. “And when that happened, I had what I’ve been calling a dream, though perhaps ‘out of body experience’ is a better description.”

Meg wanted to move, but her muscles wouldn’t obey her commands. “Caleb…”

“And while I had this whatever-we-want-to-call it, several scenes played out before my eyes. I saw you here, Meg. This you, not the younger you, and I knew I needed to come here to the cove and be by your side. I saw us in the future as well, happy, together, a couple. In love.”

“No.” She yanked at her hand and then slid away from him, toward the edge of the mattress. “You’re not with me just because of some odd dream.”

“No, not just because of some dream,” he agreed. “The fact is, I’ve thought of you over the years. You might not have noticed me that summer, but I definitely noticed you, the way you sparkled, the way you seemed to embrace life with wide-open arms. And I only admired Peter more for winning you. After he was gone, you would come to mind from time to time and I’d wonder…”

“Wonder what?”

“If I should try to contact you.” He shrugged. “I talked myself out of it, though, until that day I woke up from surgery and was told that I’d survived the crisis and would have a complete recovery. Remembering my dream, I knew I had to follow it. I had to at least come to the cove and see what might happen between us.”

“I might not have been here!” she said. “I haven’t been back since that summer.”

He shrugged again. “Fate at work?”

Meg swallowed. “It’s ridiculous to think something like fate or a dream had a hand in…in our meeting or anything that came after.”

“It didn’t have a hand in what came after. When I arrived and met you, not the dream you, but the real woman, that’s when I fell in love. That’s
who
I’m in love with. You, Meg. You still sparkle, you know. And I think that hand-in-hand, the two of us could do a damn good job of embracing everything life has to offer.”

She was already in her clothes. Without even being aware of it, during that speech she’d found them and quickly pulled them on, like armor. Caleb didn’t seem interested in stopping her; he just gazed on her with a steady, self-possessed regard.

It made her want to throw things.

It made her want to throw up.

It made her want to fall down on her knees and cry.

Instead, she ran away, returning to her childhood bed where she crawled under the blankets and pulled them over her head, though she knew such an action never kept the monsters away.

* * *

The next day, aware she’d have to face Caleb sometime, she couldn’t stand hanging around the property management office. Instead, at about eleven, she left a note on the door, saying she’d be back after a thirty-minute walk.

Then she took off down the beach, the wind fluttering the hem of her sleeveless cotton dress. The sun was out early, the morning was as warm and beautiful as high summer, and the smell of sunscreen was in the air as she traipsed past small groups on the sand, their camps delineated by bright beach towels and low fortress walls made up of coolers and beach chairs. Meg waved when people called out her name, but didn’t stop to chat. She’d have to pass Caleb’s rental and she wanted to be moving at full steam when she did so.

Yet her feet came to a sudden, panicked halt when she caught sight of him at the water’s edge, bare-chested and wearing a low-slung bathing suit. With a kayak.

Her mind flashed back ten years before. Peter, giving her a jaunty wave as he started off that late afternoon.

Never to return.

Her rubbery legs still managed to break into a run and she raced toward Caleb. “What are you doing?” she screeched.

“Going out,” he said calmly. He was already in the water up to his knees and was stepping into the molded plastic watercraft.

Without even thinking, Meg waded toward him, barely registering the cold water on her toes, her ankles, her shins. “You shouldn’t do this!”

But he was already moving off, stroking with the aluminum-and-plastic paddle. A small wave tilted the kayak’s nose higher, and she saw a lei nestled in the bow.

“Why do you have flowers?”

He glanced at her over one bronze shoulder and raised his voice as he moved farther from her. “A tribute for Peter. Would you like to go out with me? This is a two-seater.”


No
.” Anxiety was churning in her gut, swirling like the sea water around her legs. “Please, Caleb. Please come back.”

He looked at her again, the kayak still cutting through the water. “Of course I will, sweetheart. Keep the faith.”

I don’t have faith. I don’t have anything like that.
But her throat was too tight to say the words and he was now too far from her to hear. Her eyes still on him, she walked backward to shore. Once on dry ground, she continued to watch him, noting as he stroked off toward the cliff at the south end of the cove.

That’s what Peter had done that day, she remembered, panic rising again. Peter had paddled in that direction, then gone outside the cove, and neither her feelings for him nor the merpeople magic had been strong enough to keep him safe.

Something wet touched the back of her knee. She looked down. “Bitzer,” she whispered, dropping low to take him into her arms. His fur was warm against her face. “Bitzer, I don’t know what to do.”

The dog seemed to have a plan. After allowing her a long hug, he started trotting down the sand, his gaze on his master, who was skimming through the water, about fifty yards offshore. Then Caleb angled, clearly intending to head around the bluff.

Throat tight, Meg followed in the paw-steps of the dog, the both of them keeping pace with the man in the kayak. But as she and Bitzer ran out of cove, Caleb edged around the waves crashing against the rocks at the base of the cliff and disappeared.

At that, a short, harsh sob caught in Meg’s chest. Still looking out to sea, Bitzer whined, and she dug her fingers into his fur, hoping to bring him comfort. “It will be all right, boy,” she croaked out. “It will be all right.”

Please, Caleb. Please come back.

Of course I will, sweetheart. Keep the faith.

With some vague notion of climbing the bluff for a view from the top, Meg headed toward one of the paths that led up the rocky side. But then her gaze caught on Beach House No. 9, and she felt compelled to go toward it instead. Griffin Lowell was still absent, so she and Bitzer wouldn’t be disturbing anyone. Calling the dog to her side, she trotted toward the steps leading onto the deck. There, with the furry canine leaning against her leg, she kept watch, waiting for the first glimpse of Caleb.

Waiting for her love to return to her.

More panic churned in her belly at the thought.
Love?

“I love him,” she told Bitzer, caught somewhere between dread and awe. Caleb, with his confidence, his laughter, his pure enjoyment in every breath he took, had found his way beneath her long-held defenses. He knew exactly who he was and what he wanted, and she…she… “I’ve fallen in love with him.”

The dog shot her a craggy grin, then redirected his attention to the ocean. Meg did the same, all the while feeling as if No. 9’s deck was that of a rocking ship in the midst of a storm, and she was struggling to get her sea legs.

I’ve fallen in love with Caleb.

How had this happened? Despite her past, despite her fears, the man had found an ember of hope inside of her and with his very breath nurtured it into a full and steady flame. He’d brought her to life, too, by making her love again. By making her love him.

Time passed. Minutes? Hours?

Bitzer’s vision was better than hers because he let out a burst of a bark before she could detect any sign of Caleb or kayak. Then she saw them both, and as the dog took off down the steps, so did she, racing through the soft sand, damp sand, wet sand, until the water rushed over her toes. Even then she didn’t stop. Instead, she kept on going, until the skirt of her sundress was drenched and plastered against her thighs. Caleb was calling to her, saying something, but she couldn’t make out the words because she was laughing and crying and now she was actually swimming toward him.

Her hands clutched the side of the kayak and he was smiling down at her—the man she loved was alive and smiling at her!—all the while shaking his head. “What are you doing, sweetheart?”

The explanation stuck in her throat. So she attempted clambering into the watercraft. It took two tries, the second one aided by Caleb and also—she decided to just go with the wild thought—the supportive hands of the merpeople she fancied just might be watching out for her after all.

She fell against the sun-warmed man, winding cold arms around his neck and pressing wet kisses to his handsome face. His own arms closed tightly about her. “I told you I’d be back,” he said, soothing her with his big hands. “I told you.”

“I didn’t believe,” she said. “I didn’t believe in anything.”

They were floating on the water, the cove’s bay cradling them with a gentle rhythm. “I know,” Caleb said, holding her away a little so he could look into her eyes. “Because you’d lost this.”

Then he held up the necklace she’d given Peter. The heart-shaped shard of abalone shell gleamed in the sunlight, its dark, pearlized rainbow both beautiful and mysterious. Like life. Like love.

Meg gasped. “Where did you get it?” she asked, staring as it swung gently from Caleb’s hand.

“It was another part of that dream. Peter showed it to me, Meg. He showed me where he’d stashed it that day, and told me it was way past time for you to have it back.”

BOOK: Beach House Beginnings
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