Authors: Sara Arden
He thought that was why she’d stopped. Nothing could be further from the truth—it was only her own insecurities, but she was determined to face them.
“Just a bad memory.”
“Then I’ll give you a better one.” He slipped the straps of her bra down her shoulders and made quick work of the thing, discarding it on the floor. Her panties were next and she shivered with anticipation.
When she straightened to step out of the lace, she reached into the nightstand to grab a condom but found her fingers closing over his dog tags. Betsy didn’t want him to know that she still had them, and she snapped the drawer shut as soon as she found the foil packet. They’d been there for a few years, the condoms. She’d stolen them from Caleb’s room in hope that some day, she’d be exactly in this position. Alone with Jack, and he’d want her.
Even though they were here in this room, in this tribute to days gone past, the tags belonged to the man who’d left. She knew they didn’t belong to the man in front of her, and she didn’t want him to doubt that she did.
He took it from her but dropped it on the bed next to him. “Oh no, sweetheart. Not yet. You can’t burn with only kindling.”
The expression on his face was familiar, the look he always wore when he met a challenge he was sure he’d defeat. From silly bets to when he told her he was going to be a SEAL.
To have all of that intensity focused on her made her bite her lip.
“You did say you wanted to burn, didn’t you?”
She nodded, breathless.
“Then come here.”
Betsy leaned into him, suddenly shy. When she’d been pursuing him, it gave her focus and made her forget everything but the goal. Now the goal was in sight and she was afraid to reach for it. She wanted to hide from him and her own desire.
His arms closed around her waist and he dragged his stubbled cheek across her skin. She shivered again and pushed her fingers through his close-cropped hair. He turned his face into her and kissed the soft curve of her stomach.
“I haven’t been able to taste anything, Bets. Not for so long.” His tongue darted out against her flesh. “Except your skin. Your mouth. You taste as good as you smell.” Jack’s hands wandered the curve of her hip, the dip at the base of her spine, the round globes of her bottom. “And I can’t help wondering if you taste as good
His words sent shudders through her body and she clenched, imagining what it would be like to
“Show me,” he said as he leaned back on the bed and dragged her with him. Jack splayed his hands on the backs of her thighs and pulled her forward.
She obliged him, sliding up his body until her knees were positioned on the outside of his shoulders. Betsy felt vulnerable, exposed, and she kept waiting for him to say something about needing to adjust their position because of her weight, but he didn’t.
He didn’t say anything at all.
Jack tightened his grip and anchored her against him, his mouth too busy to form words.
At the first caress, Betsy cried out and fisted the duvet. A myriad of sensations bombarded her. The intimacy of their position, the feel of his tongue curving around her swollen nub, and the sure knowledge that all of her fears had been for naught because he loved this. If there was one thing Betsy understood, it was the palate. No one could use their mouth so diligently if it wasn’t the most decadent of delights.
His touch sent her spiraling higher and higher until she was up in the stratosphere with no way down and begging for more anyway. She fought the sensation he wrought in her until she was mindless with bliss. Something hot and sharp exploded into thunder and lightning through her veins, and that ecstasy shot through her body.
But he wasn’t done. While she shuddered and quaked, the rip of the foil was a distant sound. He maneuvered her easily with his great strength, shifting her down his torso until she was positioned over him, his erection poised at her channel.
Jack pulled her down so that his lips were a breath from hers. “You were sweeter than I ever could’ve imagined. And believe me, Betsy, I imagined it time and time again.” He kissed her hard and gave her no time to process his words, his actions.
All she could do was feel.
Then he was inside her, and even though she was on top of him, he was still very much in charge of their encounter. He set the pace by rolling her hips to meet his thrusts, moving her as he would.
Nothing had ever felt this good. Not getting accepted to the institute, not getting out of this town, and not even her first time with Marcel. Only this.
The aftershocks of her orgasm still ricocheted through her even as he continued.
How he’d ever thought this thing between them could be anything but magic, she’d never know. He hit the core of her with every tilt of his hips.
It was heaven, but it was hell, too, because Betsy knew no one else could ever make her feel this way. Jack wasn’t looking for forever, and he’d as much as told her that he didn’t have it to give.
When his body tensed and he found his culmination, it was bittersweet for Betsy.
She knew the spell that had led them here had been broken.
Betsy buried her face in his shoulder because she didn’t want their idyll to be over. Part of her wondered if she could just hide inside him, inside this moment, and make it last forever.
He stroked her hair, fingers tangling in the mess of curls almost lazily, as if maybe he wanted to stay in the moment, too.
Or maybe because now that it was over, they’d have to come up with something to say, some action to take that was both the same as it had been before they’d done this, but different, too.
The only action she wanted to take was to do this again—be touched by him, utterly consumed by the fire. Burning once just wasn’t enough.
HY DID YOU
come back here?” he asked as he continued to comb through her hair.
“Who says I left?”
“The pictures on your mirror.”
“Maybe it was a vacation.” Betsy didn’t want to talk about this now. Anything she could say would make him feel guiltier for not reading her letters, and this wasn’t supposed to be about guilt or duty, only passion.
“Betsy, if you’re still pissed I didn’t read your letters and you don’t want to tell me, it’s okay. I get it. But that guy you’re with, the body language between you speaks of more than a vacation. There’s intimacy there.”
“Is this really the best time to be asking about other men?” Betsy giggled.
“Yeah, the bastard was looking at us the whole time,” Jack teased.
She couldn’t help it, she laughed again. “If only.”
“I didn’t know you were
kinky,” he teased some more, and Betsy was grateful he hadn’t gotten too serious, too heavy. It somehow made it okay to tell him what had happened with Marcel.
“No, he was just... It was over with him when Paris was over.” It would have been over anyway; moving was an impetus. Marcel didn’t do the things a lover was supposed to do. He didn’t make her a better person. He didn’t make her want to be better, and she didn’t do those things for him, either.
His fingers stilled. “Why was Paris over? It wasn’t because of me, was it?”
Betsy closed her eyes. “No, it was because of me. Because I failed.” It was the first time she’d said it out loud. Betsy had replayed it over and over in her head, said it to herself again and again, but she’d never articulated those exact words before. She’d always said she made a mistake, a dangerous mistake, but just a mistake. She’d never owned her failure. Now she was burning again, but it wasn’t with the heat between them. It was with shame.
Everyone had had such high hopes for her.
She wasn’t ready to examine that too closely.
“Rather than beat it to death, maybe we could go back to the singing my praises and giving me orgasms. I like that better.”
“Don’t we all?”
“Do you really?” She lifted her head and met his gaze.
So much for not beating it to death. Why couldn’t she leave the hows and whys of this thing between them alone and just enjoy the moment? She’d been managing so well for about five minutes.
She saw from the look on his on his face that she didn’t really want the answer.
Betsy reluctantly peeled herself from his arms. Their idyll was over. Whatever spell they’d been under had unraveled. “I know Mom would like it if you’d stay for Sunday dinner.” At his stricken look, she added, “Caleb and India will be here, too. No big deal if you can’t.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Betsy.”
She tried to convince herself that the sharp pain that stabbed through her was just because she was hungry and craving her mama’s fried chicken.
“Okay.” Betsy hated how forlorn and sad she sounded at his refusal.
“I came to give you that check because I’m leaving,” he added. “I can’t stay here.”
“I said okay.” She wouldn’t look at him as she slipped into her dress. “Will you zip me up?”
“It doesn’t sound okay.”
What did he expect? “You want me to tell you it’s okay that you’re leaving again to go somewhere no one knows you, no one loves you, only to drink yourself to death alone? That’s not going to happen. So go. I can’t stop you, but it won’t be with my blessing.”
“That’s a little overdramatic, don’t you think?” His breath ghosted along her neck as he helped her with her dress.
After he’d zipped her, she turned to face him. “No, I don’t.” She studied him hard for a moment that seemed to stretch out into eternity. “I think you decided that you came back. You showed your face so you fulfilled your promise to me, and now you can go off and do whatever it is you want to yourself in peace. I know you, Jack. I know how your mind works. And I can’t stop you. But you should consider that no one knows how much time they have and you may not want what you’ve got. I can see it in your eyes. But would you rather spend it drinking whiskey and choking on the ashes that we’ve talked so much about or have more days like today?”
“You can’t save me. I already told you that.” He shook his head.
“Only because you won’t let me.”
“You don’t understand.” The defeated expression on his face was killing her.
“Maybe I haven’t been to war, but this—” she gestured at the space around them “— isn’t what I wanted, either.”
“I’m supposed to be dead.” His voice was low and gravelly.
“You told me last night that you already were. That you just brought back a body for me to mourn,” she reminded him.
The one-word answer infuriated her. He was being purposefully obtuse and drowning himself not because he couldn’t break the surface, but because he just didn’t want to. “Dead men don’t talk about the taste of sweetness, Jack. And they sure as hell don’t move their tongues like you just did.”
“When I’m with you is the only time I’m not dead, Bets.”
His confession cooled her anger. “So be with me.” She didn’t understand why it had to be so complicated. One plus one equaled two. Betsy plus Jack equaled happy. It wasn’t so difficult a prospect.
“You don’t know what you’re asking for.” He wouldn’t look at her, and this conversation sounded very much like the one they’d had the night he left.
His answer wasn’t good enough. “People rarely do. That’s not specific to me. Stay for dinner.”
“And eat food I can’t taste, laugh while I can’t breathe and surround myself with everything I can’t have?”
Part of her softened at his words, but she knew him too well. That’s what his words were designed to do, to deflect her attack. Even if they were true. “You’re not even trying. You don’t know. Give living a chance. No matter what you think, you’re not dead,” she cried.
“No, Betsy. It’s you who doesn’t know.”
“Maybe not, but I dare you to have dinner with us and find out what I do and do not know.” She put her hands on her hips and lifted her chin in defiance.
He raised his gaze to hers again, something dark there. “Fine. After dinner you come home with me and spend the night.”
Anticipation and expectation curled in her belly. Another night like today? She’d take it. “How is that a chore?” She rolled her eyes and slipped into her shoes.
“You’ll see what it’s like to be me.”
“Fine.” She lifted her chin another notch. Yeah, spending the night with him was some kind of punishment. “I’ll see you downstairs.”
Betsy waltzed out of her room as if she’d just one-upped him, but as soon as she was out of sight, her shoulders sagged. She’d practically bullied him into staying. The same way she’d bullied him into letting her take him to the bus station.
Why couldn’t she just leave him alone? He didn’t want her help.
Well, that was too bad, because he was getting it.
She needed to do something to get her mind off what had just happened, and what was going to happen again later tonight.
And inevitably, what was going to happen in the morning. His regret, his— No. She wasn’t going to think about that. There were potatoes that needed peeling and oil that needed heating for the fried chicken.
“Hey, Bets. Is that Jack’s car in the driveway? Am I setting another place for dinner?” Caleb asked as he barreled through the door.
He was still in his policeman’s uniform. It made him look taller, more imposing. As if he needed it. He was already a big guy, but there was something about the uniform that made his jaw look harder, his eyes brighter, and his black hair shinier. When Betsy was little, she always thought he looked like Christopher Reeve. Except he had brown eyes instead of blue.
“You better take off your gun before you sit down to the table.” She looked pointedly at his duty belt. “You know Mama doesn’t like to have it in the house. Let alone at the dinner table.” She took down the cast-iron skillet her mama used for the fried chicken and started making the preparations.
“Didn’t answer my question.”
“Yes. Jack is having dinner with us tonight.”
“How did you swing that?” Caleb smirked.
“The promise of sexual favors.” It wasn’t a lie, if she boiled it down to the basics, and she liked to rattle him.
“You’re not funny, Betsy.” He scowled.
“Why do you always think I’m kidding?”
“I don’t want to know.” Caleb shook his head in denial.
“Then why did you ask?”
“Before I thought better of it.” Caleb peered down at the oil over her shoulder. “Did you add a little salt to the oil? Because—”
Betsy was quick to interrupt him. “Mom’s frying the chicken.”
The Great Chicken Debate had raged in the Lewis household for years. While Betsy was the baker, Caleb was an expert when it came to main dishes. Before the army, he’d considered going to the same school Betsy attended in New York.
“Well, I just think that she should—”
“Caleb,” India said from the doorway. “You know you never win this. Your job every Sunday is to be the dish boy. Deal with it.” Her blond ponytail swung as she nodded her head to accentuate her point.
“I’d think you’d be on my side, India. You love my fried chicken.” Caleb eyed her.
house when we’re watching the Chiefs with a cold beer. This is your mother’s thing. I fancy keeping my head where it’s attached to my neck, thanks.” India nodded sagely.
“I don’t know how you stand him,” Betsy teased her.
“Me, either.” She shrugged.
“You’re no picnic yourself, George.” Caleb grabbed a beer out of the fridge.
“I am a paragon of virtue,” India retorted.
“Whoever told you that was lying like a rug.” Jack wandered into the kitchen.
“Shut up, McConnell. I’ve got a pair of cuffs and I’m not afraid to use them.” India indicated to her duty belt with a grin.
Jack arched an eyebrow. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“You always were the bad influence,” India tossed back, and grabbed two beers out of the fridge. She handed one to Jack.
“You just didn’t like it that Caleb and I would hide from you in the tree house. Your mom didn’t want you climbing trees, so that was the only place we were safe.”
Betsy watched the easy flow between them. Yes, things had changed. The three of them had gone away to war, and two of them had come home with pieces missing.
But she knew that India’s pain was Caleb’s, too. If she was wounded, it twisted something in him, as well. Caleb and Jack were as close as brothers, but his bond with India was something different.
Something Betsy always thought was more like love. Not a familial love, or even a brother in arms, but deep, abiding happily-ever-after kind of love. Betsy had mentioned it to Caleb once and he told her it was just because she always wanted India to be her sister.
“I seem to remember that time with the firecracker bomb you were not safe at all. In fact, you both screamed like little girls.”
“We were ten.” Jack raised an eyebrow. “And you blew out the floor of the tree house.”
“Hey, man, that’s okay. Let her have that. That’s the only time she ever got the better of us.” Caleb grinned and stiffened as he prepared himself for the impact of her fist into his arm.
“Did you forget that you have to go home with me tonight? I know where you sleep.”
It was Betsy’s turn to arch an eyebrow. “Oh really?”
India blushed, something she didn’t usually do. “His place is being sprayed. The neighbors have roaches, so he’s bug-bombing just in case.”
Betsy didn’t mention the obvious: that he had a room here he could stay in, if need be.
Jack wouldn’t leave it alone, though. “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”
Betsy fled the scene.
She suddenly understood what Jack meant about sitting around wanting things he couldn’t have. All of the easy banter in the kitchen, just like when they were kids. It had been a scene much like this one where she’d planned out their lives. India and Caleb, Betsy and Jack. They lived in Kansas City, far enough away from the small town to have a city life, but still close enough to their parents. Instead of going into the navy, Jack had taken a football scholarship to KU and was drafted to play for the Chiefs. Betsy and Caleb were partners in a successful restaurant, but India, she was still a cop. There was no life Betsy could imagine where India wasn’t chasing down the bad guys and giving them what they had coming.
And they spent all their time together. Every night dinner was together at the restaurant.
Betsy knew those dreams were naive and childish, but they’d been born in simpler times. A more innocent time.
* * *
and gave her all of three minutes before he went looking for her. If he wasn’t allowed to hide, neither was she. He knew that’s what she was doing. He could see the memories crashing over her in some acid wash that wounded her. Why did she think it would be any different for him?
She was leaning against the wall in the kitchen, her arms crossed over her breasts, and he did his best not to let his gaze linger there because he’d forget what he was supposed to be doing. Harsh words brewed on his tongue to remind them both, but when she turned to look at him, she looked so utterly fragile that they withered to dust.
“Outside, Bets.” He nodded toward the door to the back patio.
For the briefest moment, he thought she might argue with him, but she stepped toward the door. Once they were outside, she turned to face him.
“What happened just now? Why did you leave?” he asked.
“It was too much like old times. But neither of us is the same person who left.”
“That’s why this wasn’t a good idea.”
“One moment of melancholy doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea.” She’d gone from vulnerable to determined in less than a second.
He scrubbed his hand over his face. “I’m going to go. I don’t belong here anymore.”
“Don’t go.” She wasn’t begging or demanding now. It was simply a quiet request that was all the more powerful when she fixed him with the weight of her clear-eyed stare.