The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True (9 page)

BOOK: The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True
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Oh God, she thought. As a long-standing member of the land conservancy, her pet project, so to speak, had been the preservation of the golden eagle, now making a spectacular comeback. If Ian shared her passion, she was
really
in trouble.

“How far to your place?” she asked.

“Half an hour or so.” He started the engine and coasted to the bottom of the drive, turning left onto Chumash. “We can stop for lunch along the way. I know this great little hole-in-the-wall.”

“Sounds good.”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Ian looked far more at home in chinos and a navy T-shirt than in a tuxedo. She could see the damp comb tracks in his hair. On his sockless feet were a pair of well-broken-in boating shoes. The silver stud glinted in his ear, and about his wrist was a braided leather band.

She felt herself grow warm. Did he have any idea of the effect he was having on her? It was as if time had taken a U-turn, and she was suddenly reliving the tumult of her teenage years: the wild crushes on boys, the intense yearning stirred by a lingering glance, the brush of a sleeve against a bare arm, the scent of a certain aftershave.

She made small talk in an effort to appear no more interested than she would be in any member of Wes’s family. They talked about Ian’s growing up in Malibu and his years at UCLA earning a master’s in art. Sam, in turn, tried to convey to him what it was like living in the same place her entire life.

At the overlook on Pratt Bluff, off Highway 33, she asked him to pull over. “See that?” She pointed out the old highway that twisted up through the foothills above Sorrento Creek. “My great-grandfather owned one of the valley’s first orange groves. He built that road with the help of Chinese laborers. It was the only way he could truck his crops out.”

“I thought he was a shopkeeper,” Ian said.

“That came later; after a frost killed off most of one year’s crop. He figured it’d be more profitable to import dry goods.”

“Sounds like a sensible guy. You must take after him.” Ian’s voice was deep and musical, a voice she could never grow tired of hearing. He reached to brush a strand of hair from her face, his fingertips igniting a trail of fire along her cheek. As she stood rooted to the spot, her heart pounding, she wondered how sensible she was being right now.

Sensible people aren’t the ones having fun,
a voice whispered.

Fifteen minutes later they were turning onto the coast highway. Fog had left the ocean a tarnished silver that glittered in patches where polished by the sun. As they traveled farther north, the dockyards and eateries that clung like barnacles to the shoreline began giving way to sandstone cliffs and wind-scoured dunes. A few miles east of Purisima Point, Ian pulled onto an unpaved road where they got out to peer through his binoculars at giant osprey nests perched like wicker baskets atop a row of telephone poles. As Sam watched, a female osprey circled about, crying her shrill
tewp-tewp-teeaaa
before settling onto her nest.

By the time they reached Pinon, a tiny Portuguese fishing village just south of Santa Maria, she was starving. Ian drew to a stop in front of a funky-looking tavern sided in weather-beaten tongue and groove. Inside, a fisherman’s net studded with Styrofoam floats drooped from the ceiling. The diners, families mostly, appeared to be locals. Sam didn’t feel terribly inspired.

Ian squeezed her hand. “Trust me. I won’t lead you astray.”

Martin’s words. Yet he
had
led her astray. In the end, all she’d had left was a stack of bills and a life insurance policy that had barely covered funeral expenses. She hoped she wasn’t heading down a similar path.

Surprisingly, the food turned out to be every bit as good as advertised: tender mussels steamed in butter and white wine; mounds of sweet bay shrimp; flounder that melted at the touch of a fork, with chunks of warm sourdough bread to mop their plates. When dessert arrived—thick wedges of berry pie topped with vanilla ice cream—Sam groaned that she couldn’t eat another bite. She ended up polishing off her entire slice.

Ian’s studio was at the end of a dirt road—a tiny cottage sided in shingles the weathered gray of driftwood. It sat on a long, sandy spit of land that looked out over a harbor. A small fleet of fishing boats bobbed from moorings along the pier. A bait shack leaned into the wind. Gulls wheeled and cried overhead.

“As you can see, it’s not exactly Malibu.” The gate to the yard gave a squeal as he pushed it open. “On the plus side, nobody around here ever locks up. It’s like something out of a time warp.”

“I’ll take privacy over trendy any day.”

Sam stepped into a large room with windows on all sides and skylights through which sunshine poured. The walls were paneled in pale wood and hung with an assortment of unframed canvases. Off to the right was a kitchen area no bigger than a ship’s galley; at the other end a ladder led up to a loft bed. She paused for a moment, taking it all in.

“Oh Ian, it’s lovely.”

“Glad you approve.” He looked pleased.

“I don’t see how you could ever bear to leave it.”

He shrugged, tossing his keys onto the small carved table by the door. “I have to earn a living somehow.” With all his father’s wealth, he was clearly no trust-fund kid.

She wandered over to a section of the wall covered in corkboard. Three partially completed canvases were tacked to it: the mural he was working on. The workbench below was littered with rolled-up tubes, palettes crusted with paint, brushes soaking in jars. An easel and drafting table were cluttered with more of the same. Un-framed canvases, three and four deep, were stacked along the baseboard.

Her gaze was drawn to one in particular: an almost surreal portrait of a bare-chested black sailor roped to a halyard in Christ-like crucifixion—as skillfully rendered as it was evocative.

“I had no idea,” she said.

“Not what you were expecting?”

“I was picturing seascapes, boatyards—that kind of thing.”

“The stuff they sell in tourist shops, you mean.” He cocked a brow, eyeing her with amusement.

She thought of the pretty little seascape she and Martin had bought in a gallery some years back. “Not all of it’s bad.”

“I’d make more money, that’s for sure.” His gaze fell on a rough pencil sketch pinned to the drafting table. “On the other hand, I’ve never been one to color inside the lines.”

She studied several more canvases: an alley cat nosing the strewn contents of a garbage can, an almost photographic portrait of an elderly Portuguese fisherman, flamenco dancers who seemed almost alive. Each more vivid than the next.

“I’m impressed,” she said. “And I don’t impress easily.”

“I gather you haven’t exactly gone the tourist route, either.”

“Oh, we get our share,” she said with a small laugh. “Usually, they take one look at the price tags and head right back out the door. Most of our trade is local.”

“You must do a pretty good business.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that Carson Springs had its share of wealthy homes, with his father’s among the most eye-catching.

“We do all right, though it’s a little more competitive now than in my great-grandparents’ day.” She didn’t add that receipts were down twenty percent from last year, a sign not only of the times but of playing catch-up. The years of Martin’s illness had taken their toll.

“Ever get tired of it?” he asked.

“Sometimes,” she confessed. “Back in college it certainly wasn’t how I imagined spending the rest of my life. I suppose one of these days I’ll retire, then I’ll get to do what I want…as soon as I figure out what that is.”

Ian smiled as if he found the whole idea amusing, a lazy smile that funneled through her like sand through an hourglass. “I hate to disappoint you,” he said, “but right now you look about sixteen.”

He knew Sam thought he was just flattering her, but at this moment, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and the light falling over her face, smoothing out its fine lines, he could see how she must have looked as a teenager. Did she have any idea how much more beautiful she was now? He took in the coppery highlights in her hair, the clean lines of her jaw, the thumbprint of shadow at the base of her throat. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, and he loved the frankness of her unadorned face, the light that seemed to shine from her gray-green eyes. Even the way she was looking at him: as if she wanted to trust him, but wasn’t quite ready.

Sam grew uncomfortable beneath his gaze. Why was he looking at her like that? She stared at his T-shirt, which was bleached in spots. Clearly, no one had taught him the proper way to do laundry. If she’d been his mother…

But you’re not,
whispered the voice in her head. A slow warmth traveled up from her toes, curling through her like sweet wood smoke, invading every hidden crevice. She felt weak all over, like after a long illness. This wasn’t supposed to be happening, she told herself. There was no room in her life for this
thing
—desire, lust, whatever you wanted to call it—that seemed to have a mind of its own.

She felt a sudden need to set the record straight. “Look, Ian, if I’ve given you the wrong impression…”

He continued to regard her steadily. Oh, those eyes. Like the ocean that lulled you into a trance if you stared at it too long. “You haven’t given me the wrong impression at all.”

She flushed at the frankness of his reply. He knew what she was feeling… yes, in the face of every instinct telling her to run. “Are you always this direct?” she asked, trembling in the warm sunshine.

“When I’m interested in someone, yes.”

Her mouth went dry, and she was distinctly aware of a pulse at the base of her throat. It was all she could do to maintain her composure. “Okay, I’ll admit I’m flattered, but that still doesn’t change the fact that I’m old enough to…know better.”

“To know better—or know what you want?”

Sam’s heart began to beat in great, lurching thuds. She brought a hand to her cheek; it felt hot. “Oh dear, I’m not very good at this, am I?” How ironic that she, the older of the two, was nervous as a schoolgirl.

He smiled encouragingly. “You’re doing just fine.”

He was standing so close she could see the fine, golden stubble dusting his jaw, and the tiny scar that curved in a crescent over one brow. His eyes were dear and guileless. He wasn’t mocking her.

When he drew her into his arms and kissed her, lightly at first, then more insistently, it was as if she’d tumbled from a high perch—a feeling of weightlessness that brought a heady sense of release. She wasn’t aware of kissing him back until her hands floated up to touch the back of his neck. Smooth, so smooth. Oh Lord, she’d forgotten the lovely suppleness of youth.

He smelled of clothes dried on the line, and tasted faintly of the sea. All at once she was flooded with memories of her teenage years—steamy car windows, hands fumbling with buttons in the dark, weak murmurs of protest. All of it new, exciting, forbidden.

A single thought beat like a pulse:
Don’t stop.

He untucked her shirt from her jeans. Then he was undoing her buttons, reaching around to unfasten her bra. Panic set in. Would he find her ugly? Her breasts that had nursed two children, her skin that was no longer firm. Standing before him, shivering, she had to resist the urge to cross her arms over her chest.

Ian bent to kiss first one breast, then the other, cupping them reverently in his palms. If she was less than perfect, he didn’t seem to notice. Sam exhaled in a rush of breath that left her dizzy. Oh, his tongue. His touch. As if he knew exactly what she needed…

He unzipped her jeans, tugging them down over her hips. Then he knelt and began gently kissing her
there
, his breath warm and thrilling through the thin cotton of her panties.

“No.” She pulled away.

He rocked back on his heels, peering up at her. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve never—” A flood of embarrassment choked off the words.

Ian seemed to understand. Wordlessly he rose and took her by the hand, leading her toward the ladder to the bed. God, what must he be thinking? A woman her age who’d never—but it was Martin, who hadn’t wanted to do…certain things, who’d made her feel dirty for even suggesting them.

And Ian wasn’t Martin. She closed her eyes, listening to him undress. Then he was stretching out alongside her, his long limbs sliding cool against her skin.

“Don’t worry. We’ll take it slow.” He began to stroke her while lightly kissing her mouth and neck.

The warm air atop the platform seemed to wrap about them like a cocoon. She felt herself begin to relax. His body was a marvel, all muscle and bone, smooth except where covered in fine golden down like the pelt of some lean, fleet-footed animal. When, at last, he gently pushed a hand between her legs they parted easily. It seemed as natural as breathing.

Ian moved lower, his mouth brushing her navel, the ends of his hair trailing over her belly. Then he was kissing her. Down there. Oh, sweet Lord. How did he know? Who had given him the map to her body? The pleasure was almost more than she could bear. Brazenly, she raised her hips to meet his mouth, biting down on her lip to keep from crying out.

When she came it was like being turned inside out, so exquisite it was almost painful. Wave after intoxicating wave. Light rushing at her behind closed eyelids. She cried out, and immediately afterward burst into tears.

Ian sat up, pulling her into his arms. “Shh. It’s okay.”

“I’m s-sorry,” she gulped.

“Don’t be.”

“I feel so—” She broke off, not knowing how to put it into words.

“You don’t have to explain.”

“Was it…did you enjoy it, too?” she asked timidly.

He drew back in surprise. “Jesus. Someone really did a number on you.”

“The only man I’ve ever been with was my husband.” She felt a stab of guilt, as if she were betraying Martin’s memory. “I assumed he was like most men.”

“I don’t know about other guys,” he said, “but I find it incredibly sexy.”

“I guess things were different in my day.”

He smiled. “In that case, I’d say you have some catching up to do.”

BOOK: The Carson Springs Trilogy: Stranger in Paradise, Taste of Honey, and Wish Come True
8.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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