Well, this explains the empty chair at the secretary’s desk.
Krista stood in the open doorway of her fiancé’s upscale office, trapped in open-mouthed shock. The couple on the other side of the desk several yards away had yet to notice her arrival. Truthfully, she couldn’t blame them, not with all the noise they were making.
“Oh, God, yes, right there. Right there! Yes, oh God, oh God!” A pride-stinging litany cried out from the woman as her head bounced in and out of visibility over the top of the austere leather chair David took such pride in. Now Krista knew why—it made a great trampoline. “Ahhhhhyiiii!”
Pale blonde hair flopped up and down over the edge of the chair’s tall back where the wailing woman’s hand hung on for dear life.
“Oh come on, honey, it can’t be that good.” But even as the words left Krista’s mouth, she knew they weren’t true. David Ellison’s sexual prowess could make any woman lose her mind and her voice at the same time. Not to mention her principles, however hard won. She glanced down at her left hand where the ring David had put there glittered. The last few weeks, she’d had her doubts about their relationship, about her place in that relationship, but to have them confirmed like this…
“I’m coming. I’m coming! I’m—eyeeeee!”
Despite her anger, even Krista had to close her eyes, brows rising, at the piercing shriek. Once the earsplitting noise ended, she knew they were going to see her. They were going to realize they had an audience.
And that the audience was pissed.
When she got her hands on the two of them… The blonde, the cute girl she herself had recommended to David, was going to have ten deep nail grooves all the way down her face. And David—he’d spend the next three days with a bag of ice, wishing he were a eunuch. And then…then the real punishment would begin.
She crossed her arms, waiting for the chair to turn so she could spear them with a glare—
Except the panting started again, along with the disconcerting sound of skin slapping and the chair squeaking at a frightening pace.
“Oh, for the love of God!”
Angry, frustrated, deprived of the scene she deserved, Krista yanked at the band on her finger, desperate to get the offensive ring off. It took some twisting, but the silver band finally ripped free. Testing the heavy piece with a quick bounce in her palm, she flung it across the expanse. It slapped the back of the chair and bounced onto the desktop with what she hoped was a clatter.
The two in the chair continued, oblivious.
At least in that, David was consistent.
“Asshole,” she growled, storming out of the office and slamming the door behind her. That was it. The final straw. She’d given way too much of herself to David Ellison and he’d trampled over all of it. Every gesture, every kindness, every last little bit of her heart. What she’d taken for the artless quirks of a man who was less than expressive were clearly just the actions of a man who had her exactly where he wanted her. Well, no more. If she hadn’t been willing to dance a jig for her father, she sure as hell wasn’t going to start spinning pirouettes for David.
Turning on her phone, she pulled up the number for her travel agent. Betty had been excellent at finding them a great deal for their planned honeymoon in May. Well, now Betty could be even more excellent at rearranging the flight.
When the other woman answered in a cheery voice, Krista didn’t waste time on chitchat. “Betty, I need you to do some serious reworking of that honeymoon plan.” She listened with half an ear to the surprised response from the other end while walking down Broadway and trying to ignore the gridlock forming next to her. “Scrap the economy package. Trade it in or whatever you have to do. I want the luxury vacation. Yeah, that’s right. Luxury.”
She hadn’t had anything luxurious in three years, dammit. The first two, not by choice. Such was the fate of a disowned heiress. But this whole last year, she’d worked hard to create a financial foundation she could build on. Creating credit and savings all her own. Making the shift from department store clerk to party organizer hadn’t been effortless. She’d had all kinds of setbacks and moments when a little retail therapy would have been just the ticket, but no. She’d abstained. And when her father’s not-so-subtle bribe came at the start of the year, she’d still abstained, when even a saint would have been tempted to dip in. Well, no more.
They’d planned to spend a minimal amount of money on the amenities and spend according to their whims once on the island. It was practical, David had said, even as she’d squelched her own disappointment. David hadn’t thought a honeymoon was necessary, given their unusual relationship, but he’d been prepared to indulge her. Of course, the prospect of two weeks of nonstop sex no doubt tipped the balance in her favor. The jerk.
She glared at the red light that had the audacity to block her way. “Set it for as soon as you possibly can.”
Betty didn’t ask questions, most likely being too eager for a bigger commission. “I can’t possibly transfer all the arrangements by today. First thing in the morning all right?”
“Sure,” Krista replied, not regretting even for a second the money she’d have to use for this trip or where she’d be pulling it from. The trust fund was hers to do with what she wanted and no man on Earth had a right to judge her for it—especially not the father who set it up. She ignored the twinge of knowledge that Elmore James would do exactly that. Not that it mattered.
With a sigh, she resigned herself to one last night before she could leave. The extra few hours would be fine. Made it less running away and more choosing to go. Plus it would give her time to pack and clear her schedule for the next two weeks. Not to mention plan out some vengeful schemes that would make David pay the way only a former spoiled rich girl could do.
“Oh and Betty? Be sure to book the trip for one.”
Taylor gasped and peeked over the top of the chair.
Her lover, eyes wide, clenched her hips in a tight grip. “What was that?”
“No one.” Taylor took in the empty office, still trying to catch her breath. She smiled, relief pouring across her flushed features. Maybe she’d imagined the sound of the door slamming? “For a second there, I thought it was my boss.”
“You scared the shit out of me.” Her boyfriend laughed. “Can you imagine Ellison’s face if he caught us in here?”
Taylor would rather not. She liked Mr. Ellison, but if he had a clue what she and Frankie liked to do in their respective bosses’ offices when the men were out at meetings, they’d be fired faster than her fakest orgasm. Not that she’d had any of those lately…
Frankie rolled his hips again, his smile promising that he’d not lost his loving feeling. Sooo tempting.
She checked her watch, hoping against hope that she was wrong about the time they had left, only to scramble off his lap in panic. “Get up. Hurry! He should have been here ten minutes ago!”
Flapping her hands to get him moving, Taylor looked around for her underwear. She shooed Frankie out, not even letting him zip up, though he did steal another brain-sizzling kiss before striding out like a rooster after a job well done. Once he was gone, she cleaned up at the bathroom sink, spritzed the air freshener around and wiped down the chair with a fresh leather-cleaning wipe from under the cabinet. Precious minutes passed while she made sure there was no trace of her tryst. Finally, she blew her bangs up off her face as she tiptoed out of the office, relieved. They really had to stop doing this. One of these days, they were going to get caught—
“Taylor?” David Ellison’s deep voice had her nearly jumping out of her skin.
Taylor spun, nearly colliding with the man as he walked full speed toward his closed office door, dark head down, eyes on his Blackberry as usual. She tossed it open just in time.
Her employer continued past her, not even seeing her, also as usual. He was a nice man, certainly easy on the eyes, but he had the attention span of a magnifying glass—close, tight and unwavering.
“Do me a favor and get Krista on the line for me. I was supposed to meet her here for lunch, but I got stuck in traffic. I couldn’t get through to tell her about the delay.”
“Yes, sir, right away,” Taylor promised, waiting until he put his briefcase down to head back to her desk. She’d almost gotten the door closed when Mr. Ellison called her name again. “Yes, sir?”
“Was Krista already here today?”
Taylor straightened. “Not that I know of.” The sound of the office door slamming replayed in her head. Oh, please, please don’t let it have been Krista James. I’ll be so totally dead…
Mr. Ellison stood there, staring down at his desktop. Carefully, he reached down and picked up something small. Something that gleamed.
“If she wasn’t, then how did this get here?” He settled blue eyes on her, his gaze direct for the first time in months. The gleaming thing looked old, sculpted and had a big rock on it. Shiny. Precious. Bad.
I am so fired.
Taylor swallowed and hoped to God she wasn’t turning red.
His gaze narrowed and she had a feeling God wasn’t feeling particularly charitable.
David stared at the closed door to his fiancée’s apartment with a grim set to his mouth. He’d knocked five times already. He knew she was in there; she’d yelled at him twice to go away. She was determined to either make a scene or make him leave. Neither one made sense.
He gripped the diamond ring almost hard enough to bend it. She couldn’t possibly believe him capable of infidelity. Least of all with Taylor. The girl was an infant.
A soon-to-be-unemployed infant. He’d have done it immediately after her confession if he hadn’t been in such a rush to get to Krista to straighten things out. Not that his efforts had paid off.
He knocked again “We need to talk.”
“You need to go to hell!”
David sighed. He’d known when he met Krista that her sense of the dramatic might cause a few ripples, but really, this wasn’t necessary. “If you’d let me explain—”
The door yanked open, stopping with a jolt because she still had the chain engaged, a fact he’d discovered earlier when he attempted to use his key. “Will you be explaining how long you’ve been screwing your grade-school-age secretary or will you be explaining why you were late for our lunch date? Again?’’
David could only stare. Looking at Krista always gave him at least a solid minute of complete speechlessness, but Krista angry was shockingly beautiful. The sable hair she usually pulled back was loose and almost curling around her face and shoulders. Her dark eyes were lit with righteous indignation and the pretty pink mouth that distracted him night and day was pursed to say something he was pretty sure he didn’t want to hear.
“Just like I thought. You can’t even decide which thing to lie about.”
Precisely what he thought. “I am not lying to you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yet.”
David put his hand on the door. “Let me in, Krista.”
“Why would I do that when you’re just fine out there?”
He glared at her, wanting to throttle her and kiss her at the same time. “Because you want me in there as much as I want to be in there. Even if just to yell at me.”
Her gaze flickered and her mouth softened. She looked so hurt it threatened to punch a hole in his gut. Which bothered him more than he could say since he hadn’t done anything to wound her this way.
“Let me in there and we’ll talk about this, Krista. I swear to you, I didn’t do anything wrong. We can work it out. We just need to talk.”
Interminable moments passed. Finally, she huffed out a breath and shut the door in his face. He only allowed it because he heard the scratching of the chain moving in its rail. A second later, the door opened completely.
David didn’t hesitate. He stepped in, wrapped an arm around her waist and kissed her. She made a muffled sound against his lips, but he licked the seam of her mouth and as if he’d spoken a magic word, she opened for him. He swooped in, stroking her tongue with his, demanding she bend to his will in this, if nothing else. The taste of her soothed him, as did the way her body melted against him. Her hands clung to his shoulders and his arm kept her hips tight to his own.
Yes, this was the way things were supposed to be. Not locked doors and anger. Not endless drama for stupid miscommunications. Just him and her, connecting in the one way that hadn’t gone wrong the last few months.
Her hands shifted to his chest. He loosened his hold enough to slide over the rounded curves of her hips. She made a wild noise in her throat, not unlike the one she would make when he did the same thing in bed. He loved having her above him, guiding her hips in a slow ride that would please both of them until they were wrung out completely. Except…
She wasn’t pleased this time.
She pushed, hard, yanking herself from both the kiss and the hold. Her eyes blazed. “I should slap you for that.”
“Because you have no right to touch me after you’ve been with Taylor the Wonder Tramp.” She actually lifted her hand to wipe away his touch.
Anger bloomed deep in David’s gut. “Do you really think I’d sleep with my secretary?” What kind of pathetic cliché was that?
“I think I saw you and, believe me, if the picture was worth a thousand words, the screaming was worth ten thousand.”
“You saw me?” That was rich. “Did you by chance happen to see the taxi driver who was threatening to sue me for abuse because he got us stuck in traffic on Broadway and 11th? Because that’s where I was, trying to call you to let you know I was almost there to meet you.”
Confusion rippled across her expressive face. “But I— She…”
“Check your phone, Kris. I was calling you for a solid ten minutes before I was supposed to meet you. The cabbie couldn’t get us out of the jam so I walked to the office.”
“I turned it off so you couldn’t cancel on me.” She said it distantly, more to herself than to him.
David frowned when she pulled herself from him completely. She turned, taking a few steps into the apartment. He could tell when she brought her fingers to her lips in her thought. His frown could have cut grooves in his face when he saw the packed suitcases in the middle of the living room.
“What are those?”
She turned, opened her mouth to say something, then seemed to go back to her thinking.
“Krista, what are your suitcases doing out here?”
“I’m going away for a little while. I need to think.”
“Think about what?” They were getting married in two months. What was there to think about?
“About you, about us. Whether or not I can do this.”
“Whether or—what do you mean, if you can do this?” Had she taken some kind of hallucinogen or something? “What’s so wrong about us?”
“Oh please, David, don’t pretend you don’t know.”
Who was pretending?
She must have realized he wasn’t being argumentative because she sighed again, clutched her arms around herself and stepped closer. But only a few inches. Not close enough for him to reach her. “Doesn’t it bother you that I thought you were cheating on me?”
More than she’d ever know. “It was a misunderstanding.”
“It was a symptom.”
Great, now they were sick? He resisted the urge to bring his hand to the bridge of his nose.
“Our relationship is a disaster and you don’t even see it.”
“I admit, things have been a little intense lately—”
“How much time have we spent together in the last month? When was the last time we talked? Really talked? About anything other than the wedding or how you’re canceling on the time we do have planned.”
“I’m a CPA. This is tax season. That’s why we decided to get married in May. So I can take the time off for the honeymoon.”
“No, I knew you’d be busy. I’ve been with you through tax season before. This is different. You’re avoiding me.”
Not this again. “The business has more than doubled since last year, in no small part thanks to you. By definition, I’ll be busier. I’m not avoiding you.”
“You keep saying that, but then you keep canceling at the last minute. What am I supposed to think?”
“That this is the arrangement we agreed on.” Mutual goals, genuine friendship, exquisite physical compatibility. She’d wanted a husband who would return her to the financial circles she’d been born to, he’d wanted a wife who could steer him through the social jungle he normally hadn’t a prayer of breaching or understanding. For the last year and a half, everything had gone smoothly. He’d played the brilliant numbers man on the rise, she’d done wonders to revolutionize his business with contact after contact. Not bad for a couple who’d met in the middle of an audit.
“I didn’t agree to be forgotten.”
She didn’t bring up cheating again. He took that as a good sign, especially when she hadn’t even checked her phone to corroborate his facts. At least she trusted him that much.
“And I haven’t forgotten you.”
The light in her eyes dimmed considerably, reminding him of the first time he’d met her. She’d been sitting in his office, shoulders slumped, her bottom lip nearly bruised from clamping her teeth on it. She always said that had been the lowest day of her life. Until he’d opened his office door. He’d never been able to bring himself to tell her the truth about that moment. That after that second, there was no possible way to think of anything except her.
“No,” she whispered, turning away. “You can’t forget what you’ve never really seen. It’s time I realized you’re never going to see. That it’s up to me to do something for myself again.”
David frowned. He saw her every chance he could. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know.” She sighed, not the amused sigh he liked. Not the irritated sigh he’d been getting lately. This was something new. Tired. No, that wasn’t it. Resigned. Maybe somewhere in between? Either way, it was a shade of gray he didn’t recognize.
“You know I’m lousy at this part. Is this argument finished or not?” He waited, watching her shoulders for some sign that she was relenting. The usual signal, a slow release of the air in her lungs and the tension seeping out of her, didn’t come. Her back to him, he saw her arm move, brushing her hair off her cheeks with a quick flick, one in each direction. She huffed, her shoulders staying stiff and her spine growing somehow straighter. If he didn’t know better, he’d think she’d just armored herself with poise.
“Yes, it’s finished.”
Good. Her marriage jitters were this close to making him nervous. But this relationship of theirs was a good idea. He knew it. He’d looked at it from every possible angle and never found an error. Unlike some of his clients, those growing numbers who needed him to sort out their taxes and annuities to include ex-spouses and child support and any number of extended family contingencies, he and Krista had decided to pool their resources based on rational, clear-cut thinking. Logically, they shouldn’t be having these petty arguments she insisted on.
They’d had specific financial and social needs the other could meet. Their personalities flowed together, apart from her occasional melodrama. She wasn’t usually so overemotional. Just lately, she’d been six kinds of irrational, but he could see past those difficulties because she had benefits no other woman offered.
Primarily, she wasn’t put off by his bluntness and she was smart enough to challenge him when he least expected it. Important when one was planning the rest of one’s life. He’d never be bored with Krista. Never be lonely. Normally, she was an excellent counterpart and he congratulated himself often on convincing her to marry him.
The sex had been a bonus he still couldn’t quite reason out. He’d expected it to be enjoyable—sex always was. Their personal chemistry, though, was explosive and the satisfaction had yet to decrease. It boded well for their future. A cherry on the top, when he was feeling whimsical, which really only happened with Krista.
Yes. This plan was perfect. She was just nervous. In need of reassurance. He looked her up and down, almost sighing at the perfection of her figure. She had an hourglass shape that tempted him to write mathematical odes. The brilliant red of her jacket molded to her waist and hips, cupping the simple black pencil skirt that dropped down to just above her knees. And those legs. Her skin had a soft golden cast, her calves strong without being over-defined. Her whole body was that way. Smooth, sleek, soft but firm. He could touch her for hours, not that he’d ever wasted such time, but he could. It wouldn’t bother him in the slightest.
Maybe that was what she needed. She didn’t ask much of him, David had to admit. She’d been wanting to talk more the last few weeks, something he hadn’t exactly been putting off, but he admittedly felt relieved whenever something more important came up. Politics, sure, they could discuss that. Business, definitely. She had an astute mind and grasped the better points of building client trust. She’d completely revolutionized how he handled not only employees and clients, but people in general. But he had the sinking feeling she wanted to talk about feelings.
Or worse, his feelings.
If there was one thing he knew about himself, it was that talking and feelings should never be something he attempted to handle at the same time. Words always came out wrong. Or they came out right, but said the wrong thing. Occasionally, people were simply so set on their own translation of his words that he couldn’t get them untangled. That was the beauty of Krista. She accepted what he said at face value and never got flustered about it. If she needed clarification, she asked for it, and all stayed right in the world. Usually…
David frowned at her back. Something was definitely wrong with the world right now. The question was, did he have the first clue how to fix it?
David stepped forward, wrapping his arms around her and pressing his head to the side of her face. He closed his eyes and breathed her in. She wasn’t wearing the perfume he’d given her, the magnolia scent he’d found while at a convention last summer. She always wore it. He pulled her closer, noticing that her cheek was cold where it touched his face. Almost icy cold.
“What’s wrong, Krista? Tell me what’s going on.” Even if she wanted to talk about feelings. He could take anything but this confusion. Krista was the one person in the world who’d never confused him.
A shudder ran through her whole body. For a frightening second, he thought she might burst into tears, but all she did was push out a breath and spin in his hold. Before he knew it, she was pressing a hard kiss to his lips. Desperate. Moist.
Her hands scrabbled at his coat, opening it and shoving it off his shoulders. She yanked on the tie, almost choking him before she got it right, and whipped it through his folded collar with a loud, hot wisp.
She grabbed his face and kissed him again, nipping at his lips and making that mewling whimper of need that did the strangest things to his chest. Made it tighten and ache to give her anything she needed. Worked like a charm this time, too, because he gave up trying to figure out what was going on. She wanted him. Needed him, just like he’d thought. He’d find out what was wrong after.
David reached for her top, the little satin tie on one hip giving way instantly. The crossover style of the top meant he had to do the same thing on the inner flap before he could see the black satin camisole beneath. She’d been wearing these instead of a bra lately. Pretty, shiny things that outlined hard nipples and slid over her skin like water. He liked them. But right now the camisole was in the way.
He bumped into the wall, smacking the back of his head on the lintel before he realized he’d been moving. She had her hands on his bare chest—when did she get the buttons undone?—and was pushing him toward her bedroom.
This was new. She was never the aggressor in their sexual relationship. She liked slow seduction. Gentle approaches that generally led to complete, wild possession. Clearly, she wanted more this time, but it posed a problem when she wouldn’t stop pushing as he pulled on the sleeves. If she wanted things fast and rough, how was he to get her own shirt out of the way if she wouldn’t put her arms down to get it off?
Easiest path between two points, he decided, reaching out to pick her up. She helped a lot, all but leaping into his hold so they could stagger toward the king-sized mattress. He fell backward onto her cushiony duvet, letting her sprawl over him. Not that she stayed that way long. She sprang back, bouncing off him and the bed to shimmy out of her skirt.
Her skirt dropped to the ground, followed quickly by the camisole she peeled over her head as if it were on fire. The simple black panties clinging to her hips came off and in a heartbeat were whipped away to places unknown. He was still working at the button on his cuffs, staring wide-eyed at the woman who’d somehow become an Amazon when he wasn’t looking. She stood proudly, her high, full breasts capturing his attention completely, the dusky rose tips looking darker and fuller in the streaming radiance from the skylight above. Her skin, skin he’d memorized with his eyes, fingers and mouth, was flushed with a soft pink color. Not with embarrassment, but excitement.
He could still see it, something shadowy in her deep green eyes. Secrets. For a second, about as long as his mind was capable of maintaining thought, he wondered if he was making a mistake. But then Krista reached for the belt to his slacks and the thought obliterated. Cool hands undid the belt and the fly and before the second button of his cuff popped right off, she had her fingers around his erection.
He forgot about the shirt entirely when she dipped her head and took him into her mouth.
She slid up, down, down, down, then up again, her tongue laving around the shaft, caressing and sucking his sensibility clean away. She moaned, deep and rumbly, as if somehow this were doing more for her than for him. And it couldn’t possibly. Her fingers wrapped around him near the base, stroking up and down, meeting the down thrust of her mouth somewhere in the middle before moving back upward. She let go, the very edge of her teeth grazing the head, and started pulling off his pants and underwear again.
Belatedly, David realized he was still wearing his shoes.
No, those went quickly when she realized the pants weren’t coming off with them in the way. Except for the shirt—which he realized was supposed to be his job to remove—he was completely naked. And Krista was climbing over him, intent on her face.
This had to be what prey felt like.
Although, it had to be said—or at least thought, because even he wasn’t stupid enough to actually speak at a time like this—prey probably wasn’t this excited about its situation.
She stopped, casually glancing down at his erection as it bobbed just beneath her jawline. Almost as if she were saying, Hello, didn’t see you there. David clenched his fists, waiting for her to go back to the heavenly torture of before. He could almost feel her licking him, his penis throbbing for it. Looking downward, he couldn’t have imagined a better view. His penis, then further down her breasts, soft and inviting, swaying with her slight movements while her legs straddled his own. The only thing better would be when she licked him again.
Her gaze roved up his body to meet his, her lips parting slowly while she lowered her face at a pace determined to make him damage himself trying to instantly grow another inch to meet her. Damn if he wasn’t just about pulling it off, either. Finally, thank God, finally, her soft pink tongue slipped out.
The lick was faint, brief, putting a kittenish curve to her lips.
David gritted his teeth.
She did it again, softer, longer, her tongue caressing the blush-colored head with a single swipe.
“Krista,” he heard himself growl.
Her eyes glittered in response. “What?”
“Put it in your mouth.”
Her lips pursed, still wet from sucking him earlier. If she didn’t hurry up, he wasn’t going to be responsible for his actions. She dipped again, mouth closed, and pressed a soft, chaste kiss on the tip. Desperate, he reached out and cupped her head. She pushed back against him, cheeks rosy, mouth smiling wide, and did nothing but graze him with her tongue.
She sucked him in, deep and hard, leaving him to strangle on her name. Her cheeks hollowed around him, her motions steady and strong. Too soon, they stopped. She let go with a pop, knocking his IQ down at least thirty points.
“For the love of God, Kris.”
She laughed, a rich husky sound that snapped the control he’d been clinging to. With a yelp, she careened over onto the upper portion of the bed where he tossed her. She didn’t get much more out than that though, because he was on her, pressing her into the covers, his mouth devouring hers. She gave in with a muffled sigh, her arms circling around his neck.
He loved how she gave herself over to him. All of herself, nothing held back. This kiss was deep, their tongues tangling together while his body levered over hers, letting her breasts graze his chest, their hips meet, their breath and heartbeats align. Until she bit him.
David reared back, glaring down at her in shock. She smiled. She actually smiled. It didn’t look right, somehow. Her lips were tempting, teasing, the smile a dollop of sex all by itself, but the impish grin didn’t match her eyes. Some emotion was there, something that made her look sad and had his chest clenching again.
“What’s the matter, David? Don’t you want to play?” Her tricky little fingers danced down between them, tickling down his belly and sending his erection twitching. If he shifted his hips, he could slide right inside her and show her exactly how he wanted to play, but somehow, he didn’t think that would be quite enough. No, Krista needed attention. Reassurance that he could give her everything she needed in this arrangement of theirs. She needed to feel wanted.
And he definitely wanted her.
Narrowing his eyes, he grasped her wrists and brought them up on either side of her head. The spilled lengths of her hair spread out over the pillows, painting a picture he just knew he’d keep in his mind for the rest of his life. Perfect, kiss-swollen lips, the delicate structure of her face, the slightly tilted green eyes and the arching curves of her eyebrows. Krista, looking up at him and smiling. Nothing got better than that.
“Keep your hands right there. Don’t move an inch.”
“Right. There.” He let go, pointing for clarity, before he slid his body down the length of hers. He started with a kiss, just below her navel, that had her gasping. Another one, chosen randomly, on her right hipbone. He picked another spot, this one low, just above the brown curls that covered her sex. She shook, but as commanded, she didn’t move.
Satisfied she could be trusted, he graduated to openmouthed kisses. Lingering ones that made her quiver and sigh. Over the gentle curve of her belly, nibbling at the crease where her thigh folded into her abdomen. He licked it, dipping into the fold, foreshadowing what he planned to do next. Her hips lifted, thighs opening more for him, but he stayed away from where she wanted his kisses. If she could tease, so could he.
He lifted his fingers to the mound of her sex, gently grazing down over her flesh. He felt the moisture dewing there, but didn’t linger. She needed petting. Instead, he caressed the lean strength of her inner thighs. Traced the straining tendons with his teeth. She mumbled something, but he didn’t hear the words well enough. She needed incentive to speak louder.
He touched her swollen labia, parting the soft flesh and blowing a cool stream of air on the heated folds. Her whole body jerked in his hands. Better. But not good enough.
Dipping his head, he started again with gentle-kiss caresses. He added tiny licks, closing his eyes at the familiar flavor of her on his tongue. Familiar, but different in some way he couldn’t quite place. He sampled again, noting only that she seemed sweeter. He swirled his tongue upward, finding the hard little clitoris he considered a close personal friend. She gasped audibly at that, but he had plans before playing with that little buddy.
David sighed, pleased, before delving back inside her with his tongue. He might not be good at talking, but he knew how to give her what she liked. Deep thrusts of his tongue, replaced eventually with one finger, then two, while he sucked at her clit, flicking it with just the tip of his tongue before stilling the tension by pressing it with a flat stroke. Then starting all over again, increasing the speed and pressure of his fingers into her sensitive tissues.
He could hear her sighing, almost sobbing, felt her hand in his hair, alternately pulling him to her core or desperately trying to lure him upward. But he wasn’t going anywhere until she fell apart against his mouth. And that wasn’t happening until…
“Oh, God, David, please!”
Smiling, David let her go, increasing the speed of his fingers and the stroke of his tongue. Krista arched upward, her breath a soft keening cry. He sucked, listening as the cry became a scream. An aggressive pleasure filled him at the sound. Lapping at her, reveling in the shivering quakes and the squeezing muscles tugging at his fingers, he basked in it, already craving more.
He brought her down slow, wanting her soft and melting around him when he finally slid inside. Soothing her with a kiss to her thigh, he ran his hands up her flanks, massaging the curve of her hips. His hands smoothed across her skin, purposely calming, but with his mouth he tasted, nipped, caressed, knowing it would keep her yearning for the next touch. He took his time on her breasts, gentling his touch when she seemed to jump at the pressure. He laved each nipple, using only his fingertips to touch them, soft as whispers. Only here, with her, did being meticulous truly matter. Not a millimeter of her would be missed. He wanted her to feel him with every inch of her body, to know there wasn’t a part of her, inside or out, that he didn’t know. By the time he made it up to her lips, the shadows in her eyes were dark, along with the sheen of tears.
“Did I hurt you?” he asked, stunned.
A tear slid out of the corner of her left eye, followed quickly by another on the other side. She shook her head, biting her lips together.
“What’s wrong?” She had to talk now. He moved to pull away, but she grabbed his shoulders.
“No, don’t stop, please.”
“Tell me why you’re crying.”
Her smile cracked something in him. His chest could have broken concrete with the pressure. “Haven’t you ever been part of something so beautiful you never wanted it to end?”
Before her? He shook his head. “No.”
Her smile died. There wasn’t another word for it. It fell and her eyes shuttered closed. He’d answered wrong, he knew it. But when he opened his mouth to apologize, she reached up to him.
“Make love to me, David,” she whispered, pulling his face down to hers. Her kiss was different, tinged with tears. He didn’t like it, knowing the shaking in her lips wasn’t from pleasure. “Make love to me, even if you don’t mean it.”
He frowned, even as her hands slipped between them to encircle his erection. She stroked, guiding him to the heated softness of her. He slid home, groaning with her at the sensation. “Krista—”
How could he do anything but give her what she asked? Closing his eyes, he began to move. Let this be enough. God, let me be enough for her…
She tightened her hold, her arms and legs locking around him, even the moist grip of her sex rippling around him. He surged into her, drowning in the liquid heat and the silken slide filling his senses. He kissed her tears away, thrusting slow and deep.
Her hips lifted, meeting him, urging him on. “Faster,” she whispered, her nails pushing into his skin.
He gave, just as she wanted, pulling back and pistoning forward in short, rapid thrusts. She moaned and he changed the angle, rolling upward to stroke her clit with each thrust. Her whole body jerked, her gasp exactly what he was hoping for, and then she was meeting him again, demanding more.
Levering upward, David pried her legs from around him and slipped his hands beneath her thighs. Filling his palms with her buttocks, he held her open for the deepest stroke he could give. She curled her fists in the sheets on the downstroke, his shaft almost all the way out of her before he thrust it down to the hilt.
She cried out, not in pain as he almost feared. She clamped her muscles around him tighter, her toes straining for the surface of the mattress to help him keep her up. But he didn’t want that. Lifting her just that little bit higher, he did it again, loosing a groan of his own with the wet kiss of their bodies meeting.
Again and again, he filled her, watching her body arch as the thrusts became relentless. Pounding. But he couldn’t stop, not until he knew for sure she was mindless with the pleasure. Until she was sated and limp and not only unable to leave him… Unwilling to leave.
The first orgasm had her strung tight as a bow, the release forcing her to buck against him. The second—built in moments—left her boneless, her body slinking to the bed where he followed her, taking her mouth while he surged into her over and over again, his own climax seconds from his reach. Then suddenly it was there, blinding him to everything but the feel of her beneath him, her hands holding onto his shoulders and her tears on his jaw.
They’ll dry, he reassured himself, kissing her softly again. He’d give her time to rest, time to recover, then he’d start all over again. Until the tears were gone and with them, any fear that she’d go, taking the first taste of true happiness he’d ever known.
He gathered her in his arms, his heart unable to find its usual peaceful rhythm. They’ll dry.
But if he were honest with either of them, he already knew they wouldn’t.
The door to Mr. Ellison’s office was open when Taylor arrived at the office crisply at eight in the morning. She’d been nervous, because she was pretty sure he was going to fire her, but she’d forced herself to come in and take the punishment. Her boss, however, never had his door open. Least of all open wide like that.
She took a tentative step toward the portal, leaning forward to peer into the dark room. The blinds, though closed, leaked lines of light onto the desk at the far side of the room. The chair was spun almost facing the back wall, but there were no outward signs that he’d been there. “Mr. Ellison?”
Nothing. The door must have been left open by the overnight cleaning crew. Maybe they’d had a temp or something. Sighing at her own nervousness, she decided the first things to do would be to lighten the room up, make his coffee as usual and pretend yesterday had never happened.
She’d walked halfway in before she realized he was sitting at his desk, sunken into the back of his leather chair, holding something in his hand, staring at it like it held all the secrets of the universe. He didn’t look good either. Unshaven, no tie, no coat. Was that yesterday’s white shirt?
“Are you okay, sir?”
He didn’t look up from the piece of metal supported by his steepled fingers. “I’m…”
Taylor waited, but he didn’t seem like he knew what to say. Okay, this was officially creepy. She backed up a step on the thick gray carpet, jumping when his voice rang out.
“Have I been a bad boss, Taylor?”
If she wasn’t looking at him, watching him glare at what she could now clearly tell was the diamond ring he’d found on his desk yesterday, she wouldn’t have thought there was anything wrong with him. He sounded as emotionless as ever. But the man was clearly a mess. And if there was one thing she knew, she didn’t want to be anywhere near a messy man. They always needed someone to clean up after them.
“N-no, sir.” Maybe she could claim she felt sick. “Of course not.”
“Never said anything to you that made you feel uncomfortable?”
Not until right now. “No.”
“Even when I had every excuse to fire you yesterday, I didn’t say anything…unforgivable to you, did I?”
Taylor bit her lip. Was there a right answer to this question? “I wouldn’t…say…so.”
“The question is pretty straightforward, Taylor. Have I ever offended you? Made you angry? Said something you think I shouldn’t have?”
Soooo shouldn’t have come in this morning. “Definitely not, sir.”
“Definitely not.” He seemed to be mulling that over. Taylor stole another step backward. “Can you define for me, then, what words a woman would find unforgivable?”
Uh-oh. Taylor swallowed. “So you spoke to Ms. James, then?”
“Don’t worry, she knows it wasn’t me you were with yesterday.” He shrugged as if that mistake didn’t matter. Except it was the most unnatural shrug she’d ever seen. Not a hitching of the joint, more like some kind of itch he tried to rub with the back of his chair. “I’ve been going over and over our conversation and I can’t figure out what I did wrong.”
She might not know her boss too well on a personal basis, but she didn’t need to in order to pick up on the savage pain in his voice.
“I don’t understand why she’s gone. She said the argument was finished.”
Taylor couldn’t help but pull down the corners of her bottom lip. Yikes.
“What was that? Why did you make that face?”
“What face?” She darted a look to the still-open door. She could make a break for it.
“I did something wrong and you know what it is.”
“I don’t sir, I really don’t.”
“Then why the face?”
She sighed. Self-preservation might be screaming at her to leave, but technically this was her fault. Even she knew her boss had no idea how to talk to people right. The number of confused clients who’d come out of his office had gone down after his fiancée worked with him, but there were still several with that lost, did-he-just-say-what-I-think-he-said look as they left. “Did she say it was okay or that it was finished?”
He frowned. “Finished. Why? Isn’t it the same thing?”
Taylor shook her head. “If she’d said it was okay, she’d have meant she wasn’t mad at you anymore. If she said it was finished, that probably meant she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“Why didn’t she just say that?”
Oy, this guy knew less than nothing about women. But it wouldn’t be the first time she wondered how he’d managed to hang on to Krista James for so long. Even that saint had to have a breaking point. “Sometimes women want you to say the right thing to make us feel better.”
“Then why don’t they tell me what they want to hear?” he asked, all seriousness in his tone.
Taylor rolled her eyes. “Because other times we just want you to shut up.”
His eyes narrowed. “Me or all men?”
“Oh, definitely you. Sometimes all men. But most of the time, just you.”
Her boss’s handsome face hardened, his jaw working back and forth. Unquestionably angry. But what the hell, he was going to fire her anyway.
“Look, she knows you’re no good at picking up on—well, anything. If she’s upset enough not to be talking to you, and you’re sure she doesn’t think you and I were…were…” She swallowed hard when his blue gaze seared her face. She could completely understand, in a moment like this, why Krista James—a diamond heiress for Pete’s sake—wanted an emotionally stunted CPA as her one and only. The man was gorgeous, but she’d always known that. No, it was that intensity burning under the surface. Fixed on you—in a good way, she decided then and there—it might as well be a drug. David Ellison paid singular attention to his work, but if Krista had ever managed to make him forget his numbers… Wow.
Taylor coughed. “Well, if she knows it wasn’t us, then she’s upset about something else.”
He threw up his hands. “What else could there be?”
“Have you asked her?”
“She won’t say.” He pressed back into his chair, looking sullen.
Taylor walked over, suddenly feeling like she was talking to her teenage brother instead of a man ten years her senior. She kicked his foot lightly. “Then go over there and keep asking until she tells you. Because believe you me, Mr. Ellison, you’re never going to find another girl like Krista James. Most of us would bash you over the head with something, but for some reason, she really seems to love you. The least you could do is grovel a little for what you put her through.”
She jumped at the slice of his gaze cutting her way.
This was a surprise? “Well, yeah. Anyone with half a brain can see it. The way she smiles at you, even when you’re not looking. The way she takes care of you. God, she doesn’t even get mad at you when you say the meanest things to her.”
“I’m not mean to Krista.”
Taylor snorted. “Yeah, okay.”
“What do you mean, I’m mean to her?”
“Are you serious?” She crossed her arms. “How about when she brought in lunch for us on D-Day?” The last tax day of the year was always a nightmare, especially for poor secretaries faxing extensions as if their lives depended on it. “You didn’t even thank her or kiss her goodbye. You told her to put it on the table by the window and ignored her until she went away.” Taylor wasn’t sure, but she’d thought she’d seen tears shining in Krista’s pretty eyes that day. “Or all the times you cancel on her with all of five minutes’ warning. You don’t even say you’re sorry, or worse, you make me do it. Have you ever brought her flowers or done anything nice to make it up to her?”
He opened his mouth to speak, but Taylor held up her hand and smirked. “For the record, no, sex is not an apology. God, where did you come from? A hole in the ground?”
He shifted as if his chair was suddenly uncomfortable. “My parents weren’t people who talked much.”
Not touching that one. “It’s not that you’re cruel on purpose. We all know that. You’re just thoughtless.”
He straightened with affront but she didn’t let that bother her. Someone had to tell him, and apparently, that unfortunate soul was her.
“You hurt her feelings. All the time. Left, right and center. And if you’ve never apologized—with words—then yeah, after a while, it’s pretty unforgivable.”
“Our relationship has never been about those kinds of words.”
“All relationships need those kinds of words, even the ones that aren’t personal. I sure could have used an ‘I’m sorry’ or a ‘thank you’ from time to time.” At least once a week, really, but once a month would do.
“I’ve said ‘thank you’ before, I’m not a complete cretin.”
“Oh yeah? When’s the last time you said it to Krista?” If Taylor didn’t know better, she’d think he was blushing. “You definitely need to do groveling. Flowers, presents, the works. Maybe even a weekend away from your computer.”
“It’s the middle of March!”
Prime tax season. “One weekend away is not going to kill your business. Besides, you were looking into expanding anyway. Get a few more nerds in here to do the grunt work and you’ll be fine. Go show her she’s more important to you than an extra client. She’ll be back in a flash, I guarantee it.” And if Krista didn’t come back, well, Taylor could see herself moving out of San Diego without too much strain.
He stared at her blankly.
Taylor blinked, wondering if she’d stepped in it now. “She is more important, isn’t she?”
Mr. Ellison looked around, not seeming to be taking anything in, his gaze darting left and right.
“You mean, this is the first time you’ve ever thought about it?”
He continued to look thunderstruck.
Disgusted, she crossed her arms and shook her head at him. “You are an idiot.”
He looked at her then. “It’s not the first time, all right. I’m just…she never said… You really think it could work?”
Taylor nodded, hoping like hell Krista was as dumb for this guy as she acted. “What are you waiting for? Go grovel.”
“I can’t.” He dropped his head in his hands and sighed.
“When I woke up this morning, she was gone. Suitcases and all. She left without a word or a note.”
Ouch. “So what are you going to do?”
He picked up his head to glare at her. “What can I do? Wait for her, I guess.”
“Um, sir? Isn’t she an heiress with an inexhaustible fortune? You could be waiting a really long time.”
He paled. Either he was the dumbest smart guy she’d ever met or losing his girlfriend had given him an instant lobotomy.
“Krista’s an organized girl. There’s gotta be some clue where she went.” Taylor reached out and looped her arm through his. A full body pull and he was on his feet, looking like he had no idea how he got that way. Yup, lobotomy. “Come on, let’s go to her place and figure it out.”
“You’re going to help me?”
“Well, I kinda owe you for not firing me.”
Taylor rolled her eyes and pulled. “If I find Krista, you’re not only not firing me, I expect a raise.”
This was such a dumb idea.
Krista stared at the multitude cruising the beach in full view of her bungalow. People dressed in all manner of swimwear—including a few things she was pretty sure counted as little more than a few pieces of twine. Everyone was brown, burned or baked. Not her. She lay on a cushioned recliner, slathered in sunscreen, as iridescently white as she’d been three hours ago when she’d convinced herself that the whole point of racing away to Tahiti was to stop thinking about David. And what an absolute idiot she’d made of herself with him for the last two years.
It had all started with a temper tantrum. She’d matured enough in the last three years that she could now admit she’d been rash. That last, desperate argument with her father had resulted in her telling him she didn’t need his money. That she could take care of herself just fine without him. Never let it be said Elmore James couldn’t take a dare.
Faster than she could scream “Gucci”, her credit accounts were frozen, her bags were packed and she’d been summarily removed from her family holdings. Oh, he hadn’t offed her completely. She still talked to her mother regularly—Elmore wasn’t about to come between the two of them if he had any plans to see seventy. He gave her a place to live, an apartment in one of his many condominium developments. The rent was controlled, but she was expected to pay it in order to stay. How, his lawyer explained, was completely up to her, as she’d “requested”.
Her friends—the ones who’d been so supportive when she’d complained about her father making every decision in her life from her schools to her clothes to her dates—had disappeared as soon as everyone discovered she’d been financially disowned. Just as Elmore had predicted.
The first month of her exile had been a rude awakening. Determined not to fail, she’d pulled herself together. She got herself a job at a local department store and made enough for the basics. Rent, food, the occasional treat. At the very least, it had been a surefire way to become the envy of all her previous friends—she’d lost ten pounds without even trying. By the end of that first year, she’d just managed to get her feet under her, started to feel that maybe it wasn’t impossible to take care of herself, when the letter from the IRS had arrived. An audit.
Call it pride, call it stupidity, she’d refused to go running off to Daddy, expecting him to fix it. Of course, she didn’t have the first clue what to do on her own, since back then her finances were largely Sanskrit scribbles. So the only alternative was to do what a shopping diva did best—she hired someone. She went looking through the yellow pages for a tax specialist. There were countless guys out there, but none of them made any sense. They wanted information she didn’t have about her own holdings. Access to accounts and information she couldn’t possibly know, meaning they couldn’t help her. And, they all warned, the IRS would want even more information. Receipts. For everything. By all accounts, if she didn’t return to her father for help, she was about to learn the true meaning of the word screwed.
David Ellison had been a last hope. A referral given to her by the last CPA she’d contacted. Ellison wasn’t a people person, the man had informed gently, but he knew tax law and loopholes as if he’d been born to them. Little did she know, he would become her salvation. In a dozen different ways David himself would never understand.
Couldn’t understand, she reminded herself with a scowl.
He wasn’t a jerk. She’d dated countless jerks in her time. David was just insensitive, a quality he’d warned her about in their first meeting.
“I’m not good with conversations,” he’d announced, much the way one would warn a tablemate that their drink was about to spill off the edge of the table. “But I’m sure I can help you get yourself in order.”
It had been true, for a while. But despite the white beaches and iridescent blue ocean lapping at the stilts of her bungalow, her life was most assuredly not in order.
David had never promised warmth or affection. He’d explicitly complimented her on her ability to make decisions logically, not blinded—most of the time—by irrational emotions. Showed what he knew. Agreeing to marry David Ellison was perhaps the most irrational decision she’d ever made.
He’d opened the door to his office and her whole world flipped over. Her stomach dropped, her mouth went dry and her brain absolutely melted. IRS? What IRS?
She could kick herself now, remembering. Instead of being the stronger adult she’d worked so hard to become, she’d wished desperately that she’d met him on a better day. One when her face wasn’t puffy from crying or when she might have been dressed in anything but a stained work blouse and wrinkled slacks.
It hadn’t mattered to him though. That night, David had only been interested in her books. He solved the problem of obtaining her previous tax records by not caring in the slightest about her father’s influence. He had a friend of his own in the IRS, who worked some kind of magic, and soon David had all her returns she barely knew about. He filed injunctions and started legal proceedings to have her personal finances removed from her father’s control. All the while he showed her, step by step, what it meant to monitor and take care of her own money. Helped her to become self-sufficient. It took months, but he’d managed to do what a decade of worthless arguments with her father hadn’t. He’d freed her.
And enslaved her at the same time.
Well, no, she ruminated. She’d done that particular bit of stupidity all on her own. Offering him friendship, looking for any sign he might want more. Giving, giving, giving him parts of herself, without him ever asking, wanting him to love her. Of course he’d taken what she offered. He’d have been an idiot not to. Especially when she began introducing him to families he wouldn’t have met if she hadn’t used her father’s name to get her in the door. So when he made his little proposal, she’d thought it was the sign she’d been waiting for.
Now look where she was. Miserable, stuck by her own hand in the Honeymoon Capital of the World, surrounded by tanned, half-naked, attractive people who were smiling as if their faces might fall off without it.
And that was the least of her trouble.
She heard footsteps on the wood plank walkway that led the way to the private bungalows on this strand. Hers was the second of five. Please, God, don’t let it be any of the gorgeous but definitely gay underwear models rowdying it up in the considerably larger Bungalow Four. Three of them had come over to welcome her and invite her to the party as soon as she’d arrived. Though she’d declined, the relative peace was being broken every few minutes by some new visitor headed that way.
Eyes wide, she lurched upward in the padded chaise to stare at what had to be a figment of her imagination. “David?”
It wasn’t. He was there. Here. Opening the gate to her private deck and stepping inside. She was so stunned, she couldn’t come up with the words to remind him he hadn’t been invited in.
“How did you find me?”
“It wasn’t exactly difficult.” He settled himself next to her bare feet on the chaise. She was wearing a bathing suit and sarong set, practically a uniform on the beaches here in Tahiti. David’s black slacks and white dress shirt couldn’t have been more out of place, even with his tie miraculously not present. The top buttons were open, revealing the hollow at the base of his throat and just the lightest sprinkling of his chest hair. Even now, confused and unhappy as she was, that little flash of flesh made her want to touch him. She curled her fingers into fists.
David didn’t seem to notice, he simply sat straight and still, eyes locked on hers. “I’m your accountant, Kris. I just had to check your accounts. When I saw the charge for the travel agency, I had Betty match your flight arrangements.”
He what? “You invaded my privacy?”
“You ran away.” Which wasn’t an answer.
“I told you I needed to think.” She also needed to kill her travel agent.
“But you didn’t tell me why.”
“Didn’t I?” she snapped, feeling trapped and angry. How dare he follow her like this? “I needed time to myself, David. You of all people should respect that.”
“According to you, you’ve had nothing but time to yourself but you have yet to come to a conclusion about whatever your problem is. Maybe what you need is time with me.”
The obvious hit her suddenly. “What are you doing here? I thought you were too busy to travel.”
He sighed. It was small. More like a deep breath, but she knew every nuance of this man, who could give a marble statue a run for its money on expressionlessness. It was definitely a sigh, and a slightly frustrated one at that. “You needed me.”
Oh, please. “I gave you back your ring, David. In most circles, people know that means a breakup. Which, in case you were wondering, means I don’t need you.”
He remained still, not a flicker in his even gaze. She, on the other hand, was shaking and her eyes were burning with gathering tears. Damn him for this. For taking what little pride she had left. Couldn’t he show some hurt? Something?
“Is that what you were doing? Breaking up with me?”
“What else could it be?” She tried to roll off the other side of the chaise, but he suddenly looped his arm around her legs, trapping her. She glared at him. “Besides, aren’t you the one always reminding me that we have a contract instead of a relationship? What was there to break up?”
“I never said ‘instead’.”
He hadn’t, actually. Krista crossed her arms over her breasts. “You might as well have.”
“I don’t want this to end, Krista.” His voice was soft, husky, carried to her more by the wind than by him.
Against her will, she softened. Ending their agreement probably had come out of left field for him. “Your business will be fine. The groundwork is laid, it’ll keep growing even without me.”
“I don’t mean our contract.”
“Then what do you mean?”
The intensity radiating from his eyes speared her. “Us.” He swallowed. “I don’t want us to end.”
If he’d grabbed her and thrown her over his shoulder, he couldn’t have surprised her more. Technically, this was as close to such an action as David had ever gotten. But she’d gotten her hopes up too many times and been met with his special brand of indifference not to be wary now. Especially now. “Why?”
He finally looked away, discomfited. The breeze fluttered the ends of his hair, mussing the short strands the way she so often wanted to.
“If you don’t even know why—”
“I know why. I just don’t know how to say it right. I don’t want to hurt your feelings by saying it wrong again.”
“You’ve never worried about my feelings before.” But her stupid heart picked up its pace at the thought that he might be worried now. Stop looking for hope where there is none, she told herself sternly.
He lifted his chin and snagged her gaze. “I’ve always worried. You just never said you minded.”
“And I have to say everything? You can’t figure a few things out on your own?”
“I didn’t know I was supposed to.” He turned his gaze to the water beyond the deck, the smooth warmth of his side pressing tight to her legs. So cool, so unaffected.
Even now, looking at the proud lines of his face, feeling his warmth, knowing she could reach out and touch him had her belly tightening, the slick sensation at her center both familiar and depressing. Her body craved his, reacting to his intensity, his scent, his feel, like a Pavlovian parody. She didn’t want this, but she wanted him. Could almost feel him inside her, memory such an evil, insidious traitor.
Would he notice if she rubbed very slowly down his flank? Would it register to him at all if she stole just one more touch? One more dose of his singular pleasure? Call her a moron, but she did love him. Telling him something like that wasn’t possible; touch was the only outlet she’d had. It hadn’t taken any time at all to become addicted. Soon enough, that would be gone too. But not yet…
“What else haven’t I figured out?”
His sudden question made her jump. “What?”
“You said I needed to figure a few things out on my own. What else am I missing?”
She gurgled. She actually gurgled.
His brows rose and that hint of a smile curved his lips. She hated that smile. It was secret. Almost as if he didn’t know he were making it and she’d never seen him give it to anyone else. That smile always made her think he was implying things everyone else with a brain could tell he wasn’t. “I know you care about me. You wouldn’t be so responsive to me sexually if you didn’t.”
Maybe she should stop thinking about rubbing him and instead consider kicking him. Perhaps over the deck.
“I know you value me as a person, because you listen to me and my concerns. You help me instead of mocking me.”
“You wouldn’t get it if I was mocking you.” He didn’t seem to when anyone else did.
“I might not get it, but I’d know. I’ve always known when it was happening. There just didn’t seem to be much point in addressing it.”
“So you’re telling me that you’re secretly observant.” That would be the day.
“I’ve had to be. My father wasn’t capable of conveying what I needed to know in that capacity. I’ve had to teach myself.”
He never said much more than that about his father. His mother had died when he was too young to remember her, leaving him with a man who made David look like an emotional giant. She’d met Steven Ellison on multiple occasions. A wickedly brilliant mathematician, but a human icicle. The fact that she’d slept with David for the first time the same night she’d met the older man wasn’t exactly a shocker.
“But observing doesn’t mean understanding. Especially not nuance. I know every expression you’ve ever made, but I don’t always understand what they mean. The one on your face right now, for instance. I’m pretty sure you’re unhappy. But I don’t know about what.”
He didn’t know. Why was she surprised? Of course he didn’t know. He never seemed to know. Not when she needed him to hold her, just put his arms around her and help her feel protected. Not when she ached for him, when her skin throbbed for his touch and her body all but begged to be filled. She always had to ask, to show him what she needed. Had to lay herself bare while he kept everything behind that wall of silence. Well, she didn’t want to be quiet anymore. And she wasn’t about to beg for him to touch her either. Her body would have to learn to crave something else.
“Maybe because you invaded my privacy and my trust to follow me out here. Or how about that you’re pushing me to tell you things you should already damn well know.” She kicked out with her legs, surprising him enough to let her go. In an instant she was on her feet, heading into the bungalow, mad enough to find something heavy and throw it at him.
Worse, he didn’t seem upset in the slightest. “Krista, I’m just asking you to tell me what’s happening. Why won’t you talk to me?”
She pushed her way into the bungalow and decided, what the hell. He wanted to know so bad? Let him try to deal with her problems and see how he did. “Because I’m pregnant, you jerk.”
Then she slammed the door and had the hollow satisfaction of silence in her wake.
Forty-eight minutes later, Krista peeked out her bedroom to look through the front French doors. Even with the filmy curtains in the way, she could tell that David hadn’t moved an inch. He was still parked on the chaise, legs thrust outward, though she could see that his feet were lying haphazardly in front of him.
She bit her upper lip, remorse filling her. She really shouldn’t have told him like that, but her temper had been getting closer and closer to the surface for months. Resentment at not being the love of his life grew with each day, never being resolved or even addressed. Sadly, she’d have been happy just being a love of his life, but her doubts that David Ellison could love at all eroded at her. Finding out three weeks ago that she was pregnant had dropped the bottom out of her world.
Tilting at windmills was fine when no one else was involved. Bringing a baby into the mess she’d created by following her hormones instead of her head… It made for a hell of a wakeup call.
The problem was that David wasn’t the one who needed waking.
Gathering her inner fortitude, Krista knew she owed him an apology. He’d flown thousands of miles for more than that, though. He’d come for an explanation. She wasn’t sure she had one to give him.
He didn’t react to the sound of the door opening or even when she sat next to him. His hands remained clenched on his thighs and his gaze stayed locked on the sea. Not good.
“Are you okay?”
A muscle ticked in his cheek. Really not good. Ashamed of herself, Krista folded her own hands in her lap and sighed. The Tahitian sunlight on her shoulders weighed three tons. “I shouldn’t have told you about the baby that way, I’m sorry. When I found out, I had all these plans to tell you over a special dinner, with candlelight and a present and everything.”
She looked over at his profile, but he still wasn’t responding. She stared down again, wishing she could make herself shut up. But when all else fails, blurt.
“I had everything ready, you even came over, just the way you said you would. But when the time came, I…I couldn’t get the words out. I don’t know why. I just couldn’t tell you. And the more I couldn’t say it, the angrier I got at you. I guess if I could make it your fault, somehow, that I couldn’t say it, then I wouldn’t have to feel so guilty for not letting you know.”
His hands flexed, the fabric of his slacks loosening, then bunching again under his grip.
“I know we always planned to have children…someday.” Someday just came so quick. And with it the knowledge that she’d been fooling herself. Loving him when he couldn’t love her, it hurt too much. She’d never survive, not the part of herself that had learned to stand on her own. It would crumble under the pressure to be whatever he reacted to. Just like with her father, she’d turn herself into a pretzel for his approval, for any sign of his respect. That was the knowledge that had her packing her bags and running for her life. Just the thought of going back to being someone’s helpless automaton. No. She’d do a lot of things for him, but she couldn’t allow herself to beg for his affection. To lose the threads of independence she’d worked so hard to weave.
“When it happened, I knew I couldn’t go on with that contract. I couldn’t trap myself into a loveless existence for the rest of my life. I want more than that.” She took a breath and straightened her shoulders. “I deserve more than that.”
His silence stung more with every passing second. “Say something, David,” she whispered, cheeks burning.
“I had no idea you thought so little of me.”
She blinked, startled. “What are you talking about? I think the world of you. You know that. I have the highest respect for you.” Losing her respect for herself was why she had to go.
“But you don’t want me to marry you.”
She choked. “That’s not what I said.”
His stare could have cut glass. “Then what did you say? Because it sounded like you were content to marry me until you realized you were pregnant. Then, suddenly, I wasn’t good enough for you.”
“No, David. No. It’s not about anyone being good enough. It’s because you don’t love me.”
“You’re sure of that?”
A bitter laugh tore straight from her heart. “You’ve told me often enough. Yes, I’m sure.”
“And I’m sure I’ve never said anything of the kind.”
His anger gave her a moment’s second guess. But how else should she have interpreted his distance for all things emotional? His ability to relegate her to unimportance without effort or remorse? No. He liked her. He wasn’t adverse to sex but sex wasn’t love.
“How can you be so sure when I had no idea what to call my feelings until this morning?”
This morning? “You mean, after I left?” At his curt nod, Krista shook her head. “That’s not love. That’s a normal response to rejection.”
Disappointment tinged his expression. “For someone so concerned about feelings, you don’t seem very worried about mine.”
Maybe. She didn’t want to think that was true, but she had to make him understand. “I don’t mean to hurt you. You’re right, I do care about you.” Her voice broke. Care seemed such a pale word for her feelings. From the first moment they met, she’d felt a connection to him. An understanding that ran deeper than words. But after a while, she’d wanted the words anyway…and he couldn’t give them to her.
“And I know you care about me, too. Or you wouldn’t respond sexually either,” she added, a mocking smile twisting her mouth. He probably wouldn’t like that line of reasoning any more than she had, now that the shoe was on the other foot. “I’ve just come to the conclusion that maybe choosing your life partner logically, for mutual benefits, the way we did, isn’t the best way to go about it.”
“It worked for centuries before us,” he interjected tightly.
“Then it’s not the best way for me.” She forced her voice to be firm. “I want a man who loves me. Who’s dedicated to me, no matter what happens or how hard our lives get.”
“And you don’t think that’s me? You think I’d leave you because our lives got difficult?” He said the word as if it were laughable. As if she had no idea what difficult really meant.
The implication hurt but she refused to let it temper her response—it would only give him a foothold for argument later. “I think not being emotionally tied to a person can make a difficult situation harder. I think I need someone who will hold me when I’m emotional. Not someone who’ll push me away because my emotions are messy.”
He frowned, probably beginning to understand.
Krista reached over and took his hand in hers. “You’re a good man, David. The best man I know. I’m proud that this baby is yours. Ours.” She looked down at the belly that had yet to curve outward. Nine weeks along and still, no changes she could see. Only a sensitivity to her skin and an unhappy propensity for losing her lunch. The baby was apparently as polite a visitor as its father. “I just want more than you can give.”
“What if I could?”
She blinked, tilting her head, as it was definitely her turn to frown. “If you could what?”
“Give you what you need. Be what you want.”
“David, I’m not asking you to change—”
“No, you’re just asking me to leave.”
And take my heart with you. “Yes.”
He shook his head. “I can’t do that.”
Sighing didn’t do much to make her feel better. She tried to let go of his hand, but he held tight. “If this is about staying close to the baby, I promise, you’ll have every opportunity to be part of its life.”
“It is and it isn’t. I want to be a father, yes. I always wanted that.” He’d been the first one to mention children when they’d begun talking about marriage. “But I want you, Krista. More than anything else, I want you.”
Her breath shuttered and her heart absolutely stopped. He looked so earnest, so true. All the way down to her soul, she wanted to believe him. But the same heart that stopped for him feared how much he could hurt her. So she asked the one question she knew he’d never be able to answer. “Why?”
His mouth firmed, quirking at the corners as he tried to find the words she wanted to hear. She knew that habit well. He never understood how much she wanted to know what he needed to say.
Rather than watch him struggle, she leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his lips. A goodbye kiss. He must have realized, because he held on. Held so tight she knew his hand would leave a mark on her wrist, if only for a few moments. Nothing like the indelible mark he’d made on her soul.
She pulled away and stood, lifting her hands out of his hold. This time, his frown could have been grooved into his face for years.
“You should go home. Get some rest. There’ll be a lot of work for you on Monday.”
“I don’t care.”
“Oh yes you do.” More than anything.
“No, Krista. I don’t. I’m not going anywhere. Not without you.”
“I’m not leaving. I’m staying here until you believe me.” Implacable. His voice brooked no argument. But that was the beauty of their relationship. They never had to argue.
She walked back inside and when she left this time, she didn’t look back.
Taylor groaned in her bed, and not because anything good was going on. Opening one eye, she focused slowly on the alarm clock phone next to her bed. Two a.m. Two. She hadn’t even been asleep for an hour.
“Make it stop,” Frankie complained from under the pillow next to her.
She snatched the cordless receiver off the base and hit the talk button. “This had better be good.”
“She doesn’t believe me.” Blunt. No trace of apology. Could only be one guy.
“This couldn’t wait until breakfast, Mr. Ellison?”
“No, I need you to fax a document for me. I should have called earlier, but I needed the time to think. I haven’t even found anywhere to sleep yet.”
“You’re in Tahiti,” Taylor reminded him, squeezing her eye shut again. “Find an all-night bar. You’ll be fine.”
“You don’t understand. I need that contract. For Krista. She doesn’t believe I have feelings for her. Any. At all. It’s the only way to prove that I do.”
Damn it. He did not pay anywhere near good enough to expect Dear Abby duty. “I’m trying really hard to feel bad for you, Mr. Ellison. I really am. But it’s two in the morning and my boss is kind of psychotic about me opening the office on time.”
“She’s pregnant, Taylor.”
That opened her eyes.
“I can’t lose her.”
Maaaaaan. What was she supposed to say to that? Unwillingly opening her eyes, Taylor propped herself up on her free arm and tried to rub the webs from her mind. “Did you tell her that?”
“Trying is for pussies,” she grumbled, wishing not for the first time that Frankie hadn’t talked her into quitting smoking. Too late, she remembered who she was talking to. At his continued silence, she sighed. “Sorry, that’s what happens when you wake people up at ungodly hours.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He probably would. He’d still call, if it suited his purposes, but he wouldn’t be surprised.
“What I’m getting at is that you have to tell her how you feel. Not make some half-assed attempt and tell yourself you gave it a good shot. Cough it up or quit complaining.”
“I’m not sure telling her would be enough at this point. She wouldn’t even talk about it.”
Wow, when Krista grew a pair, she made them out of solid brass. “Sounds like you need to make one of those over-the-top, grand gesture type things.”
“Like what?” For a guy who sucked at expressing himself, incredulity came across perfectly.
“I don’t know. You’re at a freaking island getaway. There’s got to be something romantic you can do.”
Taylor barely kept from smacking her hand on her own face in frustration. This man wouldn’t know romance if it came down from heaven and crapped on his head. “Yeah. You know, moonlit serenades. Flowers and luaus. Promises you plan to actually keep. Say stuff in public you wouldn’t say by yourself in the dark, underground. That kind of stuff.”
“And women need this?”
“Your woman does. And for future reference, it’s not a one-time deal. This is the kind of stuff you’re always going to have to do.” Damn, she should charge for this shit. It was golden.
“If that’s the case, this is going to get uncomfortable.”
“Call it breaking in for the kid. ’Cause let me tell you, kids are completely uncomfortable.” Carrying them, having them, feeding them, cleaning up the unholy things that came out of them. She shuddered.
“Yes,” he replied and damn if he didn’t sound wistful. Poor sap. She gave Mr. Ordered and Organized all of two weeks in newborn hell before he ran out screaming. “If you want her back, really want her back, she’s got to start thinking of you in romantic terms. No, wait. She’s got to see that you see her that way. I’m pretty sure treating her like office equipment is what got you into this mess.”
“Okay. That makes sense.”
Perfect, because she was pulling this shit straight out of her ass. Movement caught her eye and she turned to the man next to her. Frankie propped himself on one hand, watching her with a lunatic grin on his pretty face.
“Shut up,” she mouthed, picking up her pillow and throwing it at his head. He batted it down with a laugh.
“What if she still doesn’t believe me?”
“If you’re as obnoxious about this with her as you are with me, she’ll get it.”
Taylor rolled her eyes. “Of course not, sir. And I’m sure as soon as the sun comes up and I call my union rep about this, he’ll totally agree with me.”
“You’re not in a union.”
A weird noise that could have been a growl rumbled through her throat. “Sarcasm is lost on you, isn’t it?”
“Not lost, no. I simply don’t see the value.”
“It’s extremely satisfying.”
“Not to the person on the receiving end.”
“Well, Sherlock, that’s because it isn’t supposed to be. Now, do yourself a favor and wind down that over-thinking brain of yours. Get some sleep. When you wake up, it’ll be a whole new Tahiti. You’ll have the energy to go and convince your finally sane fiancée that you’re the guy for her.”
“What did your boyfriend say to convince you?”
Taylor glanced at Frankie lying on his side, black hair mussed, still smiling, all his dimples winking, and shook her head. Frankie’s convincing argument to move in together had been successive multiple orgasms. “He promised he’d give me everything I needed.” Not a lie. She’d been begging for release at the time. She flicked her mind back on track. “Just remember. Grand gesture. Show her how you really feel. She knows you’re not the kind of guy who lies to get what he wants. She’ll believe you and the three of you can get back to living boringly ever after.”
“As opposed to having clandestine sexual adventures in other people’s offices?”
Taylor smiled, for once genuinely pleased with her boss. “And here I didn’t think you had it in you. Now go show Krista. And don’t ever call before dawn again or I swear I’ll stop washing your coffee pot.” She hung up with a beep and dropped her face into her other pillow.
“That was kinda cute, babe.” Frankie laughed, making her groan. “You, giving romantic advice.”
“It’s not cute.”
“It’s like watching Pacino give soprano singing lessons.”
“Leave me alone, Frankie.”
“No, seriously. You’re the most unromantic woman I’ve ever met in my life. The only time I ever gave you flowers you insisted I was sleeping with someone else.”
Dammit, was she never going to live that down? “What was I supposed to think? You’d never done it before!”
“It was Valentine’s Day, dufus.”
Her cheeks stung, but no matter how much she liked Frankie, she wasn’t about to admit that she’d never had a boyfriend for Valentine’s Day in her life. On purpose. He’d get way too big a head about it. She grumbled on principle and turned away from him. Her gaze caught the phone and she sighed. Maybe he was right. For all she knew, she was giving her boss the keys to killing the only relationship he had a prayer of getting.
A soft kiss pressed to her shoulder, followed by another one, higher on her back. Then another. “Don’t worry, Tay. I like you unromantic.”
“Yeah, right.” She curved her neck for another kiss, which he gave, pressing his warm body to hers.
“No, I do.” His legs moved to twine with hers while his hand slid over her hip to cup her waist. She sighed. A man like Frankie was an excellent reason to sleep naked. “There’s never any bullshit with you. You say what you mean and mean what you say. That’s sexy as hell.”
So was the way his touch was drifting up to her breast. “You’re just saying that.” A delicious shiver went through her at the brush of his stubble against her neck.
“I could try to show you.” He pressed his erection, hot and insistent, against her ass. His hand finally found her breast, those calluses of his rubbing her nipple in the way that made one eye roll up in her head.
She shifted onto her back, falling onto his arm and looking up at his smiling face. She grinned up at him. “Didn’t you hear me earlier? Trying’s for pussies.”
“Guess I’ll have to get it right then.” He looked entirely too pleased with himself when his fingers dipped into her, massaging circles around her opening. Little stars decorated her vision, making her blink. “You know the other thing I love about you, Tay?”
“Shh.” She put her finger to his lips. “You’re busy.”
His tongue flicked out, tickling the tip while he matched the motion on her clit. She gasped and he grinned. “You’re so fucking responsive.”
Or just responsive to fucking, she thought hazily, shivering at his rough whisper. At least, with Frankie she was. She’d been able to ignore other lovers whenever she wanted. All Frankie had to do was breathe in her direction and she was wet.
He lowered his mouth to her nipple, adding it to his list of flickable things. She whimpered, relieved when he sucked it deep into his mouth. Relief disappeared, though, when his thick finger slid all the way into her. Then all she felt was the heat he stirred, his stroking of the bundle of nerves nestled in her walls making her shake. He switched breasts, added a finger and subtly removed her connection to her brain.
“I can’t decide what I love more,” he rumbled, lifting his head to look at her with those melting brown eyes of his. “Eating you or fucking you?”
Was she supposed to know? She bit her lip, not quite sure what she wanted either. The ball of his hand pressed against her clit. Her legs fell open and she didn’t care which one he chose, so long as he picked one quick.
He moved, the crisp feel of his body hair tickling her skin as he all but dove for the space between her thighs. “Dessert first,” was all the warning she got. Then his mouth was there, sucking on her clit, toying with it, nibbling at her, and all she could do was scream.
Taylor was still shuddering when the broad head of his cock pushed into her and his groan floated through her ears. Legs quaking, full of hot, surging male to the point that she couldn’t feel or think of anything else, she began to rise. Muscles strained, her breasts bounced and the unbelievably sweet tension in her pussy coiled tighter and tighter. She grabbed the headboard, panting now, staring up at Frankie, utterly mesmerized by his every flex and withdrawal. So raw, so male, so unapologetically sexual. His smile was more a twist of his lips, and when his thrusts turned into fast, jutting pulses, she had no choice but to close her eyes.
He dropped over her, pushing one of her legs wider and drawing a desperate wail from her. Harder, deeper he pushed. “Look at me, Taylor.”
“Uh-uh.” If she looked, he’d see what she didn’t want him to see.
“Open those eyes, baby.” His hand slipped between them, stroking her clit downward when he thrust upward. The shock of it gave him what he wanted and the look that greeted her scared her more than anything else. Until he spoke. “I want to see your face when I tell you…I just love you, Tay.”
He squeezed her clit, stealing her breath and doing a hell of a lot more than decorating her vision with stars. He groaned, his thrusts wild and artless while he pumped into her, exploding with her.
She held him, drawing in gulping breaths, and closed her eyes again. He so did not play fair. He waited in her hold, nuzzling, still moving through her folds as if he just couldn’t help himself. He could. She knew he could. He was waiting for her to give him what he’d been after from the beginning.
She glanced at the phone, thinking again of her boss who was now on his own in Tahiti, chasing after what she was trying so hard to avoid. Because of the two of them, David Ellison was this close to losing it. Who was she to throw it away? All Frankie wanted was the truth and she was unfortunate enough that guilt turned her honest every time.
Frankie lifted his head, his dark gaze boring into her. Waiting.
“Fine,” she growled breathlessly, which totally ruined the effect of growling. “I love you too, asshole.”
God, Ellison, I hope you have better luck than I do.
But when Frankie rose up to kiss her senseless, she really wasn’t sure that was possible.
The serenade idea was definitely out, David decided from his perch on the beach. With nowhere to go, his only option had been to sit near the shore and watch the water darken as the sun went down. The hotel lights glinted off the rolling waves, and people were a constant traffic, no matter the time of night, but none of that distracted him. The bungalows formed a strand to the west, a series of pyramid-shaped grass roofs creating a hopscotch pattern into the sea. He could see the water rolling through the stilts that supported each one and the pier used to reach them. Hers was perfectly clear from his seat, but it might as well have been a thousand miles away considering his inability to reach her.
Taylor hadn’t been the help he’d been hoping for. Her ideas weren’t any better than his own. If there were anything that would definitely send Krista running again, it would be the sound of his singing voice. Flowers didn’t strike him as a big enough gesture. They practically flew on the breeze here. No, she had to take him seriously. Dying plants wouldn’t cut it.
Her last thought, though…
Could he really make obnoxiousness work? He preferred to call it obstinacy, but the effect was the same. Stand his ground. Force her to listen, somehow. He knew if he could just get the words right, she’d understand how much she meant to him. The problem was that she was so eager to have him gone, she never gave him the time to find them.
What if he had the time he needed, whether she liked it or not?
Tempting, very tempting. Enough so that he stood, dusting the sand off his pants so he could walk and think a little more clearly. His shoes, sand-scuffed and heavy, kicked up clomps of the wet stuff with a strangely satisfying sucking sound while he paced.
They did have a contract, even if he’d been trying to get Taylor to fax it so he could light the damn thing on fire. As a plan it could work. Provided he could really do this. Convince her that his feelings were dependable. Odds weren’t exceptional, considering he was still grappling to understand them in the first place.
Being with Krista had changed him in ways he never expected. He’d stopped apologizing for being different. Stopped being defensive when people made assumptions about him. He was a better person now, more connected to her and through her, to the world beyond his work. He saw that bright as day, but somehow she couldn’t. But then, she had no idea how it used to be.
Life with his father had been a lonely experience. Steven Ellison’s devotion to his son was true, but his autism interfered in ways neither could overcome. Steven required his son to speak a different language—mathematics—in a way others wouldn’t understand. He wasn’t comfortable with hugs or words or, in most instances, excessive noise. His face was still nearly unlined by expression because he couldn’t grasp the nuance of a frown or a smile or those strange configurations in the middle that David didn’t quite grasp either. He almost never made eye contact with anyone and spoke with the soft rustiness of vocal cords rarely used. If Steven’s mother hadn’t arranged a brief marriage for him, David wouldn’t exist. By the time David could walk, both his grandmother and his mother had died and his father was all he had.
But when David began to grasp numbers, something as simple as counting, they’d found a way to connect. Steven didn’t mind counting to a million, just to see if he could. There was praise there, in watching his father’s eyes light up if David could solve a difficult problem. If he could present a theorem or comprehend a concept that Steven worked for months on. Most of their time together centered around proofs and there was a special kind of happiness in that.
But it wasn’t the kind of happiness he could extend to Krista. Her lashes had flickered often when he’d introduced her to his father. Not because she was unkind or repulsed. He realized later that she was confused, the things his father said swirling over her head. She probably didn’t know Steven had approved of her, referring to her symmetry and the surprising variation of colors in her hair. There were many things she probably didn’t know.
Like the way he would stay up some nights, memorizing the rhythm of her heartbeat. Or that when she kissed him, every thought, any thought, in his head simply evaporated. That the first time he saw her he nearly tripped over his own feet, or that a day hadn’t passed since that he hadn’t come up with a reason to spend some kind of time with her. The whole contract idea, presenting a business relationship extended into personal arenas, had been devised because he couldn’t think of any other reason she might want to spend more time with him after he sorted out her finances, and he hadn’t been willing to let her go. He still wasn’t.
He found himself next to her landing, the sky still black, the breeze cool and the ocean beyond glowing where it rolled toward the shore. The party from earlier was still going on, lights and laughter pouring from every window of the large hut. People sat on the deck, huddled in small groups on the walkway, sometimes in threes and fours. He saw three sets of couples as he came closer, two of them sets of men talking with broad gestures and bright-colored drinks in hand. But the last couple, he noted, his brows crashing together, was a man and a woman.
“I should be getting back inside,” Krista said again. The guys in Bungalow Four—Ricky, Stevie, Jake and Cobb—hadn’t taken no for an answer and had finally drawn her into the party. At first, she’d been a little concerned that she might be the only woman there, but it turned out the guys had invited half the island. Or half the island had simply stumbled in, it was difficult to tell. At any rate, the four of them were perhaps the nicest men she’d ever come across.
Ricky and Stevie were the twin underwear models, she learned. Jake—or Cranky, as she’d mentally nicknamed him—was a stuntman and Cobb…well, no one knew quite what Cobb did for a living. He just seemed to happily float along in a blur of fashion, music, hair styling and Manhattans. After getting her over for some hors d’oeuvres, Cobb was content to float next to her like kelp tied to her ankle. She could shake and shake, but he stayed firmly by her side.
“Whoa, hot babe alert.” Cobb’s big hand suddenly grabbed her wrist as he walked her back to her bungalow. “Defcon five.”
She jerked her attention to the walkup and almost choked. David. Given the heavy pace of his walk and the lines of barely restrained fury on his face, she thought he probably had the wrong idea about the man next to her.
Cobb leaned down close to Krista’s face, distracting her from the stupidly arousing effect of her ex’s flaring masculinity, and asked, “Is my breath all right? What about my hair? Oh my God, Ricky is so not going to believe this!” He straightened, raising his chin and shifting his shoulders so his powerful bare chest looked even more impressive.
“Down, boy,” she murmured, tempted to laugh at what could only end in dissatisfaction for the young man. Even if David weren’t straight as a steel support beam and twice as unbending, Cobb wouldn’t get as effusive a response as he was no doubt used to. “I’m pretty sure this one’s for me,” she added as David came to stop in front of them. She fought to hold in a sigh. Truly unfair that there are few things sexier than a man who thinks he’s got something to claim. And he definitely thought she was his.
He eyed the clasp Cobb still had on her wrist before nearly roasting the man next to her alive with a burning glare. “Would you mind letting go of my fiancée?”
Cobb glanced down at the indicated grip and let go with a moue of dismay. “Luc-kee,” he mumbled, his densely lashed green eyes fluttering briefly before he did what David asked.
Krista, on the other hand, had no interest in doing anything David said. She clasped hands with Cobb’s, going so far as to twine their fingers. “I’m not your fiancée. I’ll do what I like.”
David’s eyes flickered, the blue so arctic she shivered. But she didn’t let go, even with Cobb’s fingers twisting desperately. She tightened her grip, hearing the six-foot-three, body-sculpted Adonis reduce himself to a strangled whine. The noise was so odd that even David noted it, which got Cobb to stop making it, thank God, but not to stop wriggling his hips in an effort to get away. He smiled, face reddening, green eyes blinking madly.
David’s stare nearly set fire to her skin when he aimed it her way. “Is the bungalow unlocked?”
Krista released Cobb’s fingers, frowning, unsure if she was unnerved by the question or the primal response in her belly to his silent vehemence. “Of course not.”
“I’ll need the key, then.”
“This was supposed to be my honeymoon, too, wasn’t it?” He held out his hand. “I paid for half of it.”
“You’re married?” Cobb’s disappointment didn’t seem to faze David. Of course, she realized, David probably thought the disappointment was in her direction.
Cobb looked back and forth between the two of them. Since his hand was free, he was able to slink out of her reach again. “How about I just catch you later, Krista.”
Well, that’s what she got for trying to recruit a man who thought her enemy was hotter than she was.
Without Cobb as her ticket back toward the party, she was left with David at the gate of her own bungalow. She’d make damn sure she went in alone. “Hotel’s that way. Book a room of your own.”
“Why would I do that when there’s a perfectly good one right here? One I have just as much a right to as you do.” He leaned in, voice tight, his scent catching on the warm breeze to wrap around her. His body heat radiated at the edge of her senses, teasing.
The answering want washing through her lacerated her pride. Even dogs learned after getting kicked so many times. Why couldn’t she? “What part of ‘broken up’ don’t you understand?”
“Part three, section two, line five.” He rattled off the information without notable thought. As if he’d memorized every stroke of ink it had come from.
Krista’s blink was slow and disbelieving. “You can’t possibly think you can hold me to that contract.” No one ended a relationship in writing, signed by a certified notary. No one. Or was that the line about not embarrassing the other party in a public arena? Damn.
“Why not? You signed it. Now open the gate.”
She stared at the latch. He could open it with the flick of one dexterous finger, but he was making a point. She didn’t have a choice.
“Are you trying to make me hate you?”
“No,” he replied evenly. His voice rasped, the only indication of the absolute fury she could see in his eyes. “I’m trying to make you listen to me.”
“By forcing yourself into my room?”
“No.” He grazed her cheek with his lips. “By reminding you what you’re running away from.”
“Like I could forget,” Krista murmured.
David pulled back an inch. Even he could see the “don’t touch” signals coming off her. He hated each and every one of them. She opened the gate and stormed through. “You can have the couch.”
The couch? His brow rose. He caught her about to kiss another man, a younger man—though why that qualified, he wasn’t sure, but it did—and she thought he cared where he slept? If it meant keeping her from someone else, he’d lie across the damn gate and be happy about it.
She pulled her card key from her back pocket and sliced it through the gold lock on the French doors. The doors opened inward, revealing the blue glow of the ocean water lighting up the living room from the floor. So much for sleeping. That would keep him up like an interrogation light.
He followed her in, closing the doors firmly as she walked on toward the kitchen and the hallway leading deeper into the bungalow. He glanced around, calculating how much a place like this would go for. Fancy glass floor in the living room and dining room, hardwood everywhere else. Woven linen wallpaper. Fresh flowers in gleaming glass vases on nearly every surface. Genuine rattan furniture outside, along with heavy dark wood pieces for the living areas. Marble countertops in the kitchen, which was easily twice the size of his own at home. The bedrooms would no doubt reflect the casual opulence surrounding him already.
His income had more than tripled in the last two years, but he’d been grossly overestimating his input when he said he’d paid for half this vacation. He’d maybe paid for the rental of the chaise on the deck, he thought with a regretful shake of his head.
He’d seen that other man lean down close to her, about to put his mouth on her, and all reason had fled, leaving him with a need to separate them if he had to knock the guy to the ground to do it. When she’d rejected him, he’d let his temper do the talking and now she was even angrier with him. One step forward, two steps back.
Maybe three, given her own temper.
Four, if he counted how much she’d spent to be away from him.
Despite what he’d told her, the truth was that Taylor had checked Krista’s answering machine and found a message from Betty. A few glib lines from the secretary he had no idea was so sneaky, and the travel agent had spilled all kinds of information for him, but only after making Taylor promise not to tell Krista. Perhaps it was a promise he shouldn’t have kept, but he hadn’t expected a place like this.
He knew every aspect of her finances. He’d taught her how to handle them herself, and she’d taken to it well, determined to have control over her own future, something he’d been proud to help her do. She hardly needed him anymore in that respect. She worked hard, lived on what she earned, and he knew to the penny what was in her savings. She didn’t have enough to cover this trip on her own. Which meant he’d done more than push her into running. He’d pushed her into doing the thing she’d vowed never to do—dip into the trust fund her father had offered her. The one she believed was simply another of Elmore James’s machinations to lure her back into submission. And she’d done it to get away from him.
David scrubbed his face with his hand. She valued her independence. After the way her father had cut her off, showing her in no small way that he controlled her at his whim, she refused to be indebted to anyone. The trust she’d been granted on her twenty-seventh birthday had been Elmore’s bribe, she’d said, because her actual fund shouldn’t have come into maturity until she turned thirty-five. Returning her access to his money was her father’s way of trying to get her back. She’d left every penny in there as her answer.
Guilt a stone in his belly, he followed her down the hall. He reached the doorway of her bedroom in time to hear the water from a shower turning on. Any other day, he wouldn’t have thought twice about going in, or even joining her, but this didn’t seem the right time. For whatever reason, she didn’t feel connected to him anymore. It would be an even worse violation than demanding he had a right to her room.
He waited, if not patiently then quietly, while the water made pattering ripples on his imagination. He’d memorized her form almost from the first moment they met. As she bathed, he pictured her standing under the flow, trying to imagine the changes a child would make to her curves. Her breasts would be fuller, her belly curving outward inch by inch. Would they see the little hands and feet, pushing at her skin? Or would it only be something they’d have to feel? Would she let him be there to help her stay steady on the stairs to her condo? Would she let him be there to welcome their child into the world?
Scented steam drifted out of the bedroom. He had always wanted a family of his own. His mother’s death and his father’s distance left him aching for someone to talk to. Back in those days, it had been the dream of siblings, a dream he never put any stock into as his father rejected any possibility of remarriage. Later, he thought how fulfilling it had to be to have a houseful of children. Small people with huge expectations of grand holidays and weekends. People he could learn from as well as teach, as he had done with his own parent. But would this child be the only one he ever had? And how likely was he to be able to provide all that boisterousness that he craved on his own? In that respect, he definitely didn’t want to be like his father. He’d never wanted to be a parent alone. He wanted to be a parent with Krista.
She’d make an incredible mother. She was singularly patient. She had this slow smile that made you feel a thousand times more impressive than you were, for doing nearly nothing at all. And she had that habit of touching all the time. A hand on your hand. A touch to the side of the face. A caress across the back of the shoulders. As if she just wanted to remind you that you mattered to her.
He’d become addicted to those touches. Starved for them. But had he ever given any? He knew how to give her pleasure in bed. How to lead her there. But was Taylor right? Had he been negligent in giving Krista any sign at all that she mattered to him?
He frowned, his head jerking up at the sudden cutting off of the water. Stepping into the room, he blinked when she came out of the bathroom, yanking at the too-small towel she was trying to wrap around herself. He almost said something to remind her that there were most likely a dozen larger towels in the bathroom, but if she was too irritated with her own mistake to go back, she wouldn’t take his advice well. Meaning to help, he scooped the fluffy hotel robe off the back of the chair near the door and tried to fit it over her shoulders.
Krista spun with a shrieked gasp, her hands landing on his chest, faint moisture seeping through the fabric. “My God, David, you scared me half to death.”
“I didn’t mean to.” The same way he didn’t mean to notice that her towel had landed on his shoes. His hands tightened on the edges of the robe, pulling it around her shoulders. He bundled her with it, determined to ignore his inevitable physical reaction to her. He roped his arm around her back, willing her not to fight him. If she walked nude in front of him, he wasn’t sure what he’d do.
Her eyes widened when her hips pressed against his, but all he did was shake his head at her. She reared her head back, definitely intending to yank herself free of him. David lifted his hand from her shoulder, touching her cheek with the backs of his fingers.
Not sexual, he thought, willing her to understand. Just a touch to show he cared.
She stilled instantly, like a doe scenting danger, but unsure which direction was safe to go. “What are you doing?”
“Communicating.” He touched her cheek again, captivated by the soft silk of her skin.
“This doesn’t feel like communicating.” Her head tilted into his caress. That was good, wasn’t it?
“Because you’re not listening.” He let her go, hoping she’d stay close, trusting that she would. He dipped his fingers into her hair, tilting her head back just a little, so she could meet his gaze with those sleepy eyes of hers. Her lips parted in response, but she didn’t move away. The wet strands snaked over and under his fingertips before releasing him. Rather than repeat the stroke, he concentrated on how she often touched him. Fingers flexed open, he slid his palm down her arm, his hand grazing dewy drops of moisture and guiding them carefully along the length of her limb. When he reached the end, the next natural step was to take hold of her hand.
“This isn’t a good idea,” she burbled suddenly, unsteadily backing up half a step.
David followed instinctively. She still hadn’t let go of his hand. That had to mean something. He knew it did. He cupped her jaw, lowering his face to slide against the side of hers, putting his mouth close to her ear. “I just want you to hear me.”
“David…” Her whisper, laced with confusion, tore at him. Why didn’t she understand? He could hear the hurt in her, feel it in the tremble of her lips against his jaw. He clenched his eyes shut, wanting to wrap his arms around her just as tight.
She shook her head. “This isn’t helping anything.”
“Yes it is.” He let his hand duck under the open edge of the robe to grasp her still-slick hip. He continued to stroke her cheekbone with his thumb, drawing small circles along the curve. Her breath shuddered across his throat. “I’m trying to tell you. I know you can hear it, the same way I hear it from you. Hear me, Krista.”
It took a moment—a long, trembling moment—before she leaned into him, her body softening. Warm, welcoming. Perfect.
He let his stroking hand course up her back, feather light, dipping over each contour of her ribs. Following the outer swell of her breast to where it joined the muscle that led to her shoulder. It was a deep groove, a purely feminine line he would give anything to put his mouth to and worship. He traced it back down, his touch circling the deep mauve point of her nipple. It was already taut, but he rubbed it gently anyway, before covering it with his palm. Her heartbeat fluttered wildly under his hand. He bowed his head to press a kiss there, over her breastbone. Chaste. Not to seduce, though he knew that’s where this would likely end. But not before she knew, without a doubt, that he wasn’t trying to silence her. He wasn’t trying to force her to stay. He just wanted her to know how much she meant to him.
He would kiss every inch of her body, soothe her with touch, give her an infinite amount of time and every drop of his effort. She needed to feel what he couldn’t seem to say in a way she’d accept. She wanted smooth and flowery words. Not struggles. Not tangled thoughts that defied explanation. He might never be able to give that to her, but there was no mistaking his meaning this way. If he’d wanted just sex, he could take it and she’d enjoy it, but it wouldn’t be this. This was loving her, promising her everything he was. Only her. Only ever her.
“Please, David, don’t do this to me,” she murmured and he froze.
“Do what?” he asked carefully, breathing in the soft floral scent of her skin. As he said the words, his lips grazed the highest curve of her breast. His mouth watered, wanting a taste.
Her voice was thick, an almost strangled whisper. “You’re trying to make me feel and it’s not fair.”
What wasn’t fair about it? He felt. Or didn’t that matter? “Nothing about this situation is fair,” he decided, thinking of how much she needed that he hadn’t seen, hadn’t realized she wanted. It wasn’t fair at all that he’d been so unprepared to give any of it to her. But he could learn. He was learning right now. “We can fix that.”
“With sex?” Her ire was starting to get past the desirous glaze to her eyes.
The ire disappeared, eclipsed by a flinch of true pain. She closed her eyes, slowly, her body somehow heavier with the weight of her disappointment. Damn it. Before he could fix the bluntness of his tone, she started pushing at him, her cheeks red now for all the wrong reasons. Her gaze stayed on the floor at their feet. “David—”
He couldn’t hear her tell him no. Couldn’t let her go, though he knew he should. He covered her lips with his, taking a wet, desperate taste of her. Her hands curled around his biceps and for a second, he was sure she was going to shove him. He held her tighter, deepened the kiss until he felt as if he were drowning in her. If this were the last kiss, the last time he’d hold her this way, he needed it to last.
Except, she didn’t shove. Frozen for precious seconds, she did nothing, her response completely absent. Then, when he almost gave up, her grip tightened and her tongue darted against his once, twice, before laving in a full, sensual stroke.
Taking his first relieved breath since waking up to find her gone, David let his hand drift from her jaw, easing to the back of her head to guide her into a better angle. A deeper angle. She moaned her approval, tugging urgently for more. He filled both hands with her breasts now, releasing her mouth so he could taste the mounds in his palms.
Yes, he’d had the right word before. Worship. Putting every feeling he had into her hands, across her shoulders, down her belly to the heart of her. Delving into her, drinking her down and diving in for more. But to do it the way he wanted, he had to lay her back, give her a soft place to relax. He lifted her, wrapping her legs around his waist and took her to the bed. He stepped on the robe as he strode toward it, lowering them both onto the thick duvet.
The moisture on her skin seeped through his shirt when he lay fully above her. She stared up at him through passion-stained eyes, that flush of color he loved to see pinking her skin from her nipples to her cheeks.
David caressed her lips with his, drifting over her jaw, down her throat. He licked at her nipple, laving it while he copied the motion on the other nipple with his thumb. She shifted restlessly and he drew the peak into his mouth, sucking hard and gently pinching on the other side. Her hands clenched at his wrist and in his hair, holding him in place. She quivered beneath him, reacting to each touch as if it were a firebrand.
Against her whimpers, he continued down her body, moving down her open thighs until he faced her open folds, already glistening for him. He touched her first, petting the swollen outer lips lightly. He watched her face, watched her bite her lower lip to keep from crying out when he parted them and circled the edge of her opening. The cry escaped when he did the same to her erect clitoris. Sliding a finger on each side of it, he lowered his mouth and slowly, carefully, let his tongue surround it.
It was hard not to smile while she screamed, her sex fluttering around the finger he’d slid deep at the same time.
He let her ride the wave of her orgasm, soothing her with gentle swipes of his tongue, letting her internal muscles squeeze around his fingers with only the slightest motion of his hand. He wanted her to fully enjoy each and every explosion of passion he could give her. So when her breath became slow and relaxed, he began all over again. Licking the sweetness from between the folds, replacing his finger with his tongue, sinking it inside her, pulling free only so he could suck at her clitoris again, driving them both into a frenzy he only vaguely realized he wasn’t controlling. All that mattered was bringing her to a new height, drowning her in sensation the same way she drowned him. Until words didn’t matter any more and all either of them could do was feel.
He meant to be gentle, to be careful with her, but he was ravenous and she wasn’t complaining. She was insensate, her nails scratching his shoulders, even after he folded her knees upward—almost to the mattress—so that he could tongue deeper. But it wasn’t enough. They both needed more. Needed now…
He rose up, already yanking at his shirt to pull it up over his shoulders like a T-shirt. He stopped, though, at the sight of tears streaming from her eyes. She’d cried the last time, too, and he’d ruined everything by not paying good enough attention. Letting his need for everything to be just fine get in the way. Not this time.
He reached out, touching her temple where the tears had melded into her wet hair. “Don’t cry, Krista.”
She shook her head, her lips shaking. “Why are you doing this to me? I’m finally trying to do the right thing for both of us. Why are you making this so hard?”
His whole body ached to join with hers. To ignore the emotional storm in her eyes. Instead, he reached for her hand, lifting it so he could place it over his heart. “You know why.”
She pulled her hand free. “Missing me isn’t love, David.”
“Then what is it?” What was it that made him feel absolutely hollowed out at the thought of never being with her again? Never touching her, never seeing her smile at him with that complete abandon that only she had. Wasn’t it love, then, that drove him past all reason and sense whenever she needed anything from him? That drove him to put her needs—the ones he knew about, anyway—ahead of his own? That made him willing to give up anything, even his soul, if she just asked for it?
“Let me give to you, Krista.” Give the only thing he knew how to give her right. He leaned over her, his kiss so desperate that even he knew he was this close to begging. “Hear what I’m trying to tell you.”
“I can’t,” she whispered against his mouth, and he couldn’t tell if the pain in his heart was hers or his own. But she held on to him, kissing him back. Her legs squeezed around him and her arms wound over his neck. He started to pull back, not sure at all what she meant, but she clamped tighter, lifting her hips to his. She groaned into his mouth, releasing her hold only when he burrowed his arms beneath her shoulders. How could she be so close, yet give him the insidious impression that she was slipping irrevocably away?
“It’s not enough,” she growled, her hands snaking between them, scrabbling at his belt. She had him free in what felt like seconds, her hand gripping his shaft tight, directing him into her heated slickness. She ran him through her wetness, the head gliding just past her opening and angling up over her clit, where she stroked them both against each other well enough to make him grit his teeth. Just when he couldn’t take any more, she dipped him downward. He surged into her, pushing deep and fast. She cried out, her walls tightening around him while her knees rose on either side of him.
Her fingers, he understood somewhere in the back of his fevered mind, hadn’t released him. She kept two of them and her thumb wrapped around the base of him, stroking with each movement of their bodies. He quaked, too much sensation robbing him of any chance of regaining concentration. Her other hand grazed his belly with each thrust, her rolling knuckles a tease he’d never felt before. Like a shock to his brain, he realized she was touching herself, stroking them both past oblivion.
Thought of any kind incinerated.
Recklessly, he plunged into her, conscious only of her wild cries and the tight, convulsing grip of her body. She arched beneath him, the angle of her hips changing from merely drugging to utterly mind-bending. Lost, he felt the end coming at him like a freight train. Too soon, too strong, the climax surged over him, robbing him of his breath and his strength like electricity streaking down his back.
Overwhelmed, he dropped his head to her chest, listening to her heartbeat settle from its rampaging pace to a steady one that gave his something to align itself to. He allowed himself to melt over her, lax and sated.
But not quite satisfied.
Something had been different. She had been different.
He lifted his head, catching his breath, but she wasn’t looking at him. When she brought her hand to his shoulder, she didn’t seem to have any difficulty in pushing him away. Confused, unable to do anything else, David rolled to her side, all at once feeling ridiculous and over-exposed by his own mostly dressed state. His pants were open, but every other article of his clothes was still perfectly in place. As if nothing had happened to him. And as he studied her face, her profile blank and cool, he almost wondered if anything had.
How could she be so distant? She still didn’t look at him as she slid free. Briskly, she rushed back to the shower. He listened, disbelieving, as the water turned on again. Taking the bizarre respite for what it was, he righted his pants and sat up. He ran his hand through his hair and tried to find his equilibrium. This wasn’t what he’d meant to do. It hadn’t been wrong either. So why did it feel that way?
Analytically, he tried to view the last twenty minutes with some kind of equanimity. He’d tried to touch her, to show her how he felt. Tried to reassure her. She’d balked, but she hadn’t given any indication that she didn’t want him. Even as she’d rejected his feelings, she’d clung to him, as if she were afraid to let him go. Then…then she’d taken control.
That was it. That was when the whole experience had lost what he’d been trying to give her. It hadn’t been about love. It had been sex. Raw, uncontrolled lust.
David watched her walk out of the shower, wrapped in a proper towel this time, her gaze most assuredly not on him. He could still see the blush on her cheeks as she gave him and the bed a wide berth. Blinking, he let her pass, waiting for a word, a sign, some kind of indication of what the hell had just happened.
He heard her moving around, gathering things from the closet. The rustling of her getting dressed. When she finally walked into his sights, crossing to the vanity with its massive mirror, she wasn’t wearing the nightgown he expected. Not even the fluffy white bathrobe still trampled on the floor. Instead, she wore a red-and-white-flowered sheet of some kind, wrapped around her body and knotted between her breasts, leaving her creamy shoulders bare. He straightened away from the bed, his mind racing at what was or wasn’t underneath. To his shock, she grabbed her handbag again and headed toward the door. Without a look, she moved past him.
“Where are you going?” he asked when it looked like she’d walk straight out without another word.
“Back to the party at Cobb’s.” She turned, the fabric of her outfit parting around a slim, pale thigh. Thighs that he could almost still feel clenched around his ribs. Clearly that didn’t matter anymore. “And don’t even think of following me there. You’re not invited.”
Cobb. The man she’d been with on the pier. He stifled the anger that tried to bubble through his thoughts. “I thought we would talk.”
“What made you think that? Was it when you rudely interrupted my conversation—”
“With another man,” he interjected, not sure if his temper or his ego was stinging more. She couldn’t be serious about acting like what had just happened meant nothing. Or was she pretending it hadn’t happened at all?
She went blithely on. “Or was it when you imposed yourself on my hotel room?”
It wasn’t easy to argue when she wasn’t wrong. But she wasn’t right regarding everything. “We need to talk, Krista.”
“About what? I don’t see how anything has changed.”
“What about us? What we just did?”
She shrugged, her eyes darting to the side. “Sex, pure and simple.”
“That wasn’t just sex. You felt it. You know what it was.”
Those green eyes that had always watched him with heat were cold mirrors now. “You’re right, I do. It was you hoping you could seduce me into changing my mind about us. But sex was never our problem, David. It doesn’t answer anything. It just makes us believe things we know aren’t true. We’d be stupid if we confused chemistry with emotion. I’ve been stupid long enough, thanks.”
So he was right. She’d felt what he was trying to tell her and it scared her. There weren’t a lot of feelings he knew at first glance but he knew fear. He’d lived with it all his life. He hated that she felt it now—that she felt it because of him. “Running away won’t help anything. Believe me, I know.”
“Who’s running?” She pulled the short strap of her handbag up over her shoulder. “I’m walking away, guilt free. The way I should have months ago. You wanted to be here. Fine. Enjoy the room, but don’t kid yourself that I plan to be in it. We’ve already made enough mistakes for one day, don’t you think?”
Icy anger flooded his senses. “Krista.”
She grabbed the door handle and pulled it open. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with four muscle-bound men in the next bungalow.” Then she did something truly amazing. She winked. “Don’t wait up, lover.” And she was gone.
A strange haze gave way to the clear blue water of the ocean. Krista blinked at the misty sunlight, not entirely sure how she got there. Wasn’t she just…?
Warm hands smoothed down her back, the touch as familiar and exciting as ever. David. Just like that, the worries faded away. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t sure where she was. Or where anyone else was. The beach was deserted and it was just the two of them in a private lagoon. So private he was untying the back strings of her bikini.
“What are you doing?” Was her voice echoing?
“Touching you.” She could feel his warmth against her skin, hear the water droplets echoing as they fell from his wet hands. The top fell away and his hands replaced it, drawing a groan from her as her head fell back onto his shoulder. Her nipples, hard and straining, were rolled between his fingers, making her ache from the tips of them all the way down to her warming core.
“You’re not supposed to be touching me,” she remembered. She didn’t like it when he touched her, but she couldn’t quite remember why. It felt good. His touch always felt good. He always knew exactly where to touch, how to make her melt for him. To make her scream, if he wanted to. Though, strangely, even now his touch wasn’t exactly right. It wasn’t as…intense. Usually, his hunger, his need, was like a flame around them both. This time, he was gentle. Unhurried. Un-intense.
Maybe that’s what she didn’t like.
“Maybe you feel guilty,” he murmured, kissing the side of her neck, licking here and there with teasing strokes.
“Why would I feel guilty?” She had nothing to feel guilty about. She was setting him free. Setting them both free, from a marriage plan that had lost its logic. If it ever had any to begin with.
His hand roved over the bikini bottoms and they disappeared. Just pfft! Gone, and his long fingers were sliding through her folds, hidden just beneath the water line. She watched the back of his hand against her pale belly, the slow ministrations as erotic as the feel of his fingertips gliding around her clit, delving into her entrance. His hand rolled, creating tiny waves as she shivered, her want overwhelming the questions in her mind. Then he was inside, one finger…two, moving in and out while rubbing the heel of his hand into her, heightening her need until she burned. And then he just kept giving her more. His strokes soon had her arching, moaning. Becoming desperate for a fulfillment that he wouldn’t give. “Please, David.”
“I’m trying to please you.”
Her clit throbbed in response to his voice.
“I’m trying to give to you.”
Her heart ached, almost more than her body as it strained tighter.
“Why won’t you let me?”
And just like that, it ended.
Krista woke up, blinking uncomfortably, her body wavering on the precipice of satisfaction for a single, heart-stopping second before falling backward into the definite not-satisfied arena. So it took her a few frustrated seconds to realize she was in a strange room. It wasn’t her rented bedroom, not even her bungalow. She sat up with a dawning sense of horror. She felt her chest, relieved that the pareo she’d tied was still in place. A shift of her hips told her that her panties remained as well. She blinked muzzily, rubbing at her numb cheek and trying to shake off the webs of the too-vivid—and too-pointed—dream she’d just had. So where was she?
“Oh good, you’re awake. It’s already after eleven, we thought we were going to have to come poke you with a stick.”
Krista looked up to the doorway where Ricky—no, Stevie was the one with the pierced left ear—stood with a breakfast tray. Behind him, Ricky smiled and waved. Neither seemed to realize how close her dream had come to doing just that.
“Don’t look so nervous.” Stevie chuckled, his thick blond hair falling over his forehead in perfect boyishness. “Trust me, if there was ever a safe place for a woman, it’s Cobb’s bed.”
She laughed weakly, glad for the covering miscommunication. The mortification of these two knowing she’d been having a sex dream would only be eclipsed by hearing them tell everyone they spoke to about it. One night in their presence and she already knew that no one had secrets with them around.
No one felt sexually confident, either, she’d bet. If Brad Pitt had ever been cloned, that would be the perfect explanation for them. She wondered if maybe plastic surgery was a better one. It didn’t matter. They were almost ethereally beautiful men from head to toe, graceful to match. Women who wanted them were ignored and men who stood next to them just didn’t get noticed.
They both wore only pairs of red board shorts, their gold skin and impressive muscles on open display. Part of her appreciated the sight, but most of her wanted the orange juice Ricky was holding out toward her. She didn’t like the thought in her head that the models’ perfection still managed to pale against David’s rich masculinity.
God, you have it so bad.
Stevie stuttered to a stop, tray balanced outward like a cartoon character caught mid-frame, baby blue eyes wide. “Morning sickness?”
Krista blinked. “What?”
“You made a face. And we’ve got sisters.”
A laugh unwillingly made it to her lips. “Nope, this baby is a morning person. It’s lunch he hates.”
He relaxed with a sigh and they finally brought the juice within reach. Trying not to be too greedy, Krista allowed herself a full second before grabbing for the glass. She was halfway through the sweet, pulpy goodness when Stevie offered a piece of warm golden pancake.
“So, what are you going to say to the boyfriend when you go back?”
She took the proffered fork and popped the food between her lips to buy herself some time. The men had been all kinds of accommodating when she’d showed up on their doorstep the night before, bravado gone, and asked if she could stay at the party longer. Before she knew it, she was spilling her guts to the most attentive listeners she’d ever met in her life.
Of course, then they’d gone on about their own bad breakups and shared some secrets about Cobb and Jake as well. Turned out, part of the reason for the vacation was that Jake had been dumped by the latest love of his life after he’d cleaned out Jake’s bank account and crashed his classic Malibu. The other three figured it was time to change the dating pool.
“At this point, we’d even settle for a woman,” Ricky had announced with a sigh. “No offense, but anything is better than letting him choose for himself.”
At least they’d gotten a kick out of Cobb going spastic over her ex.
“No idea,” she answered now. The only thing coming to mind to say to David was “Get out.”
Stevie grinned. “You know you don’t want him to go.”
“Oh yeah? And where’d you hear that from, John Edwards? Did you have to pick a letter first?”
The man actually managed to frown prettily. “John Edwards?”
“Psychic guy, talks to dead peop—” Krista stopped. Stevie wasn’t the kind to sit in his bunny slippers late at night waiting up for a boyfriend who couldn’t seem to get off work on time. “Never mind. Not important.”
“If you say so,” Ricky replied, still mystified. “But I still say you want to get back with him.”
Of course she wanted to get back with him. That didn’t mean she was going to do it. “What I want isn’t usually very good for me.”
“Tell me about it,” Stevie agreed emphatically. “But no one said that what’s good for you doesn’t hurt you. I mean, haven’t you ever had a colonic?”
“Stevie, man.” Ricky gave his brother a grossed-out look. “Breakfast.” He rolled his eyes before hooking his thumb over his shoulder. “Well, whatever you’re going to say, you’d better figure it out soon. He’s still over there in your bungalow. Waiting.”
Krista frowned. “How do you know that?”
“’Cause Cobb is out on the deck, watching for him,” Stevie answered. If they stood close enough, she could just about fool herself into thinking she was talking to a single person. They practically operated with the same brain. “Been there for hours. I think he’s got a real crush this time.”
“Yeah, David has that effect,” Krista grumbled around a bitter bite of pancake. At least it wasn’t just her who was turned utterly senseless by the man.
“Well, I’d at least talk to him. He could surprise you.”
Maybe. He’d surprised her by showing up there at all. But the fear of getting sucked back into a relationship that didn’t work was too strong. Ricky started out of the room, Stevie turning to follow him.
“Wait, what about you? Don’t you want any?” Krista indicated the remaining pancakes and fruit compote with her hand.
Stevie shuddered. “Oh, honey, no.” He rubbed his washboard abs. “You don’t get to looking like this if you eat things like that.”
Krista looked down at the plate, wondering if she should be regretting the two bites so far. Then again, she didn’t pose for building-sized billboards in her skivvies. That little dose of truth reminded her that the Sunshine Twins had a slightly distorted sense of reality and couldn’t be taken seriously in the slightest.
She waited until they were gone to run to the bathroom. Figuring Cobb wouldn’t begrudge her a capful of mouthwash, she did a quick ablution and walked carefully back into the social areas of the bungalow. Everyone from the party had gone. The twins had gone running and Jake appeared to be doing kitchen duty. Unhappily. Or maybe the brooding man just looked that way. It was anyone’s guess.
“Thanks for breakfast,” she said as she put the tray on the counter.
Jake, unlike the others, had some sense of modesty. He almost wore a blue shirt, but the middle hung open to reveal deeply browned muscle. It went well with the darker blue knee-length board shorts and the gleam on his black, black hair. His eyes were startlingly bright, the ocean color of the irises vivid against his tan, and his skin showed some weathering at the corners. The scar through the eyebrow probably helped rake in the prospective rotten relationships.
She sighed, shaking her head at him. If he were straight, he’d give David a real run for his money.
“Ricky and Stevie work all the lover’s lament out of you?”
She blinked at the blunt question as he tossed a dish towel over his shoulder so his hands would be free to take the tray. He tugged it, brow raised in question when she didn’t quite let go. She had to tell her fingers to release.
“What do you mean, lover’s lament?”
“I don’t mean nothin’ by it. Just, who hasn’t heard it before? He doesn’t pay enough attention to me. He doesn’t care about me anymore. And when your little bait-and-switch fails, it’s stomp, stomp, stomp, slam, slam, slam, it’s over, goodbye.” He put the dishes into the sink before looking over his shoulder at her. “Unless I have that wrong? Isn’t that what you were telling the guys last night?”
Krista frowned at him, hating that he was even partially right. “You’re a bitter soul.”
Jake laughed, a rich deep tone that probably made the women he knew have fantasies of turning him. But she heard the sardonic chill and was kind of grateful he played for the other team. “Oh, I’m bitter. Poor little rich girl doesn’t get enough attention and I’m the one with issues?”
“Oh please.” She rolled her eyes, ready to go out on the deck with Cobb to moon over David’s door. Except… “You know what? Yes, you’re the one with issues. All I said was ‘Thank you for breakfast’ and you jumped down my throat for breathing. You’d think you might be the tiniest bit grateful that I was here to absorb all the well-meaning fix-it rays going on in this place. If I weren’t, you’d be strapped to the wrong end of a banana daiquiri bar right about now.”
Jake’s glare held for a few seconds before his mouth twitched, amusement coloring his features as his hackles slowly lowered. “I didn’t know there was a wrong end of a banana daiquiri bar.”
Krista bit her lips together. She wasn’t even sure there was such a thing as a banana daiquiri bar, but it had sounded good in her head. She shrugged one shoulder, determined to carry it out.
“You’re right,” he finally sighed. “Between Ricky and Stevie trying to drag everyone on earth into a happily ever after and keeping an eye on Cobb’s spending, I’m probably more irritated than ever and I had no right to shit all over your mope.”
And he’d been doing so well apologizing. But even a gay man was just a man. “I’m not moping.”
Jake scratched the back of his head. “Wrong word, huh?”
“Ya’ think?” But she relented enough to sit on the stool in front of the counter. “So why are you watching how much Cobb spends?”
“Someone has to. Did you see how many people were here last night? Everyone drinking, eating, using things. He didn’t know half of them but all of them sure acted like he was handing out lotteries.”
Which answered the question of what Cobb did for a living. Like her, he must be a trust fund baby. “Still doesn’t answer the question. If his spending were a problem, wouldn’t his parents or his trustees step in?”
Jake took too long to formulate an answer.
Krista stiffened. “You’re not a stuntman, are you?”
“No, I am. But before that, I’m his friend.” His gaze switched out to the view of the window, where Cobb was sitting, tinkering with a guitar. She didn’t need to know him well to understand that look—longing. She wore it just about every day. “We met when he decided he was an actor for a few months. Everyone loved him, he just didn’t know it would be so much work.”
“The grueling schedule?”
“Learning the lines,” Jake corrected with a chuckle. “His parents don’t know what to do with him. Not in that bigotty way or anything. I mean, they’re not thrilled that he’s gay, but they were hoping for at least a little bit of ambition.”
Cobb hit a bad twang on the acoustic and put it down with a thump.
Jake’s eye squinted. “Problem is, Cobb’s only ambition is to meet as many people as he can. His father finally asked me to keep an eye on him, make sure no one tries to use him. God knows Cobb would never be able to figure it out.”
“And you thought I was out to use him?”
“You wouldn’t be the first woman to sneak into his bed.” He crossed his arms again.
“I didn’t sneak,” she informed him, although she still wasn’t sure how she’d gotten there in the first place. Hadn’t they all been on the couch talking? “And believe me, I wasn’t expecting company.” At least, not from Cobb. Her stubborn subconscious had still dreamt of David. And guilt. Which just went to prove she needed a new brain.
“Well, at least you’re smarter than the usual types.”
She didn’t bother holding in the snort of disbelief. “You’d need the brain of a ball-peen hammer to think Cobb was straight.”
Jake’s laugh this time was full throated.
“Hey, what’s so funny?” Cobb called through the open sliding glass door.
“Nothing, just something we saw on CNN.” Jake shook his head at her when Cobb picked up his guitar again. He added conspiratorially, “He’s allergic to the news.”
She nodded. “That explains his constant happiness.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
The conversation seemed at a happy end there, but something in her wouldn’t quite let her slide off the chair. Finally, she screwed up the nerve to ask, “What did you mean, a bait-and-switch?”
Jake’s gaze flickered again, remorse staining his face for a brief second. “Oh, I didn’t mean—”
“Yes, you did.” Vehemently. “What’s a bait-and-switch?”
Definitely uncomfortable, Jake pulled the towel off his shoulder and started wiping down counters that didn’t need wiping anymore. “It’s when you offer one thing but if the person agrees and takes you at your word, you give them something else. Gives you a reason to blame them when you want out, but really, it’s all just bullshit from the beginning so you can get your way.”
“And you think I did that to David?” The concept of Jake being unable to hold down a relationship was suddenly not so hard to believe.
“Hey, you’re not the first. People do it all the time. But yeah, I think you did. You got yourself involved with a guy you knew was the emotional equivalent of a gnat. And you told him it was okay. Then, suddenly, it’s his fault that you’re not happy with it. You lied to him, Krista. And just because you’re hurt too doesn’t make it okay.”
“But—” Except she couldn’t think of an argument. Not a good one, anyway. Her shoulders sagged. All that was left was the truth, unpalatable and cold. But Jake stood there, waiting for an explanation she hadn’t even managed to give to herself. Until now. “I don’t like who I am when I’m with him. I’m weak and I feel like I’m begging. I did that for years with my father and all it got me was disowned. I couldn’t take it if I woke up one day, twenty years from now, and had no idea who I was anymore, other than some extension of him.”
The burn in her eyes told her tears were imminent. Better not to be around Jake’s ham-fisted attempts at comfort. God only knew what kind of insult he might accidentally come up with. She shifted to get off the chair, but Jake’s hand over hers on the counter stopped her.
“There’s a simple fix for that, if you really love him.”
“Yeah, what’s that?” Damn it, a tear overflowed when she blinked, and another followed right after. And another. And another.
Krista shot him a glance.
Jake’s earnest expression, coupled with the warm squeeze of his hand, kept her from fleeing. “Tell the man what you want from him. What you really want, not what you think he wants to hear.”
Discomfort—and yes, a twinge of guilt—settled in her belly.
“Has he ever given you any indication that’s what he wants from you? If he has, hell, I’ll go over there and kick his ass myself, but from everything you said about him, I don’t think that’s the case.”
“No. It’s not.” All David ever asked for was to hold her at night. And to spend the rest of her life with him. She brushed off the tears impatiently. “So, it’s not him, is what you’re saying.”
“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe it is. I’m just saying that it sounds at least a little bit like it’s you, too.” Jake came around the breakfast bar and planted himself in the stool next to her. She turned so they could both see Cobb on the deck, now doing some kind of bizarre stretching routine. “You’ll sleep a lot better at night if you’re honest with the person lying next to you. It’s the one lesson I didn’t need to learn twice.”
Tempting, but she didn’t ask how he learned it at all. “So you don’t really care that you had another breakup?”
“Nah. Ricky and Stevie just think people not in pairs is unnatural. If I had half the drama those two imagined I do, I’d have to cut my own balls off and call myself a girl.” He tilted his head at her deferentially. “No offense.”
“You worry me, Jake. Sincerely.”
That got her a grin. “When Cobb recommended coming out to an island, I thought, hey, what the hell? Can’t beat the romantic atmosphere, right? All these flowers and water and sun. It’s the kind of place where dreams come true, you know.”
“Isn’t that ‘Fantasy Island’?”
“Yeah, I had it real bad for Ricardo Montalban when I was a kid. Tahiti sounded like the next best thing.”
Oh look, a tangent she didn’t want to follow. “So if you were me, what would you do about David?”
“Well, first I’d stop telling myself I didn’t want to be with him. Then I’d stop lying to him.”
“Stop trying to be anything but what you are, Krista. If he’s the one for you, that’s all he’ll want. Be honest with the guy. Give him a chance to be honest with you. You never know, he could surprise you.”
The same thing Ricky had said. Or was it Stevie? Either way, she guessed it was some kind of sign. Maybe one she should listen to. “Yeah, like how?”
“Well, I’m thinking if the guy followed you halfway across the ocean, it’s not ’cause you make good snicker doodle. He’s gotta care.”
“I know he cares.”
“Ever ask how much?”
No. She’d never had the courage.
Her silence must have been answer enough because Jake nodded. “Maybe you should. I mean, if you had the balls to walk away, maybe you’ve got it in you to start asking for what you want from him. At least then you won’t be wondering for the rest of your life if you did the right thing.”
“What about you?” She raised her chin to point at Cobb. The man was beautiful with his long hair gleaming like onyx and his foot stretched up in a standing split.
“Let’s fix one mess at a time, shall we?”
“Maybe,” Jake agreed with an uncharacteristic gentleness. “But Cobb’s not ready for a relationship. Cobb’s barely ready for complex carbohydrates.” He got up and rounded the bar again, heading unerringly for the fridge. “That’s part of his charm. Cobb likes things simple and easy and stress-free. I could try to tie him down, but that would just ruin something special about him. So, I stay close, I do my best to keep an eye out for him and it’s not like I’m hurting for company. You, on the other hand, you’re more than ready for your happy ending.”
She looked beyond the deck to the unblocked view of the door to her own bungalow. “What if it’s not happy?”
“Then at least you’ll know.”
She smiled at him and scooted off the stool. “You make a very unusual girlfriend, Jake, but I appreciate the advice.” She moved into the kitchen to press a kiss to his cheek.
“Hey, Jake, why do I know that old guy?” Cobb asked suddenly, startling them. She looked over, surprised to see an older man in a suit knocking on her bungalow door.
The hair was silver, not grey, and the suit was exquisitely cut. It wasn’t anyone from the hotel. That kind of suit came from the casual spending of thousands of dollars on a single item. Unless that was the owner… The man turned his head and his chiseled profile came into view.
“Oh my God,” she breathed.
“I know that old man,” Cobb muttered, loud enough to carry across the distance to her door. She rushed forward, Jake right behind her. “We don’t hang out with old guys.”
“Cobb, stop calling him old!” she snapped, already reaching for the gate to the walkway.
“Why? He’s practically ancient.”
She finally got the damn thing unlatched. “Because that’s my father!”
“Oh my God, I said be obnoxious, not an asshole!”
David sighed heavily into his cell phone. “Maybe I wasn’t aware there was a difference.”
“Well forgive me for not knowing the right word to use in Alien Cyborg.” Taylor’s grumbling was starting to grow on him, David decided as he watched the fax he’d found in a bedroom wardrobe begin to print. Closed, it looked just like any other closet. Open, it was a complete office setup. He’d waited all the way until eleven to call Taylor to remind her about the file he needed sent his way. “It’s like you’re determined to make sure she can’t stand you.”
“You know that’s not true.” If this thing with the contract didn’t get her to understand, he didn’t know what would. “I’ll admit to making a strategic error—”
“Error?” She didn’t sound pleased with his word choice.
David ignored her. Semantics, in this situation, was not his concern. “But I’m sure I can get her to understand.”
“Understand what?” Taylor asked pointedly.
And just like that, his throat closed up.
“Are you sure you can do this?” she asked softly.
“No choice.” Facing the rest of his life without Krista just wasn’t an option.
“You could always let her go. Let her be happy, like she asked.”
“I can make her happy.” Or die trying.
“I can, Taylor. I know you don’t think so, but no one knows Krista the way I do. No one cares more about her happiness than I do.”
“Okay, now you sound like a stalker.”
David forced himself to gather his patience. “I understand the struggles she’s been through, why she’s made the choices she has. I respect the person she is. She’s kind and giving and she doesn’t judge anyone. She has her own opinions and they’re intelligent opinions, even the ones I don’t agree with. And I know she doesn’t need me, all right. I understand that. But I need her.” He stopped talking abruptly, unable to believe he’d spouted all that at his secretary, of all people.
A secretary who was quiet, just like the fax that had finished printing.
“Taylor?” Did she pass out from shock? “Taylor!”
Great. If he’d stunned Taylor into incomprehensibility, Krista would probably fall in a dead faint.
The voice in his ear coughed. “Maybe you should write all that down and hand it to her.”
“Because I’m pretty sure that’s what she wants to hear. I just don’t think you have it in you to say it twice.”
Even taken aback, David allowed himself a small smile. He probably didn’t. “You think that’s what she wants?”
“I’d take you back. And between you and me, I don’t take anyone back. Ever.”
Given the prickly personality he’d uncovered the last two days, he’d have to guess she was telling the truth.
“I’ll let you know how it goes.” He hung up the phone just as he heard a knock coming from the front doors. Krista wouldn’t knock, he reasoned, walking through the hall toward the doors. And she didn’t have a shadow that tall, either.
David pulled open the doors with a frown. “Can I help you?”
An older man blinked at him with familiar eyes. “I was told this bungalow belonged to Krista James.”
“And you are?” David looked the man over. He didn’t know him, but he knew his face. Something about the square jaw, the line of the nose…those dark green eyes.
“Elmore James, her father.” The other man’s gaze hardened into a glare. “You must be the fiancé.”
David stepped out onto the deck, pulling the doors nearly closed behind him. Without a key, he’d have to make sure he could still get back in, but he most definitely wouldn’t allow the other man in without Krista’s permission.
Elmore James registered the lack of welcome with a step back and a twist to his lips. “I was under the impression she was finally through with you.”
For a moment, David second-guessed himself. She had used the trust money, something she said she’d never do. Had she called her father, too? A flurry of possibilities ran through his mind, each one tested and rejected in short order. No, however this man had been keeping tabs on his daughter, it hadn’t been because Krista had been feeding him information. That much hadn’t changed.
“I’m sorry, Mr. James, I’m not at liberty to discuss the particulars of your daughter’s relationships with you.”
James’s eyes narrowed.
“Daddy?” Krista came running down the planks, stopping at the gate with wide eyes that darted back and forth between himself and her father. Judging by her breathlessness, she was of the opinion that one of them was going to attack the other. Which, David decided, was anyone’s guess.
The older man’s face softened and when he spoke it was with considerably more warmth. “Hello, pumpkin.”
Now she really looked nervous. And waxen. Abandoning the doors, David crossed to the gate and pulled it open, taking her by the hand and leading her to the chaise they’d sat on yesterday. He settled next to her, twining her frozen fingers with his.
“What are you doing here?” Krista’s voice was barely a whisper.
“I thought it was time to end this estrangement.”
David frowned. “I thought you disowned her.” The hand in his jerked, but he held tight. It had been an honest question, but probably not tactful. She’d warned him about that before.
James angry glare returned. “This is between my daughter and me. We don’t need you and your meddling, boy.”
David let her hand go, standing to meet her father on an even level. “If she wants that, fine. But until she says otherwise, I’m staying.”
“You’d go if I told you to?”
David turned at the softly asked question. “Of course. You can handle your father just fine.”
“Now wait just one minute—”
Krista stared up at David, ignoring her father completely, a look lighting her features he wasn’t sure he could figure out. A cross between awed and incredulous. But why? This was nothing she didn’t know. Or maybe she didn’t, because she said, “You really mean that.”
What would be gained by lying?
“Do you want me to go?” It would gut him to be turned away when she clearly needed support, but it was more important that she know he respected her decisions.
She shook her head slowly and that warm, chest-tightening sensation returned, filling his whole being until the smile he gave her was completely effortless. Why had he ever tried to escape this feeling?
“I’d rather you left, Mr. Ellison.”
Krista’s sharp gaze shifted back to her father in question. “How do you know who David is? Mom wouldn’t tell you, she says she’s not getting involved.” And to date she never had, refusing to give updates on her father to Krista until “you two stubborn fools snap out of this”. Krista was absolutely sure the attitude went the other way as well.
“Naturally I’ve kept an eye on you. Made sure nothing serious happened to you while you insisted on this separation.”
“I didn’t insist on this, you did!” Color flooded to her cheeks in a rush, lighting an alarm in David’s mind he couldn’t ignore.
“Perhaps we should all go inside where this discussion can be private.” And where David could make sure she didn’t get overwrought. Wasn’t that a bad idea for pregnant women?
But Krista seemed to be handling the blood pressure elevation just fine. Her slim brows threaded together with growing suspicion. “How did you even know I was here, Dad?”
Elmore James’s slightly jowled jawline tightened, along with his faintly lined lips, but he said nothing. Even David could tell that wasn’t a good sign. Especially when Krista’s bristle shook her all the way to her fingertips.
“I knew it. I knew when you sent me that money there were strings. You have access to my trust account, don’t you? And as soon as I touched it, you knew exactly where the money went. I can’t believe you!” Her gaze flickered to David, as if she were suddenly reminded of how he’d claimed to find her as well. Something in the back of his mind told him comparisons to her father in this way wouldn’t bode well for him. But throwing Betty under the proverbial bus wasn’t an option either. Damn, another corner he’d painted himself into.
“Of course I monitored it. I’ve been waiting for you to come back to your senses. It’s been three years of this nonsense. You made your point, Krista. You can get by without my money just fine. You’ve done well for yourself, even started that planning business of yours. You’re completely self-sufficient. There’s no reason to drag out this farce any further. Look what it’s doing to your mother.”
“Mother’s fine. We talk on the phone every week.” She smiled, small and not as pleasantly as all the other smiles David had memorized. “What farce are you talking about?”
“You and this…engagement.”
David raised a brow, wondering what other word had been on James’s mind first. He glanced at Krista, watching her rise from the chaise slowly, her mouth a hard line and her eyes fixed pointedly on her father. Too late he realized how she’d taken her father’s words.
Or was that how the older man meant them?
“Can we go inside and discuss this like adults now?” James demanded, a flush of red rising up his throat.
“No,” Krista replied in a low tone that brooked no argument. “You thought my relationship with David was farce?”
“Of course it was. Look at him. There’s no way any daughter of mine would lower herself—”
Both David’s brows rose and he took a step toward James to settle them before they started saying things they wouldn’t be able to take back. But her father seemed to think it was some kind of threat because he backed up.
“Don’t even think about it, boy,” the older man growled, raising a hand in David’s direction. “I know all about you and your father. All it would take is one phone call from me and he’d be out on his ass from that college of his, tenure or no tenure.” All of his face was red now. “Not to mention I could cut your business to nothing with a word. Just one, so you stay out of this. Whatever deal you have going with my daughter is over. She doesn’t need you anymore.”
“She’s never needed me, Mr. James.” David met the man’s gaze and saw the fear in it. Fear, he understood all too well. In his own life, the ever-present threat that he’d lose the only parent he had left, the only constant thread in his life. Fear that he’d never be able to connect to another person. Issues that in just knowing Krista had been soothed to near silence. Elmore James wasn’t so lucky. “I was fortunate enough to help her when we first met, but she’d have solved that on her own eventually. She’s an intelligent woman, more than capable of taking care of herself and making all the decisions for her future without my input. Or yours, I might add.”
“Please. You are the reason she’s stayed away. If it weren’t for you, she’d have come home like she was supposed to.”
“Supposed to?” Krista parroted, getting James’s suddenly unsteady attention. “Don’t tell me that audit was a setup.”
Her laugh was a harsh, bitter sound. “I knew you were manipulative when you didn’t get your way, but even I didn’t think you were capable of siccing the IRS on your daughter.”
“What was I supposed to do?” James snapped. “You’re so damned stubborn! You weren’t supposed to enjoy being cut off.”
“Sure, losing all my friends, working night and day while I figured out how to get by on a complete lack of training in anything useful. What’s not to enjoy?” The sarcasm could have sliced open stone, but only seemed to stoke Elmore James’s already fuming temper.
“Nothing would have happened to you. You just would have come back home where you belonged.”
Krista crossed her arms. “Except I didn’t belong there anymore. And I still don’t. Which I have you to thank for.”
The older man’s posture stiffened in affront. “I was trying to teach you a lesson. You were wasting yourself and your future with those useless friends of yours. I never intended to be shut completely out of your life as if I didn’t exist.”
“So you have me threatened by the government? Haven’t you ever heard of a phone? Maybe a doorbell? Maybe an apology?” Krista shook her head, the arms she held herself with tightening, as if she were drawing herself into a tight ball. “All I wanted was some sign that you cared. That you saw me, not the little doll who did your bidding all the time, with no mind of her own.”
“Of course I cared. You’re my daughter. I love you!” James shuddered, his gruff voice sounding as if the words were strangled from his throat. As if realizing his lack of control, he straightened and lowered his voice. “You’ve never been some doll to me. You’ve always had a mind of your own, that’s how we got into this mess.”
“How can you say that?” she asked, this close to shrill. “Say you love me, but me having a mind of my own is why you treated me like some employee you could just get rid of? Like I didn’t matter?”
“I was wrong, all right? Is that what you want to hear, because I’ll say it. Whatever you want to hear, I just want my daughter back.”
David watched Krista carefully, his heart physically aching at the tears filling her eyes. He wanted to put his arms around her, especially when it looked like her tears were about to get the better of her, but she swallowed down the emotion well enough to talk again. And fill him with pride he had no right to feel.
“I love you, too, Daddy. I do, but I will not allow you to control my life or think you have the right to make decisions for me. Those days are gone. They aren’t coming back. Not for you, not for anyone.”
David waited for her to glance his way again, but the softly said words seemed to be more for her than for him.
“If you want to be part of my life, you’re welcome. But only if you’re able to accept the choices I make. No more schemes. No judgments.” She reached out her hand and took hold of David’s, moving to stand next to him. It was only then that he could tell she was shuddering. “You owe my fiancé an apology.”
Elmore James’s mottle shifted from red to near purple.
“That’s good enough for me,” David murmured, unsure if too loud a noise might push the man into complete cardiac arrest. Krista glanced up, her mouth curved with that touch of intimate connection that sent sparklers going off along his nerves.
She squeezed his hand once and moved away, wrapping her arms around her surprised father. James actually looked to David as if he might have a clue what the right thing to do in that situation might be. David could only shrug and poke his hands into his pockets. His only experience with fathers was reminding them to eat from time to time and sorting obscure mathematical equations. Finally, James folded his arms around her and sighed.
“I’m still mad at you,” Krista added, hugging him tighter for another few seconds. She let go, disengaging with a sniff. “Like, seriously angry, but…well, there’s bigger things in the world to worry about. And let’s face it, I should have known it was you when no one wanted to take my case but David.”
“Why is that, Ellison?” James squinted at David, his color fading to a less disturbing pink. “Everyone else in their right mind would have known better than to antagonize me.”
“It’s simple, sir,” David answered, shifting to move ahead of them and open the French door. “I took one look at your daughter and no longer cared about you in the slightest.”
James’s expression wasn’t amused. “I don’t think I like you, Ellison.”
“You’re welcome to join the club, sir.”
Krista rolled her eyes. “I like him, which is all that matters.”
Like. It was a tame word. Too tame, given the way he felt about her. Which is probably what prompted him to say what he shouldn’t have, as father and daughter moved toward the door. “Yes, you and the baby.”
“Baby?” Elmore James’s eyes widened and he jerked a glance down at Krista, who stared at David in openmouthed shock.
The next thing he knew was the bright flash of a fist smashing into his eye and the cold rush of water as he flew over the railing.
“Here, slap this on it.”
David glanced up at the stranger in blue with a distinct lack of trust. But at least this guy was offering something with a plate’s worth of distance. Even if the something was a three-inch-thick steak, it was better than the complete lack of distance from the guy who’d “rescued” him from the water.
“Trust me, man. If anyone has gotten a black eye around here, it’s me.”
Doubting the meat could do anything but rot on his face, David picked it up and pressed it gingerly to his puffy eye. He leaned his head back against the wall, allowing his body to relax into the couch with a sigh. “Thank you…”
“Jake,” the stranger informed him gruffly.
David nodded. At least the meat was cold.
“You shouldn’t hold anything against Cobb,” Jake continued, causing David to open his unfettered eye. “He’s easily excited.”
“Yes,” David agreed flatly. “I noticed.”
Jake’s mouth twitched, though David wasn’t sure if he were trying not to laugh or thinking the better of explaining why the man, Cobb, had gone from flirting with Krista the night before to screaming and diving into the water to rescue a man who wasn’t drowning. He’d had to hit the guy in the mouth with his elbow or face actual grave danger. Dragging the strange man to the shore hadn’t been easy either, not with the guy clinging and rubbing his cheek on David’s shoulder.
He didn’t want to think about what else had rubbed against him. It was possibly the most bizarre rescue ever.
“It was just like an episode of Baywatch!” a blond man was exclaiming to Cobb across the room while his identical twin held a cloth napkin full of ice to Cobb’s swollen lip. The one with the ice kept throwing angry glares David’s way.
“Knock it off, Ricky,” Jake suddenly barked. “A busted lip never killed anyone.”
“It completely destroys his symmetry,” Ricky grumbled, but it couldn’t have been so bad since he let go of the ice soon after.
“How’s my nose?” Cobb asked, sounding mortally concerned.
“I didn’t hit your nose.” David wondered exactly why these four men were in Krista’s bungalow when they had one literally twenty feet away.
“Perfect.” The standing blond patted Cobb on the shoulder sympathetically.
“Will someone please tell me exactly what the hell is going on?” Elmore James fairly exploded from the dining room where Krista had been wrapping his hand in ice. “Who invited the gay paramedics?”
“Oooh, that sounds—” Stevie stumbled forward onto his hands when his brother kicked him none too lightly.
“These are my friends, Dad.” Krista sounded tired as she stood, pushing her chair back to the table edge and walking out into the living room where the rest of them were attending each other. “They just wanted to help.” She looked around at the men—notably skipping himself, David realized—and gave a weary smile. “Thanks for…” She colored, probably trying to come up with some kind of word to describe whatever had happened since David hit the water.
“No problem.” Jake clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Time to clear out, guys.” Within seconds, the big man had maneuvered the other three out the double French doors, only allowing Cobb a bizarre finger wave in David’s direction before closing them and leaving the trio in silence.
Krista blew a breath out, tilting her head to the side with what seemed a resigned slump to her shoulders. Before David could ask what was wrong, Elmore stepped into the living room, not as blustery but definitely still out of sorts.
“I’m pregnant,” Krista blurted out, clapping her hands in front of her then bouncing them twice on her hips and nodding as if this were news. “Nine weeks. So you’ll be meeting your grandchild in early September or so.”
Elmore’s dark gaze went from Krista to David, then back again.
“Killing him not only won’t help, there’s no reason for it. And I should probably remind you that I wouldn’t even have met him if it hadn’t been for you.” When her father made to say something, she added, “And yes, it was partially my own fault. I was out of control, being an ungrateful spoiled brat, going the wrong way about getting your attention. But I grew up. And now I’m getting married. So you have nothing to worry about. David and I are going to be just fine.”
She said it so confidently that when her father glanced his way, David didn’t even have to nod. Not that he could have. He wasn’t nearly so confident that this wasn’t all a smokescreen to make her father accept her decisions.
“Where do I factor in?” Elmore finally asked quietly. “Or don’t I?”
Krista’s smile quivered at the edges. “You could give me away at the wedding.”
“As soon as you relinquish access to my trust account,” she added, walking over to hug him again when the scowl returned.
David watched, quiet as always, wondering how it must feel to be so free and affectionate with a parent. Hugs were practically anathema to his own father, but love wasn’t. Their bond was different, he knew, but it was just as strong. Just as meaningful. It was something he could pass on to his own child and maybe, just maybe, he’d get the chance.
“You should go for a little while and we can meet you for dinner. David and I have a few things we need to work out.”
Not good things, David figured. But, he thought as Elmore nodded and quietly left the bungalow, there wasn’t much that could happen that was more demeaning than being punched out by a man twice his age and then rubbed up on by a stranger. With that in mind, odds were in his favor for a positive outcome.
But one thing he knew about odds…you just never knew when someone would come along and blow them away.
Krista watched her father leave with a sense of relief and dread. Alone with David. With all the things they needed to say to each other. Just the thought of it was exhausting.
She turned, her heart flipping like a trained monkey at the sight of him sitting in yesterday’s wet clothes, draped in towels, a flaccid slab of meat over one eye, the other trained on her as if he were awaiting execution. She owed him some kind of serious apology. The only question was where to begin.
“How’s the eye?”
“Intact.” His gaze was so wary. As if he expected her to hurt him somehow. Or maybe, she accepted with a sigh, to hurt him more.
She crossed in front of him, pulling the thick steak off with a thumb and forefinger. He proffered the plate and she plunked it down. He set the plate on the next cushion, still watching her. She touched the side of his face, where the imprint of her father’s knuckles was already staining an angry deep rose shade. The whole of his eye and cheekbone was dotted with the juice from the steak. The towels hadn’t done much to dry him. He was rumpled, bruised, embarrassed and cautious. She couldn’t do much about the cautiousness, but she knew how to soothe the other things. She reached out her hand. “Come with me.”
He frowned slightly, his brows knitting together, but he took her hand and let her pull him to his feet. Walking backward, she led him toward her bedroom and the grand bathroom tucked into its side. He didn’t stop her when she started unbuttoning his shirt. He simply watched her, silent and still.
Risking the lack of contact, she opened the glass doors of the octagonal shower stall. She pressed the pre-programmed button and all twelve showerheads burst to life, streaming warm water from nearly every angle.
David took off the shirt, clearly waiting for her next cue. If she had another few days to just stare at him, at the smooth pectoral muscles, the lean definition of him, she’d be a happy woman. She’d kissed every angular line, caressed each and every muscle along his belly. She’d seen him in shadow and in sunlight, shown him every part of her body and reveled in the touch only he could give. But she hadn’t truly trusted him with her heart. Hadn’t once tried to give him even the smallest sliver of it, afraid of his power over her. So she’d lied and the lie had corroded her until she couldn’t bear it anymore.
She’s never needed me, he’d said, fully believing it. And then she’d blamed him for not putting himself out there first. Jake was right—she had given herself a way out of their relationship. But not anymore. She didn’t want out. She wanted him and if that meant pulling slowly at his reserve to find the treasure underneath that she knew was there, she could do it. One step at a time.
With steady fingers, she reached for the knot securing the patterned pareo above her breasts, loosening the fabric and letting it slip like silk to the ground. David kept his eyes locked on hers, but she could tell from the rigid set of his jaw that it wasn’t easy. She moved close to him, letting the tips of her breasts just touch the hard planes of his chest, and cupped his face in her hands. He hadn’t shaved yet, the dark stubble adding to the tactile pleasure of letting herself touch him again. When he didn’t stop her, she slid her hands down to his shoulders, molding over the strong tendons and down the lengths of his arms. Maintaining the intense eye contact, she reached for his belt.
A grip like steel wrapped around her wrist. “What are you doing, Krista?”
She smiled up at him. “Touching you.”
His frown spoke only of confusion. “I don’t understand. Last night, you didn’t want anything to do with me. Now, suddenly, you’ve changed your mind?”
“Yes.” She shook his hand off when his eyes widened. The belt opened in a flash. “And no.” Before he could ask more questions, she undid the zipper and reached in to find his hardness, hot and smooth beneath his briefs. He groaned, eyes closing, his head lowering until his forehead touched the top of hers. She stroked the shaft, applying the pressure she knew he preferred, gently leading him closer to the doors.
“You’ll have to explain.”
“I intend to.” She used her free hand to touch his cheek, lifting on her toes to brush his lips with hers. “Come into the shower, David.”
“We should talk…first,” he whispered, swallowing when she let her fingers drift lower, grazing his testicles gently.
“We will.” She pulled her hand out and backed up another step. “In the shower.” She waited until his eyes opened, dazed, before shimmying out of her panties and stepping into the stall. The water, warm and streaming, slicked her hair down her back.
Finally, just as she was starting to worry, David stepped in. He closed the door behind himself, then followed her into the center of the streams. He didn’t seem to notice the luxury of the shower at all, simply reaching for her and pulling her flush against him. His arms, she noticed, clamped hers to her sides, rendering her unable to use her hands to distract him.
If she didn’t feel she owed it to him to say this to his face, she’d lay her cheek on the tempting stretch of his chest. But it was thinking like that which had gotten her into this mess. No more hiding from the things that needed to be said, in any way.
“I’ve been lying to you.” His only response was a tightening of his mouth. “I told you that our relationship was all right with me the way it was, when it wasn’t. It wasn’t fair to be angry at you because you didn’t feel the same way. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I just couldn’t keep going the way we were. I wanted more.”
“Do you still? Want more, I mean.” He released his hold to smooth her wet hair off her brow. It wasn’t a move designed to calm her or lull her into seeing things his way. It was just one of those quietly caring gestures he always made, like the way he made sure to keep a hand on the small of her back when they walked together, that she’d stopped noticing. She had done so on purpose, unable to believe they might be signs of something more. She needed to stop second-guessing and start taking him at face value. The way he expected her to.
“Yes.” She couldn’t be lax about what she needed anymore. “I was serious when I said I need a man who loves me. Who can show me that he loves me.”
“When you said that, you didn’t think that man could be me.”
“You said it could.” Even with the water misting around them, creating droplets on her lashes, she didn’t want to tear her gaze from his. She needed to see every response, honestly and without the filter of her own insecurities. “From the moment this started, you’ve been trying to get me to hear you. You came all the way out here, pushed and prodded, you even antagonized my father. If there’s one thing I know about you, you don’t do anything without a reason. I finally realized that you’ve been showing me all along how you felt, I was just too wrapped up in myself to see it.”
His entire face brightened, a smile erupting across his features that had her breath and her heartbeat stuttering to a stop. She suddenly realized she wasn’t as crazy as she’d thought to find every other man in the world seriously lacking.
“But,” she added, regretting that when his smile lost some of its sparkle, “I still need more than you’ve been giving.” She could see the frown returning. “You already talk to me, but you’ve got to start talking about what matters to you. What matters to me.”
“Feelings,” he concluded, losing his firm hold.
Krista pulled him closer, determined not to let him retreat. “Feelings.”
He remained quiet for a while, the sound of the water all she could hear. She took heart when his hands began to massage the skin at her waist. “I’m not good at them. But I want to get better. I want to give you what you need.”
Relief filled her. She hadn’t expected him to balk, but part of her, the part that was always afraid of losing him, had balled tight. “We’ll learn together.” She reached her hands up to loop around his neck, pressing her lips to his.
“I’m not sure we’re finished talking,” David said against her mouth.
“We’ve got time.” Krista rubbed her belly against the erection that hadn’t lost its heat. She licked at his lips. “Right now, I just want to start with what we already do well.” She let go of his nape, lowering her hand to wrap her fingers around his shaft. She felt his deep groan in her own throat, a surprising sensation made even earthier by the water streaming from all directions.
David backed her up against the tiled wall, his hands on her hips to hold her still. He slid them up her flanks, cupping her breasts, his thumbs finding her nipples, caressing them with teasing flicks. She arched into his hold, shuddering and closing her eyes when he brought the aching tips to his mouth. He toyed with her, drawing deep, laving the pebbled flesh that seemed to burst into flame at his touch. She felt every firm suck deep in her core. Need bloomed, fiery and devouring. She needed him inside her. Now.
“Please, David.” Her hands clenched his shoulders, pulling him up.
He bit the underside of her breast and she gasped, her hips bucking into his.
“I need you.” She tried again to rub against him, but he kept himself just out of her reach, out of her body, while he licked and sucked a path up her neck.
He pulled back, looking at her with eyes that blazed. “Good.”
Her knees threatened to collapse. He must have realized that because she found herself lifted, his hands under her bottom, her thighs clamping around his lean hips. His fingertips slid inward, parting her already swollen folds, caressing her entrance as if he just couldn’t help himself.
Her moan echoed off the tiles. She tried to shift, but his hold wouldn’t allow it. She was completely open to him, completely his. She simply had to trust him to give her what she needed. Ceasing her straining, she relaxed and let him sink a finger inside her. It wasn’t nearly enough, but she flexed her inner muscles on it, gripping him in a wet vise.
Strain showed on his face, the corners of his mouth pulling down as he fought for control. She licked one side, laughing as he growled. “I don’t want you in control,” she whispered against his cheek. “I want you to need me as much as I need you.”
“Do you?” he murmured, rubbing that finger against her inner walls. “Because what I want to do is dive into you until you’ll never be able to think of ever leaving me again.”
“Okay,” she replied, breathless.
His eyes glowed, the blue of his irises burning with an intensity she could feel in her soul. He pressed his thick length through her folds. Slow and unyielding, he let her slide onto him until she’d taken every inch. His lids lowered almost completely, not quite hiding a possessive light that made her heart sing. Come what may, she belonged to this man, but she could finally see—he belonged to her too.
“Oh, David,” she whispered, shaking in his embrace, their lips grazing in the stillness in time to their heartbeats. She felt bare, stripped to the rawest core of herself, open in a way she’d never been before. But so was he. A world of emotions swirled in his eyes, exposed and offered up to her like the greatest of sacrifices.
He loves me, she realized, unable to find her voice again in the shockwave of that revelation. If she were the wrong kind of woman, a cruel kind of person, she could crush him with an unthinking flick of her lashes. That knowledge gave her courage to lean into him, to lick his lips and say the words she wasn’t sure he’d ever heard before.
“I love you.”
But he’d hear them from now on. Every day. For the rest of her life. And if she had anything to say about it, he’d believe them for the rest of his.
She didn’t get a chance to tell him so because, as if she’d lit some kind of fuse, he suddenly began moving, holding her close and pistoning into her. Her back slid along the tiles and the water sprayed over their straining bodies. Each thrust was more demanding than the last, but she maintained that eye contact, unable, unwilling to let him go.
Deeper and deeper he moved into her, until her cries echoed through the water. She held on, squeezing and gripping his shoulders, opening her thighs wider for him. The orgasm crashed through her like a massive wave, pounding through every limb and stealing her breath. It seemed to ripple through him, too, because she felt him quake violently against her. Inside her.
Yes, she decided, laying her head limply on his shoulder. This was where she belonged. Perfectly. Exactly. Rightly.
And if a tiny part of her heart cried out that something was missing…well, there was time. This was only the first step.
David stared down at the woman in the bed, her hair still damp despite the fact that they’d left the shower behind hours ago, and watched her sleep. For reasons he couldn’t discern, she’d decided to forgive him. She’d even apologized when he was fairly sure she didn’t have to. Even now, sleeping deeply, she wore a smile on her face. As if she’d found the answer to all the questions that had been plaguing her the last two years. Maybe longer.
His questions, though, had only just begun.
What had changed her mind? What had she seen in his eyes in those raw moments while they made love in the shower? Because something had most definitely given her a sense of peace while he was left feeling—no, knowing—something was left undone.
She’d wanted to know what he was feeling, but she’d never asked. What did that mean? And could all this happen again when she didn’t see what she wanted to? If he failed to be what she needed on any given day?
He lifted the ends of her hair and watched them filter through his fingers. His father had been right about the colors. He couldn’t count them all, the deep chestnut, the rich auburn, even the occasional strand of gold. They all came together into a blend of dark caramel. It was beautiful.
But until he could figure out the right words to say, he didn’t really have the right to be touching it. He shouldn’t be here, with her in this bed. He wasn’t unselfish enough to leave, though. A few moments longer, he decided, running his hand over her arm and back again. He had to remember what Taylor had said.
A grand gesture.
Show Krista not only how he felt, but also how he saw her.
I need a man who loves me.
Slowing his hand, he looked at the closed wardrobe with the mini-office tucked inside. The fax was still there, waiting. Just because she’d let him in didn’t mean she didn’t deserve what he should have been giving her all along.
He finally realized what he’d been missing.
Slipping out of the bed, he padded to the bathroom and pulled on the uncomfortably moist pants and shirt. Then, silent as possible, he opened the wardrobe and pulled out the fax sheets. Making less than a whisper of sound, he drifted out of the bungalow and headed onto the walkway. He almost made the turn toward the hotel, but something stopped him.
Changing direction, he headed to the larger bungalow closer to the end of the pier. Part of him wondered if this was a bad idea. But she’d said they were her friends. He knocked. Before his third rap, the French door opened to the still-somewhat-disturbing smile of a very happy Cobb.
David looked him up and down, wondering exactly where this strange man came from. He wore only some kind of skirt, much like the fabric Krista had been wearing, only this one was green and printed with the shapes of palm fronds. And the knot at his waist left something to be desired.
“Did I wake you?” Not that he was one to point fingers about the mid-afternoon hour. And Cobb had taken a blow to the face, though his mouth didn’t look any worse for wear.
“Me? Oh, no… Why, did you want to?” Cobb blinked as if he had something in his eyes.
David frowned, wondering what it could be. The sun wasn’t setting at his back just yet. “No.”
Cobb’s happy demeanor shifted, but his sigh seemed to wash it away. “You really are straight, aren’t you?”
It was David’s turn to blink. “As in heterosexual?”
That he needed incontrovertible proof gave David pause. Exactly what kind of vibes had he been sending out? “Irreversibly.”
The younger man’s bottom lip seemed to fill right before his eyes. “You’re sure?”
“Cobb, leave the man alone. No means no.” Jake’s gruff tone rumbled its way out the door. With a swoosh of sound, the other door opened and they had company. Hopefully more rational company. “Hey, the shiner looks good on you.”
For the briefest of seconds, David wondered if that compliment should concern him. Then again, Jake didn’t seem the type to knock him to the ground for affection. “Thank you.”
Jake glanced at Cobb, then shrugged when Cobb looked back blankly. “What can we do for you?”
“It’s actually something I want you to do for Krista.” He allowed himself to relax enough to smile. She always told him he should let his guard down more. “I wondered if you might keep her busy for me for a few hours.”
“Like shopping?” Cobb brightened again.
David sent a questioning glance at Jake. “Would that work?”
“Depends, how deep in debt do you want to get?”
Inborn aversion to debt gurgled to life. David squelched it. “I’ll need her back here at sunset. So…about two hours?”
“I don’t know.” Cobb’s face wrinkled with what looked like serious doubt. “How could we get anything decent done in two hours?”
Jake rolled his eyes. “I’ll take care of it. When do you want us to pick her up?”
Cobb did some kind of whole body wiggle that had Jake shaking his head.
“What should we tell her?” Jake asked, apparently ignoring his friend.
David smiled again, deciding he could go with that line of thinking. “Tell her it’s a surprise.”
“This sucks,” Krista grumbled for the fourth time in an hour. She’d awoken to excited knocking on her front door, her bed empty and not a single trace of the man who’d driven her to complete exhaustion. She sucked on her straw, not much enjoying the virgin piña colada in the swirl-shaped cup. “What kind of surprise is he planning?”
“He didn’t say.” Jake nodded politely at yet another woman giving him the eye.
“You should just wear a sign that says you’re gay.” Irritation with the world in general gnawed on her nerves. The guys had kept her on the other side of the resort near the shops and the pool. The downside was that all four of them were getting all kinds of attention from men and women alike while she stewed in a soup of unexpected anticipation. “No one’s going to figure it out if you don’t.”
“It wouldn’t matter. That girl’s too drunk to read.”
A quick glance at the brunette sagging over her drink at the other end of the bar didn’t help Krista’s mood. She had twenty minutes left and it felt like days. Ricky and Stevie were in the pool, soaking up the adoration from strangers since they claimed she wasn’t any fun.
“Cobb’s up again,” Jake warned.
Krista almost sobbed. “Why do they keep letting him sign up?” She turned in time to see Cobb—barefoot, shirtless as usual, with just low-rise leather pants and multicolored leather bracelets wrapped around his wrists—reach for the microphone. Since they’d arrived, he’d already had three turns on the karaoke stage. “Please, God, not another Pat Benatar song.”
As it was, she never—ever—wanted to hear “We Belong” again.
“I think the guy running the thing likes him.” Jake nudged her shoulder with his, chucking his chin toward the older, almost-five-foot-tall man grinning like a loon as the opening strains of “My Heart Will Go On” began rolling out of the speakers.
“I’m heading back.” She hopped off the stool and started walking. It didn’t take long to hear Jake’s feet on the pavement next to her.
“Your boyfriend said sunset.”
She pointed up at the darkening sky. “This counts.”
“Don’t you want him to finish whatever it is he’s doing for you?”
She turned onto the paved path that led to their part of the resort. She could hear the slow waves of the surf already. “Since when are you on his side? I thought you offered to kick his ass for me earlier.”
“Yeah, when I thought he might be a jerk. He seems decent enough.”
“You just like him because he’s not remotely after Cobb.” She rolled her eyes, increasing her pace, and came over the last dune of manicured grounds. The bungalows were just ahead. She nearly skidded to a stop, able to see her own, lit from below with dozens of tiny lights.
Jake stopped next to her and whistled. “I guess he is ready.” She felt a nudge to her arm. “Aren’t you going to get in there?”
She wanted to. But suddenly, she was so afraid. “This isn’t something David would do.”
“So?” Jake pushed her forward again. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yes?” she croaked.
“So what’s the problem?”
Hope. Hope was the problem. David…romantic? She’d thought she might be asking too much of him too soon. What if this wasn’t what she thought and it blew up in both their faces?
“Stop thinking. The man wants to do something nice for you. Now get over there before the water knocks out all his hard work.”
She smiled, realizing he was right. Before she left, she went to give Jake another kiss on the cheek. “Thanks Jake. For everything.”
“Yeah, well, don’t start thinking I’m your fairy godparent or anything. I look like shit in a tutu.”
She laughed, walking toward the pier. “You know, I was just thinking. If Cobb has such a bad crush on David, that could be good for you.”
“How’s that?” he called and she turned, continuing to walk backward.
“Look in the mirror, dufus. Black hair, blue eyes, grumpy temperament… You got more of a shot than you might think!” With the wide-eyed expression on Jake’s face to keep her laughing, Krista started running toward her bungalow.
Close up, she saw a wide net tied to the stilts of her bungalow, and floating in the pocket were small bowls filled with broad-petaled white flowers, a small votive lit at the very center. Delighted, she found a line of them starting at her gate and leading into the open bungalow.
She tiptoed her way inside, discovering the dark interior lit up by another dozen flower bowls. She smiled, looking around in wonder. The line led her into the dining room, where David was sitting at the table, a final bowl lighting the place setting in front of him.
The firelight glowed on his face, flickering across the smile that spread slowly over his lips. She took in the soft white shirt she could guess was new. It wasn’t buttoned all the way, leaving visible that little patch of skin she liked so much. In his hand he held a roll of paper, tied with a dark ribbon.
Unsure what to do, she stayed in the doorway until he reached out his hand for her. “What is all this?” she asked, stepping round a flower bowl.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s beautiful.” She clasped his hand and let him pull her onto his lap. He pressed the paper roll into her hands. “What’s this?”
She looked down, the joy and excitement in her leeching away.
His hand wrapped around hers on the firm scroll and he used the other to tip her chin up to face him. He pressed a small kiss to her lips, chaste but hopeful. Then he said something that sent her world spinning sideways. “Burn it.”
Her eyes nearly popped. “What? Why?”
“Because it’s a lie,” he answered quietly, staring at the papers as if they’d done something wrong to him. He looked at her again, jaw set, his eyes reflecting the candlelight as if it were a blaze. “When we first met, I practically forgot my own name. I was sure I’d say something, do something wrong, something you’d consider an insult. When you didn’t, I didn’t know how to hope for more.” He swallowed, lifting the papers. “I didn’t know how to keep you. Never imagined you’d want to stay. So I came up with this. The worst lie I’ve ever told in my life and because of it, I’ve been lying ever since.”
Guiding both their hands, he held the end of the contract over the small flame. For a quiet moment, they watched the flames climb around their agreement, eating away at the paper and ink in small crackling bites. Only when it grew too bright, too strong to hold together, did he direct the burning end into the water of the flower bowl. It extinguished with a hiss, leaving an acrid smoky haze in its wake.
“I don’t want you to stay with me because you signed a piece of paper.”
He pressed his finger to her lips, gently quieting her. “Let me say this. I’ve been practicing, trying to get it right. I don’t want to make any mistakes tonight.”
She nodded, pursing her lips into a soft kiss even as she held her breath.
“I don’t want you to stay with me because you signed a piece of paper, and I don’t want you to have to guess how I feel. I’ve been thoughtless with you. Unappreciative. Not because I don’t appreciate you, but…well, it seemed unnecessary to me. All my life, talking about things you already knew was unneeded. But you’re not someone I can take for granted that way. You need the words. You deserve the words.”
Krista gulped in a breath, trying to keep her emotions from getting the best of her. Already, though, tears were leaking from the corners of her eyes.
“I never meant to hurt you.” He wiped the moisture from her cheeks, the caress so gentle she almost missed that his hand was shaking. “I’m probably never going to be good at saying this at the right time or the right way, but I’m going to keep trying until I learn. I love you, Krista. I have from the first second I saw you and I will until there’s nothing left of me in this world. Probably longer than—”
To hell with mistakes. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him so hard the chair almost tipped. Only his hand jerking out to grab the table edge rebalanced the chair enough to keep them upright. She laughed, hugging him tight with her arms and her knees on either side of his hips. “I love you too,” she whispered in his ear before pressing a kiss to that as well.
His arms laced around her, holding her so close only the fabric of their clothes came between them. “Will you marry me? Not because it makes any kind of financial good sense or because of what we can teach one another. Just because you love me?”
She pulled back, wanting to look in his eyes as she gave her answer. She wanted him to see the lack of indecision in her own gaze. “Yes, David. I’ll marry you. And I’ll spend the rest of my life loving you too. Probably longer,” she added with a grin that took nothing away from her honesty.
He reached into his pocket for the old silver ring. It slid onto her finger with perfect ease, the weight of it feeling right and real for the first time. “This was my mother’s ring,” he added quietly. “It’s the only thing of her I have left.” His voice was solemn as he twined their fingers together. “It means everything to me when I see it on your hand.”
She touched the gleaming stone, a haze of guilt tingeing her at having thrown something so precious. Never again. She lay her head on his shoulder and sighed. This was what her heart had been missing. What she’d been dreaming of since he’d first opened that door and walked into her life. “I’ll never take it off again,” she promised, her whole heart in the vow.
David looked in her eyes, his smile growing. Heartfelt, relieved, pleased and wide. The kind of smile that could have broken hearts…but made hers whole.
Krista kissed him, taking that smile in, bubbling with laughter and happiness. As always happened, she felt the spark of heat catch fire. There was nothing to fear about it, either. She wasn’t lost, loving him alone. There would be no nagging emptiness ever again. Pulling back, she ran her palms over the sides of his face. “Make love to me?”
David nodded, taking her hand and helping her up from his lap. She let him lead her into the bedroom, quietly walking in the darkness, the candlelight from below offering a romantic glow though the glass bottom in the living room. Part of her wished they could be out there, in the glow of his gift, but she wanted to relax. To languish and savor this loving. To fall asleep in his arms afterward and know in her heart that everything was finally the way it should be.
In the bedroom, they undressed each other slowly, hands grazing over each other as if they were touching for the first time. She caressed his chest as she opened his shirt. He kissed her shoulder, his fingertips trailing down her spine. For the first time, each touch felt shared. Not an apology. Not a sacrifice. Not a lie.
By the time he lowered her to the bed, rolling them onto their sides, Krista was trembling. “Tell me this isn’t a dream.”
“It’s not a dream.” He kissed her softly, scooping her thigh upward so that her leg was propped up over his hip. She reached down to take his erection in hand, stroking him toward her, the heated silk of his skin sliding across her palm like a brand and he groaned. “This is a dream come true.”
She stopped. Her stroking, her breathing, even her heart beating. “David…”
“What?” For a second he looked nervous, his muscles tightening as he tried to guess what he’d said wrong this time.
“It’s all right, I’m sorry.” Krista kissed him again, apologizing by guiding him to the heart of her, slipping him through the slick folds until he was embraced inside. He hissed, his hand finding her hip to keep her still and yet pull her closer so he could fit deeper inside. She folded her leg around him tighter. “It’s just…” She sighed, feeling full and happy and absolutely positive that from this moment on, their lives could only get better. “That’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me.”
Her body clutched him, reveling in the sensation, in the closeness. They didn’t need to move. She could lie here forever, joined with him heart, body and soul. His hand drifted from her hip, over the curve of her waist, to wrap around her back and tug her closer.
“I’ll learn more,” he whispered.
“I’ll listen better,” she vowed, her lips parting when he began to stroke, slowly moving in and out of her body with the sweetest precision.
For a long while, they didn’t need to say anything, their bodies flowing into one another in a way that defied words. No rush, no blind passion, but loving and trusting of the deepest kind. And when the end came, Krista held on with both hands, taking him with her over the edge. This is how it’s always going to be, she sighed to herself, wrapped in his arms, wrapped in his love. This was worth waiting for.
Taylor looked down at the baby in her arms, watching it watch her. She moved her head left and the baby’s intense blue gaze followed, his head movement matching hers with eerie perfection. Turning her head right…same thing.
She glanced up at Krista. “You sure this one ain’t broken? I haven’t heard him cry once yet.” Or spit anything up, muss his black wavy hair or complain in the tiniest way. If he weren’t pudgy, warm or covered in that baby scent of powder and milk, she’d think the kid was a cyborg. All the kids she’d known while growing up—and dear God, there had been a lot of them—were squirmers, desperate to chew on something or someone. They’d at least have smacked her cheeks, trying to get a hold of her face. But not this one. Calm, curious and cute. Scary.
Krista smiled at the six-month-old in Taylor’s hold, indulgent as possible. “He’s just fine. I keep telling you, he likes you.”
Taylor wasn’t so sure. “If that’s the case, kid, you got problems.”
“Or good taste,” a deep voice rumbled behind her.
Frankie. She had to work hard to keep the sigh quiet, having given up a long time ago when it came to not sighing over him.
She felt a squeeze at her hip just before he pressed a kiss to her cheek. “You look good like that, Tay.”
Taylor scowled at him. “Don’t get any ideas.”
Krista did pretty much nothing to stifle her snort of laughter. Even giving her a dirty look didn’t make Taylor feel better, because in the five years since they’d all become friends instead of just assistant and boss, Krista had learned good and well that whatever Frankie asked of her, he was going to get.
Hey, Tay, let’s move in together.
Hey, Tay, what do you think about getting married?
So, Tay, why don’t we buy a house?
Well, not this. Frankie Delles was not about to knock her up and turn her into mother of the year. Not in this lifetime.
“I give you about three months,” Krista said knowingly, popping a breath mint into her mouth and tucking it into her cheek. “Tops.”
“Oh, screw you,” Taylor replied, unfortunately without heat. She had the sneaking suspicion Krista’s estimate was overly generous. Rather than think about that, she bounced the latest addition to the Ellison family in her arms while they waited by the pews for the baptism service to begin. Krista sat down when her firstborn, Steven, tugged on her hand.
Taylor didn’t like to admit it, but she had a big, squishy soft spot for that kid. She wasn’t the only one, she knew, but still, it was not the kind of thing she liked people to know about. She was his godmother, too. All of four years old, the boy was tall like his parents, smart like his father and pretty like his mom. All rosy in the cheeks and doll faced.
No one really had a clue that the kid was a born card shark, which was just the way Taylor wanted to keep it. In another year or so, she fully planned to graduate him from Go Fish to poker. To quote his father, it was never too soon to start a college fund.
But this little stinker, she thought, looking down at the cherubic face studying her so intently. Who knew what this little guy was going to have in store for them?
“You and David still planning more?” Frankie asked over Taylor’s shoulder. Frankie-code for “See, other people like kids”.
“Oh definitely. We’re hoping for a houseful.” Krista’s attention shifted when they heard the excited twittering of Cobb entering the church. Krista smiled and stood up to go greet both Cobb and Jake, who had finally put everyone out of their misery last year and started dating. Krista was giving enthusiastic hugs and David was giving handshakes. Just like with little Steven, Jake was going to co-godparent. Frankie and Cobb had dibs on any girls the Ellisons eventually had. Which meant the pastor was going to have that much longer to figure out how to fudge listing two godfathers.
“You’re not cute, you ass,” Taylor growled at Frankie, resolved not to be affected by her husband’s oh-so-innocently deepening dimples.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Riiiiight. I told you, I’m not having kids.”
“You say a lot of things you don’t mean, hon.”
She scoffed, mostly because that was true, damn him. “Isn’t that what you always say you love about me? That I say what I mean and I mean what I say?”
“Sure is.” Frankie blinked his giraffe-style lashes three times fast. “Unless you’re lying.”
The growl in her throat could never be mistaken for a loving sound. “If I didn’t have this kid right now, I would so be putting my foot in your ass.”
He stole a quick kiss. “Save the foreplay for later, babe. This is a church, you know.”
“You’re a jerk.”
“A jerk who can count,” he qualified, making her eyes widen. Dammit! “Don’t be scared, Tay. I promise. I change diapers.”
She should have known he’d notice. He always saw the things she didn’t want him to see. Knew her too well. “The same way you pick up your towels from the bathroom floor?”
She leveled him a look. Neither one of them could cook. If they had this kid, the poor thing was going to starve.
“Hey, I do serious drive-thru,” he corrected, attempting to look hurt. When she didn’t lighten up, he shrugged. “Don’t they just drink milk for like a year?”
“Oh, you plan to lactate now?” She might have the kid, just to see him try.
“Look at them,” Frankie said, avoiding the answer to that one about as smoothly as a faceplant. But she still followed his pointing finger at the Ellisons. David wasn’t as reserved as he used to be, but he was never going to be a charmer. Krista still ran her party-planning business, though she had agents working for her now, freeing her up to be there for her family. They stood side by side, each one holding the hand of their son between them. Five years ago, she’d been so sure they were doomed. Now, they were her friends, people she knew would be together and happy for the rest of their lives.
“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a lot of work, but if those two can be happy, if they can have it all, why can’t we?”
Taylor scrunched her lips to one side. “I’m only a little late. I might not even be pregnant.”
“So?” Frankie grinned. “If you’re not, that’s fine. But if you are, hey…when have I ever let you down?”
Never. And he was the only one in her whole life who had that distinction. Well, almost. The Ellisons hadn’t either. They’d encouraged her through completing school, offering help where they could until she got her own CPA certification. And when David insisted she join his firm, she’d had to admit that maybe, just maybe, she had some excellent friends.
“Fine, I’ll consider parenthood.” She narrowed her gaze at him. “But you’re going to be the vomit patrol.”
“Is that burping up or spewing chunks?”
“Honey, if it comes out of any end, in any form, consider it your job.”
Frankie laughed, tugging her toward the group still standing at the doors. “Sounds good to me.”
So, even though he was such a sicko, such a happy little freak, Taylor walked with him to the family they’d all created together. And hell if it didn’t sound good to her too.
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