Authors: Lori Wilde
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
Sandra took the letter and reached over to pat Lace on the shoulder.
They went around the table like that, reading the letters, dividing them up, Carol Ann making note of every piece of correspondence. Forty-five minutes into it, the door burst open and Zoey rushed in. The room lit up the minute she entered. Everyone sat up straighter, smiled bigger. Her sister had that effect on people.
“What’s shakin’, bacon?” Zoey went around the table and dropped a kiss on everyone’s cheek except for Natalie. “Sorry I’m so late. I had a flat and it took me forever to find a cute guy to change it for me.”
“You could have called Triple A,” Natalie muttered.
Zoey wrinkled her nose. “What would have been the fun in that?”
“How cute was he?” Mignon asked.
“Passable. Nothing to miss lunch for.” Zoey sashayed over to the buffet table, piled up a plate with food, and came to plunk down at the end of the table opposite Natalie. “Speaking of handsome, who is our new boarder? He’s delish.” She licked her lips.
Jealousy burst inside Natalie. Zoey had eyes for Dade? Natalie didn’t stand a chance. There wasn’t a man alive that Zoey couldn’t wrap around her little finger.
she wanted to growl.
“You have a new boarder?” Carol Ann perked up. She loved knowing everything that went on in Cupid.
All heads at the table swiveled to stare at Natalie.
Feeling defensive, Natalie shrugged. “It doesn’t seem Red is coming back and I need the money.”
“He’s totally hot.” Zoey took a bite of fruit salad. “Where on earth did you find him?”
“He came to me,” Natalie answered, realizing it was a strange thing to say.
“What’s his name?” Zoey asked. “He’s cute enough to change my religion over.”
“He doesn’t strike me as the pious type,” Natalie said dryly.
“You’ve got a point there.” Zoey grinned and wriggled her eyebrows. “But neither am I. He looks wicked bad to me. Any girl thinking about hooking up with him has gotta expect to get burned.”
“Don’t forget it,” Natalie cautioned, but she wasn’t talking to her sister, she was warning herself.
When it’s true love, the only thing that matters is your beloved’s happiness.
the last two days, Dade had done two things: avoid his pretty landlady and surreptitiously search for his friend.
The first part wasn’t difficult because Natalie seemed to be avoiding him as much as he was avoiding her. Plus, he’d started his job at Chantilly’s and he’d met all the players there. He worked from six
. and Natalie got up and went to bed with the chickens. She was a complication he could not afford, especially given the way she turned him on.
He’d spent three restless nights tossing and turning and trying not to think about her. Just when he managed to snag a few zzz’s, Natalie would run through his dreams on one long replay loop. In his reverie, he courted her, kissed her, and made love to her with every atom of his being. He jolted awake, bathed in sweat, with a raging hard-on strong enough to cut diamonds.
He had to stay clear of her. If he allowed it, she could easily become an obsession, and if Red hadn’t stayed at the Cupid’s Rest, he would have already vacated the place. As it was, the B&B and Chantilly’s bar were his only connections to his foster brother.
To keep his mind off Natalie, he focused on the reason he was here in the first place.
But that was another minefield. He couldn’t come right out and ask about Red. He’d tried casually asking Jasper about the man who had the bouncer job before him, but Jasper had cut him off. “I’m not a gossiper. You like gossip, go buy the
He’d tried striking up conversations with the other two boarders, the senior citizen and the geeky computer kid. The kid had pretty well ignored him, while the old geezer had bent his ear about some old boat he was having built. He met the next-door neighbor, Junie Mae something-or-other. Dade thought of her as Dolly because she looked a bit like Dolly Parton. She had been willing to talk, but she didn’t seem to know much about Red. Finally, he thoroughly searched the room where Red had stayed, looking behind wall plugs and inside the air vent, taking the back off the framed landscape picture on the wall, but he found absolutely no clues to his buddy’s whereabouts.
It ate on Dade that he’d made no headway in the past two days. He was scared shitless that Red had gone and done something desperate. Maybe he should go to the authorities and tell them who he was.
He weighed the option, continued to weigh it, but consistently discarded that alternative. For one thing, he’d been on the wrong side of the law enough times in his youth to develop a deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement. For another thing, Natalie had already informed the authorities about Red’s disappearance and they’d done little to search for him. Dade had the Mayday text—their one-word secret code for the utmost danger—but no one else would consider it alarming.
Perhaps law enforcement was precisely whom Red was telling him not to trust.
Dade’s heart sank.
The pessimist in him feared the worst—that Red had gone off his meds, wandered into the desert, and died.
But if Red had been suicidal, why had he sent the text message? Had he been in the grips of a delusion? Had he thought he was back in Afghanistan?
The warrior in Dade went on the assumption that Occam’s razor was wrong and the simplest theory was not the correct one. The suspicious part of him kept trying to catch a glimpse beyond the friendly smiles and neighborly waves to see what darkness lay beneath.
He knew all too well that looks were deceiving. Besides, this was a tourist town. Cupid’s survival depended on its welcoming ways. It was a front, a façade, and he refused to be drawn in by the strong sense of community. His gut told him that something more complicated than PTSD flashbacks had happened to Red in this town, and he was determined to find out what it was.
On Thursday morning—six days since Red had sent the text—urgency had built to frenzy inside Dade. The longer he went without finding his buddy, the more likely it was that the outcome would be unfavorable.
Pressured by equal doses of worry and lust, and unable to sleep, Dade had gotten out of bed for a five
. jog. He dressed in running shorts and sneakers. The only time he ever wore shorts was when he worked out. Short pants made him feel exposed.
Five miles into the run, he’d stripped off his T-shirt and now wore it twisted up and tied around his head like a bandana to keep sweat from dripping in his eyes. He’d been on the Louisiana coast before coming to Cupid and he was still adjusting to the arid heat and altitude, although he didn’t miss the humidity.
He ran through town and was just about to lap back to the Cupid’s Rest when he caught a familiar sight. A pretty brunette pedaled her blue Schwinn through the town square, the street lamps casting her in an ethereal glow as orange rays of dawn tipped the horizon.
Captivated, Dade stopped in his tracks even though his instincts urged him to pretend he hadn’t seen her and take off down a side road. Everything seemed suddenly clear to him, very vibrant and swiftly slow. He could almost smell his own arousal, testosterone swelling slickly through his body, as he watched her progress up Pike Street.
Natalie caught sight of him and a fleeting but unmistakable look of panic crossed her face. Quickly, she snuffed it out and pasted on a smile.
Something loosened inside him at that smile and he found himself smiling back. No. Not just smiling, but grinning, big and goofy like a kid with his first serious crush.
“Good morning,” she called.
He clenched his hands into fists, prayed she’d just keep on riding.
His spirits soared.
“I haven’t seen much of you in the past two days,” she said.
He looked into her eyes.
Her pupils widened, took him in, open and accepting.
God, how he wanted to capture those pink lips and hold them hostage without ransom, to run his hand up the nape of her neck and cradle the back of her head in his palm, to feel her breasts pressed up tight against his chest. He curled his fingers into fists.
She was staring at his bare chest and he felt both proud and exposed. He wanted to strut like a peacock, flex and pose, show off his muscles for her. It was vanity, he knew it, and that surprised him because Dade wasn’t a vain guy, but he wanted Natalie to know he was strong and healthy enough to give her anything she wanted or needed.
Damn this impulse!
“Have you had breakfast yet?” he asked in a rush.
She blinked and her lips parted—sweet, kissable lips. “Um . . . no.”
“Would you like to?” What the frig was he doing? He was supposed to be avoiding her. “Have breakfast, I mean. I’ve been hearing good things about the eggs at La Hacienda Grill.”
“Mmm. You’re a bit naked for that, aren’t you?”
What? Oh yeah, he’d completely forgotten he was half dressed and sweaty. “Give me twenty minutes to get home, shower and change?”
He’d called his room at her B&B home. What the hell was that?
“Are you asking me out?”
“No, not out-out. Just breakfast.”
“Pearl is making flapjacks this morning. Don’t you want to eat there, save some money?”
“I thought a change of pace might be nice for you. At the B&B you’re always taking care of your guests. If you eat somewhere else you’ll get taken care of.”
She didn’t want to have breakfast with him. Drop it.
Natalie tapped her index finger with her chin, but didn’t drop her gaze. Here they were in the middle of the quiet street, caught in the throes of an undeniable attraction neither of them was sure they wanted.
He felt his shaft harden, lengthen, and he struggled against the arousal. Sensations streamed through his lower body, and visions of him and Natalie having sex fused in his mind. He saw her legs up in the air as he plunged deep into her. His imagination sparked and a rolling current of energy blasted through him.
“Forget it.” He shook his head. “It was a bad idea.”
“No, no. It was a good idea. I’ve just . . . it’s . . . well . . .”
He raised a hand, felt as rejected as when Jessica Haddock had shot him down in high school because she was a cheerleader and he was so far on the wrong side of the tracks that people from the wrong side of the tracks looked down on him. He took off jogging again. “Have a good day, Natalie.”
“Dade, wait,” she called after him, but he just kept running.
nder a cartouche of fading stars, Natalie pedaled from Dennis Street onto the paved path leading to the pocket park behind Cupid’s Rest, the same path that Dade had traversed on his motorcycle on Monday. She maneuvered her bike along at a steady pace, certain and sure in her familiar milieu, but it was the only part of her that was confident.
Dade had asked her out.
And she’d said no.
Was she stupid or brilliant? Natalie had no idea. She wanted to go out with him, longed to go out with him, in fact, but feared it at the same time.
Being twenty-nine and single had never been part of Natalie’s life plan. When she was a child, she used to tell her mother she was going to get married when she was twenty-two and have four kids, two boys and two girls.
Her mother would laugh and kiss Natalie’s forehead. “We’ll see about that.”
But after her parents died and she shouldered the responsibility of raising Zoey, her dreams had shifted. Love had started to seem pretty darn dangerous, and she’d realized just how much hard work it took to take care of kids. Those old dreams tattered in the face of real life, and somehow the years slipped away, and with them, Natalie’s dreams of finding her one true love.
Part of the problem lay in the fact that the dating pool in Cupid was pretty shallow. She was kin to half the men in town and had known the other half since she was in kindergarten. That left the tourists, but long-distance relationships rarely worked, and besides, she’d never felt the spark, the fire, the unbeatable feeling of romantic love that she’d once believed in so strongly before the years eroded her faith.
That is, until she’d first laid eyes on Dade.
He’d rocked her safe little world, and while the upheaval thrilled her, it bothered her as well.
Love at first sight.
It was a fanciful notion, but every time she thought of him, her breathing sped up and her pulse bounded. He was a very sexy man. He’d make anyone’s heart thump.
She had to get the notion of love at first sight out of her head. It was difficult because she’d cut her teeth on the fairy tale, and deep inside of her, she ached for it to be true.
Over the course of the last few days, she’d decided that Dade wasn’t really the problem, but rather a symptom. The problem was that she had never had sex. Her virginity had become a serious stumbling block and it was time to dispense with it.
She wasn’t in love with Dade Vega. These intense feelings could not be based on anything but the physical. How could they be? She barely knew him. She was not in love.
Not at all.
She was just horny.
Good. It was good to have the diagnosis and admit it. Not love. Lust. She was certain of that now.
The question was what to do about it.
Easy solution. Find someone to have a good time with, someone who was
Dade. He made her feel too out of control. She needed a short-term, physical relationship. Maybe with a cute tourist?
Great plan, except for one not so small thing. Natalie had no idea how to flirt and charm, it just wasn’t in her makeup, but she certainly knew someone who did.
A loaf of bread lasted longer than most of Zoey’s relationships. Maybe she could ask her sister’s advice on how to keep things light and relaxed. No pressure. No muss. No fuss. Nothing more than a good time.
Zoey had been dying to give her a makeover for years. Maybe she would finally let her.
Natalie rode up to the duck pond. Two lotus flowers floated on silky green pads atop the murky water. They bloomed incandescent blushing pink cups with creamy ivory centers that drained to ceremonial gold at the bottom. She paused a moment to take in the beautiful sight.
In the soft morning light, she spied Lars and Gizmo standing at the edge of the pool.
“Good morning!” she called out, swung off her bike, and walked it over to where they stood.
Gizmo had his hands stuffed in his pockets. He ducked his head, toed the ground. He was a good two inches shorter than Natalie’s five-seven, with skin the color of button mushrooms, pale and washed out. He was pudgy, wore baggy jeans and an oversized Max Payne T-shirt. Greasy auburn hair touched his shoulders, and he wore a brown wool stocking cap pulled down over his ears.
“Mornin’,” Gizmo mumbled.
“You’re up early.”
Gizmo jerked a thumb at Lars. “His fault.”
Natalie shifted her gaze to Lars. The ruddy-skinned senior citizen dwarfed the pasty nineteen-year-old. They were the most mismatched pair she could imagine.
“Taking the lad fishing,” Lars said smoothly. “He needs to get out of that room once in a while.”
“In the pond?”
“At the lake.”
Natalie looked at the pond. The lotus blooms were already starting to close in the encroaching heat.
Lars turned his palm up. “We’re here for minnows.”
“Where’s your minnow bucket?”
Lars and Gizmo exchanged a glance. “We’re using a Mason jar.”
Natalie didn’t see a jar. “You’ll have to poke holes in the lid so the minnows get air.”
“Or not use a lid,” Gizmo said.
“Where are your fishing poles?” Natalie’s fingers wrapped tight around the bike’s handlebars. She had a feeling she’d interrupted a private conversation that had nothing to do with fishing.
Gizmo made a snorting noise that sounded half like a laugh, half like a choke. “Yeah, Lars, where’s our poles?”
“We have to stop by the marina to pick up a couple.” Lars put his palms to his back, stretched his spine.